With Syria in focus, Trump cancels trip to Latin America

U.S. President Donald Trump receives a briefing from senior military leadership at the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, DC, U.S. April 9, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump has decided to cancel his first official trip to Latin America this week to focus on responding to a suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria, the White House said on Tuesday.

Trump had been scheduled to travel to Lima, Peru, on Friday to attend the Summit of the Americas and then travel on to Bogota, Colombia. The trip had been expected to be tense and awkward because of Trump’s repeated disparagement of the region over immigration, narcotics and trade.

His travel plans changed after a Saturday night attack on the Syrian town of Douma which killed at least 60 people and injured more than 1,000 others. Trump has vowed to make a swift decision to respond to what he called “atrocities.”

“At the president’s request, the vice president will travel in his stead. The president will remain in the United States to oversee the American response to Syria and to monitor developments around the world,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement.

Last year, Washington bombed a Syrian government air base after a chemical weapons attack. It was not yet clear what decision Trump will make in response to the latest attack. Syria and Russia have denied there was a chemical weapons attack and have proposed international inspections.

This will be the second trip to the region for Vice President Mike Pence. He met with leaders in Colombia, Argentina and Panama in August.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Reporting by Sami Aboudi)

U.S. Vice President Pence’s hawkish tone on Russia contrasts with Trump approach

Vice President Mike Pence delivers a speech during a meeting with U.S. troops taking part in NATO led joint military exercises Noble Partner 2017 at the Vaziani military base near Tbilisi, Georgia. REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze

By Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – When President Donald Trump scolded U.S. lawmakers on Thursday for clamping down on Moscow with new sanctions, his message clashed with the one that Vice President Mike Pence pushed during a four-day trip this week to Eastern Europe.

As he toured Estonia, Georgia and Montenegro, Pence said the sanctions passed overwhelmingly by Congress would send a unified message to Russia that it must change its behavior.

Trump, by contrast, took to Twitter to complain that the sanctions legislation, which he grudgingly signed, would send U.S.-Russia relations to “an all-time & very dangerous low.”

While some Republicans played down the divergence, critics said it exemplified an incoherent policy that would unsettle allies and fail to placate Moscow.

“There are some policies where a good cop/bad approach can work,” said Michael McFaul, a U.S. ambassador to Russia under former Democratic President Barack Obama.

But McFaul added that in the case of the Trump administration’s policy toward Russia, Moscow was likely to view the mixed signals as a sign of policy disarray.

If the Republican president continues to want improved relations with Russia, “he’s not achieving his goal,” McFaul said.

The White House’s two-track approach is mirrored in Moscow.

After Trump signed the new sanctions into law on Wednesday, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, the No. 2 in the Russian ruling hierarchy, launched a blistering attack on the White House.

Yet Russian President Vladimir Putin — who has tried to cultivate a personal rapport with Trump in phone conversations and face-to-face meetings at a summit in Germany — has not uttered a word in public about the sanctions since Trump approved them.

Trump has repeatedly said he wants better ties with Russia. But the country has loomed large over the first six months of his administration as a special counsel and U.S. congressional panels investigate allegations Moscow meddled in the 2016 U.S. election to help Trump and also examine any potential role by Trump aides.

Moscow denies any meddling and Trump denies any collusion by his campaign.

After Congress passed the sanctions legislation with a large enough margin to override a presidential veto, Trump signed it on Wednesday but criticized it as infringing on his authority and said he could make “far better deals” with governments than Congress could.

As a countermeasure to the sanctions, Putin called for reducing the staff of the U.S. diplomatic mission by 755 people and for the seizure of two properties near Moscow used by American diplomats.

‘SMALL AND BULLYING LEADER’

Jarrod Agen, deputy chief of staff to Pence, insisted that Trump and Pence were “completely aligned” on Russia.

“It was the president’s decision to send the vice president to the region. It was the president’s decision to deliver the message that the vice president delivered,” Agen told Reuters.

He added that Pence and Trump spoke every day during his trip and sometimes multiple times a day.

The disconnect between Pence and Trump on Russia is an anomaly. Pence usually goes to lengths to emphasize his loyalty to his boss and to downplay any differences.

