World leaders at Jerusalem conference condemn rising anti-Semitism

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – World leaders voiced alarm at resurgent anti-Semitism on Thursday as they gathered at Israel’s national Holocaust Memorial to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp Auschwitz.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence also castigated Iran in their speeches to the World Holocaust Forum, accusing it of rabid anti-Semitism and of seeking Israel’s destruction.

Leaders of Russia and France looked closer to home in lamenting the killing of six million Jews in Europe during World War Two by the Nazis and vowing to combat rising anti-Semitism.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier told the conference at the Yad Vashem memorial center that he bowed his head in “deepest sorrow (for) the worst crime in the history of humanity” committed by his countrymen.

“I wish I could say that we Germans have learned from history once and for all. But I cannot say that when hatred is spreading,” he said.

Steinmeier spoke in English rather than in German, a choice made, his office said, to avoid causing any distress to Holocaust survivors in the audience.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said it was vital to oppose xenophobia and anti-Semitism everywhere.

“You just said that it’s not known where anti-Semitism ends,” Putin told Israeli President Reuven Rivlin at a meeting before the conference convened.

“Unfortunately we do know this – Auschwitz is its end-result.”

A global survey https://global100.adl.org/about/2019 by the U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League in November found that global anti-Semitic attitudes had increased, and significantly so in Eastern and Central Europe. It found that large percentages of people in many European countries think Jews talk too much about the Holocaust.

More than one million people, most of them Jews, were killed at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. Israel hailed the memorial conference, attended by more than 40 world leaders, as the biggest international gathering in its history.

IRAN DENOUNCED

In his speech to the forum, Netanyahu denounced Iran as “the most anti-Semitic regime on the planet” and vowed that Israel would always defend itself against those out to destroy it.

Netanyahu has long accused Iran of seeking nuclear weapons, an allegation it denies.

Pence, in his comments, described Iran as the one country “that denies the Holocaust as a matter of state policy and threatens to wipe Israel off the map”.

Other guests at the commemoration included French President Emmanuel Macron and Britain’s Prince Charles.

Warning of the “dark shadow of anti-Semitism”, Macron met French survivors of the Holocaust at a memorial near Jerusalem to some 76,000 Jews arrested in wartime France and transported to death camps such as Auschwitz, where most died.

One notable absentee from Thursday’s commemoration was President Andrzej Duda of Poland, who turned down his invitation because Poland he was not allowed to speak at the conference, unlike the wartime victors the United States, Russia, Britain and France, and also Germany.

Polish leaders have also been angered by comments made by Putin last month suggesting Poland shared responsibility for the war. Poland, which was invaded first by Nazi Germany and then by Soviet forces in September, 1939, sees itself as a major victim of the war, in which it lost a fifth of its population.

Poland will host its own ceremony at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum on Jan. 27, as it does every year.

(Additional reporting by Justyna Pawlak in Warsaw, Darya Korsunskaya in Jerusalem and Sabine Siebold in Berlin; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Pence tells Hong Kong protesters in China speech: ‘We stand with you’

Pence tells Hong Kong protesters in China speech: ‘We stand with you’
By Alexandra Alper

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday accused China of curtailing “rights and liberties” in Hong Kong in a wide-ranging critique of Beijing’s behavior but also insisted that the United States does not seek confrontation or to “de-couple” from its main economic rival.

Pence delivered a major policy address on China just ahead of a new round of talks aimed at resolving a bitter trade war between the world’s two biggest economies.

“No longer will America and its leaders hope that economic engagement alone will transform Communist China’s authoritarian state into a free and open society that respects private property, the rule of law, and the international rules of commerce,” he said.

Pence took China to task over its handling of pro-democracy protests that have rocked Hong Kong for more than four months. President Donald Trump has warned previously that it would be harder for Washington to make a trade deal with Beijing if there were violence in the former British colony.

“Hong Kong is a living example of what can happen when China embraces liberty,” he said. “And yet, for the last few years, Beijing has increased its interventions in Hong Kong and engaged in actions that curtail the rights and liberties that Hong Kong’s people were guaranteed through a binding international agreement.”

He said the United States stands with the protesters in Hong Kong.

“We stand with you, we are inspired by you. We urge you to stay on the path of non-violent protest,” Pence said.

U.S. lawmakers are pushing legislation that would put Hong Kong’s special status under tighter scrutiny, which would anger Beijing.

TRADE TALKS

The closely watched speech to a Washington think tank comes ahead of a new round of talks between Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and his counterparts on Friday and was being seen as a gauge of how tough the Trump administration is prepared to get with China on a wide range of issues.

