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  • Trump: White House Chief of Staff to Decide Fate of Kushner Security Clearance
    It will be up to the White House chief of staff to decide whether the U.S. president's son-in-law is able to maintain his security clearance. That is what President Donald Trump told reporters Friday, declaring that his daughter's husband, Jared Kushner, had "been treated very unfairly." Trump, during a joint news conference with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, was asked whether Kushner would still be allowed access to classified information. Chief of Staff John Kelly, in a memo last week, said White House personnel whose clearances had been pending since last June would no longer have access to top-secret documents. Kushner falls into that category. Federal process Trump expressed frustration with the federal government's process for security clearances, calling it a "broken system and it shouldn't take this long." "People without a problem in the world" are facing unreasonable delays to receive clearances, he said.  Trump could personally intervene and grant his son-in-law an exemption, but he replied Friday — the day interim clearances are being revoked — that he would not do that. "I will let General Kelly make that decision and he's going to do what's right for the country and I have no doubt he'll make the right decision," Trump said. In a lengthy response in the East Room during the nationally televised news conference, Trump praised Kushner, 37, saying he is "a high-quality person" who "doesn't get a salary." Kushner, a second-generation real estate developer, is "working on peace in the Middle East and some other small and very easy deals." Trump said the U.S. effort to make a deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians is "actually making great headway." Administration officials are said to be examining ways that Kushner can continue to be engaged in sensitive discussions and his diplomatic missions, which have also included China, without needing a top-level security clearance. Visiting Seoul, Pyeongchang Kushner is married to the president's daughter, Ivanka Trump, who is currently engaged in her own diplomatic foray. She received a red-carpet welcome in Seoul on Friday before dining with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the presidential compound. Ivanka Trump is leading the presidential delegation to Sunday's closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.  A top North Korean official is also scheduled to be at the event. When asked whether the president's daughter or any other member of the U.S. delegation would be meeting with Kim Yong Chol — vice chairman of North Korea's ruling Workers' Party Central Committee — a senior U.S. official succinctly responded, "No." Donald Trump on Thursday and Friday, when asked by VOA during brief encounters with reporters whether he wanted his daughter to meet the North Koreans, did not respond. During Friday's news conference he said, "We cannot get a better representative" than Ivanka Trump in South Korea. The current administration has not nominated an ambassador to Seoul. The top diplomat at the embassy there is interim U.S. Charge d'Affaires Marc Knapper, a top-ranking career foreign service officer. While in Seoul, Ivanka Trump said she was there "to reaffirm our bonds of friendship and partnership." But she explained she wanted to "reaffirm our commitment to our maximum-pressure campaign to ensure that the Korean Peninsula is denuclearized."
  • Trump Recites Inflammatory, Anti-immigrant ‘Snake’ Song
    U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday recited the lyrics of a song seen as anti-immigration called “The Snake” to drive home his point about restricting immigration — an inflammatory move that harkened back to his days on the campaign trail. In a speech to conservatives at a convention outside Washington, he also bashed opposition Democrats for failing to back his proposal for putting 1.8 million so-called Dreamer immigrants on a pathway to citizenship in exchange for tightening border security and severely restricting legal immigration. During his hourlong address, Trump pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and read “The Snake,” a ballad by Al Wilson about a reptile who repays a “tender woman” that nurses it back to health with a deadly bite. During his campaign, as well as in a speech early in his presidency, Trump used the song, based on one of Aesop's fables, as a less-than-subtle allegory about immigrants entering the United States.  Some Republicans recoil On Friday, he made no secret about the comparison he was making. “Think of it in terms of immigration,” he urged attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) as he launched into the song. “You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in,” he said, reading the final line of the song, before returning to his speech. “And that’s what we’re doing with our country, folks — we’re letting people in, and it’s going to be a lot of people. It’s only going to be worse.” Some mainstream Republicans have recoiled at Trump's continued recitation of the lyrics. “Trump's snake story is vicious, disgraceful, utterly racist and profoundly un-American,” tweeted Steve Schmidt, a former campaign aide for president George W Bush. Democrats ‘totally unresponsive’ In his wide-ranging speech, Trump warned that efforts to reach a deal on the status of undocumented migrants brought to the US illegally as children could fail — and blamed his opponents. “The Democrats are being totally unresponsive. They don’t want to do anything about DACA, I’m telling you,” he said, referring to negotiations on Capitol Hill on replacing an expiring program that defers deportation for some undocumented migrants. “It’s very possible that DACA won’t happen.” Former president Barack Obama launched the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, whose recipients were given legal permission to work, live and go to school in the United States.  DACA-related bills Last September, Trump announced he was rescinding DACA and called on Congress to craft a solution before March 5, setting off months of bipartisan negotiations. The Senate held votes on several DACA-related bills last week, but none of them advanced.  Many conservatives in Congress including Senator Ted Cruz have been outspoken in their opposition to any legislation that provides “amnesty” to people who are in the United States illegally. 
