U.S. Could Return to Iran Nuclear Deal in Weeks, Official Says

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida signed new voting restrictions into law on Thursday that will make it more difficult for people to vote by mail and use ballot drop boxes.
Credit…Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald, via Associated Press

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida signed new voting restrictions into law on Thursday that put him in line with other Republicans around the country — with a display of nose-thumbing contempt toward journalists that evoked former President Donald J. Trump.

Mr. DeSantis’s brash style has made him stand out from other potential heirs to Mr. Trump’s populist legacy. But his actions are part of a national effort by Republicans. In Florida, the law limits the use of popular ballot drop boxes, adds identification requirements for voters requesting absentee ballots and requires them to request absentee ballots for each election, rather than sign up for them automatically.

The next big move could happen in Texas, although the situation at the State Capitol in Austin is in flux. There is movement in virtually every state with a Republican-controlled legislature — including in Arizona, where G.O.P. lawmakers are conducting an audit of the November results, an exercise that has been plagued by lapses in basic security and accounting procedures.

All of this comes in the wake of Mr. Trump’s loss, and his subsequent false claims that expansion of ballot access led to rampant voter fraud.

Official audits of election results around the country, conducted by officials from both parties, found no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election.

Mr. DeSantis enacted the legislation even after he had promoted Florida’s handling of the November elections. Mr. Trump won the state by three percentage points.

Mr. DeSantis gave Fox News, his preferred major cable news outlet — and Mr. Trump’s — an exclusive to broadcast the bill-signing ceremony from West Palm Beach on Thursday morning, in an event that resembled a campaign rally as much as an official act of state government.

Supporters of Mr. DeSantis gathered inside a Hilton near the airport, donning DeSantis and Trump campaign gear. Before they entered, some people waved Trump-DeSantis and DeSantis 2024 banners, according to photos on social media shared by journalists locked outside the doors.

“Right now, I have what we think is the strongest election integrity measures in the country,” a seated Mr. DeSantis told Fox as a rowdy crowd cheered behind him.

Mr. DeSantis and his predecessors have been known to sign bills, especially controversial ones, in private. Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia, a lower-key politician who has kept Mr. Trump at a relative arm’s length, signed his state’s bill in a conference room in his office, as a Democratic state legislator knocked on the door, demanding to be let in. She was instead arrested and later released.

Giving exclusive access to a cable news network was unusual, if not unprecedented. A reporter from a local CBS station said it was supposed to carry the broadcast feed for other stations, a practice known as pooling, but was also not allowed inside.

“We were happy to give them the exclusive on that, and I think it went really, really well,” Mr. DeSantis said when asked about the Fox News access later on Thursday in Panama City Beach. He trumpeted the network’s “millions” of viewers and estimated that a thousand people had filled the Hilton ballroom: “It’s the first bill signing I’ve ever done live on a national broadcast.”

Speaking aboard Air Force One en route to Louisiana on Thursday, Karine Jean-Pierre, the deputy White House press secretary, said that the Florida law is “built on a lie” and that the state is moving “in the wrong direction.”

“The 2020 election was one of the most secure elections in American history,” she said. “There’s no legitimate reason to change the rules right now to make it harder to vote.”

Florida is the latest state to pass voter restrictions as Republicans move to reverse gains made by Democrats in Georgia, Arizona and elsewhere.

In Texas, Republicans in the legislature are brushing aside objections from corporate titans like Dell Technologies, Microsoft and American Airlines and moving on a vast election bill that would be among the most severe in the nation.

It would impose new restrictions on early voting, ban drive-through voting, threaten election officials with harsher penalties and greatly empower partisan poll watchers. The main bill passed a key committee in a late-night session on Thursday and could head to a full floor vote in the House as early as next week.

Bills to restrict voting have also been moving through Republican-led legislatures in Arizona and Michigan.

Iran’s chief negotiator, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, attending the Joint Commission in Vienna last week.
Credit…EU Delegation in Vienna, via Reuters

The United States and Iran could each come back into compliance with a 2015 nuclear deal within weeks, a senior State Department official said on Thursday, on the eve of what could be a final round of negotiations before an agreement is brokered.

It was the most optimistic signal yet by the Biden administration that an American return to the accord between Iran and world powers was within reach.

Briefing journalists on condition of anonymity, the senior official described the likelihood of an agreement before Iran’s presidential elections in mid-June as both possible and doable. He said it potentially could come in the round of talks that begin on Friday in Vienna.

