Senate Republican leader embraces Trump immigration plan

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) arrives for a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Senate Republicans on Tuesday turned up the heat on Democrats seeking protections for young “Dreamer” immigrants as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell embraced President Donald Trump’s demands for broad changes to the country’s immigration policies.

In announcing his support for legislation that would help immigrants who were brought illegally to the United States as children, McConnell also threw his weight behind building a U.S.-Mexico border wall and sharply curtailing visas for the parents and siblings of immigrants living in the United States legally.

“This proposal has my support and during this week of fair debate I believe it deserves support of every senator who’s ready to move beyond making points and actually making a law,” McConnell, a Republican, said in a speech on the Senate floor.

Even some Republicans, however, have expressed skepticism that such broad, fundamental changes in U.S. immigration law can pass the Senate by the Thursday deadline that No. 2 Republican Senator John Cornyn urged late on Monday.

Also on Monday, Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, who is leading the charge for Dreamers, told reporters that he thought early Senate votes on immigration legislation would begin with “expansive” measures that will fail to win the 60 votes needed to clear procedural hurdles.

Then, Durbin said, senators will be forced to move “toward the center with a moderate approach.”

But at least for now, Republicans were holding a tough line. Republican Senator Tom Cotton, interviewed on Fox News, said Trump’s immigration plan “is not an opening bid for negotiations. It’s a best and final offer.”

That ran counter to statements Trump has made in recent days, including early on Tuesday in which he said in a tweet that “Negotiations on DACA have begun.”

DACA is the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which Democratic former President Barack Obama initiated in 2012 and which has allowed around 700,000 Dreamers to legally study and work in the United States temporarily. Last September, Trump announced he would terminate the program on March 5.

During testimony before the Senate Budget Committee on Monday, White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said he thought that a deal on immigration legislation will be reached “and that we have full funding on the (border) wall” of $18 billion over two years.

Durbin and other Democrats have talked of the possibility of a bill that provides for a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers and additional border security, which could include the construction of more border fencing and other high-tech tools to deter illegal immigrants.

(Reporting By Richard Cowan, additional reporting by Katanga Johnson; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Jonathan Oatis)

Trump signs deal to end brief government shutdown, increase U.S. spending

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) walk to the Senate chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S., February 7, 2018.

By David Morgan, Amanda Becker and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Congress ended a brief government shutdown on Friday by reaching a wide-ranging deal that is expected to push budget deficits into the $1 trillion-a-year zone.

The bill passed by a wide margin in the Senate and survived a rebellion of 67 conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives thanks to the support of some Democrats. Those conservatives were mainly angry about non-military spending increases.

President Donald Trump signed the measure into law on Friday morning, ending a government shutdown that began just after midnight, when Congress was still debating the budget deal.

It was the second shutdown this year under the Republican-controlled Congress and Trump, who played little role in attempts by party leaders this week to end months of fiscal squabbling.

The deal is the fifth temporary government funding measure for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 and replenishes federal coffers until March 23, giving lawmakers more time to write a full-year budget.

It also extends the U.S. government’s borrowing authority until March 2019, sparing Washington politicians difficult votes on debt and deficits until after mid-term congressional elections in November.

Once known as the party of fiscal conservatives, the Republicans and Trump are now quickly expanding the U.S. budget deficit and its $20 trillion national debt. Their sweeping tax overhaul bill approved in December will add an estimated $1.5 trillion to the national debt over 10 years.

Nearly $300 billion in new spending included in the bill approved on Friday will ensure the annual budget deficit will exceed $1 trillion in 2019, said the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a private fiscal policy watchdog group in Washington.

Friday’s budget deal allows for $165 billion in additional defense spending over two years that will help Trump deliver on his promise to rebuild the military.

That won over many Republicans but some were still furious over the $131 billion extra made available for non-military spending, including health and infrastructure.

None of the added spending will be offset by budget savings elsewhere or revenue increases, relying instead on government borrowing. There also is no offset reduction for nearly $90 billion in new disaster aid for U.S. states and territories ravaged by hurricanes or wildfires.

PRESSURE ON MARKETS

The brief shutdown in Washington came at a sensitive time for financial markets. Stocks plunged on Thursday on heavy volume, throwing off course a nearly nine-year bull run. The S&P 500 slumped 3.8 percent.

