Gun Control Bills Wait in US Congress Despite Public Support

An unexpected resurgence of gun control proposals following last month’s shooting at a Florida high school is showing signs of ebbing in the U.S. Congress, where a bill to strengthen a national background check for gun ownership is treading water despite public pressure in favor of it.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, so far has held back on bringing it to the floor for debate and a vote, even though it has at least 69 co-sponsors in the 100-member chamber.

McConnell told reporters on Tuesday that he was “extremely interested” in passing both the background check measure and a school safety bill “soon,” but he did not elaborate.

The background check bill aims to improve the investigation of prospective gun buyers who have criminal backgrounds.

Students, their parents and gun control activists increased efforts nationwide to address gun-related deaths in the United States after 14 students and three adults were shot and killed by a former student at a school in Parkland, Florida on February 14.

The background check bill is being pushed by Republican Senator John Cornyn following last November’s mass shooting at a church in his home state of Texas that was carried out by someone with a domestic violence conviction. That crime was not reported to the federal gun-check data base.

“I’m convinced that those 26 people and the 20 more who were wounded would be alive today and the injured would not have been shot if an appropriate background check system had been in place,” Cornyn said on Tuesday.

Cornyn, the No. 2 Senate Republican, has accused Democrats of erecting roadblocks to his bill by demanding debate on broader, tougher gun controls, even though they also support the background check measure.

Proposals favored by gun control advocates, including a ban on assault-style weapons and the closing of loopholes on requiring background checks before gun purchases, are opposed by the National Rifle Association gun rights group, which has broad influence in U.S. politics through its election campaign donations that largely go to Republicans.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York has called for a full-fledged debate on guns, including legislation closing loopholes that let certain sales at gun shows and over the internet skirt background checks.

‘Something tiny’

Democrats also want votes on banning assault-style weapons like the one used in Parkland and legislation to facilitate gun-restraining orders on people thought to be posing an imminent danger to a community.

“Our Republican friends hope we’ll pass something tiny, something small, so they can clap their hands and say they did something on gun violence and move on,” Schumer said in a speech on the Senate floor.

A handful of Republican senators oppose Cornyn’s background check bill as written, even though it has the support of the National Rifle Association.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has stepped back from his tough talk of just a few weeks ago in which he suggested raising the minimum age for some weapons purchases and even forgoing “due process” court procedures in order to speed law enforcement’s ability to take guns away from those threatening violence.

Against that backdrop, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives on Wednesday is slated to debate a bill authorizing $50 million a year to help schools and law enforcement agencies prevent violent attacks.

The bill stops short, however, of allowing the money to be used to train and arm teachers and other school officials so they can attempt to repel shooters.

With McConnell devoting Senate floor debate time this week and next to other legislation, there is the possibility that any gun measure will have to wait at least until April because of a two-week spring break.

Some gun advocates fear that by then the political will in Congress for gun legislation will have evaporated.

Democrats disagree, noting that Wednesday’s planned nationwide walkouts by students demanding tougher gun laws will be followed by demonstrations across the United States and elsewhere on March 24.

Also, a makeshift memorial on the Capitol grounds was receiving national media attention. Composed of about 7,000 pairs of shoes, it commemorates child gun-related deaths since the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.

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With Pompeo’s Rise, Uncertainty Deepens for Iran Nuclear Deal

It is unclear how Mike Pompeo becoming U.S. secretary of state may affect the Iran nuclear deal.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s choice of the Central Intelligence Agency director to replace Rex Tillerson means an Iran hawk who fiercely opposed the 2015 pact as a member of Congress will now be in charge of the U.S. diplomacy trying to strengthen, and perhaps save, it.

Former U.S. officials and serving European officials were at a loss to gauge how the switch would affect negotiations between the United States and three European powers — Britain, France and Germany — that are also parties to the agreement.

Some said Washington may take a harder line under Pompeo and the Europeans may be under more pressure to offer concessions, while others suggested his views on the deal have evolved and he may be better placed to influence Trump to keep it.

U.S., British, French and German officials are due to meet on the deal Thursday in Berlin.

