Russian government resigns after Putin sets out constitutional shake-up

By Andrew Osborn and Vladimir Soldatkin

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s government unexpectedly resigned on Wednesday after President Vladimir Putin proposed sweeping constitutional changes that could allow him to extend his rule.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said he was stepping down to give Putin room to carry out the changes, which, if implemented, would shift power to parliament and the prime minister – and might thus allow Putin, 67, to rule on in another capacity after his current term ends in 2024.

Medvedev, a long-time Putin ally and former president, announced his resignation on state TV sitting next to Putin, who thanked him for his work.

Putin said Medvedev would take on a new job as deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, which Putin chairs.

Attention now turns to who becomes the next prime minister. The array of possible candidates includes Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, who is credited with breathing new life into the capital.

Wednesday’s changes will be seen by many as the start of Putin’s preparations for his own political future when he leaves the presidency in 2024.

Whoever he picks as prime minister will inevitably be viewed as a possible presidential successor – echoing the way that Putin stepped down from the presidency in 2008 to become prime minister under Medvedev, who then stepped aside four years later to allow Putin to resume the presidency.

In power in one of the two roles since 1999, Putin is due to step down in 2024, when his fourth presidential term ends.

He has not yet said what he plans to do when his term expires but, under the current constitution, which sets a maximum of two successive terms, Putin is barred from immediately running again.

‘SERIOUS CHANGES’

Putin told Russia’s political elite in his annual state-of-the-nation speech that he favored changing the constitution to hand the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, the power to choose the prime minister and other key positions.

“These are very serious changes to the political system,” Putin said.

“It would increase the role and significance of the country’s parliament … of parliamentary parties, and the independence and responsibility of the prime minister.”

Critics have long accused him of plotting to stay on in some capacity to wield power over the world’s largest nation after he steps down. He remains popular with many Russians who see him as a welcome source of stability even as others complain that he has been in power for too long.

Medvedev’s resignation took Russian markets taken by surprise. The rouble and stocks suffered sharp losses before rebounding to make gains amid the uncertainty.

“In a nutshell, we take this announcement as an attempt by Putin to shake up Russia’s polity and refocus the administration on implementing the president’s well-telegraphed but slowly progressing public spending program,” Citi said in a note.

The rouble dropped to 61.81 to the dollar after the news reports about the government but soon regained ground and firmed to 61.41 , up 0.1% on the day by 1452 GMT.

Against the euro, the rouble briefly dropped to 68.86  but soon pared losses to trade at 68.49.

The dollar-denominated RTS share index <.IRTS> fell 1% on the day minutes after the resignation reports, but rebounded to stand 0.4% higher.

The rouble-based MOEX Russian share index  was also up 0.4%.

(Reporting by Maria Kiselyova, Tom Balmforth, Vladimir Soldatkin, Maria Tsvetkova and Andrey Kuzmin; editing by Mike Collett-White and Kevin Liffey)

U.S. bishop accused of sex abuse cover-up steps down

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – A New York state bishop who had been at the center of a sex abuse crisis stepped down on Wednesday after learning the conclusions of a Vatican investigation, becoming the latest high-ranking prelate toppled by the decades-old scandal.

Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo, New York, and named Albany Bishop Edward Scharfenberger, to administer the Buffalo diocese until a new bishop can be appointed.

Malone, 73, who has been under pressure to resign for years, stepped down two years before bishops’ normal retirement date.

A long line of priests and bishops have been toppled by the Roman Catholic Church’s abuse crisis, which exploded onto the international stage in 2002 when the Boston Globe newspaper revealed priests had sexually abused children for decades and church leaders had covered it up.

Patterns of widespread abuse of children have since been reported across the United States and Europe, in Chile and Australia, undercutting the 1.2 billion-member Church’s moral authority and taking a toll on its membership and coffers.

Malone, who met with the pope last month, has been accused of covering up or mishandling the abuse of dozens of minors by priests in his diocese in western New York.

Last year, a whistleblower in his office released documents to WKBW, a New York news channel, indicating that Malone withheld scores of priests’ names from a list his office published of clergy accused of sexual abuse.

He has denied the accusations.

His diocese is facing more than 200 child sex abuse lawsuits, according to the New York Times. A new state law this year temporarily waived statutes of limitations for people who were victims of sexual abuse as children, allowing hundreds of people to sue over decades-old crimes.

