U.S. to unveil more trade aid for farmers this week: Perdue

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue (C) tours the Brabant Farms in Verona, New York, U.S., August 23, 2018. Picture taken August 23, 2018. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration will unveil the details of its next round of trade-related aid to farmers before the end of this week, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said on Tuesday.

“We’ll have information for you before the weekends,” he told reporters when asked about the aid, which is intended to help farmers stung by the U.S. trade war with China.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Paul Simao)

Trump hopes to decide soon on when to release Mideast peace plan: envoy

FILE PHOTO - Jason Greenblatt (C), U.S. President Donald Trump's Middle East envoy, arrives to visit Kibbutz Nahal Oz, just outside the Gaza Strip, in southern Israel August 30, 2017. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump hopes to decide soon on when to release a plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians that “will not be ambiguous,” his Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt told the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday.

Greenblatt and senior White House adviser Jared Kushner have spent two years developing the plan, made up of political as well as economic components, which they hope will provide a framework for renewed talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

“President Trump has not yet decided when we will release the political portion of the plan, and we hope to make that decision soon,” Greenblatt told the 15-member Security Council.

While Greenblatt did not reveal any details of the “60-or-so”-page plan, he said the conflict could not be solved using global consensus, international law and references to U.N. resolutions – sparking strong rebuttals from council members.

“For us, international law is not menu a la carte,” Germany’s U.N. Ambassador Christoph Heusgen told the council.

“There are other instances where U.S. representatives here insist on international law, insist on the implementation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, for instance on North Korea,” Heusgen said.

Several council members, including Russia, Britain, France and Indonesia, echoed Heusgen.

“Security Council resolutions are international law, they merely need to be complied with,” Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said.

France would support any peace effort “so long as this aligns with the approach that we have set out together, so long as this adheres to international law, specifically all resolutions of the Security Council,” French U.N. Ambassador Nicolas de Riviere said.

The U.S.’ Middle East proposal has two major components – a political piece that addresses core issues such as the status of Jerusalem, and an economic portion that aims to strengthen the Palestinian economy.

Kushner and Greenblatt have not said, however, whether it calls for a two-state solution, a goal of past peace efforts.

“A comprehensive and lasting peace will not be created by fiat of international law or by these heavily wordsmithed, unclear resolutions,” Greenblatt said. “The vision for peace that we plan to present will not be ambiguous, unlike many resolutions that have passed in this chamber.”

He said it would provide enough detail for people to see “what compromises will be necessary to achieve a realistic, lasting, comprehensive solution to this conflict.”

Greenblatt called on the Palestinians “to put aside blanket rejections of a plan they have not even seen” and show a willingness to engage in talks with Israel. He also urged the Security Council to encourage the parties back to the negotiating table.

Nebenzia suggested a visit by the Security Council to the region was overdue and could be helpful. The United States has long objected to a council visit, which has to be agreed by consensus, diplomats said.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; editing by Paul Simao and G Crosse)

U.S. to ramp up rapid deportations with sweeping new rule

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection vehicle parks near the border fence between Mexico and U.S. as seen from Tijuana, Mexico July 22, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

By Tom Hals

(Reuters) – The Trump administration said on Monday it will expand and speed up deportations of migrants who enter the United States illegally by stripping away court oversight, enabling officials to remove people in days rather than months or years.

Set to be published in the Federal Register on Tuesday, the rule will apply “expedited removal” to the majority of those who enter the United States illegally unless they can prove they have been living in the country for at least two years.

Legal experts said it was a dramatic expansion of a program already used along the U.S.-Mexican border that cuts out review by an immigration judge, usually without access to an attorney. Both are available in regular proceedings.

“The Trump administration is moving forward into converting ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) into a ‘show me your papers’ militia,” said Vanita Gupta, the president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, on a call with reporters.

It was likely the policy would be blocked quickly by a court, several experts said. The American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed suit to block numerous Trump immigration policies in court, has vowed to sue.

President Donald Trump has struggled to stem an increase of mostly Central American families arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, leading to overcrowded detention facilities and a political battle over a growing humanitarian crisis.

The government said increasing rapid deportations would free up detention space and ease strains on immigration courts, which face a backlog of more than 900,000 cases.

Nearly 300,000 of the approximately 11 million immigrants in the United States illegally could be quickly deported under the new rule, according to the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said 37%, or 20,570, of those encountered by ICE in the year to September, had been in the country less than two years.

