Month: October 2019

Former Trump Adviser Next in Line to be Asked About Ukraine

President Donald Trump’s top adviser for Russian and European affairs is leaving his job at the White House just as he’s scheduled to testify before the House impeachment investigators, a senior administration official said.
 
Tim Morrison owes his job at the National Security Council to Trump, but his testimony Thursday in the House impeachment inquiry might be central to a push to remove the president from office.
 
A senior administration official said Wednesday that Morrison “has decided to pursue other opportunities.” The official, who was not authorized to discuss Morrison’s job and spoke only on the condition of anonymity, said Morrison has been considering leaving the administration for “some time.”
 
Morrison has been in the spotlight since August when a government whistleblower said multiple U.S. officials had said Trump was “using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election.”
 
Now it’s his turn in the impeachment probe’s hot seat.
 
Morrison, tall and lean with an authoritative voice, will be asked to explain that “sinking feeling” he got when Trump demanded that Ukraine’s president investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and meddling in the 2016 election.
 
Morrison, who is in his 40s, is a political appointee in the Trump White House, brought on board by former national security adviser John Bolton to address arms control matters and later shifted into his current role as a top Russia and Europe adviser. It was there that he stepped into the thick of an in-house squabble about the activities of Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, who had been conversing with Ukrainian leaders outside of traditional U.S. diplomatic circles.
 
Known as a “hawk” in national security circles, Morrison is set to be the first political appointee from the White House to testify before impeachment investigators. The probe has been denounced by the Republican president, who has directed his staff not to testify.
 
Regardless of what he says, GOP lawmakers will be hard-pressed to dismiss Morrison, formerly a longtime Republican staffer at the House Armed Services Committee. He’s been bouncing around Washington in Republican positions for two decades, having worked for Rep. Mark Kennedy, R-Minn., Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and as a GOP senior staffer on the House Armed Services Committee, including nearly four years when it was chaired by Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas.
 

Morrison’s name appeared more than a dozen times in earlier testimony by William Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador in Ukraine, who told impeachment investigators that Trump was withholding military aid unless the new Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, went public with a promise to investigate Trump’s political rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Taylor’s testimony contradicts Trump’s repeated denials that there was any quid pro quo.
 
Taylor said Morrison recounted a conversation that Gordon Sondland, America’s ambassador to the European Union, had with a top aide to Zelenskiy named Andriy Yermak. Taylor said Morrison told him security assistance would not materialize until Zelenskiy committed to investigate Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company that once employed Biden’s son. A White House meeting for Zelenskiy also was in play.
 
“I was alarmed by what Mr. Morrison told me about the Sondland-Yermak conversation,” Taylor testified. “This was the first time I had heard that the security assistance – not just the White House meeting – was conditioned on the investigations.”
 
Taylor testified that Morrison told him he had a “sinking feeling” after learning about a Sept. 7 conversation Sondland had with Trump.
 
“According to Mr. Morrison, President Trump told Ambassador Sondland that he was not asking for a quid pro quo,” Taylor testified. “But President Trump did insist that President Zelenskiy go to a microphone and say he is opening investigations of Biden and 2016 election interference, and that President Zelenskiy should want to do this himself.” Mr. Morrison said that he told Ambassador Bolton and the NSC lawyers of this phone call between President Trump and Ambassador Sondland.
 
Morrison told people after Bolton was forced out of his job that the national security adviser had tried to stop Giuliani’s diplomatic dealings with Ukraine and that Morrison agreed, according to a U.S. official, who was not authorized to discuss Morrison’s role in the impeachment inquiry and spoke only on condition of anonymity. The official said Morrison told people that with the appointment of Robert O’Brien as Bolton’s successor, his own future work at the NSC was in a “holding pattern.”
 
Bolton had brought Morrison into the NSC in July 2018 as senior director for weapons of mass destruction and biodefence. He’s known as an arms control expert or an arms treaty saboteur, depending on who you ask.
 

Morrison, who earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota and a law degree from George Washington University, keeps nuclear strategist Herman Kahn’s seminal volume on thermonuclear warfare on a table in his office.
 
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said Bolton and Morrison are likeminded. Kimball said both have been known for calling up GOP congressional offices warning them against saying anything about arms control that didn’t align with their views.
 
“Just as John Bolton reportedly did, I would be shocked if Morrison did not regard Giuliani’s activities as being out of bounds,” said Kimball, who has been on opposite sides of arms control debates with Morrison for more than a decade.

