MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images(NEW YORK) — What a difference a year makes.

In February 2014, the world’s attention was focused on the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and on Russia’s effort to pull off a successful spectacle. But just days after the Olympics ended, the attention remained on Russia as Russian troops moved into the Crimea region to seize it from Ukraine’s military. The subsequent annexation of Crimea and continued Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine have brought Russia’s relationship with the West to its lowest point since the end of the Cold War.

On Tuesday, Sochi will be the site of a meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian President Vladimir Putin, part of Kerry’s first visit to Russia in two years, according to the State Department. Acting State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the meeting was “confirmed,” though Putin’s top spokesman told a Russian radio station earlier Monday that no decision had been made yet about a meeting between the two.

“This trip is part of our ongoing effort to maintain direct lines of communication with senior Russian officials and to ensure U.S. views are clearly conveyed,” Harf said in a statement announcing Kerry’s trip and his meeting with Putin.

While Ukraine will be “a huge topic of conversation” between Kerry and Putin, Harf said the talks will also center on other diplomatic issues where the U.S and Russia have continued to work together.

That includes the nuclear talks with Iran, an issue where Harf has described Russia as being “in lock step” with the U.S. and working towards a negotiated end to the Syrian civil war. But she said Kerry’s meeting with Putin will also be an opportunity “to discuss ones where we very strongly disagree, like Ukraine.”


The United States and the international community have continued to put pressure on Russia to step back its involvement in eastern Ukraine. The State Department has repeatedly accused Russia and Russian separatists of having violated a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine.

Recently, American defense officials have said the Russian-supported separatists are using the cover of the Minsk agreement to regenerate forces for another offensive against Ukrainian forces. Russia has fired back, accusing the Ukrainian government of also violating the agreement and criticizing the U.S. for meddling in the region.

“We’ve seen statements like this from the Russians repeatedly,” Harf said on Monday. “We’ve made clear what has happened here and that the Russians are the ones who are responsible for deescalating and pulling back. We only took actions in response to their actions.”

The Russians are hinting that Kerry’s visit will “serve to normalize bilateral relations” between the two countries.

Harf thought that term did not apply, but said the opportunity to discuss areas of disagreement was worthwhile.

“Just because you strongly disagree with what a country is doing doesn’t mean you shouldn’t meet with them. In fact, it actually means you should try and make progress,” said Harf.


The civil war in Syria has raged for more than four years with estimates that 210,000 Syrians have died in the conflict.

Both the United States and Russia have worked towards a negotiated resolution of the war in Syria, though that has proven elusive. One bright spot was that both countries were able to finalize an agreement that resulted in Syria turning over its chemical weapons to the United Nations. Last February, the U.S. and Russia sponsored peace talks in Geneva between the Assad regime and opposition groups that quickly fell apart as both sides bickered about what the talks should focus on. The Assad regime wanted the talks to focus on combating terrorism while the opposition wanted Assad’s removal from power.

“Secretary Kerry and the team have long been thinking through ways to get back to a diplomatic process here when it comes to a Geneva-like scenario where we get the parties to the table and where we can actually make progress towards a political transition in Syria,” said Harf on Monday. “We’ve certainly felt very strongly that we need to get back to that kind of political dialogue at some point, given where we are.”

But a complicating factor towards renewing talks is the weakened position of the moderate Syrian opposition who have suffered defeats on the battlefield to extremist groups like ISIS and the Al Nusra Front. Meanwhile, Assad may be less inclined to participate in talks as he continues to receive support from Iran and Hezbollah.


The U.S. and Russia have been working towards a nuclear deal with Iran, but final details still need to be worked out by the end of June — particularly the daylight between American and Iranian interpretations of the deal that was worked out in Switzerland, specifically as it relates to sanctions relief for Iran. Just days after that deal was announced, Vladimir Putin lifted the ban on the sale of the advanced Russian S-300 air defense system to Iran. The move was criticized by the Obama administration but not seen as a deal-breaker for the talks. The administration has had a tough time selling the deal to its Arab partners in the region who are wary of Iran’s support for Houthi rebels in the region.

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Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call(WASHINGTON) — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell spoke on the Senate floor Monday, saying that the legislative body is aiming to pass legislation, particularly citing current bills with bipartisan support.

McConnell touched on his weekend trip to the Edward M. Kennedy Institute, saying that on his trip, he stood “in a full-scale representation of the Senate chamber — to discuss how the real Senate is beginning to get back to work.” The Kentucky Republican mentioned effective committees, “more open floor debate,” and a return to fundamentals — “like passing a budget” — as signs that Congress can be productive.

The Senate majority leader highlighted potentially upcoming debates on trade and nuclear negotiations with Iran.

“This doesn’t mean we’ve ironed out all the Senate’s challenges,” McConnell admitted, “it doesn’t mean a new Era of Good Feelings beckons just around the corner, and it doesn’t mean an exertion of will won’t be necessary every now and then.

