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Ivanka Trump: World Needs More Women in STEM Fields

Ivanka Trump, U.S. President Donald Trump’s daughter and informal adviser, told a summit in Tokyo Friday that the world must boost women and minority participation in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Ivanka Trump, seen as an important influence on her father, has made women’s issues one of her signature policy areas since beginning her role at the White House. Her comments came ahead of her father’s trip to Asia, his first since taking office in January, that begins in Japan on Sunday.

 

WATCH: Ivanka Trump on Women’s Participation in STEM Fields

“Female and minority participation in STEM fields is moving in the wrong direction,” she said at the World Assembly for Women summit. “We must create equal participation in these traditionally male-dominated sectors of our economy.”

She said her father’s tax reforms, unveiled by Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday, would benefit American families.

“We are seeking to simplify the tax code, lower rates, expand the child tax credit, eliminate the marriage penalty, and put more money back in the pockets of hard-working Americans,” she told a meeting room in a Tokyo hotel that had a number of empty seats.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said his government was aiming to mobilize women in Japan’s workforce and boost economic growth, launching policies such as improved childcare in his “Womenomics” program.

“We’ve put our full strength into creating an environment where it’s easy for women to work,” Abe said in an opening address to the conference. “I really feel that Japan has come a long way,” he said. 

Japan’s gender gap remains wide despite such efforts, with little progress made since Abe vowed at the United Nations in 2013 to create “a society where women can shine.”

Japan ranked 114 out of 144 in the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap report, sandwiched between Guinea and Ethiopia and down 13 places since Abe took power.

Abe appointed only two women to ministerial posts in a Cabinet reshuffle in August, down from three and five respectively in his previous two Cabinets. Only 14 percent of Japan’s lawmakers are women.

Men also dominate decision-making in business in Japan. Only 3.7 percent of Japanese-listed company executives were women at the end of July, according to the Cabinet Office, barely changed from 3.4 percent a year earlier.

 

Twitter Employee ‘Inadvertently’ Deactivates Trump Account

President Donald Trump’s @realdonaldtrump Twitter account was “inadvertently deactivated” by a Twitter Inc. employee Thursday and was down for 11 minutes before it was restored, the social media company said.

“Earlier today @realdonaldtrump’s account was inadvertently deactivated due to human error by a Twitter employee,” the company said in a tweet.

“We are continuing to investigate and are taking steps to prevent this from happening again,” it added.

A Twitter representative declined to comment further. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Trump has made extensive use of messages on Twitter to attack his opponents and promote his policies, both during the 2016 presidential campaign and since taking office in January. He has 41.7 million followers on Twitter.

His first tweet after Thursday’s outage:

In a similar incident last November, Twitter Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey’s account was briefly suspended as a result of what he said was an internal mistake.

Facebook Pressured to Notify People Who Saw Russian Posts

Facebook received several tongue-lashings during U.S. congressional hearings this week, but the world’s largest social network also got an assignment: Figure out how to notify tens of millions of Americans who might have been fed Russian propaganda.

U.S. lawmakers and some tech analysts are pressing the company to identify users who were served about 80,000 posts on Facebook, 120,000 on its Instagram picture-sharing app, and 3,000 ads that the company has traced to alleged Russian operatives, and to inform them.

The posts from Russia were designed to divide Americans, particularly around the 2016 U.S. elections, according to Facebook, U.S. intelligence agencies and lawmakers. The Russian government has denied it tried to meddle in the elections.

“When you discover a deceptive foreign government presentation on your platform, my presumption, from what you’ve said today — you’ll stop it and take it down,” Democratic Senator Jack Reed told Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch in the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Wednesday.

“Do you feel an obligation, in turn, to notify those people who have accessed that? And can you do that? And shouldn’t you do that?” Reed asked.

Stretch responded that he was not sure Facebook could identify the people because its estimates have relied on modeling, rather than actual counts, but he did not rule it out.

“The technical challenges associated with that undertaking are substantial,” Stretch said.

Critics of Facebook on social media and in media interviews have expressed skepticism, noting that the company closely tracks user activity such as likes and clicks for advertising purposes.

Facebook declined to comment on Thursday.

As many as 126 million people could have been served the posts on Facebook and 20 million on Instagram, according to company estimates.

Social media critics

Many of them will not believe they were manipulated unless Facebook tells them, said Tristan Harris of Time Well Spent, an organization critical of advertising-based social media.

“Facebook is a living, breathing crime scene, and they’re the only ones with access to what happened,” Harris, an ex-Google employee, said in an interview Thursday.