Markets barely flinched at the last shutdown in January, but that was before a dizzying selloff that started on Jan. 30 amid concerns about inflation and higher interest rates.

Republican Senator Rand Paul, objecting to deficit spending in the bill, engaged in a nine-hour, on-again, off-again protest and floor speech late on Thursday. He had harsh words for his own party.

“Now we have Republicans hand in hand with Democrats offering us trillion-dollar deficits,” he said. “I can’t … in good faith, just look the other way because my party is now complicit in the deficits. Really who is to blame? Both parties.”

His dissent forced the brief government shutdown, underscoring the persistent inability of Congress and Trump to deal efficiently with Washington’s most basic fiscal obligation of keeping the government open.

“Republican majorities in the House and Senate have turned the process into an embarrassing spectacle, running from one crisis directly into the next,” said Democratic Representative Nita Lowey prior to the House vote.

Republican Representative Kristi Noem told Reuters she voted against the bill because it increases non-defense spending and raises the federal debt ceiling.

“To increase domestic spending and raise the debt ceiling was coupling two very bad policy decisions and with no reforms tied to it. It was very disappointing,” she said.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and others in her party had opposed the bill because Republican House leaders would not guarantee her a debate later on steps to protect about 700,000 “Dreamer” immigrants from deportation.

These young people were brought illegally to the country as children years ago, mostly from Mexico. Trump said in September he would end by March 5 former Democratic President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that protects the Dreamers from deportation.

Trump urged Congress to act before then. Senate Republicans have pledged to hold a separate immigration debate this month.

House Speaker Paul Ryan had not offered Pelosi an equivalent promise in the House, although he said in a speech before the vote on Friday that he would push ahead for a deal.

“My commitment to working together on an immigration measure that we can make law is a sincere commitment,” he said. “We will solve this DACA problem.”

But Pelosi said Ryan’s words fell short, accusing him of not having “the courage to lift the shadow of fear from the lives of” Dreamers who face the prospect of deportation.

Minutes after midnight, when the short-lived shutdown began, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management sent a notice to millions of federal employees telling them to check with their agencies on whether they should report to work on Friday.

(Additional reporting by Eric Beech, Makini Brice, Katanga Johnson and Doina Chiacu; Writing by Kevin Drawbaugh; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Bill Trott)

Trump escalates fight over Russia probe, approves release of secret memo

A copy of the formerly top secret classified memo written by House Intelligence Committee Republican staff and declassified for release by U.S. President Donald Trump is seen shortly after it was released by the committee in Washington, February 2, 2018

By Doina Chiacu and Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday approved the release of a classified Republican memo that alleges bias against him at the FBI and Justice Department, in an extraordinary showdown with law enforcement agencies over the probe into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Ignoring the urgings of the FBI earlier this week, Trump declassified the four-page memo and sent it to Congress, where Republicans on the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee immediately released it to the public.

The Republican president told reporters that the contents of the document tell a disgraceful story of bias against him and that “a lot of people should be ashamed.”

The document has become a flashpoint in a battle between Republicans and Democrats over Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s criminal probe into possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia to sway the 2016 presidential election. Mueller is also believed to be investigating any attempts to impede his probe.

Trump has repeatedly complained about Mueller’s investigation, which has cast a shadow over his first year in office, calling it a witch hunt and denying any collusion or obstruction of justice. Moscow has denied any election meddling.

The memo, criticized by the FBI as incomplete and slammed by Democrats as an attempt to undermine Mueller’s probe, purports to show that the investigation of ties between the Trump campaign and Russia was driven by political bias.

The document, commissioned by the Republican chairman of the House intelligence panel, Devin Nunes, uses the case of investigations into a Trump campaign aide, Carter Page, saying the FBI used a biased source to justify surveillance on him.

It alleges that a dossier of Trump-Russia contacts compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele, and funded in part by U.S. Democrats, formed an “essential part” of requests for electronic surveillance on Page that began in October, 2016.

It says the initial application and subsequent renewal applications did not mention the link between Steele and the Democrats. It also portrays Steele as biased, saying he “was passionate about him (Trump) not being president.”

Democrats said the memo cherry picks information.

“The selective release and politicization of classified information sets a terrible precedent and will do long-term damage to the Intelligence Community and our law enforcement agencies,” Democrats on the House intelligence panel said in a statement on Friday.