  • US Defense Secretary Mattis Sends Transgender Guidance to Trump
    U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has sent guidance to President Donald Trump on whether transgender troops should serve in the U.S. military, two days after a Defense Department deadline. Pentagon spokesman Major Dave Eastburn has confirmed to VOA that the secretary's recommendation was sent to the president early Friday. He would not discuss details of the guidance because it was a "private matter" between Mattis and Trump. Eastburn said the Pentagon expects Trump's policy announcement on transgender service members "no later than March 23." During Thursday's briefing, chief Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White told VOA the issue of transgender military service was "complex" and that the secretary was "taking his time" to review the information given to him. The Pentagon said last September that it began studying how to implement a directive by Trump to prohibit transgender individuals from serving. Trump expressed his desire to ban transgender people from serving in the military in a string of Twitter comments in July. He said he was ordering the armed forces to stop allowing transgender individuals to serve, after consulting generals and military experts. "Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail," the president tweeted. Hours later, the U.S. military's top general stressed to Pentagon leaders that there had been no change to the military's policy on transgender personnel despite Trump's announcement on Twitter. "There will be no modifications to the current policy until the president's direction has been received by the secretary of defense [Mattis] and the secretary has issued implementation guidance," the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, wrote in a memo obtained by VOA. Federal courts rejected parts of Trump's proposed ban, which sought to overturn an Obama administration policy that said transgender troops could apply to join the military, serve openly and seek medical care. Recruiting of transgender service members began January 1, after Trump's administration decided not to appeal federal court rulings that rejected the administration's request to put on hold a judge's orders requiring the military to begin accepting transgender recruits. The RAND Corporation has estimated that the number of transgender individuals currently serving in the active component of the U.S. military is between 1,320 and 6,630 out of a total of about 1.3 million service members. 
  • With Rates Still Low, Fed Officials Fret Over Next US Recession
    Federal Reserve policymakers fretted on Friday that they could face the next U.S. recession with virtually the same arsenal of policies used in the last downturn and, with interest rates still relatively low, those will not pack the same punch. In the midst of an unprecedented leadership transition, Fed officials are publicly debating whether to scrap their approach to inflation targeting, how much of its bond portfolio to retain, and how much longer they can raise interest rates in the face of an unexpectedly large boost from tax cuts and government spending. After years of near-zero rates and $3.5 trillion in bond purchases all meant to stimulate the economy in the wake of the 2007-09 recession, the Fed has gradually tightened policy since late 2015. Its key rate is now in the range of 1.25 to 1.5 percent, and while the Fed plans to hike three more times this year it has also forecast that it is about halfway to its goal. That could leave little room to provide stimulus when the world's largest economy, which is heating up, eventually turns around. "We would be better off, rather than thinking about what we would do next time when we hit zero, making sure that we don't get back there. We just don't want to be there," Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren told a conference of economists and the majority of his colleagues at the central bank. Rosengren, one of only a few sitting policymakers who also served during the last downturn, said the expanding U.S. deficits could further erode the government's ability to help curb any future recession. "With the deficits we are running up, it's not likely [fiscal policy] will be helpful in the next recession either," he said. Since mid-December, the Republican-controlled Congress and U.S. President Donald Trump aggressively cut taxes and boosted