Still, the official cautioned that the United States and Iran continued to diverge on the extent to which each side needed to comply with the original terms of the 2015 deal — namely, unwinding economic sanctions by Washington in exchange for Tehran scaling back its nuclear program. He would not describe specific sticking points.

The Trump administration withdrew from the deal in 2018 to pressure Iran into a broader agreement that would have also limited its missile program and military activities across the Middle East. Later that year, the United States reimposed sanctions on Iran’s key financial sectors, including its lucrative oil industry, to squeeze its economy and try to force Tehran back to the bargaining table.

Instead, Iran resisted the pressure campaign by accelerating its nuclear program and raising its prospects for building a weapon.

President Biden has pledged to rejoin the nuclear accord — but also has called for negotiating a “longer and stronger” deal afterward to curb Iran’s missile program and its support for proxy forces in places such as Iraq, Syria and Yemen, where they threaten U.S. allies, including Israel and Saudi Arabia.

As American negotiators have warned in recent weeks that an agreement on reviving the 2015 deal may ultimately be thwarted, Iranian officials have cast the negotiations in a far rosier light.

In a twist on Thursday — and as the senior State Department official predicted a possible breakthrough on the horizon — Iran’s chief negotiator urged caution.

“We are in agreement on the path we have to take although we do have serious challenges. We have a long way ahead of us; it’s impossible to determine or predict a timetable,” Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi of Iran said in Vienna on Thursday. “The problems that remain are serious and must be resolved through negotiations.”

Representative Elise Stefanik at her election night victory party in November. Ms. Stefanik has echoed Trump’s falsehoods of rampant voter fraud, and voted to overturn the election results on Jan. 6.
Credit…Cindy Schultz for The New York Times

Representative Elise Stefanik, campaigning to oust Representative Liz Cheney as the Republican Party’s No. 3 leader in the House for calling out President Donald J. Trump’s election lies, pitched herself as an unshakable ally of the former president on Thursday, calling him the “strongest supporter of any president when it comes to standing up for the Constitution.”

In her first public interview since announcing she would run for Ms. Cheney’s post amid a drive by Republican leaders to force out the Wyoming lawmaker, Ms. Stefanik, of New York, appeared on Steve Bannon’s “War Room,” a hard-right program run by Mr. Trump’s former strategist, and promised to unite the party under the former president’s banner.

“My vision is to run with support from the president and his coalition of voters,” Ms. Stefanik said, referencing Mr. Trump, adding later that she was committed to “sending a clear message that we are one team, and that means working with the president and working with all of our excellent Republican members of Congress.”

Ms. Stefanik’s glowing comments about Mr. Trump captured the contrast between her and Ms. Cheney, who has relentlessly criticized the former president for falsely claiming the election was stolen and beseeched Republican lawmakers — most recently in a scathing opinion piece on Wednesday — to excise him from the party before it collapses into irrelevance.

“Trump is seeking to unravel critical elements of our constitutional structure that make democracy work — confidence in the result of elections and the rule of law,” Ms. Cheney wrote. “No other American president has ever done this.”

In the interview on Thursday, Ms. Stefanik, who voted to overturn the election results on Jan. 6 and has echoed Mr. Trump’s false claims of voter fraud, repeated some of those allegations, citing “unprecedented unconstitutional overreach” from state officials.

“These are questions that are going to have to be answered before we head into the 2022 midterms,” Ms. Stefanik said of the questions she raised about the legitimacy of President Biden’s victory.

Though Ms. Cheney beat back an effort in February to replace her as conference chair following her vote to impeach Mr. Trump, most Republicans — even her allies — expect her to be stripped of the position as early as next week. Top Republican leaders who backed her earlier this year have moved to support Ms. Stefanik.

And many of the party’s rank-and-file members, including some who agree with Ms. Cheney’s caustic assessments of Mr. Trump, say privately that have grown weary of her determination to continue publicly repudiating his lies and rebuking members of her own party for their role in fueling the falsehoods that inspired the Jan. 6. riot at the Capitol.

President Biden in Lake Charles, La., before speaking on the American Jobs Plan.
Credit…Alex Brandon/Associated Press

As President Biden visits Louisiana on Thursday afternoon, he is stepping into a state whose political and physical landscape was shaped by a very different leader intent on pushing it into prosperity through a massive government effort to build bridges, roads and schools.

