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Trump, Aides Scorn Book Depicting Chaotic White House

U.S. President Donald Trump and aides on Sunday heaped scorn on a new book detailing his chaotic first year in the White House and suggestions that he is not mentally fit to be the U.S. leader.

Trump, in a Twitter comment, said, “I’ve had to put up with the Fake News from the first day I announced that I would be running for President. Now I have to put up with a Fake Book, written by a totally discredited author.”

Trump’s ire was aimed at journalist Michael Wolff, who, based on 200 interviews with Trump and numerous of his aides, described a dysfunctional White House in his book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, released Friday.

Trump said that three decades ago, another Republican president, Ronald Reagan, was also faced with stories questioning his mental acuity “and handled it well. So will I!”

Stephen Miller, Trump’s top policy adviser, assailed Trump’s former chief strategist Stephen Bannon for comments in the book alleging that Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., son-in-law Jared Kushner, now a key White House adviser, and then-campaign manager Paul Manafort were “treasonous” and “unpatriotic” for meeting in the midst of the 2016 presidential campaign with Russians claming to have incriminating information about Trump’s challenger, Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Miller on CNN described Bannon as an “angry, vindictive person” whose “grotesque comments are so out of touch with reality.” Miller said the “whole White House staff is deeply disappointed in his comments” in the book.

Miller said the Wolff book “is best understood as a work of poorly written fiction. The author is a garbage author of a garbage book. …The betrayal of the president in this book is so contrary to the reality of those who work with him.”

CNN anchor Jake Tapper abruptly ended the interview with Miller, calling him “obsequious” and concerned only about pleasing “one viewer,” Trump.

A short time later, Trump tweeted, “Jake Tapper of Fake News CNN just got destroyed in his interview with Stephen Miller of the Trump Administration. Watch the hatred and unfairness of this CNN flunky!”

Two other Trump administration officials, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and Central Intelligence Agency director Mike Pompeo also expressed support for Trump’s performance on Sunday news talk shows, a day after the U.S. leader described himself as “a very stable genius.”

Haley told ABC News that based on her once-a-week visits to the White House, “No one disrespects the president.” Pompeo told Fox News, “I have watched him take the information that the intelligence community delivers and translate that into policies that are of enormous benefit to America.”

Bannon has not disputed quotes Wolff attributed to him in the book but on Sunday voiced some regret over his role.

He told the Axios news site: “Donald Trump Jr. is both a patriot and a good man. He has been relentless in his advocacy for his father and the agenda that has helped turn our country around.”

Bannon, who returned to Breitbart News, an alt-right website with nationalist views, after leaving the White House, also avowed his continuing support for Trump.

“My support is also unwavering for the president and his agenda,” Bannon said, “as I have shown daily in my national radio broadcasts, on the pages of Breitbart News and in speeches and appearances from Tokyo and Hong Kong to Arizona and Alabama.

“I regret that my delay,” he added, “in responding to the inaccurate reporting regarding Don Jr. has diverted attention from the president’s historical accomplishments in the first year of his presidency.”

Trump has claimed that he “authorized Zero Access” to Wolff at the White House to do his research for the book.

But Wolff told NBC that the president, personally, if reluctantly, allowed him to roam the corridors of the White House and conduct interviews with his aides, at one point saying, “Who cares about a book?”

But by Sunday, two days after its release, Fire and Fury was the top-selling book on the Amazon online retail site.

 

 

 

 

 

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Trump Washes His Hands of Insurgency Against GOP Incumbents

President Donald Trump says he’s done campaigning for insurgents challenging incumbent Republican members of Congress.

Trump told reporters after meeting GOP House and Senate leaders at Camp David on Saturday that he’s planning a robust schedule of campaigning for the 2018 midterm elections and that includes involvement in the Republican primaries. He’ll campaign for incumbents, he said, and “anybody else that has my kind of thinking.”

 

But after a stinging loss in Alabama, Trump said he’s done supporting challengers, declaring: “I don’t see that happening.” Trump had supported Roy Moore after he won the GOP primary. Moore’s defeat in the subsequent special election handed Democrats another seat in the Senate.