Malone acknowledged “tremendous turmoil” in his diocese in a statement on Wednesday.

He said he had made mistakes in not addressing what he described as personnel issues more swiftly. He said the conclusions of the Vatican investigation, which have not been published, were a factor in his decision but that he was resigning “freely and voluntarily.”

In September, a poll by the local newspaper, The Buffalo News, showed that about 85% of Roman Catholics or lapsed Roman Catholics in the area said he should resign.

Scharfenberger said he supported Malone’s resignation.

“I think he made a prudent decision to withdraw as he did at the time that he did,” he said in a news conference.

(Reporting By Philip Pullella; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Scott Malone)

Bolivia seeks new leader as fallen Morales reaches Mexico

Bolivia seeks new leader as fallen Morales reaches Mexico
By Monica Machicao and Stefanie Eschenbacher

LA PAZ/MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Bolivia’s former leader Evo Morales landed in Mexico on Tuesday pledging to stay in politics as security forces back home quelled unrest over the long-serving leftist’s resignation and opponents sought an interim replacement to fill a power vacuum.

Thanking Mexico’s government for “saving his life,” Morales arrived to take up asylum in the country and repeated his accusation that his rivals had ousted him in a coup after violence broke out following a disputed election last month.

“As long as I am alive, we will remain in politics,” Morales told reporters in brief comments after disembarking the plane to be met by Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard.

Dressed in a short-sleeved blue shirt, Morales defended his time in government and said that if he were guilty any crime, it was to be indigenous and “anti-imperalist.”

Morales was then whisked away in a military helicopter, television footage showed. Mexican officials have not said where he will stay, citing security concerns.

Morales arrived in a Mexican Air Force plane from the central Bolivian town of Chimore, a stronghold of Morales supporters where the country’s first indigenous president retreated as his 14-year rule imploded.

The departure of Morales, the last of a wave of leftists who dominated Latin American politics at the start of the century, came after the Organization of American States declared on Sunday that there were serious irregularities during the Oct. 20 vote, prompting ruling party allies to quit and the army to urge him to step down.

Opposition lawmakers wanted to formally accept Morales’ resignation and start planning for a temporary leader ahead of a new vote. But their plans looked at risk as Morales’ Movement for Socialism (MAS) said it would boycott the meeting.

Residents of the highland capital La Paz, rocked by protests and looting since last month’s election, said they hoped politicians would succeed in finally restoring order.

“Democracy has been at risk and hopefully it will be resolved today,” said resident Isabel Nadia.

Morales’ flight out was far from simple.

Takeoff was delayed, with supporters surrounding the airport, then the plane was denied permission to fuel in Peru, Ebrard said. So it stopped instead in Paraguay before arriving in Mexico City just after 11 a.m. local time (1700 GMT).

“His life and integrity are safe,” Ebrard said, tweeting a photo of Morales alone in the jet with a downcast expression, displaying Mexico’s red, white and green flag across his lap.

In a region divided along ideological lines over Morales’ fall, Mexico’s leftist government has supported his accusations of a coup.

In La Paz, roadblocks were in place after soldiers and police patrolled into the night to stop fighting between rival political groups and looting that erupted after Morales’ resignation.

The charismatic 60-year-old former coca leaf farmer was beloved by the poor when he won power in 2006.

But he alienated some by insisting on seeking a fourth term, in defiance of term limits and a 2016 referendum in which Bolivians voted against him being allowed to do that.

(For graphic on timeline, see https://graphics.reuters.com/BOLIVIA-ELECTION/0100B30L25D/bolivia.jpg)

(Reporting by Monica Machicao, Daniel Ramos and Gram Slattery in La Paz, Daniela Desantis in Asuncion, Daina Beth Solomon, Julia Love and Diego Ore in Mexico City, Matt Spetalnick in Washington, Mitra Taj in Lima; Writing by Adam Jourdan; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Daniel Wallis)

‘Everything is a mess’: Morales exit rocks Bolivia, splits region

‘Everything is a mess’: Morales exit rocks Bolivia, splits region
By Daniel Ramos and Gram Slattery

LA PAZ (Reuters) – Looting, fighting and roadblocks convulsed Bolivia on Monday after President Evo Morales’ resignation ended his 14-year rule and created a power vacuum following weeks of violent protests.

