- Mitch McConnell announced during a press conference Thursday, that he plans to introduce legislation that would raise the age for tobacco use to 21.
- Currently, 12 states across the country and hundreds of localities have already raised the age from 18 to 21.
- The use of tobacco products by teens has risen significantly, with many attributing the increase to e-cigarettes.
McConnell Announces New Legislation Proposal
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) announced Thursday that he will introduce legislation to raise the tobacco use age from 18 to 21 nationwide.
This legislation would include all tobacco products, including cigarettes, chewing tobacco, and vaping.
“For some time I’ve been hearing from parents of teenage children seeing an unprecedented spike in…vaping, among teens,” McConnell said in a press conference in his home state of Kentucky. “It is reaching epidemic levels around the country.”
Smoking Rates Among American Teens
The use of tobacco products among teenagers was McConnell’s motivating factor in announcing the legislation. According to the CDC, 90 percent of adult smokers try their first cigarette before the age of 21.
The rise of e-cigarettes has led to an increase in teen smoking. In 2017, 2.1 million high school students reported using e-cigarettes. In 2018, that number jumped to 3.6 million. In the state of Kentucky, in 2018, 45 percent of high schoolers used these devices.
According to a 2018 survey by Truth Initiative, 63 percent of Juul users did not know that these devices contained nicotine.
In 12 states, the legal age for tobacco use is already 21. Over 400 towns, cities, and counties have also followed suit. McConnell said he expects bipartisan support of the bill.
Juul is also behind this move, saying in a statement, “we must restrict youth usage of vapor products.”
Protestors Call for Puerto Rico Governor’s Resignation
- Protestors in Puerto Rico have been demonstrating for the last three days calling for Governor Ricardo Rosselló to step down.
- The demonstrations come after 900 pages of leaked private messages showed the governor and other officials using sexist and homophobic slurs against political opponents, women, and others.
- Many of Rosselló’s political allies have withdrawn their support and two government officials involved in the chat resigned this weekend, but the governor has said he will not step down.
- The chats were first leaked just one day after six government officials were arrested and charged with funneling $15.5 million worth of federal contracts to politically connected consultants.
Thousands of people took to the streets of Puerto Rico on Monday in the third consecutive day of protests calling for Governor Ricardo Rosselló to resign.
The protests took a turn after demonstrators gathered near the governor’s mansion, and police fired tear gas and pepper spray into the crowd. The island’s police commissioner later told reporters that protesters had thrown rocks, bottles, and tear gas canisters at the officers.
Demonstrators are calling for Rosselló to step down after leaked messages from a group chat on Telegram showed the governor and 11 men in his inner circle repeatedly using sexist and homophobic slurs to insult political opponents, women, and others.
The excerpts from the messages were first leaked to the media by an anonymous source on Thursday. Then on Saturday, Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism published nearly 900 pages of messages from that group chat.
In those chats, Rosselló himself reportedly used sexist slurs to describe the former New York City Council Speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, and used profanities when talking about the federal oversight group working Puerto Rico’s debt crisis.
Rosselló and others joked about shooting Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan. They also made homophobic comments about Puerto Rican singer Ricky Martin, and talked about manipulating public opinion and discrediting journalists and other opponents of the governor.
All of the individuals involved in the scandal, which has been dubbed “Chatgate” and “Rickyleaks,” were either current or former administration officials.
Notably, that included Secretary of State Luis Rivera Marín, Interior Secretary Ricardo Llerandi, Public Affairs Secretary Anthony Maceira, and Cheif Financial Officer Christian Sobrino.
In addition to the protests, Rosselló has also seen significant political backlash.
Many of the governor’s political allies have withdrawn their support for him. Puerto Rico’s Senate president and House majority leader said they lost faith in Rosselló. Both those leaders were mocked in the messages even though they are members of the same political party.
Representative Jenniffer González-Colón, Puerto Rico’s nonvoting member in the U.S. Congress, said that Rosselló should not run for re-election in 2020, and that he should “immediately reflect on his role as governor.”
Other political figures and members of the island’s House and Senate have also come out against the governor. Prominent Puerto Rican celebrities like Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and singer Ricky Martin have also voiced support for the protests and condemned Rosselló.
And the bigger picture is this: the Hamilton falsehoods in these documents are a minor subplot in a far larger, very disturbing portrait of how this Administration operates. Send tweet.— Lin-Manuel Miranda (@Lin_Manuel) July 15, 2019
Over the weekend, Secretary of State Marín Puerto and Cheif Financial Officer Sobrino resigned. Rosselló, however, is refusing to step down.
