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Trump Officials to Brief Congress on Iranian Threat

WASHINGTON- Michael Bowman on Capitol Hill contributed to this report.

Senior Trump administration officials are due to brief members of Congress in closed-door sessions Tuesday about the military threat the White House says Iran poses in the Middle East.

Among those going to Capitol Hill are Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford.

They are planning to talk with lawmakers after days of suspicions expressed by U.S. officials that Iran was responsible for attacks last week on two Saudi oil-pumping stations and an earlier sabotage of four oil tankers.

Trump said Monday that Iran has been “very hostile,” and that the United States will have no choice but to respond to Iranian aggression “with great force.”

Earlier in the day, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif responded to what he called “genocidal taunts” by reminding Trump that “Iranians have stood tall for a millennia while aggressors all gone,” including Genghis Kahn and Alexander the Great. “Try respect. It works,” Zarif tweeted.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said Monday that after a briefing from national security adviser John Bolton, “It is clear that over the last several weeks Iran has attacked pipelines and ships of other nations and created threat streams against American interests in Iraq.”

Graham tweeted, “The fault lies with the Iranians, not the United States or any other nation. If the Iranian threats against American personnel and interests are activated, we must deliver an overwhelming military response. Stand firm Mr. President.”

​Monday in the Senate chamber, Democratic Senator Tim Kaine said, “It would be absolute lunacy for the United States to get involved in another war right now in the Middle East. I think it would be devastating to be in a war with Iran and, in my view unconstitutional to be in a war with Iran at a president’s say-so … It’s Congress that declares war, not the president. It’s not for a president to say it and start it. It’s not for a president to, by a series of provocations, blunder us down the path where war becomes inevitable.”

Later, Democratic Senator Chris Murphy tweeted: “No one should defend the actions Iran has taken – they’ve been out of control for years – but dumb wars start when each party mistakenly believes that the other party’s defensive or reactive actions are actually offensive and proactive.”

The U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet said it has increased maritime patrols and exercises in the Arabian Sea that highlight the “lethality and agility to respond to threat.” The Pentagon has already sent bombers to the region.

Iranian leaders say they do not want war, but have shown no interest so far in talks with the United States. 

As the war of words between the two countries showed little sign of cooling off, Iran said Monday it has quadrupled its uranium enrichment capacity.

Iranian officials say the uranium will be enriched for civilian energy uses, far below weapons grade as spelled out in the 2015 nuclear agreement. Enriching uranium means concentrating the element’s radioactive component. Natural uranium has less than one percent U-235, while uranium for electric power production is around four percent pure and weapons-grade material is refined to contain about 90 percent of this active ingredient.

Iran could soon exceed the amount of material it is allowed to stockpile under the deal. 

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced two weeks ago he is pulling out of some parts of the six-nation nuclear deal, including the condition that Iran sell excess amounts of uranium to other nations.

Rouhani has threatened to move Iran closer to weapons-grade enrichment unless it sees promised economic relief from the deal by early July.

Trump pulled out of the nuclear agreement deal one year ago. He re-imposed sanctions on Tehran and has threatened other sanctions on countries that still do business with Iran. Trump’s decision has made the Iranian economy, already in tatters, even weaker.

Trump’s moves have helped set the stage for the current increased tensions between the United States and Iran.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia said Monday it intercepted two missiles it says were fired by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. One missile was stopped over the city of Taif and the other over Jiddah.

The Houthis deny involvement. 

The Saudis have said they do not want war, but will fight and fight hard to protect their interests. 

The Saudis also blame the Houthis for a drone attack on two Saudi oil-pumping stations last week and the United States says it suspects Iran was behind the sabotage that damaged four tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates last week. Two of the tankers were Saudi.

Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition helping the Yemeni government fight the Houthi rebels. Iran has not denied supporting the Houthi cause, but has said it does not supply weapons to them.

 


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House Committee Warns of ‘Serious Consequences’ as Trump Tells Former Counsel to Ignore Subpoena

WHITE HOUSE — Patsy Widakuswara at the White House contributed to this report.

U.S. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler says the committee is “prepared to use all enforcement mechanisms at its disposal” if former White House Counsel Don McGahn does not comply with an order to show up for testimony Tuesday.

In a letter to McGahn released late Monday, Nadler objected to an order from the White House instructing McGahn not to testify, and to a Justice Department legal opinion stating that Congress cannot force him to appear.

“The committee has made clear that you risk serious consequences if you do not appear tomorrow,” Nadler wrote.