The Democrats said they hoped to release their own memo responding to the allegations on Feb. 5.

The entire file that the Justice Department used to apply to a special court for permission to eavesdrop on Page remains highly classified, making it hard to evaluate the memo’s contents.

FBI ANGER OVER MEMO

Two days ago, in a rare public rebuke of the president and Republicans in Congress who were pushing to release the memo, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said it had “grave concerns about material omissions of fact” in the document and it should not be made public.

On Friday, FBI agents defended their work and said they “have not, and will not, allow partisan politics to distract” from their mission.

“The American people should know that they continue to be well-served by the world’s preeminent law enforcement agency,”

FBI Agents Association President Thomas O’Connor said in a statement after the memo’s release.

Earlier on Friday, Trump accused top U.S. law enforcement officers – some of whom he appointed himself – of politicizing investigations.

“The top Leadership and Investigators of the FBI and the Justice Department have politicized the sacred investigative process in favor of Democrats and against Republicans – something which would have been unthinkable just a short time ago,” Trump wrote on Twitter. The president praised “rank and file” FBI employees.

His latest salvo was sure to worsen the president’s frayed relations with agencies that are supposed to be politically independent.

James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence under Democratic President Barack Obama, said Trump’s attack on the FBI and Justice Department was the “pot calling the kettle black.”

Seeking to defuse the conflict over the memo, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan backed the release of a Democratic counterpoint document. His office said he backed making the Democrats’ rebuttal public if it does not reveal intelligence gathering sources or methods.

Democrats say their counter-memo restores context and information left out of the Republican version. Republicans have resisted releasing that document,

The former head of Trump’s presidential campaign, Paul Manafort, and the Trump administration’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, have been charged in the Russia probe, along with others.

(Reporting by Steve Holland, Susan Heavey, Doina Chiacu and David Alexander; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Frances Kerry)

You can click here for the entire memo that has just been released.    Intelligence committee memo 

Senior Yemen Qaeda leader calls for knife and car attacks on Jews

Defying warnings of new conflict, Trump to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital

DUBAI (Reuters) – A senior leader of al Qaeda’s Yemen branch has called for knife and car attacks on Jews in response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the U.S. SITE monitoring group said on Tuesday.

Citing a video recording by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s al-Malahem media foundation, SITE said that Khaled Batarfi, believed to be the number two man in AQAP after Qassim al-Raymi, also warned that no Muslim had the right to cede any part of Jerusalem.

“The Muslims inside the occupied land must kill every Jew, by running him over, or stabbing him, or by using against him any weapon, or by burning their homes,” Batarfi said in the 18-minute-long recording entitled “Our duty towards our Jerusalem”, according to SITE.

“Every Muslim must know that the Americans and the disbeliever West, and on top of them Britain and France, are the original reason behind the existence of the Jews in Palestine.”

Trump enraged Muslims last month when he announced that the United States recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and said he intends to transfer the U.S. embassy there.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, on a regional visit, said on Monday that the U.S. Embassy will be moved to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv before the end of 2019.

Batarfi was one of some 150 jailed AQAP members who were freed when the militant group, regarded by the United States as one of the deadliest branches of the network founded by Osama bin Laden, captured the Yemeni port city of Mukalla in 2015, where he was held.

Yemeni forces, baked by a Saudi-led coalition have since recaptured Mukalla and driven AQAP out, but Batarfi, who has since assumed a senior position in the group, remains at large.

AQAP has plotted to down U.S. airliners and claimed responsibility for 2015 attacks on the office of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris. AQAP also has boasted of the world’s most feared bomb makers, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, and the Pentagon estimates it has between about 2,000 and 3,000 fighters.

Batarfi said Muslims in Western countries, including the United States, were obliged to target the interests of Jews and the Americans.

“They must be eager to prepare themselves as much as possible, and to carry out jihadi operations against them,” he added, according to SITE.

Palestinians seek East Jerusalem, including the walled Old City with its holy sites, as the capital of their own future state. Israel, which annexed East Jerusalem after capturing it in 1967 in a move not internationally recognized, regards all of the city as its “eternal and indivisible capital”.

(Reporting by Sami Aboudi)

Government workers begin shutdown as Senate vote looms

The U.S. Capitol is lit during the second day of a shutdown of the federal government in Washington, U.S., January 21, 2018.

