Kenney steps down as leader of Alberta’s Conservatives

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney scraped out a narrow win in a referendum on his leadership, then surprised almost everyone Wednesday night by stepping down as leader of the United Conservative Party.

He announced the news Wednesday after earning just 51.4 percent support in a leadership review.

“The result is not what I hoped for, or frankly what I expected,” said Kenney. “But I've been clear from day one, that I will respect the decision of the members in this leadership review.”

Kenney had long insisted he would consider anything over 50 percent a passing grade, but on Wednesday night he announced it would be inadequate to get by on a squeaker.

“A large number of our members want to clear the air with a leadership election,” Kenney said. “I fully respect their decision, and I encourage all members to do the same.”

Earlier this week on a trip to Washington he told reporters, “I’ve never lost an election, and I don’t plan on doing so now.”

He said the results were a surprise, though had also prepared remarks. In his resignation speech, Kenney listed the challenges of the past two years.

“We went through three once-in-a-century crises — the largest public health crisis in a century, the largest collapse of the world economy in nearly a century, and — for the first time ever — we experienced negative oil prices.”

Kenney had served as premier of Alberta since 2019. Before that, he’d been an MP for almost 20 years, serving in various posts in Stephen Harper’s Cabinet.

He urged Albertans to move forward. “It's clear that the past two years were deeply divisive for our province, our party and our caucus,” he said. “But it is my fervent hope that in the months to come, we all move on past the division of Covid.”

Kenney said he has advised his party leadership to schedule a leadership election “in a timely fashion.”

The Calgary Herald reports that the UCP caucus will meet Thursday morning when they are expected to select an interim leader.

Senate unanimously confirms Brink as Ukraine ambassador

The Senate on Wednesday night unanimously confirmed career Foreign Service officer Bridget Brink to serve as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, putting an end to Washington’s three-year stretch without a Senate-confirmed envoy in Kyiv.

Brink, who currently serves as the U.S. ambassador to Slovakia, sailed through the Senate confirmation process as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle emphasized the urgency of having a top diplomat in the country while it’s under assault from Russia.

“To have an ambassador there at this critical time as the United States continues to help the Ukrainian people … is a wonderful thing, is a good thing, and will help advance the cause of peace, security and freedom,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said after Brink was confirmed. “I have every confidence she will be an outstanding ambassador.”

Brink’s confirmation comes on the same day the U.S. formally reopened its embassy in the Ukrainian capital. It had been shuttered since Russia’s invasion began in February.

The last Senate-confirmed ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, was removed by Donald Trump in 2019 as the then-president was seeking an investigation into his political rivals. The saga led to Trump’s first impeachment.

Brink has served in several roles in the diplomatic corps, including as a deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs. She speaks Russian and has served at U.S. embassies in Serbia, Cyprus, Georgia and Uzbekistan.

At Schumer’s direction, the Foreign Relations Committee fast-tracked Brink’s nomination. Her confirmation hearing took place last week, and the committee reported her favorably to the Senate floor earlier Wednesday. In a matter of hours, all 100 senators agreed to confirm her to the post.

Poll: Kemp leads Perdue by 32 points ahead of Georgia's GOP gubernatorial primary

Gov. Brian Kemp is leading former Sen. David Perdue by 32 points less than a week away from Georgia’s highly anticipated Republican gubernatorial primary, according to a Fox News poll published Wednesday.

Sixty percent of Georgia Republican primary voters prefer Kemp, compared with 28 percent who say they support Perdue. It’s a notable shift from March, when 50 percent of voters said they preferred Kemp, while 39 percent selected Perdue as their favorite.

The May 24 primary between Perdue and Kemp has seen heavy involvement from former President Donald Trump, who has made the governor one of his top midterm targets, along with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, for refusing to intervene and overturn the state’s election results in 2020, when President Joe Biden narrowly won Georgia.

And former Vice President Mike Pence, who has also been the subject of Trump’s 2020 wrath, threw his support into the race last week, announcing he will hold a rally with Kemp on primary eve — his most notable act of defiance against his former boss to date.

Trump, meanwhile, has campaigned for Perdue and thrown money into the race. His political action committee and other Trump-aligned groups have boosted the campaign and funded TV advertisements hammering Kemp. But despite the weight of Trump’s intervention, top Republicans believe Kemp can secure more than 50 percent of the vote needed to avoid a June run-off race against his rival.

The winner is likely to face Democrat Stacey Abrams in the fall.

The Fox poll was conducted May 12-16 via telephone interviews among 1,004 Georgia Republican primary voters. The results have a sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

5 challenges awaiting Biden on his Asia tour

President Joe Biden is headed to South Korea and Japan, but make no mistake — this week’s Asia trip is all about China.

Though he’ll be landing on friendly shores, his first visit to Asia as president has high stakes: He needs to coax allies into a lasting security and economic alliance to offset China’s growing regional influence.

Biden will leverage his four-day trip — it begins Friday with a stop in Seoul, then Tokyo — to rally support for his China-countering Indo-Pacific Strategy and Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, a regional trade plan he’ll launch in Japan. The visit follows last week’s U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit that made a similar pitch to Southeast Asian leaders.

It’s a slightly delayed play for regional influence from an administration that came into office determined to focus on China as the pacing threat to the United States. But the collapse of Afghanistan and a land war in Europe have occupied attention over the past year.

Beijing clearly senses a threat from the administration’s Asia pivot. “China opposes the creation of bloc-antagonism or separatist confrontation in the Asia-Pacific region,” Liu Pengyu, spokesperson of the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., told POLITICO. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a similar pitch to South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin on Monday, urging him in a phone call to “prevent the risk of a new Cold War, and to oppose confrontation between the two camps.”

Wang took a tougher line Wednesday in a phone call to Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi. “Wang Yi pointed out that the Japanese side will soon host a summit of the ‘Quadrilateral Mechanism’ between the U.S., Japan, India and Australia. What is of concern and vigilance is that the so-called Japan-U.S. joint effort to confront China has been rampant before the U.S. leader has made the trip,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry statement said.

Also Wednesday, Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat, complained to Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, that “the U.S. side has taken a series of wrong words and actions to interfere in China's internal affairs and harm China's interests.” Yang warned that “China will take firm action to safeguard its sovereignty and security interests,” Chinese state news agency Xinhua reported.

The White House messaging around the visit offers Beijing little comfort.

“The message we're trying to send on this trip is a message of an affirmative vision of what the world can look like if the democracies and open societies of the world stand together to shape the rules of the road to define the security architecture of the region to reinforce strong, powerful historic alliances,” Sullivan said Wednesday. “We think that message will be heard everywhere [and] we think it will be heard in Beijing.”

Biden’s success hinges on his vision of a rejuvenated U.S. coalition with regional allies rattled by China’s increasingly aggressive military posture. The president is also hoping that North Korea’s worsening nuclear threat can bridge longstanding tensions between Seoul and Tokyo. And the White House wants to leverage international dismay at Russia’s Ukraine invasion to pry India from its longstanding alignment with Moscow.

“These two weeks of Asia meetings are a great signal to an important part of the world that we haven't forgotten about them, but progress on economic matters is what's going to really count,” said James A. Kelly, former assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. “The economic behemoth China has become is very important, but it also has that wolf warrior diplomacy, and it kicks the hell out of the shins of any middle-sized nation that antagonizes it, so there is an important [U.S.] role in security and economics in the Indo-Pacific.”

The success — or failure — of Biden's trip depends on how well he navigates five key challenges:

Seoul and Tokyo’s bilateral bitterness

A key plank of Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy is fostering close cooperation among U.S. allies and partners, particularly Japan and South Korea.

That's easier said than done. Rancor over trade, territorial disputes and historical grievances linked to Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of South Korea have curdled bilateral relations in recent years. Japan’s removal of South Korea from a list of preferred trading partners in 2019 infuriated Seoul, prompting Kim Hyun-chong, then South Korea’s deputy national security adviser, to accuse former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of equating South Korea with a “hostile nation.” Kim and Abe and the administrations they served in are no longer in power, but the bilateral tensions remain.

Biden needs to convince South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, who took office May 10, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida that their strained relations undermine his Indo-Pacific strategy. “It would be a wonderful opportunity for President Biden to recognize that the so-called history debate problems in the region have become security threats … that lead to diplomatic standoff,” said Alexis Dudden, history professor at the University of Connecticut.

Yoon and Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi pledged last week to repair the relationship. But a quick fix is unlikely.

“I'm not overly optimistic because I've been watching this relationship for decades and when things get tough from a domestic standpoint, politically it is often easy to revive these tensions as a means to unify political will within a given country,” Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.), former U.S. ambassador to Japan, told POLITICO.

Countering North Korea’s nuclear threat

Yoon will press Biden to place tactical nuclear weapons under U.S. command in South Korea, a plank of his campaign platform that Washington has so far dismissed. “U.S. policy would not support that,” Mark Lambert, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of State for Japan and Korea, said in September.