 

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Ivanka Trump to Promote Women’s Prosperity in Morocco

Ivanka Trump is getting ready to promote her women’s economic development program on an upcoming trip to Morocco.

It will be her third overseas trip this year to promote the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative , which was launched in February to benefit women in developing countries.

President Donald Trump’s daughter and senior adviser will visit the North African country in early November, the White House said. Specific dates for her travel were not released.

In a statement to The Associated Press, Ivanka Trump said the kingdom of Morocco is a valued U.S. ally that has “taken strides” under King Mohammed VI to promote gender equality.

In August, she tweeted her support to the Moroccan government after it began the process of amending its inheritance laws, which say women should receive half as much as men.

Ivanka Trump will travel with Sean Cairncross, CEO of the Millennium Challenge Corp., an independent U.S. foreign aid agency that provides grants to developing countries to help promote economic growth, reduce poverty and strengthen institutions.

They will meet with government officials and local leaders in Morocco’s capital, Rabat, and in Casablanca to discuss how to help women in the region gain a measure of economic independence.

The Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative has a goal of helping 50 million women in developing nations advance economically over the next six years.

It’s a U.S. government-wide effort that involves the State Department, the National Security Council and other agencies. It aims to coordinate existing programs and develop new ones to help women in areas such as job training, financial support and legal or regulatory reforms.

Ivanka Trump traveled to Ethiopia and Ivory Coast , in sub-Saharan Africa, in April and to Argentina, Colombia and Paraguay , in South America, in September to promote the initiative.

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House Democrats Set Stage for Public Impeachment Inquiry

Democrats in the US House of Representatives will take a crucial step forward in their impeachment investigation of US President Donald Trump Thursday. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a vote formalizing the inquiry, addressing Republicans’ arguments the process is illegitimate. As VOA’s Congressional correspondent Katherine Gypson reports from Capitol Hill, the vote also sets the stage for the impeachment inquiry to go public.

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Hong Kong in Recession as Protests Slam Retailers, Tourism

Steps from Hong Kong’s main tourist strip, Ashfaqur Rahman’s tailor shop usually is a mainstay for tourists dropping in to peruse neatly stacked rolls of fabric and get measured for custom-made suits.

Not anymore.

Business has dried up since anti-government protests began in early June in the Asian financial center.

On Thursday, the government said Hong Kong’s economy shrank 3.2% in July-September from the previous quarter, pushing the city into a technical recession.

That makes two straight quarters of contraction since the economy contracted 0.5% in April-June on a quarterly basis.

The once-common lines of Chinese shoppers outside Hong Kong’s glittering luxury stores are gone. Jewelry stores have no customers and related businesses like transportation are languishing.

Rahman said his monthly sales have tumbled 80% from an average of 200,000 Hong Kong dollars ($25,500) in better times.

His shop is tucked away in a passage off Nathan Road in the Tsim Sha Tsui district, which teems with posh hotels and upscale jewelry and fashion boutiques, set against the stunning backdrop of Victoria Harbor.

But on recent weekends the neighborhood has become a protest battle zone, with black-clad demonstrators clashing late into the night with riot police unleashing tear gas and water cannons.

“This is the worst we’ve seen,” said Rahman, a Bangladeshi immigrant who opened the shop 14 years ago. His sales now barely cover the rent and he and his business partner are dipping into their own pockets to pay the salaries of their five staff. He’s not sure they’ll be able to carry on if there’s no resolution to the increasingly violent protests.

Restaurant managers, watch shop owners and jewelry salespeople across the district echoed the sentiment. In jeweler Tiffany’s massive showroom, there were at least 10 salespeople and no customers on a recent afternoon.

Thursday’s data showed private spending and exports falling sharply.

The forecast for the year is for a contraction, given “the lack of any signs of improvement in the near term,” the government said.

On Wednesday, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam warned of the bad news to come.

“The increasingly violent reality since June is hurting Hong Kong’s economy,” Lam said. Retail, catering, transport and other tourism-related industries have borne the brunt, she said.

The protesters have been locked in a standoff with the authorities for more than four months, that began with demands they scrap a now-abandoned extradition bill.

The movement has gained momentum and grown increasingly violent, with hardcore protesters clad in black slinging Molotov cocktails and engaging in hand-to-hand combat with riot police.

Organizers have canceled or relocated a slew of concerts, sporting events and conferences.

Images of the vicious street battles amid clouds of tear gas are tarnishing the city’s reputation as a safe and stable Asian metropolis.

