Tillerson Heads to Moscow Days After US Strikes in Syria Anger Russia

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson heads to Moscow, April 12, days after the United States launched missile strikes on a Syrian airbase in response to a Syrian chemical weapon attack that killed civilians. Officials say the top U.S. diplomat will urge Russia to think carefully about its continued support for the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. VOA State Department correspondent Nike Ching has the story.

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Chinese Rights Activists Speak up on Trump-Xi Summit

As U.S. President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping met Friday at Trump’s Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago, human rights activist said they hoped the leaders would discuss human rights.

Hu Jia and Wang Qiaoling, wife of detained human rights lawyer Li Heping, told VOA they were concerned about two specific human rights cases in China: a wave of arrests July 9, 2015, known as the 709 Incident that targeted three groups connected to rights advocacy, and house church persecution.

They sought the release of prisoners of conscience including Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2009 for advocating democracy in China, and Ilham Tohti, an advocate for China’s Uighur minority who is serving a life sentence after a Chinese court convicted him of separatism in 2014.

Civil society controlled

Xi’s administration has tightened control over almost every aspect of civil society since 2012, citing the need to buttress national security and stability. The detention and prosecution of lawyers and activists have caused an international outcry, criticism that China consistently rejects, saying it adheres to the rule of law. And while media in China covered the U.S.-China summit, no official outlets covered calls by members of Congress for discussions about China’s human rights record while at the lavish estate.

Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican, told the McClatchy News Service before the summit that “it is imperative that the president raise the plight of political prisoners and human rights activists by name” adding that presidential pressure “often results in improved conditions and shorter sentences” for those facing persecution.

Rep. Chris Smith is a senior member on the Foreign Affairs Committee, co-chairman and the highest-ranking House member of both the bipartisan House/Senate Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), and the bipartisan House/Senate/White House Congressional-Executive Commission on China on which Rubio also serves.

Smith recently told VOA “the president has to bring up, in a robust way, a way that was not done in the Obama administration, issues of human rights abuse which, sadly, Xi Jinping is in a race to the bottom with North Korea on subjecting its own citizens to torture, its women to forced abortion, and a whole list of gross human rights abuses.

“The government of China says: Respect us!’ Sure, we’ll do that,” Smith said, adding “Please respect your own people first.”

Words from Trump could mean a lot

Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought recipient Hu Jia told VOA Friday he hoped Trump spoke with Xi about Ilham, the attorneys detained since the 709 Incident, Liu Xiaobo “and his wife Liu Xia, who is also affected, and the prevalent persecution of Christian house church, an issue that aligns with Republicans’ values.”

Wang Qiaoling, wife of Li, the human rights lawyer, told VOA that she saw Trump’s decision to send missile strikes to Syria’s air base the U.S. described as linked to the chemical weapons attacks as a sign of potential toughness on China the Chinese government, to be precise.

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US Syria Strike Sent Strong Message to North Korea

U.S. missile attacks against Syria sent a stern warning to North Korea and China that the United States is ready to use military force if necessary, said a senior official from the Obama administration.

President Donald Trump Thursday ordered targeted missile strikes on a Syrian airfield in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack blamed on the Syrian government that killed about 100 civilians. The missile launches coincided with Trump’s first official encounter with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida to discuss North Korea, among other things.

North Korean options

Before the meeting at his Mar-a-Largo estate, Trump was reportedly presented with options to respond to the North’s nuclear weapons program including placing U.S. nukes in South Korea or assassinating North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

“The missile strikes yesterday in Syria do send a message both to China and to North Korea that this administration is prepared to take decisive actions,” said Tony Blinken, former deputy secretary of state, during a phone interview with VOA Friday, “and that may be a valuable message.”

However, whether the U.S. would, in fact, take military action against North Korea is a different story, given the covert nature of Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs and its growing weapons capabilities that could cause “tremendous damage in the region,” added Blinken, who also served as deputy national security adviser to former President Barack Obama.

“While I have no doubt that any administration faced with an extremist threat from North Korea to launch a missile with a nuclear warhead on it toward the United States would act decisively to stop that, I think it’s much less likely that any administration including this one would try to use force pre-emptively to destroy North Korea’s nuclear or missile programs,” Blinken said.

US may act alone

In a recent interview with the Financial Times, Trump pledged to curb the regime’s nuclear ambitions alone, if China fails to step up pressure on its North Korean ally.

Asked about whether that is a plausible scenario, Blinken said that although it is “hard to imagine putting meaningful pressure” on North Korea without Beijing, which has significant leverage to exert economic pressure on Pyongyang, there are several unilateral steps available to Trump.

They include placing more missile defenses in the region, having a greater U.S. military presence on the seas, and sanctioning anyone, including Chinese firms and individuals, that does business or facilitates business with the Kim regime.

“Those are the kinds of steps that the United States could take alone or with other countries, that don’t include China, that are directed at North Korea but that China wouldn’t like,” said Blinken, adding if the threat from North Korea continues to grow, “if necessary, those are things that I would recommend doing.”

Fourth missile test

A day before the two-day summit between the leaders of the world’s two most powerful economies, which ended Friday, Pyongyang launched its fourth missile test of the year, in what appeared to be part of an effort to develop a nuclear-tipped missile that could strike the U.S. mainland. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson responded to the test with an unusually terse statement, saying “the United States has spoken enough about North Korea” and he has “no further comment.”