The U.S. positioned tactical nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula for decades before withdrawing them in 1991 as an incentive to North Korea to abandon its then-nascent nuclear weapons program. The U.S. has since then relied on its nuclear submarine fleet as a deterrent to North Korean aggression.

North Korea’s deepening of those efforts may prompt a rethink of that position. Pyongyang has tested 14 potentially nuclear-capable ballistic missiles so far this year. And more tests are imminent.

“Our intelligence does reflect the genuine possibility that there will be either a further missile test including a long range missile test, or a nuclear test or frankly both in the days leading into or after the President's trip. We are preparing for all contingencies, including the possibility that such a provocation would occur while we are in Korea or in Japan,” said Sullivan. “We are prepared obviously to make both short- and longer-term adjustments to our military posture as necessary to ensure that we are providing both defense and deterrence to our allies in the region and that we're responding to any North Korean provocations.”

Last month, both North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his powerful sister, Kim Yo Jong, warned they would respond to any attack by South Korean forces with nuclear weapons or even launch a preemptive nuclear attack if threatened.

“What the Kim siblings seem to be doing is copying a page out of Putin's playbook and normalizing the right to threaten nuclear war and to strike first with nukes,” said Sung-Yoon Lee, who teaches Korean studies at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. “The South Koreans will float the notion of deploying U.S. [nuclear] assets on a rotational basis in South Korea or in its vicinity, meaning Japan, on the premise that the status quo only emboldens North Korea to become more aggressive to extort and bully the South, further pushing the Kim regime in the direction of gambling that a Russia-style invasion is a possibility.”

Biden is unlikely to redeploy tactical nuclear weapons to the Korean peninsula barring a dramatic uptick in North Korean threats. Instead, Biden will seek to placate Yoon’s concerns by approving his request for additional Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, anti-missile systems to counter North Korea’s missile threat, a move certain to enrage Pyongyang and Beijing.

South Korea and the Quad

Biden’s trip will climax with a meeting of the leaders of the Quad — an informal geopolitical grouping that includes the U.S., India, Australia and Japan focused on countering China’s rising economic, diplomatic and military power in the Indo-Pacific. Yoon will try to reach agreement on one of his China-related electoral promises: a move toward South Korean membership in the Quad.

South Korean engagement with the Quad — even if it falls short of full membership — will boost Biden’s objective of edging Tokyo and Seoul closer together.

“We have an interest in improving relations [between Japan and] South Korea … and getting South Korea more involved in the Quad will, by itself, start to do that,” Kelly said. “They can be invited to be part of [Quad] working groups to sit in on their meetings or be an observer — there are all kinds of lower-key ways to do it.”

Seoul may sweeten its bid to join the Quad by also pledging South Korean backing to protect Taiwan from Chinese aggression. "I think Yoon will try to please Biden by saying he will move towards joining the Quad and he will support the U.S. on the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea issues … and perhaps even contribute arms and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine,” Lee said.

Taiwan is closely watching South Korean moves toward Quad membership with hopes that the grouping will allow the self-governing island to participate as well. “We have expressed an interest in some of the issues that the Quad addresses like global health and vaccines, artificial intelligence, space technology and science [collaboration],” Hsiao Bi-khim, Taiwan’s official representative to the United States, told POLITICO. “It’s also our understanding that the Quad at this stage remains within the existing membership, but we would welcome any opportunity to work with the Quad members.”

Selling the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework

Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo confirmed this week that Biden will formally launch the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, his signature regional trade initiative, while in Tokyo. “I’ve spent a lot of time talking to our counterparts in the Indo-Pacific and there’s a large demand by them for the United States to be more present and to have an affirmative economic strategy. And that’s what this is about,” Raimondo told reporters.

The initiative has sparked skepticism due to ambiguity about its scope and intent. What few details the administration has released suggest it will permit member countries to opt into commitments on issues like supply chains, digital regulation, clean energy and taxes. The deal won’t provide the traditional perk of increased market access and it’s uncertain if it will include enforcement mechanisms needed to give it teeth. Biden will need to specify the carrots that the IPEF will render to persuade potential participants of its value.

Biden’s Cabinet has crisscrossed the region since November to build support for the arrangement. Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand are expected to be part of the initial launch. And U.S.-ASEAN Business Council President Ted Osius told POLITICO that Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines are among the Southeast Asian nations likely to join the talks well.

The framework is Biden’s response to competing trade pacts in the region, none of which his administration is keen to join. The U.S. previously backed out of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multilateral deal that China is now seeking to join. It’s also sitting out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which includes the 10 ASEAN countries, as well as Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea and China.

But the White House has yet to name which countries will actually participate in the IPEF negotiations. That’s sparked speculation about whether more complicated trading partners like India, Vietnam or even Taiwan will be at the table.

The self-governing island has high hopes for IPEF membership and has taken Secretary of State Antony Blinken at his word that the U.S. won’t block its participation in the grouping. “Taiwan has expressed an interest in being part of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.... Blinken has indicated that no one will be excluded and so we understand this to be an evolving process, and we appreciate that an overwhelming number of bipartisan members of Congress have also written letters supporting Taiwan's participation,” Hsiao said.

But enthusiasm for the IPEF among Southeast Asian nations that are vital to U.S. economic and national security interests in the region remains uncertain. Even countries that decide to participate in negotiations that get underway during Biden's visit may not sign onto the final agreement. That has spurred doubts about whether the framework will deliver the economic punch that Biden administration officials have promised, and prompted business groups, U.S. lawmakers and trading partners to press the administration to do more. Biden’s reveal of the initiative’s details will squelch or amplify those concerns.

“[There’s] a great opportunity to take that Indo-Pacific Economic Framework that they're talking about and put a sector-specific free trade agreement in place that a number of countries that are our allies could accede to and that could be a very good starting point for continuing to deepen our [regional] economic ties,” Hagerty said.

Deepening India’s Quad involvement

Biden has made deepening engagement with India one of the 10 “core lines of effort” in the Indo-Pacific Strategy.

“Underway between the United States and Europe is a desire to engage more fundamentally with India. There’s a recognition that in this new context, India in many respects is a swing state, and that it is in all of our best interests to try to work with India over time to bend its trajectory more to the West,” Kurt Campbell, the National Security Council’s Indo-Pacific coordinator, said at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event last week.

That’s a challenge given India’s decades-long alignment with Russia, hinged on Moscow's role as New Delhi’s largest weapons supplier. The Biden administration is seeking to displace that Russian influence with an arms sale to India valued up to $500 million, Bloomberg reported Tuesday. Another irritant is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s unwillingness to criticize Russia’s Ukraine invasion.

“[That] makes India an outlier, a stance that has the potential to cause friction in the [Quad] if not managed carefully,” said Alison Szalwinski, vice president of research at the National Bureau of Asian Research.

The Biden administration is unfazed. “We believe that this summit will demonstrate both in substance and in vision that democracies can deliver and that these four nations working together will defend and uphold the principles of a free and open Indo-Pacific,” said Sullivan.

Biden’s advantage is that India’s relations with China have soured since a festering border dispute erupted in hand-to-hand combat in the disputed Galwan Valley that killed 20 Indian troops in 2020. Beijing rubbed salt in the wound by appointing a soldier who had fought in that incident to be a torch bearer for the 2022 Beijing Winter Games in February. India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar told his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in March that a “normal relationship” is impossible until China withdraws troops from the border region.

“For India … [the] Quad is essentially 'political deterrence’ against China, but not a 'tactical weapon,’” said Rajiv Rajan, associate professor of international politics at Shanghai University’s College of Liberal Arts. “However, it will not be far-fetched if New Delhi begins to see it as tactical if India-China frictions intensify in the region and border clashes heighten.”

Biden’s national security team will insist that his Asia trip has no specific deliverables and that he seeks only to deepen solidarity among allies and communicate a clear U.S. economic and security commitment to the region. That alone is powerfully symbolic amid growing international dismay at China’s alignment with Russia’s Ukraine invasion and its saber-rattling at Taiwan.

But if he can return to Washington with a verbal commitment from Yoon on participation in the Quad and expressions of interest in IPEF membership from Seoul, Tokyo, New Delhi and Canberra, Biden can claim victory in creating the foundations of a new U.S.-led regional bulwark against China’s growing influence and its “no limits” partnership with Russia.

Jubilee tour takes a somber turn in Canada

OTTAWA, Ont. — The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall will wrap up a three-day tour of Canada on Thursday amid waning support for the British monarchy and calls for an apology for the Crown’s role in Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples.

Prince Charles and Camilla will visit the Northwest Territories, after spending Tuesday in Newfoundland and touring the nation’s capital on Wednesday. Their visit has focused in part on celebrating Indigenous peoples, including a ceremony on Tuesday in memory of the thousands of children who died in Canada’s residential schools. On Thursday, they will visit a First Nations community outside Yellowknife, in Canada’s North.

