9 January, 2019 06:10

Good morning Legionnaires and veterans advocates, today is Wednesday, January 9, 2019 which is Balloon Ascension Day, National Apricot Day, National Law Enforcement Appreciation Day, and National Nerd Word Day.

This Day in History:

  • On this day in 1493, Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, sailing near the Dominican Republic, sees three “mermaids”–in reality manatees–and describes them as “not half as beautiful as they are painted.” Six months earlier, Columbus (1451-1506) set off from Spain across the Atlantic Ocean with the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, hoping to find a western trade route to Asia. Instead, his voyage, the first of four he would make, led him to the Americas, or “New World.”
  • 1945: On this day, Gen. Douglas MacArthur and the American 6th Army land on the Lingayen Gulf of Luzon, another step in the capture of the Philippine Islands from the Japanese.
  • 1967: The Agency for International Development (AID) attempts to respond to reports in the American media of widespread corruption and thievery of commodities sent to South Vietnam by the United States. In a report to the president, AID officials asserted, “No more than 5-6 percent of all economic assistance commodities delivered to Vietnam were stolen or otherwise diverted.”
  • In his 1952 State of the Union address, President Harry S. Truman warns Americans that they are “moving through a perilous time,” and calls for vigorous action to meet the communist threat.

TABLE OF CONTENTS:

