Trump taps lawyer Dershowitz, others for impeachment trial defense

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Former independent counsel Ken Starr and lawyer Alan Dershowitz will join U.S. President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial defense team led by White House counsel Pat Cipollone and Trump attorney Jay Sekulow, Trump’s legal team and a source said on Friday.

Trump adviser Pam Bondi and former independent counsel Robert Ray will also be on the team, according to the source who is familiar with the team’s composition.

(Reporting by Karen Freifeld; writing by Susan Heavey; Editing by Alistair Bell)

U.S., China set to sign massive purchases deal, easing trade war

By David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He will sign an initial trade deal on Wednesday that will roll back some tariffs and see China boost purchases of U.S. goods and services, defusing an 18-month conflict between the world’s two largest economies.

Liu said the two sides will work more closely together to obtain tangible results and achieve a win-win relationship despite differences in their political and economic models, China’s official Xinhua news agency reported on Wednesday.

U.S. officials called the deal a huge win that marked a significant shift in Washington’s relations with China, but said it included a tough enforcement measure that could trigger renewed tariffs if Beijing does not live up to its promises.

The Phase 1 agreement caps a trade war marked by tit-for-tat tariffs that has hit hundreds of billions of dollars in goods, roiling financial markets, uprooting supply chains and slowing global growth.

Some analysts and economists have questioned whether the outcome of the drawn-out talks justified that economic pain.

Trump and Liu, who led the Chinese side in the trade talks with Washington, are scheduled to sign the 86-page Phase 1 deal at a White House event at 11:30 a.m. EST (1630 GMT) before over 200 invited guests from business, government and diplomatic circles.

It is not clear at this time whether the entire document will be released on Wednesday.

Trump, who entered the White House in 2017 vowing to rebalance global trade in favor of the United States, has already begun touting the deal as a pillar in his 2020 re-election campaign, calling it “a big beautiful monster” at a rally in Toledo, Ohio last week.

“Our farmers will take it in. I keep saying, ‘Go buy larger tractors, go buy larger tractors,'” Trump said.

The centerpiece of the deal is a pledge by China to purchase an additional $200 billion worth of U.S. farm products and other goods and services over two years. That will help reduce the bilateral U.S. trade deficit in goods, which peaked at $420 billion in 2018. The United States had a small services trade surplus with China of $40.5 billion in 2018.

Top White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told Fox News the agreement would add 0.5 percentage point to U.S. gross domestic product growth in both 2020 and 2021.

Kudlow said the deal called for China to buy an additional $75 billion worth of U.S. manufactured goods over the two-year period. A source told Reuters this week that would include aircraft, autos and car parts, agricultural machinery and medical devices.

Beijing will boost energy purchases by some $50 billion and services by $40 billion, mostly in the financial sector, Kudlow said.

The Reuters source said agricultural purchases will get a $32 billion lift over the two years, compared to a 2017 baseline of U.S. exports to China.

When combined with the $24 billion in 2017 farm exports, the $16 billion annual increase approaches Trump’s goal of $40 billion to $50 billion in annual agricultural sales to China.

China will significantly increase imports of U.S. soybeans after the Phase 1 deal is signed, the Global Times reported on Wednesday, citing comments from a senior Chinese economist at a state think tank.

Wang Liaowei, senior economist at the China National Grain and Oils Information Center, which is under the National Food and Strategic Reserves Administration, also told the paper that imports of U.S. products such as pork and cotton could also see a jump.

Although the deal could be a big boost to farmers, planemaker Boeing <BA.N>, U.S. automakers and heavy equipment manufacturers, some analysts question https://af.reuters.com/article/commoditiesNews/idAFL4N29J26S China’s ability to divert imports from other trading partners to the United States.

“I find a radical shift in Chinese spending unlikely. I have low expectations for meeting stated goals,” said Jim Paulsen, chief investment strategist at Leuthold Group in Minneapolis. “But I do think the whole negotiation has moved the football forward for both the U.S. and China.”

TARIFFS TO STAY

The Phase 1 deal, reached in December, canceled planned U.S. tariffs on Chinese-made cellphones, toys and laptop computers and halved the tariff rate to 7.5% on about $120 billion worth of other Chinese goods, including flat panel televisions, Bluetooth headphones and footwear.

But it will leave in place 25% tariffs on a vast, $250 billion array of Chinese industrial goods and components used by U.S. manufacturers.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told CNBC on Wednesday the deal would boost the U.S. economy, and that Washington could lower tariffs as part of a Phase 2 agreement that would address complex issues such as cybersecurity.

Mnuchin said the U.S. relationship with China was complicated and Washington would continue to raise humanitarian and national security concerns with Beijing in separate discussions. “You have to negotiate different pieces at different times,” he said.

He said Chinese telecom equipment maker Huawei Technologies Co Ltd was not a “chess piece” in the economic negotiations.

China’s Global Times said the Phase 2 discussions may not start anytime soon.

