What's Your Point? - Sessions' future, Russia sanctions

Your panelists this week include Bob Price - associate editor for Breitbart Texas, longtime Super Neighborhood leader Tomaro Bell, Majic 102.1 Sunday Morning Live radio show host Marcus Davis, political consultant Wayne Dolcefino and Republican strategist Jessica Colon join host Greg Groogan for a lively discussion about the Cabinet career future of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and an increase of sanctions by the federal government against Russia.

Associated Press

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) - Attorney General Jeff Sessions is eager to use his aggressive work against the MS-13 street gang to help mend his tattered relationship with President Donald Trump. "I hope so," he said Friday, trying to turn the corner from a week of sour performance reviews from his boss.

"It's one of many issues that we share deep commitments about," he told The Associated Press from a private room in the headquarters of El Salvador's national police force, where he had met law enforcement officials to talk about quashing the violent transnational gang.

That common concern about MS-13 was on display Friday as Trump spoke about the gang in Long Island, where MS-13 violence has resurfaced with a vengeance, and as Sessions toured a gang stronghold, motoring around El Salvador's graffiti-laced streets alongside rifle-wielding police officers who had tried to clear the neighborhood of gangsters before he arrived. MS-13 has roots both in Central America and Los Angeles.

But in his speech vowing to crush MS-13, Trump never mentioned Sessions.

"These are animals," Trump told law enforcement officials and relatives of crime victims in Brentwood, in Suffolk County, New York, where MS-13 has been blamed for a string of gruesome murders, including the killing of four young men in April.

The president battered Sessions for days with a series of tweets calling him weak and ineffective, his discontent centered on Sessions' decision months ago to recuse himself from the investigation into Trump campaign ties to Russia. Sessions said Thursday he won't resign unless Trump asks him to and spoke loyally of the president while saying he was right to take himself out of that investigation after acknowledging he had met the Russian ambassador during the campaign.

Though thousands of miles apart, Trump and Sessions seemed aligned in their message against MS-13. The gang has become a focal point in the national immigration debate, although it is in some respects a homegrown organization and it is unclear how many of its members are in the U.S. illegally.

"It is in a very expansive mode and we need to slam the door on that," Sessions said in the AP interview. "We need to stop them in their tracks and focus on this dangerous group."

The intense focus on gang violence is a departure for a Justice Department that has viewed as more urgent the prevention of cyberattacks from foreign criminals, international bribery and the threat of homegrown violent extremism.

But alarm about the gang has grown as it has preyed on largely suburban, immigrant communities. Several top officials in Sessions' office have experience prosecuting the gang in Baltimore, Alexandria, Virginia, and other cities.

MS-13, or the Mara Salvatrucha, is believed by federal prosecutors to have more than 10,000 members in the U.S., a mix of immigrants from Central America and U.S.-born members. The gang originated in Los Angeles in the 1980s then entrenched itself in Central America when its leaders were deported.

MS-13 and rival groups in El Salvador now control entire towns, rape girls and young women, kill competitors and massacre students, bus drivers and merchants who refuse to pay extortion.

One purpose of Sessions' trip was to learn more about how the gang's activities in El Salvador affect crime in the U.S. Officials believe major gang leaders are using cellphones from Salvadoran prisons to instruct members who have crossed into the U.S. illegally to kill rivals and extort immigrants.

Zach Terwilliger, who prosecuted gangs in the Eastern District of Virginia before taking a position in the deputy attorney general's office, found that to be true in some of his cases.

"We have to coordinate our intelligence," Terwilliger said. "I don't think you can understand MS-13 violence and the way they conduct themselves in the U.S. unless you come down here." He and leaders of the department's criminal division traveled with Sessions.

During his two-day trip, his first visit to El Salvador, the attorney general wandered through a crowded jail where members of rival gangs wearing white T-shirts sat side-by-side in large cells, their backs facing the curious onlookers. He met members of a transnational anti-gang task force and pledged his support for El Salvador's Attorney General Douglas Melendez, congratulating him on charges laid over the last two days against more than 700 gang members, many of them from MS-13.

Sessions recalled early conversations he had with Trump about the gang. "He saw the violent murders in Islip, New York, and he's asked about it personally," Sessions said. Trump then crafted an executive order in the first weeks of his presidency, directing the Justice Department to go after transnational gangs, and Sessions was eager to make it a priority.