Blinken noted that North Korea seeks the U.S. response to every single provocation and Washington should not play into the hands of the reclusive regime.

“A more effective response is what we do, not just what we say,” Blinken said. “I can see why (Tillerson) he would rather focus on actions.”

According to Blinken, negotiation is the only way to resolve the North Korean issue eventually and it should be done “when North Korea is prepared to engage in meaningful, authentic and credible discussions about denuclearization.”

But convincing the North Korean leader to negotiate remains a challenge, Blinken added, suggesting the U.S. could try “exerting so much pressure on Kim that he changes his calculus and sees that his best path to survival is actually through negotiations,” while making clear that if the North engages in denuclearization, a peace treaty is certainly possible.

“I think a first step could be getting North Korea to freeze all of its activities — no more nuclear testing, no more missile testing, get inspectors in to verify things,” Blinken said. “That wouldn’t eliminate their existing program … but it would at least stop them from continuing to perfect the program because testing is vitally important to figuring out how to make their missiles better, their nuclear weapons effective and to develop an ICBM that could hit the United States.”

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US Strikes Syrian Air Base in Retaliation for Chemical Weapons Attack

The U.S. military fired a barrage of missiles into Syria early Friday in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack blamed on President Bashar al-Assad’s forces that killed about 100 civilians. It is the first direct U.S. assault on Syrian government forces.

The office of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad described the strikes in a statement Friday as “reckless” and “irresponsible.” The statement added the attacks were “shortsighted” and a continuation of a U.S. policy of “subjugating people.”

Russia, which is providing troops and air support to the Assad government, condemned the U.S. military action, calling it “aggression against a sovereign state,” and said it was suspending a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. for flight safety over Syria.  

 

 

The 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched about 4:40 a.m. local time from the U.S. Navy destroyers USS Ross and USS Porter, which are deployed in the eastern Mediterranean. The missile launch lasted for three to four minutes, U.S. officials said.

U.S. forces are said to have targeted Shayrat Airfield in western Syria. A Navy official told VOA the airfield was targeted because it was most likely used to launch Tuesday’s chemical strikes on a rebel-held town.

Sarin nerve gas

“We have a very high level of confidence that the attacks were carried out under aircraft under the direction of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. We have very high confidence that the attacks involved the use of sarin nerve gas,” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters late Thursday.

Tillerson said it was important to take action against the Syrian leader, because “as Assad has continued to use chemical weapons in these attacks with no response, with no response from the international community, he – in effect – is normalizing the use of chemical weapons, which may then be adopted by others.”

 

Action needed to be taken, he added “to make clear that these chemical weapons continue to be a violation of international norms.”

National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster said the strikes avoided depots located on the air base where U.S. officials believe sarin is being stored.

“Obviously, the regime will retain a capacity to commit mass murder with chemical weapons beyond this airfield,” McMaster said. But, he added, “This was not a small strike.”

 

Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said the targets included aircraft, structures, petroleum and logistical storage, and ammunition supply bunkers.

 

“Initial indications are that this strike has severely damaged or destroyed Syrian aircraft and support infrastructure and equipment at Shayrat Airfield, reducing the Syrian Government’s ability to deliver chemical weapons,” Davis said in a statement.

 

Tillerson added, “We feel that the strike itself was proportional because it was targeted at the facility that delivered this most recent chemical weapons attack.”

Watch: President Trump’s Statement on US Missile Strikes on Syria

U.S. President Donald Trump addressed the Nation Thursday night.

“On Tuesday Syrian President Bashar al-Assad launched a horrible chemical attack on innocent civilians using a deadly nerve agent. … Tonight I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched,” Trump said.

“It is in this vital national security interest of the Untied States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.”

Trump called on all civilized nations to join the U.S. “in seeking an end to the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria.”

Reaction

Syrian state TV called the U.S. strike an act of “aggression.” While a Turkish-based Syrian opposition group, the Syrian Coalition, welcomed the U.S. attack, saying it puts an end to an age of “impunity” and said the military action should continue.

Early Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the attack was “in violation of international law,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in a statement.  U.S. officials said they were not in communication with the Russian government before the airstrike.

Russia said it would seek an urgent meeting of the U.N. Security Council to discuss the Syria attack.

 

Syria ally Iran also condemned the U.S. military action.

Chinese leader’s visit

The airstrike came as Trump entertained Chinese President Xi Jinping at the president’s Mar-a-Lago retreat.

Trump did not announce the attacks in advance, although he and other national security officials ratcheted up their warnings to the Syrian government throughout the day Thursday.

“I would tell you that the response from our allies, as well as the region and the Middle East has been overwhelmingly supportive of the action we taken,” Tillerson said.  He is scheduled to travel to Russia next week.

Leaders from countries allied with the U.S. — Germany, France, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, along with several others — voiced support for the early-morning strike.

 

Pentagon spokesman Davis said military planners “took precautions” to limit risks to Russian and Syrian personnel at the airfield. Syria’s military, however, said Friday morning that six people had been killed and several others wounded in the attack.