Evidence is mounting that tariffs have raised input costs for U.S. manufacturers, eroding their competitiveness.

Diesel engine maker Cummins Inc <CMI.N> said on Tuesday that the deal will leave it paying $150 million in tariffs for engines and castings that it produces in China.

The company issued a tepid statement of approval on Tuesday: “We believe this is a positive step and remain optimistic that all parties will remain at the table in order to create a pathway to eliminate all of the instituted tariffs.”

Lighthizer and Mnuchin insisted there were no side agreements to remove more tariffs after the November U.S. elections. Mnuchin on Wednesday reiterated that Trump could consider easing tariffs if the two countries move quickly to seal a Phase 2 follow-up agreement.

CORE ISSUES UNTOUCHED

The Phase 1 deal includes pledges by China to forbid the forced transfer of American technology to Chinese firms as well as to increase protections for U.S. intellectual property.

But it stops well short of addressing the core U.S. complaints about China’s trade and intellectual property practices that prompted the Trump administration to pressure Beijing for changes in early 2017.

The deal contains no provisions to rein in rampant subsidies for state-owned enterprises, which the administration blames for excess capacity in steel and aluminum and says threaten industries from aircraft to semiconductors.

It also fails to address digital trade restrictions and China’s onerous cybersecurity regulations that have hobbled U.S. technology firms in China.

China has agreed in the Phase 1 deal to open its financial services sector more widely to U.S. firms, and to refrain from deliberately pushing down its currency to gain a trade advantage, the latter prompting Treasury to drop its currency manipulator label on Beijing.

(Additional reporting by Lisa Lambert, Andrea Shalal, Echo Wang, Alexandra Alper, and Herb Lash in New York, and Se Young Lee and Stella Qui in Beijing; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Paul Simao)

U.S., Iran draw back from brink but new threats show crisis not over

By Babak Dehghanpisheh, Parisa Hafezi and Ahmed Aboulenein

DUBAI/BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iran spurned the U.S. president’s call for a new nuclear pact and its commanders threatened more attacks, after both sides backed off from intensified conflict following the U.S. killing of an Iranian general and Tehran’s retaliatory missile strikes.

Concern the Middle East was primed for a wider war eased after U.S President Donald Trump refrained from ordering more military action on Wednesday and Iran’s foreign minister diplomat said missile strikes “concluded” Tehran’s response.

But each side’s next move in their protracted shadow war was uncertain, although Iranian generals resumed their habitual barrage of warnings to Washington.

Trump’s Democratic critics have accused him of reckleness in his handling of Iran.

But analysts say that in an election year, he wants to avoid getting into a drawn-out conflict. In turn, Iran will try to avert direct confrontation with superior U.S. forces but can call on proxy militias across the region as U.S. sanctions bite.

Iran fired missiles on Wednesday at bases in Iraq where U.S. troops were stationed in retaliation for the killing in a U.S. drone attack of powerful Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad on Jan. 3.

The actions followed months of tension that has increased steadily since Trump pulled the United States out of Iran’s nuclear pact with world powers in 2018 and reimposed sanctions that have driven down Tehran’s oil exports and hammered its economy.

Trump told Americans in an address on Wednesday: “The fact that we have this great military and equipment, however, does not mean we have to use it. We do not want to use it”.

The Iranian missiles fired on military bases in Iraq had not harmed any U.S. troops, he said. Iran “appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned,” he said.

‘ECONOMIC TERRORISM’

Trump also said it was time for world powers to replace the 2015 nuclear accord with a new deal that would allow Iran to “thrive and prosper”.

But Trump, who was impeached last month, also said he would impose more stringent sanctions on Iran, without giving details.

Iran’s U.N. ambassador Majid Takht Ravanchi said in response that Tehran could not trust any idea of dialogue when Trump was threatening to intensify the “economic terrorism” of sanctions, the official news agency IRNA reported.

Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards also issued new threats to Washington, with one senior commander warning of “harsher revenge soon” and another saying Wednesday’s missile strikes were only the start of a series of attacks across the region.

The new head of the Quds Force, which handles Iran’s foreign military operations, said he would follow the course pursued by his slain predecessor Soleimani.

“We will continue in this luminous path with power,” Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani said.

Soleimani carved out a sphere of Iranian influence running through Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, challenging regional rival Saudi Arabia as well the United States and Israel.

Soleimani was a national hero whose funeral drew vast crowds of mourners. The West saw him as a dangerous and ruthless enemy.

The military comments contrasted with Wednesday’s remarks by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who said Tehran did not want an escalation.

Despite tough talk, analysts said Iran would not seek a conventional war with Washington although it might turn to allied forces in the area.

“I’m not expecting further direct attacks from Iran. We are likely to see more indirect responses through proxies,” said Ali Alfoneh, senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

He said there might be a chance for a negotiated solution to the latest standoff as “the Trump administration does not appear to actively pursue a war and Iran needs sanctions relief”.

