Russia has formally recognized Crimea as an independent state, paving the way for its annexation and defying new sanctions led by the United States. In a speech today, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his support for annexing Crimea following its vote to break off from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation. Putin called Crimea an "integral part" of Russia and denied the vote was influenced by Russian military occupation. Putin’s declaration comes after President Obama unveiled travel bans and asset freezes targeting a small number of top Russian officials, including Putin’s longtime adviser and his deputy prime minister.
President Obama: "I have signed a new executive order that expands the scope of our sanctions. As an initial step, I’m authorizing sanctions on Russian officials, entities operating in the arms sector in Russia and individuals who provide material support to senior officials of the Russian government. And if Russia continues to interfere in Ukraine, we stand ready to impose further sanctions."
The European Union has also unveiled a similar list of limited sanctions. Obama is due to visit Europe next week for talks on the Ukraine crisis with top allies.
As he chided Russia for backing annexation, Obama hosted Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in a bid to convince him to accept Israel’s partial annexation of the occupied West Bank. Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are trying to obtain a framework agreement between Israel and the PA before a deadline of next month. It’s widely believed Kerry’s plan endorses Israeli goals of holding on to Israeli settlement blocs and other valuable land. Obama said both sides will have to compromise on the path to peace.
President Obama: "As I said to Prime Minister Netanyahu when he was here just a couple of weeks ago, I believe that now is the time for not just the leaders of both sides, but also the peoples of both sides, to embrace this opportunity for peace. But we’re going to have a lot of details that we’re going to have to discuss. It’s very hard. It’s very challenging. We’re going to have to take some tough political decisions and risks if we’re able to move it forward. And my hope is, is that we can continue to see progress in the coming days and weeks."
Abbas is also being asked to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, a demand Palestinian critics have rejected on the grounds they’d be legitimizing their own expulsion. As he met with Obama in Washington, thousands of Palestinians rallied in Ramallah calling on Abbas to resist pressure to abandon basic Palestinian rights.
At least 15 people have been killed in a suicide attack on a busy market in Afghanistan’s northern province of Faryab. Another 28 people were wounded. In his last address to Afghanistan’s parliament over the weekend, President Hamid Karzai renewed his refusal to sign an agreement that would allow U.S. troops to remain after this year. Elections for Karzai’s replacement are early next month.
A new internal report says the Justice Department massively overstated its successes in targeting mortgage fraud while in fact ranking it as a low priority for investigation. The Justice Department’s inspector general says despite playing a central role in the nation’s financial crisis, mortgage fraud was deemed either a low priority or not a priority at all. In one instance, Attorney General Eric Holder claimed to have filed lawsuits on behalf of homeowner victims for losses totaling more than $1 billion, but the actual amount was 91 percent less, around $95 million. On Monday, three Democratic lawmakers — Senator Elizabeth Warren and Congressmembers Elijah Cummings and Maxine Waters — asked Holder for a meeting to discuss the lapse. In a letter, the three said: "This report calls into question the Department’s commitment to investigate and prosecute crimes such as predatory lending, loan modification scams and abusive mortgage servicing practices." In a separate statement, Republican Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa was more critical, saying the Justice Department "wasted time cooking the numbers about the cases it pursued, when it should have been prosecuting cases."
A second hunger strike has broken out at an immigration detention center owned by the private prison corporation, GEO Group. Detainees at the Joe Corley Detention Center in Conroe, Texas, have begun refusing meals in protest of their treatment there. The action comes as detainees at the GEO Group-run Tacoma Detention Center in Washington state are entering their third week on hunger strike. The Obama administration ordered a review of deportation procedures last week amidst a wave of criticism of policies that have separated nearly two million people from their families.
The auto giant General Motors has announced a recall of another 1.6 million cars in the unfolding fallout from defects linked to scores of deaths. Over 3.1 million vehicles have now been recalled in the last two months over faulty ignition switches that shut down engines and air bags. In a rare and perhaps unprecedented admission, GM CEO Mary Barra acknowledged "terrible things" have happened as a result.
Mary Barra: "These are serious developments that shouldn’t surprise anyone. After all, something went wrong with our process in this instance, and terrible things happened. We are conducting an intense review of our internal processes, and we will have more developments to announce as we move forward. The bottom line is, we will be better because of this tragic situation, if we seize the opportunity."
The White House is reportedly delaying a vote on President Obama’s pick for surgeon general over congressional opposition to his support for gun control. Dr. Vivek Murthy has come under criticism from the National Rifle Association for backing gun registration and an assault weapons ban. That stance has apparently prompted opposition from at least 10 Senate Democrats, several of whom are up for re-election. On Monday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney confirmed Murthy won’t face an immediate vote, saying the administration is "recalibrating" its strategy.
And a coalition of groups led by the American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit against a new law in Idaho that bans the documentation of animal abuse at industrial farms. Approved last month, the measure is part of a wave of so-called "ag-gag" laws that crack down on those who secretly film or photograph harm to livestock. The suit claims the law is intended "to silence the undercover investigations and corresponding media coverage that contribute to public debate about animal treatment and food safety."