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By Josh Lederman
WASHINGTON — Rallying the world against Venezuela and Iran, President Donald Trump is getting more traction targeting the adversary he never seemed to notice than the one he’s been fretting about for years.
A high-profile summit in Warsaw opening Wednesday and organized by Trump’s administration is highlighting the deep schism between the United States and other nations on Iran. But many of those same nations are embracing Trump’s call to action on Venezuela and his denouncement of embattled leader Nicolás Maduro.
The administration had hoped the Warsaw conference would be a showcase of global unity against Tehran, coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution. When it was announced, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo emphasized it would address “Middle East stability and Iran” — identifying no other country by name.
But three diplomats from NATO countries tell NBC News that America’s allies pushed back, with many nations telling the U.S. they would not participate if the summit was a narrow effort to gang up on Iran.
Amid the pushback, the Trump administration dropped all mentions of Iran from its description of the summit and announced other topics that would also be addressed, such as the Mideast peace plan being drafted by Trump adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
“Their idea from the very beginning was to have a conference on Iran, no doubt. But then they realized pretty soon that would be not possible because most countries wouldn’t like that,” one of the foreign diplomats said. “So they changed it.”
Although Pompeo says more than 60 nations are attending the conference, many key countries are staying away, including China and Russia — both members of the Iran nuclear deal. At the conference, which will be attended by Vice President Mike Pence and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, many nations are sending lower-level representatives such as career diplomats.
The resistance follows widespread frustration by European nations about Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal, which Iran and the deal’s other members have vowed to keep alive. Those nations have also refused to comply with the Trump administration’s requests that they slap new sanctions on Iran, vexing Trump’s efforts to ramp up a global “maximum pressure campaign.”
Trump’s challenges in projecting global unity against Iran also illustrate how his go-it-alone approach to foreign policy and frequent spurning of allies is impeding his ability to secure support overseas when it’s needed to advance his top national security priorities.
NATO members have been dismayed by his comments suggesting the U.S. might not remain in the alliance. Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was so distraught over the way the president disregarded U.S. allies with his Syria withdrawal decision that it contributed to his decision to quit.
“Europe’s approach to Iran is about the best example of Europe trying to assert its independence against U.S. policy,” said Heather Conley, a former U.S. diplomat and Europe expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
In contrast, Trump’s administration has faced far less friction in persuading foreign nations and international institutions to follow America’s lead in Venezuela. Last month the U.S. became the first country to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaidó, head of the National Assembly, as the country’s legitimate leader in a sharp rebuke to Maduro, the Venezuelan president.
Two dozen nations have joined the United States in recognizing Guaidó in the three weeks since. The group includes major powers like Germany and the U.K. along with key regional nations including Brazil, Colombia and Argentina. Major international institutions such as the Organization of American States, the Inter-American Development Bank and the European Parliament have also joined the cause.
For Trump, the growing coalition backing Guaidó represents one of his most successful diplomatic initiatives to date, and has also been met by broad bipartisan support in the United States. Even Democrats who have criticized the president for suggesting the U.S. could take military action in Venezuela have generally supported his move to recognize the opposition leader and to push back on Maduro’s human rights abuses.
Yet if there’s an irony for Trump, it’s that his success has come on an issue that was never high on his agenda in the first place.
As a presidential candidate, Trump spoke incessantly about Iran and what he described as the horrors of the 2015 nuclear deal, struck by President Barack Obama and world powers, under which Iran agreed to limits on its nuclear program in exchange for billions of dollars in sanctions relief.
“They are bad actors,” Trump said of Iran during the second Republican presidential debate in September 2015. “Bad things are going to happen.”
Maduro’s bad behavior, on the other hand, had never been a focus of Trump’s until recently, and his strong stance of late has surprised many foreign policy experts who have wondered what’s driving the newfound interest. On the campaign trail, Trump’s mentions of Venezuela were limited to warning about Democrat Hillary Clinton’s “Venezuela-style politics of poverty” and arguing that the U.S. economy would soon look like Venezuela’s if she were elected.
In the case of Iran, European nations are so determined to undermine the Trump administration’s policy that they’ve been working to create an alternative financial transaction system, known as the Special Purpose Vehicle, to sidestep the U.S. and facilitate some business and humanitarian trade with Iran.
