Pompeo: US to Hold Saudi Journalist’s Killers Accountable

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Friday that he had noted the historic rebuke of longtime ally Saudi Arabia by U.S. lawmakers.

The U.S. Senate on Thursday passed a resolution to end American support for the kingdom’s military intervention in Yemen’s civil war and another measure condemning the killing of a dissident Saudi journalist. 

 

“We saw the vote yesterday. We always have great respect for what the legislative branch does,” Pompeo told reporters in Washington. “We’re in constant contact with members on Capitol Hill so that we understand fully their concerns and do our level best to articulate why our policies are what they are.” 

 

“President Trump is determined to make sure that we protect America, all the while holding accountable those who committed the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” Pompeo added during a joint press briefing with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and their Canadian counterparts at the State Department. 

After hours of passionate debate Thursday, the Republican-led Senate voted 56-41 to approve the first resolution. Moments later, it adopted the second resolution by a voice vote. In both cases, the chamber acted in defiance of the Trump administration, which has strenuously argued against a rupture of cooperation between Washington and Riyadh.  

“Yemen is now experiencing the worst humanitarian disaster in the world,” Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders said. “The United States has been Saudi Arabia’s partner in this horrific war. We have been providing the bombs that Saudi Arabia is using, refueling the planes that drop those bombs and assisting with intelligence.” 

 

7 GOP votes

Seven Republicans joined a unified Democratic caucus in backing the initial Yemen-related resolution, which asserts Congress’ constitutional duty to declare war and approve prolonged U.S. military engagements. The U.S. legislature has not authorized America’s support role in Saudi Arabia’s campaign to combat Iranian-backed Yemeni rebels, a conflict that has led to widespread civilian deaths. 

 

But some argued that, in this instance, the case for asserting war powers authority is weak. 

 

“The United States is not involved in combat [in Yemen]. It is not dropping ordnance. It is no longer even providing air-to-air refueling [for Saudi warplanes],” Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said. “If the Senate wants to pick a constitutional fight with the executive branch over war powers, I would advise my colleagues to pick a better case.” 

WATCH: US Senate Votes to End Support for Saudi War Effort in Yemen 

“If we set the precedent that even an operation such as the refueling of aircraft of allied countries needs congressional authority, we would severely limit the executive branch’s ability to respond to international crises and safeguard our global national security interests,” Alaska Republican Dan Sullivan said. 

 

That argument did not sway resolution co-author Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, who countered that direct U.S. support for Saudi military actions constitutes unambiguous involvement in the war in Yemen. 

 

“We’re involved in this conflict as co-belligerents [with Saudi Arabia],” Lee said. 

 

Largely symbolic

While the Senate resolution sends a strong signal of displeasure to Saudi Arabia, it is likely to stand as a largely symbolic gesture for now. Swift House action became less likely after the chamber advanced a rule blocking a vote on any war powers resolution relating to Yemen for the remainder of the current Congress. 

 

“You look at the humanitarian crisis in Yemen today, and it wasn’t started by the Saudi air campaign,” Illinois Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger said. “It was started by the Houthi rebels and denial of access for food overthrowing the legitimate government.” 

Congressional ire toward Saudi Arabia had been simmering for years as Yemen’s civil war dragged on with ever-higher civilian death tolls. Anger spiked sharply after dissident Saudi journalist Khashoggi was killed at the kingdom’s consulate in Turkey two months ago. 

 

The second resolution approved by the Senate blames Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for Khashoggi’s death, expresses support for Yemeni peace talks and states: “There is no statutory authorization for United States involvement in hostilities in the Yemen civil war.” 

Trump notes Riyadh denials

 

President Donald Trump has said that responsibility for Khashoggi’s death remains an open question, and noted Riyadh’s repeated denials that the kingdom’s crown prince played a role. 

 

Trump’s critics in the Senate slammed the White House’s posture. 

 

“This administration is putting the Saudi government on a pedestal that stands above American values,” New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez said. “They continue to extend a blank check to certain players within the Saudi government, no matter how brazen their actions.” 

Wayne Lee contributed to this report.


McCain Replacement Senator Jon Kyl Resigning at Year’s End

Senator Jon Kyl announced his resignation Friday from the seat he was appointed to less than four months ago following the death of John McCain, giving Republican Arizona Govenor Doug Ducey a second opportunity to fill the slot.