He said President Donald Trump was seeking to “block a former official from informing a coequal branch of government about his own misconduct,” and that the White House order did not excuse McGahn from his obligation to testify.

Nadler further dismissed the opinion from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel as having “no support in relevant case law” with prior court rulings rejecting the arguments presented.

He said the committee wants to ask McGahn about “instances in which the president took actions or ordered you to take actions that may constitute criminal offenses, including obstruction of justice.”

McGahn’s attorney, William Burck, however, confirmed Monday evening that his client would not appear Tuesday before the House committee.

“Mr. McGahn remains obligated to maintain the status quo and respect the President’s instruction. In the event an accommodation is agreed between the Committee and the White House, Mr. McGahn will of course comply with that accommodation,” Burck said in a statement.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders explained in a statement that the Justice Department “has provided a legal opinion stating that, based on long-standing, bipartisan, and Constitutional precedent, the former Counsel to the President cannot be forced to give such testimony, and Mr. McGahn has been directed to act accordingly.”

The Justice Department, in its legal opinion, states: “We provide the same answer that the Department of Justice repeatedly provided for five decades: Congress may not constitutionally compel the President’s senior advisers to testify about their official duties.”

“They’re doing that for the office of the presidency for future presidents,” said President Donald Trump of the Justice Department legal opinion. “They’re not doing that for me.” 

​”I think we’ve been the most transparent administration in the history of our country,” replied Trump to a reporter asking why not just let McGahn testify so the public can have full answers to executive action regarding the Russia investigation. “We want to get on with running the country.”

Trump spoke on the White House South Lawn before boarding Marine One for Joint Base Andrews. From there, he headed to a political rally in Pennsylvania on Air Force One.

In a letter to Nadler, the current White House Counsel to the President, Pat Cipollone, stated that Trump has directed McGahn not to appear at Tuesday’s hearing. 

“This long-standing principle is firmly rooted in the Constitution’s separation of powers and protects the core functions of the Presidency, and we are adhering to this well-established precedent in order to ensure that future Presidents can effectively execute the responsibilities of the Office of the Presidency,” Cipollone writes.

The Democrats have been eager to hear from McGahn, including questioning him about potential obstruction of justice by Trump based on episodes outlined in the report of special counsel Robert Mueller from his investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

Nadler, last week, stated he was prepared to have his committee vote to hold McGahn in contempt of Congress if the former White House counsel defied the subpoena.

One member of the committee is calling for an impeachment inquiry against the president to commence if McGahn does not testify Tuesday. 

“We simply cannot sit by and allow this president to destroy the rule of law, to subvert the Constitution,” Congressman David Cicilline of the state of Rhode Island said during an interview on U.S. cable news network MSNBC. 

McGahn’s name is mentioned on more than 65 pages of the 448-page Mueller report.

Monday’s pushback by the Justice Department and the White House is the latest instance of the executive branch trying to challenge for power the legislative branch of government with Trump betting the third branch – the judiciary – will back him up with rulings by federal judges, including the Supreme Court. 

“That’s a dangerous game to play, though, because the judiciary is also not going to want to see erosion of their power, even if they see congressional power getting eroded,” predicts Shannon Bow O’Brien, a government professor at the University of Texas. 


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California Eyes Health Care for Immigrants in US Illegally

California lawmakers are considering proposals that would make the state the first in the nation to offer government-funded health care to adult immigrants living in the country illegally.

Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed covering immigrants 19 to 25 years old.

A proposal in the state Senate would expand that coverage to include people 65 and older, while the Assembly is considering a bill that would extend benefits to all low-income immigrants 19 and older.

California already covers immigrants 18 and younger regardless of their status.

A final decision on wider coverage may come down to cost.

Newsom estimates his plan covering young adults would cost $98 million a year. Legislative staffers estimate the Senate’s plan could cost $304 million and the Assembly proposal $3.2 billion annually.

Newsom estimates California will have a $21.5 billion budget surplus. But he has urged lawmakers to constrain spending, warning the next recession could cost the state $70 billion in revenue.


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AP Explains: US Sanctions on Huawei Bite, But Who Gets Hurt?

Trump administration sanctions against Huawei have begun to bite even though their dimensions remain unclear. U.S. companies that supply the Chinese tech powerhouse with computer chips saw their stock prices slump Monday, and Huawei faces decimated smartphone sales with the anticipated loss of Google’s popular software and services. 

The U.S. move escalates trade-war tensions with Beijing, but also risks making China more self-sufficient over time.

