Trump impeachment trial opens; White House faulted on Ukraine aid freeze

By Susan Cornwell and Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – As the Senate formally opened the impeachment trial on whether to remove Donald Trump from office, a nonpartisan congressional watchdog on Thursday dealt the Republican president a blow by concluding that the White House violated the law by withholding security aid approved for Ukraine by U.S. lawmakers.

Democrat Adam Schiff, who heads a team of seven House of Representatives members who will serve as prosecutors, appeared on the Senate floor to read the two charges passed by the House on Dec. 18 accusing Trump of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress arising from his dealings with Ukraine.

The trial’s opening formalities were to continue later in the day, with U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts set to be sworn in to preside over the proceedings and then swear in all 100 senators to serve as jurors. Opening statements in the trial, only the third in U.S. history, are expected on Tuesday.

The abuse of power cited by the House included Trump’s withholding of $391 million in security aid for Ukraine, a move Democrats have said was aimed at pressuring Kiev into investigating political rival Joe Biden, the president’s possible opponent in the Nov. 3 U.S. election.

“Faithful execution of the law does not permit the President to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law,” the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded, referring to the fact that Congress had already voted to appropriate the funds.

An arm of Congress, the GAO is viewed as a top auditing agency for the federal government that advises lawmakers and various government entities on how taxpayer dollars are spent.

While the agency’s assessment was a setback to Trump, it was unclear how or even if it would figure in his trial in the Republican-led Senate given that key issues such as whether witnesses will appear or new evidence will be considered remain up in the air.

Democrats said the GAO report showed the importance of the Senate hearing from witnesses and considering new documents in the trial.

“This reinforces – again – the need for documents and eyewitnesses in the Senate,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told a news conference.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, has said senators should consider only the evidence amassed by the House.

The House voted on Wednesday 228-193, largely along party lines, to give the Senate the task of putting Trump on trial. The Senate is expected to acquit him, keeping Trump in office, as none of its 53 Republicans has voiced support for removing him, a step that requires a two-thirds majority.

Trump has denied wrongdoing and has called the impeachment process a sham.

DEMOCRAT SOUGHT REPORT

The GAO issued its opinion after receiving a letter inquiring about the aid from Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen. The agency’s findings are not legally binding, but its reports are seen by lawmakers as objective, reliable and generally uncontested. The GAO has no prosecutorial power.

Its report noted that the U.S. Constitution grants a president no unilateral authority to withhold funds in the way that Trump did. Instead, a president has a “strictly circumscribed authority” to withhold spending only in limited circumstances expressly provided by law. Holding up money for a policy reason, which the Trump administration did in this case, is not permitted, the report said.

Asked about the GAO report, House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy defended Trump’s withholding of aid, citing concerns about corruption in Ukraine’s new government.

“I think it was the rightful thing to do,” McCarthy told a news conference.

Congress approved the $391 million to help Ukraine combat Russia-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country. The money ultimately was provided to Kiev in September after the controversy had spilled into public view.

A pivotal event leading to Trump’s impeachment was a July 25 call in which he asked Ukraine’s president to investigate Biden and his son Hunter Biden over unsubstantiated allegations of corruption and to look into a discredited theory that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.

Schiff indicated that the House prosecutors were considering calling Lev Parnas, an associate of Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, as a witness if the Senate permits testimony in the trial.

“We are continuing to review his (media) interviews and the materials he has provided to evaluate his potential testimony in the Senate trial,” Schiff said in a statement.

Giuliani has said Parnas, a Ukraine-born U.S. citizen, helped him in investigating the Bidens. Documents released this week indicate Parnas was also involved in monitoring the movements of former ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch before Trump removed her in May after being urged to do so by Giuliani.

Democrats have said Trump abused his power by asking a foreign government to interfere in a U.S. election for his own benefit at the expense of American national security.

Republicans have argued that Trump’s actions did not rise to the level of impeachable offenses. They have accused Democrats of using the Ukraine affair as a way to nullify Trump’s 2016 election victory.

The Senate will formally notify the White House of Trump’s impending trial later on Thursday.

