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Abe and resolving a long standing territorial row with Russia

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Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged Monday to address challenges including mitigating the impact of a planned tax hike and resolving a long-standing territorial row with Russia as he gave a policy speech that was seen as a pitch to voters ahead of this summer’s upper house election.

In his address to the Diet at the start of its new session, Abe also apologized for the release of faulty data by the labor ministry for more than a decade that resulted in work-related benefits being underpaid to over 20 million people.

Underscoring the country’s economic expansion since he took office in 2012, he promised to safeguard growth with stimulus measures designed to reduce the negative impact of the consumption tax hike to 10 percent from 8 percent on Oct 1, which he said is necessary to cover swelling welfare costs.

“We absolutely need to secure stable fiscal resources by lifting the consumption tax rate in order to overcome the issue of an aging population and declining birthrate and create a social security system that can benefit all generations,” Abe said.

Reflecting on a brief economic downturn that followed the previous consumption tax hike to 8 percent from 5 percent in 2014, Abe said the government will this time “take all possible measures” to keep the economy on track.

It will specifically review the allocation of revenues from the tax to spend more on supporting families raising children and households with lower incomes through such measures as free preschool education as well as providing shopping vouchers with enhanced purchasing power, he said.

The government and ruling bloc seek to pass through the Diet a draft second supplementary budget for fiscal 2018 worth 3.4 trillion yen ($27.8 billion) by early February and a record-high 101.46 trillion yen budget plan for the next fiscal year — beginning April — by the end of March.

On foreign policy, the prime minister said he will seek to resolve the challenges Japan has faced in its postwar diplomacy. He expressed determination to sign a peace treaty with Russia to formally end World War II hostilities by solving the row over four Russian-held islands off Hokkaido and to normalize diplomatic ties with North Korea.

“I share a strong determination with (Russian) President (Vladimir) Putin not to leave the issue unsolved now that it has been more than 70 years since the end of the war,” Abe said.

Last week, Abe held talks with Putin in Moscow and reaffirmed that they will accelerate negotiations for a bilateral peace treaty.

To deal with North Korea, Abe said Japan will engage in necessary cooperation with the United States and South Korea.

He did not mention the recent tensions between Tokyo and Seoul over an incident in which Japan accused a South Korean naval vessel of directing its fire control radar against a Japanese patrol aircraft and rulings by South Korea’s top court that ordered Japanese firms to compensate for wartime forced labor.

Abe also pledged to push ahead with reforms to “build a new defense capability” so that Japan will maintain comparative superiority in new domains such as space and cyberspace based on its new national defense guidelines.

On his long-held political goal of revising Japan’s pacifist Constitution, Abe said he “expects political parties to deepen debate” at designated committees in both Diet chambers.

Abe has maintained he wants to implement the first-ever amendment to the supreme law by 2020, although his Liberal Democratic Party failed to present proposals on the matter during an extra Diet session last year.

The government plans to limit the number of bills it will submit to the 150-day ordinary Diet session to 58, the second-smallest on record, in light of a tight political schedule.

It will be difficult to extend the session beyond June 26 as Japan will host the Group of 20 summit in Osaka in late June and also hold an upper house election in summer.

On April 30, during the period parliament is in session, Emperor Akihito will abdicate and Crown Prince Naruhito will ascend the throne the following day, resulting in a rare 10-day holiday in Japan from late April.

On the scandal involving the labor ministry data, which cast into doubt the credibility of government statistics as a whole, Abe vowed to make all-out efforts to prevent a recurrence.

He is apparently rushing to contain the case, having seen a similar scandal in 2007 where the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare lost pension records deal a serious blow to his first administration.

Opposition parties are set to pressure the Abe administration over the scandal during the current Diet session ahead of a series of national and local elections this year.

© KYODO

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William Barr Briefed Trump On Probe Over Discarded Pennsylvania Ballots: Report

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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump listens to a question as he appears at the "Retired American Warriors" conference during a campaign stop in Herndon, Virginia, U.S., October 3, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Attorney General William Barr personally briefed President Donald Trump on a probe into what the Justice Department is calling “reports of potential issues with a small number of mail-in ballots” in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, a DOJ official told ABC News on Friday.

