‘Time for this to end’: Trump team asks for acquittal at impeachment trial

By Susan Cornwell and Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Saying “it is time for this to end,” President Donald Trump’s legal team appealed to the U.S. Senate on Tuesday to acquit him in his impeachment trial and sought to marginalize former national security adviser John Bolton’s explosive allegations about Trump’s conduct.

Trump’s lawyers wrapped up their third and final day of opening arguments, with the crucial question of calling trial witnesses including Bolton still unresolved in a Senate controlled by the president’s fellow Republicans and almost certain to vote to keep him in office as he seeks re-election on Nov. 3.

“The election is only months away. The American people are entitled to choose their president. Overturning past elections and massively interfering with the upcoming one would cause serious and lasting damage to the people of the United States and to our great country. The Senate cannot allow this to happen,” White House Counsel Pat Cipollone told the Senate.

“It is time for this to end, here and now. So we urge the Senate to reject these articles of impeachment.”

The next phase of the trial involves questions from the 100 senators to the lawyers representing Trump and the seven House of Representatives Democrats who have served as prosecutors. The Democratic-led House on Dec. 18 impeached the businessman-turned-politician on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress arising from his request that Ukraine investigate political rival Joe Biden.

Adam Schiff, who served as the lead Democratic prosecutor in arguing the case against Trump last week, said the question remained as to whether the trial would be fair or unfair, with Republicans refusing so far to allow any witness testimony or new evidence.

“A fair trial involves witnesses and it involves documents,” Schiff told reporters.

The Senate may resolve the issue of whether to call witnesses in a vote on Friday or Saturday.

Trump’s legal team sought to minimize the importance of Bolton’s unpublished book manuscript that describes Trump’s central role in a pressure campaign aimed at getting Ukraine to investigate Biden, a leading contender for the Democratic nomination to face Trump in this year’s election.

“You cannot impeach a president on an unsourced allegation,” Trump’s personal lawyer Jay Sekulow told the Senate.

Directly contradicting Trump’s account of events, Bolton wrote in the manuscript that the president told him he wanted to freeze $391 million in security aid to Ukraine until Kiev pursued investigations into Democrats, including Biden and his son Hunter Biden, the New York Times reported.

Bolton’s allegations go to the heart of impeachment charges against Trump. Democrats have said Trump abused his power by using the security aid – approved by Congress to help Ukraine battle Russia-backed separatists – as leverage to get a foreign power to smear a political rival.

Sekulow underscored what fellow Trump legal team member Alan Dershowitz told senators late on Monday – that even if what Bolton says is true, it would not represent impeachable conduct.

Bolton left his White House post last September. Trump has said he fired Bolton. Bolton said he quit after policy disagreements.

Trump has denied telling Bolton he sought to use the Ukraine aid as leverage to get Kiev to investigate the Bidens. He has denied any quid pro quo – a Latin term meaning a favor for a favor – in his dealings with Ukraine.

‘I’D CALL IT INADMISSIBLE’

Sekulow told the senators they were taking part in “the most solemn of duties under our constitutional framework: the trial of the leader of the free world, the duly elected president of the United States. It is not a game of leaks and unsourced manuscripts. That’s politics, unfortunately.”

“Responding to an unpublished manuscript that may be – some reporters have an idea of maybe what it says – that’s what the evidence (is) – if you want to call that evidence. I don’t know what you’d call that. I’d call it inadmissible,” Sekulow added.

Trump’s fellow Republicans hold 53 seats in the Senate. A two-thirds majority is needed to remove him from office under the U.S. Constitution.

Some Republican senators who oppose calling witnesses proposed that Bolton’s manuscript be made available for senators to review on a classified basis, an idea rejected by top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer.

“What an absurd proposal. It’s a book,” Schumer told reporters about the proposal floated by Republican Senators Lindsey Graham and James Lankford, saying there was no need to place the manuscript for review in a classified setting “unless you want to hide something.”

Lankford urged Bolton to speak publicly outside of the trial.

Schumer criticized Trump’s legal team for stating during its arguments to the Senate that there was no eyewitness testimony detailing abuse of power by Trump, “when we know that John Bolton has eyewitness testimony and is willing to testify.”

