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US Russia Probe Takes Dramatic Turn with Indictments, Plea Deal

The special counsel investigation into possible collusion between President Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and Russia took a dramatic turn Monday with criminal indictments of two former Trump campaign officials, Paul Manafort and Rick Gates. Special Counsel Robert Mueller also revealed that a former Trump campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in connection with the Russia probe. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.

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Indictment Against Manafort, Gates Details Elaborate Scheme

The indictment against Donald Trump’s former campaign chief, Paul Manafort, and a longtime business associate alleged the two carried out an elaborate scheme that involved the use of a little-known outfit to mask years of lobbying on behalf of Ukraine’s former president, his pro-Russia political party, and the Ukrainian government. 

Manafort and his former business partner, Rick Gates, are charged in a 12-count indictment including conspiracy, money laundering, and making false statements. The two could faces decades in prison if convicted, and both have pleaded not guilty to all charges.

The allegations do not include collusion with Russia during the presidential campaign.

The indictment was approved by a federal grand jury on Friday and unsealed after Manafort and his right-hand man and former Trump campaign adviser, Gates, turned themselves in to the FBI. It represents the first charges brought by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is looking into allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Manafort’s consulting work for Ukraine started in 2006 when the Republican political strategist was retained by Ukraine’s pro-Russian Party of Regions to “advance its interests” in Ukraine. In 2010, Viktor Yanukovych, the party’s candidate, was elected president. Four years later, he fled to Russia following popular protests.   

Eight-year lobbying campaign

The indictment alleges that during the eight-year period, Manafort and Gates “engaged in a multimillion-dollar lobbying campaign” in the U.S. on behalf of Yanukovych, the Party of Regions, and the Ukrainian government. The two hid their activities from U.S. authorities and used offshore accounts to launder millions of dollars in Ukrainian payments.  

As part of their effort to mask their lobbying from U.S. authorities, the pair used a little-known outfit called the European Center for Modern Ukraine. The Brussels-based outfit called itself “an advocate for enhancing EU-Ukrainian relations” but in reality served as “a mouthpiece” for Yanukovych and his Party of Regions, according to the indictment. Manafort and Gates used the nonprofit to carry out lobbying and public relations campaigns, according to court records.

Manafort and Gates then hired two Washington, D.C., firms to lobby members of Congress about Ukrainian sanctions, the “validity” of Ukraine elections, and the “propriety” of Yanukovych’s imprisonment of his political rival, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. 

“Manafort and Gates did so without registering and providing the disclosures required by law,” the indictment alleges.

The two lobbying firms are Podesta Group Inc. and Mercury LLC, the Associated Press reported last year.  The Podesta Group is headed by Tony Podesta, the brother of John Podesta, who was campaign chairman for Hillary Clinton. Politico reported on Monday that Tony Podesta was stepping down from the firm.

To conceal the lobbying effort, Manafort and Gates allegedly arranged for the two lobbying firms to be ostensibly working for the European Center for Modern Ukraine, which in fact was “under the ultimate direction” of Yanukovych, the Ukrainian government and the Party of the Regions, according to the indictment.

Manafort and Gates are also accused of using their offshore accounts to secretly pay $4 million for a report about Tymoshenko’s trial commissioned by the Ukrainian government.

Ties to Trump

Manafort and Gates joined the Trump campaign in March 2006. Gates was later promoted as deputy campaign manager and Manafort served as campaign chairman. He was fired in August after reports of his lobbying for pro-Russia interests in Ukraine.

The Department of Justice began looking into Manafort’s and Gates’ lobbying for Ukraine last year. The indictment says the two partners told investigators in 2016 that they merely “provided an introduction” between the Brussels center and the Washington lobbying firms, and that their efforts “did not include meetings and outreach within the United States.”

In fact, according to the indictment, Manafort and Gates were deeply involved in the scheme. They had weekly phone calls and email communications with officials of the two companies, directed them on “specific lobbying steps,” received regular reports from them, and updated Yanukovych about the lobbying activities. For their efforts between 2012 and 2014, the firms were paid $2 million. 