“We must find new ways to come to terms with the darker and more difficult aspects of the past,” Prince Charles said Tuesday. “Acknowledging, reconciling and striving to do better. It is a process that starts with listening.”

Governor General Mary Simon, the first Indigenous person named as the Queen’s representative in Canada, urged the royal couple to speak with Indigenous people and “hear their stories, their successes and their solutions” during their Canadian tour. “In this way, we will promote healing, understanding and respect,” she said. “And in this way, we will also promote reconciliation.”

Some Indigenous leaders, however, are calling for the royal family to go a step further and apologize for the role of the monarchy in Canada’s residential school system, which attempted over decades to strip Indigenous children of their culture and language. Queen Elizabeth II is the head of the Anglican church, which ran dozens of residential schools in Canada.

“There’s so much healing that is needed,” president of the Métis National Council Cassidy Caron told CBC News.

Last month, Pope Francis apologized at the Vatican to residential school survivors for the Catholic Church’s role in running the schools. The pope will visit Canada in July, where he is expected to build on that apology. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the senior bishop of the Anglican Church, also apologized this year.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau evaded questions this week about whether the royal family should apologize to Indigenous peoples. “This trip … is an opportunity to hear directly from Canadians, and climate change and reconciliation are key parts of their visit,” he told reporters Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Canada's Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller told reporters Wednesday that he’s “of two minds on the issue,” and that he has yet to see a “groundswell” of support for those demanding an apology.

The royal tour also comes at a time of waning interest in the monarchy in Canada. Recent survey results found that 51 percent of respondents believe Canada should not remain a constitutional monarchy, and only 34 percent would want to remain a monarchy under “King Charles.” Half of respondents said the royal family is no longer relevant to them.

Some royal watchers say they’re disappointed by the relatively brief tour, which was planned by the federal government to celebrate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, marking her seven decades on the throne.

“It’s actually embarrassing,” John Fraser, founder of the Institute for the Study of the Crown in Canada, told CBC News. “It would have been nice if the federal government had actually shown some interest.”

However, the trip has not been marked by the kinds of protests that greeted Prince William and Kate Middleton’s tour of the Caribbean in March. There, protesters demanded an apology and reparations for the slave trade, and the couple was forced to cancel a planned outing in Belize. In November, Barbados became the first member of the Commonwealth in decades to part ways with the Queen and become a republic.

Trudeau indicated Tuesday there’s no such change in the works for Canada. “I think Canadians are very proud to have one of the most strong, stable democracies in the world,” he told reporters. “And quite frankly, when I hear from Canadians about the things they’re preoccupied about … it’s not about constitutional change.”

'Success begets success': Progressives look for big boost from key primary wins

Progressives had a big night in their drive to remake the Democratic Party — when their candidates weren't getting washed away in a flood of super PAC money.

There was more outside spending in Tuesday’s Democratic House primaries than in all of their 2020 primaries combined, much of it used to boost moderate Democrats or bash progressive ones. But progressive candidates in several key races showed they could survive the deluge.

Summer Lee, who rallied with Sen. Bernie Sanders last week, is hanging on to a narrow Democratic primary lead for a deep-blue seat based in Pittsburgh, where she faced $2 million in negative spending against her. Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), one of only two incumbents endorsed so far in 2022 by President Joe Biden, is trailing badly in his redrawn district to Jamie McLeod-Skinner, an Elizabeth Warren-backed challenger who was outspent on TV 11-to-1 by Schrader and his allies, according to AdImpact, a media tracking firm.

And this week’s marquee Senate contest was a crowning achievement for the left: John Fetterman, a Sanders supporter who shuns intra-party labels altogether, beat out moderate Rep. Conor Lamb for the Democratic nomination in Pennsylvania.

There were notable losses for the progressive wing, as well, in North Carolina and Kentucky, where a trio of more moderate Democratic House candidates won primaries — with significant super PAC support. But overall, the results represented a step forward in progressives’ bid to reshape the Democratic congressional caucuses with new faces and more left-leaning policy views.

“We have to be really strategic in our resources, and we didn’t have the capacity” to compete in the two open North Carolina races, said Waleed Shahid, spokesman for Justice Democrats, a left-leaning group which instead spent nearly $1 million to back Lee in her primary.

“Success begets success, so moderates were emboldened by Shontel Brown’s victory [in Ohio earlier this month], and Summer Lee will embolden Jessica Cisneros and Kina Collins,” Shahid continued, citing a pair of progressive challengers running against incumbents in the upcoming Texas and Illinois primaries.

Democratic primaries have been shaped this year by a record-breaking amount of spending — more than $53 million already, according to OpenSecrets, with months more to go in primary season. The cash is flowing through a number of new super PACs. One of the biggest spenders is backed by AIPAC, while another is supported by LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman. The most prolific spender so far is funded by crypto billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried.

“They seem to have an unlimited amount of money, so they may keep tossing it around,” Warren told POLITICO. The Massachusetts senator endorsed several of the winning candidates Tuesday, including Oregon state Rep. Andrea Salinas, who weathered $13 million in outside spending from Bankman-Fried’s super PAC and other groups in favor of her principal opponent, Carrick Flynn. But Salinas won the primary, and she could become the first Latina to represent Oregon in Congress if elected in November.

“Voters seem increasingly immune to the effect of dollars, and more alert to messages and the real people who show up and knock on the door and say, ‘I'm here because I believe in this candidate,’” Warren continued.

The power of outside spending will continue to be tested as these forces clash throughout the 2022 primary season.

Next week, a key test of progressive strength comes out of the Texas runoffs, where Cisneros is trying to unseat Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), the lone anti-abortion rights Democrat left in the House, who still enjoys the support of House leadership and a range of moderate outside groups. Cisneros’ critics have already dumped more than $1.2 million against her, arguing that she’s too liberal for a battleground seat that Biden won by 7 points in 2020. But pro-Cisneros spending, from the pro-abortion rights group EMILY’s List to the Working Famlies Party, has also come in, totaling $2.1 million.

Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party, said progressives “don’t have time to spike the ball and do a victory dance" instead of "putting our heads down, focusing on Texas.”

Mitchell noted that Tuesday night’s victories “are an indication that our strategy is working … but we can also do math, and we understand what it means when people are making seven-digit buys” against progressive candidates.

Even more of that type of race is on the horizon, including member-versus-member primaries and open-seat battles in Illinois, California, New York and Florida.

“We got to stop these super PACs from coming into Democratic primaries,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a leading progressive in the House. Asked how the left can do that, he said: “More voices, calling them out and more condemnation where it becomes an albatross to be accepting support from them.”

Salinas’ allies, for example, were quick to condemn the rash of spending from Bankman-Fried's super PAC in Oregon. Progressives have decried spending by pro-Israel groups in various races.

In August, Reps. Andy Levin and Haley Stevens will square off in a Michigan primary, after they were both drawn into the same district. Levin, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, has been endorsed by the Working Families Party, while Stevens has been backed by Democratic Majority for Israel, a super PAC that backs more moderate candidates.

Democratic moderates, for their part, argued that “it was an even split last night,” said Matt Bennett, founder of the center-left group Third Way. Bennett said some of the candidates whom progressives claim as their own, like McLeod-Skinner in Oregon, “are not going to do or say things that make it harder for Abigail Spanberger to win her race,” citing the Virginia congresswoman who blamed left-wing rhetoric for costing battleground seats in 2020.

And some establishment incumbents and their allies brushed off the suggestion that the downfall of moderate candidates — potentially including one incumbent — would portend badly for their own primary battles. Longtime Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) said he is confident he will beat back a challenge in Chicago from Collins, who is endorsed by the Justice Democrats.

“I'd be willing to bet you that many of the people in my district don't even know what went on with Kurt Schrader,” Davis said. “I have a hard enough time trying to keep them knowledgeable about what we’re doing.”

And moderate Democrats are heartened by state Sens. Don Davis and Val Foushee's congressional primary wins in North Carolina, who both ran to the middle against progressive opponents and easily secured their nominations on Tuesday night.

“If you look at the overall trend — like Shontel Brown in Ohio, like the two races in North Carolina, like the race in Kentucky — I think we’re going in a more moderate direction,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster who is working with the Democratic Majority for Israel super PAC, which has spent on behalf of more moderate candidates in Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Texas. “But that doesn’t mean specific progressives won’t win, and in Summer Lee, you’ve got an extremely talented candidate.”

Protect Our Future, the Bankman-Fried super PAC, racked up two Democratic primary wins last night with Foushee in North Carolina and state Sen. Morgan McGarvey in Kentucky. In Oregon, though, they spent $11.4 million to boost Flynn, who ultimately lost to Salinas. But the massive and unsuccessful expenditure isn’t deterring the group from staying involved and spending more money in Democratic primaries going forward, according to a person familiar with the group’s thinking.

