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Lawmakers Develop Strategy to Stop Foreign Meddling in 2018 Midterm Election

The midterm elections in the United States are less than four months away. Officials are putting into place a number of measures to prevent a repeat of the kind of Russian interference that U.S. intelligence discovered in the 2016 elections. That includes a new announcement that notifies the public about foreign breaches. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti reports from the White House.

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US Senators Drop Efforts to Cripple China’s ZTE

U.S. Republican lawmakers have dropped their efforts to reimpose a crippling ban on exports to the Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE. 

The move Friday gives a victory to U.S. President Donald Trump who has championed for ZTE to stay in business. 

Republican senators Friday dropped legislation that would block ZTE from buying component parts from the United States. Senators had included the legislation in a defense spending bill passed last month, but a House version of the defense bill did not include the same provision.

Lawmakers say senators decided to leave the provision out of the final compromise bill, which is expected to come to a vote in the House and Senate in the coming days.

Lawmakers from both parties have been critical of President Trump over his decision to lift a ban on U.S. companies selling to ZTE.

Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer blasted Friday’s developments.

“By stripping the Senate’s tough ZTE sanctions provision from the defense bill, President Trump and the congressional Republicans who acted at his behest  have once again made President Xi and the Chinese Government the big winners,” he said in a statement.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio called dropping the provision “bad news” in a tweet Friday.ZTE is accused of selling sensitive technologies to Iran and North Korea, despite a U.S. trade embargo.

In April, the U.S. Commerce Department barred ZTE from importing American components for its telecommunications products for the next seven years, practically putting the company out of business. 

However, Trump later announced a deal with ZTE in which the Chinese company would pay a $1 billion fine for its trade violations, as well as replace its entire management and board by the middle of July.

The Commerce Department announced last week that it has formally lifted the ban on ZTE after the Chinese company complied with all terms of the settlement. 

Most of the world first heard of the dispute over ZTE in May after one of Trump’s tweets.

 

 

 

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Democrats Want to Compel Interpreter to Testify About Helsinki Summit

U.S. Democratic lawmakers are trying to compel a government interpreter to testify about what was discussed during President Donald Trump’s one-on-one meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, but legal analysts say that is not likely to happen — unless the president allows it.

Trump and Putin met privately for more than two hours at Monday’s Helsinki summit. Only interpreters were present for the meeting, and details of what was discussed remain unknown to anyone else.

Democrats want to compel the U.S. government interpreter, Marina Gross, to testify before lawmakers, while Republicans are blocking the move.

The call for Gross to testify raises questions concerning legality, executive privilege and the ethical code for interpreters who pride themselves on their discretion and confidentiality.

“There is no precedent for issuing a subpoena for the translator,” scholar William Pomeranz told VOA.

Pomeranz, deputy director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, said he did not expect the translator to be questioned by Congress, “especially because the intent of the [Trump-Putin] meeting was to be an off-the-record conversation.”

Subpoena request

Democrats say that they are concerned about what Trump may have said to Putin and that the circumstances of the summit are exceptional. They cite the fact that the Trump’s administration is already being investigated by special counsel Robert Mueller over Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, and say the circumstances justify subpoenaing Trump’s interpreter.

The White House has been engulfed in controversy since the Helsinki summit, when Trump cast doubt on U.S. intelligence findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. Trump has since walked back his comments, saying he does believe U.S. intelligence conclusions.

Pomeranz said the summit “is still clouded in mystery in terms of what were the concrete results.”

He said, “President Putin has suggested there were certain agreements that emerged from the summit. Yet, the State Department and President Trump have not articulated them.”

The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff of California, formally requested Thursday that the committee issue a subpoena for Gross to testify, but he was overruled by Republicans who hold the majority in the House.

Democratic Representative Bill Pascrell Jr. of New Jersey also raised concerns about whether Trump could have used the summit to pursue his worldwide business interests.

