US defence chief urges Ukraine ceasefire in call with Russian counterpart – as it happened

Lloyd Austin, the US defense secretary, held a call with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on Friday in which he called for an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine, the Pentagon said.

During the call Austin also “emphasized the importance of maintaining lines of communication”, according to Pentagon press secretary John Kirby.

The call is the first time Austin had spoken with Shoigu since February 18, six days before Russia invaded Ukraine.

The call came after Republican senator Rand Paul blocked the passage of a $40bn aid bill for Ukraine on Thursday. The bill will be taken up again next week.

Russia has shown no signs of halting its aggression. On Friday the UK ministry of defence said Russia was stepping up its attacks near the cities of Izyum and Severodonetsk, in eastern Ukraine, in an attempt to “envelop Ukrainian forces”.

We’ll wrap up the blog here, after another busy day in Washington and US politics as a whole.

To close on a sobering note, in light of the protests planned across the US tomorrow over the supreme court’s apparent desire to overturn the right to abortion, here’s Maanvi Singh’s report from Oakland, about the challenges which face those protecting that right even in states which support it:

Even in abortion ‘safe havens’ finding care can be challenging
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Widespread marches are planned for Saturday, in protest of the apparent readiness of the supreme court to strike down the right to abortion. Here’s some preparatory reading from David Sirota and Andrew Perez

Even as the Democrats’ feeble legislative attempt to codify federal protections for abortion rights goes down in flames, many Washington elites are directing their attention and anger towards the same target: no, not rightwing judges reaching their ideological hands into millions of people’s bodies, but instead the protesters peacefully demonstrating outside the homes of supreme court justices who are about to overturn Roe v Wade.

Prominent Republican lawmakers, conservative operatives and Beltway pundits are demanding the government arrest demonstrators – and to do so, they are citing a McCarthy-era statute passed to stop people from protesting against the prosecutions of alleged communists. Ignored in the discourse is a past ruling from the supreme court effectively blessing conservative protests at the homes of abortion clinic workers.

The largely manufactured outrage is the latest distraction designed to shift attention away from the issue at hand: the US supreme court’s conservative supermajority is about to deny basic reproductive rights to tens of millions of people in roughly half the country.

Conservative operatives want Washington reporters focused on inane questions like who leaked the court’s draft opinion, and they want journalists and Democrats to criticize protesters who are outraged by the court’s overriding lack of respect for people’s bodily autonomy. It is part of a larger rightwing movement in recent years to cancel, criminalize and literally crush dissent throughout the country, even as the conservative political noise machine continues to blare Braveheart-esque screams of “freedom!” against so-called “cancel culture”.

Read more:

Prepare for McCarthy-era crackdowns on pro-choice protesters | Andrew Perez and David Sirota
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The population of the United States is much younger than that of most European countries, but its political establishment is much older.

The 2020 presidential election was fought between 74-year-old Donald Trump and 77-year-old Joe Biden – compare that to 53-year-old Marine Le Pen and 44-year-old Emmanuel Macron in last month’s French presidential election.

The Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, is 71, while minority leader Mitch McConnell is 80. In the generally younger House of Representatives, the majority leader, Nancy Pelosi, is 82, making minority leader Kevin McCarthy look like a spring chicken at a mere 57.

This is not just a problem for the functioning of the democratic system; it endangers the survival of it.

Read more:

The Democratic party needs new, younger leadership before it’s too late | Cas Mudde
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Ariana Grande, Billie Eilish, Megan Thee Stallion, Olivia Rodrigo and Selena Gomez joined a slew of fellow music stars and other celebrities to take out a full-page advertisement in Friday’s New York Times, decrying the looming fall of nationwide abortion rights.

“The supreme court is planning to overturn Roe v Wade,” read the ad, referring to the landmark 1973 ruling that in effect legalized abortion across the US.

“Our power to plan our own futures and control our own bodies depends on our ability to access sexual and reproductive health care, including abortion.”

It continued: “We are artists. Creators. Storytellers. We are the new generation stepping into our power. Now we are being robbed of our power. We will not go back – and we will not back down.”

More than 160 musicians, songwriters, actors, models and other celebrities signed the ad, which invited the public to take to the streets on Saturday and participate in planned demonstrations across the US protesting the supreme court’s expected reversal of Roe v Wade.