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NYT: Trump’s National Address Escalates Border Wall Fight
WASHINGTON — President Trump doubled down on one of the biggest gambles of his presidency on Tuesday night with a televised appeal to pressure Congress into paying for his long-promised border wall, even at the cost of leaving the government partly closed until lawmakers give in.
Embarking on a strategy that he himself privately disparaged as unlikely to work, Mr. Trump devoted the first prime-time Oval Office address of his presidency to his proposed barrier in hopes of enlisting public support in an ideological and political conflict that has shut the doors of many federal agencies for 18 days.
In a nine-minute speech that made no new arguments but included multiple misleading assertions, the president sought to recast the situation at the Mexican border as a “humanitarian crisis” and opted against declaring a national emergency to bypass Congress, which he had threatened to do, at least for now. But he excoriated Democrats for blocking the wall, accusing them of hypocrisy and exposing the country to criminal immigrants.
“How much more American blood must we shed before Congress does its job?” Mr. Trump asked, citing a litany of grisly crimes said to be committed by illegal immigrants. Asking Americans to call their lawmakers, he added: “This is a choice between right and wrong, justice and injustice. This is about whether we fulfill our sacred duty to the American citizens we serve.”
Democrats dismissed his talk of crisis as overstated cynicism and, with polls showing Mr. Trump bearing more of the blame since the partial shutdown began last month, betrayed no signs of giving in. The White House earlier in the day dispatched Vice President Mike Pence and others to Capitol Hill to try to shore up Senate Republicans, who are growing increasingly anxious as the standoff drags on.
In their own televised response on Tuesday night, Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, accused the president of stoking fear and mocked him for asking taxpayers to foot the bill for a wall he had long said Mexico would pay for.
“President Trump must stop holding the American people hostage, must stop manufacturing a crisis and must reopen the government,” Ms. Pelosi said.
In taking his argument to a national television audience and on a trip to the Texas border he plans to take on Thursday, Mr. Trump hoped to reframe the debate. After spending much of the first two weeks of the shutdown cloistered in the White House, he has now opted to use the powers of the presidency to focus public attention on his ominous warnings about the border.
Yet privately, Mr. Trump dismissed his own new strategy as pointless. In an off-the-record lunch with television anchors hours before the address, he made clear in blunt terms that he was not inclined to give the speech or go to Texas, but was talked into it by advisers, according to two people briefed on the discussion who asked not to be identified sharing details.
“It’s not going to change a damn thing, but I’m still doing it,” Mr. Trump said of the border visit, according to one of the people, who was in the room. The trip was merely a photo opportunity, he said. “But,” he added, gesturing at his communications aides Bill Shine, Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Kellyanne Conway, “these people behind you say it’s worth it.”
Mr. Trump plans to head to the Capitol on Wednesday to attend a Senate Republican lunch and later will host congressional leaders from both parties to resume negotiations that so far have made little progress. Mr. Trump has insisted on $5.7 billion for the wall, while Ms. Pelosi said she would not give him a dollar for a wall she has called “immoral.”
In a nod to Democrats, Mr. Trump spent the first half of his talk on the humanitarian situation at the border before even mentioning the wall, expressing sympathy for those victimized by human smugglers. “This is a humanitarian crisis — a crisis of the heart and a crisis of the soul,” he said.
Even so, he directly took on Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Schumer. “The only thing that is immoral is the politicians to do nothing and continue to allow more innocent people to be so horribly victimized,” he said.
Mr. Trump has made the wall the singular focus of his presidency as he enters his third year in office. His promise to erect a “big, beautiful wall” along the border became perhaps the most memorable promise on the campaign trail this fall, eliciting chants from supporters of “build the wall,” and he has been frustrated by his inability to deliver on it.
But his alarming description of a “crisis” at the border has raised credibility questions. While experts agree there are serious problems to address, migrant border crossings have actually been declining for nearly two decades. The majority of heroin enters the United States through legal ports of entry, not through open areas of the border. And the State Department said in a recent report that there was “no credible evidence” that terrorist groups had sent operatives to enter the United States through Mexico.
At one point in his speech, he even suggested that Democrats had signaled that they would accept his wall if redesigned. “At the request of Democrats, it will be a steel barrier rather than a concrete wall,” he said, even though Democratic leaders have made clear they oppose the barrier regardless of the material.
Even so, Democrats, many of whom like Mr. Schumer voted in 2006 for 700 miles of fencing along the border, did not want to conduct the debate on Mr. Trump’s terms. Instead, they focused attention on the damaging effects of the shutdown, already the second longest in American history. About 800,000 government employees are either furloughed or working without pay, in addition to hundreds of thousands of contractors.
House Democrats planned to approve individual spending bills this week that were intended to reopen closed departments one at a time in hopes of putting Republicans on the defensive, but Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, has said he would not put any bill on the floor without Mr. Trump’s explicit support.
Senate Democrats took to the floor on Tuesday to pressure Mr. McConnell and vowed to block consideration of other legislation until the government is reopened.
Mr. McConnell fired back, noting the 2006 legislation. “Maybe the Democratic Party was for secure borders before they were against them,” he said. “Or maybe they’re just making it up as they go along. Or maybe they are that dead-set on opposing this particular president on any issue, for any reason, just for the sake of opposing him.”