“Given this history, the American people deserve to know if Trump used his position or this meeting with Putin to continue to pursue his own financial interests,” he wrote in a letter requesting that the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hear public testimony from Gross.

Executive privilege

Conservatives in the House are arguing that executive privilege shields a president’s interpreter from reporting to Congress, and many if not most legal scholars seem to agree.

While Congress has an oversight role over the executive branch, conservative lawmakers say that presidents should be able to meet with world leaders and speak candidly without interference from lawmakers.

They also warn that subpoenaing Gross would create a dangerous precedent that could hurt the state of U.S. diplomacy as well as future presidents of either party.

Legal scholars who expressed opinions said it’s likely that only Trump could permit Gross to tell anyone about what she heard. The White House has not said whether Trump has asked her to do that.

Interpreters’ code of ethics

The move by Democrats to compel Gross to testify also raised questions about the right of interpreters to adhere to their code of ethics, which bounds them to strict secrecy.

Interpreters say they view their ethics code of confidentiality similar to the lawyer-client privilege or the duty of priests not to disclose what penitents tell them during confession.

Interpreters also say that it can sometimes be difficult to recall the big picture of a conversation they have listened to after relying on short-term memory to interpret.

Pomeranz said the role of the translator is “focused simply on making the statements, not necessarily of the content of the discussions.”

“To be a simultaneous translator is a very difficult job and it doesn’t necessary mean you are in the position to remember the specific details of the conversation,” he said.

Gross is an employee of the State Department and has served as an interpreter to high-level U.S. government officials before. She was the interpreter for Laura Bush at the Russian resort of Sochi in 2008 and interpreted for former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Moscow in 2017.

VOA’s Sarah Williams and Pete Cobus contributed.to this report.

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Pompeo: US Won’t Send Any Americans to Russia for Questioning

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the United States will not send Americans to Russia for questioning. Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to let U.S. investigators question officials in Moscow about Russia’s interference in U.S. 2016 elections if Russian investigators are allowed to question American officials. U.S. President Donald Trump called Putin’s proposal an “incredible offer.” But in an interview with VOA on Thursday, Pompeo rejected the idea. Zlatica Hoke reports.

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Trump Invites Putin to a Summit in US

U.S. President Donald Trump is inviting Russian President Vladimir Putin to a second summit meeting. The announcement came as the storm of criticism and confusion that followed the first summit is still making headlines and getting the attention of the U.S. Congress. Here to explain is VOA’s Carolyn Presutti at the White House.

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Rosenstein Defends Charging Foreign Agents US Can’t Arrest

The top law enforcement official overseeing the probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 election is defending the prosecution of foreign agents who may never see the inside of a U.S. courtroom.

Speaking Thursday at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein also said the Justice Department will notify the U.S. public when it identifies efforts by foreign government to target U.S. politics. Rosenstein unveiled a report identifying the major cyber threats that the U.S. faces.

“Exposing schemes to the public is an important way to neutralize them,” he said. “The American people have a right to know if foreign governments are targeting them with propaganda.”

He offered a rebuttal to criticism that charging foreign agents involved in cyber-attacks or covert campaigns to sow dissent is futile if they are unlikely to be extradited.

“That is a shortsighted view,” he said.

Indictments as deterrent

The debate has been sparked by the probe of special counsel Robert Mueller, who has indicted more than two dozen Russian nationals on charges related to Russia’s meddling in the election.

Rosenstein said such indictments can act as a deterrent.

“People who thought they were safely under the protection of foreign governments when they committed crimes against America sometimes later find themselves in federal prisons,” he said.

He added that at a minimum, the indictments impede the suspects from traveling to other countries that might extradite them. He said revealing the charges also serves to air the allegations to the U.S. public, bolstering confidence in the justice system.

More active approach

Rosenstein signaled a more active approach by the Justice Department to counter foreign influence and cyber operations. The report outlines how the department will work to expose the foreign efforts without damaging counter-intelligence efforts or wading into U.S. politics.

