Netanyahu, his rival to meet Trump on Mideast peace next week: Pence

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump has invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his election rival Benny Gantz to Washington next week to discuss the White House Middle East peace plan, Vice President Mike Pence said on Thursday.

“President Trump asked me to extend an invitation to Prime Minister Netanyahu to come to the White House next week to discuss regional issues as well as the prospect of peace here in the Holy Land,” Pence said after meeting Netanyahu at the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem.

There was no mention of the Palestinians, and Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said: “We warn Israel and the U.S. administration not to cross any red lines.”

Netanyahu said he had accepted the U.S. invitation. His office said he would fly to the United States on Sunday.

The veteran right-wing Israeli leader faces political and legal troubles at home – he is heading for his third election in less than a year, and he was indicted on criminal charges in November. He denies any wrongdoing.

Israeli political analysts viewed Trump’s invitation as a boost to his right-wing ally.

Netanyahu’s principal domestic political rival Gantz, a centrist former general, this week lifted his objection to having the peace plan be published before Israel’s March election. He had previously objected to it as interference in the vote.

LONG-DELAYED PLAN

The launch of Trump’s plan to end the decades-long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has been delayed numerous times since it was first mooted more than two years ago.

Prospects for a breakthrough appear dim and details of the plan have been kept under wraps. But a source familiar with the situation said U.S. officials would “most likely” share some details of the plan with Netanyahu and Gantz.

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed in 2014 and Palestinians have called Trump’s proposal dead in the water, even before its publication, citing what they see as his pro-Israel policies.

The Trump administration has reversed decades of U.S. policy on the conflict, refraining from endorsing the “two-state solution” – the longtime international formula which envisages a Palestinian state co-existing with Israel.

It has also recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved its embassy there. More recently, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced in November that the United States no longer viewed Israel’s settlements on West Bank land as “inconsistent with international law”.

Palestinians and most of the international community view the settlements as illegal under international law. Israel disputes this, citing historical, biblical and political ties to the land, as well as security needs.

Netanyahu announced during an election campaign last September that he intends to annex the Jordan Valley, a large swathe of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Israel captured the West Bank in a 1967 war and Palestinians, who signed interim peace deals with Israel in the 1990s, seek to make the area part of a future state.

Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank, has publicly refused to engage politically with the Trump administration.

They fear the plan will dash their hopes for an independent state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

Trump, who will seek a second term in a Nov. 3 U.S. election, faces his own problems at home with Democrats seeking to oust the Republican president on impeachment charges of abusing power and obstructing Congress.

(Reporting by Maayan Lubell; Additional reporting by Dan Williams, Ali Sawafta in Bethlehem, and Steve Holland in Washington; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Howard Goller)

U.S. Congress approves massive funding bills to avert government shutdowns

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate, rushing to meet a looming deadline, approved and sent to President Donald Trump a $1.4 trillion package of fiscal 2020 spending bills that would end prospects of government shutdowns at week’s end when temporary funding expires.

By strong bipartisan margins and with White House backing, the Senate passed the two gigantic funding bills for government programs through Sept. 30.

Trump is expected to sign both bills into law before a midnight Friday deadline.

Notably, the Pentagon would get $738 billion for military activities – $22 billion more than last year.

Investments in domestic programs range from child nutrition and college grants to research on gun violence for the first time in decades and money for affordable housing programs that Trump had opposed.

The legislation also contains a series of new initiatives, including funding for Trump’s military Space Force, raising the age for purchasing tobacco products to 21 from the current 18, and repealing some taxes that were intended to fund the Affordable Care Act health insurance, popularly known as Obamacare.

About a year ago, the U.S. government plunged into a record-long, 35-day partial shutdown after Congress refused to give Trump the money he wanted to build a U.S.-Mexico border wall – one that he previously had insisted Mexico would finance.

This time around, money for border security would stay level at $1.37 billion, far below what Trump had sought.

Earlier this year, angered by Congress’ refusal to give him the wall money, Trump declared an “emergency” and took funds from other accounts appropriated by Congress and used them to build part of the border wall that was a central promise of his 2016 presidential campaign.

Congressional and White House negotiators reached a deal on the spending bills to avert government shutdowns just days before Washington plunged into a different kind of political crisis: the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives approving articles of impeachment against Trump, a Republican.

With Democrats and Republicans trying to demonstrate that they can get at least some legislative work done amid Trump’s impeachment, the administration and Democrats also worked out differences over a U.S.-Mexico-Canada free trade agreement, making for a flurry of pre-Christmas break action in Washington.

