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White House ‘Embarrassed’ By NBC’s Pre-Olympic Coverage from North Korea

An American news outlet that made a rare visit to North Korea to cover the country’s Olympic team is being criticized by the Trump administration for coverage that, in the words of one official, depicted “the most totalitarian country on the planet … as a cheerful winter holiday resort.”

NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt broadcast last week from the Masikryong Ski Resort, where South Korean and North Korean alpine ski teams are slated to train.

In some segments of the program, Holt was framed against a backdrop of children sledding, skiers in brightly colored gear, and jumbo screens displaying singers in military uniforms. Holt said that he and his crew had undergone an extensive customs search when entering North Korea, noting that the resort was “certainly” an aspect of North Korea that its leaders “would like us to see.”

Criticism of the broadcast erupted online, accusing NBC of misrepresenting a stage-managed piece of North Korean propaganda for American viewers. Holt defended the coverage, saying, “You go to a place like North Korea with your eyes wide open.”

A spokesperson for President Donald Trump’s National Security Council (NSC) told VOA’s Korean Service on Thursday that council members were ashamed of the network’s coverage.

“We are embarrassed for NBC. A first-year journalism student would know to highlight the severe constraints on their ability to report on North Korea as it truly is,” the official said. “It is no small feat of the most totalitarian country on the planet to be depicted as a cheerful winter holiday resort, but somehow NBC has managed to do it.”

The controversy over Holt’s coverage comes amid a slight easing of tension between Pyongyang and Seoul, a change which could undercut the Trump administration’s campaign of international sanctions and “maximum pressure” on North Korea to halt its nuclear and missile programs.

In response to last week’s White House comment, an NBC spokesperson told VOA that Holt clearly stated that the North Korean “government escorts determined where they could go, watching and listening to every move.” In one report, Holt said, “What you’re seeing here certainly flies in the face of a country that’s undergoing crippling sanctions, and that may be part of the reason we were invited to see this.”

Holt told Adweek on Monday that the Olympic Games will be conducted with a major news story in the background.

“The world is holding its breath on the issue of: Is this the breakthrough? Is this the moment when they can start having a useful dialogue?” he said. “On a geopolitical level, this may complicate how the White House views the North Korean nuclear threat if this sets a pattern for a stronger relationship between the North and South.”

North, South agreement

Earlier this month, the two Koreas held the first high-level talks in two years following Kim’s offer to discuss his country’s participation in the Olympics.

The discussions produced an inter-Korean agreement, officially announced on Jan. 20, under which the two sides agreed to march together under a single flag at the opening ceremony of the games and field a combined women’s ice hockey team. The North also agreed to send 22 athletes and a large delegation, including a cheerleading squad and performers. The athletes will compete in ice hockey, figure skating, short track speed skating, cross-country skiing and alpine skiing, the International Olympic Committee said.

North Korea on Monday canceled a joint cultural event, citing South Korean media coverage of its participation in the games.

The NBC broadcast from Masikryong came several weeks ahead of the Winter Olympics, scheduled to be held in the South Korean city of Pyeongchang from February 9-25. The games are a prized franchise for NBCUniversal, the Comcast subsidiary that is parent company of NBC, which also broadcast The Apprentice, the show that launched Trump’s reality TV career.

Since 1995, NBCUniversal has paid the International Olympic Committee (IOC) $15.63 billion for the rights to broadcast the Olympics through 2032. The money helps support the Olympic movement, according to the IOC.

VOA’s Christy Lee contributed to this report.

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Newest Kennedy in Congress to Give Democratic SOTU Response

The newest generation of the Kennedy political dynasty will be introduced to a national audience Tuesday night as he delivers the Democratic response to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union.


Rep. Joe Kennedy III, a 37-year-old Massachusetts congressman and grandson of Robert F. Kennedy, says Democrats should focus on the economic worries of working-class voters who bolted the party in the 2016 elections.


To drive home the message, Kennedy will deliver his speech at a vocational high school in Fall River, Massachusetts, a gritty former textile hub 55 miles (89 kilometers) south of Boston.


“From health care to economic justice to civil rights, the Democratic agenda stands in powerful contrast to President Trump’s broken promises to American families,” Kennedy said in a statement, adding that his speech will be “guided by a simple belief that equality and economic dignity should be afforded to every American.”


Kennedy, the red-haired son of former Rep. Joe Kennedy II, D-Mass., was elected to the House in 2012, returning the family to Congress two years after the retirement of Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy, who is the son of Joe Kennedy III’s great-uncle Ted.