spending limits, two fiscal moves that are expected to push the annual budget deficit above $1 trillion next year and expand the $20 trillion national debt. Overheating That stimulus, combined with synchronized global growth, signs of U.S. inflation perking up, and unemployment near a 17-year low could set the stage for overheating that ends one of the longest economic expansions ever. "We want more shock absorbers out there and really ... the main shock absorber is the ability to reduce the fed funds rate, which means that you want to get to a higher inflation rate so that the pre-shock fed funds rate is 4 and not 2," said Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and professor at City University of New York. In a speech to the conference hosted by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, Krugman said every recession since 1982 has been caused by "private sector over-reach" and not Fed tightening, as in decades past. The conference's main research paper argued the central bank should focus on cutting rates in the next recession and avoid relying on asset purchases that are less effective in stimulating investment and growth than previously thought. In October the Fed began trimming some of its assets and it has yet to decide how far it will go. William Dudley, president of the New York Fed, told the conference that, to be sure, the ability to again purchase bonds if and when rates hit zero "seems like a good tool to have." The Fed's approach to any economic slowdown would likely be to cut rates, pledge further stimulus, and only then buy bonds. Rosengren and others dismissed the possibility of adopting negative interest rates, as some other central banks have done. Yet five years of below-target inflation, combined with an aging population and slowdown in labor force growth, has sparked a debate over ditching a long-standing 2 percent price target. Some see this month's succession of Fed Chair Janet Yellen by Jerome Powell as ideal timing to consider new frameworks that could help drive inflation, and rates, higher. Cleveland Fed President Loretta Mester, whom the White House is considering for Fed vice chair, told the conference the central bank could begin to reassess the framework later this year, though she added that the threshold for change should be high.
  • Over 100 Central American Migrants Rescued From Truck
    More than 100 Central American migrants, including dozens of minors, were rescued from a truck found abandoned in a violent region of northern Mexico near the U.S. border, authorities said on Friday. The migrants, from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, were suffering from dehydration and asphyxiation when soldiers came across the truck in Tamaulipas, where migrants often attempt illegal border crossings. Every year, thousands of Central Americans seeking to flee violence and poverty in their homeland use Mexico as a conduit to the United States, often transported by human traffickers in dangerous conditions that can be fatal. Mexico’s migration institute INM said soldiers patrolling in the city of Camargo in Tamaulipas heard yells for help from within the truck’s trailer, where they discovered 103 migrants, including 36 minors, who had been crammed together for about 12 hours. A photo sent by the INM appeared to show some of the migrants’ belongings in the back of the truck, including a small, pink backpack, duffel bags and trash strewn across the floor. A dozen of the minors were traveling alone and will receive legal aid to apply for refugee status in Mexico, the INM said. It did not specify when the migrants were found. U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday urged Mexico to do more to prevent violent illegal immigrants from El Salvador from entering the United States, again pushing his long-proposed border wall but stopping short of his previous claims that Mexico would fund it. In a Twitter post, Trump said U.S. law enforcement was removing Salvadoran gang members but that they continued to return, adding: “El Salvador just takes our money, and Mexico must help MORE with this problem. We need The Wall!” More than 800 Central American migrants have been found in truck trailers or safe houses in Mexico so far this year, according to a government document seen by Reuters. In July, 10 people died after a truck stuffed with more than 100 Guatemalan and Mexican migrants was abandoned in a Texas parking lot.
