As options narrow on Syria, Trump prepares to drop sanctions hammer on Turkey

By Idrees Ali and Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s administration is set to impose economic sanctions on Ankara, potentially as early as this week, for its incursion into northern Syria, one of the few levers the United States still has over NATO-ally Turkey.

Using the U.S. military to stop the Turkish offensive on U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters was never an option, defense officials have said, and Trump asked the Pentagon on Sunday to begin a “deliberate” withdrawal of all U.S. troops from northern Syria.

After Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Friday that Trump had authorized “very powerful” new sanctions targeting Turkey, the administration appeared ready to start making good on Trump’s threat to obliterate Turkey’s economy.

On Sunday, Trump said he was listening to Congress, where Republicans and Democrats are pushing aggressively for sanctions action.

“Dealing with @LindseyGrahamSC and many members of Congress, including Democrats, about imposing powerful Sanctions on Turkey,” Trump said on Twitter, referring to the loyal Trump ally and U.S. senator who lambasted the president last week.

“Treasury is ready to go, additional legislation may be sought. There is great consensus on this. Turkey has asked that it not be done. Stay tuned!” he added.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that sanctions were “being worked out at all levels of the government for rollout.”

Trump is struggling to quell harsh criticism, including from some of his staunchest Republican backers, that he gave Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan a green light to attack the Kurds last Sunday when he decided to pull a small number of U.S. troops out of the border area.

Turkey’s offensive aims to neutralize the Kurdish YPG militia, the main component of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and seen by Ankara as a terrorist group aligned with Kurdish insurgents in Turkey. But the SDF has also been Washington’s key ally in fighting that has dismantled Islamic State’s jihadist “caliphate” in Syria.

Trump’s decision, rooted in his long-stated aim to get the United States out of “endless wars,” has prompted bipartisan concerns that it opens the door to the revival of Islamic State.

While sanctions appear to be the strongest tool of deterrence, the United States and its European allies could also ponder arms sales bans and the threat of war crimes prosecutions.

“Good decision by President @realDonaldTrump to work with Congress to impose crippling sanctions against Turkeys outrageous aggression/war crimes in Syria,” Graham tweeted.

‘MONUMENTAL FAILURE’

It is unclear what sanctions are in the order drafted last week, which Mnuchin said was ready for activation at any moment, and whether they would be as severe as what lawmakers are proposing.

Representatives Eliot Engel, the Democratic chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, and Mike McCaul, the committee’s senior Republican, introduced a bill last Friday that would sanction Turkish officials involved in the Syria operation and banks involved with Turkey’s defense sector until Turkey ends military operations in Syria.

It also would stop arms from going to Turkish forces in Syria, and require the administration to impose existing sanctions on Turkey for its purchase of a Russian S-400 missile-defense system.

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said late on Friday that Turkey would retaliate against any steps aimed at countering its efforts to fight terrorism, in response to the announcement of possible U.S. sanctions against Turkey.

The United States has successfully gone after Turkey with sanctions and tariffs before, hitting Ankara last year to pressure authorities to return an American pastor on trial for terrorism charges.

The United States could look at targeting arm sales to Turkey, something a number of European countries have already done. France said on Saturday that it had suspended all weapon sales to Turkey and warned Ankara that its offensive in northern Syria threatened European security.

The White House could also look at increasing pressure on Turkey over reports of human rights abuses during the offensive, with a threat of war crimes prosecutions.

The United States is looking into reports that a Kurdish politician and captured Kurdish fighters were killed in northeastern Syria amid Turkey’s offensive, a State Department spokesman told Reuters, adding that Washington found the reports disturbing.

In response to the reports, the U.S. official said: “This is awful. All these are among the issues that is addressed

by our executive order,” referring to the sanctions.

Experts doubted that any of the U.S. punishments would make Erdogan change his mind, given his long-held belief that the Kurdish fighters in Syria threaten national security and whom Ankara sees as a branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

“This is a monumental failure on behalf of the United States,” said Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute think tank.