“But it does mean we’re beginning to open the Senate back up, and in a way that will make shared achievement more likely.”

McConnell praised the Senate’s passage of legislation that gives the American people “more of a say in President Obama’s negotiations with Iran.” Republicans have previously expressed concern regarding the nuclear negotiations, which involve the P5+1 nations, as well as Iran. Earlier this year, 47 Republican senators signed a letter addressed to the Iranian government explaining that a deal not supported by Congress could be undone when Obama leaves office.

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Photo by John Li / Getty Images(WASHINGTON) — The Obama administration granted conditional approval for Arctic drilling to Shell Oil Company on Monday.

According to a press release from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the decision to approve drilling was made following a “comprehensive review and consideration of comments received from the public, stakeholders, and Federal and state partner agencies and tribes.” Shell must still obtain necessary permits from multiple state and federal agencies.

The corporation will also be required to wait to begin drilling until opinions under the Endangered Species Act are issued. Once that occurs, Shell will additionally be obligated to follow any additional terms and conditions outlined under those opinions.

“We have taken a thoughtful approach to carefully considering potential exploration in the Chukchi Sea, recognizing the significant environmental, social and ecological resources in the region and establishing high standards for the protection of this critical ecosystem, our Arctic communities, and the subsistence needs and cultural traditions of Alaska Natives,” BOEM Director Abigail Ross Hopper said. “As we move forward, any offshore exploratory activities will continue to be subject to rigorous safety standards.”

The Chukchi Sea, off the northwest coast of Alaska, is “one of the most productive ocean ecosystems in the world,” according to the Audubon Society.

Shell has proposed the drilling of as many as six wells within the area.

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ABC News(CONCORD, N.H.) — A Democratic tracker got a licking Monday while attending a Rand Paul campaign event in New Hampshire.

A campaign staffer for the Republican presidential candidate licked the camera lens of a tracker from the Democratic opposition research super PAC, American Bridge 21st Century, while recording the event. And the tracker caught it all on tape:

Trackers are people hired by opponents, or opposition groups, to film everything a candidate does or says in public. They are at just about every public event featuring 2016 presidential contenders these days, and campaigns and candidates know to expect them.

When asked about the incident, Paul’s campaign avoided it.

“Senator Rand Paul visited New Hampshire today to accept the endorsement of twenty New Hampshire State Representatives who support his run for the White House, and to visit with and take questions from the voters of NH,” campaign communications director Sergio Gor said in a statement. “It was a great day of events.”

American Bridge Tracking Director Becky Parks reacted in a tweet.

And the group’s communications director, Ben Ray, said he’s ever seen anything like this before.

“No. No, I have not,” Ray told ABC News, noting that it’s a common practice for staffers to try to block trackers’ cameras with their bodies — but not to go this far.

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SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) — The White House is downplaying the suggestion that the king of Saudi Arabia is snubbing President Obama by canceling plans to attend a high level summit with Arab leaders at Camp David on Thursday.

“All the feedback that we’ve received from the Saudis has been positive,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said at Monday’s press briefing. He said the Saudis have not raised any concerns, either before or after King Salman changed his travel plans.

Four of the six rulers of the countries participating in the summit are skipping the event — a sign some say that they are displeased with the Obama administration’s nuclear talks with Iran.

Earnest downplayed the dropouts, saying that they are sending decision-makers in their stead.

“Having the senior security officials from each of these countries represented in a way that they can participate robustly in the discussion, represent the interest of their country, and follow through on any commitments that they make in the context of the meeting, gives us some confidence that this will be a worthwhile session,” he said.

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iStock/Thinkstocki(WASHINGTON) — It’s a close race for the White House at the moment, as far as the GOP is concerned.

A new Bloomberg Politics/Saint Anselm New Hampshire poll is showing a four-way tie for first place.

“We have six declared candidates. You have about another half-dozen, I think, are going to get in over the next month. And there is nothing even close to a front-runner,” says ABC News’ Chief White House Correspondent Jonathan Karl.

“This Bloomberg poll in New Hampshire, where the candidates have been spending most of their time, you see essentially a four-way tie for first place,” he adds.

That tie is among Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

You can see the full results of the poll here.

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iStock/Thinkstock(CHICAGO) — The Barack Obama Foundation will announce Tuesday morning the location of President Obama’s presidential library.

Several reports say the Barack Obama Presidential Center will be built in Chicago. According to ABC News affiliate WLS-TV, two sites are in the running: Jackson Park and Washington Park — both in the city’s South Side.

The announcement is scheduled for 5 a.m. local time. A press conference will follow in the afternoon.

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Hemera/Thinkstock(GREENVILLE, S.C.) — At the latest big candidate-magnet event, the South Carolina Freedom Summit hosted by Citizens United in Greenville over the weekend, major and minor GOP candidates delivered some of their standard stump lines. Republicans clawed at Hillary Clinton and President Obama in an attempt to stand out from each other in the first Southern primary state.

