North Korea says recent rocket drill was “regular and self-defensive”: KCNA

North Korean military conducts a "strike drill" for multiple launchers and tactical guided weapon into the East Sea during a military drill in North Korea, in this May 4, 2019 photo supplied by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). KCNA via REUTERS

By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea’s “strike drill” last week at which leader Kim Jong Un oversaw the launch of rockets and at least one short-range ballistic missile was “regular and self-defensive,” the North’s foreign ministry said on Wednesday, according to state media.

“The recent drill conducted by our army is nothing more than part of the regular military training, and it has neither targeted anyone nor led to an aggravation of the situation in the region,” an unidentified ministry spokesperson said in a statement to the state-run KCNA news agency.

Saturday’s drill was the first test of a ballistic missile by North Korea since it launched a long-range intercontinental ballistic missile in November 2017.

It came in the wake of talks with the United States and South Korea stalling in February, and raised alarms in both countries, which have been seeking to entice the North into abandoning its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

Seoul responded on Saturday by calling on its northern neighbor to “stop acts that escalate military tension on the Korean Peninsula.”

In a second statement carried by KCNA on Wednesday, a spokesman for the North Korean office in charge of military engagement with South Korea lashed out at Seoul over any suggestion that the rocket drills had violated an inter-Korean agreement aimed at reducing military tension.

“The South Korean military should take a close look at the inter Korean military agreement and recall what it has done itself before talking nonsense that it was against the spirit of the agreement,” the spokesperson said, according to KCNA.

The second statement also criticized last week’s test of a U.S. Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) by the U.S. Air Force out of California over the Pacific, saying South Korea was in no position to criticize North Korea.

“The South Korean military has no right to say a word to its fellow countrymen when it acted like a mute who ate honey when the United States fired a Minuteman ICBM which threatens us,” the military spokesman said.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who has met with Kim twice, said he was still confident he could have a deal with Kim, and South Korean officials have subsequently played down the test.

North Korea’s foreign ministry statement hit back at “spiteful remarks” about the tests from unnamed critics, warning that “baseless allegations” might “produce a result of driving us to the direction which neither we nor they want to see at all.”

The ministry spokesperson said there was a double standard, with South Korea and the United States carrying out military drills with little criticism.

“Only our regular and self-defensive military drill is branded as provocative, and this is an undisguised manifestation of the attempt to press the gradual disarmament of our state and finally invade us,” the spokesperson said. “We think this is very much unpleasant and regrettable, and we sound a note of warning.”

After meeting with Kim for the first time in June last year, Trump abruptly announced he was cancelling all large-scale military exercises with South Korea.

Smaller exercises have continued, however, drawing regular criticism from Pyongyang.

North Korea had maintained a freeze in nuclear and ballistic missiles testing in place since 2017, a fact Trump has repeatedly pointed out as an important achievement from his engagement with Pyongyang.

Denuclearization talks with North Korea have stalled, however, after Trump and Kim met in February for a second summit but failed to reach an agreement.

North Korea balked at the extent of the demands made by American negotiators, and Trump said he ended the summit early because Kim was asking for nearly all major sanctions to be lifted while offering little in return.

The U.S. special envoy for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, arrived in Seoul on Wednesday for talks with South Korean officials.

He did not respond to questions from journalists, but his agenda is expected to include the missile test, as well as other aspects of talks with North Korea, including plans for possible humanitarian aid.

(Reporting by Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Minwoo Park. Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Hugh Lawson)

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

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

By Richard Cowan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The full House would then vote on the rebuke.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trump discusses North Korea with Japan’s Abe after reported weapons tests

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S., April 26, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Monday he had spoken with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe about North Korea and trade after North Korea raised doubts about the future of denuclearization dialogue with new weapons tests.

In a tweet, Trump described his talk with Abe, a close ally, as a “Very good conversation!” but gave no other details.

Trump and his administration have played down the North Korean weapons tests, which took place on Saturday, and which military analysts say could have involved short-range, ground-to-ground ballistic missiles.

