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Trump and Republicans Hail Release of Classified Memo on Russia Probe

Congressional Republicans released a classified memo related to the Russia investigation Friday after President Donald Trump decided that the document should be available to the general public. The memo from Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee alleges U.S. law enforcement officials including the FBI abused their authority in seeking to put a Trump campaign associate under surveillance for possible ties to Russia. The release of the memo has set off yet another political firestorm over the Russia probe in Washington, as we hear from VOA National correspondent Jim Malone.

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What Is in the Nunes Memo?

A controversial document prepared by Republican members of Congress accuses U.S. law enforcement officials of abusing their surveillance authorities during the Russia investigation.

The 3½-page secret memo, written by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, was released Friday after President Donald Trump authorized its declassification.

What the memo alleges

The memo’s key allegation is that the U.S. Justice Department and the FBI improperly obtained a series of electronic surveillance warrants on former Trump associate Carter Page as part of the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

Page served as a foreign policy adviser for the Trump campaign and came under U.S. intelligence suspicion after traveling to Moscow and meeting with Russian officials.  

FBI surveillance of foreign spies and other foreign targets in the United States is overseen by a secret court known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). To obtain a warrant from the court, the FBI must furnish evidence that the target is a foreign power or an agent of a foreign government. 

In Carter’s case, the memo alleges, the FBI substantially relied on information from a research dossier compiled by a former British intelligence officer for the election campaign of Trump’s rival, Hillary Clinton. The bureau used the information in its initial warrant application in October 2016 after Page had left the campaign as well as three subsequent renewal applications.

The author of the dossier, Christopher Steele, was a longtime FBI source who was paid by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee, via the law firm Perkins Cole and the research firm Fusion GPS, to “obtain derogatory information on Donald Trump’s ties to Russia,” according to the memo.

Steele is also accused of harboring an anti-Trump bias during the campaign, telling a senior Justice Department official two months before the 2016 election that he “was desperate that Donald Trump not get elected and was passionate about him not being president.” Trump has called the dossier’s allegations about his personal and financial ties to Russia a “Crooked Hillary Pile of Garbage.” 

But while the dossier formed an “essential part” of the Page surveillance applications, the memo says, FBI and DOJ officials failed to disclose that the underlying information had been funded by the Democrats “even though the political origins of the Steele dossier were then known to senior DOJ and FBI officials.”  

The government “had at least four independent opportunities before the FISC to accurately provide an accounting of the relevant facts,” the Republicans wrote in the memo. “However, our findings indicate that … material and relevant information was omitted.” 

To support their claim that the dossier was central to obtaining the warrants, the Republicans cited December 2017 testimony by former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe that “without the dossier information,” no surveillance warrant would have been sought.  

Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee who unsuccessfully tried to block the memo’s release blasted the document for “serious mischaracterizations.” 

In a statement, Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the intelligence panel, said the FBI “would have been derelict in its responsibility to protect the country had it not sought a FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] warrant.” 

What the memo doesn’t say 

While the memo says the application relied on unsubstantiated information from the Steele dossier, it doesn’t say what other pieces of evidence the FBI invoked to obtain the warrants. A FISA warrant application typically contains multiple sources of classified information to establish probable cause that the target of a proposed surveillance works for a foreign government. 

Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said a key question that is left unanswered in the memo is whether other information used in the application was enough to warrant its approval.

“There is a lot of questions raised by the information that I’d like to get answers to,” Gonzales told VOA. 

Ahead of the memo’s public release, Trump tweeted that the “top Leadership and Investigators of the FBI and the Justice Department have politicized the sacred investigative process in favor of Democrats and against Republicans — something which would have been unthinkable just a short time ago. Rank & File are great people!”

But the memo does not directly accuse the top brass at the FBI and Justice Department of any wrongdoing, though it does say that senior officials, including former FBI Director James Comey, former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, and current Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, all signed off on the Page warrant applications. 

Gonzales said that top officials who sign FISA warrant applications don’t always get to read every fact included in them.

“You’re not necessarily going to know what’s not included in the application and nonetheless you go ahead and sign the FISA application,” he said.

Gonzales said criticism of the department’s top brass can trickle down to its rank and file.

“Whatever one might say about being for the rank and file at the department, the line prosecutors and line investigators, anytime you attack the leadership or the work of the department, it does hurt the morale of the rank and file,” he said.

