Political Spotlight on Trump Son-in-law Gets Brighter

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner listens during a meeting with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas at the White House, May 3, 2017, in Washington.

Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior aide, has been front and center at the White House this week, making his speaking debut before a high-powered gathering of tech executives and heading off on a sensitive diplomatic mission to the Middle East.

Kushner, 36, a New York real estate magnate, was close by Trump's side throughout last year's political campaign, and he and his family moved to Washington in the first days of the new administration. But he has now moved even more into the political spotlight, leading some critics of Trump to suggest this may be an attempt to divert attention from the leaks and legal troubles that have beset the administration.

When novice diplomat Kushner touches down Wednesday in Tel Aviv, he will join the administration's special representative for international negotiations, Jason Greenblatt, in a bid to revive direct Israel-Palestinian talks. Kushner and Greenblatt, formerly a lawyer for the Trump Organization in New York, are due to meet with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

'Furthering Middle East peace'

White House spokesman Sean Spicer said the U.S. envoys' visit to Israel is a follow-up to Trump's stopover in the region in May and is intended "to further Middle East peace and make incremental changes in the right direction." Kushner and Greenblatt, who are both Orthodox Jews, accompanied the president during those earlier meetings with both Abbas and Netanyahu.

FILE - White House senior adviser Jared Kushner looks on during a meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and leaders at the Gulf Cooperation Council Summit, at the King Abdulaziz Conference Center, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, May 21, 2017.
FILE - White House senior adviser Jared Kushner looks on during a meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and leaders at the Gulf Cooperation Council Summit, at the King Abdulaziz Conference Center, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, May 21, 2017.

Kushner's more prominent role in the Trump White House is seen by some an an attempt by the administration to right itself after a number of bruising body blows, such as speculation about who may be targeted by a special prosecutor investigating the nature of contacts between the president's campaign organization and the Russian government. The swirling allegations of possible inappropriate or even illegal behavior — and the vociferous denials coming from Trump himself during his broadsides to the world over Twitter — have sparked rebukes even from senior lawmakers within the president's Republican Party.

However, Kushner himself has come under scrutiny for his own contacts with Russian officials during the presidential campaign. Last week, The Washington Post reported the son-in-law's business dealings were under investigation by the office of Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller.

FILE - Jared Kushner, U.S. President Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, arrives at the Ministry of Defense, in Baghdad, Iraq, April 3, 2017.
FILE - Jared Kushner, U.S. President Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, arrives at the Ministry of Defense, in Baghdad, Iraq, April 3, 2017.

Kushner has said he will cooperate with both congressional and FBI inquiries, and he recently hired a prominent Washington lawyer to represent him.

Background 'problematic'

His role in the Trump White House is coming under increasing scrutiny from presidential scholars and students of public management.

Elaine Kamarck, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, a policy research group in Washington, and author of Why Presidents Fail, said Kushner's lack of any background in public or foreign affairs is "particularly problematic."

"Jared Kushner knows even less about the world of government and policy than the president himself does," Kamarck said. "This president, more than any other recent president, needs the assistance of somebody familiar with government, and that is not Jared Kushner."

Administration officials say Kushner is not new to Middle East issues, nor is he a stranger to the Israeli prime minister. His family is known to be close to Netanyahu, who once stayed in the Kushner home during a visit to the United States.

However, Brookings' Kamarck said Kushner's inexperience in statecraft will be a severe handicap if he expects to resolve a dispute that has stymied the world's most talented diplomats for generations.

"There have been years and years of American intervention in Arab-Israeli dialogue," Kamarck told VOA. "People who have had great expertise in this area have been unable to come to conclusions."

Breakthrough seen unlikely

"Maybe Kushner will learn something on this trip that will help him down the road, but do not expect a peace breakthrough in the near future," she added.

FILE - White House senior adviser Jared Kushner welcomes technology company leaders to a summit of the American Technology Council at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, June 19, 2017.
FILE - White House senior adviser Jared Kushner welcomes technology company leaders to a summit of the American Technology Council at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, June 19, 2017.

