Exclusive: Overruling diplomats, U.S. to drop Iraq, Myanmar from child soldiers’ list

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks during a press conference after talks with Chinese diplomatic and defense chiefs at the State Department in Washington, U.S. June 21, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Jason Szep and Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – In a highly unusual intervention, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson plans to remove Iraq and Myanmar from a U.S. list of the world’s worst offenders in the use of child soldiers, disregarding the recommendations of State Department experts and senior U.S. diplomats, U.S. officials said.

The decision, confirmed by three U.S. officials, would break with longstanding protocol at the State Department over how to identify offending countries and could prompt accusations the Trump administration is prioritizing security and diplomatic interests ahead of human rights.

Tillerson overruled his own staff’s assessments on the use of child soldiers in both countries and rejected the recommendation of senior diplomats in Asia and the Middle East who wanted to keep Iraq and Myanmar on the list, said the officials, who have knowledge of the internal deliberations.

Tillerson also rejected an internal State Department proposal to add Afghanistan to the list, the three U.S. officials said.

One official said the decisions appeared to have been made following pressure from the Pentagon to avoid complicating assistance to the Iraqi and Afghan militaries, close U.S. allies in the fight against Islamist militants. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity.

Foreign militaries on the list can face sanctions including a prohibition on receiving U.S. military aid, training and U.S.-made weapons unless the White House issues a waiver.

Human rights officials expressed surprise at the delisting, which was expected to be announced on Tuesday, the officials said, as part of the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report.

A State Department official said the TIP report’s contents were being kept under wraps until its release and the department “does not discuss details of internal deliberations.”

The Pentagon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Under the Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008, the U.S. government must be satisfied that “no children are recruited, conscripted or otherwise compelled to serve as child soldiers” in order for a country to be removed from the list and U.S. military assistance to resume.

In the lead-up to Tuesday’s report, the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, which researches the issue and helps shape U.S. policy on it, along with its legal office and diplomatic bureaus in Asia and the Middle East concluded that the evidence merited keeping both countries on the list, the officials said.

Officials said that although the report had been finalized there was always the possibility of last-minute changes.

BETRAYING CHILDREN

Human Rights Watch said removing Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, from the list would be a “completely premature and disastrous action that will effectively betray more children to continued servitude and rights abuses.”

The decision also would put the Trump administration at odds with the United Nations, which continues to list the Myanmar military, along with seven ethnic armed groups, on its list of entities using and recruiting child soldiers.

“What’s particularly astonishing is this move ignores that the U.N. in Burma says that it is still receiving new cases of children being recruited” by the Myanmar military, said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

Rights groups have long accused Myanmar of using child soldiers. Bordering both China and India, Myanmar is also of growing strategic importance to the United States at a time of increasing encroachment in the region by China, which has sought closer relations with its neighbor.

Iraq, which has received more than $2 billion in U.S. arms and training over the last three years, was added to the State Department’s “Child Soldier Prevention Act List” in 2016. However, the flow of U.S. assistance has continued.

Former President Barack Obama handed out full or partial waivers regularly, including last year to Iraq, Myanmar, Nigeria, South Sudan and others out of 10 countries on the list.

Last year’s State Department report said some militias of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an umbrella group of mostly Shi’ite Muslim factions with ties to the Iraqi government and backed by Iran, “recruited and used child soldiers.”

The report said that despite the PMF being funded by the government, Baghdad struggled to control all of its factions.

“The government did not hold anyone accountable for child recruitment and use by the PMF and PMF-affiliated militias.”

    Human Rights Watch said in January that it had learned that militias had been recruiting child soldiers from one Iraqi refugee camp since last spring.

    The broader TIP report, the first of Trump’s presidency, is sure to be closely scrutinized for further signs that under his “America First” approach there will be little pressure brought to bear on friendly governments, especially strategically important ones, for human rights violations at home.

The Obama administration, while more vocal about political repression around the world, also faced criticism from human rights groups and some U.S. lawmakers that decisions on annual human trafficking rankings had become increasingly politicized.

(Additional reporting by Antoni Slodkowski in Yangon and Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by Grant McCool and Leslie Adler)

Mueller team lawyer brings witness-flipping expertise to Trump probes

FILE PHOTO: Lawyer John Dowd exits Manhattan Federal Court in New York May 11, 2011. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File photo

By Karen Freifeld

(Reuters) – A veteran federal prosecutor recruited onto special counsel Robert Mueller’s team is known for a skill that may come in handy in the investigation of potential ties between Russia and U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign team: persuading witnesses to turn on friends, colleagues and superiors.

Andrew Weissmann, who headed the U.S. Justice Department’s criminal fraud section before joining Mueller’s team last month, is best known for two assignments – the investigation of now-defunct energy company Enron and organized crime cases in Brooklyn, New York – that depended heavily on gaining witness cooperation.

Securing the cooperation of people close to Trump, many of whom have been retaining their own lawyers, could be important for Mueller, who was named by the Justice Department as special counsel on May 17 and is investigating, among other issues, whether Trump himself has sought to obstruct justice. Trump has denied allegations of both collusion and obstruction.

“Flipping” witnesses is a common, although not always successful, tactic in criminal prosecutions.

Robert Ray, who succeeded Kenneth Starr as the independent counsel examining former President Bill Clinton, noted that Trump’s fired former national security advisor, Michael Flynn, has already offered through his lawyer to testify before Congress in exchange for immunity, suggesting potential willingness to cooperate as a witness.

“It would seem to me the time is now to make some decisions about what you have and what leverage can be applied to get the things you don’t have,” Ray said, referring to Mueller’s team.

Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and others close to the president already have hired their own lawyers to help navigate Mueller’s expanding probe and ongoing congressional investigations.

Kathryn Ruemmler, who served as White House counsel under former President Barack Obama, said Weissmann is willing to take risks to secure witness testimony that other prosecutors might not. Ruemmler worked with Weissmann on the Justice Department’s Enron task force that investigated the massive corporate fraud that led to the company’s 2001 collapse.

Ruemmler recalled that Weissmann had a hunch that former Enron treasurer Ben Glisan would be willing to talk despite already having pleaded guilty without agreeing to cooperate. So Weissmann had U.S. marshals bring Glisan before the grand jury from prison, Ruemmler said.

‘NOT AFRAID TO LOSE’

Other prosecutors might have feared Glisan’s testimony could contradict their theory of the case, Ruemmler said, but Weissmann’s gamble paid off when the former executive became a key witness.

“He’s not afraid to lose, and that is sometimes an unusual quality,” Ruemmler said of Weissmann.

Weissmann also led lengthy negotiations with lawyers for Andrew Fastow, Enron’s former chief financial officer and a star prosecution witness in the case, gaining leverage from the fact that prosecutors had indicted Fastow’s wife, also a former Enron employee, on tax fraud charges.

Both pleaded guilty, and Fastow testified against former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling, who was convicted in 2006.

Fastow declined to comment. Glisan could not be reached for comment. Representatives for Mueller and the Trump legal team declined to comment.

Critics have said say Weissmann’s hardball approach can lead to prosecutorial overreach. A number of Enron convictions were overturned on appeal, and Skilling’s 24-year sentence was later reduced by 10 years.

Defense lawyer Tom Kirkendall, who represented clients related to the Enron case, said the task force intimidated witnesses and misinterpreted the law.

But Sam Buell, a former prosecutor who was a member of the Enron task force, called such criticism routine in high-stakes cases.

Mueller has several other highly experienced lawyers on his team, including U.S. Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben. Trump has also been building a legal team led by New York lawyer Marc Kasowitz, with veteran Washington defense lawyer John Dowd recently coming aboard.

Before his work relating to Enron, Weissmann served as a federal prosecutor in the organized crime bureau in Brooklyn. In 1997, he and trial partner George Stamboulidis brought down one of the country’s most powerful mob bosses, Vincent “the Chin” Gigante, with the help of turncoat witnesses.

“We cut our teeth in the organized crime section,” said Stamboulidis, now in private practice. “And the only way you can make those cases is to get people to cooperate, even when the oath of Omerta (a Mafia code of silence and non-cooperation with authorities) was strong and in full play.”


(Reporting by Karen Freifeld; Editing by Anthony Lin and Will Dunham)

Trump says Comey not telling truth, willing to respond under oath

U.S. President Donald Trump gestures during the Infrastructure Summit with Governors and Mayors at the White House in Washington, U.S., June 8, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Friday denied that he tried to block an FBI investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn, effectively accusing James Comey, the FBI’s former director, of lying under oath to Congress.

Comey delivered scathing remarks about the president on Thursday at a congressional hearing and testified that Trump had asked him to drop a Federal Bureau of Investigation probe into former aide Michael Flynn and his alleged ties to Russia.

Trump says Comey’s testimony also vindicated him from allegations that he colluded with Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

“James Comey confirmed a lot of what I said. And some of the things that he said just weren’t true,” Trump said at an event in the White House Rose Garden.

Asked by a reporter if he had told Comey to drop the investigation into former national security adviser Flynn, Trump said, “I didn’t say that.”

The reporter then asked, “So he lied about that?”

“Well, I didn’t say that. I mean, I will tell you, I didn’t say that,” Trump replied. “And there would be nothing wrong if I did say it according to everybody that I’ve read today, but I did not say that,” he said.

In his testimony, Comey also said Trump asked him in January to pledge loyalty to the president, an unusual request that would put in doubt the independence of the FBI.

“I hardly know the man. I’m not going to say I want you to pledge allegiance. Who would do that?” Trump said at joint news conference with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis.

Comey’s testimony was the most eagerly anticipated U.S. congressional hearing in years. The issue of the Trump election campaign’s relationship with Russia has dogged Trump’s first months in office and distracted from his policy goals such as overhauling the U.S. healthcare system and making tax cuts.

Comey, who was fired by Trump in May, did not make any major disclosures about any links between Trump or his associates and alleged Russian meddling.

Asked on Friday if he would be willing to go under oath to give his version of his interactions with Comey, Trump replied, “100 percent.”

He said he would be happy to speak to special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating allegations that Russia interfered with the election and colluded with Trump’s campaign.

“I would be glad to tell him exactly what I just told you,” Trump told a reporter.

Trump’s offer to testify under oath would pit his word against Comey’s before federal investigators.

If either Trump’s testimony or memos written by Comey about his conversations with the president turn out to be untrue, either man could be charged with lying to federal investigators.

A U.S. president is given a wide array of immunities from criminal prosecutions. The U.S. Constitution does not directly address whether the president can be criminally prosecuted, and the area is the subject of legal debate. A president can be charged after leaving office.

Trump wrote earlier on Friday on Twitter that the former FBI head had vindicated him by telling the Senate Intelligence Committee that the president had not been personally under investigation in the Russia probe.

With a single tweet, Trump also castigated Comey as “a leaker” for giving an account of his conversation with the president to a law professor who shared it with a news outlet.

“Despite so many false statements and lies, total and complete vindication … and WOW, Comey is a leaker!” Trump tweeted.

(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell, Roberta Rampton, Alison Frankel and Tony Lin; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Frances Kerry and Toni Reinhold)

Comey accuses Trump administration of defaming him, “lies”

Former FBI Director James Comey testifies before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., June 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

By Patricia Zengerle and Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Former FBI Director James Comey on Thursday accused the Trump administration of defaming him and telling lies about the agency, but declined to offer his opinion on whether President Donald Trump sought to obstruct justice by asking him to drop an investigation into the former national security advisor.

Comey told U.S. lawmakers at a hearing before a Senate panel he was confused by “the shifting explanations” given by the Trump administration for his firing on May 9.

“Although the law required no reason at all to fire the FBI director, the administration then chose to defame me and more importantly the FBI by saying that the organization was in disarray, that the workforce had lost confidence in its leader,” Comey said.

“Those were lies, plain and simple, and I am so sorry that the FBI workforce had to hear them and that the American people were told that,” Comey said.

Trump triggered a political firestorm on May 9 when he dismissed Comey, who was heading an FBI probe into allegations of Russian meddling into the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

In written testimony released a day before the hearing, Comey said Trump had asked him to drop an FBI investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn as part of the probe. Comey said Trump told him at a meeting in the White House in February, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.”

Some legal experts said Comey’s testimony could strengthen any impeachment case in Congress to remove Trump from office built on an allegation of obstruction of justice.

“I don’t think it’s for me to say whether the conversation I had with the president was an effort to obstruct. I took it as a very disturbing thing, very concerning,” Comey said. “But that’s a conclusion I’m sure the special counsel will work towards to try and understand what the intention was there and whether that’s an offense.”

The Republican president said Comey had lost the faith of his workforce, but later suggested that his dismissal was related to the Russia investigation.

“When I was appointed FBI director in 2013, I understood that I served at the pleasure of the president,” Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee in one of the most widely anticipated U.S. congressional hearing in years.

“On May the ninth, when I learned that I was fired, for that reason, I immediately came home as a private citizen. But then the explanations, the shifting explanations confused me and increasingly concerned me,” Comey said.

The hearing could have significant repercussions for Trump’s presidency as special counsel Robert Mueller and several congressional committees investigate alleged Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election and whether Trump’s campaign colluded with this.

Russia has denied such interference and the White House has denied any collusion.

The issue has dogged Trump’s first months in office, with critics saying that any efforts by him to hinder the FBI probe could amount to obstruction of justice. Comey will be making his first public appearance since Trump fired him.

Photographers crowded around as Comey, wearing a dark suit, took his seat at the witness table alone at the start of the hearing in a room on Capitol Hill.

Trump planned to watch the hearing with his outside counsel Marc Kasowitz and other advisers in a dining room in the White House, a source familiar with the plan said.


(Additional reporting by John Walcott, Doina Chiacu, Susan Heavey; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Ex-FBI Chief Comey tells Senators Trump pressured him on Russia probe

FILE PHOTO – FBI Director James Comey waits to testify to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on “Russia’s intelligence activities” on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. January 10, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Former FBI Director James Comey said on Wednesday that U.S. President Donald Trump asked him to drop an investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn as part of a probe into Russia’s alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

In written testimony released the day before he appears before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Comey said Trump told him at a meeting in the White House in February: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.”

The testimony puts more pressure on Trump, a Republican, whose presidency has been overshadowed by allegations that Moscow helped him win last year’s election.

Some legal experts said Comey’s testimony could strengthen any impeachment case built on obstruction of justice, but U.S. markets shrugged off the news from the testimony for lack of any major disclosures.

To build a criminal obstruction of justice case, federal law requires prosecutors to show that a person acted with “corrupt” intent. It does not matter whether the person succeeds in impeding an investigation.

While a sitting president is very unlikely to face criminal prosecution, obstruction of justice could form the basis for impeachment.

Comey said he had told Trump on three occasions he was not being investigated, confirming an earlier account from the president.

Trump, who spent part of Wednesday in Ohio talking about the need to fix the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, ignored reporters’ shouted questions about Comey. On returning to the Oval Office, Trump went into a meeting with top advisers, including chief of staff Reince Priebus.

Later, his outside counsel released a statement saying Trump felt “completely and totally vindicated” by Comey’s account.

“The president is pleased that Mr. Comey has finally publicly confirmed his private reports that the president was not under investigation in any Russian probe,” Marc Kasowitz, Trump’s attorney, said in a statement.

‘AWKWARD SILENCE’

Several congressional committees, as well as the FBI and a special counsel, are investigating whether Russia tried to tilt last November’s election in Trump’s favor, using means such as hacking into the emails of senior Democrats. Trump and the Kremlin have separately denied any collusion.

Trump abruptly fired Comey, who was leading the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s probe, on May 9.

Comey painted a vivid picture for senators of awkward encounters with Trump in seven pages of testimony.

Comey described a private dinner in the Green Room of the White House on Jan. 26, where Trump asked him whether he wanted to stay on as FBI director, telling him: “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.”

“I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence,” Comey said in his testimony, explaining he became concerned that Trump was trying to create “some sort of patronage relationship.”

On Feb. 14, after an Oval Office briefing on counterterrorism, Trump asked Comey to stay behind, dismissing Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, who lingered, and waving off Priebus, who peeked through the door.

“When the door by the grandfather clock closed, and we were alone, the president began by saying, ‘I want to talk about Mike Flynn,'” Comey said in his testimony.

Trump had fired Flynn the previous day in a controversy over contacts between the retired general and the Russian ambassador to the United States. The FBI has been investigating Flynn as it looks into allegations of links between Russia and the Trump campaign.