Their different tone on Russia dates back to the U.S. presidential campaign. While Trump often praised Putin, Pence called the Russian president a “small and bullying leader” during a vice presidential debate last October.

During his trip this week, Pence condemned Russia for its “occupation of Georgia’s soil” as he spoke to U.S. and Georgian troops engaged in joint exercises only 40 miles (64 km) away from Russian troops in South Ossetia.

In Montenegro, Pence accused Russia of trying to “destabilize” the western Balkans – a message criticized by Moscow.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry said it was “regrettable to note that Washington is sliding ever deeper into the primitive ideology of the Cold War era, which is completely detached from reality.”

Traditional Republican conservatives – who favor a hard line on Moscow – have taken some comfort in Pence’s message, as have foreign leaders concerned about the impact of a rapprochement between Trump and Putin.

“What he (Pence) is saying is good and helpful and should be the policy of the Trump administration – and so for those of us who want it to be that way, we’re happy to embrace it,” said Danielle Pletka, senior vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

“None of us know what Donald Trump thinks in his heart of hearts about Russia,” Pletka said. But she added: “If (Trump) were not comfortable with Pence making this trip, Pence would not be making this trip.”

Republican Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he would not “read a lot” into the different tones struck by Pence and Trump, although he welcomed Pence’s trip to the European countries.

Corker described Pence as the administration’s “ombudsman” on policy and said Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, were key to developing Trump’s foreign policy.

A former U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, was at pains to explain the disconnect between Pence and Trump on Russia.

“We are dealing with a major, open split between the president and basically the rest of his administration with the possible exception of Tillerson,” the former official said.

(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Arshad Mohammed and Christian Lowe; Editing by Caren Bohan, Peter Cooney and Alister Doyle)

Mike Pence to tour Asia next month amid security crises

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks about the American Health Care Act during a visit to the Harshaw-Trane Parts and Distribution Center in Louisville, Kentucky, U.S

JAKARTA (Reuters) -U.S. Vice President Mike Pence will visit Japan and Indonesia as part of an Asian tour next month, sources said on Monday, amid concerns the Trump administration is rolling back Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia.”

U.S. President Donald Trump has already withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, which was seen as an economic pillar of the strategy.

A Trump administration official told Reuters: “The vice president is going to Asia next month I believe.”

The tour will include South Korea and Australia, the Nikkei Asian Review reported, with North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs and South Korea’s political crisis likely topics for discussion.

China has been infuriated by South Korea’s plan to deploy a U.S. missile defense system targeted at the North Korean threat. South Korea is also going through political turmoil after a court removed President Park Geun-hye from office over a graft scandal.

Pence is also expected to visit Tokyo for a U.S.-Japan economic dialogue, according to a source familiar with the matter.

The visit will come as North Korea’s latest missile launches and the assassination in Malaysia of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s estranged half-brother add urgency to the region’s security.

It will also follow this month’s trip by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Japan, South Korea, and China.

The TPP had been the main economic pillar of the Obama administration’s pivot to the Asia-Pacific region in the face of a fast-rising China.

Proponents of the pact have expressed concerns that abandoning the project, which took years to negotiate, could strengthen China’s economic hand in the region at the expense of the United States.

Indonesia’s chief security minister said Pence would meet President Joko Widodo to discuss terrorism and other security issues.

Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population and has recently grappled with a series of low-level militant attacks inspired by Islamic State.

“We discussed the planned visit of U.S. vice president Mike Pence to Indonesia and the strategic problems that can be on the agenda to discuss with our president,” chief security minister Wiranto told reporters after meeting the U.S. ambassador to Jakarta.

He added that no dates have been finalized.

In Indonesia, Pence is also expected to discuss a brewing contract dispute between the government and American mining group Freeport McMoRan Inc, said two Indonesian government sources.

Freeport has threatened to take the Indonesian government to court over newly revised mining regulations that have prompted a major scale-back in its operations in the eastern province of Papua.

(Reporting by Agustinus Beo Da Costa and Kanupriya Kapoor; Additional reporting by Malcolm Foster in Tokyo and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Writing by Kanupriya Kapoor; Editing by Nick Macfie and Jeffrey Benkoe)