The 2.1 billion people with active Facebook accounts often get notifications from the service, on everything from birthdays and upcoming events to friend requests and natural disasters.

Shortly before 6 p.m. EDT on Thursday, more than 83,000 people had signed a Change.org online petition asking Facebook to tell users about the Russian posts.

Lawyers for Twitter and Alphabet’s Google also said their companies would consider notifying customers.

The intelligence committee’s vice chairman, Senator Mark Warner, drew an analogy to another industry.

“If you were in a medical facility, and you got exposed to a disease, the medical facility would have to tell the folks who were exposed,” Warner said.

IN PHOTOS: A Look at Russian Social Media Election ‘Meddling’

‘Duty to warn’

U.S. law includes a concept known as “post-sale duty to warn,” which may require notifying previous buyers if a manufacturer discovers a problem with a product.

That legal duty likely does not apply to Facebook, said Christopher Robinette, a law professor at Widener University in Pennsylvania. He said courts would likely rule that social media posts are not a product but a service, which is exempt from the duty. Courts also do not want to interfere in free speech, he said.

Robinette added, though, that he thought notifications to users would be a good idea. “This strikes me as a fairly significant problem,” he said.

Social Media Companies Face Tough Congressional Questions on Russian Election Interference

Facebook, Twitter and Google executives testified in public before Senate and House investigations into Russian election interference for the first time Wednesday, amid disclosures that Russian influence on social media platforms was much wider in scope than previously understood. The lawmakers had tough questions for the Silicon Valley executives as VOA’s Katherine Gypson reports from Capitol Hill.

New York Uzbeks Seek Greater Community Outreach, Societal Inclusion

As U.S. authorities seek motives that might have led 29-year-old suspect Sayfullo Saipov to run down and kill innocent pedestrians and cyclists in Lower Manhattan, New York’s Uzbek community believes his radicalization can be attributed in part to a lack of language and culture-specific inclusion among Uzbek nationals attempting to integrate into U.S. culture.

Trump Election Anniversary Approaches

Wednesday, Nov. 8, marks the one-year anniversary of Donald Trump’s election as the 45th U.S. president. Trump’s surprise election sent shockwaves across the country and around the world, but his first nine months in office have often been chaotic. Trump has followed through on some of his election promises, but failed on others. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.

Trump Tweets NY Attacker Had Diversity Visa

According to a tweet by President Donald Trump Wednesday morning, the Uzbek attacker who killed at people Tuesday night in Manhattan came to the United States on a diversity immigrant visa.

For would-be Americans who don’t have family in the U.S., or an employer to sponsor them, or who aren’t refugees, the diversity visa, also known as the green card lottery, is the only option. It requires a high school degree or a few years of work experience just to qualify.

The State Department noted, however, that visa information is confidential under U.S. law, and that they could not comment on any specific visa application.

Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer played an important role in drawing up legislation for the program in the 1990s. In a statement released Tuesday, he said “I have always believed and continue to believe that immigration is good for America,” proposing that Trump focus on the “real solution” of anti-terrorism funding.

Two weeks ago, the U.S. State Department announced that all entries to the lottery this year had been lost and must be resubmitted.

Earlier this year, republican senators proposed scrapping the program altogether.

If the application to the Green Card lottery is valid, your number is chosen and you pass the other requirements for immigrants, you still need the money to get to the U.S. It’s a small portion of immigration to the U.S. every year, but larger than other cornerstones of the program, like employment-based immigrant visas.

In Fiscal Year 2015, the U.S. issued 48,097 diversity visas out of 531,463 total immigrant visas.

Natives of all countries qualify except Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, China (mainland-born), Colombia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, India, Jamaica, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, the Philippines, South Korea, the United Kingdom (except Northern Ireland) and its dependent territories, and Vietnam. People born in Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan are eligible.

On Climate Change, It’s Trump vs Markets

Though the Trump administration has taken steps to undo regulations aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions, experts say economic forces are helping to push down U.S. emissions anyway.

U.N. climate negotiators will meet in Bonn, Germany, November 6-17. It will be their first gathering since President Donald Trump announced the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement.

Trump considers efforts to fight climate change a barrier to economic growth. Promising to dominate global energy markets and put struggling U.S. coal miners back to work, he has taken a series of steps to roll back regulations aimed at fighting climate change. They include moving to revoke the Clean Power Plan, former President Barack Obama’s primary tool for cutting carbon emissions from power plants.