Besides his famous last name, Joe Kennedy III also is among a wave of younger Democrats in a caucus whose three top leaders are all in their 70s.


A former Peace Corps volunteer, Kennedy was an assistant district attorney in two Massachusetts districts before being elected to Congress. He has focused on economic and social justice in Congress and has advocated on behalf of vocational schools and community colleges and championed issues such as transgender rights and marriage equality.


To illustrate that message, Kennedy has invited Staff Sgt. Patricia King, a transgender infantry solider, to represent him at the State of the Union. King, an 18-year Army veteran, has twice been deployed to Afghanistan and has been awarded the Bronze Star.


House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi called Kennedy “a relentless fighter for working Americans” and said he “profoundly understands the challenges facing hard-working men and women across the country.”


Matt Gorman, a spokesman for the campaign arm of House Republicans, could not conceal his glee as he welcomed the latest Kennedy as the voice of Democrats.


“Democrats using the multi-millionaire scion of a political dynasty as the face of their party shows they’ve learned absolutely nothing,” Gorman said in an email, adding that the only way to give the GOP an easier target would be for Kennedy to make the speech “live from the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis,” Massachusetts.


Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley said Kennedy will focus on education and the importance of preparing future generations for jobs while also pointing out “how Republicans fall short, and certainly the president.”


Kennedy “will be talking to the forgotten men and women — the people the president says he is speaking to but since has shown he has little or no regard for,” said Crowley, D-N.Y.


The speech is an opportunity for the three-term lawmaker to “step out a bit and make his own mark” in national politics, said Crowley, who recommended Kennedy for the role.


“He’s young, talented and smart. He’s got a great last name, but on his own, he’s a wonderful man and that will come through as well,” Crowley said. “The sky’s the limit for him, frankly.”


Before this speech, Kennedy’s best-known moment was a 2017 speech criticizing House Speaker Paul Ryan for defending the GOP effort to repeal former President Barack Obama’s health care law as “an act of mercy.”


Kennedy called the GOP effort “an act of malice” in a late-night speech that was viewed millions of times on social media.


Kennedy’s speech will be followed by a Spanish-language response delivered by Elizabeth Guzman, one of the first Latinas elected to the Virginia House of Delegates.

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US Senate Blocks 20-Week Abortion Bill

U.S. Democratic senators have blocked a bill that would have banned abortions after 20 weeks, ensuring that the procedure stays legal through the later terms of a woman’s pregnancy.

Republican leaders in the Senate knew the bill had little chance to pass, but wanted to pressure Democrats to take a stance on abortion, particularly vulnerable Democrats facing re-election and from states that voted for President Donald Trump.

The bill fell short by a 51 to 46 vote. It needed 60 votes to end a filibuster and proceed to a vote.

The vote largely fell along party lines, with only two Republicans voting against it — Susan Collins from Maine and Lisa Murkowski from Alaska. Three Democrats voted for the measure. All three — Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania — are from states that voted for Trump in the 2016 election.

More than half of the Senate’s Democrats and independents are up for re-election this year, and 10 of them are in states Trump won.

“This afternoon, every one of us will go on record on the issue,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor Monday ahead of the vote.

The legislation passed the House in October largely along party lines. The bill calls for a ban on abortions after five months, and would also threaten doctors who perform abortions after that time to five years in jail. The bill exempts women who need an abortion to save their lives, as well as rape and incest survivors.

Democrats criticized the Republican leadership on Monday for prioritizing an abortion ban less than a week after a government shutdown and before issues on spending and immigration are resolved.

“While the country is waiting for us to come together and solve problems, Republicans are wasting precious time with a politically motivated, partisan bill engineered to drive us apart — and hurt women,” said Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, ahead of the vote.

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US Rejects Proposals to Unblock NAFTA, But Will Stay in Talks

U.S. President Donald Trump’s trade chief on Monday dismissed Canadian proposals for unblocking NAFTA modernization talks but pledged to stay at the table, easing concerns about a potentially imminent U.S. withdrawal from the trilateral pact.

Trump, who described the 1994 pact as a disaster that has drained manufacturing jobs to Mexico, has frequently threatened abandon it unless it can be renegotiated to bring back jobs to the United States.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said after a sixth round of NAFTA modernization talks in Montreal that Trump’s views on the pact are unchanged, and cautioned that talks are still moving too slowly on U.S. priorities.

“We finally began to discuss the core issues, so this round was a step forward,” Lighthizer said. “But we are progressing very slowly. We owe it to our citizens, who are operating in a state of uncertainty, to move much faster.”