The president's son-in-law tested his hand as a senior administration official and his public speaking skills this week. Though Kushner has been at Trump's side, or just steps away, for almost every presidential appearance, White House reporters said this was the first time they had ever heard him speak. Reviews were mixed.

Reading from prepared remarks at a White House gathering of high-powered technology executives, Kushner spoke of the need to gather ideas for modernizing government.

"We will unleash the creativity of the private sector to provide citizen services in a way that has never happened before," Kushner told the group, which included Apple CEO Tim Cook and Alphabet chief Eric Schmitt. Both have been outspoken in opposing administration positions on issues such as climate change and immigration.

FILE - Ivanka Trump, daughter and assistant to President Donald Trump, and her husband, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, walk out to join President Trump aboard the Marine One helicopter, May 19, 2017.
FILE - Ivanka Trump, daughter and assistant to President Donald Trump, and her husband, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, walk out to join President Trump aboard the Marine One helicopter, May 19, 2017.

As Kushner headed to Israel, news reports said China has invited him and his wife, Ivanka Trump, to visit later this year. Bloomberg News called it the latest sign of the extended first family's growing influence over foreign affairs.

Bloomberg, quoting an unidentified U.S. official, said the Kushners hosted a dinner Sunday for the newly confirmed U.S. ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, who will leave to take up his new post in Beijing this week.

Native Americans Call For Rethink of Bering Strait Theory

Butch McIntosh wears traditional Native American regalia at the Pow Wow of Champions on the fairgrounds in Tulsa, Okla. Saturday Aug. 11, 2007.

Butch McIntosh wears traditional Native American regalia at the Pow Wow of Champions on the fairgrounds in Tulsa, Okla. Saturday Aug. 11, 2007

 

It’s one of the most contentious debates in anthropology today: Where did America’s first peoples come from — and when? The general scientific consensus is that a single wave of people crossed a long-vanished land bridge from Siberia into Alaska around 13,000 years ago. But some Native Americans are irked by the theory, which they say is simplistic and culturally biased.

The first European explorers to reach the Americas looked to the Bible to explain the origins of the people they encountered and misnamed “Indians.” Biblical tradition holds that humans were created some 4,000 years ago and that all men descend from Adam — including indigenous peoples whom Europeans regarded as primitive.

Indians in Virginia. Engraving by Theodore de Bry, 1590, based on a watercolor by John White in 1585.
Indians in Virginia. Engraving by Theodore de Bry, 1590, based on a watercolor by John White in 1585.

“Dominant science believed in a concept of superiority,” said Alexander Ewen, a member of the Purepecha Nation and author of the “Encyclopedia of the American Indian in the Twentieth Century.”

“And that created an idea that either people were genetically inferior or that there were stages of civilization, and Indians were at a lower stage,” he said.

Since “primitives” weren’t sophisticated enough to have sailed the oceans, early scientists concluded Indians had reached North America by some unknown land route. They found their answer in the Bering Strait.

Map of eastern Russian and Alaska with a light brown boarder depicting Beringia, where archaeolosits believe ancient Americans crossed from Siberia into Alaska around 13,000 years ago. Courtesy, U.S. National Park Service.
Map of eastern Russian and Alaska with a light brown boarder depicting Beringia, where archaeolosits believe ancient Americans crossed from Siberia into Alaska around 13,000 years ago. Courtesy, U.S. National Park Service.

Ewen says that theory cemented into dogma and persists to this day, even in the face of new discoveries and technology that suggests Indians arrived much earlier and by different routes.

“In the first place, it’s simplistic,” said Ewen. “The people in this hemisphere were -- and are -- extremely diverse, more than any other place in the world.”

