Archive for January, 2015
Kiev’s leaders hope to hold truce talks Saturday with pro-Russian separatists despite heavy fighting in Debaltseve, a railway hub that could prove a crucial link between the main rebel-held cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.
The urgent new round of negotiations in Minsk had been agreed for Friday but was postponed due to disagreements over who should represent the rebel camp.
Ukraine is insisting on the presence of Donetsk insurgency commander Alexander Zakharchenko and the self-appointed leader of the separatist Lugansk region, Igor Plotnitsky, at the talks rather than just their representatives, a Ukrainian diplomatic spokesman said.
Kiev’s envoy, former president Leonid Kuchma, is expected in Minsk for the talks, which will be mediated by European and Russian envoys.
“We expect to sign a document that reinforces the Minsk Memorandum of September and the peace plan of Presidents Poroshenko and Putin,” Kuchma told the Interfax-Ukraine news agency.
The insurgents last week pulled out of peace talks and announced the start of an offensive designed to expand their control over a much broader swathe of the industrial southeast. They said Friday that they would not halt their actions in restive areas if the talks failed.
“Should the negotiations collapse… the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics reserve the right to pursue their offensive until the entire Donetsk and Lugansk regions are freed” of Ukrainian troops, the rebel regions’ main negotiators said in a joint statement.
Full-blown fighting between Russian-backed separatists and government forces has erupted in Debaltseve, a railway hub that could provide a crucial link between the main rebel-held cities of Donetsk and Luhansk if captured.
Separatists inched toward Debaltseve on Thursday when they burst through government lines into the town of Vuhlehirsk. The press office for Ukraine’s operations in the east said Friday that rebels were mounting artillery strikes on government checkpoints and bases in Vuhlehirsk.
“Precision strikes are destroying the opponents’ firepower, manpower and machinery,” the press office said.
The fighting is precipitating substantial hardship among the civilian population, which has been unable to leave the area. Debaltseve has been without electricity, running water and household gas for more than a week.
The United Nations on Friday voiced concern about the deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Debaltseve and other densely populated areas in eastern Ukraine where intense fighting is going on. Neal Walker, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Ukraine, has called for an immediate humanitarian truce to allow in aid and the evacuation of civilians.
“Indiscriminate shelling of civilians violates international humanitarian law and must stop,” he said in a statement.
Shells also rained down this week on the government-held town of Svitlodarsk, 20 kilometres (12 miles) north of Debaltseve, destroying gas pipelines, toppling electricity pylons and putting the local hospital out of commission.
Residents across Svitlodarsk stood in huddled groups around the front entrance to their apartment buildings, by the steps leading to the basement, which are now doubling as bomb shelters. Many were busy chopping scrap wood and cooking meals of soup.
Views among people in Svitlodarsk reflect the common split of attitudes reflected across much of the war-stricken regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. While some pleaded their support for a united Ukraine, others inveighed against the government for its role in a conflict that has claimed more than 5,100 lives, according to UN estimates.
With the hospitals in Debaltseve and Svitlodarsk now unusable, the grievously sick and wounded must embark on trips of more than an hour along roads targeted by artillery for treatment.
“After putting considerable thought into making another run for president, I’ve decided it is best to give other leaders in the party the opportunity to become our next nominee,” Romney told supporters on a conference call.
Romney’s exit comes after several of his former major donors and a veteran staffer in the early voting state of Iowa defected to support former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie would have served as Romney’s most likely rivals for the support of the Republican Party’s establishment-minded voters.
In his call with supporters, Romney appeared to take a swipe at Bush, saying it was time for fresh leadership within the GOP.
“I believe that one of our next generation of Republican leaders, one who may not be as well-known as I am today, one who has not yet taken their message across the country, one who is just getting started, may well emerge as being better able to defeat the Democrat nominee,” Romney said. “In fact, I expect and hope that to be the case.”
The former governor of Massachusetts, who is 67, had jumped back into the presidential discussion on Jan. 10, when he surprised a small group of former donors at a meeting in New York by telling them he was eyeing a third run for the White House.
It was a monumental change for Romney, who since losing the 2012 election to President Barack Obama had repeatedly told all who asked that his career in politics was over and he would not again run for president.