Pence, who has often struck a hawkish tone on China, spoke just weeks before Trump is due to attend a summit in Chile where he has said he hopes to close a “phase one” trade deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Fears of antagonizing Beijing prompted the White House in June to postpone the speech ahead of a meeting between the leaders aimed at getting trade talks back on track.

Pence said that United States is “not seeking to contain China’s development” “We want a constructive relationship with China’s leaders,” he said, calling on China to “seize this unique moment in history to start anew by ending the trade practices that have taken advantage of the American people for far too long.”

Pence on Thursday sharply criticized China for its treatment of Muslim Uighurs in the Xinjiang region.

Earlier this month, the United States imposed visa restrictions on Chinese government and Communist Party officials it believes responsible for the detention or abuse of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.

U.S. authorities this month also included Chinese video surveillance firm Hikvision on a trade blacklist for its alleged role in the Uighur crackdown.

Lawmakers such as Republican Senator Marco Rubio have also slammed Chinese companies for boycotting the NBA after Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey expressed solidarity with Hong Kong protesters.

Pence sharply criticized the basketball association for how it has handled the controversy.

“In siding with the Chinese Communist Party and silencing free speech, the NBA is acting like a wholly owned subsidiary of the authoritarian regime,” Pence said.

That spat played out amid unexpected progress in U.S.-China trade talks to end a 15-month trade war that has roiled markets and damaged global growth. The United States launched the trade war over allegations of unfair trading practices such as theft of U.S. intellectual property and generous industrial subsidies at the expense of foreign competitors.

(Reporting by Alexandra Alper; Additional reporting by David Lawder and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Alistair Bell)

Pence meets Erdogan to urge halt to Turkey’s Syria offensive

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence arrives at Esenboga International Airport in Ankara, Turkey, October 17, 2019. REUTERS/Huseyin Aldemir

Pence meets Erdogan to urge halt to Turkey’s Syria offensive
By Orhan Coskun and Humeyra Pamuk

ANKARA (Reuters) – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence met President Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey on Thursday on a mission to persuade him to halt an offensive against Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria, but Turkish officials said the action would continue regardless.

The assault has created a new humanitarian crisis in Syria with 200,000 civilians taking flight, a security alert over thousands of Islamic State fighters abandoned in Kurdish jails, and a political maelstrom at home for President Donald Trump.

Trump has been accused of abandoning Kurdish-led fighters, Washington’s main partners in the battle to dismantle Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate in Syria, by withdrawing troops from the border as Ankara launched its offensive on Oct. 9.

Trump defended his move on Wednesday as “strategically brilliant”. He said he thought Pence and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan would have a successful meeting, but warned of sanctions and tariffs that “will be devastating to Turkey’s economy” otherwise.

The White House released a letter from Trump to Erdogan from Oct. 9 that said: “Don’t be a tough guy” and “Don’t be a fool!” Turkish broadcaster CNN Turk said Turkey had rejected Trump’s appeal to reach a deal to avoid conflict and the letter was “thrown in the trash”.

A Turkish official told Reuters: “The letter Trump sent did not have the impact he expected in Turkey because it had nothing to take seriously.

“What is clear is that Turkey does not want a terrorist organization on its border and the operation will not stop because of the reaction that has been coming.”

Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did not speak to reporters before the start of the meeting with Erdogan, but the official said they were likely to convey the same U.S. demands, adding: “However, negotiating with a terrorist organization or turning back from the ongoing operation are not on the agenda.”

On Monday, White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told CNBC that the United States was prepared to levy additional sanctions on if necessary “to keep Turkey in line”.

A top aide to Erdogan, Ibrahim Kalin, said Turkey’s foreign ministry was preparing to retaliate for the sanctions by its NATO ally.

UNTIL GOALS MET

Erdogan has dismissed the sanctions and rejected a global chorus of calls to halt the offensive, which Turkey says will create a “safe zone” extending 20 miles (32 km) into northeast Syria to ensure the return of millions of Syrian refugees and clear the area of Kurdish militia Ankara views as terrorists.

Turkey will end its operation when Kurdish forces withdraw from the “safe zone” and “no power” can deter the operation until it reaches its goals, the Turkish leader said.

Trump has defended his move to withdraw troops from Syria as part of a wider effort to bring U.S. soldiers home from “endless wars”, despite criticism by members of his own Republican Party.

Turkey’s operation has allowed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to send his Russian-backed forces to an area that had been beyond his control for years in the more than eight-year-old Syrian war.