“The challenge calls for the application of neutral principles,” he said.

More broadly, the report identifies six categories of cyber threats and current efforts to counter them.

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Pompeo to VOA: China on Wrong Side of Religious Freedom

Days ahead of the first-ever ministerial talks hosted by the State Department to advance religious freedom around the world, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sat down with VOA State Department correspondent Nike Ching on Thursday, addressing pressing issues including the plight of Myanmar’s Rohingya, the repression of Uighurs Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists in China, and Russia’s activities in eastern Ukraine. Below is an edited transcript.

Question: On the ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya Muslims with the Buddhists being the majority in Myanmar, the purge against Rohingya sometimes is characterized by some as religious cleansing. At the same time, killing is the worst crime for Buddhism and for many religions. Would you go further to identify the Rohingya crisis as religious cleansing?”

Answer: Well the State Department made a decision at the end of last year to make the important statement about ethnic cleansing and we know that there is a religious connection there. It is incredibly important to be careful of the language that we use, so we will continue to review it but as you well know, the State Department considers religious freedom at the center of its activity, we make that a priority in all of the work that we do and in places in Asia, that is absolutely no exception.

Question: Would you consider a comprehensive arms embargo and more targeted financial sanctions against top Burmese military leaders for their involvement of the Rohingya purge.”

Answer: I don’t want to get out of hand with the president on this but you should know we take these issues incredibly seriously and your viewers should know that as well. There are many things that are under consideration by this administration. We want to see the course changing, we want to see the directional change here. We’ve not seen that yet. And so there are many things that are being considered by the United States government to ensure that everyone understands that their behavior is not acceptable.

Question: In China, the State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report documented the repression against the Uighur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists. First of all, how would you respond to the assertion from the Chinese government that some of the groups are separatists? And secondly, would you consider a travel ban or working with the Treasury Department to freeze the U.S. assets of those Chinese officials who are involved in such repression.”

Answer: So the State Department has made clear that with respect to this issue we think they are on the wrong side on religious freedom, that they are a country of concern connected to that. We understand that religious freedom is at risk in many places in the world and yet the United States has complex broad relationships with many countries, including China across economic and military and political sets of issues. Your viewers should know the United States also puts religious freedom as a fundamental human right at the very center of discussions with every country with whom we interact.”

Question: Religious freedom is a universal value as you mentioned. How would you respond to the Chinese assertion that some of the surveillance programs are to prevent a terrorist attack?”

 

Answer: Well I don’t to want comment. Every country does work to make sure that their citizens are safe, but we should never – no country should ever use that effort – [under] the guise of a counter terrorism investigation to persecute religious freedom. Religious freedom is separate and apart from that. Every human by nature of their dignity as a human being deserves the capacity to worship in the way that they want to worship, or if they chose not to worship at all so be it. No one should be punished by their government for their religious beliefs or their religious activities connected to those beliefs.

 

Question: While we are sitting here, critics, including State Department’s own report, said that in Eastern Ukraine, Russia-led forces continue to occupy religious buildings of religious minority groups for the use of military facilities. You were at Helsinki. Was that a good meeting? How were Russia’s activities in eastern Ukraine being discussed?

 

Answer: “So I’ve seen those reports about the Russian’s use of religious facilities. That’s never acceptable. It violates all sorts of central premises about nations ought to be able to use religious facilities to protect your forces, creates real challenges. With respect to Helsinki, President Trump made clear to Vladimir Putin that their activities in eastern Ukraine weren’t in Russia’s best interest. This administration has been incredibly tough. We’ve provided support to the Ukrainian forces there in southeast Ukraine, that the previous administration – who repeatedly refused to do. We think this creates a space for the Ukrainian people to have a successful election come 2019 and we are very very hopeful that that situation will resolve itself as America has made its continued commitment to support the Ukrainian people’s desires.”