Surprise action

The surprise action marked a striking reversal for Trump, who warned as a candidate against the U.S. getting pulled into the Syrian civil war, now in its seventh year. But the president appeared moved by the video and photos of children killed in that chemical attack, calling it a “disgrace to humanity” that crossed “a lot of lines.”

Just last week, the White House backed away from the former Obama administration’s stance that Assad must be removed from power.

While Trump did not say whether he now thought, in the wake of the gas attack, Assad should be driven from power, Tillerson said earlier Thursday Assad had to go and that there was “no role for him to govern the Syrian people” in the future.

 

The six-year civil was had killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions, contributing to the largest refugee crisis since the end of World War Two.

UN discussions

At the United Nations, diplomats met earlier Thursday to discuss three separate draft resolutions responding to the gas attack. One put forward by the U.S., Britain and France, a competing draft put forward by Russia, and a third compromise draft from the 10 nonpermanent members of the Council.

Discussions ran late into the evening Thursday, but no consensus was agreed and Council members departed, many looking tense.

Russia’s deputy U.N. Ambassador Vladimir Safronkov said “negative consequences” must be considered if the U.S. were to take unilateral military action.

“All responsibility, if military action occurred, will be on [the] shoulders of those who initiated such [a] doubtful and tragic enterprise,” Safronkov said in response to reporters’ questions.

 

Denies allegations

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said his country did not use chemical weapons during airstrikes on Khan Sheikhoun. He insisted they would never be used, “even against terrorists.”

But Dr. Annie Sparrow, a public health specialist and a critical-care pediatrician at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York who has carried out many studies on Syria, told VOA Turkish service that a “chemical cocktail” was used on the town.

VOA’s Jamie Dettmer and Mehmet Sumer contributed to this report.

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Analysis: Trump Sends Syria a Message, But One With Risks

The cruise missiles that crashed down before dawn on a Syrian airfield sent a clear message to President Bashar Assad: The use of chemical weapons will be met with U.S. force.

The outcome is less clear: Assad’s grip on power is as firm as ever and he has lost little of his ability to carry out more chemical attacks.

President Donald Trump said the goal of the military action was deterrence. Officials said strikes targeted the Shayrat airfield to prevent it from being used to launch attacks like the one this week that killed about 100 people and provided sickening images of individuals suffering from exposure to a sarin-like nerve gas. The field’s airstrips, hangars, control tower and ammunition areas were struck.

Where is Syria policy going?

The United States is not at war with Syria — at least not yet. The intervention was extremely limited, giving Assad’s military the ability to end it there by changing its behavior and allowing for Washington to incrementally expand its military action if required. 

But the surprise barrage of missiles raises questions about where U.S. Syria policy is headed after Trump’s rapid reversal of positions in recent days. Just last week, his administration stressed that removing Assad from power was no longer a priority and that America’s focus was entirely on defeating an Islamic State insurgency in the north of the country. But Thursday night Trump appeared to endorse a new, open-ended commitment to respond to any use by Assad of weapons of mass destruction.

Watch: President Trump’s Statement on US Missile Strikes on Syria

“It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons,” Trump said.

Assad could up the ante

Such declarations carry risks. No U.S. officials declared the threat of more chemical weapons eliminated. If Assad isn’t deterred, more attacks would mean more scenes of people foaming at the mouth in agony and bodies lying in heaps. The United States may have little option but to up the ante militarily.

Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said the U.S. was still assessing the result of the 59 Tomahawks it fired, expressing hope that Assad’s government learned a lesson. He said it was ultimately “the regime’s choice” if more U.S. military action would be needed.

That raises the potential for Assad to suck the U.S. deeper into the Arab country’s brutal, six-year civil war. The conflict has killed hundreds of thousands of people, contributed to the worst refugee crisis since World War II, and shows no end in sight. Assad’s forces are locked in battle with a bitter, if weakening, opposition camp. Under President Barack Obama, the United States spent most of the war trying to stay out of the fray.

Engaging the Syrian government as an enemy means Damascus can respond in kind. That creates added danger for U.S. forces on the ground in northern Syria waging a separate war against the Islamic State group, and American aircraft targeting extremist groups from Syria’s skies. Up to now, despite public complaints, Syria’s government and its allies, Russia and Iran, have essentially given the United States and its coalition partners a free pass to conduct their counterterrorism mission.

And if Trump is now willing to protect Syrians from chemical attacks, will he feel compelled to shield others from what has been Assad’s more pervasive slaughter? Perversely, the U.S. strikes also risk emboldening Assad to use even greater brutality if he senses Washington’s intrusion as a threat to his rule.

“One strike against one air base may be enough to deter him from using sarin gas again, but it will not deter his effort to target civilians, target hospitals,” said Jennifer Cafarella, a Mideast expert at the Institute for the Study of War.

Russia, Iran relations

The United States is also in a murky situation now with Assad’s two key international backers.

Keen to avoid any accident that would create a confrontation with Moscow, Trump administration officials told their Russian counterparts of the impending attack and warned them to stay away. U.S. officials, meanwhile, said little about Iran, a country that could retaliate against the United States and its allies in a variety of ways, from interfering with Persian Gulf shipping to provoking Israel.

