U.S. to encourage investment in Palestinian areas as first part of peace plan

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump boards Air Force One for travel back to Washington, DC at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, New York, U.S., May 17, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis

By Matt Spetalnick and Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House will unveil the first part of President Donald Trump’s long-awaited Israeli-Palestinian peace plan when it holds an international conference in Bahrain in late June to encourage investment in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, senior U.S. officials said on Sunday.

The “economic workshop” will bring together government officials and business leaders in an effort to jump-start the economic portion of the peace initiative, which is also expected to include proposals for resolving thorny political issues at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the officials said.

Trump has touted the coming plan as the “deal of the century,” but Palestinian officials have rebuked the U.S. effort, which they believe will be heavily biased in favor of Israel.

Trump’s Middle East team, led by his son-in-law Jared Kushner and regional envoy Jason Greenblatt, appears intent on focusing initially on potential economic benefits, despite deep skepticism among experts that they can succeed where decades of U.S.-backed efforts have failed.

“We think this is an opportunity to take the economic plan that we’ve worked on for a long time now and present it in the region,” a senior Trump administration official said.

The participants in the June 25-26 conference in Manama, the first phase of the peace plan’s rollout, are expected to include representatives and business executives from Europe, the Middle East and Asia, including some finance ministers, the administration official said.

A second U.S. official declined to say whether Israeli and Palestinian officials were likely to take part.

“Our position is clear: we will neither participate in the economic segment nor in the political segment of this deal,” said PLO senior official Wasel Abu Youssef.

The Palestinian Authority has boycotted the U.S. peace effort since late 2017 when Trump decided to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, reversing decades of U.S. policy.

But the senior U.S. official said several Palestinian business leaders “have shown a lot of interest” in the conference.

A spokesman for Israeli Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon said: “We have not yet received an invitation.”

INVESTMENT IN GAZA?

U.S. officials had said earlier the peace plan would be rolled out after the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which ends in early June. But the announcement of the investors’ workshop appears to set the stage for a sequenced release of the plan, starting with the economic plan, and later, at some time not yet clear, the political proposals.

The senior U.S. official said the conference would show the people of Gaza, which is controlled by the Palestinian militant group Hamas, that “there are donor countries around the world willing to come in and make investments.”

The Trump administration has sought to enlist support from Arab governments. The plan is likely to call for billions of dollars in financial backing for the Palestinians, mostly from oil-rich Gulf states, according to people informed about the discussions.

Saudi Arabia has assured Arab allies it would not endorse any U.S. plan that fails to meet key Palestinian concerns.

Though the plan’s authors insist the exact contents are known only to a handful of insiders, Trump’s aides have disclosed it will address the major political issues such as the status of Jerusalem.

They have said they expect Israelis and Palestinians will both be critical of some of the proposals.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki told a recent meeting at the United Nations attended by Greenblatt that the United States seemed to be crafting a plan for a Palestinian surrender to Israel and insisted “there’s no amount of money that can make it acceptable.”

Chief among the Palestinians’ concerns is whether the plan will meet their core demand of calling for them to have an independent state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip — territory Israel captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Kushner has declined to say whether the plan includes a two-state solution, a central goal of other recent peace efforts that is widely endorsed internationally.

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Steve Holland; additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Chris Reese and Sandra Maler)

Trump says no hurry to sign China deal as trade war escalates

A general view of Kwai Tsing Container Terminals for transporting shipping containers in Hong Kong, China July 25, 2018. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

By Susan Heavey and Yawen Chen

WASHINGTON/BEIJING (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday said he was in no hurry to sign a trade deal with China as Washington imposed a new set of tariffs on Chinese goods and negotiators entered a second day of last-ditch talks to try to salvage an agreement.

The United States early on Friday increased its tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese goods to 25% from 10%, rattling financial markets already worried the 10-month trade war between the world’s two largest economies could spiral out of control.

The move, which is expected to lead China to retaliate, went into effect just hours after U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He ended a first day of talks in Washington without a deal.

They resumed negotiations on Friday morning.

In a series of morning tweets, Trump defended the tariff hike and said he was in “absolutely no rush” to finalize a deal, adding that the U.S. economy would gain more from the levies than any agreement.

“Tariffs will bring in FAR MORE wealth to our country than even a phenomenal deal of the traditional kind,” Trump said in one of the tweets.

Despite Trump’s insistence that China will absorb the cost of the tariffs, U.S. businesses will pay them and likely pass them on to consumers.