Trump has often criticized his predecessors for involving the United States in long and costly foreign wars.

PATIENCE

Washington said it had indications Tehran was telling its allies to refrain from new action against U.S. troops.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, speaking on Fox News, said: “We continue to receive word that Iran is standing down, but at the president’s direction we’re going to remain vigilant.”

In neighboring Iraq, Muslim Shi’ite groups opposed to the U.S. presence there also sought to cool emotions that have been running high for weeks.

Moqtada al-Sadr, an influential Shi’ite cleric opposed to U.S. and Iranian interference in Iraq, said the crisis was over and called on “Iraqi factions to be deliberate, patient, and not to start military actions”.

Kataib Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia the United States blamed for an attack in Iraq in December that killed a U.S. contractor, said “passions must be avoided to achieve the desired results” of expelling U.S. forces.

Washington said Iran launched 16 short-range ballistic missiles in Wednesday’s strikes, with at least 11 hitting Iraq’s al-Asad air base and one striking a facility in Erbil.

Satellite pictures of al-Asad base before and after the strikes showed damage, including to aircraft hangers.

The images offered limited insight into Iran’s strategy but gave some indication of missile accuracy, an analyst said.

“The impacts are not scattershot across empty fields or airstrips on the southern side of the base,” Dara Massicot, policy researcher at RANDCorporation, said, adding that they did not appear to be purely symbolic strikes.

“Early warning, maybe tip-offs, missile failures, and on-base readiness saved lives,” Massicot said.

U.S. and European government sources said they believed Iran had deliberately sought to avoid U.S. military casualties in its missile strikes to prevent an escalation.

(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein and Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad, Babak Dehghanpisheh, Parisa Hafezi and Ghaida Ghantous in Dubai, Jeff Mason in Washington; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

U.S. consulate warns employees as gun battles rock Mexican border city

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – The United States consulate in Mexico’s border city of Nuevo Laredo issued a security alert on Wednesday, warning against gun battles and urging government employees to take precautions.

Gun battles have killed at least three people this week in the northern city bordering the Texas city of Laredo, media have said. It one of the Mexican cities where the U.S. government has sent asylum seekers to wait as their cases are decided.

“The consulate has received reports of multiple gunfights throughout the city of Nuevo Laredo,” it said in a Twitter post. “U.S. government personnel are advised to shelter in place.”

On Twitter, users purportedly from Laredo reported hearing gunfire ringing out from the neighboring Mexican city.

In a Twitter post late on Wednesday, Francisco Cabeza de Vaca, the governor of Tamaulipas, the state home to Nuevo Laredo, blamed the attacks on its Cartel of the Northeast.

“After the cowardly attacks on the part of the Cartel of the Northeast in Nuevo Laredo, the (government of Tamaulipas) will not let down its guard and will continue acting with strength against criminals,” he wrote.

Tension over the cartels intensified in November when suspected cartel members massacred three women and six children of U.S.-Mexican origin in northern Mexico.

U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to designate the groups as terrorist organizations in response to a series of bloody security breaches triggered by cartel gunmen.

(Reporting by Julia Love; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

In gesture to Trump, US allies close to deal to pay more for NATO running costs

By Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – NATO allies are closing in on a deal to contribute more to allied running costs to reduce the United States’ share of funding, three diplomats familiar with the matter said.

Agreement would meet a demand by U.S. President Donald Trump, though France has made clear it will have no part in the deal, which the alliance hopes to reach before its 70th anniversary summit in London next week.

Trump has accused European allies, especially Europe’s biggest economy Germany, of taking U.S. protection for granted and says they need to spend much more on their own defense.

The reform of financing for the U.S.-led military alliance would seal months of negotiations after NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg put forward a proposal.

The agreement would mean European allies, Turkey and Canada contribute more towards the annual $2.5-billion budget to run the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation headquarters, international staff and military assets under NATO command.

Compared to the hundreds of billions of dollars that allies spend on their armed forces each year, it is a small sum. But it is one that allies hope would silence Trump’s statement in July 2018 that the United States “pays tens of billions of dollars too much to subsidize Europe”.

“It is a political gesture,” one senior NATO diplomat of the possible deal. “There is no alliance without the Americans.”

France opposed the proposal long before President Emmanuel Macron described the alliance on Nov. 7 as “experiencing brain death”, French diplomats have said.

With 30,000 troops deployed and ships across the world, Paris says it already does more than its fair share in defense, maintaining a high level of combat readiness of French forces and pouring billions of euros into defense research.

Paris will not block the proposal, but will abstain, the three NATO diplomats said.

France’s defense spending is higher than Germany’s as a percentage of economic output, data shows. Paris says it will also meet a NATO target to spend 2% of national output on defense by 2025 at the latest, while Germany will reach that level only in 2031, according to French and German officials.

NUMBERS GAME

Canada has said its support for the funding agreement should not set a precedent for other international organizations, the diplomats said. Italy has yet to decide its position, they said.

