Trump seriously considering blocking $250M in military aid to Ukraine

President Donald Trump is seriously considering a plan to block $250 million in military assistance to Ukraine, a move that would further ingratiate him with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and has directed senior officials to review the aid package.Trump’s decision to order the review comes after the White House publicly lost a battle to slash foreign aid spending across the board. After scrapping the plan to slash $4 billion in foreign aid, Trump said his team would look to find cuts elsewhere in the aid budget.”The President has made no secret when it comes to foreign assistance that US interests abroad should be prioritized and other foreign countries should also be paying their fair share,” a senior administration official told CNN.Specifically, Trump has directed Defense Secretary Mark Esper and national security adviser John Bolton to oversee the process, the senior administration official said.

The President has not yet made a final decision on whether to permanently block the funds, an administration official told CNN. The review process, however, has effectively paused disbursement of the funds, which are set to expire on September 30 if they are not used.

The Pentagon has already recommended to the White House that the hold on military assistance to Ukraine be lifted, an administration official and a US defense official told CNN Thursday. A Pentagon spokesperson declined to comment on the matter on Thursday.”We do not publicly comment on internal budget deliberations. For further inquiries, I direct you to the White House Office of Management and Budget,” said spokesperson Lt. Col. Carla Gleason.However the hold on the aid remains in place, as it is the White House’s call whether to lift it, the administration official said, fueling uncertainty within the administration about what will happen to the spending after the review is formally completed.In the meantime, agencies are authorized and encouraged to execute all processes to prepare for the obligation of those funds but must wait to obligate them until the policy review is complete and the President has made a final determination, the senior official said. 

Bipartisan anger

If Trump ultimately decides to block the aid package, a possibility first reported by Politico, it would likely prompt a bipartisan uproar from members of Congress who believe US military support is essential to countering Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine.Illinois Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, voiced his strong opposition to that idea in a tweet Thursday: “This is unacceptable. It was wrong when Obama failed to stand up to Putin in Ukraine, and it’s wrong now.”Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez released a statement accusing the administration of circumventing Congress and “undermining a key policy priority that has broad and deep bipartisan support.””In willfully delaying these funds, the Trump Administration is once again trying to circumvent Congress’ Constitutional prerogative of appropriating funds for U.S. government agencies. It is also undermining a key policy priority that has broad and deep bipartisan support,” he said.”Enough is enough. President Trump should stop worrying about disappointing Vladimir Putin and stand up for U.S. national security priorities,” Menendez added.

What will Trump do?

Multiple sources familiar with the issue tell CNN that the President has floated the idea of halting the funding program for weeks. The White House has recently notified relevant agencies and congressional committees of its intent to block the aid to Ukraine, one source said.However, sources say that there are still questions about what Trump will ultimately do.

[CNN]

Trump got slapped down by G7 leaders after advocating for Russia

President Donald Trump derailed a major meeting with world leaders at the annual Group of Seven summit on Saturday evening after he insisted that Russia should be reinvited to the international gathering, The Washington Post reported Tuesday.

At a dinner in Biarritz, France, the president interrupted talks of the fires in the Amazon and Iran’s nuclear capacity by advocating for Russia to be readmitted to the gathering of industrialized nations. Russia was expelled from the group in 2014 over its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine that violated international laws and agreements.

Trump’s comments initiated a discussion at the dinner about “whether the leaders should assign any special weight to being a democracy,” The Post reported, citing officials. While most of the world leaders staunchly believed they should, Trump didn’t.

A senior official at the meeting told The Post that Trump crossed his arms and appeared to take a more combative stance as multiple leaders rejected his comments.

“The consequence is the same as if one of the participants is a dictator,” an official told The Post. “No community of like-minded leaders who are pulling together.”

Officials told The Post that at least two of the leaders present — Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, and Giuseppe Conte, Italy’s acting prime minister — did not push back against Trump’s position.

On Sunday morning, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson praised French President Emmanuel Macron’s performance at the dinner. “You did very well there last night. My God, that was a difficult one,” Johnson said, according to The Post.

Trump on Monday said he would invite Russian President Vladimir Putin to next year’s summit.

“Would I invite him? I would certainly invite him,” he told reporters.

“Whether or not he could come, psychologically, I think that’s a tough thing for him to do,” because Putin is “a proud person,” he said.

The US is set to host next year’s G7 gathering, so Trump may have the power to unilaterally reinvite Putin.

Macron, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and other leaders have made clear that they wouldn’t consider supporting Russia’s readmittance unless the country helps promote peace in Ukraine.