Here’s a look at what’s behind the dispute and what it means.

What’s this about?

Last week, the U.S. Commerce Department said it would place Huawei on the so-called Entity List, effectively barring U.S. firms from selling it technology without government approval. 

Google said it would continue to support existing Huawei smartphones but future devices will not have its flagship apps and services, including maps, Gmail and search. Only basic services would be available, making Huawei phones less desirable. Separately, Huawei is the world’s leading provider of networking equipment, but it relies on U.S. components including computer chips. About a third of Huawei’s suppliers are American. 

Why punish Huawei?

The U.S. defense and intelligence communities have long accused Huawei of being an untrustworthy agent of Beijing’s repressive rulers — though without providing evidence. The U.S. government’s sanctions are widely seen as a means of pressuring reluctant allies in Europe to exclude Huawei equipment from their next-generation wireless networks. Washington says it’s a question of national security and punishment of Huawei for skirting sanctions against Iran, but the backdrop is a struggle for economic and technological dominance. 

The politics of President Donald Trump’s escalating tit-for-tat trade war have co-opted a longstanding policy goal of stemming state-backed Chinese cyber theft of trade and military secrets. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said last week that the sanctions on Huawei have nothing to do with the trade war and could be revoked if Huawei’s behavior were to change.

​The sanctions’ bite

Analysts predict consumers will abandon Huawei for other smartphone makers if Huawei can only use a stripped-down version of Android. Huawei, now the No. 2 smartphone supplier, could fall behind Apple to third place. Google could seek exemptions, but would not comment on whether it planned to do so.

Who uses Huawei anyway?

While most consumers in the U.S. don’t even know how to pronounce Huawei (it’s “HWA-way”), its brand is well known in most of the rest of the world, where people have been buying its smartphones in droves.

Huawei stealthily became an industry star by plowing into new markets, developing a lineup of phones that offer affordable options for low-income households and luxury models that are siphoning upper-crust sales from Apple and Samsung in China and Europe. About 13 percent of its phones are now sold in Europe, estimates Gartner analyst Annette Zimmermann.

That formula helped Huawei establish itself as the world’s second-largest seller of smartphones during the first three months of this year, according to the research firm IDC. Huawei shipped 59 million smartphones in the January-March period, nearly 23 million more than Apple.

Ripple effects

The U.S. ban could have unwelcome ripple effects in the U.S., given how much technology Huawei buys from U.S. companies, especially from makers of the microprocessors that go into smartphones, computers, internet networking gear and other gadgetry.

The list of chip companies expected to be hit hardest includes Micron Technologies, Qualcomm, Qorvo and Skyworks Solutions, which all have listed Huawei as a major customer in their annual reports. Others likely to suffer are Xilinx, Broadcom and Texas Instruments, according to industry analysts.

Being cut off from Huawei will also compound the pain the chip sector is already experiencing from the Trump administration’s rising China tariffs.

The Commerce Department on Monday announced an expected grace period of 90 days or more, easing the immediate hit on U.S. suppliers. It can extend that stay, and also has the option of issuing exemptions for especially hard-hit companies.

Much could depend on whether countries including France, Germany, the U.K. and the Netherlands continue to refuse to completely exclude Huawei equipment from their wireless networks.

The grace period allows U.S. providers to alert Huawei to security vulnerabilities and engage the Chinese company in research on standards for next-generation 5G wireless networks.

It also gives operators of U.S. rural broadband networks that use Huawei routers time to switch them out.

​Could this backfire?

Huawei is already the biggest global supplier of networking equipment, and is now likely to move toward making all components domestically. China already has a policy seeking technological independence by 2025.

U.S. tech companies, facing a drop in sales, could respond with layoffs. More than 52,000 technology jobs in the U.S. are directly tied to China exports, according to the Computing Technology Industry Association, a trade group also known as CompTIA.

What about harm to Google?

Google may lose some licensing fees and opportunities to show ads on Huawei phones, but it still will probably be a financial hiccup for Google and its corporate parent, Alphabet Inc., which is expected to generate $160 billion in revenue this year. 

The Apple effect

In theory, Huawei’s losses could translate into gains for both Samsung and Apple at a time both of those companies are trying to reverse a sharp decline in smartphone sales.

But Apple also stands to be hurt if China decides to target it in retaliation. Apple is particularly vulnerable because most iPhones are assembled in China. The Chinese government, for example could block crucial shipments to the factories assembling iPhones or take other measures that disrupt the supply chain.