After the messages were leaked, Rosselló released a statement where he apologized for the comments, and said he had been under a lot of pressure and working long hours, adding that the messages were just him releasing tension.
He said he would fire the members of his administration who were in the chat, though he also said he would keep the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Public Affairs- meaning the two highest-ranking officials in the chat that did not resign would still be in office.
Rosselló also said in the statement that he will announce a government reorganization and anti-corruption measures in the next few days.
“This is a very painful situation for me, as governor, as a human being and as a Puerto Rican,” he added. “But I recognise there is no other way out and there is no worthwhile forgiveness on my part that does not include corrections and clear signs of intent to change.”
During a radio interview Monday, Rosselló insisted that it is in Puerto Rico’s best interest for him to stay in office. “I have to lift myself up. And I have to move forward to do what’s best for Puerto Rico,” he said.
The Tip of the Iceberg
Part of the reason these messages are such a big deal and have created such a big response is that for many Puerto Ricans, this is the result of a lot of built-up frustration with a governor who ran as an anti-corruption and pro-transparency candidate.
The first leak to the media came just one day after federal authorities revealed a massive corruption investigation into high levels of the island’s government when they arrested six people and filed criminal charges against them for illegally directing nearly $15.5 million in federal contracts to politically connected consultants.
Those arrested included Rosselló’s former education secretary and the former executive director of the Puerto Rico Health Insurance Administration. After that scandal, there were already calls for Rosselló to step down.
Both of these incidents only add to the frustrations over how Rosselló handled the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which killed upwards of 4,645, according to a new Havard study.
Puerto Ricans are also upset about Rosselló’s controversial education policies, as well as the country’s nearly 12-year-long economic recession that many feel he has done little to fix.
On Monday afternoon, a lawmaker introduced legislation to bring impeachment charges against Rosselló.
However, leaders in Puerto Rico’s House and Senate, both of which are controlled by the governor’s party, said that they will give him more time to think about his future before starting impeachment proceedings.
See what others are saying: (NPR) (Al Jazeera) (The Los Angeles Times)
Trump Defends “Go Home” Tweets Amid Backlash
- On Sunday President Donald Trump said in a tweet that “‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen,” who are from other countries should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
- The tweets appeared to refer to Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley, who have recently been publicly sparring with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
- Both Democrats and Republicans responded, condemning Trump’s tweets, and noting that all of those women with the exception of Omar were born in the U.S.
- The four Congresswomen and others responded, with many calling the tweets racist. Trump responded Monday morning, demanding that they apologize and saying that they were the ones who are racist.
After significant backlash, President Donald Trump defended controversial tweets he made Sunday calling for ‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen” from other countries to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
….it is done. These places need your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough. I’m sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 14, 2019
Though Trump did not name anyone specifically, he seemed to be referring to a group of four freshman Congresswomen known as “the Squad,” who have been publicly clashing with Nancy Pelosi over the last week.
That group includes Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ilhan Omar (D-MN) Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA).
All four representatives are women of color and all were born in the United States with the exception of Omar, who was born in Somalia, but fled the country during the civil war when she was a child and later became a U.S. citizen when she was a teenager.
While there have been clashes between Pelosi and some of these members in the past, tensions grew recently after the Squad voted against the $4.5 billion border aid bill because they were concerned the money would go towards Trump’s immigration crackdown, rather than bettering conditions in detention centers.
Those tensions boiled over last week after Pelosi told The New York Times that the Squad “didn’t have any following.”
That did not go over so well and after a closed-door meeting on Wednesday, Ocasio-Cortez told The Washington Post that Pelosi was explicitly “singling out of newly elected women of color.”
The Squad Responds
All four of the Congresswomen responded to Trump’s tweets on their own Twitter accounts shortly after.
“Mr. President, the country I ‘come from,’ & the country we all swear to, is the United States,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote. “But given how you’ve destroyed our border with inhumane camps, all at a benefit to you & the corps who profit off them, you are absolutely right about the corruption laid at your feet.”
“You are angry because you can’t conceive of an America that includes us. You rely on a frightened America for your plunder,” she continued. “On top of not accepting an America that elected us, you cannot accept that we don’t fear you, either.”
Omar responded on Twitter, going after Trump and accusing him of encouraging white nationalism.
