U.S. imposes sanctions on Belarus in response to forced landing of Ryanair flight

The Biden administration announced a wave of sanctions on Monday targeting Belarusian individuals and entities tied to the arrest of an opposition journalist who was apprehended from a commercial flight that was forced to land in Belarus last month.

The new sanctions were launched in coordination with Canada, the United Kingdom and the European Union.

The sanctions include visa restrictions imposed by the State Department on 46 Belarusian officials “for their involvement in undermining or injuring institutions in Belarus,” making them "generally ineligible" to enter the U.S.

“We are united in calling for the regime to end its repressive practices against its own people,” the American, Canadian and British governments, as well as the European External Action Service, said in a joint statement on Monday. “We are disappointed the regime has opted to walk away from its human rights obligations, adherence to democratic principles, and engagement with the international community.”

The coordinated sanctions announced Monday add to penalties the Biden administration imposed last month in response to Belarus' arrest of journalist Raman Pratasevich and his partner. Pratasevich was aboard a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania on May 23 when Belarusian authorities faked a bomb threat against the airliner and scrambled jets to force it to land. With the plane on the ground, Pratasevich and his partner were arrested by Belarusian authorities.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, in office since 1994, has faced increased scrutiny since his reelection last August, a vote widely seen as fraudulently won. Lukashenko's government has cracked down on protesters with mass arrests. Some opposition leaders have left the country.

The joint statement issued Monday by the U.S., Canada, U.K. and EU included a call for the Lukashenko regime to cooperate with international investigations into the May 23 flight landing and release all political prisoners.

The Treasury Department also designated 16 more individuals and five more entities through Executive Order 13405, a George W. Bush-era order aimed at “Blocking Property of Certain Persons Undermining Democratic Processes or Institutions in Belarus.”

"The United States continues to support international efforts to investigate electoral irregularities in the 2020 Belarusian Presidential election and the violent crackdown and abuses that ensued," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement. "We stand with the people of Belarus in support of their fundamental freedoms."

Per the State Department, since the Aug. 9 election, the U.S. has designated 155 Belarusian and Russian nationals under PP 8015, a Bush-era proclamation that restricted the travel of members of the Lukashenko government and other officials involved in actions that "undermine or injure democratic institutions or impede the transition to democracy in Belarus."

Biden scraps plans to donate AstraZeneca vaccine abroad

The Biden administration on Monday announced further plans for sharing coronavirus vaccines with the world, but it will no longer immediately send doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine following problems at a production plant.

The administration detailed plans for sharing 55 million doses with other countries, which will come entirely from the U.S. supply of three vaccines the FDA has cleared for emergency use, according to an administration official. Earlier this month, the administration said the first 25 million doses it would donate abroad also would come from the U.S. supply of Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.

The announcement marks a reversal of the Biden administration’s original plans to share 60 million doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine, which has not yet been cleared for use in the U.S. However, the FDA is still reviewing whether AstraZeneca doses produced at a Baltimore plant are safe to send abroad, and the country meanwhile has built up a steady supply of other vaccines used in the U.S. inoculation campaign.

Where the doses are going: Most will be sent to countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia and Africa. Similar to the previously announced donation, about three-quarters of doses are being directed to COVAX, the global vaccine equity effort, and the administration is sending the rest to specific countries.

Of those going through COVAX, 14 million shots will go to Latin American and Caribbean countries, including Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Haiti, as well as the Dominican Republic, Panama, and Costa Rica. About 16 million will head to Asian countries, including India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, the Maldives, Taiwan and Cambodia. Another 10 million will be shared with Africa in coordination with the African Union.

The U.S. is sending 14 million doses to countries that the White House called “regional priorities,” including Colombia, Argentina, Haiti, Afghanistan, South Africa, Nigeria, the West Bank and Gaza, Ukraine, Kosovo, Georgia, Moldova and Bosnia.

The Biden administration didn’t say when the doses will start shipping. Of the 25 million doses previously announced for donation almost three weeks ago, about 5 million have been shipped to Canada, Mexico, South Korea and Taiwan.

Why it matters: The U.S. has ramped up its vaccine sharing with the rest of the world, as many poor countries are fighting new coronavirus waves, some of them triggered by the highly contagious Delta variant first identified in India. President Joe Biden has promised that the U.S. will be the vaccine arsenal for the world to help end the pandemic, though poorer countries have pressed the U.S. and other wealthy nations to do more as they struggle to secure vaccines.

Biden weighs ban on China’s solar material over forced labor

The Biden administration is considering banning imports of a critical solar panel material from China's Xinjiang region, according to four people familiar with the administration's plans, a move that would assuage bipartisan pressure to crack down on human rights abuses but could undermine the White House's aggressive climate change goals.

At issue is polysilicon, the material inside most solar panels, which President Joe Biden hopes will help replace fossil fuels and allow the U.S. to eliminate carbon emissions from power generation by 2035. Currently about half the world's supply of polysilicon comes from Xinjiang, where the Chinese government has been accused of rounding up hundreds of thousands of ethnic Uyghur Muslims in what the State Department has labeled a "genocide."

"The kind of brutality that we're talking about is offensive to just about anybody who would ever see these sorts of practices being used," said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), one of the lawmakers pushing Biden to act. "And they're doing it to the economic benefit of companies that are putting American companies at risk."

For months, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has pushed Biden to impose import restrictions on polysilicon similar to ones the Trump administration placed on cotton, tomatoes and other products exported from Xinjiang.

Now, the White House is considering an effective region-wide ban on polysilicon from Xinjiang, according to the four sources in the industry and on Capitol Hill with knowledge of administration plans.

The ban, called a withhold release order, would allow Customs and Border Protection to seize at U.S. ports any imports it suspects of being made with forced labor. Though the agency is weighing a region-wide ban, it could also opt for narrower action against specific Xinjiang-based factories or companies, two of the sources said. That would be in line with the strategy the Trump administration used, when it sanctioned shipments from a major Xinjiang paramilitary firm before imposing a subsequent region-wide ban on cotton products.

A CBP spokesperson said the agency does not comment on whether specific entities are under investigation.

Timing of any potential order is uncertain. While some industry lobbyists have expected action for weeks, congressional sources say they have not yet been briefed on any imminent moves from CBP, a typical agency courtesy before major actions.

Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee called on the Biden administration last week to block imports of Chinese solar panels and other products that contain polysilicon made with forced labor in Xinjiang. They said that in a briefing earlier this year with congressional offices, CBP asserted that enforcement actions regarding polysilicon were forthcoming — but CBP has not yet taken any such step.

"There's a bit of frustration that with as bad as the world now understands things to be in Xinjiang and the effect that it's having, not only from a human rights standpoint but economic impact, we feel like there's plenty of information that gives them what they need to act," said Kildee, who led the letter alongside Chair Richard Neal (D-Mass.).

The Democrats say there is "overwhelming evidence" of the use of forced labor in polysilicon production that exceeds the standard for action under Section 307 of the Tariff Act of 1930, which prohibits the importation of merchandise mined, produced or manufactured in any country by forced or indentured labor.

"I understand sometimes it takes time for Customs to investigate and make a determination," said Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who has separately pressed the issue in the Senate. "Supply chain issues can be incredibly complicated, and in some instances it's hard to get reliable information, particularly if you're talking about Xinjiang, [where] their information is tightly controlled. But aggressive, unrelenting enforcement is, to me, the prescription for this."

Biden and fellow G7 nations vaulted the issue into focus at the recent summit when countries signed onto a carefully worded joint communiqué that called on China "to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, especially in relation to Xinjiang." It did not lay out any specific action for the U.S., nor did it specifically link Xinjiang to the concerns of forced labor in the solar supply.

"The basic notion in the communiqué was [to] call out Xinjiang in terms of its human rights abuses and then establish a neutral principle that all democracies can stand behind," National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan recently said aboard Air Force One. "We are going to take concrete action and countermeasures against forced labor in these areas, and when you actually apply that in practice, that will have an impact on Xinjiang."

But some in the industry are skeptical of how effective a WRO would be in eradicating forced labor in the complex solar supply chain given limited visibility into China's activities.

"That [WRO] cannot be the only mechanism because that's a slender reed on which we're hanging all of our enforcement efforts," one trade association official said. "That's not the strong international mechanism that we need to send a message to China that this is unacceptable."

CBP's enforcement strategy for any upcoming trade ban is not yet clear. But in the case of the Xinjiang cotton ban, the agency has taken a hard line, forcing companies that import cotton products from China to trace their fibers all the way back through growth and processing. If companies cannot prove their fibers are not from Xinjiang, Customs seizes the shipment.

For the solar industry, which is coming off its latest record year of installations and is expected to see capacity quadruple this decade, the potential threat to supplies could hurt the supply chain that is already slowing projects and raising costs. That could slow deployment of the technology helping to drive Biden's effort to put the country on a path to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions from the power grid by 2035.