Global equities sagged after his comments. MSCI’s All-Country World Index, which tracks stocks across 47 countries, was down 0.8% in London. U.S. stock indexes, which have fallen sharply this week, opened lower again

Trump, who has adopted protectionist policies as part of his “America First” agenda and railed against China for trade practices he labels unfair, said the trade talks, originally due to last two days, could drag on beyond this week.

“We will continue to negotiate with China in the hopes that they do not again try to redo deal!” said Trump, who has accused Beijing of reneging on commitments it made during months of negotiations.

Following the U.S. tariff hike, China’s Commerce Ministry said it would take countermeasures but did not elaborate.

The ministry said it “hopes the United States can meet China halfway, make joint efforts, and resolve the issue through cooperation and consultation.”

‘RUSSIAN ROULETTE’

Under the latest U.S. action, U.S. Customs and Border Protection imposed a 25% duty on more than 5,700 categories of products leaving China after 12:01 a.m. EDT (0401 GMT) on Friday.

Seaborne cargoes shipped from China before midnight were not subject to the new tax as long as they arrived in the United States prior to June 1. Those cargoes will be charged the original 10% rate.

“This delay might create an unofficial window during which the U.S. and China can continue to negotiate,” investment bank Goldman Sachs wrote in a note, adding that it was a “somewhat positive sign” that talks were continuing.

Trump gave U.S. importers less than five days notice about his decision to increase the rate on $200 billion worth of goods, which now matches the rate on a prior $50 billion category of Chinese machinery and technology goods.

He has also threatened to impose new tariffs on another $325 billion in Chinese imports.

Investors worry that an escalating trade war could further damage a slowing global economy. The higher tariffs could reduce U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) by 0.3% and China’s by 0.8% in 2020, consultancy Oxford Economics said.

“There is no greater threat to world growth,” French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said on Friday.

Many business groups have opposed the tariffs, saying they will be disastrous for companies and lead to higher prices for consumers across a range of products.

Gary Shapiro, chief executive of the Consumer Technology Association, said the tariffs would be paid by American consumers and businesses, not China, as Trump has claimed.

“Our industry supports more than 18 million U.S. jobs, but raising tariffs will be disastrous,” Shapiro said in a statement.

It may take three or four months for American shoppers to feel the pinch but retailers will have little choice but to raise prices to cover the rising cost of imports before too long, economists and industry consultants say.

Mats Harborn, president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, said: “European companies are watching aghast as the U.S. and China play Russian roulette with the world economy.”

RETALIATE HOW?

The biggest Chinese sector affected by the latest tariff increase is a $20 billion-plus category of internet modems, routers and other data transmission devices, followed by about $12 billion worth of printed circuit boards used in a vast array of U.S.-made products.

Furniture, lighting products, auto parts, vacuum cleaners and building materials also are high on the list of products subject to increased duties.

Just hours after the U.S. move, which will add pressure on an already slowing Chinese economy, China’s central bank said it was fully able to cope with any external uncertainty.

On Monday, the People’s Bank of China cut the amount of reserves that some small and medium-sized banks need to hold, freeing up funds for lending to cash-strapped businesses.

James Green, a senior adviser at McLarty Associates who until August was the top USTR official at the embassy in Beijing, said he expected China would increase non-tariff barriers on U.S. firms, such as delaying regulatory approvals.

“I think the Chinese, in the end, will want to keep negotiations going. The question is: ‘where do they go for retaliation?'” he said.

Even without the trade war, China-U.S. relations have continued to deteriorate, with an uptick in tensions over the South China Sea, Taiwan, human rights and China’s plan to re-create the old Silk Road, called the Belt and Road Initiative.

(Reporting by David Lawder in Washington, and Yawen Chen, Michael Martina, Ryan Woo, Ben Blanchard and Kevin Yao in Beijing, and Xihao Jiang in Shanghai; Writing by Paul Simao; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Kim Coghill and Bill Trott)

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)

Factbox: New revelations from the Mueller report

(Reuters) – There are several aspects of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 U.S. election campaign that were not previously known until the release of his report on Thursday.

TRUMP’S REACTION TO APPOINTMENT OF SPECIAL COUNSEL

U.S. President Donald Trump believed the appointment of a special counsel to take over an active federal investigation would spell the end of his presidency, according to Mueller’s report.