Comey quoted Trump as telling him: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

On March 30, Trump phoned Comey and asked what “we could do to lift the cloud” of the FBI’s Russia investigation.

“He said he had nothing to do with Russia, had not been involved with hookers in Russia, and had always assumed he was being recorded when in Russia,” said Comey, who had briefed Trump on “salacious material” that had arisen in a counter-intelligence investigation.

Michael Cohen, a lawyer for Trump, said in a statement that the uncorroborated dossier of compromising material that Russian operatives allegedly collected on Trump has been “debunked.”

“Comey’s statement released today needs to be carefully scrutinized as his testimony claims the president was concerned about the dossier,” said Cohen.

Cohen, along with Flynn, has been subpoenaed by the House Intelligence Committee, which is also conducting a Russia probe.

LEGAL FALLOUT?

Some legal experts said Comey’s written statement could be used to show that Trump engaged in obstruction of justice.

“It shows the president was doing everything he could to shut down the Flynn investigation,” said Andrew Wright, a professor of criminal law at Savannah Law School.

Bruce Green, a professor of law at Fordham University School of Law, said it would be difficult, however, to show that Trump intended to obstruct justice. Trump could say he was merely vouching for Flynn’s character and voicing concerns about how the probe was interfering with his ability to function effectively as president, Green said.

Democrats jumped on the testimony, expressing concern that Trump had inappropriately meddled with the probe.

“It’s certainly very possible that this is evidence, in combination with other actions by the president, that could amount to obstruction. It’s certainly an effort to interfere in the investigation,” the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Representative Adam Schiff, told CNN.

Republican House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan, asked about Trump’s request for loyalty from Comey, said it was “very, very critical” that FBI directors remain “independent.”

But Republican Senator Richard Burr, who heads the Senate intelligence panel, said he did not take issue with Trump’s request.

“I don’t think it’s wrong to ask for loyalty from anybody in an administration,” Burr said.

(Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Jeff Mason, Eric Beech, Mohammed Zargham in Washington and; Jan Wolfe in New York; Writing by Alistair Bell and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Yara Bayoumy and Peter Cooney)

Most Americans want “aggressive” action on climate change: Reuters/Ipsos poll

FILE PHOTO: Protesters carry signs during the Peoples Climate March at the White House in Washington, U.S., April 29, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

By Chris Kahn

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Most Americans believe the United States should take “aggressive action” to fight climate change, but few see it as a priority issue when compared with the economy or security, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Tuesday.

The June 2-4 opinion poll suggests American voters may not penalize President Donald Trump too harshly for walking away from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, even if they would have preferred he keep the country in the deal.

The poll found 68 percent of Americans want the United States to lead global efforts to slow climate change, and 72 percent agree “that given the amount of greenhouse gases that it produces, the United States should take aggressive action to slow global warming.” (For a link to the poll, see: http://reut.rs/2sKOxqU)

Even so, Americans rank the environment near the bottom of their list of priorities for the country. Only about 4 percent of Americans believe that the “environment” is a bigger issue than healthcare, the economy, terrorism, immigration, education, crime and morality, Reuters/Ipsos polling shows.

“I just kind of feel helpless about it,” Dana Anderson, 54, of Mesa, Arizona, said about climate change. “If something happens to the environment, it is what it is, right?”

Anderson, who has multiple sclerosis, said that whatever Trump says about healthcare will matter to her much more than his thoughts on global temperatures.

The poll was conducted after Trump announced on Thursday that the United States would abandon the landmark agreement with 195 countries to slash carbon emissions and curb global warming. The Republican president, who had previously called climate change a “hoax” despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, said he thought the pact would harm the U.S. economy without providing a tangible benefit.

The decision drew anger and condemnation from world leaders and business chiefs, many of them worried a U.S. exit would put the planet at risk and leave the United States behind in a global shift away from fossil fuels.

The poll found the U.S. public split along party lines over the move to withdraw from the global climate pact, with most Republicans supporting it and most Democrats opposing it.

Overall, 38 percent agreed with Trump’s decision, 49 percent disagreed and 13 percent were undecided.

The poll also showed 50 percent of Americans believe global temperatures will rise faster as a result of the U.S. withdrawal from the climate deal, and 64 percent think U.S. relations with other countries will suffer.

The public was split over the decision’s economic impact, too, with 41 percent saying it will strengthen the economy and 44 percent saying it will not.

The Reuters/Ipsos poll was conducted online in English throughout the United States. It gathered responses from 1,398 Americans, including 459 Republicans and 635 Democrats. The poll has a credibility interval, a measure of accuracy, of 3 percentage points for the entire group and 5 percentage points for the Republicans and Democrats.

For more on the polling methodology, questions and credibility intervals, see http://tmsnrt.rs/2qYVdR6


(Reporting by Chris Kahn; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

UK police rush to three attacks in central London: at least one dead

People react as police attend to an incident near London Bridge in London, Britain, June 4, 2017. REUTERS/Hannah McKay


By Megan Revell and William Schomberg

LONDON (Reuters) – British armed police rushed to three incidents in central London on Saturday after a van plowed into pedestrians on London Bridge and reports of multiple stabbings in the nearby Borough Market area.

Police sent out security advice to Londoners on Twitter saying “run, hide, tell” if they were caught in an attack. The BBC cited police as saying there had been more than one fatality.

The attacks come days ahead of a June 8 election and less than two weeks after a suicide bomber killed 22 people at a pop concert by U.S. singer Ariana Grande in Manchester in northern England. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks.

“A van came from London Bridge itself, went between the traffic light system and rammed it towards the steps,” a taxi driver told the BBC. “It knocked loads of people down.

“Then three men got out with long blades, 12 inches long and went randomly along Borough High Street stabbing people at random.”

Prime Minister Theresa May had been informed and was being kept updated, her office said, while U.S. President Donald Trump had also been briefed by his national security team, the White House said.

One woman told Reuters she saw what appeared to be three people with knife wounds and possibly their throats cut at London Bridge at the Thames river. Reuters was unable to immediately verify her account.

STABBINGS ON THE STREET

People leave the area with their hands up after an incident near London Bridge in London, Britain June 4, 2017. REUTERS/Neil Hall

Police said they fired shots after reports of stabbings in the nearby Borough Market area, and that they were also responding to an incident in the Vauxhall area further west, but gave no immediate details.

Streets in the area would have been busy with people on a Saturday night out. BBC showed dozens of people, evidently having been caught up in the attack, being escorted through a police cordon with their hands on their heads.

British Transport Police said casualties were reported after an incident that may have involved a van and a knife attack, while the London Ambulance Service said it was sending multiple resources to the incident near London Bridge.

One witness told the BBC she saw a speeding white van veering into pedestrians at London Bridge. That witness said the van hit five to six people. Reuters television pictures showed dozens of emergency vehicles in the area around London Bridge.

Several witnesses also reported hearing gunshots.

“We were in an Uber (taxi) going towards London Bridge and suddenly we saw people running. The Uber stopped, we asked people what was going on – people said there was shooting,” said Yoann Belmere, 40, a French banker living in London.

“Now the area is completely closed with police cars going one way and ambulances going the other,” he told Reuters.

The incident bore similarities to a March attack on Westminster Bridge, west of London Bridge, in which a man killed five people after driving into a crowd of pedestrians before stabbing a police officer in the grounds of parliament.

A witness told CNN two men had entered a restaurant in the Borough Market area near London Bridge and stabbed two people inside. He said a waitress was stabbed in the throat and a man was stabbed in the back.

The Manchester bombing on May 22 was the deadliest attack in Britain since July 2005, when four British Muslim suicide bombers killed 52 people in coordinated attacks on London’s transport network.

(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Nick Tattersall; Editing by William Schomberg and Ralph Boulton)

Trump announces U.S. Will Pull Out of the Paris Climate Accord

U.S. President Donald Trump announces his decision that the United States will withdraw from the landmark Paris Climate Agreement, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, U.S., June 1, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

UPDATE TO REUTERS STORY: President Donald Trump has just announced that the United States will pull out of the Paris Climate accord. Here’s the Reuters story that just went up prior to his announcement that puts his decision — and the reaction to it and consequences — into perspective.

By Valerie Volcovici and Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump will announce on Thursday that the United States will withdraw from the landmark Paris climate agreement, following through on a pledge he made during the presidential campaign, according to a White House document seen by Reuters.

Trump will say the Paris agreement “front loads costs on American people,” the document said. He will say the decision fulfills his promise to “put American workers first,” and he hopes to seek “a better deal,” it said.

Trump was scheduled to make the official announcement in the White House Rose Garden.

An American withdrawal, promised by Trump during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, would deepen a rift with U.S. allies and align the United States with Syria and Nicaragua as the world’s only non-participants in the 195-nation accord agreed upon in Paris in 2015.

Supporters of the accord condemned Trump’s move as an abdication of American leadership and an international disgrace.

“At this moment, when climate change is already causing devastating harm around the world, we do not have the moral right to turn our backs on efforts to preserve this planet for future generations,” said U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, who sought the Democratic presidential nomination last year.

“Ignoring reality and leaving the Paris agreement could go down as one of the worst foreign policy blunders in our nation’s history, isolating the U.S. further after Trump’s shockingly bad European trip,” Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse added.

Virtually every nation voluntarily committed to steps aimed at curbing global emissions of “greenhouse” gases. These include carbon dioxide generated from burning of fossil fuels that scientists blame for a warming planet, sea level rise, droughts and more frequent violent storms.

The Vatican, which under Pope Francis’ insistence has strongly backed the accord, would see a U.S. exit as disaster and “a huge slap in the face,” Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, a senior Vatican official, told the Rome newspaper La Repubblica.

At their meeting last month, the pope gave Trump a signed copy of his 2015 encyclical letter calling for protecting the environment from the effects of climate change and backed scientific evidence that it is caused by human activity.

Scientists have said a U.S. withdrawal from the deal could speed up the effects of global climate change, leading to heat waves, floods, droughts and more frequent violent storms.

During the campaign, Trump said the accord would cost the U.S. economy trillions of dollars with no tangible benefit. Trump has expressed doubts about climate change, at times calling it a hoax to weaken U.S. industry.

The Republican vowed at the time to “cancel” the Paris deal within 100 days of becoming president on Jan. 20, part of an effort to bolster U.S. oil and coal industries.


UNDER PRESSURE

Since taking office, he has come under pressure from some advisers, close U.S. allies, corporate CEOs, Democrats and some fellow Republicans to keep the United States in the accord.

The United States, under former President Barack Obama, had committed to reduce its emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025. The United States, exceeded only by China in greenhouse gas emissions, accounts for more than 15 percent of the worldwide total.

Last year was the warmest since records began in the 19th century, as global average temperatures continued a rise dating back decades that leading climate scientists attribute to man-made greenhouse gas emissions that trap heat in the atmosphere.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres tweeted on Thursday, “Climate action is not just the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do.”

In Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who pressed Trump to stay in the pact last week at a meeting of the G7 industrialized nations, on Thursday described the accord as essential and said she was pleased many other governments agreed.

Merkel met with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, and they pledged to continue fighting climate change.

China, which overtook the United States as the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in 2007, and the European Union will seek on Friday to save the Paris agreement, with Li meeting top EU officials in Brussels.

In a statement backed by all 28 EU states, the EU and China were poised to commit to full implementation of the agreement, officials said.

(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici, Timothy Gardner, Jeff Mason, and Roberta Rampton; Additional reporting by Robin Emmott and Robert-Jan Bartunek in Brussels, Michelle Nichols at the UN; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Cynthia Osterman)

Republican Congressional candidate in Montana charged with assaulting reporter (UPDATED WITH AUDIO)

Montana Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte greets voters while campaigning for a special election in Missoula, Montana, U.S. May 24, 2017 in this still image from video. REUTERS/Justin Mitchell

By Justin Mitchell

MISSOULA, Mont. (Reuters) – Montana Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte was cited for a misdemeanor on Wednesday after a reporter accused him of physical assault on the eve of a special election to fill the state’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Gallatin County sheriff’s office issued the citation for misdemeanor assault hours after Ben Jacobs, a political correspondent for the U.S. edition of the Guardian newspaper, said in a Twitter post and in a television interview that Gianforte “body slammed” him, breaking his eyeglasses.

The incident, which caps a campaign seen as a possible bellwether for next year’s mid-term congressional races, took place at an event in Bozeman, where Jacobs sought to question Gianforte about healthcare, according to an audio tape captured by Jacobs and played on cable television networks MSNBC and CNN. (AUDIO at bottom of page)

Fox News Channel reporter Alicia Acuna, who said she and her crew were in the room preparing to interview Gianforte, wrote that she saw Gianforte as he “grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him to the ground.” (Read full Fox News report HERE):

Acuna, her field producer and photographer then “watched in disbelief as Gianforte began punching (Jacobs) as he moved to top of the reporter.”

Gianforte’s campaign did not deny Jacobs’ allegation but countered in its own statement that Jacobs instigated an altercation by barging into the candidate’s office, shoved a recording device in his face “and began asking badgering questions.”

“After asking Jacobs to lower the recorder, Jacobs declined,” campaign spokesman Shane Scanlon wrote. “Greg then attempted to grab the phone that was pushed in his face. Jacobs grabbed Greg’s wrist and spun away from Greg, pushing them both to the ground.”

“It’s unfortunate that this aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist created this scene at our campaign volunteer BBQ,” the statement said.

Acuna disputed that Jacobs was the aggressor.

“At no point did any of us who witnessed this assault see Jacobs show any form of physical aggression toward Gianforte,” Acuna wrote in her account on the Fox News website.

Interviewed later on MSNBC, Jacobs said he retreated to a parking lot after the confrontation to call his editor and the police. He said he was speaking to MSNBC from a hospital where he was getting his elbow X-rayed.

CITATION ISSUED

The citation was issued after authorities conducted several interviews and investigated the incident, Sheriff Brian Gootkin said in a statement.

Gianforte has until June 7 to appear in a county court. He faces a $500 fine and six months in jail if convicted, according to Gootkin.

“The nature of the injuries did not meet the statutory elements of felony assault,” Gootkin said.

In Jacobs’ audio tape of the incident, Gianforte is heard shouting: “I’m sick and tired of you guys. The last guy who came here, you did the same thing.”

After loud scuffling noises are heard, Gianforte repeatedly yells: “Get the hell out of here.” Jacobs is heard saying: “You just body-slammed me and broke my glasses.”

According to the tape, the confrontation began as Jacobs tried to ask Gianforte if he supported a Republican healthcare overhaul bill after the Congressional Budget Office found the measure would cost 23 million Americans their medical insurance coverage by 2026.

Another reporter, Alexis Levinson of BuzzFeed News, who was just outside the office, said on Twitter she saw Jacobs’ “feet fly in the air as he hit the floor” amid yelling and commotion.

Gianforte later huddled behind closed doors with an aide before leaving the event by car, she said.

Tech executive Gianforte is running against Democrat Rob Quist, a banjo-playing political novice who hopes to pull off a surprise victory in the Republican-leaning state.

A victory for Quist could signal trouble ahead for President Donald Trump and his fellow Republicans as they defend their 24-seat House majority in the 2018 mid-term elections.

Quist and Gianforte are vying for the seat vacated when Trump, who carried Montana by more than 20 percentage points, named Ryan Zinke as U.S. interior secretary.

Republicans have held the seat for two decades and Gianforte was still the favorite. However, both sides say the race was tightening as Quist focused on criticism of Republican efforts to repeal and replace former Democratic President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare law, the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare.

THE AUDIO:


(Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles, Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Eric Walsh in Washington; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Peter Cooney, Paul Tait and Michael Perry)

BREAKING: Trump asked two top intelligence officials to deny Russia collusion: Washington Post

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump urged two senior intelligence officials in March to publicly deny there was any evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, the Washington Post reported on Monday, citing current and former officials.

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers refused to comply with Trump’s requests because they believed them inappropriate, according to two current and two former officials, the Post said.

(Reporting by Eric Beech; Editing by Eric Walsh)

Roger Ailes, former Fox News chief, dies at 77 (UPDATED)

FILE PHOTO – Fox News chairman and CEO Roger Ailes speaks during a panel session titled “Democracy and the Media: Are They Compatible?” at the 2005 Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California, U.S. on April 19, 2005. REUTERS/Fred Prouser/File Photo

By Jessica Toonkel

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Roger Ailes, former chief executive of Fox News Channel, has died at age 77, Fox New said on Thursday.

