Blinken Visits Afghanistan as U.S. Plans How to Fight Insurgents From Afar

Blinken Visits Afghanistan as U.S. Plans How to Fight Insurgents From Afar

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Blinken Makes Unannounced Visit to Afghanistan

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan a day after President Biden announced his decision to withdraw from the country by Sept. 11. Mr. Blinken visited the U.S. Embassy and delivered remarks reassuring that the U.S. would continue to support the country.

As President Biden announced yesterday, we’re withdrawing our troops by the 20th anniversary of 9/11. We’ve achieved the objective we set out nearly 20 years ago. We never intended to have a permanent military presence here. The threat from al Qaeda in Afghanistan is significantly degraded. Osama bin Laden has been brought to justice. We’ll remain Afghanistan’s steadfast partner. We want the Afghan people, countries in the region and the international community to know that fact. It’s also a very important message for the Taliban to hear. There is no military solution to the conflict that, that remains here. The only path forward to a durable, lasting and just end of the conflict is through negotiation, is through a political agreement and ultimately is through compromise.

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Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan a day after President Biden announced his decision to withdraw from the country by Sept. 11. Mr. Blinken visited the U.S. Embassy and delivered remarks reassuring that the U.S. would continue to support the country.CreditCredit…Afghan Presidential Palace, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Secretary of State Antony Blinken made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan on Thursday, a day after President Biden announced his decision to withdraw all American troops from the country by Sept. 11.

Mr. Blinken had a difficult task: reassuring Afghan leaders and the public that the United States would continue to support the country as it faced dire threats from the Taliban and other armed factions.

Soon after his arrival, Mr. Blinken visited the U.S. Embassy and then met with the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, as well as Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of the Afghan government council that has led peace negotiations with the Taliban.

“I wanted to demonstrate with my visit the ongoing commitment of the United States to the Islamic Republic and the people of Afghanistan,” Mr. Blinken said before his meeting with Mr. Ghani began. “The partnership is changing, but the partnership is enduring.”

Mr. Ghani said the Afghan government respected the decision to withdraw and was “adjusting our priorities.”

The Pentagon, American spy agencies and Western allies are refining plans to deploy a less visible but still potent force in the region to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a terrorist base.

Drawing on the hard lessons from President Barack Obama’s decision a decade ago to withdraw American troops from Iraq — allowing the rise of the Islamic State three years later — the Pentagon is discussing with allies where to reposition forces, possibly to neighboring Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, according to United States officials.

Attack planes aboard aircraft carriers and long-range bombers flying from land bases along the Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean and even in the United States could strike insurgent fighters spotted by armed surveillance drones.

But there are risks. Afghan commando units that have been providing the bulk of intelligence on insurgent threats could disintegrate after the United States withdraws, leaving a large hole to fill.

Turkey, which has long had a direct relationship with Afghanistan in addition to its role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization mission there, is leaving troops behind who could help the C.I.A. collect intelligence on Qaeda cells, officials note.

Still, planners at the military’s Central Command in Tampa, Fla., and Joint Staff in Washington have been developing options to offset the loss of American combat boots on the ground, and President Biden said on Wednesday that the revised approach would keep Al Qaeda at bay.

“We will not take our eye off the terrorist threat,” Mr. Biden said in a televised address from the White House. “We will reorganize our counterterrorism capabilities and the substantial assets in the region.”

But some former top commanders, as well as lawmakers from both parties, warned that absent the unrelenting pressure from American Special Operations forces and intelligence operatives in the country, Al Qaeda could make a comeback in Taliban-dominated Afghanistan.

“As good as our intelligence and over-the-horizon capabilities are, there is no substitute for being there,” Joseph Maguire, a former top Navy SEAL commander who served as acting director of national intelligence in the Trump administration, said in an interview. “Our effectiveness in protecting our homeland will be significantly diminished.”

Avril D. Haines, the director of national intelligence, came under sharp questioning on Thursday from House Republicans about a March report on domestic extremism prepared by her office.  
Credit…Pool photo by Al Drago

House Republicans sharply questioned intelligence officials on Thursday about their work on domestic violent extremism, expressing concerns about that the agencies could be asked to spy on Americans.

In a contentious hearing of the House Intelligence Committee, Republican lawmakers expressed doubts about intelligence agencies and said they were worried about how they had handled a range of matters, including the suspension of a former senior Trump administration official as the general counsel of the National Security Agency and the F.B.I.’s view of the threat from the loose far-left movement known as antifa.

The most enlightening exchange was between Representative Chris Stewart, Republican of Utah, and Avril D. Haines, the director of national intelligence. Mr. Stewart began by asking whether the intelligence community was spying on Americans by doing work on domestic violent extremism.

House Republicans have taken issue with a March report on domestic violent extremism prepared by Ms. Haines’s office. The short report said white extremists and racially motivated violent extremists presented the most lethal threats, and were most likely to have “concerning transnational connections.” It contained little that the F.B.I. director, Christopher A. Wray, had not previously disclosed in congressional testimony.

Before raising the report, Mr. Stewart began with a more fundamental question.