Other notable names include Asa Butterfield, Camila Cabello, Camila Mendes, Demi Lovato, Dove Cameron, Lil Dicky, Dylan O’Brien, Finneas, Hailee Steinfeld, Hailey Bieber, Halsey, Ilana Glazer, Joey King, Kendall Jenner, Miley Cyrus, Paramore, Phoebe Bridgers, Quvenzhané Wallis, Shawn Mendes, Tate McRae and Thomas Doherty.

Full story:

Ariana Grande and other stars support Roe v Wade in New York Times ad
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The House select committee investigating the Capitol attack made a political and legal gambit when it issued unprecedented subpoenas that compel five Republican members of Congress to reveal inside information about Donald Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election.

The move sets into motion an extraordinary high-stakes showdown of response and counter-response for both the subpoenaed House Republicans – the House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, Jim Jordan, Scott Perry, Andy Biggs and Mo Brooks – and the panel itself.

Bennie Thompson, the Democrat chair of the committee, authorized the subpoenas on Wednesday after the panel convened for final talks about whether to proceed with subpoenas, with House investigators needing to wrap up work before June public hearings.

“We inquired to most of them via letter to come forward, and when they told us they would not come, we issued the subpoena,” Thompson said of McCarthy and his colleagues. “It’s a process. And the process was clearly one that required debate and discussion.”

The decision came after a recognition that their investigation into January 6 would not have been complete if they did not at least attempt to force the cooperation of some of the House Republicans most deeply involved in Trump’s unlawful schemes to return himself to office.

But the subpoenas are about deploying a political and legal power play in the crucial final moments of the investigation as much as they are about an effort to gain new information for the inquiry into efforts to stop Joe Biden’s certification in time for public hearings.

Full story:

Subpoenas of Trump allies by January 6 panel set up high-stakes showdown
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We’re on to the Iran nuclear deal and whether Russia is now an obstacle to resurrecting the pact, which Donald Trump dropped. Russia is an obstacle, Psaki says, given its invasion of Ukraine.

Why is the US not calling for an independent inquiry into the shooting of Shireen Abu Aqleh, an Al Jazeera journalist, in the West Bank?

The US will provide assistance if Israel wants it, Psaki says. That’s that.

Asked about immigration reform, which is stalled, Psaki points out simply that Congress won’t move on it. Biden was elected in part on a promise to work with Republicans in Congress, based on his three decades there as a senator, but that’s all part of the fun.

Obviously, in a lot of ways a White House briefing should be this frustrating, in that the press secretary should spend the time parrying questions no matter how many times they are rephrased by the press, and should achieve that parrying by verbal sleight of hand or by simply drowning the inconvenient questions in inexorable verbiage.

Which is what Jen Psaki does here, before nodding, closing her binder and leaving the White House podium for the final time, with a simple: “Thank you, everyone.”

So it goes.

Psaki is asked about Republican attacks over the baby formula situation.

“We do like facts here,” Psaki says, flipping her binder, and trying to make the point that perhaps Republican critics of the administration are, let’s say, less keen on facts in such circumstances.

Will there soon be a Covid vaccine for the under-fives? Psaki says she as a parent is eager for such a move but Joe Biden “moves at the pace of science”.

Psaki is also asked about the absence of meaningful reform on police and policing promised in light of the murder of George Floyd and the national protests that followed.

She says the administration is taking such efforts seriously and hopes Republicans will support Biden’s efforts, including $10m for policing announced today, and a police reform executive order “will be a part of that”.

Asked about advice for Karine Jean-Pierre, her successor as press secretary who is in the room, Psaki says she will have to “project and convey the positions of the president of the United States”. As a “bit of a policy nerd”, Psaki advises deep engagement on that front too.

“You never want to be a meme with one line,” Psaki also says, advising the provision of context in answers. The camera does not cut to Peter Doocy of Fox News, with Psaki the subject of many such memes. Shame.

Baby formula is back on the agenda. Psaki notes administration approaches and what it claims are successes.

Jen Psaki continues her final briefing as White House press secretary, fielding questions about Americans held in Iran and about Brittney Griner, the women’s NBA star who is being held in Russia. Griner has been “wrongfully detained”, Psaki says, without giving much of an answer beyond saying efforts continue to get Griner home.