“Any officials negotiating with the Europeans right now will get a much more aggressive set of requirements from Pompeo,” said Richard Nephew, a former White House and State Department official who worked on Iran during the Obama administration.

“The odds of them coming up with a thoughtful compromise by May just got a lot longer,” he added.

Trump on Tuesday singled out the Iran nuclear deal as one of the main differences he had with Tillerson.

“I think it’s terrible, I guess he thinks it was OK,” Trump said.

Trump delivered an ultimatum to the European powers on Jan. 12, saying they must agree to “fix the terrible flaws of the Iran nuclear deal” or he would refuse to extend U.S. sanctions relief on Iran. U.S. sanctions will resume unless Trump issues fresh “waivers” to suspend them on May 12.

The crux of the July 2015 pact between Iran and six major powers — Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States — was that Iran would restrict its nuclear program in return for relief from sanctions that have crippled its economy.

Trump sees three defects in the deal: its failure to address Iran’s ballistic missile program; the terms under which international inspectors can visit suspect Iranian nuclear sites; and “sunset” clauses under which limits on the Iranian nuclear program start to expire after 10 years. He wants all three strengthened if the United States is to stay in the deal.

In a Jan. 13 cable, the State Department sketched out a path under which the three European allies would simply commit to try to improve the deal over time in return for Trump keeping the pact alive by renewing sanctions relief in May.

Trump ‘is what matters here’

Other European officials and former U.S. officials said Pompeo’s rise, if he is confirmed as secretary of state by the Senate, might have a more ambiguous effect on the negotiations and that, in any case, Trump’s views are paramount.

“All our work is going into delivering a credible package that is sellable to Trump,” said a European diplomat on condition of anonymity. “He is what matters here.”

While Pompeo was a fierce critic of the deal, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as a congressman, he tempered his views when testifying before Congress in January 2017 to seek confirmation as CIA director.

“Pompeo was a hawk on Iran. However, my understanding is he doesn’t want the deal to disappear,” said a former senior U.S. official. “People should not jump to conclusions.”

Many of Trump’s top national security aides, like Tillerson, have argued that the United States is better off with the Iran nuclear deal than without it. That stance was echoed Tuesday by the U.S. general who heads the U.S. military command responsible for the Middle East and Central Asia.

Former U.S. officials suggested that, as the administration nears a planned summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un about Pyongyang’s nuclear program, it could rethink its stance on the Iran deal.

European diplomats saw some chance Pompeo may have more influence over Trump than Tillerson, who antagonized the U.S. president by reportedly calling him a “moron” and who differed with Trump on Iran and other issues.

“If Pompeo is that hawkish, then in reality all it is is the affirmation of Trump’s policies. It’s Trump’s line,” said another European diplomat. “Hopefully, he’ll have the mandate that Tillerson didn’t have.”

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With Pompeo’s Rise, Uncertainty Deepens for Iran Nuclear Deal

It is unclear how Mike Pompeo becoming U.S. secretary of state may affect the Iran nuclear deal.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s choice of the Central Intelligence Agency director to replace Rex Tillerson means an Iran hawk who fiercely opposed the 2015 pact as a member of Congress will now be in charge of the U.S. diplomacy trying to strengthen, and perhaps save, it.

Former U.S. officials and serving European officials were at a loss to gauge how the switch would affect negotiations between the United States and three European powers — Britain, France and Germany — that are also parties to the agreement.

Some said Washington may take a harder line under Pompeo and the Europeans may be under more pressure to offer concessions, while others suggested his views on the deal have evolved and he may be better placed to influence Trump to keep it.

U.S., British, French and German officials are due to meet on the deal Thursday in Berlin.

“Any officials negotiating with the Europeans right now will get a much more aggressive set of requirements from Pompeo,” said Richard Nephew, a former White House and State Department official who worked on Iran during the Obama administration.

“The odds of them coming up with a thoughtful compromise by May just got a lot longer,” he added.

Trump on Tuesday singled out the Iran nuclear deal as one of the main differences he had with Tillerson.

“I think it’s terrible, I guess he thinks it was OK,” Trump said.

