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U.S. and Cuba Agree To Open Embassies And Restore Diplomatic Relations

By Christi Parsons and Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — In the most significant move yet toward normalizing relations between the U.S. and Cuba, the Obama administration said Tuesday that the two had agreed to open embassies in each other’s countries.

The diplomatic development is the most authoritative move the Obama administration can make unilaterally without an act of Congress, which still holds the power to lift or retain the Cuban economic embargo that has been in place for decades. It comes six months after President Barack Obama ordered the opening of relations, ending more than half a century of Cold War standoff as he promised to “cut loose the shackles of the past.”

Obama and Secretary of State John F. Kerry plan to address the decision publicly on Wednesday, a senior administration official said, as the two nations open the door to an entirely new relationship of trade, travel and tourism.

Less than three months ago, Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro held a historic face-to-face meeting at a summit in Panama, and the countries’ diplomatic corps began a series of intense meetings to clear the remaining barriers.

Still, negotiators for weeks have been arguing over a couple of sticking points. The U.S. side wanted American diplomats to be able to travel and move freely in Cuba. Cuban negotiators said their diplomats could not open an embassy in the U.S. without being able to open a banking account.

The apparent resolution suggests that those points have been worked out. On Tuesday, senior advisers to Obama said that the conversations had gone well and that the two sides were now prepared for the much more serious commitment of opening embassies.

But the thawing of the diplomatic freeze is far from complete, as members of Congress now wrestle with their concerns — and those of influential Republican communities. As the party gears up for a contentious presidential nomination process, Republicans are staking out positions on issues including the state of human rights in Cuba and broader questions of U.S. immigration policy.

Lawmakers could still put up hurdles to a fully operational U.S. Embassy opening in Cuba. The Republican-led Senate could block the confirmation of a new ambassador, and lawmakers in both chambers have threatened to deny full funding for an embassy.

Opposition crosses party lines. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., a member and former chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, raised concerns at a recent hearing about continued human rights abuses by the Castro government.

“I have not seen any movement toward greater freedom for the Cuban people. I have not seen movement toward greater tolerance, democracy, or the rule of law,” he said in late May.

An appropriations bill recently passed by the House included provisions that would restrict commercial flights and cruise ships from traveling to Cuba. The White House has threatened a veto if it reaches the president’s desk.

The moves toward rapprochement rose to the highest levels of both governments and to the Roman Catholic Church, as well, in talks that opened two years ago far behind the scenes.

Quiet talks began between two midlevel Obama advisers and Cuban representatives in the summer of 2013, focused at first on winning the release of Alan Gross, a U.S. government subcontractor who had been imprisoned in Cuba for five years.

After a series of meetings in Canada, the negotiators began talking about the release of Gross as the basis for a broader warming of relations between the two countries.

In December, the two sides announced the release of Gross and several Cuban prisoners, and the State Department took over talks.

A U.S. embassy in Cuba opens a new chapter in cooperation between the two countries. Alexander Schimmeck via Flickr

Hillary Clinton’s Use Of Private Email Not Unusual, But Still Raises Questions

By Christi Parsons and Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Hillary Rodham Clinton’s use of personal email accounts as secretary of State mimicked her predecessors but drew attention to her penchant for secrecy as she begins what appears to be a second presidential run.

Clinton turned her personal email over to the State Department last year so it could be saved for history, following “both the letter and the spirit of the rules,” Nick Merrill, a spokesman for the presumptive Democratic candidate, said in a statement Tuesday.

Yet many of her emails became part of the record only when Clinton messaged State Department employees at their official addresses, he said, a practice that stops short of ensuring that every email Clinton wrote made its way into federal archives. The explanation left out what happened to her emails to foreign officials or others outside the government and what security concerns were raised by her use of a private email account.

Clinton’s allies defended the practice, with one liberal group labeling questions about it a “right-wing attack.” Merrill cited former secretaries of State of both parties who did the same thing.

“Like secretaries of State before her, she used her own email account when engaging with any department officials,” Merrill said. “For government business, she emailed them on their department accounts, with every expectation they would be retained.”

The Clinton camp’s response recalled earlier instances of her political instinct for privacy and protection, honed over years in public life. As first lady in the early 1990s, for example, the secrecy surrounding the closed-door health care reform negotiations that she spearheaded for President Bill Clinton helped contribute to their failure.