It also prompted the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), of which the Kurdish YPG is the main component, to strike a deal with Damascus for its help in countering Turkish forces.

Russia has promised Turkey that the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia targeted by the offensive will not be in the Syrian territories across the border, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told the BBC on Thursday.

Earlier in the day, Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman said Syria should get control over its border with Turkey as part of any settlement of the conflict in the region.

Assad vowed that Syria would respond to the Turkish offensive on any part of its territory with “all legitimate means” available, Syrian state media said on Thursday.

Ankara views the U.S.-backed YPG as a terrorist organization because of its link to Kurdish militants waging an insurgency inside Turkey, and had been infuriated by Washington’s support.

A Reuters cameraman along the Turkish border with Syria said clashes continued around the border town of Ras al Ain on Thursday and that Turkish warplanes were flying overhead after a lull in fighting overnight.

Ankara had previously said it has taken control of Ras al Ain and Tel Abyad, two key towns along the frontier.

The region’s Kurdish-led authority called for a corridor “to evacuate dead and wounded civilians” from Ras al-Ain. It said people were trapped in the town, urging foreign powers including the U.S.-led coalition and Russia, to intervene to get them out.

Syrian troops accompanied by Russian forces have meanwhile entered Kobani, a strategic border city and potential flashpoint for a wider conflict, said the British-based monitor the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Lebanon’s al-Mayadeen TV reported that Russian-backed Syrian forces had also set up outposts in Raqqa, the one-time capital of Islamic State’s caliphate, which the Kurds captured in 2017 at the peak of their campaign with U.S. support.

Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV said from the Tabqa military air base near Raqqa that Syrian government troops had advanced in that area.

“We entered the Tabqa military airport easily, there was no difficulty,” an army officer told the channel from the base, where Islamic State fighters executed scores of Syrian troops and circulated a video of their corpses in 2014.

Soldiers entered Tabqa and nearby villages on Monday, state media said, a deployment that restored the state’s foothold in that part of Syria for the first time in years.

With U.S. air power and special forces, the SDF had battled for weeks in 2017 to take Tabqa and a nearby hydroelectric dam – the country’s largest dam – from Islamic State.

CIVILIAN CASUALTIES

The Kurdish-led administration in the region said theTurkish offensive had killed 218 civilians, including 18 children since it started a week ago. The fighting has also wounded more than 650 people, it said.

Turkish authorities say 20 people have been killed in Turkey by bombardment from Syria, including eight people who were killed in a mortar attack on the town of Nusaybin by YPG militants on Friday, according to the local governor’s office.

In Geneva, humanitarian agencies said they were struggling to meet the needs of up to 200,000 civilians who had fled the fighting and reported water shortages in the Syrian city of Hasaka.

The operation has also created a land-rush between Turkey and Russia – now the undisputed foreign powers in the area – to partition Kurdish areas that were formerly under U.S protection.

Russia, Assad’s most powerful ally, has called the offensive “unacceptable” and said it must be limited in time and scale.

(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Ellen Francis in Beirut and Susan Heavey in Washington; Editing by Dominic Evans and Mark Heinrich)

U.S. holds out for more from Mexico in talks over tariffs, border

By Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Mexican and U.S. officials are set to resume talks on trade and migration on Thursday, with the United States resisting calls from its southern neighbor, businesses and some Republican lawmakers to ease up on a plan to impose import tariffs on Mexico.

Vice President Mike Pence, who led an initial round of negotiations in Washington on Wednesday, said talks were positive but emphasized the Trump administration still wants Mexico to commit to working harder to combat illegal immigration.

“We welcomed the efforts of the Mexican officials to offer solutions to the crisis at our southern border, but we need Mexico to do more,” Pence said on Thursday.

He was echoing President Donald Trump, who said on Wednesday that “not nearly enough” progress was made in the first round of talks, and warned that the tariffs would go into effect on Monday if Mexico cannot help stem the flow of mostly Central American migrants heading for the U.S. border.

Last week, Trump said Mexico must take a harder line on migrants or face 5% tariffs on all its exports to the United States from June 10, rising to as much as 25% later this year.

The unexpected announcement rattled global financial markets and even Trump’s fellow Republicans fretted about the potential economic impact on U.S. businesses and consumers who would have to absorb the costs.

MEXICO ECONOMY

Mexico would also take an economic hit that analysts warn could spark a recession. Credit ratings agency Fitch downgraded Mexico’s sovereign debt rating on Wednesday, citing trade tensions among other risks, while Moody’s lowered its outlook to negative.