Organizers have canceled or relocated a slew of concerts, sporting events and conferences.

Visitor numbers fell by half in the first half of October, usually a lucrative time thanks to a weeklong Chinese holiday. Retail sales fell by a quarter in August, the steepest annual drop on record.

At times the chaos has crippled major infrastructure, shutting down the city’s busy airport, where arrivals and flight bookings have plummeted.

The protests have paralyzed subways, main roads and tunnels: Hong Kong’s government-owned rail operator, MTR, has been stopping evening subway service hours earlier than usual — a move that further reduces consumer spending.

Staff at a pharmacy on Nathan Road said sales of cosmetics, medicine and baby formula popular with mainland Chinese shoppers are down by up to 90%.

They’re earning less because their hours have been cut.

“No one’s coming,” said Ah Chiu, manager of a watch shop. Sales fell by half in the past two months, he said.

Free spending mainland Chinese used to arrive on the weekends to buy the Bulova, Seiko and Movado watches he stocks.

Chiu, who refused to give his full name, said he had only sold one watch worth a few hundred Hong Kong dollars so far that day. That’s his new normal.

His shop and others in the Tsim Sha Tsui shopping arcade used to stay open even during protests. Now, they roll down their metal shutters and leave at the first sign of any disturbance, crimping any chance of more sales for the day.

“Calling for help won’t work. No one can help you. We can’t see the end,” he said, an air of resignation in his voice. “We’re eating money now.”

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HRW: CIA-Trained ‘Death Squads’ Behind Afghan War Crimes

Human Rights Watch (HRW) says CIA-backed Afghan paramilitary forces have “committed summary executions and other grave abuses without accountability” — including extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, and attacks on health-care facilities.

In its report, released on Thursday, HRW called on the Afghan government to immediately disband all pro-government paramilitary groups that operate outside the “ordinary military chain of command.”

It is also calling for the Afghan government to “impartially investigate all allegations of abuse by Afghan security forces” and to “prosecute those responsible for war crimes and serious abuses.”

It says both the United States and the Afghan government should also “cooperate with independent investigations of all allegations of war crimes and other human rights abuses.”

It also says the U.S. government should “investigate any U.S. personnel” involved in abuses, and should “cease supporting Afghan forces that have been responsible for serious violations.”

HRW documented 14 cases from late 2017 to mid-2019 in which it said CIA-backed “strike groups” committed grave abuses during night raids, such as one in the southeastern province of Paktia in which a paramilitary squad killed 11 men, including eight who were home for the Eid holidays.

In some cases, HRW says, troops detained men and didn’t tell families where they were being held.

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has disputed the HRW report, saying many of the claims against Afghan special forces were “likely false or exaggerated.”

“In ramping up operations against the Taliban, the CIA has enabled abusive Afghan forces to commit atrocities including extrajudicial executions and disappearances,” said Patricia Gossman, the report’s author and HRW’s associate Asia director.

“In case after case, these forces have simply shot people in their custody and consigned entire communities to the terror of abusive night raids and indiscriminate air strikes,” Grossman said.

Night raids, which combine surprise, overwhelming firepower, and night-vision equipment, are a tactic preferred by special forces.

FILE – Taliban fighters stand with their weapons in Ahmad Aba district, on the outskirts of Gardez, the capital of Paktia province, Afghanistan, July 18, 2017.

On several occasions, raids which usually take place in Taliban-controlled areas were backed by airstrikes that “indiscriminately or disproportionately” killed civilians, HRW said.

According to data released this week by NATO, the United States conducted 1,113 air and artillery strikes in September, a large increase on previous months that came as talks between Washington and the Taliban collapsed.

CIA spokesman Timothy Barrett said the agency’s operations abroad are conducted in “accordance with law and under a robust system of oversight.”

Barrett accused the Taliban of spreading misinformation and noted that the militants do not operate under any similar rules.

“Unlike the Taliban, the United States is committed to the rule of law,” officials added in a CIA statement.

“We neither condone nor would knowingly participate in illegal activities, and we continually work with our foreign partners to promote adherence to the law.”

Afghanistan’s CIA-backed militias, whose tradition goes back to the Soviet-Afghan war of the 1980s, are seen as a critical tool in the fight against Taliban and Islamic State militants.

Such paramilitary groups are officially under Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) but often operate almost independently of Afghan authorities.

Speaking to HRW, one unnamed diplomat referred to them as “death squads.”