“Do you think that the C.I.A. should be spying on American citizens?” he said. “I’m just asking a simple question.”

Ms. Haines said no, adding that the purpose of the C.I.A. was not to collect information on the public.

At the hearing, Mr. Stewart, a former Air Force pilot and thriller writer, asked whether intelligence community resources were used to write a report about domestic terrorism. Intelligence analysts helped prepare the report, Mr. Stewart said, work that crossed a line.

But Ms. Haines pushed back. The National Counterterrorism Center, the agency that participated in the report, has the authority to receive domestic intelligence, she answered.

“It’s not collecting it, but it’s receiving it,” she said.

The statute that created the counterterrorism center, she said, allows it to bring together domestic and international intelligence and analyze it, so that policymakers have a comprehensive view of threats.

Mr. Stewart was not convinced. “I just disagree with you,” he said. “And I think the American people should be scared to death of this.”

The debate over intelligence agencies’ spying on Americans is an enduring one, though often liberal lawmakers are raising the issue, rather than conservatives.

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Biden Announces Sanctions Against Russia

President Biden on Thursday announced new sanctions against Russia and the expulsion of 10 diplomats over the country’s cyberattacks on U.S. agencies, describing the measures as a “proportionate” response.

“Today, I have approved several steps, including expulsion of several Russian officials as a consequence of their actions. I’ve also signed an executive order authorizing new measures, including sanctions, to address specific harmful actions that Russia has taken against U.S. interests.” “I was clear with President Putin that we could have gone further, but I chose not to do so, to be — I chose to be proportionate. The United States is not looking to kick off a cycle of escalation and conflict with Russia. We want a stable, predictable relationship. If Russia continues to interfere with our democracy. I’m prepared to take further actions to respond.” “Now is the time to de-escalate. The way forward is through thoughtful dialogue and diplomatic process. The U.S. is prepared to continue constructively to move toward that process. My bottom line is this: Where there’s an interest in the United States to work with Russia, we should and we will. When Russia seeks to violate the interests of the United states, we will respond. We’ll always stand in defense of our country, our institutions, our people and our allies.

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President Biden on Thursday announced new sanctions against Russia and the expulsion of 10 diplomats over the country’s cyberattacks on U.S. agencies, describing the measures as a “proportionate” response.CreditCredit…Dimitar Dilkoff/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

President Biden on Thursday announced tough new sanctions on Russia and formally blamed the country’s premier intelligence agency for the sophisticated hacking operation known as SolarWinds, which breached American government agencies and the nation’s largest companies.

In the broadest effort yet to give more teeth to financial sanctions — which in the past have failed to deter Russian activity — the new actions approved by the president are aimed at choking off lending to the Russian government.

In a statement from the White House, Mr. Biden said he told Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian president, in a conversation on Tuesday that the United States had concluded that Russia was responsible for the SolarWinds hack and other inappropriate interference.

“I told him that we would shortly be responding in a measured in a proportionate way because we concluded that they had interfered in the election,” Mr. Biden said.

“We cannot allow a foreign power to interfere in our democratic process with impunity,” the president said.

In an executive order, Mr. Biden announced a series of additional steps — sanctions on 32 entities and individuals for disinformation efforts and for carrying out the Russian government’s interference in the 2020 presidential election. Ten Russian diplomats, most of them identified as intelligence operatives, were expelled from the Russian Embassy in Washington. The country also joined with European partners to sanction eight people and entities associated with Russia’s occupation in Crimea.

For the first time, the U.S. government placed the blame for the “SolarWinds” attack right at the Kremlin’s feet, saying it was masterminded by the SVR, one of the Russian intelligence agencies that was also involved in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee six years ago. The finding comports with the findings of private cybersecurity firms.

Mr. Biden said he was blunt with Mr. Putin about Russia’s hacking and interference. But he also told reporters that the United States was “not looking to kick off a cycle of escalation and conflict with Russia. We want a stable, predictable relationship.”

To that end, Mr. Biden said he had proposed a summit between the two leaders this summer in Europe, and he said officials for both countries were working out the details.

“I expressed my belief that communication between the two of us, personally and directly, was to be essential in moving forward to a more effective relationship, and he agreed on that point,” Mr. Biden said.

In Moscow on Thursday, the Foreign Ministry’s spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said a response to the new sanctions would be “inevitable” but did not immediately disclose what it would entail. The U.S. ambassador was summoned to a meeting with Russian officials, Ms. Zakharova said.

“Such aggressive behavior will of course receive a decisive response,” Ms. Zakharova said. “In Washington, they should know there will be a cost for the degradation of bilateral relations. Responsibility for what is happening lies wholly with the United States.”

The widely anticipated sanctions come amid a large Russian military buildup on the borders of Ukraine and in Crimea, the peninsula that Moscow annexed in 2014.

They form part of what U.S. officials described as “seen and unseen” steps in response to the SolarWinds hack and to Russia’s longstanding effort to interfere in U.S. elections on behalf of Donald J. Trump. The key to the sanctions’ effectiveness, officials concede, will be whether European and Asian allies go along, and whether the United States decides to seek to extend the sanctions by threatening to cut off financial institutions around the world that deal in those Russian bonds, much as it has enforced “secondary sanctions” against those who do business with Iran.