The $1.4 trillion in spending for so-called “discretionary” programs, up from $1.36 trillion last year, is separate from “mandatory” programs like Social Security retirement benefits, which are automatically funded.

The higher spending, coupled with tax cuts enacted in 2017, are contributing to widening budget deficits. The government spent $984 billion more than it took in during the last fiscal year that ended on Sept. 30, and the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office projects annual budget deficits averaging $1.2 trillion over the next decade.

A rapidly-rising U.S. national debt now stands at $23.1 trillion, a level that some experts fear could eventually hobble the economy.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Steve Orlofsky and Dan Grebler)

Trump poised to sign massive government spending bill: White House

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump supports massive U.S. government spending plans hammered out by Congress this week and plans to sign the $1.4 trillion budget bill into law, White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said on Tuesday.

“He’s very happy with what he’s learned the final contents are expected to be in the spending bill, and he’s pleased to sign it,” Conway told reporters at the White House.

The Republican president’s signature would avert a partial shutdown of the federal government when funds run out on Saturday and avoid a messy, year-end budget battle with U.S. lawmakers that would interrupt government services.

But it would continue Washington’s cycle of last-minute massive omnibus spending bills that are only agreed upon when critical deadlines loom instead of appropriating funds ahead of time on a regular schedule.

Congress must still pass the legislation, which was put together during weeks of negotiations between leading lawmakers and the Trump administration and would fund government programs through Sept. 30, 2020.

(Reporting by Alexandra Alper and Makini Brice; writing by Susan Heavey; editing by John Stonestreet and Jonathan Oatis)

White House will wait for Senate trial to address impeachment charges

By Ginger Gibson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump will address the two impeachment charges brought by Democrats on Tuesday during the U.S. Senate trial phase of the proceedings – continuing to opt not to argue the merits of the charges ahead of an expected vote in the U.S. House, the White House said.

“The President will address these false charges in the Senate and expects to be fully exonerated, because he did nothing wrong,” White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement. The statement did not make clear how he would address the charges.

The White House and Trump’s political apparatus – which include his re-election campaign and the Republican National Committee – have opted to attack the impeachment process instead of engaging in a debate about the facts that Democrats have presented.

Calling the process partisan and lacking in fairness, Trump and his allies have sought to paint his Democratic accusers as trying to undo his 2016 election.

Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives announced formal charges against Trump on Tuesday, accusing him of abusing power by pressuring Ukraine to probe a political rival and obstructing Congress’ investigation into the scandal.

The House could vote as soon as next week. The charges conclude weeks of investigation and hearings, which Trump has derided as one-sided and failing to offer him a fair opportunity to present his side. The White House has refused repeated requests for senior officials to testify and for relevant documents.

The House is almost certain to approve impeachment along partisan lines. A trial would then likely be held in the Senate in January, where members of Trump’s party control the chamber. No Republican in the House or Senate has come out in favor of convicting Trump and thus removing him from office.

Trump and his allies have sought to depict the impeachment process as a net gain for the president – arguing that the Democratic-led effort has pushed his supporters to more staunchly back him. Republicans are also trying to leverage the process to attack House Democrats who represent districts the party may be able to pick up in the 2020 election.

“The announcement of two baseless articles of impeachment does not hurt the President, it hurts the American people, who expect their elected officials to work on their behalf to strengthen our Nation,” Grisham said in a statement.

(Reporting by Ginger Gibson and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Lisa Lambert)

Errant plane leads to brief lockdown at White House, Capitol

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House and U.S. Capitol were temporarily locked down on Tuesday after an air space violation in the area.

Nearby roads were closed and no one was allowed into the compounds, which were reopened after a short period.

Military fighter jets responded to the incident but the aircraft was deemed not to be a threat. “Plane is not considered hostile at this time,” a Pentagon spokesman said.

Security lockdowns are not uncommon around the White House. The Secret Service had no immediate comment.

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert, Phil Stewart, Susan Heavey, Doina Chiacu; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Jonathan Oatis and David Gregorio)

Trump says he will allow states to import prescription drugs to lower costs

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Friday he will soon release a plan to let Florida and other states import prescription medicines to combat high drug prices, and he blasted the Democrat-led House for not going far enough in a drug-pricing bill.