Here’s our story:

WNBA star Brittney Griner’s detention in Russia extended by month
Read more

Psaki is also asked about Covid funding from Congress and says, “There is no Plan B”, which seems rather stark as such funding runs out. “More Americans will die needlessly,” she says, if funding is allowed to lapse.

Psaki is asked about all the other pressing issues too: the price of living, of gas, the scarcity of baby formula. They all have their roots in the pandemic, she says. And the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. And there are good signs, Psaki insists, including strong economic performance in the US.

She rattles through Biden achievements on oil, internet access for the less well off, and so forth, like the pro she is. “Look at the alternative,” she says. “What are Republicans presenting as the option?”

A lot of questions are being asked about baby formula. Specifically, when will parents be able to get it.

“[The] FDA took a step to ensure that babies were taking safe formula,” Psaki says. “We’re going to work with manufacturers, we’re going to import more to expedite this as quickly as possible.”

Asked whether the government should push to produce more formula, Psaki says:

“The production of baby formula is so specialised and so specific that you can’t just use the Defense Production Act to say to a company that makes something else: produce baby formula.”

A nationwide baby formula shortage has forced parents into online groups to swap and sell to each other to keep their babies fed.

US infant formula shortage: what you need to know
Read more

Psaki’s final White House briefing continues.

“I promised myself I wouldn’t get emotional,” she says. She succeeds.

Psaki thanks the president and first lady, and some staffers, and then the assembled members of the press.

“Without accountability and debate democracy is not as strong and you all play a pivotal role,” she says.

Before asking questions the White House press corps, not known for being the most combative of journalists, are each thanking Psaki for her service.

Psaki is asked if the president has a reaction to images from this morning of Israeli troops beating people carrying the casket of Shireen Abu Aqleh, a Palestinian-American journalist.

Abu Aqleh was shot in the head on Wednesday morning in the West Bank city of Jenin during what her colleagues at the scene said was a burst of Israeli fire on a small group of journalists covering an expected Israeli military raid.

“We have all seen those images and they’re obviously deeply disturbing,” Psaki says. “We regret the intrusion into what should have been a peaceful procession,” she adds. The US government has been in touch with both Israeli and Palestinian governments, she says.

Jen Psaki is holding her final White House press conference, and she’s arrived with a couple of local officials.

There’s a mayor and a chief of police. Psaki says they are sterling examples of how cities can use money from the 2021 $1.9tn Covid-19 relief package – the American Rescue Plan – to provide “historic levels of support to make our communities safer”.

Quinton Lucas, the mayor of Kansas City, says money from the rescue plan – which was introduced to support Americans impacted by the coronavirus pandemic – has enabled the city to retain and hire more police officers.

The Detroit chief of police, James White, says money from the plan has helped train law enforcement officers, including crisis intervention training.

This comes as Joe Biden plans to urge states and cities to use unspent money from the Covid relief package to fund crime prevention programs and hire police officers.

When the plan was introduced in January 2021 – Biden signed it into law the following March – Biden said it would help the “millions of Americans, [who] through no fault of their own, have lost the dignity and respect that comes with a job and a paycheck”.

A lawyer for the New York attorney general’s office said Friday that the office is “nearing the end” of its three-year investigation into former president Donald Trump and his business practices, The Associated Press reports.

Andrew Amer made the disclosure during a hearing in a federal lawsuit Trump filed against attorney general Letitia James as he seeks to put an end to her investigation.

His lawyers argued the probe is a politically motivated fishing expedition.

Trump is seeking a preliminary injunction to stop the investigation, which James has said uncovered evidence that Trump’s company, the Trump Organization, misstated the value of assets like skyscrapers and golf courses on financial statements for over a decade.

James has asked a judge to dismiss Trump’s lawsuit.

US district judge Brenda Sannes said she would weigh both issues and deliver a decision in writing. She heard arguments for about an hour via video. She did not give a timetable for a ruling.

Trump lawyer Alina Habba argued that James, a Democrat, campaigned for office in 2018 as a Trump antagonist and, as attorney general, has used the office to harass the Republican former president and his company with myriad subpoenas and evidence requests. Habba said:

.css-knbk2a{height:1em;width:1.5em;margin-right:3px;vertical-align:baseline;fill:#C70000;}“We’ve produced millions and millions and millions of pages” of evidence…We keep getting subpoenas. They keep looking for things. If they don’t find it, they look again.”