Abe told reporters the United States and Japan would “respond together” to North Korea “going forward.”

If the weapons were ballistic missiles, they would have been the first fired by North Korea since its 2017 freeze in nuclear and missile testing opened the way for dialogue with the United States and South Korea.

Analysts interpreted the tests as an attempt to exert pressure on Washington to give ground in denuclearization negotiations after a February summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ended in failure.

In a Twitter message on Saturday, Trump said he was still confident he could reach a deal with Kim.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Sunday that Washington still had “every intention” of negotiating with North Korea. Pompeo said he and Trump spoke about the launches on Saturday and were “evaluating the appropriate response.”

“But … we’re going to exhaust every diplomatic opportunity there is,” he told CBS. “We still believe there is a path forward where Chairman Kim can denuclearize without resort to anything beyond diplomacy.”

Pompeo said the launches were “short range” and that Washington had “high confidence” they did not involve intermediate-range missiles or intercontinental missiles that threaten the United States. He said they had not crossed any international boundary and posed no threat to South Korea or Japan.

North Korea’s official media described the tests as a “strike drill” supervised by Kim to test “large-caliber long-range multiple rocket launchers and tactical guided weapons.”

Kim Dong-yub, a military expert at South Korea’s Kyungnam University, said the guided weapons could have been solid-fuel ballistic missiles with a range of up to 500 km (311 miles) that could neutralize the advanced U.S. THAAD anti-missile system deployed in South Korea.

White House adviser Larry Kudlow said on Friday that Washington and Tokyo may finalize a trade agreement by the end of May after Trump and Abe met at the White House last month.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Makini Brice; Editing by Susan Heavey and Jeffrey Benkoe)

China trade team still plans on U.S. talks as Trump vows to raise tariffs

FILE PHOTO: Chinese and U.S. flags are set up for a meeting during a visit by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao at China's Ministry of Transport in Beijing, China April 27, 2018. Picture taken April 27, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Lee/File Photo

By Ben Blanchard and Jeff Mason

BEIJING/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – China said on Monday that a delegation was still preparing to go to the United States for trade talks, even as U.S. President Donald Trump dramatically increased pressure on Beijing to reach a deal, saying he would hike tariffs on Chinese goods this week.

Trump’s comments on Sunday marked a major escalation in tensions between the world’s two largest economies, and a shift in tone from the president, who as recently as Friday had cited progress toward a deal.

Stock markets sank and oil prices tumbled on his remarks, as negotiations to end the months-long trade war were thrown into doubt.

“We are also in the process of understanding the relevant situation. What I can tell you is that China’s team is preparing to go to the United States for the discussions,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a news briefing.

But Geng did not say if Vice Premier Liu He, who is China’s lead official in the negotiations, will be part of the delegation as originally planned. Negotiations are set to start May 8 in Washington.

“What is of vital importance is that we still hope the United States can work hard with China to meet each other halfway, and strive to reach a mutually beneficial, win-win agreement on the basis of mutual respect,” Geng said.

The Wall Street Journal reported earlier that China was considering canceling this week’s meetings in Washington in light of Trump’s comments, which took Chinese officials by surprise.

Trump appeared to defend his decision in a tweet early Monday, slamming the U.S.-China trade deficit and vowing not to lose out to Beijing.

A less-than-rosy update from U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, including details that China was pulling back from some previous commitments, prompted Trump’s weekend decision.

“The Trade Deal with China continues, but too slowly, as they attempt to renegotiate. No!” Trump said in a tweet.

Trump said tariffs on $200 billion of goods would increase on Friday to 25 percent from 10 percent, reversing a decision he made in February to keep them at 10 percent due to progress between the two sides.

The president also said he would target a further $325 billion of Chinese goods with 25 percent tariffs “shortly,” essentially covering all products imported to the United States from China.

‘ATMOSPHERE HAS CHANGED’

U.S. officials did not weigh in on whether they expected talks to go ahead this week. The White House and the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office declined to comment. China’s commerce ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“The atmosphere of the negotiations has changed,” said a Chinese official with knowledge of the situation.