The Solar Energy Industries Association led a pledge signed by hundreds of solar companies earlier this year committing to help ensure that the solar supply chain is free of forced labor. It also released a supply chain traceability protocol to help companies track products and components to the source, and called on its members to exit Xinjiang by the end of this month.

SEIA President and CEO Abigail Ross Hopper said that even if the administration did pursue a WRO that was targeted either at specific companies or Xinjiang, U.S. solar panel companies were already taking action to avoid disruptions in the supply chain.

"We spent the last nine months basically signaling to our companies that regardless of what actions the federal government took, they needed to take action to get out of there," she said. "And I think the vast majority of them have done that."

Roughly 45 percent of the global supply of solar-grade polysilicon was produced by the four Xinjiang-based manufacturers in 2020, according to Germany-based Bernreuter Research. Another 35 percent came from other regions in China, while the remaining 20 percent came from outside China. SEIA has said it believes that's enough to supply the U.S., without polysilicon from Xinjiang.

Still, the U.S. solar industry is already starting to feel broader solar supply chain constraints.

A quarterly report from SEIA released last week cautioned that while average solar system prices remained relatively stable from the last quarter of 2020 to the first quarter of this year, key inputs for solar modules and installations, including polysilicon, are facing constraints.

Nikos Tsafos, interim director and senior fellow of energy security and climate change programs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, cautioned in a recent blog post that it will be difficult for the U.S. to quickly restart its domestic manufacturing and exit Xinjiang without impacting deployment.

The majority of current global ingot and wafer production capacity is in China, making polysilicon manufacturers also dependent on China.

"You can't really reshape industries that fast," Tsafos told POLITICO. "I think there's an underlying reality, which is that China's very big in this industry, and you're not going to, in the course of any reasonable timeframe, be able to get out of this dependence or co-dependence."

Kildee cautioned that any concerns of increased prices should not overtake the moral need to address forced labor.

"First of all, prices are going to be a function of a lot of different variables. One, scale and volume, and the other is certainty," he said. "But third, and probably most importantly, the lowest price coming from slave labor is not justifiable."

Canada's phased border reopening to begin July 5. Foreigners will still have to wait.

OTTAWA — Canada laid out details Monday of looser border restrictions starting July 5 for fully vaccinated citizens, residents and other eligible individuals.

But the Trudeau government still has no timeline for when it will crack open its door to nonessential foreign travelers.

"I understand the frustration of people who want certainty around what will happen next," Health Minister Patty Hajdu told a press conference Monday during which government officials were pressed repeatedly for specific targets. "Of course, the virus has thrown us a number of curve balls over the last year and a half."

Hajdu did provide one milestone the country hopes to achieve — full vaccination of at least 75 percent of Canada's population. She added that Canada is closely watching domestic rates of hospitalization, Covid-19 case counts and the virus' evolution internationally.

The changes announced Monday mark the first phase of Canada’s easing of public-health measures at its frontier.

The steps come a few days after Ottawa announced that both countries agreed to keep the crossings closed to nonessential international travelers until at least July 21.

The anger: With vaccination rates rising in both countries, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Joe Biden have been under pressure to start easing border restrictions.

The pushback has come from both sides of the frontier — from lawmakers, business leaders and families separated from loved ones for more than a year.

American politicians — including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer — swiftly denounced the announcement Friday to keep the border measures in place for at least another month.

Schumer told the Buffalo News that he called Kirsten Hillman, Canada’s ambassador to the U.S., to complain about Trudeau’s border decision.

“I told her that we have to work together, that the U.S. and Canada have to work to get the border open immediately,” the New York Democrat said. “I told her: Come up with a plan that will allow people who are vaccinated — Canadian or Americans — across the border.”

Others were more blunt.

"There's no other way to say it: another month's delay is bullshit," Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.), co-chair of the Congressional Northern Border Caucus, wrote Friday on Twitter.

Canada’s explanation: Trudeau said last Friday the decision to keep the frontier sealed for another month to foreign travelers, including Americans, was largely due to the government's concerns that fully vaccinated individuals may still be able to transmit Covid-19.

He said Canada had yet to reach a high enough threshold of second-dose vaccination.

“I get people's impatience,” Trudeau told reporters.

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair told CBC’s Rosemary Barton Live, in an interview that aired Sunday, that the U.S. border is unlikely to reopen fully until 75 percent of eligible Canadians have been fully vaccinated. More than 75 percent of eligible Canadians have received one shot while more than 20 percent have received two shots.

New targets: Trudeau had previously identified the 75/20 threshold as a key benchmark to start peeling back public-health restrictions, including those at the border.

A government official, speaking on background, told reporters Monday that in addition to vaccination coverage Canadian authorities are also watching metrics such as case counts and hospitalizations. Others have underlined concerns about the threat of variants.

When pressed Monday to provide specifics related to reopening, the official was unable to or declined to offer more details.

“Unfortunately, that’s not something I can give on this call today,” said the official. “I can tell you that the situation is a fluid situation. It’s a combination of metrics that we look at, including some modeling data.”

The first phase changes: Starting July 5 right before midnight, Canada will allow fully vaccinated travelers — who already have the right to enter the country — to avoid being subject to federal quarantine requirements or to take a Covid-19 test eight days after their arrival.

In addition, these travelers arriving by air will no longer be required to stay at a government authorized hotel.

The travelers, to be considered fully vaccinated, must have received all the doses of a Health Canada-approved vaccine — or combination of vaccines — at least 14 days before their arrival. The individuals must also provide proof of vaccination prior to travel and a paper or digital copy of their vaccination documentation upon arrival as well as a suitable quarantine plan.

Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino told reporters Monday that anyone with an approved confirmation of permanent residency are now eligible travel to Canada.

What's next: Hajdu said more specifics on Covid restrictions will be coming, but she did not specify when.

"We'll come back to Canadians in the near future on what kinds of metrics will allow us to have the confidence to reduce measures even further," she said.

Adams references 'poll tax' in chastising Yang-Garcia alliance

NEW YORK — Leading mayoral candidate Eric Adams continued to suggest Monday that the alliance between rivals Kathryn Garcia and Andrew Yang is designed to suppress the vote of Black New Yorkers — obliquely referencing poll taxes that were once used to prevent Black voters from getting to the ballot box.

On Saturday, Garcia and Yang teamed up for the frenetic get-out-the-vote phase of the campaign as the field sprints toward the finish line. For the first time, New Yorkers will be able to pick up to five candidates in order of preference as part of the new ranked-choice voting system.

Adams repeated Monday that his competitors were tone deaf for beginning their alliance on Juneteenth, a commemoration of the end of slavery that was recently made a federal holiday.

“African Americans are very clear on voter suppression. We know about the poll tax. We know about the fight we’ve had historically, how you had to go through hurdles to vote,” Adams said. “So if [my supporters] feel based on their perception that it suppresses the vote, then I respect their feeling and it’s not for me to interpret their feelings.”

Yet it was Adams’ own campaign that issued a series of critical statements from his surrogates, who said the duo’s strategy amounts to suppressing the Black vote. Ashley Sharpton, daughter of the Rev. Al Sharpton, for example, said in a statement issued by the Adams camp that the alliance was "a cynical attempt by Garcia and Yang to disenfranchise Black voters. We didn’t march in the streets all summer last year and organize for generations just so that some rich businessman and bureaucrat who don’t relate to the masses can steal the election from us. Disgusting.”

Tag-team operations like the one forming between Yang and Garcia have happened in other cities with a ranked-choice system, which encourages candidates to seek out voters who might not necessarily pick them first but could rank them further down. In this case, the matchup appears designed to deny Adams as many second-place votes as possible.

But Adams remains favored to win in almost all of the recent surveys conducted in the race. A new Ipsos poll out Monday shows him coming in first on first-choice ballots with 28 percent, followed by Yang at 20 percent, Garcia at 15 percent and Maya Wiley at 13 percent. Adams also wins in that model after seven rounds of ranked-choice voting.

Yang addressed the Adams team’s comments at a campaign stop in Bensonhurst earlier on Monday.

"It's hard to characterize people getting out the vote as anything other than positive,” he said. “We need people to make their voices heard. We need people to express their preferences for more than one candidate. And so I have a hard time seeing where he's coming from. I will say that the last thing New York City needs is a mayor who uses race baiting any time he is criticized."

Adams said Monday that other Black candidates in the race also felt the Juneteenth rollout sent the wrong message. But Wiley, who would be the first Black woman elected mayor, defended her rivals and chastised Adams for putting the alliance in racial terms.

“This partnership is not racist and we should not be using this term so loosely against other candidates at the end of a long campaign when New Yorkers are all coming together to make important choices about our collective future,” she said in a statement. “These accusations are a weaponization of real fears and concerns about our democracy, and have no place here.”

A good-government group that pushed for ranked-choice voting to be approved at the ballot box in 2019 released a statement in response to the criticisms from Adams supporters.