But Edward Djerejian, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and professor at Rice University, said Trump’s message to the region’s potential foes was clear.

“Assad thought he had a green light to do what he needed to do in Syria to counter the opposition to his regime,” Djerejian said. “By proceeding with this attack, it’s a signal to Assad, to the Russians, it’s a signal to the Iranians, to Hezbollah and all those supporting Assad’s regime that this is not a free playing field. There are limits.”

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US Muslims Seek Sanctions, Politicians Urge Caution in Syria

The largest U.S. Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization is expressing hope the U.S. military strike in Syria is signaling a reversal of President Donald Trump’s stance on banning U.S. entry to people from six majority-Muslim countries, including Syria.

Trump, who was viscerally moved by footage of an apparent chemical weapons attack in Syria on civilians, including women and children, ordered a missile attack on Syria in retaliation.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) said the U.S. “must lead an international effort” to establish no-fly zones and safe-zones for civilians” in Syria. The group wants the U.S. “to impose economic and diplomatic sanctions on any individual, group or government that has a role in the continuing genocide” in Syria.

Congress wants clear policy

U.S. politicians, meanwhile, have supported Trump’s move in Syria, but have cautioned that going forward, the president must have a plan and must work with Congress.

House Speaker Paul Ryan said the U.S. action in Syria was “appropriate and just,” but he is looking forward “to the administration further engaging Congress in this effort.”

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was “caught red-handed” carrying out an “abhorrent chemical attack.” Royce said the Trump administration “must work with Congress and lay out clear policy goals for Syria and the region.”

U.S. Senator Chris Coons, an opposition Democrat and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said images of the Syrian children and adults “who were brutally murdered and poisoned by their own government were not only heartbreaking and horrifying, they were a call to action for the global community.” 

“While I’m encouraged that the Trump Administration has felt compelled to act forcefully in Syria against the Assad regime, I’m gravely concerned that the United States is engaging further militarily in Syria without a well-thought-out comprehensive plan.” Coons urged Trump “to work with Congress to address the ongoing crisis in Syria and to seek proper authorization for further use of military force.”

 

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Senate Poised to Confirm Gorsuch after Historic Rules Change

The U.S. Senate is poised to confirm President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court pick after Republicans forced a historic change in the rules governing the chamber, ending the minority party’s ability to block high court nominees.

A united Republican caucus, joined by three Democrats, voted Thursday to advance federal appellate judge Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to a final vote, expected Friday.

Moments earlier, days of finger-pointing and furious rhetoric came to a momentous climax. Republicans used their majority to exercise the “nuclear option,” altering Senate rules to defeat a Democratic procedural blockade of the nominee, known as a filibuster.

While lamenting the need for a rules change, Republicans said they had no choice but to act.

“We need to restore the norms and traditions of the Senate and get past this unprecedented partisan filibuster,” said Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican.

“We have actually restored the status quo,” said Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas, noting that filibusters of Supreme Court nominees were almost unheard of prior to Trump’s selection.

Blame game

Democrats had a different take on the day’s events.

“When history weighs what happened, the responsibility for changing the rules will fall on the Republicans’ and Leader McConnell’s shoulders,” said Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat. “No one forced them to act. They acted with free will.”

“I am sick with regret,” said Democratic Chris Coons of Delaware. “Where are we headed? If we cannot trust each other, then are there any big problems facing this country which we can address and solve?”

Republicans said Democrats had no one to blame but themselves, launching a filibuster they knew Republicans were determined to overcome.

“You [Democrats] are stuck,” said Senator Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, ahead of the rules change. “You’ve got to press forward, don’t you, even though you know the effort is doomed to fail. You know that he [Gorsuch] will be confirmed, and you know in your heart that he deserves to be confirmed.”

Democrats countered that the filibuster of Gorsuch, after a thorough confirmation hearing, paled in comparison to Republicans refusing to even consider former President Barack Obama’s final Supreme Court nominee, Judge Merrick Garland.

“[Republicans] made history in denying a presidential nominee a hearing and a vote, which had never, never happened before in the history of the United States,” said Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois. “The nuclear option was used by Senator McConnell when he stopped Merrick Garland.”

Long-term impact

The rules change all but assures Gorsuch’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, filling the vacancy created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia last year. Senators of both parties wondered out loud about the long-term impact of eroding minority party rights in a chamber that historically has protected them.

“It [the rules change] weakens the standing of the Senate as a whole, as a check on the president’s ability to shape the judiciary,” Schumer said. “In a post-nuclear world, if the Senate and the presidency are in the hands of the same party, there is no incentive to even speak to the Senate minority. That’s a recipe for more conflict and bad blood between the parties, not less.”

Some attempted to strike a conciliatory note.

“We do need to open all our minds and hearts in the days ahead, regardless of our party and not withstanding our partisanship,” said Republican Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia.

“Everyone likes to point the finger at the other side,” Coons said. “The reality is, there is abundant blame to go around.

“How can we avoid the deepening, corrosive partisanship in this body? What past mistakes can each of us own up to? What steps can we take to mend these old wounds, and what more can we do to move forward together?” Coons added.

Democrats themselves changed the rules to eliminate the filibuster for all non-Supreme Court nominees when they controlled the chamber in 2013. The procedural tactic still exists for most legislation; but, with the Senate already acting twice in a four-year span to weaken the filibuster, political analysts expect pressure will mount to curb it even further in years to come.