Any retaliatory move from China could come on top of a looming increase on tariffs by the U.S. that would hit the iPhone, forcing Apple to raise prices or reduce profits.

What’s more, the escalating trade war may trigger a backlash among Chinese consumers against U.S. products, including the iPhone. 

“Beijing could stoke nationalist sentiment over the treatment of Huawei, which could result in protests against major U.S.technology brands,” CompTIA warned. 


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Austrian Government Collapses Over Ibiza Video Scandal

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz called time Monday on his coalition government with the far-right Freedom Party after its leader was shown on video appearing to offer favors to a purported Russian investor.

Kurz said he was seeking the removal of the country’s interior minister, Freedom Party politician Herbert Kickl, to ensure an unbiased probe into the video.

“I’m firmly convinced that what’s necessary now is total transparency and a completely and unbiased investigation,” Kurz told reporters in Vienna.

The Freedom Party reacted by withdrawing its ministers from the government.

“We won’t leave anyone out in the rain,” said the party’s interim leader, Norbert Hofer.

Kickl’s removal, which must still be approved by Austria’s president, follows the resignation on Saturday of Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache, who was also Austria’s vice chancellor. 

That came a day after two German newspapers published a video showing Strache pandering to a woman claiming to be a Russian tycoon’s niece at a boozy gathering in Ibiza two years ago, shortly before national elections. Strache and party colleague Johann Gudenus are heard telling the woman that she can expect lucrative construction contracts if she buys an Austrian newspaper and supports the Freedom Party. They also discuss ways of secretly funneling money to the party.

Gudenus, who was instrumental in arranging the meeting, has quit as leader of the party’s parliamentary group and is leaving the party.

The Hamburg-based weekly Der Spiegel and Munich daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung said the meeting in Ibiza was likely a trap that Strache and Gudenus had fallen for. The papers refused to reveal the source of the video.

Kurz noted that at the time the video was shot, Kickl was general-secretary of the Freedom Party and therefore responsible for its financial conduct. The chancellor added that in his conversations with Kickl and other Freedom Party officials following the video’s release, he “didn’t really have the feeling (they had) an awareness of the dimension of the whole issue.”

String of scandals

The ouster of the Freedom Party from the government was a setback for populist and nationalist forces as Europe heads into the final days of campaigning for the European Parliament elections, which run Thursday through Sunday.

Kurz has endorsed a hard line on migration and public finances, and he chose to ally with the Freedom Party after winning the 2017 election. 

The chancellor, who is personally popular, had said Saturday that “enough is enough” — a reference to a string of smaller scandals involving the Freedom Party that had plagued his government. In recent months, those have included a poem in a party newsletter comparing migrants to rats and questions over links to extreme-right groups.

Kickl, a longtime campaign mastermind of the Freedom Party, had already drawn criticism over matters including a raid last year on Austria’s BVT spy agency, which opposition parties claimed was an attempt by the new government to purge domestic political enemies.

Kickl’s party said he had done nothing wrong and sought to portray itself as the victim of a plot. 

Response from Russia

The Russian government, meanwhile, said it couldn’t comment on the video “because it has nothing to do with the Russian Federation, its president or the government.”

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said of the woman in the Strache video that set off the crisis: “We don’t know who that woman is and whether she’s Russian or not.” 

Pledging to ensure stability in Austria over the coming months, Kurz said vacancies in the government left by the Freedom Party’s departure would be filled with civil servants and technocrats.

His government, meanwhile, may find it difficult to continue as planned until Austria holds early elections, likely in September. Opposition parties plan to call for a vote of no confidence in Kurz’s government in the coming days. 


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French Drug Smuggler Sentenced to Death in Indonesia

Indonesia on Monday sentenced a French drug smuggler to death by firing squad, in a shock verdict after prosecutors had asked for a long prison term.

The three-judge panel in Lombok handed a capital sentence to Felix Dorfin, 35, who was arrested in September at the airport on the holiday island next to Bali, where foreigners are routinely charged with drugs offenses.

Indonesia has some of the world’s strictest drug laws — including death for some traffickers.

It has executed foreigners in the past, including the masterminds of Australia’s Bali Nine heroin gang.

While Dorfin was eligible for the death penalty, prosecutors instead asked for a 20-year jail term plus another year unless he paid a huge fine equivalent to about $700,000.

But Indonesian courts have been known to issue harsher-than-demanded punishments.

Dorfin was carrying a suitcase filled with about three kilograms (6.6 pounds) of drugs including ecstasy and amphetamines when he was arrested.

