North Korea’s announcement Friday that it’s immediately halting nuclear and missile tests — and even plans to shutter its main nuclear test facility — added serious momentum to high-level talks and a historic upcoming summit between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un.
It’s also a stark reminder, however, of how diplomatically deft — and willing to take risks — the Trump administration and its Asian allies will have to be in order to turn the peace overtures of a notoriously untrustworthy regime into something lasting. There is still a significant gap between what North Korea has done and what Washington considers non-negotiable: A verifiable commitment from Pyongyang to give up its outlawed weapons for good under the watchful eye of international inspectors.
“As for the foreplay getting to the summit, I would give the Trump administration credit,” former Secretary of Defense William Perry said in an interview following the announcement. “But the North Koreans are going in from a position of strength. They have built their nuclear deterrent. They are not going to give that up lightly.”
Trump responded quickly to the announcement late Friday on Twitter, calling the pledge “big progress” and saying he is looking forward to the first-ever summit between American and North Korean leaders. That summit has yet to be scheduled but the White House says could take place as early as next month.
Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in are also expected to hold a rare face-to-face meeting next week as part of the recent flurry of diplomatic activity after months of worrisome military threats — including between Kim and Trump.
The North Korean announcement comes after a series of breakthroughs in recent weeks, including a secret meeting between Kim and CIA Director and secretary of state-designate Mike Pompeo.
The announcement is also the latest in a series public concessions Pyongyang has made to set the stage for more high-level negotiations. Pyongyang recently asserted it will not demand that the United States remove its troops from South Korea as a precondition to giving up its nuclear program — in effect dropping a key obstacle that has stymied diplomatic efforts for decades. The North Korean government has also said it does not expect crippling economic sanctions to be lifted immediately.
“What we have gotten into here is a little bit of a peace race,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a leading disarmament group. “Both leaders clearly want to see this summit succeed.”
But now comes the hard part, according to a number of leading North Korea and arms control experts.
They agreed that Pyongyang is likely to seek historic concessions in return for its promises – including some that may be difficult for the Trump administration to swallow.
Some likely demands include a peace treaty with the United States to replace the fragile armistice still in place from the Korean War, full diplomatic relations with Washington, and major commitments on trade and investment that Kim is seeking to resurrect the communist nation’s failing economy.
The most difficult hurdle will be determining how North Korea’s full disarmament would be achieved — and that it can be trusted to stick to an agreement given its long history of breaking its word.
“They have conducted six tests and probably have a working [nuclear] device,” said Kimball. “The question is how does the Trump Administration, South Korea, and Japan solidify that pledge so it is not just a test site closure but a permanent commitment” to disarm?
“What is important,” he added, “is that the two sides continue to prepare the ground for the summit to create a framework for follow on negotiations on this step by step from for de-nuclearization.”
That won’t be easy, said Perry.
He said he is most concerned about the time scale that the North Koreans might propose for de-nuclearization, advising American negotiators to be prepared for Pyongyang to seek a lengthier timeline than they might prefer.
“I am more worried about a timeline that seems much too slow,” he said. “To think North Korea will agree to a rapid time scale for dismantling its small nuclear arsenal [is] probably optimistic.”
An agreement to dismantle the current nuclear arsenal would also likely require what Perry called “intrusive inspections.”
Kimball suggested that one short-term way test North Korea’s word is to invite Pyongyang to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which outlaws nuclear testing. “That would have broad support in the region,” he said.
The United States has signed but the U.S. Senate has not ratified the pact.
Jon Wolfsthal, who oversaw the nuclear portfolio on the National Security Council in the Obama administration, said he was particularly struck by the North Korean pledge to close the main nuclear test facility: “That part is new.”
But he also suggested that part of the North Koreans’ calculations may be to look like the willing partner going into the summit should the U.S. and its allies ultimately not be able to agree to its demands and the negotiations break down.
“It’s another sign the North Koreans really want this summit to happen,” Wolfsthal, who is now a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said of the latest pledges. “They want to be seen as the advocate for compromise and even for peace.”
“Up until now,” he added, “they have been doing all the concessions. The U.S. is the one adopting the maximalist position. That puts them in a good position if the summit doesn’t succeed. They don’t want to be blamed. They want to be able to blame the United States.”
Yet even some of the fiercest critics of negotiating with the North Koreans are willing to give peace a chance, including those who believe any deal with the dynastic dictatorship that is embodied in the Kim family is wishful thinking.