"There is nothing insidious or cynical about two candidates transparently using a legitimate strategy in a democratically approved system of election,” said Susan Lerner, head of Common Cause New York. “Campaigning together, as Mr. Yang and Ms. Garcia are doing, is standard practice in places like San Francisco and Minneapolis both of which have ranked choice voting and elected their first Black woman Mayor and several Black transgender candidates to the City Council, respectively.”

On Monday, Adams also blasted the Board of Elections for opting to release voters’ first-choice results the evening of the primary while waiting weeks to tabulate the winner. No candidate is expected to crack the 50 percent threshold, and the combination of waiting for absentee ballots and using the new ranked-choice system means that the actual winner won’t likely be known until mid-July.

Supreme Court rules in favor of athletes in NCAA compensation case

The Supreme Court sided unanimously with college athletes on Monday, ruling the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s restrictions on education benefits for players violate the nation’s antitrust laws.

The 9-0 decision represents a landmark victory for college players and a significant moment in the history of college athletics, as lawmakers in Congress and statehouses weigh new laws to allow athletes to profit from personal endorsements and sponsorships.

The ruling is likely to allow colleges to offer topflight football and basketball players pricey enticements related to their education — such as thousands of dollars in cash awards for maintaining a high GPA or making progress toward graduation, or graduate school scholarships and study abroad opportunities.

College sports conferences can also set their own rules for what acceptable education-related benefits should be. But Monday’s ruling will alter the tenor of a long-running debate about the business of college sports and whether the NCAA, states or the federal government should control the rules for a multibillion-dollar marketplace.

“To the extent [the NCAA] means to propose a sort of judicially ordained immunity from the terms of the Sherman Act for its restraints of trade — that we should overlook its restrictions because they happen to fall at the intersection of higher education, sports, and money — we cannot agree,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the court.

The Supreme Court focused on whether the NCAA’s hard limits on athlete compensation violate antitrust law, not the policy debate on player endorsements smoldering inside Capitol Hill, state legislatures and stadiums. But the antitrust case represents a fundamental threat to the athletic association’s business model, which is playing out while the NCAA and powerful college sports conferences lobby Congress to regulate how players can sign third-party endorsements.

Several states — including the college sports powerhouses of Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Texas — have now approved laws that allow college athletes to earn money from the use of their name, image and likeness starting in July. There’s abundant interest — or resignation — among lawmakers that Washington may have to referee the dispute after years of inaction and a rapidly shifting landscape in the states.

The high court's decision drew praise from advocates for student-athletes and lawmakers eager to revamp the NCAA system.

"The NCAA collusion machine, designed to keep college athletes impoverished so the billions in profits can be kept for a small cabal of insiders, is finally starting to crumble to pieces," said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who has introduced legislation to provide name, image and likeness rights to student-athletes.

Senate Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) — whose panel has jurisdiction over any legislation — said the decision gives "new urgency" to congressional efforts to set nationwide compensation standards and offer athletes additional health benefits.

The NCAA has been pressing Congress for a federal law that offers the association some protection from antitrust lawsuits and sets national rules on players’ ability to profit off their publicity rights.

And on Monday, the NCAA said the Supreme Court’s decision “reaffirms” the association’s authority to adopt rules on what qualify as educational benefits.

“Even though the decision does not directly address name, image and likeness, the NCAA remains committed to supporting NIL benefits for student-athletes,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said in a statement. “Additionally, we remain committed to working with Congress to chart a path forward, which is a point the Supreme Court expressly stated in its ruling.”

Still, the suit, NCAA v. Alston, named for former West Virginia running back Shawne Alston, is one of several antitrust cases filed by current and former college athletes against the NCAA. Both a trial judge and appeals court found that the NCAA’s limits on education-related benefits violated antitrust laws, leading the organization to appeal to the Supreme Court in an effort to protect the organization’s governance model for roughly 1,200 member schools and athletic conferences.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh, in a scathing concurring opinion, lambasted the NCAA for its arguments that it was immune from antitrust scrutiny.

“Nowhere else in America can businesses get away with agreeing not to pay their workers a fair market rate on the theory that their product is defined by not paying their workers a fair market rate. And under ordinary principles of antitrust law, it is not evident why college sports should be any different. The NCAA is not above the law,” Kavanaugh wrote.

In its majority decision, the high court clarified that it was only ruling on the NCAA's limits on education-related benefits. But Kavanaugh went further, suggesting that more of the NCAA's player restrictions could be struck down.

"The NCAA must supply a legally valid procompetitive justification for its remaining compensation rules," Kavanaugh wrote. "As I see it, however, the NCAA may lack such a justification."

For now, though, the immediate consequences of Monday’s decision will fall onto individual colleges and athletic conferences.

“University presidents and conference commissioners will need to play an even larger role because the NCAA’s role is weakened here,” said Amy Perko, CEO of the Knight Commission college sports reform group.

Athlete benefits may expand on a conference-by-conference basis and some universities may start to offer graduate degrees as part of recruiting athletes, she said. The high court's ruling could also expand medical benefits available to players, such as disability insurance, by striking down existing limits on what institutions can pay, Perko said.

B. David Ridpath, an Ohio University sports business professor and past president of the Drake Group higher education think tank, called the court’s decision "another nail in the coffin of a broken system.”

“We are the only country in the world that has a significant portion of elite athlete development in the education system," he said. "We cannot hold on to the old system anymore. It’s over."

Iran’s president-elect says he won’t meet with Biden

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran’s president-elect said Monday he wouldn’t meet with President Joe Biden nor negotiate over Tehran’s ballistic missile program and its support of regional militias, sticking to a hard-line position following his landslide victory in last week’s election.

Judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi also described himself as a “defender of human rights” when asked about his involvement in the 1988 mass execution of some 5,000 people. It marked the first time he’s been put on the spot on live television over that dark moment in Iranian history at the end of the Iran-Iraq war.

“The U.S. is obliged to lift all oppressive sanctions against Iran,” Raisi said at the news conference.

Raisi sat in front of a sea of microphones, most from Iran and countries home to militias supported by Tehran. He looked nervous at the beginning of comments but slowly loosened up over the hourlong news conference.

Asked about Iran’s ballistic missile program and its support of regional militias, Raisi described the issues as “non-negotiable.”

Tehran’s fleet of attack aircraft date largely back to before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, forcing Iran to instead invest in missiles as a hedge against its regional Arab neighbors, who have purchased billions of dollars in American military hardware over the years. Iran also relies on militias like Yemen’s Houthis and Lebanon’s Hezbollah to counterbalance against enemies like Saudi Arabia and Israel, respectively.

On meeting Biden, Raisi simply answered: “No.” His moderate competitor in the election, Abdolnasser Hemmati, had suggested during campaigning that he’d be potentially willing to meet Biden.

The White House did not immediately respond to Raisi’s statements Monday.

Raisi, a protégé of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has been sanctioned by the U.S. in part over his involvement in the mass executions. His victory in the balloting last Friday came amid the lowest turnout in the Islamic Republic’s history. Millions of Iranians stayed home in defiance of a vote they saw as tipped in Raisi’s favor.

Of those who did vote, 3.7 million people either accidentally or intentionally voided their ballots, far beyond the amount seen in previous elections and suggesting some wanted none of the four candidates. In official results, Raisi won 17.9 million votes overall, nearly 62% of the total 28.9 million cast.

Raisi’s election puts hard-liners firmly in control across the government as negotiations in Vienna continue to try to save a tattered deal meant to limit Iran’s nuclear program, at a time when Tehran is enriching uranium at 60% its highest levels ever, though still short of weapons-grade levels. Representatives of the world powers party to the deal returned to their capitals for consultations following the latest round of negotiations on Sunday.

Top diplomats from nations involved in the talks said that further progress had been made Sunday between Iran and global powers to try to restore a landmark 2015 agreement to contain Iranian nuclear development that was abandoned by the Trump administration. They said it was now up to the governments involved in the negotiations to make political decisions.

Raisi’s election victory has raised concerns that it could complicate a possible return to the nuclear agreement.

Iran’s sole nuclear power plant undergoes emergency shutdown

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran’s sole nuclear power plant has undergone an unexplained temporary emergency shutdown, the country’s state TV reported.

An official from the state electric company Tavanir, Gholamali Rakhshanimehr, said on a talk show that aired on Sunday that the Bushehr plant shutdown began on Saturday and would last “for three to four days.” Without elaborating, he said that power outages could result.

This is the first time Iran has reported an emergency shutdown of the plant in the southern port city of Bushehr. It went online in 2011 with help from Russia. Iran is required to send spent fuel rods from the reactor back to Russia as a nuclear nonproliferation measure.

The report came as top diplomats said that further progress had been made at talks Sunday between Iran and global powers to try to restore a landmark 2015 agreement to contain Iranian nuclear development that was abandoned by the Trump administration. They said it was now up to the governments involved in the negotiations to make political decisions.