  • South African Gets Death Penalty in South Sudan
    A judge in South Sudan has sentenced South African citizen William John Endley to death by hanging, after he was charged with spying, illegal entry to South Sudan and conspiracy to overthrow President Salva Kiir's government. Endley worked for rebel leader Riek Machar as a security adviser and was arrested in August 2016, days after fighting flared between government forces and Machar's bodyguards. At the end of Endley's five-month trial, presiding Judge Ladu Armenio read his final ruling in Arabic and a court official translated it into English. Armenio sentenced Endley to serve two consecutive prison terms of nine years and four months each, after which he will be hanged. Endley has 17 days to appeal. During the proceedings, it was reported to the court that Endley served as a major general while working for Machar's group, the SPLA-IO, and that he came to Juba with Machar in 2016 when Machar became first vice president, after the previous year's peace agreement. The prosecution also told the court that Endley procured firearms and ammunition and helped the rebel movement with military expertise, which according to the court is a violation of the South Sudan National Security Act 2014 and South Sudan's Criminal Procedure Act. Armenio said Endley's actions endangered state security and South Sudan's economy. Endley's attorney, Gar Adel, rejected the court's ruling, noting that Endley's previous attorney had withdrawn from the case.  "The state was supposed to assign a lawyer temporarily. ... But he [Endley] had attended two sessions without a lawyer. When I came in, I lodged an application so that I was given time to talk to my client and to familiarize myself with the records, [but] the court refused," Adel told VOA's South Sudan in Focus. Endley's first defense team was led by Monyluak Kuol Alor, who withdrew from the case a month ago, arguing that Endley should be freed under Article 8 of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement, which was signed in December by the warring parties. The clause requires all sides in South Sudan to release prisoners of war and political detainees. Endley first appeared in court in October with co-defendant James Gatdet Dak, Machar's spokesman. Two weeks ago, the court sentenced Gatdet to a 21-year jail term to be followed by death by hanging, sparking immediate condemnation from national and international human rights groups. U.N. Mission in South Sudan chief David Shearer condemned the death sentences for Endley and Gatdet. Family's reaction Endley's sister, Charmaine Quinn, said her family in Cape Town was devastated by the news. "We didn't expect this and we really are feeling very tired emotionally. We are really feeling so helpless," Quinn told South Sudan in Focus. Quinn said she has not received any word from the South African Embassy in Juba regarding her brother's sentence. She said her family has lodged concerns with the government in Johannesburg, which said the government would be releasing a statement soon, but that "it was just waiting for some information to come back." Quinn said that in the beginning, when her brother was arrested, the family felt it was not getting enough assistance from the government. "Then they were able to help us establish that he was still alive and there was some assistance offered to us when he was ill, and we were able to send money to him and get parcels to him," she said. She said she also has received phone calls from her brother. Now that her brother's sentence has been finalized, Quinn said she is trying to stay positive that "the government will come on board and give us the assistance we have been asking for." Quinn told VOA the family feels "the sentence is very unfair and we would like them to have the death penalty lifted, and with the appeal we would like to have him extradited back to South Africa" for a new trial.
  • EU Leaders Draw Up Battle Lines for Post-Brexit Budget
    European Union leaders staked out opening positions Friday for a battle over EU budgets that many conceded they are unlikely to resolve before Britain leaves next year, blowing a hole in Brussels' finances. At a summit to launch discussion on the size and shape of a seven-year budget package to run from 2021, ex-communist states urged wealthier neighbors to plug a nearly 10 percent annual revenue gap being left by Britain, while the Dutch led a group of small, rich countries refusing to chip in any more to the EU. Germany and France, the biggest economies and the bloc's driving duo as Britain prepares to leave in March 2019, renewed offers to increase their own contributions, though both set out conditions for that, including new priorities and less waste. Underlining that a divide between east and west runs deeper than money, French President Emmanuel Macron criticized what he said were poor countries abusing EU funds designed to narrow the gap in living standards after the Cold War to shore up their own popularity while ignoring EU values on civil rights or to undercut Western economies by slashing tax and labor rules. Noting the history of EU "cohesion" and other funding for poor regions as a tool of economic "convergence," Macron told reporters: "I will reject a European budget which is used to finance divergence, on tax, on labor or on values." Poland and Hungary, heavyweights among the ex-communist states which joined the EU this century, are run by right-wing governments at daggers drawn with Brussels over their efforts to influence courts, media and other independent institutions. The European Commission, the executive which will propose a detailed budget in May, has said it will aim to satisfy calls for "conditionality" that will link getting some EU funding to meeting treaty commitments on democratic standards such as properly functioning courts able to settle economic disputes. But its president, Jean-Claude Juncker, warned on Friday against deepening "the rift