When then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions told Trump of Mueller’s appointment on May 17, 2017, the report said, Trump slumped back in his chair and said: “Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I’m fucked.”

Trump asked Sessions, whom he had berated for months for recusing himself from the investigation of Russian interference in the election: “How could you let this happen, Jeff?” and told Sessions he had let him down.

Trump told Sessions he should resign, and Sessions agreed to do so. When Sessions delivered his resignation letter to Trump the following day, Trump put the letter in his pocket but said he wanted Sessions to stay on the job.

That alarmed chief of staff Reince Priebus and senior advisor Steve Bannon, who worried Trump would use the letter to control the Department of Justice, and they tried to return it to Sessions.

Trump took the letter with him on a trip to the Middle East, where he showed it to several senior advisers and asked them what he should do about it. On May 30, he finally returned the letter to Sessions with a note saying: “Not accepted.”

THE PRESIDENTIAL INTERVIEW THAT WASN’T

Mueller tried for more than a year to interview Trump, but in the end, Trump refused. Trump provided written answers on some Russia-related topics but did not agree to answer questions about possible obstruction of justice or events that took place during the presidential transition.

Mueller said he thought he had the legal authority to order Trump to testify before a grand jury, but he decided not to take that course because of the “substantial delay that such an investigative step would likely produce at a late stage in our investigation.”

TRUMP’S EFFORTS TO FIRE MUELLER

Trump tried to get Mueller fired in June 2017, shortly after he was appointed, according to the 448-page report. Trump called then-White House counsel Don McGahn twice and directed him to order Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to fire Mueller on the grounds that he had conflicts of interest.

McGahn felt “trapped,” but did not carry out the order, deciding that he would rather resign, Mueller said.

Other White House advisers later talked McGahn out of resigning, and Trump did not follow up to ask whether McGahn had fulfilled his directive.

Trump pressured McGahn to deny that these events took place when they surfaced in news accounts in January 2018, but McGahn refused, according to Mueller’s report, some of which was blacked out to protect some sensitive information.

TRUMP’S EFFORTS TO LIMIT THE INVESTIGATION

Trump also enlisted his former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowksi, to try to narrow the investigation’s scope. The report said Trump asked Lewandowski in June 2017 to tell Sessions that he should publicly announce that the Russia probe was “very unfair” to the president, say Trump had done nothing wrong, and limit Mueller’s probe into interference in future elections, not the one that had put him in the White House.

A month later, Trump asked Lewandowski about the status of his request and Lewandowski assured Trump he would deliver the message soon. Trump then publicly criticized Sessions in a New York Times interview and a series of Twitter messages.

Mueller says Lewandowski did not want to deliver the message to Sessions, so he asked senior White House official Rick Dearborn to speak to him. Dearborn also did not want to carry out the task. Ultimately, the message never reached Sessions.

MANAFORT’S EFFORTS TO MONETIZE THE CAMPAIGN

Mueller found that campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s efforts to work with his former business partners in Ukraine were greater than previously known, as he tried to use his insider status on the campaign to collect on debts owed for his past work by Oleg Deripaska, an oligarch who is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Shortly after he joined the campaign in the spring of 2016, Manafort directed his deputy Rick Gates to share internal polling data and other campaign materials with Konstantin Kilimnik, a former Ukrainian business partner, with the understanding that it would get passed on to Deripaska, the report said.

During an August 2016 meeting in New York, Manafort told Kilimnik about the campaign’s efforts to win the battleground states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Minnesota, the report said. Trump ended up winning three of those states in the November election.

Manafort worked with his Ukrainian allies until the spring of 2018, after he had been indicted by Mueller, to promote a peace plan that would have split the country in two. These efforts did not constitute coordination between the campaign and Russian efforts to disrupt the election, Mueller found.

Manafort urged Gates not to plead guilty after they were both indicted by Mueller, apparently believing that they would be pardoned by the president if they did not cooperate with investigators. Trump’s numerous sympathetic statements before and during Manafort’s criminal trial could be interpreted as an effort to sway the outcome, but they also could be interpreted as a sign that he genuinely felt sorry for Manafort, Mueller said.

PLAN FOR U.S.-RUSSIA RECONCILIATION

Relations between Washington and Moscow had deteriorated under two previous administrations and the United States had imposed sanctions on Russia. Following Trump’s election victory, Russian financier Kirill Dmitriev worked on a proposal to improve ties with Rick Gerson, a hedge fund manager who is friends with Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner. Dmitriev runs Russia’s sovereign wealth fund and reports directly to Putin.

