Former Trump Advisr Michael Flynn Pleads Guilty to Lying to FBI

President Donald Trump’s former national security advisor, retired General Michael Flynn, pleaded guilty Friday to charges of lying to the FBI in connection with the ongoing probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Flynn has become the first former Trump White House official to face charges and admit guilt in connection with the investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has details from Washington.

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US Officials Drop Mining Cleanup Rule After Industry Objects

President Donald Trump’s administration announced Friday that it won’t require mining companies to prove they have the financial wherewithal to clean up their pollution, despite an industry legacy of abandoned mines that have fouled waterways across the U.S.

 

The move came after mining groups and Western-state Republicans pushed back against a proposal under former President Barack Obama to make companies set aside money for future cleanup costs.

 

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt said modern mining practices and state and federal rules already in place adequately address the risks from mines that are still operating.

Requiring more from mining companies was unnecessary, Pruitt said, and “would impose an undue burden on this important sector of the American economy and rural America, where most of these jobs are based.”

 

The U.S. mining industry has a long history of abandoning contaminated sites and leaving taxpayers to foot the bill for cleanups. Thousands of shuttered mines leak contaminated water into rivers, streams and other waterways, including hundreds of cases in which the EPA has intervened, sometimes at huge expense.

 

The EPA spent $1.1 billion on cleanup work at abandoned hard-rock mining and processing sites across the U.S. from 2010 to 2014.

 

Since 1980, at least 52 mines and mine processing sites using modern techniques had spills or other releases of pollution, according to documents released by the EPA last year.

 

In 2015, an EPA cleanup team accidentally triggered a 3-million gallon spill of contaminated water from Colorado’s inactive Gold King mine, tainting rivers in three states with heavy metals including arsenic and lead.

 

The Obama-era rule was issued last December under court order after environmental groups sued the government to enforce a long-ignored provision in the 1980 federal Superfund law.

 

“It’s galling to see the Trump administration side with industry polluters over the America taxpayer,” said Bonnie Gestring with Earthworks, one of the plaintiffs in the case.

 

“We’ll see them back in court,” she added.

 

The proposal applied to hard-rock mining, which includes precious metals, copper, iron, lead and other ores. Coal mines already were required to provide assurances that they’ll pay for cleanups under a 1977 federal law

 

Hard-rock mining companies would have faced a combined $7.1 billion financial obligation under the dropped rule, costing them up to $171 million annually to set aside sufficient funds to pay for future cleanups, according to an EPA analysis.

 

The mining industry and members of Congress from Western states welcomed Friday’s announcement.

 

National Mining Association President Hal Quinn said the Obama proposal resulted from environmentalists using litigation to force the government into what he said was an unnecessary rule.

 

“Today’s action shows that reason can prevail,” Quinn said.

 

Hard-rock mines in the U.S. produced about $26.6 billion worth of metals in 2015, according to the association. Of those mines, the EPA had said 221 would be subject to the dropped rule.

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After Flurry of Deals, Senate GOP Passes Tax Bill

Republicans pushed a nearly $1.5 trillion tax bill through the Senate early Saturday after burst of eleventh-hour horse trading, as a party starved all year for a major legislative triumph took a giant step toward giving President Donald Trump one of his top priorities by Christmas.

 

“Big bills are rarely popular. You remember how unpopular Obamacare was when it passed?” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in an interview, shrugging off polls showing scant public enthusiasm for the measure. He said the legislation would prove to be “just what the country needs to get growing again.”

 

Senate approval came on a 51-49 roll call with Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the only lawmaker to cross party lines. The measure focuses its tax reductions on businesses and higher-earning individuals, gives more modest breaks to others and offers the boldest rewrite of the nation’s tax system since 1986.

​Corker balks at debt increase

Republicans touted the package as one that would benefit people of all incomes and ignite the economy. Even an official projection of a $1 trillion, 10-year flood of deeper budget deficits couldn’t dissuade GOP senators from rallying behind the bill.

 

“Obviously I’m kind of a dinosaur on the fiscal issues,” said Corker, who battled to keep the bill from worsening the government’s accumulated $20 trillion in IOUs.

 

The Republican-led House approved a similar bill last month in what has been a stunningly swift trip through Congress for complex legislation that impacts the breadth of American society. The two chambers will now try crafting a compromise to send Trump.