Trump delivered an ultimatum to the European powers on Jan. 12, saying they must agree to “fix the terrible flaws of the Iran nuclear deal” or he would refuse to extend U.S. sanctions relief on Iran. U.S. sanctions will resume unless Trump issues fresh “waivers” to suspend them on May 12.

The crux of the July 2015 pact between Iran and six major powers — Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States — was that Iran would restrict its nuclear program in return for relief from sanctions that have crippled its economy.

Trump sees three defects in the deal: its failure to address Iran’s ballistic missile program; the terms under which international inspectors can visit suspect Iranian nuclear sites; and “sunset” clauses under which limits on the Iranian nuclear program start to expire after 10 years. He wants all three strengthened if the United States is to stay in the deal.

In a Jan. 13 cable, the State Department sketched out a path under which the three European allies would simply commit to try to improve the deal over time in return for Trump keeping the pact alive by renewing sanctions relief in May.

Trump ‘is what matters here’

Other European officials and former U.S. officials said Pompeo’s rise, if he is confirmed as secretary of state by the Senate, might have a more ambiguous effect on the negotiations and that, in any case, Trump’s views are paramount.

“All our work is going into delivering a credible package that is sellable to Trump,” said a European diplomat on condition of anonymity. “He is what matters here.”

While Pompeo was a fierce critic of the deal, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as a congressman, he tempered his views when testifying before Congress in January 2017 to seek confirmation as CIA director.

“Pompeo was a hawk on Iran. However, my understanding is he doesn’t want the deal to disappear,” said a former senior U.S. official. “People should not jump to conclusions.”

Many of Trump’s top national security aides, like Tillerson, have argued that the United States is better off with the Iran nuclear deal than without it. That stance was echoed Tuesday by the U.S. general who heads the U.S. military command responsible for the Middle East and Central Asia.

Former U.S. officials suggested that, as the administration nears a planned summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un about Pyongyang’s nuclear program, it could rethink its stance on the Iran deal.

European diplomats saw some chance Pompeo may have more influence over Trump than Tillerson, who antagonized the U.S. president by reportedly calling him a “moron” and who differed with Trump on Iran and other issues.

“If Pompeo is that hawkish, then in reality all it is is the affirmation of Trump’s policies. It’s Trump’s line,” said another European diplomat. “Hopefully, he’ll have the mandate that Tillerson didn’t have.”

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Behind the Broadcom Deal Block: Rising Telecom Tensions

Behind the U.S. move to block Singapore-based Broadcom’s hostile bid for U.S. chipmaker Qualcomm lies a new global struggle for influence over next-generation communications technology — and fears that whoever takes the lead could exploit that advantage for economic gain, theft and espionage.

In the Broadcom-Qualcomm deal, the focus is on so-called “5G” wireless technology, which promises data speeds that rival those of landline broadband now. Its proponents insist that 5G, the next step up from the “4G” networks that now serve most smartphones, will become a critical part of the infrastructure powering everything from self-driving cars to the connected home.

5G remains in the early stages of development. Companies including Qualcomm, based in San Diego, and China’s Huawei have been investing heavily to stake their claim in the underlying technology. Such beachheads can be enormously valuable; control over basic technologies and their patents can yield huge fortunes in computer chips, software and related equipment.

“These transitions come along almost every decade or so,” said Jon Erensen, research director for semiconductors at research firm Gartner. “The government is being very careful to ensure the U.S. keeps its leadership role developing these standards.”

President Donald Trump said late Monday that a takeover of Qualcomm would imperil national security, effectively ending Broadcom’s $117 billion buyout bid. Broadcom said that it is studying the order and that it doesn’t believe it poses any national security threat to the U.S.

Higher stakes

It’s the second recent U.S. warning shot across the bow of foreign telecom makers. At a Senate Intelligence Committee meeting in February, FBI Director Christopher Wray said any company “beholden to foreign governments that don’t share our values” should not be able to “gain positions of power” inside U.S. telecommunications networks.

“That provides the capacity to exert pressure or control over our telecommunications infrastructure, it provides the capacity to maliciously modify or steal information and it provides the capacity to conduct undetected espionage,” he said.