On Friday, Romney said he had been asked if there were any circumstance under which he would again reconsider. That, he said, “seems unlikely.”
“Accordingly, I’m not organizing a PAC or taking donations,” he said. “I’m not hiring a campaign team.”
The exit of Romney from the campaign most immediately helps those viewed as part of the party’s establishment wing, including Bush, Christie, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
The more conservative side of the field is largely unchanged, with a group of candidates that will likely include Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, former neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee
In the three weeks since the meeting in New York, which caught several in attendance off-guard, Romney made calls to former fundraisers, staff members and supporters, and gave three public speeches in which he outlined his potential vision for another campaign.
“I’m thinking about how I can help the country,” he told hundreds of students Wednesday night at Mississippi State University.
In that speech, and what amounted to a campaign stop a few hours before at a barbecue restaurant with Mississippi State football coach Dan Mullen in tow, Romney sounded every bit like a politician preparing to run.
“We need to restore opportunity, particularly for the middle class,” Romney said then. “You deserve a job that can repay all you’ve spent and borrowed to go to college.”
But as Romney sounded out his former team about putting together a new national campaign, he discovered that several of his past fundraisers had already made plans for 2016 and were now committed to Bush.
Several key former Romney donors said this week that in Bush they see someone who can successfully serve as president, as they believe Romney could. But they also think Bush has the personality and senior staff needed to win the White House, something the former Massachusetts governor could not bring together in his two previous presidential campaigns.
“I’ve got great respect for Gov. Romney, and I busted my buns for him,” said Chicago investor Craig Duchossois, whose wife contributed $250,000 to a pro-Romney super PAC while he collected tens of thousands more for Romney’s last campaign. “But I have turned the page.”
Romney also lost one of his most trusted political advisers on Thursday when David Kochel joined Bush’s team. Kochel, who led Romney’s campaign in Iowa in 2008 and 2012, is in now line to play a senior role in Bush’s campaign should he run.
Romney’s decision against running clearly pained him, and he took no questions from supporters on Friday’s call.
“You can’t imagine how hard it is for Ann and me to step aside, especially knowing of your support and the support of so many people across the country,” Romney said. “But we believe it is for the best of the party and the nation.”
Several Democrats have stated that there is a desire on the part of Clinton and her innermost circle to go as late as possible. But the potential for a summer start to the official Clinton 2016 campaign, first reported by Politico, is only one of the options on the table. The spring launch plan is still seen by most Clinton watchers as the most likely timing scenario. Under the spring scenario, Clinton could form an exploratory committee or other official vehicle, which has FEC-regulated restrictions for potential candidates, but would enable Clinton to publicly indicate her intentions and begin a new phase of the process without formally launching a full blown campaign until later in 2015. The delay from the original April target would also give her more time to develop her message, policy and organization, without the chaos and spotlight of a public campaign.
There is some concern among Clinton loyalists that as the increasingly crowded Republican race heats up, the attacks on Clinton could begin to stick without an apparatus in place to answer them. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee who is pondering another run, invoked Clinton numerous times during recent speeches.
The liberal superPAC American Bridge has been countering Republican attacks on Clinton’s behalf but the cover has not necessarily been to the satisfaction of all in Clinton’s orbit. The Democratic National Committee is beginning to take on a larger role in an effort to protect Clinton and the party brand but many Democrats are concerned even that won’t be enough. Some Democrats have also expressed concern that a later start to Clinton’s campaign will appear like the nomination is shaping up to be more of a coronation and a race – something Clinton and her advisers are looking to avoid.
However, those pushing for a later start argue that the more Hillary Clinton can stay out of the daily to and fro of presidential politics, the better that is for Hillary Clinton. No top Democrats have made serious moves to challenging Clinton’s informal and all but certain campaign. In addition, with the uptick of Obama’s approval ratings and easing of economic pessimism among the voters, some supporters of a later start argue that Clinton might want to continue to benefit from those environmental conditions before jumping into the daily presidential campaign mix.
The former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is reportedly courting members of Obama’s digital team to lead the technology operations of her expected 2016 campaign, many of whom helped Obama defeat her in the 2008 Democratic primary race.