Amer, a special litigation counsel for James, countered that the state judge overseeing legal fights over subpoenas issued by the attorney general’s office has found there is a “sufficient basis for continuing its investigation.”

That finding, combined with evidence uncovered to date, “really shuts the door on any argument” by Trump’s lawyers that the office was proceeding in bad faith, Amer said.

It’s been a lively morning so far in US political news and there is more to come, so do stay tuned.

Here’s where things stand:

  • US defense secretary Lloyd Austin held a call with Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu on Friday in which he called for an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine
  • In an overt break from Donald Trump, former US vice president Mike Pence will hold a rally on May 23 with Georgia governor – and Trump foe – Brian Kemp, a day before Georgia’s midterms Republican primary

Lloyd Austin, the US defense secretary, held a call with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on Friday in which he called for an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine, the Pentagon said.

During the call Austin also “emphasized the importance of maintaining lines of communication”, according to Pentagon press secretary John Kirby.

The call is the first time Austin had spoken with Shoigu since February 18, six days before Russia invaded Ukraine.

The call came after Republican senator Rand Paul blocked the passage of a $40bn aid bill for Ukraine on Thursday. The bill will be taken up again next week.

Russia has shown no signs of halting its aggression. On Friday the UK ministry of defence said Russia was stepping up its attacks near the cities of Izyum and Severodonetsk, in eastern Ukraine, in an attempt to “envelop Ukrainian forces”.

Bernie Sanders has written an interesting op-ed piece today on his new Medicare for All bill, and it has been published in an interesting place: Fox News.

The op-ed appears to be an attempt to reach out to Americans who might not normally hear Sanders’ case for universal healthcare.

It focuses on the cost and corruption of the medical healthcare system, as Sanders champions his bill, which has 15 co-sponsors in the Senate. The legislation be implemented over a four-year period and would guarantee health care in the United States as a fundamental human right to all.

“Despite spending more than twice as much on healthcare as the average developed country our health outcomes are worse than most. For example, our life expectancy is about 4.5 years lower than Germany’s and we have the highest infant mortality rate of almost any major country on earth,” Sanders writes.

Sanders continues:

.css-knbk2a{height:1em;width:1.5em;margin-right:3px;vertical-align:baseline;fill:#C70000;}Now, if Medicare for All was so great, you might ask, why hasn’t it been enacted by now? Why hasn’t the United States joined every major country on earth in guaranteeing health care for all?

Well, the answer is pretty simple. Follow the money. Since 1998, in our corrupt political system, the private health care sector has spent more than $10.6 billion on lobbying and over the last 30 years it has spent more than $1.7 billion on campaign contributions to maintain the status quo. And, by the way, they are “bi-partisan.” In fact, they own many of the politicians in both the Democratic and Republican parties.

Here is the bottom line: If every major country on earth can guarantee health care to all and achieve better health outcomes, while spending substantially less per capita than we do, there is no reason, other than greed, that the United States of America cannot do the same.

Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, will give her last briefing today, before reportedly taking up a tv host role at MSNBC.

Psaki’s departure will mark the end of a 16-month stint as Joe Biden’s chief spokesperson. Karine Jean-Pierre, currently the principal deputy press secretary, will be taking over, becoming the first Black person and first out gay person in the role.

In joining MSNBC – a move that has not been officially announced, but was revealed by Axios last month – Psaki is following a well-trodden path of White House communications to television pundit.

A slew of Donald Trump’s four former White House press secretaries, Kayleigh McEnany has gone on to be a Fox News host, while Sean Spicer has his own show on the right-wing network Newsmax.

Multiple rallies are set to take place on Saturday across the country as abortion rights activists take to the streets in opposition to the news that a majority of the Supreme Court favors overturning Roe v Wade, according to a draft ruling leaked on May 2.

The so-called “Bans Off Our Bodies” marches will take place across small towns and major cities, including Washington, DC, New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Birmingham and Chicago.

A coalition of pro-choice advocacy groups, including Planned Parenthood, UltraViolet, Move On and the Women’s March, is helping organize Saturday’s nationwide protests.