The departure of Bolivia’s first indigenous president, who was the last survivor of a wave of leftist leaders in Latin America from two decades ago, came on Sunday when the military abandoned him amid unrest over his disputed Oct. 20 re-election.

The Organization of American States (OAS), which had denounced “manipulations” of that vote, exhorted Bolivian lawmakers to meet urgently to resolve the crisis.

With Morales’ deputy and many allies in government and parliament gone with him, opposition politician and Senate second vice-president Jeanine Añez flew into the capital saying she was willing to take temporary control until a new vote.

“I am afraid of what will happen, everything is a mess in the city. There are fights between neighbours,” said Patricia Paredes, a 25-year-old secretary in La Paz.

Overnight, gangs roamed the highland capital and other cities, businesses were attacked, rival political supporters clashed and properties were set on fire.

Schools and shops were largely closed, while public transport halted and roads were blocked.

Morales, 60, flew out of La Paz and was believed to still be in Bolivia – but his exact whereabouts were unclear.

He said he stepped down to ease the violence, but repeated on Monday accusations he was the victim of a conspiracy by political enemies including election rival Carlos Mesa and protest leader Luis Fernando Camacho.

“The world and our Bolivian patriots repudiate the coup,” he tweeted. “They moved me to tears. They never abandoned me. I will never abandon them.”

DIVIDED LATIN AMERICA

Argentine President-elect Alberto Fernandez echoed Morales’ denunciations of a coup, as did Mexico which has offered him asylum. “It’s a coup because the army requested the resignation of the president, and that violates the constitutional order of that country,” Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said.

In a redrawing of Latin America’s political landscape, the left has regained power in both Mexico and Argentina, though powerhouse Brazil still retains a right-wing government.

“A great day,” Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro tweeted, in apparent reference to events in Bolivia.

In Venezuela, opponents of Morales ally Nicolas Maduro also hailed the fall of the Bolivian leader whom they call a “dictator”, saying they hoped Maduro would be next.

Further afield, the United States urged civilian leaders to keep control. Russia backed Morales, accusing the opposition of violence and quashing dialogue.

Amid the chaos, prominent Bolivian opposition figure and academic Waldo Albarracin tweeted that his house had been set on fire by Morales supporters.

Another widely-shared video appeared to show people inside Morales’ own property with graffiti daubed on the walls.

“People are trying to cause chaos,” fretted Edgar Torrez, a 40-year-old business administrator in La Paz, saying politicians and criminals were all taking advantage of the situation.

TEMPORARY LEADER

Under Bolivian law, the head of the Senate would normally take over provisionally. However, Senate President Adriana Salvatierra also stepped down on Sunday.

Legislators were expected to meet on Monday to agree on an interim commission or legislator who would take temporary control, according to a constitutional lawyer.

“If I have the support of those who carried out this movement for freedom and democracy, I will take on the challenge, only to do what’s necessary to call transparent elections,” said senator Añez, who is constitutionally next in line to assume the presidency.

Añez flew into El Alto airport near La Paz on Monday, where another senator Arturo Murillo told reporters she was taken by an Air Force helicopter to a military academy, from where she was expected to travel to Congress.

“The military were waiting on the tarmac and they said it was safer to take them by helicopter,” he said. “I want to trust the military. I have my faith in the police.”

At a press conference, Mesa asked the police and mobilized civilian groups to guarantee the arrival of legislators across the political spectrum to the central Plaza Murillo to formalize Morales’ resignation and push forward new elections.

“Upon them (the lawmakers) rests the democracy and stability of the country,” he said.

Bolivia under Morales had one of the region’s strongest economic growth rates and its poverty rate was cut in half, but his determination to cling to power and seek a fourth term alienated many allies, even among indigenous communities.

(Reporting by Daniel Ramos, Gram Slattery, Monica Machicao in La Paz, Matt Spetalnick in Washington, Dave Graham and Miguel Gutierrez in Mexico City, Tom Balmforth in Moscow; Writing by Hugh Bronstein and Adam Jourdan; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Andrew Cawthorne)

Prime Minister Hariri resigns as Lebanon crisis turns violent

Prime Minister Hariri resigns as Lebanon crisis turns violent
BEIRUT (Reuters) – Saad al-Hariri resigned as Lebanon’s prime minister on Tuesday, declaring he had hit a “dead end” in trying to resolve a crisis unleashed by huge protests against the ruling elite and plunging the country deeper into turmoil.