Chipping away at a theory

In the 1930s, scientists examined a pile of mammoth bones in Clovis, N.M., where they found distinctive spear points. Since then, tens of thousands of “Clovis points” have been found across North America and as far south as Venezuela. Scientists decided the Clovis people must have been America’s first peoples, arriving 13,000 years ago.

Excavations in the 1970s pushed the date even further back, to as much as 16,000 years ago. Archaeologist James Adovasio dated artifacts found at Pennsylvania’s Meadowcroft Rockshelter to be up to 16,000 years old, to harsh criticism.

The Meadowcroft Rockshelter in Washington County, Pa., where archaeologists found artifacts dating back 16,000 years.
The Meadowcroft Rockshelter in Washington County, Pa., where archaeologists found artifacts dating back 16,000 years.

 

Other branches of science have weighed in: In 1998, University of California-Berkeley linguist Johanna Nichols argued that it would have taken up to 50,000 years for a single language to diversify into the many languages spoken by modern Native American groups. That meant ancient Indians would have to have arrived 19,000 years ago.

Geologists have complicated matters by suggesting that the Bering Strait wasn’t passable until 10 or 12,000 years ago. This gave way to theories that early humans might have sailed down the Pacific coast into the New World.

Meanwhile, in 2015, Harvard University geneticist Pontus Skoglund discovered DNA links between Amazon Indians and the indigenous peoples in Australia and New Guinea.

An elderly member of Brazil's Surui Nation. Researchers found the Surui bear a genetic relationship to indigenous peoples of Australia and New Guinea.
An elderly member of Brazil's Surui Nation. Researchers found the Surui bear a genetic relationship to indigenous peoples of Australia and New Guinea.

 

In the past decade, Smithsonian Institution anthropologist Dennis Stanford met scathing criticism for suggesting Stone Age Europeans paddled across the Atlantic thousands of years before Columbus. In April of this year, researchers in California analyzed crushed mastodon bones they said were butchered by humans 130,000 years ago, a theory the bulk of scientists, including Adavasio, rejects – not because it’s not possible, he stipulates, but because the data isn’t conclusive.

Native American accounts

Should science consider the origin beliefs of tribes themselves?

Montana’s Blackfoot tradition holds that the first Indians lived on the other side of the ocean, but their creator decided to take them to a better place. “So he brought them over the ice to the far north,” the account reads.

The Hopi people of Arizona say their ancestors had to travel through three worlds, finally crossing the ocean eastward to a new and final new world. And Oklahoma’s Tuskagee people believe the “Great Spirit” chose them to be the first people to live on the earth.

File--This July 23, 2008, photo was taken from inside the Paisley Caves near Paisley, Ore., where archaeologists found stone tools and human DNA dating back more than 13,000 years, evidence humans settled North America earlier than previously thought.
File--This July 23, 2008, photo was taken from inside the Paisley Caves near Paisley, Ore., where archaeologists found stone tools and human DNA dating back more than 13,000 years, evidence humans settled North America earlier than previously thought.

 

Stories like these aren’t given much weight by science, said Joe Watkins, supervisory anthropologist at the National Park Service and a member of the Choctaw Nation.

“They are generally believed to be anecdotal,” he said. “The deep time depth and the possibility of multiple interpretations seem to make scientists uncomfortable.”

That isn’t to say Watkins believes every tribal tradition is “true.”

“But I do believe most of them carry within them kernels of truth of use to researchers. It seems imprudent to dismiss any possible line of evidence," he said.

Muslim girl assaulted outside US mosque, found dead in Virginia

 

Isra Chaker, a person who said in a Facebook post that she was close to a family friend of the victim in the Virginia incident released the photo on Facebook. Photo: Facebook/ Isra Chaker.

 

A 17-year-old American Muslim girl was beaten and abducted after leaving a mosque in Virginia on Sunday by a man who police later arrested on suspicion of murder after her body was found dumped in a pond, authorities said.

The attack spurred an outpouring of grief and horror in a Muslim community that has been gathering to pray at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society mosque about 30 miles outside Washington in observance of the last 10 days of Ramadan.