“After finding Felix Dorfin legally and convincingly guilty of importing narcotics … (he) is sentenced to the death penalty,” presiding judge Isnurul Syamsul Arif told the court.

The judge cited Dorfin’s involvement in an international drug syndicate and the amount of drugs in his possession as aggravating factors.

“The defendant’s actions could potentially do damage to the younger generation,” Arif added.

The Frenchman made headlines in January when he escaped from a police detention center and spent nearly two weeks on the run before he was captured.

A female police officer was arrested for allegedly helping Dorfin escape from jail in exchange for money.

It was not clear if the jailbreak played any role in Monday’s stiffer-than-expected sentence.

Wearing a red prison vest, Dorfin, who is from Bethune in northern France, sat impassively through much of the hearing, as a translator scribbled notes beside him.

After the sentencing, he said little as he walked past reporters to a holding cell.

“Dorfin was shocked,” the Frenchman’s lawyer Deny Nur Indra told AFP.

“He didn’t expect this at all because prosecutors only asked for 20 years.”

The lawyer said he would appeal against the sentence, describing his client as a “victim” who did not know the exact contents of what he was carrying in the suitcase.

“If he had known, he wouldn’t have brought it here,” Indra added.

In Paris, the French foreign ministry said it was “concerned” by the sentence and reiterated France’s opposition to the death penalty.

“We will remain attentive to his situation,” the statement said, adding that seven French people faced the death penalty worldwide.

In 2015, Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran — the accused ringleaders of the Bali Nine  — were executed by firing squad in Indonesia.

The Bali Nine gang’s only female member was released from jail last year, while some others remain in prison.

The highly publicized case sparked diplomatic outrage and a call to abolish the death penalty.

“The death penalty verdict marks another setback for human rights in Indonesia,” Human Rights Watch campaigner Andreas Harsono said Monday.

“The Indonesian government’s many pledges about moving toward abolishing the death penalty clearly meant nothing in Lombok”.

There are scores of foreigners on death row in Indonesia, including cocaine-smuggling British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford and Serge Atlaoui, a Frenchman who has been on death row since 2007.

Last year, eight Taiwanese drug smugglers were sentenced to death by an Indonesian court after being caught with around a tonne of crystal methamphetamine.


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Battle Breaks out for WikiLeaks Founder Assange’s Computers

With Julian Assange locked away in a London jail, a new battle has broken out over what may contain some of the WikiLeaks founder’s biggest secrets: his computers.

On Monday, judicial authorities from Ecuador carried out an inventory of all the belongings and digital devices left behind at the London embassy following his expulsion last month from the diplomatic compound that had been his home the past seven years.  

It came as Sweden announced it was seeking Assange’s arrest on suspicion of rape, setting up a possible future tug-of-war with the United States over any extradition of Assange from Britain.

It’s not known what devices authorities removed from the embassy or what information they contained. But authorities said they were acting on a request by the U.S. prosecutors, leading Assange’s defenders to claim that Ecuador has undermined the most basic principles of asylum while denying the secret-spiller’s right to prepare his defense.  

“It’s disgraceful,” WikiLeaks’ editor in chief, Kristinn Hrafnsson, said in an interview with The Associated Press. “Ecuador granted him asylum because of the threat of extradition to the U.S. and now the same country, under new leadership, is actively collaborating with a criminal investigation against him.”

Assange, 47, was arrested on April 11 after being handed over to British authorities by Ecuador. He is serving a 50-week sentence in a London prison for skipping bail while the U.S. seeks his extradition for conspiring to hack into military computers and spill secrets about U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hrafnsson, who has visited the Australian activist in jail, said Assange saw his eviction coming for weeks as relations with President Lenin Moreno’s government deteriorated, so he took great care to scrub computers and hard drives of any compromising material, including future planned leaks or internal communications with WikiLeaks collaborators.

Still, Hrafnsson said he fully expects Moreno or the Americans to claim revelations that don’t exist. He called Monday’s proceedings a “horse show” because no legal authority can guarantee Assange’s devices haven’t been tampered with, or the chain of custody unbroken, in the six weeks since his arrest.

“If anything surfaces, I can assure you it would’ve been planted,” he said. “Julian isn’t a novice when it comes to security and securing his information. We expected this to happen and protections have been in place for a very long time.”

A group of Assange’s supporters gathered outside Ecuador’s Embassy in London to protest the judicial proceeding. Demonstrators put banners on the railings with images of Assange, his mouth covered by an American flag, and chanted “Thieves! Thieves! Thieves! Shame on you!”