Schumer made a fresh appeal for four Republican senators – the number needed for a majority – to join Democrats in voting to call witnesses. Schumer also indicated Democrats would reject any effort at a so-called witness swap with Republicans.

“The Republicans can call who they want. They have the ability. They have the majority,” Schumer said.

Sekulow sought to portray Trump as the victim of scheming by Washington insiders dating back to his 2016 candidacy. Sekulow listed grievances that Trump raised about prior investigations including the special counsel probe that documented Russian interference in the 2016 election to boost his candidacy and his campaign’s numerous contacts with Moscow.

The impeachment drive against Trump, Sekulow argued, was a partisan exercise motivated by Democratic opposition to Trump’s policies, not genuine impeachable offenses.

“But to have a removal of a duly elected president based on a policy disagreement?” Sekulow asked. “That is not what the framers (of the Constitution) intended. And if you lower the bar that way – danger, danger, danger. Because the next president or the one after that, he or she would be held to that same standard? I hope not. I pray not.”

(Reporting by Susan Heavey, Susan Cornwell, Makini Brice, Karen Freifeld, David Morgan, Patricia Zengerle and Richard Cowan; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Bernadette Baum and Peter Cooney)

Trump trial enters pivotal week as calls for witnesses grow

By Richard Cowan and Karen Freifeld

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial enters a pivotal week on Monday as his lawyers resume their defense following a fresh report that could intensify pressure on Senate Republicans to call former national security adviser John Bolton to testify.

The New York Times cited an unpublished Bolton manuscript as saying that Trump told him he wanted to freeze security aid to Ukraine until its officials helped with investigations into Democrats, including former Vice President Joe Biden, and his son, Hunter Biden.

The elder Biden is a leading Democratic contender to face the Republican president in the Nov. 3 U.S. election. Hunter Biden worked for a Ukrainian energy firm while his father was vice president.

The report, which did not quote the manuscript but cited multiple people describing Bolton’s account, may undercut a key element of Trump’s defense: that there was no quid pro quo when he asked Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskiy to investigate Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, in a July phone call.

Bolton’s lawyer Charles Cooper said in a statement on Sunday that the manuscript had been submitted to the White House for a standard prepublication security review for classified information.

“It is clear, regrettably, from The New York Times article published today that the prepublication review process has been corrupted and that information has been disclosed by persons other than those properly involved in reviewing the manuscript,” Cooper said.

A Bolton aide said he had not given the manuscript to anyone else besides the White House for review.

White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham cast doubt on the timing of the report, which was published around the time pre-ordering for Bolton’s book began.

Trump denied the allegations in a series of tweets early on Monday.

“I NEVER told John Bolton that the aid to Ukraine was tied to investigations into Democrats, including the Bidens … If John Bolton said this, it was only to sell a book,” Trump wrote.

Trump’s team has previously said he was well within his constitutional authority to press Zelenskiy to investigate the Bidens as part of what he says was an anti-corruption drive. The Bidens deny wrongdoing.

In only the third presidential impeachment trial in U.S. history, Democrats argued last week that Trump should be removed for encouraging Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 U.S. election by pressuring its leader to dig up dirt on Biden.

Trump’s defense tried to turn that election interference line against the Democrats in its opening argument on Saturday by warning against removing a president less than 10 months before Americans vote on whether to give him a second term.

The president’s team will continue with his defense on Monday afternoon.

While the Republican-controlled Senate is highly unlikely to remove Trump from office, it is important for him to try to blunt the Democratic accusations to limit political damage to his bid for a second term.

The report drew immediate Democratic demands that the Senate call Bolton as a witness, an issue the 100-member chamber is likely to address later in the week.

The impeachment trial rules provide for a two-step process on whether to subpoena witness and documents, with an initial vote on whether to consider doing so and, if approved, subsequent votes to actually call witnesses or demand documents.

Democrats argue this could allow Republicans have it both ways – allowing them to first vote “yes” on whether to proceed and then vote “no” on actually allowing witnesses or documents.

As a result, vulnerable Senate Republicans could make the case to moderates that they had voted in favor of witnesses in the first vote while avoiding alienating Trump supporters by refusing to actually call any in later votes.

If the Senate called witnesses or demanded documents, the trial could lengthen. If not, the Senate could vote toward the end of the week on whether to remove Trump from office.