People in rapid deportation proceedings are detained for 11.4 days on average, according to DHS. People in regular proceedings are held for 51.5 days and are released into the United States for the months or years it takes to resolve their cases.

Legal experts said the rule shreds basic due process and could create havoc beyond immigrant communities.

“ICE has been detaining and deporting U.S. citizens for decades,” said Jackie Stevens, a political science professor at Northwestern University. That policy came at a great cost to U.S. taxpayers in terms of litigation and compensation, she added.

    ICE in 2003 became a successor agency to Immigration and Naturalization Services.

U.S. citizens account for about 1% of those detained by ICE and about 0.5% of those deported, according to Stevens’ research.

“Expedited removal orders are going to make this much worse,” she said.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco in March ruled that those ordered deported in the sped-up process have a right to take their case to a judge.

Previously, only those immigrants caught within 100 miles of the border who had been in the country two weeks or less could be ordered rapidly deported. The policy makes an exception for immigrants who can establish a “credible fear” of persecution in their home country.

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware and Mica Rosenberg in New York; Editing by Richard Chang and Rosalba O’Brien)

Iran observes all U.S. ships in Gulf region: Iran navy chief

FILE PHOTO: Fleet replenishment oiler USNS Big Horn (T-AO 198) steams out to sea after a vertical replenishment with amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD 4), Arabian Sea off Oman, July 19, 2019.Justin D. Rankin/U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

GENEVA (Reuters) – Iran observes all U.S. ships in the Gulf region and has an archive of images of their daily movements, the head of Iran’s navy, Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi, said on Tuesday, according to the Young Journalists Club news site.

Iran and the United States came to the brink of war last month after the Islamic Republic shot down a U.S. drone, nearly prompting a retaliatory attack which U.S. President Donald Trump called off at the last minute.

Tensions have also spiked between Iran and Britain after the Islamic Republic seized a British-flagged tanker last Friday because it had collided with a fishing vessel, according to Iranian officials.

British Royal Marines seized an Iranian tanker off the coast of Gibraltar in early July, accusing it of violating sanctions on Syria.

“We observe all enemy ships, particularly (those of) America, point-by-point from their origin until the moment they enter the region,” Khanzadi said, noting that images were recorded using Iranian drones.

“We have complete images and a large archive of the daily and moment-by-moment traffic of the coalition forces and America.”

Iran will hold joint naval exercises with allied countries for the first time by the end of the Iranian calendar year, which is in March 2020, Khanzadi said.

He did not specify which countries might take part in the exercise.

(Reporting By Babak Dehghanpisheh; Editing by Gareth Jones)

As new U.S. law frees inmates, prosecutors seek to lock some back up

Monae Davis plays with a grandchild, Dayrone Ferguson Jr., 2, after an interview at a halfway house in Buffalo, New York, U.S., July 16, 2019. Picture taken July 16, 2019. REUTERS/Lindsay DeDario

By Andy Sullivan

BUFFALO, N.Y. (Reuters) – Monae Davis walked out of prison on March 7, thanks to a new law that eased some of the harshest aspects of the United States’ war on drugs.

Now the U.S. Justice Department is trying to lock him back up.

As Davis, 44, looks for work and re-connects with his family, U.S. prosecutors are working to undo a federal judge’s decision that shaved six years off his 20-year prison sentence under the First Step Act, a sweeping criminal-justice reform signed into law by President Donald Trump last December.

“They’re prosecutors and it’s their job to make it hard on people,” he said. “Do I think it is right? No, it’s not fair.”

Even as thousands of prison inmates have been released by judges under the new law, federal prosecutors have fought scores of petitions for reduced sentences and are threatening to put more than a dozen inmates already released back behind bars, Reuters found in an analysis of these cases.

The reason: the Justice Department says the amount of drugs they handled was too large to qualify for a reduced sentence.

Davis, for example, reached a deal in 2009 with U.S. attorneys in western New York to plead guilty to selling 50 grams or more of crack, resulting in his 20-year sentence. Under First Step guidelines, that carries a minimum sentence of five years, less than half the time he has already served.

But prosecutors say Davis should not get a break, because in his plea deal he admitted to handling between 1.5 kilograms and 4.5 kilograms, which even under current guidelines is too high to qualify for a sentence reduction.