By Amanda Becker and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Hundreds of thousands of federal workers began shutting down operations on Monday with the U.S. government closed and the Senate prepared to try again to restore funding, if only temporarily, and resolve a dispute over immigration.

As government employees prepared for the first weekday since the shutdown began at midnight Friday, U.S. senators were to vote at midday on a funding bill to get the lights back on in Washington and across the government until early February.

Support for the bill was uncertain, after Republicans and Democrats spent all day on Sunday trying to strike a deal, only to go home for the night short of an agreement.

Federal employees received notices on Saturday about whether they were exempt from the shutdown, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney said. Depending on their schedules, some were told to stay home or to go to work for up to four hours on Monday to shut their operation, then go home. None will get paid.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said late Sunday that an overnight vote on a measure to fund government operations through Feb. 8 was canceled and would be held at 12 p.m. EST (1700 GMT) on Monday.

Up until Monday, most federal workers were not directly affected by the shutdown that began at midnight on Friday.

The federal Office of Personnel Management said on its website on Sunday night that “federal government operations vary by agency.”

The Department of Defense published a memo on its website detailing who does and does not get paid in a shutdown and saying that civilian employees were on temporary leave, except for those needed to support active-duty troops.

The Department of Interior led by Secretary Ryan Zinke, offered no guidance on its website, which still had a “Happy Holidays from the Zinke Family” video near the top of the site. The department oversees national parks and federal lands.

The State Department website said: “At this time, scheduled passport and visa services in the United States and at our posts overseas will continue during the lapse in appropriations as the situation permits.”

Markets have absorbed the shutdown drama over the last week, and on Monday morning world stocks and U.S. bond markets largely shrugged off Washington’s standoff even as the dollar continued its pullback. U.S. stock futures edged lower.

‘DREAMERS’ DRAMA

The U.S. government has not been shut down since 2013, when about 800,000 federal workers were put on furlough. That impasse prevented passage of a needed funding bill centered on former Democratic President Barack Obama’s healthcare law.

The problem this time focused on immigration policy, principally President Donald Trump’s order last year ending an Obama program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which gave legal protections to “Dreamer” immigrants.

The “Dreamers” are young people who were brought to the United States illegally as children by their parents or other adults, mainly from Mexico and Central America, and who mostly grew up in the United States.

Trump said last year he would end DACA on March 5 and asked Congress to come up with a legislative fix before then to prevent Dreamers from being deported.

Democrats have withheld support for a temporary funding bill to keep the government open over the DACA issue. McConnell extended an olive branch on Sunday, pledging to bring immigration legislation up for debate after Feb. 8 so long as the government remained open.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer objected to the plan and it was unclear whether McConnell’s pledge would be enough for Democrats to support a stopgap funding bill.

Congress failed last year to pass a complete budget by Oct. 1, the beginning of the federal fiscal year, and the government has been operating on a series of three stopgap spending bills.

Republicans control both the House of Representatives and the Senate, where they have a slim 51-49 majority. But most legislation requires 60 Senate votes to pass, giving Democrats leverage.

Trump told a bipartisan Senate working group earlier this month that he would sign whatever DACA legislation was brought to him. The Republican president then rejected a bipartisan measure and negotiations stalled.

McConnell had insisted that the Senate would not move to immigration legislation until it was clear what could earn Trump’s support.

Republican Senator Jeff Flake, who is involved in bipartisan immigration negotiations, said McConnell’s statements on Sunday indicated there was progress in negotiations and he urged his Democratic colleagues to approve another stopgap bill.

(Additional reporting by Ginger Gibson and Damon Darlin; Editing by Peter Cooney and Jeffrey Benkoe)

Flare-up with Israel tests Hamas effort to keep Gaza on low boil

Schoolgirls stand next to bus stop bomb shelters in the southern Israeli city of Sderot, close to the Israeli border with the Gaza Strip January 8, 2018.

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Lee Marzel

ISRAEL-GAZA BORDER (Reuters) – The worst fighting on the Gaza Strip front since 2014 is being calibrated by Hamas, which wants to signal defiance of Israel and the United States while being careful not to trigger a new war for the enclave’s penned-in Palestinians.