Stein said it would be the Syrian government or Russia, not American sanctions, that could stop the Turkish operation.

“The only thing that will stop them is if the regime or the Russians move in significant numbers to where they stop,” Stein said.

The Syrian army will deploy along the length of the border with Turkey in an agreement with the Kurdish-led administration in northern Syria to help repel a Turkish offensive, the Kurdish-led administration said on Sunday.

The United States does have one person that Erdogan has long wanted extradited: the U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, accused by Turkey of orchestrating a failed 2016 military coup against Erdogan.

U.S. officials have said the courts would require sufficient evidence to extradite the elderly Gulen, who has denied any involvement in the coup and has lived in self-imposed exile in the United States since 1999.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Mary Milliken and Peter Cooney)

U.S. lawmakers blast Iran, wary of war, after Saudi oil attack

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Members of the U.S. Congress blasted Iran after the attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities, but expressed wariness about U.S. military action, especially before they have a clearer picture of who was behind it.

President Donald Trump said the United States was “locked and loaded” to hit back after Saturday’s attack, which knocked out more than half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production and damaged the world’s biggest crude processing plant.

Iran denied U.S. accusations it was to blame and said it was ready for “full-fledged war.”

U.S. lawmakers, especially Trump’s fellow Republicans, were quick to blame Tehran.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s Republican majority leader, called it “a brazen attack” with significant implications for the global energy market and said he welcomed Trump’s preparation to potentially release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to stabilize markets if necessary.

“I hope our international partners will join us in imposing consequences on Iran for this reckless destabilizing attack,” McConnell said as he opened the Senate.

Many lawmakers stressed that Congress, not the president, has the right to declare war and warned against any quick military action.

Congress, with backing from both Republicans and Democrats, has passed – but Trump has vetoed – four bills seeking to push back against Trump’s strong support for the Saudi government, despite its human rights record and steep civilian casualties in the war in Yemen.

Senate aides said the administration was expected to begin providing classified briefings on Saturday’s attack for congressional staff and members as soon as Monday.

Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat who is on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, noted that the United States has long been wary of getting involved in conflicts between nations in the Middle East. He noted that Washington does not have a defense treaty with Riyadh.

“Why should the United States get dragged into a conflict that has more to do with Saudi and Iranian power in the Middle East than American power?” Murphy, a critic of Saudi Arabia on rights issues including its role in the Yemen war, told Reuters.

Senator Jim Risch, the Republican chairman of the foreign relations panel, warned of U.S. retaliation in case of an attack on U.S. troops.

“Iran should not underestimate the United States’ resolve,” he said. “Any attack against U.S. forces deployed abroad must be met with an overwhelming response – no targets are off the table.”

Republican Senator Rand Paul, another foreign relations committee member, said on CNN that any attack on Iran would constitute a “needless escalation” of war.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Senate’s McConnell: ‘Case closed’ on Mueller probe, but top Democrat sees ‘cover-up

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump listens to a question from reporters next to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) as he arrives for a closed Senate Republican policy lunch on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 26, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday sought to slam the door on further investigations of President Donald Trump by declaring “case closed” after a two-year probe of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 elections, even as House Democrats’ war with the White House intensified.

McConnell, the top Republican in the U.S. Congress, delivered a stinging rebuke of Democrats seeking additional information on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report that found no evidence Trump’s 2016 campaign colluded with Russia.

(Graphic: https://graphics.reuters.com/USA-TRUMP-RUSSIA/010091HX27V/report.pdf)

“The special counsel’s finding is clear. Case closed,” McConnell declared.

Meanwhile, battles between the White House and congressional Democrats over documents and testimony related to the Mueller investigation deepened on Tuesday.

White House Counsel Pat Cipollone informed the House Judiciary Committee in a letter that ex-White House Counsel Don McGahn does not have the legal right to comply with a House of Representatives subpoena and disclose documents related to Mueller’s investigation.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders, when asked by ABC News whether McGahn would comply with the subpoena, said, “I don’t anticipate that that takes place.”