 

Trump spent much of Friday and Saturday morning hashing out his 2018 agenda with GOP House and Senate leaders, top White House aides and select Cabinet members at the presidential retreat at Camp David. He described the sessions as perhaps transformative in certain ways.

 

A long list of high-stakes topics were on the agenda, from national security and infrastructure to the budget and 2018 midterm election strategy. Though Democrats were not included in the discussions, the leaders — some dressed casually in jeans, khakis and sweaters — said they were optimistic that more Democrats would be working with Republicans.

 

“We hope that 2018’ll be a year of more bipartisan cooperation,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters, predicting a “significant number of Democrats” would be interested in supporting Trump’s agenda.

 

It’s a reflection of reality: Republicans hold a razor-thin majority in the Senate and will need Democrats’ support to push through most legislation. It’s unclear, however, the extent to which Trump is willing to work with Democrats to achieve that goal.

 

Trump, for instance, declared Saturday that he will not sign legislation protecting hundreds of thousands of young people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children unless Congress agrees to fund his promised border wall as well as overhaul the legal immigration system. Trump last year ended the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which shielded more than 700,000 people from deportation and gave then the right to work legally in the country, and gave Congress until March to find a fix.

 

Trump said any deal must stop immigrants from being able to sponsor their extended family members and must end the diversity visa lottery, which draws immigrants from under-represented parts of a world. That’s in addition to funding for the southern border wall, a deeply unpopular idea among Democrats.

 

The administration on Friday unveiled a 10-year, $18 billion request for the wall that roiled the immigration talks and infuriated Democrats who’ve spent months in negotiations, increasing the prospect of a government shutdown.

 

But Trump appeared oblivious to the anger on Saturday. “We hope that we’re going to be able to work out an arrangement with the Democrats,” he said. “It’s something, certainly, that I’d like to see happen.”

 

Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, the House majority whip, also expressed guarded optimism when he returned to his state after the retreat. “For a few weeks now it seems like there’s the ability to get an agreement reached but none has been finalized yet,” he said of the effort to protect the young immigrants who came under Obama’s program. “I think the framework is there and the president is fully engaged.”

 

Trump also appeared Saturday to back away from efforts to overhaul the welfare system, which just weeks ago had been identified as one of the White House’s top two legislative priorities, along with a massive infrastructure investment plan.

 

McConnell had argued that welfare reform was a no-go given Democratic opposition. And Trump appeared to have come around.

 

“It’s a subject that’s very dear to our heart,” Trump said. “We’ll try and do something in a bipartisan way. Otherwise, we’ll be holding it for a little bit later.”

 

Republicans are eager to build on the victory achieved late last year with the overhaul of the nation’s tax code. But before moving on to infrastructure and other items, Trump and his GOP allies first must navigate a tricky landscape of leftover legislation from last year that promises to test party unity in the coming weeks.

 

The need to work with Democrats on a spending package, for instance, is sure to whip up opposition from many conservatives to a hoped-for catchall spending bill slated for next month.

 

The Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains provides a woodsy respite from Washington. It’s a place where presidents and lawmakers can bond over meals, hikes and movie nights.

 

“There’s a feeling here that you don’t have in very many places. There was a bonding,” Trump said of the visit.

 

Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, told reporters Saturday that lawmakers and top White House officials had enjoyed “a couple of glasses of wine together last night” and gathered with Trump to watch the new movie “The Greatest Showman,” starring Hugh Jackman. (He described it as “very, very entertaining.”)

 

Politics, too, were on the agenda, with talks about the midterm elections. Republicans are at risk of losing the majority they’ve held in the House since 2011, and could also lose seats in the Senate, though many more Democratic incumbents are up for re-election this year.

 

Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, became a self-styled leader of an insurgency against Republican incumbents, arguing that Trump’s agenda could only be passed with an influx of outsiders. But Bannon is on the outs with Trump and the president’s comments Saturday suggested he’s washing his hands of any such uprising. Trump said he needs more Republicans in Congress.

