As Trump Tweets, Amazon Seeks to Expand its Business Empire

Amazon is spending millions of dollars on lobbying as the global online retailer seeks to expand its reach into a swath of industries that President Donald Trump’s broadsides haven’t come close to hitting.

Trump’s attacks over the last week targeted what Amazon is best known for: rapidly shipping just about any product you can imagine to your door. But the company CEO Jeff Bezos founded more than two decades ago is now a sprawling empire that sells groceries in brick-and-mortar stores, hosts the online services of other companies and federal offices in a network of data centers, and even recently branched into health care.

Amazon relies on a nearly 30-member in-house lobbying team that’s four times as large as it was three years ago as well as outside firms to influence the lawmakers and federal regulators who can help determine its success. The outside roster includes a retired congressman from Washington state who was a senior member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee when he stepped down.

Overall, Amazon spent $15.6 million on lobbying in 2017.

“Amazon is just not on an even playing field,” Trump told reporters Thursday aboard Air Force One. “They have a tremendous lobbying effort, in addition to having The Washington Post, which is as far as I’m concerned another lobbyist. But they have a big lobbying effort, one of the biggest, frankly, one of the biggest.”

Bezos owns the Post. He and the newspaper have previously declared that Bezos isn’t involved in any journalistic decisions.

Earlier in the week, Trump alleged that Amazon is bilking the U.S. Postal Service for being its “delivery boy,” a doubtful claim about a contract that’s actually been judged profitable for the post office. And he has charged that Amazon pays “little or no taxes,” a claim that may have merit. Matthew Gardner, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, said in February that Amazon “has built its business model on tax avoidance.” Amazon reported $5.6 billion of U.S. profits in 2017 “and didn’t pay a dime of federal income taxes on it,” according to Gardner.

The company declined to comment on Trump’s remarks and did not immediately respond to a request for comment about its lobbying operations.

Amazon has grown rapidly since it launched in 1995 as a site that sold books. It has changed the way people buy paper towels, diapers or just about anything else. And its ambitions go far beyond online shopping: its Alexa voice assistant is in tablets, cars and its Echo devices; it runs the Whole Foods grocery chain; the company produces movies and TV shows and it designs its own brands of furniture and clothing.

The company is in the midst of launching an independent business with JPMorgan Chase and Berkshire Hathaway that is seeking to lower health care costs for employees at the three companies. Given the three players’ outsize influence the alliance has the potential to shake up how Americans shop for health care and the initiative sent a shudder through the industry when it was announced in January.

Amazon Web Services is angling for a much larger share of the federal government’s market for cloud computing, which allows massive amounts of data to be stored and managed on remote servers. The CIA signed a $600 million deal with Amazon in 2013 to build a system to share secure data across the U.S. intelligence community.

A partner of Amazon Web Services, the Virginia-based Rean Cloud LLC, in February scored what appeared to be a lucrative cloud computing contract from the Pentagon. But the contract, initially projected to be worth as much as $950 million, was scaled back to $65 million after Amazon’s competitors complained about the award.

Lobbying disclosure records filed with the House and Senate show Amazon is engaged on a wide variety of other issues, from trade to transportation to telecommunications. The company also lobbied lawmakers and federal agencies on the testing and operation of unmanned aerial vehicles. Amazon has been exploring the use of drones for deliveries, but current federal rules restrict flying beyond the operator’s line of sight.

The $15.6 million Amazon spent on lobbying last year was $2.6 million more than in 2016, according to the disclosure records. The bulk of the money — $12.8 million — went for Amazon’s in-house lobbying team. The nearly 30-member unit is led by Brian Huseman, who worked previously as chief of staff at the Federal Trade Commission and a Justice Department trial attorney.

As most large corporations do, Amazon also employs outside lobbying firms — as many as 14 in 2017.

In Amazon’s corner is former Washington congressman Norm Dicks of the firm Van Ness Feldman. Dicks was serving as the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee when he ended his 36-year congressional career in 2013. He represented the company on information technology matters and “issues related to cloud computing usage by the federal government,” according to the records, which show Van Ness Feldman earned $160,000 from Amazon last year.

Amazon brought aboard four new firms in 2017, according to the records. Newcomers Ballard Partners, BGR Government Affairs, Brownstein Hyatt, and McGuireWoods Consulting lobbied for Amazon on transportation, taxes, drones and other issues.

This story was written by the Associated Press.

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March Jobs Report: Another Big Month for Hiring?

Did March provide another month of blowout hiring? Was pay growth healthy?