McConnell accused Democrats of being in an “absolute meltdown” and refusing “to accept the bottom line conclusion” that Mueller’s “exhaustive” report found no collusion with Russia.

Since the public release of the report last month, House and Senate Republicans have defended the president and called for an end to congressional investigations.

Mueller detailed extensive contacts between Trump’s campaign and Moscow. His 448-page report also outlined 11 instances in which the president tried to impede the special counsel’s investigation, but avoided a conclusion on whether or not Trump obstructed justice.

Speaking on the Senate floor after McConnell, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer fired back, calling Trump a “lawless president” and accusing the Senate Republican leader of wanting to bury any congressional investigations.

“Of course he wants to move on. He wants to cover up,” Schumer said of McConnell.

Schumer likened McConnell’s move to President Richard Nixon, who was under investigation by Congress before resigning from office in 1974 in the face of impeachment and likely conviction.

“It’s sort of like Richard Nixon saying let’s move on at the height of the investigation of his wrongdoing,” Schumer said.

While McConnell urged an end to the fight over the Mueller report, he acknowledged that was unlikely. Democrats hold a majority in the House, while Republicans control the Senate.

“Would we finally be able to move on from partisan paralysis and breathless conspiracy theorizing? Or would we remain consumed by unhinged partisanship,” McConnell said, adding, “Regrettably, the answer is pretty obvious.”

House Democrats prepared to meet with Justice Department officials on Tuesday over Attorney General William Barr’s failure to release the full unredacted Mueller report as they prepared to cite him for contempt.

The House Judiciary Committee has scheduled a Wednesday vote on a contempt citation for Barr, who missed a second deadline to give lawmakers the full report and failed to appear at a hearing before the panel last week.

The full House would then vote on the rebuke.

A contempt citation against McGahn or other administration officials could lead to a civil case, raising the possibility of fines and even imprisonment for failure to comply.

The Judiciary Committee is among several House panels investigating Trump and his administration on various matters, including the Russia probe and Trump’s personal and business tax returns.

The administration is stonewalling congressional investigators while the president, who has denied any wrongdoing, vowed to fight all congressional subpoenas.

On Monday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin turned down the House Ways and Means Committee’s request for Trump’s tax returns, teeing up a likely legal battle.

Democratic lawmakers want Mueller to testify before Congress, something Trump has balked at although Barr has said he would not object.

If lawmakers decide that Trump obstructed justice by seeking to impede Mueller, Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler could move to impeachment proceedings against the president.

If the House goes down the impeachment route, at least some Republican support would be needed for a Senate conviction.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Tim Ahmann and Steve Holland; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

Democrats issue subpoena to see all of Mueller’s Russia probe evidence

The Mueller Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election is pictured in New York, New York, U.S., April 18, 2019. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

By Doina Chiacu and David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Congressional Democrats on Friday demanded to see all of U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s evidence from his inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 election, as they consider how to use the probe’s findings against President Donald Trump.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr, flanked by Acting Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General Edward O'Callaghan and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, speaks at a news conference to discuss Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential race, in Washington, U.S., April 18, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

U.S. Attorney General William Barr, flanked by Acting Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General Edward O’Callaghan and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, speaks at a news conference to discuss Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential race, in Washington, U.S., April 18, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

House of Representatives Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat, issued a subpoena to the Justice Department to hand over the full Russia report by Mueller, saying he cannot accept a redacted version released on Thursday that “leaves most of Congress in the dark.”

“My committee needs and is entitled to the full version of the report and the underlying evidence consistent with past practice. The redactions appear to be significant. We have so far seen none of the actual evidence that the Special Counsel developed to make this case,” Nadler said in a statement.

The report provided extensive details on Trump’s efforts to thwart Mueller’s Russia investigation, giving Democrats plenty of political ammunition against the Republican president but no consensus on how to use it.