 

 

 

 

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Eritrea Closes Hundreds of Businesses for Bypassing Banks 

Eritrea has temporarily shut down nearly 450 private businesses, the latest in a series of moves that has sent shockwaves through the economy of the Red Sea nation.

The closures were a response to companies hoarding cash and “failing to do business through checks and other banking systems,” according to a Dec. 29 editorial published by Eritrea’s Ministry of Information on the state-run website Shabait.com.

Most of the affected businesses operate in the hospitality sector, according to the announcement, and they will remain closed for up to eight months, depending on the severity of the violations.

About 58,000 private businesses operate across the country, according to the government; less than 1 percent was affected by the recent closures.

Replacing the currency

The government has taken other steps in recent years to reassert control over the economy.

In 2015, Eritrea mandated that citizens exchange all notes of the currency, the nakfa, for new notes. The government also imposed financial restrictions, including limits on the amount of cash that could be withdrawn from bank accounts or kept in private hands, according to multiple reports.

Business owners complained about the restrictions, and reports from inside the country indicate the rules have altered Eritrea’s black market exchange rate, which affects the price of many goods.

State control

Tesfa Mehari, a professor of economics in England, said the Eritrean government wants a state-owned economy. That’s a trap many other countries have fallen into that generally leads to economic failure, Mehari said.

“The government cannot develop the economy. Only the people can do that,” Mehari told VOA’s Tigrigna service. “The government can only be a facilitator. There hasn’t been a country in the world that developed because of government control.”

He also said that the closures harm people’s trust in the government and in banking institutions. 

“At the end of the day, if the people of Eritrea want to develop the economy of the country, they can only work based on trust, especially with banks. What you have with banks is a matter of oath,” Mehari said.

Compounding this mistrust, he added, is that the government’s actions aren’t backed by a specific law or decree that is publicly available for all to read.

In a statement, the government also acknowledged shortcomings in modernizing its banking sector with up-to-date technology and relevant expertise, another potential impediment to confidence in the system.

In contrast, Ibrahim Ibrahim, an Eritrean-born accountant who supports the government, said the actions are needed to fight inflation and stabilize the currency.

“I don’t think the Eritrean government is trying to control the economy, and I don’t think that’s the current environment,” said Ibrahim, who is based in Washington, D.C. “However, there might be a situation where the government is taking measures to adjust things that are not normal and turn it into normalcy as per usual.”

He said any government has the right to regulate its currency and the businesses operating within its borders.

“When these businesses are given permission to work, that means they’re entering a contract,” he said. “At the core of entering into such agreements is that the businesses work within the legalities and the laws in place. If these businesses are not working according to the law, the government is going to take appropriate measures.”

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Iran Parliament to Discuss Anti-government Protests

Iran’s parliament is set to hold a special session as soon as Sunday to discuss the anti-government protests that began Dec. 28 and continued through this week.

Iran’s ISNA news agency reported that Iran’s interior minister, head of intelligence and security council chief are all expected to attend. On the agenda are discussions of the root cause of the protests, as well as legal help for protesters jailed during the demonstrations.

The session was called by a group of reformist lawmakers, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. In a letter, those lawmakers called for legal assistance for the detained and condemned any outside “interference” in the protests, calling out the United States in particular.

U.S. President Donald Trump is set to decide next week whether to continue waiving sanctions on Iran that were suspended under the 2015 international deal on Iran’s nuclear program. The waiver must be renewed every 120 days, according to U.S. law. Trump could decide not to renew, putting U.S. trade sanctions back into effect.

In Europe, supporters of the anti-government protesters in Iran have been gathering to show their support in The Hague, Berlin, Hamburg, Stockholm, London and Paris.

At least 22 people have died in the protests, and more than 1,000 have been arrested. Hard-line cleric Ahmad Khatami told worshippers in a sermon Friday that those arrested should be treated as enemies of Islam, particularly those who have burned the flag. 

“There should be no mercy for them,” he said.

Government official Mansour Gholami has told reporters that about a quarter of those arrested have been released, but he did not provide exact numbers.