If that were to happen the trial could be over before the first U.S. voting contest takes place in Iowa on Feb. 3 and before Trump is scheduled to deliver the annual State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Feb. 4.

(Additional Reporting by Pete Schroeder, Arshad Mohammed, Tim Ahmann, Makini Brice, Steve Holland and Lisa Lambert; Writing Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Shri Navaratnam and Chizu Nomiyama)

White House warns Russia, others against sending troops to Venezuela

By Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House on Friday warned Russia and other countries backing President Nicolas Maduro against sending troops and military equipment to Venezuela, saying the United States would view such actions as a “direct threat” to the region’s security.

The warning comes after two Russian air force planes landed outside of Caracas on Saturday, believed to be carrying nearly 100 Russian special forces and cybersecurity personnel.

U.S. President Donald Trump earlier this week said “Russia has to get out” of Venezuela. His national security adviser John Bolton issued a second warning on Friday in a strongly worded formal statement.

“We strongly caution actors external to the Western Hemisphere against deploying military assets to Venezuela, or elsewhere in the Hemisphere, with the intent of establishing or expanding military operations,” Bolton said.

“We will consider such provocative actions as a direct threat to international peace and security in the region. We will continue to defend and protect the interests of the United States, and those of our partners in the Western Hemisphere,” he said.

The United States and most other Western countries support Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who invoked the constitution in January to declare himself interim president, arguing that Maduro’s 2018 re-election was illegitimate.

Russia and China support Maduro, who has said Guaido is a puppet of Washington.

Russia has said it sent “specialists” to Venezuela under a military cooperation deal but insisted they posed no threat to regional stability, brushing aside Trump’s threat.

Trump said on Wednesday that “all options” were open to force Russia to pull its troops out of Venezuela.

Bolton condemned Maduro for using foreign military support to stay in power, saying it would “perpetuate the economic crisis that has destroyed Venezuela’s economy; and endanger regional stability.”

Maduro retains control of state functions and the country’s military. On Friday, Bolton also sent a Tweet urging Venezuela’s Defense Minister, Vladimir Padrino, to stop supporting Maduro.

Years of economic mismanagement have left the economy of OPEC member Venezuela in shambles, causing hyperinflation. Severe shortages of food and medicine are common, and power blackouts have exacerbated the crisis.

The United Nations estimates that about a quarter of Venezuelans need humanitarian aid, according to internal UN estimates seen by Reuters.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton and Tim Ahmann in Washington; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and James Dalgleish)

No Trump-Putin meeting while Russia holds Ukraine ships: Bolton

FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at the meeting to discuss preparation to mark the anniversary of the allied victory in the World War II at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia December 12, 2018. Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool via REUTERS

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – There will be no meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin while Russia still holds Ukrainian ships and sailors seized near Crimea, U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said on Thursday.

“I don’t see circumstances in the foreseeable future where such a meeting could take place until the ships and the crews are released,” Bolton told reporters at a Washington think tank.

Russia seized three Ukrainian navy vessels and their combined crew of 24 last month off the coast of Russian-annexed Crimea and accused them of illegally entering Russian waters.

Ukraine has said Russia captured the two small gunboats and one tugboat illegally and accused Moscow of military aggression.

Two Ukrainian navy captains being held in a Russian jail have refused to provide testimony because they consider themselves prisoners of war, their lawyers said.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

North Korea is dismantling its nuclear site, but is it abandoning its arsenal or hiding evidence?

A satellite photo of the Punggye-Ri nuclear test site in North Korea May 14, 2018. Planet Labs Inc/Handout via REUTERS

By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – Satellite imagery shows North Korea dismantling facilities at its nuclear test site, but experts say the images can’t reveal whether it is the first step toward full denuclearization, or an attempt to cloak nuclear capabilities from outside observers.

North Korea’s intentions were thrown further into doubt on Wednesday, when it abruptly announced it may “reconsider” meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in June if the United States continues to insist on unilateral denuclearization.

Commercial satellite imagery – including photos taken by Planet Labs as recently as May 14 – show North Korea removing some structures around its nuclear test site at Punggye-ri, experts say.

“So far it looks like the surface-level support structures are being dismantled,” said Scott LaFoy, an open source imagery analyst. “This would be consistent with the site being closed, as you need engineers and working teams on-site to prepare and maintain the site.”