Whether and how the talks proceed are being re-evaluated, the official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

“All that depends on the attitude of the United States,” the official said.

Chinese news outlets have been told not to independently report on Trump’s tweets, and instead adhere to any report from the official Xinhua news agency, said a source with direct knowledge of the matter.

Global financial markets, which had been expecting news of a trade deal soon, went into a tailspin. U.S. equity futures fell more than 2 percent and stocks across trade-reliant Asia tumbled. China’s main indexes slid 5 percent.

“There is still a question of whether this is one of the famous Trump negotiation tactics, or are we really going to see some drastic increase in tariffs,” said Nick Twidale, Sydney-based analyst at Rakuten Securities Australia. “If it’s the latter, we’ll see massive downside pressure across all markets.”

Mindful of his 2020 re-election bid, Trump had also suggested the duties were not leading to price increases for U.S. consumers. “The Tariffs paid to the USA have had little impact on product cost, mostly borne by China,” he tweeted.

Tariffs on Chinese goods are actually paid to the United States by companies that import the goods, and most of those companies are U.S.-based. American businesses, while supportive of Trump’s crackdown on China’s trade practices, are eager for the tariffs to be removed, not expanded.

“Raising tariffs means raising taxes on millions of American families and inviting further retaliation on American farmers,” said Christin Fernandez, a spokeswoman for the Retail Industry Leaders Association.

‘HANG TOUGH’

Nevertheless, the president’s aggressive strategy drew rare bipartisan support from U.S. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, who urged Trump to “hang tough” in a tweet: “Don’t back down. Strength is the only way to win with China.”

One Chinese trade expert said recent signs of resilience in both economies were breeding over-confidence.

“The urgency is gone. So, it’s likely to see a longer trade war,” the expert said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic.

The trade war resulted in billions of dollars in losses for both sides in 2018, hitting autos, technology and above all, agriculture, while inflicting collateral damage on export-reliant economies and companies from Japan to Germany.

On Friday, Trump said talks with China were going well.

Last week, industry sources said they believed the talks were in the end game, but a Trump administration official said aides had told the president that significant hurdles remained.

The increase in U.S. tariffs on Friday would be the first since Trump imposed 10 percent tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods in September, coming on top of 25 percent tariffs on $50 billion of goods enacted earlier last year.

Negotiations about tariffs have been one of the remaining sticking points between the two sides. China wants the tariffs to be removed, while Trump wants to keep some, if not all, as part of any final deal to ensure China lives up to its commitments, a White House official said on Sunday.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason, David Shepardson, Timothy Gardner, Lawrence Hurley and Makini Brice in Washington; Sinead Carew in New York; and Ben Blanchard, Michael Martina, Shu Zhang, Jing Xu, Cheng Leng and Yawen Chen in Beijing; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Jeffrey Benkoe)

Trump rejects Mexican efforts in face of fresh migrant caravan

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Marines help to build a concertina wire barricade at the U.S. Mexico border in preparation for the arrival of a caravan of migrants at the San Ysidro border crossing in San Diego, California, U.S., November 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday called on Mexico to do more to block a new caravan of migrants and asylum-seekers traveling through the country toward the United States, reiterating his threat to close the border or send more troops.

“A very big Caravan of over 20,000 people started up through Mexico,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “It has been reduced in size by Mexico but is still coming. Mexico must apprehend the remainder or we will be forced to close that section of the Border & call up the Military.”

Trump said Mexico was not doing enough to apprehend and return migrants and, without offering evidence, said Mexican soldiers recently had “pulled guns” U.S. troops.

He said the incident probably was “a diversionary tactic for drug smugglers” and armed troops were being sent to the border.

Mexican officials could not be immediately reached for comment on Trump’s statement.

Trump has made cracking down on immigration a priority that fueled his 2016 presidential campaign and election victory. More than 100,000 people were apprehended or presented themselves to U.S. authorities in March, according to the White House, which said it was the highest number in a decade.