Ailes resigned from Fox News last July following allegations of sexual harassment, marking an abrupt end to his 20-year reign over America’s most lucrative and powerful cable news channel for conservatives.

Fox News is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s Twenty-First Century Fox Inc. Ailes received a severance package of about $40 million when he left Fox News, according to a source familiar with the situation, and went on to serve as an informal adviser to Murdoch.

“Today America lost one of its great patriotic warriors,” Fox News host Sean Hannity said on the channel on Thursday. “For decades, RA (Roger Ailes) has impacted American politics and media. He has dramatically and forever changed the political and the media landscape single-handedly for the better.”

Brian Kilmeade, another Fox News host, said on the channel that Ailes “helped build Fox News Channel into the powerhouse it is today.”

Ailes’ widow, Elizabeth Ailes, confirmed his death in a statement on the Fox News website.

“I am profoundly sad and heartbroken to report that my husband, Roger Ailes, passed away this morning,” she wrote.

Twenty-First Century Fox had no immediate statement.

(Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen and Jill Serjeant; Writing by Bill Rigby; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

UPDATE: HIS LIFE IN PERSPECTIVE:


By Bill Trott

(Reuters) – Roger Ailes, who became one of the most powerful figures in both U.S. politics and media by turning the Fox News network into a booming voice for conservatives before he was brought down by sexual harassment charges, has died at the age of 77.

Ailes worked as a media strategist for Republican Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush before launching Fox News in 1996.

His wife Elizabeth said in a statement on Thursday he was a patriot who was profoundly grateful for the opportunities his country gave him.

As founder, chairman and chief executive officer of Fox News, Ailes became one of the most influential figures in the Republican Party, and the network was integral to U.S. President Donald Trump’s successful run for the White House in 2016.

From the start, Ailes had a clear conservative vision of what he wanted Fox to be as he took the network to the top of the cable news ratings and made it a major profit center for Rupert Murdoch’s Twenty-First Century Fox Inc media empire.

But accusations of Ailes’ treatment of women would be his downfall.

In July 2016, Gretchen Carlson, a former Miss America who appeared on the popular “Fox and Friends” morning program before being given her own show, sued him. She said he had made sexual advances toward her and then hurt her career in retaliation after she rejected him.

Two weeks later, Ailes was ousted from the network with a $40 million severance package. His departure came during the Republican National Convention and at a time when the network was scoring record ratings. Shortly afterward, he began advising the Trump campaign.

Ailes had run Fox News under the slogan “fair and balanced” and conservatives found it a much-needed antidote to the perceived liberal slant of traditional media. Critics denounced it as a cynical and polarizing right-wing propaganda machine.

“He helped market a brand of pseudo-journalism that revolves basically around hate, rhetoric, divisiveness, pitting people against each other,” Eric Boehlert, senior fellow at liberal media watchdog Media Matters for America, told Reuters. “That seeps into the culture and into politics.”

The story of Fox News was the story of Ailes. His conservative red-white-and-blue beliefs set the narrative for the network’s stories, and critics said it was difficult to determine where Ailes’ agenda ended and Republican Party talking points began. No potential Republican presidential candidate stood much of a chance without Ailes’ blessing.

“I want to elect the next president,” he told Fox executives at a 2010 meeting, according to the 2014 biography “The Loudest Voice in the Room” by Gabriel Sherman, a writer for New York magazine.

“Ailes’ power and ruthlessness … allowed him to take over the Republican Party and mold it to fit his paranoid world view,” Sherman told the Washington Post in 2016.


(Writing and reporting by Bill Trott; Additional reporting by Lisa Richwine and Ginger Gibson; Editing by Diane Craft and Jeffrey Benkkoe)

Special Counsel named to investigate Trump-Russsia ties

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the United States Coast Guard Academy Commencement Ceremony in New London, Connecticut U.S., May 17 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Ayesha Rascoe and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department said on Wednesday it appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate possible collusion between President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign team and Russia.

The move followed rising demands for an independent probe of alleged Russian efforts to sway the outcome of November’s presidential election in favor of Trump and against Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Pressure has been building on Trump over the Russia issue since his firing last week of FBI chief James Comey, who had been leading a federal probe into the matter.

U.S. intelligence agencies said earlier this year that Russia interfered in the U.S. election.

“My decision (to appoint a special counsel) is not the finding that crimes have been committed or that any prosecution is warranted. I have made no such determination,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said in a statement.

“I determined that a special counsel is necessary in order for the American people to have full confidence in the outcome,” he said.


(Additional reporting by Amanda Becker, Mark Hosenball, David Alexander, Doina Chiacu, Patricia Zengerle, Susan Heavey, Richard Cowan and Tim Ahmann in Washington, and Caroline Valetkevitch and Sinead Carew in New York; Editing by Cynthia Osterman; Writing by Will Dunham and Peter Cooney; Editing by Frances Kerry and Peter Cooney)

Trump asked Comey to end investigation of Michael Flynn: source

FILE PHOTO: A combination photo shows U.S. President Donald Trump (L), on February 28, 2017, White House National Security Advisor Michael Flynn (C), February 13, 2017 and James Comey in Washington U.S. on July 7, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool, Carlos Barria, Gary Cameron/File Photo

By Mark Hosenball and Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump asked then-FBI Director James Comey to end the agency’s investigation into ties between former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn and Russia, according to a source who has seen a memo written by Comey.

The explosive new development on Tuesday followed a week of tumult at the White House after Trump fired Comey and then discussed sensitive national security information about Islamic State with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

The Comey memo, first reported by the New York Times, caused alarm on Capitol Hill and raised questions about whether Trump tried to interfere with a federal investigation.

The White House quickly denied the report, saying in a statement it was “not a truthful or accurate portrayal of the conversation between the president and Mr. Comey.”

Comey wrote the memo after he met in the Oval Office with Trump, the day after the Republican president fired Flynn on Feb. 14 for misleading Vice President Mike Pence about the extent of his conversations last year with Russia’s ambassador, Sergei Kislyak.

“I hope you can let this go,” Trump told Comey, according to a source familiar with the contents of the memo.

The New York Times said that during the Oval Office meeting, Trump condemned a series of government leaks to the news media and said the FBI director should consider prosecuting reporters for publishing classified information.

Coming the day after charges that Trump disclosed sensitive information to the Russians last week, the new disclosure further rattled members of Congress.

“The memo is powerful evidence of obstruction of justice and certainly merits immediate and prompt investigation by an independent special prosecutor,” said Democratic U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers said they wanted to see the memo.

Republican U.S. Representative Jason Chaffetz, chairman of a House of Representatives oversight committee, said his committee “is going to get the Comey memo, if it exists. I need to see it sooner rather than later. I have my subpoena pen ready.”

In a letter to acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, Chaffetz set a deadline of May 24 for the FBI to produce “all memoranda, notes, summaries, and recordings referring or relating to any communications between Comey and the President.”

Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan backed Chaffetz.

“We need to have all the facts, and it is appropriate for the House Oversight Committee to request this memo,” said Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong.

LEGAL QUESTIONS

Legal experts took a dim view of Trump’s comments, as quoted in the memo.

“For the president to tell the FBI to end a potential criminal investigation, that’s obstruction of justice,” said Erwin Chereminsky, a constitutional law professor and dean of University of California, Irvine School of Law. “This is what caused President Nixon to resign from office.”

But the experts said intent was a critical element of an obstruction of justice charge, and the president’s words could be subject to interpretation and possibly put into the context of other actions, like Comey’s termination.

The fact that the president apparently said he “hoped” Comey would end the Flynn investigation rather than more directly ordering it “makes for a weaker but still viable case,” said Christopher Slobogin, a criminal law professor at Vanderbilt University Law School.

Flynn’s resignation came hours after it was reported that the Justice Department had warned the White House weeks earlier that Flynn could be vulnerable to blackmail for contacts with Kislyak before Trump took office on Jan. 20.

Kislyak was with Lavrov at the White House when Trump disclosed the sensitive information.

A spokeswoman for the FBI declined to comment on the details of the memo.

An emailed fundraising appeal by Trump’s political organization and the Republican National Committee sent out after reports of the Comey memo said Trump was being victimized by an “unelected bureaucracy.”

“You already knew the media was out to get us,” it said. “But sadly it’s not just the fake news… There are people within our own unelected bureaucracy that want to sabotage President Trump and our entire ‘America First’ movement.”

The new development came as Republican and Democratic lawmakers pressured Trump to give a fuller explanation for why he revealed sensitive intelligence information to Lavrov.

The information had been supplied by a U.S. ally in the fight against the Islamic State militant group, the officials said.

(Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Amanda Becker, Doina Chiacu, Tim Ahmann, Patricia Zengerle and Julia Edwards Ainsley in Washington, and Jan Wolfe in New York; Editing by Frances Kerry and Peter Cooney)

Trump revealed secrets to Russians in Oval Office Meeting: Washington Post

FILE PHOTO: A combination of file photos showing Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attending a news conference in Moscow, Russia, November 18, 2015, and U.S. President Donald Trump posing for a photo in New York City, U.S., May 17, 2016. REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev/Lucas Jackson/File Photos

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump disclosed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister during their meeting last week, potentially jeopardizing a source of intelligence about Islamic State, The Washington Post reported on Monday, citing current and former U.S. officials.

Reacting to the newspaper’s report, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, Dick Durbin, called Trump’s conduct “dangerous” and reckless,” while the Republican head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, called the allegations “very, very troubling” if true.

The newspaper said the information Trump relayed to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak had been provided by a U.S. partner through a highly sensitive intelligence-sharing arrangement.

The partner had not given Washington permission to share the material with Moscow, and Trump’s decision to do so risks cooperation from an ally that has access to the inner workings of the Islamic State militant group, the Post said, citing the unnamed officials.

During his Oval Office meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak, Trump went off-script and began describing details about an Islamic State threat related to the use of laptop computers on aircraft, the officials told the Post.

In his conversations with the Russian officials, Trump appeared to be boasting about his knowledge of the looming threats, telling them he was briefed on “great intel every day,” an official with knowledge of the exchange said, according to the Post.

While discussing classified matters with an adversary would be illegal for most people, the president has broad authority to declassify government secrets, making it unlikely that Trump’s disclosures broke the law, the Post said.

Trump’s meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak at the White House came a day after he fired FBI Director James Comey, who was leading the agency’s investigation into possible links between Trump’s presidential campaign and Moscow.

Asked about the disclosures, Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, who participated in the meeting, said no intelligence sources or methods were discussed that were not already known publicly, the Post reported. Asked by Reuters about the Post story, McMaster declined comment.

U.S. officials have told Reuters that U.S. agencies are in the process of drawing up plans to expand a ban on passengers carrying laptop computers onto U.S.-bound flights from several countries on conflict zones due to new intelligence about how militant groups are refining techniques for installing bombs in laptops.

So serious are assessments of the increased threat that Washington is considering banning passengers from several European countries, including Britain, from carrying laptops in a cabin on U.S.-bound flights. The United States has consulted about the intelligence with allied governments and airlines.

One source familiar with the matter told Reuters at least some of the intelligence that went into the planned laptop ban expansion came from a U.S. commando raid on an al Qaeda camp in Yemen in which a U.S. special operator was killed.

The source said one of the most troubling aspects of the new intelligence was that it showed that Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula had figured out how to produce sheets of explosives so thin they could be concealed in the insides of a laptop and would be very hard to detect.

(Reporting by David Alexander and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Trump’s attacks on fired FBI Director Comey Meet Resistance

(L-R) Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe testifies as Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo listens at a hearing of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. May 11, 2017. REUTERS/Eric Thayer

By Patricia Zengerle and Arshad Mohammed

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Thursday ran into resistance for calling ousted FBI chief James Comey a “showboat,” an attack that was swiftly contradicted by top U.S. senators and the acting FBI leader, who pledged that an investigation into possible Trump campaign ties to Russia would proceed with vigor.

In his first interview since firing Comey on Tuesday, Trump appeared to try to underscore that Comey’s dismissal was about his performance at the Federal Bureau of Investigation and not about the Russia probe.

Trump faces accusations from Democrats that he fired Comey to hinder the FBI investigation into U.S. intelligence agency allegations that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election to benefit Trump. The probe has hung over Trump’s presidency since he took office in January and threatens to overwhelm his policy priorities.

“He’s a showboat. He’s a grandstander,” Trump told NBC News. “The FBI has been in turmoil. You know that, I know that, everybody knows that.”

Trump’s characterization was odds with that of the top Republican and Democratic lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

At a hearing on Thursday, the Republican chairman of the panel, Richard Burr, and the top Democrat, Mark Warner, praised Comey. Warner said he was offended at Trump’s remarks.

Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, testifying in place of Comey, contradicted Trump’s appraisal of turmoil at the FBI, saying Comey had “broad support” from the rank and file “and still does to this day,” McCabe said.

Officials familiar with internal FBI politics said Trump’s action has hurt morale and would make it hard to attract and retain staff.

Trump had been expected to soon visit FBI headquarters, but MSNBC reported that plan had been thrown out after agency officials told the White House that Trump would not be greeted warmly following his firing of Comey.

Former Republican Representative Mike Rogers is being considered as a candidate to replace Comey, a senior White House official said. The nominee must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

(L-R) Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, NSA Director Adm. Mike Rogers, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Director Robert Cardillo testify before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., May 11, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

PROBE TO PROCEED

McCabe promised to tell senators of any White House meddling into the agency’s probe on Russia. Democrats have called for a special counsel to look into the matter.

“It is my opinion and belief that the FBI will continue to pursue this investigation vigorously and completely,” McCabe told the senators.

Moscow has denied interference in the election and the Trump administration denies allegations of collusion with Russia.

Trump said in the NBC television interview that he never pressured Comey into dropping the FBI probe, adding: “If Russia did anything, I want to know that.” Trump said there was no “collusion between me and my campaign and the Russians,” but that “the Russians did not affect the vote.”

His explanation of why he fired Comey ran counter to previous administration explanations of Comey’s dismissal.

The White House and Vice President Mike Pence had said Trump fired Comey on the recommendation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and No. 2 Justice Department official Rod Rosenstein.

On Thursday, Trump said he would have taken the action regardless. “I was going to fire Comey. My decision,” Trump said. “I was going to fire regardless of recommendation.”

Rosenstein, who met privately with some senators on Thursday, was invited to brief all 100 senators next week, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said. Schumer said he hoped that Sessions would also speak to senators separately on the firing of Comey.

In the House of Representatives, Justin Amash, a Republican member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said on Twitter that he had signed onto Democratic-sponsored legislation calling for an independent, bipartisan commission to probe Russian meddling in last year’s U.S. election campaign.

U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an effort to disrupt the election that included hacking into Democratic Party emails and leaking them, with the aim of helping Trump.

Leaders of the U.S. intelligence agencies, including Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and CIA chief Mike Pompeo, testified to the senators on Thursday that they agreed with that finding.

Trump, in his interview, also gave further details of his account that Comey had told him on three separate occasions that he was not under investigation in the Russia matter.

Trump said he had asked Comey once over dinner and twice by telephone. “I said: ‘If it’s possible, would you let me know, am I under investigation?'” Trump told NBC. “He said: ‘You are not under investigation.'”

Trump said the dinner with Comey was at the White House and Comey wanted to discuss staying on as FBI chief. “We had a very nice dinner. And at that time, he told me: ‘You are not under investigation.'”

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said she believed it was not a conflict of interest for a president to ask the FBI chief such a question.

Comey has not publicly discussed any conversations he had with Trump.

At the Senate hearing, McCabe testified it was not typical practice to tell people they were not a targets of an investigation.

Republican chairman Burr asked McCabe whether he ever heard Comey tell Trump the president was not the subject of investigation. McCabe sidestepped the question, saying he could not comment on an ongoing probe.

Warner, the top Democrat on the panel, said it was “hard to avoid the conclusion” that Trump’s firing of Comey was related to the Russia investigation.

“And while it’s clear to me now more than ever that an independent special counsel must be appointed, make no mistake our committee will get to the bottom of what happened during the 2016 presidential election,” Warner said.