Ecuadorian authorities said they will hand over any belongings not given to U.S. or Ecuadorian investigators to Assange’s lawyers, who weren’t invited to Monday’s inventory-taking. Hrafnsson said he didn’t have a full inventory of Assange’s devices.

Moreno decided to evict Assange from the embassy after accusing him of working with political opponents to hack into his phone and release damaging personal documents and photos, including several that showed him eating lobster in bed and the numbers of bank accounts allegedly used to hide proceeds from corruption.

Moreno’s actions immediately were celebrated by the Trump administration, which was key in helping Ecuador secure a $4.2 billion credit line from the International Monetary Fund and has provided the tiny South American country with new trade and military deals in recent weeks.

“The Americans are the ones pulling the strings, and Moreno their puppet dancing to the tune of money,” said Hrafnsson.

Separately on Monday, Swedish authorities issued a request for a detention order against Assange.

On May 13, Swedish prosecutors reopened a preliminary investigation against Assange, who visited Sweden in 2010, because two Swedish women said they were the victims of sex crimes committed by Assange.

While a case of alleged sexual misconduct against Assange in Sweden was dropped in 2017 when the statute of limitations expired, a rape allegation remains. Swedish authorities have had to shelve it because Assange was living at the embassy at the time and there was no prospect of bringing him to Sweden.

The statute of limitations in the rape case expires in August next year. Assange has denied wrongdoing, asserting that the allegations were politically motivated and that the sex was consensual.

According to the request for a detention order obtained by The Associated Press, Assange is wanted for “intentionally having carried out an intercourse” with an unnamed woman “by unduly exploiting that she was in a helpless state because of sleep.”


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Vietnam, EU Eye Trade Alternative to US

Vietnam and Europe could be swapping more pomelo fruit and Portuguese cheese soon if a new trade deal comes into effect, linking two regions that have been looking for an alternative to the trade tensions brought on by the United States.

The European Parliament is scheduled to discuss the trade deal on May 28, after years of negotiations between Vietnam and the European Union. The deal is significant not only because it facilitates exports, like tropical fruit, but also as it lays out commitments on human rights, labor unions, and protection of the environment. Critics, though, say the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement would not really enforce human rights standards and would continue the offshoring of jobs that has left workers vulnerable.

For the EU, the deal is one more way to access Asia’s fast-growing economies, set a model for trading with developing countries, and hold Vietnam’s one-party state accountable on its promise to level the business playing field. 

For Vietnam, it is a chance to call itself a country open for business, with many trade deals, as well as raise quality standards to those expected by European customers. 

“It includes a lot of commitments to improve the business environment in Vietnam,” Le Thanh Liem, standing vice chair of the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee, said at a European Chamber of Commerce in Vietnam event.

Vietnamese officials often say that it helps to have an external factor to get difficult internal reforms over the finish line. For example it might be hard to convince conservatives to allow workers to form their own labor unions. But if there is an outside incentive, such as greater trade with the EU, that could bring conservatives on board. 

Labor unions were one concern for Europeans. Another is the loss of blue-collar jobs to Asia, including to Vietnam. European workers worry that as they take gig jobs, like food delivery, in place of their old stable jobs, there is less of a safety net through long-term employers or through tax-funded government programs. And there is one more concern raised through the trade deal:“We have some concerns about human rights in Vietnam, but that has been discussed,” Eurocham chair Nicolas Audier said at the chamber event. 

​Amnesty International reported this month that the number of Vietnam’s political prisoners jumped to 128 from 97 last year, despite the fact that Hanoi says it does not jail people for political reasons.

Some question if the EU is applying consistent standards as it moves toward the trade deal with Vietnam, even while punishing nearby Myanmar and Cambodia for human rights abuses. Brussels is pulling back its Everything But Arms scheme of preferential trade access for the two other countries, based in part on Cambodia’s crackdown on opposition politicians in the 2018 election and on Buddhist-majority Myanmar’s mass killing of the mostly Muslim Rohingya.

But both Vietnam and the EU want more trade options because a major trading partner, the United States, is turning away from the world economy. Washington pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal in 2017, removing a key reason that Hanoi signed the deal, which was to get Vietnamese textile and garment companies more access to U.S. customers. Europe was also hit when Washington slapped tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum in 2018, and now it is threatening more import duties on European cars. 