Even so, Salinas said in an interview with POLITICO that she hopes “people look at my race and know that we don’t need to spend gazillions of dollars that could go to other, better uses."

“I was outspent 12-to-1, 14-to-1 — I don’t know the actual number,” Salinas continued, “but hard work, talking about the issues, integrity of the candidate will pay off.”

Biden invokes Defense Production Act to increase supply of U.S. infant formula

President Joe Biden announced on Wednesday that he was invoking the Defense Production Act to speed up the manufacturing of U.S.-made infant formula, as well as directing government agencies to use the Defense Department’s commercial aircraft to pick up products from overseas.

The DPA requires suppliers to send necessary resources to infant formula suppliers before other customers who have requested the goods. The White House also announced “Operation Fly Formula” to speed up imports. The president has asked the Department of Health and Human Services and the Agriculture Department to use Defense commercial aircraft to pick up U.S.-approved, overseas infant formula “so it can get to store shelves faster.”

“Bypassing regular air freighting routes will speed up the importation and distribution of formula and serve as an immediate support as manufacturers continue to ramp up production,” the announcement said. And in a letter to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Biden said the imports would “serve as a bridge to this ramped up production.”

The administration has faced growing calls to take more action, as limited supplies shake parents across the country who are struggling to find the critical and, in some cases, life-sustaining products. Earlier Wednesday, a bipartisan group of 20 lawmakers in the House called on Biden to invoke the DPA.

The additional moves also come before lawmakers are set to question FDA Commissioner Robert Califf on Thursday about why the administration didn’t take action sooner to address the shortage despite warnings surfacing in October.

“I know parents all across the country are worried about finding enough infant formula to feed their babies,” Biden said in a video posted on Twitter on Wednesday afternoon, announcing the new steps. “As a parent and a grandparent, I know just how stressful that is.”

The shortage is in part fueled by the monthslong shutdown of the Abbott Nutrition plant in Sturgis, Mich., one of the biggest suppliers of infant formula in the U.S. and also a major supplier of several specialty formulas used by thousands of infants, children and adults with metabolic, allergic and gastrointestinal disorders. In February, the manufacturer recalled several products after FDA inspectors launched an investigation into complaints that four infants were hospitalized with rare bacteria after consuming formula produced at the plant. Two infants died.

POLITICO reported last month that a whistleblower had flagged concerns about the Abbott plan to senior FDA officials, including then-acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock, last fall.

Biden’s latest announcement comes just two days after the administration released new import guidance from the FDA, aimed at easing import restrictions on overseas formula to increase supplies. Abbott also announced that it reached a deal this week with the FDA to reopen its processing plant at the heart of the nationwide shortages.

The House is also expected to pass two bills on Wednesday addressing the shortage, as lawmakers scramble to respond to the crisis. The first, which will likely have bipartisan support, will grant emergency authority to the WIC assistance program, with the goal of giving participants the ability to use vouchers to purchase any brand of formula instead of being limited to one brand.

The second bill is a $28 million emergency spending measure to boost resources at the FDA to address the short supplies, as well as prepare for future shortages. Republicans were quick to express opposition to the measure this week, suggesting that the bill is vague and wouldn’t actually solve the problem.

Tech companies removed the Buffalo shooting manifesto. A Texas law could make that illegal.

A Texas law under review by the Supreme Court could make it harder for tech companies to remove many kinds of violent, hate-filled content from their sites — including a racist manifesto linked to the suspect of last weekend’s mass shooting in Buffalo, N.Y.

The statute, which makes it illegal for large social media platforms to “censor” users or their posts based on “viewpoint,” is among a growing set of barriers facing companies such as Facebook, Google and YouTube as they try to police problematic messages. The Supreme Court may rule this week on a tech industry request to block the Texas law from taking effect.

Meanwhile, Twitter’s own anti-hate efforts face an uncertain future under the company’s planned purchase by Elon Musk, who has called himself a “free-speech absolutist” and said he opposes “censorship that goes far beyond the law.”

Musk has said he would still take down content that’s illegal or incites violence, and the Texas law includes exceptions for “unlawful expression” and “specific threats of violence” against people based on factors like race, religion or national origin. But companies including Facebook, Google and Twitter have used their hate policies to take down content that doesn’t clearly violate any U.S. laws, such as insults aimed at Black Americans, immigrants, Muslims, Jews or transgender people — and now, those efforts could become legally perilous.

Facebook, Twitter and the Amazon-owned streaming platform Twitch may have even violated the Texas law when they took down the white supremacist manifesto that the Buffalo shooting suspect is believed to have posted online, tech industry lawyer Chris Marchese said in an interview. He said the manifesto is “absolutely” covered under the law, known as HB 20.

“The manifesto is written speech and even though it is vile, extremist and disgusting speech it is nevertheless a viewpoint that HB 20 now protects,” said Marchese, the counsel at the industry group NetChoice. The group, which represents companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter, filed an emergency appeal Friday to Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito seeking to block the Texas law, with a ruling expected as early as this week.

A federal appeals court last week allowed the Texas law to take effect immediately, even before judges finish weighing the merits of the statute.

Civil rights groups say the online companies need to do much more to scrub hate from their platforms — citing Buffalo as an example of the consequences of failure.

Minority communities in particular would suffer if online companies water down their content moderation policies or readmit people they have banned, NAACP President Derrick Johnson said in an interview.

“We cannot as a society allow for social media platforms — or broadcast or cable news — to be used as tools to further tribalism, diminishing democracy,” he said. “That is what happened leading up to World War II and Nazi Germany. We have too many lessons in the past we can look to to determine it is not healthy for communities, it is not safe it is not safe for individuals.”

The office of Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton didn’t respond to requests for comment about how tech companies’ removal of the Buffalo suspect’s manifesto — along with a livestream of the shooting — would be litigated under HB 20. Attempts to contact Musk were also unsuccessful, even as he began to take flack for failing to comment publicly about the Buffalo shooting or social media’s role in the attack.

At the very least, the Texas law means that users will be able to sue platforms that try to block the spread of what the companies consider harmful messages — leaving it for a judge to decide whose interpretation of the statute is correct. 

“It kind of doesn't matter what any of us think of what counts as viewpoint or doesn't,” said Daphne Keller, director of the Program on Platform Regulation at Stanford University's Cyber Policy Center. "It only matters what a whole bunch of different local judges in Texas think."

Under the law, social media platforms with 50 million or more active monthly users could face fines of $25,000 for each day they impede certain viewpoints protected by the law.

“You’re suddenly increasing the risk of lawsuits dramatically, and that’s the real problem with the law,” said Jeff Kosseff, a cybersecurity law professor at the U.S. Naval Academy who has written two books about online speech. Fear of lawsuits, he said, means that platforms would err on the side of leaving up content even if it might violate their own policies against hate speech or terrorism.

“So if you’re a rational platform trying to avoid defending an action, you’re not going to take [a post] down, or you’re going to be much more hesitant to take it down,” he said.

Before passing HB 20, Texas lawmakers voted down a Democratic amendment that would have allowed removal of material that “directly or indirectly promotes or supports” international or domestic terrorism, which could have applied to the Buffalo manifesto and livestream.

Texas Democratic state Rep. Jon Rosenthal, who introduced the amendment, said Wednesday that the Buffalo shooting shows the need for such a provision, while faulting Republicans for blocking the measure. "It's very alarming what folks are willing to do to line up with their party instead of what's right and just," he told reporters on a press call. "And right now we're seeing the effects of that. ... Exactly what we talked about is exactly what we're seeing right now."

The mass shooting “is a tragic reason why tech companies need robust moderation policies — to ensure that content like this gets as little dissemination as possible,” said Matthew Schruers, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, which joined NetChoice’s appeal.

The Texas law — and a similar Florida law, SB 7072, championed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis that has been blocked by a federal judge — “ties hands of digital services and puts Americans at greater risk,” Schruers said. (Other Republican-controlled state legislatures have also introduced bills to prohibit alleged viewpoint censorship, including Michigan and Georgia.)

Paxton and other supporters of the Texas law argue it’s intended to protect individuals’ ability to express their political viewpoints — particularly for conservatives who allege that large tech companies have censored them. Those include former President Donald Trump, who was banned by the major social media platforms after a throng of his supporters attacked the Capitol on Jan 6, 2021.

Social media companies have spent years adjusting their approaches to hate speech and violence after past violent mass shootings, including a pair of attacks at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, that left 51 people dead in 2019. The gunman in both attacks — who identified with white supremacist ideologies — livestreamed one shooting on Facebook and posted his manifesto online.

The major platforms signed onto the “Christchurch Call” after the incident, pledging to “eliminate terrorist and violent extremst content online.” It’s implemented by the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, which is funded by its founding members Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube to fight online extremism.