In response to what Trump has described as a crisis, his administration has sent thousands of active-duty and National Guard troops to the border and moved border agents to handle an influx of migrants. Last month, Trump threatened to close the U.S.-Mexico border if the Mexican government did not immediately stem illegal migration.

When Congress declined to designate money to build a border wall, Trump declared a national emergency earlier this year over the issue in a bid to redirect funding for the project, thrusting the immigration issue to the forefront of the 2020 presidential race.

The head of Mexico’s National Migration Institute, Tonatiuh Guillen, on Tuesday pointed to an increase in deportations from the country, saying Mexico had returned 15,000 migrants in the past 30 days.

He did not specify where the people were deported to, but the majority of people traveling through Mexico to the United States are from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, where migrants say they are fleeing corruption, gang violence and entrenched poverty.

(Reporting by Makini Brice; Editing by Susan Heavey and Bill Trott)

Satellite images may show reprocessing activity at North Korea nuclear site: U.S. researchers

A view of what researchers of Beyond Parallel, a CSIS project, describe as specialized rail cars at the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center in North Pyongan Province, North Korea, in this commercial satellite image taken April 12, 2019 and released April 16, 2019. CSIS/Beyond Parallel/DigitalGlobe 2019 via REUTERS

By David Brunnstrom

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Satellite images from last week show movement at North Korea’s main nuclear site that could be associated with the reprocessing of radioactive material into bomb fuel, a U.S. think tank said on Tuesday.

Any new reprocessing activity would underscore the failure of a second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi in late February to make progress toward North Korea’s denuclearization.

Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies said in a report that satellite imagery of North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear site from April 12 showed five specialized railcars near its Uranium Enrichment Facility and Radiochemistry Laboratory.

It said their movement could indicate the transfer of radioactive material.

“In the past, these specialized railcars appear to have been associated with the movement of radioactive material or reprocessing campaigns.” the report said. “The current activity, along with their configurations, does not rule out their possible involvement in such activity, either before or after a reprocessing campaign.”

The U.S. State Department declined to comment on intelligence matters, but a source familiar with U.S. government assessments said that while U.S. experts thought the movements could possibly be related to reprocessing, they were doubtful it was significant nuclear activity.

Jenny Town, a North Korea expert at the Stimson Center think tank, said that if reprocessing was taking place, it would be a significant given U.S.-North Korean talks in the past year and the failure to reach an agreement on the future of Yongbyon in Hanoi.

“Because there wasn’t an agreement with North Korea on Yongbyon, it would be interesting timing if they were to have started something so quickly after Hanoi,” she said.

Trump has met Kim twice in the past year to try to persuade him to abandon a nuclear weapons program that threatens the United States, but progress so far has been scant.

The Hanoi talks collapsed after Trump proposed a “big deal” in which sanctions on North Korea would be lifted if it handed over all its nuclear weapons and fissile material to the United States. He rejected partial denuclearization steps offered by Kim, which included an offer to dismantle Yongbyon.

Although Kim has maintained a freeze in missile and nuclear tests since 2017, U.S. officials say North Korea has continued to produce fissile material that can be processed for use in bombs.

Last month, a senior North Korean official warned that Kim might rethink the test freeze unless Washington made concessions.

Last week, Kim said the Hanoi breakdown raised the risks of reviving tensions, adding that he was only interested in meeting Trump again if the United States came with the right attitude.

Kim said he would wait “till the end of this year” for the United States to decide to be more flexible. On Monday, Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo brushed aside this demand with Pompeo saying Kim should keep his promise to give up his nuclear weapons before then.

Town said any new reprocessing work at Yongbyon would emphasize the importance of the facility in North Korea’s nuclear program.

“It would underscore that it is an active facility that does increase North Korea’s fissile material stocks to increase its arsenal.”

A study by Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation released ahead of the Hanoi summit said North Korea had continued to produce bomb fuel in 2018 and may have produced enough in the past year to add as many as seven nuclear weapons to its arsenal.