The move by the leading Sunni politician points to rising political tensions that may complicate the formation of a new government able to tackle Lebanon’s worst economic crisis since its 1975-90 civil war.

The resignation of Hariri, who has been traditionally backed by the West and Sunni Gulf Arab allies, raises the stakes and pushes Lebanon into an unpredictable cycle. Lebanon could end up further under the sway of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, making it even harder to attract badly-needed foreign investment.

It also defies Hezbollah, which had wanted him to stay on. Hariri is seen as the focal point for Western and Gulf Arab aid to Lebanon, which is in dire need of financial support promised by these allies.

Hariri addressed the nation after a mob loyal to the Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah and Amal movements attacked and destroyed a protest camp set up by anti-government demonstrators in Beirut.

It was the most serious strife on the streets of Beirut since 2008, when Hezbollah fighters seized control of the capital in a brief eruption of armed conflict with Lebanese adversaries loyal to Hariri and his allies.

Lebanon has been paralyzed by the unprecedented wave of protests against the rampant corruption of the political class.

“For 13 days the Lebanese people have waited for a decision for a political solution that stops the deterioration (of the economy). And I have tried, during this period, to find a way out, through which to listen to the voice of the people,” Hariri said.

“It is time for us to have a big shock to face the crisis,” he said. “To all partners in political life, our responsibility today is how we protect Lebanon and revive its economy.”

President Michel Aoun, a political ally of Hezbollah, could now either accept Hariri’s resignation and begin consultations toward forming a new government, or ask him to rethink.

It took nine months to form the Hariri coalition cabinet that took office in January.

Some demonstrators vowed to stay in the street.

Protester Tarek Hijazi said the resignation was “a first step in building a patriotic democratic country, on the road to achieving the demands of the Oct. 17 uprising”.

The turmoil has worsened Lebanon’s acute economic crisis, with financial strains leading to a scarcity of hard currency and a weakening of the pegged Lebanese pound. Lebanese government bonds tumbled on the turmoil.

TENTS ON FIRE

On the streets of Beirut, black-clad men wielding sticks and pipes attacked the protest camp that has been the focal point of countrywide rallies against the elite.

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, head of the heavily armed, Iran-backed Hezbollah, said last week that roads closed by protesters should be reopened and suggested the demonstrators were financed by its foreign enemies and implementing their agenda.

Smoke rose as some of the protester tents were set ablaze by Hezbollah and Amal supporters, who earlier fanned out in the downtown area of the capital shouting “Shia, Shia” in reference to themselves and cursing anti-government demonstrators.

“With our blood and lives we offer ourselves as a sacrifice for you Nabih!” they chanted in reference to Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, head of the Amal Movement. “We heed your call, we heed your call, Nasrallah!” they chanted.

Security forces did not initially intervene to stop the assault, in which protesters were hit with sticks and were seen appealing for help as they ran, witnesses said. Tear gas was eventually fired to disperse the crowds.

Hariri did not refer to the violence in his address but urged all Lebanese to “protect civil peace and prevent economic deterioration, before anything else”.

France, which has supported Hariri, called on all Lebanese to help guarantee national unity.

LEBANESE POUND UNDER PRESSURE

Lebanon’s allies last year pledged $11 billion in financing to help it revive its economy, conditional on reforms that Hariri’s coalition government has largely failed to implement.

But there has been no sign of a rush to help.

A senior U.S. State Department official said last week this was not a situation where the Lebanese government should necessarily get a bailout, saying they should reform first.

Banks were closed for a 10th day along with schools and businesses.

Hariri last week sought to defuse popular discontent through a batch of reform measures agreed with other groups in his coalition government, including Hezbollah, to – among other things – tackle corruption and long-delayed economic reforms.

But with no immediate steps toward enacting these steps, they did not placate the demonstrators.

Central bank governor Riad Salameh called on Monday for a solution to the crisis in just days to restore confidence and avoid a future economic meltdown.

A black market for U.S. dollars has emerged in the last month or so. Three foreign currency dealers said a dollar cost 1,800 pounds on Tuesday, weakening from levels of 1,700 and 1,740 cited on Monday.

The official pegged rate is 1,507.5 pounds to the dollar.

“Even if the protesters leave the streets the real problem facing them is what they are going to do with the devaluation of the pound,” said Toufic Gaspard, an economist who has worked as an adviser to the IMF and to the Lebanese finance minister.