Kyl, 76, had said he was only serving through the end of the year. His resignation is effective Dec. 31 and forces a pivotal decision by the state’s Republican governor.

That’s because voters in 2020 will get to decide who fills McCain’s seat for the final two years of its six-year term. Democrats picked up Arizona’s other Senate seat in November and are already targeting the state in 2020 as part of their possible path to re-taking control of the Senate, increasing the pressure on Ducey to select someone who can hold the seat for the GOP.

Ducey said he will pick a replacement “in the near future.” His office has been typically tight-lipped about who might fill the seat, leading to wild speculation in Arizona and Washington.

One of the most often-mentioned names is Ducey’s chief of staff, Kirk Adams, a onetime state lawmaker who resigned from the governor’s office on Nov. 26 and whose last day working for Ducey is Friday.

Eileen Klein, whom Ducey appointed as Arizona’s state treasurer last year, is another possibility. The most prominent name is Representative Martha McSally, who is fresh off narrowly losing this year’s senate race to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema.

Democrats are already lining up to challenge whoever is selected. Those testing the waters include U.S. Representative Ruben Gallego, former astronaut and gun control advocate Mark Kelly and former Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods, a onetime McCain chief of staff who became a Democrat this year and a top Sinema booster.

Ducey’s selection of the well-respected Kyl following McCain’s Aug. 25 death allowed him to dodge a possible controversial pick during his own re-election campaign. But Kyl, who had previously served in the Senate for Arizona, made it clear he only agreed to the appointment out of a sense of duty and had no plans to stay in the job for long.

Kyl’s brief resignation letter said he decided to resign at the end of 2018 so that Ducey’s new appointee “can begin the new term with all other senators in January 2019 and can serve a full two (potentially four) years.”

Kyl noted that when he accepted Ducey’s appointment that he agreed to serve through December and then re-evaluate whether to serve longer.

“Senator Kyl didn’t need to return to the Senate,” Ducey said in a statement. “His legacy as one of Arizona’s most influential and important political figures was already without question. But he did return, and I remain deeply grateful for his willingness to step up and serve again when Arizona needed him. I wish him and his family all the best.”

McCain died at age 81 at his ranch near Sedona, Arizona, just over a year after he announced he had glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer that came with a dire diagnosis.


Trump’s Search for New Chief of Staff Has Reality TV Feel

Serious contenders are hiding from view. Celebrity hangers-on are applying via Twitter. Fresh names circulate practically on the hour. And the man in charge is stoking much of the confusion.

President Donald Trump’s hunt for a new chief of staff has taken on the feel of a reality TV show.

No leading name has emerged in the days since Trump’s preferred candidate to replace John Kelly bowed out. But the void has quickly filled with drama. British journalist Piers Morgan suggested he would be a good fit in an op-ed for “The Daily Mail,” while former major league slugger Jose Canseco tweeted his interest to Trump. Speculation has swirled around an array of Trump associates, prompting some to distance themselves from the job.

When former House Speaker Newt Gingrich visited the White House this week, he insisted it was merely to see the Christmas decorations.

Trump met Thursday with former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to discuss the job, according to a person familiar with the meeting who was not authorized to discuss it publicly.

The chaotic process is hardly a novelty for the Trump administration, which has struggled with high staff turnover and attracting top talent, but it underscored the tumult of Trump’s Washington. 

Post a risky proposition

In past administrations, chief of staff was a sought-after job, typically awarded after a careful process. Now, many view the job as a risky proposition, given Trump’s propensity for disorder and his resistance to being managed.

For his part, Trump insisted Thursday that the process is moving along.

“We’re interviewing people now for chief of staff,” he said, adding that the short list is now “Five people. Really good ones. Terrific people. Mostly well-known, but terrific people.”

Trump himself likes to feed the drama, dropping hints about the number of candidates in the running and bantering with journalists about who wants the job. The erratic search recalled the transition period before Trump took office, when prospective aides and television personalities paraded before a pack of journalists in the lobby of Trump Tower.

‘Sad to watch’

Author Chris Whipple, an expert on chiefs of staff, called the search process “sad to watch.”