Building an IT team is now seen as a critical part of the pre-launch of a presidential campaign, former Justice Department new media director and John Edwards campaign digital operations director Tracy Russo told Politico. “Any smart campaign has to have a digital director in place long before they announce so they can take advantage of the excitement of the announcement and funnel that energy into list-building and fundraising,” she said. “You do have to build it into every aspect of the campaign from Day One.”
The Republican party is gearing up its own internal technology team to back whoever the party’s nominee is for 2016. Last February, the GOP launched its own internal “tech incubator” Para Bellum Labs, to develop analytics and other applications to assist not just presidential candidates but candidates at every level.
Last fall an internal debate emerged about whether a campaign should form in January or February of 2015 or if it would be better to wait for Spring. Those arguing for a Spring start won that debate at the time, but it clearly did not stand as the final word on the matter.
Republican Mitt Romney is to give an update to his supporters on Friday on whether he should run for president a third time in 2016 amid signs he has yet to convince some financial backers as to why he should take the plunge again.
A former staffer, who asked to remain unidentified, said a conference call with Romney was expected to be held at mid-morning on Friday, and that he might give a signal as to which way he was leaning.
Romney for the past three weeks has been seeking traction for another presidential run after he was defeated by Democratic President Barack Obama in 2012.
On Wednesday, he visited Mississippi State University in Starkville, Mississippi, and in a closely watched speech, he emphasized a commitment to tackle poverty in America, a correction from his 2012 candidacy when he was dragged down by his wealthy image.
Some of the people who raised money for Romney, seeing no dramatic change from 2012 as yet, are so far inclined to move on to other potential candidates like former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.
This is presenting Romney with a dilemma should he decide to leap into the fray again against what is expected to be a crowded field.
The problem is many of Romney’s supporters believed him when he vowed many times over the last two years that he would not run again, and they started looking elsewhere.
Renee Schulte, an Iowa Republican who has been a Romney supporter since 2006 and raised money for him in 2012, said she has been a “true blue believer” in Romney and still thinks he would be a great president if elected.
In a blow, David Kochel, a Republican strategist in Iowa who backed Romney in the past, was named on Thursday as a senior strategist for Bush. A Bush aide said Kochel is in line for a senior role in Bush’s campaign should he run.
Internal discussions among Romney’s advisers have focused on the need for Romney to present himself in a more approachable way, more like the Romney seen in a favorable documentary released after his defeat in 2012, a former Romney adviser said.
Romney and his team have been heartened by polls showing him leading the field in the early days of the 2016 race. Applause broke out at Mississippi State University on Wednesday night when Romney told a packed auditorium he was considering a run.
Mitt Romney staged a campaign-style swing Wednesday through a Deep South state that spurned him in the 2012 Republican primary, calling for a national war on poverty, testing a few attack lines directed at Hillary Rodham Clinton, and declaring his fondness for pulled pork.
It was the first opportunity for Romney to show off a new, somewhat looser stump style as he weighs whether to seek the White House for a third time. He appeared more at ease than he typically did when he was the 2012 Republican nominee, joking about his personal wealth and discussing his Mormon faith.
He told offbeat tales of his failed presidential bid and quipped about advice he got during the last campaign from a man who urged him to grow a little stubble to appear “more sexy.”
“As if I needed that,” Romney deadpanned.
In a trip to the poorest state in the union, Romney also renewed his call for a national fight against what he calls “chronic generational poverty,’’ and began elaborating on the kinds of policies he would push if he mounts a third presidential campaign.
Top Republican activists and donors have been eager to hear Romney provide a clearer rationale for why he thinks he deserves another shot, and how this campaign would be different.
To make his most expansive appearance since he told wealthy donors several weeks ago that he was contemplating a campaign, Romney visited the campus of Mississippi State University, in a state where he placed third in the 2012 party primary, behind Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich.
He batted down repeated questions from reporters about his intentions for another White House campaign. When a moderator asked him how his campaign would be different from his failed campaigns of the past, he said, “That’s another question I won’t answer.”
But he did begin sketching out some of the ways he would attempt to combat poverty, after blaming the growing disparity in income on a failure of “liberal policies.”
“The rich have done historically well,” he said. “I’m concerned about the middle class and the poor in this country.”
If he runs, Romney said he would push for more and better high school educational opportunities, including charter schools, and incentives for businesses to hire people who haven’t had a job before. One of the areas he grew most passionate about was placing more emphasis on two-parent families as a way to alleviate poverty. He also urged students to have a “life coach.”