(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell, Richard Cowan, Eric Beech, Susan Heavey and David Alexander; Writing by Will Dunham and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Peter Cooney and Grant McCool)

BREAKING: Macron campaign says massive email leaks meant to undermine it

Emmanuel Macron: not Russia’s favorite candidate in the French race.

PARIS (Reuters) – French presidential frontrunner Emmanuel Macron’s campaign team said it had been the victim of a massive and coordinated hacking operation which led to the leaking of hundreds of its internal documents just hours before the end of the official campaign.

It added that the documents only showed the normal functioning of a presidential campaign but that authentic documents had been mixed on social media with fake ones to sow “doubt and misinformation”.

“Their publication makes internal documents public but has no reason to worry us as far as the legality and conformity of the documents is concerned,” Macron’s “En Marche!” (Onwards!) party said in a statement.

“The seriousness of this event is certain and we shall not tolerate that the vital interests of democracy be put at risk,” it added.

(Reporting by Michel Rose; Editing by Andrew Callus)


(Reporting by Michel Rose; Editing by Andrew Callus)

PHOTO: Copyleft – Own work, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36835652

House votes to repeal Obamacare: higher hurdles in Senate

The floor of the U.S. House chamber is shown in this video grab as the House of Representatives voted on the American Healthcare Act, to repeal major parts of Obamacare and replace it with the Republican healthcare plan, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., May 4, 2017. U.S. House TV/Handout via Reuters


By Yasmeen Abutaleb and David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives narrowly approved a bill to repeal Obamacare on Thursday, handing Republican President Donald Trump a victory that could prove short-lived as the healthcare legislation heads into a likely tough battle in the Senate.

The vote to repeal former President Barack Obama’s signature domestic achievement, which enabled 20 million more Americans to get health insurance, was Trump’s biggest legislative win since he took office in January, putting him on a path to fulfilling one of his key campaign promises as well as a seven-year quest by Republican lawmakers.

With the 217-213 vote, Republicans obtained just enough support to push the legislation through the House, sending it to the Senate for consideration. No Democrats voted for the bill.

The legislation is by no means sure thing in the Senate, where the Republicans hold a slender 52-seat majority in the 100-seat chamber and where only a few Republican defections could sink it.

Despite holding the White House and controlling both houses of Congress, Republicans have found that overturning Obamacare is politically fraught, in part because of voter fears that many people will lose their health insurance as a result. Republicans have long criticized Obamacare as government overreach.

As Republicans crossed over the vote threshold to pass the bill, Democrats in the House began singing “Na na, na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye,” a rowdy suggestion that Republicans will lose seats in the 2018 midterm elections because of their vote.


TRUMP CELEBRATES

Within an hour of the vote, Trump celebrated with House lawmakers in the White House Rose Garden.

“I went through two years of campaigning and I’m telling you, no matter where I went, people were suffering so badly with the ravages of Obamacare,” Trump said. “We are going to get this passed through the Senate. I am so confident.”

While the bill’s fate in the Senate is uncertain, its House passage could boost Trump’s hopes of pushing through other big ticket items on his agenda, such as tax reform.

The failure of two previous efforts on the healthcare legislation had raised questions about how much Republicans could work together to help Trump fulfill his campaign pledges.

“Anything that they (the Republicans) get done, that they accomplish, popular or unpopular, will show that they have the ability to make progress and to get things done and work together,” said Randy Frederick, vice president trading and derivatives at Charles Schwab in Austin, Texas.

“This puts the idea of tax reform a little bit closer to reality, simply because it’s shown that they have figured out a way to negotiate and work together,” he added.

Obama’s 2010 Affordable Care Act expanded Medicaid, the government insurance program for the poor, provided income-based tax credits to help the poor buy insurance on individual insurance markets set up by the law, and required everyone to buy insurance or pay a penalty.

Republicans have blamed it for driving up healthcare costs and have argued that it has since failed.

The Republican bill, called the American Health Care Act, would repeal most Obamacare taxes, which paid for the law, roll back the Medicaid expansion and slash the program’s funding, repeal the penalty for not purchasing insurance and replace the law’s tax credits with flat age-based credits.

In a sign of the challenges ahead for the legislation, nearly every major medical group, including the American Medical Association, American Hospital Association and the AARP, strongly opposed the Republican bill. Many said last-minute amendments further eroded protection for the most vulnerable groups, including the sick and elderly.


PRE-EXISTING CONDITIONS

The treatment of people with “pre-existing” conditions was one of the central issues in the House debate on the bill and is sure to resurface in the Senate.

Obamacare prevented insurers from charging those with pre-existing conditions higher rates, a common practice before its implementation. It also required them to cover 10 essential health benefits such as maternity care and prescription drugs.

The Republican bill passed on Thursday would allow states to opt out of those provisions. While insurers could not deny people insurance because of pre-existing conditions, they would be allowed to charge them as much as they want.

In an analysis released on Thursday, healthcare consultancy and research firm Avalere Health said the Republican bill would cover only 5 percent of enrollees with pre-existing conditions in the individual insurance markets.

Republicans have argued that their bill would give people more choice and reduce the role of government.

Democrats blasted the bill, saying it would make insurance unaffordable for those who need it most and would leave millions more uninsured. They also accused Republicans of seeking tax cuts for the rich, partly paid for by cutting health benefits.

In a push to pass the bill before members leave on Friday for a week in their home districts, the House voted before the bill was assessed by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, which estimates its cost and effect on insurance rolls.

Republicans have said that the bill will be scored by the CBO and other fixes will be made before the Senate votes.

Health insurers, such as Anthem Inc, UnitedHealth Group Inc, Aetna Inc and Cigna Corp, have faced months of uncertainty over healthcare’s future. So have hospital companies, such as HCA Holdings Inc and Tenet Healthcare Corp.

(Additional reporting by Amanda Becker, Eric Beech, Richard Cowan, Michael Erman, Susan Heavey, Steve Holland, Roberta Rampton and Eric Walsh; Writing by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Anti-semitic acts spiked since Trump election win, watchdog says

DAY 33 / FEBRUARY 21: President Donald Trump delivered his first public condemnation of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States after a new spate of bomb threats to Jewish community centers and the vandalism of about 170 headstones in a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis (above).
REUTERS/Tom Gannam

By Barbara Goldberg

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Anti-Semitic incidents, from bomb threats and cemetery desecration to assaults and bullying, have surged in the United States since the election of President Donald Trump, and a “heightened political atmosphere” played a role in the rise, the Anti-Defamation League said on Monday.

A sharp increase in the harassment of American Jews, including double the incidents of bullying of schoolchildren and vandalism at non-denominational grade schools, was cited in the ADL’s “Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents.”

Overall, the number of acts targeting Jews and Jewish institutions rose 34 percent in 2016 to 1,266 in 2016 and jumped 86 percent in the first quarter of 2017, the ADL said.

“The 2016 presidential election and the heightened political atmosphere played a role in the increase,” the ADL concluded in its report.

White House spokesman Michael Short said Trump consistently called for an end to anti-Semitism, as recently as Sunday in a speech on Yom HaShoah, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day.

“We must stamp out prejudice and anti-Semitism everywhere it is found,” Trump told the World Jewish Congress Plenary Assembly in New York.

Trump had been criticized for waiting until late February to deliver his first public condemnation of anti-Semitic incidents, previously speaking more generally about his hope of making the nation less “divided.”

He later called such incidents “horrible … and a very sad reminder” of the work needed to root out hate, prejudice and evil.

The majority of anti-Semitic incidents were not carried out by organized extremists and should be seen in the context of a general resurgence of U.S. white supremacist activity, said Oren Segal, director of the League’s Center on Extremism.

“Anti-Semitism is not the sole domain of any one group, and needs to be challenged wherever and whenever it arises,” Segal said in a statement.

Among 34 election-linked incidents cited by the ADL was graffiti posted in Denver in May 2016 that exhorted readers to “Kill the Jews, Vote Trump.”

The League also noted an incident from November when an assailant told a victim in St. Petersburg, Florida: “Trump is going to finish what Hitler started.”

Technology that makes it easier to conduct harassment anonymously contributed to the rising numbers, the ADL said.

Michael Ron David Kadar, an 18-year-old Israeli-American, has been charged with making dozens of bomb threats to Jewish community centers in the United States earlier this year.

(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Lisa Von Ahn)

Exclusive: Putin-linked think tank drew up plan to sway U.S. election — documents

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev (not pictured) in Moscow’s Kremlin, Russia April 5, 2017. REUTERS/Pavel Golovkin/Pool

By Ned Parker, Jonathan Landay and John Walcott

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A Russian government think tank controlled by Vladimir Putin developed a plan to swing the 2016 U.S. presidential election to Donald Trump and undermine voters’ faith in the American electoral system, three current and four former U.S. officials told Reuters.

They described two confidential documents from the think tank as providing the framework and rationale for what U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded was an intensive effort by Russia to interfere with the Nov. 8 election. U.S. intelligence officials acquired the documents, which were prepared by the Moscow-based Russian Institute for Strategic Studies [https://en.riss.ru/], after the election.

The institute is run by retired senior Russian foreign intelligence officials appointed by Putin’s office.

The first Russian institute document was a strategy paper written last June that circulated at the highest levels of the Russian government but was not addressed to any specific individuals.

It recommended the Kremlin launch a propaganda campaign on social media and Russian state-backed global news outlets to encourage U.S. voters to elect a president who would take a softer line toward Russia than the administration of then-President Barack Obama, the seven officials said.

A second institute document, drafted in October and distributed in the same way, warned that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was likely to win the election. For that reason, it argued, it was better for Russia to end its pro-Trump propaganda and instead intensify its messaging about voter fraud to undermine the U.S. electoral system’s legitimacy and damage Clinton’s reputation in an effort to undermine her presidency, the seven officials said.

The current and former U.S. officials spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the Russian documents’ classified status. They declined to discuss how the United States obtained them. U.S. intelligence agencies also declined to comment on them.

Putin has denied interfering in the U.S. election. Putin’s spokesman and the Russian institute did not respond to requests for comment.

The documents were central to the Obama administration’s conclusion that Russia mounted a “fake news” campaign and launched cyber attacks against Democratic Party groups and Clinton’s campaign, the current and former officials said.

“Putin had the objective in mind all along, and he asked the institute to draw him a road map,” said one of the sources, a former senior U.S. intelligence official.

Trump has said Russia’s activities had no impact on the outcome of the race. Ongoing congressional and FBI investigations into Russian interference have so far produced no public evidence that Trump associates colluded with the Russian effort to change the outcome of the election.

Four of the officials said the approach outlined in the June strategy paper was a broadening of an effort the Putin administration launched in March 2016. That month the Kremlin instructed state-backed media outlets, including international platforms Russia Today and Sputnik news agency, to start producing positive reports on Trump’s quest for the U.S. presidency, the officials said.

Russia Today did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for Sputnik dismissed the assertions by the U.S. officials that it participated in a Kremlin campaign as an “absolute pack of lies.” “And by the way, it’s not the first pack of lies we’re hearing from ‘sources in U.S. official circles’,” the spokesperson said in an email.


PRO-KREMLIN BLOGGERS

Russia Today and Sputnik published anti-Clinton stories while pro-Kremlin bloggers prepared a Twitter campaign calling into question the fairness of an anticipated Clinton victory, according to a report by U.S. intelligence agencies on Russian interference in the election made public in January. [http://bit.ly/2kMiKSA]

Russia Today’s most popular Clinton video – “How 100% of the 2015 Clintons’ ‘charity’ went to … themselves” – accumulated 9 millions views on social media, according to the January report. [http://bit.ly/2os8wIt]

The report said Russia Today and Sputnik “consistently cast president elect-Trump as the target of unfair coverage from traditional media outlets.”

The report said the agencies did not assess whether Moscow’s effort had swung the outcome of the race in Trump’s favor, because American intelligence agencies do not “analyze U.S. political processes or U.S. public opinion.” [http://bit.ly/2kMiKSA]


CYBER ATTACKS

Neither of the Russian institute documents mentioned the release of hacked Democratic Party emails to interfere with the U.S. election, according to four of the officials. The officials said the hacking was a covert intelligence operation run separately out of the Kremlin.

The overt propaganda and covert hacking efforts reinforced each other, according to the officials. Both Russia Today and Sputnik heavily promoted the release of the hacked Democratic Party emails, which often contained embarrassing details.

Five of the U.S. officials described the institute as the Kremlin’s in-house foreign policy think tank.

The institute’s director when the documents were written, Leonid Reshetnikov, rose to the rank of lieutenant general during a 33-year-career in Russia’s foreign intelligence service, according to the institute’s website [http://bit.ly/2oVhiCF]. After Reshetnikov retired from the institute in January, Putin named as his replacement Mikhail Fradkov. The institute says he served as the director of Russia’s foreign intelligence service from 2007 to 2016. [http://bit.ly/2os4tvz]

Reuters was unable to determine if either man was directly involved in the drafting of the documents. Reshetnikov’s office referred questions to the Russian institute.

On its website, the Russian institute describes itself as providing “expert appraisals,” “recommendations,” and “analytical materials” to the Russian president’s office, cabinet, National Security Council, ministries and parliament. [http://bit.ly/2pCBGpR]

On Jan. 31, the websites of Putin’s office [http://bit.ly/2os9wMr] and the institute [http://bit.ly/2oLn9Kd] posted a picture and transcript of Reshetnikov and his successor Fradkov meeting with Putin in the Kremlin. Putin thanked Reshetnikov for his service and told Fradkov he wanted the institute to provide objective information and analysis.

“We did our best for nearly eight years to implement your foreign policy concept,” Reshetnikov told Putin. “The policy of Russia and the policy of the President of Russia have been the cornerstone of our operation.”

(Reporting by Ned Parker and Jonathan Landay, additional reporting by Warren Strobel and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by David Rohde and Ross Colvin)

Wither Turkish democracy: Erdogan wins historic referendum

Supporters of AK party light their mobiles as they react at the party headquarters in Ankara, Turkey, April 16, 2017. REUTERS/Umit Bektas



By Tuvan Gumrukcu and Humeyra Pamuk

ANKARA/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan celebrated what he said was a clear result in a referendum on Sunday to grant him sweeping new powers, but opponents said they would challenge the vote count which gave a narrow 51.3 percent lead to Erdogan’s supporters.

Nearly all ballots had been opened for counting, state-run Anadolu news agency said, although a lag between opening and counting them could see the lead tighten even further.

Erdogan called Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and the leader of the nationalist MHP party, which supported the “Yes” vote, to congratulate them, presidential sources said. They quoted Erdogan as saying the referendum result was clear.

The result appeared short of the decisive victory that Erdogan and the ruling AK Party had campaigned aggressively for. In Turkey’s three biggest cities – Istanbul, Izmir and the capital Ankara – the “No” camp appeared set to prevail narrowly, according to Turkish television stations.

Addressing a crowd outside the AKP’s headquarters in Ankara, Yildirim said unofficial tallies showed the “Yes” camp ahead.

“A new page has been opened in our democratic history,” Yildirim said. “We are brothers, one body, one nation.”

Convoys of cars honking horns in celebration, their passengers waving flags from the windows, clogged a main avenue in Ankara as they headed towards the AKP’s headquarters to celebrate. A chant of Erdogan’s name rang out from loud speakers and campaign buses.

A “Yes” vote would replace Turkey’s parliamentary democracy with an all-powerful presidency and may see Erdogan in office until at least 2029, in the most radical change to the country’s political system in its modern history.

The outcome will also shape Turkey’s strained relations with the European Union. The NATO member state has curbed the flow of migrants – mainly refugees from wars in Syria and Iraq – into the bloc but Erdogan says he may review the deal after the vote.

The opposition People’s Republican Party (CHP) said it would demand a recount of up to 60 percent of the votes, protesting against a last-minute decision by the electoral board to accept unstamped ballots as valid votes.

“We will pursue a legal battle. If the irregularities are not fixed, there will be a serious legitimacy discussion,” CHP deputy chairman Bulent Tezcan said. Another of the party’s deputy chairmen said that “illegal acts” had been carried out in favor of the government.

The lira currency firmed to 3.65 to the dollar in Asian trade following the referendum, from 3.72 on Friday.

Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan celebrate in Istanbul, Turkey April 16, 2017. REUTERS/Yagiz Karahan


‘TURNING POINT’‘COMMON SENSE’

Earlier in the day a crowd chanted “Recep Tayyip Erdogan” and applauded as the president shook hands and greeted people after voting in a school near his home in Istanbul. His staff handed out toys for children in the crowd.