Even with that pact and the companies’ content moderation policies in place, extremist videos still slip through, including a link to the Buffalo shooting suspect’s livestream shared on Facebook and clips of the video that surfaced on Twitter. Both platforms removed the content after POLITICO notified them.

Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, said social media platforms have a responsibility to quickly remove racist, white supremacist and antisemitic speech that starts on their sites and can lead to off-line violence.

“It starts with crazy conspiracy theories about the ‘great replacement’ and it leads to 11 people being massacred in the synagogue in Pittsburgh,” Greenblatt said. “There's a straight line from Pittsburgh to Buffalo. These things are not unrelated. They're all actually very related.”

Inside the last-minute Trump endorsement that enraged Pa. Republicans

Donald Trump and some of his top lieutenants spent the last year privately disparaging Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano.

The far-right lawmaker played an instrumental role pushing forward Trump’s conspiracies about the 2020 election results in Pennsylvania. There was no soldier more loyal to the cause. And like almost every aspiring Republican candidate in the state, Mastriano was eager to win Trump’s endorsement.

Yet Trump — who scrutinizes candidates for their presentation and star power — remained unconvinced. Mastriano’s loyalty alone wasn’t enough to earn his support. Trump wanted more concrete action.

Trump was skeptical of Mastriano, according to a source familiar with his thinking, because he had “done nothing on the audit promises in a year,” a reference to an investigation of the 2020 election that he pushed in the state.

But on the Friday before Pennsylvania’s primary, with Mastriano ahead in the polls and ensconced as the clear favorite in the primary for governor, Trump changed his mind. He called up the state lawmaker and delivered the news he would endorse him, according to a person familiar with the conversation. A day later, Trump issued a statement announcing the nod.

The former president’s last-minute decision to publicly back Mastriano gave him another win to boast of on primary night, but at some cost. The endorsement stung not only some of his own aides and allies — who warned him about Mastriano’s electability issues — it also roiled a large swath of influential lawmakers and party officials in the state who now say Trump’s endorsement could end up damaging his own 2024 prospects in Pennsylvania, in the event he runs again.

“He’s alienated a lot of people on these endorsements. I guess the old saying in politics is that it's better to be kingmaker than king. He just looks at who’s ahead in the polls and goes with that,” said former Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Tom Marino. “I’m very disappointed. Pissed off, to tell the truth.”

Marino supported Lou Barletta, the runner-up in the governor’s race, who has been among Trump’s most loyal allies in Pennsylvania. In 2016, Barletta was one of the first members of Congress to endorse Trump. But in the end, none of that mattered. Trump wanted to burnish his win-loss record and appease his base, which was frustrated by his endorsement of Dr. Mehmet Oz in the Senate primary, according to interviews with more than a dozen Trump aides, allies and Pennsylvania Republicans.

But by backing both Oz and Mastriano, Trump managed to upset nearly everyone — rank-and-file Republican voters who disliked the celebrity doctor, as well as state GOP insiders worried their gubernatorial nominee can’t win in November.

“I’m not very happy with his involvement in local races and endorsements,” said Rob Gleason, former chair of the Pennsylvania GOP, who endorsed former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain for governor. “He doesn’t live in Pennsylvania. His name isn’t on the ballot. He might be wearing out his welcome.”

Mastriano’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Mastriano, a retired Army colonel who supports expanding gun rights, sponsored a bill to ban abortion once a heartbeat is detected, and was a leading voice against Covid-19 restrictions, has used those criticisms as a battle cry for his supporters. At his election night party, he said his movement is “under siege.”

“Our biggest problem,” said Mastriano on Steve Bannon’s “War Room: Pandemic” podcast on Tuesday, “is going to be these feckless RINO-type Republicans here that will not allow us to have a fighter as governor. But we’re going to beat them and they’re going to lose power, and they’re going to be put to shame.”

Down at Mar-a-Lago, prior to the endorsement, Trump was visited by a steady stream of Mastriano’s competitors who vied for his support. Barletta, businessman Dave White, and state Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, who had become a golf partner with Trump, all courted him. But Trump didn’t want to back Barletta, who had lost a Senate run in 2018, wasn’t impressed by White’s polling, and, despite some chemistry, didn’t see a pathway to victory for Corman, who trailed in polls.

After Corman eventually dropped out last week, he and Trump spoke on the phone to discuss the race and Corman shared that he was supporting Barletta. At the time, Trump gave no indication of what he was going to do.

But according to multiple people, it was unlikely he would support Barletta, whom Trump had referred to at times as a “loser" because of his failed 2018 Senate campaign.

Asked for comment for this story, Barletta said: “At least I’m not a sore one.”

With only a few days remaining until the Republican primary, a number of people in Trumpworld told the ex-president not to endorse at all. And with far-right Senate candidate Kathy Barnette’s numbers surging as she campaigned in the state with Mastriano, others actively lobbied Trump against endorsing Mastriano, if only to curb Barnette’s rise.

One person particularly concerned with Barnette's momentum was Fox News host Sean Hannity, who slammed the Senate candidate as “unelectable" on his show. In a sign of just how involved Hannity was in primary machinations, Oz thanked him in his election night speech for his "behind the scenes" work.

Donald Trump Jr. was another who voiced concerns internally to Trump’s staff about Mastriano’s electability in November, according to a person familiar with the conversations.

“The question here is, was the juice worth the squeeze? I think no,” said one prominent Republican involved in the governor’s race. “His standing and reputation — it took a big, big hit with both Oz and Mastriano [endorsements]. There is a third of the electorate that loves the endorsements, but there’s a great number of Republicans that don’t.”

Local party leaders were also frustrated by Trump’s eleventh-hour decision to wade into the governor’s race.

Asked if she was upset with Trump for endorsing Mastriano, Jackie Kulback, chair of the Cambria County Republican Party, said, “Yes. Absolutely.”

“We had our ground game in place,” said Kulback, whose county party backed Barletta and White. “We cannot ignore our countless hours of research and be swayed by the last-minute endorsement of former President Trump.”

As of Wednesday evening, the Pennsylvania Senate race is too close to call. Oz leads McCormick by less than 1,300 votes, with Barnette in third place. It could potentially go to a recount.

All along, Mastriano had some key Trumpworld figures in his corner — and in Trump’s ear. Trump’s former personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik, attorney Jenna Ellis, former OAN anchor Christina Bobb and Trump spokesperson Liz Harrington were all supportive of the Pennsylvania lawmaker. Michael Glassner, Trump’s former campaign chief operating officer, was also a consultant for Mastriano.

One person close to Trump said that in the end, the biggest factor in his decision to endorse Mastriano was his commitment to “election integrity” in the key swing state.

“The biggest reason why he did it was he said, ‘Mastriano was there for me and I need to be there for him,’” the person said, making comparisons to Trump and the criticisms he faced over electability when he ran for president in 2016.

But some Republicans in the state say that Mastriano’s laser focus on 2020 and false claims about the election could end up costing Pennsylvania the governorship — and ultimately hurt Trump and down-ballot Republicans in 2024. In Pennsylvania, the governor appoints the secretary of state in charge of elections, and control of the administrative office is seen as critical given the likelihood of close and contested elections going forward.

“He endorsed someone who is going to be very difficult to elect. I’ve heard from so many people who’ve said to me, ‘He obviously isn’t running for president,’” said former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who had backed Corman. “And their rationale is, ‘If he actually cared about winning the presidency, he would not want a Democratic governor or Democratic secretary of state to do what they did two years ago.’”

Alex Isenstadt contributed to this report. 

‘Pharma Bro’ Shkreli freed from prison for halfway house

NEW YORK — Convicted pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli was freed Wednesday from prison after serving much of a seven-year prison sentence for lying to hedge fund investors and cheating investors in a drug company.

His attorney, Ben Brafman, said Shkreli, 39, was released early from a prison in Allenwood, Pennsylvania. The move was confirmed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

“I am pleased to report that Martin Shkreli has been released from Allenwood prison and transferred to a BOP halfway house after completing all programs that allowed for his prison sentence to be shortened,” Brafman said.

Shkreli was moved to a halfway house overseen by the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ New York Residential Reentry Management Office, the bureau said in a statement.

The Bureau of Prisons said Shkreli’s projected release date from federal custody was Sept. 14.

Brafman said he has encouraged Shkreli to make no statements, and the lawyer planned no comments beyond confirming Wednesday’s moves.

Shkreli was sentenced to the seven-year term after a 2017 conviction for lying to investors about the performance of two hedge funds he ran, skimming money for himself from those funds, and defrauding investors in a drug company, Retrophin, by hiding his ownership of some of its stock. He was also ordered to forfeit $7.3 million.

Shkreli was originally due to be released from prison in September 2023.

Dubbed “Pharma Bro,” Shkreli gained fame and notoriety after buying rights to Daraprim, a drug used to treat an infection that occurs in some AIDS, malaria and cancer patients and raising its price from $13.50 to $750 per pill.