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell and Susan Heavey; Additional reporting by David Morgan and Richard Cowan; Writing by Sonya Hepinstall; Editing by Will Dunham)

Coming out of the shadows: the U.S. chief justice who will preside over Trump’s trial

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts will be a central figure in the ongoing drama of the Donald Trump presidency in the coming months. He is due to preside over a Senate impeachment trial, while the Supreme Court he leads will rule on a titanic clash over the president’s attempts to keep his financial records secret.

The expected impeachment trial will focus on accusations that Trump abused his power by asking Ukraine to investigate former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden. The Democratic-led House of Representatives approved two articles of impeachment on Dec. 18, paving the way for the trial in the Republican-led Senate.

The normally reserved and mild-mannered Roberts, 64, will have the largely symbolic role of presiding officer, with senators casting the crucial votes.

But it is in the marble-lined corridors of the Supreme Court across the street from the Capitol Building, hidden from the TV cameras, where Roberts wields real power. Known for his cautious approach to major cases, he holds one of just nine votes that will decide by the end of June whether Trump’s financial records can be disclosed to Democratic-led congressional committees and a New York prosecutor.

The court’s rulings in those cases – on the power of Congress and local prosecutors to investigate a sitting president – will set precedents that may affect not just Trump but also future presidents.

The impeachment trial will be an unusual and potentially uncomfortable period for the low-key Roberts, who prefers to fly under the radar even while he has navigated the conservative-majority court in a rightward direction over the last decade and a half.

“My sense is that the chief doesn’t want to make himself the story,” said Sarah Binder, a scholar at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution.

Roberts declined to comment. During a rare public appearance in New York in September, Roberts appeared concerned about the hyperpartisan politics of Washington under Trump.

“When you live in a polarized political environment, people tend to see everything in those terms. That’s not how we at the court function,” he said.

Those who know Roberts, including former law clerks, say that he would take his role seriously and, as a history buff, he is likely reading up on the previous impeachment trials of Presidents Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton.

WASHINGTON INSIDER

Roberts, a conservative appointed by Republican President George W. Bush, has a reputation in Washington as a traditional conservative and a strong defender of the Supreme Court as an independent branch of government.

In a frictionless rise to prominence, he served in the administration of Republican President Ronald Reagan before becoming one of the most prominent Supreme Court advocates in town. Bush appointed him to the federal appeals court in Washington in 2003 before tapping him for the chief justice post two years later.

Roberts is often viewed as an incrementalist in his judicial philosophy, conscious of the fact that the Supreme Court risks its legitimacy if its 5-4 conservative majority is characterized as being too aggressive in moving the law to the right.

He has nonetheless voted consistently with his conservative colleagues on such issues as gay rights, abortion, religious liberty and gun rights. But in 2012, he broke ranks and cast the deciding vote to uphold the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, Democratic President Barack Obama’s signature domestic achievement.

Earlier this year, he again sided with the court’s liberals as the court ruled 5-4 against the Trump administration’s attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

Roberts clashed with Trump more directly in November 2018 when he took the unusual step of issuing a statement defending the federal judiciary after Trump repeatedly criticized judges who had ruled against his administration.

The cases concerning Trump’s financial records, with rulings due by the end of June, puts the sober Roberts and bombastic Trump on another collision course.

Legal experts have said Trump, who unlike previous presidents has refused to release his tax returns, is making broad assertions of presidential power that could place new limits on the ability of Congress to enforce subpoenas seeking information about the president.

If it is a close call, Roberts could cast the deciding vote.

In the Senate trial set to take place in January, Roberts’ role as presiding officer is limited mainly to keeping the process on track. Roberts could, however, be asked to rule on whether certain witnesses should be called.

If a majority of senators disagree with a ruling he makes, they can vote to overturn his decision.

In the Clinton impeachment trial in 1999, Chief Justice William Rehnquist had “relatively little to do,” said Neil Richards, who was present as one of Rehnquist’s law clerks and is now a professor at the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis.

“I think Chief Justice Roberts is likely to approach his role… the way he has approached his judicial career to date: Doing his best to be impartial, doing his best to preserve the dignity of his judicial office,” Richards added.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley. Additional reporting by Jan Wolfe and Andrew Chung, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

Putin thanks Trump for tip Russia says foiled attacks

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia said on Sunday it had thwarted terrorism attacks reportedly planned in St. Petersburg thanks to a tip from Washington, bringing personal thanks again from President Vladimir Putin to his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump.

