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WTO Urges Nations to Ease Trade Tensions

The World Trade Organization is urging nations to resolve trade tensions, warning that restrictive trade measures would have a harmful impact on the global economy.

The group refuses to weigh in on what appears to be the start of a trade war between the United States and China, the world’s two biggest economies. China has reacted to Washington’s decision to slap 25 percent tariffs on $34 billion worth of Chinese goods by reciprocating in kind.

While the Geneva-based WTO will not comment on specific actions, the organization’s director-general, Roberto Azevedo, has sent out a series of tweets warning nations against giving in to protectionist impulses.

Azevedo says a new WTO monitoring report on trade measures enacted by the G-20 countries indicates a disturbing increase in trade restrictions by major economies. In his tweet, the WTO chief says recent developments show that more restrictive measures are on the way.

His spokesman, Dan Pruzin, says Azevedo fears the deterioration in trade relations may be worse than previously anticipated and is likely to have very serious consequences.

“The fallout from these measures is already being felt,” Pruzin said. “Companies are hesitating to invest, markets are getting jittery, some prices are rising. With further escalation, the effects would only grow in magnitude, hitting jobs and growth in the countries involved and sending economic shock waves around the world.” 

President Donald Trump has threatened that the United States might quit the WTO if it is not treated fairly.

“I will just say that no U.S. official in Geneva has given any indication in any of the meetings here in Geneva that the United States intends to withdraw from the WTO,” Pruzin told VOA.

WTO chief Azevedo is urging all parties to sit down and discuss ways of tackling the issues at the root of the growing trade tensions.

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Trump Says He’s Narrowed Supreme Court Nominees to 2 or 3

President Donald Trump said Thursday he has narrowed down — to two or three — the list of contenders he’s considering to fill the vacancy for the Supreme Court seat held by retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy.

“I think I have it down to four people. And I think of the four people I have it down to three or two,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One.

The president, who was traveling to a campaign rally in Montana, has wrapped up the interview process and is moving closer to picking his court nominee amid intense jockeying from various factions seeking to influence the choice.

Trump’s current top contenders are federal appeals court judges Amy Coney Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh and Raymond Kethledge, said a person familiar with Trump’s thinking who was not authorized to speak publicly.

With customary fanfare, Trump plans to announce his selection Monday night. The administration is preparing roll-out plans for the leading contenders, and hopes to have a decision on the top one or two names in the next couple of days, so staff can conduct a deep-dive background ahead of the possible prime-time event, according to a senior administration official granted anonymity to discuss the plans.

But as the president builds suspense for his second court pick in two years — a nominee who could tip the balance toward conservatives and revisit landmark rulings on abortion access, gay marriage and other issues — momentum is also growing among GOP supporters and detractors of the top contenders.

Conservatives and some libertarian-leaning Republicans, including Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, have raised concerns about Kavanaugh, warning he could disappoint Republicans if his past decisions are a guide.

Paul and another Republican, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, are supporting fellow Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who is not said to be under serious consideration by the White House but is the only lawmaker Trump has considered for the position.

To counter that, Kavanaugh’s allies have begun pushing back, reaching out to influential Republicans to ward off potential criticisms, according to one conservative who was the recipient of such outreach and spoke on condition of anonymity Thursday to discuss the situation.

The senior administration official, though, said the administration is feeling less heat than earlier in this week over the choices, particularly Kavanaugh, and believes the jockeying in general has calmed somewhat.

With the Senate narrowly divided, 51-49, in favor of Republicans, Trump’s announcement will launch a contentious confirmation process as Republicans seek to shift the court to the right and Democrats strive to block the effort. Any GOP defections could begin to doom a nominee.

Tapping into Trump’s understanding of the importance of the choice, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told the president this week that nominating someone hostile to abortion access, or the 2010 health care law, would tarnish his legacy.

Schumer told Trump that such a choice would be “cataclysmic” and create more division than the country has seen in years, according to a person familiar with the conversation who said Trump called Schumer on Tuesday.

The senator also told the president he could unify the country by nominating Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s choice for the Supreme Court who was blocked by Republicans in 2016.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Thursday at an event in Louisville that he, too, has been talking to the president about the search and believes “the president will make a very high-quality appointment.”

McConnell acknowledged that his fellow Kentuckian, Judge Amul Thapar, is a finalist, but noted, “The competition at this level is pretty intense.”

Working closely with a White House team and consulting with lawmakers and outside advisers, Trump has spent the week deliberating on the choice. He conducted interviews Monday and Tuesday. He could still consider others in the mix. He’s still taking input, making calls to Capitol Hill, the official said.

Vice President Mike Pence also met with some of Trump’s contenders in recent days, according to a person familiar with the search process. The person did not specify which candidates Pence met with and spoke on condition of anonymity Wednesday to describe the private search process.

Trump is choosing his nominee from a list of 25 candidates vetted by conservative groups. Earlier in the week, he spoke with seven of them.