When the government issues its monthly jobs report Friday, those two questions will be the most closely watched barometers.

Economists have forecast that employers added a solid 185,000 jobs in March and that the unemployment rate dipped from 4.1 percent to a fresh 17-year low of 4 percent, according to data provider FactSet.

The government will issue the jobs report at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time.

In February, employers added a blockbuster 313,000 jobs, the largest monthly gain in 18 months. Over the past six months, the average monthly gain has been 205,000, up from an average of 176,000 in the previous six months. Hiring at that pace could help nudge the unemployment rate below 4 percent in the coming months.

Hiring defies expectations

The surging pace of hiring has defied expectations that the low unemployment rate meant employers would struggle to fill positions, which, in turn, would restrain job growth. Job gains had slowed for most of 2017. But hiring accelerated starting in October, an unusual boost for an economy already in its ninth year of recovery.

In fact, the recovery from the 2008-2009 Great Recession has become the second-longest expansion since the 1850s, when economists began tracking recessions and recoveries. Still, the expansion has been puzzlingly slow, with economic growth averaging just 2.2 percent a year, about a percentage point below the historical average. But its durability has been broadly beneficial.

For example, a rising number of working-age Americans have begun looking for a job and finding one, reversing a trend from the first few years after the recession when many of the unemployed grew discouraged and stopped looking for work.

The proportion of adults in their prime working years, defined as ages 25 to 54, who are either working or looking for work jumped to 82.2 percent in February, up one-half of 1 percentage point from a year earlier. That’s still below the pre-recession level, which suggests that steady economic growth could continue to pull more job-seekers off the sidelines.

Will wages rise, too?

An increasing need to compete for workers may also finally be lifting wages in some sectors. Average hourly earnings rose 2.9 percent in January compared with 12 months earlier, the sharpest such increase in eight years. That unexpected surge triggered a plunge in financial markets, with investors fearing that accelerating wage growth might lead the Federal Reserve to step up its pace of interest rate hikes to control inflation.

But pay growth slipped in February to a year-over-year pace of 2.6 percent, suggesting that employers are still avoiding giving broad pay raises to their workers. The influx of new workers, which gives employers more hiring options than a 4.1 percent unemployment rate might otherwise suggest, may also be holding back wage growth.

Though the economy likely slowed in the first three months of this year, the healthy pace of hiring indicates that employers anticipate solid customer demand for the rest of the year. Macroeconomic Advisers, a consulting firm, forecasts that the economy grew at just a 1.4 percent annual rate in the January-March quarter — less than half the 2.9 percent annual pace of the October-December quarter.

But the firm expects growth to rebound to a decent 3.1 percent annual pace in the current April-June quarter.

Other reports indicate that growing optimism among businesses and consumers should help propel the economy in the months ahead.

Businesses have stepped up their spending on manufactured goods, helping lift factory output.

And last month, factories expanded at a healthy pace after having grown in February at the fastest rate since 2004, according to a private survey. Government data showed that orders for long-lasting factory goods, including industrial machinery, metals and autos, surged in February.

Americans have spent less at retail chains in the past two months, after shopping at a healthy pace during the winter holiday season. With consumer confidence near the highest point in two decades, however, consumer spending is likely to rebound in the coming months.

This story was written by the Associated Press.

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March Jobs Report: Another Big Month for Hiring?

Did March provide another month of blowout hiring? Was pay growth healthy?

When the government issues its monthly jobs report Friday, those two questions will be the most closely watched barometers.

Economists have forecast that employers added a solid 185,000 jobs in March and that the unemployment rate dipped from 4.1 percent to a fresh 17-year low of 4 percent, according to data provider FactSet.

The government will issue the jobs report at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time.

In February, employers added a blockbuster 313,000 jobs, the largest monthly gain in 18 months. Over the past six months, the average monthly gain has been 205,000, up from an average of 176,000 in the previous six months. Hiring at that pace could help nudge the unemployment rate below 4 percent in the coming months.

Hiring defies expectations

The surging pace of hiring has defied expectations that the low unemployment rate meant employers would struggle to fill positions, which, in turn, would restrain job growth. Job gains had slowed for most of 2017. But hiring accelerated starting in October, an unusual boost for an economy already in its ninth year of recovery.

In fact, the recovery from the 2008-2009 Great Recession has become the second-longest expansion since the 1850s, when economists began tracking recessions and recoveries. Still, the expansion has been puzzlingly slow, with economic growth averaging just 2.2 percent a year, about a percentage point below the historical average. But its durability has been broadly beneficial.