Mr. Biden, speaking in New Orleans and Lake Charles to pitch his $2.3 trillion infrastructure bill, has little in common with Huey P. Long, the state’s dictatorial governor in the 1920s and 1930s.

But both men shared a belief that funding infrastructure, even if it incurs a massive accumulation of government debt, is essential for modernizing the country and connecting the Democratic Party with working-class voters who scorn the elites of both parties.

In Mr. Long’s day those voters were almost invariably Democrats. In contrast, in 2020, former President Donald J. Trump defeated Mr. Biden by nearly 20 percentage points in the state.

Mr. Biden is hoping to reclaim some of that lost political ground with the region’s working-class voters, while emphasizing his commitment to combating climate change for his party’s base. His trip to the Gulf Coast reflects a hybrid of the two political approaches.

Mr. Long, known as the “Kingfish,” died young with a tarnished legacy. But he left a concrete record of accomplishment with few parallels in U.S. history, overseeing the paving of 2,301 miles of highway (only 331 miles were paved before he took office), while building 111 bridges, dozens of schools and a soaring State Capitol building in Baton Rouge.

Mr. Biden went first to conservative, industrial Lake Charles, which was inundated by Hurricanes Laura and Delta last year, to survey the rebuilding and to promote his plan to pump about $50 billion into projects fortifying existing infrastructure from natural disaster.

Mr. Biden will then tour the aging Carrollton Water Plant in New Orleans to make the case for funding “storm-hardening” upgrades that will prevent the kind of environmental cataclysm that resulted from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

While nine decades separate the decorous Mr. Biden and the disruptive Mr. Long, their messages are strikingly similar.

“When someone wants to come into the area and a company wants to invest, what do they ask? ‘Where’s the first rail bed? How can I get to the railroad? What access to interstate do I have? What’s the water like?’” Mr. Biden said when he unveiled his plan, called the American Jobs Plan, in late March.

“Is it big? Yes. Is it bold?” he said during a speech at a carpenter training facility in Pittsburgh. “Yes. And we can get it done.”

During a campaign speech in 1928, Mr. Long posed a similar question, although he directed his words to Louisiana’s poor, as he stood under an oak tree in St. Martinville.

“Where are the schools that you have waited for your children to have, that have never come? Where are the roads and highways that you send your money to build, that are no nearer now than ever before? Where are the institutions to care for the sick and disabled?” he said.

“Your tears in this country have lasted for generations,” he added. “Give me the chance to dry the eyes of those who still weep here.”

President Biden speaking in Columbus, Ohio, in March, on the 11th anniversary of the Affordable Care Act being signed into law.
Credit…Leah Millis/Reuters

Nearly one million Americans have signed up for Affordable Care Act coverage during the first 10 weeks of a special open enrollment period the Biden administration began in February.

A total of 940,000 people enrolled in Obamacare coverage between Feb. 15 and April 30, new data released Thursday by Health and Human Services shows. Of those new enrollees, nearly half bought coverage last month, after Congress added billions in subsidies included in the most recent stimulus package.

With that additional funding, the average monthly premium that Healthcare.gov consumers paid fell to $86 for those signing up in April, down from $117 in February and March (before the new subsidies).

The surge in sign-ups reflects a growing demand for health insurance. Many Americans have lost job-based coverage during the pandemic, and others who were uninsured before found themselves newly interested in coverage. The numbers undercount the overall new insurance sign-ups; they reflect enrollment only in the 36 states with marketplaces that the federal government manages.

The increase most likely reflects increased publicity about the opportunity, the availability of more financial help with premiums, and health fears related to the pandemic. The Trump administration made deep cuts in advertising and marketing for Healthcare.gov. The Biden administration reversed many of those changes, committing to spending $100 million to advertise this new enrollment period.

The new subsidies make a substantial difference in the affordability of insurance for many Americans. About four million who are currently uninsured can qualify for plans that will cost them no premium, according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation (the government subsidy would cover the entire monthly cost).

Another group, higher up the income scale, qualifies for financial assistance for the first time. Some families will be eligible for discounts of more than $10,000 a year. Under the stimulus bill, these new subsidies will last until the end of 2022. But the president has said he will seek to extend them as part of his American Families Plan legislation.

Around two million Americans who were already enrolled in Obamacare coverage have returned to the marketplace to take advantage of new subsidies, according to the department. That number represents a fraction of those eligible for new discounts. Biden administration officials opted against an automatic update of subsidies, and have instead been trying to encourage consumers to come back and request them individually.

