GOP senator on Trump, state of politics: ‘We may have hit bottom’

GOP senator on Trump, state of politics: ‘We may have hit bottom’

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Trump’s Ethics Nominee Vows to Be More Restrained on Twitter Than His Predecessor

Trump’s Ethics Nominee Vows to Be More Restrained on Twitter Than His Predecessor

President Donald Trump’s nominee to head the federal ethics agency that oversees him and his administration signaled he would be more restrained than his predecessor was when it comes to posting messages on Twitter.

“It will be crystal clear when there are official statements made,” Emory Rounds, a career civil servant nominated for the top job at the Office of Government Ethics, said when asked about social media use on Wednesday during his confirmation hearing before the Senate committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. “I do not intend to make as director any unofficial statements.”

Former OGE director Walter Shaub clashed with Trump and his team over ethics issues, notably Trump’s decision not to divest his assets. Shaub took the highly unusual step for an OGE director of publicly criticizing the president’s decision. The acrimony began in November with a series of Twitter postings in which Shaub prematurely — and incorrectly — congratulated Trump for agreeing to divest.

The OGE has faulted Trump for not divesting his business empire, which he valued at a minimum of $1.4 billion, and for failing to disclose a $130,000 debt incurred in connection with a nondisclosure agreement with an adult entertainer in the weeks before the election.

Still, Rounds emphasized that the agency would maintain its independence if he’s confirmed. “The office of government ethics has not been shy and will not be shy in the future,” he said.

‘Intense Suspicion’

OGE reviews compliance with ethics laws but has no investigative authority, and refers potential violations to inspectors general or the Justice Department. The agency’s main goal is to ensure impartial government decisions by removing conflicts of interest.

“In the current climate of intense partisanship and intense suspicion, the importance of this role cannot be overstated,” said Senator Doug Jones, an Alabama Democrat. During the hearing, Jones suggested expanding OGE’s powers to address the “novel conflicts of interest situations” raised by the Trump administration.

Senator James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican, who presided over the meeting, asked Rounds to confer with senators if OGE needed more powers to accomplish its mission — Rounds agreed.

“The nature of financial interests that we see in financial disclosures has changed and evolved,” Rounds said. “OGE has to evolve in many ways with those changes.”

Rounds also told the committee that executive branch leaders must foster ethical culture by example. “The default must be on the side of over-compliance rather than the testing of any limits, ” Rounds said. He added that OGE is “under-funded, under-staffed, over-missioned, and to a great extent under-appreciated.”

‘Excellent Choice’

Last week, OGE’s acting director David Apol concluded that a debt incurred in October 2016, when Michael Cohen paid $130,000 to adult entertainer Stormy Daniels as part of a nondisclosure agreement, should have been listed on the annual form listing Trump’s assets, sources of income and financial obligations.

Apol sent a letter to Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, pointing out the omission. On his most recent financial disclosure form, covering calendar year 2017 and filed on May 15, Trump described the debt as “expenses” that were not required to be disclosed.

Rounds, who joined OGE in 2009 and most recently served as associate counsel, previously worked in the ethics office of the Commerce Department and in the Navy’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps. He was also deputy to Richard Painter, President George W. Bush’s White House ethics officer and a fierce critic of Trump and his administration. Painter, who’s currently running for a Senate seat in Montana, tweeted that Rounds is an “excellent choice.”

Shaub has also endorsed Rounds to lead the agency.

Trump Considering Tariffs on U.S. Auto Imports, Source Says

Trump Considering Tariffs on U.S. Auto Imports, Source Says

The Trump administration is considering slapping tariffs on automobiles imported into the U.S., a person familiar with the deliberations said, a move that may be designed to pressure Mexico and Canada to wrap up negotiations quickly over a new Nafta agreement.

Such a move, under the Section 232 authority President
Donald Trump
used to apply tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, would probably undergo months of Commerce Department review and culminate with a report laying out the case on national-security grounds. Almost one quarter of autos sold in the U.S. are imported, according to government figures.