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Nunes to Step Down From Russia Hacking Investigation

The Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Devin Nunes says he is temporarily stepping down from the panel’s investigation into alleged Russian hacking during the 2016 election campaign, after ethical complaints were lodged against him.

The House Ethics Committee is investigating whether Nunes may have made an unauthorized disclosure of classified information last month during a hastily arranged news conference.

Nunes said he had come into the possession of classified material that indicated members of Trump’s campaign had conversations “incidentally collected” by U.S. intelligence agencies while surveilling foreign targets.

Nunes said “several leftwing activist groups” filed accusations of impropriety against him with the Office of Congressional Ethics, and he would temporarily step back from the investigation until the charges are cleared up.

Two government watchdog groups, Democracy 21 and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, filed the complaint, which alleges Nunes’s  characterization of what was in the classified documents violated House ethics rules, even though he didn’t disclose the specific information found in the documents.

Nunes called the accusations “baseless” and politically motivated, though he said he would step down from the investigation of the charges because it is “in the best interests of the House Intelligence Committee and the Congress.”

He said he would continue to fulfill his other duties as committee chairman, but said Representative Mike Conaway will take charge of the investigation, with assistance from Representatives Trey Gowdy and Tom Rooney.

The House Ethics Committee released a statement acknowledging the investigation, though it cautioned it “does not itself indicate that any violation has occurred, or reflect any judgment on behalf of the Committee.”

Anyone can file a complaint with the OCE.  It is up to the office to determine the validity of the complaint and forward it to House Ethics Committee when appropriate.

Nunes did not brief the top-ranking Democrat on the committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, on the documents before sharing them with President Donald Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan, a move that led Schiff and other Democrats to question Nunes’s ability to run an independent investigation.

Schiff said Thursday he was appreciative of Nunes’s decision to step down and said it would give the investigation “a fresh start moving forward.”

WATCH: Rep. Adam Schiff’s reaction

“As I understand it now, the materials that the chairman viewed at the White House, and that I subsequently viewed, are now being made available to the full committee. I think that’s a very positive step, as well,” he said.

Ryan also applauded Nunes’s decision to step down, saying it would be a distraction if stayed on the investigation while dealing with the ethics complaint.

“Devin Nunes has earned my trust over many years for his integrity and dedication to the critical work that the intelligence community does to keep America safe,” Ryan said.

 

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NY Times: Trump Says May Tie Infrastructure with Healthcare or Tax Reform

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday he was considering packaging a $1 trillion infrastructure plan with either healthcare or tax reform legislation as an incentive to get support from lawmakers, especially Democrats.

Trump also said in an interview with the New York Times he may move up the unveiling of a plan to rebuild the country’s deteriorating roads, bridges and tunnels, which had been expected later this year.

“I’m thinking about accelerating it. I’m thinking about putting it with another bill. Could be health care, could be something else. Could be tax reform,” Trump said.

Trump was stung by his first legislative push, a failed attempt to roll back former President Barack Obama’s healthcare law, which ended in an embarrassing collapse in Congress two weeks ago.

The White House has tried to revive healthcare talks while also seeking other legislative measures — such as tax reform — that could give Trump a win in the early part of his presidency.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said last week the Trump administration would later this year unveil a $1 trillion, 10-year plan to modernize U.S. roads, bridges, airports, electrical grid and water systems, offering incentives for public-private partnerships.

Trump said he wanted to accelerate that roll-out, but provided no timeline.

Trump said Democratic lawmakers “are desperate for infrastructure” and may be more likely to sign on to a Republican-backed tax reform or healthcare bill if spending on roads and bridges were included.

“We’re talking about a trillion-dollar infrastructure,” Trump said.

Some of the infrastructure projects may be built through public-private partnerships, Trump said, declining to say how the total spending would split between public and private sources. But he also said that with interest rates low, the government may be better off financing the projects itself.

“When you can borrow so inexpensively, you don’t have to do the public-private thing. Because public-private can be very expensive,” Trump said.

Trump said he would make an announcement in two weeks about whether he would seek changes to a wage law for federal projects blamed by conservative groups for inflating costs, though he declined to say what the announcement would be.

Conservative groups have pressured the White House on the law, known as the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires contractors on

federal projects to pay local prevailing wages – a measure backed by labor unions and Democrats.

On tax reform, Trump said he wanted to wait and see what happens on healthcare legislation, which has stalled in the House of Representatives, before setting out details on taxes.

The details of the healthcare bill could determine how much he could cut taxes, he said.

Republicans have been working on a plan to cut the corporate tax rate to 20 percent from 35 percent, end taxing foreign profits for U.S.-based multinationals and cut other tax rates for businesses and investors – as well as simplify and cut personal income taxes.

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Contentious Cases Await Trump’s US Supreme Court Nominee

If confirmed as expected this week by the U.S. Senate, President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee would join his new fellow justices in time to act on divisive cases concerning religion, guns and big business, underscoring Neil Gorsuch’s importance as the fifth conservative on a nine-justice court.