Everyone eligible for a new discount will get it eventually, but those who sign up now will receive monthly discounts on their insurance, while those who do not will get the money as a refund when they file their taxes next year.

Sign-ups for health plans in most states will remain open until Aug. 15 this year.

Video

transcript

bars

0:00/1:03

0:00

transcript

U.S. Pledges Support to Ukraine Against Russian Threats

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken told Ukraine’s president that the United States strongly supports Ukraine against threats from Russia, which has a history of military aggression in the region.

We’re proud to have supported Ukraine in the face of years of Russian aggression and pressure, from the invasion of Crimea, the hostilities in the Donbass, and of course, Ukraine was tested again, just weeks ago this spring as Russia pushed more forces to Ukraine’s border than at any time since 2014 when it invaded. And I can tell you, Mr. President, that we stand strongly with you, the partners do as well. I heard the same thing when I was at NATO a couple of weeks ago. We look to Russia to cease reckless and aggressive actions. We’ll continue to strengthen our security partnership and keep close collaboration with you to make sure that Ukraine can defend itself against aggression. We’re aware that Russia has withdrawn some forces from the border of Ukraine, but we also see that significant forces remain there. Significant equipment remains there. We’re monitoring the situation very, very closely.

Video player loading
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken told Ukraine’s president that the United States strongly supports Ukraine against threats from Russia, which has a history of military aggression in the region.CreditCredit…Ukrainian Presidential press service, via Shutterstock

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken told Ukraine’s president on Thursday that the United States strongly backed his country’s sovereignty against Russia’s military aggression but also warned that the embattled country was under threat from “internal forces,” including powerful oligarchs who thrive on corruption.

Mr. Blinken also said that, despite Russia’s recently announced plans to withdraw many of the 100,000 troops it had built up along the border with Ukraine in an alarming show of force this spring, a clear military threat remained.

“Russia has pulled back some forces, but significant forces remain on Ukraine’s border,” Mr. Blinken noted. “And so Russia has the capacity on fairly short notice to take aggressive actions if it so chooses.” Mr. Blinken added that the United States was “watching this very, very carefully.”

Mr. Blinken spoke at a joint news conference with the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who effusively thanked the first senior Biden official to visit Kyiv since the departure of President Donald J. Trump from office. The former president ensnared Mr. Zelensky in a global scandal that the Ukrainian leader clearly hopes to forget.

Asked whether efforts in 2019 by Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, had “set back” efforts to drive corruption out of Ukraine’s political system, Mr. Zelensky boasted about his reform record, then indicated that he hopes the matter is finished.

“Let’s not talk about the past,” he said. “Let’s let bygones be bygones, and let’s discuss the future.”

That may be difficult, given an active F.B.I. investigation into Mr. Giuliani that culminated last week in a raid on his apartment and office. Federal agents were reportedly seeking evidence of his role in the May 2019 removal of the American ambassador to Ukraine, allegedly at the behest of Mr. Giuliani’s Ukrainian associates.

Mr. Blinken for his part maneuvered around a question featuring Mr. Giuliani, but reminded Mr. Zelensky — whose reform record has drawn mixed reviews — that “effectively combating corruption is one of the most important issues to the Ukrainian people, and is crucial to improving their lives.”

Gary Gensler, Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Credit…Kayana Szymczak for The New York Times

Gary Gensler, the newly installed chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, testified before the House Financial Services Committee on Thursday. He addressed the meme-stock volatility in January that led to trading restrictions and prompted an outcry about Wall Street’s relationship with retail investors.

“I think these events are part of a larger story about the intersection of finance and technology,” Mr. Gensler said in his prepared remarks, highlighting seven factors at play that also hint at his regulatory priorities in the months ahead:

  • Gamification. Fun features combined with predictive analytics on trading apps increase engagement. Watching a movie based on a streaming app recommendation, “we might lose a couple of hours,” Mr. Gensler said. “Following the wrong prompt on a trading app, however, could have a substantial effect on a saver’s financial position.” He suggested it may be time for new rules to address the practice.

  • Payment-for-order flow. Many retail brokers don’t charge fees for trades, earning money instead by directing customer orders to wholesalers to execute. More trades generate more payments, which raises questions about conflicts of interest, consumer protection and data aggregation, Mr. Gensler said.