But Lighthizer’s Mexican and Canadian counterparts said that enough progress was made in Montreal to be optimistic about concluding the pact “soon,” with nine days of talks in Mexico City scheduled to start Feb. 26.

“For the next round, we will still have substantial challenges to overcome. Yet the progress made so far puts us on the right track to create landing zones to conclude the negotiation soon,” said Mexico’s Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo.

Officials are now openly speculating that the bid to salvage the $1.2-trillion free trade pact will continue well beyond an end-March deadline set to avoid Mexican presidential elections.

Canadian proposals dismissed

Heading into Montreal last week, some officials had feared the United States might be prepared to pull the plug on the pact amid frustration over slow progress.

The mood lightened after Canada presented a series of suggested compromises to address U.S. demands for reform.

But Lighthizer criticized Canadian proposals to meet U.S. demands for higher North American content in autos, saying it would in fact reduce regional autos jobs and allow more Chinese-made parts into vehicles made in the region.

He also dismissed a suggestion on settling disputes between investors and member states as “unacceptable” and “a poison pill” and said a recent Canadian challenge against U.S. trade practices at the World Trade Organization “constitutes a massive attack on all of our trade laws.”

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, who stood stony faced as Lighthizer made his remarks, later told reporters that “the negotiating process is … always dramatic.”

A Canadian government source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, noted Lighthizer had not speculated about withdrawal and said the U.S. official had been more positive in private than during previous rounds.

Officials said the negotiating teams had closed a chapter on anti-corruption measures and were close to wrapping up sections on telecommunications, sanitary measures for the agriculture industry and technical barriers to trade.

Challenging demands

But the three sides are still far apart over U.S. demands to boost regional auto content requirements to 85 percent from the current 62.5 percent and require 50 percent U.S. content in North American-built vehicles.

Other challenges are Washington’s demands that NAFTA largely eliminate trade and investment dispute-settlement systems and contain a “sunset” clause to force renegotiations every five years.

Critical comments by Trump, Lighthizer and others have unsettled markets that fret about the potential damage to a highly integrated North American economy if the United States gives six months’ notice it is leaving.

The Mexican round next month is an extra set of talks that officials added to help tackle the many remaining challenges.

Negotiators are supposed to finish in Washington in March with the eighth and final round.

Although some officials have privately speculated about freezing the talks at the start of April, Guajardo told reporters that “we cannot afford to suspend this process.”

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In State of Union, Trump to Make Case that America is Back

Seeking to move past the shadow of the Russia investigation, President Donald Trump intends to use his first State of the Union address to cite economic progress under his watch while pushing for bipartisanship with Democrats on issues such as rebuilding roads and bridges.

The White House said Sunday that the president would point to a robust economy and low unemployment during his first year and the benefits of a tax overhaul during Tuesday’s address to Congress and the nation. Aides have said Trump, who stayed at the White House over the weekend as he prepared, is expected to set aside his more combative tone for one of compromise and bipartisanship.


“The president is going to talk about how America’s back,” said White House legislative director Marc Short. “The president is also going to make an appeal to Democrats… to say we need to rebuild our country. And to make an appeal that to do infrastructure, we need to do it in a bipartisan way.”


Short said Trump would urge Democrats to support additional military spending in light of “dramatic threats on the global scene.”


White House officials have said the theme of the annual address will be “building a safe, strong and proud America” and that Trump was looking to showcase the accomplishments of his first year while setting the tone for the second.


As Trump looks ahead, special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible obstruction of justice and Trump campaign ties to Russian meddling in the 2016 election grinds on.


It often has distracted from the president’s message. For example, Trump’s address to financial and global leaders in Davos, Switzerland, last week followed reports that he ordered a top White House lawyer to fire Mueller last June but backed off when the lawyer threatened to resign. Trump called the report “fake news.”


On the policy front, immigration is an immediate flashpoint for Trump and Congress. In the prime-time speech Tuesday, the president plans to promote his proposal for $25 billion for a wall along the Mexican border and for a path to citizenship for nearly 2 million young people brought to the U.S. illegally as children.


Trump’s plan includes billions for border security and significant changes to legal immigration long sought by hard-liners within the Republican Party. But some conservatives have warned that the deal would amount to “amnesty” for the young immigrants known as Dreamers, and many Democrats and immigration activists have outright rejected it.