“God willing I believe our people will decide to open the path to much more rapid development,” Erdogan said in the polling station after casting his vote.

“I believe in my people’s democratic common sense.”

The “Yes” share of the vote – which stood at 63 percent after around one quarter had been opened – eased as the count moved further west towards Istanbul and the Aegean coast. Broadcaster Haberturk said turnout was 86 percent.

The referendum has bitterly divided the nation. Erdogan and his supporters say the changes are needed to amend the current constitution, written by generals following a 1980 military coup, confront the security and political challenges Turkey faces, and avoid the fragile coalition governments of the past.

“This is our opportunity to take back control of our country,” said self-employed Bayram Seker, 42, after voting “Yes” in Istanbul.

“I don’t think one-man rule is such a scary thing. Turkey has been ruled in the past by one man,” he said, referring to modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Opponents say it is a step towards greater authoritarianism in a country where some 47,000 people have been jailed pending trial and 120,000 sacked or suspended from their jobs in a crackdown following a failed coup last July, drawing criticism from Turkey’s Western allies and rights groups.

“I voted ‘No’ because I don’t want this whole country and its legislative, executive and judiciary ruled by one man. This would not make Turkey stronger or better as they claim. This would weaken our democracy,” said Hamit Yaz, 34, a ship’s captain, after voting in Istanbul.

Relations between Turkey and Europe hit a low during the referendum campaign when EU countries, including Germany and the Netherlands, barred Turkish ministers from holding rallies in support of the changes. Erdogan called the moves “Nazi acts” and said Turkey could reconsider ties with the European Union after many years of seeking EU membership.

On Saturday, Erdogan held four rallies in Istanbul, urging supporters to turn out in large numbers and saying it “will be a turning point for Turkey’s political history”.

Erdogan and the AK Party enjoyed a disproportionate share of media coverage in the buildup to the vote, overshadowing the secular main opposition CHP and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu has accused Erdogan of seeking a “one-man regime”, and said the proposed changes would put the country in danger.

Proponents of the reform argue that it would end the current “two-headed system” in which both the president and parliament are directly elected, a situation they argue could lead to deadlock. Until 2014, presidents were chosen by parliament.

The government says Turkey, faced with conflict to the south in Syria and Iraq, and a security threat from Islamic State and PKK militants, needs strong and clear leadership to combat terrorism.

The package of 18 amendments would abolish the office of prime minister and give the president the authority to draft the budget, declare a state of emergency and issue decrees overseeing ministries without parliamentary approval.


(Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay in Ankara and David Dolan in Istanbul; Writing by Dominic Evans and Daren Butler; Editing by Keith Weir, Adrian Croft and David Dolan)

U.S. uses “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan

The GBU-43/B, also known as the Massive Ordnance Air Blast, detonates during a test at Eglain Air Force Base, Florida, U.S., November 21, 2003 in this handout photo provided April 13, 2017. REUTERS/U.S. Air Force photo/Handout via REUTERS

By Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States dropped a massive GBU-43 bomb, the largest non-nuclear bomb it has ever used in combat, in eastern Afghanistan on Thursday against a series of caves used by Islamic State militants, the military said.

It was the first time the United States has used this size of bomb in a conflict. It was dropped from a MC-130 aircraft in the Achin district of Nangarhar province, close to the border with Pakistan, Pentagon spokesman Adam Stump said.

Also known as the “mother of all bombs,” the GBU-43 is a 21,600 pound (9,797 kg) GPS-guided munition and was first tested in March 2003, just days before the start of the Iraq war.

The security situation in Afghanistan remains precarious, with a number of militant groups trying to claim territory more than 15 years after the U.S. invasion which toppled the Taliban government.

General John Nicholson, the head of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, said the bomb was used against caves and bunkers housing fighters of the Islamic State in Afghanistan, also known as ISIS-K.

It was not immediately clear how much damage the device did.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer opened his daily news briefing speaking about the use of the bomb and said, “We targeted a system of tunnels and caves that ISIS fighters used to move around freely, making it easier for them to target U.S. military advisers and Afghan forces in the area.”

Last week, a U.S. soldier was killed in the same district as the bomb was dropped while conducting operations against Islamic State.

“The United States takes the fight against ISIS very seriously and in order to defeat the group, we must deny them operational space, which we did,” Spicer said.

He said the bomb was used at around 7 p.m. local time and described the device as “a large, powerful and accurately delivered weapon.” The United States took “all precautions necessary to prevent civilian casualties and collateral damage,” he said.

U.S. officials say intelligence suggests Islamic State is based overwhelmingly in Nangarhar and neighboring Kunar province.

Estimates of its strength in Afghanistan vary. U.S. officials have said they believe the movement has only 700 fighters but Afghan officials estimate it has about 1,500.

Islamic State’s offshoot in Afghanistan is suspected of carrying out several attacks on minority Shi’ite Muslim targets.

The Afghan Taliban, which is trying to overthrow the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, are fiercely opposed to Islamic State and the two group have clashed as they seek to expand territory and influence.

The GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) bomb is pictured in this undated handout photo. Elgin Air Force Base/Handout via REUTERS

The GBU-43/B is launched from a MC-130E Combat Talon I at Eglain Air Force Base in Florida on November 21, 2003. REUTERS/U.S. Air Force photo/Handout/File photo

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Will Dunham; Editing by Alistair Bell)

Trump axes Bannon from National Security Countil

White House Senior Advisor Steve Bannon attends a roundtable discussion held by U.S. President Donald Trump with auto industry leaders at the American Center for Mobility in Ypsilanti Township, Michigan, U.S., March 15, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

By Steve Holland and John Walcott

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump removed his chief strategist Steve Bannon from the National Security Council on Wednesday, reversing his controversial decision early this year to give a political adviser an unprecedented role in security discussions.

Trump’s overhaul of the NSC, confirmed by a White House official, also elevated General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Dan Coats, the director of National Intelligence who heads all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies. The official said the change moves the NSC “back to its core function of what it’s supposed to do.”

It also appears to mark a victory by national security adviser H.R. McMaster, who had told some national security experts he felt he was in a battle to the death with Bannon and others on the White House staff.

Trump’s White House team has grappled with infighting and palace intrigue. In recent days, several other senior U.S. foreign policy and national security officials have said the mechanisms for shaping the Trump administration’s response to pressing challenges such as Syria, North Korea and Iran were still not in place.

Critics of Bannon’s role on the NSC said it gave too much weight in decision-making to someone who lacked foreign policy expertise.

Before joining the Trump administration, Bannon headed Breitbart News, a right-wing website.

The White House official said Bannon was no longer needed on the NSC after the departure of Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn.

Flynn was forced to resign on Feb. 13 over his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergei Kislyak, prior to Trump’s taking office on Jan. 20.

The official said Bannon had been placed on the NSC originally as a check on Flynn and had only ever attended one of the NSC’s regular meetings.

The official dismissed questions about a power struggle between Bannon and McMaster, saying they shared the same world view.

However, two current national security officials rejected the White House explanation, noting that two months have passed since Flynn’s departure. McMaster, they said, speaking on the condition of anonymity, also has dueled with Bannon and others over direct access to Trump; the future of deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland, a former Fox News commentator; intelligence director Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a Flynn appointee; and other staffing decisions.Trump is preparing for his first face-to-face meeting on Thursday and Friday with Chinese President Xi Jinping with the threat of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs a key component of their talks.

(Additional reporting by Ayesha Rascoe; Editing by Caren Bohan and Tom Brown)

Scores reported killed in Syrian gas attack on rebel area

A man carries the body of a dead child, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

By Ellen Francis

BEIRUT (Reuters) – A suspected Syrian government chemical attack killed scores of people, including children, in the northwestern province of Idlib on Tuesday, a monitoring group, medics and rescue workers in the rebel-held area said.

The Syrian military denied responsibility and said it would never use chemical weapons.

The head of the health authority in rebel-held Idlib said more than 50 people had been killed and 300 wounded. The Union of Medical Care Organizations, a coalition of international aid agencies that funds hospitals in Syria, said at least 100 people had died.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the attack killed at least 58 people and was believed to have been carried out by Syrian government jets. It caused many people to choke and some to foam at the mouth.

Director Rami Abdulrahman told Reuters the assessment that Syrian government warplanes were to blame was based on several factors such as the type of aircraft, including Sukhoi 22 jets, that carried out the raid.

“We deny completely the use of any chemical or toxic material in Khan Sheikhoun town today and the army has not used nor will use in any place or time neither in past or in future,” the Syrian army command said in a statement.

The Russian Defence Ministry said its aircraft had not carried out the attack. The U.N. Security Council was expected to meet on Wednesday to discuss the incident.

Reuters photographs showed people breathing through oxygen masks and wearing protection suits, while others carried the bodies of dead children, and corpses wrapped in blankets were lined up on the ground.

Activists in northern Syria circulated pictures on social media showing a man with foam around his mouth, and rescue workers hosing down almost-naked children squirming on the floor.

The incident reported at Khan Sheikhoun would be the deadliest chemical attack in Syria since sarin gas killed hundreds of civilians in Ghouta near Damascus in August 2013. Western states said the Syrian government was responsible for that attack. Damascus blamed rebels.

A senior U.S. State Department official said it appeared that the attack blamed on Assad amounted to a war crime.


HOSPITALS OVERFLOWING

Mounzer Khalil, head of Idlib’s health authority, said hospitals in the province were overflowing with victims.

“This morning, at 6:30 a.m., warplanes targeted Khan Sheikhoun with gases, believed to be sarin and chlorine,” he told a news conference.

Warplanes later struck near a medical point where victims of the attack were receiving treatment, the Observatory and civil defense workers said.

The civil defense, also known as the White Helmets – a rescue service that operates in opposition areas – said jets struck one of its centers in the area and the nearby medical point.

The White House called the attack an “intolerable act” and said President Donald Trump was alarmed by the reports.

French President Francois Hollande directly blamed Syrian government forces and said President Bashar al-Assad’s allies were emboldening him to act with impunity.

Assad has enjoyed staunch military backing from Iran and Russia in the war.

Britain said he would be guilty of a war crime if it were proved that his regime was responsible. British Prime Minister Theresa May called for an investigation into the attack.

The United Nations envoy for Syria said the “horrific” chemical attack had come from the air. The U.N. Security Council is expected to be briefed on the attack on Wednesday.

In February, Russia, backed by China, cast its seventh veto to protect Assad’s government from council action, blocking a bid by Western powers to impose sanctions over accusations of chemical weapons attacks during the conflict.

A series of investigations by the United Nations and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) found that various parties in the Syrian war had used chlorine, sulfur mustard gas and sarin.

A joint U.N.-OPCW report published in October said government forces used chlorine in a toxic gas attack in Qmenas in Idlib province in March 2015. An earlier report by the same team blamed Syrian government troops for chlorine attacks in Talmenes in March 2014 and Sarmin in March 2015. It also said Islamic State had used sulfur mustard gas.

The OPCW said it had begun “gathering and analyzing information from all available sources” about the suspected Khan Sheikhoun attack.

Turkey, which backs the anti-Assad opposition, said the attack could derail Russian-backed diplomatic efforts to shore up a ceasefire.

Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency said 15 people hurt in the attack, mostly women and children, had been taken to Turkey.

Footage from Turkey’s Dogan news agency showed at least four people being brought out of ambulances on stretchers in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli by medical staff wearing face masks. One was a young boy.

An official at the Turkish Health Ministry said Turkey’s disaster management agency was first “scanning those arriving for chemical weapons, then decontaminating them from chemicals” before they could be taken to hospital.

Idlib province contains the largest populated area controlled by anti-Assad rebels – both nationalist Free Syrian Army groups and powerful Islamist factions including the former al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the suspected attack, Turkish presidential sources said. They said the two leaders had also emphasized the importance of maintaining the much-violated Syrian ceasefire.


TOXIC ARSENAL

Idlib’s population has ballooned, with thousands of fighters and civilians shuttled out of Aleppo city and areas around Damascus that the government has retaken in recent months as Assad has gained the upper hand in the war.

The United States has also launched a spate of air strikes in Idlib this year, targeting jihadist insurgents.

Following the 2013 attack, Syria joined the international Chemical Weapons Convention under a U.S.-Russian deal, averting the threat of U.S.-led military intervention.

Under the deal, Syria agreed to give up its toxic arsenal and surrendered 1,300 tonnes of toxic weapons and industrial chemicals to the international community for destruction.

U.N.-OPCW investigators found, however, that it continued to use chlorine, which is widely available and difficult to trace, in so-called barrel bombs, dropped from helicopters.

Although chlorine is not a banned substance, the use of any chemical is banned under 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, to which Syria is a member.

Damascus has repeatedly denied using such weapons during the six-year war, which has killed hundreds of thousands and created the world’s worst refugee crisis.


(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam in Beirut, Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam, Ercan Gurses and Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara, Daren Butler in Istanbul, Robin Emmott in Brussels, John Irish in Paris, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Steve Holland and Lesley Wroughton in Washington and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Editing by Tom Perry, Andrew Roche, Yara Bayoumy, Toni Reinhold)

FBI’s Comey says no evidence of Trump’s wiretap claim, confirms probe

FBI Director James Comey waits before testifying at a House Intelligence Committee hearing into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 20, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By Patricia Zengerle and Warren Strobel

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The head of the FBI publicly challenged U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday, denying the Republican’s claim that former president Barack Obama wiretapped his 2016 election campaign and confirming his agency had launched a criminal investigation into any collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia.

FBI Director James Comey told a congressional hearing he had seen no evidence to support a claim by Trump that Obama had wiretapped his campaign headquarters in Trump Tower in New York.

The president created a controversy in early March when he tweeted without giving evidence that Obama had wiretapped the campaign as the Republican businessman took on Democrat Hillary Clinton in the presidential race.

“With respect to the president’s tweets about alleged wiretapping directed at him by the prior administration, I have no information that supports those tweets,” Comey told the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee hearing.

“And we have looked carefully inside the FBI. The Department of Justice has asked me to share with you that the answer is the same for the Department of Justice and all its components: the department has no information that supports those tweets,” he said.

The committee is investigating accusations that Russia tried to influence the 2016 election by hacking Democratic operatives and releasing embarrassing information. Russia denies the allegations.


RUSSIA PROBE

Comey confirmed the FBI has been investigating since last July possible Russian government efforts to interfere in the election, including any links between Trump’s campaign and Moscow.

“Because it is an open, ongoing investigation and is classified, I cannot say more about what we are doing and whose conduct we are examining,” Comey said. He said the fact that there is an investigation does not mean charges will be filed.

Trump’s tweet about wiretapping, which was made without supporting evidence, pulled attention away from the claims of Russian interference.

He sent his tweet on Saturday, March 4, two days after Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had met with Russia’s U.S. ambassador last fall, said he would remove himself from any investigation of Russian interference in the election.

U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia tried to help Trump by hacking leading Democrats’ emails. Comey said Moscow had long been opposed to Trump’s election rival, former secretary of state Clinton.

“I think that was a fairly easy judgment for the (intelligence) community,” he said. “Putin hated Secretary Clinton so much that the flip side of that coin was he had a clear preference for the person running against the person he hated so much.”

The hearing on Monday was a rare open congressional intelligence committee hearing and it revealed a stark partisan divide in focus. Majority Republicans concentrated their questions on leaks of classified information – a concern that Trump frequently mentions – and media reports on issues such as contacts between former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn and Russian officials.

Democrats sought to highlight such links, and shoot down Trump’s wiretapping claim.

(Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Bill Trott)

Reuters: Russian elite invested nearly $10 million in Trump buildings, records show

From left, the Trump Royale, The Trump Palace and the Trump International Beach Resort are shown in Sunny Isles Beach, Florida, U.S. March 13, 2017. REUTERS/Joe Skipper


By Nathan Layne, Ned Parker, Svetlana Reiter, Stephen Grey and Ryan McNeill

MIAMI/MOSCOW (Reuters) – During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald J. Trump downplayed his business ties with Russia. And since taking office as president, he has been even more emphatic.

“I can tell you, speaking for myself, I own nothing in Russia,” President Trump said at a news conference last month. “I have no loans in Russia. I don’t have any deals in Russia.”