In his first two years, Trump devalued the position by failing to empower anyone to perform the job, and now he’s turned the search for a replacement into a reality show,” said Whipple, author of “The Gatekeepers,” a book on the subject. “The only thing more broken and dysfunctional than the White House itself seems to be the search for the new White House chief of staff.”

The president’s hunt for a new chief reverted to square one over the weekend when Nick Ayers, Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, took himself out of the running and decided that he would instead leave the White House. The announcement surprised even senior staffers who believed that Ayers’ ascension was a done deal.

Trump then turned to a list of other candidates that was said to include Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney and Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. Other possible options mentioned were U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, though both signaled they were happy in their current roles.

By Wednesday, Meadows was out of the running, with the White House saying Trump thinks he is needed in Congress.

Getting a look?

Throughout the week, a number of other names were floated, including former Trump deputy campaign manager David Bossie, acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, White House communications director Bill Shine and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. It was not clear how many of those options were being taken seriously.

The breadth of speculation provided on-camera time for many to discuss the speculation. Bossie called it “humbling” to be considered while acknowledging that he did not know if it was a serious list of names. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum said on CNN that he would decline the job if offered, though it was never clear he was a serious contender.

Kushner being considered

Sanders responded Thursday to speculation that Trump’s aide and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, could be up for the job, saying that she was “not aware that he’s under consideration.” But she appeared to leave some wiggle room, adding, “He will be great in any role that the president chooses to put him in.” 

According to a person familiar with the matter, people have been reaching out to the president to suggest the idea, but Kushner believes that he can serve the president best in his current role. The person spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the internal discussions.

A time frame for a decision remained uncertain, with some speculation about the possibility of two people taking over the responsibilities of the chief of staff. And Trump made clear in an interview with Fox News on Thursday that he was still soliciting advice.

“Well, I want somebody that’s strong, but I want somebody that thinks like I do. It’s my vision — it is my vision, after all,” Trump said. “At the same time, I’m open to ideas.”

 

      

 

 


US Judge: Lawsuit Over Trump Travel Ban Waivers Will Proceed

A lawsuit accusing the Trump administration of denying nearly all visa applicants from countries under President Donald Trump’s travel ban will move forward, a U.S. judge said Thursday.

Judge James Donato heard arguments on the administration’s request that he dismiss the lawsuit. The case was “not going away at this stage,” he said at the close of the hearing.

The plaintiffs say the administration is not honoring a waiver provision in the president’s ban on travelers from five mostly Muslim countries — Iran, Lybia, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the ban in a 5-4 ruling in June.

The waiver provision allows a case-by-case exemption for people who can show entry to the U.S. is in the national interest, is needed to prevent undue hardship, and would not pose a security risk.

The 36 plaintiffs named in the lawsuit include people who have had waiver applications denied or stalled despite chronic medical conditions, prolonged family separations, or significant business interests, according to their attorneys.

They estimate tens of thousands of people have been affected by what they say are blanket denials of visa applications.

At Thursday’s hearing, Sirine Shebaya, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said officials considering the waiver requests are not following guidelines and are routinely denying people the opportunity to show they qualify for a visa.

Justice Department attorney August Flentje said consular officials are working “tirelessly” on visa applications using guidelines from the State Department. He said decisions on visas are beyond judicial review, and he accused plaintiffs’ attorneys of a “kind of micromanagement” of those decisions.

Donato said he did not have to consider any specific waiver decision, but more broadly whether officials were considering applications in “good faith” and not stonewalling.

Roughly two dozen opponents of the travel ban — some wearing stickers that read, “No ban, no wall,” — came to the courthouse for the hearing.


Report: Federal Prosecutors Probing Trump Inauguration Spending

Federal prosecutors are investigating whether U.S. President Donald Trump’s inaugural committee misspent some of the funds it raised, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday, citing people it said were familiar with the matter.

The investigation opened by the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office is examining whether some of the committee’s donors gave money in exchange for policy concessions, influencing administration positions or access to the incoming administration, the Journal said.

The probe could present another legal threat for Trump and his White House, which already faces a web of lawsuits and probes into subjects such as the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia, hush-money payments to women made by the president’s former lawyer, and spending by Trump’s foundation.