Charges

The charges against Manafort and Gates include conspiracy to defraud the United States, money laundering, failure to report foreign bank holdings to the U.S. Treasury Department, lobbying for a foreign government without registering with the Justice Department, and making false statements about their lobbying efforts.

Manafort and Gates are accused of serving as unregistered foreign agents of Ukrainian interests in violation of Department of Justice registration requirements.

Between them, Manafort and Gates controlled 17 domestic entities, 12 Cyprus-based entities and 3 other foreign entities, according to the indictment. In all, $75 million passed through the offshore accounts. Manafort is alleged to have laundered more than $18 million. Gates is accused of laundering more than $3 million from offshore accounts.

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Washington Waits for Criminal Charges in Probe of Russia Links to US Election

Washington braced Monday for the potential unsealing of the first criminal charges linked to Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, as President Donald Trump reiterated his stance that the underlying investigations are a “witch hunt.”

A federal grand jury on Friday approved charges in the probe led by special counsel Robert Mueller, according to several major news outlets that reported the indictment could be made public as soon as Monday.

There was no public indication of who is facing charges or what crimes are being alleged. Legal experts say the first charges could be against a peripheral figure in the case, with prosecutors using a common strategy to first build their case against lower level officials before focusing on more prominent people.

In addition to Mueller’s investigation, there are separate congressional probes into Russian meddling and possible links between Trump’s campaign and Russia.

The U.S. intelligence community concluded in early 2017 that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally directed a campaign to undermine U.S. democracy and help Trump win

Trump has insisted there was no collusion, including in a series of tweets Sunday in which he said Democrats and his election opponent Hillary Clinton are the ones who are guilty.

“The Dems are using this terrible (and bad for our country) Witch Hunt for evil politics, but the R’s [Republicans] are now fighting back like never before,” Trump wrote. “There is so much GUILT by Democrats/Clinton, and now the facts are pouring out. DO SOMETHING!”

He further blamed the Russia investigations for taking attention away from Republican efforts on tax reform.

“Is this coincidental? NOT!” Trump said.

Ty Cobb, a member of Trump’s legal team, said in a statement that Trump’s comments were not related to the developments in Mueller’s investigation.

“Contrary to what many have suggested, the President’s comments today are unrelated to the activities of the Special Counsel, with whom he continues to cooperate,” Cobb said.

Mueller is believed to be examining activities of two key Trump campaign officials, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was fired by Trump less than a month after he took office for lying to Vice President Mike Pence and other officials about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to Washington, and Paul Manafort, who for a short time last year was Trump’s campaign manager and also had wide lobbying interests in Ukraine and links to Russia.

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Trump Tax Overhaul Under Intensifying Fire as Congress Readies Bill

President Donald Trump’s plan for overhauling the U.S. tax system faced growing opposition from interest groups on Sunday, as Republicans prepare to unveil sweeping legislation that could eliminate some of the most popular tax breaks to help pay for lower taxes.

Republicans who control the U.S. House of Representatives will not reveal their bill until Wednesday. But the National Association of Home Builders, a powerful housing industry trade group, is already vowing to defeat it over a change for home mortgage deductions, while Republican leaders try to head off opposition to possible changes to individual retirement savings and state and local tax payments.

Trump and Republicans have vowed to enact tax reform this year for the first time since 1986. But the plan to deliver up to $6 trillion in tax cuts for businesses and individuals faces challenges even from rank-and-file House Republicans.

House and Senate Republicans are on a fast-track to pass separate tax bills before the Nov. 23 U.S. Thanksgiving holiday, iron out differences in December, send a final version to Trump’s desk before January and ultimately hand the president his first major legislative victory. Analysts say there is a good chance the tax overhaul will be delayed until next year.

The NAHB, which boasts 130,000 member firms employing 9 million workers, says the bill would harm U.S. home prices by marginalizing the value of mortgage interest deductions as an incentive for buying homes. The trade group wants legislation to offer a $5,500 tax credit but says it was rebuffed by House Republican leaders.