Earlier in the day, Tavanir released a statement saying that the Bushehr nuclear plant was being repaired, without offering further details. It said the repair work would take until Friday.

In March, nuclear official Mahmoud Jafari said the plant could stop working since Iran cannot procure parts and equipment for it from Russia due to banking sanctions imposed by the U.S. in 2018.

Bushehr is fueled by uranium produced in Russia, not Iran, and is monitored by the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency. The IAEA acknowledged being aware of reports about the plant, but declined to comment.

Construction on the plant, on the coast of the northern reaches of the Persian Gulf, began under Iran’s Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in the mid-1970s. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the plant was repeatedly targeted in the Iran-Iraq war. Russia later completed construction of the facility.

The plant, which sits near active fault lines and was built to withstand powerful quakes, has been periodically shaken by temblors. There have been no significant earthquakes reported in the area in recent days.

Meanwhile, the European Union on Sunday chaired the final meeting in Vienna of the sixth round of talks between Russia, China, Germany, France, Britain and Iran.

The nations involved in the negotiations have been trying to resolve the major outstanding issues on how to return the U.S. into the landmark nuclear agreement, which then-President Donald Trump pulled Washington out of unilaterally in 2018. Trump also restored and augmented sanctions to try to force Tehran into renegotiating the pact with more concessions.

The meeting was the first since Iran’s hard-line judiciary chief won a landslide victory in the country’s presidential election last Friday. Some diplomats expressed concern that the election of Iran’s incoming President Ebrahim Raisi could complicate a possible return to the nuclear agreement.

How Democrats are ‘unilaterally disarming’ in the redistricting wars

Oregon Democrats had finally secured total control of redistricting for the first time in decades.

Then, just months before they were set to draw new maps, they gave it away.

In a surprise that left Democrats from Salem to Washington baffled and angry, the state House speaker handed the GOP an effective veto over the districts in exchange for a pledge to stop stymieing her legislative agenda with delay tactics. The reaction from some of Oregon's Democratic House delegation was unsparing: “That was like shooting yourself in the head,” Rep. Kurt Schrader told POLITICO. Rep. Peter DeFazio seethed: “It was just an abysmally stupid move on her part.”

Yet what happened this spring in Oregon is just one example, though perhaps the most extreme one, of a larger trend vexing Democratic strategists and lawmakers focused on maximizing the party’s gains in redistricting. In key states over the past decade, Democrats have gained control of state legislatures and governorships that have long been in charge of drawing new maps — only to cede that authority, often to independent commissions tasked with drawing political boundaries free of partisan interference.

Supporters of these initiatives say it's good governance to bar politicians from drawing districts for themselves and their party. But exasperated Democrats counter that it has left them hamstrung in the battle to hold the House, by diluting or negating their ability to gerrymander in the way Republicans plan to do in many red states. And with the House so closely divided, Democrats will need every last advantage to cling to their majority in 2022.

“We Democrats are cursed with this blindness about good government,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia, a Democratic state that will nonetheless see its congressional map drawn by a newly created independent commission.

“In rabid partisan states that are controlled by Republicans, they're carving up left and right. And we're kind of unilaterally disarming,” Connelly conceded, before adding: “But having said that, I still come down on the side of reforming this process because it's got to start somewhere.”

Only a handful of states had redistricting commissions a decade ago, but the number has grown since then thanks in large part to a campaign from national Democrats, including former Attorney General Eric Holder, to increase voter awareness of gerrymandering — casting it mostly as a Republican abomination, despite the practice's bipartisan history.

Outside of Oregon, Democrats are also nervous about Virginia and Colorado, which will both have new independent commissions after state legislators — and the voters — passed amendments creating them. Together, those three states account for 25 seats in the House.

The saga of Virginia's redistricting commission, however, has proved to be the most controversial.

National Democrats poured upwards of $10 million into the state in the 2019 elections and painted the capture of the state legislature as crucial to the party's redistricting fate. They took both chambers, securing total control in Richmond under Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam.

Democratic legislative candidates campaigned on a pledge to back an existing amendment that would create a redistricting commission. But when it came time to vote on it, they balked.

The proposed 16-person commission includes eight state lawmakers, four from each party. At least two Republican legislators must approve a map — giving the GOP de facto veto power — and if the commission deadlocks, the Republican-leaning state Supreme Court steps in.

Most Democrats in the House of Delegates voted against placing the amendment on the ballot. But nine defected and voted with Republicans to pass it, and voters overwhelmingly approved it in November.

"We just don't seem to have the guts to just go out and go play politics the way Republicans do," said Ben Tribbett, a Virginia-based Democratic operative.

The stakes are high: Democrats currently represent seven of Virginia's 11 congressional districts. But two of those are hard-won battleground seats — held by Reps. Abigail Spanberger and Elaine Luria — that they had hoped to shore up under a new map. Also on the wish list: making the districts of GOP Reps. Rob Wittman and Bob Good more competitive.

"I didn't endorse it. I thought it was ill-conceived," said Democratic Rep. Donald McEachin, who represents the Richmond area. "By and large, I do think that unless you're going to have everybody do redistricting commissions, our party is at a disadvantage."

That's what House Democrats proposed in their election reform bill, H.R. 1 (117). Yet that legislation, which would mandate independent redistricting commissions, is unlikely to make it through the Senate.

In the meanwhile, few Democrats dispute that they have been much quicker to move toward commissions or power-sharing agreements in states where they have trifecta control over redistricting.

Holder’s group, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, has framed the shift as a crucial part of the battle for the integrity of American democracy that transcends any immediate political gain because Republicans are using gerrymandering as a form of voter suppression.

“We want fairness, and we put our money where our mouth is,” said Kelly Ward Burton, the group’s president. “We have pushed for fairness in the states where we have control or influence. We're even doing it at the national level."

“The Republicans are not," she added, "because they intend to manipulate the maps to hold on to power.”

Redistricting is a fraught process for Democrats, who remain scarred from their 2010 experience. State legislative and gubernatorial losses left them boxed out of the mapmaking in nearly every major state, and Democratic strongholds like California and Washington already had commissions in place. Republicans were pressing their advantage in states like Texas, while Democrats couldn't counter.

They vowed to secure more control before the 2020 redistricting — and have. But that has made recent developments all the more frustrating.

Some Oregon Democrats insist the short-term gain, an end to the legislative logjam, was not with the decade-long price of a compromised map. And in an interview last month, DeFazio said state House Speaker Tina Kotek made the decision without consulting members in other parts of the state.

"She is totally Portland-centric, and nothing outside of Multnomah County exists so far as she's concerned," DeFazio said, adding: "It's just inexplicable and arrogant."

The state, which has four Democrats and one Republican currently in Congress, is gaining a seat. Schrader and DeFazio are the only Democrats who don't represent a significant part of Portland, the state's largest city, and their districts have been competitive at times.

In Colorado, a Democratic-led state House joined with a Republican-led state Senate in 2018 to place a redistricting commission proposal on the ballot.

Privately, some Democrats in the state weren't sold on the idea. But others were eager to preempt an attempt by Colorado Republicans to gather signatures for their own redistricting amendment proposing a commission with parameters more favorable to the GOP.

Ultimately, the amendment passed with few detractors — the legislature voted to place it on the ballot, and the voters also gave it a stamp of approval. Now Colorado's eight districts will be drawn by a commission.

"I don't see it that way," said Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) when asked if it was a missed opportunity for the party. "It's good government, and I think that at the end of the day that's what nonpartisan redistricting is all about."

There are 17 states where Democrats have control of the legislature and the governor’s mansion — or a legislative supermajority that can override a GOP governor’s veto. Yet all but a half dozen of those have some form of a commission or power share, and another, Delaware, has only one congressional district.

To be sure, Democrats plan to be aggressive in states where there are few restraints. One proposed Illinois map could give Democrats control of 14 of the state's 17 seats. In Maryland, there's some Democratic appetite to claim all eight of its districts — taking the current 7-1 Democratic map, one of the nation’s most notable gerrymanders, and pushing things a step further.

In New Mexico and New York, Democrats have given a commission a chance at drawing new maps — but allowed their legislatures to retain the final say. They represent a roadblock for Democrats, but not an insurmountable one; legislators can reject those maps and pass their own.

Still, Republicans have control in places like Texas, Georgia, Florida and North Carolina. And they need only five seats to recapture the House, something they could possibly attain through favorable maps in those states alone.

The NDRC, which will serve as the party's redistricting legal clearinghouse, said Democrats remain clear-eyed about the challenges that lie ahead.

"We will fight tooth and nail in the states with every tool at our disposal to prevent them from locking in gerrymandered maps," Ward Burton said of their plans if H.R.1 doesn't pass. "We will sue them. We fully anticipate being in court. And that will be the battlefront on which we fight for fair maps. We're ready for that."

America is ready to return to normal. Biden’s CDC chief isn’t so sure.

The newly installed director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had one big request for agency employees at an all-hands meeting in March: Don’t talk to the press without permission.