The attack happened early on Sunday after the victim and several friends walking outside the mosque got into a dispute with a motorist in the community of Sterling, the Fairfax County Police Department said in a statement.

At one point, the motorist got out of his car and assaulted the girl, police said

The teen was reported missing by her friends who scattered during the attack and could not find her afterwards, touching off an hours-long search by authorities in Fairfax and Loudoun counties.

 

At around 3 pm, the remains of a female believed to be the teen victim were found in a pond in Sterling, police said.

During the search for the missing teen, authorities stopped a motorist "driving suspiciously in the area" and arrested the driver, later identified as identified as Darwin Martinez Torres, 22.

Police obtained a murder warrant that charges Torres for her death, the Fairfax County Police Department said.

A police spokeswoman told reporters the attack followed some sort of dispute between the man and the girls, and authorities had not ruled out hate as a motivation for the attack.

The number of anti-Muslim bias incidents in the United States jumped 57 percent in 2016 to 2,213, up from 1,409 in 2015, the Council on American-Islamic Relations advocacy group said in a report last month.

While the group had been seeing a rise in anti-Muslim incidents prior to Donald Trump's stunning rise in last year's presidential primaries and November election victory, it said the acceleration in bias incidents was due in part to Trump's focus on militant Islamist groups and anti-immigrant rhetoric.

In an incident in London on Monday, a van ploughed into worshippers leaving a mosque, killing at least one person and injuring several in what Britain's largest Muslim organization said was a deliberate act of Islamophobia.

Isra Chaker, a person who said in a Facebook post that she was close to a family friend of the victim in the Virginia incident, said the driver came out with a baseball bat and began swinging it at the girls, Chaker said.

"She then went missing (presumably kidnapped/moved by the suspect) and was found dead this afternoon," Chaker said.

An online fundraiser for the girl's family had raised $61,606 by Sunday evening.

Police said a medical examiner will conduct an autopsy to confirm the victim's identity and cause of death, though detectives believe the body found in the pond was the missing girl.

With Bodies Recovered, US Navy Calls Off Search for Missing Sailors Aboard USS Fitzgerald

Damaged part of USS Fitzgerald is seen at the U.S. Naval base in Yokosuka, southwest of Tokyo, June 18, 2017. Navy divers found a number of sailors' bodies Sunday aboard the stricken USS Fitzgerald that collided with a container ship in the busy sea off

Damaged part of USS Fitzgerald is seen at the U.S. Naval base in Yokosuka, southwest of Tokyo, June 18, 2017. Navy divers found a number of sailors' bodies Sunday aboard the stricken USS Fitzgerald that collided with a container ship in the busy sea off

 

The U.S. has called off its search for seven missing sailors after finding bodies in the sleeping compartments of the USS Fitzgerald, the Navy destroyer that collided with a massive merchant vessel off the coast of Japan early Saturday.

"The search and rescue is over," US 7th Fleet commander Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin told reporters Sunday. U.S. authorities tacitly acknowledged there were no survivors, although Aucoin declined to say how many bodies had been recovered until relatives of the dead sailors are notified.

Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet, speaks during a press conference, with the damaged USS Fitzgerald in the background at the U.S. Naval base in Yokosuka, southwest of Tokyo, June 18, 2017.
Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet, speaks during a press conference, with the damaged USS Fitzgerald in the background at the U.S. Naval base in Yokosuka, southwest of Tokyo, June 18, 2017.

Aucoin said that sea water gushed into sleeping compartments and that part of the ship's right side was caved in.

"The damage was significant. There was a big gash under the water," Aucoin said at the Yokosuka naval base, home of the U.S. 7th Fleet. He spoke with the docked Fitzgerald behind him, after tugboats towed it ashore in the hours after the collision 104 kilometers southwest of Yokosuka, in a busy shipping channel.