The president also spoke by phone with Lee, the senator from Utah, on Monday. The White House did not characterize that call as an interview, and Lee is not viewed as a top prospect.

But Lee has consistent support among conservative and libertarian activists, including some Republicans who worry about a nominee not upholding their principles and who say the Utah senator could bring more certainty.

More than two dozen conservatives, including Paul, wealthy GOP donor Rebekah Mercer and several tea party leaders, signed a letter backing Lee as having a “proven record.”

Cruz advocated for Lee on Thursday in a Fox News op-ed warning Trump not to repeat “mistakes” of past Republican presidents by picking a Supreme Court nominee who turns out to be insufficiently conservative.

Cruz said President George H.W. Bush’s selection of liberal David Souter was “one of the most consequential errors of his presidency.” He also pointed to former justices William Brennan, John Paul Stevens and Harry Blackmun, the latter of whom wrote the Roe v. Wade decision that established a woman’s right to abortion. All three were nominated by Republican presidents.

Lee, he said, would be a “sure thing.”

Paul, the Kentucky senator, has told colleagues he may not vote for Kavanaugh if the judge is nominated, citing Kavanaugh’s role during President George W. Bush’s administration on cases involving executive privilege and the disclosure of documents to Congress, said a person familiar with Paul’s conversations who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Some conservatives have pointed to Kethledge as a potential justice in the mold of Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee last year. Both Kethledge and Gorsuch once served Kennedy as law clerks, as did Kavanaugh. Kethledge, a Michigan Law graduate, would add academic diversity to a court steeped in the Ivy League.

Since Trump said his short list includes at least two women, speculation has focused on Barrett, a former law clerk to Justice Antonin Scalia and a longtime Notre Dame Law School professor who serves on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Conservative groups rallied around Barrett after her confirmation hearing last year featured questioning from Democrats over how her Roman Catholic faith would affect her decisions.

Trump’s choice to replace Kennedy — a swing vote on the nine-member court — has the potential to remake the court for a generation as part of precedent-shattering decisions. Recognizing the stakes, many Democrats have lined up in opposition to any Trump pick.

One group aligned with Democrats began running ads Thursday in the home states of Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, urging them to hold firm in their support of access to abortion services.

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Likely Impact of US-China Trade War: Prices Up, Growth Down

The world’s two biggest economies have fired the opening shots in a trade war that could have wide-ranging consequences for consumers, workers, companies, investors and political leaders.

The United States slapped a 25 percent tax on $34 billion worth of Chinese imports starting Friday, and China is retaliating with taxes on an equal amount of U.S. products, including soybeans, pork and electric cars.

The United States accuses China of using predatory tactics in a push to supplant U.S. technological dominance. The tactics include forcing American companies to hand over technology in exchange for access to the Chinese market, as well as outright cyber-theft. Trump’s tariffs are meant to pressure Beijing to reform its trade policies.

Though the first exchange of tariffs is unlikely to inflict much economic harm on either nation, the damage could soon escalate. President Donald Trump, who has boasted that winning a trade war will be easy, said Thursday that he’s prepared to impose tariffs on up to $550 billion in Chinese imports — a figure that exceeds the $506 billion in goods that China actually shipped to the United States last year.

Escalating tariffs would likely raise prices for consumers, inflate costs for companies that rely on imported parts, rattle financial markets, cause some layoffs and slow business investment as executives wait to see whether the Trump administration can reach a truce with Beijing. The damage would threaten to undo many of the economic benefits of last year’s tax cuts.

A full-fledged trade war, economists at Bank of America Merrill Lynch and elsewhere warn, risks tipping the U.S. economy into recession.

And those caught in the initial line of fire — U.S. farmers facing tariffs on their exports to China, for instance — are already hunkered down and fearing the worst. The price of U.S. soybeans has plunged 17 percent over the past month on fears that Chinese tariffs will cut off American farmers from a market that buys about 60 percent of their soybean exports.

“For soybean producers like me this is a direct financial hit,” Brent Bible, a soy and corn producer in Romney, Indiana, said in a statement from the advocacy group Farmers for Free Trade. “This is money out of my pocket. These tariffs could mean the difference between a profit and a loss for an entire year’s worth of work out in the field, and that’s only in the near term.”

Even before the first shots were fired, the prospect of a trade war was worrying investors. The Dow Jones industrial average has shed nearly 1,000 points since June 11.

The Chinese currency, the yuan, has dropped 3.5 percent against the U.S. dollar over the past month, giving Chinese companies a price edge over their U.S. competition. The drop might reflect a deliberate devaluation by the Chinese government to signal Beijing’s “displeasure over the state of trade negotiations,” according to a report Thursday from the Institute of International Finance, a banking trade group.

The Trump administration sought to limit the impact of the tariffs on U.S. households by targeting Chinese industrial goods, not consumer products, for the first round of tariffs. But that step drives up costs for U.S. companies that rely on Chinese-made machinery or components and may force them to pass them along to their business customers, and eventually to consumers.