Since President Donald Trump reversed decades of U.S. policy on Dec. 6 by recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Palestinians in Gaza have launched 18 cross-border rockets or mortars – a third of all such attacks in 3-1/2 years of relative quiet.

For Israel’s part, though residents in the south have raised a clamour for harsh retaliation, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has counselled caution and targeted mostly unmanned Hamas facilities in night-time airstrikes.

The careful moves reflect the balancing act maintained both by Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza, and the Israeli government, old foes who share a reluctance to go to war again.

Gaza’s neighbourhoods still bear the scars of the destruction caused by Israeli attacks during a seven-week conflict in 2014. In Israel, there is little eagerness to endure the daily sirens warning of rocket strikes.

But ordinary Israelis and Palestinians are keenly aware that even a single incident – a rocket causing multiple fatalities in Israel or Israeli forces killing a militant leader – could set off a conflagration that would be beyond their leaders’ control.

Two Hamas gunmen have died in retaliatory Israeli air strikes and 15 protesters from Israeli gunfire.

“The recent weeks of rockets and Israeli bombardment proved an explosion is possible,” said Gaza political analyst Akram Attalla. “How long will Hamas continue to take Israeli strikes to its positions without a response? And how long will Israel’s Netanyahu tolerate internal criticism? There is no guarantee.”

While there have been no Israeli fatalities or serious injuries in the rocket strikes, farmers in communities close to the Gazan border think twice about tilling fields where they might be exposed and children practice duck-and-cover drills should air raid sirens sound.

“Lately we do feel that there is more presence of the army. We have been told to be more careful, to clear the bomb shelter just in case. You never know when the next rocket will come,” said Hila Fenlon, resident of the farm collective Nativ Haasara.

Hamas has responded to Trump’s move by mobilising mass protests at the border and turning a blind eye to other factions firing into Israel in two weeks of daily attacks, which have tailed off recently.

“This saves face for Hamas, as it appears to be the one that stands behind these protests without the need to go to war,” said Attalla.

A more violent response was tamped down in debate among Palestinian factions who agreed that an armed confrontation could erode the international support Palestinians have won diplomatically and shift attention from the political process.

Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said no-one should underestimate the potential for hostilities to resume under what he called an Israeli occupation, however.

Israel withdrew troops and settlers from the territory in 2005 but remains the conduit for the passage of goods and supplies most of its electricity. Israel and Egypt, citing security concerns, maintain tight restrictions on the passage of Palestinians through their borders with the enclave.

“The situation in Gaza is very difficult and is not tolerable and is doomed to explode,” he told Reuters.

IRANIAN SUPPORT

Israel sees an outside catalyst for the violence – Iran, which both Hamas and its sometime ally Islamic Jihad say has pledged unlimited assistance for them as the Syrian civil war, where Tehran deployed reinforcements for Damascus, winds down.

Israel has gone out its way to blame Islamic Jihad and other groups for the rocket and mortar attacks, rather than Hamas, and even gave grudging credit to Hamas for being mindful of Palestinian civilian needs.

“Calls to respond with full force against Hamas are irresponsible,” the top Israeli general, Gadi Eizenkot, said in a speech last week. He noted Gaza’s “danger of humanitarian collapse”, which, he said, had forced Hamas to engage with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and secured a renewed power supply to the enclave.

Israel also has problems elsewhere.

Having neutralised much of the rocket threat from Gaza with their Iron Dome interceptor system, and hard at a work on an underground wall that would block guerrilla tunnels from the territory, Israeli defence officials say they worry more about Iran and the combustible northern front with Syria and Lebanon.

They also fear that the $1.1 billion sensor-equipped barrier on the 60-km (37-mile) frontier could tempt Gaza militants to use their tunnels to strike Israel before they lose them.

A range of economic initiatives have been broached, from the construction of an island off Gaza to handle direct imports by sea to the issuing of more permits for Palestinian labourers or agricultural exports to enter Israel.

“There is an effort to help the (Palestinian) population in a way that will not go to the armed wing of Hamas,” said Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli military intelligence chief and head of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, which has prepared a 180-page memorandum on the Gaza crisis.

Israeli concern about worsening Gaza’s internal problems has put it at odds even with the Trump administration, which has threatened to cut U.S. contributions to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) that provides essential aid for Palestinian refugees in the enclave, supporting and administering hundreds of schools and dozens of health facilities.

