Trump administration holds off on new Russia sanctions, despite law

The Trump administration said on Monday it would not immediately impose additional sanctions on Russia, despite a new law designed to punish Moscow’s alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, insisting the measure was already hitting Russian companies.

“Today, we have informed Congress that this legislation and its implementation are deterring Russian defense sales,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement. “Since the enactment of the … legislation, we estimate that foreign governments have abandoned planned or announced purchases of several billion dollars in Russian defense acquisitions.”

Seeking to press President Donald Trump to clamp down on Russia, the U.S. Congress voted nearly unanimously last year to pass a law setting sweeping new sanctions on Moscow.

Trump, who wanted warmer ties with Moscow and had opposed the legislation as it worked its way through Congress, signed it reluctantly in August, just six months into his presidency.

Under the measure, the administration faced a deadline on Monday to impose sanctions on anyone determined to conduct significant business with Russian defense and intelligence sectors, already sanctioned for their alleged role in the election.

But citing long time frames associated with major defense deals, Nauert said it was better to wait to impose those sanctions.

“From that perspective, if the law is working, sanctions on specific entities or individuals will not need to be imposed because the legislation is, in fact, serving as a deterrent,” she said in a statement.

The measure, known as the “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act,” or CAATSA, required the administration to list “oligarchs” close to President Vladimir Putin’s government and issue a report detailing possible consequences of penalizing Russia’s sovereign debt.

[Reuters]

Trump chuckled as Duterte called journalists ‘spies.’ That’s no joke in the Philippines.

After President Trump boasted of his “great relationship” with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte during a meeting in Manila Monday, American reporters pressed Trump on whether he brought up human rights issues.

“Whoa, whoa,” Duterte said, cutting off the journalists. “This is not a press statement. This is the bilateral meeting.”

Then, Duterte told reporters: “With you around, guys, you are the spies.”

Trump laughed, according to a transcript of the conversation.

“You are,” Duterte repeated.

Hearing the Philippine president once again demonize journalists — and seeing Trump chuckle in response — struck a nerve among journalists and activists in the Philippines and beyond.

The Philippines ranks as the fifth most dangerous country for journalists, according to a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists. At least 177 Filipino media workers have been killed since 1986. In the past decade, 42 journalists have been killed with total impunity, the report said, and at least four journalists have been killed in the time since Duterte took office in June 2016.

Duterte came under fire last year for appearing to defend the killing of journalists, insisting that many slain journalists had been corrupt and had “done something” to justify being killed.

“Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination if you’re a son of a bitch,” Rodrigo Duterte, then president-elect, said in May of last year, Agence France-Presse reported.

He suggested many of the killings were done in retaliation for journalists accepting bribes or criticizing people. He also called one recently slain journalist “rotten,” the Associated Press reported.

The comments spurred widespread condemnation from journalists and activists worldwide. The Committee to Protect Journalists said his remarks threatened to turn the Philippines into a “killing field for journalists.”

Duterte himself has been accused of ordering the assassination of a journalist. In February, a former Philippine policeman, Arturo Lascanas, acknowledged his role in the 2003 killing of radio journalist Juan “Jun” Pala.

He said the assassination was ordered and paid for by Duterte, then mayor of Davao City, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists and local news reports. The former policeman said Duterte ordered a “death squad” to carry out extrajudicial killings, which Duterte has repeatedly denied, Reuters reported.

Duterte’s administration has pledged to investigate and solve the murders of journalists. In October of last year, he formed a Presidential Task Force on Media Security designed to speed up investigations and prosecutions of media killings. But so far, there have been no convictions, and “little evidence that the task force has actively pursued attacks on journalists,” according to Human Rights Watch.

In a span of two days in August, two radio journalists were shot dead. Rudy Alicaway, a 46-year-old radio host, was fatally shot on his way home from work in the southern province of Zamboanga del Sur. Two gunmen on a motorcycle shot him, before getting off the vehicle and shooting him again as he tried to flee, ensuring his death, according to the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines.