“One year ago, in Canada, President Trump suggested reinviting Russia to the G7, stating openly that Crimea’s annexation by Russia was partially justified. And that we should accept this fact. Under no condition can we agree with this logic,” Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, told reporters over the weekend.

Trump argued last week that it didn’t make sense to exclude Russia from the gathering “because a lot of the things we talk about have to do with Russia.”

Trump hasn’t mentioned Crimea or suggested that Russia would need to make any concessions to rejoin the group, but has repeatedly said that President Barack Obama was “outsmarted” by Russia and demanded the country’s exclusion.

[Business Insider]

US President Trump reiterates call for Russia to rejoin ‘G8’

Speaking to reporters at the White House, Trump noted that his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, had wanted Russia out of what used to be the G8 “because Putin outsmarted him”.

“But I think it’s much more appropriate to have Russia in. It should be the G8 because a lot of the things we talk about have to do with Russia,” Trump said, just days before a G7 summit — minus Russia — in Biarritz, France.

Trump added, “I could certainly see it being the G8 again. If someone would make that motion, I would be disposed to think about it favourably…. “They should let Russia come back in, because we should have Russia at the negotiating table.”

Russia pushed out after Crimea

Russia was pushed out of the G8 in 2014 because of its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

It was not the first time Trump has floated the idea of Russia getting back together with the G7, which groups the United States, Germany, Japan, France, Britain, Italy and Canada.

In June 2018, Trump suggested Russia should attend a forthcoming G7 summit in Canada. A Kremlin spokesman seemed to reject the idea, saying Russia was focused on other formats.

Two days later, President Vladimir Putin said Russia did not choose the G7 and would be happy to host its members in Moscow.

Trump has periodically called for closer ties with Russia, although his administration’s policy has included strong sanctions against Moscow.

He is due to host the next G7 meeting in the United States next year.

[France24]

Trump Offered Putin U.S. Help Fighting Wildfires, Kremlin Says

Donald Trump called Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday to offer U.S. help fighting Siberian wildfires, the Kremlin said in a statement.

Putin thanked Trump for the offer but said a group of airplanes had been formed in Siberia to fight the fires, according to a translation of the statement. Putin said that Trump’s call was a signal that “in the future, it will be possible to restore full-format relations between the two countries.”

The White House later confirmed the call and said that the two leaders also discussed trade.

Relations between the U.S. and Russia deteriorated after American intelligence agencies determined that the Kremlin interfered in the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf. The U.S. issued sanctions against Russia both for the election interference and the attempted murder of a former Russian spy in the U.K. that the British government blamed on the Kremlin.

Trump has nonetheless tried to maintain a personal friendship with Putin. The two leaders agreed to continue discussions by phone and in meetings, the Kremlin statement said.

Putin ordered the Russian military to help fight the Siberian fires earlier on Wednesday. Russia has declared a state of emergency in four Siberian districts because of the fires. Plumes of smoke visible from space have stretched across the region to the Ural mountains thousands of miles away.

June temperatures in the Siberian districts were about 10 degrees Fahrenheit (6 degrees Celsius) above the 30-year average from 1981 to 2010. About 3 million hectares were burning as of Wednesday, according to the country’s Federal Forestry Agency.

Wildfires in the U.S. haven’t always drawn sympathy from the American president.

Trump sparked outrage last year as wildfires devastated parts of California by insisting that poor forest management by the state’s Democratic leaders was to blame. He threatened to withhold federal money for maintaining the forests even as the fires raged through Butte County north of Sacramento, effectively destroying the town of Paradise and killing dozens of people.

After a backlash, Trump softened his tone and approved an expedited request for disaster aid.

Nevertheless, Trump has proposed cutting the U.S. Forest Service’s funding for the national forest system by as much as 19%. Some of the programs designed to reduce wildfire risk, including restoring forest landscapes and the Integrated Resource Restoration Pilot, would be eliminated altogether.

[Bloomberg]


Trump defends Putin’s claim that democracy is dead with bizarre, confused rant about California

Ahead of the G20 summit in Osaka, Vladimir Putin told the Financial Times that “the liberal idea has become obsolete,” a line that drew sharp rebuke from the democratic world.

But when President Donald Trump was asked about the line by Peter Baker of The New York Times, he didn’t even appear to understand what Putin was talking about, responding with a confused rant about how terrible California is.

Los Angeles and San Francisco, Trump said, are “sad to look at” because they are run by “liberal people”:

Putin, of course, was not talking about “liberal” in the sense of California or the Democratic Party. He was talking about the whole concept of Western, pluralistic, multicultural democracy, and arguing that giving marginalized groups like refugees and LGBTQ persons human rights is dying off.