Rochelle Walensky’s remarks caught many CDC scientists and officials off guard. Her boss, President Joe Biden, had campaigned on a promise to take control of the pandemic by letting science lead — a pledge that hinged almost entirely on allowing the nation’s top health experts, including those at the CDC, to speak publicly.

The CDC director’s request seemed to contradict what the Biden administration was trying to achieve: revitalizing the federal government’s Covid-19 response by spotlighting federal scientists that former President Donald Trump had cast aside.

“It was very clear that [Walensky] didn’t want anyone talking to reporters at that time,” a senior CDC official told POLITICO. “She wants to control the narrative as much as possible.”

The anecdote highlights the extent to which the CDC and its director have struggled to send a clear and unified message on public health measures to fight Covid-19. Their track record so far has been mixed, including an abrupt reversal on mask rules for vaccinated adults after public outcry.

Now the agency faces its biggest test yet: loosening its public safety guidance as the pandemic recedes, while simultaneously trying to prevent infection rates from spiking in undervaccinated communities. Adding to the difficulty, the highly transmissible Delta virus variant is gaining ground across the country.

“It’s very hard to separate the criticism of the agency from what we’re seeing in the continued politicization of the response,” said Ali Khan, dean of the University of Nebraska College of Public Health. "There continues to be this thread of partisanship. Until those political issues are relieved CDC will be in the awkward position of ‘They are going too far’ — or not far enough.”

The agency has not yet responded to a request for comment.

Walensky had never worked in government before January. She joined the Biden administration after spending more than two decades treating and researching infectious diseases, most recently as chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, where she earned high praise for her research and leadership skills.

The new CDC chief inherited an agency whose public profile and staff morale had taken big hits under Trump. His administration cut the CDC out of conversations for more than a year about the federal pandemic response. When Biden took office, Walensky faced the enormous task of rebuilding an agency that was once seen as the global leader in public health, and restoring public trust — all while helping to lead U.S. efforts to combat Covid-19.

Her strategy has relied in part on her ability to control what information flows out of the CDC to the press. Although Walensky participates in White House Covid-19 press briefings during the week and in major television network interviews, her top lieutenants and the agency’s rank and file scientists rarely make public appearances or give interviews to journalists. Their work is behind the scenes, completing scientific analyses and studies about Covid-19.

The lack of media access to CDC scientists pushed the Washington, D.C., chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in February to send a letter to Walensky denouncing the CDC's “restrictions on staff speaking to reporters without notifying authorities,” according to a press release from the organization.

To be sure, Walensky’s approach to releasing major new policies on Covid-19 is not all that different from how other federal agencies operate. But the consequences of the CDC limiting employees’ communications and public statements are greater for Walensky than for other federal leaders, particularly because the health agency is attempting to remake its image as an advocate for science and open communication. And its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic affects the lives of millions of Americans.

Getting it right requires synthesizing complex virology and public health and behavioral science findings about Covid-19 in an easy-to-understand way for the public, while ensuring that the White House is on board with the CDC’s conclusions.

During the first months of the Biden era, the CDC has scrambled to clearly communicate some of the most critical federal policies on Covid-19, and to balance the narrative that life is returning to normal for those fully vaccinated and that Covid-19 still posed an incredible risk to those who were not. Republicans on Capitol Hill, state governors and former political appointees, as well as school and teaching associations, have criticized the agency’s confusing recommendations on basic activities such as mask wearing and reopening schools and summer camps.

The agency’s changing recommendations for vaccinated people have been among the most controversial. Its first guidelines on the matter, issued in early March, urged continued caution because “how long vaccine protection lasts and how much vaccines protect against emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants” was “still under investigation.” In early April, days after Walensky said she felt a “sense of impending doom” about the pandemic, CDC said fully vaccinated people could resume domestic and overseas travel as long as they wore masks in public.

Three weeks later, the agency released a major update: Vaccinated people no longer needed to wear masks indoors or outdoors when in small groups with other fully vaccinated friends and family — and in some circumstances could go maskless with unvaccinated people. The agency did not revise its earlier statement that the duration of vaccine protection and the shots’ efficacy against variants were still under investigation, leaving many members of the public confused about the reasoning behind the new guidelines.

“Explaining the why is just as important as explaining the what,” said Leana Wen, a professor of public health at George Washington University. “It would really help if the CDC explains that when decisions are made … so it is not just, ‘Here is the study.’”

Within the administration, the CDC has ruffled feathers for the way it has handled the rollout of the guidelines for vaccinated Americans. In March, after a series of meetings and calls with senior officials on the White House’s Covid-19 task force and the Department of Health and Human Services, the CDC was told to “hold off” on releasing its initial advice on the topic. But by that time a version of the guidelines had already circulated among top health officials — who thought the language was final — and members of the media.

The incident sparked tensions among the CDC, Department of Health and Human Services, and the White House. Some top administration staffers blamed the CDC for circulating the guidelines before the White House signed off on them. When the agency updated the guidelines in early April, senior administration officials told POLITICO that the CDC had not alerted many of the White House’s top Covid-19 advisers before publication as would normally be expected.

Still, Walensky’s colleagues at the CDC say they are still confident and hopeful that she is leading the agency into a new, more positive era. Over the last several weeks, Walensky has moved to streamline the agency's Covid-19 response, shifting more responsibilities to Henry Walke, the director of the agency's Division of Preparedness and Emerging Infections.

Walensky has also tried to increase the CDC’s engagement with outside groups and politicians in an effort to ensure the agency’s Covid-19 recommendations can be implemented on the local level. And she’s prioritized efforts to increase the collection and accuracy of racial and ethnic Covid-19 data so the CDC can better track how the virus impacts different groups.

“So many of the changes that [Walensky] is making are long overdue,” said a senior CDC official, who asked for anonymity to speak freely about the agency’s decision making. “And she’s just getting started. I think you’re going to see a wholesale remodeling of the way we do things, especially as Covid-19 begins to die down.”

Biden’s chief medical adviser, Anthony Fauci, who has helped to guide the federal response to major disease outbreaks since the 1980s, said that balancing the science on risks for individual vaccinated people and for the population at large is difficult.

“Things get complicated with situations that go beyond individual risk assessments. You are going to get situations where enterprises … that could be an airplane, or a department store ... will say if you want to come into this place you have to wear a mask. But that will be interpreted by people as saying ‘I will be stigmatized,’” he said. “It makes the policy quite complicated.”

The long-standing federal scientist advocated for Walensky’s appointment as CDC director, and officials close to both Fauci and Walensky say he has advised her on the ins and outs of high-level Covid-19 communication.

Another senior health official working on Covid-19 said the CDC and the White House often engage in conversations about how and when to get the country back to normal and that “the timelines don’t always match.”

The CDC’s top scientists hesitated before releasing the May guidelines that said fully vaccinated people could safely remove their masks in group settings that included unvaccinated people, according to two senior health officials with direct knowledge of those deliberations. The fear, those officials said, was that the infection rate among the unvaccinated would continue to increase and that more dangerous virus variants would send parts of the country into another surge. At the same time, Biden was touting plans to return the country to relatively normal conditions by July 4.

“I don’t fault the CDC for being conservative,” Khan said. “People keep losing the fact that there are 600,000 dead people that don’t need to be dead, and they have not stopped dying yet. We still have 400 deaths a day. Each and every one of these are preventable deaths.”

Agency officials and other leading health experts are worried about moving too quickly toward fully relaxing Covid-19 public-health measures given the spread of the Delta virus variant, which now accounts for 10 percent of new cases in the U.S. Data from the U.K. suggests that the variant is 60 percent more transmissible than the Alpha variant, which in turn is significantly more transmissible than earlier versions of the virus. The Delta variant is also less susceptible to vaccines; real-world data suggests that some vaccines now in use only provide significant protection against the variant after the second dose.

One of the CDC’s main goals now is to convince large swaths of the country to get vaccinated against Covid-19. Biden has set a goal of vaccinating 70 percent of U.S. adults by Independence Day, but with demand for shots slowing to a trickle it is not clear the country will meet that target.

States across the country have offered financial and other kinds of rewards for people to get the vaccine, but the number of people who have signed up in recent days has edged up only slightly. Administration officials believe that as the country inches toward July 4 and Biden’s goal of returning to normalcy, it becomes less and less likely that those who are not vaccinated will get the shot. Most states have ended mask mandates and social distancing rules, including occupancy restrictions on restaurants, bars and other businesses.

The problem, one senior Biden official told POLITICO, is that as the country moves further in the direction of getting back to normal, the CDC will be forced to issue guidelines that help facilitate that trend. It will be more difficult to reimpose guidelines that focus heavily on public health measures like mask wearing, even if undervaccinated parts of the country experience variant-driven surges in infection this fall when schools and businesses reopen.