That information comes a day after the Justice Department took the unusual step of revealing details about an ongoing investigation, which White House critics decried as an attempt to bolster Trump’s repeated and largely baseless claims that mail-in voting is ripe for fraud.

The DOJ did so after Trump began discussing it during an interview with Fox News Radio.

“They were Trump ballots … and they were thrown in a garbage can. This is what’s going to happen,” Trump said in the interview. “This is what’s going to happen, and we’re investigating that.”

Later that day, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania shared more details, saying there were nine discarded ballots for Trump. The office later corrected the statement to say only seven of the votes were for the president, raising questions among election experts about the details of the situation and the way they were announced.

“At this point, we can confirm that a small number of military ballots were discarded,” a statement from the office said. “Investigators have recovered nine ballots at this time. Some of those ballots can be attributed to specific voters and some cannot. Of the nine ballots that were discarded and then recovered, 7 were cast for presidential candidate Donald Trump. Two of the discarded ballots had been resealed inside their appropriate envelopes by Luzerne elections staff prior to recovery by the FBI and the contents of those 2 ballots are unknown.”

The Justice Department also sent a letter to Luzerne County Bureau of Elections director Shelby Watchilla saying the staff appeared to be at fault.

“The preliminary findings of this inquiry are troubling and the Luzerne County Bureau of Elections must comply with all applicable state and federal election laws and guidance to ensure that all votes—regardless of party—are counted to ensure an accurate election count,” the letter read.

Luzerne County Manager C. David Pedri released a statement later Friday saying a “temporary seasonal independent contractor” who started Sept. 14 was the employee who threw out the ballots. The person was fired thereafter.

After discovering what happened, the FBI and other authorities sorted through all the trash from the days that employee was in service in order to retrieve the ballots. Both county- and state-level authorities are providing “supplemental extensive training” to everyone working in the Luzerne elections department, Pedri said. Huffington

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Trump aims to boost rural turnout in critical Wisconsin

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Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

President Donald Trump is aiming to boost enthusiasm among rural Wisconsin voters Thursday, looking to repeat his path to victory four years ago.

The event is scheduled to start at 9 p.m. EST. Watch Trump’s remarks in the player above.

Making his fifth visit to the pivotal battleground state this year, Trump views success in the state’s less-populated counties as critical to another term. He is set to hold a rally Thursday evening in Mosinee, in central Wisconsin, an area of the state that shifted dramatically toward Republicans in 2016, enabling Trump to overcome even greater deficits in urban and suburban parts of the state.

Trump, hinging his campaign on turning out his core supporters, has increasingly used his public appearances to elevate cultural issues important to his generally whiter and older base. Earlier Thursday, in a speech at the National Archives to commemorate Constitution Day, he derided The New York Times’ “1619 Project,” which aims to reframe the country’s history by highlighting the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans.

“For many years now, the radicals have mistaken Americans’ silence for weakness. But they are wrong,” Trump said. “There is no more powerful force than a parent’s love for their children — and patriotic moms and dads are going to demand that their children are no longer fed hateful lies about this country.”

Trump’s last visit to Wisconsin came on Sept. 1, when he met with law enforcement and toured damage from protests in Kenosha that turned violent after the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man hit seven times in the back during an attempted arrest. Trump has sought to use the unrest after the August shooting of Blake and the May police killing of George Floyd to tout a “law and order” message and to paint an apocalyptic vision of violence if Democrat Joe Biden wins on Nov. 3.

Trump won Marathon County, which includes Mosinee, by more than 12,000 votes in 2016 — over three times more than the margin by which 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney won the area. Trump’s team is wagering the 2020 contest on a similar performance in the county and the dozens of others like it across battleground states.

Trump’s path to 270 Electoral College votes may well hinge on Wisconsin, and his campaign is investing tens of millions of dollars on advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts in the state.