Among the facilities that appear to have been razed are an engineering office, as well as buildings housing the air compressor used to pump air into the tunnels where the bombs were detonated, said non-proliferation expert Frank Pabian.

“This is entirely in keeping with the official North Korean news report that ‘technical measures’ associated with the shutdown were underway,” Pabian said.

North Korea has said it plans to use explosives to collapse the tunnels; “completely” block up the tunnel entrances; and remove observation facilities, research institutes and guard structures.

A limited number of foreign media have been invited to view the ceremonial closure of the site, but so far no international inspectors, leading some experts to suspect that North Korea is seeking to hide details of its nuclear capabilities.

“North Korea might seem like they’re being generous in holding this event, but this is the actual testing ground we’re talking about here – The smoking gun,” said Suh Kune-yull, professor of nuclear energy system engineering at Seoul National University. “It seems like they’re trying to erase any evidence of the nuclear capabilities they have.”

“SOME RED FLAGS”

In a statement on Wednesday, North Korea’s first vice minister of foreign affairs Kim Kye Gwan sharply criticized American officials – especially national security adviser John Bolton – for suggesting that Libya could be a template for denuclearizing North Korea.

Bolton has proposed Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un make a deal similar to the one that led to components of Libya’s nuclear program being shipped to the United States in 2004.

In 2011, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was captured and killed by rebel forces backed by a NATO air campaign.

While the technical aspects of a North Korea deal could mirror some aspects of the Libya effort, Pyongyang has a much more advanced weapons program and Gaddafi’s fate is not encouraging, Andreas Persbo, the executive director of VERTIC, a London think tank that focuses on disarmament verification and implementation, said in a recent interview.

“Libya is a horrible example to make out of that perspective because of course the North Koreans have their own teams advising Kim Jong Un on what this meant, and they will highlight the fact that this is not a good solution for North Korea,” he said.

North Korea appears instead to be proposing a longer-term general commitment to “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” which could take years even under the best circumstances, experts say.

LaFoy said North Korea’s actions so far are “not necessarily nefarious,” but that it does raise some “red flags” about complete permanent denuclearization.

“That imagery tells us the site appears to be in the process of decommissioning,” he said. “But we can’t yet tell if it is going to be closed for years or something that can ultimately be reversed in a few weeks or months.”

(GRAPHIC: Nuclear North Korea – https://tmsnrt.rs/2Kql12i)

(Additional reporting by Christine Kim in SEOUL and Malcolm Foster in TOKYO. Editing by Lincoln Feast.)

North Korea says may reconsider summit with Trump, suspends talks with South

FILE PHOTO - South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attend a banquet on the Peace House at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, South Korea, April 27, 2018. Korea Summit Press Pool/Pool via Reuters

By Christine Kim and Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea threw next month’s summit between Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump into doubt on Wednesday, threatening weeks of diplomatic progress by saying it may reconsider if Washington insists it unilaterally gives up its nuclear weapons.

The North’s official KCNA news agency said earlier Pyongyang had called off high-level talks with Seoul, which had been due on Wednesday, in the first sign of trouble after months of warming ties.

Citing first vice minister of foreign affairs Kim Kye Gwan, KCNA later said the fate of the unprecedented U.S.-North Korea summit, as well as bilateral relations, “would be clear” if the United States spoke of a “Libya-style” denuclearisation for the North.

“If the U.S. is trying to drive us into a corner to force our unilateral nuclear abandonment, we will no longer be interested in such dialogue and cannot but reconsider our proceeding to the DPRK-U.S. summit,” Kim Kye Gwan said, referring to the North by its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The United States was still hopeful about the summit, scheduled for Singapore on June 12, but also prepared for a tough negotiation process, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said.

“We’re still hopeful that the meeting will take place and we’ll continue down that path, but at the same time we’ve been prepared that these could be tough negotiations,” Sanders said in an interview with Fox News.

“The president is ready if the meeting takes place. If it doesn’t, we’ll continue the maximum pressure campaign that’s been ongoing.”

Vice Minister Kim specifically criticized U.S. national security adviser John Bolton, who has called for North Korea to quickly give up its nuclear arsenal in a deal that mirrors Libya’s abandonment of its weapons of mass destruction.