Shkreli defended the decision as capitalism at work, saying insurance and other programs ensured that people who need Daraprim would ultimately get it.

During the campaign for the presidency in 2016, Democrat Hillary Clinton called it price-gouging and future President Donald Trump, a Republican, called Shkreli “a spoiled brat.”

Shkreli resigned as chief executive of Turing Pharmaceuticals — later Vyera — in 2015, a day after he was arrested on securities fraud charges.

Earlier this year, he was ordered by U.S. District Judge Denise Cote to return $64.6 million in profits he and his former company gained by raising the price of the drug. She also barred him from the pharmaceutical industry for life.

He also once regularly attacked critics on social media and once offered a bounty to anyone who could give him one of Hillary Clinton’s hairs. He also was known for owning a rare, one-of-a-kind album by the Wu-Tang Clan which was sold to satisfy some of his court debts.

Biden’s Cuba and Venezuela policy shifts leave Florida Democrats dismayed

President Joe Biden hemorrhaged South Florida Hispanic voters in 2020 — one reason he lost the state to Donald Trump during the last election.

Two moves by his administration this week — easing sanctions on Venezuela and loosening restrictions on Cuba — signal he's likely not interested in improving his standing with the key demographic. And Florida Democrats, already reeling from a tough electoral environment for the party, are disheartened.

“It’s frustrating, no question. And I'm sure it will be used [against Democrats],” said state Sen. Annette Taddeo (D-Miami), who is running for governor. “It’s very clear they still don’t have a political side in the Biden White House.”

Biden’s 2020 underperformance in the state was most evident in Miami-Dade County, which has the highest concentration of Hispanic voters in the state. He won the county by 7 percentage points, compared with Hillary Clinton’s 30-point margin over Trump in 2016.

Over a roughly 24-hour period, the administration announced Biden is expanding the number of flights to Cuba and ending restrictions on money that immigrants can send to people on the island, a vestige of Trump’s hard-line Cuba policy. The administration on Tuesday said it would ease sanctions on Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s government if he commits to talks with U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who is recognized as the country’s leader by nearly 60 nations, including the U.S.

Taddeo, in an interview, said she supports Biden reinstating the family reunification program, a long-time campaign promise, but has major issues with the U.S. relaxing restrictions on sending money to the island given the Cuban government’s involvement in banking and investment. She added that she has seen no concessions from the Cuban government, as many participants from last year’s historic anti-government protests remain in prison.

On Venezuela, she said: “To remove sanctions and allow oil companies to go in there, are we doing that with Russia next?”

Administration officials have long emphasized that they will not shape their foreign policy based on what plays best politically in South Florida. That has left Democrats in the state navigating the political radioactivity of the issue on their own. The area is home to a huge concentration of Hispanic voters and Latin American exiles who fled leftist violence or dictatorships in Colombia, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), who is running for Senate against Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said she is “encouraged” by policies to reunite families — the Biden administration on Monday announced plans to restart a Cuban family reunification program after bipartisan calls to do so. But she remains concerned about allowing U.S. investment in private companies based in Cuba, concern sparked by news that the U.S. Treasury Department last week allowed a company headed by the president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council to invest in a Cuban firm.

“Allowing investments in the Cuban private sector and easing travel restrictions will only serve to fund the corrupt dictatorship,” Demings, who once was being considered as Biden’s vice president, said in a statement.

Florida’s massive Hispanic population and long-standing role as one of the nation’s largest swing states have long given it a big voice in foreign policy, but the state continues to shift to the political right and national Democrats no longer see it as essential to winning the White House. Already the Democratic Governors Association has signaled it’s holding off funding Florida Democrats.

Cuban-born Florida International University professor Guillermo Grenier, who conducts the state’s highly watched Cuba poll, called the two administration decisions “marginal changes,” and said they might be a nod to the fact that 2022 is setting up to be a bad election cycle for Democrats.

“I think that [Biden] and his advisers realize that the fate of the state does not hinge on isolated policy changes here or there,” he said via email. “It might be that they are calculating that the national dynamics are guiding the 2022 elections and there will be little movement based on marginal changes that affect south Florida constituencies.”

The Cuba measures specifically include expanding flights, easing travel restrictions and lifting limits on sending remittances to people on the communist-run island. The administration is also increasing consular services and reestablishing a family reunification program suspended in 2017. The changes all come after a lengthy review of U.S.-Cuba policy that was largely started following the historic anti-government protests on the island last July.

On Venezuela, the Biden administration has moved to ease some economic sanctions to encourage further discussions between Maduro and Venezuela’s opposition government. The changes will allow for U.S. oil company Chevron to begin talks with Venezuela’s government over potentially restarting oil production.

The top two Democratic contenders challenging Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.) and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, supported Biden’s moves. Crist said it could be a “game changer for freedom and democracy in Cuba,” while Fried said she supports the “relentless pursuit of greater connectivity to, from and among the Cuban people.”

Some Democrats note that Clinton won the Hispanic-rich regions of the state by wide margins in 2016 despite the fact that President Barack Obama loosened restrictions and became the first sitting U.S. president to visit the island since 1959. Obama, who won Florida twice with Biden on his ticket, campaigned on a platform that included further opening relations with Cuba.

“Obama ran on opening up travel to Cuba and easing restrictions on remittances,” said Steve Schale, a Democratic consultant who ran Obama’s Florida campaign and runs a pro-Biden super PAC. “He also spoke to the immigrant experience. What he didn’t have to deal with is a small, but loud chorus of people waxing on about European socialism or screaming to defund the police.”

Schale’s super PAC, Unite the Country, did mail pieces during the 2020 Democratic primary pushing back on language used by some progressives to advocate for policy changes like “defunding” the police but hijacked by Republicans who have effectively used that message to brand all Democrats as extreme.

“During the primary, my PAC sent mail that specifically called out ‘revolution’ talk from the far left,” Schale said. “And as you can imagine, there were people who don’t live in Florida who didn’t appreciate it.”

In 2020, Trump made inroads among Latinos across the country, but his most significant gains were in South Florida — not just among Republican-leaning Cuban Americans. Venezuelan Americans, Nicaraguan Americans and Colombian Americans — all growing Hispanic groups in Miami — also shifted farther right.

The Biden administration has largely steered clear of Cuba and Venezuela policy since the start of Biden’s presidency, leaving largely intact Trump’s hard-line policies. When it has made any changes — or even indicated a potential change — criticism has been swift and loud in South Florida, with Republicans taking to the airwaves and organizing events condemning the administration.

Earlier this year, Republicans and top Democrats in the state piled on the administration over talks it held with Maduro to potentially ease sanctions on Venezuelan oil exports. A few months earlier, Biden officials were dragged for their plan to remove Colombian rebel group FARC from a list of foreign terrorist organizations.

The move now, in a midterm election where Democrats are likely to suffer losses anyway, could also be the equivalent of ripping off a political Band-Aid ahead of Biden’s own reelection, Grenier said.

“He might also think that acting now will give the waters time to settle by 2024,” he said. “Plus, he [Biden] won the presidency without the state.”

‘A glowing red orb’: Wild UFO theories move from the shadows to Congress

Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) says he doesn’t believe that a secret cabal of government officials and contractors are hiding a captured alien spaceship.

But he wants to make sure — so that we can all move on to more serious business.

One of the most eye-popping moments during a House Intelligence Committee hearing on UFOs on Tuesday was when the Wisconsin Republican pressed Pentagon officials on claims that a “glowing red orb” once shut down nuclear weapons in Montana and that a recently leaked document revealed that other-worldly vehicles — and possibly even extraterrestrial bodies — are being kept from government leaders and the public.

Gallagher was quickly dubbed a hero on #UFOtwitter for having the guts to finally hold national security officials accountable. Others expressed surprise that a sitting congressman was willing to go there, given the lack of corroborating evidence in the public domain and the overall topic’s pop culture saturation with science-fiction fantasy over fact.

But the retired Marine Corps officer who also sits on the House Armed Services Committee says it’s time to set some of these wild theories to rest.

“The quicker DoD can disconfirm certain hypotheses that they should be able to easily disconfirm, the better we can focus time and energy on more plausible hypotheses,” he told POLITICO on Wednesday.

During the hearing, Gallagher asked Ronald Moultrie, the top Pentagon intelligence official, and Scott Bray, the deputy director of naval intelligence, whether they were aware of an unverified 2002 document known as the “Wilson-Davis memo.”

The document, which emerged publicly in 2019, purports to reveal a secret meeting with the then-director of the Defense Intelligence Agency outlining a labyrinth of secret government programs hidden from top officials and congressional oversight committees about crashed UFO materials and efforts to reengineer the technology.

