In Brussels, EU gives May glimpse of Brexit hope

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Theresa May came away from a day in an increasingly impatient Brussels on Thursday with a pledge of renewed talks that held out some hope for a new Brexit deal, if no sign of compromise yet.

Senior EU officials urged her to grasp an olive branch from Labour opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn that echoed EU proposals for a permanent EU-UK customs union as a way to end deadlock on the Irish border “backstop”. But EU sources said May had given little sign of how she planned to secure parliamentary support.

Dispatched by parliament to revise an accord she struck with the EU that European leaders refuse to reopen, May flew into a storm provoked by the EU’s Donald Tusk, who wished a “special place in hell” on those who had promoted Brexit with no clear plan for how to achieve it.

Despite frustration among Europe’s governments at May’s inability to win support at home for the deal she agreed in November, EU Council President Tusk and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker stressed a willingness to be flexible.

Juncker and May issued a joint statement after what they called a “robust” discussion. It set out her demand for a legally binding change to the “backstop” plan to avoid customs checks on the Irish border, and his insistence that the other 27 EU member states would not reopen that agreement.

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“NOT EASY”

However, Juncker said the bloc would look at adding wording to the separate political declaration on future trade terms to see if a closer relationship could be agreed on — one that EU officials say would render the backstop, under which Britain could be stuck with EU rules for years, largely redundant.

“It is not going to be easy,” May told a British television reporter. “But crucially, President Juncker and I have agreed that talks will now start to find a way through this, to find a way to get this over the line and to deliver on the concerns that parliament has so we get a majority in parliament.

“What I see and hear from leaders is a desire for us to work together to ensure that we can deliver the UK leaving the European Union with a deal,” she added. She will meet Juncker again before the end of the month as time gets perilously short for any kind of deal before Britain leaves on March 29.

Tusk was cautious though, tweeting: “Still no breakthrough in sight. Talks will continue.”

Several EU officials familiar with May’s separate meetings with Juncker, Tusk and European Parliament leaders said she had given little away, repeating demands for legal changes that would limit the application of the backstop protocol – which British lawmakers say could undermine British sovereignty.

She did, she said, chide Tusk for his remarks — though Tusk pushed back, sources said, suggesting that the “truth hurts”.

ECONOMY HIT

The Bank of England said Britain was set for its weakest economic growth in 10 years in 2019, blaming mounting Brexit uncertainty and the global slowdown.

Governor Mark Carney said: “The fog of Brexit is causing short-term volatility in the economic data and, more fundamentally, it is creating a series of tensions in the economy, tensions for business.”

He said a “no deal” Brexit, while not the likeliest outcome, had become more probable.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the EU’s most powerful leader, who has in recent days stressed the responsibility of both sides to reach an agreement, said a solution could be found without reopening the accord.

May will return to parliament on Feb. 14 for a debate on the Brexit negotiations, when lawmakers could again try to wrest control of the process from her, but a vote on approving the Brexit deal is likely to come later in the month.

Both May’s Conservative Party and the main opposition Labour Party are formally committed to carrying out Brexit following a 2016 referendum in which voters chose to leave the EU by a margin of 52-48 percent. But both parties are deeply divided internally over how or even whether to do so.

In a letter to May released on Wednesday, Labour leader Corbyn set out five conditions for Labour to support a deal, including a “permanent and comprehensive” customs union with the bloc, which May has ruled out.

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David Pecker, Chief of National Enquirer’s Publisher, Is Said to Get Immunity in Trump Inquiry

Federal prosecutors reached an immunity deal with the tabloid executive David J. Pecker, a key witness in their monthslong investigation into payments during the 2016 campaign to two women who said they had affairs with Donald J. Trump, according to two people familiar with the investigation.

Mr. Pecker is the chairman of American Media Inc., the nation’s biggest tabloid news publisher, which was involved in the payments, which prosecutors have identified as illegal contributions made in violation of campaign finance law.

As prosecutors in New York built a case against Michael D. Cohen, Mr. Trump’s longtime lawyer, that resulted in a guilty plea on Tuesday, Mr. Pecker emerged as an important figure. The investigation appears to be continuing, and as a longtime friend and ally of Mr. Trump, Mr. Pecker could have additional information valuable to the prosecutors.

In pleading guilty to campaign finance violations, Mr. Cohen said Mr. Trump directed him to arrange the hush money payments to protect Mr. Trump from embarrassing stories during the campaign. The cooperation of Mr. Pecker is another potential blow to the president from a former loyalist.