“It is positive,” said Henry Sokolski, who heads the hawkish Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington. “I think the bad news is it is not at all clear how Mr. Trump is going to do better than his predecessors.”
“The real problem is not the weapons,” he added, “it is the Kim family. I can’t imagine how we solve that problem.”
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North Korea says the country is suspending its missile and nuclear tests and closing its nuclear test site.
If it bears out, the stunning announcement put President Donald Trump on the brink of a major foreign policy break through. Per The Associated Press, the announcement from North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency comes days before leader Kim Jong Un is set to meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
“The North’s decisions were made in a meeting of the ruling party’s full Central Committee which had convened to discuss a “new stage” of policies,” AP reports.
President Trump immediately celebrated the decision on Twitter — and said he looked forward to his summit with Kim.
“North Korea has agreed to suspend all Nuclear Tests and close up a major test site. This is very good news for North Korea and the World – big progress! Look forward to our Summit.”
Elsewhere in President Trump’s orbit:
ROSE TO THE OCCASION: Rod Rosenstein’s handling of the Comey memos, and swiftly getting them to Congress, won him some goodwill with some of his harshest critics in Congress.
SENDING REGRETS: President Trump will skip Barbara Bush’s funeral out of respect for the family, the White House says. First lady Melania Trump will attend.
WIKI WILD WILD: The DNC sued the Trump campaign, Wikileaks and the Russian government alleging a 2016 conspiracy plot.
RICARDEL TO DUTY: National security adviser John Bolton named Mira Ricardel, the undersecretary of commerce for export administration, as his deputy at the National Security Council.
HAS, NO RED FLAGS?: The CIA declassified a 2011 disciplinary memo that concludes President Trump’s CIA nominee Gina Haspel “acted appropriately” during the destruction of video tapes showing enhanced interrogations.
HART NOT IN IT: J. Steven Hart a lobbyist whose wife rented a low cost condo to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt will leave his lobbying firm, he announced today, moving up a planned November retirement.
There you have it. You’re caught up on the Trump administration. That was Friday.
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Rudy Giuliani has an explicit mission on Donald Trump’s legal team: Help the president lift the Russia-shaped “cloud” over his White House–and fast.
An early priority for Trump’s newest personal attorney will be to resolve the question of whether the president even needs to sit for an interview with special counsel Robert Mueller.
Giuliani plans to meet in the coming days with Mueller and his team of prosecutors, and will also press them to swiftly conclude the portion of his investigation that deals with whether the president obstructed justice.
The former New York mayor is banking in part that his understanding of Mueller—whom he’s known for more than three decades, dating back to the Reagan Justice Department— can help clear logjams between the special counsel and Trump’s legal team.
“We’ve continued to maintain this cooperative attitude. Now, with the new legal team, we plan to move in an expeditious manner,” said Jay Sekulow, who serves as one of Trump’s personal attorneys.
But Trump’s legal team has talked of hurrying Mueller along before, with optimism that proved misplaced. And legal experts are skeptical that the addition of Giuliani and a pair of Florida-based lawyers are likely to resolve Trump’s headaches anytime soon.
“People have to understand that this is going to take some time,” former Attorney General Eric Holder told MSNBC on Thursday. “We’re only about a year or so into this. From my view of this, I always thought this was about a two-year case.”
While Mueller is likely to show Trump some deference when arranging a meeting time and place, he controls the timeline of the investigation—and almost certainly doesn’t share Trump’s sense of urgency, although some analysts believe he would like to avoid dramatic moves in the midst of the 2018 midterm election campaign that could be interpreted as political.
Mueller likely still has much work to do. At a minimum, he must see through his case against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who has pleaded not guilty to charges including bank and tax fraud and is set to face trial starting in July.
Talk of a speedy end to the Russia probe is “wishful thinking,” said David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor from Miami. “It’s obvious the client wants it to be over and the people surrounding him want it to be over. But the only person who can determine when it’s going to conclude in the case of the Russia investigation is Mueller.”
One upcoming landmark is an early July legal deadline for Mueller to provide his supervisor—Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein—with a status report on his work. Rosenstein then must determine whether the Russia investigation should continue.
Those practical requirements are clashing up against Trump, who has shown for more than a year that he wants the Russia investigation finished.