The claims have been hotly debated among ufologists but never corroborated. The DIA director at the time, Vice Adm. Thomas Wilson, has reportedly denied it all. Numerous national security experts and researchers have also dismissed it as a hoax.

But one of the other primary individuals cited in the document, astrophysicist Eric Davis, has not directly addressed it in public, only fueling suspicions that there might be something to it.

And Davis alluded to the possibility of some of the claims contained in the alleged memo as recently as last year in an interview in The New York Times.

Davis, who is now a senior project engineer at the government-funded The Aerospace Corporation, has declined several POLITICO requests for interviews.

“There’s nothing we can offer or help out with on your request,” a spokesperson for the federal think tank said on Wednesday.

As for Moultrie and Bray, they told Gallagher that they were unfamiliar with the Wilson-Davis document.

But in a separate line of questioning by Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), the witnesses denied any knowledge of UFO material in government custody.

"Are we holding materials organic or inorganic that we don't know about?" Himes asked.

"When it comes to material we have, we have no material," Bray responded.

The fact the document was even broached — and then entered into the official hearing record — was shocking to those who have followed the saga.

“In my work in museums, provenance is everything,” said Taras Matla, a researcher at Harvard University’s Galileo Project and associate director of the University of Maryland Art Gallery, where he specializes in art and UFOs. “There’s some indication that the Wilson memo was, indeed, drafted by Dr. Davis. However, there is zero supporting evidence that the content is true or that they even met in Las Vegas on that day. Admiral Wilson denies the meeting occurred.”

Nevertheless, he said he believes it contains information “that warrants more investigation” and said Davis should come forward.

“Now that this is a part of the record,” Matla said, “I think Dr. Davis has a responsibility to explain himself to Congress and the public.”

John Greenewald, founder of The Black Vault, which has obtained declassified national security documents, including on “unmanned aerial phenomena,” also described Gallagher bringing up the document as a “face palm moment.”

“I feel these types of fringe stories hurt the overall conversation,” he said in an email. “The UAP topic has some amazing, and officially verifiable, information that warrants a closer look more so than that ‘memo’.”

But he also maintained that if Gallagher or others feel differently, “I fully support putting people that come up in these types of stories under oath and getting their side.” 

Gallagher also raised eyebrows by asking about a high-profile report of a "glowing red orb" that was reportedly observed over Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana in 1967, "in which 10 of our nuclear ICBMs were rendered inoperable."

Government documents made public in the ensuing years also suggest that a technical malfunction, however rare, could have been responsible.

"I have heard stories, I have not seen official data on that," Bray responded.

"I would like you to look into it," Gallagher said.

"We'll go back and take a look at it," Bray agreed.

“I was happy to hear Congressman Gallagher bring that up,” said Robert Salas, an Air Force missile officer at the base at the time who has spoken publicly since 1996 about the pair of reported incidents that took place eight days apart.

“I’m hopeful they will give me a call so I can give them a briefing,” he said on Wednesday. “Even at my own expense, I’d come to Washington with supporting documents and even bring a couple of witnesses with me.”

The recently passed National Defense Authorization Act, which required the Pentagon to establish a more permanent and comprehensive effort to collect and analyze UFOs reports, singled out UAP incidents “associated with military nuclear assets, including strategic nuclear weapons and nuclear-powered ships and submarines.”

But Greenewald isn’t sure how reopening a case from more than 50 years ago will help solve the much more modern UAP mystery.

“People like me would love for the DoD to turn into instant ufologists knowing everything going back to the 1940s. That’s just not what this is all about nor is that who they are,” he said.

Health Secretary Xavier Becerra tests positive for Covid-19

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra tested positive for Covid-19 during a trip to Germany for a G7 health summit.

Becerra tested positive Wednesday morning ahead of a meeting with other health ministers, spokesperson Sarah Lovenheim said in a statement.

“He is fully vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19, and is experiencing mild symptoms,” she said.

Lovenheim added that Becerra last saw President Joe Biden on Thursday. “Biden is not considered a close contact” as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she said. Becerra “remains fully engaged with the duties of HHS Secretary while in isolation in Berlin, and looks forward to resuming in-person meetings, as soon as possible.”

Becerra last Thursday traveled to Bali, Indonesia, to co-chair a meeting with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and arrived in Berlin on Monday. The health secretary was slated to travel to Geneva, Switzerland, on Saturday for the 75th World Health Assembly, where he was scheduled for a series of bilateral meetings on health partnerships.

Biden resists Ukrainian demands for long-range rocket launchers

Ukrainian officials are growing frustrated with the Biden administration’s resistance to providing U.S.-made long-range rocket systems, a weapon Kyiv says is critical to outgunning Russia in the heavy artillery duels raging across the Donbas.

Officials across the Ukrainian government have pleaded with the U.S. for months to send the Multiple Launch Rocket System, or MLRS. But three people familiar with the issue say the Ukrainians are concerned that the White House is holding back over worries the weapon could be used to launch strikes inside Russia, thereby expanding and prolonging the conflict.

“There was momentum on it at Ramstein, but that seems to have cooled,” said one congressional staffer with knowledge of discussions last month in Germany, where 40 nations gathered to discuss the next steps in arming Ukraine. “There's definitely a frustration building” in Kyiv over these new caveats being placed on military aid, this person said.

The weapon has been near the top of Ukrainian requests for months, and military and civilian leaders in Kyiv have made their case to their American counterparts directly on multiple occasions.

A Biden administration official who asked to remain anonymous to discuss internal deliberations told POLITICO that the two countries remain “in active discussion” about the weapon, but that even with the $3.8 billion worth of military aid the U.S. has sent Ukraine since Russia's Feb. 24 invasion, not everything Kyiv asks for can be sent quickly.

“We have to make decisions about what weapons systems provide the biggest bang for the buck,” with the money Congress allots to the Ukraine effort, the official said. Over the past several weeks as the latest funding package began to be whittled down, the administration decided “it was more effective and efficient to send the 90 M777 [howitzers] because you can send more of them” and more munitions for the price than a much smaller number of MLRS.

The U.S. has quietly provided older, Soviet-era multiple launch rocket systems to Ukraine over the past several months after scouring the warehouses of allies who still operate the older weapons. But the more precise, more powerful American systems are what Kyiv is looking for to blunt Russian advances in the Donbas.

But worries persist in the White House that sending the system or its cousin, the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, could be seen as an escalation by the Kremlin, given the weapon's longer range and greater destructive power than traditional artillery such as howitzers, or the older Soviet rocket launchers.

The M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System was first produced for the U.S. Army in 1983, and was designed specifically to quickly fire 12 rockets and drive off quickly to reload before Soviet artillery zeroed in. It is still in use by over a dozen countries, and depending on the munition used, its range generally stretches from 20 miles to 40 miles, with the most advanced rockets being able to travel over 100 miles.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion so far has been a story of battlefield humiliation, with a string of failed offensives that have left thousands of troops dead and torn apart armored units. Those losses, and Putin’s long-cultivated unpredictability, have given rise to some wariness that the weapons — which can fire rockets farther than anything the Ukrainians currently possess — could move the needle closer to Russia resorting to the use of chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction.

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week that Putin could slide into “a more unpredictable and potentially escalatory trajectory” if the war drags on “or if he perceives Russia is losing in Ukraine.”

Officials in Kyiv have complained that the longer the West dithers over sending the full complement of weapons it needs, the direr the consequences for Ukraine’s civilians and allows Russia more time to conduct sham local elections in areas it controls.

“With this in mind, we want to defeat the enemy and liberate our territories as soon as possible,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told the European Union Foreign Affairs Council Tuesday. Ukraine wants to buy weapons quickly, he added, including “tanks, armored vehicles, long-range fire weapons systems (MLRS, heavy artillery, aircraft, missiles),” according to prepared remarks.

Speaking at a virtual G-7 leaders’ summit this month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was more specific, telling the leaders his country “must receive all the weapons and all the defense equipment that will allow the defeat of tyranny — in particular the M142 HIMARS and M270 MLRS multiple launch rocket systems and other weapons that Ukraine requested from your powerful states.”

Longer range, bigger punch

Produced by Lockheed Martin, the MLRS would allow Ukrainian troops to fire from relatively safe standoff distances and quickly pack up and move before Russian drones and artillery could spot their location.

It’s a very different weapon than the M777 howitzers the Biden administration dispatched to Ukraine over the past several weeks, which Russian troops have started to target with loitering munitions along their static firing lines. Those cannons have a range of about 18 miles but can fire one only shell at a time and must be towed behind a truck to move from location to location.

The howitzers are already in the fight and have made a difference in targeting Russian supply bases and columns in the East, but the rocket system would be a leap in firepower as the war evolves into a struggle between heavy artillery, mortars and airstrikes.

“From the Russian point of view, it presents a real threat that their artillery can be taken out before it can even get in range to shoot,” said Dmitry Gorenburg, a Russia specialist at nonprofit research institute CNA.