The following day, a 60-year-old local columnist and radio reporter, Leodoro Diaz, was fatally shot on his way home in Sultan Kudarat province. Earlier that day, he told his colleagues he planned to publish a report on illegal drugs, according to Human Rights Watch. Authorities have not determined a motive for the killing of either Alicaway or Diaz.

On Aug. 10, three days after Diaz’s death, an assailant shot 65-year-old columnist Crisenciano Ibon in Batangas City. Ibon survived the shooting, which police suspect may have been ordered by operators of illegal gambling. Ibon’s recent columns had shed a negative light on the industry, according to the Philippine Star.

The single deadliest attack on journalists anywhere in the world took place in the Philippines. The 2009 Maguindanao massacre left 30 local journalists and two media workers dead, along with 26 other civilians.

A convoy of family members and supporters had been accompanying a local vice mayor on the island of Mindanao to register his candidacy for upcoming gubernatorial elections, according to a lengthy report in Human Rights Watch called “They Own the People.”

Around 30 members of the news media went along to cover the event. As the group drove down the highway, about 200 armed men forced them out of their vehicles and summarily executed them all, burying them at the site.

Eight years later, not a single person has been convicted in connection with the mass killing. Three suspects were acquitted in July because of lack of evidence, the Philippine Star reported.

“The fact that no one has yet been convicted nearly eight years after the massacre underscores the fact impunity reigns in this country,” the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said in a statement.

“Impunity exists to this day under the Rodrigo Duterte government, which is not doing any better than his predecessors,” the union continued. “In fact, he himself justified the killings of journalists.”

“Fake news” in the Philippines — in the form of dubious and counterfeit online news sites — has built support for Duterte, Miguel Syjuco, a Filipino professor at NYU Abu Dhabi, wrote in the New York Times. These sites have featured false endorsements of Duterte from leaders such as Pope Francis and Angela Merkel, and celebrities including Angelina Jolie and Dwayne Johnson.

During the presidential election, Duterte’s social media team paid hundreds of prominent online commentators to post a barrage of pro-Duterte comments on social media and bash critics. As the New Republic reported, online trolls with fake social media accounts can earn up to $2,000 a month to post pro-Duterte propaganda on the Web.

The messages seemed to work — the president maintained approval ratings above 60 percent until last month, when his net satisfaction rating fell to 48, classified as “good,” the Wall Street Journal reported.

The drop in ratings comes as the president continues to wage a bloody drug war that has claimed thousands of lives in extrajudicial killings by police or hit men.

According to the International Press Institute, Duterte’s assaults on the news media seem to be rubbing off on his supporters. Journalists who are critical of Duterte’s policies or write about issues such as drug trafficking or corruption face defamation suits and online backlash, IPI reported.

On Monday, journalists and human rights activists on social media were quick to point out that accusing journalists of being spies is no joke in the Philippines — or anywhere, for that matter. Some criticized Trump for laughing at Duterte’s comment, while others said they weren’t all that surprised.

Trump has frequently lashed out at the news media, which he has called “the enemy of the American People.” He wrote on Twitter last month that NBC News should be punished by regulators after the organization published a report that he did not like.

He suggested that networks that report “fake news” should be stripped of their licenses. First Amendment advocates condemned his comments as an attack on the Constitution.

“It’s frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write,” Trump said. “And people should look into it.”

In August, Zeid Raad al-Hussein, the United Nations’ human rights chief, said that freedom of the press is “under attack from the president.”

“To call these news organizations ‘fake’ does tremendous damage,” he said. “I have to ask the question: Is this not an incitement for others to attack journalists?”

[Washington Post]

Media

Trump says he trusts Putin’s denials of election meddling

U.S. President Donald Trump said he believed President Vladimir Putin when he denied accusations Russia meddled in last year’s U.S. election despite U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusion of Russian interference.

Trump made the comment after he and Putin met briefly at a summit in Vietnam on Saturday and agreed on a statement supporting a political solution for Syria.