Russian news agencies cited the Federal Security Service (FSB) as saying that thanks to the information, two Russians were detained on Dec. 27 on suspicion of plotting attacks during New Year festivities in St. Petersburg.

The Kremlin said Putin passed on his gratitude to Trump during a phone call on Sunday for the tip from U.S. special services. It gave no more details.

Diplomatic ties between Washington and Moscow are fraught over disagreements from Ukraine to Syria and allegations of Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election, but Trump and Putin have managed to keep personal lines open.

Two years ago, the Russian leader also phoned Trump to thank him for a tip that Russia said helped prevent a bomb attack on a cathedral in St Petersburg. Russia has repeatedly been the target of attacks by militant groups including Islamic State.

Sunday’s Kremlin statement said Putin and Trump agreed to continue bilateral cooperation to tackle terrorism.

(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin; Editing by Alison Williams and Andrew Cawthorne)

Trump aides call U.S. strikes on Iraq and Syria ‘successful,’ warn of potential further action

By Idrees Ali and Ahmed Rasheed

WASHINGTON/BAGHDAD (Reuters) – U.S. officials said on Sunday that air strikes in Iraq and Syria against an Iran-backed militia group were successful, but warned that “additional actions” may still be taken in the region to defend U.S. interests.

The U.S. military carried out the strikes on Sunday against the Kataib Hezbollah militia group in response to the killing of a U.S. civilian contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base, officials said.

U.S. President Donald Trump was briefed by his top national security advisers following the strikes at his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida.

“We will not stand for the Islamic Republic of Iran to take actions that put American men and women in jeopardy,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters after the briefing with Trump.

Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and General Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared briefly in a club ballroom to comment on the airstrikes.

Esper termed the offensive “successful,” but said that Trump was informed that a further military response could be warranted.

“We discussed with him other options that are available,” Esper said. “I would note also that we will take additional actions as necessary to ensure that we act in our own self-defense and we deter further bad behavior from militia groups or from Iran.”

Iraqi security and militia sources said at least 25 militia fighters were killed and at least 55 wounded following three U.S. air strikes in Iraq on Sunday.

At least four local Kataib Hezbollah commanders were among the dead, the sources said, adding that one of the strikes had targeted the militia group’s headquarters near the western Qaim district on the border with Syria.

The Pentagon said it had targeted three locations of the Iranian-backed Shi’ite Muslim militia group in Iraq and two in Syria. The locations included weapons storage facilities and command and control locations the group had used to plan and execute attacks on coalition forces, it said.

A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the strikes were carried out by F-15 fighter jets.

The United States had accused Kataib Hezbollah of carrying out a strike involving more than 30 rockets on Friday which killed the U.S. civilian contractor and injured four U.S. service members and two members of the Iraqi Security Forces near the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

“In response to repeated Kata’ib Hizbollah attacks on Iraqi bases that host Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) coalition forces, U.S. forces have conducted precision defensive strikes … that will degrade KH’s ability to conduct future attacks against OIR coalition forces” chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement.

Earlier this month, Pompeo blamed Iranian-backed forces for a series of attacks on bases in Iraq and warned Iran that any attacks by Tehran or proxies that harmed Americans or allies would be “answered with a decisive U.S. response.”

Tensions have heightened between Tehran and Washington since last year when Trump pulled the United States out of Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with six powers and reimposed sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali in Washington, Ahmed Rasheed in Iraq and Steve Holland in Palm Beach, Fla; Writing by Lindsay Dunsmuir, Jason Lange and James Oliphant in Washington; Editing by Tom Brown and Diane Craft)

Trump proposes rule on importing medicines which industry says won’t cut costs

By Michael Erman and Carl O’Donnell

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The Trump administration on Wednesday said it is proposing a rule to allow states to import prescription drugs from Canada, moving forward a plan announced this summer that the president has said will bring cheaper prescription drugs to Americans.

Importation of drugs from Canada as a way to lower costs for U.S. consumers has been considered for years. Alex Azar, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), called the move “a historic step forward in efforts to bring down drug prices and out-of-pocket costs.”