Israel says funds should be cut gradually and UNRWA should ultimately be dismantled and its responsibilities transferred to the United Nations’ global refugee agency.

Cutting aid to UNRWA would spell “huge pressures on Gaza’s residents,” said Saleh Naami, another Palestinian political analyst.

Peter Lerner, a former Israeli military spokesman, agreed.

“While UNRWA is far from perfect, the Israeli defence establishment, and the Israeli government as a whole, have over the years come to the understanding that all alternatives are worse for Israel,” he said.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Sonya Hepinstall)

Kremlin: U.S. report accusing Russia of election meddling harms relations

A view through a construction fence shows the Kremlin towers and St. Basil's Cathedral on a hot summer day in central Moscow, Russia, July 1, 2016.

MOSCOW (Reuters) – The Kremlin on Thursday described a report published by Democratic U.S. lawmakers accusing Russia of election meddling as damaging for bilateral relations, as well as for the United States itself.

Democratic U.S. lawmakers accused Russia on Wednesday of a “relentless assault” on democratic institutions worldwide, and called on President Donald Trump to treat election interference as a national crisis.

Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee released a report detailing what they described as nearly two decades of Russian efforts to tilt politics across Europe, criticizing Trump for doing too little to address the issue.

The report was commissioned by Senator Ben Cardin, the committee’s top Democrat, who said on Wednesday that President Vladimir Putin would “push as far as he’s allowed to push, if we don’t push back.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who has repeatedly denied accusations by U.S. intelligence officials and others that Moscow interferes in any foreign elections, told a conference call with reporters Russia rejected any accusations of meddling and was dismayed to see such allegations still being made.

“With regards to this (anti-Russian) campaign, all we can do is express our regret and repeat that these accusations remain unfounded,” said Peskov.

(Reporting by Maria Tsvetkova; Writing by Polina Ivanova; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

South Korea’s Moon says Trump deserves ‘big’ credit for North Korea talks

South Korean President Moon Jae-in delivers a speech during his New Year news conference at the Presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, January 10,

By Christine Kim and Soyoung Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean President Moon Jae-in credited U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday for helping to spark the first inter-Korean talks in more than two years, and warned that Pyongyang would face stronger sanctions if provocations continued.

The talks were held on Tuesday on the South Korean side of the demilitarized zone, which has divided the two Koreas since 1953, after a prolonged period of tension on the Korean peninsula over the North’s missile and nuclear programs.

North Korea ramped up its missile launches last year and also conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test, resulting in some of the strongest international sanctions yet.

The latest sanctions sought to drastically cut the North’s access to refined petroleum imports and earnings from workers abroad. Pyongyang called the steps an “act of war”.

Seoul and Pyongyang agreed at Tuesday’s talks, the first since December 2015, to resolve all problems between them through dialogue and also to revive military consultations so that accidental conflict could be averted.

“I think President Trump deserves big credit for bringing about the inter-Korean talks, I want to show my gratitude,” Moon told reporters at his New Year’s news conference. “It could be a resulting work of the U.S.-led sanctions and pressure.”

Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un exchanged threats and insults over the past year, raising fears of a new war on the peninsula. South Korea and the United States are technically still at war with the North after the 1950-53 Korean conflict ended with a truce, not a peace treaty.

‘BASIC STANCE’

Washington had raised concerns that the overtures by North Korea could drive a wedge between it and Seoul, but Moon said his government did not differ with the United States over how to respond to the threats posed by Pyongyang.

“This initial round of talks is for the improvement of relations between North and South Korea. Our task going forward is to draw North Korea to talks aimed at the denuclearization of the North,” Moon said. “(It’s) our basic stance that will never be given up.”

Moon said he was open to meeting North Korea’s leader at any time to improve bilateral ties, and if the conditions were right and “certain achievements are guaranteed”.

“The purpose of it shouldn’t be talks for the sake of talks,” he said.

However, Pyongyang said it would not discuss its nuclear weapons with Seoul because they were only aimed at the United States, not its “brethren” in South Korea, nor Russia or China, showing that a diplomatic breakthrough remained far off.

North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper said all problems would be resolved through efforts by the Korean people alone.

“If the North and South abandon external forces and cooperate together, we will be able to fully solve all problems to match our people’s needs and our joint prosperity,” it said.