Experts have estimated the size of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal at anywhere between 20 and 60 warheads.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Tom Brown and Grant McCool)

Trump seen leaning hard on new Homeland Security chief over border

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan speaks about the impact of the dramatic increase in illegal crossings that continue to occur along the Southwest during a news conference, in El Paso, Texas March 27, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez/File Photo

By Yeganeh Torbati and Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s new acting chief of Homeland Security will be under pressure to implement legally dubious solutions to an influx of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border – policies that his predecessor either could not, or would not, deliver.

Kevin McAleenan, presently commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), will be the fourth person to helm the agency under Trump. He takes over as U.S. border officials estimated that 100,000 migrants were apprehended at the southern border in March, the highest level in a decade.

The president, who made immigration a key campaign theme, has grown increasingly frustrated with his officials, even as they have implemented aggressive policies to limit immigration.

Immigration experts say Trump lately has called for policies that would violate U.S. laws, international agreements and court settlements or require U.S. Congress to pass major legislation.

On Friday, he called for Congress to “get rid of the whole asylum system” and get rid of immigration judges, and criticized a long-standing federal court decree mandating certain standards of care for migrant children.

A congressional official familiar with the matter said some in Congress believe Trump forced out Kirstjen Nielsen, who resigned as secretary on Sunday, in part because she was trying to obey laws on treatment of refugees, granting of amnesty and separation of families.

A source close to Nielsen said Trump was convinced to oust her by his senior aide Stephen Miller, an immigration hardliner.

Nielsen did not respond to a request for comment.

It was not immediately clear what strategies McAleenan could implement to achieve Trump’s objective of limiting migrant crossings at the southern border, especially as they are expected to reach their yearly peak in the coming months, experts said.

A U.S. judge on Monday halted the administration’s policy of sending some asylum seekers back across the border to wait out their cases in Mexico, a policy it said last week it planned to expand. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

“So much of what the president put out there isn’t really legally feasible,” said Sarah Pierce, an immigration policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank in Washington. “I, like many, and maybe Nielsen herself are kind of puzzled as to what could happen.”

A CBP spokesman declined to comment and directed questions to the White House.

McAleenan follows Nielsen and Elaine Duke, who led the DHS on an acting basis after John Kelly, Trump’s first DHS secretary, became White House chief of staff in 2017. Trump took office in January that year.

‘ZERO TOLERANCE’

Nielsen oversaw a “zero tolerance” prosecution policy that led to the separation of thousands of parents and children, and launched a policy to return asylum seekers to Mexico until their claims are heard. Both policies garnered legal challenges, and both required extensive implementation by McAleenan and his agency.

Stephen Legomsky, a former chief counsel at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services under Democratic President Barack Obama, said McAleenan likely will not have much freedom to pursue policies opposed by Trump or Miller.

“Whoever is put in that position in this administration is going to have a very hard time resisting the philosophy of the White House,” Legomsky said.

John Sandweg, former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) during the Obama administration, said the Trump administration’s focus on deterring migrants at the expense of other policies had hamstrung Nielsen and would likely hobble McAleenan.

“There’s nothing we can do that’s worse than what people are facing in Central America,” he said. “If we’re going to work our way through this problem, being tough is not a strategy, it’s a soundbite.”

NOT RADIOACTIVE

White House officials said Trump wanted someone at DHS who would focus on the border as the top priority. McAleenan is seen as having a good relationship with Trump and 20 years of experience, so the president felt he would be a good choice to handle the influx at the border, officials said.

The White House envisions McAleenan working more with Congress, one official said, though the official declined to be specific about policy details.

McAleenan is a rare Trump appointee with cordial relations with Democrats in Congress. After testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee in December, McAleenan chatted afterward for close to 15 minutes with Senator Dianne Feinstein and other Democrats on the committee.

“He’s not considered to be radioactive,” said a congressional Democratic aide on condition of anonymity.

Democratic Representative Joaquin Castro demanded McAleenan resign in December, after a Guatemalan migrant girl died in federal custody and McAleenan failed to report it to Congress within 24 hours, as required.