The 448-page report painted a clear picture of how Trump had tried to hinder the probe but did not conclude that he had committed the crime of obstruction of justice, although it did not exonerate him.

The report blacked out details about secret grand jury information, U.S. intelligence gathering and active criminal cases as well as potentially damaging information about peripheral players who were not charged. Half a dozen former Trump aides were charged by Mueller’s office or convicted of crimes during the 22-month-long investigation.

The Democrats’ subpoena gives U.S. Attorney General William Barr until May 1 to produce the materials requested.

Democratic leaders played down talk of impeachment just 18 months before the 2020 presidential election, even as some prominent members of the party’s progressive wing, most notably U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, promised to push the idea.

Former FBI director Mueller also concluded there was not enough evidence to establish that Trump’s campaign engaged in a criminal conspiracy with Moscow to sway the 2016 election, a finding that has been was known since late March when Barr released a summary of what he described as Mueller’s principle conclusions.

(Reporting by David Morgan and Doina Chiacu; Additional reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and Andy Sullivan; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Grant McCool)

Trump says he has not seen or read Mueller’s Russia probe report

U.S. President Donald Trump talks to reporters as he departs for travel to Texas from the White House in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday he had not seen or read a report into Russian election meddling by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, a day after his attorney general would not say whether he had briefed the White House or shared the report.

Attorney General William Barr on Tuesday declined to say whether he had briefed the White House or shown them the report when questioned at a congressional hearing.

“I have not read the Mueller report, I haven’t seen the Mueller report. As far as I’m concerned I don’t care about the Mueller report. I’ve been totally exonerated. No collusion, no obstruction,” Trump told reporters at the White House.

Barr told lawmakers at a hearing he intended to release “within a week” a redacted version of the long-awaited report, which Mueller submitted to Barr on March 22 after a 22-month investigation.

The 400-page report is expected to shed light on some of the more contentious episodes of Trump’s election bid and presidency, including his firing of FBI Director James Comey in 2017 and his campaign’s contacts with Russians.

In a March 24 letter to Congress, Barr said Mueller’s investigation did not establish that members of Trump’s presidential campaign had conspired with Russia.

He said Mueller presented evidence “on both sides” about whether Trump obstructed justice, but did not draw a conclusion one way or the other.

Barr said the White House did not review his letter to Congress laying out Mueller’s findings before he sent it.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Credit reporting agencies face pressure from skeptical U.S. Congress

FILE PHOTO: The logo and trading information for Credit reporting company Equifax Inc. are displayed on a screen on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York, U.S., September 26, 2017. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

By Pete Schroeder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The nation’s major credit reporting agencies faced renewed scrutiny from Congress on Tuesday, as lawmakers consider legislation overhauling the industry.

Top executives from the three major credit reporting agencies – Equifax Inc, Experian Plc and TransUnion had to defend their business models before skeptical lawmakers who appeared eager to order changes to the sector following Equifax’s massive data breach, disclosed in 2017.

“Our nation’s consumer credit reporting system is broken,” said Representative Maxine Waters, chairwoman of the House Financial Services Committee. “I’m troubled to the point where I do think that we need to start thinking about how we reimagine it and rebuild it from the ground … We will be introducing legislation.”

Waters has a draft bill that would limit the reach of such credit reports, shorten the time adverse information remains on consumers’ records, and make it easier for consumers to dispute errors on their reports.

Several Democrats made clear they were dissatisfied with the current state of the country’s credit reporting, arguing consumers lack control over their own data.

The panel’s top Republican, Representative Patrick McHenry, agreed the industry was in need of a makeover. However, he emphasized a desire to see more companies compete with the three largest agencies.

“What I see here is an oligopoly,” he told executives. “I don’t see that vibrant competition which is needed for these agencies to actually help consumers.”

The massive data breach disclosed by Equifax in 2017, where a cyber attack exposed the personal data of roughly 148 million people, has driven calls from Washington for changes to the industry.

