Lawmakers Attempt to Rein in President’s Tariff Power

U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday introduced legislation to limit the president’s power to levy import tariffs for national security reasons. The bills face an uncertain future but underscore bipartisan concerns on Capitol Hill over the rising costs of the Trump administration’s trade policies.

The United States in 2018 slapped duties on aluminum and steel from other countries, drawing criticism from lawmakers who support free trade and complaints of rising supply chain costs across business sectors.

Two bipartisan groups of lawmakers Wednesday introduced legislation known as the Bicameral Congressional Trade Authority Act in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The bills would require Trump to have congressional approval before taking trade actions like tariffs and quotas under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962. The law currently allows the president to impose such tariffs without approval from Capitol Hill.

“The imposition of these taxes, under the false pretense of national security (Section 232), is weakening our economy, threatening American jobs, and eroding our credibility with other nations,” said Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, co-sponsor of the Senate bill.

Toomey led a similar push last year that did not go to a vote.

It is unclear that Congress would consider taking up such legislation now. Still, the bills underscore mounting pressure from lawmakers to address concerns over tariffs, especially those on Canada and Mexico as lawmakers prepare to vote on a new North American trade deal agreed to late last year.

​Republican Chuck Grassley from Iowa, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, earlier pressed the Trump administration to lift tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Canada and Mexico before Congress begins considering legislation to implement the new pact.

Numerous business and agricultural groups have come out in support of the United States-Mexico-Canada agreement, but have said its benefits will be limited so long as the U.S. tariffs and retaliatory tariffs from Canada and Mexico remain in place.

Companies are able to request exemptions from the steel and aluminum tariffs, but the process has been plagued by delays and uncertainty.

“Virginia consumers and industries like craft beer and agriculture are hurting because of the president’s steel and aluminum tariffs,” said Democratic Senator Mark Warner, co-sponsor of the Senate legislation. “This bill would roll them back.”

Republicans Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin and Darin LaHood of Illinois and Democrats Ron Kind of Wisconsin and Jimmy Panetta of California introduced the House legislation.

Who Is America’s Acting Defense Secretary?

This month, a new man took the reins (at least temporarily) at the Pentagon. But who is Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, and how might he interact with the commander-in-chief, President Donald Trump? Here are five fast facts about the Defense Department head:

1. Shanahan was the deputy under Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

“He has certainly been exposed over the past year and a half to policy issues, so he’s not coming in cold to them. It’s not as if he’s walking in having never been on the inside.” — Todd Rosenblum, former assistant secretary of defense 

2. Unlike Mattis, who served more than 40 years in the military before taking the Pentagon’s top civilian post, Shanahan spent more than 30 years in private industry working for the Boeing aircraft manufacturing company. 

PROFILE: America’s New Defense Secretary

Critics have raised concern about his lack of military experience and about the potential bias toward his old company, which wins many Pentagon contracts to build military technologies.

3. Shanahan’s foreign policy positions are relatively unknown.

In Mattis’s resignation letter last year, he wrote that Trump had the right to a defense secretary more aligned with his interests. However, it’s not clear whether Shanahan fits that bill.

“What little bit we know of Mr. Shanahan, in terms of his national security and foreign policy beliefs, they were really mirrored, if not were formed in some way, by the beliefs of Secretary Mattis. So, if that’s the case, you’re ultimately getting a much less experienced version of Mattis.” — Bishop Garrison of the Truman National Security Project

4. Shanahan has so far appeared eager to please Trump.

In a cabinet meeting at the White House on Jan. 2, the acting defense secretary agreed with Trump on the issue of border security, saying, “The threat is real. The risks are real. We need to control our borders.”

Also, when Trump visited the Pentagon to roll out the new missile defense strategy on Jan.17, Shanahan enthusiastically reinforced the president’s plan.

“Mr. President, we are ready for this task. This is the department of get stuff done.” — Patrick Shanahan

5. Shanahan says he wants to keep the Pentagon out of politics, which could pit the defense secretary against the wishes of his commander-in-chief.