The investigation into the inaugural committee partly stemmed from materials seized in a probe into the dealings of former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, the Journal reported. Cohen was sentenced Wednesday to three years in prison for crimes including orchestrating the hush payments in violation of campaign laws.

A spokesman for the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment. Spokespeople for the White House and Trump’s campaign did not immediately respond to requests for comment.


US Budget Deficit Hits Record $204.9B for November 

The federal budget deficit surged to a record for the month of November of $204.9 billion, but a big part of the increase reflected a calendar quirk. 

 

In its monthly budget report, the Treasury Department said Thursday that the deficit for November was $66.4 billion higher than the imbalance in November 2017. 

 

But $44 billion of that figure reflected the fact that December benefits in many government entitlement programs were paid in November this year because Dec. 1 fell on a Saturday. 

 

For the first two months of this budget year, the deficit totals $305.4 billion, up 51.4 percent from the same period last year. The Trump administration is projecting that this year’s deficit will top $1 trillion, reflecting increased government spending and the loss of revenue from a big tax cut. 

 

The new report showed that the higher tariffs from President Donald Trump’s get-tough trade policies are showing up in the budget totals. Customs duties totaled $6 billion in November, up 99 percent from November 2017. 

 

Trump has imposed penalty tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from a number of countries and on $250 billion of Chinese imports as the administration seeks to apply pressure to other countries to reduce their barriers to American exports. However, China and other nations have retaliated by imposing penalty tariffs on U.S. exports, sparking a tit-for-tat trade war. 

 

The administration still believes it will prevail and is currently in talks with China over trade practices the administration feels are unfair to American companies and workers. 

Three years of $1 trillion deficits

 

Last year’s budget deficit totaled $779 billion. The administration is projecting that this year’s deficit, for a budget year that runs from October through September, will total $1.09 trillion. The administration sees the deficit remaining above $1 trillion for three straight years. 

 

The only time the government has run deficits of this size was for four years from 2009 through 2012 when the Obama administration was boosting spending to grapple with the 2008 financial crisis and the worst recession since the 1930s. 

 

Trump has said that the new budget he will unveil next February will require 5 percent spending cuts for domestic agencies in a bid to trim future deficits. The administration is also counting on government revenues to be increased by faster economic growth from the $1.5 trillion tax cut passed a year ago. 

 

The $204.9 billion deficit last month was the biggest deficit ever recorded in November, a month when the government normally runs a deficit. Outlays were also a record in the month of November. 

 

Through the first two months of this budget year, revenues total $458.7 billion, 3.4 percent higher than the same period a year ago. Outlays totaled $764 billion, up 18.4 percent from the same period a year ago.  


Accused Russian Agent Set to Plead Guilty in US Court

A Russian woman accused of working as an agent for the Russian government to build ties to the powerful National Rifle Association lobby group in the United States and infiltrate Republican Party circles is expected to plead guilty Thursday in federal court.

Maria Butina was charged in July with acting illegally as an unregistered Russian agent and conspiracy. She initially entered a not-guilty plea.

As part of an agreement with prosecutors to change her plea to guilty, the 30-year-old is expected to cooperate with prosecutors.

Butina allegedly developed a personal relationship with an NRA-linked Republican activist, Paul Erickson, and lived with him. Butina also enrolled as a graduate student at American University in Washington, where she earned a master’s degree in international relations earlier this year.

The U.S. Justice Department alleged that Butina was a “covert Russian agent” who maintained connections with Russian spies in a mission aimed at penetrating “the U.S. national decision-making apparatus to advance the agenda of the Russian Federation.” They alleged that her work in the United States was directed by a former Russian lawmaker who was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for his alleged ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Russian leader said Tuesday he had never heard of Butina until her July arrest. Putin said that when he asked Russian intelligence services for information about her, he was told that “no one knows anything about her.”

The Butina case is separate from special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing, 19-month investigation into whether President Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign colluded with Russia to help him win the presidency and whether, as president, Trump obstructed justice to try to thwart the probe.


Where the Investigations Related to Trump Stand

A look at where the investigations related to President Donald Trump stand and what may lie ahead for him:

What’s this all about?

Trump is facing criminal investigations in Washington and New York.

Special counsel Robert Mueller is looking into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia and whether the president obstructed the investigation. Trump also plays a central role in a separate case in New York, where prosecutors have implicated him in a crime. They say Trump directed his personal lawyer Michael Cohen to make illegal hush money payments to two women as a way to quash potential sex scandals during the campaign.