In a statement, the Justice Department said it is trying to ensure that prisoners seeking relief under the First Step Act aren’t treated more leniently than defendants now facing prosecution.

The department said prosecutors now have a greater incentive than previously to bring charges that more closely reflect the total amount of drugs they believe to be involved.

“This is a fairness issue,” the department said.

A TOUTED ACHIEVEMENT

Passed by overwhelming majorities in Congress, the First Step Act stands out as a rare bipartisan achievement in an era of sharp political divisions. Trump has invited ex-offenders to the White House and his State of the Union speech.

The law allows inmates who are serving time for selling crack cocaine to ask a judge to reduce their prison sentences. It’s a belated recognition, supporters say, that tough-on-crime policies that required lengthy prison terms for crack dealers were too punitive and fell most heavily on African-Americans.

More than 1,100 inmates have been released so far under this provision in the new law, according to the Justice Department.

In most of the 1,100 sentence-reduction cases, U.S. prosecutors did not oppose the inmate’s release. But in at least 81 cases, Reuters found, Justice Department lawyers have tried – largely unsuccessfully so far – to keep offenders behind bars. They argue that judges should base their decision on the total amount of drugs that were found to be involved during the investigation, rather than the often smaller or more vague amount laid out in the law they violated years ago.

The difference between the two amounts in these cases is often significant – and, depending on whether a judge agrees with prosecutors’ objections, can mean years of continued incarceration rather than immediate release.

Regional prosecutors’ offices, though they often enjoy great autonomy, have made it clear that they are operating on instructions from Washington.

One prosecutor in western Virginia in April objected to nine sentence reductions she had previously not opposed, citing Justice Department guidelines.

The federal government has lost 73 of 81 cases in which the issue has arisen so far, according to the Reuters analysis.

Prosecutors have appealed at least three of those decisions and indicated they intend to appeal 12 more.

If they succeed, men like Davis would return to prison.

First Step Act advocates say the Justice Department is undercutting the intent of the law.

“Many of these people have served in prison for five, 10, 15, 20 years and more. It’s time for them to be able to get on with their lives, and the notion the Department of Justice is just going to keep nagging at them and appealing these cases is not what we ever had in mind,” Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, one of the law’s authors, told Reuters.

Florida resident Gregory Allen, freed in March, appeared with Trump at a ceremony celebrating the new law in April. Federal prosecutors in Tampa, meanwhile, had filed paperwork to appeal that decision and force him back to prison. They dropped the appeal three weeks later, without explanation.

Legal experts say they are aware of few other cases in which the federal government has tried to re-incarcerate someone who has been freed due to a sentence reduction.

“It’s particularly cruel,” said Mary Price, an attorney with Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a nonpartisan group. “The whole point of the First Step Act was to give some relief to people who were sentenced to unduly long sentences.”

A TURBULENT LIFE

According to court documents and his own account, Davis has led a turbulent life. The son of a prostitute who entered the witness protection program when testifying in a criminal case, Davis was given a new name and moved to New Orleans when he was seven years old.

By the time he was fifteen, back in Buffalo, both parents and a younger brother were dead and he was selling drugs. He dropped out of high school.

He killed a woman accidentally when he was nineteen, he said, and records show he eventually pleaded guilty to state manslaughter charges.

By the time he was 30, federal agents say, Davis oversaw a network that sold crack and cocaine across western New York and Pennsylvania.

“Your life has been a disaster, and maybe not all of it your fault,” U.S. Judge William Skretny told him in 2009 as he sentenced him.

In March, the same judge ruled that Davis should be freed under the First Step Act.

“I fell off the chair,” Davis recalled. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Prosecutors told the court they intend to appeal. The U.S. Attorney for the Western District of New York, James P. Kennedy Jr., declined to comment on Davis’s case, but said in a prepared statement that asking for appellate review ” is consistent with our mission of seeing to it that justice is done in each case.”

Meanwhile, Davis is learning to use a smartphone and planning to start welding classes in September. Eventually, he says, he aims to run a cleaning service or auto shop and set aside money for his six grandchildren so they can have a better life than he did.

“I know God has a plan for me,” he said. “I know I’m not finished yet.”

(Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Julie Marquis)

Turkey will retaliate if U.S. imposes sanctions over S-400s: minister

FILE PHOTO: First parts of a Russian S-400 missile defense system are unloaded from a Russian plane at Murted Airport, known as Akinci Air Base, near Ankara, Turkey, July 12, 2019. Turkish Military/Turkish Defence Ministry/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

By Ece Toksabay and Tuvan Gumrukcu

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey would retaliate against what it called an unacceptable threat of U.S. sanctions over Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400 missile defenses, its foreign minister said on Monday, adding he thinks President Donald Trump wants to avoid such measures.

Turkey began receiving deliveries of the surface-to-air S-400 systems earlier this month, prompting the United States to begin removing the NATO ally from its F-35 stealth fighter program over security concerns.

Washington says it is concerned that S-400 software will compromise its F-35s to the benefit of Russia. While several Republican and Democratic U.S. lawmakers have pressed for sanctions, Trump has equivocated in recent days.

“If the United States portrays an adversarial attitude towards us, we will take retaliatory measures, as we’ve told them. This is not a threat or a bluff,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in an interview with broadcaster TGRT Haber.

“We are not a country that will bow down to those who show animosity towards Turkey,” he said, reiterating a threat of retaliation that Turkey made last month.

Cavusoglu added that he did not expect the U.S. administration to take such action.

“Trump does not want to impose sanctions on Turkey and he frequently says that his administration and the previous U.S. administration is also responsible for Turkey not being able to buy Patriot systems. This is true,” Cavusoglu said.

The United States announced last week it was beginning the process of removing Turkey from the program for the F-35 stealth jets, the most advanced aircraft in the U.S. arsenal, which is used by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and other partner countries.

Turkey, like some other NATO partners, was part of the manufacturing supply chain for the aircraft, producing some 900 parts and Turkish defense companies are set to lose work worth billions of dollars.

A U.S. official said it would cost some $500 million to $600 million to shift F-35 manufacturing from Turkey.

RUSSIAN ALTERNATIVE

The delivery of S-400 components is ongoing, with 14 shipments of related equipment having landed in Turkey over the last nine days. Deliveries are set to continue through April 2020.

Separately, Sergei Chemezov, head of Russia’s Rostec state conglomerate, said that Russia and Turkey were in talks about the possibility of jointly manufacturing some components of the S-400 system in Turkey.

“Moscow and Ankara are holding consultations in the area of the licensed production of the S-400 air defense system component parts,” Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency quoted Chemezov as saying.

“Besides, Turkey is interested in the latest Russian combat modules, air defense systems of various ranges, as well as anti-tank systems. Negotiations are underway for Russia to help the Republic of Turkey in creating its national air defense and long-range missile defense systems,” he said.

Chemezov added that Moscow was ready for various formats of technological cooperation, including in such high-tech areas as the aerospace industry, helicopter construction, and energy.

(Writing by Ece Toksabay; Editing by Jonathan Spicer and Frances Kerry)

Iran says it arrests CIA spies, Gulf tensions simmer

FILE PHOTO - The Iranian flag flutters in front the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) headquarters in Vienna, Austria July 10, 2019. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner

By Michael Georgy

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran announced on Monday it had captured 17 spies working for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and sentenced some of them to death, deepening a crisis between the Islamic Republic and the West.

Iranian state television published images that it said showed the CIA officers who had been in touch with the suspected spies.

In a statement read on state television, the Ministry of Intelligence said 17 spies had been arrested in the 12 months to March 2019. Some have been sentenced to death, according to another report.

Such announcements are not unusual in Iran, and are often made for domestic consumption. But the timing suggests Tehran could harden its position in a standoff with Western powers which has raised fears of a direct military confrontation.

In recent weeks the United States has blamed Iran for attacks on shipping near the Strait of Hormuz, the global oil trade’s most important waterway, accusations Iran has denied.

The United States and Iran have downed drones operated by the other side and on Friday, Iran captured a British-registered tanker, the Stena Impero, in the Strait of Hormuz. Tehran had previously warned it would respond to Britain’s seizure of an Iranian tanker off Gibraltar on July 4.

There was no immediate comment on the Iranian allegations by the CIA or U.S. officials.

Iran announced in June that it had broken up an alleged CIA spy ring but it was unclear whether Monday’s announcement was linked to the same case.

BRITAIN’S NEXT MOVE

Prime Minister Theresa May’s office has said she would chair a meeting of Britain’s COBR emergency response committee early on Monday to discuss the tanker crisis and the government was expected to announce its next steps in parliament.

