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to the United States, he further discovered that his privileges to enter the U.S. ad a citizen of Great Britain had been revoked.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“I discovered that my Global Entry status had been revoked,” Browder said.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]

Vladimir Putin praises Trump as ‘straightforward’ and ‘frank’

Russian President Vladimir Putin praised President Trump on Thursday as a “straightforward” and “frank person” who looks at issues with a “fresh set of eyes.”

Speaking to foreign reporters at an economic forum in St. Petersburg, Putin denied that the Russian state had ever engaged in election hacking, but conceded it is theoretically possible some individual “patriotic” Russians could have mounted some cyberattacks.

He rejected charges by U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia hacked into Democratic Party emails, helping Trump’s election victory and railed against “Russo-phobic hysteria” that he said makes it “somewhat inconvenient to work with one another or even to talk.”

“It’s having an impact, and I’m afraid this is one of the goals of those who organize it are pursuing and they can fine-tune the public sentiments to their liking, trying to establish an atmosphere that is going to prevent us from addressing common issues, say with regard to terrorism,” Putin said.

He indicated, however, that Trump is an American leader he could work with.
Putin praised Trump as “a straightforward person, a frank person,” adding that some view Trump’s lack of political experience as a disadvantage, while the Russian leader considers it a plus.

“He can’t be put in the same category as normal politicians,” Putin said. “I see that as an advantage. He has a fresh set of eyes.’’

Putin noted that the two leaders have only talked by phone and it is difficult to form an opinion from a distance. They plan to meet for the first time at the G-20 summit in Hamburg in July.

“How can you be friends with someone you don’t know?’’ Putin said. “I don’t think he can call me a friend. We have never seen each other in person.’’

As for the strains between Russia and the West, Putin predicted “this will end, sooner or later,” adding that “we are patient, we know how to wait and we will wait.”

[USA Today]

 

Trump Officials Pressed State Dept Staffers for Plans to Lift Russia Sanctions

Trump administration officials pressed State Department staffers to develop plans for removing sanctions against Russia almost immediately after President Trump took office in January, Yahoo News reported Thursday.

In turn, according to Yahoo News, State Department employees sought to convince lawmakers to codify the sanctions, which were put in place by former President Barack Obama in response to Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine and the Kremlin’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

Former Coordinator of Sanctions Policy Dan Fried, who retired from the State Department in February, said that he received phone calls from concerned officials tasked with developing plans to lift the sanctions asking him to intervene and “stop this.”

“There was serious consideration by the White House to unilaterally rescind the sanctions,” Fried told Yahoo News, saying he eventually contacted lawmakers, including Senate Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Member Ben Cardin (D-Md.), in an effort to codify the sanctions, which would complicate efforts by Trump to lift them.

Former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski, who, at the time, had just left the State Department, also brought the issue up with members of Congress.

The revelation State Department officials had scrambled to prevent the Trump administration from doing away with Obama-era sanctions on Russia comes as the FBI and at least four congressional committees are investigating possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia.

It also follows reports last week that Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner had discussed setting up a backchannel line of communication between the Trump transition team and the Kremlin with the country’s Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

Kushner is currently under FBI scrutiny for his meetings with Kislyak and Russian banking executive Sergey Gorkov in December. He did not disclose those meetings.

Also present at the meeting with Kislyak was former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was forced to resign from the White House in February amid revelations that he had discussed sanctions with Kislyak in the month before Trump took office.

As a presidential candidate and since taking office, Trump has expressed a desire to improve U.S.-Russia relations, though he has repeatedly denied any collusion between his campaign and Moscow and has called the federal investigations into the matter a “witch hunt.”

[The Hill]

Trump Tells Duterte of Two U.S. Nuclear Subs in Korean Waters

U.S. President Donald Trump told his Philippine counterpart that Washington has sent two nuclear submarines to waters off the Korean peninsula, the New York Times said, comments likely to raise questions about his handling of sensitive information.

Trump has said “a major, major conflict” with North Korea is possible because of its nuclear and missile programs and that all options are on the table but that he wants to resolve the crisis diplomatically.

North Korea has vowed to develop a missile mounted with a nuclear warhead that can strike the mainland United States, saying the program is necessary to counter U.S. aggression.

Trump told Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte Washington had “a lot of firepower over there”, according to the New York Times, which quoted a transcript of an April 29 call between the two.

“We have two submarines — the best in the world. We have two nuclear submarines, not that we want to use them at all,” the newspaper quoted Trump as telling Duterte, based on the transcript.