 

Question: Speaking of Russia, Mr. Secretary, there has also been a lot of concern over the Russian proposal to question former ambassador McFaul. Do you have anything on that topic?

 

Answer: Yeah, I’d like to stop you. It’s not going to happen. The Russians made a proposal about a number of things during the course of the conversation between President Trump and President Putin. There were suggestions, comments, thoughts by President Putin with respect to that inquiry. President trump was very clear – we’re not gonna force Americans to go to Russia to be interrogated by the Russians. There’s been a lot of noise about that, I don’t know why. Just the American people should rest assured.”

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Pompeo to VOA: US Won’t Allow Russian Questioning of Former US Ambassador

The U.S. has no intention of allowing Russia to question Michael McFaul, Washington’s former ambassador to Moscow and a fierce critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told VOA on Thursday.

“It’s not going to happen,” the top U.S. diplomat said in an interview at the State Department.

Pompeo said Putin “made a proposal about a number of things during the course of the conversation” he had Monday at his Helsinki summit with U.S. President Donald Trump.

“There were suggestions, comments, thoughts by President Putin with respect to that inquiry,” Pompeo told VOA. “President Trump was very clear – we’re not gonna force Americans to go to Russia to be interrogated by the Russians.”

The Russian leader proposed to let U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators fly to Moscow to interview 12 military intelligence officials indicted in connection with hacking into computers of Democrats working to defeat Trump in the 2016 election in exchange for Russian interviews of McFaul; an American-born British businessman, Bill Browder, who worked to get legislation passed in the U.S. and elsewhere to sanction Russia for human rights violations, and other Americans.

Browder was convicted in absentia for tax fraud in Russia and Putin claimed, without any evidence, that Browder laundered $400 million out of Russia and gave it to Trump’s 2016 opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton. No such political donation occurred.

McFaul, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Moscow from 2012 to 2014 during the administration of former President Barack Obama, said on Twitter, “I hope the White House corrects the record and denounces in categorical terms this ridiculous request from Putin. Not doing so creates moral equivalency between a legitimacy U.S. indictment of Russian intelligence officers and a crazy, completely fabricated story invented by Putin.”

On Wednesday, there was a high-level disconnect within the Trump administration over a possible Russian interview with McFaul.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert called the unspecified Russian crimes against the Americans “absurd,” suggesting that no questioning would be permitted. But White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the idea of each country’s investigators questioning people it wanted to in the United States and Russia was being weighed.

“The president’s going to meet with his team, and we’ll let you know when we have an announcement on that,” Sanders said, adding that no one had made any commitment to accept Putin’s offer.

By Thursday, Sanders said, “It is a proposal that was made in sincerity by President Putin, but President Trump disagrees with it. Hopefully President Putin will have the 12 identified Russians come to the United States to prove their innocence or guilt.”

Russia and the U.S. do not have an extradition treaty and the 12 accused intelligence officials are not expected to be turned over to the U.S. for trial.

The reason for the confusion about questioning officials from the two countries came because Trump said Putin had made “an incredible offer” to him.

During Thursday’s interview with VOA, Secretary of State Pompeo sought to clarify the U.S. stance on the issue, repeating such questioning would not be permitted.

“There’s been a lot of noise about that, I don’t know why,” Pompeo said. “Just the American people should rest assured.”

Ken Bredemeier contributed to this report

 

 

 

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VOA Interview: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

Days ahead of the first-ever ministerial talks hosted by the State Department to advance religious freedom around the world, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sat down with VOA State Department correspondent Nike Ching on Thursday, addressing pressing issues including the plight of Myanmar’s Rohingya, the repression of Uighurs Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists in China, and Russia’s activities in eastern Ukraine.

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Frustrated US Lawmakers Threaten Action on Trump’s Tariffs

Lawmakers are losing patience with the Trump administration’s reliance on tariffs to win trade disputes and are talking increasingly about legislative action to protect U.S. jobs.