Legislation beefing up protections around consumer data is seen by analysts and lobbyists to be a rare area of common ground in the current Congress, where Democrats control the House and Republicans control the Senate.

Waters’ Senate counterpart, Banking Chairman Mike Crapo, has said legislation addressing the collection and protection of personal data is one of his top priorities this year. He is currently soliciting input on how consumers could retain more control over their personal information.

For their part, credit reporting agency executives told lawmakers they were working to address consumer concerns and bolster their cybersecurity to guard against future breaches.

“Consumers trust and expect that their credit reports contain the most accurate and complete data possible, and lenders rely on that information to help millions of consumers obtain the right loans at the right time,” said Equifax CEO Mark Begor in prepared testimony.

(Reporting by Pete Schroeder; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Exclusive: Air Force to push Congress for military housing tenant bill of rights

FILE PHOTO: Assistant Secretary of Defense For Sustainment Robert McMahon; Assistant Secretary of the Army for Installations, Energy, and Environment Alex Beehler; Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy, Installations, and Environment Phyllis Bayer; Assistant Secretary of Air Force for Installations, Environment, and Energy John Henderson testify before Senate Armed Services subcommittees on the Military Housing Privatization Initiative in Washington, U.S. February 13, 2019. REUTERS/Erin Scott

By M.B. Pell and Deborah Nelson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Aiming to grant military families far greater say to challenge hazardous housing, the U.S. Air Force told Reuters Monday it will push Congress to enact a tenant bill of rights allowing families the power to withhold rent or break leases to escape unsafe conditions.

The proposed measure, outlined in an interview at the Pentagon by Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff David L. Goldfein, follows complaints from military families who say they are often powerless to challenge private industry landlords when they encounter dangerous mold, lead paint and vermin infestations.

“Clearly there are areas where we have issues,” Goldfein said.

Added Secretary Wilson: “That could put a little more leverage into the hands of the renters.”

The Air Force push adds to a drumbeat of reforms to emerge in recent weeks following a Reuters series, Ambushed at Home, that documented shoddy housing conditions at bases nationwide and described how military families are often empowered with fewer rights than civilian tenants.

Wilson said they are working with the Army and Navy to push a tenant bill of rights that would give military families a stronger hand in housing disputes. She wants to strengthen the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, a law that includes active duty housing protections. As one example, Wilson proposed expanding the act to allow base families to end their lease or withhold rent if their landlords fail to correct health and safety problems.

Beyond that effort, she said wing commanders of each U.S. Air Force base have been directed to inspect all 50,000 privatized family housing units in the force’s portfolio by March 1. She cited housing breakdowns at Air Force bases including Tinker in Oklahoma, Maxwell in Alabama, MacDill in Florida and Keesler in Mississippi.

In addition, she said, the inspector general’s office will launch a review of how Air Force bases respond to housing health and safety complaints.

Last week, the U.S. Army vowed to renegotiate its housing contracts with private real estate firms, test homes for toxins and hold its own commanders responsible for protecting residents. And on Friday, the Army issued a letter directing senior commanders to conduct inspections of all housing within the next 30 days.

The military action plans follow a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing this month in which members of Congress sharply questioned private industry landlords and Defense Department leaders over conditions at U.S. bases.

Wilson said the Air Force is also considering working with Congress to renegotiate its contracts with housing companies to allow the service to withhold all incentive fees from low-performing landlords.

(Additional reporting by Joshua Schneyer. Editing by Ronnie Greene)

Trump says he’ll declare emergency on U.S.-Mexico border

A U.S. Border Patrol agent listens from the front row as President Donald Trump declares a national emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border during remarks about border security in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, U.S., February 15, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Roberta Rampton and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Friday announced he would declare a national emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border, a move Democrats vowed to challenge as an unconstitutional attempt to fund his promised border wall without approval from Congress.