Gerson gave the plan to Kushner before Trump was sworn in, Mueller’s report said, and Kushner gave copies to Bannon and then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

After Trump took office in January 2017, Dmitriev told Gerson that his “boss” – an apparent reference to Putin – wanted to know if there was a reaction to the proposal, which called for cooperation on terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and economic matters. When Putin and Trump spoke by phone, Dmitriev told Gerson that their plan had “played an important role.”

Gerson told Mueller’s team that he acted as an intermediary between Trump and Russia on his own initiative, not at the request of Trump’s aides.

(Compiled by Andy Sullivan; editing by Grant McCool)

Barr defends Trump before release of special counsel’s Russia report

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Attorney General William Barr on Thursday offered a spirited defense of President Donald Trump ahead of the release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russia’s role in the 2016 U.S. election, but revealed that it detailed 10 episodes of potential obstruction of justice by the president.

Barr, the top U.S. law enforcement official and a Trump appointee, gave a news conference at the Justice Department as he sought to shape the narrative on a watershed day in Trump’s tumultuous presidency.

Barr is one of a handful of people to have seen the report before its release later on Thursday. He emphasized that Mueller did not conclude there was collusion between Trump’s campaign and Moscow.

The attorney general previously said Mueller had not exonerated Trump on the question of whether the president had committed the crime of obstruction of justice by trying to impede the Russia inquiry.

At the news conference, Barr said the report details “ten episodes” involving Trump and “discusses potential legal theories for connecting these actions to elements of an obstruction offense.” Barr said he concluded Trump had not committed obstruction of justice.

Barr said he and Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller as special counsel in May 2017, “disagreed with some of the special counsel’s legal theories and felt that some of the episodes examined did not amount to obstruction as a matter of law.”

“Apart from whether the acts were obstructive, this evidence of non-corrupt motives weighs heavily against any allegation that the president had a corrupt intent to obstruct the investigation,” Barr said.

The prospect of the Democratic-led House of Representatives beginning an impeachment process to remove Trump from office receded with the release of Mueller’s initial findings last month.

Some House Democrats had spoken of launching impeachment proceedings against Trump in Congress but top Democrats have been notably cautious. Any such effort would be unlikely to be successful because Trump fellow Republicans controls the Senate, which would decide the president’s fate.

The report’s disclosure, with portions expected to be blacked out by Barr to protect some sensitive information, is certain to launch a new political fight in Congress and on the 2020 presidential campaign trail, as Trump seeks re-election in a deeply divided country.

BARR DEFENDS TRUMP

“President Trump faced an unprecedented situation. As he entered into office and sought to perform his responsibilities as president, federal agents and prosecutors were scrutinizing his conduct before and after taking office and the conduct of some of his associates,” Barr said.

“At the same time, there was relentless speculation in the news media about the president’s personal culpability. Yet, as he said from the beginning, there was in fact no collusion,” added Barr.

Moments after Barr concluded his news conference, Trump posted an image of himself on Twitter surrounded by fog with the words: “No collusion. No obstruction. For the haters and the radical left Democrats – GAME OVER.”

Barr said Trump’s personal lawyers “were given the opportunity to read a final version of the redacted report before it was publicly released,” a revelation certain to infuriate congressional Democrats.

“The Russian government sought to interfere in our election process but thanks to the special counsel’s thorough investigation, we now know that the Russian operatives who perpetrated these schemes did not have the cooperation of President Trump or the Trump campaign,” Barr said.

The report promises to provide new details about some of the biggest questions in the investigation, including the extent and nature of his campaign’s interactions with Russia and actions Trump may have taken to hinder the inquiry including his 2017 firing of FBI Director James Comey.

Mueller submitted the report to Barr on March 22. Two days later, Barr told lawmakers the inquiry did not establish that Trump’s 2016 campaign team engaged in a criminal conspiracy with Russia and that Mueller had not reached a formal conclusion on obstruction of justice.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr, flanked by Edward O'Callaghan, Acting Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General (L) and Deputy U.S. 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 Edward O’Callaghan, Acting Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General (L) and Deputy U.S. 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

Barr seemed to offer cover for Trump’s actions by saying the report acknowledges that “there is substantial evidence to show that the president was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fueled by illegal leaks.”

Justice Department regulations give Barr broad authority to decide how much of the report to make public.