The president complained last March to then-FBI Director James Comey about the “cloud” hanging over his White House and how it was distracting everything from his foreign policy agenda to his legislative loss on health care.
His ire has only grown since he fired Comey, a move that prompted Mueller’s appointment and then later ensnared some of his former aides with criminal charges, while forcing dozens more to sit for interviews and spend thousands of dollars on lawyer fees.
During a press conference earlier this week with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Trump described Mueller’s work as “a very bad thing for our country.”
“We are hopefully coming to the end,” Trump said.
Enter Giuliani, who has his own longstanding relationship with Trump and who told CNN Thursday that the Russia probe “needs a little push.”
“I don’t know yet what’s outstanding. But I don’t think it’s going to take more than a week or two to get a resolution. They’re almost there,” Giuliani also told the New York Post. “I’m going to ask Mueller, ‘What do you need to wrap it up?’”
Pundits mocked Giuliani for what seemed a totally implausible timeline. But Trump’s associates said Friday that Giuliani was referring not to the entire investigation, just on concluding talks with Mueller about a possible interview with Trump.
Giuliani has also been highlighting his personal ties to Mueller, which date to their service together as high-ranking Reagan Justice Department officials. They were thrown together again by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York, when Giuliani was mayor of the city and Mueller was freshly at the helm of the FBI.
The negotiations between Trump’s lawyers and Mueller to hash out the details for a potential interview had been on track earlier this month but got shelved after the FBI last Monday raided the office and hotel rooms of Michael Cohen and seized materials as part of what the Justice Department later disclosed was a months-long investigation into the president’s longtime personal attorney.
With Giuliani on board, Trump wants to resolve the interview question quickly so that Mueller move towards a final determination on the president’s legal exposure.
That’s a risky move. A Trump interview can expose the president to questions under oath about everything from potential obstruction of justice to his knowledge of Kremlin support for his 2016 White House campaign.
Legal experts have their doubts that Giuliani will be the magic ingredient to get even Trump’s portion of the Russia probe finished.
“The idea that Giuliani has a special relationship with Mueller that will convince Mueller to end the investigation early is silly,” said Renato Mariotti, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago.
“Asking a prosecutor to end an investigation early is an extraordinary request that is a Hail Mary at best,” he added. “If Giuliani achieves any success, it’s because Trump gives him leverage by misusing his power as president.”
There are also other outstanding factors at play, from the prospect that materials seized during the Cohen FBI raid might have legal implications for the president to the prospect that Manafort might be flipped into a government witness as his July criminal trial approaches.
“Any suggestion it should be resolved before the Manafort case is cleared is a ridiculous suggestion. Who knows what Manafort is going to do?” said Ray Jahn, a former U.S. assistant attorney in San Antonio who worked on Ken Starr’s Whitewater investigation into President Bill Clinton.
Mueller’s current pace, Jahn added, has hardly been slow. “To have gotten this far this fast is phenomenal,” he said, noting the one-year anniversary is approaching in May for the special counsel’s appointment.
In his MSNBC interview, Holder also said the special counsel was “moving almost at light speed what they have done in that first year.”
“But this is, you’re building from the bottom up. You build the case that you can and try to flip people until you work your way up to the top. It’s a classic public corruption case,” Holder added.
Trump allies remain impatient with such talk.
“The important thing here is getting any distraction being put in front of the president taken care of,” said Jason Miller, the former Trump campaign communications director who also served in a similar role during Giuliani’s 2008 White House run. “That’s very clearly what the mayor’s goal is.”
One question is how Mueller will fulfill the requirement of an internal Justice Department regulation that says special counsels must submit a report 90 days before the beginning of the next fiscal year about “the status of the investigation, and provide a budget request for the following year.”
“The Attorney General shall determine whether the investigation should continue and, if so, establish the budget for the next year,” the regulation also says. In the case of the Mueller probe, Rosenstein is serving as the acting attorney general because of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recusal from the Russia investigation.
But it is unclear how detailed Mueller’s report needs to be and whether it might be made public.
Samuel Buell, a former federal prosecutor and Duke University law school professor, said Mueller could use his report obligations to detail his decisions on whether to prosecutor or not prosecute key figures in the Russia probe—potentially including Trump himself.
“He seems to like to be consistently sending the message that he’s not dawdling,” he said. “One way to do that is to say, ‘here’s a picture of it, and we’ve run everything to the ground.'”