As Britain weighed its next move a recording emerged showing the Iranian military defied a British warship when it boarded and seized the Stena Impero, underscoring the challenges Britain faces responding.

Experts on the region say there are few obvious steps London can take at a time when the United States has already imposed the maximum possible economic sanctions, banning all Iranian oil exports worldwide.

Washington imposed the sanctions after President Donald Trump pulled out of a deal signed by his predecessor Barack Obama, which had provided Iran access to world trade in return for curbs on its nuclear program.

European countries including Britain have been caught in the middle. They disagreed with the U.S. decision to quit the nuclear deal but have so far failed to offer Iran another way to receive the deal’s promised economic benefits.

In Tokyo, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Monday that Japan wants to make every effort to reduce tension between the United States and Iran before responding to an expected U.S. request to send its navy to safeguard strategic waters off Iran.

Japanese media have said Washington’s proposal to boost surveillance of vital Middle East oil shipping lanes off Iran and Yemen could be on the agenda during a visit to Tokyo this week by U.S. national security adviser John Bolton.

“We have a long tradition of friendship with Iran and I’ve met with its president any number of times, as well as other leaders,” Abe told a news conference after his coalition’s victory in a Sunday election for parliament’s upper house.

“Before we make any decisions on what to do, Japan would like to make every effort to reduce tensions between Iran and the United States.”

The United States is struggling to win its allies’ support for an initiative to heighten surveillance of vital Middle East oil shipping lanes because of fears it will increase tension with Iran, six sources familiar with the matter said.

(Reporting by Gulf bureau and Elaine Lies and Linda Sieg in Tokyo; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Jon Boyle)

Bullet-riddled U.S. flag that survived D-Day comes home 75 years later

U.S. President Donald Trump, Dutch art collector Bert Kreuk, Netherlands' Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch look at a flag that flew on the first U.S. invading ship on D-Day during a White House ceremony after it was donated by Kreuk to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, U.S., July 18, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Shot through by German machine-gun bullets and tattered by the wind, an American flag that flew on the first U.S. invading ship on D-Day came home on Thursday in a White House ceremony.

The flag handover was a main part of the visit to the White House by Mark Rutte, prime minister of the Netherlands, who held Oval Office talks with President Donald Trump.

The flag has been owned by retired Dutch businessman and art collector Bert Kreuk, who paid $514,000 for it at auction three years ago with the intention of donating it to the United States.

“I cannot keep it myself. It needs to go to the right institution. I need to give it back,” Kreuk said in a telephone interview ahead of the ceremony, at which he spoke.

The flag is to be put on display at the Smithsonian Institution.

The 48-star flag was on the U.S. Navy’s Landing Craft Control 60, which was one of three advance ships directing troops onto Utah Beach on the Normandy coast on June 6, 1944.

The LCC 60 was the only one of the three to complete its mission in the chaos of D-Day.

The ship and its 14-member crew were commanded by U.S. Navy Lieutenant Howard Vander Beek, a one-time Iowa teacher who brought the flag home from the war and kept it in his basement until he died in 2014.

“It is my honor to welcome this great American flag back home where it belongs,” said Trump, who called it a “reminder of the supreme sacrifice of our warriors and the beautiful friendship between the Dutch and the American people.”

To Kreuk, 54, the flag represented the liberation effort that saved his family from Nazi rule during World War Two. He said he lost family members during a German bombing raid on Rotterdam in 1940.

Kreuk said his donation of the flag is aimed at remembering World War Two. “For many of you, this will be the first time that you will see the flag,” but for many on D-Day, “it was the last time.”

Trump attended ceremonies in Normandy on June 6 marking the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Dan Grebler)

U.S.-China officials discuss trade; Mnuchin eyes possible in-person talks

FILE PHOTO: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin testifies before the House Financial Services Committee hearing on "The Annual Testimony of the Secretary of the Treasury on the State of the International Financial System" in Washington, U.S., May 22, 2019. REUTERS/Mary F. Calvert

CHANTILLY, France/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. and Chinese officials spoke by telephone on Thursday as the world’s two largest economies seek to end a year-long trade war, with U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin suggesting in-person talks could follow.