“I think all of us realize that it’s going to take a compromise on this issue for us to get something done and to protect the Dreamer population, which is certainly a goal of mine,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. “But I think the president is also right about border security, that we do need to beef up our border security.”


Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., called Trump’s proposal “a good starting point.”


“Let’s see if it’s something that we can agree on, something we need to adjust, something we can negotiate with,” he said.


Part of Trump’s goal in the speech is to set the course of the debate as Republicans look to retain their majority in Congress. He is expected to say the tax overhaul will unleash economic growth and he will point to companies that have provided their employees with $1,000 bonuses and other benefits.


Trump plans to outline a nearly $2 trillion plan that his administration contends will trigger $1 trillion or more in public and private spending on roads, bridges and other public works projects.


On trade, Trump will note his preference for one-on-one deals instead of multilateral agreements, building on his speech at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland.


And he will offer an update on the fight against terrorism and his view of international threats, including North Korea. A senior administration official providing a preview of the speech said Trump probably would avoid the taunts of “Little Rocket Man” for Kim Jong Un and “fire and fury” that he used before. The official wasn’t authorized to speak publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.


The address comes at a critical point for the president. He is battling poor approval ratings and is trying to move past the government shutdown that coincided with the anniversary of his inauguration. He’s also preparing for a grueling midterm election season that has tripped up other first-term presidents.


Trump was not expected to embark on an extensive sales pitch around the country after the speech. He plans to address a Republican congressional retreat in West Virginia on Thursday. Vice President Mike Pence will attend a tax overhaul event in West Virginia on Wednesday and speak to the GOP congressional retreat later in the day. Pence will hold events in the Pittsburgh area Friday.


Short spoke on “Fox News Sunday” and CBS’ “Face the Nation.” Collins spoke on CNN’s “State of the Union,” and Manchin spoke on CNN’s “State of the Union” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.”




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Music and Politics Mixed at Grammys

Politics took the stage at the 60th annual Grammy awards this year, along with some great music. 

Hillary Clinton, who ran against Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential campaign, made a surprise appearance in a pre-taped skit about people auditioning to be the voice for the spoken word recording of Michael Wolff’s best-seller “Fire and Fury” about Trump’s first unconventional year in office. 

Clinton followed John Legend, Cher, Snoop Dogg, Cardi B and DJ Khaled who also “auditioned.” Grammys host James Corden told Clinton that she beat out the competition to win. 

“The Grammys in the bag,” Clinton said at the end. Political observers say Clinton thought her presidential win was “in the bag.”

U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley did not see the humor. “I have always loved the Grammys, but to have artists read the Fire and Fury book killed it,” she tweeted. “Don’t ruin great music with trash. Some of us love music without the politics thrown in it.

Neil Portnow, head of the recording academy, told the Associated Press that he thought Clinton’s appearance was more satirical than political. 

The president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., tweeted: “Getting to read a #fakenews book excerpt at the Grammys seems like a great consolation prize for losing the presidency.” 

Singer/actor Janelle Monae, meanwhile, reminded the audience that the music industry needed to face its sexual harassment and gender discrimination issues. “To those who would dare try and silence us, we offer you two words: Time’s Up,” 

Monae introduced singer Kesha who has long sought to break her deal with her producer whom she says raped her. 

Kesha’s song “Praying” included the lyrics, “After everything you’ve done, I can thank you for how strong I have become.” 

Cuban American singer Camila Cabello spoke out for legal protection for “dreamers,” the immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children and do not have legal status. “This country was built by dreamers for dreamers,” she said. 

Cabello introduced a pre-recorded performance by the band U2, who sang their song “Get Out of Your Own Way” on a barge in the New York harbor with the State of Liberty, the beacon that welcomed millions of immigrants to their new lives in the U.S. in the background. 

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Key Republicans Support Mueller Handling of Trump Probe

Key Republicans voiced strong support Sunday for special counsel Robert Mueller’s handling of the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but split on whether Congress needs to approve legislation to block President Donald Trump from firing Mueller.

Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Susan Collins of Maine, breaking with some of their Republican colleagues in Congress, stated in separate Sunday news shows that they support legislation, mostly favored by Democratic lawmakers, to require a judicial review if Trump were to attempt to dismiss Mueller.

Two prominent Republican lawmakers in the House of Representatives — Kevin McCarthy of California and Trey Gowdy of South Carolina — both said they approve of Mueller’s performance in the ongoing criminal investigation. But McCarthy said he sees no need to enact a law to protect Mueller, a former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Mueller’s fate is at the forefront of the Russia investigation after news accounts surfaced in recent days that Trump ordered White House lawyer Don McGahn to fire Mueller last June. but backed off after McGahn threatened to quit over the would-be ouster.