He said "a significant portion of the crew was sleeping" when the destroyer collided with a Philippine-flagged container ship, the ACX Crystal. Aucoin said the Fitzgerald is salvageable but that repairs will likely take months.

In this photo released by Japan's 3rd Regional Coast Guard Headquarters, the damage of Philippine-registered container ship ACX Crystal is seen in the waters off Izu Peninsula, southwest of Tokyo, after it had collided with the USS Fitzgerald, June 17, 20
In this photo released by Japan's 3rd Regional Coast Guard Headquarters, the damage of Philippine-registered container ship ACX Crystal is seen in the waters off Izu Peninsula, southwest of Tokyo, after it had collided with the USS Fitzgerald, June 17, 20

"Hopefully less than a year," Aucoin said. "You will see the USS Fitzgerald back."

There was no immediate explanation for the collision.

Aucoin said, "I'm not going to speculate on what happened.... Hopefully we'll get those answers, but I don't have them right now."

Injured sailors

Three other U.S. crew members were injured in the accident, including the vessel's commanding officer, Bryce Benson, with all of them undergoing treatment. Aucoin said, without elaborating, that Benson "is lucky to be alive."

In this photo released by Japan's Defense Ministry, an injured USS Fitzgerald crew member is carried by U.S. military personnel, left, and Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force members upon arriving at the U.S. naval base in Yokosuka, southwest of Tokyo, J
In this photo released by Japan's Defense Ministry, an injured USS Fitzgerald crew member is carried by U.S. military personnel, left, and Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force members upon arriving at the U.S. naval base in Yokosuka, southwest of Tokyo, J

Benson was in stable condition with a head injury. The two other sailors suffered cuts and bruises.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent a sympathy message to U.S. President Donald Trump, saying, "We are struck by deep sorrow. I express my heartfelt solidarity to America at this difficult time."

On Saturday, Trump said in a Twitter message, "Thoughts and prayers with the sailors of USS Fitzgerald and their families. Thank you to our Japanese allies for their assistance."

The ACX Crystal sailed into Tokyo Saturday afternoon with minor damage to its bow. None of the 20-member crew on the Philippine-flagged container ship was reported injured.

Investigation

Aucoin said the Navy will launch an investigation into the collision because "we owe it to our families and the Navy to understand what happened."

"Unfortunately, we don't have the details regarding the conditions during the final moments, but hope that the investigation may shed some light on that matter," Aucoin said.

The Fitzgerald and the ACX Crystal — a ship nearly four times the size of the destroyer — collided early Saturday. The 29,000-ton Philippine ship is 222 meters long, while the 8,315-ton Navy destroyer is 154 meters long.

The U.S. Navy said the collision occurred about midship on the starboard side, damaging two sailor berthing stations, a machinery room and a radio room.

"This was a severe emergency, but the ship's crew was swift and responsive and I can't tell you how proud I am of the crew for what they did to save the ship," Aucoin said.

According to Jiji Press news agency, the ACX Crystal captain said his ship was "sailing in the same direction as the U.S. destroyer and then collided."

Such collisions between two ships are rare.

Yukata Saito of the Japanese coast guard said conditions were clear at the time of the collision.

"The volume of ships is heavy in this area and there have been accidents before," Saito told Japan’s public broadcaster NHK.

Senate’s Iran Sanctions Bill Faces Differing Views in House

Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer speaks at a dinner held by the Endowment for Middle East Truth in Washington, June 14, 2017

Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer speaks at a dinner held by the Endowment for Middle East Truth in Washington, June 14, 2017

 

A newly passed Senate bill that would impose additional U.S. sanctions on Iran faces uncertain prospects for passage in the House, whose members are expressing differing views about its efficacy.

Hours after the Senate approved the Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act in a near-unanimous 98-2 vote Thursday, the House’s majority Republican leaders had not said when they will act on it. The bill also would sanction Russia for interfering in the 2016 U.S. election, a charge Moscow denies.

