President Obama returns to Washington from a quick fence-mending and fundraising trip to Florida to refocus on national security, trade agreements, and the Middle East
COMPILED FROM WIRE REPORTS
Here’s a quick roundup of President Obama’s recent activity.
MIAMI – On May 28, President Obama extended a symbolic olive branch to Miami’s Cuban-Americans by paying his respects to the shrine of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre in Coconut Grove.
The surprise afternoon stop at the shrine by the sea, better known by its Spanish name, La Ermita de la Caridad, comes at a time when many Cuban exiles remain angry by the president’s decision last December to restore diplomatic relations with the communist island, especially since Obama made no effort to reach out to Miami leaders prior to his announcement.
Even before the president set foot in the shrine, Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott had welcomed Obama to Florida by slamming the president’s decision to remove Cuba from a list of terrorism sponsors, which will pave the way for easier business transactions with the island.
“President Obama’s decision to remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism is shameful,” Scott said in a statement. “Cuba has done nothing to warrant being taken off this list. … The president should take time to reconsider this dangerous decision while in South Florida today.”
The shrine stop marked the end of Obama’s two-day Miami trip, in which he raised political cash for the Democratic National Committee and got briefed on the upcoming hurricane season. He toured the National Hurricane Center’s windowless hollows and asked questions about storm chasing and forecasting.
Obama stressed that people must make their own preparations and not solely rely on local and state governments for help.
“The best preparedness is that being taken on an individual level,” he said.
NSA bill passes
After Obama’s return, Congress gave final approval Tuesday to the most sweeping rollback of government surveillance powers in the post-Sept. 11 era, clearing the way for a new program that bans the National Security Agency from collecting and storing Americans’ telephone dialing records.
The Senate’s 67-32 vote reflected growing concerns about privacy, but also increasing unease among lawmakers that the abrupt expiration of the surveillance program, caused by congressional deadlock, posed a national security risk.
The new system allows intelligence agencies to access the same kind of call records, but only by requesting the information from telephone companies with a court order.
The USA Freedom Act, which was previously passed by the House, was sent to Obama, who quickly signed it.
“After a needless delay and inexcusable lapse in important national security authorities, my administration will work expeditiously to ensure our national security professionals again have the full set of vital tools they need to continue protecting the country,” Obama said Tuesday.
First disclosed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in 2013, the NSA surveillance program sparked a national debate over where to draw the line between Americans’ privacy rights and the fight against terrorism.
The government had been secretly collecting millions of phone records in its pursuit of terrorists since 2001. The information did not reveal the contents of conversations, but included phone numbers dialed, calls received and the time and duration of calls.
Obama had sought to reform the program, which was enacted during the George W. Bush administration after the Sept. 11 attacks. But he kept it running while Congress struggled to agree on reforms. Last month a federal appeals court ruled that the NSA’s bulk collection program lacked legal authority.
The bill will allow the NSA to temporarily restart its collection program, giving the government six months to switch to the new system. The NSA has said such a timeline is sufficient.
The bill also would reauthorize other parts of the PATRIOT Act that have been less contested, including the “lone wolf” provision, which allows the government to apply for court permission to wiretap an individual suspected of terrorist activities who is not part of a larger group, and another that allows the government to conduct “roving wiretaps” as suspects switch phones.
Tough talk to Israel
Obama took a step toward a tougher line with Israel in an interview released Tuesday, raising the possibility that the U.S. will allow a United Nations vote on issues related to the Palestinians if the two sides make no meaningful movement toward peace.
In an interview with an Israeli television station, Obama noted that his administration has “up until this point” quashed such efforts at the U.N. while insisting that the Israelis and Palestinians must negotiate a resolution. But he said it is a challenge for the U.S. to keep demanding that the Palestinians negotiate in good faith if no one believes the Israelis are doing the same.
“How do we move off what appears right now to be a hopeless situation and move it back towards a hopeful situation?” Obama asked in the interview. “That will require more than just words. That will require some actions. And that’s going to be hard work, though, because right now I think there’s not a lot of confidence in the process.”
In an interview with Israeli journalist Ilana Dayan, Obama drew parallels between the African-American experience and the Jewish one to justify continued support for Israel.
“In my mind, there is a direct line between the Jewish experience, the African-American experience, and as a consequence, we have, I hope, a special empathy and a special regard for those who are being mistreated because of the color of their skin or the nature of their faith,” Obama said.
On the international trade front, Obama is putting new pressure on reluctant lawmakers in the U.S. House to win final passage of fast-track trade authority. He is sticking to the same playbook he used to push the bill through the Senate last month, granting interviews promoting trade with local television stations, making speeches and offering cover to Democrats who are on the fence.
House Democrats largely oppose Obama’s trade agenda. Democrats face growing pressure from labor unions, which historically provide the party with campaign support. Unions have told voters that Obama’s Asia-Pacific trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, will lead to more jobs shipped overseas.
Bill Samuel, director of government affairs for the AFL-CIO, said in a telephone interview that the trade bill is about 20 to 30 votes short of a majority in the House, with as many as 90 percent of House Democrats opposed.
Obama awarded two World War I veterans posthumous Medals of Honor at the White House on Tuesday, citing discrimination against Jewish-Americans and Black Americans for the decades-long delay in honoring the two.
Army Pvt. Henry Johnson, a member of the all-Black 369th Infantry Regiment, was honored for his response to a nighttime attack from German soldiers while he was on sentry duty in France in 1918, Obama said. His only companion wounded and his own gun jammed, Johnson fought instead with a knife and was himself wounded repeatedly but kept the Germans from capturing him and his fellow soldier.
Though he was lauded for his bravery at the time – depicted on military recruiting posters and honored by the French government – Johnson did not receive an award from the United States. He died in poverty at age 32, and was awarded a Purple Heart in 1996 – 78 years after the fight.
A 1993 study commissioned by the Army found racial disparities in the awarding of Medals of Honor.
The first African-American World War I veteran to get the award was honored just two years before that, nearly three-quarters of a century after the end of the war.
Army Sgt. William Shemin also received the Medal of Honor for service in World War I. In 1918, Obama said, Shemin, who was Jewish, repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire in order to rescue injured soldiers, and later took control of his platoon after commanding officers had been killed.
Colin Diersing, Lisa Mascaro, Michael A. Memoli and Christi Parsons of the Tribune Washington Bureau / TNS; and Toluse Olorunnipa and Justin Sink of Bloomberg News / TNS all contributed to this report.