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - President Donald Trump will sign a package of stiff financial sanctions against Russia that passed Congress with overwhelming support, the White House said Friday. Moscow has already responded, ordering a reduction in the number of U.S. diplomats in Russia and closing the U.S. Embassy's recreation retreat.

Trump's willingness to support the measure is a remarkable acknowledgement that he has yet to sell his party on his hopes for forging a warmer relationship with Moscow. His vow to extend a hand of cooperation to Russian President Vladimir Putin has been met with resistance as skeptical lawmakers look to limit the president's leeway to go easy on Moscow over its meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

The Senate passed the bill, 98-2, two days after the House pushed the measure through by an overwhelming margin, 419-3. Both were veto-proof numbers.

The White House initially wavered on whether the president would sign the measure into law. But in a statement late Friday, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump had "reviewed the final version and, based on its responsiveness to his negotiations, approves the bill and intends to sign it."

Never in doubt was a cornerstone of the legislation that bars Trump from easing or waiving the additional penalties on Russia unless Congress agrees. The provisions were included to assuage concerns among lawmakers that the president's push for better relations with Moscow might lead him to relax the penalties without first securing concessions from the Kremlin.

The legislation is aimed at punishing Moscow for interfering in the 2016 presidential election and for its military aggression in Ukraine and Syria, where the Kremlin has backed President Bashar Assad. It also imposes financial sanctions against Iran and North Korea.

Before Trump's decision to sign the bill into law, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the bill's passage was long overdue, a jab at Trump and the GOP-controlled Congress. McCain, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, has called Putin a murderer and a thug.

"Over the last eight months what price has Russia paid for attacking our elections?" McCain asked. "Very little."

Russia's Foreign Ministry on Friday said it is ordering the U.S. Embassy in Russia to reduce the number of its diplomats by Sept. 1. Russia will also close down the embassy's recreational retreat on the outskirts of Moscow as well as warehouse facilities.

Meanwhile, some European countries expressed concerns that the measures targeting Russia's energy sector would harm its businesses involved in piping Russian natural gas. Germany's foreign minister said his country wouldn't accept the U.S. sanctions against Russia being applied to European companies.

A spokesman for the European Commission said Friday that European officials will be watching the U.S. effort closely, vowing to "remain vigilant."

Trump had privately expressed frustration over Congress' ability to limit or override the power of the president on national security matters, according to Trump administration officials and advisers. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal White House deliberations.

But faced with heavy bipartisan support for the bill in the House and Senate, the president had little choice but to sign the bill into law. Trump's communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, had suggested Thursday that Trump might veto the bill and "negotiate an even tougher deal against the Russians."

But Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said that would be a serious mistake and called Scaramucci's remark an "off-handed comment." If Trump rejected the bill, Corker said, Congress would overrule him.

"I cannot imagine anybody is seriously thinking about vetoing this bill," said Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "It's not good for any president - and most governors don't like to veto things that are going to be overridden. It shows a diminishment of their authority. I just don't think that's a good way to start off as president."

Still, signing a bill that penalizes Russia's election interference marks a significant shift for Trump. He's repeatedly cast doubt on the conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia sought to tip the election in his favor. And he's blasted as a "witch hunt" investigations into the extent of Russia's interference and whether the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow.

The 184-page bill seeks to hit Putin and the oligarchs close to him by targeting Russian corruption, human rights abusers, and crucial sectors of the Russian economy, including weapons sales and energy exports.

The bill underwent revisions to address concerns voiced by American oil and natural gas companies that sanctions specific to Russia's energy sector could backfire on them to Moscow's benefit. The bill raised the threshold for when U.S. firms would be prohibited from being part of energy projects that also included Russian businesses.

Lawmakers said they also made adjustments so the sanctions on Russia's energy sector didn't undercut the ability of U.S. allies in Europe to get access to oil and gas resources outside of Russia.

The North Korea sanctions are intended to thwart Pyongyang's ambition for nuclear weapons by cutting off access to the cash the reclusive nation needs to follow through with its plans. The bill prohibits ships owned by North Korea or by countries that refuse to comply with U.N. resolutions against it from operating in American waters or docking at U.S. ports. Goods produced by North Korea's forced labor would be prohibited from entering the United States, according to the bill.

The sanctions package imposes mandatory penalties on people involved in Iran's ballistic missile program and anyone who does business with them. The measure would apply terrorism sanctions to the country's Revolutionary Guards and enforce an arms embargo.

Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., voted against the sanctions bill.


Contact Richard Lardner on Twitter: http://twitter.com/rplardner

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