“I’m worried that the public’s confidence in the integrity of investigations and prosecutions by the Department of Justice has been eroded,” Gonzales said. “I think that’s a terrible place to be, quite frankly.”

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FBI Director Tells Employees He Stands With Them After Memo Release

FBI Director Christopher Wray told agency employees Friday that he stood with them after the release of a memo outlining allegations by Republican lawmakers that FBI investigators abused their powers in their probe of Russian interference in the presidential election.

“I stand by our shared determination to do our work independently and by the book,” Wray said in a statement to 35,000 FBI staff.

“You’ve all been through a lot in the past nine months and I know it’s often been unsettling, to say the least. And the past few days haven’t done much to calm those waters,” he said. “Talk is cheap; the work you do is what will endure.”

Wray’s letter made no direct reference to the memo released Friday. He also gave no indication that he planned to leave the agency.

President Donald Trump lashed out at the FBI and Justice Department on Friday after the memo was made public.

He tweeted: “The top Leadership and Investigators of the FBI and the Justice Department have politicized the sacred investigative process in favor of Democrats and against Republicans — something which would have been unthinkable just a short time ago. Rank & File are great people.”

When asked by a reporter whether releasing the memo made it more likely Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein would be fired, Trump replied, “You figure that one out.”

Rosenstein supervises the Russia probe and named special counsel Robert Mueller to lead the investigation.

White House officials said later that the administration expected Rosenstein to remain in his job.

“No changes are going to be made at the Department of Justice. We fully expect Rod Rosenstein to continue on as the deputy attorney general,” White House spokesman Raj Shah told CNN.

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Suspected Spam King Extradited to US

Spain has extradited to the United States a Russian citizen who is suspected of being one of the world’s most notorious spammers.

Pyotr Levashov, a 37-year-old from St. Petersburg, was arrested in April while vacationing with his family in Barcelona.

U.S. authorities had asked for him to be detained on charges of fraud and unauthorized interception of electronic communications. He was scheduled to be arraigned late Friday in a federal courthouse in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where a grand jury indicted him last year.

A statement from Spain’s National Police said officers handed Levashov over to U.S. marshals Friday. The extradition was approved in October by Spain’s National Court, which rejected a counter-extradition request from Russia.

The Russian Embassy in Washington didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Army of botnets

Authorities in the U.S. say they have linked Levashov to a series of powerful botnets, or networks of hijacked computers, that were capable of pumping out billions of spam emails. An indictment unsealed last year said he commanded the sprawling Kelihos botnet, which at times allegedly involved more than 100,000 compromised computers that sent phony emails advertising counterfeit drugs, harvested users’ logins and installed malware that intercepted bank account passwords.

On a typical day, the network would generate and distribute more than 2,500 spam emails, according to the indictment.

Levashov’s lawyers have alleged the case is politically motivated and that the U.S. wants him for reasons beyond his alleged cybercrimes. They had argued that he should be tried in Spain instead, and pointed to evidence showing that he gained access to Russian state secrets while studying in St. Petersburg.

Levashov’s U.S.-based lawyer, Igor Litvak, didn’t return emails or calls seeking comment Friday.

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U.S. House Sets Tuesday Vote on Bill to Avoid  Government Shutdown

 The U.S. House of Representatives plans to vote on Tuesday on legislation to keep federal agencies operating beyond Feb. 8, when existing funds expire, a senior House Republican aide said on Friday.

The aide did not provide details, however, on the duration of this latest-in-a-series of temporary funding measures.

Congressional negotiators are fighting over defense and non-defense spending levels for the fiscal year that ends on Sept. 30, as well as other unrelated matters.

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US Stocks Swoon, Sending Dow Down More Than 650 Points

U.S. stocks slumped Friday, pulling down the Dow Jones industrial average by more than 650 points and handing the market its worst week in two years.

Technology, banks and energy stocks accounted for much of the broad slide. Several major companies, including Exxon Mobil and Google’s parent company, Alphabet, sank after reporting weak earnings.

Fears of rising inflation sent bond yields higher and contributed to the stock market swoon after the government reported that wages grew last month at the fastest pace in eight years.

The sharp drop follows a long period of unprecedented calm in the market. Stocks haven’t had a pullback of 10 percent or more in two years, and hit their latest record highs just one week ago.