Lawmakers in the U.S. House introduced a bill on Jan. 9 that would prohibit government purchases of telecoms equipment from Huawei Technologies and smaller rival ZTE, citing their ties to the Chinese military and backing from the ruling Communist Party. A few years earlier, a congressional panel recommended phone carriers avoid doing business with Huawei or ZTE.

The stakes are even higher in the 5G race. “Qualcomm/Broadcom is like the Fort Sumter of this technology battle,” said GBH Insights analyst Dan Ives, referring to the battle that kicked off the Civil War.

Although its name isn’t widely known outside the technology industry, San Diego-based Qualcomm is one of the world’s leading makers of the processors that power many smartphones and other mobile devices. Qualcomm also owns patents on key pieces of mobile technology that Apple and other manufacturers use in their products.

Compared to earlier generations of wireless technology, “we’re seeing China emerge and start to play a bigger role in the standards developing process,” Erensen said. Given a wave of consolidation in the telecom-equipment industry, fewer companies are involved “and the stakes are bigger,” he said.

National security

The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which reviews the national security implications of foreign investments in U.S. companies, cited concerns about Broadcom’s penchant for cutting costs such as research spending. That could lead to Qualcomm losing its leadership in telecom standards, the committee wrote in a letter earlier in March.

Should that happen, Chinese companies such as Huawei, which the CFIUS has previously expressed concerns about, could take a larger, or even a dominant, role in setting 5G technology and standards and practices. That’s where national security concerns come in.

“Over time, that would mean U.S. government and U.S. technology companies could lose a trusted U.S. supplier that does not present the same national security counterintelligence risk that a Chinese supplier does,” said Brian Fleming, an attorney at Miller & Chevalier and former counsel at the Justice Department’s national security division.

Blocking the deal doesn’t eliminate Chinese influence on 5G development, of course. But it might slow it down, Fleming said: “They honestly believe they are helping to protect national security by doing this.”

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Behind the Broadcom Deal Block: Rising Telecom Tensions

Behind the U.S. move to block Singapore-based Broadcom’s hostile bid for U.S. chipmaker Qualcomm lies a new global struggle for influence over next-generation communications technology — and fears that whoever takes the lead could exploit that advantage for economic gain, theft and espionage.

In the Broadcom-Qualcomm deal, the focus is on so-called “5G” wireless technology, which promises data speeds that rival those of landline broadband now. Its proponents insist that 5G, the next step up from the “4G” networks that now serve most smartphones, will become a critical part of the infrastructure powering everything from self-driving cars to the connected home.

5G remains in the early stages of development. Companies including Qualcomm, based in San Diego, and China’s Huawei have been investing heavily to stake their claim in the underlying technology. Such beachheads can be enormously valuable; control over basic technologies and their patents can yield huge fortunes in computer chips, software and related equipment.

“These transitions come along almost every decade or so,” said Jon Erensen, research director for semiconductors at research firm Gartner. “The government is being very careful to ensure the U.S. keeps its leadership role developing these standards.”

President Donald Trump said late Monday that a takeover of Qualcomm would imperil national security, effectively ending Broadcom’s $117 billion buyout bid. Broadcom said that it is studying the order and that it doesn’t believe it poses any national security threat to the U.S.

Higher stakes

It’s the second recent U.S. warning shot across the bow of foreign telecom makers. At a Senate Intelligence Committee meeting in February, FBI Director Christopher Wray said any company “beholden to foreign governments that don’t share our values” should not be able to “gain positions of power” inside U.S. telecommunications networks.

“That provides the capacity to exert pressure or control over our telecommunications infrastructure, it provides the capacity to maliciously modify or steal information and it provides the capacity to conduct undetected espionage,” he said.

Lawmakers in the U.S. House introduced a bill on Jan. 9 that would prohibit government purchases of telecoms equipment from Huawei Technologies and smaller rival ZTE, citing their ties to the Chinese military and backing from the ruling Communist Party. A few years earlier, a congressional panel recommended phone carriers avoid doing business with Huawei or ZTE.

The stakes are even higher in the 5G race. “Qualcomm/Broadcom is like the Fort Sumter of this technology battle,” said GBH Insights analyst Dan Ives, referring to the battle that kicked off the Civil War.