He said HHS would also offer guidance to drugmakers that wish to voluntarily bring drugs that they sell more cheaply in foreign countries into the United States for sale here.

Both pathways for importation were announced in July when Azar unveiled a “Safe Import Action Plan.”

Azar could not provide an estimate as to how soon Americans could start receiving drugs from Canada. He said the proposed rule would need to pass through a 75-day comment period before being finalized.

“We’re moving as quickly as we possibly can,” he said.

Governors of states including Florida, Maine, Colorado, Vermont and New Hampshire have already expressed an interest in importing drugs from Canada once the pathway to do so is fully in place, he said. States would be required to explain how any proposed drug imports would reduce drug prices for consumers.

The proposal faces opposition from large U.S. pharmaceutical and biotech companies.

Jim Greenwood, current head of biotech industry group BIO and a former Republican congressman, said that importation would not result in lower prices for consumers, citing nonpartisan budget experts and past FDA commissioners.

“Today’s announcement is the latest empty gesture from our elected lawmakers who want us to believe they’re serious about lowering patients’ prescription drug costs,” Greenwood said.

The Canadian government has also criticized the plan. The country’s ambassador said last month that importing medicines from Canada would not significantly lower U.S. prices. Reuters previously reported that Canada had warned U.S. officials it would oppose any import plan that might threaten the Canadian drug supply or raise costs for Canadians.

Drugs approved to be imported from Canada would exclude many prescribed drugs, such as biologic drugs, including insulin, controlled substances and intravenous drugs.

Trump, a Republican, has struggled to deliver on a pledge to lower drug prices before the November 2020 election. Healthcare costs are expected to be a major focus of the campaign by Trump and Democratic rivals vying to run against him.

The Trump administration in July scrapped an ambitious policy that would have required health insurers to pass billions of dollars in rebates they receive from drugmakers to Medicare patients.

Also in July, a federal judge struck down a Trump administration rule that would have forced pharmaceutical companies to include the wholesale prices of their drugs in television advertising.

Both the House of Representatives and the Senate are putting forth drug pricing bills that contain some of the proposals Trump has advocated, such as indexing public drug reimbursements to foreign drug costs.

But Trump has said he will veto the Democrat-led House bill if it comes to his desk on the grounds that it would slow down innovation.

(Reporting by Michael Erman and Carl O’Donnell; Editing by Leslie Adler and Nick Macfie)

Senate sends massive defense bill for Trump to sign, creating Space Force

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to pass a $738 billion defense policy bill that creates President Donald Trump’s “Space Force” and gives federal employees 12 weeks of paid parental leave, sending it to the White House, where Trump has promised to quickly sign it into law.

The Republican-controlled Senate voted 86 to 8 in favor of the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA. The Democratic-led House approved the bill by 377-48 last week.

Trump said on Twitter last week that he would sign the bill as soon as it passes, saying it included all his priorities.

As one of the few pieces of major legislation Congress passes every year, the NDAA becomes a vehicle for a range of policy measures as well as setting everything from military pay levels to which ships or aircraft will be modernized, purchased or discontinued.

This year’s legislation included a 3.1% pay increase for the troops; the first ever paid family leave for all federal workers, and the creation of a Space Force, the first new branch of the U.S. military in more than 60 years and a top military priority for Trump.

The Democratic-led House and Republican-led Senate each voted for a version of the NDAA earlier this year. Then lawmakers negotiated for months with representatives from the White House to reach the compromise that just passed.

A few left-leaning Democrats and libertarian-leaning Republicans voted against the NDAA because it did not include policy planks that would have restrained Trump’s war powers, including banning support for Saudi Arabia’s air campaign in Yemen.

Some also objected to the increase in military spending, as the national debt is skyrocketing.

“Conservatism is about more than supporting military spending at any cost,” Republican Senator Rand Paul said.

The NDAA also does not bar the Republican president from using military funds to build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico.

Those provisions were included in the House’s version of the NDAA, but not in the Senate’s. They were removed during the negotiations.

Democratic leaders said they had extracted some concessions from Republicans, the 12 weeks of paid family leave for federal workers.