 

After spending the year’s first nine months futilely trying to repeal President Barack Obama’s health care law, GOP leaders were determined to move the measure rapidly before opposition Democrats and lobbying groups could blow it up. The party views passage as crucial to retaining its House and Senate majorities in next year’s elections.

​Democrats deride gift to wealthy

Democrats derided the bill as a GOP gift to its wealthy and business backers at the expense of lower-earning people. They contrasted the bill’s permanent reduction in corporate income tax rates from 35 percent to 20 percent to smaller individual tax breaks that would end in 2026.

 

Congress’ nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation has said the bill’s reductions for many families would be modest and said by 2027, families earning under $75,000 would on average face higher, not lower, taxes.

 

The bill is “removed from the reality of what the American people need,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. He criticized Republicans for releasing a revised, 479-page bill that no one can absorb shortly before the final vote, saying, “The Senate is descending to a new low of chicanery.”

 

“You really don’t read this kind of legislation,” Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., told home-state reporters, asked why the Senate was approving a bill some senators hadn’t read. He said lawmakers needed to study it and get feedback from affected groups.

Democrats took to the Senate floor and social media to mock one page that included changes scrawled in barely legible handwriting. Later, they won enough GOP support to kill a provision by Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., that would have bestowed a tax break on conservative Hillsdale College in Michigan.

​Tax panel: $1 trillion added to debt

The bill hit rough waters after the Joint Taxation panel concluded it would worsen federal shortfalls by $1 trillion over a decade, even when factoring in economic growth that lower taxes would stimulate. Trump administration officials and many Republicans have insisted the bill would pay for itself by stimulating the economy. But the sour projections stiffened resistance from some deficit-averse Republicans.

 

But after bargaining that stretched into Friday, GOP leaders nailed down the support they needed in a chamber they control 52-48. Facing unyielding Democratic opposition, Republicans could lose no more than two GOP senators and prevail with a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence, but ended up not needing it.

 

Leaders’ changes included helping millions of companies whose owners pay individual, not corporate, taxes on their profits by allowing deductions of 23 percent, up from 17.4 percent. That helped win over Wisconsin’s Johnson and Steve Daines of Montana.

 

People would be allowed to deduct up to $10,000 in property taxes, a demand of Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. That matched a House provision that chamber’s leaders included to keep some GOP votes from high-tax states like New York, New Jersey and California.

 

The changes added nearly $300 billion to the tax bill’s costs. To pay for that, leaders reduced the number of high-earners who must pay the alternative minimum tax, rather than completely erasing it. They also increased a one-time tax on profits U.S.-based corporations are holding overseas and would require firms to keep paying the business version of the alternative minimum tax.

Deal on DACA?

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who like Corker had been a holdout and has sharply attacked Trump’s capabilities as president, voted for the bill. He said he’d received commitments from party leaders and the administration “to work with me” to restore protections, dismantled by Trump, for young immigrants who arrived in the U.S. illegally as children. That seemed short of a pledge to actually revive the safeguards.

 

The Senate bill would drop the highest personal income tax rate from 39.6 percent to 38.5 percent. The estate tax levied on a few thousand of the nation’s largest inheritances would be narrowed to affect even fewer.

 

Deductions for state and local income taxes, moving expenses and other items would vanish, the standard deduction, used by most Americans, would nearly double to $12,000 for individuals and $24,000 for couples, and the per-child tax credit would grow.

 

The bill would abolish the “Obamacare” requirement that most people buy health coverage or face tax penalties. Industry experts say that would weaken the law by easing pressure on healthier people to buy coverage, and the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has said the move would push premiums higher and leave 13 million additional people uninsured.

 

Drilling would be allowed in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Another provision, knocked out because it violated Senate budget rules, would have explicitly let parents buy tax-advantaged 529 college savings accounts for fetuses, a step they can already take but which anti-abortion forces wanted to inscribe into law. There were also breaks for the wine, beer and spirits industries, Alaska Natives and aircraft management firms.

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Top US Women Diplomats Speak Out on Sexual Harassment

As U.S. lawmakers grapple with allegations of sexual harassment in their ranks, some senior American diplomats are speaking out about their struggles over the years.

Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, who was U.S. ambassador to Malta from 2012-2016, told her story about serving at the State Department and the White House.

“There was one occasion in the department when a boss touched me and I told him if he did it again, I’d knock the s— out of him. He did not repeat it, but he did try to get me to curtail from the position,” Abercrombie-Winstanley told the Foreign Service Journal, a publication by the American Foreign Service Association.