Although its name isn’t widely known outside the technology industry, San Diego-based Qualcomm is one of the world’s leading makers of the processors that power many smartphones and other mobile devices. Qualcomm also owns patents on key pieces of mobile technology that Apple and other manufacturers use in their products.

Compared to earlier generations of wireless technology, “we’re seeing China emerge and start to play a bigger role in the standards developing process,” Erensen said. Given a wave of consolidation in the telecom-equipment industry, fewer companies are involved “and the stakes are bigger,” he said.

National security

The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which reviews the national security implications of foreign investments in U.S. companies, cited concerns about Broadcom’s penchant for cutting costs such as research spending. That could lead to Qualcomm losing its leadership in telecom standards, the committee wrote in a letter earlier in March.

Should that happen, Chinese companies such as Huawei, which the CFIUS has previously expressed concerns about, could take a larger, or even a dominant, role in setting 5G technology and standards and practices. That’s where national security concerns come in.

“Over time, that would mean U.S. government and U.S. technology companies could lose a trusted U.S. supplier that does not present the same national security counterintelligence risk that a Chinese supplier does,” said Brian Fleming, an attorney at Miller & Chevalier and former counsel at the Justice Department’s national security division.

Blocking the deal doesn’t eliminate Chinese influence on 5G development, of course. But it might slow it down, Fleming said: “They honestly believe they are helping to protect national security by doing this.”

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Trump Considers Ousting His VA Secretary in Cabinet Shuffle

President Donald Trump is considering ousting embattled Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, who has faced an insurgency within his department and fresh allegations that he used a member of his security detail to run personal errands.

Trump has floated the notion of moving Energy Secretary Rick Perry to the VA to right the ship, believing Shulkin has become a distraction, according to two sources familiar with White House discussions. The sources were not authorized to discuss internal deliberations.

 

Shulkin has faced several investigations over his travel and leadership of the department, but until now has received praise from the president for his work to turn it around. The news comes after Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Tuesday.

 

Trump raised the idea with Perry on Monday but did not offer the job to him, according to one White House official. Trump has been angry with Shulkin, the official said, but is known to float staffing changes without always following through.

 

Shulkin did not respond to requests for comment via phone and text message. He has been holding on to his job by a thread since a bruising internal report found ethics violations in connection with his trip to Europe with his wife last summer. A spokeswoman for Perry also had no comment.

 

The VA inspector general also is looking into a complaint by a member of Shulkin’s 24-7 security detail that he was asked to accompany the secretary to a Home Depot and carry furniture items into his home, according to two people familiar with the allegation who requested anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.

 

Within the agency, a political adviser installed by Trump has openly mused to other VA staff about ousting the former Obama administration official. And a top communications aide has taken extended leave following a secret, failed attempt to turn lawmakers against him.

 

“The honeymoon is ending with a crash that hurts veterans most of all,” said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, who has been a close observer of VA for more than a decade. “VA always has bad news, but Shulkin’s ethical and leadership failures are still significant — despite any internal attacks.”

 

Senior administration officials describe a growing frustration that Shulkin repeatedly ignores their advice, only to beg for their help when he runs into ethical trouble. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to describe sensitive internal discussions, say Shulkin has been given a final warning to end the swirl of distractions. The administration is currently seeking to push Trump’s agenda of aggressively expanding the Veterans Choice program, which major veterans groups worry could be an unwanted step toward privatizing VA health care.

 

The issue came to the fore at a White House meeting last week, when chief of staff John Kelly told Shulkin to stop talking to the news media without clearing it first with the White House and to stay focused on fixing veterans care.

 

Shulkin was escorted from that meeting to the Oval Office, where Trump questioned him about his efforts to push the Choice expansion, which lawmakers are now seeking to include in a massive spending bill that must be approved by next week to avert a government shutdown.

 

With Shulkin present, the president telephoned conservative Pete Hegseth, a “Fox & Friends” contributor who was vetted in late 2016 for VA secretary, to get his views on how to proceed with the expansion. Hegseth, a former president of the conservative group Concerned Veterans for America, declined to comment for this article.