A senior Republican senator has threatened legislation to curb President Donald Trump’s trade actions, and other senators joined him on Wednesday in promising a complementary bill. Meanwhile, lawmakers are using congressional hearings to put the spotlight on the economic fallout for local farmers and businesses.

The prospects for any votes on trade legislation before the August recess are dim. Still, lawmakers appear to be putting the Trump administration on notice.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, the Republican chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said that if the administration continues “with its misguided and reckless reliance on tariffs,” he’ll push for legislation. He said he’s discussing options with colleagues now.

Hatch has been a critic of the administration’s imposition of tariffs but has so far focused on working behind the scenes to influence the White House. His speech on the Senate floor served as a pointed warning to the administration not to move forward with tariffs on imported vehicles and auto parts on the grounds that they pose a threat to America’s national security.

Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., followed his cue. They said the president’s proposed auto tariffs threaten tens of thousands of jobs in the South, where foreign automakers have invested heavily in recent decades.

They announced on the Senate floor Wednesday that they’ll introduce legislation as soon as next week that would freeze the Commerce Department’s investigation into whether auto imports present a national security threat. The bill would halt the Commerce Department probe while the International Trade Commission conducts a study.

Alexander urged Trump to reconsider his trade policy and “drop the tariffs.”

“These tariffs are dangerous. These tariffs are going to cost us jobs. These tariffs are going to lower our family incomes,” Alexander said.

While Jones and Alexander went to bat for auto manufacturers in their state, lawmakers from farm country sought to highlight concerns that retaliatory tariffs will dry up export markets as consumers in China, Europe and other places look elsewhere to buy soybeans, pork and other farm goods.

“Our farmers and our ranchers are being used as pawns in a trade war that I can guarantee you not one of them asked for,” Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said on the Senate floor. “This trade war is eliminating access to foreign markets that have taken generations to develop.”

On the House side, a trade subcommittee heard from farm groups directly on Wednesday. The same panel will examine next week the process that U.S. companies must go through to be excluded from the administration’s tariffs on imported steel and aluminum. No witnesses from the administration testified, much to the dismay of Democrats.

Kevin Paap, a corn and soybean farmer from Minnesota, said the tariffs are hitting farmers from all sides, increasing their costs at a time when prices for their products are falling.

“Agriculture is facing the perfect storm: trade uncertainties, decade lows in farm income, agricultural labor shortages and the uncompleted farm bill,” Paap said. “It’s quickly becoming more than we can handle.”

Cass Gebbers, a fruit grower from Washington state, said China this month increased tariff rates to 50 percent for U.S. cherries, apples and pears. He said that customers have canceled orders as a result of the tariffs and that has pushed down prices as a result of the extra product in the domestic market.

If the tariffs remain in place next year, competitors elsewhere in the world “will snatch up these markets as soon as we stumble.”

Behind the scenes, Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., is urging constituents to make their voices heard at the White House. He said they may have better luck convincing Trump than lawmakers.

“He puts a lot more stock in what he sees and hears from his base than he does from elected members in Congress,” Rounds said.

While concern about a trade war is clearly growing on Capitol Hill, many Republican lawmakers are still giving Trump the benefit of the doubt, hoping the tariffs will lead trading partners, particularly China, to make concessions.

“I think what he had to do is get their attention, particularly China,” said Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., adding that tariffs did just that.

Rep. Mark Walker of North Carolina, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, the largest GOP caucus in the House, said members have been talking about the tariffs at all their recent meetings but are admittedly “slow-walking” the issue.

“The majority is wanting to kind of wait and give President Trump time to see if he can seal the deal,” Walker said.”But, yeah, there are some concerns, and it seems to be growing with each passing week.”

As lawmakers deal with the series of tariffs announced in recent months, the Trump administration opened another front on that issue Wednesday with the Department of Commerce initiating an investigation into whether imports of foreign uranium, especially from Russia and nations under its influence, are a national security risk. Uranium is used in producing fuel for the nation’s nuclear power plants.

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