Washington still welcomed Tuesday’s talks as a first step toward solving the North Korean nuclear crisis. The U.S. State Department said it would be interested in joining future talks, with the aim of denuclearizing the North.

The United States, which still has 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea, initially responded coolly to the idea of inter-Korean meetings. Trump later called them “a good thing” and said he would be willing to speak to Kim.

Lee Woo-young, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said it was wise of Moon to praise Trump, his sanctions and pressure campaign.

“By doing that, he can help the U.S. build logic for moving toward negotiations and turning around the state of affairs in the future, so when they were ready to talk to the North, they can say the North came out of isolation because the sanctions were effective.”

The United States and Canada are set to host a conference of about 20 foreign ministers on Jan. 16 in Vancouver to discuss North Korea, without the participation of China, Pyongyang’s sole major ally and biggest trade partner.

China would not attend the meeting and is resolutely opposed to it, said foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang.

“It will only create divisions within the international community and harm joint efforts to appropriately resolve the Korean peninsula nuclear issue,” he told a regular briefing on Wednesday.

LARGE OLYMPICS DELEGATION

Pyongyang also said it would send a large delegation to next month’s Winter Olympics in South Korea.

Washington agreed with Seoul last week to postpone until after the Olympics joint military exercises that Pyongyang denounces as rehearsals for invasion. But it also said the apparent North-South thaw had not altered the U.S. intelligence assessment of the North’s weapons programs.

The United States has also warned that all options, including military, are on the table in dealing with the North.

“We cannot say talks are the sole answer,” Moon said. “If North Korea engages in provocations again or does not show sincerity in resolving this issue, the international community will continue applying strong pressure and sanctions.”

Seoul said on Tuesday it was prepared to offer financial assistance and lift some unilateral sanctions temporarily so North Koreans could attend the Olympics. North Korea said its delegation would include athletes and officials, among others.

However, Moon said on Wednesday South Korea had no plans for now to ease unilateral sanctions against North Korea, or revive economic exchanges that could run foul of United Nations sanctions.

Moon also said his government would continue working toward recovering the honor and dignity of former “comfort women”, a euphemism for those forced to work in Japan’s wartime brothels.

But historical issues should be separated from bilateral efforts with Japan to safeguard peace on the Korean peninsula, he added.

“It’s very important we keep a good relationship with Japan,” Moon said.

On Tuesday, South Korea said it would not seek to renegotiate a 2015 deal with Japan despite determining that the pact was insufficient to resolve the divisive issue, and urged Japan for more action to help the women.

 

(Additional reporting by Josh Smith and Hyonhee Shin in SEOUL and Michael Martina in BEIJING, Writing by Soyoung Kim, Editing by Paul Tait)

Indonesia labels calls for U.S. boycott over Jerusalem move ‘misguided’

Indonesia labels calls for U.S. boycott over Jerusalem move 'misguided'

By Agustinus Beo Da Costa

JAKARTA (Reuters) – Indonesia’s vice president said on Tuesday that calls for a boycott of U.S. goods over President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel were misguided – not least because of the country’s reliance on U.S. technology.

There have been a series of protests in the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country since Trump’s controversial move this month to reverse decades of U.S. policy.

At a rally of about 80,000 people on Sunday, the Indonesian Ulema Council, a body of Muslim clerics, called for a boycott of U.S. and Israeli products if Trump did not revoke his action.

Vice President Jusuf Kalla told reporters that Indonesia was trying to put pressure on Washington through the United Nations and it was not even practical to stop using American products.

“Do not be emotional… do we dare to boycott iPhones, stop using Google. Can (you) live without them?” he asked.

“(You) cannot live without them now. If you go out of the house now, you put (an iPhone) in your pocket,” he said.

Kalla said that even if people stopped watching U.S. movies, other American goods such as specialized petroleum equipment were vital in oil-producing Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s biggest economy.

There have been a series of protests in Indonesia over the issue of Jerusalem, including some where hardliners burned U.S. and Israeli flags.

The status of Jerusalem, a city holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians, is one of the biggest barriers to a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Asked about how to proceed after Washington vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for the U.S. declaration on Jerusalem to be withdrawn, Kalla said that dialogue was the only solution.

“There had been three wars, and Palestine’s territory has become smaller, so there must be a dialogue, peace,” he said.