But there are other complications, including the fate of the materials seized by the FBI during the Cohen raid–and that could extend Mueller’s investigation much longer than Trump and his lawyers would like.
“More facts and more legal proceedings can lead to more witnesses, which can potentially lead to more facts. And so on,” Buell said. “In this sense, the case is expanding and not contracting.”
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St. Louis prosecutors filed criminal charges against Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens on Friday over his handling of a donors list for his veterans charity, the newest controversy for the governor, who is facing separate allegations of blackmail and sexual assault and a felony charge alleging invasion of privacy.
Missouri’s attorney general, Josh Hawley, announced on Friday that St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner had found probable cause to file criminal charges against the governor in the case. Prosecutors allege that Greitens improperly used the donor list for his charity organization, The Mission Continues, during his 2016 political campaign.
“These are serious charges — and an important reminder that no one is above the law in Missouri,” Hawley said in a statement.
Greitens, a Republican, is facing mounting calls and pressure to resign from GOP officials in his own state and elsewhere.
Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, also a Republican, said last week he was “deeply troubled” by allegations of sexual misconduct leveled against Greitens, adding that calls for him to step down were a “reasonable request.”
Greitens was accused of forcing a woman into oral sex in 2015 as outlined in a scathing report released last week by the Missouri House of Representatives. The woman, with whom Greitens had an affair, says the governor barred her from leaving his basement and made her to engage in oral sex while she cried “uncontrollably.”
In sworn testimony to state lawmakers, the woman said Greitens blindfolded her, tore her shirt open, pulled her pants down, photographed her without her consent and spat on her face, calling her “a little whore.”
The woman’s ex-husband also alleges that Greitens sought to use the unauthorized photo to blackmail her.
Greitens has acknowledged the affair while strongly denying the criminal allegations, including the blackmail.
In a separate indictment in February, Greitens was charged with a felony count of invasion of privacy for taking the photo of the woman without consent. A local judge on Thursday threw out a motion from Greitens’ legal team to have the criminal case dropped, clearing way for the trial to begin next month.
Despite the growing political scandal, Greitens has denied wrongdoing and vowed to remain in office.
He has called Gardner a “reckless liberal prosecutor” and labeled the state’s investigations into him as a “political witch hunt.”
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North Korea on Friday said it has suspended nuclear and long-range missile tests and plans to close its nuclear test site.
The North’s official Korean Central News Agency said the suspension of nuclear and ICBM tests went into effect Saturday.
The country says it’s making the move to shift its national focus and improve its economy.
The announcements came days before North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is set to meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in in a border truce village for a rare summit aimed at resolving the nuclear standoff with Pyongyang.
The North’s decisions were made in a meeting of the ruling party’s full Central Committee which had convened to discuss a “new stage” of policies.
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Iran may resume its nuclear activities “at a much greater speed” if President Donald Trump moves forward with plans to pull the U.S. out of a landmark nuclear agreement and reimposes sanctions against the nation, Iran’s foreign minister said Friday.
Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told “Face the Nation” host Margaret Brennan, in an interview set to air Sunday, that Iran was open to relaunching its nuclear program should Trump fail to waive economic sanctions on Tehran.
“We have put a number of options for ourselves and those options are ready, including options that would involve resuming at a much greater speed our nuclear activities,” Zarif said, according to an early excerpt obtained by POLITICO. “And those options are ready to be implemented and we would make the necessary decision when we see fit.”
Trump in January again extended the nuclear deal, one of former President Barack Obama’s signature foreign policy achievements, despite frequently railing against the pact and threatening to withdraw the U.S. from it.
The action effectively set a May 12 deadline for the president to decide whether to again renew a waiver of sanctions against Iran, something that comes up for renewal every 120 days. The lifting of sanctions was agreed upon by the Obama administration as part of the international agreement, which imposed additional restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program.
Zarif said the country was prepared to take action should Trump decide to reinstate sanctions, adding, “Obviously, the rest of the world cannot ask us to unilaterally and one-sidedly implement a deal that has already been broken.”
The Trump administration has taken an increasingly tough stance against Iran. Trump and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, earlier this month faulted the Iranian government in the recent suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria, with Trump railing against Tehran on Twitter for backing the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.
Trump is set to meet with President Emmanuel Macron of France and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House next week, two foreign leaders who reportedly are hoping to persuade Trump to abandon plans to ditch the deal.