Even if Trump had understood Putin, it is not clear he wouldn’t agree, given that his administration is rolling back LGBTQ protections, holding asylum seekers in camps with no soap and toothpaste, and broadly pushing to remove federal protections for the democratic process.

[Raw Story]

Trump gives Putin light-hearted warning: ‘Don’t meddle in the election’

President Donald Trump issued a breezy warning to his Russian counterpart Friday against meddling in US elections, laughing and smiling as he told his counterpart not to interfere.”Don’t meddle in the election, please,” Trump said, smirking and wagging his finger at Putin. He only raised the matter after being questioned by reporters whether he would issue a warning.”Yes, of course I will,” Trump said before making his joking aside.It was an off-hand moment that came at the start of the men’s first meeting since the conclusion of Robert Mueller’s investigation.Trump said he enjoyed a “very, very good relationship” with Putin, and said “many positive things are going to come out of the relationship.””We have many things to discuss, including trade and some disarmament, some little protectionism, in a very positive way,” Trump said.

When he made his playful admonishment against election interference, Putin sat beside him laughing. Trump’s aides, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, also smiled.It was hardly the serious confrontation that many of Trump’s critics — and even some officials in the US government — have been hoping he’d make ahead of the 2020 contest, which could be vulnerable again to foreign meddling efforts.Instead, it appeared to be Trump’s way of injecting levity into what remains a deeply fractured Washington-Moscow relationship.In the seven months since Trump last encountered his Russian counterpart, the Russians detained a former Marine on espionage charges and were accused by Mueller in his report of waging a “sweeping and systematic” influence campaign during the 2016 election.That’s a distant cry from the warmed-up relations with Russia that Trump entered office vowing to pursue. When he sat down with Putin on the sidelines of the G20 summit here on Friday, ties between the two countries were near the lowest ebb since the Cold War.In Trump’s view, that’s the fault of Democrats and overzealous investigators intent on finding links between his campaign and Russian officials. As he greeted Putin for the first time since Mueller concluded his investigation and released a final report, there was little to indicate his view of Moscow’s influence efforts has changed or that his prickliness on the topic had waned.”I’ll have a very good conversation with him,” Trump told reporters at the White House as he was departing for Japan.But he declined to detail what he might say regarding election meddling, or whether he would raise it at all.”What I say to him is none of your business,” Trump said.

[CNN]

Trump jokes to Putin they should ‘get rid’ of journalists

Donald Trump joked with Vladimir Putin about getting rid of journalists and Russian meddling in US elections when the two leaders met at the G20 summit in Japan.

As they sat for photographs at the start of their first formal meeting in nearly a year, the US president lightheartedly sought common ground with Putin at the expense of the journalists around them in Osaka.

“Get rid of them. Fake news is a great term, isn’t it? You don’t have this problem in Russia but we do,” Trump said.

To which Putin responded, in English: “We also have. It’s the same.”

Twenty-six journalists have been murdered in Russia since Putin first became president, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), many of them investigative reporters scrutinising governmental abuses.

Trump has frequently referred to the press as the “enemy of the people” and in February the CPJ expressed concern about the safety of journalists covering Trump rallies, where they have been the target of derision and abuse from the president and his supporters. It is a year to the day since five Capital Gazette employees were killed in their newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland. The shooting led to the organisation Reporters Without Bordersadding the US to its list of the five deadliest countries for journalism.

It was the first meeting between the two men since a summit in Helsinki last July, and since the publication of a report by the special counsel Robert Mueller, which found Russia had interfered extensively in the 2016 US presidential election, but found insufficient evidence that the Trump campaign had conspired with Moscow.

When journalists asked Trump just before he left for Japan what he would like to talk to Putin about, he told them it was “none of your business”. As they sat alongside each other, a reporter asked whether he was going to tell Putin not to meddle in the 2020 election.

Trump said: “Yes, of course I will,” drawing a laugh from Putin. Then, without looking at Putin, Trump said briskly: “Don’t meddle in the election, please,” and then repeated the phrase with a mock finger wag as Putin and the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, smiled broadly.

Relations between the two countries have been sour for years, worsening after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and backed Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian war. In a recent television interview, Putin said relations between Moscow and Washington were “getting worse and worse”.

Trump has sought better relations with Putin to tackle a host of issues, including his goal to rein in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. On Friday, he emphasised the positives.

“It’s a great honour to be with President Putin,” Trump said. “We have many things to discuss, including trade and including some disarmament.”