between east and west" and some in the poorer nations see complaints about authoritarian tendencies as a convenient excuse to avoid paying in more to Brussels. At around 140 billion euros ($170 billion) a year, the EU budget represents about 1 percent of economic output in the bloc or some 2 percent of public spending, but for all that it remains one of the bloodiest subjects of debate for members. Focus on payments The Commission has suggested that the next package should be increased by about 10 percent, but there was little sign Friday that the governments with cash are willing to pay that. "When the UK leaves the EU, then that part of the budget should drop out," said Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who leads a group of hawks including Sweden, Denmark and Austria. "In any case, we do not want our contribution to rise and we want modernization," he added, saying that meant reconsidering the EU's major spending on agriculture and regional cohesion in order to do more in defense, research and controlling migration. On the other side, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said his priorities were "sufficient financing of cohesion policy" a good deal for businesses from the EU's agricultural subsidies. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said there had been broad agreement that new priorities such as in defense, migration and research should get new funding and she called for a "debureaucratization" of traditional EU spending programs. Summit chair Donald Tusk praised the 27 leaders — Prime Minister Theresa May was not invited as Britain will have left before the new budget round starts — for approaching the issue "with open minds, rather than red lines." But despite them all wanting to speed up the process, a deal this year was unlikely. Quick deal unlikely Although all agree it would be good to avoid a repeat of the 11th-hour wrangling ahead of the 2014-20 package, many sounded doubtful of a quick deal even early next year. "It could go on for ages," Rutte said. He added that it would be "nice" to finish by the May 2019 EU election: "But that's very tight." Among the touchiest subjects will be accounting for the mass arrival of asylum-seekers in recent years. Aggrieved that some eastern states refuse to take in mainly Muslim migrants, some in the west have suggested penalizing them via the EU budget. Merkel has proposed that regions which are taking in and trying to integrate refugees should have that rewarded in the allocation of EU funding — a less obviously penal approach but one which she had to defend on Friday against criticism in the east. It was not meant as a threat, the chancellor insisted. In other business at a summit which reached no formal legal conclusions, leaders broadly agreed on some issues relating to next year's elections to the European Parliament and to the accompanying appointment of a new Commission for five years. They pushed back against efforts, notably from lawmakers, to limit their choice of nominee to succeed Juncker to a candidate who leads one of the pan-EU parties in the May 2019 vote. They approved Parliament's plan to reallocate some British seats and to cut others altogether and also, barring Hungary, agreed to a Macron proposal to launch "consultations" with their citizens this year on what they want from the EU.
  • US to Move Embassy to Jerusalem in May
    The United States says it will open a new embassy in Jerusalem in May to coincide with Israel's 70th anniversary. The State Department said Friday that the new embassy would be located in a building that currently houses the U.S. consular operations in Jerusalem, before moving to a separate annex by the end of 2019. The move followed a December announcement by U.S. President Donald Trump that the United States recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital and planned to move the U.S. Embassy there. The embassy has been located in Tel Aviv. The choice of the date, which is a year earlier than originally forecast, sparked an angry response from the Palestinians, who said the founding of Israel on May 14, 1948, is mourned by Palestinians as the Nakba, or "catastrophe." "The American administration [decision] to choose the date of the Palestinian catastrophe — the Nakba — on which to move the embassy, and to take this move in this expeditious fashion, reflects their total insensitivities to what goes on in this region," said chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. Palestinians claim the eastern part of Jerusalem as the capital of a future state. Israeli intelligence minister Israel Katz quickly welcomed the opening date. "There is no greater gift than that! The most just and correct move. Thanks friend!" he wrote on his Twitter account. U.S. officials said most embassy employees would remain in Tel Aviv until the building in Jerusalem can be expanded. They said U.S. Ambassador David Friedman, who lobbied Trump to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital, along with one or two of his aides, would be the first to move to the new embassy. The State Department said the next phase of the plan would be to search for a secure location to build a new embassy in Jerusalem, which it said would be "a longer-term undertaking." The embassy move comes earlier than expected. Just last month, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence told the Israeli parliament the move would take place by the end of 2019. In a speech on Friday to a gathering of conservatives outside Washington, Trump said of his decision to move the embassy, "It's the right thing to do." No other country has recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital. Trump's decision has sparked anger from Washington's Arab allies and led to weeks of violent protests by Palestinians. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in a speech at the United Nations this week, called moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem "unlawful."