“They were disgruntled because they were just re-establishing business connections with Iran” that had become permissible under the nuclear deal, said Evelyn Farkas, a former Defense Department official and an NBC News national security analyst. “It’s a relationship that is useful to the Europeans from a commercial perspective.”
But the Trump administration has argued that even though many nations are refusing to go along with new sanctions, the administration’s pressure campaign is profoundly hampering Iran’s economy and hurting the government there. That’s because the threat of running afoul of the United States and facing penalties has led major businesses to independently decide to cut all commercial ties with Iran.
Mark Dubowitz, who runs the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank that advocates hawkish U.S. policies on Iran, said that Trump’s tough Iran sanctions would have been only marginally more effective had European governments joined him. But he said the bigger question was whether Trump’s administration could successfully build a coalition to pressure the country diplomatically.
“Obviously it hasn’t been as successful as it has on Venezuela and hasn’t been as successful as the Obama administration was,” Dubowitz said. “Having said that, I think Warsaw is going to be a pretty good test at how effective the administration has been at bringing countries to the table to discuss these issues.”
America Ferrera, Eva Longoria and over 200 Latino artists ‘speak out loudly against hate’
Actresses Eva Longoria, America Ferrera and more than 200 other Latino artists and civil rights leaders on Friday penned a letter of support to the Latino community in the United States after a mass shooting in Texas and immigration raids in Mississippi.
Musicians Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin and Lin-Manuel Miranda gave their backing to the letter, which called on those outside the Latino community to “speak out loudly against hate.”
“If you are feeling terrified, heartbroken and defeated by the barrage of attacks on our community, you are not alone,” said the letter, addressed to the Querida Familia Latina (Dear Latino Family) and published in the New York Times, La Opinion and other newspapers.
The letter followed a shooting targeting Mexican-Americans and Mexicans in the predominantly Latino border city of El Paso, Texas on Aug. 3 that killed 22 people, as well as the arrest of nearly 700 people in immigration raids last week on seven agricultural processing plants in Mississippi.
Both followed accusations that President Donald Trump has stoked racial divisions with his rhetoric and his crackdown on immigration at the U.S. border with Mexico.
“We will not be broken. We will not be silenced. We will continue to denounce any hateful and inhumane treatment of our community. We will demand dignity and justice,” the letter said.
It called on allies of the Latino community to “speak out loudly against hate, to contribute your resources to organizations that support our community, and to hold our leaders accountable.”
Former “Desperate Housewives” star and the executive producer of ABC’s “Grand Hotel” Longoria said in a statement that the U.S. is facing “a moral crisis … and we chose to use this moment to raise our voices and speak up.”
The letter was signed by many of the leading Latino voices and activists in United States, including veteran labor leader Dolores Huerta, novelist Sandra Cisneros and Voto Latino political group president Maria Teresa Kumar.
Trans workers not protected by civil rights law, Trump admin tells Supreme Court
The Trump administration on Friday filed a brief with the Supreme Court arguing that transgender workers are not protected by federal civil rights law and can be fired because of their gender identity.
The brief was submitted in a case concerning Aimee Stephens, a transgender woman who was fired from a Detroit funeral home after she informed her employer that she was beginning her gender transition. The case, R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, et al., is one of three cases concerning LGBTQ workers’ rights that the Supreme Court is expected to hear this fall.
The brief, submitted by Solicitor General Noel J. Francisco and other Department of Justice attorneys, argues that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin, “does not bar discrimination because of transgender status.”
“In 1964, the ordinary public meaning of ‘sex’ was biological sex. It did not encompass transgender status,” the brief states. “In the particular context of Title VII — legislation originally designed to eliminate employment discrimination against racial and other minorities — it was especially clear that the prohibition on discrimination because of ‘sex’ referred to unequal treatment of men and women in the workplace.”
If the Supreme Court sides with the Trump administration, it will be overturning a decision by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which sided with Stephens in March 2018.
“Discrimination against employees, either because of their failure to conform to sex stereotypes or their transgender and transitioning status, is illegal under Title VII,” Judge Karen Nelson Moore wrote in the 6th Circuit’s decision. “The unrefuted facts show that the Funeral Home fired Stephens because she refused to abide by her employer’s stereotypical conception of her sex.”
Moore added that requiring the Christian business owner, Thomas Rost, “to comply with Title VII’s proscriptions on discrimination does not substantially burden his religious practice.”