 The Senate’s Republican leaders have pledged to confirm the Colorado-based appeals court judge on Friday. His first official task after being sworn in would come at an April 13 private meeting among the justices to discuss taking various appeals from lower courts.

There are appeals pending on expanding gun rights to include carrying concealed firearms in public, state voting restrictions critics say are aimed at reducing minority turnout, and allowing business owners to object on religious grounds to serving gay couples. All three could lead to landmark rulings if taken up.

Oral arguments

On April 17, the justices will begin hearing a new round of oral arguments, including a closely watched case on the separation of church and state focusing on whether a Missouri church was improperly denied state funds. The court is nearing the end of its current term, which runs from October to June.

Gorsuch also would play a key role in important cases the justices already have agreed to hear in their next term, including a bid by employers to prevent workers from bringing class action claims, a goal of big business.

The court has been divided between four conservatives and four liberals since the February 2016 death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia.

Major issues before the court highlight the significance of Gorsuch filling Scalia’s seat and restoring the court’s 5-4 conservative majority.

Senate Republicans paved the way for Trump to replace Scalia by refusing last year to consider Democratic former President Barack Obama’s nomination of appellate judge Merrick Garland to fill the vacancy. That would have given the court a liberal majority for the first time in decades.

Legal experts suspect a conservative majority on the court could motivate conservative lawyers to bring cases in a hope that five justices will back abortion restrictions, oppose political spending limits, and favor wider gun and religious rights.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, a conservative who sometimes sides with the four liberals, will remain the court’s swing vote. Most experts expect Gorsuch to be more aligned with the court’s two most stalwart conservatives, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas.

“There’s no reason to think he will be anything other than extremely conservative,” said Chicago-Kent College of Law professor Carolyn Shapiro.

Pending appeals

With four votes needed to take up a case at the private meetings, each justice is important. Among pending appeals the court is likely to act on in the coming weeks is a case in which activists have asked the justices to rule for the first time that the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment, which protects the right to bear arms, extends to carrying firearms outside the home.

In another case, the court could decide whether to revive voter-identification and other restrictions in North Carolina blocked by a lower court. The justices also could hear a Christian baker’s religious claim that he should not be forced to sell a cake to a gay couple.

Conservative justices generally take expansive views of gun and religious rights and may back state laws whose Republican backers say are intended to prevent voter fraud.

On April 19, the court will hear a religious rights case in which a church contends Missouri violated the Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom by denying it funds for a playground project due to a state ban on aid to religious organizations.

Gorsuch has ruled several times in favor of expansive religious rights during his decade as a judge.

“Given Gorsuch’s solicitude for religious liberty, his joining the court can only help the church,” said Ilya Shapiro, a lawyer with the libertarian Cato Institute think tank.

There are several cases the court has already heard but has not yet decided in which Gorsuch could play a role. The court has the option of hearing fresh arguments, with Gorsuch in a position to cast a potential deciding vote.

Predatory lending accusation

One such case is a bid by Miami to revive lawsuits accusing major banks of predatory mortgage lending to black and Hispanic home buyers.

Another concerns whether the family of a Mexican teenager can sue a U.S. Border Patrol agent who fatally shot the 15-year-old from across the border in Texas.

Longer term, an issue likely to return to the court is a conservative-backed challenge that could weaken organized labor.

The court was expected to deny unions a vital source of cash last year. But after Scalia died, it issued a 4-4 ruling leaving in place a lower court’s decision favoring unions.

The court is also likely to weigh in on whether transgender students are protected under a federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in education. The court took up that question last fall but in March sent the case back to a lower court without resolving the main legal question.

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Trump Outrage at Syria Attack Sparks Speculation of Retaliation

U.S. officials from President Donald Trump on down have expressed outrage at the apparent chemical weapons attack in Syria, and have suggested that retaliatory action is being considered against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, either by a multinational response or alone.

At a joint Rose Garden news conference alongside visiting Jordanian King Abdullah II, Trump on Wednesday said the attack “cannot be tolerated.”

He did not rule out the use of retaliatory force, warning that the use of chemical weapons against civilians had “crossed many, many lines beyond a red line” for him.

“Yesterday’s [Tuesday’s] chemical attack, a chemical attack so horrific in Syria against innocent people including women, small children, and even beautiful little babies — their deaths was an affront to humanity,” he said. “These heinous actions by the Assad regime cannot be tolerated.”

While acknowledging that he is in charge in Washington now, Trump laid some of the blame for the chaos in Syria at the feet of his predecessor, Barack Obama, who famously threatened military action in response to a 2013 chemical attack in Syria, but did not follow through.

“I think the Obama administration had a great opportunity to solve this crisis a long time ago when he [spoke of] the red line in the sand,” he said. “And when he didn’t cross that line after making the threat, I think that set us back a long ways, not only in Syria but in many other parts of the world, because it was a blank threat.”

Tweeted otherwise

In 2013, however, Trump issued a series of tweets in which he urged then-President Obama not to attack Syria. One of them read: “The only reason President Obama wants to attack Syria is to save face over his very dumb RED LINE statement. Do NOT attack Syria, fix U.S.A.”

But when asked Wednesday at a photo opportunity if he had any policy to deal with this new attack, Trump was circumspect. “You’ll see,” he replied.