Overall, Ukrainian troops have performed better than most analysts predicted, pushing the Russians back from the capital of Kyiv and retaking the northeastern city of Kharkiv over the past several days. Over the weekend, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense shared a video of a group of soldiers posing at the Russian border to the east of the city. “We have made it. We are here, Mr. President,” one of the soldiers said.

The Biden administration has already supplied the Ukrainian military with $4.5-billion worth of weapons and supplies, including $3.8 billion since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion. The aid in those first weeks consisted mainly of shoulder-launched anti-armor and anti-air missiles and ammunition.

As the war has changed, however, and Ukrainian forces have gone on offense in some areas to retake territory captured by Russia, the U.S. and U.K. have also pivoted, stepping over self-imposed limitations on providing only defensive weapons to those clearly capable of offensive operations.

Those packages have included howitzers, missiles, armored vehicles, radar systems, tanks, and kamikaze and surveillance drones rushed to the front as the fight moved from close combat in the suburbs of Kyiv to artillery battles in the Donbas.

The new weapons are more in tune with the stand-off fights in the East, where the Ukrainians are trying to push Russian forces out of artillery range of towns and cities.

A British intelligence assessment released Tuesday warned that “in the coming weeks, Russia is likely to continue to rely heavily on massed artillery strikes as it attempts to regain momentum in its advance in the Donbas.”

The state of U.S. weapons transfers to Ukraine is in flux. The president's drawdown authority — the amount of equipment he can draw from U.S. stockpiles to send to Ukraine — has fallen to about $100 million, a hefty sum but one that limits what can go next until more funding is freed up.

But more funding could start flowing as soon as this week, as Congress is expected to vote on a $40 billion military and humanitarian aid package for Ukraine and Eastern Europe, opening the floodgates to about $20 billion more in U.S. military support for Ukraine.

U.S. reopens embassy in Ukrainian capital

KYIV, Ukraine — The United States has reopened its embassy in Ukraine’s capital, three months after fears of what became a brutal Russian invasion prompted its closure.

The decision to send a small contingent of U.S. diplomats back to Kyiv as part of a soft reopening of the embassy is intended to signal that the United States stands with Ukraine against Russia. It is a move U.S. lawmakers from both parties, as well as Ukrainians, have been hoping to see for weeks. But Biden administration officials had hesitated, in large part due to ongoing security concerns, even as other countries reopened their missions.

The American embassy’s reopening was confirmed by Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a statement on Wednesday, after the U.S. flag was once again raised at the facility. He called it a “momentous step.”

“The Ukrainian people, with our security assistance, have defended their homeland in the face of Russia’s unconscionable invasion, and, as a result, the Stars and Stripes are flying over the Embassy once again,” Blinken said. “We stand proudly with, and continue to support, the government and people of Ukraine as they defend their country from the Kremlin’s brutal war of aggression.”

Blinken said the Biden administration has “put forward additional measures to increase the safety of our colleagues who are returning to Kyiv and have enhanced our security measures and protocols.”

A person familiar with the embassy’s reopening plans told POLITICO that it would resume functioning only in a limited capacity and that consular services will not be offered.

Wednesday’s reopening ceremony was delayed for about an hour due to an air raid warning in Kyiv, underscoring the threat that persists more than a month after Russian ground forces retreated from the area around the Ukrainian capital.

Chargé d’affaires Kristina Kvien, currently on leave, was not present at the reopening ceremony, where a small contingent of diplomats raised the American flag over the embassy’s gated compound.

The person familiar with embassy operations said that U.S. Marines are not present at the embassy; the compound is being guarded by diplomatic security and Ukrainian national guard and police forces.

Diplomatic security has been a hot-button issue in the United States for years, largely due to the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, which killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. Republicans used that tragedy to launch multiple investigations of Democratic leaders.

But some top officials in President Joe Biden’s administration, including Blinken, have said the U.S. government needs to shed what many have called a bunker mentality when it comes to its diplomacy.

Nahal Toosi reported from Washington, D.C.

New York accuses Amazon of pregnancy, disability discrimination

ALBANY, N.Y. — The New York Division of Human Rights filed a complaint Wednesday against Amazon over alleged pregnancy and disability discrimination against workers, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced.

Key context: The complaint accuses Amazon of denying reasonable accommodations to workers who are pregnant or have disabilities, in violation of New York’s Human Rights Law. It alleges that the company, which operates 23 worksites in New York, has policies that force such employees to take unpaid leave rather than allowing them to work with accommodations.

“New York has the strongest worker protections in the nation and was one of the first to have protections for workers who are pregnant and those with disabilities,” Hochul said in a statement. “Working men and women are the backbone of New York and we will continue to take a stand against any injustice they face."

Amazon did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The details: The state alleged that under Amazon’s accommodation policy, employees with disabilities are forced to take unpaid medical leave, even when in-house consultants have identified reasonable accommodations that allow workers to perform essential job functions without undue burden.

That, the Hochul administration argued, diminishes the terms and conditions of employment and violates the Human Rights Law, which requires all employers to reasonably accommodate workers with disabilities or pregnancy-related conditions upon request.

What’s next: The complaint seeks a decision requiring Amazon to cease such conduct and to adopt “non-discriminatory policies and practices regarding the review of requests for reasonable accommodations, train its employees on the provisions of the Human Rights Law and pay civil fines and penalties to the State of New York.”

Division of Human Rights Deputy Commissioner for Enforcement Melissa Franco said her agency “will work to ensure that everyone in our state is fully afforded the rights and dignities that the law requires.”

The division has the power to investigate and prosecute “systematic patterns of discrimination” through its Division Initiated Action Unit.

Why we won’t know the winner of the Oz-McCormick showdown for a while

With just a few tenths of a percentage point separating Mehmet Oz and Dave McCormick in Pennsylvania’s GOP Senate primary, it may be weeks before we know who won.

There are still thousands of votes left to be counted — largely absentee ballots that will be processed slowly in the coming days.

And once those votes are tallied, the race is likely headed to a recount — a process that could drag into early June, according to state law.

Here is what you need to know about Pennsylvania’s still-uncalled GOP Senate primary.

What is left to count?

The Pennsylvania Department of State told the Philadelphia Inquirer that there were still over 100,000 mail ballots that have yet to be included in the state’s results.While the State Department was unable to say how many of those were Republican ballots, about 21 percent of the counted mail ballots for Senate were in the GOP primary. If the same rate holds, that works out to more than 20,000 outstanding GOP votes.

There are also some counties still reporting in-person votes as well, but those numbers are likely smaller than the remaining mail votes.

Why does counting these ballots take longer?

The reason it’s taking more time to count the mail ballots is likely due to Pennsylvania state law. By law, county election officials cannot process mail ballots in the state until Election Day.

There are a lot of steps involved in “pre-processing” mail ballots — everything from physically removing ballots from multiple envelopes to verifying that they were cast by a valid voter — and counting them, which means it tends to be a slow and time-consuming task compared to tallying votes that were cast in person.

This was an especially acute issue in Pennsylvania in 2020, when the state experienced an unprecedented flood of mail voters due to the pandemic and a new state law allowing any voter to vote by mail without an excuse.

Former President Donald Trump used this time lag to spread conspiracy theories about his loss in the 2020 election, as the counting of the mail ballots — which skewed heavily Democratic because Trump’s attacks on mail voting turned off his supporters from the practice — added to Joe Biden’s tally.

Trump is already trying to run back the same playbook again this year. On Wednesday, he encouraged Oz — his endorsed candidate — to “declare victory” in a post on his social media site, falsely suggesting election officials might “find” votes to swing the results.

This is why many states allow for pre-Election Day processing of mail ballots, but Pennsylvania is not one of them. In a statement Tuesday evening, Acting Secretary of State Leigh Chapman, Pennsylvania’s chief election official, said she expected counties to count the majority of their ballots “within a few days.”

Most mail ballots in Pennsylvania have to be returned by the time polls close on election night, Tuesday at 8 p.m., to be counted. Some ballots from military and overseas voters can be counted if they are mailed by Election Day and received later, but those are typically only a tiny proportion of the total ballots cast.

And what about a recount?

Pennsylvania law requires an automatic statewide recount if the top two candidates in a race are within half a percentage point of each other, which Oz and McCormick currently are.

The secretary of state will make that determination by “the second Thursday following the day of the election,” which would be May 26.

The recount would be run by the individual counties, and it would have to start no later than June 1 and be completed by noon on June 7. Counties would have to submit results to the state by June 8. (Non-recounted races need to be certified by June 6.)

Recounts rarely change the results of elections, even incredibly close ones. Races with margins even in the low thousands usually hold. But in the closest of elections, small shifts in the corrected count can have an effect on the eventual winner.

The Associated Press will generally not project a winner in races that could go to, or are actively in, a recount. Instead, the news service will wait for official results.