Energy transition

Losing those regulations won’t stop the transition in energy sources that’s already underway, according to George Washington University Solar Institute Director Amit Ronen.

“We’re still going to meet the goals of the Clean Power Plan in most states, even if it’s withdrawn,” he said, “just because we’re substituting so much natural gas and renewables for coal.”

Coal-fired power plants — the most climate-polluting source of electricity — are shutting down across the country. More than 500 closed between 2002 and 2016, and additional plants are slated for closure, according to the Department of Energy. Electric utilities are replacing them with cheaper, cleaner natural gas.

And renewable sources, such as wind and solar, are booming. Prices have plummeted. Renewables are beginning to be cost-competitive with fossil fuels.

Solar tariffs

Though electric utilities are choosing natural gas and renewables over coal, the Trump administration may influence energy markets in other ways.

A case before the International Trade Commission will soon give the president the authority to put tariffs on imported solar panels — and nearly all of them are imported.

The case is billed as an effort to help domestic solar manufacturers. While Trump has not embraced renewable energy, he has said he wants to support U.S. manufacturing jobs.

But solar manufacturing is mostly automated. Far more people work in labor-intensive installation. The Solar Energy Industries Association has opposed measures limiting imports, saying it would cost jobs.

The International Trade Commission recommended tariffs smaller than what the plaintiffs asked for. But Trump gets the last word, expected before mid-January.

Even more severe trade restrictions would not extinguish the renewables industry, however.

“[A tariff] certainly adds cost and might stifle solar development,” said Rhodium Group analyst John Larsen. “But the overall clean energy picture doesn’t get hit too hard.”

That’s because many states and cities have policies requiring electric utilities to use renewable energy, Larsen noted. They are stepping up their efforts to cut greenhouse gases, even as the federal government is pulling back. If solar dips, wind may fill in the gap.

Subsidizing coal, nuclear

The proposal that could have a bigger impact on electricity markets comes from the Trump administration’s Department of Energy.

With so many coal plants shut down and eight nuclear plants on the brink of closure, Secretary Rick Perry said the reliability of the U.S. electric grid is in jeopardy.

Because coal and nuclear plants provide constant power and have their fuel supplies on-site, Perry suggested paying them more than other sources for their electricity.

The proposal has made unusual allies of the natural gas, solar and wind industries. They wrote joint comments opposing it. And critics across the political spectrum have blasted it.

“This has no intellectual depth. It’s unprofessional. It’s badly thought out,” said finance director Tom Sanzillo of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

Sanzillo noted that the Department of Energy study on which Perry based his recommendations does not show that grid reliability is threatened. And Perry himself rejected a similar proposal as governor of Texas, where the growing influx of wind power was pushing coal plants out of business.

Not fast enough

Ultimately, experts say, the Trump administration has limited powers to save the coal industry.

While coal’s decline is helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, however, experts say they are not falling fast enough to avoid the worst of climate change.

Under the Paris climate agreement, nations agreed to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Former President Obama pledged that the United States would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

Even the Clean Power Plan, plus other Obama-era regulations, still would have left the United States short of that goal, Larsen said.

“The current U.S. trajectory is not in line with Paris, and the U.S. commitment in Paris wasn’t necessarily on track for 2 degrees,” he said. “It was a starting point, a down payment.

“Hopefully, other countries step up to the plate to fill in some of that gap. But that’s a big if.”

The latest report from the U.N. Environment Program says pledged emission cuts worldwide add up to just one-third of what is needed to keep the planet below the 2-degree target.

NY Mourns, Tightened Security, After Bike Path Rampage

Authorities in New York are trying to determine what led the driver of a rented pickup truck to mow down people on a busy bike path Tuesday in the deadliest terrorist incident in the city since the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001.

At least eight people were killed and 11 others injured in what New York Mayor Bill de Blasio called “a particularly cowardly act of terror aimed at innocent civilians.”

New York Police Commissioner James O’Neill said around 3:05 p.m. local time, a man driving a rented commercial pickup truck entered the bike path, striking riders and pedestrians. The truck also struck a school bus, injuring two adults and two children.  

The man then “exited the vehicle brandishing two handguns,” O’Neill said. A paintball gun and a pellet gun were later found at the scene. The suspect was shot in the abdomen by police and taken into custody.

Law enforcement officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told media outlets the suspect was a 29-year-old immigrant from Uzbekistan named Sayfullo Saipov, who entered the United States in 2010. He underwent surgery and is expected to survive.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo told CNN he believes the suspect was “radicalized domestically.”  News reports indicate a note was found at the scene referencing Islamic State.