 

Dan Caldwell, executive director of CVA, lauded the White House focus on Choice amid the ongoing controversies involving Shulkin. “Despite the internal drama going on in the VA, which has been a distraction, Congress has continued to work to a solution that everyone can rally around,” he said.

 

Shulkin is blaming the internal drama on a half-dozen or so political appointees whom he had considered firing, only to be blocked by Kelly.

 

“I regret anything that has distracted us from what we should be focusing on, which is serving veterans,” Shulkin told the AP shortly before release of an inspector general report that faulted the VA for “failed leadership” and an unwillingness or inability of leaders to take responsibility for accounting problems at a major VA hospital that put patients at risk.

 

It wasn’t always this way.

 

Early in the administration, Shulkin was often seen at Trump’s side, waving to crowds at campaign-style events in Pennsylvania or addressing reporters in a doctor’s lab coat as he tutored Trump on telehealth. Trump called him the “100-to-nothing man” — a reference to his unanimous Senate confirmation vote — and publicly teased that he probably would never be fired because he had successfully shepherded legislation to improve accountability at the VA and speed disability appeals.

 

By December, relations at the VA between Shulkin and several political appointees began to fray over philosophical differences.

 

In a Dec. 4 internal email obtained by the AP, Jake Leinenkugel, a senior aide installed as part of a Cabinet-wide program to monitor secretaries’ loyalty, said Shulkin was becoming increasingly distrustful and regarded Camilo Sandoval, a senior adviser in VA’s health arm, as a White House “spy.”

 

The email to Sandoval alluded to White House efforts to gain more control, including ousting Shulkin’s chief of staff, and said the secretary had been “put on notice to exit” once the administration gets the Choice legislation through Congress.

 

There were other signs.

 

At a Jan. 17 hearing, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., openly blamed the deadlock over Choice to Shulkin’s ever-shifting positions. “I am of the opinion that our inability to reach an agreement is in significant part related to your ability to speak out of both sides of your mouth, double-talk,” Moran said. A grim Shulkin denied the accusation, but the White House was later forced to clarify its position on the bill due to lawmaker confusion.

 

Last month, the inspector general released a blistering report finding ethical violations in Shulkin’s trip last July to Denmark and England that mixed business with pleasure. The IG found that Shulkin’s chief of staff Vivieca Wright Simpson had doctored emails to justify his wife accompanying him at taxpayer expense. Wright Simpson retired after the report was issued.

 

Seizing on the report, John Ullyot, a top communications aide, and VA spokesman Curt Cashour told the Republican staff director of the House Veterans Affairs Committee that Shulkin would be out by that weekend and asked if Republicans would push for his removal.

 

The staff director, John Towers, told Ullyot “no,” and made clear that committee Chairman Phil Roe had expressed support for Shulkin, according to a House aide familiar with the phone conversation. That aide also requested anonymity in order to discuss a sensitive internal matter. In a statement, Cashour and Ullyot deny that account, saying the call was intended instead to warn the committee that some of Shulkin’s denials of wrongdoing were unfounded.

 

Asked this week about Ullyot’s current leave of absence, Cashour released a statement saying, “there are no personnel changes to announce at the Department of Veterans Affairs.”

 

For now, Shulkin appears to be hanging on. At a Cabinet meeting last Thursday, Shulkin took a different seat reserved for him — next to the president.

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Trump Considers Ousting His VA Secretary in Cabinet Shuffle

President Donald Trump is considering ousting embattled Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, who has faced an insurgency within his department and fresh allegations that he used a member of his security detail to run personal errands.

Trump has floated the notion of moving Energy Secretary Rick Perry to the VA to right the ship, believing Shulkin has become a distraction, according to two sources familiar with White House discussions. The sources were not authorized to discuss internal deliberations.

 

Shulkin has faced several investigations over his travel and leadership of the department, but until now has received praise from the president for his work to turn it around. The news comes after Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Tuesday.

 

Trump raised the idea with Perry on Monday but did not offer the job to him, according to one White House official. Trump has been angry with Shulkin, the official said, but is known to float staffing changes without always following through.

 

Shulkin did not respond to requests for comment via phone and text message. He has been holding on to his job by a thread since a bruising internal report found ethics violations in connection with his trip to Europe with his wife last summer. A spokeswoman for Perry also had no comment.