“That’s the bottom line. After nearly two years of investigations, thousands of subpoenas, hundreds of warrants and witness interviews, the special counsel confirmed that the Russian government-sponsored efforts to illegally interfere in the 2016 presidential election but did not find that the Trump campaign or other Americans colluded in those efforts,” Barr said.

The release of the report may deepen an already bitter partisan rift between Trump’s fellow Republicans, most of whom have rallied around the president, and his Democratic critics, who will have to decide how hard to go after Trump as they prepare congressional investigations of his administration.

Wall Street took Barr’s comments in stride, with the S&P 500 holding slight gains during the news conference then slipping into negative territory after it ended.

Democrats were furious that Barr held a news conference on the report before it was provided to Congress.

Copies of the report will be delivered to Congress between 11 a.m. and noon (1500-1600 GMT), a senior Justice Department official said. The delay in seeing the report sparked Democratic complaints that Barr wanted to shape the public’s views during his news conference before others had a chance to draw their own conclusions.

Barr said “significant portions” of the report could have been kept secret because of a legal doctrine called executive privilege that lets the president withhold information about executive branch deliberations from other branches of government, but were not redacted.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Additional reporting by David Morgan, Doina Chiacu, Andy Sullivan, Jan Wolfe, Nathan Layne, Karen Freifeld and Makini Brice; Writing by John Whitesides and Will Dunham, Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Alistair Bell)

U.S. trade deficit hits eight-month low as Chinese imports drop

FILE PHOTO: A container ship is shown at port in Long Beach, California, U.S. July 16, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. trade deficit fell to an eight-month low in February as imports from China plunged, suggesting President Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda was starting to bear fruit.

The surprise narrowing in the trade gap reported by the Commerce Department on Wednesday also implied a much stronger pace of U.S. economic growth in the first quarter than initially anticipated at the start of the year.

The 20.2 percent drop in imports from China was the main driver behind a nearly 3.4 percent improvement in the U.S. trade deficit to $49.4 billion, data from the Commerce Department showed. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the trade shortfall would widen to $53.5 billion in February.

The politically sensitive goods trade deficit with China – a focus of the Trump administration’s protectionist trade policy – decreased 28.2 percent to $24.8 billion in February as U.S. exports to the world’s No. 2 economy jumped 18.2 percent.

But even with the improvement, the trade deficit remains large and February’s drop in Chinese imports could be temporary. The trade data have been volatile in recent months amid big swings between exports and imports, because of the United States’ conflicts with trading partners, including China.

Washington last year imposed tariffs on $250 billion worth of goods imported from China, with Beijing retaliating with duties on $110 billion worth of American products. Trump has delayed tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports and talks to end the trade impasse continue.

The U.S. goods trade deficit declined 1.7 percent to $72.0 billion in February, also the lowest level since last June.

When adjusted for inflation, the overall goods trade deficit fell $1.8 billion to $81.8 billion in February. The average goods trade deficit for January and February is below the fourth-quarter average. This suggests that trade could provide a boost to gross domestic product in the first quarter after being neutral in the October-December period.

SLOWING DOMESTIC DEMAND

Growth estimates for the January-March quarter are in a 1.5 percent to 2.3 percent annualized range, largely reflecting an accumulation of inventories amid slowing domestic demand. The economy grew at a 2.2 percent rate in the fourth quarter, slowing from the July-September period’s brisk 3.4 percent pace.

U.S. Treasury yields rose slightly after the release of the data. U.S. stock index futures were trading higher while the dollar was largely unchanged against a basket of currencies.

The trade deficit in February was pushed down by a 1.1 percent jump in exports to $209.7 billion. Exports of services were the highest on record.

Goods exports increased 1.5 percent to $139.5 billion in February. The surge in goods exports is a hopeful sign for global economic growth, which has showed signs of slowing in recent months.

Exports of motor vehicles and parts increased by $0.6 billion in February. Shipments of civilian aircraft soared by $2.2 billion in February. But commercial aircraft exports are likely to decline in the months ahead following Boeing’s decision to suspend deliveries of its troubled 737 MAX aircraft.

The MAX planes have been grounded indefinitely following two deadly crashes.

There was a modest increase in soybean exports.

In February, imports rose 0.2 percent to $259.1 billion. Consumer goods imports increased by $1.6 billion in February, led by a $2.1 billion rise in imports of cellphones and other household goods. Imports of industrial supplies and materials fell by $1.2 billion. Capital goods imports rose slightly.