“We’ve enjoyed low interest rates for so long, we’re having to deal with a little bit higher rates now, so the market is trying to figure out what that could mean for inflation,” said Darrell Cronk, head of the Wells Fargo Investment Institute.

The increase in bond yields hurts stocks in two ways: it makes it more expensive for companies to borrow money, and it also makes bonds more appealing to investors than riskier assets such as stocks.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 index fell 59.85 points, or 2.1 percent, to 2,762.13. That’s the biggest loss for the benchmark index since September 2016. The S&P 500 has lost 3.9 percent since hitting a record high a week ago.

The Dow Jones industrial average lost 665.75 points, or 2.4 percent, to 25,520.96. The Nasdaq slid 144.92 points, or 2 percent, to 7,240.95. The Russell 2000 index of smaller-company stocks gave up 32.59 points, or 2.1 percent, to 1,547.27.

Rise in interest rates

While interest rates are still low by historical standards, meaning borrowing is still relatively cheap for businesses and people, they’ve been rising more swiftly, and that’s what has markets on edge.

“The pace of rate increases is more important than the level,” said Nate Thooft, senior portfolio manager at Manulife Asset Management.

The increase in rates has been driven by the prospect of stronger economic growth, and higher inflation, in the U.S. and abroad.

Bond prices declined again Friday, pushing yields higher. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note, a benchmark for interest rates on many kinds of loans, including mortgages, climbed to 2.83 percent, the highest level in roughly four years. The rate was at 2.41 percent four weeks ago and 2.66 percent on Monday.

“Once we started going north of 2.5 percent, and you put that together with an overbought market, it had the ingredients of a sell-off, especially since January was so strong,” said Jeff Zipper, regional investment strategist at U.S. Bank Private Wealth Management.

The S&P 500, which many index funds track, soared 5.6 percent in January, its biggest monthly gain since March 2016.

The expectation among investors has long been for a gradual rise in interest rates, as the Federal Reserve slowly pulls back from the stimulus that it implemented for the economy amid the Great Recession. But if rates rise more quickly than expected, it could upset markets.

The key concern is that the Fed will respond to higher inflation by raising its key interest rate more quickly than expected. The government’s latest job and wage data stoked those concerns Friday.

U.S. jobs

U.S. employers added a robust 200,000 jobs in January, slightly above market expectations for an 185,000 increase. Meanwhile wages rose sharply, suggesting employers are competing more fiercely for workers. The figures point to an economy on strong footing even in its ninth year of expansion, fueled by global economic growth and healthy consumer spending at home.

That’s good news for Main Street USA, but not for Wall Street. Investors fear the pickup in hourly wages, along with a recent uptick in inflation, may make it more likely that the Fed will raise short-term interest rates more quickly in the coming months. Some economists were predicting Friday that the central bank will raise its benchmark rate four times this year, rather than the three times most previously expected.

“With financial conditions continuing to ease and core price inflation also starting to pick up, we expect this will persuade the Fed to hike rates four times this year,” Andrew Hunter, an economist with Capital Economics, wrote in a published note Friday.

The market slide may have been overdue, particularly after the strong start for stocks this year where the S&P 500 had its best January in two decades.

The global economy is still strong, corporate profits and sales have been better than expected this reporting season and buyers for stocks still remain, all reasons to be optimistic about stocks, said Nate Thooft, senior portfolio manager at Manulife Asset Management.

“It’s appealing, these 2 to 3 percent pullbacks,” said Thooft, who had been trimming some of his stock holdings after the market’s big January gains. “We look at this and say, ‘Maybe it’s your first day to buy a little bit.'”

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Trump Nominee for Ambassador to Singapore Withdraws 

President Donald Trump says K.T. McFarland has withdrawn from consideration to be ambassador to Singapore. 

Trump issued a statement Friday. He said McFarland served his administration “with distinction” and said Democrats “chose to play politics rather than move forward with a qualified nominee for a critically important post.”  

McFarland is a former deputy national security adviser in the Trump administration and former Fox News analyst. She was nominated in May.

After the Republican-majority Senate did not act on the nomination by the end of last year, McFarland was re-nominated in January.

McFarland’s nomination was in doubt amid questions about her communications with ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn. 

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North Korean Escapees Tell Trump About Their Ordeals

After phone calls with the leaders of Japan and South Korea, U.S. President Donald Trump spoke Friday in the Oval Office with a group of North Koreans who had escaped their repressive country.