The proposal, reported earlier Wednesday in the Wall Street Journal, would further inflame relations with America’s trading partners and could roil financial markets already jittery about trade tensions.

The U.S. is in talks with China on a deal to avoid tit-for-tat tariffs between the world’s two biggest economies. In a tweet Wednesday morning, the president said a trade agreement with China may be “too hard to get done” and probably will require a “different structure.” Trump’s remarks damped expectations that the two sides may have reached a truce, after Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the U.S. had put its tariff plans “on hold.”

The threat of car tariffs may put pressure on Mexico and Canada as they negotiate a successor to the North American Free Trade Agreement. Rules for regional content in cars have been one of the thorniest issues in the discussions.

The president signaled earlier Wednesday on Twitter that an important announcement was imminent to help the U.S. car-manufacturing industry. “There will be big news coming soon for our great American Autoworkers. After many decades of losing your jobs to other countries, you have waited long enough!” Trump said in the tweet.

The White House notified auto industry groups late Wednesday afternoon that an announcement would be coming soon, another person familiar with the matter said.

Section 232 of the 1962 Trade Expansion Act gives the U.S. president the power to impose tariffs on imports that imperil national security. It has been used sparingly by previous administrations. Earlier this week, China announced it was reducing its own car import tariffs to 15 percent from 25 percent.

Since the 2016 election campaign, Trump has repeatedly threatened to slap new tariffs on imported cars.

He revisited the possibility again on May 11, when he floated the idea of a 20 percent tariff on imported autos during a White House meeting with senior executives of 10 major automakers, a person familiar with the meeting said. He also suggested that imports should have to achieve tougher emissions standards than vehicles assembled in the U.S., the person said.

But it may be tougher for the U.S. to make a national-security case with a consumer product such as cars, than it did with steel and aluminum, two materials used in military equipment.

(Updates with context starting in third paragraph.)

Trump hosts roundtable on MS-13 violence in New York — live updates

Trump hosts roundtable on MS-13 violence in New York — live updates

President Trump railed against MS-13 gang members in a Wednesday roundtable discussion on Long Island, New York, as his administration continues to highlight crimes by people Mr. Trump calls “animals.” Last week, in the context of another immigration roundtable, Mr. Trump sparked controversy for his use of the term to describe gang members who enter the country illegally.

He and the White House have since doubled down on that sentiment, including in remarks in Bethpage on Wednesday.

“I called them ‘animals’ the other day and was met by rebuke,” Mr. Trump said Wednesday, flanked by members of his administration, local officials and families of victims of the gang. “They’re not people. They’re animals.”

Thomas Homan, acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), said Mr. Trump was “kind” with his “animals” comment: “Animals kill for survival, MS-13 kills for sport,” he said.

Mr. Trump, in the context of the discussion about violent MS-13 gangs, floated the idea of withholding a “rather large amount of money” from countries where violent illegal immigrants hail from, “if we give them aid at all.” 

“They don’t want the people that we’re getting in that country,” Mr. Trump said. “So we’re going to work out something where every time someone comes from a certain country, we’re going to deduct a rather large amount of money from what we give them in aid — if we give them aid at all, which we may not just give them aid at all, because despite the reports I hear, I don’t believe they’re helping us one bit.”

The president said members of the gang are “exploiting” loopholes in the immigration system. Some gang members, the president said, entered the country as unaccompanied minors, a statement Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen reiterated.

“They look so innocent. They’re not innocent,” Mr. Trump said.

The president, who grew up in Queens, just miles from where he was speaking Wednesday, said it’s “unthinkable” what is happening on Long Island. 

“It’s unthinkable that it’s almost like an occupied territory, where your children are afraid to go out,” the president said.

Wednesday’s roundtable had at least one participant the president hasn’t expressed a wealth of confidence in lately — Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Mr. Trump has spent the last few days criticizing the FBI and Justice Department on Twitter, alleging the FBI might have embedded a “spy” in his presidential campaign. Asked why he won’t say he has confidence in Rosenstein, Mr. Trump said he wants “total transparency.”