All 29 NATO member states contribute to the budget on an agreed formula based on gross national income, but this formula would change after the proposed reform.

“It will be a more cumbersome mechanism,” a second NATO diplomat said.

Under the proposal being negotiated for the 2021 budget, the U.S. contribution to the alliance’s annual budget would fall to around 16% from 22%. Germany’s would rise to the same level as the United States and others’ contributions would also rise.

Only seven NATO countries currently meet or exceed the NATO target of spending 2% of national output on defense – the United States, Britain, Greece, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Trump, Powell met Monday at White House to discuss economy

By Howard Schneider

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump and Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell met at the White House on Monday morning, their second meeting since Powell started the job in February 2017 and soon after became the target of frequent criticism from the president who had appointed him.

The Fed announced the meeting in a morning press release, noting they met “to discuss the economy, growth, employment and inflation.”

“Everything was discussed including interest rates, negative interest, low inflation, easing, Dollar strength & its effect on manufacturing, trade with China, E.U. & others, etc.,” Trump tweeted soon after, calling the session “good & cordial.”

The Fed’s wording closely followed its description of Powell’s first meeting with Trump, this past February, over a dinner that also included Vice Chair Richard Clarida.

Trump’s tweet marked a change in tone. The president in recent months derided Powell and colleagues as “pathetic” and “boneheads” for not cutting interest rates, and in August labeled Powell personally as an enemy of the United States on a par with China leader Xi Jinping.

The Fed in its statement was careful to note what wasn’t discussed: Powell’s expectations for future monetary policy. Trump has for more than a year charged the Fed with undermining his economic policies by, in his view, keeping interest rates too high, and depriving the United States of what Trump feels are the benefits of the negative rates of interest set by the European and Japanese central banks.

The U.S. central bank has cut rates three times this year – in part to offset what it views as damage done by the Trump administration’s trade war with China. But after their last meeting, in October, policymakers signaled they would lower rates no further unless the economy takes a serious turn for the worse.

Less than 24 hours after that decision, Trump laid into Powell again, saying people are “VERY disappointed” in him and the Fed. And only last week, Trump lobbed another dig in a tweet that noted inflation was low: “(do you hear that Powell?)”

CONSISTENT

Powell “did not discuss his expectations for monetary policy, except to stress that the path of policy will depend entirely on incoming information that bears on the outlook for the economy,” the Fed said in its statement.

Powell appeared before congressional committees twice last week, and the Fed said his comments to Trump were “consistent” with his statements to lawmakers.

“Chair Powell said that he and his colleagues on the Federal Open Market Committee will set monetary policy, as required by law, to support maximum employment and stable prices and will make those decisions based solely on careful, objective and non-political analysis.”

The meeting included Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

Powell met with Trump in February, and in each of the three following months the two had a brief phone conversation. That compares with the three times his predecessor, Janet Yellen, met President Barack Obama at the White House; Yellen also met with Trump during her final year as Fed chair.

Powell’s has made much more extensive and deliberate efforts to court members of the House and Senate, even as Trump expressed regret for appointing Powell and reportedly explored whether he could remove him.

Fed chairs are appointed to four-year terms by the president, but once confirmed by the Senate are intended to be insulated from White House political pressure over how to manage monetary policy. They can only be removed “for cause,” not over a disagreement over policy.

Meetings between Fed chairs and presidents are not unprecedented but they are infrequent, as opposed to the nearly weekly sessions that central bankers have with the head of the Treasury.

(Reporting by Howard Schneider and Ann Saphir; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

Trump says U.S. may release parts of Baghdadi raid video

Trump says U.S. may release parts of Baghdadi raid video
By Steve Holland and Andrew Osborn

WASHINGTON/MOSCOW (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Monday he may declassify and release part of the video taken on Saturday of the raid in Syria in which Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed.

The video is believed to include aerial footage and possibly footage from cameras mounted on the soldiers who stormed Baghdadi’s compound.

“We’re thinking about it. We may,” Trump told reporters before flying to Chicago. “We may take certain parts of it and release it.”

Trump said on Sunday that Baghdadi had died “whimpering and crying” in a raid by U.S. special forces in Syria, fulfilling his top national security goal.

World leaders welcomed Baghdadi’s death, but said the campaign against Islamic State, a group that carried out atrocities in the name of a fanatical version of Islam, was not over, with so-called lone wolves likely to seek revenge.

Baghdadi, who had led the jihadist group since 2010, killed himself by detonating a suicide vest after fleeing into a dead-end tunnel as U.S. forces closed in, Trump said in a televised address from the White House.

“He was a sick and depraved man and now he’s gone,” said Trump. “He died … whimpering and crying and screaming.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to say if the United States had told Russia about the operation in advance.

But he added: “If this information is confirmed we can talk about a serious contribution by the president of the United States to the fight against international terrorism.”