It was their first encounter since July and came during a low in U.S.-Russia relations and at a time Trump is haunted by an investigation into accusations that Putin influenced the election that brought him to the White House.

Putin reiterated the denials of interference, Trump said.

“Every time he sees me he says I didn’t do that, and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One after leaving the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in the resort of Danang.

“I think he is very insulted by it, which is not a good thing for our country,” Trump said.

Trump, who has called allegations of campaign collusion with Moscow a hoax, has faced questions from Democrats about the matter since he took office. A special counsel, Robert Mueller, is conducting a probe that has led to charges against Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort and his associate Rick Gates.

U.S. intelligence agencies have also concluded Russians interfered to tip the election in Trump’s favor through hacking and releasing emails to embarrass Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and spreading social media propaganda.

Russia has repeatedly denied meddling.

The top Democrat on the U.S. House of Representatives intelligence committee, which is investigating the issue, harshly criticized Trump’s comments and accused him of siding with Putin over U.S. intelligence agencies.

“The President fools no one. He understands that the Russians intervened through the hacking and dumping of his opponent’s emails, the fruits of which he exploited time and again on the campaign trail,” Adam Schiff said in a statement.

“He understands all this and more. He just doesn’t understand how to put country over self. Or to put it in terms he is more familiar with – Mr. Trump simply can’t bring himself to put America first,” the Democrat said.

[Reuters]

Trump throws Twitter tantrum over Russia relations and Kim Jong-un calling him ‘old’

President Donald Trump on Saturday lashed out at North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un after state-run media called him a “lunatic old man.”

North Korea also criticized Trump as a “warmonger” as the president toured Asia to drum up support against Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.

Trump also lashed out at the “haters and fools” who had criticized his meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin. The two spoke together during the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Economic Leaders’ Meeting in Vietnam.

Trump faced a backlash after saying he believed Putin, who told him that Russia did not meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

[Raw Story]

Trump voices support for Saudi leaders amid political purge

President Donald Trump said Monday he has “great confidence” in King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi Arabian leaders whose regime carried out an apparent purge of royals, ministers and businessmen in recent days amid a political crackdown that has resulted in mass arrests.

“I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing,” the president tweeted Tuesday while traveling in Asia as a part of his first diplomatic trip in the region.

The president added: “Some of those they are harshly treating have been ‘milking’ their country for years!”

Over the weekend bin Salman oversaw the arrest of 11 princes, including billionaire investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, in what the country’s attorney general referred to as “phase one” of the regime’s crackdown on political opponents.

The moves, which targeted royal political opponents within Salman’s own family, are widely-seen as the latest step in the 32-year-old’s attempt to consolidate power since King Salman, his father, took the throne in 2015.

The comments from Trump come just over a week after Jared Kushner, his senior adviser and son-in-law, took an unannounced trip to Saudi Arabia, marking his third visit to the country this year.

Kushner, whose trip was not announced to the public, was accompanied by deputy national security adviser Dina Powell and Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt.

Trump traveled to Saudia Arabia in September to meet with their political leaders. At the time, he expressed a more cooperative tone as president than he did as a candidate. During the 2016 campaign, Trump criticized the country for its human rights record and blasted Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, for accepting Saudi donations through the Clinton Foundation.

[Politico]

Leaks Show Wilbur Ross Hid Ties to Putin Cronies

Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary in the Trump administration, shares business interests with Vladimir Putin’s immediate family, and he failed to clearly disclose those interests when he was being confirmed for his cabinet position.

Ross — a billionaire industrialist — retains an interest in a shipping company, Navigator Holdings, that was partially owned by his former investment company. One of Navigator’s most important business relationships is with a Russian energy firm controlled, in turn, by Putin’s son-in-law and other members of the Russian president’s inner circle.

Some of the details of Ross’s continuing financial holdings — much of which were not disclosed during his confirmation process — are revealed in a trove of more than 7 million internal documents of Appleby, a Bermuda-based law firm, that was leaked to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. The documents consist of emails, presentations and other electronic data. These were then shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists — a global network that won the Pulitzer Prize this year for its work on the Panama Papers — and its international media partners. NBC News was given access to some of the leaked documents, which the ICIJ calls the “Paradise Papers.”