“We have to make sure our government programs aren’t creating incentives for people not to get married,” he said, citing housing vouchers and other federal programs. “And they do right now.”
But the most striking aspect of the performance was that Romney, often charicatured since his days as Massachusetts governor as robotic and programmed, made a greater effort to appear to be more comfortable in his own skin.
“You may have heard that I’m thinking of running for president again,” Romney said, to loud applause. “I don’t miss the annoying press. I don’t miss more than 300 nights away in a hotel room. I’m not even thinking about the speaking fees I can earn. As you no doubt heard, I’m already rich.”
Romney highlighted his vision for sustained economic prosperity and outlined broad foreign policy goals, criticizing what he considers weak global leadership by President Obama and Clinton. He said that Clinton, the presumed front-runner for the Democratic nomination, “cluelessly pressed a reset button for Russia, which smiled and then invaded Ukraine, a sovereign nation.”
Calling Obama’s recent State of the Union address “naïve at best and deceptive at worst,” he criticized the foreign policy of both Obama and Clinton.
“ISIS represents a new level of threat given its oil revenues, vast territory, and ability to recruit even in the West,” he said, referring to Islamic State, the army of fundamentalist militants that is occupying parts of Syria and Iraq. He also cited a more assertive China and America’s reduced nuclear arms capabilities as threats.
“Doesn’t the president understand that some of what we are seeing in the world is in part the result of his timid foreign policy, of walking away from his red line in Syria, of paring back our military budget, and of insulting friends like Israel and Poland?” Romney said. “Strong American leadership is desperately needed for the world, and for America.”
In the last several weeks, Romney has been testing the reaction to a possible third presidential campaign.
His advisers met in Boston last week and went as far as to discuss where campaign headquarters might be located. Romney also is trying to sell an 11,000-square-foot home he is building in La Jolla, Calif. The house, and its car elevator, was used in 2012 to portray him as rich and out of touch.
Before his appearance on campus, Romney stopped by Little Dooey, a barbecue restaurant that had a sign outside welcoming him. Wearing Hudson jeans and an open-collared shirt, he stepped out of a black SUV and quickly declared, “I like pulled pork.”
After ordering a sandwich with “red sauce, not South Carolina’s mustard sauce,” Romney was standing at a soda machine when he was asked about his thoughts on running for president.
“Oh my goodness. What I’m thinking about is, ‘Do I get Diet Coke, or do I get the real thing?’ ” he said, adding a bit of regular Coke to his cup. “There we go, a little taste of the good stuff, guys.”
He sat down with Dan Mullen, head coach of the Mississippi State football team, which went 10-3 in the regular season.
“The day after a loss. . . ” Romney said. “You’ve got to bring the team back and get them up. What do you do? How do you do it?”
“You’ll review what went right, what went wrong,” Mullen said. “After a game, you don’t sleep a whole lot.”
“I know what that’s like,” Romeny responded.
“In your business, you’ve got a record,” Romney said to the coach. “I mean it all comes down to your record. You can be the sweetest-talking person in the world, but unless you’ve got a record, you’re in trouble.”
“You’ve gotta win,” Mullen said. “You’ve gotta win.”
Boehner told Republican House members at Tuesday morning’s meeting he plans to take steps to file a lawsuit.
“We are finalizing a plan to authorize litigation on this issue, one we believe gives us the best chance of success,” Boehner said, according to a source in the room.
This means the House would have to take up a resolution to authorize a lawsuit, as it did on Obamacare last year.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi’s spokesman called the decision “an embarrassing admission of failure” for not passing immigration legislation.
“Republicans’ radical anti-immigrant legislation is dead on arrival. Once again, House Republicans are crawling to the courts to relieve them of their responsibility to govern,” Drew Hammill said in a written statement.
The move comes as House Republican leaders are struggling to round up support for a border security bill they had planned to vote on this week. The blizzard affecting the East coast postponed the vote, but some conservatives who opposed the bill said it didn’t have the support needed to pass. Democrats are virtually united against the measure, so GOP leaders needed to lock in enough votes from their own members, and for now have put off any vote on that proposal.