In a tweet Wednesday morning, President Donald Trump said, “The terrorist came into our country through what is called the ‘Diversity Visa Lottery Program,’ a Chuck Schumer beauty.  I want merit based.”

Tuesday night, Trump said he ordered “Homeland Security to step up our already Extreme Vetting Program. Being politically correct is fine, but not for this!”

There has been no official claim of responsibility from IS, but Greg Barton, a professor of global Islamic politics at Deakin University in Australia, said it seems as if the attacker was inspired by the terror group.

“Islamic State doesn’t claim attacks when the attacker is held in custody and so they probably won’t claim this one,” Barton told VOA.  “But there’s no question that we’ve seen many attempted attacks in New York and there will be more attempts in the future.”

WATCH: Ramon Taylor reports from the scene

Uzbek reaction

Uzbekistan’s president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, said Wednesday the attack was ruthless and cruel, and that his government stood ready to use all means to assist in the investigation.

“We express our feelings of full solidarity to the people of the United States of America,” Mirziyoyev said in a statement posted on the Uzbekistan Foreign Ministry website.

“We strongly condemn the terror truck attack on the innocent civilians in New York City. Our deepest sympathy and condolences to the families who lost their loved ones,” said the Turkistanian American Association of New York and New Jersey, on behalf of the Uzbek community, in a statement sent by email to the Voice of America.

The Cato Institute told VOA only about 40,000 Uzbeks have entered the United States as migrants in the last 20 years, and that of those, only 2 percent arrived as refugees.

David Bier, a policy analyst at the Washington-based research institution, said he believed this is the first time an Uzbek national has killed anyone on U.S. soil in a terrorist attack.

Witnesses describe chaos

For some witnesses, the chaos was reminiscent of images of deadly attacks from across Europe.

“It always seems really distant but then when it’s right next to you, obviously it’s really shocking and disturbing, and you don’t want it to happen to anybody,” said Elizabeth Chernobelsky, who witnessed the crime scene.

Others were left in disbelief. College student Jake Saunders, who barely missed a train at a crucial moment, told VOA he considers himself lucky.

 

“If I had made that train, I would be right where the shooting is, right there, because that was my destination,” Saunders said.

Police said the driver shouted “Allahu Akbar,” Arabic for “God is great,” when he got out of the truck. But when O’Neill was asked whether the suspect shouted the phrase, he replied: “Yeah. He did make a statement when he exited the vehicle,” though he declined to elaborate.

The New York Police Department said they will increase the number of officers throughout the city “out of an abundance of caution.”

Ramon Taylor in New York and Victor Beattie in Washington DC contributed to this report

 

White House: Trump Has ‘Warm Rapport’ with Philippines’ Duterte

The White House said Tuesday that President Donald Trump has developed a “warm rapport” with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte even though the Manila leader has verbally attacked the United States in profane terms.

A senior Trump administration official, talking about details of Trump’s five-nation Asia visit that starts Friday and includes a stop in Manila, said Trump and Duterte have become friendly during telephone conversations and exchanges of letters.

“I think there’s a warm rapport there and he’s very much looking forward to his first in-person meeting with President Duterte,” the official said. Their meeting is scheduled on the last stop of Trump’s 12-day trip that includes visits to Japan, South Korea, China and Vietnam.

Anti-drug campaign praised

Duterte has alleged that the U.S., despite its long-standing alliance with the Philippines, has treated it “like a dog,” and a year ago, before Trump assumed power, announced a “separation” from the U.S. The Philippine leader was angered that the administration of former President Barack Obama voiced objections to the country’s extrajudicial killings of people involved in drug transactions.

But Trump, in a May call to Duterte, praised his anti-drug campaign, saying Duterte was doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem.”

The White House official said, “The amount of cooperation that’s taking place below the leader level, made possible by our long-standing relationship and alliance with the Philippines, is still very robust. And that expands to areas like counter-terror, all of the close people-to-people ties between the countries, and human rights as well. The president will have frank and friendly discussions in his first meeting with Mr. Duterte.”

Elsewhere on his trip, Trump is planning to advance efforts to force North Korea to end its pursuit of nuclear weapons, and pushing countries in the region to adhere to United Nations sanctions to limit trade with Pyongyang that it needs to fund its missile and nuclear tests.

No DMZ visit

But the White House official said Trump, unlike some other U.S. presidents, “is not going to visit the DMZ,” the heavily armed buffer zone between North and South Korea.