“We’re opposed to the tax bill without the tax credit in there, and we’ll be working very aggressively to see it defeated,” NAHB chief executive Jerry Howard told Reuters.

Republicans warned that the Trump tax plan is entering a new and difficult phase as lobbyists ramp up pressure on lawmakers to spare their pet tax breaks.

“When groups start rallying against things and they succeed, everything starts unraveling,” Senator Bob Corker, a leading Republican fiscal hawk, told CBS’ Face the Nation.

Anxiety in high-tax states

One of the biggest challenges involves a proposal to eliminate the federal deduction for state and local taxes (SALT), which analysts say would hit upper middle-class families in high income tax states such as New York, New Jersey and California. The states are home to enough House Republicans to stymie legislation.

The top House Republican on tax policy gave ground over the weekend, saying he would allow a deduction for some local taxes to remain.

“We are restoring an itemized property tax deduction to help taxpayers with local tax burdens,” House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady said in a statement.

But the gesture appeared to do little to turn the tide of opposition to SALT’s elimination.

“I’m not going to sign onto anything until the full package is fully analyzed by economists,” Representative Peter King of New York told the Fox News program Sunday Morning Futures. “The fact that we’re getting it at the eleventh hour raises real issues with me,” he added.

A lobby coalition representing state and local governments, realtors and public unions rejected Brady’s statement outright, saying the move would “unfairly penalize taxpayers in states that rely significantly on income taxes.”

House Republicans have also faced opposition from Trump and others after proposing to sharply curtail tax-free contributions to 401(k) programs and move retirement savings to a style of account that allows tax-free withdrawals, rather than the tax-exempt contributions that are popular with 401(k) investors.

House Republicans now say they could permit higher 401(k) contribution limits but continue to talk about tax-free withdrawals. “We will expand the amount that you can invest. But we’ll also give you an option to actually not be taxed later in life,” House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy told Fox News.

The current cap on annual 401(k) tax-free contributions is $18,000.

Corker said congressional tax committees seem to be falling short of their goal to eliminate $4 trillion in tax breaks to prevent the Trump plan from adding to the federal deficit.

“They’re having great difficulty just getting to $3.6 trillion,” said the Tennessee Republican, who has vowed to vote against tax reform if it increases a federal debt load that stands at more than $20 trillion.

Ohio’s Republican governor, John Kasich, told Fox News Sunday that spending on entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security should also be reviewed as part of the effort to pay for tax cuts.

“It may be separate from the tax bill, but it needs to happen,” Kasich said.

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Washington Abuzz Over Reported Charges in Russia Probe

Washington is abuzz over news reports a grand jury has approved the first charges stemming from the special counsel’s probe of Russian meddling in last year’s U.S. election. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, the exact charges and who stands accused of wrongdoing could be revealed at any moment.

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Report: DeVos Considers Only Partial Debt Relief for Defrauded Students

The Education Department is considering only partially forgiving federal loans for students defrauded by for-profit colleges, The Associated Press has learned, abandoning the Obama administration’s policy of fully erasing that debt.

Under President Barack Obama, tens of thousands of students deceived by now-defunct for-profit schools had more than $550 million in such loans canceled completely.

But President Donald Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is working on a plan that could grant such students only partial relief, according to department officials who were not authorized to publicly comment on the issue and spoke on condition of anonymity. The department may look at the average earnings of students in similar programs and schools to determine how much debt to wipe away.

Hints of new approach

If DeVos goes ahead, the change could leave many students scrambling after expecting full loan forgiveness, based on the previous administration’s track record. It was not immediately clear how many students might be affected.

A department spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday.

But the Trump team has given hints of a new approach.

In August, the department extended its contract with a staffing agency to speed up the processing of a backlog of loan forgiveness claims. In the procurement notice, the department said that “policy changes may necessitate certain claims already processed be revisited to assess other attributes.” The department would not further clarify the meaning of that notice.

Advocates: unjustified, unfair

DeVos’ review prompted an outcry from student loan advocates, who said the idea of giving defrauded students only partial loan relief was unjustified and unfair because many of their classmates had already gotten full loan cancellation. Critics say the Trump administration, which has ties to the for-profit sector, is looking out for industry interests.