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Democratic lawmakers and activists are assailing the Trump administration over changes made to the State Department’s annual human rights report, which was released Friday, with many especially unhappy over dramatic cuts to sections on women’s reproductive rights.
Among other changes, this year’s report also appears to devote less space to discrimination by nonstate actors and drops the reference to “occupied territories” in labeling Gaza and the West Bank, according to analyses by rights researchers and POLITICO’s own spot checks.
The report landed just days before a Senate confirmation vote is expected for Mike Pompeo, President Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, whose views on LGBT and other human rights-related issues have drawn significant Democratic opposition. And it once again threw a spotlight on the Trump administration’s mixed messaging on human rights.
“A human rights report that doesn’t fully address reproductive rights is woefully incomplete,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.). “The State Department’s attempt to characterize this as an effort to ‘refocus’ the report is merely a poor excuse for stripping references to a woman’s right to make her own reproductive health choices.”
The human rights report is a collection of reports from nearly 200 countries and territories worldwide. The massive document is widely used by researchers, activists, lawmakers and others as a reference for human rights conditions globally.
Under Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, State Department staffers working on this year’s report were ordered at the last minute to make significant changes, including trimming the amount of space devoted to women’s access to abortion, contraception and other reproductive-related issues, and placing less emphasis on discrimination by non-government entities.
Since POLITICO first reported on the ordered revisions, the State Department has insisted the changes were for “clarity,” to avoid duplicating information found elsewhere, and to adhere more strictly to statutes related to the report. But critics see the changes as evidence of the sway of anti-abortion and other conservative forces on the administration.
This year’s document replaced a section usually titled “reproductive rights” with one titled “coercion in population control.” Spot checks of several countries’ individual reports showed that the section was far shorter than in the past and did not contain references to the availability of abortion or the societal limits on women’s ability to obtain contraception.
The section on Ireland in last year’s report included a meaty but concise explanation of the country’s strict laws on abortion and the challenges associated with it for women.
That same section in this year’s report is just two sentences long. The first sentence reads: “There were no reports of coerced abortion, involuntary sterilization, or other coercive population control methods.” The second sentence directs readers to a link to World Health Organization statistics on maternal mortality and contraceptive prevalence. Similar two-sentence paragraphs are used for other countries as well.
During a news conference on Friday, State Department official Michael Kozak explained that the cuts in references to the ability to obtain an abortion were in part because there was no international consensus on whether it’s a good thing to have access to the procedure, although it is generally agreed that forcing someone to have an abortion is a violation of the person’s rights.
“We don’t report on it because it’s not a human right,” Kozak said of abortion. “It’s an issue of great policy debate.”
Officials with Human Rights Watch, which launched a Twitter thread to highlight the changes in this year’s report, said they worried that the administration would harm the document’s integrity.
“The administration is undermining a document that has long been relied upon by the Congress, foreign governments and activists alike to assess human rights conditions around the world,” said Andrea Prasow, the group’s deputy Washington director.
The changes to sections on racial, sexual and other discrimination also appear to have been pared back in some cases to focus more on what governments are doing as opposed to nonstate entities.
This year’s report on India, for instance, didn’t include the following sentence, which was in previous reports: “Muslim personal law traditionally governs land inheritance for Muslim women, allotting them less than allotted to men.”
Amnesty International noted that this year’s report didn’t include a longstanding clause in its executive summary about the Dominican Republic: “the most serious human rights problem was widespread discrimination against Haitian migrants and their descendants.”
The preface to this year’s report was written by John Sullivan, who has been serving as the acting secretary of state following Trump’s decision in March to fire Tillerson.
Sullivan singled out the governments of China, Iran, North Korea and Russia for criticism, saying they “violate the human rights of those within their borders on a daily basis and are forces of instability as a result.”
While not denying the validity of the statement, rights activists said it did not bode well that Sullivan criticized only U.S. adversaries by name while not mentioning any U.S. allies that also routinely violate human rights, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
“It plays directly into the critique that this administration views the promotion of human rights only as a means to pummel America’s adversaries and competitors,” said Rob Berschinski of Human Rights First. “Hypocrisy is normal when it comes to U.S. rhetoric on support for civil and political rights abroad, but this administration has taken selective application to a new level.”
(In his public remarks introducing the report Friday, Sullivan went beyond the list in his written preface, singling out at least one U.S. ally, Turkey, for rights abuses.)