Konstantin V. Kilimnik had been a longtime business partner during Paul Manafort’s time as a political consultant in Ukraine.
Credit…Associated Press

The Biden administration revealed on Thursday that a business associate of Trump campaign officials in 2016 provided campaign polling data to Russian intelligence services, the strongest evidence to date that Russian spies had penetrated the inner workings of the Trump campaign.

The revelation, made public in a Treasury Department document announcing new sanctions against Russia, established for the first time that private meetings and communications between the campaign officials, Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, and their business associate were a direct pipeline from the campaign to Russian spies at a time when the Kremlin was engaged in a covert effort to sabotage the 2016 presidential election.

Previous government investigations have identified the Trump aides’ associate, Konstantin V. Kilimnik, as a Russian intelligence operative, and Mr. Manafort’s decision to provide him with internal polling data was one of the mysteries that the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, sought to unravel during his two-year investigation into Russia’s election meddling. Mr. Kilimnik was indicted by the Justice Department in 2018 on charges of obstruction of justice.

“During the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign, Kilimnik provided the Russian Intelligence Services with sensitive information on polling and campaign strategy,” the Treasury Department said in a news release. “Additionally, Kilimnik sought to promote the narrative that Ukraine, not Russia, had interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”

The Biden administration provided no supporting evidence to bolster the assessment that the Russian intelligence services obtained the polling data and campaign information. And the release shed no light on why Mr. Manafort and Mr. Gates gave polling data to Mr. Kilimnik, although previous government reports have indicated that Mr. Manafort thought Trump campaign strategy information could be a valuable commodity for future business deals with Kremlin-connected oligarchs.

Having the polling data would have allowed Russia to better understand the Trump campaign strategy — including where the campaign was focusing resources — at a time when the Russian government was carrying out its own efforts to undermine Donald J. Trump’s opponent.

The new sanctions against Russia, which are partly are in response to the Kremlin’s election interference, now make it extremely difficult for Mr. Kilimnik to engage in financial transactions that may involve the United States.

American Special Forces soldiers in Kabul, Afghanistan, last May. 
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

The Biden administration warned the Kremlin on Thursday over the C.I.A.’s conclusion that Russia had covertly offered payments to militants to encourage more killings of American and coalition troops in Afghanistan, delivering the diplomatic admonition as it imposed sanctions on Moscow over its hacking and election interference.

But the administration stopped short of inflicting sanctions on any Russian officials over the suspected bounties, making clear that the available evidence about what happened — primarily what Afghan detainees told interrogators — continues to fall short of definitively proving that Russia paid money to reward attacks.

The intelligence community, a senior administration official told reporters on Thursday, “assesses with low to moderate confidence that Russian intelligence officers sought to encourage Taliban attacks against U.S. and coalition personnel in Afghanistan in 2019, and perhaps earlier, including through financial incentives and compensation.”

The New York Times first reported last summer the existence of the C.I.A.’s assessment and that the National Security Council had led an interagency process to develop a range of response options — but that months had passed and the Trump White House had failed to authorize any response, not even a diplomatic protest.

The Times also reported that the available evidence behind that assessment centered on accounts that detainees who were believed to be part of a criminal-militant network linked to the Taliban had given interrogators, along with suspicious travel patterns and financial transfers, and that the C.I.A. placed medium confidence in its conclusion.

But The Times also reported that the National Security Agency — which is focused on electronic surveillance — placed lower confidence in the assessment, citing the lack of smoking-gun intercepts. Analysts at two other agencies that were consulted, the National Counterterrorism Center and the Defense Intelligence Agency, were also said to split, with the former backing the C.I.A. and the latter the National Security Agency.

Former intelligence officials, including in testimony before Congress, have noted that it is rare in the murky world of intelligence to have courtroom levels of proof beyond a reasonable doubt about what an adversary is covertly doing.

The Biden administration’s re-scrub of available evidence since taking office did not uncover anything new and significant enough to bring greater clarity to that muddied intelligence portrait, so the disagreement over confidence levels remains, an official familiar with internal deliberations said.

The Biden official’s explanation to reporters dovetailed with that account.

Intelligence agencies, the official explained, “have low to moderate confidence in this judgment in part because it relies on detainee reporting, and due to the challenging operating environment in Afghanistan. Our conclusion is based on information and evidence of connections between criminal agents in Afghanistan and elements of the Russian government.”

The Russian government has denied that it covertly offered or paid bounties to drive up attacks on American and coalition troops in Afghanistan.

Former Vice President Mike Pence speaking at a church in Milner, Ga., in January.
Credit…Nicole Craine for The New York Times

Former Vice President Mike Pence underwent surgery on Wednesday to implant a pacemaker in his chest in suburban Washington, D.C., after experiencing a slow heart rate, his office said in a statement on Thursday.

“The routine surgery was successful, and he is expected to fully recover and return to normal activity in the coming days,” Mr. Pence’s office said.