Mnuchin and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer spoke with their Chinese counterparts over the phone, Lighthizer’s office said on Thursday, following earlier comments by the Treasury secretary in an interview on the sidelines of the G7 meeting in Chantilly, France.

The United States and China have been embroiled in a tit-for-tat tariff battle since July 2018, as Washington presses Beijing to address what it sees as decades of unfair and illegal trading practices.

China has countered that any deal needs to be fair and equitable, leaving the two sides apparently still far from an agreement to end the back-and-forth that has roiled global supply chains and upended financial markets.

“Right now we’re having principal-level calls and to the extent that it makes sense for us to set up in-person meetings, I would anticipate that we would be doing that,” Mnuchin told Reuters.

Asked if Thursday’s call could lead to a face-to-face meeting, Mnuchin said: “It’s possible, but I’m not going to speculate on the outcome.”

Lighthizer’s office later confirmed that the conversation took place as scheduled, but gave no details.

China’s foreign ministry said on Friday the two sides had discussed ways to implement the consensus reached by the two countries’ presidents, but gave no other details.

Separately, Su Ge, former president of the China Institute of International Studies, a think tank affiliated with China’s Foreign Ministry, said he expected more formal discussions to resume this month.

“These are difficult questions … but at least they agreed to let the two negotiation teams to restart their work, so we will keep our fingers crossed,” he said.

William Lee, chief economist for the Milken Institute, said tensions were simmering, with neither China nor the United States appearing ready to budge on critical issues.

“That high level of trade uncertainty is causing manufacturing firms to be reticent to make investments. That high degree of uncertainty is a drag on U.S. growth,” he said. “The real issue is that China wants respect. China wants a face-saving way of coming to the table.”

TARIFFS AND PROMISES

Global stocks were rattled this week after U.S. President Donald Trump reiterated threats to impose further tariffs on Chinese imports. Signs that the trade dispute was starting to take a toll on corporate earnings further unnerved investors, sending stocks lower on Thursday.

“We have a long way to go as far as tariffs, where China is concerned, if we want. We have another $325 billion that we can put a tariff on if we want,” Trump said at a cabinet meeting on Tuesday.

Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed during a Group of 20 nations summit in Japan last month to resume discussions, easing fears of escalation after talks broke down in early May. At the time of the G20, Trump agreed to suspend a new round of tariffs on $300 billion worth of imported Chinese consumer goods while the two sides resumed negotiations.

“What they did was not appropriate,” Trump said Tuesday. “They are supposed to be buying farm products. Let’s see whether or not they do.”

U.S. government data published on Thursday showed China last week made its largest purchase of U.S. sorghum since April. Sorghum was one of the first casualties of the trade war, which has slowed exports of soybeans and pork to China.

Asked about the role of Huawei Technologies Co Ltd, which the administration has blacklisted over national security concerns, Mnuchin said on Thursday that allowing any U.S. sales to the Chinese telecoms equipment company was an issue independent from the trade talks.

After meeting with Xi at the G20, Trump said American firms could sell products to Huawei. Earlier this month, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said licenses would be issued where there is no threat to national security.

Reuters reported on Sunday that the United States may approve licenses for companies to restart new sales to Huawei in as little as two weeks, according to a senior U.S. official.

Mnuchin denied a Wall Street Journal report last week that the Treasury chief was urging U.S. suppliers to seek exemptions to sell to Huawei, saying he talks to corporate executives about many issues, including trade.

“My participation in this is only informational. I’ve never encouraged companies one way or the other to do things.”

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that discussions were at a standstill as Washington weighs limits over business with Huawei.

Derek Scissors, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute think tank who has advised the White House on technology issues, said he expected further relaxations on Huawei to be part of any U.S.-China trade deal.

“The treatment of Huawei has been a circus,” he told a panel hosted by the Brookings Institution. “If we have a deal, Huawei will absolutely be part of it because the president doesn’t care … about technology competition.”

He said Trump was more focused on getting a trade deal and increasing access for U.S. farmers to Chinese markets.

(Reporting by David Lawder in Chantilly, France, Susan Heavey and Andrea Shalal in Washington and Koh Gui Qing in New York; Additional reporting by Chris Prentice in New York and Michael Martina in Beijing; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Peter Cooney)

U.S. says Navy ship ‘destroyed’ Iranian drone in Gulf

USS Boxer (LHD-4) ship sails near a tanker in the Arabian Sea off Oman July 17, 2019. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

By Steve Holland and Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States said on Thursday that a U.S. Navy ship had “destroyed” an Iranian drone in the Strait of Hormuz after the aircraft threatened the vessel, but Iran said it had no information about losing a drone.