He said, “There’s not enough time in his schedule. It would have had to be DMZ or Camp Humphreys,” a military base south of Seoul, the South Korean capital, to highlight the military cooperation between the U.S. and South Korea.

“No president has visited Camp Humphreys, and we thought that that made more sense in terms of its messaging, in terms of a chance to address families and troops there,” the official said.

“It’s becoming a little bit of a cliche, frankly” to visit the DMZ, the official said, noting that Vice President Mike Pence, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson all visited the buffer zone this year.

AP Fact Check: Trump Marginalizes Adviser Snagged in Probe

President Donald Trump is working to discredit and marginalize an adviser to his 2016 campaign who took steps to get “dirt” on Hillary Clinton from a Russian source close to the Kremlin. Trump branded George Papadopoulos “low level” and a “liar” Tuesday, a turnaround from describing him as an “excellent guy” when he joined his campaign team.

 

It’s become harder for Trump to speak dismissively of the Russia investigation now that his former campaign chief is under house arrest and Papadopoulos has pleaded guilty to lying about his Russian interactions. But he’s trying.

 

A look at statements by Trump and spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders after the special counsel’s investigation unsealed criminal charges against Paul Manafort and his business associate and revealed Papadopoulos’ plea:

 

Trump tweet Tuesday: “Few people knew the young, low level volunteer named George, who has already proven to be a liar.”

The Facts: Papadopoulos, though not senior, was not obscure. Trump named Papadopoulos to his foreign policy advisory council in March 2016, where he joined a short list of experts helping the candidate with international affairs.

 

“He’s an oil and energy consultant,” Trump told The Washington Post at the time. “Excellent guy.” Trump tweeted a photo of his March 31 advisory council meeting, with Papadopoulos among several advisers at the president’s table. Jeff Sessions, then a senator and now attorney general, was helping Trump’s campaign and attended at least two meetings of the advisory council with Papadopoulos also there.

 

Papadopoulos was based in London at the time but did not operate in a bubble.

 

In April 2016, he met a Russian professor close to the Russian government for breakfast in London and was told Moscow had “dirt” helpful to Trump, namely Clinton emails. Investigators said Papadopoulos emailed a Trump campaign policy adviser the next day, saying “Have some interesting messages coming in from Moscow about a trip when the time is right.”

 

Court filings say the adviser met later with an unidentified Russian woman who claimed to be related to Russian President Vladimir Putin and a third person who claimed connections with the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry. The two men then exchanged emails about a possible meeting between Trump campaign aides and Russian government officials.

 

Altogether, this episode has provided evidence in the first criminal case connecting Trump’s team to alleged intermediaries for Russia’s government. Papadopoulos is cooperating with investigators.

 

His lie? He told the FBI his Russian interactions came before he joined Trump’s team. These steps came after he joined.

 

Trump tweet Monday: “Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign.”

 The Facts: Not true, according to the indictment.

 

Manafort and his associate Rick Gates are charged with criminal activities that go back to 2006 but extend to February of this year. The charges do not refer to Manafort’s activities with the campaign but rather accuse him of laundering money and conspiratorial acts before, during and after he was campaign chairman.

 

Manafort and Gates face 12 counts, which do deal largely with activities from 2006 to 2015, before Manafort joined the campaign in March 2016.

But both are charged with conspiring together and with others to knowingly and intentionally defraud and commit crimes against the U.S. from 2006 to this year.

 

And both are charged with conspiring together to make false statements and conceal crimes against the U.S., and to causing others to do so, from November 2016 to February 2017.

 

The indictment alleges that Manafort and Gates acted as unregistered agents of Ukraine’s former pro-Russia leader, government and party from 2006 to 2015. The indictment says that “from approximately 2006 through at least 2016, MANAFORT and GATES laundered the money through scores of United States and foreign corporations, partnerships and bank accounts.”

 

Manafort was hired in late March 2016 as the campaign’s manager for the Republican convention in July. He was promoted to campaign chairman in mid-May, after he had essentially assumed control, and then was pushed out August 19 when questions intensified about his lobbying for Ukraine interests.

 

This indictment emerged from the broad investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election and possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. It does not go to the heart of that matter.

Sanders: “Today’s announcement has nothing to do with the president, has nothing to do with the president’s campaign or campaign activity.” – briefing Monday.

 

The facts: It’s true that Trump himself isn’t wrapped up in the charges, but his campaign adviser is.