It was unclear on Thursday whether prosecutors had granted Mr. Pecker immunity for his involvement in the illegal campaign contributions, or simply agreed not to prosecute him based on the information he provided. One of the people briefed on the matter cautioned that Mr. Pecker could still face scrutiny. The agreement was disclosed on Thursday by The Hive, a Vanity Fair site.

Court documents included detailed descriptions of Mr. Cohen’s interactions with A.M.I. as the hush money payments to the women — a pornographic film star and a former Playboy model — were arranged.

It was unclear where prosecutors might be taking their investigation. Court papers said that several other people — in Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign and executives at the Trump Organization — were involved or knew of the illegal payments. Mr. Cohen, under oath in court, said Mr. Trump directed him to make the payments.

Mr. Pecker has been close to Mr. Trump since the 1990s, and has served as a protector dating back to before the days when Mr. Trump was the host of his reality show, “The Apprentice.” After Mr. Trump became president, he rewarded Mr. Pecker’s loyalty with a White House dinner to which the media executive brought a guest with important ties to the royals in Saudi Arabia. At the time, Mr. Pecker was pursuing business there while also hunting for financing for acquisitions, The New York Times reported in March.

The prosecutors’ agreement with Mr. Pecker adds another twist to a highly unusual case implicating the president. It means that a company that operates as a news organization is cooperating with federal authorities in an investigation that involves its work with a campaign.

Federal prosecutors determined that in American Media’s work with Mr. Cohen — and for Mr. Trump’s candidacy, according to Mr. Cohen — the company operated in more of a supportive political function for Mr. Trump, The Times reported in July.

And when the authorities subpoenaed the company in April, its executives decided against fighting it, agreeing to cooperate where warranted, and where they deemed officials were not violating First Amendment rights.

The company’s cooperation has provided prosecutors with a second line of access to communications about the effort to protect Mr. Trump’s secrets involving women during the campaign, on top of the information provided by Mr. Cohen.

Though several people familiar with American Media’s operations have said that the company keeps a strict records policy that ensures that emails are deleted regularly, it is not clear that the same held for encrypted communications or recordings. Dylan Howard, the company’s chief content officer, who is also said to be cooperating, was known to have a recording device in his office, according to people familiar with his operations. American Media would not comment.

In court documents filed on Tuesday, federal prosecutors cited “encrypted” communications among Mr. Pecker, Mr. Howard and Mr. Cohen regarding the payoff to Stephanie Clifford, the pornographic film actress known as Stormy Daniels, who claimed to have had a brief affair with Mr. Trump.

Among the records prosecutors subpoenaed last spring were communications between Mr. Pecker and Mr. Howard. According to the court documents made public this week, Mr. Pecker and Mr. Howard had been in touch with Mr. Cohen about both Karen McDougal, the former Playboy model who said she had a 10-month affair with Mr. Trump that began in 2006, and Ms. Clifford.

In June 2016, when Ms. McDougal approached American Media, whose tabloids include The National Enquirer, about selling her story, both Mr. Pecker and Mr. Howard provided Mr. Cohen a heads-up, prosecutors said.

A.M.I. negotiated American Media’s eventual purchase of the rights to Ms. McDougal’s story for $150,000 in August 2016 as part of a deal designed specifically to suppress information of the affair, according to Mr. Cohen. As the presidential election neared, Mr. Cohen sought to buy those rights from the American Media executives, prosecutors revealed, though the transaction was never completed.

While Mr. Cohen went on to negotiate directly for Ms. Clifford’s silence about Mr. Trump, she, too, had initially considered selling her story to the media. Upon learning that, American Media alerted Mr. Cohen and then helped him arrange his own deal to pay Ms. Clifford $130,000 for her silence in the final days of the 2016 campaign.

Mr. Pecker and Mr. Howard did not respond to requests for comment.

Depending on how far the immunity agreement goes, it gives American Media some breathing room in an investigation that has posed a serious legal threat to the company, which filed for bankruptcy in 2010. This year, the company notably expanded its portfolio, buying up more than a dozen titles that included In Touch and Life & Style magazines.

In bringing their charges against Mr. Cohen this week, prosecutors defined American Media’s payment to Ms. McDougal as an illegal, coordinated campaign expenditure. Election law prohibits corporations from spending money to influence elections in conjunction with candidates or their representatives.

“He reminded us,” Robert S. Khuzami, the deputy United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, said of Mr. Cohen when he announced the charges in Manhattan this week, “that it is illegal for corporations to make contributions to candidates.”

Karen Zraick contributed reporting.