Overall, the document leak provides a rare insight into the workings of the global offshore financial world, which is used by many of the world’s most powerful companies and government officials to legally avoid paying taxes and to conduct business away from public scrutiny. More than 120 politicians and royal rulers around the world are identified in the leak as having ties to offshore finance.

The New York Times reported Sunday that the documents also contain references to offshore interests held by Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic adviser, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. There is no evidence of illegality in their dealings.

Ross’ widespread financial interests

In Ross’s case, the documents give a far fuller picture of his finances than the filings he submitted to the government on Jan. 15 as part of his confirmation process. On that date, Ross, President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for commerce secretary, submitted a letter to the designated ethics official at the department, explaining steps he was taking to avoid all conflicts of interest.

That explanation was vital to his confirmation, because Ross held financial interests in hundreds of companies across dozens of sectors, many of which could be affected by his decisions as commerce secretary. Any one of them could represent a potential conflict of interest, which is why the disclosures, by law, are supposed to be thorough.

“The information that he provided on that form is just a start. It is incomplete,” said Kathleen Clark, an expert on government ethics at Washington University in St. Louis. “I have no reason to believe that he violated the law of disclosure, but in order … for the Commerce Department to understand, you’d have to have more information than what is listed on that form.”

Ross, through a Commerce Department spokesperson, issued a statement saying that he recuses himself as secretary from any matters regarding transoceanic shipping, and said he works closely with ethics officials in the department “to ensure the highest ethical standards.”

The statement said Ross “has been generally supportive of the Administration’s sanctions of Russian” business entities. But the statement did not address the question of whether he informed Congress or the Commerce Department that he was retaining an interest in companies that have close Russian ties.

In his submission letter to the government, Ross pledged to cut ties with more than 80 financial entities in which he has interests.

Ross’s apparent ethical probity won praise, even before he signed the divestment agreement, from both sides of the political aisle.

‘Our Committee Was Misled’

The documents seen by NBC News, however, along with a careful examination of filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, tell a different story than the one Ross told at his confirmation. Ross divested most of his holdings, but did not reveal to the government the full details of the holdings he kept.

In his letter to the ethics official of the Commerce Department, Ross created two lists: those entities and interests he planned to get rid of and those he intended to keep. The second list consisted of nine entities, four of which were Cayman Islands companies represented and managed by the Appleby law firm, which specializes in creating complex offshore holdings for wealthy clients and businesses. The Wilbur Ross Group is one of the firm’s biggest clients, according to the leaked documents, connected to more than 60 offshore holdings.

The four holdings on the list of assets that Ross held onto were valued by him on the form as between $2.05 million and $10.1 million. These four, in turn, are linked through ownership chains to two other entities, WLR Recovery Fund IV DSS AIV L.P. and WLR Recovery Fund V DSS AIV L.P., which were listed in Ross’ financial disclosure prior to confirmation, but were not among the assets he declared he would retain. According to an SEC filing, those entities hold 17.5 million shares in Navigator, which constitutes control of nearly one-third of the shipping firm.

“You look at all of these names,” Clark said, referring to the financial entities, “and they actually look like a code. And what we actually have to do is find — in a sense — a code that decrypts what these names mean and what these companies actually do.”

She said the way the companies were listed was deliberately vague. “I would say this gives the appearance of transparency,” she said, referring to Ross’s disclosure documents. “It’s sort of fake transparency in a sense.”

The Office of Government Ethics, which is responsible for executive branch oversight, approved Ross’s arrangement, and it was left almost entirely unchallenged by the Senate.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said members of Congress who were part of Ross’ confirmation hearings were under the impression that Ross had divested all of his interests in Navigator. Furthermore, he said, they were unaware of Navigator’s close ties to Russia.