“We will soon be putting more options on the table,” Trump wrote in a series of tweets, adding that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi “and her Do Nothing Democrats drug pricing bill doesn’t do the trick.”

The tweets were similar to comments the president made on Nov. 15 at a White House event with Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar, among other officials. At that meeting, Trump said he would work with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis on a plan to broaden rules on importing pharmaceuticals into this country.

Drug companies have staunchly opposed such a plan, which has been mulled for years but never implemented.

“House Republicans are showing real LEADERSHIP and prepared to enact bipartisan solutions for drug prices. Do Nothing Democrats are playing partisan politics with YOUR drug prices! We are READY to work together if they actually want to get something done!,” the president, who faces impeachment by the Democrat-led House of Representatives, said on Twitter.

U.S. prescription drug costs are the highest in the developed world because most other countries negotiate pricing directly with manufacturers, while drug companies are allowed to set their own prices in the United States.

Lowering healthcare costs for U.S. consumers is expected to be a major issue in the 2020 presidential campaign.

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Some migrants waiting in Mexico for U.S. court hearings caught crossing illegally

By Ted Hesson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Roughly one in 10 migrants pushed back to Mexico to await U.S. court hearings under a Trump administration program have been caught crossing the border again, a top border official said on Thursday.

Acting U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan said during a White House briefing that migrants returned to Mexico under a program known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) have a 9% recidivism rate. Many of those migrants intend to seek asylum in the United States.

“Unfortunately, some of the individuals in the MPP program are actually going outside the shelter environment,” Morgan said. “They’re re-engaging with the cartels because they’re tired of waiting. And that’s when we’re hearing that some of that further abuse and exploitation is happening.”

Morgan said that around 50,000 people have been returned to Mexico under the program. Customs and Border Protection did not immediately respond to a request for more details on his comments.

The administration of Republican President Donald Trump launched the MPP program in January as part of a strategy to deter mostly Central American families from trekking to the U.S. border to seek asylum. Trump officials have argued the bulk of such claims for protection lack merit and that migrants are motivated by economic concerns.

Immigration advocates say asylum seekers sent to wait in Mexican border towns, for the weeks or months it takes for their cases to wind through backlogged immigration courts, face dangerous and possibly deadly conditions.

Migrants who claim fear of returning to Mexico can ask to stay in the United States for the duration of their court case. But just 1% of cases have been transferred out of the program, according to a Reuters analysis of federal immigration court data as of early October.

The administration has said the MPP program and other measures has helped lead to a decline in border arrests. In October, apprehensions along the U.S.-Mexico border fell for the fifth straight month, Morgan said.

The White House briefing followed a leadership change at the Homeland Security Department on Wednesday.

The Trump administration installed Chad Wolf, previously chief of staff to former Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, as acting secretary. Wolf then announced that acting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Ken Cuccinelli – an immigration hard liner – would be elevated to the No. 2 position at the department.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson; Editing by Mica Rosenberg and Lisa Shumaker)

Trump ‘not ready’ for China trade deal, dismisses recession fears

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump meets with China's President Xi Jinping at the start of their bilateral meeting at the G20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan, June 29, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo/File Photo

By Howard Schneider

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump and top White House officials dismissed concerns that economic growth may be faltering, saying on Sunday they saw little risk of recession despite a volatile week on global bond markets, and insisting their trade war with China was doing no damage to the United States.

“We’re doing tremendously well, our consumers are rich, I gave a tremendous tax cut, and they’re loaded up with money,” Trump said on Sunday.

But he was less optimistic than his aides on striking a trade deal with China, saying that while he believed China was ready to come to an agreement, “I’m not ready to make a deal yet.”

He hinted that the White House would like to see Beijing resolve ongoing protests in Hong Kong first.

“I would like to see Hong Kong worked out in a very humanitarian fashion,” Trump said. “I think it would be very good for the trade deal.”

White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said trade deputies from the two countries would speak within 10 days and “if those deputies’ meetings pan out… we are planning to have China come to the USA” to advance negotiations over ending a trade battle that has emerged as a potential risk to global economic growth.

Even with the talks stalled for now and the threat of greater tariffs and other trade restrictions hanging over the world economy, Kudlow said on “Fox News Sunday” the United States remained “in pretty good shape.”

“There is no recession in sight,” Kudlow said. “Consumers are working. Their wages are rising. They are spending and they are saving.”

Their comments follow a week in which concerns about a possible U.S. recession weighed on financial markets and seemed to put administration officials on edge about whether the economy would hold up through the 2020 presidential election campaign. Democrats on Sunday argued Trump’s trade policies were posing an acute, short-term risk.