The Jordanian monarch also condemned the attack, calling it “another testament to the failure of the international diplomacy to find solutions to this crisis [in Syria].”

At the United Nations earlier in the day, U.S. envoy Nikki Haley castigated the international community for its inaction in the face of past atrocities, and seemed to suggest that the United States would act, with or without a multinational response.

“When the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action,” Haley warned. “For the sake of the victims, I hope the rest of the council is willing to do the same.”

Criticized Russia

Haley explicitly criticized Syria’s chief ally, Russia, which has used its veto power on the Security Council to prevent passage of resolutions condemning Syria’s use of chemical weapons.

“Assad has no incentive to stop using chemical weapons as long as Russia protects his regime from consequences,” she said.

The comments come just days after Haley said the U.S. is not focused on removing Assad from power.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also spoke to Russia’s support of Assad.

“There’s no doubt in our mind that the Syrian regime under the leadership of Bashar al-Assad is responsible for this horrific attack,” Tillerson said. “And we think it’s time that the Russians really need to think carefully about their continued support for the Assad regime.”

Trump’s actions

Robert Satloff of the Washington Center for Near East Policy said that Trump’s own words mean that he must now separate his administration’s response to Syria from that of Obama’s.

“The president’s own words and reactions suggest if he wants to separate himself from his predecessor, he’s going to have to take certain action,” Satloff said.

“By his words and demeanor, Trump has implicitly laid down a marker; I’m not going to say a red line,” he added. “So if he does not take action, it would be a sign he is continuing the Obama administration policy. That cannot be the sort of idea the Trump White House would like to nurture.”

Satloff said the chemical weapons incident poses a major challenge to the nascent relationship between the Trump White House and the Kremlin.

“If the Russians are maintaining the folly that the rebels themselves were responsible for the chemical weapons, this really calls into doubt the idea that the U.S. can partner with Russia,” he said.

Robert Danin, senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, called this a defining moment in the evolution of Trump’s Middle East policy.

“What we’re seeing is the transformation, education and evolution of Trump to understand what America’s role in the Middle East is,” Danin said. “He came to power with a desire to limit America’s involvement in the Middle East, and I think he’s quickly realizing that that’s a lot harder to do than he may have thought.”

Nike Ching at the State Department contributed to this report.

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Trump Tells NYT Obama Aide Might Have Broken Law

Citing no evidence, President Donald Trump on Wednesday accused his predecessor’s national security adviser of breaking the law, one month after he accused former president Barack Obama of illegally wiretapping him.

In an interview with The New York Times, Trump said Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, committed a crime when she asked government analysts to disclose the names of Trump associates documented in intelligence reports. Trump would not say if he reviewed new intelligence to support his claim. He told the Times he would say more “at the right time.”

 

“I think it’s going to be the biggest story,” Trump said. “It’s such an important story for our country and the world. It is one of the big stories of our time.”

 

Rice is the latest target for Trump and his embattled defenders. She has firmly denied that she did anything inappropriate in requesting the identities of Trump associates. As the national security adviser, Rice would have been authorized to seek identities of people whose names were redacted from intelligence reports. Officials typically “unmask” Americans if it is deemed necessary for understanding the information. Some Trump allies have accused Rice of unmasking officials for political reasons.

 

“Absolutely false,” Rice declared Tuesday.

 

Trump on Wednesday disagreed. When the Times asked him if Rice broke the law, he said, “Do I think? Yes, I think.” The president did not specify what law he thinks Rice may have broken.

 

Erin Pelton, a spokeswoman for Rice, said, “I’m not going to dignify the president’s ludicrous charge with a comment.”

 

Fitting a pattern

Trump’s unfounded accusation fits a pattern for the president. Last month, he accused Obama of wiretapping his New York skyscraper and later said Obama had spied on his campaign. Neither allegation has been backed up by evidence.

 

Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, is under FBI scrutiny for his ties to Russia. Two congressional committees are also investigating Flynn as part of larger probes into the Kremlin’s influence on the 2016 election and possible coordination with Trump associates. Last week Trump said that Flynn, who resigned in February, should seek an immunity deal.

 

On Wednesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan said the House intelligence committee investigation looking into Russia’s role in the 2016 election was back on track after the committee’s chairman had a secret meeting on White House grounds about intelligence that Trump later said vindicated his Obama wiretapping claims. Republicans and Democrats have agreed on the witnesses to be called, Ryan said.

 

Democratic Congressman Jim Himes, a member of the committee, told CNN that Rice is on the witness list. A congressional aide said there were more than a dozen people on the list.

 

According to a U.S. official, Rice asked spy agencies to give her the names of Trump associates who surfaced in intelligence reports she was regularly briefed on. Rice’s official role would have given her the ability to make those requests for national security purposes.

In an interview with MSNBC on Tuesday, Rice acknowledged that she sometimes asked for the names of Americans referenced in reports. She would not say whether she saw intelligence related to Trump associates or whether she asked for their identities, though she did say that reports related to Russia increased in the final months of the presidential election campaign.

 

The Trump White House has been particularly incensed that intercepted conversations between Flynn and Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. surfaced in news reports before the inauguration.

 

Rice denied that she had leaked details about Flynn’s call, saying, “I leaked nothing to nobody.”