“I am astonished and appalled because I feel misled,” said Blumenthal. “Our committee was misled, the American people were misled by the concealment of those companies.” Blumenthal said he will call for the inspector general of the Commerce Department to launch an investigation.

And a cursory look at Navigator’s annual reports reveal an apparent conflict of interest. Navigator’s second-largest client is SIBUR, the Russian petrochemical giant. According to Navigator’s 2017 SEC filing, SIBUR was listed among its top five clients, based on total revenue for the previous two years. In 2016, Navigator’s annual reports show SIBUR brought in $23.2 million in revenue and another $28.7 million the following year.

The business relationship has been so profitable that in January, around the time Ross was being vetted for his Cabinet position, Navigator held a naming ceremony for two state-of-the-art tankers on long-term leases to SIBUR.

The Kremlin’s inner circle

One of the owners of SIBUR is Gennady Timchenko, a Russian billionaire on the Treasury Department’s sanctions list. He has been barred from entering the U.S. since 2014 because authorities consider him a Specially Designated National, or SDN, who is considered by Treasury to be a member “of the Russian leadership’s inner circle.”

The Treasury Department statement said that Timchenko’s activities in the energy sector “have been directly linked to Putin” and that Putin had investments with a company previously owned by Timchenko, as well as access to the company’s funds.

Daniel Fried, who was the State Department sanctions coordinator under President Barack Obama, said the connection to Timchenko’s interests should have raised alarm bells.

“I would think that any reputable American businessman, much less a Cabinet-level official, would want to have absolutely no relationship — direct, indirect — … with anybody of the character and reputation of Gennady Timchenko,” Fried said. “I just don’t get it.”

Another major SIBUR shareholder is Leonid Mikhelson, who, like Timchenko, has close ties to the Kremlin. One of his companies, Novatek, Russia’s second-largest natural gas producer, was placed on the Treasury’s sanctions list in 2014.

Included in the Appleby documents are details of an internal discussion that resulted in the law firm dropping Mikhelson as a client in 2014, over concerns regarding his financial affiliations.

“I would say to anybody who asked,” said Fried, “treat SDNs as radioactive. Stay away from them.”

A third shareholder of SIBUR – and deputy chairman of the board – is Kirill Shamalov, husband of Vladimir Putin’s daughter, Katerina Tikhonova. After the wedding, Shamalov’s meteoric rise to wealth led him to own as much as 21.3 percent of SIBUR’s stock until April, when he sold off around 17 percent for a reported $2 billion.

“It’s a new generation which is currently being prepared and groomed… to inherit whatever power and wealth Putin’s team has accumulated over the past years,” said Vladimir Milov, a former deputy energy minister in Putin’s government who is now working with the opposition.

Milov also said companies like SIBUR are often the way sanctioned Kremlin insiders have to keep doing business despite restrictions.

The Commerce Department statement said Ross never met Timchenko, Mikhelson, or Shamalov. It said he was not on the board of Navigator in March 2011 when the ships in question were acquired, or the following February when the charter agreement with Sibur was signed. It said Sibur was not under U.S. sanctions now or in 2012. The statement said Ross was on the board of Navigator from March 30, 2012 to 2014, and that no funds managed by his company ever owned a majority of Navigator’s shares.

But as The Guardian reported Sunday, other public documents suggest a different story. A Navigator news release on March 2, 2012, said that Ross was already on the board at that point, and Sibur’s annual report for 2012 said the deal with Navigator was signed in March. In addition, Ross’ company issued a news release on Aug. 10, 2012, saying that the company had agreed to acquire a majority stake in Navigator.

Fried said he has no doubt of the connections between SIBUR and the Kremlin.

“If any senior official of the U.S. government, much less a Cabinet secretary … had any business dealings with sanctioned individuals, direct or indirect,” he said, “I would be appalled.”

Richard Painter, the chief White House ethics lawyer during the George W. Bush administration, said there needs to a close examination of whether Ross’ testimony to the Senate violated perjury laws. Painter also said Ross must recuse himself from all Russia-related matters because of the SIBUR connection.