“A very large majority of the Lebanese income is in the Lebanese pound, their savings are in the Lebanese pound and their pension is in Lebanese, and it is certain it has already started to devalue,” he said.

(Reporting by Eric Knecht, Laila Bassam, Ellen Francis, Tom Perry, Lisa Barrington, Samia Nakhoul and Reuters TV; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Iran says U.S. should avoid ‘warmongers’ after Bolton departure

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during the cabinet meeting in Tehran, Iran, September 11, 2019. Official President website/Handout via REUTERS

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran said on Wednesday Washington should distance itself from “warmongers” after the resignation of hawkish White House National Security Adviser John Bolton, and Tehran stood by its demand that sanctions be lifted before any talks.

The departure of Bolton removes one of the strongest advocates of a hard line towards Iran from President Donald Trump’s White House and raises the prospect of steps to open up negotiations after more than a year of escalating tension.

“America should understand that … it should distance itself from warmongers,” Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency quoted President Hassan Rouhani as saying on Wednesday, without mentioning Bolton.

“Iran’s policy of resistance will not change as long as our enemy (the United States) continues to put pressure on Iran,” said Rouhani, a pragmatist who won two landslide elections in Iran on promises to open it up to the world.

Last year, the United States pulled out of an international accord between Iran and world powers under which Tehran accepted curbs on its nuclear program in return for access to world trade.

Washington says the agreement reached by Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama was too weak because many of its terms expire in a decade and it does not cover non-nuclear issues such as Iran’s missile program and regional behavior.

The White House has followed what the administration calls a policy of “maximum pressure”, including sanctions aimed at halting all Iranian oil exports, saying its ultimate aim is to push Tehran to the table for talks on a new, tougher deal.

Immediately after Bolton’s departure, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Tuesday that Trump could meet with Rouhani at an upcoming U.N, meeting with “no preconditions”.

“SIGH OF RELIEF”

Iran has rejected talks unless sanctions are lifted first. It said on Wednesday that Bolton’s exit had not changed that position.

“The departure of … Bolton from President Donald Trump’s administration will not push Iran to reconsider talking with the U.S.,” Iran’s U.N. envoy, Majid Takhteravanchi, was quoted as saying by state news agency IRNA.

Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif slammed the United States for ordering new sanctions on Iran despite Bolton’s departure.

“As the world … was breathing a sigh of relief over the ouster of #B_Team’s henchman in the White House, (Washington) declared further escalation of #EconomicTerrorism (sanctions) against Iran,” Zarif tweeted. “Thirst for war —maximum pressure— should go with the warmonger-in-chief (Bolton).”

Zarif has often said that a so-called “B-team” including Bolton could goad Trump into conflict with Tehran.

The United States on Tuesday announced sanctions on a “wide range of terrorists and their supporters”, including Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

Iran says it hopes to save the deal but cannot do so indefinitely if it gets none of its economic benefits. It has responded to U.S. sanctions with steps to reduce its compliance with the accord and has said it could eventually leave it unless other parties shield its economy from penalties.

“Iran’s commitments to the nuclear deal are proportional to other parties and we will take further steps if necessary,” Rouhani said.

Iran started using advanced centrifuges last week to ramp up output of enriched uranium and reduced its commitments to the nuclear deal, but said it was giving European countries another two months to come up with a plan to protect its economy.

France has proposed giving Iran a multi-billion dollar credit line which would shield it from some impact of U.S. sanctions, although any such deal would require the Trump administration’s tacit approval.

(This story was refiled to correct spelling of ‘weak’ in paragraph 6)

(Additional Reporting by Tuqa Khalid; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Peter Graff/William Maclean)

Puerto Rico governor weighs future after protests -spokesman

A woman shouts during ongoing protests calling for the resignation of Governor Ricardo Rossello in San Juan, Puerto Rico July 23, 2019. REUTERS/Marco Bello

By Nick Brown

SAN JUAN (Reuters) – Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello was weighing his political future on Wednesday after almost two weeks of protests demanding his resignation over the publication of offensive chat messages and a corruption scandal, his spokesman said.

Rossello, a first-term governor in his first elected office, has resisted calls to step down over a scandal local media have dubbed “Rickyleaks.” Media, including El Nuevo Dacuta newspaper, cited unnamed sources as saying his resignation was imminent.