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UK, Norway, Iceland agrees on citizens' rights if no-deal Brexit

OSLO (Reuters) – Britain and the so-called EEA EFTA countries, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway, have reached an agreement on citizens’ rights should Britain leave the EU without a withdrawal agreement, Iceland’s government said on Friday.

“The agreement protects the rights of EEA EFTA citizens living in the UK and British citizens living in the EEA EFTA states, providing certainty that they can continue to do so in the event of a no-deal Brexit,” the Icelandic government said in a statement.

“This means that citizens’ residence rights have been secured regardless of the outcome of the negotiations between the EU and the UK,” Iceland, an EU outsider, said.

Norway’s government said earlier on Friday that it had proposed legislation to secure the rights of Norwegians living in Britain and of Britons living in Norway in the case of a no-deal Brexit.

Britain and Norway agreed last year to apply the principles of a Brexit agreement in their bilateral relationship, but the new legislation will also cover a no-deal scenario.

“We hope Britain will have an orderly exit from the European Union. We must however be prepared for Britain choosing to leave the EU without a deal,” Norway’s Justice Minister Tor Mikkel Wara said in a statement.

Britain, the world’s fifth-biggest economy, is due to leave the EU on March 29 but Prime Minister Theresa May wants more concessions from Brussels to rally her divided Conservative Party behind her exit plan, rejected by parliament last month.

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Lord Mayor Nial Ring raises over €1m to save his home from bank sale

Dublin’s Lord Mayor Nial Ring has managed to save his home from a bank sale after raising well over €1m to pay off debts he owes Bank Of Ireland Mortgage Bank, the Circuit Civil Court heard today Friday.

Barrister Kate Conneely, counsel for Cllr Ring and his wife Joyce who was also named in repossession proceedings, told the court that a three-mortgage debt amounting to €903,420, together with the bank’s undisclosed legal costs bill, could be struck out by consent of both parties.

Ms Conneely, who appeared with Business and Commercial Solicitors, told Judge Jacqueline Linnane the extent of the new funds and where and how they had been raised, could not be divulged on the basis it may breach  data protection legislation.

She said funds capable of meeting all outstanding debts owed to the bank and its legal costs had been lodged with Mr Ring’s solicitors ready to be transferred to Bank of Ireland Mortgage Bank.

Judge Linnane said she did not think the proceedings should be struck out until confirmation was received that the funds had been transferred to the bank, just in case of any slip up.

Eithne Corry, counsel for the bank, confirmed that the bank accepted it was to be put in funds for settlement of outstanding debts and the bank’s costs which, it had been suggested, could be measured by Judge Linnane.

Judge Linnane said that on May 24, 2017 she had made an order for possession of the Ring family home at St Lawrence Road, Clontarf, Dublin.

The Civil Bill had outlined three loans for €234,000; €380,000 and €486,000 (totalling €1.1mi) with a stay on her order for six months on the basis that €10,000 a month would be paid off for the duration of the stay.

 It was part of her order that on default of any €10,000 payment the stay would be automatically lifted.

The judge said her order had been appealed and had come before the High Court on March 15, 2018.  The appeal had been withdrawn and a consent order had been made again on grounds of a stay of 11 months on the basis that €10,000 a month would be paid over that period, again with a stipulation that the stay would be lifted in default of a single monthly payment.

Judge Linnane said that according to papers in the proceedings, no €10,000 monthly payments had been made and only one payment of €5,000 had been paid over to the bank which had moved to execute the order and send in the sheriff.

 The Rings had then obtained a High Court ex parte injunction restraining the sheriff from acting on behalf of the bank. 

The Rings had given the bank an undertaking as to damages which, Judge Linnane said, she thought would not be worth very much bearing in mind the extent of their outstanding debts, which included mortgage arrears of €527,000.

When Judge Linnane suggested postponing any order to strike out the proceedings until the funds had been transferred from the Rings’ solicitor’s account, both parties asked for a brief adjournment to facilitate talks.

Shortly afterwards the court was told the funds had been transferred to the bank but confirmation of the transfer may take a day. Judge Linnane put the matter in for mention again on Monday and was told there would be no need for the court to measure the bank’s legal costs.

Mr and Mrs Ring did not have to attend court for mention of the settlement, and will not have to attend on Monday.

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Chinese businessman denies reported justification for Australian visa cancellation

SYDNEY (REUTERS) – A prominent Chinese businessman and political donor, linked in the past to a row about the promotion of Chinese interests, said on Friday (Feb 8) Australia’s decision to rescind his visa was based on nothing more than speculation.

Huang Xiangmo is unable to return to Australia after the government rejected his application for citizenship and revoked his visa while he was overseas, newspaper reports said this week.