The report was based on a Philippine transcript of the call that was circulated on Tuesday under a “confidential” cover sheet by the Americas division of the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs.

In a show of force, the United States has sent the nuclear-powered USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier to waters off the Korean peninsula, where it joined the USS Michigan, a nuclear submarine that docked in South Korea in late April.

According to the Times, a senior Trump administration official in Washington, who was not authorized to publicly discuss the call and insisted on anonymity, confirmed the transcript was an accurate representation of the call between the two leaders.

U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have said Trump discussed intelligence about Islamic State with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak at talks in the Oval Office this month, raising questions about Trump’s handling of secrets.

Trump also praised Duterte for doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem”, the New York Times reported, a subject that has drawn much criticism in the West.

Almost 9,000 people, many small-time users and dealers, have been killed in the Philippines since Duterte took office on June 30. Police say about one-third of the victims were shot by officers in self-defense during legitimate operations.

[Reuters]

Reality

BuzzFeed News is reporting that “Pentagon officials are in shock after the release of a transcript between President Donald Trump and his Philippines counterpart reveals that the US military had moved two nuclear submarines towards North Korea.”

The report goes on to quote officials as saying, “We never talk about subs!”

Trump Praised Philippines President Duterte For Drug War That Has Killed 9,000 People

President Donald Trump opened a brief April phone call with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte by commending the strongman’s bloody war on drugs, according to a transcript obtained by The Washington Post and the The Intercept.

“I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem,” said Trump. “Many countries have the problem, we have a problem, but what a great job you are doing and I just wanted to call and tell you that.”

Trump then criticized former President Barack Obama, who had spoken out against Duterte’s violent anti-drug offensive that has killed an estimated 9,000 people, including many small-time users and dealers.

“I understand that and fully understand that and I think we had a previous president who did not understand that, but I understand that and we have spoken about this before,” Trump said, according to the transcript.

A senior Trump administration official told the Post the transcript is accurate, but would not speak on the record about a “leaked” document.

The transcript, provided to the outlets by a source in the Philippines and authenticated by Rappler, a Philippines news outlet that partnered with the Intercept, is further confirmation of Trump’s uncharacteristic friendliness toward autocratic world leaders. It also is likely to raise fears that harsh rhetoric from Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions on what they call the scourge of drug abuse and addiction may give way to more militant action in the future.

In his call with Trump, Duterte similarly called drugs “the scourge of my nation,” according to the transcript.

White House officials initially characterized the April call as “a very friendly conversation,” during which Trump had invited Duterte to visit Washington. That development reportedly surprised White House staffers and drew widespread condemnation from human rights groups, which have accused Duterte of condoning a lawless drug war that has terrorized the nation with a campaign of extrajudicial killings carried out by vigilantes and police officers. Duterte has seemingly embraced this barbaric depiction, comparing himself with Adolf Hitler on a mission to kill millions of drug addicts.

“By essentially endorsing Duterte’s murderous war on drugs, Trump is now morally complicit in future killings,” John Sifton, Asia advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, told The New York Times in April. “Although the traits of his personality likely make it impossible, Trump should be ashamed of himself.”

Michael Collins, deputy director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit that supports the progressive reform of drug laws, called Trump’s remarks “a new low.”

“It fills me with disgust to see the U.S. president congratulate someone who has overseen the massacre of thousands of his own people in the name of the war on drugs,” Collins said in a statement to HuffPost. “The U.S. government should be urging restraint and respect for human rights; instead Trump gives Duterte’s deadly drug war his seal of approval.”

Trump’s support for Duterte’s tactics also mark a significant departure from the policies of Obama’s administration, which had shown a willingness to confront the Philippines president on the issue of drug enforcement. Ahead of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in September, Obama said he’d bring up the drug war during a planned meeting with Duterte, because he believed in the need to “have due process and to engage in that fight against drugs in a way that’s consistent with basic international norms.”

Duterte responded by calling Obama a Taglog phrase for “son of a bitch,” and the meeting was canceled.

Trump and Duterte, during their call, also discussed escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula, and expressed concerns about North Korean leader Kim Jung Un, whom Trump called a “madman with nuclear weapons.” Days later, Trump said he’d be “honored” to meet with the North Korean dictator.

Trump and Duterte agreed that China would play a pivotal role in keeping North Korea in check, and warding off the possibility of military action.

“We have a lot of firepower over there. We have two submarines – the best in the world – we have two nuclear submarines – not that we want to use them at all,” said Trump, according to the transcript. “I’ve never seen anything like they are but we don’t have to use this but he could be crazy so we will see what happens.”