But in the United States, members of the Russian elite have invested in Trump buildings. A Reuters review has found that at least 63 individuals with Russian passports or addresses have bought at least $98.4 million worth of property in seven Trump-branded luxury towers in southern Florida, according to public documents, interviews and corporate records.

The buyers include politically connected businessmen, such as a former executive in a Moscow-based state-run construction firm that works on military and intelligence facilities, the founder of a St. Petersburg investment bank and the co-founder of a conglomerate with interests in banking, property and electronics.

People from the second and third tiers of Russian power have invested in the Trump buildings as well. One recently posted a photo of himself with the leader of a Russian motorcycle gang that was sanctioned by the United States for its alleged role in Moscow’s seizure of Crimea.

The Reuters review of investors from Russia in Trump’s Florida condominium buildings found no suggestion of wrongdoing by President Trump or his real estate organization. And none of the buyers appear to be from Putin’s inner circle.

The White House referred questions from Reuters to the Trump Organization, whose chief legal officer said the scrutiny of President Trump’s business ties with Russia was misplaced.

“I can say definitively that this is an overblown story that is media-created,” Alan Garten said in an interview. “I’ve been around this company and know the company’s dealings.”

The tally of investors from Russia may be conservative. The analysis found that at least 703 – or about one-third – of the owners of the 2044 units in the seven Trump buildings are limited liability companies, or LLCs, which have the ability to hide the identity of a property’s true owner. And the nationality of many buyers could not be determined. Russian-Americans who did not use a Russian address or passport in their purchases were not included in the tally.

SUNNY ISLES

The review focused on Florida because the state has a large concentration of Trump-branded buildings, and determining the ownership of properties is easier there than in some other states. The resort town of Sunny Isles Beach, site of six of the seven Trump-branded Florida residential towers, stands out in another way: The zip code that includes the Sunny Isles buildings has an estimated 1,200 Russian-born residents, among the most in the country, U.S. Census data show.

The Trump organization advertises all seven Florida buildings on its website as it pursues similar branding deals around the world. Exactly how much income Trump has earned from the buildings is unclear.

Six of the seven properties were the product of an agreement the New York property magnate struck in 2001 with father-and-son American developers Michael and Gil Dezer. The six buildings operated by the Dezers in Sunny Isles would bear Trump’s name under a licensing agreement.

In an interview, Gil Dezer said the project generated $2 billion in initial sales, from which Trump took a commission. Dezer declined to say how large a commission, citing confidentiality agreements. Garten, the Trump Organization’s chief legal officer, said Trump’s income was a mix of flat fees and percentages but declined to disclose them.

Edgardo Defortuna, a leading Miami developer, estimated that Trump likely made between one percent and four percent in initial sale commissions, based on the standard fees paid on similarly branded projects. If so, Trump stood to reap a total of $20 million to $80 million in Sunny Isles.

Trump receives no commission on subsequent sales in all seven of the Florida residential towers.

He continues to make money from one of the six Sunny Isles buildings, however, according to disclosure forms Trump filed in the 2016 U.S. presidential race. The disclosure form states that Trump received between $100,000 and $1 million from a business called Trump Marks Sunny Isles I LLC. Dezer said these funds came from the Trump International Beach Resort, a hotel and condominium complex.

Trump reported no income on his disclosure form from his seventh Florida property, the Trump Hollywood in the city of Hollywood. How much he has made over the years from that property’s 200 units is unclear. BH3, an investment fund which took over 180 units in a foreclosure sale, paid Trump a licensing fee of $25,000 for each unit, according to Daniel Lebensohn, a principal at the fund. If the remaining 20 units generated the same fee, Trump’s take would have been $5 million. Garten declined to confirm Trump’s commission.

Informed of the Reuters analysis of Trump’s Russian condo investors, two Democratic opponents of the president, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), renewed their calls for greater disclosure of his finances.

“While the president has denied having invested in Russia, he has said little or nothing about Russian investment in his businesses and properties in the United States or elsewhere,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “This should concern all Americans and is yet another reason why his refusal to release his tax returns should be met with considerable skepticism and concern.”

Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) and Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), the Republican chairs of the Senate and House intelligence committees, declined to comment.

Schiff, as well as two U.S. intelligence officials and one former senior law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Russian government sometimes directs funding at prominent individuals in the United States and Europe in hopes of improving their perception of Russia. Reuters found no evidence of such an effort with Trump. Garten, the Trump Organization’s chief legal officer, scoffed at the idea.

“This is politics at its worst,” he said.

RUSSIAN ELITE

The glimpse inside the condominium dealings offers a look at how the wealthy in Putin’s Russia use foreign property to stow cash.

One wealthy Russian buyer was Alexander Yuzvik. In 2010, he and his wife bought unit 3901 of Trump Palace in Sunny Isles for $1.3 million, according to Florida property records. The three-bedroom apartment has 2,100 square feet and panoramic views, according to an online real estate listing.

From 2013 to 2016, Yuzvik was a senior executive at Spetstroi, a state-owned company that has carried out construction projects at military facilities.

The Spetstroi website says the firm was involved in construction projects at the Moscow training academy of the FSB, Russia’s primary civilian intelligence service and successor of the KGB. Spetstroi also did construction work in the administrative building of the general staff of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service.

In a statement sent to Reuters, Spetstroi said Yuzvik worked there until he stepped down in March 2016.

Employees of some state-owned Russian companies are typically required to disclose their assets and income. Yuzvik and his wife filed a declaration for 2013. In that declaration, which is publicly available, they list only assets inside Russia. The Florida condo isn’t included.

Yuzvik could not be reached for comment.

Andrey Truskov, another Trump condo owner, is a founder and co-owner of Absolute Group LLC, a holding company involved in wholesale electronics, banking and property development, with projects in Moscow, London and New York. The wholesale electronic business is the biggest in Russia, an Absolute representative told Reuters. The company does not disclose its financial results.

Truskov bought apartment 1102 in the Trump Hollywood building for $1.4 million in 2011. The three-bedroom, 3.5-bath unit is 3,100 square feet, according to online real estate listings.

In a telephone interview, Truskov confirmed that he purchased the Trump Hollywood unit. He said the Florida apartment was the same price as a three-room apartment outside Moscow at the time, and Florida was a nice place to have a property. He said the purchase was a personal decision that had no connection with his business.

Several wealthy buyers were from Moscow and St. Petersburg, the country’s two largest cities, according to interviews in Russia, Florida public records and the Bureau Van Dijk company database Orbis. Among them: Alexey Ustaev, the founder and president of St. Petersburg-based Viking Bank, one of the first private investment banks established in Russia after the fall of Communism.

A donor to orphanages and chess clubs in St. Petersburg, Ustaev has received awards from the Russian Sports Ministry and the St. Petersburg chamber of commerce  for his banking and charitable work, according to his biography on the bank’s website.

PROVINCIAL POWERS

In 2009, Ustaev bought unit 5006, a 3-bed, 3.5-bath apartment in the Trump Palace complex in Sunny Isles, for $1.2 million in cash, according to Florida public records. Two years later, Ustaev bought another apartment, a penthouse unit, this time in the nearby Trump Royale condominium development, for $5.2 million.

In an email reply to questions, Ustaev said he purchased the properties in the Trump buildings for private use, but declined to comment on his family’s U.S. business. “I am living in Russia, I am working in Russia, and going abroad only for business purposes or vacations,” he said.

Many of the Russian buyers were from the country’s provinces. One is Oleg Misevra, a wealthy coal magnate and former traffic police commander whose company’s main assets are in the Pacific island of Sakhalin in Russia’s Far East. He has caught Putin’s eye: At a 2010 regional meeting of Putin’s United Russia party, Putin praised Misevra’s work and held a lengthy question and answer session with him.

A corporation Misevra controls, Swiss Residence Aliance Inc, purchased Penthouse #1 in Trump Hollywood for $6.8 million in 2010. The six-bedroom duplex is 8,200 square feet and boasts 12-foot ceilings, according to real estate listings. Misevra did not respond to requests for comment.

Some of these Russian buyers appear to have done well in America. Another local politician, Vadim Valeryevich Gataullin, bought an apartment for $3.5 million in the Trump Hollywood. He did the deal through a company registered in Florida called VVG Real Estate Investments LLC. Five years later, Gataullin sold the apartment for $4.1 million to a Delaware-based limited liability company whose owner is not identified in state records.

In early 2012, Gataullin bought a second apartment in the same building, unit 2701, for $920,000, according to Florida records. Several months later, Gataullin sold the apartment for $1.1 million to a couple from Venezuela, property records show.

Gataullin is from the semi-autonomous Russian Republic of Bashkortostan, an oil-producing region in the foothills of the Ural Mountains. The son of a deputy regional prosecutor, he was a deputy in the regional parliament from 2013 until 2015.

As a member of the regional parliament, he was required to declare his income and assets under Russian federal law, according to a representative of the Bashkortostan regional parliament. A copy of the income declaration Gataullin filed for in 2013, when he was still owner of the second Trump unit, contains no mention of the apartment.

Gataullin did not respond to messages sent to his company in Bashkortostan.

FRIEND OF A BIKER

More recently, Gataullin has been actively investing in the Miami area. His VVG Real Estate has spent at least $28 million on property in Broward County between 2012 and 2016. It also bought and sold six properties in Miami Dade County between 2015 and 2016 for a total profit of $238,400, property records show.

VVG is also the registered licensee on a small motel close to the beach in Hollywood. An employee there told Reuters that Gataullin “appears and disappears like a ghost” and was currently in Russia. A secretary at Gataullin’s holding company in Russia told Reuters on March 17 that he is not in Russia.

The American experience has been a mixed one for some of the Trump buyers. Among them is Pavel Uglanov, a businessman who served as a deputy minister for industry and energy in the regional government of Saratov, in central Russia, from 2010 to 2011.

Uglanov bought unit 3704 of Trump Hollywood in Hollywood, Florida, for $1.8 million in 2012. He sold the 3-bed, 3,395 square foot apartment for $2.9 million two years later.

Back in Russia, Uglanov made unsuccessful runs for the Saratov city assembly in 2006 and 2011, the second time as a member of Putin’s United Russia party. After leaving his deputy ministership in 2011, Uglanov told his then-wife, Anastasia, they were moving to Florida.

Anastasia said in an interview in her Miami apartment that her ex-husband never told her why. “I don’t know what goes on in a man’s head,” she said.

In Miami, Uglanov opened a gas station, called Niko Petroleum. When that business struggled, he sold it. He then started a charter boat business and a trucking firm. They struggled, too.

Uglanov did not have connections in the United States like he did in Russia and he didn’t understand how Americans do business, his ex-wife said.

Last August, Uglanov posted a photograph of himself on his Facebook page posing alongside Alexander Zaldostanov, leader of the “Night Wolves” biker gang. The Wolves, and Zaldostanov personally, were made subject to U.S. financial and travel restrictions. The U.S. government said gang members stormed a Ukrainian government naval base and a gas facility during Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

An aide to Zaldostanov did not respond to questions from Reuters. The group, in interviews in Russian media, has denied storming the base and the gas facility.

Zaldostanov has had multiple meetings with Putin, according to the Kremlin’s website. The Russian president awarded Zaldostanov the country’s “medal of honor” in 2013.

In a phone interview late last month, Uglanov confirmed the Trump apartment purchase. He said it was a personal matter and declined to answer questions. “Basically, my private life is not your business,” he said.

THE RAINMAKER

For Dezer, Trump’s American partner in Sunny Isles, the six buildings have been a win for his family, the Trumps and Sunny Isles.

Trump visited the sites at least four times as the buildings – including a hotel – were constructed and promoted between 2001 and 2011, according to Dezer and former employees of Dezer’s company. Trump had approval over the look of the buildings and apartments, Dezer said.

“His people were very much involved in quality control and construction,” Dezer said. “They were down here once every quarter checking on us, the progress. They wanted to see we were making money.”

In 2008, when the housing market crashed, buyers defaulted on 900 Trump apartments, according to Dezer. Dezer said he worked hard over the coming years to pay back creditors. Until those 900 apartments were sold off, Trump did not earn any money for them, he added.

Foreign buyers bought into the Trump buildings as the developers dropped their prices after the crash, according to Dezer and local realtors. The majority of these buyers were from South America, with a smaller percentage of Russians and other former Soviet nationals.

Tanya Tsveyer, a realtor whose Russian clients have bought in the Trump buildings, described her customers as primarily business people, including several with investments across the United States and Russia.

“They bought in the Trump because they liked how the buildings fit their lifestyle,” she said, referring to the Russians.

By early 2011, the Trump buildings had started to turn a profit, according to Dezer. He invited Trump to a mortgage burning ceremony to celebrate Dezer’s paying off the project’s $475 million dollar mortgage. Dezer recalled Trump telling him that he planned to run for president.

At the party, Dezer, his father and Trump gleefully set flame to a stack of mortgage documents, applauded by a crowd of tenants from the Trump buildings and local business people. A video of the event shows Trump smiling, joking and working the crowd.

“I was with Michael Jackson when he had the hair burned with the Pepsi, and it was a disaster,” Trump told revelers, referring to the time the pop superstar’s hair caught fire during the 1984 filming of a Pepsi commercial. “I am sitting next to that friggin’ fire, and if my hair goes, I am out of business.”

Dezer and Trump got help selling the condos from Elena Baronoff, who immigrated from the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Baronoff, who grew up in Uzbekistan, had been active in Soviet cultural associations. In Miami, she soon began bringing Russian tour groups to Miami.

Gil Dezer’s father, Michael, recruited Baronoff to work alongside the Dezer corporation. She traveled to Moscow, St Petersburg, France and London to bring in Russian buyers, according to Dezer, selling apartments to them for between $1 million and $2 million. Baronoff was diagnosed with Leukemia in 2014 and died a year later.

“She was huge, she was big for them,” Dezer said, referring to Russian buyers. “No one has filled her shoes.”

(Additional reporting by Jack Stubbs in Moscow, John Walcott, Mark Hosenball, Jonathan Landay, Arshad Mohammed and Warren Strobel in Washington, and Astha Rajvanshi in New York. Editing by David Rohde and Christian Lowe)

Hawaii judge halts Trump new travel ban before it goes into effect

Hawaii Attorney General Douglas Chin answers questions from the media at the U.S. District Court Ninth Circuit after presenting his arguments after filing an amended lawsuit against President Donald Trump’s new travel ban in Honolulu, Hawaii, March 15, 2017. REUTERS/Hugh Gentry



By Dan Levine and Mica Rosenberg

HONOLULU/NEW YORK (Reuters) – Just hours before President Donald Trump’s revised travel ban was set to go into effect, a U.S. federal judge in Hawaii on Wednesday issued an emergency halt to the order’s implementation.

The action was the latest legal blow to the administration’s efforts to temporarily ban refugees as well as travelers from six predominantly Muslim countries.

The new ban, signed by the president on March 6, had aimed to overcome legal problems with a January executive order that caused chaos at airports and sparked mass protests before a Washington judge stopped its enforcement in February.

U.S. District Judge Derrick Watson put an emergency stop to the new order in response to a lawsuit filed by the state of Hawaii, which argued that the order discriminated against Muslims in violation of the U.S. Constitution. President Trump has said the policy is critical for national security and does not discriminate against any religion.

Judge Watson concluded in his ruling that while the order did not mention Islam by name, “a reasonable, objective observer … would conclude that the Executive Order was issued with a purpose to disfavor a particular religion.” Watson was appointed to the bench by former Democratic President Barack Obama.

Trump said the judge’s legal block “makes us look weak” and represented “unprecedented judicial overreach,” speaking at a rally in Nashville, Tennessee. He said he’ll take case “as far as it needs to go” including to the Supreme Court.

Paul Ryan, the Republican Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, said the ban was needed to improve vetting of people entering the United States and he had no doubt that it would be upheld by higher courts.

The legal battle is likely to move now to the federal appeals circuit and could eventually get to the U.S. Supreme Court.

REBUKE

Hawaii and other opponents of the ban claimed that the motivation behind it was Trump’s campaign promise of “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”

Trump later toned down that language and said he would implement a policy of “extreme vetting” of foreigners coming to the United States.

Watson’s order is only temporary until the broader arguments in the case can be heard. He set an expedited hearing to determine if his ruling should be extended.