 

The VA inspector general also is looking into a complaint by a member of Shulkin’s 24-7 security detail that he was asked to accompany the secretary to a Home Depot and carry furniture items into his home, according to two people familiar with the allegation who requested anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.

 

Within the agency, a political adviser installed by Trump has openly mused to other VA staff about ousting the former Obama administration official. And a top communications aide has taken extended leave following a secret, failed attempt to turn lawmakers against him.

 

“The honeymoon is ending with a crash that hurts veterans most of all,” said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, who has been a close observer of VA for more than a decade. “VA always has bad news, but Shulkin’s ethical and leadership failures are still significant — despite any internal attacks.”

 

Senior administration officials describe a growing frustration that Shulkin repeatedly ignores their advice, only to beg for their help when he runs into ethical trouble. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to describe sensitive internal discussions, say Shulkin has been given a final warning to end the swirl of distractions. The administration is currently seeking to push Trump’s agenda of aggressively expanding the Veterans Choice program, which major veterans groups worry could be an unwanted step toward privatizing VA health care.

 

The issue came to the fore at a White House meeting last week, when chief of staff John Kelly told Shulkin to stop talking to the news media without clearing it first with the White House and to stay focused on fixing veterans care.

 

Shulkin was escorted from that meeting to the Oval Office, where Trump questioned him about his efforts to push the Choice expansion, which lawmakers are now seeking to include in a massive spending bill that must be approved by next week to avert a government shutdown.

 

With Shulkin present, the president telephoned conservative Pete Hegseth, a “Fox & Friends” contributor who was vetted in late 2016 for VA secretary, to get his views on how to proceed with the expansion. Hegseth, a former president of the conservative group Concerned Veterans for America, declined to comment for this article.

 

Dan Caldwell, executive director of CVA, lauded the White House focus on Choice amid the ongoing controversies involving Shulkin. “Despite the internal drama going on in the VA, which has been a distraction, Congress has continued to work to a solution that everyone can rally around,” he said.

 

Shulkin is blaming the internal drama on a half-dozen or so political appointees whom he had considered firing, only to be blocked by Kelly.

 

“I regret anything that has distracted us from what we should be focusing on, which is serving veterans,” Shulkin told the AP shortly before release of an inspector general report that faulted the VA for “failed leadership” and an unwillingness or inability of leaders to take responsibility for accounting problems at a major VA hospital that put patients at risk.

 

It wasn’t always this way.

 

Early in the administration, Shulkin was often seen at Trump’s side, waving to crowds at campaign-style events in Pennsylvania or addressing reporters in a doctor’s lab coat as he tutored Trump on telehealth. Trump called him the “100-to-nothing man” — a reference to his unanimous Senate confirmation vote — and publicly teased that he probably would never be fired because he had successfully shepherded legislation to improve accountability at the VA and speed disability appeals.

 

By December, relations at the VA between Shulkin and several political appointees began to fray over philosophical differences.

 

In a Dec. 4 internal email obtained by the AP, Jake Leinenkugel, a senior aide installed as part of a Cabinet-wide program to monitor secretaries’ loyalty, said Shulkin was becoming increasingly distrustful and regarded Camilo Sandoval, a senior adviser in VA’s health arm, as a White House “spy.”

 

The email to Sandoval alluded to White House efforts to gain more control, including ousting Shulkin’s chief of staff, and said the secretary had been “put on notice to exit” once the administration gets the Choice legislation through Congress.

 

There were other signs.

 

At a Jan. 17 hearing, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., openly blamed the deadlock over Choice to Shulkin’s ever-shifting positions. “I am of the opinion that our inability to reach an agreement is in significant part related to your ability to speak out of both sides of your mouth, double-talk,” Moran said. A grim Shulkin denied the accusation, but the White House was later forced to clarify its position on the bill due to lawmaker confusion.

 

Last month, the inspector general released a blistering report finding ethical violations in Shulkin’s trip last July to Denmark and England that mixed business with pleasure. The IG found that Shulkin’s chief of staff Vivieca Wright Simpson had doctored emails to justify his wife accompanying him at taxpayer expense. Wright Simpson retired after the report was issued.