 

Sanders said Papadopoulos’ work for the campaign was “extremely limited. It was a volunteer position.”

Yet investigators said his position was significant to those who wanted to pass on information helpful to the campaign. The allegations unsealed Monday state “the professor only took interest in defendant PAPADOPOULOS because of his status with the Campaign.”

Sanders: “What the Clinton campaign did, what the DNC did was actually exchange money …. actually paying money for false information.” – briefing

 

The facts: She is right that the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party hired a firm that came up with sensational allegations about Trump’s connections to Russia. The material is unverified. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s false.

Trump Disparages Ex-aide Cooperating With Prosecutors in Russia Probe

U.S. President Donald Trump disparaged one-time foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos on Tuesday, a day after it was disclosed that he pleaded guilty to charges of lying to federal agents but has been cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the U.S. election.

A year ago, Trump described Papadopoulos, a 30-year-old energy and oil consultant, as an “excellent guy.” But in a new Twitter comment from the White House, Trump said, “Few people knew the young, low level volunteer named George, who has already proven to be a liar. Check the DEMS!”

Trump said, “The Fake News is working overtime,” referring to mainstream U.S. news outlets’ widespread coverage of Papadopoulos’ guilty plea in early October and the indictment of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his protege Rick Gates on money laundering and conspiracy charges linked to their multimillion-dollar lobbying effort for one-time Ukrainian strongman Viktor Yanukovych. Trump’s campaign was not implicated in the charges against Manafort and Gates.  

“As Paul Manafort’s lawyer said, there was ‘no collusion’ (between Trump aides and Russia) and events mentioned took place long before he came to the campaign,” Trump tweeted.

He added, “I hope people will start to focus on our Massive Tax Cuts for Business (jobs) and the Middle Class (in addition to Democrat corruption)!”

In a statement of facts underlying Papadopoulos’s guilty plea, special counsel Mueller detailed several emails Papadopoulos sent to high-level Trump aides during the height of the election campaign about his efforts to set up a meeting between Trump campaign and Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin. The meeting never occurred.

The statement did not name the Trump aides Papadopoulos emailed about his overseas contacts involving Russia, but The Washington Post said that it had identified Manafort, Gates, national campaign co-chairman Sam Clovis and one-time campaign chairman Corey Lewandowski as the recipients.   Clovis called Papadopoulos’s efforts “great work.”

The documents also say one of the contacts told Papadopoulos in April 2016 that the Russians had “dirt” about Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails.”  Starting in July 2016, WikiLeaks released thousands of Democratic National Committee emails, with many of them showing embarrassing behind-the-scenes efforts by Democratic operatives to help Clinton win the party’s nomination. She has partly blamed her loss on the disclosure of the emails.

Monday’s allegations and disclosure of the Papadopoulos guilty plea have left Washington speculating where Mueller’s investigation is headed next, but legal experts expect more charges to be filed.

Mueller has been investigating former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia and Turkey in recent years, ahead of his brief White House tenure at the outset of Trump’s presidency. Flynn was an outspoken campaigner for Trump last year, but Trump fired him as national security adviser as news surfaced that he lied to Vice President Mike Pence and others about his contacts with the Russian ambassador to Washington in the period before Trump took office in January.

Mueller is also probing whether Trump obstructed justice when he fired then-Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey last May while he was heading the agency’s Russia investigation before Mueller, over Trump’s objections, was named to take over the probe. Monday’s allegations against Manafort and Gates and disclosure of the Papadopoulos guilty plea were the first charges Mueller has brought in his five months as special counsel.

The White House says Trump has no intention of firing Mueller or pardoning the campaign aides charged so far.

Trump’s personal attorney, Jay Sekulow, told ABC News on Tuesday, “The president has not indicated to me or to anyone else that I work with that he has any intent on terminating Robert Mueller.”

The U.S. intelligence community concluded in a report made public in January that Putin personally directed a campaign to undermine U.S. democracy and help Trump win.  On Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dismissed the allegations, saying there is no evidence of election meddling in the United States or other countries.

Both Manafort and Gates turned themselves in to the FBI in Washington for processing and later pleaded “not guilty” in a federal court.  A judge ordered both placed under house arrest.

The indictment against them alleged that Manafort, who was Trump’s campaign manager from June to August last year and was a key figure in the campaign before then, enriched himself with his lobbying for the Ukrainian leader before he was forced from power by a popular uprising in 2014 and fled to Russia.

