President Trump to Outline Budget Priorities in First Speech to Congress

White House officials on the eve of President Donald Trump’s first address to Congress are promising the speech will be “grounded firmly in solving real problems for real people.” 

“The president will them know that help is on the way,” a senior administration official told reporters at the White House Monday evening. 

The address, to be made Tuesday evening (9 pm EST) to both houses of Congress, is titled “Renewal of the American Spirit” and will primarily be “about economic opportunity and protecting the American people,” said the senior official. 

While there will be some foreign policy elements in the address, administration officials say they do not expect specific countries to be mentioned. But Trump, according to officials, will provide a justification for pulling out of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, a comprehensive trade deal never ratified by Congress that took years to negotiate and was led, for the most part, by Washington and Tokyo. 

Immigration will be key topic

Overall, the joint address “will be an optimistic vision of the country,” spokesman Sean Spicer said earlier during the White House daily press briefing. 

Spicer added that he hopes the president will receive “a very robust and applause-filled reception” by all the members of Congress, including Democrats. 

“You’ll hear a lot about immigration [Tuesday] night,” Spicer promised.

Two Democratic representatives who will be in the audience, however, may be sitting on their hands much of the time, based on what they told reporters Monday.  

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, at the National Press Club, delivered what they called a “prebuttal” to the president’s address.  

“Donald Trump would like us to believe that all immigrants are terrorists and criminals,” said Schumer.

Trump’s attitude is a “complete departure from decades of Republicans and Democrats having respect for immigrants,” added Pelosi.

While the minority leaders were criticizing the president’s agenda, some 700 meters away, Trump in the White House was previewing his speech for the majority leaders of both houses of Congress. 

“We’re looking forward to a positive, upbeat presentation [Tuesday] night and then proceeding with our agenda which is exactly the same as the Trump agenda,” Senate Major Leader Mitch McConnell said after emerging from the West Wing, along with House Republican Leader Paul Ryan.  

“The goal of what we’re trying to achieve is to improve peoples’ lives. We’ve got a bold agenda ahead of us and the president is going to lay out why it’s going to make a difference in peoples’ lives.” said Ryan.

Taxes, budget cuts

Republican lawmakers say they hope to specifically hear about tax reform and health care, in addition to details about a 10 percent increase for defense spending — totaling $54 billion — and cutting roughly the same amount from non-military budgets. 

The president and congressional Republicans “broadly agree on repealing Obamacare and a tax cut and border security and regulatory reform, so those are the kinds of things that he is going to have to bring his Republican colleagues together on,” analyst John Fortier at the Bipartisan Policy Center told VOA. 

Foreign aid is expected to be specifically targeted. That is opposed by 121 retired admirals and generals, who in a statement on Monday argued “that elevating and strengthening diplomacy and development alongside defense are critical to keeping America safe.”

Assistance to other countries only represents 1 percent of the entire budget, meaning there would have to be significant cuts elsewhere. 

A separate request is to be made to Congress to pay for the president’s oft-touted controversial wall between the United States and Mexico — a project that could cost as much as $38 billion if the entire 2,000 mile border is to be included. 

White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney told reporters that could involve deeper cuts to such core programs as Social Security (retirement insurance) and Medicare (health insurance for elderly and for younger disabled people)—something that could prove deeply unpopular with much of the public. 

Changes to those programs will be part of the debate about changing the tax code, Mulvaney added.  

The tone of the president’s remarks will be closely watched by those across the political spectrum, following the initial weeks of turmoil here that have seen Trump’s approval rating in several major polls drop to a record low for a newly inaugurated president.

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Trump, China’s Top Diplomat Discuss Cooperation, Possible Xi Meeting

U.S. President Donald Trump, who has attacked China on issues from trade to the South China Sea, held his first face-to-face talks with a member of the Chinese leadership Monday, and the White House said it was a chance to discuss shared security interests and a possible meeting with President Xi Jinping.

State Councilor Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat, met Trump briefly after talks with the new U.S. National Security adviser, H.R. McMaster; Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner; and White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.

A senior U.S. administration official said discussions included bilateral cooperation and the possibility of arranging a meeting between Trump and Xi, but no date was set.

The official said the meeting with Trump lasted five to seven minutes.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer called it “an opportunity to say ‘hi’ to the president” before Yang left.

“This was an opportunity to begin that conversation and talk to them on shared interests of national security,” he said at a regular news briefing.

China’s Foreign Ministry cited Yang as telling Trump that China was willing to enhance exchanges with the United States at all levels, expand coordination and cooperation, and respect each other’s core interests and major concerns.

“Ensuring the steady and healthy development of China-U.S. ties will surely benefit both peoples and the world as a whole,” the ministry paraphrased Yang as saying.