In the latest episode to stir tensions in the Gulf, U.S. President Donald Trump told an event at the White House that the drone had flown to within 1,000 yards of the USS Boxer and had ignored “multiple calls to stand down.”

“This is the latest of many provocative and hostile actions by Iran against vessels operating in international waters. The United States reserves the right to defend our personnel, facilities and interests,” Trump said.

“The drone was immediately destroyed,” he added.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told reporters at the United Nations: “We have no information about losing a drone today.”

The Pentagon said in a statement that the USS Boxer, an amphibious assault ship, had taken “defensive action” against a drone on Thursday morning as the Boxer was moving into the Strait of Hormuz.

“We do assess it was an Iranian drone,” said Commander Rebecca Rebarich, a Pentagon spokeswoman.

Tensions in the Gulf region are high, with fears that the United States and Iran could stumble into war.

The United States has blamed Iran for a series of attacks since mid-May on shipping around the Strait of Hormuz, the world’s most important oil artery. Tehran rejects the allegations.

Iran in June shot down a U.S. military surveillance drone in the Gulf with a surface-to-air missile. Iran says the drone was in its airspace, but Washington says it was in international skies.

Trump said at the time the United States had come close to launching a military strike on Iran in retaliation for the downing of the U.S. drone.

The increased use of drones by Iran and its allies for surveillance and attacks across the Middle East is raising alarms in Washington.

The United States believes that Iran-linked militia in Iraq has recently increased their surveillance of American troops and bases in the country by using off-the-shelf, commercially available drones, U.S. officials say.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the drone on Thursday was brought down through electronic jamming.

NUCLEAR DEAL

Relations between the United States and Iran have worsened since last year when Trump abandoned a 2015 deal between world powers and Iran in which Tehran agreed to restrict nuclear work in return for the lifting of sanctions.

The United States has reimposed sanctions to throttle Iran’s oil trade and says it wants to increase pressure on Tehran to renegotiate the accord, discuss its ballistic missile program and modify its behavior in the Middle East, where Washington is allied to several Arab states opposed to Iran.

Iran’s clerical rulers have ruled out renegotiating the nuclear deal or holding talks on its missile program, which it says is purely defensive.

But Zarif told reporters on Thursday that Iran had offered to make a concession on its nuclear program – to ratify a document prescribing more intrusive inspections – if the United States abandoned its economic sanctions – a proposal that drew U.S. skepticism.

“If Iran wants to make a serious gesture, it should start by ending uranium enrichment immediately,” a U.S. senior administration official said, adding any talks should include “a permanent end to Iran’s malign nuclear ambitions, including its development of nuclear-capable missiles.”

Earlier on Thursday, the United States demanded Iran immediately release a vessel it seized in the Gulf, and a U.S. military commander in the region said the United States would work “aggressively” to ensure free passage of vessels through the vital waterway.

Iran played down the seizure of the ship, which it said was a small vessel that was smuggling oil.

Iranian state TV aired footage of a vessel called “RIAH.”

The Panamanian-flagged oil tanker MT Riah disappeared off trackers in Iranian territorial waters days ago.

“We do this (inspecting ships) every day. These are people who smuggle our oil,” Iran’s Press TV quoted Zarif as saying, adding: “It was a small ship used to smuggle 1 million liters – not 1 million barrels – of crude oil.”

Washington has recently beefed up its military presence and the U.S. Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain, says that Gulf Arab states have stepped up patrols.

Revolutionary Guards Commander-in-Chief Hossein Salami said on Thursday that Iran had adopted a defensive strategy, but warned that “if our enemies make any mistakes … our strategy can become an offensive one.”

Oil prices jumped on Thursday after news of the ship seizure. They later fell, however, on weakness in U.S. equities markets and an expectation that crude output would rise in the Gulf of Mexico following last week’s hurricane in the region.

The United States on Thursday imposed sanctions on an international network of companies and their agents it said were involved in the procurement of materials for Iran’s nuclear program.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Idrees Ali; Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi and Tuqa Khalid in Dubai; Writing by Alistair Bell and Mary Milliken; Editing by Peter Cooney)