But two more Republicans, Senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, spoke out on Tuesday in favor of reopening the government while negotiations over border security continue. “I think we can walk and chew gum,” Ms. Murkowski told reporters.
Ms. Capito expressed frustration with the shutdown and “how useless it is,” indicating that she might support reopening the government while wall talks continue. “I mean, I think I could live with that, but let’s see what he says tonight,” she said before the speech.
That makes five Republican senators who have expressed such a position, which if combined with a unanimous Democratic caucus would make a majority to reopen the government if Mr. McConnell were to allow a vote.
Allies of the president warned fellow Republicans to stand with Mr. Trump. “If we undercut the president, that’s the end of his presidency and the end of our party,” Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said on Fox News after the speech.
The political nature of the fight was hard to miss. Just hours before he went on air, Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign sent out a fund-raising email asking supporters to raise $500,000 by the time his speech began. On the other side, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a possible candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination next year, offered his own response after Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Schumer.
For all of the pyrotechnics of competing national speeches, it seemed like a political Kabuki dance that by the end of the evening had changed no minds in Washington.
Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the No. 5 House Democrat, who perhaps most succinctly summed up his party’s response: “We are not paying a $5 billion ransom note for your medieval border wall,” he wrote on Twitter, with a castle emoji. “And nothing you just said will change that cold, hard reality.”
If Democrats do not approve money for the wall, Mr. Trump has threatened to declare a national emergency and proceed with construction without Congress, a move that could provoke a constitutional clash with the legislative branch over the power of the federal purse. While some legal experts said the president has a plausible case given current law, it would almost surely generate a court challenge.
Even some Republicans warned against it. Senator Susan Collins of Maine said that although the law provides the president with emergency powers, “the administration should not act on a claim of dubious constitutional authority.” She added, “It should get authorization from Congress before repurposing such a significant sum of money for a border wall.”
The wall is popular with Mr. Trump’s base, but the public at large holds the president responsible for the shutdown, according to polls. In a Reuters-Ipsos poll, 51 percent of respondents said that Mr. Trump “deserves most of the blame,” up four percentage points from earlier in the crisis, while 32 percent pointed the finger at congressional Democrats.
Moreover, the public seems to have grown weary of the impasse. Seventy percent of registered voters in the latest The Hill-HarrisX poll favored a compromise, while just 30 percent said sticking to principles was more important than reopening the government.
The president’s use of the Oval Office for the speech stirred some debate, with critics asserting that a setting more typically used for occasions of war or other national security crises was being turned into a partisan platform. The subsequent joint statement by Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Schumer was the first time opposition leaders were given national airtime to respond to a president in the Oval Office.
Not counting speeches to Congress, Mr. Trump had made only five formal addresses to the nation before Tuesday night, three of them in prime time and none from the Oval Office, according to Mark Knoller, a longtime CBS News journalist who tracks recent presidential history. Mr. Trump’s previous prime-time speeches were to introduce his two Supreme Court nominations and to announce his decision to send more troops to Afghanistan.
By contrast, President Bill Clinton gave 16 addresses to the nation over eight years, 14 of them from the Oval Office. President George W. Bush gave 23 such addresses, six from the Oval Office, and President Barack Obama gave 12, with three from his office.
Military Times: Lawmakers hope for swift action this year on ‘blue water’ Vietnam veterans benefits
By: Leo Shane III   20 hours ago
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WASHINGTON — Just days into the new session of Congress, leaders of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee have reintroduced legislation to give benefits to tens of thousands of “blue water” Vietnam veterans who saw their lobbying efforts last year fall just short of success.
Both committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., and ranking member Phil Roe, R-Tenn., are pushing congressional leadership for quick action on bills that would award presumptive benefits to sailors who served in the coastal waters off the shores of Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s.
“Thousands of veterans are still waiting for their government to deliver on its promise and grant them the benefits they have earned,” Takano said in a statement. “The fact that politics got in the way of our duty to care for veterans affected by toxic exposure (last session) … is an insult to all veterans who served with the expectation that their country would care for them.”
Many of those blue water Vietnam veterans today — estimated at around 90,000 individuals — are experiencing rare heart conditions and cancers that have been linked with exposure to cancer-causing chemicals in defoliants like Agent Orange.
Under Department of Veterans Affairs rules, troops that served on the ground and inland waterways during the Vietnam War are presumed to have been exposed to the dangerous chemicals, and given a quicker path to receiving disability benefits.
Veterans who served on ships are eligible for VA medical care related to their illnesses but have to prove direct chemical exposure. Advocates have said in most cases, evidence of Agent Orange residue on those ships was not properly collected, making a scientific argument justifying the presumptive status impossible.
Last session, House members unanimously approved legislation mirroring the new Takano and Roe plans that would mandate VA award benefits to the blue water veterans, and use a new fee on VA home loans to offset the costs.