French President Emmanuel Macron said Baghdadi’s death was a major blow against Islamic State but “the fight continues to finally defeat this terrorist organization”.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “We will work with our coalition partners to bring an end to the murderous, barbaric activities of Daesh (Islamic State) once and for all.”

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters: “This is a many-headed monster … As you cut one off, another one inevitably arises.”

In Southeast Asia, an important focus for Islamic State, officials said security forces were preparing for a long battle to thwart the group’s ideology.

The Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, home to some of Asia’s most organized Islamist militants, said they were braced for retaliation by Islamic State loyalists, including “lone wolf” attacks by radicalized locals.

CAPABLE AND DANGEROUS

Though Baghdadi’s death will unsettle Islamic State, it remains capable and dangerous, said Delfin Lorenzana, defense secretary of the Philippines, where the group’s influence has taken a hold in its troubled Mindanao region.

“This is a blow to the organization considering al-Baghdadi’s stature as a leader. But this is just a momentary setback considering the depth and reach of the organization worldwide,” Lorenzana said. “Somebody will take his place.”

Islamic State has no declared successor as leader. But the group has in the past proved resilient, continuing to mount or inspire attacks in the region and beyond despite losing most of its territory in recent years.

Baghdadi had long been sought by the United States – which offered a $25 million reward – as leader of a jihadist group that at one point controlled large areas of Syria and Iraq, where it declared a caliphate.

Islamic State has brutally attacked religious minorities and launched deadly strikes on five continents in a violent campaign that horrified most Muslims.

In their long hunt for Baghdadi, Iraqi intelligence teams secured a break in February 2018 after one of his top aides gave them information on how he escaped capture for so many years, two Iraqi security officials said.

Baghdadi held strategy talks with his commanders in moving minibuses packed with vegetables in order to avoid detection, Ismael al-Ethawi told officials after he was arrested by Turkish authorities and handed to the Iraqis.

“Ethawi gave valuable information which helped the Iraqi multi-security agencies team complete the missing pieces of the puzzle of Baghdadi’s movements and places he used to hide,” one of the Iraqi security officials said.

Iraqi security officials said Kurdish intelligence agents had exchanged information with counterparts in Baghdad on the movements of Baghdadi and his aides in Syria. One of the Kurds’ sources passed on a “golden tip” earlier this year.

Suspicious movements were spotted by locals at house in a village in Syria, which was placed under surveillance and turned out to be the house used by Baghdadi, the Iraqi officials said.

U.S. PULLBACK

The raid on Baghdadi comes weeks after Trump announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops from northeastern Syria, which permitted Turkey to attack America’s Kurdish allies as it sought to set up a “safe zone”.

Critics expressed concern at the abandoning of the Kurdish fighters who were instrumental in defeating Islamic State in Syria, and said the move might allow the group to regain strength and pose a threat to U.S. interests.

Trump said the raid would not change his decision to withdraw troops from Syria.

But killing Baghdadi could help blunt those concerns, as well as boosting Trump domestically at a time when he is facing an impeachment inquiry in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Regional allies welcomed the operation, with Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan saying it marked “a turning point in our joint fight against terrorism”.

Turkey’s military was in intense coordination with U.S. counterparts on the night of the raid, a presidential spokesman said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praising an “impressive achievement”. Saudi Arabia also offered praise.

Egypt, which is fighting militants loyal to Islamic State, said the killing of Baghdadi is “an important step toward eradicating terrorism”.

U.S. foe Iran, which accuses the United States and its allies of creating Islamic State, was dismissive. Information Minister Mohammad Javad Azari-Jahromi, tweeted: “Not a big deal, You just killed your creature”.

NIGHT-TIME RAID

In the hours before Trump’s announcement, sources in the region had described the raid on a compound in the village of Barisha, in Idlib province bordering Turkey, in the early hours of Sunday.

Trump said eight helicopters carried U.S. special forces to Baghdadi’s compound, where they were met with gunfire before blasting their way in.

The president said he watched the operation in the Situation Room of the White House.

At the height of its power, Islamic State ruled over millions of people from northern Syria to the outskirts of Baghdad.

Thousands of civilians were killed by the group as it mounted what the United Nations called a genocidal campaign against Iraq’s Yazidi minority. It also caused worldwide revulsion by beheading foreign nationals from countries including the United States, Britain and Japan.

The group has claimed responsibility for or inspired attacks in cities including Paris, Nice, Orlando, Manchester, London and Berlin, and in Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Phil Stewart; Additional reporting by Khalil Ashawi in Syria, Katanga Johnson in Washington, Parisa Hafezi in Dubai, Ahmed Rasheed and Ahmed Aboulenein in Baghdad, Samia Nakhoul, Ellen Francis and Lisa Barrington in Beirut, Orhan Coskun in Ankara and Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul, Mahmoud Mourad in Cairo, and Reuters TV, Writing by Giles Elgood, Editing by William Maclean and Mike Collett-White)

At evangelical conference, concerns about Syria but cheers for Trump

Republican Mark Meadows speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (

By John Whitesides

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Prominent evangelical leaders have sharply criticized U.S. President Donald Trump over his decision to pull American military forces out of Syria, saying he was endangering tens of thousands of Christians in the Muslim-dominated region.