“I’m going to be signing a national emergency,” Trump said from the Rose Garden of the White House.

“We have an invasion of drugs, invasion of gangs, invasion of people, and it’s unacceptable,” he said.

The president said he would sign the authorizing paperwork later in the day in the Oval Office.

Trump was also expected on Friday to sign a bipartisan government spending bill approved by Congress on Thursday that would prevent another partial federal government shutdown by funding several agencies that otherwise would have closed on Saturday morning.

The bill, which contains no money for his wall, is a defeat for Trump in Congress, where his demand for $5.7 billion in barrier funding yielded no results, other than a record-long, 35-day December-January partial government shutdown that damaged the U.S. economy and his opinion poll numbers.

Reorienting his wall-funding quest toward a legally uncertain strategy based on declaring a national emergency could plunge Trump into a lengthy battle with Democrats – and divide his fellow Republicans.

Fifteen Democrats in the Republican-controlled Senate introduced legislation on Thursday to prevent the transfer of funds from accounts Trump likely would target to pay for his wall.

Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Chuck Schumer, the Senate’s top Democrat, swiftly responded to Trump’s declaration.

“The president’s actions clearly violate the Congress’s exclusive power of the purse, which our Founders enshrined in the Constitution,” they said in a statement. “The Congress will defend our constitutional authorities in the Congress, in the courts, and in the public, using every remedy available.”

The president acknowledged that his order would face a lengthy legal challenge. “We’ll win in the Supreme Court,” Trump said.

Trump has argued the wall is needed to curb illegal immigrants and illicit drugs streaming across the southern border despite statistics that show illegal immigration there is at a 20-year low and that many drug shipments are likely smuggled through legal ports of entry.

At Friday’s White House event, a half-dozen women holding poster-sized pictures of family members killed by illegal immigrants preceded Trump into the Rose Garden. He cited their presence in announcing the emergency declaration.

A senior White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the administration had found nearly $7 billion to reallocate to the wall, including $600 million from a Treasury Department forfeiture fund, $2.5 billion from a Defense Department drug interdiction fund and $3.5 billion from a military construction budget.

Trump on Friday estimated the order could free up as much as $8 billion to construct the wall.

The funds would cover just part of the estimated $23 billion cost of the wall promised by Trump along the nearly 2,000-mile (3,200-km) border with Mexico.

The Senate Democrats’ bill also would stop Trump from using appropriated money to acquire lands to build the wall unless specifically authorized by Congress.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Roberta Rampton Morgan; additional reporting by David Morgan, Steve Holland, Susan Cornwell, Makini Brice and Eric Beech; Writing by James Oliphant, Kevin Drawbaugh and Peter Cooney; editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Jonathan Oatis)

Trump leaves options open on deal to prevent government shutdown

U.S. President Donald Trump listens next to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross during a Cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Richard Cowan and Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump left his options open on Wednesday over whether to sign a funding deal that would avert another partial government shutdown but leave him short of the money he wants to build a wall on the border with Mexico.

The Republican president said earlier this week he is not happy with a compromise thrashed out in Congress and has not ruled out a possible veto of the legislation.

But a source familiar with the situation said on Wednesday that Trump would likely back the bipartisan deal, even if it only gives him $1.37 billion for border fencing rather than the $5.7 billion he is seeking to help build the wall.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said the administration was waiting until it is clear exactly what lawmakers are proposing.

“We want to see what the final piece of legislation looks like,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told reporters. “It’s hard to say definitively whether or not the president is going to sign it until we know everything that’s in it.”

Another White House spokeswoman, Mercedes Schlapp, told CNN that lawyers were reviewing the administration’s options should Congress not provide Trump’s demanded money for the wall, a signature campaign promise in his 2016 election win.

With a Friday night deadline looming before government agencies begin closing for lack of funding, senior congressional Republicans have urged Trump to back the deal.