  • Stocks Rally as Fed Eases Rate Worry, Tech Climbs
    U.S. stocks rallied on Friday, lifted by gains in technology stocks and a retreat in Treasury yields as the Federal Reserve eased concerns about the path of interest rate hikes this year. The U.S. central bank, looking past the recent stock market sell-off and inflation concerns, said it expected economic growth to remain steady and saw no serious risks on the horizon that might pause its planned pace of rate hikes. Investors largely expect the Fed to raise rates three times this year, beginning with its next meeting in March, the first under new Chair Jerome Powell. Traders currently see a 95.5 percent chance of a quarter-percentage-point hike next month, according to Thomson Reuters data. "Certainly bond yields pulling back today is helpful for stocks, at least for the short term, that has been the narrative that is out there — that higher bond yields are weighing on stocks and this preoccupation with three percent," said Willie Delwiche, investment strategist at Baird in Milwaukee. "So moving away from that, for today at least, provides a bid for equities." Powell's first public outing will be on Tuesday, when he will testify separately before the House and Senate committees. The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 347.51 points, or 1.39 percent, to 25,309.99, the S&P 500 gained 43.34 points, or 1.60 percent, to 2,747.30 and the Nasdaq Composite added 127.30 points, or 1.77 percent, to 7,337.39. Benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury notes last rose 13/32 in price to yield 2.8714 percent, from 2.917 percent late on Thursday. The dip in yields helped boost bond proxy sectors such as utilities, up 2.66 percent, and real estate, up 1.72 percent. The sectors have been among the worst performers so far this year on expectations of climbing rates. Tech shares climbed 2.17 percent led by gains in Hewlett Packard Enterprise, which rose 10.5 percent and HP Inc, up 3.5 percent. The two companies created from the split of Hewlett Packard Co in 2015, reported strong results and HPE also announced a plan to return $7 billion to shareholders. For the week, the Dow rose 0.37 percent, the S&P advanced 0.56 percent and the Nasdaq gained 1.35 percent. Blue Buffalo Pet Products jumped 17.23 percent after General Mills said it would buy the natural pet food maker for $8 billion. General Mills was the biggest percentage decline on S&P 500, falling 3.59 percent. Advancing issues outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by a 4.54-to-1 ratio; on Nasdaq, a 2.82-to-1 ratio favored advancers. The S&P 500 posted 10 new 52-week highs and one new low; the Nasdaq Composite recorded 64 new highs and 57 new lows. Volume on U.S. exchanges was 6.05 billion shares, well below the 8.38 billion average over the last 20 trading days. Reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak.
  • White House Locked Down After Vehicle Strikes Barrier
    The White House is on lockdown after a passenger vehicle struck a security barrier. The U.S. Secret Service tweets that the vehicle "did not breach the security barrier of the White House complex." The agency adds that the female driver of the vehicle was "immediately apprehended." Witnesses saw a commotion on the White House grounds as security officers responded. President Donald Trump is hosting Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at the White House. Turnbull is remaining at the White House as the incident is being investigated. The Secret Service says no law enforcement personnel were injured in the incident.  

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