But the response was more muted at an annual conference of religious conservatives on Friday in Washington, where some Christian activists were concerned about the Syria move but willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt.

“I would have done things differently, but I don’t have all the information that went into the decision,” Jeffrey Morgan, co-founder of a pro-family group called Americans Against No-Fault Divorce, said at the Values Voter Summit.

“I have a hard time when we abandon friends who have stuck their necks out for us,” he said of the Kurds, close U.S. allies in the fight against Islamic State militants who are now under attack from Turkey in Syria. “But would I abandon the president over Syria? No way.”

William Murray, chairman of the Religious Freedom Coalition, a group that runs programs to assist Christians in Africa and the Middle East, including Syria, said he did not believe Kurds were protective of Christians in the region, but the withdrawal had made the area unstable.

“Any time you create a situation where bullets and bombs are flying, you are going to endanger people on the ground,” he said.

Evangelicals have been among Trump’s most loyal supporters through years of scandal and controversy, and the criticism from influential leaders has been a rare crack in their overwhelming support for the president as he heads into a congressional impeachment battle and a tough 2020 re-election fight.

Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, said after Trump announced the withdrawal that he was “in great danger of losing the mandate of Heaven.”

Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, asked people to pray for Trump to reconsider, saying “thousands of lives hang in the balance.”

Trump won 81% of the vote from white evangelical Christians in the 2016 election, which came just weeks after a decade-old Access Hollywood video surfaced showing him bragging about kissing and grabbing women because “when you are a star, they let you do it.”

Evangelicals have stuck with Trump since, through sex scandals like his alleged payments to hush up an affair with a porn star, and controversies like the investigation into Russian election meddling. In a Reuters/Ipsos poll from mid-September, 70% of white evangelicals approve of Trump’s job performance.

At the conference, which will conclude with a speech by Trump on Saturday night, the president drew repeated cheers for appointing conservative, anti-abortion judges, protecting religious liberties and battling liberals.

Speakers condemned the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry into whether Trump pressured his Ukrainian counterpart to dig up dirt on political rival Joe Biden, the former U.S. vice president who is seeking the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nomination.

“I think it’s time we send Adam Schiff home instead of the president of the United States,” conservative Republican U.S. Representative Mark Meadows told the cheering crowd, making a reference to one of the Democratic lawmakers leading the impeachment inquiry.

Attendees said Trump was a sympathetic leader besieged by Democrats determined to bring him down.

“He’s not a perfect man, but he represents more of my moral values than those who seem to hate him,” said Tim Chafins, a healthcare worker in Akron, Ohio. “What I see happening in Washington has nothing to do with Ukraine, Russia or China. It’s all politics.”

Tim Throckmorton, Midwest director of ministry for the Family Research Council, one of the sponsors of the conference, said that knowing Trump’s heart, “I’m sure he feels he is doing the right thing in Syria.”

“I hope the Christians in Syria are safe,” he added.

(Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Trump says he does not want war after attack on Saudi oil facilities

By Steve Holland and Rania El Gamal

WASHINGTON/DUBAI (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Monday it looked like Iran was behind attacks on oil plants in Saudi Arabia but stressed he did not want to go to war, as the attacks sent oil prices soaring and raised fears of a new Middle East conflict.

Iran has rejected U.S. charges it was behind the strikes on Saturday that damaged the world’s biggest crude-processing plant and triggered the largest jump in crude prices in decades.

Relations between the United States and Iran have deteriorated since Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear accord last year and reimposed sanctions over Tehran’s nuclear and ballistic programs. Washington also wants to pressure Tehran to end its support of regional proxy forces, including in Yemen where Saudi forces have been fighting Iran-backed Houthis for four years.

The United States was still investigating if Iran was behind the Saudi strikes, Trump said, but “it’s certainly looking that way at this moment”.

Trump, who has spent much of his presidency trying to disentangle the United States from wars he inherited, made clear, however, he was not going to rush into a new conflict on behalf of Saudi Arabia.

“I’m somebody that would like not to have war,” Trump said.

Several U.S. Cabinet members, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Energy Secretary Rick Perry, have blamed Tehran for the strikes. Pompeo and others will travel to Saudi Arabia soon, Trump said.

A day after saying the United States was “locked and loaded” to respond to the incident, Trump said on Monday there was “no rush” to do so.

“We have a lot of options but I’m not looking at options right now. We want to find definitively who did this,” he said.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the strikes were carried out by “Yemeni people” retaliating for attacks by a Saudi-led military coalition in a war with the Houthi movement.

“Yemeni people are exercising their legitimate right of defense,” Rouhani told reporters during a visit to Ankara.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi called the allegations “unacceptable and entirely baseless.”

The attacks cut 5% of world crude oil production.