But that plan was blocked by a small group of senators in the waning days of the last session, largely over concerns about the cost.
The legislation carries a price tag of about $1.1 billion over 10 years, but VA officials have insisted the total is closer to $5.5 billion. The department has opposed extending presumptive status to the group, saying the available science doesn’t back up their claims.
Advocates have called that response a cold, penny-pinching response to veterans in need.
In a press conference late last month, multiple veterans groups rallied to call for immediate action on the issue, saying any delay would likely mean allowing thousands more veterans to die without seeing proper compensation.
“Giving blue water Navy veterans the benefits they earned is simply a cost of war,” said Matthew Schuman, national legislative director for the American Legion. “These veterans are dying because of exposure to Agent Orange. Sadly, the fight to ensure they get the benefits they deserve just gets harder.”
John Wells, executive director of the group Military-Veterans Advocacy, which has been at the forefront of the blue water dispute for years, said he wants quick action on the issue too but warned that lawmakers need to make sure they don’t repeat the same legislative failure as last session.
He also said that if lawmakers don’t act by this spring, the issue may be moot. He anticipates a decision on a pending court case brought by his group against VA by this spring. A favorable ruling there could force VA to award the benefits, regardless what Congress decides.

Stripes: Turkey slams US request for assurances on Syrian Kurds

By ZEKE MILLER | Associated Press | Published: January 8, 2019

ANKARA, Turkey — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the U.S. national security adviser of making “a very serious mistake” Tuesday by demanding that Ankara guarantee the safety of Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria before the U.S. withdraws its troops from the war-torn country.

A strained morning of negotiation in Turkey ended without assurances of protection for forces that fought alongside U.S. troops against Islamic State, and indeed brought them fresh, new threats from Turkey. The diplomatic setback raised fresh questions about how the U.S. would protect its allies in the fight against ISIS and about the pace of the drawdown of U.S. forces in Syria.

“John Bolton has made a very serious mistake. We cannot make any concessions in this regard,” Erdogan said Tuesday, just before Bolton left the country with tensions between the NATO allies at new highs. He added that Ankara’s preparations for a new military offensive against what the Turkish leader describes as terror groups in Syria are “to a large extent” complete.

Bolton had insisted that Turkey refrain from conducting any operation unless it was approved by and coordinated with the U.S. Turkey’s presidential spokesman fired back publicly that Turkey would not seek permission from its allies to conduct a military offensive against Syrian Kurdish fighters, but was willing to coordinate operations.

A senior administration official said Erdogan’s comments did not reflect President Donald Trump’s understanding of his Dec. 23 conversation with the Turkish leader, days after the U.S. president announced his intent to withdraw American troops from northeastern Syria. Trump “thought he got a commitment from Erdogan” to protect the Kurds, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the official wasn’t authorized to speak on the record.

An official at Tuesday’s meeting between Bolton and senior Turkish officials said presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin stated that Erdogan committed that Turkey would not take offensive action while U.S. forces were there.

Bolton departed Turkey without meeting with Erdogan in an apparent snub by the Turks — the meeting had been expected for days. A spokesman for Bolton said U.S. officials were told Erdogan cited the local election season and a speech to parliament for not meeting with him.
In the more than two-hour meeting with Kalin, Bolton outlined five U.S. principles for the Syria drawdown, including that “the United States opposes any mistreatment of opposition forces who fought with us against ISIS.”

In the high-stakes session in Ankara’s presidential complex, Bolton also rebuked Erdogan’s column in The New York Times, in which the Turkish leader restated his position that the Syrian Defense Forces were members of terrorist groups and criticized the U.S. air campaign against ISIS.

An official at the meeting said Bolton told Kalin that Erdogan’s op-ed was “wrong and offensive.”

The official added that the U.S. stuck by Trump’s request that the Kurds who fought with the U.S. not be mistreated, and the Turks stuck by their position that the Kurds “are terrorist groups and they’re free to go after them.”

Trump abruptly announced last month he intended to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, and the U.S. has sent mixed signals over how soon that would be accomplished. Bolton’s trip to the Mideast was aimed at assuring allies it would not be done precipitously.

But Kalin told reporters after talks with Bolton there is no slowdown in the timetable for U.S. withdrawal from Syria. He said U.S. officials have said during their discussions that the withdrawal could take place within “120 days.”

Kalin said talks with Bolton focused on how the U.S. would collect the weapons that were given to Kurdish militia fighting Islamic States as well as the future of U.S. bases in Syria. He said he handed over two dossiers to Bolton — one on Turkish help to Kurdish populations in Iraq and Syria, the other on the Kurdish militias’ “criminal activities and human rights violations.”