Trump’s first travel order was more sweeping than the second revised order. Like the current one, it barred citizens of Iran, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen from entering the country for 90 days, but it also included Iraq, which was taken off the list of banned countries in the subsequent order.

Refugees were blocked from entering the country for 120 days in both orders, but an indefinite ban on all refugees from Syria was dropped in the new one.

The revised ban also excluded legal permanent residents and existing visa holders. It provided a series of waivers for various categories of immigrants with ties to the United States.

The government has maintained in court that the changes resolve any legal issues with the original order and maintained that it was not discriminatory.

The government, in its court filings cautioned the court against looking for secret motives in the executive order and against performing “judicial psychoanalysis of a drafter’s heart of heart.”

Watson said he did not need to do that, because evidence of motive could be found in the president’s public statements. He said he did not give credence to the government’s argument that the order was not anti-Muslim because it targeted only a small percentage of Muslim-majority countries.

“The notion that one can demonstrate animus toward any group of people only by targeting all of them at once is fundamentally flawed,” the judge wrote.

SEVERAL CASES

The case was one of several moving through U.S. courts on Wednesday that were brought by states’ attorneys general and immigrant advocacy groups.

In Maryland, refugee resettlement agencies represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Immigration Law Center argued in court for a restraining order.

In Washington state, a group of plaintiffs applying for immigrant visas asked U.S. District Judge James Robart in Seattle – who suspended the first ban – to stop the new order. Robart was appointed to the bench by Republican President George W. Bush.

Washington state, joined by California, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York and Oregon, said in court filings they supported the plaintiffs in Seattle.

Various groups and companies said they would be harmed by the travel restrictions.

A group of 58 tech companies, including Airbnb, Lyft and Dropbox, filed a “friend of the court’ brief in the case saying the order hurt their ability to recruit the best talent from around the world. A longer list of companies – that included giants like Apple, Facebook and Alphabet Inc’s Google – filed a brief opposing the first ban in a different court challenge brought by Washington state, which is ongoing.

Both judge Robart and U.S. District Judge Theodore Chuang said they would issue written rulings in their cases, but did not specify a time line.

If more judges side with Watson, the government’s case may be harder to make at higher courts. The 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld Robart’s ruling against the first ban and Watson referenced that decision in his order.


(Reporting by Dan Levine in Honolulu and Mica Rosenberg in New York; Additional reporting Ian Simpson in Greenbelt, Maryland, Jonathan Allen in New York and Tom James in Seattle; Writing by Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Sue Horton and Bill Rigby)

Blow to U.S. intelligence: Wikileaks releases purported CIA secret hacking tools

FILE PHOTO: People are silhouetted as they pose with laptops in front of a screen projected with binary code and a Central Inteligence Agency (CIA) emblem, in this picture illustration taken in Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina October 29, 2014. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/File Photo/Illustration

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – WikiLeaks said on Tuesday it had obtained a top-secret trove of hacking tools used by the CIA to break into phones, communication apps and other electronic devices, and released documents related to those programs.

If verified, the information would amount to yet another stunning breach of classified material stolen in recent years from U.S. intelligence agencies.

WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy organization led by Julian Assange, said its publication of the documents pertaining to the hacking tools on Tuesday on its website, www.wikileaks.org, was the first in a series of releases drawing from a data set that includes several hundred million lines of code and includes the CIA’s “entire hacking capacity.”

Among the explosive claims made in the documents are that the CIA, in partnership with other U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies, has been able to break the encryption on popular messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Telegram and Signal.

Reuters could not immediately verify the contents of the published material.

“We do not comment on the authenticity or content of purported intelligence documents,” CIA spokesman Jonathan Liu said in a statement.

One cyber security consultant who had done work for the U.S. government, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the news, said the leak appeared to be legitimate.

U.S. officials said they were unaware of where WikiLeaks might have obtained the alleged CIA material. One government source said he was unaware of any recent or current investigations into possible leaks of this kind of CIA material.

WikiLeaks also said the documents showed CIA operatives had researched how to hack and take control of devices other than computers and smart phones connected to the Internet.

In one case, it said, U.S. and British personnel, under a program known as Weeping Angel, had developed ways to take over a Samsung smart television, making it appear it was off when in fact it was recording conversations in the room.

WikiLeaks published tranches of secret government information in the past and played a prominent role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election by disclosing internal emails of senior Democratic Party officials.

U.S. intelligence agencies believe the emails were hacked by Russia as part of a coordinated influence campaign to discredit Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and help President Donald Trump, a Republican, win.

Russia has denied the charge.

(Reporting by Dustin Volz, Mark Hosenball, Warren Strobel and Jim Finkle; Editing by Bill Trott)

Trump signs revised Muslim country travel ban order, leaves Iraq off

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks on issues related to visas and travel after U.S. President Donald Trump signed a new travel ban order in Washington, U.S., March 6, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Steve Holland and Julia Edwards Ainsley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump signed a revised executive order on Monday banning citizens from six Muslim-majority nations from traveling to the United States but removing Iraq from the list, after his controversial first attempt was blocked in the courts.

The new order, which the White House said Trump had signed, keeps a 90-day ban on travel to the United States by citizens of Iran, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the new order would take effect on March 16. The delay aims to limit the disruption created by the original Jan. 27 order before a U.S. judge suspended it on Feb. 3.

Trump, who first proposed a temporary travel ban on Muslims during his presidential campaign last year, had said his original executive order was a national security measure meant to head off attacks by Islamist militants.

It came only a week after Trump was inaugurated, and it sparked chaos and protests at airports, as well as a wave of criticism from targeted countries, Western allies and some of America’s leading corporations.

“It is the president’s solemn duty to protect the American people,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters after Trump signed the new order. “As threats to our security continue to evolve and change, common sense dictates that we continually re-evaluate and reassess the systems we rely upon to protect our country.”

The leader of the minority Democrats in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, said he expected the revised order to have the same uphill battle in the courts as the original version.

“A watered down ban is still a ban,” he said in a statement. “Despite the administration’s changes, this dangerous executive order makes us less safe, not more, it is mean-spirited, and un-American. It must be repealed.”

Trump’s original ban resulted in more than two dozen lawsuits in U.S. courts. Attorney General Bob Ferguson of Washington state, which succeeded in having the previous ban suspended, said he was “carefully reviewing” the new order.

IRAQ’S NEW VETTING

Iraq was taken off the banned list because the Iraqi government has imposed new vetting procedures, such as heightened visa screening and data sharing, and because of its work with the United States in countering Islamic State militants, a senior White House official said.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who along with several other senior Cabinet members had lobbied for Iraq’s removal, was consulted on the new order and the updated version “does reflect his inputs,” Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said.

Thousands of Iraqis have fought alongside U.S. troops for years or worked as translators since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Many have resettled in the United States after being threatened for working with U.S. troops.

The White House official said the new executive order also ensures that tens of thousands of legal permanent residents in the United States – or green card holders – from the listed countries would not be affected by the travel ban.

The original order barred travelers from the seven nations from entering for 90 days and all refugees for 120 days. Refugees from Syria were to be banned indefinitely but under the new order they are not given separate treatment.

Trump’s first order was seen by opponents as discrimination against Muslims. The White House official said the new order had nothing to do with religion and that the administration would reset the clock on the 90-day travel ban.

But House of Representatives Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said “the Trump administration’s repackaging has done nothing to change the immoral, unconstitutional and dangerous goals of their Muslim and refugee ban.”


“NO ALLEGED CHAOS”

Trump publicly criticized judges who ruled against him and vowed to fight the case in the Supreme Court, but then decided to draw up a new order with changes aimed at making it easier to defend in the courts.

Refugees who are “in transit” and already have been approved would be able to travel to the United States.

“There’s going to be a very orderly process,” a senior official from the Department of Homeland Security said. “You should not see any chaos so to speak, or alleged chaos at airports. There aren’t going to be folks stopped tonight from coming into the country because of this executive order.”

The FBI is investigating 300 people admitted into the United States as refugees as part of 1,000 counter-terrorism probes involving Islamic State or individuals inspired by the militant group, congressional sources told Reuters on Monday, citing senior administration officials.

An FBI spokeswoman said the agency was consulting its data to confirm the information.

The White House official said U.S. government agencies would determine whether Syria or other nations had made sufficient security improvements to be taken back into the refugee admissions program.

The new order spells out detailed categories of people eligible to enter the United States, such as for business or medical travel, or people with family connections or who support the United States.

“There are a lot of explicit carve-outs for waivers and given on a case-by-case basis,” the official said.

(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Doina Chiacu, Mica Rosenberg, Tim Ahmann and Idrees Ali; Editing by Bill Trott and Nick Tattersall)

Reuters: Trump administration considering separating women, children at Mexican border

FILE PHOTO – An undocumented immigrant family from Guatemala talks to a volunteer after their arrival to Announciation House, an organisation that provides shelter to immigrants and refugees, in El Paso, U.S. January 17, 2017. REUTERS/Tomas Bravo /File Photo

By Julia Edwards Ainsley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Women and children crossing together illegally into the United States could be separated by U.S. authorities under a proposal being considered by the Department of Homeland Security, according to three government officials.

Part of the reason for the proposal is to deter mothers from migrating to the United States with their children, said the officials, who have been briefed on the proposal.

The policy shift would allow the government to keep parents in custody while they contest deportation or wait for asylum hearings. Children would be put into protective custody with the Department of Health and Human Services, in the “least restrictive setting” until they can be taken into the care of a U.S. relative or state-sponsored guardian.

Currently, families contesting deportation or applying for asylum are generally released from detention quickly and allowed to remain in the United States until their cases are resolved. A federal appeals court ruling bars prolonged child detention.

President Donald Trump has called for ending “catch and release,” in which migrants who cross illegally are freed to live in the United States while awaiting legal proceedings.

Two of the officials were briefed on the proposal at a Feb. 2 town hall for asylum officers by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services asylum chief John Lafferty.

A third DHS official said the department is actively considering separating women from their children but has not made a decision.

HHS and the White House did not respond to requests for comment.

In a statement to Reuters, DHS said: “The journey north is a dangerous one with too many situations where children – brought by parents, relatives or smugglers – are often exploited, abused or may even lose their lives.

“With safety in mind, the Department of Homeland Security continually explores options that may discourage those from even beginning the journey,” the statement said.

U.S. Representative Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat whose district includes about 200 miles (320 km) of the border with Mexico, slammed the proposal. “Bottom line: separating mothers and children is wrong,” he said in a statement.

“That type of thing is where we depart from border security and get into violating human rights,” he said.

About 54,000 children and their guardians were apprehended between Oct. 1, 2016, and Jan. 31, 2017, more than double the number caught over the same time period a year earlier.

Republicans in Congress have argued women are willing to risk the dangerous journey with their children because they are assured they will be quickly released from detention and given court dates set years into the future.

Immigrant rights advocates have argued that Central America’s violent and impoverished conditions force mothers to immigrate to the United States and that they should be given asylum status. (Graphic: http://tmsnrt.rs/2m4aPAs)

LEGAL CONSIDERATIONS

Implementing the new policy proposal “could create lifelong psychological trauma,” said Marielena Hincapie, executive director at the National Immigration Law Center. “Especially for children that have just completed a perilous journey from Central America.”

Hincapie said the U.S. government is likely to face legal challenges based on immigration and family law if they decide to implement the policy.

The policy would allow DHS to detain parents while complying with a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals order from July 2016 that immigrant children should be released from detention as quickly as possible. That order said their parents were not required to be freed.

To comply with that order, the Obama administration implemented a policy of holding women and children at family detention centers for no more than 21 days before releasing them.

Holding mothers in prolonged detention could also strain government resources, said Randy Capps of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based non-profit.

“You are talking about a pretty rapid increase in the detention population if you are going to do this,” Capps said. “The question is really how much detention can they afford.”

Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly last week ordered immigration agents to deport or criminally prosecute parents who facilitate the illegal smuggling of their children.

Many parents who arrive on the U.S.-Mexico border with their children have paid smugglers to guide them across the dangerous terrain.


(Reporting by Julia Edwards Ainsley; Additional reporting by Mica Rosenberg and Susan Cornwell; Editing by Sue Horton, Ross Colvin, James Dalgleish and Lisa Shumaker)

Trump’s bromance with Russia’s Putin appears to be cooling

FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a news conference at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, January 17, 2017. REUTERS/Sergei Ilnitsky/Pool/File Photo

By Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – With his administration on the defensive over investigations into alleged Russian meddling in last year’s election, U.S. President Donald Trump is no longer tweeting praise for his Kremlin counterpart.

Less than five weeks after he took office, the chances of a spring thaw in relations between Washington and Moscow – once buoyed by an apparent “bromance” between Trump and President Vladimir Putin during the U.S. political campaign – are looking much dimmer, U.S. officials say.

His top foreign policy advisers have started talking tougher on Russia, and the apparent cooling of Trump’s approach follows the resignation last month of his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, a vocal advocate of warmer ties with Moscow. He was replaced by Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, who is more hawkish on Russia and allied with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general.

In one other sign of a stiffening attitude, two officials said the administration had offered the job of top Russia adviser at the National Security Council to Russia scholar Fiona Hill, a leading Putin critic. Her books include “Mr. Putin, Operative in the Kremlin”, an allusion to the Russian leader’s past as a KGB officer. It was not immediately known whether she had accepted the post.

Pressure also has come to bear from Trump’s fellow Republicans in Congress, long wary of his campaign overtures to Putin, and from European allies anxious over any sign that the president might prematurely ease sanctions imposed on Russia after its annexation of Crimea and support for pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine.

Posing fresh obstacles to rapprochement with Russia, analysts say, is mounting evidence that Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, and other members of Trump’s team communicated with Russian officials during and after the presidential campaign.

The mushrooming inquiry – which is now focused on Sessions and his contacts with Moscow’s ambassador to Washington – has fueled calls for expanded investigations into allegations that Moscow sought to sway the election’s outcome.

“There is so much panic in the U.S. political establishment over Russia right now that Trump will be boxed in on what he can do,” said Matthew Rojansky, a Russia expert at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington.

White House officials say there were no improper contacts, and Russia denies any meddling.


NO SWIFT WARMING OF TIES EXPECTED

While Trump has yet to lay down his Russia policy, most signs suggest no swift changes in the relationship, which sank to a post-Cold War low under his predecessor Barack Obama, mostly due to bitter differences over Syria and Ukraine.

Mattis sought to reassure NATO allies during a visit to Europe last month, telling them there would be no military cooperation between the United States and Russia in the near future.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley this week denounced Russia for casting a veto to protect the Syrian government from Security Council action over accusations of chemical weapons use, and also recently insisted the United States would not recognize Russia’s seizure of Crimea.

Trump’s openness to closer ties to Russia and his emphasis, particularly during the campaign, on fighting terrorism sparked concerns among current and former U.S. officials that he might trade away U.S. interests in other areas in exchange for military and intelligence cooperation against groups such as Islamic State.

Trump’s language on Russia now has shifted somewhat from campaign days, when he tweeted his admiration for Putin as a strong leader, and the Russian president paid him compliments.

Trump told a news conference in mid-February that, “I would love to be able to get along with Russia,” but added that, “It’s possible I won’t be able to get along with Putin.”

Two senior European officials this week told reporters in Washington they discerned an evolution in the Trump administration’s stance toward Russia, saying there appeared to be no desire to engage in such a “grand bargain” in which, for example, Ukraine-related sanctions might be eased in return for Russian action on other issues.

    “What we consider reassuring is that, at least during our meetings, nobody came with this idea of a grand bargain, with the idea of a big deal,” said one senior European official on condition of anonymity.

    Said a second senior European official: “Vis-a-vis Russia, to be frank I have the impression that the analysis and the positions of this administration are probably now closer to our position than (they) may have been two or three months ago.”

Recent Russian actions have created new complications, including a stepped-up offensive by pro-Russian separatist forces in eastern Ukraine and what the Pentagon described as the bombing this week by Russian and Syrian aircraft of U.S.-backed Syrian rebels – something Moscow denied had happened.

For its part, the Kremlin said on Wednesday it was patiently waiting for “some kind of actions” from the Trump administration so that it could understand what the future holds for relations.

“We have heard different statements from President Trump,” Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, told reporters.

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican member of the Foreign Relations Committee and former 2016 presidential candidate, had words of caution for Trump about future dealings with Putin.