“I think when you’re trying to balance everything that allows people to do these group activities without having big flare up in infection … camps and schools really create a challenge,” said Marcus Plescia, the chief medical officer for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. “States don’t always listen to CDC guidance. They take what is helpful for them and kind of adapt it.”

‘Tip of the spear’: Texas governor leads revolt against Biden

In the span of a week, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has signed bills restricting the teaching of critical race theory and allowing Texans to carry handguns without a license. He’s preparing to order state lawmakers back into a special session to pass legislation restricting voting access, a GOP priority. And in the most pugilistic affront to President Joe Biden’s White House yet, he announced Texas will build its own border wall.

Less than six months into Biden’s presidency, Texas conservatives are in revolt against the new administration. And Abbott, the often overshadowed governor of the nation’s biggest red state, is emerging as an unlikely leader of the Biden resistance.

“We are the tip of the spear, we are on the front of the battle lines, no question,” said James Dickey, the former chair of the Texas Republican Party. “With the federal government entirely abdicating their responsibility, that leaves us on the border needing to take up the fight, and Governor Abbott is clearly doing that.”

In part, raising the Texas flag is a return to form for Abbott, who made a political career out of suing the Obama administration. As state attorney general, his posture toward Washington was so hostile that he said of his job in 2013, “I go into the office in the morning. I sue Barack Obama, and then I go home.

But in restoring Texas to its place as Washington’s chief antagonist, Abbott is also doing something more revealing: Facing criticism from Republican activists for the mask mandate and business restrictions he imposed during the coronavirus pandemic, he is covering his right flank, while re-elevating immigration and border security — a major concern to Republican base voters — as a national issue. Just as important, he is carving out a distinct lane in the GOP’s presidential sweepstakes at a time when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is beginning to rise in stature among the party grassroots.

Bill Pozzi, the GOP chair in heavily Republican Victoria County, said Abbott’s aggressiveness on border policy represents a “mea culpa” to conservatives for his handling of the pandemic. Still, he said Abbott is “doing the exact right thing.”

“I don’t get why we’re so reluctant to challenge the federal government,” Pozzi said. “The federal government is vulnerable, and when they’re making so many terrible decisions, come on. Who made them God? They’re not God.”

It was only four months ago that Abbott was suffering a beating in Texas for his handling of the deadly winter storm and electrical grid failure in the state. Millions of Texans were left freezing in their homes, while Abbott came under criticism for echoing misleading claims that renewable energy was to blame. Meanwhile, Abbott’s issuance of a statewide mask mandate and business restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic enraged conservatives.

In a major lift for his rehabilitation with the base, former President Donald Trump, who has already endorsed Abbott’s reelection campaign, will appear with him along the U.S.-Mexico border next week — a coronation of sorts in the GOP’s anti-Biden crusade.

“With Trump’s endorsement and his trip down to the border, and frankly what [Abbott] has said on the border the last couple of weeks, I think it’s a stroke of, maybe not genius, but … I just think it’s really smart, and I think it’s going to help him politically,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a Republican strategist based in Austin.

He said, “He really has a very good political barometer.”

Abbott, in announcing his plan to build a U.S.-Mexico border wall, insisted that he was not making a political calculation, saying “anyone who thinks this is politics doesn’t have a clue what’s going on at the border.”

“This ain’t Dr. Seuss or some other manufactured outrage,” said Republican strategist Dave Carney, who advises Abbott. “This is a serious public policy problem that’s going to affect the whole country.”

Still, Abbott would not be the first Texas governor to use his perch to advance a national profile. His two immediate predecessors, Rick Perry and George W. Bush, both ran for president.

Regardless of the motive, the political advantage that Abbott is gaining from the border controversy — and his positioning against Biden — could hardly be more obvious. In his bid for a third term in 2022, Abbott is facing a challenge from the right flank, with Don Huffines, a former state senator, already in the race.

Allen West, the firebrand former Florida congressman and outgoing chair of the Texas Republican Party, is also considering a bid. Even Abbott’s critics say his focus on immigration — and the thumb he’s putting in Biden’s eye on Texas’ behalf — is likely to help blunt conservatives’ frustrations with his handling of the pandemic.

“That’s what Texans like,” said Republican state Rep. Bryan Slaton, who introduced a bill earlier this year to finish building a border wall. “They love telling D.C. what to do.”

Slaton, who questioned why Abbott is only now championing the idea, said Abbott should be pushing the border wall through the legislature in a special session, not making a “unilateral decision.” Still, Slaton, who said he won’t support Abbott in the Republican primary, said he is “pretty sure” Abbott’s effort will provide him with an advantage in the race.

The border exercise may also help Abbott nationally. Trump demonstrated in 2016 that a Republican could ride anti-immigrant sentiment to the White House, and the issue remains at the top of GOP voters’ concerns. About one-fifth of Republicans rated immigration as the nation’s most important problem in a Reuters/Ipsos poll in March, and three quarters of Republicans nationally support building a wall or fence along the border, according to a more recent NPR/Ipsos survey.

“With a little less intensity, immigration and border security serve the same purpose with national Republicans as they do here,” said James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, which consistently reports border security and immigration polling is at the top of Texas Republican voters’ minds. “And I think we saw that with Donald Trump’s success five, six years ago.”

For the four years that Trump held the White House, Republicans outside of Washington were overshadowed on the issue by him, unable to wield immigration as an example of the federal government’s perceived failures. Now, Henson said, “with a Democrat in the White House and Democratic majorities in Congress, that game’s back on.”

Abbott is on the outer periphery of potential contenders for president in 2024 — he’s not ruling out a run, but not aggressively preparing for one, either. The widely held view of Republican strategists, including many of Abbott’s own supporters, is that he is not distinctive enough to electrify primary voters outside of Texas.

One prominent Texas Republican said, “He’s not going to be the guy to have an ‘oops’ moment, but I don’t see how he beats DeSantis on stage.” Said another: “He is a ‘measure twice, cut once’ type of candidate. Terrible for POTUS.”

Carney, Abbott’s adviser, said Abbott “has not ever discussed it either way,” but that, “If he was going to do that, we’d be doing stuff” like traveling to early primary states, which Abbott is not.

“It’s nothing we’re working on,” Carney said.

Still, there are signs in how the governor has handled the border wall issue that Abbott wants to expand his footprint beyond Texas. While announcing his border security plans last week, the governor made a point of thanking several states, including DeSantis’ Florida, for sending law enforcement officers to Texas to help along the border. In addition, by calling for the use of a crowdfunding campaign to help pay for the wall, Abbott is inviting Republicans from across the country — who may not previously have been familiar with him — to participate in the cause.

Steinhauser called it “a great media and marketing campaign.”

A White House official dismissed the border wall as ineffective and a waste of taxpayer money, accusing Abbott of engaging in "political posturing and a return to immigration policies of the past."

In Texas, too, Democrats are scoffing.

Gilberto Hinojosa, chair of the Texas Democratic Party, said the fact that the federal government already acquired sections of land along the border, along with hurdles like federal environmental regulations and the likelihood that many landowners will resist — means Abbott’s plan is probably unfeasible.

But the politics of Abbott saying a wall can be built by the state, he said, are clear.

“He is just flat-out lying to the people of the state of Texas in order to somehow put himself in the better position of beating back these right-wing extremists that are running against him, in the state that has the most right-wing extremist Republican Party in the nation,” Hinojosa said. “That’s all it’s about.”

Chaotic N.C. Senate primary tests Trump's sway over the GOP

Donald Trump has endorsed conservative Rep. Ted Budd in North Carolina’s critical Senate race, the former president's first foray into an open primary in a battleground. That state's retiring Republican senator has other ideas.

Sen. Richard Burr praised North Carolina's former GOP governor, Pat McCrory, as “the only one in the race that can win the general election" for the seat Burr is vacating. “Pat McCrory has a commanding advantage," Burr added.

Behind the scenes, Burr is even less subtle about next year's Senate battle. One Republican senator said Burr is “telling everyone that McCrory is the only one that has a chance to win.” And the laid-back incumbent, who voted to convict Trump of inciting an insurrection in February, also appeared puzzled by the former president's decision-making in North Carolina.

“I can’t tell you what motivates him," Burr said of Trump. "I’ve never seen individuals endorse a candidate a year before the primary. That’s unusual.”

As Democratic Washington becomes consumed with the challenges of enacting President Joe Biden’s agenda, Republican politics still revolve around Trump. But the open question is how long Trump's dominance will last: Budd’s internal poll released after the former president’s endorsement showed him lagging badly behind McCrory. Trump has lost his Twitter megaphone and the round-the-clock news coverage he had as president, potentially hamstringing the effectiveness of his seal of approval.

Trump's nod will "be helpful. But I don’t know if it will be outcome-determinative" for Budd, said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who speaks to Trump frequently and is staying neutral in the Tar Heel State. "You’ve got a well-known candidate in McCrory, and he’s not giving up.”