Yang, who outranks China’s foreign minister, was the first top Chinese official to visit the White House since Trump took office on Jan. 20.

His visit followed a phone call between Yang and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week, during which the two affirmed the importance of a constructive U.S.-China relationship.

Rocky start

It was the latest step by the world’s two largest economies to try to put relations back on an even keel after a rocky start following Trump’s election victory.

Trump has been a strong critic of Beijing, accusing China of unfair trade policies, criticizing its island building in the strategic South China Sea, and accusing it of not doing enough to constrain its neighbor, North Korea.

Trump incensed Beijing in December by talking to the president of Taiwan and saying the United States did not have to stick to the “one China” policy, under which Washington acknowledges the Chinese position that there is only one China, of which Taiwan is a part.

Trump later agreed in a phone call with Xi to honor the “one China” policy in a diplomatic boost for Beijing, which vehemently opposes criticism of its claim to self-ruled Taiwan.

North Korea

In an interview with Reuters on Thursday, Trump pressed China to do more to rein in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, saying Beijing could resolve the issue “very easily if it wanted to.”

China dismissed Trump’s remarks, saying on Friday the crux of the matter was a dispute between Washington and Pyongyang.

Beijing has repeatedly called for a return to negotiations between Pyongyang and world powers.

As Yang held talks at the White House, senior officials from the United States, Japan and South Korea met at the State Department to discuss additional measures to choke off funding to North Korea’s weapons program.

“The officials considered other possible measures under national authorities, including means to restrict further the revenue sources for North Korea’s weapons programs, particularly illicit activities,” they said in a joint statement.

They also agreed that North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs directly threatened their security and “strong international pressure” was needed to push back at Pyongyang, the statement said.

Plans for renewed contacts with North Korea in the United States were canceled last week after the U.S. State Department denied a visa for the top envoy from Pyongyang, the Wall Street Journal reported on Saturday.

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Trump’s Trade Czar Ross Easily Wins US Senate Confirmation

Billionaire investor Wilbur Ross easily won confirmation as U.S. commerce secretary on Monday, clearing President Donald Trump’s top trade official to start work on renegotiating trade relationships with China and Mexico.

The U.S. Senate voted 72-27 to confirm the 79-year-old corporate turnaround expert’s nomination, with strong support from Democrats.

Ross is set to become an influential voice in Trump’s economic team after helping shape the president’s opposition to multilateral free trade deals such as the now-scrapped Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Ross drew votes from 19 Democrats and one independent, partly because of an endorsement from the United Steelworkers union for his efforts in restructuring bankrupt steel companies in the early 2000s, which saved numerous plants and thousands of jobs.

Ross was criticized by some Democrats as another billionaire in a Trump Cabinet that says it is focused on the working class, and for being a “vulture” investor who has eliminated some jobs.

Reuters reported last month that Ross’s companies had shipped some 2,700 jobs overseas since 2004.

The investor will oversee a sprawling agency with nearly 44,000 employees responsible for combating the dumping of imports below cost into U.S. markets, collecting census and critical economic data, weather forecasting, fisheries management, promoting the United States to foreign investors and regulating the export of sensitive technologies.

While commerce secretaries rarely take the spotlight in Washington, Ross is expected to play an outsize role in pursuing Trump’s campaign pledge to slash U.S. trade deficits and bring manufacturing jobs back to America.

Trump has designated Ross to lead the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada, a job that in past administrations would have been left to the U.S. Trade Representative’s office.

Ross will join other major players on the economic team, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Gary Cohn, director of the White House National Economic Council.

Some experts said Ross could serve as a counterweight to advisers such as Peter Navarro, the University of California-Irvine economics professor who heads Trump’s newly created White House National Trade Council. Navarro has advocated a controversial 45 percent across-the-board tariff on imports from China that Trump threatened during his campaign.

“I expect that Ross will quickly become the administration’s chief trade spokesman, and that Navarro’s influence will be felt indirectly, rather than through public statements or testimony,” said Gary Hufbauer, a senior fellow and trade expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

At his confirmation hearing, Ross downplayed chances of a trade war with China, while calling it the “most protectionist” large economy. He vowed to level the playing field for U.S. companies competing with Chinese imports and those trying to do business in China’s highly restricted economy.

Ross, estimated by Forbes to be worth $2.9 billion, built his fortune in the late 1990s and early 2000s by investing in distressed companies in steel, coal, textiles and auto parts, restructuring them and often benefiting from tariff protections put in place by the Commerce Department.

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Ross Heads Toward Confirmation as Commerce Secretary

Billionaire investor Wilbur Ross is headed toward confirmation as Commerce secretary in President Donald Trump’s administration.

The Senate is set to vote on Ross’ nomination Monday evening. Ross easily cleared the Senate Commerce Committee and a procedural vote by the full Senate.