Mueller alleged that Manafort hid his assets in accounts in Cyprus, Saint Vincent & the Grenadines and the Seychelles and then “spent millions of dollars on luxury goods” to “enjoy a lavish lifestyle in the United States.”

The 12-count indictment alleged that more than $75 million flowed through the offshore accounts, with Manafort laundering more than $18 million to buy property and goods in the United States and Gates sending more than $3 million to accounts he controlled.

Mueller charged that Manafort and Gates conspired to carry out the scheme between 2006 and this year, failed to register as foreign agents and then offered “false and misleading” statements to federal agents about their activities.

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

 

Lobbying, Political Worlds of Paul Manafort Merge in Indictment

For nearly 40 years, Paul Manafort has been one of Washington’s top lobbyists, paid millions of dollars to represent controversial  figures from around the globe who needed to burnish their standing in the U.S. capital, including the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos,  Zaire’s military dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and most recently Ukrainian strongman Viktor Yanukovych.

At the same time, he has been a Republican political operative, advising and serving an array of the party’s presidents since the 1970s. Just last year, he briefly was campaign chairman for the upstart candidacy of real estate mogul Donald Trump on his eventually successful run to the White House.

Now the lobbying and political worlds of the 68-year-old Manafort have achieved a merger of sorts.

A federal grand jury in Washington indicted him in a money-laundering scheme linked to his lobbying for Moscow-supported Yanukovych before the Kyiv leader was ousted in 2014 and fled to Russia in exile. The charges came as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election aimed at undermining U.S. democracy and help Trump win.

By the end of Monday, Manafort was under house arrest, awaiting resolution of charges that could, if convicted, land him in prison for years.

The indictment against Manafort did not describe his tenure as Trump’s campaign chief and was related solely to lucrative lobbying transactions that predated the Trump campaign.

Trump was quick to note, “Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign.”

After Manafort pleaded not guilty to the charges, his lawyer, Kevin Downing, told reporters, “I think you all saw today that President Donald Trump was correct. There is no evidence that Mr. Manafort or the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government. Mr. Manafort represented pro-European Union campaigns for the Ukrainians and … was seeking to further democracy and to help the Ukraine come closer to the United States and the EU.”

Downing said, “Those activities ended in 2014 over two years before Mr. Manafort served in the Trump campaign.”

But Manafort was at the top of the Trump campaign for three months in 2016 and Mueller’s investigators are in the midst of a months-long investigation of trying to determine who had contacts with Russia in the long run-up to Trump’s upset win in the November election over former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. One person they could look to for answers is Paul Manafort.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

At US Border, Dramatic Spike in Searches of Phones, Electronic Devices

U.S. border agents are searching nearly four times as many international travelers’ smartphones and other electronic devices as they did two years ago, expanding the use of a little-known search-and-seizure authority that has sparked fresh legal challenges from digital rights advocates and defendants in several criminal cases.

The content searches of electronic devices, conducted without a warrant or any individualized suspicion, spiked during the final year of the Obama administration but have continued to surge this year as the Trump administration has adopted extreme vetting of travelers entering the country.

In the first six months of fiscal 2017, which ended Sept. 30, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents searched the electronic devices of 14,993 arriving international travelers, according to the most recent CBP data.

CBP has not released data for all of 2017, but unofficial estimates put the number of searched devices at 30,000. That compares with 19,000 in 2016 and 8,500 in 2015.

​‘Border search exception’

The searches are conducted under the so called “border search exception” to the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment. The amendment protects Americans’ rights against unreasonable searches and seizures without a warrant. But the U.S. border is a legal gray zone, where customs agents have long enjoyed legal authority to stop and search “any vehicle, beast or person” without a warrant.

Since the 2000s, the Department of Homeland Security has interpreted the border exception authority to include examinations of a host of electronic devices: cellphones, tablets, laptops, cameras and digital media players.

A 2009 CBP directive authorizes agents to examine electronic devices and to “review and analyze” their information “with or without suspicion.”

All travelers, whether U.S. citizens or foreign nationals, are subject to these searches. The CBP directive says privileged and other sensitive material, including legal communications, are not “necessarily exempt from a border search.”

Refusal to unlock and hand over a device may result in its “detention.”

Agents look at text messages, emails, photo albums and other personal data for evidence of terrorism links or criminal activity, such as child pornography.

CBP agents are allowed to seize devices and copy their content for on-site or off-site forensic tests, which can take weeks and sometimes months and yield personal data, sometimes in large quantities. In one case, a forensic test performed on a cellphone generated enough information to “fill 896 printed pages.”