Trump and Putin had been scheduled to meet at the end of November at the last G20 in Buenos Aires, but Trump cancelled the meeting as he flew to Argentina, citing Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian navy ships and sailors. The two spoke informally at the event. The Ukrainian sailors have still not been freed.

“We’ve had great meetings. We’ve had a very, very good relationship,” Trump said on Friday. “And we look forward to spending some very good time together. A lot of very positive things are going to come out of the relationship.”

In May, the two leaders had their first extensive phone conversation in months. Trump said they talked about a new accord to limit nuclear arms that could eventually include China. Russia is under punitive sanctions imposed by the US and the EU and wants them lifted.

Trump’s critics have accused him of being too friendly with Putin and castigated him for failing to publicly confront the Russian leader in Helsinki over Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 election.

In an interview with the Financial Times on Thursday, Putin claimed Trump’s victory in 2016 and the rise of nationalist-populist movements in Europe signalled the death of liberal policies in the west.

“[Liberals] cannot simply dictate anything to anyone just like they have been attempting to do over the recent decades,” he said. “The liberal idea has become obsolete. It has come into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population.”

Trump later held talks with Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro. “He is a special man, doing very well, very much loved by the people of Brazil,” Trump said, smiling broadly. For his part, Bolsonaro told the US president: “I have been a great admirer of you for quite some time, even before your election. I support Trump, I support the United States, I support your re-election.”

[The Guardian]

Trump: Tech companies, not Russia, trying to ‘rig the election’

President Donald Trump today suggested tech giants like Google and Twitter are the greatest threat to the integrity of the 2020 presidential election — and said anti-conservative bias among the companies had a greater impact in 2016 than Russian meddling.

“Let me tell you, they’re trying to rig the election,” Trump said in a phone interview on Fox Business. “That’s what we should be looking at, not that witch hunt, the phony witch hunt.”

Charging Google with being “totally biased” in favor of Democrats and fomenting “hatred for the Republicans,” Trump downplayed Russia’s 2016 social media manipulation: “You know, they talk about Russia because they had some bloggers—and by the way, those bloggers, some of them were going both ways. They were for Clinton and for Trump.”

Lawmakers, academics and U.S. intelligence officials are in broad agreement that Russia mounted a vast online disinformation campaign ahead of the 2016 election with the aim of inflaming American political and social tensions, supporting Trump’s candidacy and depressing Democratic voter turnout.

Trump’s comments reiterated claims that he and other prominent Republicans have made alleging that tech companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter are biased against conservatives and deliberately stifle their accounts and content. The companies flatly deny these allegations.

His criticisms came immediately after an extended broadside against Twitter for allegedly blocking people from following his account on the site, a claim the president has made repeatedly without evidence.

Twitter didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. A Google spokesperson said, “We build our products with extraordinary care and safeguards to be a trustworthy source of information for everyone, without any regard for political viewpoint,” noting the company’s publicly available criteria for determining the quality of search results.

[Politico]

Trump trashes Tillerson for saying Putin outfoxed him

President Donald Trump on Thursday bashed former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as “dumb as a rock,” saying he was “totally ill prepared and ill equipped” to be America’s top diplomat, after Tillerson shared unflattering information about Trump with top House members.

The president’s outburst on social media comes after Tillerson met with the top Democrat and Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and some of their staffers on Tuesday. He said during the meeting that Russian leader Vladimir Putin had out-prepared the U.S. president when the pair met for the first time in July 2017 in Hamburg, Germany.

Tillerson, whom Trump fired in March 2018, left the impression that the Russians had outmaneuvered the Republican president on at least two occasions, three people familiar with Tillerson’s meeting with the lawmakers told POLITICO.

Trump denied he was under-prepared for the meeting with Putin, who he has long sought to charm.

“Rex Tillerson, a man who is ‘dumb as a rock’ and totally ill prepared and ill equipped to be Secretary of State, made up a story (he got fired) that I was out-prepared by Vladimir Putin at a meeting in Hamburg, Germany,” the president tweeted. “I don’t think Putin would agree. Look how the U.S. is doing!”

It was not the first time the president has lashed out at his former secretary of state, who was ousted last year after frequently being at odds with Trump on policy issues. Trump also called Tillerson “dumb as a rock” in December.

According to the people familiar with Tillerson’s Tuesday session, which lasted roughly seven hours, he said that while in Germany, the Russians indicated to U.S. officials that the meeting between Trump and Putin would be quick, essentially a meet-and-greet.

The Russians also proposed not having anyone present to take notes, according to Tillerson’s statements, and Tillerson and others agreed to that condition, the people said. “Tillerson said, ‘It’s the way the Russians preferred it,’” one of the people told POLITICO.