Mr. Pence, 61, was found in 2016 to have an abnormality in the electrical impulses of his heart, known as a left bundle branch block. The condition reduces the heart’s pumping capacity and can sometimes result in a dangerously low heartbeat.

Symptoms can include “fainting, abnormal heart rhythms and other serious complications,” according to the Mayo Clinic.

Over the last two weeks, Mr. Pence, who has also served as a congressman and governor of Indiana, experienced symptoms associated with a slow heart rate. He was examined by physicians who scheduled the surgery at the Inova Fairfax Medical Campus in Falls Church, Va.

“I am grateful for the swift professionalism and care of the outstanding doctors, nurses and staff at Inova,” Mr. Pence said in the statement. “My family has been truly blessed by the work of these dedicated health care professionals.”

Mr. Pence has mostly kept out of the public eye since leaving office. Just two weeks earlier, he was rushed to safety when a mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol Building on Jan. 6 to disrupt the certification of the election results he was overseeing in his capacity as the Senate’s official presiding officer.

This month, Mr. Pence announced the creation of Advancing American Freedom, a new political advocacy organization established to promote conservative policies and oppose President Biden’s progressive agenda.

During the 2016 campaign, Mr. Pence’s personal doctor, Michael Busk of Indianapolis, said he had a history of seasonal allergies, heartburn and the bundle block, which he described as an “asymptomatic” heart condition that would not limit his capacity to do the job of vice president.

“The cardiologists feel you have a very good and strong heart,” he concluded in his letter to Mr. Pence.

Mr. Pence’s father, a smoker, died of a heart attack at 58.

Mr. Pence does not smoke, and physical examinations he underwent during his four years in office showed him to be in good health.

Protesters marching against the killing of George Floyd in Sanford, Fla., last June. The Florida Legislature has passed a bill that critics say could criminalize peaceful demonstrations against police brutality.
Credit…Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel, via Associated Press

The Republican-led Florida Senate on Thursday passed a bill that was intended to crack down on rioting, but that critics said would criminalize the peaceful demonstrations against police brutality that have swept across the state and the country since the killing of George Floyd last year.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, said he planned to sign the measure into law. It passed the Republican-led House in March.

The wide-ranging bill, HB 1, called the Combating Public Disorder Bill, allows prosecutors and local officials to appeal to the state if a municipality tries to cut its police budget amid calls to cut or defund the police.

It makes battery on a law enforcement officer “in furtherance of a riot or an aggravated riot” punishable by at least six months in prison. “Willfully and maliciously” pulling down a memorial or historic property would be a second-degree felony, a penalty that critics said would protect Confederate monuments.

The bill also makes it a third-degree felony to participate in a riot, which is defined as three or more people acting in common to “assist each other in violent and disorderly conduct” that results in injury, property damage or “imminent danger” of injury or property damage.

The measure also creates a defense in civil lawsuits if the plaintiff’s injuries were caused while participating in a riot or unlawful assembly. Critics said that would protect counterprotesters from liability if they drove through a demonstration and killed a person.

“HB 1 is racist, unconstitutional, and anti-democratic, plain and simple,” the A.C.L.U. of Florida said. “The bill was purposely designed to embolden the disparate police treatment we have seen over and over again directed towards Black and brown people who are exercising their constitutional right to protest.”

Mr. DeSantis’s office said the Legislature had answered his call “to uphold the rights of our state’s residents while protecting businesses and supporting our brave men and women in law enforcement.”

“This legislation strikes the appropriate balance of safeguarding every Floridian’s constitutional right to peacefully assemble, while ensuring that those who hide behind peaceful protest to cause violence in our communities will be punished,” the governor’s office said in a statement. “Further, this legislation ensures that no community in the state engages in defunding of their police.”

An Alabama state representative, Neil Rafferty, speaking in support of transgender rights during a rally outside the statehouse in Montgomery in March.
Credit…Jake Crandall/The Montgomery Advertiser, via Associated Press

Lawmakers in Alabama and North Dakota on Thursday approved bans on transgender girls and women competing on sports teams that match their gender identity, joining a series of Republican-led states that have focused on a rapidly growing culture clash over restricting transgender athletes and prohibiting gender-affirming medical treatments this legislative session.

The North Dakota bill bars public elementary and secondary schools from “knowingly” permitting students to compete on sports teams exclusively for their opposite sex, but allows girls to play on boys’ teams. The measure now goes to Gov. Doug Burgum.

In Alabama, a similar bill passed the Senate and House on Thursday, and goes to Gov. Kay Ivey.

The bills are “consistent with the attacks that we’ve been seeing all across the country towards trans youth and really their families as well,” said Dillon Nettles, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama. “These bills are going to have severe negative consequences for the outcomes of trans youth, from their social development to even their ability to build relationships with their classmates and peers.”

Republican lawmakers in more than 30 states have introduced dozens of measures this legislative session that aim to ban transgender youth health care and limit their participation in society, the highest number of anti-transgender bills ever filed in a single year.