Now, with Clinton widely considered the front-runner for her party’s presidential nomination even though she has yet to declare her candidacy, her team is facing questions about her high-profile role as the nation’s top diplomat during President Barack Obama’s first term.

“If the secretary was doing what she was supposed to do under the law, why would the State Department have to ask her for her emails back?” asked Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, the chairman of a House select committee looking into the attacks on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, that happened while Clinton ran the department. Four Americans were killed, including the ambassador.

Word of Clinton’s private email account, first disclosed by The New York Times, put pressure on the White House to answer questions about an administration that Obama long has promised would be the most transparent in history. His team is supposed to conduct business on government email, yet some officials apparently exchanged messages with Clinton at one or more private email addresses when she was secretary of State.

The top White House spokesman said he wasn’t sure whether anyone in the West Wing suspected Clinton wasn’t using an official email address like everyone else.

“I’d be surprised if anybody did,” press secretary Josh Earnest said, while asserting that Clinton complied with the law.

Federal law has long required agency directors to preserve documents generated in the course of business. The legal rules governing preservation of work emails from non-work accounts wasn’t explicit in the law until last November, however, more than a year after Clinton left the administration.

Clinton wouldn’t be the first digital-age official to steer carefully through the law to try to keep some control over correspondence. Republican former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, himself a likely presidential candidate, has controlled what messages might become public. Obama’s former EPA director, Lisa Jackson, had an email account in the name of “Richard Windsor.” In the midst of an inquiry at the IRS, emails from the former agency administrator temporarily went missing.

Clinton turned over some of her messages at the State Department’s request last year, which in turn released about 300 of them to Gowdy’s committee.

Gowdy said the panel learned last summer that Clinton had used a personal account for official business. More recently, it learned she had exclusively used private email accounts — more than one — in lieu of an official one.

Gowdy said State Department officials could not certify they had produced all of Clinton’s emails “because they do not have all of Secretary Clinton’s emails, nor do they control access to them.”

“You do not need a law degree to have an understanding of how troubling this is,” he said.

Democrats downplayed the significance of the private accounts, saying Clinton’s use of personal email has been public knowledge for years and follows a pattern of previous secretaries.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Benghazi committee, said the panel received Clinton’s emails relating to the 2012 attack last month. He called on Gowdy to “make them available to the American public so they can read their contents for themselves.”

Gowdy is part of the “right-wing attack apparatus,” said Isaac Wright, executive director of Correct the Record, an arm of the liberal group American Bridge.

“Like the secretaries of State before her, they were from a private email account,” Wright wrote in an email. “Will congressional Republicans show an equal interest in transparency in their own party?”

The Federal Records Act requires that, day in and day out, Clinton or someone on her behalf assist in preserving emails, said Daniel J. Metcalfe, the founding director of the Department of Justice Office of Information and Privacy, who is now a teacher of secrecy law at American University’s law school.

“If there is official government activity, it ordinarily should be memorialized in a record. She can’t just be freewheeling all over the place with these communications and not worry about memorializing them or maintaining them,” he said.

A decision not to set up a government account undermines a commitment to preservation, Metcalfe said. The most reliable way to generate a record would be with such an account.

But there may be legitimate reasons to make some use of private email, he said.

“If you’re the secretary of State and you’re responding to crises around the world 24 hours a day, sometimes you might not have your government phone handy,” he said. “Sometimes you’ll just have your personal phone. There should be some flexibility.”

Photo: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the 2014 Harkin Steak Fry in Indianola, IA. (Gregory Hauenstein/Flickr)

Obama, McConnell Try To Warm Up Their Relationship

By Christi Parsons and Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell staged their first White House one-on-one since the midterm election shifted control of the Senate to Republicans, opening a new chapter Wednesday in what has been a cool and distant relationship.

A White House official spoke politely of the “opportunity to cooperate” with McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, but said little else about what the two discussed. McConnell told reporters that they talked about issues on which they could find common ground.

There were few signs that the hourlong confab will usher in warm relations between the two. But McConnell’s ascent to the helm of the Senate in the new year means the two men — the president looking to wind down his tenure with a win or two and the shrewd political operator reaching the peak of a 30-year career — are going to have to start trying a little harder.

Step one was not a cocktail hour, the prospect of which Obama once memorably made the butt of a joke, but an afternoon get-together in the Oval Office. It was just their third private meeting; until now, they have had relatively little reason to cultivate a close working relationship.

And common ground between them has been in short supply during Obama’s six years in office. Not far into Obama’s first term, McConnell declared his primary political objective to be making him a one-term president.