UN Security Council

The United Nations Security Council held an emergency meeting Friday at the urging of the United States.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley called the protests “a powerful exhibition of brave people who have become so fed up with their oppressive government that they are willing to risk their lives in protests.” She also addressed the Iranian government, saying, “the U.S. is watching what you do.”

In response, the Iranian ambassador, Gholamali Khoshroo, said it is a “discredit” to the Security Council to hold such a meeting on Iran in the face of the conflicts taking place in Yemen and elsewhere in the Middle East. He, along with a number of Security Council members, said the United States is meddling in Iran’s domestic affairs.

After the meeting, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted, “The UNSC rebuffed the U.S.’s naked attempt to hijack its mandate. … Another FP (foreign policy) blunder for the Trump administration.”

Still, U.S. intelligence officials warn Tehran is at a crossroads, noting the protests are the biggest outpouring of public discontent since Iranians took to the streets in 2009 following a disputed presidential election.

“The protests are symptomatic of long-standing grievances that have been left to fester,” an intelligence official told VOA on condition of anonymity. “Will it address the legitimate concerns of its people or suppress the voices of its own populace?”

“What is clear is that these concerns are not going away,” the official said.

Critics of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani say he has abandoned the poor, pointing to rising prices for key commodities like fuel, bread and eggs.

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Iran’s Working Class on Front Lines of Protests

The Iranian town of Doroud should be a prosperous place — nestled in a valley at the junction of two rivers in the Zagros Mountains, it’s in an area rich in metals to be mined and stone to be quarried. Last year, a military factory on the outskirts of town unveiled production of an advanced model of tanks.

Yet local officials have been pleading for months for the government to rescue its stagnant economy. Unemployment is around 30 percent, far above the official national rate of more than 12 percent. Young people graduate and find no work. The local steel and cement factories stopped production long ago, and their workers haven’t been paid for months. The military factory’s employees are mainly outsiders who live on its grounds, separate from the local economy.

“Unemployment is on an upward path,” Majid Kiyanpour, the local parliament representative for the town of 170,000, told Iranian media in August. “Unfortunately, the state is not paying attention.”

​It’s the economy

That’s a major reason Doroud has been a front line in the protests that have flared across Iran. Several thousand residents have been shown in online videos marching down Doroud’s main street, shouting, “Death to the dictator!” At night, young men set fires outside the gates of the mayor’s office and hurl stones at banks.

Anger and frustration over the economy have been the main fuel for the eruption of protests that began Dec. 28. 

President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, had promised that lifting most international sanctions under Iran’s landmark 2015 nuclear deal with the West would revive Iran’s long-suffering economy. But while the end of sanctions did open up a new influx of cash from increased oil exports, little has trickled down to the wider population. At the same time, Rouhani has enforced austerity policies that hit households hard.

Demonstrations have broken out mainly in dozens of smaller cities and towns like Doroud, where unemployment has been most painful and where many in the working class feel ignored.

​Fury at ruling class

The working classes have long been a base of support for Iran’s hard-liners. But protesters have turned their fury against the ruling clerics and the elite Revolutionary Guard, accusing them of monopolizing the economy and soaking up the country’s wealth. 

Many protests have seen a startlingly overt rejection of Iran’s system of government by Islamic clerics.

“They make a man into god and a nation into beggars!” goes the cry heard in videos of several marches. “Clerics with capital, give us our money back!”

Food prices jump

The initial spark for the protests was a sudden jump in food prices. It is believed that hard-line opponents of Rouhani instigated the first demonstrations in the conservative city of Mashhad in eastern Iran, trying to direct public anger at the president. But as protests spread from town to town, the backlash turned against the entire ruling class.

Further stoking the anger was the budget for the coming year that Rouhani unveiled in mid-December, calling for significant cuts in cash payouts established by Rouhani’s predecessor as a form of direct welfare. Since he came to office in 2013, Rouhani has been paring them back. The budget also envisaged a new jump in fuel prices.

But amid the cutbacks, the budget revealed large increases in funding for religious foundations that are a key part of the clerical state-above-the-state, which receive hundreds of millions of dollars each year from the public coffers. 