“He stated yesterday he is in a process of reflection, and listening to the people,” the governor’s spokesman Anthony Maceira said in a text message to Reuters. “Whichever decision he makes will, as always, be communicated officially.”

Protesters had cheered the reports of a possible resignation late on Tuesday but warned that Rossello’s departure would not end the demonstrations that were now entering their 12th day.

The island of 3.2 million people has been rocked by multiple crises in recent years, including a bankruptcy filing and a devastating hurricane in 2017 that killed about 3,000 people.

If Rossello steps down, his replacement as the U.S. territory’s leader would likely be Justice Secretary Wanda Vazquez, whom many protesters reject because of her ties to the 40-year-old governor.

A string of Rossello’s closest aides have stepped down as prosecutors investigated the scandal. The governor’s chief of staff Ricardo Llerandi resigned on Tuesday, citing concerns for the safety of his family.

The scandal erupted at about the same time as federal investigators charged two former high-ranking Puerto Rico government officials with conspiracy.

The protests in the capital San Juan were spurred by the publication on July 13 of chat messages on the messaging app Telegram, in which Rossello and aides used profane language to describe female politicians and gay Puerto Rican celebrities, including Ricky Martin.

FINANCES UNCERTAIN

The uncertainty over Rossello’s future has also complicated Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy process. The U.S. territory filed in 2017 to attempt to restructure about $120 billion of debt and pension obligations.

An attorney for the federally-created oversight board currently responsible for Puerto Rico’s finances told a court hearing on Wednesday that “current events” had played a role in delaying the filing of a plan to restructure the bulk of the territory’s debt.

The attorney, Martin Bienenstock, said at the hearing in San Juan that the board was also seeking more data and creditor support and expected to file the plan in the next few weeks.

The “Rickyleaks” scandal also has led to the resignation of the head of Puerto Rico’s fiscal agency, Christian Sobrino. His interim replacement, Jose Santiago Ramos, has also said he plans to step down next month, citing the current political environment.

Puerto Rican officials on Tuesday executed search warrants for the mobile phones of Rossello’s and 11 top officials involved in the leaked message group chats.

Only Llerandi has so far said publicly he has handed in his phone.

Rossello has apologized several times for the chats and asked Puerto Ricans to give him another chance. He also has vowed not to seek re-election in 2020.

“The people are talking and I have to listen,” Rossello said in a statement on Tuesday.

But the island’s leading newspaper, as well as prominent U.S. Democratic officials and Republican President Donald Trump, have called on him to step down.

U.S. Representative Ra&uacute;l Grijalva, the chairman of the House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee, which plays a role in overseeing U.S. territories including Puerto Rico, said a Rossello resignation would be a step forward for the island.

“The people of Puerto Rico have shown the world what can happen when a united public demands justice and accountability with a clear voice,” Grijalva said in a statement. “Now they must choose what comes next, and Congress must listen.”

(Reporting by Nick Brown; additional reporting by Marco Bello and Luis Valentin Ortiz in San Juan, Karen Pierog in Chicago and Rich McKay in Atlanta; writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Paul Simao)

San Juan braces for an 11th day of protests, amid calls for Puerto Rico’s governor to resign

Police clash with demonstrators during a protest calling for the resignation of Governor Ricardo Rossello in San Juan, Puerto Rico July 23, 2019. REUTERS/Marco Bello

By Marco Bello

San Juan (Reuters) – San Juan braced on Tuesday for an 11th day of protests calling for the resignation of Puerto Rico’s governor over offensive chat messages that have drawn hundreds of thousands of people.

Police fired tear gas to disperse crowds late Monday and early Tuesday while protesters threw bottles and other objects at police, multiple media reports said.

Governor Ricardo Rossell has insisted he will not step down as leader of the U.S. Territory over misogynistic and homophobic messages exchanged between him and top aides, but said on Sunday that he would not seek re-election next year.

Rossell also said he would step down as head of the New Progressive Party and asked Puerto Ricans to give him another chance.

“I used words that I apologized for but I’ve also taken significant actions in the direction of helping vulnerable sectors,” Rossell told Fox News, explaining he had made policy changes significant to women and the LGBTQ community.

Those two groups were frequent targets of messages exchanged between Rossell and his aides in 889 pages of online group chats published July 13 by Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism.