Three states — Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee — passed legislation barring transgender women and girls from competing on female sports teams earlier this session, while Gov. Kristi Noem, Republican of South Dakota, signed two similar executive orders after issuing a veto over a transgender athlete bill over concerns about vague language and the possibility of lawsuits. Last year, Idaho became the first state in the nation to pass a ban on transgender athletes, though a federal judge has temporarily blocked the law from going into effect.

Dozens of states, including Alabama and North Dakota, are also considering measures that would make it illegal for transgender minors to receive gender-affirming medical treatments or surgery. This month, Arkansas became the first state to enact such a law, after the Republican-controlled Legislature overrode a veto by Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, who condemned the law as “a vast government overreach” that could hurt Republicans politically.

Proponents of the transgender sports restrictions say they are necessary to ensure fair athletic competition for female athletes, but transgender-advocacy groups and sports organizations like the N.C.A.A. say the bills are based on inaccurate stereotypes and unfairly target transgender women and girls. The N.C.A.A. requires transgender female athletes to be on testosterone suppression treatment for a year before they can compete on a women’s team.

Advocates for L.G.B.T.Q. rights have pressed the organization to move events from states considering such laws and those that have passed them. On Monday, the N.C.A.A. issued a statement in response to the mounting number of bills, saying it was “committed to ensuring that N.C.A.A. championships are open for all who earn the right to compete in them.” But it stopped short of saying it would pull championships.

Vernon Jones, a former Georgia legislator who left the Democratic Party in January, has a complex and controversial history in Georgia politics.
Credit…Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Gov. Brian Kemp, the Georgia Republican who ranks high on former President Donald J. Trump’s list of enemies, will face a high-profile pro-Trump challenger in next year’s Republican primary: Vernon Jones, a former Democrat who, echoing the false claims of Mr. Trump, has called Georgia’s November presidential election “fixed” and “tainted.”

Mr. Jones, a former state representative and head of government in DeKalb County, tweeted on Thursday that he would formally introduce his candidacy at a news conference the next day, saying that “we need a fighter for Georgia.”

Mr. Trump has not endorsed a primary challenger to Mr. Kemp, who is seeking a second term in office. But he has vowed to return to Georgia to campaign against Mr. Kemp, a former ally, to punish him for rebuffing Mr. Trump’s entreaties late last year that he work to overturn Georgia’s election results.

Mr. Trump lost the Georgia race by roughly 12,000 votes, a result that was certified by Republican state elections officials after two recounts. But he remains popular with the party’s base, and their willingness to punish his Republican enemies in 2022 may prove to be an important early sign of the strength of his hold over the party heading into the next presidential cycle.

Mr. Jones, 60, has a complex and controversial history in Georgia politics, and it is unclear if his entry into the race will turn out to be a serious threat to Mr. Kemp. But his candidacy guarantees that Georgia Republican voters will be forced to reckon with the ugly fight between Mr. Kemp and Mr. Trump as they choose a standard-bearer heading into the November 2022 general election.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan will arrive in the United States on Thursday.
Credit…Sadayuki Goto/Kyodo News, via Associated Press

TOKYO — As he visits Washington this week, it would seem as if Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan could take a victory lap.

Mr. Suga is the first foreign leader to be invited to the White House by President Biden, who has vowed to reinvigorate alliances. Japan already had the distinction last month of being the first international destination for the new U.S. secretaries of state and defense. And Mr. Suga will not have to contend with threats of higher tariffs or the need for constant flattery that drove Mr. Biden’s mercurial predecessor.

But even as relations between the two countries are calming, Japan faces a perilous moment, with the United States prodding it to more squarely address the most glaring threat to stability in Asia: China.

The second White House invitation to a foreign leader, not coincidentally, went to President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, who is expected to visit in May, Mr. Biden’s spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, said on Thursday.

The meetings with both leaders, Ms. Psaki said, will emphasize “shared coordination and cooperation” on China policy, as well as the mutual “commitment to the denuclearization of North Korea” and other issues of regional security.

The meeting with Japan’s leader is a step in a now-familiar dance between the two nations. Ever since the United States forged an alliance with Japan during its postwar occupation, Tokyo has sought reassurance of protection by Washington, while Washington has nudged Tokyo to do more to secure its own defense.

For decades during the Cold War, the pre-eminent threats seemed to come from Europe. Now, as Mr. Suga goes to Washington, Japan confronts encroaching dangers in its own backyard.

“We’re in a completely new era where the threat is focused on Asia, and Japan is on the front line of that threat,” said Jennifer Lind, an associate professor of government at Dartmouth College who is a specialist in East Asian international security.

“The U.S.-Japan alliance is at a crossroads,” Ms. Lind said. “The alliance has to decide how do we want to respond to the growing threat from China and to the Chinese agenda for international order.”

China has repeatedly ignored diplomatic or legal efforts to contain its aggressive actions in both the South China and East China Seas, and some say Japan needs to be more specific about what it might do in the event of a military conflict.

Perhaps the biggest risk is in the Taiwan Strait, where China has been dispatching warplanes to menace the democratic island, which Beijing considers a rogue territory.