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US Coal Companies Ask Trump to Stick With Paris Climate Deal

Some big American coal companies have advised President Donald Trump’s administration to break his promise to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement — arguing that the accord could provide their best forum for protecting their global interests.

Remaining in the global deal to combat climate change will give U.S. negotiators a chance to advocate for coal in the future of the global energy mix, coal companies like Cloud Peak Energy and Peabody Energy told White House officials over the past few weeks, according to executives and a U.S. official familiar with the discussions.

“The future is foreign markets, so the last thing you want to do if you are a coal company is to give up a U.S. seat in the international climate discussions and let the Europeans control the agenda,” said the official, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue.

“They can’t afford for the most powerful advocate for fossil fuels to be away from the table,” the official said.

Cloud Peak and Peabody officials confirmed the discussions.

‘Path forward’

In Cloud Peak’s view, staying in the agreement and trying to encourage “a more balanced, reasonable and appropriate path forward” on fossil fuel technologies among signatories to the accord seems like a reasonable stance, said Richard Reavey, Cloud Peak’s vice president of government affairs.

The coal industry was interested in ensuring that the Paris deal provides a role for low-emission coal-fired power plants and financial support for carbon capture and storage technology, the officials said. They also want the pact to protect multilateral funding for international coal projects through bodies like the World Bank.

The Paris accord, agreed by nearly 200 countries in 2015, would seek to limit global warming by slashing carbon dioxide and other emissions from burning fossil fuels. As part of the deal, the United States committed to reducing its emissions by between 26 percent and 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump vowed to pull the United States out of the pact, tapping into a well of concern among his fellow Republicans that the United States’ energy habits would be policed by the United Nations.

Seeking companies’ advice

But since being elected, he has been mostly quiet on the issue, and administration officials have recently been asking energy companies for advice.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer said last week that the administration expected to make a decision on whether to remain a party to the deal by the time leaders of the Group of Seven wealthy nations meet in late May.

The prospect of the United States remaining in the Paris deal has irritated some smaller miners, including Murray Energy Corp, whose chief executive, Robert Murray helped fund Trump’s presidential bid.

Staying in the Paris accord could also face resistance from within Trump’s party. Republican Congressman Kevin Cramer of North Dakota has been circulating a letter among Republican lawmakers calling on the president to stay in the deal but has gathered only seven signatures so far.

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Which Obama-era Regulations Have Been Killed?

In the most notable legislative work so far of the Trump administration, Republicans in Congress since Feb. 1 have approved measures to eliminate 13 regulations that were finalized in the waning months of Democratic President Barack Obama’s eight years in office.

President Donald Trump so far has signed 11 of them into law. The measures were written under the Congressional Review Act (CRA), which operates under strict time limits and bars agencies from writing substantially similar rules in the future.

The last day for submitting new CRA resolutions was Friday. Lawmakers have until mid-May to vote on pending CRA resolutions.

The following are rules overturned by CRA measures:

Broadband privacy – A Federal Communications Commission rule barring Internet service providers and telecommunications carriers from selling customers’ personal information unless the customers allowed it. Eliminated by Trump’s signature April 3.

Alaska wildlife – A rule intended to clarify how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service balanced caring for the environment on refuges and controlling predators. Eliminated by Trump’s signature April 3.

Workplace injury records – A rule requiring employers to keep records of employees’ work-related injuries and illness, with no time limit.  Eliminated by Trump’s signature April 3.

Drug testing unemployment applicants – A rule allowing states to deny unemployment benefits to people who tested positive for drug use if they had lost a job over substance abuse or if they can only work in occupations with regular drug testing. Eliminated by Trump’s signature March 31.

Federal contracting – Called the “blacklisting rule” by Republicans, this regulation blocked federal contracts from being granted to companies that did not disclose their employment of women and minorities. Eliminated by Trump’s signature March 27.

Land management – A U.S. Bureau of Land Management update to regulations enacted 30 years ago to make planning more efficient and open to the public. Eliminated by Trump’s signature March 27.

School accountability – A rule meant to hold U.S. states more accountable for school performance. Instead of using statewide tests, the rule required states to use multiple indicators of school quality or student success. Eliminated by Trump’s signature March 27.

Teacher preparation – A rule setting criteria for teacher preparation programs and withholding federal grants from programs that fall short. Eliminated by Trump’s signature March 27.

Guns and mentally ill – Republicans said this rule deprived the mentally ill of their gun rights. It required expanded background checks for gun purchasers receiving Social Security benefits for a mental impairment. Eliminated by Trump’s signature Feb. 28.

Stream protection – The Interior Department spent years crafting this rule to limit waste running into streams from mountaintop mining removal. Eliminated by Trump’s signature Feb. 16.

Miner payments – A part of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law that required energy companies to disclose taxes, royalties and other payments to foreign countries as a way to root out corruption. Eliminated by Trump’s signature Feb. 14.

Here are rules targeted by CRA measures that have been approved by Congress and are awaiting Trump’s signature:

Contraception funding – A rule intended to keep federal grants flowing to clinics that provide contraception and other services in states that want to block the funding.

Retirement plans – An exemption from federal pension protection laws for plans that cities run for people who do not have retirement savings programs at work.

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