Ross’ confirmation has gone much smoother than other Trump nominees’ approval. Former Commerce secretaries have praised him, including one who served under former President Barack Obama.

Senators from both political parties were deferential to Ross at his nearly four-hour confirmation hearing, which was much more subdued than the confirmation hearings of other Trump nominees.

“I believe his extensive management experience in the private sector, and his understanding of the challenges faced by workers and businesses alike, will equip him well for the job of leading the Department of Commerce,” said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., chairman of the Commerce Committee.

Breaking with Republican orthodoxy, Ross said the Trump administration will work quickly to re-do the North American Free Trade Agreement, a massive trade pact with Canada and Mexico that has boosted trade but still stings laid-off workers across the Midwest.

Ross said all free trade agreements should be systematically re-opened every few years to make sure they are working in the best interests of the U.S.

Ross said he is pro-free trade but noted his close relationship with the United Steelworkers union as proof that he will fight to protect American jobs. The union has endorsed him.

NAFTA was negotiated and signed by President Bill Clinton, with broad support among Republicans in Congress.

Worth an estimated $2.9 billion, Ross has extensive business ties around the globe. In 2000, he founded WL Ross & Co., a private equity firm. As part of his ethics agreement, Ross will divest from the firm, if confirmed.

The commerce secretary has several roles in promoting American business interests in the U.S. and abroad. The department handles trade issues, working to attract foreign investment to the U.S. The department also oversees agencies that manage fisheries, weather forecasting and the Census Bureau, which will conduct a count in 2020.

Ross said he has experience at that agency; he was a census-taker while he attended business school.

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Immigration, Health Care Among Top Priorities at US Governors Meeting

In his first month in office, President Donald Trump has promised significant action to amend existing policy on immigration and health care, among other areas. At an annual gathering in Washington Sunday, the president talked to state governors to get their views on how the White House and Congress should approach these issues. VOA’s Elizabeth Cherneff reports.

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Trump’s Choice to Be Navy Secretary Withdraws

President Donald Trump’s choice to be secretary of the Navy, businessman Philip Bilden, said Sunday he was withdrawing from consideration for the post, citing concerns about privacy and separating himself from his business interests.

Bilden’s withdrawal raises similar issues to that of Vincent Viola, Trump’s nominee for Army secretary who stepped aside earlier this month. Just last week, the Pentagon sought to tamp down reports that Bilden might pull out.

Bilden was an intelligence officer in the Army Reserve from 1986-1996. He relocated to Hong Kong to set up an Asian presence for HarbourVest Partners LLC, a global private equity management firm. Bilden recently retired from HarbourVest Partners after 25 years.

In a statement released Sunday by the Pentagon, Bilden said he determined that he would not be able to satisfy the Office of Government Ethics requirements without what he called “undue disruption and materially adverse divestment of my family’s private financial interests.”

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said in a statement that he would make a recommendation to Trump for a nominee in the coming days.

On Feb. 19, after press reports suggested that Bilden might drop out, the Pentagon issued a statement saying Bilden had assured Mattis he remained committed to serving as Navy secretary if confirmed by the Senate and that Mattis was confident Bilden was “the right leader” to rebuild the Navy and Marine Corps.

Viola cited his inability to successfully navigate the confirmation process and Defense Department rules concerning family businesses. A military veteran and former Airborne Ranger infantry officer, he was also the founder of several businesses, including the electronic trading firm Virtu Financial. He also owns the National Hockey League’s Florida Panthers and is a past chairman of the New York Mercantile Exchange.

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Bipartisan Calls Grow for Independent Probe of Russian Hacking

In Washington, bipartisan calls are growing for an independent probe of Russian efforts to impact last year’s U.S. election and any ties between Moscow and President Donald Trump’s inner circle. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports the White House is trying to fend off the escalating controversy as the president prepares for his first speech to Congress

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White House Tries to Fend Off New Calls for Russia Probe

As President Donald Trump prepared for his first address to the U.S. Congress, the White House on Sunday sought to fend off the latest calls for an independent probe of Russian efforts to impact last year’s U.S. election and any ties between Moscow and the president’s inner circle.

“We are extremely confident that, whatever review, they are all going to come to the same conclusion: that we had no involvement in this [Russian electoral meddling],” said White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders on ABC’s This Week program.

Earlier, Republican Congressman Darrell Issa of California joined Democrats in calling for a special prosecutor insulated from Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a close Trump confidant.

“Sessions … was on the campaign and was an appointee,” Issa said on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher.  “You’re going to have to use the special prosecutor’s statue and office to not just recuse [Sessions], you can’t give it to your deputy [either].

“We need to investigate their [Russian] activities and we need to do it because they are bad people,” the lawmaker added.