President Biden during a meeting at the Oval Office on Thursday.
Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

The Biden administration plans to take new steps to address the financial risks associated with climate change, with a series of actions that would affect mortgages, retirement funds, insurance companies and companies that do business with the federal government, according to a person familiar with the draft.

The details of the draft executive order were reported earlier by Politico.

A spokesman for the White House, Vedant Patel, declined to comment. The actions by the White House reflect the concern among policymakers and climate experts that companies have been slow to account for the threats posed by climate change.

Last year, a group of large investors warned that climate change posed a “systemic threat” to the economy. They urged federal agencies to ensure that companies prepare for that risk, to reduce the chances of a downturn if the value of fossil fuels or related investments quickly falls.

The executive order being prepared by the Biden administration would address those concerns in a number of ways.

It would instruct Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen to look at the threats facing the financial system from climate change. The order would require that the office managing retirement accounts for federal employees look at the threat posed by fossil fuel investments. And it would look at requiring companies that do business with the federal government to disclose their greenhouse gas emissions.

The order would also push insurance companies to prepare for more costly natural disasters. And it would direct federal agencies that oversee mortgage loans to consider ways to account for the impact of climate change on those loans.

President Biden has been dismissive in the past about calls to expand the size of the Supreme Court. 
Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — A group of House and Senate Democrats on Thursday introduced legislation to expand the Supreme Court to 13 members from nine, working to build momentum for rebalancing the court after an aggressive Republican drive to move it to the right.

The bill, which would change the makeup of the court for the first time in 150 years, is unlikely to move forward even with Democrats in control of Congress — at least not before a new commission named last week by President Biden completes a study exploring the subject. But its introduction opened a new front in the escalating partisan war over the judiciary, drawing outrage from Republicans, who called it a power grab.

Democrats, who announced their plan on the steps of the Supreme Court, said the change was necessary to restore equilibrium on its bench after Senate Republicans blocked President Barack Obama’s nominee in 2016 and pushed through three of President Donald J. Trump’s conservative appointees, including one — Justice Amy Coney Barrett — just days before the election last year.

“Republicans stole the court’s majority, with Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation completing their crime spree,” Senator Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts and a sponsor of the legislation, said in a statement announcing it. “Senate Republicans have politicized the Supreme Court, undermined its legitimacy and threatened the rights of millions of Americans, especially people of color, women and our immigrant communities.”

The legislation has dim prospects in Congress, at least in the short term. With the filibuster in place, it stands no chance in the Senate, where it is hotly opposed by Republicans who say that Democrats are trying to “pack” the court to gain partisan advantage. Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she had “no plans to bring it to the floor,” though she did not dismiss the possibility of expanding the court at some point.

Ms. Pelosi said she preferred the approach taken by Mr. Biden, who ordered the new commission to study the issue and report within six months on potential changes to the court.

“The president’s taking the right approach to have a commission to study such a thing,” Ms. Pelosi told reporters. “It’s a big step. It’s not out of the question. It has been done before.”

Shoppers in Manhattan on Tuesday. Retail sales surged last month, and the latest jobless claims report also provided fresh signs of economic revival.
Credit…Gabby Jones for The New York Times

Jobless claims fell last week to their lowest level of the pandemic and the latest data on retail sales blew past expectations, renewing confidence in a dynamic economic revival.

About 613,000 people filed first-time claims for state unemployment benefits last week, the Labor Department said Thursday, a decrease of 153,000 from the previous week.

In addition, 132,000 filed for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federal program that covers freelancers, part-timers and others who do not routinely qualify for state benefits. That was a decline of 20,000 from the previous week.

Neither figure is seasonally adjusted. On a seasonally adjusted basis, new state claims totaled 576,000.

“We’re gaining momentum here, which is just unquestionable,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at the accounting firm Grant Thornton. But she cautioned that the jobless claims levels, while good news, were still extraordinarily high compared to what they were before the pandemic.

“You’re still not popping champagne corks,” she said. “I will breathe again — and breathe easy again — once we get these number back down in the 200,000 range.”

In another sign of the recovery underway, retail sales surged in March, the Commerce Department said Thursday, as Americans spent their latest round of government stimulus checks and the continued roll out of coronavirus vaccines lured more people back into stores.

The 9.8 percent increase last month was a strong comeback from the nearly 3 percent drop in February.

With the pandemic’s end seemingly in sight, the economy is poised for a robust comeback. But weekly applications for unemployment claims have remained stubbornly high for months, frustrating the recovery even as businesses reopen and vaccination rates increase. They have also been a volatile economic indicator, temporarily dipping to their lowest level of the pandemic in mid-March before rising again in recent weeks.

“The job market conditions for job seekers have really improved extremely quickly between January and now,” said Julia Pollak, a labor economist at the job site ZipRecruiter. “But there are still huge barriers to returning to work.”

Jobless claims for the next few months could remain significantly elevated as the labor market adjusts to a new normal.

Concerns about workplace safety persist, especially for workers on the younger end of the spectrum who have only just become eligible for vaccinations. Many children are still attending schools remotely, complicating the full-time work prospects for their caregivers.