If you like Chick-fil-A sandwiches, for instance, you may feel the impact of the tariffs. Charlie Souhrada, a vice president of the North American Food Equipment Manufacturers, says the duties could raise the cost of a pressure cooker made by one of its members, Henny Penny. Chick-fil-A uses the cooker for its sandwiches. The administration has placed “these import taxes squarely on the shoulders of manufacturers and by extension consumers,” Souhrada said.

The Federal Reserve is already picking up signs that the threat of a trade war is causing businesses to rethink investment plans. In the minutes from its June 12-13 meeting, the Fed’s policymaking committee noted: “Contacts in some districts indicated that plans for capital spending had been scaled back or postponed as a result of uncertainty over trade policy,”

And if Trump extends the tariffs to $550 billion in Chinese imports, there’s no way consumers could avoid being caught in the crossfire: The taxes would have to hit consumer products like televisions and cellphones.

Consider what happened to the price of washing machines that were subjected to a separate series of Trump tariffs in January. Over the past year, their price has surged more than 8 percent, compared with a slight drop in overall appliance prices.

Even the first round of tariffs means that “American consumers are one step closer to feeling the full effects of a trade war,” said Matthew Shay, president of the National Retail Federation.

“These tariffs will do nothing to protect U.S. jobs, but they will undermine the benefits of tax reform and drive up prices for a wide range of products as diverse as tool sets, batteries, remote controls, flash drives and thermostats,” Shay said. “And students could pay more for the mini-refrigerator they need in their dorm room as they head back to college this fall… a strategy based on unilateral tariffs is the wrong approach, and it has to stop.”

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US Army Discharging Immigrant Recruits, Reservists

Some immigrant U.S. Army reservists and recruits who enlisted in the military with a promised path to citizenship are being abruptly discharged, the Associated Press has learned.

The AP was unable to quantify how many men and women who enlisted through the special recruitment program have been booted from the Army, but immigration attorneys say they know of more than 40 who have been discharged or whose status has become questionable, jeopardizing their futures.

“It was my dream to serve in the military,” said reservist Lucas Calixto, a Brazilian immigrant who filed a lawsuit against the Army last week. “Since this country has been so good to me, I thought it was the least I could do to give back to my adopted country and serve in the United States military.”

Some of the service members say they were not told why they were being discharged. Others said the Army told them they are security risks because they have relatives abroad or because the Defense Department had not completed background checks on them.

Spokespeople for the Pentagon and the Army said that, because of the pending litigation, they were unable to explain the discharges or respond to questions about whether there have been policy changes in any of the military branches.

Legal status required

Eligible recruits are required to have legal status in the U.S., such as a student visa, before enlisting. More than 5,000 immigrants were recruited into the program in 2016, and an estimated 10,000 are serving. Most go the Army, but some also go to the other military branches.

To become citizens, the service members need an honorable service designation, which can come after just a few days at boot camp. But the recently discharged service members said their basic training was delayed, so they can’t be naturalized.

Margaret Stock, an Alaska-based immigration attorney and a retired Army Reserve lieutenant colonel who helped create the immigrant recruitment program, said she’s been inundated by recruits who have been abruptly discharged.

All had signed enlistment contracts and taken an Army oath, Stock said. Many were reservists who had been attending unit drills, receiving pay and undergoing training, while others had been in a “delayed entry” program, she said.

“Immigrants have been serving in the Army since 1775,” Stock said. “We wouldn’t have won the revolution without immigrants. And we’re not going to win the global war on terrorism today without immigrants.”

Stock said the service members she’s heard from had been told the Defense Department had not put them through extensive background checks, which include CIA, FBI and National Intelligence Agency screenings and counterintelligence interviews. Therefore, by default, they do not meet the background check requirement.

Devastated by discharge

The AP interviewed Calixto and recruits from Pakistan and Iran, all of whom said they were devastated by their unexpected discharges.

In hopes of undoing the discharge, Calixto filed a lawsuit in Washington last week alleging the Defense Department hadn’t given him a chance to defend himself or appeal. He said he was given no specific grounds other than “personnel security.”

Calixto, who lives in Massachusetts and came to the U.S. when he was 12, said in an email interview arranged through his attorney that he joined the Army out of patriotism.

A Pakistani

The Pakistani service member who spoke to the AP said he learned in a phone call a few weeks ago that his military career was over.

“There were so many tears in my eyes that my hands couldn’t move fast enough to wipe them away,” he said. “I was devastated, because I love the U.S. and was so honored to be able to serve this great country.”

He asked that his name be withheld because he fears he might be forced to return to Pakistan, where he could face danger as a former U.S. Army enlistee.

Portions of the 22-year-old’s military file reviewed by the AP said he was so deeply loyal to the U.S. that his relationships with his family and fiancee in Pakistan would not make him a security threat. Nonetheless, the documents show the Army cited those foreign ties as a concern.