Trump’s event was set to take place at an aircraft hangar at the Mosinee airport, his campaign’s preferred format for mass rallies amid the coronavirus, though Trump has been willing to host large events indoors as well, sometimes in violation of state and federal distancing guidelines. – PBS


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Federal Judge Blocks Postal Service Changes That Slowed Mail

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A U.S. judge on Thursday blocked controversial Postal Service changes that have slowed mail nationwide, calling them “a politically motivated attack on the efficiency of the Postal Service” before the November election.

Judge Stanley Bastian in Yakima, Washington, said he was issuing a nationwide preliminary injunction sought by 14 states that sued the Trump administration and the U.S. Postal Service.

The states challenged the Postal Service’s so-called “leave behind” policy, where trucks have been leaving postal facilities on time regardless of whether there is more mail to load. They also sought to force the Postal Service to treat election mail as first class mail.

The judge noted after a hearing that Trump had repeatedly attacked voting by mail by making unfounded claims that it is rife with fraud. Many more voters are expected to vote by mail this November because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the states have expressed concern that delays might result in voters not receiving ballots or registration forms in time.

“The states have demonstrated the defendants are involved in a politically motivated attack on the efficiency of the Postal Service,” Bastian said.

He also said the changes created “a substantial possibility many voters will be disenfranchised.”

Bastian, an appointee of former President Barack Obama, issued a written order later Thursday that closely tracked the relief sought by the states. It ordered the Postal Service to stop implementing the “leave behind” policy, to treat all election mail as first class mail rather than as slower-moving categories, to reinstall any mail processing machines needed to ensure the prompt handling of election mail, and to inform its employees about the requirements of his injunction.

Postal Service spokesman Dave Partenheimer said the organization is reviewing its legal options, but “there should be no doubt that the Postal Service is ready and committed to handle whatever volume of election mail it receives.”

Lee Moak, a member of the USPS Board of Governors, called the notion any changes were politically motivated “completely and utterly without merit.”

Following a national uproar, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a major donor to President Donald Trump and the GOP, announced he was suspending some changes — including the removal of iconic blue mailboxes in many cities and the decommissioning of mail processing machines.

But other changes remained in place, and the states — including the battlegrounds of Michigan, Wisconsin and Nevada — asked the court to block them. Led by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, the states said the Postal Service made the changes without first bringing them to the Postal Regulatory Commission for public comment and an advisory opinion, as required by federal law. They also said the changes interfered with their constitutional authority to administer their elections.

At the hearing, Justice Department attorney Joseph Borson sought to assure the judge that the Postal Service would handle election mail promptly, noting that a surge of ballots in the mail would pale in comparison to increases from, say, holiday cards.

He also said slow-downs caused by the “leave behind” policy had gotten better since it was first implemented, and that the Postal Service in reality had made no changes with regard to how it classifies and processes election mail. DeJoy has repeatedly insisted that processing election mail remains the organization’s top priority.

“There’s been a lot of confusion in the briefing and in the press about what the Postal Service has done,” Borson said. “The states are accusing us of making changes we have not in fact made.”

Voters who are worried about their ballots being counted “can simply promptly drop their ballots in the mail,” he said, and states can help by mailing registration form or absentee ballots early.

Borson also insisted that the states were required to bring their challenge not in court, but before the Postal Regulatory Commission itself — even though by law the commission has 90 days to respond. Bastian rejected that notion, saying there was no time for that with the election just seven weeks away.

The states conceded that mail delays have eased since the service cuts first created a national uproar in July, but they said on-time deliveries remain well below their prior levels, meaning millions of pieces of mail that would otherwise arrive on-time no longer are.

They also noted some of the effects the changes had already wrought: Michigan spent $2 million earlier this year on envelopes that met election mail standards — only to learn that the Postal Service wouldn’t treat them as first class mail. In Madison, Wisconsin, the number of ballots that weren’t counted because they arrived late for the August primary doubled from the August 2018 primary.

Further, they cited research from information technology consultant Mynor Urizar-Hunter, who helped start a website tracking the USPS changes, noting that 78% of the machines slated for removal were in counties won by Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016.

The states suing are Washington, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Virginia — all led by Democratic attorneys general.

Pennsylvania is leading a separate multistate lawsuit over the changes, and New York and Montana have filed their own challenges.

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