“It’s been a longstanding responsibility of the Department… to not politicize the military. And why that is so important is that we recruit from all parts of the United States. I mean, this an all-volunteer force. … We work to keep this a nonpolitical environment and stay focused on our job of defending the country,” Shanahan told reporters Tuesday. 

Stone Indictment Offers Clues, Prompts Questions About Russia Probe

The indictment of President Donald Trump’s longtime ally Roger Stone has raised new questions about just what special counsel Robert Mueller has uncovered during his 20-month investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

One question is whether the indictment gets Mueller’s prosecutors any closer to the heart of the investigation: determining whether there was any “collusion” between the Trump campaign and Russia.

The intelligence community concluded after the election that Russian government operatives furnished the activist group WikiLeaks with reams of private emails purloined from Hillary Clinton and other Democrats in 2016. But Mueller has yet to prove that Stone or any other Trump campaign associates served as conduits or facilitators in the theft and dissemination of the damaging emails.

Another question raised by the Stone indictment is whether the charges against the presidential confidant represent a real breakthrough in the investigation or just another case of Trump allies getting caught lying to investigators or members of Congress 

To Trump allies, Stone’s indictment on charges of lying to Congress and other “procedural” offenses epitomizes an investigation gone amok, a politically motivated “witch hunt” to ensnare otherwise innocent associates of the president.

To his critics, the charges show how the Trump campaign used Stone as a witting conduit to WikiLeaks as the anti-secrecy website dumped tens of thousands of embarrassing emails and other documents aimed at hurting Clinton’s electoral prospects.

Stone, a (former U.S. President) Richard Nixon hero worshipper and an informal adviser to Trump for the past 40 years, pleaded not guilty Tuesday in federal court to seven criminal counts. 

On its surface, the indictment does not allege any criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia. Instead, it accuses Stone of making false statements, obstruction of a legal proceeding and witness tampering – charges that are related mostly to Stone’s congressional testimony in 2017 about his contacts with WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign.

In his brief appearance before a federal judge in Washington, D.C., Stone said little. But since his pre-dawn arrest in Florida last Friday, the self-described “dirty trickster” has spoken in several TV interviews, insisting he did nothing illegal or out of the ordinary for a gung-ho political operative.

“That’s what I engaged in. It’s called politics and they haven’t criminalized it, at least not yet,” Stone said Sunday on ABC News. 

“All I did was take publicly available information and try to hype it to get it as much attention as possible, because I had a tip, the information was politically significant and that it would come in October,” Stone said.

Stone caused a stir during the campaign by hyping the WikiLeaks email dumps and insinuating advance knowledge of their release. 

The indictment against him alleges that Stone maintained much closer than previously-known ties with the Trump campaign even after he left it in mid-2015. Through much of 2016, according to the indictment, Stone remained in regular contact with senior Trump campaign officials as they sought to learn about the WikiLeaks email releases. 

After the website published an initial batch of Democratic emails, “a senior Trump campaign official” – believed to be either former campaign chairman Paul Manafort or former deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates – was “directed to contact Stone about any additional releases and what other damaging information” WikiLeaks had about the Clinton campaign, according to the indictment.

In October 2016, just before WikiLeaks published emails hacked from the account of Clinton’s campaign chairman, Stone received an email from a “high ranking Trump campaign official” – identified in press accounts as ousted Trump strategist Steve Bannon – asking about the “status of future releases” by WikiLeaks.

Stone replied that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange had a “serious security concern” but that the site would release “a load every week going forward.”

Bennett Gershman, a professor at Pace Law School in New York who closely follows the Mueller investigation, said the indictment paints Stone as a “conduit” between the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks.

​“It gets the investigation closer to the inner workings of the Trump campaign and the Trump campaign’s connections with Russia,” Gershman said.

Trump has denied any advance knowledge of the WikiLeaks email dumps. Stone has said he never discussed them with Trump during or after the campaign.

While the indictment doesn’t’ charge any conspiracy between the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks or Russia, that charge may come later, Gershman said. How much later is only a guess. Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker said Monday that the special counsel investigation was “close to being completed.” 

“This is a preliminary charge that will become much more significant later on,” Gershman said.