“Secretary Ross cannot participate in any discussion or decision-making or recommendation about sanctions imposed on Russia or on Russian nationals when he owns a company that is doing business with Russian nationals who are either under sanctions or who could come under sanctions in any future sanctions regime,” Painter said. “That would be a criminal offense for him to participate in any such matter.”

[NBC News]

Lawmakers want immediate review of travel restriction on Putin critic

The United States government has revoked travel privileges for a fierce critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, stirring alarm on Capitol Hill.

Bill Browder, a crusader for the Magnitsky Act designed to punish Russian human rights abusers, found himself blocked from traveling to the United States in recent days.

The situation appears to be triggered by Russia’s decision to place Browder on the Interpol wanted list in pursuit of his arrest.

“The Department of Homeland Security should expedite an immediate review of the decision to revoke Mr. Browder’s visa,” Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said in a statement on Monday.

The senators said it “would be unfortunate if the U.S. decided to bar him based on a decision by those same Russian officials who have been targeted by this important legislation.”

Browder, a British citizen, told The Hill in an interview Monday that he was notified late last week that the Department of Homeland Security had revoked his status as a member of the Global Entry program, which is administered by Customs and Border Protection and allows trusted travelers expedited entry into the country.

When Browder tried to book a flight to the United States, he further discovered that his privileges to enter the U.S. ad a citizen of Great Britain had been revoked. Browder uses the Electronic System for Travel Authorization to gain entry into the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program.

“I discovered that my Global Entry status had been revoked,” Browder said. “We then checked into a flight to Newark and the airline wouldn’t let me check in, wouldn’t let me board because of the visa issue.”

“At that point, I then contact my contacts in law enforcement and it was confirmed to me that Russia had added me using the Interpol diffusion system on the 17th of October,” Browder added.

Browder is a British financier who has been a major driving force behind the Magnitsky Act, a bipartisan law was passed in 2012 to punish human rights abusers in Russia. The law is named for Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer, who was jailed after discovering a tax fraud scheme and who died under suspicious circumstances. Browder was one of Magnitsky’s clients.

Browder’s support for the law has made him an enemy of Moscow. Russia has on four previous occasions petitioned to get Interpol to secure Browder’s arrest, though the international police organization has rejected the requests, deeming them politically motivated.

In the past, Browder’s visa privileges were revoked as a result of Russia’s actions, but he said the U.S. government previously had resolved the issue within hours.

“I am hopeful that this is just a technical issue driven by Interpol and it will be resolved quickly,” Browder said Monday.

The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request for more information. Browder said he received little information from Homeland Security when he inquired about his Global Entry status in recent days.

[The Hill]

Update

After the firestorm, Browder has been cleared again to enter the US.

Trump: ‘Only one thing will work’ with North Korea

President Trump on Saturday continued to dismiss a diplomatic approach in handling North Korea’s escalating nuclear ambitions, saying “only one thing will work.”

“Presidents and their administrations have been talking to North Korea for 25 years, agreements made and massive amounts of money paid hasn’t worked, agreements violated before the ink was dry, makings fools of U.S. negotiators,” Trump wrote in tweets.

“Sorry, but only one thing will work!” he added.

Trump’s tweets alluding to possible military action in dealing with the crisis on the Korean Peninsula echoed his comments last Sunday in which he argued that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was “wasting his time” trying to negotiate with North Korea.

The president said that his administration would “do what has to be done” in response to actions from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, whom he referred to as “Little Rocket Man.”

Tensions between Washington and Pyongyang have remained heightened in recent months, though relations between Trump and Tillerson have also gained fresh interest recently amid differing comments on the U.S. approach to North Korea.

Tillerson held a hastily-scheduled press conference on Wednesday to push back on reports that he considered resigning over the summer. Trump later expressed confidence in his chief diplomat, and officials emphasized that the administration was working together.

North Korea has put the international community on alert in recent months after testing a series of intercontinental ballistic missiles, including two over Japanese airspace.