The crass messages showed a political elite intent on maintaining power on the bankrupt island where people still live under blue tarpaulins two years after hurricanes ripped roofs off their homes and killed over 3,000 people.

But his concessions failed to appease demonstrators on Monday, who called for him to immediately surrender the governorship in the latest scandal to hit Puerto Rico.

The island’s largest newspaper also called on the first-term governor to leave office and reported more than 500,000 protesters took to the streets of San Juan on Monday.

Then, demonstrators dressed in black T-shirts filled the city’s largest highway and marched in the pouring rain with local celebrities including Ricky Martin and Reggaeton star Daddy Yankee.

“In Puerto Rico, we don’t follow dictators. It’s time for you to go,” a drenched Martin, 47, the target of homophobic messages in Rossello’s chats, told cheering crowds.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, an opposition politician running for governor in 2020, said Rossell&oacute; had run out of time.

U.S. President Donald Trump also blasted the “terrible” 40-year-old governor, who is affiliated with the U.S. Democratic Party and with whom Trump feuded in 2017 over the adequacy of the federal response to Hurricane Maria.

The protests have brought together Puerto Ricans from different political parties and none to vent anger at alleged corruption in the administration and its handling of hurricane recovery efforts.

Anti-Rossell demonstrations were also held in cities across the United States such as Los Angeles, New York and Boston which have large Puerto Rican communities.

(Reporting by Marco Bello; Writing by Rich McKay; Editing by Catherine Evans)

Mueller says charging Trump was never an option for Russia probe

U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller makes a statement on his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election at the Justice Department in Washington, U.S., May 29, 2019. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

By Sarah N. Lynch and Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller said on Wednesday his investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election was never going to end with criminal charges against President Donald Trump and indicated it was up to Congress to decide if impeachment proceedings are justified.

In his first public comments since starting the investigation in May 2017, Mueller said Justice Department policy prevented him from bringing charges against a sitting president, telling reporters it was “not an option we would consider.”

But he also said his two-year investigation did not clear Trump of improper behavior and pointed out there were other ways to hold presidents accountable.

“The Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting President of wrongdoing,” Mueller said as he announced his resignation from the Justice Department.

Democrats in Congress are debating whether to try to move ahead with impeachment, an effort that is almost certain to fall short in the Republican-controlled Senate.

The White House and several top Republicans said it was time to move on to other matters, while several Democratic presidential candidates called for impeachment.

“What Robert Mueller basically did was return an impeachment referral,” Senator Kamala Harris said on Twitter.

“Given that Special Counsel Mueller was unable to pursue criminal charges against the President, it falls to Congress to respond to the crimes, lies and other wrongdoing of President Trump &ndash; and we will do so,” said Jerrold Nadler, the Democratic chairman of the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee.

A redacted version of Mueller’s report was published in April, concluding that Russia repeatedly interfered in the 2016 election and that Trump’s election campaign had multiple contacts with Russian officials, but did not establish a criminal conspiracy with Moscow to win the White House.

Mueller’s report also declined to make a judgment on whether Trump obstructed justice, although the report outlined 10 instances in which Trump tried to impede the investigation, including seeking to have Mueller fired.

“If we had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” Mueller said. “We did not, however, make a determination as to whether the president did commit a crime.”

TRUMP DECLARES ‘CASE CLOSED’

Trump, who has repeatedly denounced Mueller’s investigation as a “witch hunt” and “hoax” meant to hobble his presidency, said the matter was settled.

“Nothing changes from the Mueller Report,” he said on Twitter. “There was insufficient evidence and therefore, in our Country, a person is innocent. The case is closed! Thank you.”

Mueller, who headed the FBI from 2001 to 2013, said he would not elaborate beyond what was contained in his 448-page report, signaling to Democrats that he was unlikely to provide them more ammunition for impeachment if he were to testify on Capitol Hill.

“Beyond what I’ve said here today and what is contained in our written work, I do not believe it is appropriate for me to speak further,” he said.

He did not take questions after making his statement.

The House Judiciary Committee’s top Republican, Representative Doug Collins, said relitigating Mueller’s findings would only divide the country. “It is time to move on from the investigation and start focusing on real solutions for the American people,” he said.

Only one Republican so far, Representative Justin Amash, has said Trump has committed impeachable offenses. “The ball is in our court, Congress,” he said on Twitter.