For example, a rising number of working-age Americans have begun looking for a job and finding one, reversing a trend from the first few years after the recession when many of the unemployed grew discouraged and stopped looking for work.

The proportion of adults in their prime working years, defined as ages 25 to 54, who are either working or looking for work jumped to 82.2 percent in February, up one-half of 1 percentage point from a year earlier. That’s still below the pre-recession level, which suggests that steady economic growth could continue to pull more job-seekers off the sidelines.

Will wages rise, too?

An increasing need to compete for workers may also finally be lifting wages in some sectors. Average hourly earnings rose 2.9 percent in January compared with 12 months earlier, the sharpest such increase in eight years. That unexpected surge triggered a plunge in financial markets, with investors fearing that accelerating wage growth might lead the Federal Reserve to step up its pace of interest rate hikes to control inflation.

But pay growth slipped in February to a year-over-year pace of 2.6 percent, suggesting that employers are still avoiding giving broad pay raises to their workers. The influx of new workers, which gives employers more hiring options than a 4.1 percent unemployment rate might otherwise suggest, may also be holding back wage growth.

Though the economy likely slowed in the first three months of this year, the healthy pace of hiring indicates that employers anticipate solid customer demand for the rest of the year. Macroeconomic Advisers, a consulting firm, forecasts that the economy grew at just a 1.4 percent annual rate in the January-March quarter — less than half the 2.9 percent annual pace of the October-December quarter.

But the firm expects growth to rebound to a decent 3.1 percent annual pace in the current April-June quarter.

Other reports indicate that growing optimism among businesses and consumers should help propel the economy in the months ahead.

Businesses have stepped up their spending on manufactured goods, helping lift factory output.

And last month, factories expanded at a healthy pace after having grown in February at the fastest rate since 2004, according to a private survey. Government data showed that orders for long-lasting factory goods, including industrial machinery, metals and autos, surged in February.

Americans have spent less at retail chains in the past two months, after shopping at a healthy pace during the winter holiday season. With consumer confidence near the highest point in two decades, however, consumer spending is likely to rebound in the coming months.

This story was written by the Associated Press.

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Smartphone Technology Helps Mental Health Patients

About 1 percent of the world’s population lives with the mental condition called bipolar disorder, characterized by swings between elevated and depressed moods. In most cases, timely interaction with psychotherapists, family and friends can alleviate the symptoms. Researchers in Denmark say modern technology can help by keeping track of a patient’s symptoms and summoning help quickly when needed. VOA’s George Putic reports.

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Trump, White House Defend Action on China Trade

The Trump administration says China is responsible for a trade war with the United States because of its long-term unfair practices. A senior White House economic adviser said Thursday no measures have been enacted, but the situation cannot continue. U.S. President Donald Trump said the United States and China will have a “fantastic relationship” once they straighten out their trade issues. But analysts warn that raising tariffs is not good for the global economy. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke has more.

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Trump, White House Defend Action on China Trade

The Trump administration says China is responsible for a trade war with the United States because of its long-term unfair practices. A senior White House economic adviser said Thursday no measures have been enacted, but the situation cannot continue. U.S. President Donald Trump said the United States and China will have a “fantastic relationship” once they straighten out their trade issues. But analysts warn that raising tariffs is not good for the global economy. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke has more.

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Facebook: Public Data of Most Users Probably Has Been Scraped

Facebook’s acknowledgement that the personal data of most of its 2.2 billion members has probably been scraped by “malicious actors” is the latest example of the social network’s failure to protect its users’ data.

Not to mention its seeming inability to even identify the problem until the company was embroiled in scandal.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg told reporters Wednesday that Facebook is shutting down a feature that let people search for Facebook users by phone number or email address. Although that was useful for people who wanted to find others on Facebook, it turns out that unscrupulous types also figured out years ago that they could use it identify individuals and collect data off their profiles.

The scrapers were at it long enough, Zuckerberg said, that “at some point during the last several years, someone has probably accessed your public information in this way.”

The only way to be safe would have been for users to deliberately turn off that search feature several years ago. Facebook had it turned on by default.

Several investigations

“I think Facebook has not been clear enough with how to use its privacy settings,” said Jamie Winterton, director of strategy for Arizona State University’s Global Security Initiative. “That, to me, was the failure.”

The breach was a stunning admission for a company already reeling from allegations that the political data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica inappropriately accessed data on as many as 87 million Facebook users to influence elections.