Oil prices surged by as much as 19% after the incidents, the biggest intraday jump since the 1990-91 Gulf crisis over Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Prices retreated from their peak after Trump said he would release U.S. emergency supplies and producers said there were enough stocks globally to make up for the shortfall.

Japan said it will consider coordinated release of its oil reserves and other measures if needed to ensure sufficient supplies in the wake of the attacks.

Crude prices were down around 1% in Asian trade on Tuesday.

“The question is how long it takes for the supply to get back online,” said Esty Dwek, head of global market strategy at Natixis Investment Managers.

“However, the (geopolitical) risk premium … which has been basically ignored by markets in favor of growth worries in recent months, is likely to be priced in going forward,” she said.

SAUDI SUSPICIONS

Saudi Arabia said the attacks were carried out with Iranian weapons and urged U.N. experts to help investigate the raid.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said Iranian threats were not only directed against the kingdom but against the Middle East and the world.

While the prince did not directly accuse Tehran, a Foreign Ministry statement reported him as calling on the international community to condemn whoever was behind the strike.

“The kingdom is capable of defending its land and people and responding forcefully to those attacks,” the statement added.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have been enemies for decades and are fighting a number of proxy wars.

Trump said he had not made commitments to protect the Saudis.

“No, I haven’t promised Saudis that. We have to sit down with the Saudis and work something out,” he said. “That was an attack on Saudi Arabia, and that wasn’t an attack on us. But we would certainly help them.”

Two sources briefed on state oil company Saudi Aramco’s operations told Reuters it might take months for Saudi oil production to return to normal. Earlier estimates had suggested it could take weeks.

Saudi Arabia said it would be able to meet oil customers’ demand from its ample storage, although some deliveries had been disrupted. At least 11 supertankers were waiting to load oil cargoes from Saudi ports, ship tracking data showed on Monday.

RISING TENSIONS

Tension in the oil-producing Gulf region has dramatically escalated this year after Trump imposed severe U.S. sanctions on Iran aimed at halting its oil exports altogether.

For months, Iranian officials have issued veiled threats, saying that if Tehran is blocked from exporting oil, other countries will not be able to do so either. But Iran has denied a role in specific attacks, including bombings of tankers in the Gulf and previous strikes claimed by the Houthis.

Trump has said the goal from his “maximum pressure” approach is to force Iran to negotiate a tougher agreement and has left open the possibility of talks with Rouhani at an upcoming U.N. meeting. Iran says there can be no talks until Washington lifts sanctions.

U.N. Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths told the U.N. Security Council on Monday it was “not entirely clear” who was behind the strike but he said it had increased the chances of a regional conflict.

But the U.S. ambassador to the world body, Kelly Craft, said emerging information on the attacks “indicates that responsibility lies with Iran” and there is no evidence it came from Yemen.

Iran’s Yemeni allies have promised more strikes to come. Houthi military spokesman Yahya Sarea said the group carried out Saturday’s predawn attack with drones, including some powered by jet engines.

“We assure the Saudi regime that our long arm can reach any place we choose and at the time of our choosing,” Sarea tweeted. “We warn companies and foreigners against being near the plants that we struck because they are still in our sights.”

U.S. officials say they believe the attacks came from the opposite direction, possibly from Iran itself rather than Yemen, and may have involved cruise missiles. Wherever the attacks were launched, however, they believe Iran is to blame.

The attacks have raised questions about how Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s top spenders on weaponry, much of it supplied by U.S. companies, was unable to protect oil plants from attack.

Sensing a commercial opening, President Vladimir Putin said Russia was ready to help Saudi Arabia by providing Russian-made air defense systems to protect Saudi infrastructure.

Russia and China said it was wrong to jump to conclusions about who was to blame for the attack on Saudi Arabia.

(Reporting by Steve Holland in Washington and Rania El Gamal in Dubai; Writing by William Maclean, Mike Collett-White and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Alistair Bell, Peter Cooney & Simon Cameron-Moore)

U.S. blames Iran for Saudi oil attack, Trump says ‘locked and loaded’

A satellite image shows an apparent drone strike on an Aramco oil facility in Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia September 14, 2019. Planet Labs Inc/Handout via REUTERS

By Roberta Rampton and Arshad Mohammed

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Sunday the United States was “locked and loaded” for a potential response to the attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities, after a senior U.S. administration official said Iran was to blame.

Trump also authorized the use of the U.S. emergency oil stockpile to ensure stable supplies after the attack, which shut 5% of world production and sent crude prices soaring more than 19% in early trade on Monday, before moderating to show a 10% gain.

“There is reason to believe that we know the culprit, are locked and loaded depending on verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed!” Trump said on Twitter.

Earlier in the day, a senior U.S. official told reporters that evidence from the attack, which hit the world’s biggest oil-processing facility, indicated Iran was behind it, instead of the Yemeni Houthi group that had claimed responsibility.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also said there was no evidence the attack came from Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has been battling the Houthis for over four years in a conflict widely seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Muslim rival Iran.