“We have had two presidents – a Republican and a Democrat – previous to the current president who thought they could do such a deal with Vladimir Putin,” he said on the Senate floor on Wednesday.

“Both of them fell on their face because they did not

understand what they were dealing with. It is my sincerest hope that our current President doesn’t make the same mistakes,” Rubio said.

(This version of the story corrects defense secretary’s first name, paragraph 3.)


(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Arshad Mohammed in Washington, Michelle Nichols in New York and Aleksandar Vasovic and Maria Tsvetkova in Moscow; Editing by Andrew Hay)

Sessions scandal: AG did not disclose his pre-confirmation Russia contacts

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions holds his first meeting with heads of federal law enforcement components at the Justice Department. in Washington U.S., February 9, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Jeff Sessions, while still a U.S. senator, spoke twice last year with Russia’s ambassador, encounters he did not disclose when asked during his confirmation hearing to become attorney general about possible contacts between Donald Trump’s campaign and Russian officials, The Washington Post reported on Wednesday, citing Justice Department officials.

One of the meetings was a private conversation between Sessions and Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak that took place in September in the senator’s office, at the height of what U.S. intelligence officials say was a Russian cyber campaign to upend the U.S. presidential race, the Post reported.

The previously undisclosed discussions could fuel new congressional calls for the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Russia’s alleged role in the 2016 presidential election, the Post said.

Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was fired last month after he discussed U.S. sanctions on Russia with Kislyak before Trump took office and misled Vice President Mike Pence about the conversations.

As attorney general, Sessions oversees the Justice Department, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which have been leading investigations into Russian meddling and any links to Trump’s associates. Sessions has so far resisted calls to recuse himself.

When Sessions spoke with Kislyak in July and September, he was a senior member of the influential Senate Armed Services Committee as well as one of Trump’s top foreign policy advisers, according to the Post.

Sessions played a prominent role supporting Trump after formally joining the campaign in February 2016.

At his Jan. 10 Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing, Sessions was asked by Democratic Senator Al Franken what he would do if he learned of any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of the 2016 campaign, the Post reported.

“I’m not aware of any of those activities,” Sessions responded, according to the Post. He added: “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.”

Officials said Sessions did not consider the conversations relevant to the lawmakers’ questions and did not remember in detail what he discussed with Kislyak, according to the Post.

“There was absolutely nothing misleading about his answer,” Sarah Isgur Flores, Sessions’ spokeswoman, told the Post.

The Department of Justice and the White House did not respond immediately to requests by Reuters for comment.

Justice officials said Sessions met with Kislyak on Sept. 8 in his capacity as a member of the armed services panel rather than in his role as a Trump campaign surrogate, the Post reported.

“He was asked during the hearing about communications between Russia and the Trump campaign – not about meetings he took as a senator and a member of the Armed Services Committee,” Flores told the Post.


(Writing by Eric Beech; Editing by Sandra Maler and Leslie Adler)

In speech, Trump tries to turn from divisive to deal maker

US Vice President Mike Pence (L) and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R) applaud as US President Donald J. Trump (C) arrives to deliver his first address to a joint session of Congress from the floor of the House of Representatives in Washington, DC, USA, 28 February 2017. REUTERS/Jim Lo Scalzo



By James Oliphant

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump showed a different side in his first address to Congress. This Trump was part deal-maker, part salesman, asking for unity and trying to repackage his populist message in more palatable terms.

He was less combative, less thin-skinned and more inclusive.

And where five weeks ago at his inauguration, he slammed Washington’s politicians as out-of-touch elitists who prospered at the expense of the public, his message on Tuesday night was different: I need you, Republicans and Democrats alike.

Always a showman, the TV reality star-turned-politician laid out plenty of promises: A massive infrastructure and public works program; tax cuts for the middle class; immigration reform; a healthcare overhaul; an education bill.

All of it will require congressional action, likely by different coalitions of conservatives, moderates and Democrats.

“This is our vision. This is our mission,” Trump said. “But we can only get there together.”

Trump, a Republican who has taunted Democrats over his 2016 election victory and publicly fumed as they held up his Cabinet nominees, did not criticize them this time. Repeatedly, he asked for their help, arguing the country’s problems demanded bipartisan solutions.

After weeks of attacks on the media, political rivals and the judges who ruled against his executive order to ban travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, Trump finally eased off, although his proposals were short on specifics.

“It was a softer tone and he gave a speech and not a tweet and that’s more suitable when you’re president of the United States,” said Democratic Representative Peter Welch. “The challenges are going to be the details on his policies.”

“He was presidential tonight in a way he has not been before this,” said Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak.

The address appeared to show some recognition by the White House that Trump’s bombastic go-it-alone style has its limits. After a parade of executive orders, Trump now must turn his attention to the big-ticket items on his agenda requiring legislative action.

“He’s done all he can unilaterally,” said Bradley Blakeman, a former aide to President George W. Bush. “Now he needs to pass bills.”

Blakeman said Trump needs Democrats to build a majority that would allow conservative Republicans to oppose some of his more centrist proposals, such as hefty infrastructure spending and talks on immigration reform.

“The president is as transactional a person as we’ve ever seen,” Blakeman said. “He understands that you might not like this deal, but I need you for three other deals.”


SKEPTICAL

Despite the softer tone, Trump’s divisive policies and months of hostile rhetoric will not be forgotten by his adversaries.

“If you have been living in a cave for the last month, you might think this was a reasonable speech, If you see him every day, you can only see this as words,” said Rodell Mollineau, once a top aide to former Democratic Senator Harry Reid. “If he had carried himself like this every day, Democrats might be in a different position.”

Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, the leading Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives, said in a statement: “The president’s speech was utterly disconnected from the cruel reality of his conduct.”

Congressional Democrats said they liked Trump’s infrastructure program, his childcare tax credit, his call to reduce the prices of prescription drugs, and his vow to preserve some key elements of former President Barack Obama’s signature 2010 Obamacare health insurance law.

Democratic Senator Christopher Coons offered muted praise for Trump. “That was the most coherent public address he’s given in a month and it certainly began and ended with positive themes.”

Democrats nonetheless remain troubled, among other things, by Trump’s pledge to slash domestic programs to increase military spending, his plans to reduce taxes for the wealthy and corporations, as well as his aggressive deportation policy.

To be sure, the more foreboding elements of Trump’s campaign rhetoric were still present, albeit slightly dialed-down. As he did during the campaign, he portrayed the country in ruinous economic shape and plagued by terrorism, drugs, gangs, and illegal immigrants.

In coming days, the White House is likely to release a revised version of its travel ban, reigniting a controversy that overshadowed the first weeks of Trump’s presidency.

Trump came into the address struggling with public opinion. In an interview with Fox News he acknowledged that he and his staff had not been effective communicators. The most recent Reuters/Ipsos tracking poll found about 48 percent of Americans disapproved of Trump’s performance, with 46 percent backing him, poor numbers for a new president.

Mackowiak said Trump’s address could reverse his fortunes in a “crucial moment” for his presidency. “His public support will improve from this speech,” he said.

But John Geer, a public-opinion expert at Vanderbilt University, was not convinced. “He’s going to have to do more than give a speech.”

(Reporting and writing by James Oliphant Additional reporting by Richard Cowan)

White House bars some news organizations from press briefing

Journalists leave after several major news organizations including CNN, The New York Times and Politico were excluded from an off camera “gaggle” meeting with White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer in his office that was held in place of the regular daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 24, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas


By Ayesha Rascoe

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House excluded several major U.S. news organizations, including some it has openly criticized, from an off-camera briefing held by the White House press secretary on Friday, representatives of the organizations said.

Reporters for CNN, The New York Times, Politico, The Los Angeles Times and BuzzFeed were not allowed into the session in the office of press secretary Sean Spicer.

Spicer’s off-camera briefing, or “gaggle,” replaced the usual televised daily news briefing on Friday in the White House briefing room. He did not say why those particular news organizations were excluded, a decision which drew strong protests.

Reuters was included in the session, along with about 10 other news organizations, including Bloomberg and CBS.

Spicer said his team decided to have a gaggle in his office instead of a full briefing in the larger White House briefing room.

“Our job is to make sure that we’re responsive to folks in media. We want to make sure we answer your questions, but we don’t need to do everything on camera every day,” he said.

Reporters at the Associated Press and Time magazine walked out of the briefing when hearing that others had been barred from the session.

Off-camera gaggles are not unusual. The White House often invites handpicked outlets in for briefings, typically for specific topics. But briefings and gaggles in the White House are usually open to all outlets and they are free to ask anything.

A pool reporter from Hearst Newspapers was included in the gaggle on Friday, White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said, and was preparing a pool report for distribution to the entire press corps. Media outlets allowed into the gaggle also shared their audio with others.

President Donald Trump has regularly attacked the media. Earlier on Friday, at a gathering of conservative activists, he heaped criticism on news organizations that he said provide “fake news” and called them an “enemy” of the American people.

PROTESTS

Spicer’s decision drew a sharp response from some of the media outlets that were excluded.

“Nothing like this has ever happened at the White House in our long history of covering multiple administrations of different parties,” Dean Baquet, executive editor of The New York Times, said in a statement.

“We strongly protest the exclusion of The New York Times and the other news organizations. Free media access to a transparent government is obviously of crucial national interest.”

The White House Correspondents Association, or WHCA, also protested.

“The WHCA board is protesting strongly against how today’s gaggle is being handled by the White House,” said Jeff Mason, president of the association and a Reuters reporter.

Trump says some news organizations lie and on Friday denounced their use of anonymous sources. Critics say Trump’s attacks endanger press freedoms.

During the election campaign last year, Trump’s team banned a few news organizations, including The Washington Post and BuzzFeed, from covering his campaign rallies for a period of time to protest their coverage.

CNN posted a Twitter message on Friday afternoon saying: “This is an unacceptable development by the Trump White House. Apparently this is how they retaliate when you report facts they don’t like. We’ll keep reporting regardless.”

Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News, said in a statement: “While we strongly object to the White House’s apparent attempt to punish news outlets whose coverage it does not like, we won’t let these latest antics distract us from continuing to cover this administration fairly and aggressively.”


(Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh, Kieran Murray and Jonathan Oatis)

Trump revokes Obama guidelines on school transgender bathrooms

FILE PHOTO – A gender-neutral bathroom is seen at the University of California Irvine in Irvine, California, U.S. on September 30, 2014. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/File Photo

By Daniel Trotta

(Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s administration on Wednesday revoked landmark guidance to public schools letting transgender students use the bathroom of their choice, reversing a signature initiative of former Democratic President Barack Obama.

Obama had instructed public schools last May to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms matching their chosen gender identity, threatening to withhold funding for schools that did not comply. Transgender people hailed it as victory for their civil rights.

Trump, a Republican who took office last month, rescinded those guidelines, even though they had been put on hold by a federal judge, arguing that states and public schools should have the authority to make their own decisions without federal interference.

The Justice and Education departments will continue to study the legal issues involved, according to the new, superseding guidance that will be sent to public schools across the country.

Reversing the Obama guidelines stands to inflame passions in the latest conflict in America between believers in traditional values and social progressives, and is likely to prompt more of the street protests that followed Trump’s Nov. 8 election.

A couple hundred people gathered in front of the White House to protest the Republican president’s action, waving rainbow flags and chanting: “No hate, no fear, trans students are welcome here.” The rainbow flag is the symbol of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or LGBT, people.

“We all know that Donald Trump is a bully, but his attack on transgender children today is a new low,” said Rachel Tiven, chief executive of Lambda Legal, which advocates for LGBT people.

Conservatives such as Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who spearheaded the lawsuit challenging the Obama guidance, hailed the Trump administration action.

“Our fight over the bathroom directive has always been about former President Obama’s attempt to bypass Congress and rewrite the laws to fit his political agenda for radical social change,” said Paxton, a Republican.

Transgender legal advocates have criticized the “states’ rights” argument, saying federal law and civil rights are matters for the federal government to enforce, not the states.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer said the administration was pressed to act now because of the pending U.S. Supreme Court case, G.G. versus Gloucester County School Board.

That case pits a Virginia transgender boy, Gavin Grimm, against officials who want to deny him use of the boys’ room at his high school.

Although the Justice Department is not a party in the case, it typically would want to make its views heard. The Trump administration action on Wednesday also withdrew an Education Department letter in support of Grimm’s case.

“I’ve faced my share of adversaries in rural Virginia. I never imagined that my government would be one of them. We will not be beaten down by this administration,” Grimm, 17, told the protest outside the White House.


COURTS MAY HAVE FINAL SAY

The federal law in question, known as Title IX, bans sex discrimination in education. But it remains unsettled whether Title IX protections extend to a person’s gender identity.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement that the Obama guidelines “did not contain sufficient legal analysis or explain how the interpretation was consistent with the language of Title IX.”

The courts are likely to have the final say over whether Title IX covers transgender students. The Supreme Court could pass on that question in the Virginia case and allow lower courts to weigh in, or go ahead and decide what the law means.

Obama’s Education Department undertook the guidance in response to queries from school districts across the country about how to accommodate transgender students in gender-segregated bathrooms.

The Obama administration guidance also covered a host of other issues, such as the importance of addressing transgender students by their preferred names and pronouns and schools’ responsibility to prevent harassment and bullying of transgender children.

Thirteen states led by Texas sued to stop the Obama guidelines, and a U.S. district judge in Texas temporarily halted their full implementation.

The White House previously boasted of Trump’s support for LGBT rights, noting in a Jan. 31 statement that he was the first Republican presidential nominee to mention the community in his nomination acceptance speech.

“Revoking the guidance shows that the president’s promise to protect LGBT rights was just empty rhetoric,” James Esseks, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBT project, said in a statement.


(Reporting and writing by Daniel Trotta in New York; Additional reporting by Lawrence Hurley, Jeff Mason, Julia Edwards Ainsley, Mana Rabiee and Emily Stephenson in Washington; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Peter Cooney)

U.S. inquiries into Russian election hacking include three FBI probes

File Photo: Voters cast their votes during the U.S. presidential election in Elyria, Ohio, U.S. November 8, 2016. REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk/File Photo

By Joseph Menn

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation is pursuing at least three separate probes relating to alleged Russian hacking of the U.S. presidential elections, according to five current and former government officials with direct knowledge of the situation.

While the fact that the FBI is investigating had been reported previously by the New York Times and other media, these officials shed new light on both the precise number of inquires and their focus.

The FBI’s Pittsburgh field office, which runs many cyber security investigations, is trying to identify the people behind breaches of the Democratic National Committee’s computer systems, the officials said. Those breaches, in 2015 and the first half of 2016, exposed the internal communications of party officials as the Democratic nominating convention got underway and helped undermine support for Hillary Clinton.

The Pittsburgh case has progressed furthest, but Justice Department officials in Washington believe there is not enough clear evidence yet for an indictment, two of the sources said.

Meanwhile the bureau’s San Francisco office is trying to identify the people who called themselves “Guccifer 2” and posted emails stolen from Clinton campaign manager John Podesta’s account, the sources said. Those emails contained details about fundraising by the Clinton Foundation and other topics.

Beyond the two FBI field offices, FBI counterintelligence agents based in Washington are pursuing leads from informants and foreign communications intercepts, two of the people said.

This counterintelligence inquiry includes but is not limited to examination of financial transactions by Russian individuals and companies who are believed to have links to Trump associates. The transactions under scrutiny involve investments by Russians in overseas entities that appear to have been undertaken through middlemen and front companies, two people briefed on the probe said.

Reuters could not confirm which entities and individuals were under scrutiny.

Scott Smith, the FBI’s new assistant director for cyber crime, declined to comment this week on which FBI offices were doing what or how far they had progressed.

The White House had no comment on Friday on the Russian hacking investigations. A spokesman pointed to a comment Trump made during the campaign, in which he said: “As far as hacking, I think it was Russia, but I think we also get hacked by other countries and other people.”

During a news conference Thursday, President Donald Trump said he had no business connections to Russia.

The people who spoke to Reuters also corroborated a Tuesday New York Times report that Americans with ties to Trump or his campaign had repeated contacts with current and former Russian intelligence officers before the November election. Those alleged contacts are among the topics of the FBI counterintelligence investigation.

(Reporting by Joseph Menn in San Francisco. Additional reporting by Dustin Volz in San Francisco and Mark Hosenball, John Walcott and Steve Holland in Washington; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Tomasz Janowski)