Former Acting CBP Commissioner Jay Ahern, who signed the directive, called it “the broadest search authority anywhere in the world without a warrant.” He spoke at a Cato Institute criminal justice conference in Washington last week.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents operate under similar guidelines.

Numbers

CBP and ICE officials defend the practice, noting that the searches affect less than 1 in 10,000 international travelers and an even smaller number of U.S. citizens.

Last year, CBP processed more than 390 million international travelers at the country’s 238 ports of entry.

“It’s something we use in a very measured fashion when there is an indicator of concern,” Acting CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, who is President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the agency, told a Senate panel Wednesday.

Search triggers range from a previous violation of a customs law to having a name that matches a person of interest in a U.S. national security database, according to the CBP form that agents hand to travelers whose devices are detained. Travelers may also be stopped at random.

McAleenan said the searches of electronic devices have yielded “very serious and significant information,” including “everything from national security concerns to child pornography to evidence of crimes to determinations of people’s admissibility status.”

​Court challenges

But as border agents look at a larger number of people’s electronic devices for evidence of terrorism or other national security matters, privacy rights groups say the once-narrow border search authority is being too broadly interpreted for the digital age. The advocates are now challenging the government’s authority in court.

Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) sued the acting heads of the Department of Homeland Security, CBP and ICE on behalf of 11 travelers whose devices were searched and, in some instances, seized over the past year.

The complaint alleges that the “warrantless and suspicionless searches” violated the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment on free expression and assembly and the Fourth Amendment on privacy.

The 11 plaintiffs include 10 U.S. citizens and one U.S. permanent resident. Among them are three journalists, a filmmaker, an artist, a NASA engineer and a former Air Force captain. Six are Muslims, one is a Haitian national and four are white Americans.

Examples of search and seizure

Their combined experiences shed light on an otherwise opaque system and show just how far border agents would go to scrutinize electronic devices.

In July, Nadia Alasaad was stopped at the Canadian border and forced to unlock her phone and hand it over to a customs agent even after she protested that she had photos of herself without a headscarf that she did not want any male agents to view.

Akram Shibly, a New York-based filmmaker, said his phone was searched in December 2016 and January 2017 as he crossed the U.S.-Canadian border.

During the first stop, he alleges, agents ordered him to fill out a form disclosing his mobile phone password and social media identifiers. The agents used the information to view his “cloud-based apps and content.” (CBP says agents are not allowed to view data that only resides in the cloud). During the second border encounter, Shibly claims, CBP agents used force to seize his phone after he refused to hand it over.

Jeremy Dupin, the Haitian journalist who is a U.S. permanent resident, was stopped twice in December 2016, once during a layover at the Miami International Airport, and a second time as he and his daughter tried to enter the U.S. from Canada.

According to the complaint, his phone contained “reporting notes and images, source contact and identifying information, and communications with editors.”

The complaint calls the examinations “an unprecedented invasion of personal privacy” and “a threat to freedom of speech and association.” It also cites a 2014 Supreme Court decision that declared warrantless searches of cellphones of arrested suspects unconstitutional.

Supreme Court

In Riley v. California, the Supreme Court rejected the government’s claim that searching a suspect’s cellphone was indistinguishable from searching his or her other belongings.

“We think that rationale holds just as true for the border context, where the privacy interests are so great that the Fourth Amendment requires a warrant,” ACLU lawyer Esha Bhandari said.

Unlike legal challenges raised against the government’s border search authority in criminal cases, none of the 11 plaintiffs named in the ACLU/EFF lawsuit is accused of any wrongdoing, noted EFF lawyer Aaron Mackey.

“This is one case where we’re trying to change the law, where we’re trying to get the courts to recognize that the practice that the CBP has been operating under and the previous decisions (in border exception cases) … were incorrect,” Mackey said.

Spokespeople for DHS, CBP and ICE declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Laura Donohue, director of Georgetown’s center on national security and the law, said electronic device searches run afoul of other constitutional guarantees as well, including the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

While courts have consistently upheld the government’s border exception authority, Donohue said, “The laws that we have focus on luggage and not digitalization.”

Trump Administration Shifts Persecuted Minority Aid Away From United Nations

The Trump administration announced a shift Wednesday in foreign aid funding for persecuted minorities. Vice President Pence told a global assembly of Christians the U.S. would instruct the State Department to stop funding United Nations programs for persecuted minorities, instead providing funding through USAID and other faith-based NGOs. VOA’s Katherine Gypson reports from Washington on the consequences of the administration’s decision.