Randall Eliason, a former federal prosecutor now a law professor at George Washington University, said the special counsel would have charged Stone with conspiracy had he thought Stone’s contacts with WikiLeaks were illegal.

“I think the fact that the special counsel didn’t charge that conspiracy might be a bit of a sign that maybe the evidence of a broader criminal conspiracy isn’t’ there, at least not yet,” Eliason said. 

Stone’s actions may have been “deplorable” but not illegal, he said. 

“You can call that colluding, working together, sharing information but there is not necessarily an underlying crime involved there,” Eliason said.

Paul Rosenzweig, another former federal prosecutor, said there appears to be more to the indictment than meets the eye. 

“I think there are some hints here of more information about interactions with the Russians that do continue to build a case for illegal coordination between trump camp and Russia,” Rosenzweig, now a senior fellow at the R Street in Washington, said.

PROFILE: America’s New Defense Secretary

This month, a new man took up the reins at the Pentagon. But who is Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, and how might he interact with the commander-in-chief, President Donald Trump? VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb explains.

Trump Dismisses Tell-All Book as ‘Made-Up Stories’

President Donald Trump is dismissing — and potentially bolstering sales — of a new tell-all book by a former White House aide, calling it “made-up stories and fiction.”

The book by Cliff Sims, called Team of Vipers, is the latest in a series of insider accounts by journalists and former Trump staffers that paint an unflattering picture of life in the West Wing. In it, Sims engages in score-settling with former internal rivals, fingers other administration officials as “leakers,” and casts the president as disloyal to his staff.

Trump, in a Tuesday morning tweet, dismissed Sims as a “low level staffer” who had written “yet another boring book.”

“He pretended to be an insider when in fact he was nothing more than a gofer,” said Trump, who claimed Sims had signed a non-disclosure agreement.

Indeed, Michael Glassner, chief operating officer of Trump’s re-election campaign, tweeted that the campaign was preparing to file suit against Sims for violating the agreement. Trump and his associates have a habit of announcing legal action and not following through.

Sims was read Trump’s tweet during an appearance on CNN and said he knew a mean tweet was a possibility.

Sims’ book was officially released Tuesday, the same day as another behind-the-scenes account of Trump’s team by former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, an informal Trump adviser and longtime friend. The book, titled Let Me Finish: Trump, the Kushners, Bannon, New Jersey, and the Power of In-Your-Face Politics, paints a sympathetic picture of a president who has been ill-served by what he describes as a “revolving door of deeply flawed individuals — amateurs, grifters, weaklings, convicted and unconvicted felons — who were hustled into jobs they were never suited for, sometimes seemingly without so much as a background check via Google or Wikipedia.”

Christie, who challenged Trump for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 but endorsed Trump after dropping out, oversaw Trump’s transition team until he was fired shortly after the November election, allegedly at the urging of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser. Christie, during his tenure as a federal prosecutor, sent Kushner’s father — businessman Charles Kushner — to prison after winning his conviction on tax evasion and other crimes.

In his account, Christie paints unflattering portraits of a number of former Trump aides, including former chief White House strategist Steve Bannon, whom he describes as “a fraud, a nobody, and a liar.” He also rails against former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, panning him as a “walking car crash” and “train wreck from beginning to end.”

Sims began rolling out his book Monday with a media blitz that included an appearance on ABC’s Good Morning America and a sit-down with late-night TV host Stephen Colbert of CBS.

Christie was due to visit with Colbert on Tuesday.

Pentagon Prepares to Send More Troops to US-Mexico Border

The Pentagon is preparing to send additional troops to the U.S.-Mexico border, even as some members of Congress question the appropriateness of deploying troops there.

Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan told reporters Tuesday that “several thousand” active U.S. troops likely will be assigned to the border. Shanahan said that the move is in response to a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) request related to placing concertina wire.

There are currently about 2,300 active troops at the border, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy John Rood told the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. The number is down from a high of 5,900 at the end of last year.

The committee’s hearing into President Donald Trump’s original decision to send troops to the border came as Congress and the president work to resolve their differences over construction of a wall on the southern border. Trump says he must have $5.7 billion for the wall, while House Democrats have held firm on zero funding for a wall. The two sides have until Feb. 15 to come to an agreement, when short-term funding for much of the U.S. government expires.