An Iranian

An Iranian citizen who came to the U.S. for a graduate degree in engineering told the AP that he enlisted in the program hoping to gain medical training. He said he had felt proud that he was “pursuing everything legally and living an honorable life.”

In recent weeks, he said, he learned that he’d been discharged.

“It’s terrible because I put my life in the line for this country, but I feel like I’m being treated like trash,” he said. “If I am not eligible to become a U.S. citizen, I am really scared to return to my country.”

He spoke on condition of anonymity because of those fears.

It’s unclear how the service members’ discharges could affect their status as legal immigrants.

In a statement, the Defense Department said: “All service members (i.e. contracted recruits, active duty, Guard and Reserve) and those with an honorable discharge are protected from deportation.”

However, immigration attorneys told the AP that many immigrants let go in recent weeks were an “uncharacterized discharge,” neither dishonorable nor honorable.

Special recruitment program

The service members affected by the recent discharges all enlisted in recent years under a special program aimed at bringing medical specialists and fluent speakers of 44 sought-after languages into the military. The idea, according to the Defense Department, was to “recognize their contribution and sacrifice.”

President George W. Bush ordered “expedited naturalization” for immigrant soldiers in 2002 in an effort to swell military ranks. Seven years later the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program, known as MAVNI, became an official recruiting program.

Many service members recruited through the program have proven to be exemplary. In 2012, then-Sgt. Saral K. Shrestha, originally from Nepal, was named U.S. Army Soldier of the Year.

In general, the immigrant recruits have been more cost-effective, outperforming their fellow soldiers in the areas of attrition, performance, education and promotions, according to a recently released review by the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research institution.

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Condo to Chick-Fil-A, Some of the Allegations Against Pruitt

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt was the target of numerous federal ethics investigations. Allegations included the eyebrow-raising — looking to obtain a used mattress from the Trump International Hotel — and graver ones, such as accounts that he used his office to try to drum up high-dollar business opportunities for his wife.

Some of the key allegations:

THE USED MATTRESS: Pruitt directed his then-aide, Millan Hupp, to call the Trump International Hotel in Washington about buying a used mattress, Hupp told staffers of a House oversight committee, which is investigating the EPA chief. Hupp also apartment-hunted for her then-boss. Staffers also reported being asked to pick up dry cleaning, find a particular lotion and help arrange personal travel for Pruitt and his family. Federal ethics codes bar staffers from conducting personal errands for bosses.

​CHICK-FIL-A: Pruitt directed Hupp’s sister, Sydney, who also worked for him at EPA, to reach out to a senior executive at Chick-fil-A about a “business opportunity” on Pruitt’s behalf. Pruitt was interested in acquiring a franchise for the chicken restaurant for his wife. Pruitt laughed off a reporter’s questions about the matter, saying, “We love Chick-fil-A.” Federal ethics codes prohibit officials from using their office for personal gain.

SECURITY: Pruitt and the EPA cited the risk of attacks by people opposed to his policies to explain unusual and costly security decisions, including premium-class flights for Pruitt and a bodyguard and a $43,000 soundproof booth for private phone calls. He also demanded 24-hour-a-day protection by armed officers, resulting in a swollen 20-member security detail that blew through overtime budgets and racked up expenses of more than $3 million.

DC CONDO: Pruitt’s job had appeared in jeopardy since the end of March, when ABC News first reported that he leased a Capitol Hill condo last year for just $50 a night. It was co-owned by the wife of a veteran fossil fuels lobbyist whose firm had sought regulatory rollbacks from EPA. Mocking, hand-made posters soon appeared taped to telephone poles around Washington, showing a picture of a grinning Pruitt offering housing at bargain rates.

TRAVEL: Pruitt’s tenure at EPA of less than two years included trips to Italy, France and Morocco, flying premium class and moving with an entourage of EPA staffers and guards. Repeated weekend trips home to Tulsa on taxpayer-bought flights earned Pruitt negative press coverage.

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California Senators Reach Agreement on Net Neutrality Bill

Key California lawmakers said Thursday they’ve reached an agreement on legislation to enshrine net neutrality provisions in state law after the Federal Communications Commission dumped rules requiring an equal playing field on the internet.

California’s bill is one of the nation’s most aggressive efforts to continue net neutrality, and the deal comes after a bitter fight among Democrats over how far the state should go.

Democratic Sen. Scott Wiener, who repudiated his own legislation when major pieces were removed two weeks ago, said those provisions have been restored under his agreement with Democratic Assemblyman Miguel Santiago.

“We need to ensure the internet is an open field where everyone has access, the companies that are providing internet access are not picking winners and losers,” Wiener told reporters at a Capitol news conference.

Santiago came under fire from net neutrality advocates around the country when the Assembly committee he leads stripped key provisions from the legislation — a decision that drew rebukes from members of Congress, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. 

Santiago became the subject of online memes and a flood of calls to his office accusing the Los Angeles lawmaker of selling out to internet providers, citing his contributions from AT&T.