The Senate bill would impose financial restrictions on people involved with Iran’s ballistic missile development and with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Strong bipartisan support

The legislation won strong bipartisan support from majority Republicans and minority Democrats who see Iran’s ballistic missile activity as destabilizing to the region, and who accuse the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) of involvement in international terrorism.

Iranian leaders say their ballistic missile program is defensive in nature. They also say Iran is the victim of international terrorism rather than the perpetrator.

Republican Congressman Scott Perry speaks to VOA Persian at Washington's Grand Hyatt hotel, June 14, 2017.
Republican Congressman Scott Perry speaks to VOA Persian at Washington's Grand Hyatt hotel, June 14, 2017.

The Senate’s proposed Iran sanctions got a mixed response from House members who spoke to VOA’s Persian Service at a Washington event Wednesday night, before the bill won final Senate approval.

The lawmakers were attending a dinner held by the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), a U.S. research group that educates American policymakers who want to strengthen the U.S.-Israel alliance.

Republican Congressman Scott Perry said he wants to ensure the Senate’s bill is strong.

“We have to look at it,” Perry said. “My concern would be that (the sanctions) would be too weak, especially regarding Iran. That’s really the focus; Russia is an afterthought. Somebody at some point is going to have to take some action if (the Iranians) keep heading in the direction that we suspect they will head.”

Republican Congressman Mark Meadows speaks to VOA Persian at Washington's Grand Hyatt hotel, June 14, 2017.
Republican Congressman Mark Meadows speaks to VOA Persian at Washington's Grand Hyatt hotel, June 14, 2017.

Another Republican Congressman, Mark Meadows, said some House members have doubts about the effectiveness of U.S. sanctions in dealing with Iran.

“As you look at the sanctions, typically they are not as impactful as (those of) the European Union,” Meadows said. “Typically, having the EU involved has a greater impact in the (Mideast) region. We’re cognizant of that, but we’re looking at all the options.”

Democratic Congressman Juan Vargas had a more upbeat view of the House’s prospects for adopting the Senate’s measures against Iran’s ballistic missile program and the IRGC.

“I certainly support those measures, and I think a lot of Democrats will too,” he said. “The bill will have bipartisan support.”

Democrat Congressman Juan Vargas speaks at a Washington dinner held by the Endowment for Middle East Truth, June 14, 2017.
Democrat Congressman Juan Vargas speaks at a Washington dinner held by the Endowment for Middle East Truth, June 14, 2017.

No administration position yet

The Trump administration has not expressed a position on the Iran sanctions proposed in the legislation, which President Donald Trump would have to sign before they become law. But his administration has imposed several sanctions on Iran in recent months to punish it for carrying out a January ballistic missile test and for committing alleged human rights abuses.

The White House also is reviewing whether to re-impose Iran sanctions that Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, lifted under the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and six world powers.

Israel's criticism

In a speech at Wednesday’s EMET event, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer sharpened his criticism of the 2015 deal, saying it has “paved Iran’s path to a nuclear bomb” because it automatically lifts restrictions on Iranian nuclear activities after a number of years.

“So the clock is ticking, the sands are coming out of that glass, and time is literally on their side,” Dermer said. “Iran won’t need to sneak in or break in to the nuclear club, in a few years, they can just walk in.”

The Obama administration said the 2015 deal blocks Iran’s path to a bomb by forcing it to freeze activities or damage infrastructure needed to develop nuclear weapons.

Israel, which is widely believed to be nuclear-armed, sees an Iranian nuclear weapon as a threat to its existence because of repeated calls from Iranian leaders for the destruction of the Jewish state.

“Israel and the Trump administration must deal with the fallout (from the 2015 agreement), and we will deal with the fallout,” Dermer said. “We will deal with it because we must. Deal or no deal, America and Israel must stop Iran’s clear path to the bomb.” The Israeli diplomat did not elaborate.

Iran says its nuclear program is designed for peaceful medical research and electricity generation.

This report was produced in collaboration with VOA’s Persian Service.

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