The former U.S. envoy recalled another incident in which she said she was harassed by a senior lawmaker while serving on the White House National Security Council.

 

“Initially, I parried the advance from a senior member of Congress, but when he continued to call me, I reported to the NSC’s executive secretary that it was happening, and told him that if I had to do violence to repel it, I would,” Abercombie-Winstanley said.

“I was letting him know beforehand, I said, because I did not expect to lose my job as a result,” she added. “After a moment of shocked silence, he said ‘Thanks for letting me know.’ And the member stopped calling me.”

She later told VOA these occasions are an “extremely small part of my professional journey” and declined to either comment further on details or identify the congressman.

‘Zero-tolerance’ policy

In a letter electronically distributed to all American diplomats around the world earlier this year, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the department upholds a “zero-tolerance” policy regarding discriminatory and sexual harassment.

“Effective harassment prevention efforts must start with and involve the highest level possible,” Tillerson said in his policy statement.

For years, secretaries of state release their statements on diversity and harassment in the workplace at the beginning of their tenure and review annually thereafter. They usually highlight two anti-harassment policies: one prohibiting sexual harassment, the other banning discrimination.

Male-dominated circuits

Still, female ambassadors said they must learn to adjust and handle the challenges involved in working in mainly male-dominated diplomatic circles.

“I am frequently the only woman in meetings outside the office with the host country, and when I have control over the guest list, I insist that we include at least 30 percent women, if not more,” U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua Laura Dogu said in the Foreign Service Journal article.

Like Ambassador Dogu, former Ambassador to Mongolia Jennifer Zimdahl Galt said she has been the only woman or one of the only women in the room at virtually every meeting throughout her career. The key to working in such an environment, she said, is to be well-prepared and a good listener.

“So you can speak authoritatively and there is no question that you are on top of your brief. It’s also important to dress professionally, which in my book means wearing a suit at all times,” said Galt, who was appointed as principle deputy assistant secretary for educational and cultural affairs earlier this month.

She also said, “Being sure to listen carefully to what others have to say so that you’re not repeating, but rather amplifying and adding value with your remarks.”

Building minority leadership

In a speech to student programs and fellowship participants in August, Tillerson said he had directed relevant committees to develop “minority leadership” at the State Department.

“Every time we have an opening for an ambassador position, at least one of the candidates must be a minority candidate. Now they may not be ready, but we will know where the talent pool is,” Tillerson said.

 

Seen as part of these efforts, Irwin Steven Goldstein will begin his new position next week (December 4) as the first openly gay undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.

In Senate testimony, Goldstein thanked his spouse for supporting his career of developing and executing communications strategies that connect diverse audiences.

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US Formally Opposes China Market Economy Status at WTO

The United States has formally told the World Trade Organization (WTO) that it opposes granting China market economy status, a position that if upheld would allow Washington to maintain high anti-dumping duties on Chinese goods.

The statement of opposition, made public on Thursday, was submitted as a third-party brief in support of the European Union in a dispute with China that could have major repercussions for the trade body’s future.

China is fighting the EU for recognition as a market economy, a designation that would lead to dramatically lower anti-dumping duties on Chinese goods by prohibiting the use of third-country price comparisons.

The U.S. and EU argue that the state’s pervasive role in the Chinese economy, including rampant granting of subsidies, mean that domestic prices are deeply distorted and not market-determined.

A victory for China before the WTO would weaken many countries’ trade defenses against a flood of cheap Chinese goods, putting the viability of more western industries at risk.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer told Congress in June that the case was “the most serious litigation we have at the WTO right now” and a decision in China’s favor “would be cataclysmic for the WTO.”

Lighthizer has repeatedly expressed frustration with the WTO’s dispute settlement body and has called for major changes at the organization.

The USTR brief, which follows a Commerce Department finding in October that China fails the tests for a market economy, argues that China should not automatically be granted market economy by virtue of the expiration of its 2001 accession protocol last year.

“The evidence is overwhelming that WTO members have not surrendered their longstanding rights … to reject prices or costs that are not determined under market economy conditions in determining price comparability for purposes of anti-dumping comparisons,” the brief concludes.

The move comes as trade tensions between Washington and Beijing are increasing as the Trump administration prepares several possible major trade actions, including broad tariffs or quotas on steel and aluminum and an investigation into Chinese intellectual property misappropriation.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a regular news briefing on Friday that some countries were trying to “skirt their responsibility” under WTO rules.