A Bolton spokesman, Garrett Marquis, said in a statement that Bolton and Turkish officials “had a productive discussion of the President’s decision to withdraw at a proper pace from Northeast Syria.”

But Erdogan, for his part, said Bolton had “made a very serious mistake. Whoever thinks this way is also mistaken. We cannot make any concession in this regard and those involved in a terror corridor” in Syria would “receive the necessary punishment.”

Trump’s shifting timetable for pulling U.S. troops out of Syria has left allies and other players in the region confused and jockeying for influence over a withdrawal strategy that appeared to be a work in progress.

Trump faced widespread criticism that he was abandoning the Kurds in the face of Turkish threats. Officials said at the time that although many details of the withdrawal had not yet been finalized, they expected American forces to be out by mid-January.

After Bolton announced this week the U.S. pullout would not be as immediate as Trump initially had declared, U.S. allies were still seeking clarification from American diplomats.

Turkey insists its military actions are aimed at Kurdish fighters in Syria — the Syrian Kurdish Peoples Protection Units, or YPG — whom it regards as terrorists, and not against the Kurdish people. That has been Ankara’s longtime position and Turkey has rejected any role for Kurdish fighters in restoring peace to the war-torn region.

The Pentagon said Monday no U.S. troops have withdrawn from Syria yet but added that there is an “approved framework” for withdrawal.

Bolton maintained there is no fixed timetable for completing the drawdown, but insisted it was not an indefinite commitment to the region. Still, some 200 U.S. troops will remain in the vicinity of al-Tanf, in southern Syria, to counter growing Iranian activity in the region, he said.
Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Robert Burns and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

Military.com: Lawmaker Opposes Using Pentagon Funds to Pay for Border Wall

8 Jan 2019
Military.com | By Richard Sisk
The ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee stated his opposition Tuesday to using Defense Department funds for the border wall but also said President Donald Trump has the authority to do it.
"I am opposed to using defense dollars for non-defense purposes," Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said at an informal gathering with defense reporters on a range of issues facing the new Congress.
Building the wall "is not a responsibility of the Department of Defense," he said. "I am opposed to using defense dollars for anything" but military purposes.
Democrats have leveled harsh criticism at Trump for floating the idea of declaring a national emergencythat would allow him to dip into the Pentagon’s budget.
Stopping short of a similar rebuke, Thornberry nonetheless noted that the president already is siphoning off DoD resources by deploying active-duty troops to the border.
In early December, then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis estimated the cost of the deployment to that point at $72 million.
By declaring a national emergency, Trump could draw funding for the wall from what Thornberry called the "unobligated balances" in the Defense Department’s military construction budget.
Thornberry turned over chairmanship of the committee last week to Rep. Adam Smith, D-Washington. Smith also has said Trump likely would succeed in drawing money from the military budget for a wall by declaring a national emergency but added that the move would immediately face court challenges.
Thornberry said he did not know how much of the military construction budget would come under the heading of "unobligated balances" but made clear that he thought using military money to fund the wall — and the Army Corps of Engineers to construct it — is a bad idea.
"The military is not short of challenges" without being tasked to fund and build a wall, he said. "They’re not out there looking for new missions."
Thornberry spoke hours before Trump was to address the nation on the partial government shutdown, now in its 17th day, caused by the impasse over wall funding. Trump also said he will go to the border Thursday to visit with troops deployed there.
Trump is seeking $5.6 billion for the wall, but House and Senate Democrats have offered $1.6 billion for border security enhancements that would not include wall funding.
Vice President Mike Pence was to brief House and Senate leaders Tuesday afternoon on what Trump will propose in the address to the nation.
In a tweet Monday, Trump indicated he has the authority to declare a national emergency to get military funding for the wall, but said he preferred to compromise with Congress.
The president said there was "no doubt" he could declare a national emergency "but let’s get our deal done in Congress."