The fiscal 2020 NDAA increases defense spending by about $20 billion, or about 2.8%. It includes $658.4 billion for Department of Defense and Department of Energy national security programs, $71.5 billion to pay for ongoing foreign wars and $5.3 billion in emergency funding for repairs from natural disasters.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Editing by David Gregorio and Steve Orlofsky)

Hospital groups file lawsuit to block Trump’s price transparency rule

(Reuters) – U.S. hospital groups have challenged the Trump administration’s rule that requires them to be more transparent about prices they charge patients for healthcare services, according to a lawsuit filed on Wednesday.

The plaintiffs, including the nonprofit American Hospital Association (AHA), are looking to block the rule issued last month that mandates hospitals to publish pricing information of their services on the internet.

“The rule … does not provide the information patients need. Mandating the public disclosure of negotiated charges would create confusion about patients’ out-of-pocket costs, not prevent it,” the plaintiffs said.

The rule, seen as a violation of the First Amendment by the hospital groups, also demands confidential information on individually negotiated contract terms with all third-party payers, including private commercial health insurers.

Such disclosures would eliminate hospitals’ ability to negotiate pricing with insurers that would undermine competition and blunt incentives for health insurers to sign arrangements that could potentially lower costs, the plaintiffs said.

This is not the first time that the industry has challenged President Donald Trump’s efforts to lower drug prices.

In July, a federal judge sided with drugmakers by striking down a rule that would have forced pharmaceutical companies to include the wholesale prices of their drugs in television advertisements.

“Hospitals should be ashamed that they aren’t willing to provide American patients the cost of a service before they purchase it,” said Caitlin Oakley, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services, adding that the administration would continue to fight for price transparency.

The AHA, along with the Association Of American Medical Colleges and Federation Of American Hospitals, among others, said it would press for speeding up the decision on the rule, so hospitals do not spend time and resources preparing for what may be invalidated.

The rule is expected to come into effect on January 1, 2021.

(Reporting by Saumya Sibi Joseph in Bengaluru; Editing by Shinjini Ganguli and Anil D’Silva)

‘Nasty’, ‘two-faced’, ‘brain dead’: NATO pulls off summit despite insults

By Robin Emmott and Andreas Rinke

WATFORD, England (Reuters) – NATO leaders set aside public insults ranging from “delinquent” to “brain dead” on Wednesday, declaring at a 70th anniversary summit they would stand together against a common threat from Russia and prepare for China’s rise.

Officials insisted the summit was a success: notably, Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan backed off from an apparent threat to block plans to defend northern and eastern Europe unless allies declared Kurdish fighters in Syria terrorists.

But the meeting began and ended in acrimony startling even for the era of U.S. President Donald Trump, who arrived declaring the French president “nasty” and left calling Canada’s prime minister “two-faced” for mocking him on a hot mic.

“We have been able to overcome our disagreements and continue to deliver on our core tasks to protect and defend each other,” NATO’s ever-optimistic Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told a news conference.

In a joint declaration, the leaders said: “Russia’s aggressive actions constitute a threat to Euro-Atlantic security; terrorism in all its forms and manifestations remains a persistent threat to us all.”

The half-day summit at a golf resort on the outskirts of London was always going to be tricky, with officials hoping to avoid acrimony that burst forth at their meeting last year when Trump complained about allies failing to bear the burden of collective security.

But this year’s meeting was made even more difficult by Erdogan, who launched an incursion into Syria and bought Russian missiles against the objections of his allies, and by French President Emmanuel Macron, who had described the alliance’s strategy as brain dead in an interview last month.

In public it seemed to go worse than expected, beginning on Tuesday when Trump called Macron’s remarks “very, very nasty” and described allies who spend too little on defense as “delinquents” — a term officials said Trump used again on Wednesday behind closed doors during the summit itself.

At a Buckingham Palace reception on Tuesday evening, Canada’s Justin Trudeau was caught on camera with Macron, Britain’s Boris Johnson and Mark Rutte of the Netherlands, laughing at Trump’s long press appearances. “You just watched his team’s jaws drop to the floor,” said Trudeau.

By the time the summit wound up on Wednesday, Trump had decided not to hold a final press conference, saying he had already said enough. “He’s two-faced,” Trump said of Trudeau.

HUAWEI SECURITY RISK

Nevertheless, officials said important decisions were reached, including an agreement to ensure the security of communications, including new 5G mobile phone networks. The United States wants allies to ban equipment from the world’s biggest telecoms gear maker, Chinese firm Huawei.