The White House said Americans have more pressing concerns.

“At some point we get to a place where we’ve got to move on and start focusing on the things that the American people care about,” Sanders said.  “And I don’t think this is it.  We’ve talked about it time and time and time again. Asked and answered.”

Democrats aren’t letting go.

“The attorney general must recuse himself,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, on This Week.  “Let’s have the investigation and find out the truth.”

Several Republican-led congressional committees are already probing Russian activities, along with the Department of Justice.

However investigations unfold, Trump has not hid his anger about a controversy that refuses to die or the news media’s coverage of it.

“Russia talk is FAKE NEWS put out by the Dems, and played up by the media, in order to mask the big election defeat and the illegal leaks!” the president wrote Sunday on Twitter.

U.S. intelligence services have concluded Russia intervened in the U.S. election by hacking into Democratic National Committee emails and leaking them, as well as pushing fake reports aimed at hurting the reputation of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.  

 

Earlier this month, National Security Advisor Michael Flynn resigned following reports he misled Vice President Mike Pence and other White House officials about his frequent contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the transition period before Trump’s inauguration. 

 

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Pentagon Seeks to Expand Fight Against Extremists in Somalia

The Pentagon wants to expand the military’s ability to battle al-Qaida-linked militants in Somalia, potentially putting U.S. forces closer to the fight against a stubborn extremist group that has plotted attacks against America, senior U.S. officials said.

The recommendations sent to the White House would allow U.S special operations forces to increase assistance to the Somali National Army in the struggle against al-Shabab militants in the fragile Horn of Africa nation, the officials said. They said the proposal would give the military greater flexibility to launch airstrikes against extremists that appear to be a threat.

Beefing up the military effort in Somalia fits with President Donald Trump’s broader request for a Pentagon plan to accelerate the U.S.-led battle against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, and defeat other extremist groups, including al-Qaida and its affiliates.

Young Americans a concern

 U.S. concerns about al-Shabab escalated in recent years as young Americans from Somali communities traveled to training camps in Somalia, raising fears they might return to the United States and conduct terror attacks.

Somalia was one of the seven predominantly Muslim countries included in Trump’s travel ban last month. The executive order has since been suspended by federal courts.

Somalia is “our most perplexing challenge,” Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the head of U.S. Africa Command, said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Fresh perspective

The United States is “trying to take a look at Somalia from a fresh perspective in the way ahead,” he said, describing the need to weaken the decade-old al-Shabab insurgency so that the African nation’s military forces can defeat it.

Waldhauser declined to provide details of the new options that have been proposed.

But other officials said elements include giving U.S. special operations forces greater ability to accompany local troops on military operations against al-Shabab and easing restrictions on when the U.S. can conduct airstrikes against the group. The officials weren’t authorized to publicly discuss the confidential review and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Currently there are about 50 U.S. commandos rotating in and out of Somalia to advise and assist the local troops. The new authorities could result in a small increase in the number of U.S. forces in Somalia, officials said.

Mattis approved  plan

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has approved the recommendations and sent the plan to the White House earlier this month, they added. But no final decisions have been made, and the proposal could prove politically sensitive because of the disastrous downing of two U.S. helicopters over Mogadishu in 1993 that killed 18 American troops.

The White House declined to comment, deferring questions to the Defense Department.

Some of the U.S. officials with knowledge of the new military proposal said it is aimed at improving the U.S. advisory mission because the African Union is planning to pull out its 20,000 peacekeeping forces in Somalia in 2020. Observers say Somali troops are unprepared to fight the extremist threat on their own.

U.S. forces won’t be on front lines

Currently, U.S. forces can transport and accompany local troops. But they must keep their distance from front lines and can only engage the enemy if they come under attack or if Somali forces are in danger of being defeated. The new proposal would give U.S. forces the ability to move along with Somali troops into the fight if needed.

While the American military right now can conduct airstrikes in self-defense or to protect Somali troops if they come under attack and request help, the new authorities would be broader.

Officials said that under the new recommendations, the military would be able to launch airstrikes against militants on a more pre-emptive basis. For example, the U.S. could target al-Shabab fighters gathering for an attack rather than waiting until friendly forces were under fire.

Suicide bombers remain a problem

Al-Shabab has been ousted from most Somali cities and towns, but its suicide bombers continue to kill across large parts of the south and center of the country. That includes Mogadishu, the capital.

Somalia’s new president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, inaugurated Wednesday, warned that it will take another two decades to “fix” his country. Mohamed, who also holds U.S. citizenship, won election earlier this month as Somalia tries to restore effective governance.

Waldhauser said the U.S. sees an opportunity to work with Mohamed to “train the Somalia national security forces to a level that they can take on al-Shabab on their own.”

 

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