“Well, they’re going to all be in the room tomorrow,” Mr. Trump told reporters Wednesday on his way to New York. “We’re gonna see what happens. What I want is, I want total transparency. Wait. You have to have transparency. Even they probably want transparency because this issue supersedes a party. This supersedes Republicans and Democrats. So what I want from Rod, from the FBI, from everybody — we want transparency.”

But at the roundtable, Mr. Trump called Rosenstein “Rod,” and thanked him for his “nice” remarks.

The president has railed against MS-13 gang crime on Long Island before, visiting in July of last year. At the time, he told a crowd of law enforcement officers he doesn’t mind if police get physical with gang members.

“When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see them thrown in – rough – I said, ‘Please don’t be too nice.’ Like when you guys put someone in the car and you’re protecting their head [with your hand],..like don’t hit their head, and they’ve just killed somebody….I said, ‘you can take the hand away,'” Mr. Trump said.

BBC: Trump lawyer Michael Cohen was paid by Ukraine to facilitate White House talks

BBC: Trump lawyer Michael Cohen was paid by Ukraine to facilitate White House talks

Michael Cohen, President Trump’s personal lawyer, was secretly paid at least $400,000 to arrange talks between Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Mr. Trump, the BBC’s Paul Wood reported Wednesday, citing sources in Kiev who are close to those involved. Wood also reports that Cohen was paid through intermediaries acting on Poroshenko’s behalf, even though Cohen was not registered as a foreign agent of Ukraine under the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act.

Before Cohen’s intervention, Ukrainian representatives were only able to get a brief photo op for the Ukrainian president — who has been openly critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin — with Mr. Trump. But Poroshenko needed a meeting that could be framed as “talks,” a high-ranking Ukrainian intelligence officer told Wood. 

A Ukrainian lawmaker loyal to Poroshenko then drew on personal contacts with the Port of Washington Chabad, which is a Jewish charity in New York, and this, the BBC reports, led them to Cohen, who received hundreds of thousands of dollars. One source said Cohen received $400,000, and another put the number at $600,000, in return for help setting up a backchannel to Mr. Trump. 

Stormy Daniels’ attorney, Michael Avenatti, who has obtained some of Cohen’s financial records, told the BBC that reports filed by Cohen’s bank to the Treasury Department said Cohen had received money from “Ukrainian interests.” 

Poroshenko had a meeting at the White House in June 2017, when the White House schedule said the Ukrainian president would be able to “drop in” on Mr. Trump in the Oval Office. Cohen’s payment, according to Wood, “was for getting Poroshenko more than just an embarrassingly brief few minutes of small talk and a handshake,” the senior official told Wood, and they continued to negotiate until the very day of the visit, which angered the Ukrainians. 

In the end, however, Poroshenko was gratified to have an Oval Office meeting covered by the press, and considered it a substantive visit.

Presidents Trump and Poroshenko discussed preserving Russian sanctions and possibly ramping up those sanctions until Russia adheres to the Minsk agreement, which sought to end the war between Ukraine and Russia, the Ukrainian president told Ukrainian reporters after the meeting with Mr. Trump. He called the sanctions “extremely important” and claimed it was “no coincidence” that the U.S. reinforced sanctions on 38 individuals and companies the week he was in Washington.

CBS News’ Kylie Atwood reported in June that Poroshenko was leaving Washington feeling that his message was heard by the administration, and that Ukraine had the backing of Mr. Trump.

Upon Poroshnko’s return home, the Ukrainian anti-corruption agency stopped investigating former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, according to BBC. Manafort had been accused of being paid millions by pro-Russian interests in Ukraine in reports by the Associated Press and New York Times. 

Since then, Ukraine has made deals with the U.S. to import coal, locomotives and Javelin anti-tank missiles. Wood says he’s seen an intelligence report citing senior Ukrainian sources claiming these deals flow a backchannel arrangement where Ukraine would buy U.S. support and the U.S. would give Ukraine limited arms help. 

Cohen denies the BBC’s report, and the Ukrainians identified by the BBC as having opened the backchannel to Mr. Trump also denied the report. 

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