What do I need to know today?

Cohen, who once vowed he would “take a bullet” for his boss, was sentenced Wednesday to three years in prison for an array of crimes that included arranging the payment of hush money to two women that he says was done at the direction of Trump. The sentence was in line with what federal prosecutors asked for. He is ordered to surrender March 6.

Separately, prosecutors announced Wednesday that they filled in another piece of the puzzle in the hush-money case: The parent company of the National Enquirer acknowledged making one of those payments “in concert” with the Trump campaign to protect him from a story that could have hurt his candidacy.

So, did the Trump campaign collude with Russia?

There is no smoking gun when it comes to the question of Russia collusion. But the evidence so far shows a broad range of Trump associates had Russia-related contacts during the 2016 presidential campaign and transition period, and that several lied about the communication.

There is also evidence that some people in Trump’s orbit were discussing a possible email dump from WikiLeaks before it occurred. American intelligence agencies and Mueller have said Russia was the source of hacked material released by WikiLeaks during the campaign that was damaging to Hillary Clinton’s presidential effort.

Other questions to consider:

What about obstruction of justice? That is another unresolved question that Mueller is pursuing. Investigators have examined key episodes such as Trump’s firing of former FBI Director James Comey and his fury over the recusal from the investigation of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

What does Trump have to say about all this? Trump has repeatedly slammed the Mueller investigation as a “witch hunt” and insisted there was “NO COLLUSION” with Russia. He also says his now-former lawyer, Cohen, lied to get a lighter sentence in New York.


Former Trump Lawyer Sentenced to Three Years in Prison

President Donald Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, was sentenced to three years in prison Wednesday in connection with campaign finance violations and lying to Congress. Cohen has emerged as a key witness in the Russia investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller into whether there was collusion between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia in 2016. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more on the significance of the Cohen sentencing.


McCaskill Says She Won’t Run Again but Will Stay Active

Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill says she won’t run for another office after her term expires next month, but that she will remain active in Democratic politics.

The veteran senator sought re-election to a third term last month but lost to Republican state Attorney General Josh Hawley. On Thursday, she will give her final Senate floor speech before she leaves office in January.

In an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from her Senate office, McCaskill squashed any speculation that she’d run for Missouri governor by saying she’s done running for office. Instead, she said she’s planning a yet-to-be-announced initiative and that she sees potential in the non-elected public role that former Missouri Sen. John Danforth, a Republican, has taken since he left office 24 years ago.

“I am not going to disappear,” McCaskill said. “I am going to help and I think I can help in terms of the party recruiting good candidates, being prepared. I envision trying to help teach candidates some of the basics.”

One thing she won’t miss?

“I will never make another phone call asking for money,” said McCaskill, who raised nearly $40 million for her re-election bid, almost four times more than Hawley. “It’s terrible, terrible. It is a horrible part of the job and I have done it for a long time.”

McCaskill, 65, told the newspaper that she considered not running this year but did so partly out of duty. She also said she had made up her mind before she announced she was running that it would be her last campaign.

After Donald Trump’s strong showing in Missouri in 2016 en route to winning the presidency, McCaskill said she felt obliged “to stand and fight and not just walk off the field. And so we gave it our best. But I am really at peace about being done.”

Danforth, who has served as United Nations ambassador and in a variety of governmental roles since retiring from the Senate, was among those who called her the day after the election, McCaskill said.

“She has got a lot of life ahead of her,” Danforth said of McCaskill. “There are a lot of opportunities for people who want to continue to be engaged.”

McCaskill leaves a Congress torn over Trump’s agenda. Lawmakers also face a potential constitutional showdown over special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian influence on the 2016 election and the Trump campaign.

McCaskill said she has no idea what Mueller will ultimately conclude, but warned: “If it continues down the path it appears to be going, my colleagues here — if more of them don’t speak up — I think they will have a crisis.”

She said Trump’s Republican allies in Congress “are all conflicted right now. They don’t know what to do. All you have to do is look at the state of Missouri, where Trump’s blessing was all a Republican needed. So you want to risk that if he is not going down? It will be interesting to see.”

Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch.



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