Santiago portrayed net neutrality as crucial to the future of the progressive movement and called on other liberal states to follow suit.

“There’s a lot of blue states in the country,” Santiago said. “We expect them to stand up and join us in this fight and pass measures that are equally as strong.”

Internet companies say it’s not practical for them to comply with state-by-state internet regulations and warn that Wiener’s bill would discourage the rollout of new technology in California.

“For decades, California has benefited from American innovation and investment, but SB 822 is a flawed and consumer unfriendly approach,” CTIA, a wireless industry lobbying group, said in a statement. 

The FCC last year repealed Obama-era regulations that prevented internet companies from speeding up or slowing down the delivery of certain content. Net neutrality advocates worry that, without net neutrality rules, internet providers would be free to block political content, slow down websites from their competitors or drive consumers to their own content.

The debate in California is being closely watched by net neutrality advocates around the country, who are looking to the state to pass sweeping net neutrality provisions that could drive momentum in other states.

Wiener said the key provisions removed from his bill were restored. One would require data to be treated equally at the point where it enters an internet company’s network, not just within the company’s own infrastructure.

The other bans a practice known as “zero rating,” in which internet or cellphone providers exempt certain data from a monthly cap. Critics of the practice say zero rating encourages low monthly data caps and cuts off vast swaths of the internet for people who can’t afford higher data allotments. 

He declined to release the new bill language until lawmakers return in August from a summer break.

Under the agreement, Wiener’s bill will be linked to separate legislation by Democratic Sen. Kevin de Leon to prohibit state contracting with companies that don’t abide by net neutrality provisions.

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Acting EPA Chief Expected to Carry Out Deregulation

President Donald Trump says he has “no doubt” the new acting chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, Andrew Wheeler, will continue with “our great and lasting EPA agenda.”

But environmentalists and some Democrats are already saying they are afraid that’s exactly what he will do — keep Scott Pruitt’s policy of deregulation.

The Ohio-born Wheeler is a former lawyer and longtime coal industry lobbyist.

He is also a former chief of staff for Oklahoma Republican Senator James Inhofe — one of the country’s most vocal deniers of climate change.

In addition, Wheeler is a critic of those who say human activity is causing the Earth to get warmer.

“We have to restore public trust in the EPA and let the agency fulfill its mission rather than gut the laws that keep our families safe,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said.

But a former Wheeler colleague turned oil and gas lobbyist, Matthew Dempsey, told The New York Times that Wheeler is well-qualified to at least temporarily take over the EPA.

“Andrew is one of the most well-known, well-respected policy professionals in Washington on energy and environment. He knows everybody,” Dempsey said.

Wheeler will officially take over the agency Monday as Trump considers whom he will nominate as his next EPA chief. The job is a Cabinet position, and the nominee must receive Senate approval.

Keith Gaby, a spokesman for the Environmental Defense Fund, said the desire for clean air and clean water transcends politics, and he told VOA that Trump might have a hard time filling the slot.

“I doubt that President Trump is going to get a new EPA administrator confirmed,” Gaby said. “His policies on the environment are among his least popular. He’s not a very popular president, but he’s less popular on environmental issues.”

Trump could nominate Wheeler, but he has said he would not be interested in running the department permanently. 

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Life in Trump’s Cabinet: Perks, Pestering, Power, Putdowns

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross came in for an Oval Office tongue-lashing after he used a mundane soup can as a TV prop. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis got overruled by President Donald Trump’s announcement that a new “Space Force” is in the offing. Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt, who resigned Thursday, caught a sharp admonition from Trump to “knock it off” after his ethics problems dominated cable television.

Welcome to the Trump Cabinet, where broad opportunities to reshape the government and advance a conservative agenda come with everyday doses of presidential adulation, humiliation, perks and pestering. Sometimes all at roughly the same time. 

Members of the president’s Cabinet have a measure of prestige and power. They can streak across the skies in Air Force One with Trump, act unilaterally to roll back regulations not to their liking and set policies with far-reaching implications for millions of Americans. But they also can quickly find themselves in a harsh spotlight when an administration policy comes under question.

With the issue of migrant children separated from their families dominating headlines, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar was so determined to get a better handle on the 12,000 migrant children under his department’s care that he was up until 1 a.m. one night last week personally poring through cases in the operations center of the bunker-like HHS building at the foot of Capitol Hill.

The Cabinet members are lashed to a mercurial president who has been known to quickly sour on those working for him and who doesn’t shy from subjecting subordinates — many of them formerly powerful figures in their own rights — to withering public humiliation. Think Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a former senator who was labeled “beleaguered” early on by presidential tweet and who has since been repeatedly subjected to public criticism.

Trump’s Cabinet, a collection of corporate heavyweights, decorated generals and influential conservatives, has been beset by regular bouts of turnover and scandal. A Cabinet member’s standing with Trump — who’s up, who’s down; who’s relevant, who’s not — is closely tied to how that person or their issue is playing in the press, especially on cable TV.