Trump threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea on the floor of the United Nations last month, prompting the country’s foreign minister to threaten to test a hydrogen bomb in the Pacific Ocean.

[The Hill]

Trump Thanks Putin for Expelling U.S. Diplomats to Dismay of State Department

President Donald Trump on Thursday thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for expelling American diplomats from Russia on the grounds that “we’re going to save a lot of money,” prompting dismay among some of the rank-and-file at the State Department.

“I want to thank him because we’re trying to cut down our payroll, and as far as I’m concerned I’m very thankful that he let go of a large number of people because now we have a smaller payroll,” Trump told reporters at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, according to a pool report.

“There’s no real reason for them to go back,” he added. “I greatly appreciate the fact that we’ve been able to cut our payroll of the United States. We’re going to save a lot of money.”

Russia recently announced that it would expel hundreds of American diplomats from Russia in retaliation for new sanctions the U.S. put on the Kremlin. Those sanctions are in response to Russia’s suspected attempts to meddle in last year’s U.S. presidential election through a disinformation campaign and cyberattacks on Democratic Party officials.

Trump, whose campaign’s relationship with Russia is the subject of an ongoing federal investigation, had pushed back against the sanctions bill, but signed it into law after it passed Congress with veto-proof majorities in both chambers.

The State Department has not yet released the details of how it will handle the drawdown. But many, if not most, of the positions cut will likely be those of locally hired Russian staffers, though the local staff who are let go will likely get severance payments. Cost savings are possible in the long run.

The U.S. diplomats forced to leave Moscow will in most cases be sent to other posts, sources said.

Trump’s remarks did not go down well among the rank-and-file at the State Department, some of whom noted that the people who would be most affected are locally hired staff crucial to American diplomats’ work overseas.

A senior U.S. diplomat serving overseas called Trump’s remarks “outrageous” and said it could lead more State Department staffers to head for the exits.

“This is so incredibly demoralizing and disrespectful to people serving their country in harm’s way,” the diplomat said.

“I kid you not, I have heard from three different people in the last five minutes,” one State Department official told POLITICO shortly after Trump’s comments. “Everyone seems pretty amazed. This statement is naive and shortsighted. It sends a terrible signal to local employees everywhere.”

“THANK Putin?” another bewildered State Department official responded. “I don’t have words that are printable to describe my reaction.”

The reaction to Trump’s comments on social media was equally as withering, with many suggesting he simply didn’t understand how the U.S. Foreign Service is structured and others shocked by his gesture to Putin.

Nicholas Burns, who served as undersecretary of state for political affairs during the second Bush administration, called Trump’s statement “shameful.”

“He justifies mistreatment of U.S. diplomats by Putin,” Burns wrote on Twitter.

Ever since Trump won the election, the State Department has felt sidelined by the president and his aides. Trump largely ignored U.S. diplomats who were ready and willing to offer him briefings when he talked to foreign leaders during the transition period. Since taking office, Trump has proposed cutting the State Department’s budget by a third, and his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, is considered isolated and aloof from many of the diplomats he oversees.

[Politico]

Trump Draws a His Own Red Line in Syria

Defense officials were “caught off guard” Monday by a White House statement warning against “potential preparations for another chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime,” Buzzfeed reports.

“The United States has identified potential preparations for another chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime that would likely result in the mass murder of civilians, including innocent children,” the statement from White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer reads. “The activities are similar to preparations the regime made before its April 4, 2017 chemical weapons attack.”

“As we have previously stated, the United States is in Syria to eliminate the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. If, however, Mr. Assad conducts another mass murder attack using chemical weapons, he and his military will pay a heavy price.”

Buzzfeed spoke to five US defense officials who told the publications “they did not know where the potential chemical attack would come from” and were not informed that the White House was going to release such a statement. As Buzzfeed notes, statements like this are usually coordinated across national security agencies prior to their release.

Likewise, the New York Times reports that “several” military officials were caught of guard by the White House statement.

[Raw Story]

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