McCrory has been meeting privately with Republican senators to make his case that, as a former governor, he has a far better path than Budd or another GOP primary hopeful, former Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), according to people familiar with the situation. The stakes of the race to replace Burr are high: North Carolina is one of Democrats’ best chances to pick up a seat next year and Republicans are just one seat away from taking back the majority.

The North Carolina primary is early and expected in March — though that date could slip given uncertainty about House redistricting. The intra-GOP contest will offer an early clue into Trump’s influence on next year's midterms, as Republicans seek to hold seats in Pennsylvania, Missouri, Wisconsin, Ohio, Alabama and North Carolina and try to topple Democratic senators in New Hampshire, Arizona, Georgia and Nevada.

If Republicans nominate a weaker general election candidate in a single state like North Carolina, they could end up blowing their shot at taking back the Senate. Walker compared the situation to Republicans’ debacle in the 2017 Alabama Senate race, where Democrat Doug Jones prevailed over the beleaguered and Trump-backed Republican nominee: “This, to me, is kind of a Roy Moore situation if you're not careful.”

“I don't see how [Budd] can win a general election,” Walker said in an interview. He had only slightly kinder words for McCrory, who lost his reelection race for governor in 2016 to Democrat Roy Cooper. Walker appears to be in third place at the moment in the Senate primary, with McCrory seeking establishment support and Budd winning Trump’s favor. Walker, however, touts a straw poll win among North Carolina Republicans.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has not indicated whether he will pick a favorite in the race. The Kentucky Republican has made clear that he’s willing to intervene in primaries if he feels it’s necessary to ensure the GOP wins control of the Senate in 2022. But in the case of North Carolina, that could also put McConnell on a path to war with Trump — a course he seems eager to avoid, at least for now.

“I just want to win in November. And I don’t have any view of the primary in that regard,” McConnell said when asked about Trump’s endorsement.

Budd, a former businessman, came to Congress in 2017 as Trump took office and quickly earned a reputation as a conservative hard-liner. The Club for Growth is also backing his bid for the Senate.

Though Trump’s endorsement could certainly boost Budd in the primary, it’s unclear whether the former president can propel him across the finish line. With Trump's online presence pared down, Budd may have to spend big to make voters aware of the endorsement.

Many Republicans believe McCrory’s experience running statewide — which has brought him high name ID and a broad fundraising base — makes him the most well-positioned candidate to take on the Democratic candidate next fall. But he also lost in 2016 — a good year for Republicans, when Burr won his third term after running a characteristically low-key race.

“Right now, I still think Pat is the favorite due to running so many times statewide. However, I believe President Trump will unload on McCrory, which is going to damage him in a Republican primary when you have more people paying attention,” Walker said.

The Democratic field has also started to take shape in the race to succeed Burr. It includes state Sen. Jeff Jackson, former state Sen. Erica Smith and former state Supreme Court Justice Cheri Beasley. So far, Senate Democrats are staying neutral, mirroring National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Rick Scott’s (R-Fla.) hands-off approach.

Trump’s surprise intervention has been the foremost drama so far, creating sore feelings among his party's candidates and causing dissension among North Carolina Republicans.

Walker blames Trump’s former chief of staff Mark Meadows for orchestrating the endorsement, which was rolled out at the state’s party convention while the other candidates were present — catching them off-guard. The former GOP lawmaker also accused Meadows of pushing Trump to make a bad choice in another North Carolina primary: In 2020, Trump backed Meadows’ family friend Lynda Bennett over now-Rep. Madison Cawthorn.

Walker did earn support from Trump chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, but that endorsement is secondary to Trump’s. Walker said Meadows gave Trump “bad counsel" on the Budd endorsement.

Walker, the former head of the conservative Republican Study Committee, and Meadows, who once chaired the hard-line House Freedom Caucus, often bumped heads during their time in Congress together. Almost from the start, there seemed to be a competition between the “two Marks,” who were both ambitious and looking to rise in the House — a relationship that quickly evolved into a tense political rivalry.

And incumbent Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), whom Walker threatened to run against in 2020, is making sure to needle Walker every chance he gets. Surmising the field, Tillis sees a two-man race: “If I were Mark Walker, I would not have run for the Senate because I could not see a path for myself.”

McCrory has expressed frustration with Trump’s endorsement in the race, asserting that Trump “got bad advice in picking a Washington D.C. insider.” Budd’s internal polling also showed that he gained a significant edge when voters were informed of Trump’s endorsement.

Amid early signs that the race could get nasty, there are fears the eventual GOP nominee could emerge damaged from the primary battle. Walker is the underdog, but his stinging attacks could provoke a reaction from his rivals that creates an even greater spectacle.

But McCrory and Budd are acting like he barely exists. In a statement, Budd said he’d prove Burr “wrong” by winning a general election. His adviser, Jonathan Felts, said that McCrory's 2012 gubernatorial win was "served up on a country club silver platter and handed to him."

Asked to respond, McCrory adviser Jordan Shaw put the primary in dire terms.

“If Republicans want a majority in the U.S. Senate, they will nominate Pat McCrory,” Shaw said. “Otherwise, Democrats are going to take this seat and keep the majority."

Global tax deal expected by end of June

After years of political wrangling, officials are close to agreeing on a major overhaul of how the world's biggest companies pay tax.

Sanders won't back infrastructure deal with more gas taxes, electric vehicle fees

Sen. Bernie Sanders on Sunday said he wouldn't support the bipartisan infrastructure bill if it included measures such as raising the gas tax or a fee on electric vehicles.

The statement demonstrates that Democrats are at risk of losing progressives' support in a 50-50 Senate even as they court Republicans to produce a bipartisan bill.

"If it is roads and bridges, yeah, of course we need to do that and I support that," Sanders (I-Vt.) said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "If it is regressive taxation — you know, raising the gas tax or a fee on electric vehicles, or the privatization of infrastructure, no I wouldn’t support it, but we don’t have the details right now."

Twenty-one senators, including 11 Republicans, have detailed a bipartisan proposal that costs about $973 billion over five years or $1.2 trillion over eight. The plan would have $579 billion in new spending and would repurpose unspent Covid relief funds, impose a surcharge on electric vehicles, and expand the use of state and local funds for coronavirus relief.

Sanders fired back on measures like the added gas tax and fee on electric vehicles but added that the proposal was "mostly good."

"What is in the bipartisan bill in terms of spending is, from what I can see, mostly good," Sanders said. "One of the concerns that I do have about the bipartisan bill is how they are going to pay for their proposals, and they're not clear yet. I don't know that they even know yet, but some of the speculation is raising a gas tax, which I don't support, a fee on electric vehicles, privatization of infrastructure, those are proposals that I would not support."

Sanders' pushback comes as Senate Democrats continue to weigh spending as much as $6 trillion via the reconciliation process on their own infrastructure package if the chamber's bipartisan talks fail — or even if the bipartisan package is approved. The Vermont senator added that key issues such as elder care, climate change and wealth disparities need to be addressed.

"It is time we paid attention to the needs of working people," Sanders said. "And when we do that, when we deal with climate, when we deal with infrastructure, when we deal with home health care, when we deal with child care, we can create millions of good-paying job, that is what the American people want. That's what we've got to do."

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), one of the leaders of the group offering the bipartisan proposal, responded to Sanders' comments, saying the $6 trillion proposal is a "grab bag of progressive priorities."

"It's not about infrastructure. It's kind of a $6 trillion grab bag of progressive priorities," Portman said on "Meet the Press." "Ours is about core infrastructure, and it is paid for."

Iowa poll shows drop in support for Grassley

Almost two-thirds of likely Iowa voters polled say it is time for someone other than Chuck Grassley to serve in the U.S. Senate, casting doubt on the prospects of the longest-serving senator in the state's history.

In a poll published Saturday night by the Des Moines Register, 64 percent of those surveyed said "it's time for someone else" to occupy that seat, compared to 27 percent who said they'd vote to elect Grassley to an eighth term in 2022. Seven out of 10 female voters said they wanted to see him replaced.

With a 50-50 U.S. Senate likely to be at least somewhat reshaped by the 2022 elections, Iowa's race is one of the most closely watched in the nation. However, most observers had been waiting to see if Grassley, who will turn 88 in September, was planning to run again before speculating how competitive the race was likely to be.

In the poll, 51 percent of Republicans said they would support Grassley again, but only 7 percent of Democrats and 23 percent of independents shared that view.

Notably, his job approval stood at 45 percent. The Des Moines Register said that is the lowest it has been since 1982. Grassley's approval rating was one percentage point lower than the state's other senator, Republican Joni Ernst.

Grassley was first elected in 1980, unseating Democratic incumbent John Culver in the year of Ronald Reagan's presidential landslide win. He is the longest-serving Republican in the Senate — second only to Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy in current seniority — and 10th on the all-time seniority list. Grassley is also the second-oldest member of the Senate, a few months shy of California Democrat Dianne Feinstein.