They have little appetite for a repeat of the 35-day partial shutdown in December and January – the longest in U.S. history -which closed about a quarter of the federal agencies and left some 800,000 federal workers without pay.

But Trump has come in for criticism from the right for wavering on support for the border wall, which the administration says will cut illegal immigration and drug smuggling.

“Trump talks a good game on the border wall, but it’s increasingly clear he’s afraid to fight for it,” right-wing commentator Ann Coulter tweeted on Tuesday. Trump abandoned a planned compromise on funding for the wall in December after similar criticism.

OTHER OPTIONS

The Washington Post, citing a White House official, said Trump was likely to explore using his executive power to reallocate other federal funds for barrier projects along the southern border. CNN, citing the White House, also said Trump was weighing the use of an executive order, among other options.

The president previously threatened to declare a “national emergency” if Congress did not provide money specifically for the wall — a move that would almost certainly draw opposition in Congress and in the courts.

The Democrat-controlled U.S. House of Representatives could vote as soon as Wednesday evening, a senior aide said, despite not yet having produced a written copy of the agreement reached by congressional negotiators on Monday night.

The accord must also be passed by the Republican-controlled Senate and signed by Trump by midnight on Friday to prevent a shutdown.

The measure’s fate in the House was far from certain given the risk that conservatives and liberals will oppose the compromise for different reasons.

Congressional sources said the deal includes $1.37 billion for new border fencing, about the same as last year – along 55 miles (90 km) of the border – but not the $5.7 billion Trump has demanded for the wall.

Democrats say Trump’s planned wall would be expensive, ineffective and immoral.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Susan Cornwell; Additional reporting by Amanda Becker, Susan Heavey and Lisa Lambert; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Jonathan Oatis)

Congress negotiators struggle to reach border security deal

FILE PHOTO: Construction on the border wall with Mexico (top) is shown in New Mexico near Sunland Park, New Mexico, U.S. June 18, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

By Susan Cornwell and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – With little time remaining, congressional negotiators on U.S. border security funding have not settled the hot-button issues they hope to resolve, as some liberal Democrats potentially complicated their work by pressing for cuts in homeland security spending.

Congressional aides on Monday said that while constructive negotiations were held by staffers over the past weekend, it is now up to the lawmakers themselves to tackle the thorniest disagreements before a Feb. 15 deadline.

Seventeen Republican and Democratic members of the Senate and House of Representatives are tasked with finding a compromise border security deal with the allocation of Department of Homeland Security funds through Sept. 30.

The toughest unresolved disputes include the type of new physical barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border, if any, as President Donald Trump demands $5.7 billion for a wall that most Democrats and many Republicans oppose as wasteful and ineffective.

Other difficult questions, according to the aides, including whether to increase or cut funds for immigrant detention beds and the numbers of immigration law-enforcement agents and immigration judges.

Democrats had been backing legislation providing up to $1.6 billion for additional fencing on some parts of the southwestern border, far below Trump’s request for a wall that he originally envisioned as a 2,000 mile (3,200 km) concrete barrier.

But new fencing money was not included in an initial proposal Democrats sketched out last week, which did, however, call for a $589 million increase in DHS’s budget.

Representative Pramila Jayapal, co-chair of the liberal Congressional Progressive Caucus, told reporters she agreed with sentiments expressed in a letter circulated by four members of that group, which seeks Department of Homeland Security funding cuts.

Dated Jan. 29, the letter said the Trump administration had “abused their authority and the fidelity of public resources,” with initiatives that included separating immigrant children from their families. One of the signatories was Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, part of a new crop of Democrats swept into office this year on a strong liberal platform.

Trump has argued that additional DHS funding was necessary to stop illegal drugs and undocumented immigrants, touting a massive wall as the linchpin.

He has threatened to either let several federal agencies shut down for the second time this year if no deal is reached, or declare a “national emergency” that he says would allow him to build the wall with already-appropriated funds not necessarily related directly to border security.

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell and Richard Cowan; Editing by Susan Thomas)