Two springs ago, Obama derisively laughed off suggestions from commentators that he could heal the rift by simply sharing a beverage with McConnell. “Really?” he replied in a cutting line he delivered at a Washington dinner. “Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?”

“What relationship?” said Jim Manley, a former top aide to Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), the outgoing majority leader, when asked what he had observed of the Obama-McConnell rapport.

Of course, the ground has shifted in recent months. McConnell is poised to take over leadership in the Senate after a grinding campaign season that resulted in devastating losses for Obama’s party. In McConnell’s re-election race this year, he set the standard for a Republican campaign effort largely built on tying Democratic candidates to the president by doing so with his foe, Alison Lundergan Grimes.

There are some hints that Obama and McConnell might be able to work together. McConnell has noted that he’s the only Republican who brokered major deals with the White House — a pair of agreements on George W. Bush-era tax rates, and one to end a 2011 debt-ceiling crisis.

Aides to the president insist he is open to collaboration.

“There are opportunities for us to find common ground and move the country forward,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday. “We’re going to disagree on some things … but we shouldn’t let that get in the way of working on things we agree on.”

The first big test of the relationship will come soon. McConnell has said he doesn’t want to see the government shut down, but lawmakers in his party may be headed for a clash with Obama over funding the government in the coming year.

After Republicans won a resounding victory last month, McConnell pledged to meet Obama in the political center, ticking off issues such as trade and tax reform where they could probably reach deals.

But he warned Tuesday that he was concerned about the president’s approach in the month since voters delivered what he called an electoral “butt-kicking” to Democrats. Since then, Obama announced a deal with China on curbing greenhouse gas emissions and reset his immigration policy to protect as many as 5 million people from deportation, two actions Republicans decried as a power grab.

“By any objective standard, the president got crushed in this election,” McConnell said. “So I’ve been perplexed by the reaction since the election, this sort of in-your-face dramatic move to the left. So I don’t know what we can expect in terms of reaching bipartisan agreement.”

McConnell’s public comments indicated what aides have said is a real suspicion among Republicans about whether Obama was more interested in using his final two years to work for bipartisan agreements that could prove politically beneficial to both parties, or continue to stoke divisions with Republicans in an effort to boost his party and keep the White House in Democratic hands. An initially unannounced visit to the White House on Wednesday by Hillary Rodham Clinton, who also met with Obama, could serve to fuel such worries.

White House aides have similar concerns about McConnell. One official acknowledged the success that Vice President Joe Biden has had in negotiating with his former longtime Senate colleague. But the official said McConnell may have different motivations now as majority, not minority, leader.

Manley described McConnell’s demeanor in congressional leadership meetings as resembling Reid’s style: tight-lipped, reserved, hard to read.

“He keeps his cards close to the vest and doesn’t do a lot of talking if he doesn’t have to. He’s perfectly respectful,” Manley said, noting that heated exchanges and sharp verbal jabs usually came from others in the room.

To the degree Reid and McConnell learned to work together, the cooperation was based more on a recognition of mutual benefit, rather than a personal connection.

“It’s not like they went out socializing together, but both were smart enough to realize that the only way they were going to get things done was if the two cooperated,” Manley said, acknowledging recently that even that transactional relationship has deteriorated.

An additional complication for Obama and McConnell is how their interest in launching a new phase of their relationship will play among restive parties. McConnell’s Republicans are newly empowered and eager for confrontation. Obama’s Democrats are dispirited and increasingly at odds with one another.

Given that dynamic, Wednesday’s meeting was more about taking stock of each other than beginning negotiation.

Rather than the made-for-TV “bourbon summit” some had suggested following last month’s election, both sides went into the meeting emphasizing it was to be an all-business — and very much private — encounter.

That’s a departure from a luncheon Obama convened with a broader, bipartisan group of congressional leaders last month that welcomed cameras in briefly. A source close to McConnell dubbed that a “Seinfeld meeting,” a meeting about nothing.

As for Wednesday’s meeting, “no, this was not the bourbon summit,” McConnell told CNN. “But I’m still hoping we’ll have it.”
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(Staff writer Kathleen Hennessey in Washington contributed to this report.)

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama (2nd L) meets with Speaker of the House John Boehner (L), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (2nd R) and others during a bipartisan congressional leadership luncheon at the White House in Washington, DC, November 7, 2014 (AFP/Jim Watson)