So the EU and Vietnam are still working on their trade deal, and it is reflected in Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc’s schedule. He paid a visit to EU member states Romania and the Czech Republic in April, then hosted a state visit from Romania in May. Lobbying for the deal continued as he welcomed the Swedish crown princess this month, and he will return the courtesy, with the next trip on his calendar planned for Stockholm. 


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The Man Behind the Morehouse College Surprise

Robert Smith shocked the students at the historically black, all-male Morehouse College Sunday when he announced during his commencement address that he would be paying off student debts of all 400 graduates.

Here is a look at the man behind the gift, estimated to be worth $40 million.

Early life

Robert F. Smith was born and raised in a mostly African American, middle-class neighborhood in Denver, Colorado. Both his parents were teachers who had earned Ph.Ds. While attending East High School in Denver, Smith applied for an internship with Bell Labs. He was told the program was intended for college students, but Smith refused to take no for an answer. He called every week and finally was allowed into the program when another student failed to show.

He attended Cornell University in New York, studying chemical engineering. He got a master’s degree in business administration from Columbia University.

Career

Before attending graduate school, Smith worked at Kraft General Foods as a chemical engineer, where he earned two U.S. and two European patents. After graduating from Columbia, he worked at Goldman Sachs in San Francisco, advising tech companies, including Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Yahoo and Microsoft. He was the first person at Goldman Sachs to focus solely on technology mergers and acquisitions.

In 2000, he founded Vista Equity Partners, a private equity and venture capital firm. According to Forbes, Vista is worth more than $46 billion, owns over 50 software companies and has 60,000 employees worldwide. It is believed to be one of the best-performing firms in the country.

According to Forbes, Smith is worth $5 billion, making him the richest African American in the U.S.

Personal life

Smith is the first African American to be named chairman of the board at Carnegie Hall, America’s most prestigious concert venue. He is also the chairman of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights organization, a nonprofit human rights advocacy group.

He is one of the founding donors of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, committing $20 million to the museum before its opening.

Smith also founded the Fund II Foundation, which provides grants for causes such as human rights, the environment, music education and “preserving the African American experience.”

In 2017, he signed The Giving Pledge, an effort spearheaded by billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates to enlist wealthy Americans in giving away half of their fortunes. Smith said he would invest half of his net worth during his lifetime to causes that support equality for black Americans and the environment.

He is married to Hope Dworaczyk, an actress and former Playboy model. They have two children together, and Smith has three other children from a previous marriage.

 


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US Ambassador to China Visiting Tibet This Week

U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad was scheduled to visit Tibet this week, a U.S. embassy spokesperson said, the first visit to the region by a U.S. ambassador since 2015, amid escalating trade tensions between Washington and Beijing.

The visit follows passage of a law in December that requires the United States to deny visas to Chinese officials in charge of implementing policies that restrict access to Tibet for foreigners, legislation that was denounced by China.

“This visit is a chance for the ambassador to engage with local leaders to raise longstanding concerns about restrictions on religious freedom and the preservation of Tibetan culture and language,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

Branstad was traveling to Qinghai and neighboring Tibet from May 19 to May 25 on a trip that will include official meetings as well as visits to religious and cultural heritage sites, the spokesperson said.

In December, China criticized the United States for passing the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act, saying it was “resolutely opposed” to the U.S. legislation on what China considers an internal affair, and it risked causing “serious harm” to their relations.

The U.S. government is required to begin denying visas by the end of this year.

The visit comes as tensions have been running high between the two countries over trade. China struck a more aggressive tone in its trade war with the United States on Friday, suggesting a resumption of talks between the world’s two largest economies would be meaningless unless Washington changed course.

On Saturday, China’s senior diplomat Wang Yi told U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that recent U.S. words and actions had harmed the interests of China and its enterprises, and that Washington should show restraint.

While the Trump administration has taken a tough stance towards China on trade and highlighted the security rivalry with Beijing, it has so far not acted on congressional calls for it to impose sanctions on China’s former Communist Party chief in Tibet, Chen Quanguo, for the treatment of minority Muslims in the Xinjiang region, where he is currently party chief.

A State Department report in March said Chen had replicated in Xinjiang policies similar to those credited with reducing opposition to Chinese rule in Tibet.

Beijing sent troops into remote, mountainous Tibet in 1950 in what it officially terms a peaceful liberation and has ruled there with an iron fist ever since.

 


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Women Honored at Cannes as Gender Parity Drive Draws Scrutiny

Movie stars including Salma Hayek and Eva Longoria celebrated the role of women in cinema at a glitzy gala in Cannes on Sunday, amid a drive to promote gender equality in the industry that is still falling short of what many campaigners hoped for.