On Sunday, he said McAleenan’s appointment as acting secretary was “deeply disturbing.”

Trump further reshuffled the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on Monday by replacing the director of the Secret Service – which does not have immigration responsibilities – with a career agent.

(Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball and Andy Sullivan in Washington; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh, Susan Thomas and Sonya Hepinstall)

Homeland Security Secretary Nielsen resigns amid Trump anger over border

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump talks to reporters as Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen (R) looks on at a signing ceremony for the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Act in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S. November 16, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

By Patricia Zengerle and Diane Bartz

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who oversaw President Donald Trump’s bitterly contested immigration policies during her tumultuous 16-month tenure, resigned on Sunday amid a surge in the number of migrants at the border with Mexico.

A senior administration official said Trump asked for Nielsen’s resignation and she gave it.

Trump, who has recently expressed growing anger about the situation at the border, said on Twitter: “Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen will be leaving her position, and I would like to thank her for her service.”

In another tweet, Trump said Kevin McAleenan, the current U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner, would become acting DHS secretary.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen speaks during a visit U.S. President Donald Trump’s border wall in the El Centro Sector in Calexico, California, U.S. October 26, 2018. REUTERS/Earnie Grafton/File Photo

In a tweet late Sunday, Nielsen said that she would stay on until Wednesday.

“I have agreed to stay on as Secretary through Wednesday, April 10th to assist with an orderly transition and ensure that key DHS missions are not impacted,” she said.

Nielsen’s departure was first reported by CBS News.

Nielsen, 46, had been DHS secretary since December 2017. Her departure had been repeatedly rumored over the past year, particularly after a wave of anger over the administration’s 2018 family separation policy at the border with Mexico and most recently as U.S. border officials estimated that 100,000 migrants were apprehended at the southern border in March, the highest level in a decade.

Another senior administration official said Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, after a blowup with Nielsen late last year, also recommended to Trump that she should go.

Trump has made a clampdown on illegal immigration a centerpiece of his two-year-old presidency, leading chants of “Build that wall” at his rallies as he has sought to cut back on the number of newcomers entering the United States without proper documentation.

Many of the migrants picked up last month were Central Americans seeking U.S. asylum.

Trump was so frustrated about the increase that he announced he would cut off U.S. aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. He also threatened to close the border with Mexico, although he later backed off that proposal with a threat to impose tariffs on auto imports.

In her resignation letter, Nielsen asked for more from Congress and the courts, which have opposed such Trump administration initiatives as his effort to limit immigration from Muslim nations and the border wall.

“I hope that the next Secretary will have the support of Congress and the courts in fixing the laws which have impeded our ability to fully secure America’s borders and which have contributed to discord in our nation’s discourse,” she wrote to Trump.

Trump also took aim at Congress in another tweet later on Sunday, saying: “Country is FULL,” and saying Democrats in Congress must “fix loopholes” and repeating his threats to close the border or impose tariffs if Mexico does not do more.

Nielsen’s resignation was the latest high-profile departure from the Trump administration and leaves just four women in his Cabinet. Among others, Trump currently lacks a permanent secretary of defense or chief of staff.

LIGHTNING ROD

Nielsen’s departure was announced two days after the Republican president abruptly said on Friday he was dumping his nominee to be the top official at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Ronald Vitiello, saying he wanted someone “tougher.”

ICE is under the jurisdiction of DHS, which was formed following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.

Repeatedly subjected to tough questioning by Democrats at congressional hearings, Nielsen became a lightning rod for criticism of Trump’s policies. She was confronted by protesters last year at a Mexican restaurant in Washington.

Last year, Nielsen came under increasing pressure by critics to step aside after the Trump administration adopted the policy of separating migrant children from their parents as part of its “zero tolerance” approach intended to deter families from leaving home in the hope of entering the United States.

After criticism as pictures of children in cages were spread across the world, Trump signed an executive order in June ending family separations and requiring that families be held together in federal custody while the adults awaited prosecution for illegally crossing the border.