Russian Bank Directly Linked to Putin Helped Finance a Trump Hotel

A partner of President Trump’s financed Trump International Hotel and Tower in Toronto using hundreds of millions of dollars received from the Russian bank Vnesheconombank, or VEB, The Wall Street Journal reports. At the time of the deal, Russian President Vladimir Putin sat on VEB’s supervisory board; Russian experts say the bank is a “vehicle for the Russian government to fund politically important projects,” The Wall Street Journal writes.

Trump’s partner, Russian-Canadian developer Alexander Shnaider, helped finance the hotel after selling his company’s share in a Ukrainian steelmaker for $850 million. The unknown buyer, financed by VEB, was reportedly “an entity acting for the Russian government.”

After Mr. Shnaider and his partner sold their stake in the steelmaker, Mr. Shnaider injected more money into the Trump Toronto project, which was financially troubled. Mr. Shnaider’s lawyer, Symon Zucker, said in an April interview that about $15 million from the asset sale went into the Trump Toronto project. A day later, he wrote in an email: “I am not able to confirm that any funds” from the deal “went into the Toronto project.”

A spokesman for the Trump Organization, the family’s real-estate firm, said Mr. Trump had no involvement in any financial dealings with VEB and that the Trump company “merely licensed its brand and manages the hotel and residences.” VEB didn’t respond to requests for comment. [The Wall Street Journal]

In February, Trump claimed: “To the best of my knowledge, no person that I deal with [has dealings with Russia].” Trump also directed his lawyers to review his tax returns and release a letter showing limited income from Russian sources over the past decade.

[The Week]

President Trump Meets With Turkish President Amid Tensions

President Donald Trump is welcoming Turkey’s president to the White House for their first face-to-face meeting Tuesday, even as Turkish officials fumed over a U.S. decision to arm the Syrian Kurds.

Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are expected to address the Syrian civil war, the refugee crisis and the fight against the Islamic State group.

Shortly after Erdogan arrived in Washington, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told his party members that U.S. cooperation with Syrian Kurds “is not something acceptable” for Turkey.

Turkey is determined to “root out terror,” Yildirim said, if “necessary guarantees for Turkey’s sensitivities and issues pertaining to Turkey’s security are still not given.”

The Trump administration has ramped up efforts to respond to the crisis in Syria, taking unprecedented action against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government over its use of chemical weapons against civilians.

But with Iran and Russia working to bolster Assad’s government, the Trump administration is turning to regional allies, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt for help as it crafts its Syria policy.

Complicating that effort, however, was an announcement by the Trump administration that it plans to arm Kurdish Syrian fighters in the fight against the Islamic State group. Turkey has been pressuring the U.S. to drop support for the Kurdish militants in Syria for years and doesn’t want them spearheading the Raqqa effort.

Turkey considers a Turkish Kurdish group, known as the PKK, a terrorist group because of its ties to the outlawed Kurdish Workers’ Party inside Turkey. The United States, the European Union and Turkey agree the PKK is a terrorist organization.

Trump’s deal-making skills will be put to the test as he works to assure Erdogan that the decision to arm Kurdish fighters in Syria will not result in weapons falling into the wrong hands.

Erdogan arrived Monday in Washington, the Turkish flag hanging prominently outside the Blair House, a historic presidential guesthouse across the street from the White House.

The meeting is considered high stakes for the nascent Trump administration as it looks to engage regional allies in delicate security matters while enforcing international standards for human rights.

Trump’s willingness to partner with authoritarian rulers and overlook their shortcomings on democracy and human rights has alarmed U.S. lawmakers of both parties. That puts added pressure on him to get results.

Trump has gone out of his way to foster a good relationship with Erdogan. After a national referendum last month that strengthened Erdogan’s presidential powers, European leaders and rights advocates criticized Turkey for moving closer toward autocratic rule. Trump congratulated Erdogan.

But Erdogan may not be amenable to accepting the U.S. military support for the Kurds in a quid pro quo. Last month, the Turkish military bombed Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq, in one case with American forces only about six miles (10 kilometers) away. His government has insisted it may attack Syrian Kurdish fighters again. The U.S., whose forces are sometimes embedded with the Kurds, has much to fear.

Washington is concerned by rising anti-Americanism in Turkey that Erdogan’s government has tolerated since the July coup attempt. The U.S. also has pressed unsuccessfully for the release of Andrew Brunson, an American pastor, and other detained U.S. citizens.

[TIME]

Reality

Trump has a property in Turkey, Trump Towers Istanbul, so we can’t be sure if this visit is to benefit the country or his own pocketbook.

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