Cannes’ film festival, the world’s most important cinema showcase, last year signed a pledge to get an equal number of men and women in its top management by 2020 that is gradually gathering momentum at similar European and U.S. events.

Actors and filmmakers participating in this year’s edition have joined activists in warning that while industry attitudes were changing, progress was still slow.

“We have so much work to do and I just think we can’t let up,” Longoria told journalists at the Women in Motion dinner at Cannes, part of a program set up by luxury group Kering to push for gender equality in cinema.

“Whenever we see something improving we can’t just say ‘Oh OK let’s relax, the momentum’s going to go that way’. It won’t continue to go that way, we have to continue to change the industry for ourselves.”

Chinese actress Gong Li, the star of “Farewell My Concubine”, was awarded a prize for her career at the event.

At Cannes, four women are contending for this year’s top Palme D’Or film prize, including Franco-Senegalese Mati Diop and France’s Celine Sciamma, out of 21 entries – or just under 20 percent of the total.

Elsewhere, the proportion has sometimes been higher, with over 40 percent of the films competing at Berlin’s festival in February made by women.

“We hear a lot about how times are changing and improving, and it’s true. The idea is to support that trend. (But) the figures still don’t look good,” said Delphyne Besse, a film sales specialist and one of the founders of 50/50 by 2020, the collective behind the gender parity pledge signed by Cannes.

Of the 47 film festivals that have so far backed the drive globally, 38 percent have female heads, according to the lobby group’s figures.

Short shrift

Industry insiders said the slow progress was reflected in everything from the short shrift female directors still got in the media to their under-representation at industry events.

“Women have been making films for 11 decades now,” British actress and star of zombie movie “The Dead Don’t Die” Tilda Swinton told a news conference earlier this week.

“There are countless films by women. The question is why don’t we know about them,” she said, adding that even obituaries for female filmmakers tended to be dwarfed by those dedicated to men.

Cannes’ organizers have said they were not planning to introduce quotas dictating the gender balance of the films selected to compete at the festival.

“Cannes is only at the end of the chain. This needs to start with encouragement at film schools,” festival director Thierry Fremaux said last week.

The cinema showcase is looking to include more women its board, however, and the festival jury this year was more balanced.

“Atlantics” director Diop said festivals were still a logical starting point to highlight women’s work in the industry.

“It starts with the films, there is no festival without films, so it is an extraordinary exhibition that will give the films much bigger exposure,” she told Reuters in an interview.

 


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Trump Attacks Fox News in Latest Sign of Strain

President Donald Trump criticized Fox News again Sunday in the latest hint that he is souring on what has been his favorite and most faithful news outlet.

As part of a flurry of afternoon tweets, Trump took the conservative network to task for interviewing Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana.

“Hard to believe that @FoxNews is wasting airtime on Mayor Pete, as Chris Wallace likes to call him. Fox is moving more and more to the losing (wrong) side in covering the Dems,” Trump wrote, alluding to the Fox interviewer.

Trump added: “Chris Wallace said, ‘I actually think, whether you like his opinions or not, that Mayor Pete has a lot of substance…fascinating biography.’ Gee, he never speaks well of me.”

Trump again mocked Buttigieg, referring to him as Alfred E. Neuman, the goofy, gap-toothed cover boy with protruding ears of U.S. humor magazine Mad.

“Alfred E. Newman will never be president,” Trump wrote, using a more anglicized spelling of the name.

Sunday’s comments were Trump’s most forceful of late against Fox, until now the president’s preferred U.S. news outlet and the one that most often gets to interview him.

Another Trump interview was scheduled on the network for late Sunday.

Trump has been critical of Fox’s coverage of candidates in the crowded race for the Democratic presidential nomination in the 2020 election that will pit one of them against Trump.

Last month, Trump took a swipe at Fox after it hosted a town hall meeting with Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

“So weird to watch Crazy Bernie on @Fox News,” Trump tweeted.

Trump said the audience “was so smiley and nice. Very strange,” and alleged that it had been packed with Sanders supporters.

The president’s ties with the most Trump-friendly U.S. television network have hit a rough patch since the departure from his administration of two former big names at Fox.

These are Bill Shine, a former Fox News executive who served for nine months as White House communications director — Trump’s fifth — and former Fox news anchor Heather Nauert, who was spokeswoman at the State Department.

Nauert had been promoted to a senior State post and then considered for a while as a potential candidate to replace Nikki Haley as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

 


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