Trump has denied on several occasions in recent months that he had even thought about firing Mueller and branded last week’s story, first reported by The New York Times, as “fake news,” his favorite censure for stories he does not like.

Graham said he would be glad to pass legislation to protect Trump from trying to oust Mueller, who is in the midst of negotiations with Trump’s lawyers over terms of Trump’s possible testimony under oath about the Russian election interference and whether Trump obstructed justice by firing former FBI director James Comey, who at the time was heading the law enforcement agency’s Russia probe before Mueller took it over.

But Graham said regardless of whether legislation is approved or not, “I see no evidence that President Trump wants to fire Mr. Mueller now. It’s pretty clear to me that everybody at the White House knows that it would be the end of President Trump’s presidency if he fired Mr. Mueller.”

Gowdy said he supports Mueller’s handling of the probe “100 percent, particularly if he’s given the time, the resources and the independence to do his job.”

Trump last week reiterated his long-standing contention that there was “no collusion” between him and Russian interests to help him defeat his Democratic challenger, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and also said there was “no obstruction” of the investigation. He attributed his actions in trying to limit the investigation to “fighting back.”

He said he is looking forward to testifying before Mueller’s lawyers and would do it under oath. But his lawyers subsequently said discussions with Mueller’s team are still ongoing about the terms of any interview of Trump and what topics would be discussed.

Comey, in notes he compiled from several meetings with Trump, says that the president urged him to drop his investigation of former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was fired by Trump after less than a month on the job for lying to Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with Russia’s then-ambassador to Washington in the weeks before Trump assumed power. Trump has denied Comey’s account of their talks.

Trump, who unsuccessfully asked Comey for a loyalty pledge, dismissed him in May. A day later, Trump told Russian officials in a White House meeting he had relieved himself of “great pressure,” describing Comey as “crazy, a real nut job.” A few days later, Trump told Lester Holt of NBC News that he ousted Comey because of “this Russia thing,” saying the investigation was “a hoax” perpetrated by Democrats to explain his upset election victory.

White House legislative affairs director Marc Short told Fox News he knows that Trump is “frustrated” by the investigation, that “millions of dollars have been spent with no evidence of collusion.”


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Trump Lauds US Economic Performance

U.S. President Donald Trump touted the continued growth of the U.S. economy on Sunday, saying it is “better than it has been in many decades.”

“Businesses are coming back to America like never before,” Trump said in a Twitter remark, a likely theme of his State of the Union address on Tuesday. “Unemployment is nearing record lows. We are on the right track!”

He said, “Chrysler, as an example, is leaving Mexico and coming back to the USA,” an exaggeration of Chrysler’s expansion plans. Fiat Chrysler, the world’s eighth biggest auto manufacturer, says it is investing $1 billion to manufacture its profitable Ram pickup trucks in the midwestern state of Michigan, shifting the production from Mexico, but at the same time is not cutting any of its vehicle manufacturing jobs in Mexico.

The U.S. jobless rate has held steady at 4.1 percent for the last three months, the lowest figure in 17 years. The U.S. economy, the world’s largest, advanced at a 2.3 percent pace last year, Trump’s first year in office, up from 1.5 percent in 2016.

The U.S. economy, however, slowed in the last three months of 2017, expanding at a 2.6 percent annual rate, down from the 3.2 percent figure in the July-to-September period.

Attack on Jay-Z

In praising the U.S. economic performance, Trump also attacked Jay-Z, after the rap musician had assailed Trump in a Saturday news talk show over the president’s recent reported vulgar descriptions of people from Haiti and Africa as he seeks to block their immigration to the United States.

“Somebody please inform Jay-Z that because of my policies, Black Unemployment has just been reported to be at the LOWEST RATE EVER RECORDED!” Trump said. The black unemployment rate in the U.S. has fallen to 6.8 percent, which is still higher than the 3.7 percent figure for whites.

Jay-Z told CNN interviewer Van Jones that economic advances for blacks do not outweigh Trump’s attacks on predominantly black countries.

“Everyone feels anger, but after the anger, it’s really hurtful because he’s looking down on a whole population of people. And he’s so misinformed because these places have beautiful people,” Jay-Z said, adding, “It’s not about money at the end of the day. Money doesn’t equate to happiness. It doesn’t. That’s missing the whole point.

“You treat people like human beings,” he said.





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