“Their story is amazing,” Trump said before asking the eight Koreans to speak about their ordeals.  The president listened intently as they spoke for 20 minutes.

“We actually have two other people outside and they are literally afraid of execution — they didn’t want to be with cameras,” the president told reporters.

Those defectors who decided to appear on camera thanked Trump for highlighting North Korean human rights abuses. Trump addressed the subject during his speech last November in the South Korean National Assembly and in his State of the Union address last week.

Several appealed to Trump to do more.

Those who escape North Korea to China “would rather die and kill themselves than be repatriated to North Korea,” said Lee Hyeon-soo, adding many carry poison with them in case they are caught.

“Please help us to stop the repatriations from China to North Korea,” she implored Trump.

Lee added that “escaping North Korea is not like leaving another country, it’s more like leaving another universe. I’ll never truly be free of its gravity no matter how far my journey.”

She told Trump that she fled an arranged marriage and a brothel in China.

Lee, now a student in South Korea, has written a memoir about her experience, The Girl with Seven Names.

Kim Kwang-jin, who was a banking agent in Singapore for the North Korean government and defected in 2003, told Trump his attention to the human rights issue “will be an inspiration” to many in his native country.

Ji Seong-ho, a double amputee who attended Trump’s State of the Union address, where he stood to wave his old crutches when he received an ovation, told Trump: “I’ve been crying a lot these past few days since the speech, as I was so moved by the whole experience.”

Ji also thanked the president “for paying attention and trying to help us.”

Peter Jung, who escaped to China in 2000, told Trump he is now a broadcaster for the U.S.-government-supported Radio Free Asia, which — as does VOA — broadcasts to North Korea in the Korean language.

“I was very honored to become a United States citizen” last year, he told Trump.

U.S. efforts

The president, during the Oval Office meeting, refrained from making provocative comments about North Korea or its leader.

In the past, he has threatened to unleash “fire and fury” on the country — which is building nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles — and has belittled North Korea’s leader as “Little Rocket Man.”

During the meeting, Trump said, “We’re doing a lot” regarding North Korea. “We have many administrations that should have acted on this a long time ago.”

The president indicated his patience remains limited regarding North Korea’s activities.

“We have no road left,” Trump said.

“It’s a very tricky situation,” the president added. “We’re going to find out how it goes, but we think the Olympics will go very nicely and, after that, who knows?”

South Korea, Japan efforts

Vice President Mike Pence will lead the official U.S. government delegation to the opening of the Winter Games next week in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Athletes from the North and South are to march together under a common flag and will put a unified women’s hockey team on the ice.

A state of war has technically persisted on the Korean Peninsula since 1953, when the armies of China and North Korea signed an armistice with the United States and U.N. Command, which had defended the South during a three-year war.

North Korea has been under a totalitarian government since then. According to U.N. inquiries, the country’s violations of human rights are widespread, grave and systematic, rising to the level of crimes against humanity.

In his phone call Friday with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the U.S. president thanked him “for Japan’s efforts to maintain international pressure on North Korea. This includes recent efforts to clamp down on North Korea’s attempts to circumvent sanctions in the waters surrounding the Korean Peninsula,” according to the White House. “Both leaders agreed on the need to intensify the international maximum pressure campaign to denuclearize North Korea.”

They also discussed expanding Japan’s missile defense capabilities, it said.

Trump, in a call with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, “discussed the importance of improving the human rights situation in North Korea and underscored their commitment to work together on this issue,” according to a readout of the discussion issued by the White House.

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Dow Falls More Than 600 Points as Stocks’ Slide Continues

Stocks closed sharply lower in New York on Friday, extending a weeklong slide, as the Dow Jones industrial average plunged more than 600 points. 

The drop capped stocks’ worst week in two years. The Dow’s drop was its biggest in percentage terms since June 2016.

Several giant U.S. companies’ shares dropped after reporting weak earnings, including Exxon Mobil and Alphabet. Apple and Chevron also fell.

Bond yields rose sharply after the government reported the fastest wage growth in eight years, stoking fears of inflation.

The Dow fell 665 points, or 2.5 percent, to 25,520.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 index dropped 59 points, or 2.1 percent, to 2,762. The S&P is down almost 4 percent since hitting a record high a week ago.

The Nasdaq was off 144 points, or 2 percent, to 7,240.

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