Over the past few weeks, the scandal has mushroomed into investigations across continents, including a probe by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. Zuckerberg himself will be questioned by Congress for the first time Tuesday.

“The FTC looked the other way for years when consumer groups told them Facebook was violating its 2011 deal to better protect its users. But now the Cambridge Analytica scandal has awoken the FTC from its long digital privacy slumber,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director for the Washington-based privacy nonprofit Center for Digital Democracy.

Problem found after Cambridge Analytica

Neither Zuckerberg nor his company has identified those who carried out the data scraping. Outside experts believe they could have been identity thieves, scam artists or shady data brokers assembling marketing profiles.

Zuckerberg said the company detected the problem in a data-privacy audit started after the Cambridge Analytica disclosures, but didn’t say why the company hadn’t noticed it — or fixed it — earlier.

Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday on when it discovered the data scraping.

In his call with reporters Wednesday, Zuckerberg said the company had tried “rate limiting” the searches. This restricted how many searches someone can conduct at one time from a particular IP address, a numeric designation that identifies a device’s location on the internet. But Zuckerberg said the scrapers circumvented that defense by cycling through multiple IP addresses.

Public information useful 

The scraped information was limited to what a user had chosen to make public — which, depending on a person’s privacy settings, could be a lot — as well as what Facebook requires people to share. That includes full name, profile picture and listings of school or workplace networks.

But hackers and scam artists could then use that information, and combine it with other data in circulation, to pull hoaxes on people, plant malware on their computers or commit other mischief.

Having access to such a massive amount of data could also pose national security risks, Winterton said.

A foreign entity could conceivably use such information to influence elections or stir up discord, exactly what Russia is alleged to have done, using Facebook and other social media, in the 2016 presidential elections.

Oversharing

Privacy advocates have long been critical of Facebook’s penchant for pushing people to share more and more information, often through pro-sharing default options.

While the company offers detailed privacy controls — users can turn off ad targeting, for example, or face recognition, and post updates that no one else sees — many people never change their settings, and often don’t even know how to.

The company has tried to simplify its settings multiple times over the years, most recently this week.

Winterton said that for individual Facebook users, worrying about this data scraping won’t do much good, after all, the data is already out there. But she said it might be a good time to “reflect on what we are sharing and how we are sharing it and whether we need to.”

“Just because someone asks us information, it doesn’t mean we have to give it to them if we are not comfortable,” she said.

She added that while she no longer has a Facebook account, when she did she put her birth year as 1912 and her hometown as Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Neither is true.

This story was written by the Associated Press

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Going Off Script, Trump Bashes Immigration at Tax-Cut Event

Tossing his “boring” prepared remarks into the air, President Donald Trump on Thursday unleashed a fierce denunciation of the nation’s immigration policies, calling for tougher border security while repeating his unsubstantiated claim that “millions” of people voted illegally in California.

Trump was in West Virginia to showcase the benefits of Republican tax cuts, but he detoured to talk about his immigration and trade plans. He linked immigration with the rise of violent gangs like MS-13 and suggested anew that there had been widespread fraud in the 2016 election that cost him a loss in the popular vote.

“In many places, like California, the same person votes many times. You probably heard about that,” Trump said. “They always like to say, ‘Oh, that’s a conspiracy theory.’ Not a conspiracy theory, folks. Millions and millions of people. And it’s very hard because the state guards their records. They don’t want us” to see them.

While there have been isolated cases of voter fraud in the U.S., past studies have found it to be exceptionally rare. Earlier this year, the White House disbanded a controversial voter fraud commission amid infighting and lawsuits as state officials refused to cooperate.

Pushing back

In recent weeks, Trump has been pushing back more against the restraints of the office to offer more unvarnished opinions and take policy moves that some aides were trying to forestall.

“This was going to be my remarks. They would have taken about two minutes,” Trump said as he tossed his script into the air. “This is boring. We have to tell it like it is.”

As he has done before, Trump conjured images of violence and suffering when he described the perils of illegal immigration, though statistics show that immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than citizens do. He dubbed MS-13 gang members “thugs” and said his administration’s crackdown on the group was “like a war.”

“MS-13 is emblematic of evil, and we’re getting them out by the hundreds,” said Trump, who sat on stage at a long table in a gym draped in American flags and decorated with signs that read “USA open for business.” “This is the kind of stuff and crap we are allowing in our country, and we can’t do it anymore.”

Invoking the lines of his June 2015 campaign kickoff speech, in which he suggested that some Mexican immigrants were rapists, the president appeared to claim that a caravan of migrants that had been working its way north through Mexico toward the United States was besieged with violence.