Over the last 16 months, that dynamic has resulted in a Cabinet with varying tiers of influence with the president. Though all 24 Cabinet members, including the vice president, can have the president’s ear at times, some have been able to consistently influence Trump behind the scenes and mostly retained his respect. Others have fended off — so far — a swarm of accusations of ethical violations and moved steadily forward enacting the president’s agenda. A third group has largely flown under the radar, their names out of the headlines and their jobs seemingly secure.

Trump, like many modern presidents, has consolidated power in the West Wing and largely judges his Cabinet members by how well they reflect upon him, according to nearly two dozen administration officials, outside advisers and lawmakers. Most of those interviewed for this account spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk publicly about private discussions.

The powerful

One key measure of the effectiveness of Cabinet members has been their ability to manage up to the president — and manage their disappointment when he ignores their counsel.

Mike Pompeo, first as Trump’s CIA director and now as his secretary of state, has seemingly cracked that code.

During a classified briefing on economic assistance for one African nation, the then-CIA director whipped out an annotated map, pointing out where U.S. troops were located and showing how aid contributed to their counterterrorism mission. One official in the room said Pompeo presented the map as though he had worked it up the night before, rather than as something produced by his teams of analysts, earning brownie points and a sympathetic response from the president.

Pompeo’s stock with the president ran deep as an early supporter. But as CIA director, he worked with the national security team to try to steer the unconventional president toward more conventional approaches. Their personal relationship grew as Pompeo attended nearly every presidential daily intelligence briefing he could — always bringing visual aids.

His predecessor as secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, never clicked with the president and often voiced his objections in a passive-aggressive manner that infuriated the president, delivering retorts like “if you say so” and “you know best, sir,” according to the official. Tillerson was fired in March, months after word leaked that he had reportedly privately referred to Trump as “a moron.”

Other officials have also remained in close orbit around Trump, in part by lavishing frequent praise on the president both publicly and privately. Trump has remained fond of hard-charging Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, praising his combative briefings with the press. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Ross, despite his mocked TV appearance, also have largely remained in Trump’s good graces. The president attended Mnuchin’s Washington wedding last year and the treasury secretary has become a regular on the Sunday talk shows.

Administration officials believe the Cabinet member who has been most successful in managing Trump has been Mattis. The retired Marine general, thought of as a warrior monk for his academic mindset, is soft-spoken in his interactions with the president — often passing up the chance to speak in meetings — but his advice carries outsized weight.

Mattis is a frequent guest at White House lunches and dinners, a sign of his elevated status. He frames his suggestions to the president in terms of his expertise, and when Trump is leaning in a different direction calmly makes his case. White House officials have noticed that Trump sometimes later repeats historical military anecdotes that Mattis related to him — evidence the president was really listening.

But even Mattis has seen his influence wane in recent weeks — he opposed the Space Force plan before Trump announced it — as the president has grown less tolerant of dissenting viewpoints in the Oval Office.

The embattled

Winding down a presidential monologue extolling the EPA for rolling back regulations and shrinking staff, Trump turned to Pruitt across the Oval Office to discuss one other matter.

“Knock it off,” Trump said at the end of the April meeting.

With that terse yet mild reprimand, Pruitt retained his job despite the long run of bad headlines he’s generated for a series of questionable ethical moves. The incidents number more than a dozen, including renting a lobbyist’s Capitol Hill home at below-market rate, spending millions on security and travel, and using government staff to try to get his wife a fast-food chicken franchise.

Congressional Democrats, some influential Republicans and even much of the West Wing, including chief of staff John Kelly, urged Trump to fire Pruitt. The president refused, believing that Pruitt’s effectiveness on the job outweighed his personal transgressions. However, Trump on Thursday accepted Pruitt’s resignation.

Pruitt is far from alone in drawing scrutiny for possible ethical violations. Ryan Zinke, the interior secretary, was accused of spending tens of thousands of dollars on office renovations and private flights. David Shulkin was fired from his post as veterans affairs secretary amid a mutiny from his own staff after an internal review found ethics violations related to his trip to Europe with his wife last summer.

Trump berated his first health and human services secretary, Tom Price, for a series of misstatements last year that the president felt was complicating the administration’s push to repeal President Barack Obama’s health care law, according to a former administration official. Price was later fired amid his own ethical scandal involving spending hundreds of thousands in taxpayer dollars on private travel.

All told, Trump has had more turnover of Cabinet-level positions than any president at this point in their tenure in the last 100 years.

But what has angered Trump more than the substance of the scandals are the bad images they produced, according to four White House officials and outside advisers. The president has complained to confidants that more members of his Cabinet “weren’t good on TV.” He fumed to one ally in the spring, at the height of the ethical questions surrounding Pruitt, Zinke and Housing and Urban Development head Ben Carson, that he was only seeing his Cabinet on TV for scandals and not for fulfilling campaign promises.