Some House GOP members determined to block funding for the president’s executive action view the border measure as an effort by leaders to placate conservatives who want to push for a full fight to deny money to the Administration.
“We’re tired of trying to be too cute by a half. You know, playing these bait and switch moves and sending something over there [to the Senate] and then conveniently trading it for allowing the president’s order to go through,” Arizona Republican Rep Matt Salmon told reporters.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced the Senate will take up the House-passed bill that strips funding for the president’s executive order. But multiple GOP aides acknowledge it’s not likely to get the 60 votes needed to overcome a Democratic filibuster. House and Senate Republican leaders insist they don’t want any sort of partial shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security due to the immigration battle.
Boehner, pressed for the next step on what he’ll do if the Senate rejects the House bill, said, “there’s no reason for me to speculate on what we will or won’t do.”
During Tuesday morning’s meeting closed door meeting the Speaker announced the initial steps on challenging the president in court. According to a House GOP leadership aide he told members he is drafting “a resolution authorizing the House to take a variety of legal actions” This could mean joining the states’ lawsuit on the President’s executive action or filing a separate lawsuit.
No decisions have been made on the specific legal action or argument the House GOP will use.
Kurdish forces took control of the Syrian town of Kobane on Monday after driving out Islamic State fighters, a monitoring group and Syrian state media said, although Washington said the four-month battle was not yet over.
Some Islamic State supporters took to Twitter to say the fight for Kobane, a focal point of the international struggle against the ultra-hardline Islamist group, was still raging.
Islamist militants launched an assault on the predominantly Kurdish town last year, using heavy weapons seized in Iraq and forcing tens of thousands of locals into exile.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) had retaken the town, close to the Turkish border, but were proceeding carefully in the eastern outskirts where Islamic State had planted mines before fleeing.
“I can see the YPG flag flying over Kobane. There are the sounds of jets flying above,” said Tevfik Kanat, a Turkish Kurd who rushed to the border with hundreds of others, including refugees from Kobane, after hearing about the advance. “People are dancing and singing, there are fireworks. Everyone feels a huge sense of relief,” he said by telephone.
The Islamic State still has fighters in hundreds of nearby villages, and called on supporters on Monday to target people in the West with whatever weapons they could lay their hands on.
U.S.-led forces have carried out almost daily air strikes on Islamic State positions around the town, known as Ayn al-Arab in Arabic. It has been a frontline in the battle against the group that has captured expanses of Iraq and Syria and proclaimed an Islamic caliphate.
“The people of Ayn al-Arab were able to expel the terrorist organization Daesh from their town and control it almost completely,” Syrian state news agency SANA said, citing local sources.
The Pentagon said it could not declare the battle for Kobane over, but said the Kurds had the upper hand.
U.S. Central Command said in a statement that anti-Islamic State forces controlled about 90 percent of Kobane.
Photographs posted on social media showed male and female Kurdish fighters shaking hands and Kurdish flags flying over recaptured territory.
Some militant supporters denied there had been a retreat.
Months of fighting in Kobane prompted Iraqi Kurdish forces known as peshmerga to travel to Syria to support the YPG after the United States asked Ankara to let them join the battle.
The struggle for Kobane is the only publicly declared example of U.S.-led forces closely coordinating militarily with a ground force to battle Islamic State.
The United States says it wants to train and equip non-jihadist groups to fight Islamic State elsewhere in Syria, but fighters say there is uncertainty surrounding the plans.
The recapture raises the question of what Islamic State will do next. Its fighters halted a westwards advance in the countryside north of Aleppo in September when it launched the offensive against Kobane.
In the east of the country, the Syrian army and pro-government militia recaptured an area north of Deir al-Zor military air base from Islamic State fighters, killing at least 19 of them, the Observatory said.
The airport is one of the last remaining government strongholds in eastern Syria and Islamic State has been trying to capture it for weeks. Government forces have held on to the base and parts of the provincial capital.
In an audio clip posted online on Monday, Islamic State spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani said supporters should attack Westerners with whatever weapons they had, “whether an improvised explosive device, bullets, a knife, car bomb or a fist”.
“We repeat a call to followers in Europe and the infidel West to target the crusaders in their own lands and wherever they are,” he said, praising attacks in Paris, Ottawa and Sydney.