Indonesia enjoys a trade surplus with the United States and is one of 16 countries that the Trump administration has said could be investigated for possible trade abuses.

Tutum Rahanta, deputy chairman of the Indonesian Retailers Association, said it was up to consumers whether to buy American products.

“If it is advice or a call to boycott, it depends on the consumers whether to use the products or not.”

(Additonal reporting by Cindy Silviana; Writing by Ed Davies; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Voters head to polls in Alabama race with high stakes for Trump

Voters head to polls in Alabama race with high stakes for Trump

By Andy Sullivan

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (Reuters) – Voters in Alabama were headed to the polls on Tuesday in a hard-fought U.S. Senate race in which President Donald Trump has endorsed fellow Republican Roy Moore, whose campaign has been clouded by allegations of sexual misconduct toward teenagers.

Moore, 70, a former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice, is battling Democrat Doug Jones, 63, a former U.S. attorney who is hoping to pull off an upset victory in the deeply conservative Southern state.

Polls opened at 7 a.m. (1300 GMT) in the Alabama special election for the seat vacated by Republican Jeff Sessions, who became U.S. attorney general in the Trump administration.

The Alabama contest has divided the Republican Party on whether it is better to support Moore in order to maintain their slim majority in the U.S. Senate or shun him because of the sexual allegations.

Trump has strongly backed Moore but several other Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have distanced themselves from the candidate.

“Roy Moore will always vote with us. VOTE ROY MOORE!” Trump said in a Twitter post in which he criticized Jones as a potential “puppet” of the Democratic congressional leadership.

Moore has been accused by multiple women of pursuing them when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s, including one woman who said he tried to initiate sexual contact with her when she was 14. Moore has denied any misconduct. Reuters has not independently verified any of the accusations.

On the eve of Tuesday’s election, Moore was joined on the campaign trail by Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist and an executive at the right-wing Breitbart News site. Bannon framed the Alabama election as a showdown between establishment elites and populist power and excoriated Republicans who declined to support Moore.

“There’s a special place in hell for Republicans who should know better,” he said.

COURTING EVANGELICALS

Moore has made conservative Christian beliefs a centerpiece of his campaign and sought to energize evangelicals in Alabama. He has said homosexual activity should be illegal and has argued against removing segregationist language from the state constitution.

Moore told the rally on Monday: “I want to make America great again with President Trump. I want America great, but I want America good, and she can’t be good until we go back to God.”

Without mentioning Moore by name, Republican former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, an African-American who grew up in Alabama, issued a statement on Monday calling the special election “one of the most significant in Alabama’s history.”

She urged Alabama voters to “reject bigotry, sexism, and intolerance.”

A Fox News Poll conducted on Thursday and released on Monday put Jones ahead of Moore, with Jones potentially taking 50 percent of the vote and Moore 40 percent. Fox said 8 percent of voters were undecided and 2 percent supported another candidate.

An average of recent polls by the RealClearPolitics website showed Moore ahead by a slight margin of 2.2 percentage points.

No Democrat has held a U.S. Senate seat from Alabama in more than 20 years. In 2016, Trump won the state by 28 percentage points over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Jones has touted a record that includes prosecuting former Ku Klux Klan members responsible for the 1963 bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Alabama, in which four girls were killed.

He spent the past week rallying African-Americans, the most reliably Democratic voters in the state, and hammering Moore in television ads. He has told supporters that his campaign is a chance to be on the “right side of history for the state of Alabama.”

If Jones wins on Tuesday, Republicans would control the Senate by a slim 51-49 margin, giving Democrats momentum ahead of the November 2018 congressional elections, when control of both chambers of Congress will be at stake.

Moore’s campaign has cast Jones as a liberal out of step with Alabama voters, seizing on the Democrat’s support of abortion rights.

Moore, who was twice removed from the state Supreme Court for refusing to abide by federal law, may find a chilly reception in Washington if he wins. Republican leaders have said

Moore could face an ethics investigation if Alabama voters send him to the U.S. Senate.

Democrats have signaled they may use Moore’s election to tar Republicans as insensitive to women’s concerns at a time when allegations of sexual harassment have caused many prominent men working in politics, entertainment, media and business to lose their jobs.

(Additional reporting by Julia Harte and Susan Heavey in Washington; Writing by Caren Bohan; Editing by Peter Cooney and Bill Trott)