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the conservative legal group that had petitioned the high court to hear the Stephens case, said the lower court overstepped its bounds by “redefin[ing]” the term “sex” in Title VII to “mean something other than what Congress clearly intended.” Just hours before the Trump administration submitted its brief, ADF submitted one of its own, arguing that “judicially rewriting sex discrimination in Title VII will spill over into other federal laws that prohibit sex discrimination.”
“It will deny women and girls fair opportunities to compete in sports, to ascend to the winner’s podium, and to receive critical scholarships,” the ADF brief states. “It will also require domestic-abuse shelters to allow men to sleep in the same room as female survivors of rape and violence. And it may dictate that doctors and hospitals provide transition services even in violation of their religious beliefs.”
In addition to Stephens’ case, the Supreme Court is set to hear two cases dealing with workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Those cases — Zarda v. Altitude Express and Bostock v. Clayton County — will be consolidated.
The Trump administration has made its position clear on the scope of sex discrimination in Title VII, so Friday’s amicus brief did not come as a surprise to those following the cases. In July 2017, the Department of Justice submitted an amicus brief with the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the Zarda case opposing the extension of Title VII discrimination protections on the basis of sexual orientation. And in October 2018 — prior to the Supreme Court decision to hear the Stephens case — the DOJ filed a brief with the high court siding with the funeral home. In the Stephens case, the federal government is pitted against itself, since the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is a defendant in the case.
The Supreme Court will hear the cases next term, which begins in October.
The biggest 2020 issue that the Democratic debates missed
WASHINGTON — Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is one of the most sought-after 2020 Democratic endorsements, presiding over the largest city in the most-populous state, which is positioned for major influence over the nomination now that its primary is on Super Tuesday.
So when presidential candidates come calling, he knows exactly what he wants from them.
“It’s definitely homelessness and housing,” Garcetti said. “The first person to jump on that will resonate in California.”
In Los Angeles and other major cities, rising housing costs and a lack of new low-income housing have contributed to a spike in homelessness.But it’s not only the poor who are feeling the pinch — or just California. Affordability concerns are filtering upward to middle class and even relatively affluent families, who complain they’re being shut out of job-rich metropolitan areas.
“With any kind of major issue in our country, it’s when it hits the middle class that policymakers start paying attention,” Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, told NBC News. “That’s certainly the case now.”
The 2020 field has taken notice. Top-tier contenders, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kamala Harris of California, Cory Booker of New Jersey and former Housing Secretary Julián Castro, have released detailed plans promising to provide new aid to renters and encourage more housing development.
The issue still hasn’t quite had its breakout moment nationally; it came up only in passing during the first two Democratic debates. But with a rise in activism already pushing candidates to get ahead of the issue, its time in the spotlight seems inevitable.
The rise of renters
The last time housing emerged as a major campaign issue was during the real estate crash of 2008.Property values have rebounded, but many Americans still can’t buy a home, leaving a bulge of cash-strapped renters whom Democrats see as a potential constituency.
“In a lot of parts in this country, the recession unhinged people’s personal economic reality, but the price of housing kept going up anyway,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, another 2020 candidate who’s working on a national plan to boost federal investment in housing, told NBC News.
The number of Americans renting a home — nearly 37 percent — reached a 50-year high in 2016, and nearly half of renters are “cost-burdened,” meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. The percentage of cost-burdened renters has improved slightly since the recession, but it’s nearly 10 points higherthan it was in 2000, and it’s worse in many large cities.
Other 2020 contenders, like Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., have also called for expanding Section 8 housing vouchers, adding new tenant protections, and funding assistance to families at risk of homelessness.
Some of the plans call for boosting federal tax credits and grant programs to help repair and build developments earmarked for low-income residents. Warren’s plan would commit $500 billion to these projects and sets a goal of building 3.2 million housing units.
Data for Progress, a liberal think tank and advocacy group, has been tracking 2020 candidates’ positions on affordable housing and publishing polling to try to convince Democrats that major investments in housing is a winning issue.
“There is some realpolitik to wanting to speak to the needs of renters,” said Henry Kraemer, who researches housing for the group. “Democrats are just much, much, much more likely to be renters than Republicans.”
But some worry that while middle-class struggles have helped to draw attention to housing issues, some of the poorest residents might be left behind in the policy conversation.
In New York City, Council Member Ritchie Torres is running for retiring Rep. José Serrano’s congressional seat on an affordable housing platform after shining a spotlight on unsafe conditions in public housing.