“I do think it’s a security risk, it’s a security danger,” Trump said in response to a question on Huawei, although the leaders’ declaration did not refer to the company by name.

“I spoke to Italy and they look like they are not going to go forward with that. I spoke to other countries, they are not going to go forward,” he said of contracts with Huawei.

Ahead of the summit, Johnson — the British host who faces an election next week and chose to avoid making any public appearances with Trump — appealed for unity.

“Clearly it is very important that the alliance stays together,” he said. “But there is far, far more that unites us than divides us.”

Macron held his ground over his earlier criticism of NATO’s strategy, saying as he arrived that it was important for leaders to discuss issues in an open and forthright manner if they were to find solutions.

“I think it’s our responsibility to raise differences that could be damaging and have a real strategic debate,” he said. “It has started, so I am satisfied.”

One of Macron’s chief complaints is that Turkey, a NATO member since 1952 and a critical ally in the Middle East, has increasingly acted unilaterally, launching its incursion in Syria and buying Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missiles.

In his comments to the press, Stoltenberg said that while Russia was a threat, NATO also wanted to ensure a constructive dialogue with it. He added, in a reference to Turkey, that the S-400 system was in no way compatible with NATO’s defense.

At the summit, Europe, Turkey and Canada pledged to spend an extra $400 billion on defense by 2024, responding to Trump’s accusations that they spend too little. Germany, a frequent target of Trump’s blandishments, has promised to spend 2% of national output by 2031.

France and Germany also won backing for a strategic review of NATO’s mission, with the alliance set to establish a “wise persons” group to study how the organization needs to reposition for the future. That could involve shifting its posture away from the East and toward threats in the Middle East and Africa.

(Additional reporting by Andreas Rinke, John Chalmers and Johnny Cotton in Watford, and Estelle Shirbon in London; Writing by Luke Baker; Editing by John Chalmers and Peter Graff)

‘Very, very nasty’: Trump clashes with Macron before NATO summit

By Michel Rose and Estelle Shirbon

LONDON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump and French leader Emmanuel Macron clashed over the future of NATO on Tuesday before a summit intended to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Western military alliance.

In sharp exchanges underlining discord in a transatlantic bloc hailed by backers as the most successful military pact in history, Trump demanded that Europe pay more for its collective defense and make concessions to U.S. interests on trade.

Macron, the French president, stood by comments he made last month describing NATO as suffering from a lack of strategic purpose akin to “brain death”, and criticized fellow NATO member Turkey, which he accused of working with Islamic State proxies.

Washington and Paris have long argued over NATO’s purpose – France opposed the 2003 Iraq war – but the new tensions will add to doubts over the alliance’s future that have grown with Trump’s ambivalence over U.S. commitments to defend Europe.

Trump said Macron’s criticism of NATO was “very, very nasty” and questioned whether the U.S. military should defend any countries that were “delinquent” on alliance targets for national military spending.

“It’s not right to be taken advantage of on NATO and also then to be taken advantage of on trade, and that’s what happens. We can’t let that happen,” Trump said of transatlantic disputes on issues ranging from the aerospace sector to a European digital services tax on U.S. technology giants.

All 29 member states have a target of spending 2% of their gross domestic product on defense and Trump has singled out Germany for falling short of that goal.

But Macron stood by his criticism of NATO and said its real problem was a failure to forge a clear purpose since the end of the Cold War.

“If we invest money and put our soldiers’ lives at risk in theaters of operation we must be clear about the fundamentals of NATO,” he said in a tweet at the end of a day overshadowed by tensions between the French and U.S. leaders.

A French presidency official said Trump often makes strident statements ahead of bilateral meetings and cools his rhetoric later. He noted that Macron and Trump “exchanged jokes and were very relaxed” at a joint news conference in London.

COLLECTIVE DEFENSE AT STAKE

Turkey threatened to block a plan to defend Baltic states and Poland against Russian attacks unless NATO backed Ankara in recognizing the Kurdish YPG militia as terrorists.

The YPG’s fighters have long been U.S. and French allies against Islamic State in Syria. Turkey considers them an enemy because of links to Kurdish insurgents in southeastern Turkey.