Staff-level meetings are scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. (1800 GMT) on Thursday with Mexican officials at the White House, a White House official said. Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard earlier had meetings at the U.S. State Department.

The immigration issue came into sharper focus on Wednesday with news that U.S. border officers said they apprehended more than 132,000 people crossing from Mexico in May, the highest monthly total in more than a decade and reaching what officials said were “crisis” levels.

German bond yields fell to new lows on Thursday and U.S. treasury yields resumed their fall as trade tensions doused a rally fueled by hopes for more central bank stimulus ahead of a European Central Bank meeting. [US/]

Sentiment had soured on a lack of progress in talks between U.S. and Mexican officials, and Trump issuing a fresh threat to hit China with tariffs on at least another $300 billion worth of goods.

With Trump on a trip to Europe until Friday night, a quick agreement in the U.S.-Mexico talks is not anticipated by the U.S. side, although Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador struck a positive note.

“The U.S. authorities have behaved very well, (including) President Trump, because they haven’t closed themselves off to dialogue and we hope that a deal is reached today,” he told a news conference on Thursday.

Nevertheless, Mexican officials have prepared a list of U.S. products that may face retaliatory tariffs if talks do not end in agreement.

The tariffs would target U.S. products from agricultural and industrial states regarded as Trump’s electoral base, a tactic China has also used with an eye toward the Republican’s re-election bid in the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

Mexico ramped up efforts to halt the flow of Central American migrants crossing the border to the United States on Wednesday, with Mexican soldiers, armed police and immigration officials blocking migrants along its own southern border with Guatemala.

It was unclear whether the hardening of Mexico’s response would appease Trump, who is struggling to make good on his key 2016 presidential campaign promise to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border as part of a hard-line immigration stance.

Senator Chuck Grassley, Republican chairman of the finance committee, had expressed hope on Wednesday of a quick deal with Mexico but he was more cautious on Thursday.

“The fact that there wasn’t any agreement probably isn’t surprising as long as they are going to be here two or three days,” said Grassley, one of several Republican lawmakers who have expressed concern about imposing tariffs on Mexico.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton in Washington; Additional reporting by Alexandra Alper, Susan Cornwell and Lesley Wroughton in Washington and Anthony Esposito and Diego Ore in Mexico City; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Bernadette Baum and James Dalgleish)

Trump sends support to anti-abortion activists at March for Life

U.S. President Donald Trump, speaking from the nearby White House, addresses attendees of the March for Life rally by satellite in Washington, U.S. January 19, 2018. REUTERS/Eric Thayer

By Katharine Jackson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump spoke in a pre-recorded video to thousands of anti-abortion activists in Washington on Friday for the 46th March for Life, vowing to veto any legislation that “weakens the protection of human life.”

The event is the largest annual gathering in the United States of opponents of the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade. That ruling found that certain state laws outlawing abortion were an unconstitutional violation of a woman’s right to privacy, effectively legalizing abortion nationwide.

“As president, I will always defend the first right in our Declaration of Independence, the right to life,” Trump said in remarks recorded in the Oval Office, a right he said extended to “unborn children.”

Vice President Mike Pence appeared onstage at the rally to introduce the video, calling Trump, who before entering politics said he supported abortion access, “the most pro-life president in American history.”

During his 2016 campaign, Trump vowed to appoint Supreme Court justices he believed would overturn Roe. He has since appointed two justices to the court, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, cementing the court’s 6-3 conservative-leaning majority.

Since the heated Senate confirmation hearings for Kavanaugh, the court has steered clear of some cases on volatile social issues involving abortion.

Marchers held signs saying “Pray to End Abortion” and calling for the defunding Planned Parenthood, a national healthcare provider that provides abortions. “My unexpected pregnancy is now 30!” read another sign.

One marcher said she had an abortion when she was 15 but had been opposed to abortion ever since the birth of her first daughter.

“Every child is human even in utero and they deserve the right to life,” Sheila, a 56-year-old Maryland resident, said in an interview, declining to give her last name because of the political divisiveness of the subject.

Speakers at this year’s rally include Congressman Dan Lipinski, a Democrat, and Congressman Chris Smith, a Republican.

Supporters of abortion access say bans infringe on women’s rights and health, and lead to greater rates of injury and death among pregnant women.

About half of U.S. adults say abortion should be legal, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll last year, with about 68 percent of Democrats supporting abortion access compared to about 31 percent of Republicans.

(Additional reporting and writing by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Scott Malone, Bill Berkrot and Tom Brown)

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)