“This Saturday we are taking to the streets to express our outrage—and our determination,” Planned Parenthood Action Fund executive director Kelley Robinson said in a press statement.

“Abortion access is in crisis, and Planned Parenthood organizations are proud to stand with partners and hundreds of thousands of people nationwide to come together and show that we reject the rollback our rights and freedoms,” she added.

With tens of thousands expected to turnout across the country, Saturday’s protests could be the biggest women-focussed protest since the first official Women’s March, held in Washington with support marches in other cities on January 21, 2017, the day after Donald Trump was inaugurated as president.

The brash Republican took the White House despite allegations from dozens of women about sexual harassment and misconduct, which he has always denied, and the emergence on the eve of the 2016 election of a tape of him boasting that he just approaches women he is attracted to and grabs “them by the pussy”.

In Washington DC, protestors are expected to march from the Washington Monument to the Supreme Court, which has been heavily shielded with metal barricades since protests immediately erupted after the draft decision was leaked that the supreme court is minded, with its conservative super-majority, to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe decision that established a woman’s constitutional right to seek an abortion in America.

Many anti-abortion activists are also expected to turn out in support of banning the procedure.

Former US vice president Mike Pence plans to hold a rally for incumbent Georgia governor Brian Kemp on the eve of that state’s midterms Republican primary – in very public defiance of former president Donald Trump who has chosen to support Kemp’s GOP rival.

The Georgia primary is on May 24 and Pence will hold the rally for Kemp on May 23.

Trump, who has repeatedly attacked Kemp for refusing to entertain his outlandish and untrue claims of voter fraud, has endorsed former David Perdue for the governorship, the former US Senator who lost his seat to Democrat Jon Ossoff in a sensational sweep by Democrats to turn Georgia blue in 2020.

Pence has gently gone against Trump in recent months. In March Pence told Republican donors that “there is no room in this party for apologists for Putin”, comments which came a few days after Trump had called the Russian leader “smart” and “savvy”.

Pence has also disputed Trump’s nonsense claim that the former vice-president could have overturned the 2020 election.

But Pence’s enthusiastic endorsement of Kemp is his most overt pushback against Trump yet. It marks a big change from Pence, who was a famously sycophantic deputy during Trump’s four-year term.

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Find someone who looks at you the way Pence looks at Trump

&mdash; The Daily Show (@TheDailyShow) February 14, 2020


Find someone who looks at you the way Pence looks at Trump

— The Daily Show (@TheDailyShow) February 14, 2020

Beyond the Pence-Trump intrigue, the Georgia governor primary will offer a revealing look at Trump’s influence over Republican voters – and the future of the Republican party.

Trump has had some hits with his endorsed candidates for the Senate and the House so far this year, but appears to wield less influence in governors races. Trump endorsed Charles Herbster for Nebraska governor, but Hebster lost this week.

The former president has also endorsed a primary contender to Brad Little, the sitting governor of Nebraska, but Little is expected to win easily next week.

Good morning and welcome to the Guardian’s coverage of daily US political news.

Mike Pence has made himself a target for the ire of his former boss, by announcing he will holding a rally with Georgia governor – and Trump foe – Brian Kemp.

Politico reported that Pence will hold an event with Kemp on May 23, the day before a contentious Georgia primary. Trump, who has repeatedly attacked Kemp for refusing to entertain his outlandish and untrue claims of voter fraud, has endorsed Kemp’s rival, David Perdue.

It sets up what will be revealing clash between Pence and Trump, who apparently remains furious that Pence did not do more to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.

Trump has campaigned for Perdue, and the former president’s political action committee has pumped money into Perdue’s campaign. But polling from April showed Kemp was likely to defeat Trump’s man in the Republican primary.

In a statement, Pence called Kemp “one of the most successful conservative governors in America”, per Politico.

“Brian Kemp is my friend, a man dedicated to faith, family and the people of Georgia,” Pence said. “I am proud to offer my full support for four more years of Brian Kemp as governor of the great state of Georgia.”

In other news, Rand Paul, the Kentucky senator, single-handedly held up a bill on Thursday which would have pledged $40bn aid for Ukraine. Paul’s blockage delayed passage of the measure into next week – the Senate has scheduled an initial procedural vote on the bill for late Monday afternoon.

Source: US Politics -


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