Crude oil imports fell to 173.7 million barrels, the lowest since March 1992, from 223.1 million barrels in January. An increase in domestic production has seen the United States become less dependent on foreign oil.

Imported oil prices averaged $46.89 per barrel in February, up from $42.59 in January.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Paul Simao)

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)

Trump says he made Golan Heights decision after a quick history lesson

U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the Republican Jewish Coalition 2019 Annual Leadership Meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., April 6, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Roberta Rampton

LAS VEGAS (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Saturday he made the controversial decision to recognize Israel’s 1981 annexation of the Golan Heights after getting a quick history lesson during a conversation on a different subject.

Speaking at the Republican Jewish Coalition gathering in Las Vegas, Trump said he made the snap decision during a discussion with his top Middle East peace advisers, including the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

“I said, ‘Fellows, do me a favor. Give me a little history, quick. Want to go fast. I got a lot of things I’m working on: China, North Korea. Give me a quickie,” Trump said to laughter from the Las Vegas crowd.

“‘How do you like the idea of me recognizing exactly what we’re discussing?'” said Trump, recounting the conversation.

Trump, who typically demands short sharp briefings and is known for his colorful retelling of stories, said Friedman was shocked, “like a wonderful, beautiful baby,” and asked the President if he would actually do it.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Trump last month. At their March 25 meeting, Trump signed a proclamation officially granting U.S. recognition of the Golan as Israeli territory, a dramatic departure from decades of U.S. policy. The move, which Trump announced in a tweet days prior, was widely seen as an attempt to boost Netanyahu who is up for re-election on April 9.

Israel captured the Golan in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it in 1981 in a move not recognized internationally.

“I went – ‘BING!’ – it was done,” Trump said on Saturday, describing the swiftness of his decision. “We make fast decisions. And we make good decisions.”

When Trump asked the crowd who will win Israel’s election – there were shouts of “Bibi!” Trump responded “I think it’s going to be close. Two good people.”

Netanyahu is fighting for his political survival against former top general Benny Gantz, a political novice.

Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson, who is reportedly gravely ill, watched the speech in person.

Earlier three protesters stood on their chairs as Trump began to speak, shouting “Jews are here to say – occupation is a plague.” The rest of the crowd quickly drowned them out with chants of “USA! USA!” They were physically removed by security guards.

“He is going back to mommy and he will be reprimanded,” Trump said of the protesters. “She gets it.”

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton, writing by Lucia Mutikani; additional reporting by David Shepardson and David Brunnstrom; editing by Michelle Price and David Gregorio)

Supreme Court rejects gun rights advocates over bump stocks

FILE PHOTO: A bump fire stock that attaches to a semi-automatic rifle to increase the firing rate is seen at Good Guys Gun Shop in Orem, Utah, U.S., October 4, 2017. REUTERS/George Frey/File Photo

By Andrew Chung

(Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday handed another setback to gun rights advocates challenging President Donald Trump’s ban on “bump stock” devices that enable semi-automatic weapons to fire rapidly.

With two conservative justices dissenting, the court refused to temporarily exempt from the ban a group of plaintiffs including the Firearms Policy Foundation while their legal challenge continues to be litigated in Washington.

The Supreme Court twice previously rejected requests by gun rights advocates – in the case in the U.S. capital and a similar one in Michigan – to temporarily block the ban while legal challenges proceed in lower courts.

The ban, which went into effect on March 26, was embraced by Trump following a 2017 massacre in Las Vegas that killed 58 people in which the gunman used bump stocks.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit had temporarily blocked the ban’s enforcement against the specific challengers in the litigation it was handling, but on April 1 ruled in the administration’s favor and refused to lift the ban.

The challengers then returned to the Supreme Court to try to prevent the policy from applying specifically to them. In Friday’s order, Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch said they would have granted the request to exempt the challengers.

Bump stocks use a gun’s recoil to bump its trigger, enabling a semiautomatic weapon to fire hundreds of rounds per minute, which can transform it into a machine gun.

The ban requires owners to turn in or destroy the attachments. People caught in possession of them could face up to 10 years in prison. The ban represents a rare recent instance of gun control at the federal level in a country that has experienced a series of mass shootings.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

Trump says U.S.-China trade deal may be reached in four weeks

U.S. President Donald Trump talks with with China's Vice Premier Liu He in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., April 4, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

By Jeff Mason and David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Thursday the United States and China were close to a trade deal that could be announced within four weeks, while warning Beijing that it would be difficult to allow trade to continue without a pact.