“Remember my opening remarks at Trump Tower when I opened? Everybody said, ‘Oh, he was so tough,’ and I used the word ‘rape,’ ” he said. “And yesterday it came out where this journey coming up, women are raped at levels that nobody has ever seen before. They don’t want to mention that.”

It was not clear what Trump was referring to. White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said Trump wasn’t talking about the caravan but rather about extreme victimization of those making the journey north with smugglers in general.

Trump also defended his proposed tariff plan, which many of his fellow Republicans fear will start a trade war with China. He criticized West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat who has expressed openness to working with the White House, for opposing the GOP tax plan. He praised local West Virginia politicians running for office and reminisced about his 2016 electoral victory in the Mountain State.

All of that overshadowed any time spent promoting the tax plan.

Positive feedback

While Trump went off script, the attendees — an assemblage of state politicians, local business owners, workers and families — stayed dutifully on task, talking about how the tax cuts had helped them.

Jessica Hodge tearfully told Trump: “I just want to say thank you for the tax cuts. This is a big deal for our family.”

U.S. Representative Evan Jenkins, a Republican, said that “West Virginians understand your policies are working” and that Trump was “welcome to come back anytime.”

This story was written by the Associated Press.

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Venezuela Cuts Commercial Ties With Panama Officials, Firms

Venezuela said on Thursday it was halting commercial relations with Panamanian officials and companies, including regional airline Copa, for alleged involvement in money laundering, prompting Panama to recall its ambassador.

The resolution names Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela and nearly two dozen Cabinet ministers and top-ranking officials, adding that Panama’s financial system had been used by Venezuelan nationals involved in acts of corruption.

Venezuela said the individuals named in the resolution “present an imminent risk to the [Venezuelan] financial system, the stability of commerce in the country, and the sovereignty and economic independence of the Venezuelan people.”

The statement came a week after Panama declared President Nicolas Maduro and about 50 Venezuelan nationals as “high risk” for laundering money and financing terrorism.

Caracas did not detail whether the move would halt the operations of Copa in Venezuela, which is one of the crisis-stricken country’s few providers of international flights following a sharp reduction in airline services.

Copa’s website showed its planned Panama City-Caracas flight later Thursday was canceled. Copa flights Friday between the two cities were listed as scheduled.

The company did not respond to a request for comment.

Panama’s Varela, in brief comments to reporters Thursday, described the Venezuelan announcement as nonsensical.

“We have not heard anything about breaking relations but rather about a set of supposed sanctions, it’s gibberish,” Varela said.

The South American country has been hit with sanctions by Canada, the United States and a number of other countries over issues ranging from human rights violations to corruption and drug trafficking.

Maduro says the country is victim of an “economic war” led by his adversaries with the help of Washington, and says the sanctions are part of foreign countries’ efforts to undermine his government.

This story was written by Reuters.

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Venezuela Cuts Commercial Ties With Panama Officials, Firms

Venezuela said on Thursday it was halting commercial relations with Panamanian officials and companies, including regional airline Copa, for alleged involvement in money laundering, prompting Panama to recall its ambassador.

The resolution names Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela and nearly two dozen Cabinet ministers and top-ranking officials, adding that Panama’s financial system had been used by Venezuelan nationals involved in acts of corruption.

Venezuela said the individuals named in the resolution “present an imminent risk to the [Venezuelan] financial system, the stability of commerce in the country, and the sovereignty and economic independence of the Venezuelan people.”

The statement came a week after Panama declared President Nicolas Maduro and about 50 Venezuelan nationals as “high risk” for laundering money and financing terrorism.

Caracas did not detail whether the move would halt the operations of Copa in Venezuela, which is one of the crisis-stricken country’s few providers of international flights following a sharp reduction in airline services.

Copa’s website showed its planned Panama City-Caracas flight later Thursday was canceled. Copa flights Friday between the two cities were listed as scheduled.

The company did not respond to a request for comment.

Panama’s Varela, in brief comments to reporters Thursday, described the Venezuelan announcement as nonsensical.

“We have not heard anything about breaking relations but rather about a set of supposed sanctions, it’s gibberish,” Varela said.

The South American country has been hit with sanctions by Canada, the United States and a number of other countries over issues ranging from human rights violations to corruption and drug trafficking.

Maduro says the country is victim of an “economic war” led by his adversaries with the help of Washington, and says the sanctions are part of foreign countries’ efforts to undermine his government.

This story was written by Reuters.

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