North Korea clashed with Bolton when he worked under the Bush administration, calling him “human scum” and a “bloodsucker”.

“We shed light on the quality of Bolton already in the past, and we do not hide our feeling of repugnance towards him,” Kim said.

The North Korean statement, as well its cancellation of the talks with the South due to U.S.-South Korean military exercises, mark a dramatic reversal in tone from recent months when both sides embraced efforts to negotiate.

North Korea had announced it would publicly shut its nuclear test site next week.

‘THREATS AND BLACKMAIL’

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Sunday the United States would agree to lift sanctions on North Korea if it agreed to completely dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

However, Kim Kye Gwan’s statement appeared to reject that, saying North Korea would never give up its nuclear program in exchange for trade with the United States.

“We have already stated our intention for denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and made clear on several occasions that precondition for denuclearisation is to put an end to anti-DPRK hostile policy and nuclear threats and blackmail of the United States,” Kim said.

North Korea has always defended its nuclear and missile programs as a necessary deterrent against perceived aggression by the United States, which keeps 28,500 troops in South Korea, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War.

North Korea has long said it is open to eventually giving up its nuclear arsenal if the United States withdraws its troops from South Korea and ends its “nuclear umbrella” security alliance with Seoul, though South Korean officials have said the North may be willing to compromise.

The United States has insisted on complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and the facilities needed to build the weapons as soon as possible.

Asian stock markets dipped after North Korea called off the talks with the South. Cancellation of the Singapore summit could see tension flare again even as investors worry about China-U.S. trade friction.

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-hwa spoke to Pompeo by telephone and discussed North Korea’s postponement of the talks with the South, the foreign ministry said in a statement.

Pompeo told Kang Washington would continue to make preparations for the U.S-North Korea summit, bearing in mind the recent action by North Korea, it said.

Kim Kye Gwan’s statement came hours after North Korea pulled out of talks with the South after denouncing the U.S.-South Korean “Max Thunder” air combat drills, which it said involved U.S. stealth fighters, B-52 bombers and “nuclear assets”, as a provocation.

American stealth F-22 fighters were spotted in South Korea earlier in May, but a spokesman for the U.S. military command in South Korea said no B-52s were scheduled to take part in the drills.

A South Korean defense ministry official said the drills would go on as planned and were not aimed at any third party.

‘MISERABLE FATE’

Cancellation of the summit, the first meeting between a serving U.S. president and a North Korean leader, would deal a major blow to what would be the biggest diplomatic achievement of Trump’s presidency.

Trump has raised expectations for success even as many analysts have been skeptical about the chances of bridging the gap due to questions about North Korea’s willingness to give up a nuclear arsenal that it says can hit the United States.

Kim Kye Gwan derided as “absurd” Bolton’s suggestion that discussions with North Korea should be similar to those that led to components of Libya’s nuclear program being shipped to the United States in 2004.

“(The) world knows too well that our country is neither Libya nor Iraq which have met miserable fate,” Kim said.

He said North Korea was a nuclear weapon state while Libya had been at the initial stage of nuclear development.

A U.S. government expert on North Korea said Kim Jong Un may also be trying to gauge whether Trump was willing to walk away from the meeting.

Joshua Pollack, of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California, said Pyongyang appeared irritated by the U.S. administration’s vow to maintain sanctions in spite of North Korean concessions.

“The North Koreans want a change in tone from the U.S., and at least so far, they’re not hearing one,” he said.

The doubt thrown over the summit comes a week after Trump abandoned the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers, under which Tehran curbed its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of most international sanctions.

China said on Wednesday all parties “should show goodwill and avoid mutual provocation” to create a conducive atmosphere for denuclearisation on the Korean peninsula.

The North-South talks had been due to focus on plans to implement a declaration that emerged from an inter-Korea summit last month, including promises to formally end the Korean War and pursue “complete denuclearisation”.

South Korea described the North’s decision as “regrettable”.

(Reporting by Josh Smith and Christine Kim in SEOUL, Tim Kelly in TOKYO, Philip Wen and Christian Shepherd in BEIJING, and David Brunnstrom, Phillip Stewart, Tim Ahmann, Matt Spetalnick and Lesley Wroughton, Doina Chiacu in WASHINGTON; Editing by Paul Tait and Robert Birsel)