Earlier this year, Trump paid $25 million to settle charges his Trump University misled students.

“Anything other than full cancellation is not a valid outcome,” said Eileen Connor, a litigator at Harvard University’s Project on Predatory Student Lending, which has represented hundreds of defrauded students of the now-shuttered Corinthian Colleges. “The nature of the wrong that was done to them, the harm is even bigger than the loans that they have.”

“Even more importantly, it is completely unfair that a happenstance of timing is going to mean that one student who’s been defrauded is going to have full cancellation and the next is not,” Connor said.

1990s regulation

A federal regulation known as borrower defense allows students at for-profit colleges and other vocational programs to have their loans forgiven if it is determined that the students were defrauded by the schools. That rule dates to the early 1990s. But it was little used until the demise of Corinthian and ITT for-profit chains in recent years caused tens of thousands of students to request that the government cancel their loans.

In the last few months of the Obama administration, the Education Department updated the rule to add protections for students, shift more financial responsibility onto the schools and prevent schools from having students sign away their right to sue a school.

That change was set to take effect in July, but DeVos has frozen it and is working on a new version. She argued that the Obama regulation was too broad and could cancel the loans of some students without a sound basis.

65,000 claims waiting

DeVos has come under criticism for delaying consideration of more than 65,000 applications for loan forgiveness under the borrower defense rule. The agency hasn’t approved a single claim since DeVos took office in February.

Jennifer Wang, an expert with the Institute of College Access and Success, said the Obama administration was providing full loan cancellations to students.

“It would be totally different from what was happening under the last administration,” Wang said. “It’s not equitable; it’s not fair for students. If she provides partial relief, it’s that she only cares what’s fair for schools and not students.”

Abby Shafroth, an attorney at the National Consumer Law Center, said the agency could be faced with lawsuits, especially from Corinthian students, whose classmates had received full forgiveness.

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Asia Looks for Signals on Policy Ahead of Trump Visit to Region

It was one of Donald Trump’s very first actions as president: pulling the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, a free-trade deal he said was hurting the American worker.

The TPP was one of the centerpieces of former President Barack Obama’s so-called Asia “pivot,” an economic, political and military realignment toward a region seen as key to America’s future.

Nine months into his presidency, Trump’s decision to abandon the TPP remains perhaps the clearest evidence yet he intends to ditch the Asia pivot, or perhaps pivot there in his own way.

U.S. officials have not said whether they will unveil a similar, definitive policy to replace the pivot. But signs of a broader strategy could emerge next week when Trump leaves on his first trip to Asia as president.

 

WATCH: Asia Awaits Trump’s Regional Policy

Trump skipping regional summit

The trip will include stops in Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. But it’s where Trump has chosen not to go that has attracted the headlines.

Though Trump is attending the ASEAN multilateral summit in the Philippines, reports have suggested he will head home a day before the annual East Asia Summit, a regional meeting that focuses on Southeast Asia.

The move risks sending the message that Southeast Asia is not a priority for Trump, said Abraham Denmark, a former top East Asia official at the Pentagon.

“The region will see that China is there, and the United States isn’t. And that will send a very stark message,” said Denmark, who is now at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington.

It isn’t the first time that a U.S. president has skipped the summit. Obama also stayed home in 2013 to deal with domestic budget negotiations that resulted in a government shutdown.

Then, too, the move sparked controversy.

Asian diplomats and heads of state talked about Obama’s absence in private circles for years, said Harry Kazianis, who focuses on Asia at the Center for the National Interest.

“Missing one conference doesn’t mean that America is leaving the Asia-Pacific or that China is outpacing us or anything like that. But it’s an extremely big deal, and they’re not going to forget it,” Kazianis said.

​Regional influence

The move could add to concerns the U.S. is ceding regional influence to China, which intensified after Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord as well as the TPP.

The TPP decision in particular sent shockwaves throughout Asia and threatened to fundamentally reshape the U.S. economic relationship with the region.