“Amid all the calls for de-escalation, Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply,” Pompeo said.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi dismissed the U.S. allegations that it was responsible was “pointless”. A senior Revolutionary Guards commander warned the Islamic Republic was ready for “full-fledged” war.

“All American bases and their aircraft carriers in a distance of up to 2,000 kilometers around Iran are within the range of our missiles,” the semi-official Tasnim news agency quoted Commander Amirali Hajizadeh as saying.

Tensions between Washington and Tehran were already running high because of a long-running dispute between the two nations over Iran’s nuclear program that led the United States to impose sweeping sanctions.

Oil prices surged as much as 19% in early Asian trade on Monday on worries over global supply and soaring tensions in the Middle East.

Brent crude posted its biggest intra-day percentage gain since the start of the Gulf War in 1991.

State oil giant Saudi Aramco said the attack on Saturday had cut output by 5.7 million barrels per day.

The U.S. official, who asked not to be named, said on Sunday there were 19 points of impact in the attack on Saudi facilities and evidence showed the launch area was west-northwest of the targets – not south from Yemen.

The official added that Saudi officials indicated they had seen signs that cruise missiles were used in the attack, which is inconsistent with the Iran-aligned Houthi group’s claim that it conducted the attack with 10 drones.

“There’s no doubt that Iran is responsible for this. No matter how you slice it, there’s no escaping it. There’s no other candidate,” the official told reporters.

Riyadh has accused Iran of being behind previous attacks on oil-pumping stations and the Shaybah oil field, charges that Tehran denies, but has not blamed anyone for Saturday’s strike. Riyadh also says Tehran arms the Houthis, a charge both deny.

Richard Nephew, a program director at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, said if Iran was responsible for the attack, it may be as retribution for U.S. sanctions.

“They are making decisions about whether and how to respond to what they see as a massive attack on their interests from the U.S. via sanctions by attacking U.S. interests in turn, and those of U.S. partners they believe are responsible for U.S. policy,” he said.

Aramco gave no timeline for output resumption. A source close to the matter told Reuters the return to full oil capacity could take “weeks, not days”.

Riyadh said it would compensate for the damage at its facilities by drawing on its stocks, which stood at 188 million barrels in June, according to official data.

Trump said he had “authorized the release of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, if needed, in a to-be-determined amount sufficient to keep the markets well-supplied.”

CALLS FOR RESTRAINT

Consultancy Rapidan Energy Group said images of the Abqaiq facility after the attack showed about five of its stabilization towers appeared to have been destroyed, and would take months to rebuild – something that could curtail output for a prolonged period.

“However Saudi Aramco keeps some redundancy in the system to maintain production during maintenance,” Rapidan added, meaning operations could return to pre-attack levels sooner.

The Saudi bourse closed down 1.1% on Sunday, with banking and petrochemical shares taking the biggest hit. Saudi petrochemical firms announced a significant reduction in feedstock supplies.

“Abqaiq is the nerve center of the Saudi energy system. Even if exports resume in the next 24 to 48 hours, the image of invulnerability has been altered,” Helima Croft, global head of commodity strategy at RBC Capital Markets, told Reuters.

Some Iraqi media outlets said the attack came from there. Baghdad denied that on Sunday and vowed to punish anyone using Iraq, where Iran-backed paramilitary groups wield increasing power, as a launchpad for attacks.

Kuwait, which borders Iraq, said it was investigating the sighting of a drone over its territory and coordinating with Saudi Arabia and other countries.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned Saturday’s attacks and called on all parties to exercise restraint and prevent any escalation. The European Union warned the strikes posed a real threat to regional security, and several nations urged restraint.

The attack came after Trump said a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was possible at the U.N. General Assembly in New York this month. Tehran ruled out talks until sanctions are lifted.

But Trump appeared on Sunday to play down the chances he might be willing to meet with Iranian officials, saying reports he would do so without conditions were not accurate.

As recently as last Tuesday, Pompeo said Trump “is prepared to meet with no preconditions”.

Saudi de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told Trump that Riyadh was ready to deal with “terrorist aggression”. A Saudi-led coalition has responded to past Houthi attacks with airstrikes on the group’s military sites in Yemen.

The conflict has been in military stalemate for years. The Saudi alliance has air supremacy but has come under scrutiny over civilian deaths and a humanitarian crisis that has left millions facing starvation.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton and Arshad Mohammed; Additional reporting by Rania El Gamal and Parisa Hafezi, Saeed Azhar and Hadeel Al Sayegh in Dubai, David Shepardson and Timothy Gardner in Washington, William James in London, John Irish in Paris, Alex Lawler, Julia Payne and Ron Bousso in London, Robin Emmott in Brussels and Devika Krishna Kumar and Michelle Nichols in New York; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous and Richard Valdmanis; Editing by William Maclean, Peter Cooney & Simon Cameron-Moore)