But the government reported that at least 245 children were taken from their families between that time and the first months of 2019.

Trump insists that the arrival of immigrants across the southern U.S. border constitutes a national emergency so important that he sidestepped Congress’ refusal to provide him with billions of dollars he requested to build the border wall.

Representative Bennie Thompson, the Democratic chairman of the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, said Nielsen’s tenure at DHS “was a disaster from the start.”

He said in a statement, however, that she should not serve as a scapegoat, blasting Trump for “terrible and cruel policies.” Noting that the department now has neither a permanent secretary nor deputy secretary, Thompson called on the administration to work with Congress “in good faith.”

Before she was nominated as secretary, Nielsen worked as a deputy to former Marine General John Kelly, who headed DHS before becoming White House chief of staff.

Kelly resigned as chief of staff on Jan. 2 amid reports of a strained relationship with Trump.

(Reporting by Diane Bartz and Patricia Zengerle; Additional reporting by Jeff Mason and Sarah N. Lynch and Rich McKay; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall and Peter Cooney)

Trump: looking at economic penalty for drugs coming from Mexico

U.S. President Donald Trump holds a White House Opportunity and Revitalization Council Meeting at the White House in Washington, U.S., April 4, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said on Friday he is considering an economic penalty apart from tariffs to counter the smuggling of drugs from Mexico across the southern U.S. border.

“Likewise I am looking at an economic penalty for the 500 Billion Dollars in illegal DRUGS that are shipped and smuggled through Mexico and across our Southern Border,” Trump said in a Twitter post as he prepared to leave the White House for a two-day trip that will include a visit to the border.

Praising Mexico for moving recently against drug traffickers, Trump said, “If they continue that, everything will be fine. If they don’t we’re going to tariff their cars at 25 percent.”

“Also, I’m looking at an economic penalty for all of the drugs that are coming in through the southern border and killing our people,” Trump told reporters in Washington.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Chinese woman arrested by Secret Service at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, U.S., March 22, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

By Mark Hosenball

(Reuters) – A Chinese woman who passed security checkpoints at President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida carrying a thumb drive coded with “malicious” software was arrested on Saturday for entering a restricted property and making false statements to officials, according to a court filing.

Documents filed by the Secret Service on Monday in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida say that shortly after noon on Saturday, Yujing Zhang approached a Secret Service agent screening visitors to Mar-a-Lago seeking entrance to the club.

Zhang produced two Chinese passports displaying her photo and said she wanted to go to the pool. Secret Service officers could not initially find her name on an access list for the property, according to the Secret Service affidavit filed with the court.

A club manager said that a man named Zhang was a club member, and even though Yujing Zhang did not give a clear answer as to whether the man was her father, the Secret Service affidavit says resort officials allowed her on the property on the assumption she was related to a member.

Resort personnel became suspicious after Zhang appeared to have trouble explaining why she was visiting Mar-a-Lago, according to the affidavit.

Zhang initially said she was there for an event staged by a group called the United Nations Chinese American Association. But resort staff found no such event was scheduled, according to the court filing.

A receptionist then contacted Secret Service personnel who questioned Zhang and concluded she did not have “any legitimate documentation” authorizing her entry to Mar-a-Lago, according to the filing.

After detaining her, investigators found in Zhang’s possession four cellphones, a laptop computer, an external hard drive device and a thumb drive, the Secret Service court filing says. Initial examination of the thumb drive determined it contained “malicious malware,” the Secret Service said.

“While the Secret Service does not determine who is permitted to enter the club, our agents and officers conduct physical screenings to ensure no prohibited items are allowed onto the property,” the Secret Service said in a statement.

Responding to a question on the case, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a regular news briefing in Beijing on Wednesday: “I have no understanding of the situation you mention.”

In a court filing on Tuesday, a public defender representing Zhang said she was invoking her right to remain silent.

A Justice Department spokeswoman had no comment on the arrest.

(Reporting by Mark Hosenball; additional reporting by Roberta Rampton in Washington and Cate Cadell in Beijing; Editing by Leslie Adler)