“To date, the impact of [the troops’] deployment isn’t fully understood nor has there been a full justification for why the administration subsequently diverted active duty personnel to the border or details regarding when that deployment will end,” Committee Chairman Adam Smith, a Washington Democrat, said in his opening statement. “Moreover, the deployments to the border seem to conflict with the department’s stated efforts to rebuild readiness.”

Vice Admiral Michael Gilday told the committee that the troops have made a difference. Laying concertina wire “hardened those ports of entry,” he said, allowing Customs and Border Protection to use its manpower more efficiently.

Gilday said the decision to deploy active troops was made by the Department of Defense because they could deploy faster than National Guard reservists and because the Guard was not skilled in laying concertina wire.

As far as future readiness is concerned, Gilday said some units have missed or will miss company-level training, but the Defense Department believes they can recoup.

The cost of the deployment of active troops has been $132 million since they were first called up last fall until the end of January, while deployment of the National Guard to the border is estimated at $550 million from last April through the end of 2019, Gilday said.

Rood told the committee that DHS is tracking three caravans moving toward the U.S.-Mexico border, one estimated at more than 12,000 members.

“We have to be more flexible to respond to changing circumstances. I think that is what the president is trying to do,” said Congressman Mac Thornberry, a Republican from Texas. “I would prefer not to use the military … but things change.”

Steve Herman contributed to this report.

Senate Leader Wants US Troops to Stay in Syria, Afghanistan

The Republican leader of the U.S. Senate offered legislation on Tuesday urging the United States to keep troops in Syria and Afghanistan, as President Donald Trump’s administration moves toward withdrawals of American forces after years overseas.

Saying that Islamic militant groups in the two countries continue to pose a “serious threat” to the United States, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he had introduced an amendment to a broader Middle East Security bill urging a “continued commitment” until al-Qaida, Islamic State and other groups are defeated.

“We’re not the world’s policemen, but we are the leader of the free world, and it’s incumbent upon the United States to lead, to maintain a global coalition against terror and to stand with our partners,” McConnell said in a speech in the Senate.

The measure would be an amendment to a broader Middle East security bill being debated in the Senate. That bill, which includes fresh sanctions on Syria and a measure combating the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, advanced in a procedural vote on Monday.

There was no immediate word on when the Senate might vote on whether to pass the bill, including the amendment. To become law, it would also have to pass the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and be signed by Trump, or overcome a Trump veto if he will not sign.

Trump’s administration has announced plans to bring all U.S. forces home from Syria, saying that the Islamic State militant group had been defeated.

Separately on Monday, Trump’s director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, told a Senate hearing on worldwide risks that Islamic State remains a threat.

On Monday, a U.S. special envoy said the United States and the Taliban have sketched the outlines for an eventual peace accord to end 17 years of war in Afghanistan. However, there was no sign the group had accepted key U.S. demands such as committing to a ceasefire before a withdrawal of U.S. troops.

US Lawmakers Set to Introduce ‘First Strike’ Bill

U.S. lawmakers and nuclear arms control leaders are set to hold a news conference Tuesday to discuss limiting the power of U.S. presidents to launch a nuclear strike.

Democratic Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Congressman Ted Lieu of California are seeking to limit the ability of “President Donald Trump or any U.S. president to launch a nuclear first strike without a declaration of war by Congress,” a statement they released Tuesday said.

The statement cited the incident in 2018 when the president taunted North Korea over the size of his nuclear button.

After North Korean leader Kim Jong Un used part of his New Year’s message to remind the world he has a “nuclear button,” Trump responded in a tweet: “Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”

Markey and Lieu floated the idea of a bill limiting the president’s power at that time. Since then, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the nonprofit group that keeps track of the “Doomsday Clock” said Thursday the clock is stuck at 11:58, or two minutes to midnight — a metaphor for the nuclear destruction of the world.