 

Seizing on the report, John Ullyot, a top communications aide, and VA spokesman Curt Cashour told the Republican staff director of the House Veterans Affairs Committee that Shulkin would be out by that weekend and asked if Republicans would push for his removal.

 

The staff director, John Towers, told Ullyot “no,” and made clear that committee Chairman Phil Roe had expressed support for Shulkin, according to a House aide familiar with the phone conversation. That aide also requested anonymity in order to discuss a sensitive internal matter. In a statement, Cashour and Ullyot deny that account, saying the call was intended instead to warn the committee that some of Shulkin’s denials of wrongdoing were unfounded.

 

Asked this week about Ullyot’s current leave of absence, Cashour released a statement saying, “there are no personnel changes to announce at the Department of Veterans Affairs.”

 

For now, Shulkin appears to be hanging on. At a Cabinet meeting last Thursday, Shulkin took a different seat reserved for him — next to the president.

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Starbucks Signs Licensing Agreement With Brazil Investment Firm

Sao Paulo investment firm SouthRock Capital has signed an agreement with Starbucks that gives it the right to develop and operate branches of the Seattle-based chain in Brazil, the companies said late on Monday.

With the agreement, whose value was not disclosed, all of Starbucks’ retail operations in Latin America are now wholly licensed rather than directly managed, the companies said.

SouthRock founder Ken Pope said in a statement the fund would eye expansion opportunities in new and existing markets.

Starbucks now has 113 stores across the populous states of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

“With Starbucks, we see continued opportunities for growth in existing markets … as well as new markets like Brasilia and the South,” he said.

SouthRock, founded in 2015, also owns Brazil Airport Restaurants, which operates in the country’s biggest airports.

Shares in Starbucks opened up 0.5 percent but closed down 0.58 percent. The S&P 500 Index fell 0.64 percent.

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Starbucks Signs Licensing Agreement With Brazil Investment Firm

Sao Paulo investment firm SouthRock Capital has signed an agreement with Starbucks that gives it the right to develop and operate branches of the Seattle-based chain in Brazil, the companies said late on Monday.

With the agreement, whose value was not disclosed, all of Starbucks’ retail operations in Latin America are now wholly licensed rather than directly managed, the companies said.

SouthRock founder Ken Pope said in a statement the fund would eye expansion opportunities in new and existing markets.

Starbucks now has 113 stores across the populous states of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

“With Starbucks, we see continued opportunities for growth in existing markets … as well as new markets like Brasilia and the South,” he said.

SouthRock, founded in 2015, also owns Brazil Airport Restaurants, which operates in the country’s biggest airports.

Shares in Starbucks opened up 0.5 percent but closed down 0.58 percent. The S&P 500 Index fell 0.64 percent.

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Google Brings Free WiFi to Mexico, First Stop in Latin America




Alphabet’s Google said on Tuesday that it will launch a network of free Wi-Fi hotspots across Mexico, part of the search giant’s effort to improve connectivity in emerging markets and put its products in the hands of more users.

Google Station, an ad-supported network of Wi-Fi hotspots in high-traffic locations, is launching in Mexico with 56 hotspots and others planned, the company said.

Mexico will be Google Station’s third market following India and Indonesia, and the first in Latin America.

Mexico has made great strides in connectivity since a 2013-14 telecom reform intended to loosen the grip of billionaire Carlos Slim’s America Movil, which has long dominated the market.

From 2013 to 2016, the number of people accessing the Internet in Mexico rose by 20 million, according to a report last fall by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Still, the country lags behind other OECD nations in terms of internet access, the report said.

“We are finding that public Wi-Fi remains still a very important way to get online,” Anjali Joshi, a vice president for product management at Google, told reporters.

She added that Google saw Mexico as a good entrypoint for the product in Latin America. Mexico-based SitWifi provided equipment for the hotspots.

Google’s initial batch of Wi-Fi zones is scattered across the country, from the Ciudad Juarez airport at the U.S. border to posh shopping centers in Mexico City.

Google Station now counts roughly 8 million users a month in India, where the program began in 2016.

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