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.

your ad here

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.

your ad here

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.

your ad here

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.

your ad here

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.”

your ad here

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.

your ad here

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.

your ad here

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.”

your ad here

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.

your ad here