  • Market structure. A few wholesalers account for a growing share of retail stock trading volume, with Citadel Securities particularly dominant. This concentration can “lead to fragility, deter healthy competition and limit innovation,” Mr. Gensler said.

  • Short-selling transparency. He wants to increase “transparency in the stock loan market.”

  • Social media. Investors exchanging views online is fine, but Mr. Gensler worries bad actors take advantage of legitimate debates. In particular, this risks sending false signals to algorithms that some investors use to gauge the “relationships between words and prices.”

  • Plumbing. When brokers restricted customer trading in meme stocks, they blamed clearinghouses and two-day settlement times. Mr. Gensler said same-day settlement is technologically possible and has asked for a draft proposal on speeding up settlement.

  • Systemic risks. The S.E.C. will issue a report over the summer, the chair said, examining what happened in detail during the meme-stock frenzy and considering “whether expanded enforcement mechanisms are necessary.”

The Federal Election Commission serves as the nation’s top election watchdog agency.
Credit…Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Federal Election Commission voted unanimously on Thursday to recommend that Congress ban political campaigns from guiding donors by default into recurring contributions through prechecked boxes, a month after a New York Times investigation showed that former President Donald J. Trump’s political operation had steered huge numbers of unwitting supporters into repeated donations through that tactic.

The bipartisan commission, which serves as the nation’s top election watchdog agency, is divided evenly between three Democratic-aligned commissioners and three Republicans, a composition that often leads to stalemate. But commissioners of both parties, including three Republicans appointed by Mr. Trump, came together on Thursday to ask Congress to strengthen campaign finance law to protect online donors.

“It’s important that donors be able to exercise their choices freely,” Ellen L. Weintraub, a longtime Democratic commissioner on the F.E.C., said in an interview. “If their money is being taken from them because of some reverse checkoff option they didn’t notice, then they are not giving their money freely.”

“It’s almost like theft,” Ms. Weintraub added. “I don’t want to see donors tricked.”

The Times investigation showed how the Trump operation, facing a cash crunch last fall, had deployed prechecked boxes to enroll every donor in weekly withdrawals — unless they unchecked the box. Then the Trump operation made the disclaimer that disclosed that fact increasingly opaque with extraneous text. The Trump operation also prechecked a second box, known as a “money bomb,” that doubled a person’s contribution.

Demands for refunds soared and credit card companies experienced a surge of fraud complaints, the investigation found.

In addition to the F.E.C.’s recommendation, Facebook said it was reviewing its policies for advertisers who link to prechecked recurring donation pages. Andy Stone, a Facebook spokesman, said that such tactics did not violate the company’s existing policies for political fund-raising but that “we’re taking a close look at how this fund-raising practice is used on our platform to ensure that we protect the people using our services.”

The Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles on Wednesday. Many public spaces have been coming back to life as more people are vaccinated.
Credit…Philip Cheung for The New York Times

Americans have entered a new, hopeful phase of the pandemic. Buoyed by a sense that the coronavirus is waning, in part because of vaccinations, more people are venturing into restaurants and returning to their prepandemic routines.

Mayors, governors and other local officials — once the bearers of grim news about the virus’s toll and strict rules for businesses — have joined in the newfound optimism, rapidly loosening restrictions.

Public health experts remain cautious, but said that while they still expect significant local and regional surges in the coming weeks, they do not think they will be as widespread or reach past peaks.

“We’re clearly turning the corner,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

The nation is recording about 49,000 new cases a day, the lowest number since early October, and hospitalizations have plateaued at around 40,000, a similar level as the early fall. Nationwide, deaths are hovering around 700 a day, down from a peak of more than 3,000 in January.

In the past, lulls in the pandemic were short-lived. But now, there is one crucial difference: More than half of American adults — 148 million people — have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. Cases, hospitalizations and deaths have also fallen at a time when the weather is getting warmer, allowing people to spend more time outdoors, where the virus spreads less easily.

The situation in the United States stands in stark contrast to other parts of the world, where many countries are still scrambling to secure access to vaccines. India remains in dire crisis, and thousands of people are dying each day in Brazil.

Even in the United States, there remain strong reasons for caution. Vaccinations are slowing, and experts now believe that herd immunity may not be attainable. More transmissible variants of the virus are also spreading.

A modeling study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday, citing relaxed restrictions and a new, contagious variant, suggested that cases could tick upward again in the coming weeks, before a sharp drop-off by July.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the C.D.C., said, “We are not out of the woods yet, but we could be very close.”

Source