Trump has also complained that he wants to see more of them on cable television defending his administration and showcasing his accomplishments. In recent months, the White House has pushed Cabinet members to make more public shows of support: They were encouraged to tweet about Trump’s 500th day in office; were asked to stop by an opioid exhibit on the Mall; and were urged to show up at the annual congressional baseball game.

Zinke may have gone a bit overboard. He showcased his support for Trump by tweeting out a photo of himself in late June wearing socks with Trump’s face and the slogan “Make America Great Again.” He later deleted it after outside groups complained he was violating federal law by endorsing a political slogan.

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, for her part, had an angry exchange with protesters outside a Washington restaurant while defending her husband — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — and the president’s policy of separating migrant families at the border.

“Why don’t you leave my husband alone?” she demanded.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders plays down reports of tension between Trump and his Cabinet, saying the president typically talks to at least one member a day and now has a better sense of “what he wants and what his expectations are” from them.

“The president likes to engage,” Sanders said. “He likes to talk to his team. He likes to get their feedback. He likes to throw out ideas.”

The quiet ones

Every Wednesday at 7 a.m., up to a dozen Cabinet members leave their staffs behind and quietly gather, often at the mammoth Department of Agriculture building just south of the National Mall.

There, they dive into Bible study. Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Carson are among the regular attendees, and at times they are joined by Vice President Mike Pence and others.

The members rarely speak about the sessions, reflecting the low-key, keep-their-heads-down approach most have taken to their positions. Some have had boomlets of bad press — Carson over a $31,000 dining set ordered for his office, DeVos for a disastrous television interview in which she had trouble with basic facts about her department — but they have mostly avoided the devastating headlines and cable chyrons generated by the likes of Pruitt and Price.

Perry has told allies that he wants to stay in his lane and build relationships on Capitol Hill while frequently turning up in the West Wing — including popping up at key events, like Pompeo’s swearing-in — to get valuable face time with the president. The former Texas governor, who turned down a chance to succeed Shulkin at the VA, has taken pride in his lower profile, joking about how he doesn’t get bad press like some of his colleagues.

While many of the Cabinet members are collegial, there have been moments of strain between agencies. During the onslaught of heartbreaking images from the border as migrant families were separated, a quiet turf battle emerged among the Justice, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services departments. Homeland Security head Kirstjen Nielsen, who had been on shaky ground with Trump for an increase of border crossings, later became the public face of the policy and was heckled at a Mexican restaurant.

Trump likes to take Cabinet secretaries along with him on Air Force One trips — in part to defray the costs for the White House, according to a former administration official. Past administrations, including Obama’s, used the same tactic.

The White House tries to hold Cabinet meetings every two weeks — the beginnings are open to the press — to foster better interaction, aides have said, but also to project the feel of a corporate boardroom with Trump presiding as America’s CEO and overseeing the nation’s business.

Those sessions, held more frequently than under Obama, have become a signature image of the Trump White House. Cabinet members, accomplished individuals in their own rights, take turns around a table praising the president in a manner reminiscent of “Dear Leader” sessions in authoritarian nations.

Chao in June 2017 said, “I want to thank you for getting this country moving again, and also working again.”

Price: “I can’t thank you enough for the privilege that you’ve given me, and the leadership you’ve shown.”

Mnuchin: “It’s been a great honor traveling with you around the country for the past year, and an even greater honor to be serving you on your Cabinet.”

Trump returned the favor last month at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, turning a meeting on the upcoming hurricane season into a storm of compliments.

To Chao: “All you do is produce. You do it in a very quiet way and so effective and so incredible.”

To Azar: “Alex, I’m very proud of what you’ve done. We’re going to have a great health care bill planned.”

To Carson: “What you’re doing is great, Ben. That’s really inspirational. More than just brick and mortar.”

On it went, as Trump went around the room to shower all of the present Cabinet members with praise. All but one, that is.

“Thank you, Jeff. Thank you very much,” is all Trump said to his attorney general.

The attorney general

About a half-dozen members of Trump’s inner circle, including then-chief of staff Reince Priebus, then-chief strategist Steve Bannon and senior adviser Jared Kushner, were hurriedly summoned to the Oval Office on a chilly Friday afternoon in March 2017. Once they were inside, Trump erupted.

The day before, Sessions had announced his recusal from the Russia probe, blindsiding the president. Trump screamed at the staffers, according to one person with direct knowledge of the conversation, demanding to know how Sessions could be so “disloyal” while musing that he should fire the attorney general, who had been one of his earliest and most loyal supporters.

From that moment forward, Sessions became a singular figure in Trump’s Cabinet. No Cabinet member in recent memory has been the target of so many broadsides from his own boss yet has still managed to hang onto his job.

In an onslaught of tweets and interviews, Trump has tormented Sessions publicly, while in private often refusing even to speak his name, sometimes just referring to him simply as “one of my attorneys.” He unloads to confidants whenever Sessions appears on the TV in his private West Wing kitchen or his office on Air Force One. And he has accused the Justice Department of conspiring against him.