“You can make positive and negative arguments for the TPP — it was not a net-jobs creator for the U.S. — but it had great strategic value for the U.S.,” Kazianis said. “It was a marker. America was going to be there no matter what. That’s lost, and the Trump administration hasn’t found a formula to replace that.”

Adding to the uncertainty, Trump has also threatened to pull out of the free-trade agreement with South Korea, a longstanding economic and diplomatic partner of Washington.

​North Korea

But much of Trump’s Asia tour is expected to focus on North Korea, which has dominated the bulk of U.S. foreign policy bandwidth during his first year in office.

Trump hopes to put more pressure on China, in particular, to persuade North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to make concessions on his nuclear and missile programs.

Trump has threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea if necessary to defend the U.S. and its allies, at times matching the inflammatory rhetoric typically only seen from the North.

During Trump’s trip, Asian diplomats are likely to try to convince the U.S. leader of the need to pursue diplomacy and reduce the level of rhetoric, said Michael Fuchs, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

“War with North Korea is their worst nightmare,” Fuchs said.

But Trump will have plenty of time during the 12-day trip to lay out other priorities, and that can’t come a moment too soon for many.

“What our partners in Asia are looking for is not whether the Obama policy will continue,” Denmark said. “They’re looking for what is the Trump policy, what is America’s policy now.”

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Asia Awaits Trump’s Regional Policy

For much of President Barack Obama’s presidency, U.S. officials touted the so-called “Asia Pivot,” an economic, political and military realignment toward a region seen as key to America’s future. Nine months into the Trump administration, U.S. officials are taking a different approach to Asia. And, as VOA’s Bill Gallo reports, some are concerned the White House is signaling a lack of commitment to the region.

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First Charges Reportedly Approved in Russia Probe; Details Still Unclear

A U.S. federal grand jury has approved the first charges in an investigation of Russian influence on U.S. elections, according to several major news outlets.

The grand jury’s action, resulting from the probe led by special counsel Robert Mueller, was first reported by CNN on Friday evening. It quoted sources as saying anyone who was charged could be taken into custody as soon as Monday. The exact charges were unclear.

Reuters, The Wall Street Journal and NBC News subsequently issued similar reports. All the reports were attributed to unnamed sources.

President Donald Trump on Saturday visited his Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Virginia. He sent three tweets but they did not refer to the reports.

On Friday evening, the president did post a social media message linking to a New York Post story headlined: How Team Hillary played the press for fools on Russia.

White House officials have not commented on the president’s activities Saturday, but he was seen by VOA News exiting the north portico of the residence, clad in slacks, a windbreaker, what appeared to be white golf shoes and a baseball cap before entering a black vehicle for the 40-minute ride in the presidential motorcade to his private club along the Potomac River.

CNN said lawyers working on Mueller’s team were seen entering the federal courtroom in Washington, D.C., on Friday, where the grand jury meets to hear testimony.

Mueller has kept a tight lid on information about the probe, and a spokesman for Mueller’s office declined requests for comment on the media reports about the indictment.

Working since May

Mueller was appointed special counsel in May, shortly after the firing of then-FBI Director James Comey, to look into allegations that the Trump campaign might have colluded with Russia to win the election. He is also examining the possibility that the president may have tried to interfere with the Russia investigation.

The probe also is examining possible financial ties between Russian businesses and members of the Trump campaign, and foreign lobbying conducted by former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

In addition to Mueller’s probe, three congressional committees are conducting their own investigations into possible Russian influence on the election.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Friday told reporters it was “a pretty big waste” for the news media to investigate connections between Trump associates and Russia. Her comment was made in response to a question about Trump’s tweeting earlier in the day that it was “commonly agreed” there had been no collusion between his presidential campaign and Russia.

“It is now commonly agreed, after many months of COSTLY looking, that there was NO collusion between Russia and Trump. Was collusion with HC!” the president tweeted.

HC is a reference to Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state and Democratic nominee whom Trump defeated in last November’s presidential election.

VOA’s Marissa Melton contributed to this report.

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