The NDS did not immediately comment.

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a U.S. government monitor, says Afghan special forces conducted 2,531 ground operations from January-September this year, more than the total of 2,365 for all of last year.

A U.N. report earlier this month said 1,174 civilians were killed and 3,139 wounded in Afghanistan from July to September this year — a 42 percent increase over the same period last year.

 

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US Watchdog Warns of ‘Improper Influence’ in Tariff Process 

A federal watchdog is criticizing the way the Trump administration handles taxes on imported steel and aluminum, saying a lack of transparency creates the appearance of “improper influence.” 
 
The Commerce Department’s inspector general is raising questions about a process that lets steel and aluminum importers request relief from tariffs imposed in March 2018. 
  
Other companies — mostly U.S. steel and aluminum producers that benefit from the tariffs — can object to the exemption requests. 
 
In an Oct. 28 report, the IG said Commerce officials had discussed the requests with “interested parties” without mentioning the exchanges in official records. It also said Commerce had made it harder to get exemptions after hearing from a tariff supporter. 
 
Commerce said it was taking the IG’s critique “seriously” and planned “to further improve transparency.” 

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US Fed Cuts Rates but Signals Pause in Easing Cycle 

The Federal Reserve on Wednesday cut interest rates for the third time this year, as expected, in a move to ensure the U.S. economy weathers a global trade war without slipping into a recession, but it  signaled that its rate-cut cycle might be at a pause. 
 
In lowering its policy rate by a quarter of a percentage point to a target range of between 1.50% and 1.75%, the U.S. central bank dropped a previous reference in its policy statement that it “will act as appropriate” to sustain the economic expansion — language that was considered a sign of future rate cuts. 
 
Instead, the Fed said it would “monitor the implications of incoming information for the economic outlook as it assesses the appropriate path” of its target interest rate, a less decisive phrase. 
 
Kansas City Fed President Esther George and Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren dissented from the decision. They have opposed all three Fed rate cuts this year as unnecessary. 

View of economy changes little
 
The Fed’s description of the U.S. economy on Wednesday remained largely unchanged, with labor markets said to be “strong” and economic activity “rising at a moderate rate.” 
 
As in its previous policy statement, the Fed said it took the action to reduce borrowing costs “in light of the implications of global developments for the economic outlook as well as muted inflation pressures.” 
 
The Fed said business investment and exports remained “weak.” 
 
Expectations for additional cuts after October have diminished significantly in recent weeks. 
 
U.S. stocks, down modestly before the Fed’s statement, pared some of their losses and were little changed on the day. The benchmark S&P 500 Index, which had hit a record high earlier in the week, was down fractionally. 
 
Bond yields also showed little reaction, with the 10-year Treasury note yield at 1.80%, down about 3 basis points on the day. The dollar edged up to the day’s high against a basket of the currencies of top U.S. trading partners. 
 
“It’s pretty much what was expected,” said Jim Powers, director of investment research at Delegate Advisors. “The more important outcome is they removed the phrase ‘act as appropriate.’ It looks like the market is taking that to mean that there will be a pause in the declining rate path they were on beforehand. That’s what was expected, and that’s generally a good thing.” 

Unusual situation
 
The central bank and U.S. economy are at an unusual juncture. 
 
Unemployment is near a 50-year low, inflation is moderate, and data earlier on Wednesday showed gross domestic product grew at an annual rate of 1.9% in the third quarter, a slowdown from the first half of the year but not as sharp a decline as many economists had expected and some Fed officials had feared. 
 
But parts of the economy, particularly manufacturing, have stuttered in recent months as the global economy slowed. 
 
Businesses have pared investment in response to the U.S.-China trade war that both raised tariffs on many goods and made the world a riskier place in which to make long-term commitments. 
 
While that has not had an obvious impact yet on U.S. hiring or consumer spending, Fed officials felt a round of “insurance” rate cuts was appropriate to guard against a worse outcome. The Fed cut rates in July and again in September, and by doing so hoped to encourage businesses and consumers with more affordable borrowing costs. 
 
The approach was successful in the 1990s when risks developed during another prolonged period of economic growth. 

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Saudi Arabia’s ‘Davos of the Desert’ Economic Conference Draws Powerful Crowd

Saudi Arabia has been hosting more than 300 of the world’s political and economic leaders at its three-day “Davos in the Desert” conference, which is focusing on investments, infrastructure and technology for the future of the kingdom.