Torres says he’s concerned the city’s 400,000 public housing residents — the largest concentration in the country — are being left out of the discussion despite official estimates that their homes require $32 billion in maintenance. While Warren’s plan includes some money for public housing repairs and Sanders has talked about the need for more funding, the candidate proposals mostly focus on alternative housing approaches.
“Poor people of color in public housing are fundamentally forgotten by the presidential candidates,” Torres told NBC News.
The YIMBY movement
Aid to renters could help them pay the bills, but experts have warned the added cash could prompt landlords to raise rents, especially if the housing supply remains the same.
Such proposals also wouldn’t directly address complaints from upwardly mobile workers who would make too much to qualify for aid, but are still struggling to find an affordable home in areas with high costs of living. Median home values were more than $1 million in almost 200 cities last year, and the number of metros expected to hit that mark is growing, according to an analysis by the real estate website Zillow.
This supply crunch is a focus of the fast-growing activist movement known as “YIMBY,” or “yes in my backyard.” Activists seek to relax zoning laws to encourage more construction, describing themselves as a rejoinder to the “not in my backyard” concerns that communities often raise about proposed developments.
“If there’s one major theme to YIMBY-ism across the country, it’s that we’re trying to legalize apartment buildings,” Matthew Lewis, communications director for California YIMBY, told NBC News. “The way we talk about it is that there’s plenty of room in our neighborhood for more neighbors.”
In line with these concerns, several 2020 candidates are looking to prod local and state governments to rezone their communities to make it easier to build cheaper multifamily housing.
Warren’s plan includes a new $10 billion grant program that local governments would compete to use, but only if they reformed their zoning and construction rules. Booker and Castro would tie existing block grants to reform requirements, and Klobuchar’s plan would seek to spur similar changes. Harris’ plan does not address zoning.
The politics of the issue don’t cut neatly along traditional party lines. Many of the biggest YIMBY fronts are in blue states and blue cities along with purple-trending suburbs that were key to Democratic victories in 2018. If the housing issue comes to a head nationally, it could pit different parts of the Democratic coalition against one another.
“There’s sort of a clash between younger renters who feel the system doesn’t work and older homeowners who have profited very well,” Jenny Schuetz, a David M. Rubenstein Fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, told NBC News.
In California, housing advocates rallied around SB 50, a bill that would rezone areas near mass transit and businesses to make it easier to build larger developments. The measure saw a high-profile campaign by supportive lawmakers and advocates, who warned of an estimated shortfall of 3.5 million homes statewide. But the Democratic Legislature has set the legislation aside for now amid pushback from critics, who complain it would pre-empt local control and change the look and feel of neighborhoods.
A legacy of discrimination
Housing debates can get ugly, especially when confronting divides over race and segregation.
Efforts to build affordable housing sometimes prompt public complaints that lower-income residents will drag down property values or make schools less competitive, which in turn spur accusations that residents are using euphemisms to keep out minorities. In many cases, neighborhoods were originally zoned with that exact purpose in mind.
But the accusations fly both ways, with some activists in minority communities worried that opening up more development in their neighborhoods will usher in gentrification that leaves them priced out. Rick Hall, president of the anti-SB 50 coalition Livable California, told NBC News that these concerns cut against the caricature of opponents of the bill as wealthy elitists in walled-off enclaves.
“We get a lot of bad press about being white suburbanites, but I’m an anti-gentrification activist who lives in an urban San Francisco area,” Hall said.
Some of the 2020 candidates have put out plans to address housing discrimination by trying to provide additional help to neighborhoods starved of resources by racist “redlining” policies that excluded minorities from housing benefits.
Warren’s plan would help fund down payments for low-income residents in once-redlined neighborhoods. Harris, meanwhile, put out a $100 billion proposal last month to boost black homeownership in similarly affected communities, offering up to $25,000 in aid to as many as 4 million qualifying buyers. More recently, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg released a plan to buy abandoned homes in redlined communities and transfer them to locals to rehabilitate.
But some liberal activists, while glad to see candidates’s various proposals, are worried that the housing movement still needs one catchy “big idea” it can unite behind and demand politicians adopt.
“What we’ve learned from health care and the ‘Green New Deal’ is we have to articulate a demand that sounds crazy right now, but helps us to awaken that political imagination,” Tara Raghuveer, housing campaign director for the community organizing group People’s Action, said.
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