“If our friends at NATO do not recognize as terrorist organizations those we consider terrorist organizations … we will stand against any step that will be taken there,” Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said before traveling to London.

Erdogan has already strained alliance ties with a move to buy Russian air defense systems. Trump said he was looking at imposing sanctions on Ankara over the issue.

The uncertainty over the plan for Poland and the Baltic states, drawn up at their request after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, raises issues about security on all of NATO’s frontiers.

Under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s 1949 founding treaty, an attack on one ally is an attack on all its members, and the alliance has military strategies for collective defense across its territory.

The summit, in a hotel in Hertfordshire just outside London, begins on Wednesday.

On Tuesday evening, alliance leaders attended a reception hosted by Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace.

The British monarch, in a teal-colored matching jacket and skirt, greeted the summiteers and accompanying partners, including former fashion model Melania Trump, who was wearing a bright yellow dress with matching cape and purple sleeves.

They were then welcomed to 10 Downing Street by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, host of the summit a little over a week before the country faces an election.

Several hundred protesters gathered in London’s Trafalgar Square, holding placards reading: “Dump Trump” and “No to racism, no to Trump”. A police line divided them from a small group of Trump supporters wearing Make America Great Again caps, waving American flags and shouting: “Build the wall”.

In Washington on Tuesday, Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives laid out their impeachment case against Trump, accusing him of using the powers of his office to solicit foreign interference in the 2020 election.

Hoping to placate Trump, Europe, Turkey and Canada will pledge at the summit some $400 billion in defense spending by 2024, and agree to a reduction of the U.S. contribution to fund the alliance itself.

The allies will approve a new strategy to monitor China’s growing military activity, and identify space as a domain of warfare, alongside air, land, sea and computer networks.

Trump said he believed Russia wanted deals on arms control and nuclear issues, and that he would be willing to bring China into such accords.

(Reporting by Steve Holland, Phil Stewart, Robin Emmott and Iona Serrapica in London, Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul, Joanna Plucinska in Warsaw and Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow; Writing by Mark John and John Chalmers; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Peter Cooney)

U.S. launches anti-violence effort for indigenous women, girls

U.S. launches anti-violence effort for indigenous women, girls
By Ellen Wulfhorst

NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – U.S. President Donald Trump launched a task force on Tuesday to help protect Native American women and children, calling the rate of violence among indigenous people “heartbreaking.”

The task force aims to improve coordination and communication among federal, state and tribal authorities in response to cases of missing and murdered indigenous women and children, the White House said in a statement.

Native American women in some tribal communities are 10 times more likely than the average American to be murdered, it said, and the initiative called Operation Lady Justice is an “aggressive, government-wide strategy” to address the crisis.

“The statistics are sobering and heartbreaking,” Trump said at a White House ceremony where he signed an executive order creating the task force. “Too many are still missing and their whereabouts are unknown.

“We’re taking this very seriously,” he added.

Research by the National Institute of Justice, a government research agency, has found more than four out of five American Indian and Alaska Native women – more than 1.5 million women – have experienced violence in their lifetime.

More than 5,700 American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls were reported missing in 2016, according to the National Crime Information Center, a government data agency.

American Indian women are two-and-a-half times more likely to be sexually assaulted than women of all other races, while one in three reports having been raped, the U.S. Department of Justice has said.

“It’s imperative that this changes, in a manner that we’re looked at not as the second-class citizens but looked like, looked at as any other group that exists within the continent of the United States,” said Kevin DuPuis, chairman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, at the White House event.

“It’s very, very important that we, as a people, have a true identity. And when we lose our women and we lose our children that goes with them,” he said.

Several leading Native American rights organizations did not respond to requests for comment on the new task force.

Law enforcement and prosecutions are often hampered by a maze of jurisdictions and justice systems based on such factors as whether a crime occurred on tribal land or whether the victim or the accused is a tribal member.

Last week the government announced an initiative to spend $1.5 million for law enforcement to help coordinate Native American missing persons cases.

Nearly seven million Native Americans live in the United States making up about 2% of the population, according to census figures.

Trump’s signing of the order came two days before the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday which commemorates a harvest celebration shared by Native Americans and European settlers in the 17th century.

(Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, Editing by Chris Michaud (Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)