Saudi-owned media touted the economic gathering in Riyadh, which its chairman says has become “one of the top three such gatherings in the world.”

U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry and President Donald Trump’s influential son-in-law Jared Kushner were in attendance, while some international figures are expected to address the conference via satellite-link.

Participants watch U.S. White House senior adviser Jared Kushner on a screen during his speech in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Oct. 29, 2019.

Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdel Aziz Bin Salman told the gathering the long-expected IPO for Saudi oil-giant Aramco would take place when Saudi leaders determined it was the right time to do so. 

Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV reported the IPO, according to its sources, would take place in December.

Jordan’s King Abdallah II told the gathering’s opening session that investing in the future of the Arab world and its youth is a wise move:

“The future starts here, in this region, with this talented, creative and forward-looking youth, 70% of our population. Their innovation knows no bounds, their energy knows no limits and their potential is so full of promise. You can find them all across the Arab world, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Arabian Gulf, and here in Saudi Arabia, you will find an eager youth cohort, ready to play their part, but incentivized by a leadership that speaks their language.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the participants in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Oct. 29, 2019.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also addressed the conference, vaunting India’s expected growth in the coming years and its attractive business environment.

Modi said India is aiming for a $5-trillion economy in the next five years and is becoming a startup hub, from research and development to tech enterprise. He said it the world’s third largest startup ecosystem, and it is doing well in sectors from hospitality and medical treatment to tourism. Infrastructure, Modi emphasizes, is an opportunity multiplier.

Brazilian President Jair Balsonaro, also due to speak, told Arab media his country was a good place to invest.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro speaks during the Future Investment Initiative forum in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Oct. 30, 2019.

He said Brazil has truly changed, and the facts and figures of the economy are evidence of that change. More and more countries, he said, want to do business with Brazil, which stands with open arms to ensure that business opportunities take place via agreements and partnerships that allow everyone to win.

Saudi economic adviser Majed Soueigh told Saudi state TV the kingdom was hoping to take advantage of the Riyadh conference “to help propel its economy into the new, non-oil future, amid ongoing initiatives to improve non-oil sectors of the economy, including tourism and various economic projects now being undertaken.”

Theodore Karasik, Washington-based Gulf analyst, told VOA the conference is “successfully moving Saudi Arabia’s agenda forward,” especially in the areas of “investment and future strategies, despite dissenting voices.”

Karasik underscores the gathering also “demonstrates that Africa is a key part of the kingdom’s future.”

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Global Trafficking Networks Behind British Migrant Tragedy

British and Belgian police are continuing to investigate the people-smuggling networks that helped to transport the 39 migrants who were found dead in the back of a refrigerated truck near London last week. It’s believed they suffocated in the sealed container. Henry Ridgwell reports on the growing industry in human cargo that brings tens of thousands of migrants to Europe every year.

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Facebook Removes 3 Russian Networks It Says Engaged in Foreign Interference in Africa

Less than a week after the Africa-Russia Summit, Facebook has suspended three networks of Russian accounts it says were engaging in foreign interference in Africa.

Facebook said the accounts targeted Madagascar, the Central African Republic, Mozambique, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Côte d’Ivoire and Cameroon. The accounts supported select political figures and derided pro-democracy activists in the countries.

Russia has had an increasing interest in engaging with African countries on trade and policy as sanctions continue to hurt its economy.

Russian President Vladimir Putin organized the first Russia–Africa Summit and Economic Forum, which promoted increased economic relations between Russia and the continent earlier in October in Sochi, Russia.

According to documents leaked by The Guardian, companies and groups affiliated with the Russian government have been cooperating with African politicians and interfering in elections. According to the documents, Madagascar’s president Andry Rajoelina won the election with Russian support. Rajoelina has denied the allegation.

The Stanford Internet Observatory also reported that Russia was working with local media organizations on the African continent to spread disinformation.

This represents a new tactic compared to what occurred with Russian influence ahead of the U.S. 2016 presidential election.

The three networks are among the first subjects of Facebook’s new policies aimed at curbing “coordinated inauthentic behavior.”

Facebook defined coordinated inauthentic behavior in an October press release as using fake accounts and deceiving people on the origins of pages and groups.

According to The Stanford Internet Observatory, a total of 1.72 million accounts “liked” the now removed Facebook pages. Though some of these “likes” could be from the same account across multiple pages.

The removal of the networks demonstrates Facebook’s commitment to prevent manipulation on its platforms, but it also shows the evolving nature of Russian methods since 2016.

 

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