But to his deep frustration, Trump has been restrained from firing Sessions, for at least as long as special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe continues. The attorney general has support from conservatives and Republican senators, and Trump’s confidants, including attorney Rudy Giuliani, believe that dismissing Sessions would upend the special counsel’s investigation.

Sessions, for his part, has largely been silent in the face of Trump’s attacks, his defense limited to a statement defending the department’s “integrity and honor” and a highly visible dinner with his two top lieutenants in February that was interpreted by some as a sign of a solidarity pact in case the president moved to fire one, or all, of them.

The attorney general has told allies that the post is his dream job and he aims to keep pushing his agenda, including a hawkish immigration stance, even if it means coming under fire from the White House. Earlier this year, to mark the one-year anniversary of his confirmation, his senior aides gave him a gift: a bulletproof vest emblazoned with his name.

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Kenya’s Digital Taxi Services Paralyzed, Strike Enters 4th Day

Drivers of Kenya’s digital taxis shut down operations Monday in protest of what they term as exploitative corporate practices. They say the firms are charging low rates to their clients, yet imposing high commissions on the drivers, leading them to work longer hours with little pay.

The Digital Taxi Association of Kenya, representing more than 2,000 digital taxi drivers, is in the fourth day of a protest that has seen drivers switch off their services, stalling transportation in the country.

The drivers say client charges have reduced over time as more digital taxi apps enter the market, but their commissions to the taxi firms have remained the same.

The drivers are demanding a review of their rates and working conditions. Through their association, they want the digital taxi services to double their client rates and reduce driver commissions to the companies so they can earn decent wages.

“The fare itself, it has been very low from the word go,” said Anthony Maina, an Uber driver in Kenya. “The percentage after they get their commission, we get very little returns.”

The main digital taxi services in Kenya are the American brand Uber and Estonian Taxify, as well as at least three others.

Uber charges a 25 percent commission on each ride, while apps like Taxify charge 15 percent. The drivers want rates at least doubled per kilometer, and commissions slashed to 10 percent.

Kenya Digital Taxi Services Director David Muteru is calling on Kenya’s Ministry of Transport to resolve the issue.

“All these things are happening where we have government agencies who can [take care of all these things] without having pressure from us,” Muteru said. “It is not our wish to come here and start demonstrating. Our demand is that we must have regulations. [The pricing] is very skewed in favor of the app companies to the detriment of drivers.”

Maina says Uber reduced the maximum working hours from 18 to 12 in an effort to better the working conditions, but drivers overwork to earn more to meet expenses.

“We cannot afford daily maintenance, he said. “An example, each and every day you have to fuel the vehicle, you have to wash the car, and if you happen to be in the city center, you have to pay the city council. All those expenses, when you put them together and maybe you do not own the vehicle yourself, you have to pay the partner and you know fuel has been going up every day and they are not adjusting their commission or fare. So that has been a big problem for us.”

Earlier in the week, Uber drivers in South Africa also went on strike to protest the 25 percent fee charged by Uber.

Digital Taxi Association representatives in Kenya are in negotiations with the taxi firms and Kenya’s Ministry of Transport as their strike continues.

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Illegal Cigarette Trade Costing S. Africa $510 mln a Year

South Africa has become one of the biggest markets for illegal cigarette sales and is losing out on 7 billion rand ($514 million) a year in potential tax revenue, a report funded by a tobacco industry group said on Thursday.

The study carried out by Ipsos found illegal cigarette trade spiked between 2014 and 2017 after a probe into the underground industry was dropped by the South African Revenue Service (SARS) under suspended commissioner Tom Moyane.

Moyane, an ally of former President Jacob Zuma, is the main focus of an ongoing SARS commission of inquiry over allegations of widespread corruption at the tax agency under his watch. He denies any wrongdoing.

Former head of enforcement at SARS, Gene Ravele, told the inquiry last week the decision to drop the investigation into illegal tobacco trade was intended to let it continue.

“After I left [in 2015], there was no inspections at cigarette factories. It was planned,” said Ravele.

A packet of cigarettes should incur a minimum tax of 17.85 rand ($1.31), yet packs are sold on the black market for as little as 5 rand as manufacturers dodge official sales channels to avoid paying tax, the Ipsos study found.

Three-quarters of all South Africa’s informal vendors — totaling 100,000 — sell illegal cigarettes in an industry that was worth 15 billion rand ($1.10 billion) over the last three years, the report said.

“Independent superettes, corner cafes and general dealers are the key channels for ultra-cheap brands, with hawkers providing a key entry point, mainly through the loose cigarette sales,” Ipsos head of measurement Zibusiso Ngulube said. “These manufacturers are perfectly primed to continue to grow at a fast rate.”

The study was funded by The Tobacco Institute of Southern Africa, which includes arms of global manufacturers like Philip Morris International, Alliance One and British American Tobacco.

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