But there is hope on the horizon as those barriers begin to fall. President Biden moved up the deadline for states to make all adults eligible for vaccination to April 19, and every state has complied. Students who have been learning remotely will begin to return to the classroom in earnest.

“This was the deepest, swiftest recession ever, but it’s also turning into the fastest recovery,” Ms. Pollak said. “And I don’t think we should lose sight of that just because some of the measures are a little stubborn.”

Members of the Capitol Police at a ceremony this week for Officer William F. Evans, who was killed in a vehicular attack at the Capitol earlier this month.
Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

The U.S. Capitol Police’s independent watchdog told Congress on Thursday that a senior official on the force had instructed officers not to use their most powerful crowd-control weapons on Jan. 6 because they had little training with the equipment and the official was afraid they would misuse it and potentially harm or kill people.

The testimony from Michael A. Bolton, the Capitol Police’s inspector general, was the latest in a series of damaging revelations about the missteps and dysfunction that plagued the force’s response to the deadliest attack on the Capitol in more than 200 years.

In his latest investigative report and his comments to the House Administration Committee on Thursday, Mr. Bolton faulted the agency for treating its Civil Disturbance Unit, which is charged with containing crowds and responding to protests, as a side assignment for officers, rather than a dedicated and specially trained force focusing full time on those tasks.

“Training deficiencies put officers — our brave men and women — in a position not to succeed,” Mr. Bolton told lawmakers.

While he did not name the official who gave the order, Mr. Bolton said an assistant chief had told officers not to use weapons such as sting balls and stun grenades that are commonly used to disperse crowds, because the official was concerned they did not know how to use the weapons properly.

“Let’s provide the training to our officers so they are used appropriately,” Mr. Bolton told the committee. Asked whether the use of such equipment could have prevented the storming of the Capitol, he noted that once District of Columbia police officers arrived on the scene to assist, they used such weapons on the rioters, turning many of them back.

“It certainly would have helped us” if Capitol Police had done the same, Mr. Bolton said.

Mr. Bolton’s most recent, 104-page report on the force’s response to the storming of the Capitol detailed a litany of other agency failures that contributed to the dysfunction. Leaders overlooked their own intelligence indicating the threat of violence by aggrieved pro-Trump extremists, he said, and critical equipment such as riot shields were either inaccessible or defective.

But beyond the specific breakdowns leading up to Jan. 6, Mr. Bolton said the 2,000-person force was plagued by cultural and operational problems. The department needs an overhaul, he testified, from a conventional police force to a “protective agency,” more like the Secret Service, that focuses on anticipating and preventing attacks.

“A protective agency is postured to being proactive to prevent events such as Jan. 6,” Mr. Bolton testified.

He also urged that the Civil Disturbance Unit become “a stand-alone, highly trained unit,” rather than an ad hoc group of officers who tend to its functions on the side. Mr. Bolton said it should be an “elite” squad with no other responsibilities — “that’s their full-time job.”

His remarks came during a trying time for the Capitol Police, after dozens of officers were injured by the mob of Trump supporters and one, Officer Brian D. Sicknick, later died. Two days ago, Officer William F. Evans, who died after a car rammed into him as he stood guard on the Capitol plaza this month, was honored in the Capitol Rotunda.

Samantha Power during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month.
Credit…Pool photo by Greg Nash

A Senate committee has approved the nomination of Samantha Power, an unabashed human rights and democratization activist, to lead the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Ms. Power is expected to target rising authoritarianism and corruption through the aid agency even as she faces growing need around the world to curb poverty, disease and instability made worse by the coronavirus pandemic.

Last month, at her confirmation hearing, Ms. Power told senators the aid agency could help counter China’s influence campaign across Africa, Eastern Europe and South America, and warned that Beijing was seeking to water down accepted international practices, especially on human rights, to evade condemnation of its own actions.

She also discussed efforts to stem migration from Central America — one of President Biden’s most pressing domestic priorities — through programs to stabilize the region.

Ms. Power’s nomination must be approved by the full Senate, which is expected.

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Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the C.D.C. director, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, testified on Capitol Hill before a House Select Committee overseeing the government’s coronavirus response.CreditCredit…Amr Alfiky/The New York Times

Three top federal health officials appeared on Capitol Hill on Thursday and implored Americans to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, but said little about the investigation into whether the Johnson & Johnson vaccine may be linked to a small number of cases of rare blood clots, or when that vaccine might be put back into use.

“Hopefully we’ll get a decision quite soon, as to whether or not we can get back on track with this very effective vaccine,” Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, President Biden’s top medical adviser for the coronavirus, told a House panel.

Dr. Fauci’s comments came as the future of the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine hung in the balance. Earlier this week, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called for a pause in the use of the vaccine in the wake of reports of a small number of rare blood clots in recipients. Though it is unclear whether the vaccine was responsible for the clots, injections came to a sudden halt across the country.

On Wednesday, a C.D.C. advisory panel suggested that it would be a week to 10 days before they had enough information to assess the vaccine’s risks and could make a decision about its future.