The Iowa Poll, conducted June 13-16, for the Des Moines Register and Mediacom by Selzer & Co. of Des Moines, was based on telephone interviews with 807 adult Iowans, 630 of whom were listed as likely voters. The margin of error ranged from plus or minus 3.5 percentage points to plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.

Fiona Hill: We need to see if Biden-Putin meeting leads to 'serious cyber talks'

Fiona Hill, former Russia adviser to President Donald Trump, said Sunday she is eager to see whether last week's meeting between President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin will lead to "serious cyber talks."

When asked if the meeting between the two leaders was worth it, Hill said "we'll have to see" what comes next. Hill spoke about possible plans for strategic stability talks as the two countries grapple with nuclear weapons, but stressed the significance of future talks about cybersecurity.

"The main problem is really in cyber," Hill said on NBC News' "Meet the Press." "And that's where we're going have to see whether we're able to actually sit down and have some serious cyber talks. Not just at the working level, but something that takes it up to try to reach some kind of agreement."

Recent ransomware attacks on Colonial Pipeline and the meat processing giant JBS have been attributed to Russian cybercrime gangs. On Wednesday after meeting with Biden, Putin said the two reached an agreement to consult on cybersecurity but didn't offer details about what such talks would entail.

"As far as cybersecurity is concerned, we agreed that we would begin consultations on that issue, and I believe that's extraordinarily important. And obviously both sides have to assume certain obligations there," Putin told reporters in Geneva, Switzerland.

Biden added Wednesday that he gave the Russian leader a list of 16 critical infrastructure entities in the U.S. off-limits to cyberattacks and said the U.S. would "respond with cyber" if Russia were to violate that list. Hill said Biden had essentially drawn a line and warned Putin not to cross it.

"We've made those red lines clear in the past to Russia on a number of fronts, not just in cyber, but also in the military realm," Hill said on CBS News' "Face the Nation."

Hill added: "I think we can also expect that there might be some covert action that might go beyond the 16 areas that are off limits, perhaps ransomware attacks, criminal attacks, something that's hard to attribute."

House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff doubled down on Biden's comments, saying he agreed with the president's assertion about using U.S. cyber capabilities against Russia.

"I do think when he was saying Putin understands we have tremendous cyber capabilities," the California Democrat said on "Face the Nation," "he was sending a message, we won't hesitate to use them if we need to to protect our industry and to protect our government. And that's an important message to send."

Schiff pushed for Russia and other countries to be held "accountable" for cyberattacks and said Putin can't act clueless about cybercrimes committed by Russians.

"I do think that a lot of these hacking groups operating on Russian soil, some of them operating on Chinese or Iranian soil, they have a synergistic relationship with those states, which means we need to hold those states accountable for what these criminal gangs do to attack our industry," Schiff said.

"It's also not credible for [Putin] to suggest that — that even if he knew they were operating on his soil, that he was powerless to do something about it," he added.

Asked on "Meet the Press" if the meeting in Geneva was a win for Putin, Hill said it was.

"In terms of the of the symbolism of having a sit-down with the American president, absolutely that is a very important win for Putin," Hill said. "But it's not a win if nothing happens after this. That is just an episodic event. And, you know, he can't take that to the bank for a long time and cash it in."

U.S. failed in Afghanistan, former president says

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan’s former president said Sunday the United States came to his country to fight extremism and bring stability to his war-tortured nation and is leaving nearly 20 years later having failed at both.

In an interview with The Associated Press just weeks before the last U.S. and NATO troops leave Afghanistan, ending their ‘forever war,’ Hamid Karzai said extremism is at its “highest point” and the departing troops are leaving behind a disaster.

“The international community came here 20 years ago with this clear objective of fighting extremism and bringing stability ... but extremism is at the highest point today. So they have failed,” he said.

Their legacy is a war-ravaged nation in “total disgrace and disaster.”

“We recognize as Afghans all our failures, but what about the bigger forces and powers who came here for exactly that purpose? Where are they leaving us now?” he asked and answered: “In total disgrace and disaster.”

Still, Karzai, who had a conflicted relationship with the United States during his 13-year rule, wanted the troops to leave, saying Afghans were united behind an overwhelming desire for peace and needed now to take responsibility for their future.

“We will be better off without their military presence,” he said. “I think we should defend our own country and look after our own lives. ... Their presence (has given us) what we have now. ... We don’t want to continue with this misery and indignity that we are facing. It is better for Afghanistan that they leave.”

Karzai’s rule followed the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 by a U.S.-led coalition that launched its invasion to hunt down and destroy the al-Qaida network and its leader, Osama bin Laden, blamed for the 9/11 attacks on America.

During Karzai’s rule, women re-emerged, girls again attended school, a vibrant, young civil society emerged, new high-rises went up in the capital Kabul and roads and infrastructure were built. But his rule was also characterized by allegations of widespread corruption, a flourishing drug trade and in the final years relentless quarrels with Washington that continue even until today.

“The (US/NATO military) campaign was not against extremism or terrorism, the campaign was more against Afghan villages and hopes; putting Afghan people in prisons, creating prisons in our own country ... and bombing all villages. That was very wrong.”

In April, when President Joe Biden announced the final withdrawal of the remaining 2,500-3,500 troops, he said America was leaving having achieved its goals. Al-Qaida had been greatly diminished and bin Laden was dead. America no longer needed boots on the ground to fight the terrorist threats that might emanate from Afghanistan, he said.

Still, the U.S.’s attempts to bring about a political end to the decades of war have been elusive. It signed a deal with the Taliban in February 2020 to withdraw its troops in exchange for a Taliban promise to denounce terrorist groups and keep Afghanistan from again being a staging arena for attacks on America.

There is little evidence the Taliban are fulfilling their part of the bargain. The United Nations claims the Taliban and al-Qaida are still linked. The architect of the U.S. deal and current U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad says some progress has been made but without offering any details.

Karzai has had harsh words and uncompromising criticism of U.S. war tactics over the past two decades in Afghanistan. Yet he has become a linchpin of sorts in a joint effort being launched by the United States and Britain to get a quarrelsome Afghan leadership in Kabul united enough to talk peace with the Taliban. The insurgent group has shown little interest in negotiating and instead has stepped up its assaults on government positions.

The Taliban have made considerable strides since the May 1 start of the U.S. and NATO withdrawal. They have overrun dozens of districts, often negotiating their surrender from Afghan national security forces.

But in many instances the fighting has been intense. Just last week a brutal assault by the Taliban in northern Faryab province killed 22 of Afghanistan’s elite commandos, led by a local hero Col. Sohrab Azimi, who was also killed and widely mourned.

“The desire of the Afghan people, overwhelmingly, all over the country is for peace,” said Karzai, who despite being out of power since 2014 has lost little of his political influence and is most often at the center of the country’s political machinations.

Justices don't vote the way you expect them to, Christie says

The most recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Obamacare is proof that justices often don't vote the way the presidents who appoint them expect to, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said Sunday.

"No matter what you think when they appoint them, when they get on the court, they vote the way they believe they should vote," Christie said on ABC's "This Week" in discussing the 7-2 ruling last week that turned away a legal challenge to the Affordable Care Act. It was the third time the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of the 2010 law.

Two of the seven in the surprisingly one-sided ruling were appointees of President Donald Trump: Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.

Speaking as part of a panel discussion, Christie noted that Democrats had warned that a vote to approve Barrett to the Supreme Court in the fall of 2020 would be a death knell for Obamacare — and the 7-2 ruling proved them wrong.

"Conservatives on the court don't want the court to be a legislative body," Christie said of Barrett and her vote, adding, "Amy Coney Barrett certainly has an opinion on Obamacare. But she didn't let it infect her vote."

For decades, a number of Supreme Court justices have authored major rulings that did not fit in with the ideology of those who appointed them: Chief Justice Earl Warren, appointed by Dwight Eisenhower, led a court that banned school segregation and expanded the legal rights of those accused of crimes; Justice Harry Blackmun, appointed by Richard Nixon, wrote the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion; and Chief Justice John Roberts, appointed by George W. Bush, has at times sided with the court's liberal minority on Obamacare and other issues. Others whose careers took sometimes unexpected turns include William Brennan, Byron White, and John Paul Stevens.

The ABC panel also discussed a potential retirement by Justice Stephen Breyer, who wrote the majority opinion in the latest Obamacare case. Some progressives have encouraged Breyer, who is 82, to step down in order to guarantee that President Joe Biden would be able to select a replacement.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell had refused to allow a vote on President Barack Obama's nominee in 2016 (when McConnell was the Senate majority leader) and has indicated he may well do the same if he were the majority leader again in 2023 and 2024.

Both Christie and former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said that no matter what others suggest, the decision remains up to Breyer. And Emanuel added that — as when it comes to deciding how to vote — Supreme Court justices are not easily swayed.

"From my own experiences of when you try to talk to the Supreme Courts," Emanuel said, "usually they — members —it usually goes the other way."