“Mr. President, As Members of Congress, the only country we swear an oath to is the United States. Which is why we are fighting to protect it from the worst, most corrupt and inept president we have ever seen,” Omar said.
“You are stoking white nationalism bc you are angry that people like us are serving in Congress and fighting against your hate-filled agenda.”
Pressley responded to Trump’s tweet, writing “THIS is what racism looks like.”
“Want a response to a lawless & complete failure of a President?” Tlaib wrote on Twitter. “He is the crisis. His dangerous ideology is the crisis. He needs to be impeached.”
Tlaib also later tweeted out a video and wrote in the caption, “I will #neverbackdown and no bully, even this racist President, will wavier the work we have to do.”
Others Lawmakers Respond
Numerous Democrats also responded, condemning the president’s tweets.
According to The Washington Post, by Sunday evening at least 90 House Democrats and Independent Rep. Justin Amash (I-MI), who just left the Republican party, had denounced the Presidents remarks. The Post also reported “more than half of them using the words ‘racist or ‘racism’ to describe his tweets.”
Notably, Nancy Pelosi responded to Trump in a tweet.
“When @realDonaldTrump tells four American Congresswomen to go back to their countries, he reaffirms his plan to ‘Make America Great Again’ has always been about making America white again,” she wrote. “I reject @realDonaldTrump’s xenophobic comments meant to divide our nation.”
Republicans Speak Out
A growing number of Republicans also criticized the president’s comments.
“POTUS was wrong to say any American citizen, whether in Congress or not, has any ‘home’ besides the U.S.,” Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX) said on Twitter.
Republican Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX) also posted on Twitter, saying that Trump’s tweets were not reflective of his constituents, and urged him to “immediately disavow his comments.”
A growing number Republican Senators also spoke out against the president’s tweets Monday. Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) posted a statement on Twitter and said: “the President interjected with unacceptable personal attacks and racially offensive language.”
Republican Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) also reportedly told CNN, “President Trump was wrong to suggest that four left-wing congresswomen should go back to where they came from. Three of the four were born in America and the citizenship of all four is as valid as mine.”
Even Sen. Lindsey Graham, often a staunch supporter of Trump, advised the president to “Aim Higher,” but stopped short of outright condemning the president’s tweets.
“We all know that AOC and this crowd are a bunch of communists. They hate Israel, they hate our own country,” Graham said on Fox and Friends. “Aim Higher. They are American citizens. They won an election. Take on their policies. The bottom line here is this is a diverse country.”
Trump’s New Tweets
On Monday, Trump responded to the backlash.
“When will the Radical Left Congresswomen apologize to our Country, the people of Israel and even to the Office of the President, for the foul language they have used, and the terrible things they have said,” Trump wrote.
Also on Monday, Pelosi sent a letter to Democratic Congress members urging them to support a resolution that would condemn Trump’s tweets.
“This morning, the President doubled down on his attacks on our four colleagues suggesting they apologize to him,” Pelosi wrote. “Let me be clear, our Caucus will continue to forcefully respond to these disgusting attacks.”
“The House cannot allow the President’s characterization of immigrants to our country to stand. Our Republican colleagues must join us in condemning the President’s xenophobic tweets,” she continued.
Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, Tlaib, and Omar are expected to hold a press conference at 5:00 p.m. EST.
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (The Guardian) (Fox News)
Labor Secretary Alex Acosta Resigns Over Epstein Plea Deal
- Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta announced his resignation amid criticism over a controversial plea deal he brokered in 2008 that significantly reduced the sentence of financier Jeffrey Epstein, who was accused of committing sex crimes.
- The move was announced in a joint press conference Friday, with President Donald Trump applauding Acosta as “a fantastic secretary of labor.”
- The renewed criticism for Acosta came after federal prosecutors in New York filed charges against Epstein on June 6, and accused him of abusing dozens of underage girls.
- Deputy Labor Secretary Patrick Pizzella will take over as acting secretary, though human rights groups have expressed concern over his previous efforts to lobby against worker protections in the Northern Mariana Islands.
Acosta Steps Down
Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta resigned Friday after renewed criticism of a 2008 plea deal he struck in a high profile sex crimes case against prominent financier Jeffrey Epstein.
Acosta, who was the U.S. Attorney for Miami at the time of the Epstein case, came under fire this week after federal prosecutors in New York charged Epstein with sex trafficking and sex trafficking conspiracy for his alleged abuse of dozens of underage girls.