This year’s report also changed the title of the section once titled “Israel and the Occupied Territories” to “Israel, Golan Heights, West Bank and Gaza.” Other references to “occupied territories” are also replaced with the names of those lands.
The relabeling, which is likely to irk Palestinian officials, was just the latest signal of the Trump administration’s desire to put as little daylight as possible between it and Israel, even as it tries to come up with a framework for a peace deal in the region.
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LOS ANGELES — A federal judge on Friday told lawyers for President Donald Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen that Cohen needs to file a declaration in court in order to delay a lawsuit filed by porn actress Stormy Daniels aimed at dissolving a confidentiality agreement that prevents her from talking about an alleged affair with Trump.
Judge S. James Otero said Cohen needs to file a statement declaring that his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination might be jeopardized if the case filed in Los Angeles goes forward.
Otero said at a hearing in Los Angeles that it was not enough for Cohen’s attorney to file that statement on his behalf, and he gave Cohen until next Wednesday to do so.
Cohen sought to delay the civil case after FBI agents raided his office and residence, seeking records about the $130,000 agreement that Daniels signed days before the 2016 presidential election.
After the raids, Cohen asked the judge to grant a stay for at least 90 days and argued that because the allegations in the lawsuit overlap with the criminal investigation, Cohen’s civil rights “may be adversely affected if this case proceeds.”
Daniels’ attorney, Michael Avenatti, objected to the requested delay and said he was pleased with the outcome of the hearing.
Avenatti said outside court it was “clear to me Michael Cohen and the president do not want to publicly state” that Cohen intends to invoke the Fifth Amendment.
Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, has offered to return the $130,000 so she can “set the record straight.” She argues the agreement is legally invalid because it was only signed by her and Cohen, not by Trump.
Cohen, who has denied there was ever an affair, said he paid the money out of his pocket using a home equity loan. He has said neither the Trump Organization nor the Trump campaign was a party to the transaction with Daniels and he was not reimbursed for the payment.
Trump answered questions about Daniels for the first time earlier this month and said he had no knowledge of the payment made by Cohen and didn’t know where Cohen had gotten the money. The White House has repeatedly said Trump denies the affair.
Cohen’s attorneys have accused Daniels of violating the confidentiality clauses more than 20 times and said she could be liable for $1 million in damages for each violation.
The case took on new significance last week when FBI agents raided Cohen’s office, hotel and residence.
The agents were seeking any information on payments made to Daniels and a former Playboy model, Karen McDougal, according to people familiar with the investigation but not authorized to discuss it publicly. The search warrants also sought bank records, records on Cohen’s dealings in the taxi industry and his communications with the Trump campaign, the people said.
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The headlines flew fast in Washington again this week, with President Donald Trump’s lawyer and Stormy Daniels appearing in a New York courtroom, Trump himself launching a Twitter war with his former FBI director and the revelation that high-level talks with North Korea’s rogue regime had already begun in secret.
You probably missed it beneath all that commotion, but the Trump administration also kept up its pace of important policy changes, continuing a quiet crackdown on Chinese companies and the rollback of Obama-era policies, including on drone exports. As a bonus, to watchers of the White House whirlwind, Trump directly contradicted his own administration’s position on Chinese currency manipulation. Here’s how Trump changed policy this week:
1. The White House makes it easier to sell armed drones overseas
In 2015, the Obama administration for the first time allowed U.S. companies to export armed drones, a win for the industry, which had previously only been allowed to sell armed drones to Britain. But Obama also imposed strict regulations on those sales, including limits on selling the kinds of armed drones that the U.S. often deploys overseas, like the Predator or Reaper.
On Thursday, the Trump White House issued a new memo replacing the Obama-era guidelines and directing agencies to issue new rules that would make it easier for commercial companies to export drone technology. The administration intends to eliminate some Obama-era restrictions on drone sales, including for the first time permitting the commercial sale of drones with a payload capacity of up to 500 kilograms and that can fly up to 300 kilometers. It also intends to reclassify drones with laser targeting systems as “unarmed,” which would loosen up the export restrictions on those.
The move was cheered by the aerospace industry, which has long argued that U.S. policy hurt only America, pointing out that armed drones were still proliferating as Israel and China moved in to fill the market void left by the U.S. But human rights groups slammed the move, saying the Obama-era policy was already too weak and that the policies in the new memo, once enacted, will lead to the spread of weapons systems that only cause greater suffering around the world.
2. Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge gets a step closer
When Republicans were rounding up votes for their tax reform bill last December, Senate leaders knew they could have trouble getting the vote of Lisa Murkowski, the independent-minded Alaska senator who helped sink health care reform. So they quietly attached a provision to the bill—unrelated to the tax code—that Murkowski had long fought for: Opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil and gas drilling.
This week, the Interior Department took the first step towards allowing such drilling, starting to draft an environmental assessment on drilling in ANWR. The move is just the first step in a long process, including five upcoming public meetings. There will be many more steps along the way. In fact, while Congress directed Interior to hold at least two oil-and-gas lease sales in ANWR, the deadline isn’t until 2024. Still, the process has begun—and Murkowski voted for the tax reform package.
3. The Commerce Department continues to target China
After a couple high-stress weeks, the U.S. and China haven’t yet followed through on threats to impose steep tariffs on each other’s major exports, temporarily reducing Wall Street fears of a costly trade war. But that doesn’t mean the Trump administration has stopped slapping Chinese firms with new restrictions.
First, on Monday, the Commerce Department banned U.S. companies from doing business with a major Chinese telecom company, ZTE, for seven years, including blocking the export of parts critical to ZTE’s operations. The move came after U.S. authorities determined that ZTE had lied about bonuses paid to its employees who were previously found to have violated U.S. sanctions.
Then, on Tuesday, Commerce launched a new investigation into the import of Chinese steel wheels; U.S. producers allege that their Chinese counterparts are dumping the product into the U.S. below fair market price and unfairly benefiting from Chinese subsidies. It’s not clear yet whether it will lead to trade sanctions—the investigation is just a first step—but it represent another prong in the Trump administration’s piecemeal crackdown on China.
4. Treasury declines to name China a currency manipulator
On Monday morning, Trump lashed out on Twitter at Russia and China for “playing the currency devaluation game,” picking up on a common line during his presidential campaign, when he promised to name Beijing a currency manipulator if elected.
Just one problem with Trump’s tweet: Three days earlier—late last Friday, after our weekly edition had published—the Treasury Department released its newest list of currency manipulators, and neither China nor Russia were included. In fact, Treasury didn’t label any country a currency manipulator, and it hasn’t done so since 1994, when China was lasted granted that ignoble designation. The truth is that the currency manipulator label does not come with specific repercussions, so successive administrations have declined to use it. Still, Trump’s Twitter accusation provided a remarkable contrast between his own beliefs and the official position of his administration.
5. SEC introduces new rules for financial professionals
In 2016, the Department of Labor issued a new rule that required financial advisers to act in the best interest of their clients, as a way to prevent self-dealing and protect small investors. This so-called fiduciary rule was fiercely opposed by the financial industry, which appealed to Trump and his political appointees to roll it back.
That hasn’t exactly happened: The Department of Labor has repeatedly delayed compliance dates for certain parts of the rule, but hasn’t repealed it altogether. This week, though, the financial industry got a bit of good news when the Securities and Exchange Commission entered the debate by proposing its own, weaker rule designed to crack down on conflicts of interest among financial professionals. The SEC rule would be broader than the DOL regulation, which only applies to tax advantaged retirement accounts. But it would also come with weaker enforcement tools, leading to criticism from Democratic SEC commissioners who say it would do little to help the small investors that the fiduciary rule is intended to protect. (One Democrat on the Commission still voted in favor of the proposed rule, although he said he would not support a final version without revisions.) Financial industry groups applauded the new rule, saying it struck the right balance between consumer protections without over-burdening brokers.
The public now has 90 days to comment on the proposal. Meanwhile, the Labor Department’s fiduciary rule isn’t dead—at least not yet. The agency is considering whether to appeal a court ruling last month that vacated the rule.
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Republican megadonor Foster Friess has told party leaders in Wyoming that he plans to run for governor, according to three people with knowledge of Friess’ plans.
Friess is slated to make an official announcement at the Wyoming Republican Party’s convention Friday afternoon.
Friess said in 2017 that he was interested in running for Senate, possibly even in a primary against Republican Sen. John Barrasso. But a bid for governor would be far more fertile ground for Friess. GOP Gov. Matt Mead is term-limited, and a handful of Republicans are running in an open primary to succeed him in one of the reddest states in the country. Mark Gordon, the state treasurer, is the current frontrunner.
Neither Friess nor a spokesperson responded to requests for comment.
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