The two countries are engaged in intense negotiations to end a months-long trade war that has rattled global markets, but hopes of a resolution soared after both sides expressed optimism following talks in Beijing last week.

Speaking to reporters at the White House at the start of a meeting with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He, Trump said some of the tougher points of a deal had been agreed but there were still differences to be bridged.

“We’re getting very close to making a deal. That doesn’t mean a deal is made, because it’s not, but we’re certainly getting a lot closer,” Trump said in the Oval Office.

“And I would think with, oh, within the next four weeks or maybe less, maybe more, whatever it takes, something very monumental could be announced.”

Trump said he would hold a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping if there were a deal.

Xi assured Trump that text of the China-U.S. trade could be finalized soon, in a message conveyed by Liu He.

According to state-run news agency Xinhua, Liu He told Trump that Xi believed under his and Trump’s leadership, China-U.S. relations will make new and greater progress.

Xi said that in the past month or more, the two sides’ trade teams had maintained close contact and “achieved new and substantive progress on issues in the text of two countries’ trade agreement”.

“I hope the two sides’ trade teams can continue working in the spirit of mutual respect, equality, and mutual benefit to resolve each other’s concerns, and finish negotiations on the text of the China-U.S. trade agreement soon,” Xi said to Trump through Liu.

KEEPING LEVERAGE

Trump declined to say what would happen to U.S. tariffs on $250 billion worth of goods as part of a deal. China wants the tariffs lifted, while U.S. officials are wary of giving up that leverage, at least for now.

Asked about the benefits of an agreement for China, Trump said: “It’s going to be great for China, in that China will continue to trade with the United States. I mean, otherwise, it would be very tough for us to allow that to happen.”

Goods trade between the United States and China, the world’s two largest economies, totaled $660 billion last year, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, consisting of imports of $540 billion from China and $120 billion in exports to China.

On China’s behalf, Liu cited “great progress” in the talks because of Trump’s direct involvement and expressed hope that the talks would lead to “a good result.”

U.S. SEEKS SWEEPING CHANGES

Trump has previously threatened to impose punitive tariffs on all imports from China, more than a half-trillion dollars worth of products.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, who is leading the talks for the Trump administration, said there were still some “major, major issues” to resolve and praised Liu’s commitment to reform in China.

Asked about the remaining sticking points, Trump mentioned tariffs and intellectual property theft. He said he would discuss tariffs with Liu in their meeting.

“Some of the toughest things have been agreed to,” Trump said. He later said that an enforcement plan for a deal remained a sticking point as well.

“We have to make sure there’s enforcement. I think we’ll get that done. We’ve discussed it at length,” he said.

Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin are holding talks in Washington with a Chinese delegation this week after meeting together in Beijing last week. The current round of talks is scheduled to go through Friday and possibly longer.

Hopes that the talks were moving in a positive direction have cheered financial markets in recent weeks. But U.S. stocks were mixed on Thursday as investors waited for more developments in the trade negotiations, with the Dow Jones industrial Average slightly higher, and the S&P 500 and Nasdaq Composite slightly lower. [.N]

The United States is seeking reforms to Chinese practices that it says result in the theft of U.S. intellectual property and the forced transfer of technology from U.S. companies to Chinese firms.

Administration officials initially envisioned a summit between Trump and Xi potentially taking place in March, but some U.S. lawmakers and lobbying groups have said recently they were told that the administration was now aiming for a deal in late April.

OUTSTANDING ISSUES

White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said last week that the talks were “not time-dependent” and could be extended for weeks or even months longer.

While some reform pledges by Beijing are largely set, including an agreement to avoid currency manipulation, an enforcement mechanism to ensure that China keeps its pledges and the status of U.S. tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese goods must be resolved.

“China has been very clear, publicly and privately, that they would like to see all the tariffs removed,” U.S. Chamber of Commerce international affairs chief Myron Brilliant told reporters on Tuesday.

“The (Trump) administration has been equally clear that they want to keep some of the tariffs in place as a way to have leverage over China fulfilling its obligations under whatever final package is reached.”

(Reporting by Jeff Mason and David Lawder; Additional reporting by Chris Prentice and Michael Martina in BEIJING; Editing by Peter Cooney, Simon Cameron-Moore and Michael Perry)