The C.D.C. announced Thursday that the panel would hold another emergency meeting on April 23.

In the meantime, the officials — Dr. Fauci; Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the C.D.C. director; and Dr. David Kessler, who runs the Biden administration’s vaccine effort — urged Americans to continue to get vaccinated.

“I hope we can all come together and send that message,” especially amid the spread of worrisome variants, Dr. Kessler said, adding that the three federally authorized vaccines have “an excellent safety profile.”

During a hearing that lasted more than two hours, just one lawmaker — Representative Mark Green, Republican of Tennessee, who is a doctor — asked about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. He urged the doctors to be careful when they talk about the investigation, saying he worried it would stoke fears that would discourage people from getting vaccinated.

Whatever science was discussed was overshadowed by partisan posturing and bickering. Republicans, fresh off a trip to the nation’s southern border, used the session to attack the Biden administration’s handling of the immigration crisis; they waved photographs of migrants living in crowded conditions, while complaining about testing rules for those entering the country.

Democrats blasted the Trump administration and asked softball questions.

“Dr. Fauci, I love you,” Representative Maxine Waters, Democrat of California, whose sister died of Covid-19, said at one point, after telling Dr. Fauci how much she relied on his counsel.

Dr. Fauci felt little love from Republicans, however. He and Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio, reprised their heated clash from the last time Dr. Fauci testified before the panel in July 2020.

“You’re ranting again,” Dr. Fauci said at one point.

“I’m not ranting,” Mr. Jordan replied.

“Yes, you are,” Dr. Fauci insisted.

With worrisome new variants of the virus spreading, Dr. Fauci and the others repeatedly described all three of the federally authorized vaccines — from Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna — as highly safe and effective.

The reports of blood clots were the second recent blow to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Earlier this month, an ingredient mix-up at a Baltimore manufacturing plant owned by Emergent BioSolutions ruined up to 15 million doses of the vaccine. The F.D.A. is now inspecting the plant to see whether any vaccine doses manufactured there can be released to the public.

About 7.7 million Americans had received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, accounting for less than 4 percent of the more than 198 million doses administered across the country. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are in much greater supply.

Officials note that the blood clots are extremely rare; the handful of cases represent less than one in one million recipients, although that incidence estimate could go up if more cases are reported.

Biden administration officials say that the absence of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine might not have a major impact on the U.S. vaccination campaign. But if use of the vaccine is severely restricted worldwide, it could prove disastrous for the global vaccination effort.

Health officials had hoped that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, along with a similar vaccine developed by AstraZeneca, would help supply the world because they are less expensive and easier to store and handle than the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

But there have also been reports of rare blood clots in recipients of the AstraZeneca vaccine, leading a number of nations to reconsider its use. On Wednesday, Denmark, where two recipients suffered severe blood clots, permanently suspended use of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Katherine Tai, the United States trade representative, in February. On Thursday, she spoke about climate issues a week before President Biden is scheduled to host world leaders at a virtual climate summit.
Credit…Pool photo by Bill O’Leary

Katherine Tai, the United States trade representative, made a case on Thursday for using trade policies to fight climate change, devoting her first speech in her new position to addressing one of President Biden’s top priorities.

“For too long, the traditional trade community has resisted the view that trade policy is a legitimate tool in helping to solve the climate crisis,” Ms. Tai said at a virtual event held by the Center for American Progress.

“As we have so often seen with labor issues, there is a certain refuge in arguing that this is all a question of domestic policy and that we need not tackle the daunting task of building international consensus around new rules,” she said. “But that dated line of thinking only perpetuates the chasm that exists between the lived experiences and expectations of real people on the one hand and trade experts on the other.”

In her remarks, Ms. Tai spoke of the need to address illegal logging and overfishing, and she promised to enforce environmental rules in the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

She also offered criticism for the World Trade Organization, saying it was “considered by many as an institution that not only has no solutions to offer on environmental concerns but is part of the problem.”

Ms. Tai’s speech comes a week before Mr. Biden is scheduled to host world leaders at a virtual climate summit. Her speech is another example of how the Biden administration is seeking to address climate change across the vast machinery of the federal government — not just in agencies typically associated with environmental stewardship.

Mr. Biden has faced pressure from environmentalists and lawmakers in Congress to put climate change at the center of his trade policy, and his administration has already faced several key trade disputes that could affect the United States’ ability to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Last year, the French government blocked a deal to import liquefied natural gas from the United States because of concerns around emissions of methane, a potent heat-trapping gas. Recent investigations have found that China’s production of cheap solar panels, a technology widely seen as crucial for cleaning up America’s electric grid, may be linked to forced-labor practices in China’s Xinjiang region.

This year, a dispute over intellectual property rights between two South Korean battery manufacturers threatened to disrupt plans to expand electric vehicle manufacturing in the United States. The two companies, LG Energy Solution and SK Innovation, finally reached a $1.8 billion settlement this month before the Biden administration had to decide whether to formally intervene.

In her speech, Ms. Tai called the settlement “a big win for American workers, the environment and our competitive future.”

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