After the lifting of most sanctions in early 2016, the economy saw a major boost — 13.4 percent growth in the GDP in 2016, compared to a 1.3 percent contraction the year before, according to the World Bank. But almost all that growth was in the oil sector.

Growth outside the oil sector was at 3.3 percent. Major foreign investment has failed to materialize, in part because of continued U.S. sanctions hampering access to international banking and the fear other sanctions could eventually return.

Iran’s official unemployment rate is at 12.4 percent, and unemployment among the young, those 19 to 29, has reached 28.8 percent, according to the government-run Statistical Center of Iran.

The provinces face more economic hardship, but the pain has been felt in the capital, Tehran, and other major cities as well. But there it’s been more cushioned within a large middle class. Many can ignore those picking through trash for food. However, in December 2016, Iranians expressed shock over a series of photographs in a local newspaper showing homeless drug addicts sleeping in open graves in Shahriar, on Tehran’s western outskirts.

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Trump Says No to Immigration Protection Bill Unless it Includes Border Wall Funds

U.S. President Donald Trump reiterated Saturday that he would not support legislation to protect hundreds of thousands of immigrants from deportation unless it included funding for a border wall and eliminates the visa lottery program and extended-family-based immigration.

“We all want DACA to happen, but we also want great security for our country,” Trump said of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which expires in March.

Trump spoke as he met with Republican lawmakers and members of his Cabinet to establish the administration’s 2018 legislative priorities and to devise a strategy for midterm elections in November. They were gathered at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland.

“We went into DACA and how we’re going to do it, and we hope that we’re going be able to work out an arrangement with the Democrats. I think it’s something that they’d like to see happen,” Trump told reporters.

In September, Trump rescinded DACA, which was instituted by former President Barack Obama. It protected nearly 800,000 immigrants from deportation, allowing them to legally live and work in the United States.

Trump gave Congress until March 5 to agree on legislation that would allow equivalent protections to those offered under DACA, provided the measure included funding for a wall along the border with Mexico, ended the visa lottery program, and ended extended-family-based immigration, in which immigrants from a particular area follow others from that area to specific U.S. cities or neighborhoods.

Trump also said the drug crisis in America had reached unprecedented levels and vowed his administration would make a “big dent” in resolving the problem this year.

“One of the things we are discussing very powerfully is drugs pouring into this country and how to stop it, because it’s at a point over the last number of years … it’s never been like this,” he said.

Trump said the drug problem is less difficult to deal with in countries that “take it very seriously, and they’re very harsh” — an apparent signal the U.S. is preparing to take a much tougher approach. 

“We are going to be working on that very, very hard this year, and I think we’re going make a big dent into the drug problem,” he said.

Trump said the Republican leaders also discussed the nation’s infrastructure needs and a variety of military issues.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who was among those in attendance, did not elaborate on priorities for the the new year. But he told reporters 2017 would be “a tough year to top” and added, “If you are like those of us here at the podium, you’d like to see America be a right-of-center country.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan said rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure and bolstering the military would be priorities this year, as well as ensuring “that everyone enjoys the economic growth that’s to come.”

Republican legislative priorities also will include the budget, welfare reform and the midterm elections. Additionally, Republicans have been eager to cut benefit programs like welfare and food stamps.

Congress must work quickly, however, to approve a funding plan by January 19 to avoid a government shutdown.

Republican priorities could be stopped in their tracks if the Democrats are successful during the midterm elections.

Trump has been facing increasing criticism about his presidential style. He begins the new year with the release of a bombshell book, Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff, that describes the president as being like a child and in need of psychiatric help.

It remains to be seen how the book and other accounts of Trump’s mental status will affect the upcoming elections.

All 435 members of the House and one-third of the 100 members of the Senate will be up for re-election in 2018. 

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Tech Companies Gear up for CES, the Massive Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas

Nearly 4,000 companies and 170,000 people will descend on Las Vegas next week for CES, the massive consumer electronics show. For many small technology companies, the event is a big opportunity to raise their profile. VOA’s Michelle Quinn visits one San Francisco company to learn how they prepare for “the Super Bowl of conferences.”

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