Mueller’s investigation ensnared dozens of people, including several top Trump advisers and a series of Russian nationals and companies.

Among them are his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, who is serving 7 1/2 years in prison for financial crimes and lobbying violations, and his former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, who recently began a three-year sentence for campaign-finance violations and lying to Congress.

Since the report’s release, Democratic lawmakers have tried without success to get the unredacted report and underlying evidence.

Barr now is leading a review of the origins of the Russia investigation in what is the third known inquiry into the FBI’s handling of the matter. Trump harbors suspicions that the Democratic administration of President Barack Obama started the investigation in 2016 to undermine his presidency.

(Additional reporting by Makini Brice and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Tim Ahmann and Bill Trott)

Tearful Theresa May resigns, paving way for Brexit confrontation with EU

British Prime Minister Theresa May reacts as she delivers a statement in London, Britain, May 24, 2019. REUTERS/Toby Melville

By Elizabeth Piper, William James and Kylie MacLellan

LONDON (Reuters) – Fighting back tears, Theresa May said on Friday she would quit, setting up a contest that will install a new British prime minister who could pursue a cleaner break with the European Union.

May’s departure deepens the Brexit crisis as a new leader, who should be in place by the end of July, is likely to want a more decisive split, raising the chances of a confrontation with the EU and potentially a snap parliamentary election.

Her voice cracking with emotion, May, who endured crises and humiliation in her failed effort to find a compromise Brexit deal that parliament could ratify, said she would resign on Friday, June 7 with a leadership contest beginning the following week.

“I will shortly leave the job that has been the honor of my life to hold,” May said outside her Downing Street official residence with her husband, Philip, looking on. “The second female prime minister, but certainly not the last.

“I do so with no ill will but with enormous and enduring gratitude to have had the opportunity to serve the country I love,” said the usually reserved May as she fought back tears.

May, once a reluctant supporter of EU membership who won the top job in the turmoil that followed the 2016 Brexit referendum, steps down with her central pledge – to lead the United Kingdom out of the bloc and heal its divisions – unfulfilled.

“It is, and will always remain, a matter of deep regret to me that I have not been able to deliver Brexit,” May said, adding that her successor would have to find a consensus to honor the 2016 referendum result.

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, said the new prime minister must hold an election to “let the people decide our country’s future”.

PM BORIS JOHNSON?

May bequeaths a deeply divided country and a political elite that is deadlocked over how, when or whether to leave the EU. The latest deadline for Britain’s departure is Oct. 31.

Most of the leading contenders to succeed May want a tougher divorce deal, although the EU has said it will not renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement it sealed with Britain in November.

Spain said it now seemed almost impossible to avoid a so-called hard Brexit, or clean break from the EU, and the bloc signaled there would be no change on the agreement despite European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker learning of May’s resignation “without personal joy”.

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney underlined the bloc’s stance that there would be no better Brexit deal.

“This idea that a new prime minister will be a tougher negotiator and will put it up to the EU and get a much better deal for Britain? That’s not how the EU works,” Coveney told Ireland’s Newstalk radio station.

Sterling swung back and forth on May’s resignation, trading slightly higher on the day, and British government bond yields edged off near-two-year lows struck first thing on Friday. Boris Johnson, the face of the official Brexit campaign in 2016, is the favorite to succeed May and he thanked her for her “stoical service”. Betting markets put a 40% implied probability on Johnson winning the top job.

Others tipped are Dominic Raab, a Brexit supporter and former Brexit secretary, with a 14% implied probability on his chances. Environment Secretary Michael Gove, former House of Commons leader Andrea Leadsom and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt each have a 7% probability, according to betting markets.

Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt and International Development Secretary Rory Stewart each have a 4% chance of the top job while Home Secretary Sajid Javid has a 3% chance.

For many Conservative lawmakers, speed is of the essence to install a new leader to try to break the Brexit impasse.

The governing party said it would move quickly to try to end the leadership contest before parliament breaks for a summer holiday, a so-called recess which usually falls in late July.

“The fight for the heart and soul of the Conservative Party officially starts now,” said Andrew Bridgen, a pro-Brexit lawmaker. “We need a new PM as soon as possible and who that is will decide the future of our democracy, our country and the Conservative Party.”

(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Additional reporting by Kate Holton; Editing by Janet Lawrence)