Epstein had previously been charged in a parallel case in Miami and was facing a life sentence.
However, Acosta, in his capacity as the lead prosecutor, negotiated a secret last-minute plea deal with Epstein’s lawyers that allowed him to plead guilty to lesser offenses and receive a sentence of 13 months in jail.
The new charges against Epstein reignited backlash over Acosta’s handling of the previous case, prompting calls for Acosta to step down.
“As I look forward, I do not think it is right and fair for this administration’s labor department to have Epstein as the focus rather than the incredibly economy we have today,” Acosta said speaking alongside President Donald Trump in front of the White House Friday morning.
“I called the president this morning, I told him the right thing was to step aside,” he continued. “Cabinet positions are temporary trusts. It would be selfish to stay in this position and continue talking about a case that’s 12 years old, rather than the amazing economy we have right now.”
Trump for his part applauded Acosta’s work as labor secretary.
“He’s done a fantastic job. He’s a friend of everybody in the administration,” Trump said. “He made a deal that people were happy with, and then 12 years later they’re not happy with it. You’ll have to figure all of that out. But the fact is, he has been a fantastic secretary of labor.”
Acosta’s resignation comes after he held a nearly hour-long news conference on Wednesday, where he defended his decision to reach the plea deal and argued it was the best his office could do under the circumstances.
Acosta argued that Epstein that would not have faced jail-time under charges that state authorities were going bring, but the prosecutor’s office intervened and pressed for a tougher sentence.
“We did what we did because we wanted to see Epstein go to jail,” he said. “He needed to go to jail.”
When asked by reporters if he would make the same deal today, Acosta answered, “We now have 12 years of knowledge and hindsight and we live in a very different world. Today’s world treats victims very, very differently. Today’s world does not allow some of the victim-shaming that could have taken place at trial.”
Reporters asked Acosta multiple times if he would apologize to the victims, Acosta refused.
Reporters also pressed Acosta about a February decision by a federal judge who said the plea deal Acosta made violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act because he did not inform Epstein’s victims that he had made the agreement until after it was approved by a judge.
Acosta again defended that decision, arguing that his office did not inform the victims because he was not sure if Epstein would accept the agreement, which included a clause that would allow the victims to seek restitution.
Acosta said that if Epstein had gone to trial rather than taking the deal, his defense lawyers could have undermined victim testimonies by arguing that they were only doing it for the money.
Barry Krischer, who served as Palm Beach state attorney at the time of the Epstein case, rebuked Acosta’s conference Wednesday and accused him of trying to “rewrite history” by putting the blame on state authorities.
“I can emphatically state that Mr. Acosta’s recollection of this matter is completely wrong,” Krischer said, “No matter how my office resolved the state charges, the U.S. attorney’s office always had the ability to file its own federal charges.”
“If Mr. Acosta was truly concerned with the state’s case and felt he had to rescue the matter, he would have moved forward with the 53-page indictment that his own office drafted,” he continued.
Congressional leaders have called for further investigation into Acosta’s role in the plea deal. Before Acosta announced his resignation, House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings requested that he testify before the committee about the agreement.
Cummings, along with other House Democrats, also sent a letter to the Justice Department to request a briefing about their internal investigations.
“There are significant concerns with Secretary Acosta’s actions in approving an extremely favorable deal for an alleged sexual predator while concealing the deal from the victims of Mr. Epstein’s crimes, which a judge found violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter.
It is unclear if they will move forward with the hearing.
Controversy Around Deputy Labor Secretary
Acosta will step officially step down in seven days, and Deputy Labor Secretary Patrick Pizzella will take over as acting secretary.
….Alex was a great Secretary of Labor and his service is truly appreciated. He will be replaced on an acting basis by Pat Pizzella, the current Deputy Secretary.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 12, 2019
However, Pizzella’s ascension is already provoking controversy. Civil rights groups have expressed concern about his work with Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff in the late 1990s and early 2000s to lobby against protections for workers in the Northern Mariana Islands.
In 2017, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights wrote a letter to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, urging senators to oppose Pizzella’s nomination as deputy secretary of labor over the matter.
“Mr. Pizzella worked closely with Jack Abramoff to lobby for policies on the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands that essentially allowed for unchecked slave labor to be performed with the imprimatur of the ‘Made in the U.S.A.’ label on goods and clothing,” the letter said.
In 2006, Abramoff was sentenced to six years in prison for fraud-related charges.