In 2018, the world’s arms control architecture teetered on the brink of collapse as the United States withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal and threatened withdrawal from the landmark Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

Negotiations between the United States and North Korea over Pyongyang’s nuclear program stalled. Later, in an unrelated incident, Hawaii spent 38 minutes of panic, believing it was under nuclear missile attack after an employee at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency mistakenly activated a real-life missile alert.

“Recognizing this grim reality,” Bulletin president Rachel Bronson said, “it is still two minutes to midnight — remaining the closest to midnight that the clock has ever been set.”

Past efforts to limit power

Limiting a president’s power to launch a nuclear strike is not a new idea for American leaders.

During the Watergate crisis, President Richard Nixon declared, “I can go back into my office and pick up the telephone and in 25 minutes, 70 million people will be dead.”

That reportedly prompted Defense Secretary James Schlesinger to instruct the Joint Chiefs of Staff that “any emergency order coming from the president” — such as a nuclear launch order — should go through him or Secretary of State Henry Kissinger first.

There was no need for the military leaders to follow that order.

White House Wary of Another Shutdown But Firm on Wall

The White House says President Donald Trump wants to avert another partial U.S. government shutdown but remains committed to erecting new barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border, something most Democratic lawmakers still reject.

“The president doesn’t want to go through another shutdown — that’s not the goal,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Monday at a press briefing, where she urged Democrats to “get serious about fixing the problem at the border, including funding for a border wall.”

Federal agencies have reopened after the longest shutdown in U.S. history. Late last week, Trump signed a stopgap three-week funding bill designed to give congressional negotiators a window to craft a package enhancing border security.

The bipartisan conference committee, comprised of appropriators from both legislative chambers, is to begin consultations later this week. But the partisan fault line over border wall funding that sparked the shutdown persists.

“Democrats sharply disagree with the president on the need for an expensive and ineffective border wall,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said moments before Sanders spoke.

“What I believe is, at any given place along the border, we’ve got to have some combination of three elements: physical barriers, technology and personnel,” Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn said. “So, we need a complement of each of those things in this border security bill that hopefully we’ll be voting on in the coming weeks.”

Earlier, Trump said he sees less than a 50 percent chance that congressional negotiators will put together a deal acceptable to him.

The president told The Wall Street Journal Sunday he doubts he would accept less than the $5.7 billion in wall funding he has been demanding. He also cast doubt on granting permanent legal status to immigrants brought illegally to America as children, calling it a “separate subject to be taken up at a separate time.”

Meanwhile, conference committee members declined to speculate on what negotiations might produce.

“We’re going to try to get something that works,” Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt told VOA. “It’s going to have to be done somewhere other than in public. I’m of the view that we should make it as all-encompassing as we can.”

At the White House, Sanders echoed Trump’s threats to declare a national emergency and order wall construction if Congress fails to provide funding.

“If they don’t come back with a deal, it means Democrats get virtually nothing,” the press secretary said. “That will make the president — force him — to take executive action that does not give Democrats the things that they want.”

Such talk is counterproductive, according to Democrats.

“When the president injects maximalist partisan demands into the process, negotiations tend to fall apart,” Schumer said. “The president should allow the conference committee to proceed with good-faith negotiations. I genuinely hope it will produce something that is good for the country and acceptable to both sides.”

The Congressional Budget Office estimated the five-week partial shutdown caused a $3 billion loss to the U.S. economy. The funding lapse caused federal services to be curtailed or paused and created a financial hardship for 800,000 federal workers who were either furloughed or worked without pay.

Pelosi Invites Trump to Address Nation Next Week

U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has re-invited President Donald Trump to address the nation Feb. 5 from the Capitol.

In a formal letter sent Monday, Pelosi issued the invitation, asking Trump to “deliver your State of the Union address before a Joint Session of Congress.”

The House and Senate must still pass a resolution to invite Trump.

His original 2019 address was scheduled for Tuesday, but Pelosi asked Trump to wait until after a partial government shutdown had ended or to submit the speech in writing.

In asking for a postponement, Pelosi cited security concerns due to the shutdown. Trump considered going ahead with the address at a different location, but then decided to wait.

The longest shutdown in U.S. history ended Friday when Trump and congressional leaders agreed to refund the government until Feb. 15.

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