U.S. stock markets tanked last week on recession fears with all three major U.S. indexes closing down about 3% on Wednesday, paring their losses by Friday due to expectations the European Central Bank might cut rates.

The U.S. Federal Reserve and 19 other central banks have already loosened monetary policy in what Fitch Ratings last week described as the largest shift since the 2009 recession.

Markets are expecting more cuts to come. For a brief time last week, bond investors demanded a higher interest rate on 2-year Treasury bonds than for 10-year Treasury bonds, a potential signal of lost faith in near-term economic growth.

White House trade adviser Peter Navarro on Sunday dismissed the idea that last week’s market volatility was a warning sign, saying “good” economic dynamics were encouraging investors to move money to the United States.

“We have the strongest economy in the world and money is coming here for our stock market. It’s also coming here to chase yield in our bond markets,” Navarro told ABC’s “This Week.”

For bond markets, the sort of movement Navarro described is often driven by trouble – in this case the possibility that the trade battle with China is lasting far longer than expected and becoming disruptive to business investment and growth.

The U.S. economy does continue to grow and add jobs each month. Retail sales in July jumped a stronger-than-expected 0.7%, the government reported last week, and Kudlow said that number showed that the main prop of the U.S. economy was intact.

But manufacturing growth has slowed and lagging business investment has become a drag.

A slowdown would be bad news for Trump, who is building his 2020 bid for a second term around the economy’s performance. He told voters at a rally last week they had “no choice” but to vote for him to preserve their jobs and investments.

The president and his advisers have repeatedly accused the Fed of undermining the administration’s economic policies. On Sunday, Kudlow again pointed the finger at the central bank, describing rate hikes through 2017 and 2018 as “very severe monetary restraint.”

The Fed hiked rates seven times over those two years as part of a plan to restore normal monetary policy following emergency steps taken to battle the 2007-2009 global financial crisis and recession.

Even with those steps, the Fed’s target interest rate has remained well below historic norms, and policymakers have started cutting rates in response to growing global risks.

Democratic presidential candidates on Sunday joined the many economic analysts who have said the administration’s sometimes erratic policies on trade – at one point threatening tariffs on Mexico over immigration issues – are to blame for increased uncertainty, disappointing business investment and market volatility.

“I’m afraid that this president is driving the global economy and our economy into recession,” Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Speaking to CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg criticized the administration for failing to deliver a deal with China.

“There is clearly no strategy for dealing with the trade war in a way that will lead to results for American farmers, or American consumers,” he said.

(Reporting by Howard Schneider; Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and Ginger Gibson; editing by Michelle Price, Lisa Shumaker and Rosalba O’Brien)

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)

Life-threatening rains pound U.S. capital; White House basement offices leak

Flood waters are pictured in North Arlington, Virginia, U.S., July 8, 2019 in this picture grab obtained from social media video. Twitter/Hope Hodge Seck/@hopeseck/via REUTERS

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Driving rains flooded parts of Washington, D.C., on Monday, shattering a daily record in just an hour, forcing 15 swift-water rescues from stranded cars and causing an undeniable leak in the White House.

“This is a life-threatening situation. Seek higher ground now!” the National Weather Service warned amid torrential rains that dropped 3.3 inches (8.4 cm) at Reagan National Airport from 9 a.m. through 10 a.m. ET (1200-1300 GMT), shattering in one hour the previous record of 2.2 inches (5.6 cm) set in 1958.

It was the seventh-wettest July day since record-keeping began in 1871, said NWS meteorologist Marc Chenard.

“They broke their daily record in an hour,” he said.

Even more rainfall was recorded further northwest, in Arlington, Virginia, where about 5 inches (12.7 cm) fell from 9 to 10 a.m., Chenard said.

The rains eased by late morning and were expected to end by midday, Chenard said.

Torrents of water streamed through the ceiling of Metro stations, and major arteries serving Washington’s top museums and memorials shut down due to high water as local emergency personnel reported rescuing several people from cars. By midday, DC Fire and EMS said it had saved 15 drivers.

Firefighters used yellow rubber lifeboats to rescue those trapped by the flood waters.

Twitter images showed a photograph of a very wet floor beneath office chairs and desks on the basement level of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

“White House is leaking,” CNN journalist Betsy Klein tweeted with the picture.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington, additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Scott Malone and Dan Grebler)