“We again urge relevant countries to strictly honor their commitment to international principles and laws, and fulfill their agreed upon international pacts,” Geng said.

The Commerce Department on Tuesday launched the first government-initiated anti-dumping and anti-subsidy investigations in decades on Chinese aluminum sheet imports.

U.S. officials say that 16 years of WTO membership has failed to end China’s market-distorting state practices.

“We are concerned that China’s economic liberalization seems to have slowed or reversed, with the role of the state increasing” David Malpass, U.S. Treasury undersecretary for international affairs, told an event in New York on Thursday.

“State-owned enterprises have not faced hard budget constraints and China’s industrial policy has become more and more problematic for foreign firms. Huge exports credits are flowing in non-economic ways that distort markets,” Malpass said.

The brief submitted to the WTO also argues that China should be treated the same way as communist eastern European countries, including Poland, Romania and Hungary were when they joined the WTO’s predecessor organization, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

A senior U.S. official said those countries eventually earned market economy status as evidence of state subsidies and state distortions waned. He added that going forward, WTO members wishing to use third-country price comparisons against Chinese imports would need to keep presenting evidence of economic distortions.

 

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Los Angeles Set to Embark on a Smart City Experiment

From cellphones and cars, to televisions and refrigerators, more devices are being connected to the Internet.

This network of connected devices is call the “Internet of Things” (IoT). Los Angeles, the second largest city in the United States, is planning to use the prevalence of these IoT devices as a testing ground for becoming a city of the future.

“By putting computers in parking meters, you already have computers in your car, and you have computers in the street lights. The ability to connect them to the Internet of Things allows a better way for your car to know where parking spots are available, allows better for it to communicate when street lights should turn green to maximize traffic flow,” said Ted Ross, chief information officer for the city of Los Angeles.

WATCH: Los Angeles About to Embark on a Smart City Experiment

What is I3? 

Los Angeles is a part of a consortium called “I3” that includes the University of Southern California (USC) and tech companies. This partnership is developing and will soon test an Internet of Things system. It aims to connect sensors placed around the city with other connected devices to make L.A. a smart city.

It is an endeavor that will also rely on residents’ participation, said Raman Abrol of Tech Mahindra. It is one of the I3 tech companies and will provide a platform for an online marketplace called Community Action Platform for Engagement or CAPE.

“Communities can collaborate with businesses and cities and share data in a manner where privacy’s enforced,” Abrol said.

In the online marketplace, neighborhoods could be shopping for a cheaper source of renewable energy or water filtration system. Companies can then compete for their business.

CAPE is just one of the many elements in the I3 system that will make up the Internet of Things network in Los Angeles.

“The I3 is an Internet of Things integrator. Through I3, we’re (Los Angeles) working with the University of Southern California and vendor partners to aggregate the data and give us a better ability to make decisions, decisions to maximize traffic flow, decisions to help reduce crime, decisions to help improve business prosperity,” Ross said.

Privacy, security concerns

As connected devices become more ubiquitous and the flow of personal data increases, privacy and security concerns will be more scrutinized.

“I think that this is one piece of a huge emerging problem, of figuring out how we protect privacy and limit government power in an era of rapidly expanding information availability and rapidly expanding data processing abilities. So it’s not just that there are more and more data points that are available for the government to look at. It is also that we are rapidly expanding our ability to analyze data,” said Stanford University Law School professor, David Alan Sklansky.

Sklansky has been closely following a U.S. Supreme Court case, Carpenter v. the United States, which examines whether police need a warrant to obtain cellphone location information. Sklansky said the decision from the case will impact other applications of technology and data in the modern age.

“The more powerful the technology, the more powerful the unintended consequences,” said Yannis Yortsos, dean of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

“How do you make sure to possibly regulate this because there has to be regulation so that they have legal and ethical issues taken into consideration as well,” Yortsos added.

Choose to connect

In Los Angeles, people will largely choose whether they want to provide data to the city.

“For someone who’s going to be able to let’s say, connect through their smart phone or through their vehicle, it’s extremely important that they agree and they consent to such matters,” Ross said.

While there was an initial forecast of a big demand in the Internet of Things, over time, the demand dropped, said Jerry Power, executive director of the USC Institute for Communication Technology Management.