Here are some of the highlights:

Scott Walker: “Cutting taxes is like shopping at Kohl’s — using coupons and discounts, you get shirts for dirt cheap instead of market price. Kohl’s knows that you can sell a few full-price or a lot for less. Same with the economy — the more you lower taxes on people, the more people engage in the economy.”

Ted Cruz: “Imagine you traveled thousands of miles in the blazing sun and when you get to the border you see 90,000 IRS agents. You’d turn around too!”

Bobby Jindal: “Secretary Clinton said that those who are pro-life need to have religious beliefs changed. What does that even mean, we’re going to be sent off to reeducation camps? I’ve got news for Clinton — my religious beliefs are not between me and Hillary Rodham Clinton, they’re between me and God and I’m not changing them no matter how uncomfortable they make Secretary Clinton or President Obama or anyone else on the Left.”

Rick Santorum: “The Republican Party nominates people who’ve checked three boxes, don’t get nominated unless you check these boxes: One, you’re a former VP; two, you’re the son of a former president; three, you came in second the last time and ran again.”

Carly Fiorina:
“Like Hillary Clinton, I’m also running for president, but unlike her, I’m not afraid to answer questions about my record. She’s answered seven on the record questions since April 12, I’ve answered over 200 on the record since Monday.”

Donald Trump: “I’ll be making a decision very soon, I think a lot of people will be very happy, and some of them will be very surprised.”

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ABC News(WASHINGTON) — With key provisions of the Patriot Act set to expire, Senate Intelligence Committee chair Richard Burr on Sunday defended the federal government’s bulk phone-record collection, saying it’s “very effective at keeping America safe.”

Congress is set to debate the future of the Patriot Act this month, and much of that debate will focus on the law’s controversial Section 215, which the government has for years used to gather Americans’ phone records in bulk.

“I think it’s very effective at keeping America safe,” Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, told ABC News’ Martha Raddatz.

Burr recently introduced a bill with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, to reauthorize Section 215’s current language when it expires June 1.

Burr said Americans’ privacy is protected in the program, and the government doesn’t use the information gathered for any nefarious purposes.

“We don’t know whose they are and the only time we’re interested in them is if we know they have talked to a telephone number of a terrorist and if that happens we have to go to court and a FISA judge looks at the evidence and gives us permission then to find out whose telephone number that is,” Burr said. “We’ve had absolutely no incident of anybody’s privacy being intruded on.”

The protections to which Burr referred are not contained in the Patriot Act itself, but were introduced by the Obama administration after the Section 215 program was revealed by Edward Snowden, and, in the absence of action by Congress, could be withdrawn by a future president.

A broad coalition of advocacy organizations, ranging from the ACLU to the Gun Owners of America, wrote a letter this week condemning Burr and McConnell’s “straight reauthorization” approach, which has divided members of the Republican majority.

“Proposals such as S.1035 [the bill proposed by Burr and McConnell] ignore this original intention and fail to address the deleterious impact that mass surveillance conducted under Section 215 continues to have on our privacy, economy, and democracy,” the groups wrote in an open letter to the House and Senate Majority and Minority leaders.

One alternative to Burr and McConnell’s bill, the USA Freedom Act, would halt the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records, although the records would still be collected elsewhere. They would be held instead by the phone companies themselves, which could turn them over only if a court deemed it reasonable to suspect that they were related to an international terrorist organization.

The USA Freedom Act, supported by House Speaker John Boehner, is expected to be passed in that body next week. Its fate in the Senate is less certain, given McConnell’s opposition.

In the Senate, the charge in support of the USA Freedom Act is led by Republican Mike Lee and Democrat Patrick Leahy, and has the support of presidential candidate Ted Cruz.

But Burr said on ABC’s This Week that the bill would take American counterterror efforts back to a “pre-911” era.

“We might have been able to stop 9/11 with bulk collection,” said Burr, who cited the claim, made by some in the intelligence community, that the metadata program could have averted the Sept. 11 terror attacks by capturing the phone records of hijacker Khalid al-Mihdhar.

“They suggested that if we had been able to bulk collect phone numbers, we could have traced and connected that dot,” the senator told Raddatz.

These claims have been the subject of intense debate in the intelligence community.

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Mark Wilson / iStock / Thinkstock(ATLANTA) — Former President Jimmy Carter left Guyana on Sunday, where he had traveled to act as an election observer, after complaining that he felt unwell.

The Carter Center issued a statement saying he was returning to Atlanta and cutting his election observation visit short.

The statement didn’t specify why Carter, 90, left, only saying he was “not feeling well.”

“President Carter is hopeful about Guyana’s election and expressed his commitment and that of The Carter Center to supporting Guyana in the days ahead, stressing the need for a peaceful process before, during, and after the election,” read the statement.

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