But instead of lasting just a few minutes, the session turned into a wide-ranging meeting that stretched more than two hours.

It is still not clear what the two leaders discussed; Tillerson has said cyber issues and allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election came up. He indicated Tuesday that there were other topics discussed, though he declined to go into specifics, the people familiar with the meeting said.

Tillerson told those attending Tuesday’s session that he does not recall crafting a written record of the meeting after it ended and that he doesn’t know if anyone did.

The Washington Post, which first revealed some details of Tillerson’s talks with lawmakers this week, has in the past reported that Trump took away the notes of his interpreter in that meeting. Tillerson, who could not be reached for comment for this story, told lawmakers that he did not witness the interpreter’s notes being taken away.

The Hamburg meeting may not have been the first time the Russians out-played the Trump administration, the people familiar with Tillerson’s remarks told POLITICO.

In May 2017, Trump met in the Oval Office with two top Russian officials, foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

The people familiar with the Tillerson meeting Tuesday said he indicated that the U.S. side understood the session to be a mere courtesy call with no real agenda. Tillerson also said he did not recall a designated note-taker being in the room.

“The president twice went into a meeting with sophisticated diplomatic players from an adversary with no agenda and presumably no designated note-taker. That’s concerning, because it leaves the U.S. side open to being out-maneuvered,” one of the people familiar with Tuesday’s session said.

It was later reported that Trump divulged classified information to his Russian guests. Tillerson did not address those reports, however.

Tillerson was careful not to disparage Trump during his discussions Tuesday, the people familiar with the meeting said.

[Politico]

Trump says he did not confront Putin on election interference in post-Mueller call


President Trump
 said he did not confront Russian President Vladimir Putinabout interfering in U.S. elections during a lengthy phone call earlier Friday, their first known conversation since the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report.

Trump told reporters in the Oval Office they briefly addressed the outcome of the report, but lashed out at NBC’s Kristen Welker who interjected to ask whether he warned Putin not to interfere, telling her “you are very rude.”

“We didn’t discuss that. Really, we didn’t discuss it,” Trump said when asked a second time, adding they instead “went into great detail” on issues such as Venezuela, North Korea and nuclear arms control.

Trump added that when the report was brought up, Putin “sort of smiled” and said “something to the effect that it started off being a mountain and ended up being a mouse.” 

The president said he agreed with Putin’s assessment of the Mueller report.

Trump addressed his conversation with Putin hours after White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders informed reporters of the call, which she said lasted more than an hour.

Sanders said the two men discussed Mueller’s probe “very, very briefly” but dodged when asked if Trump addressed the subject of election interference.

“It was discussed essentially in the context of that it’s over and there was no collusion, which I’m pretty sure both leaders were well aware of long before this call took place,” she said. “Now they moved on to talk about those topics.”

Trump said the discussion was focused on brokering a new nuclear arms treaty with Russia, and possibly China, as well as the crisis in Venezuela and denuclearizing North Korea.

The president’s comments are sure to reignite criticism that he is not doing enough to counter Moscow’s attempts to meddle in elections. Those criticisms reached a fever pitch last summer when Trump failed to publicly confront Putin during a summit meeting about his government’s attempts to interfere in the 2016 election.

Mueller’s 448-page report determined that Russia interfered in the 2016 election “in systematic fashion,” an effort that included a social media campaign and the release of stolen documents from key Democrats in order to help Trump.

The special counsel concluded there were multiple “Russian offers of assistance” to the Trump campaign and in some cases, the campaign was “receptive to the offer” but other times “campaign officials shied away.”

Trump has instead seized on Mueller’s finding that the Trump campaign and Moscow did not engage in a criminal conspiracy, claiming there was “no collusion” and calling the report a “complete and total exoneration.”

Members of Trump’s administration have cautioned that Russia still poses a real threat to the nation’s elections.

FBI Director Christopher Wray said last week that Russia is committed to interfering again in the 2020 contests, calling it a “significant counterterrorism threat.” But Trump has reportedly bristled at their warnings behind closed doors because he sees questions about Russian influence as undermining the legitimacy of his victory in 2016. 

Sanders defended the Trump’s handling of the Putin call and faulted former President Barack Obama for not doing enough to deter the interference campaign in 2016.

“We’re actually doing things to prevent everybody from meddling in our elections, something the other administration failed to do,” she told reporters later Friday. “The president’s been clear that no one needs to meddle in our election. He doesn’t need to do that every two seconds.”

[The Hill]

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