“So we started looking at it and trying to understand why and what the problems were,” he said. “We looked at it from a perspective of privacy from the users’ standpoint. We realized privacy was an important issue. We realized that trust was an important issue, and we realized that incentives (was) an issue in the process as well.” 

Power continued, “what incentive has to go back to the users to get them to opt-in? The level of incentive depends on how much the user of the data, who wants the data, how much they disclose about what they’re going to do with the information and how well-trusted that person is.” 

“The exchange of data.” Power added, “if you think about it, it almost becomes like a form of currency, and it’s part of a transaction.”

The smart city experiment will begin at the University of Southern California and expand to the city of Los Angeles.

Some of what works from the program will be be made available for other cities to use.

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Virtual Reality Allows Patients to Preview Their Own Surgery

Most of us would be shocked and afraid if a doctor told us we needed brain surgery. But imagine how much calmer you’d be if you could get inside your skull to navigate the path the surgeon will take? Technology can now make that happen. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti takes us to the Stanford Medical Center in Silicon Valley to see how virtual reality can get patients into their own heads.

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Lawmakers Call on John Conyers to Resign His House Seat Amid Harassment Allegations

Another woman — the fourth — has spoken out against the longest-serving member of Congress, Democrat John Conyers, Thursday, accusing him of harassing her repeatedly over the decade during which she worked for him. Meanwhile, Conyers’ lawyer told reporters that the 88-year-old congressman has been admitted to the hospital. Esha Sarai reports.

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White House Denies Planning to Replace Tillerson With CIA Director

The White House dismissed reports Thursday that U.S. President Donald Trump plans to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo as reported in the news media. The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and other major U.S. news outlets quoted senior administration officials saying the plan to oust Tillerson could be set in motion as early as December or January. But as VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports, it is not clear the president has made a final decision on the issue.

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Leader of Oregon Armed Standoff Released From Nevada Jail

A rancher’s son at the center of an armed standoff with government agents near his family ranch in Nevada in 2014 and a takeover of an Oregon wildlife refuge in 2016 was released Thursday from federal custody in Las Vegas.

Ammon Bundy, 42, was greeted by his wife and six children while friends cheered as he walked out of the federal courthouse.

His first words after 22 months behind bars were about family and American freedoms and his reasons for opposing federal power.

“It’s about people, and life, and trying to do the best we can to promote and benefit the enjoyment of life,” he said. “That’s all we’ve tried to do.”

Surprise ruling

Bundy’s brief comments to reporters quickly shifted to the surprising order on Wednesday by Chief U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro to release him, his father, Cliven Bundy, and a co-defendant from jail to house arrest with friends during their ongoing trial on charges in the armed standoff that stopped a federal roundup of Bundy cattle from public land.

Navarro didn’t specify why she reversed previous detention rulings. Her decision followed a four-hour, closed hearing amid questions from defense teams about whether federal prosecutors have turned over complete evidence records, and about the conduct of FBI and other government agents during the standoff.

“I want to give Judge Navarro some credit here,” Ammon Bundy said outside the courthouse. “She saw something, and she did with her power what she had authority to do.

“It shows where the evidence is taking this case, and what the truth is,” Bundy said.

Elder Bundy refuses release

Cliven Bundy, 71, refused the offer and remains in custody.

“There are still a lot of people that are incarcerated right now that he feels a little bit of responsibility for,” Ammon Bundy said of his father. “He wants to make sure they’re not forgotten … that they get out as well.”

Two other Bundy sons, Dave and Mel Bundy, also remain in federal detention awaiting a trial next year with co-defendants Brian Cavalier, Micah McGuire, Joseph O’Shaughnessy and Jason Woods.

Navarro ruled that Ryan Payne could be released once a federal judge in Portland, Oregon, approves. Payne’s defense attorney, Ryan Norwood, said that authorization could come in several days.

Payne, Ammon Bundy and Ryan Bundy were among a group of people arrested in January 2016 following an occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon.

Payne pleaded guilty to a felony conspiracy charge before a trial at which Ammon Bundy and his elder brother, Ryan Bundy, were acquitted of all charges. Payne is now fighting to withdraw his plea that is expected to bring a sentence of more than three years in prison.

Ryan Bundy is also standing trial in Las Vegas. Navarro on Wednesday relaxed release restrictions she set earlier this month when she allowed him to live at a halfway house while serving as his own attorney.

Ryan Bundy, 45, still has a GPS monitor. But he can split time between a friends’ home the Las Vegas area and his own home in Mesquite.

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