Australian media, citing unidentified sources, said Huang was denied residency after intelligence agencies concluded he could undertake “acts of foreign interference” and that he was unfit for residency.

Huang rejected that assessment and criticised Australia in his first public comments since the visa cancellation was revealed.

“It is profoundly disappointing to be treated in such a grotesquely unfair manner. The decision to cancel my visa was based on unfounded speculations that are prejudiced and groundless,” Huang told the Australian Financial Review.

“There are many Australian companies in China, aren’t they more likely to be susceptible to potential manipulation by the Chinese government?” he said.

Representatives for Australia’s Department of Home Affairs and a spokeswoman for Minister for Immigration David Coleman did not respond immediately to requests for comment.

Huang’s expulsion comes as Australia and China seek to repair ties that have been strained since 2017, when Canberra accused Beijing of meddling in its domestic affairs. China denies the accusation.

Huang emerged as one of Australia’s biggest political donors soon after he began living in Australia. He rose to prominence after an influential opposition lawmaker was forced to resign in 2017, when allegations emerged that he was linked to Chinese-aligned interests.

The lawmaker, Sam Dastyari, sought to encourage a senior politician not to meet a Chinese pro-democracy activist opposed to Beijing’s rule in Hong Kong in 2015.

Dastyari was also recorded warning Huang that his phone may be tapped.

Huang stopped political donations after that incident but later expanded his business interests in Australia. He paid nearly A$1 billion (S$960 million) in 2018 for two Australian projects owned by Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group.

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Renault flags possible misdeed by ex-chairman Carlos Ghosn for €50k wedding in carmaker's first disclosure

PARIS (BLOOMBERG) – Renault SA plans to turn over evidence to French authorities that jailed former chairman Carlos Ghosn may have misused company benefits to host his extravagant 2016 wedding, marking the first time the carmaker has disclosed possible improprieties by the executive in France.

“The elements gathered so far require additional checks to be carried out,” Renault said in a statement on Thursday (Feb 7).

A €50,000 (S$76,900) contribution was part of a sponsorship deal between the automaker and the Chateau de Versailles, leading Renault “to bring these facts to the attention of the judicial authorities”.

The contribution was related to Ghosn’s wedding celebration held at the historic castle outside Paris, according to a person familiar with the matter who asked not to be named because the information is not public. It is the estimated cost of renting out the premises under a philanthropy contract signed by Ghosn that entitled the carmaker to hold corporate events, the person said.

Renault’s disclosure marks the first time the carmaker has uncovered potential wrongdoing by the fallen executive in France after allegations of financial crimes by Japanese authorities.

Its findings stem from an internal probe Renault started in November shortly after Ghosn was arrested in Tokyo. He was quickly ousted by alliance partners Nissan Motor and Mitsubishi Motors and resigned as chairman and chief executive officer of Renault last month.

Renault’s investigation found that Ghosn was likely the sole beneficiary of the Versailles event and not the company, according to the person.

Ghosn’s lawyer in France, Mr Jean-Yves Le Borgne, did not return requests for comment. Le Figaro first reported Renault’s decision to take the finding to the authorities.

Ghosn and his wife Carole used the Grand Trianon part of the sprawling castle and gardens for a party they threw in 2016 inspired by Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film, Marie Antoinette.

The nuptials were followed by a photo spread published in Town & Country magazine showing actors in period costumes, along with eye-popping arrays of desserts and snaps of Ghosn and his family.

Marie Antoinette came to symbolise the opulent lifestyle of French aristocracy at a time of revolt. She was executed four years after the revolution.

Born in Brazil, raised in Lebanon and educated in Paris, Ghosn jetted around the world visiting car plants, meeting ministers and eating and sleeping in the world’s finest restaurants and hotels. Revelations since his arrest have lifted the veil on luxury homes, opulent decor and lavish entertaining.

Ghosn’s ouster from the Japanese companies has created tension within their three-company partnership. Renault has agreed to Nissan’s demands that both companies investigate the finances of RNBV, the Dutch company that manages the alliance.

The French carmaker’s new chairman, Mr Jean-Dominique Senard, has pledged to mend the alliance and overhaul Renault’s governance. He is expected to unveil plans for Renault next month, the person said.

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Massive drug bust exposes cartel ties between Mexico and Australia

SYDNEY (AFP) – Australian and US authorities on Friday (Feb 8) announced they had seized around a billion dollars worth of methamphetamine – or Ice – in a bust that revealed new ties between Mexican cartels and Aussie biker gangs.

The Australian Federal Police said that a joint investigation led the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement to uncover 1.7 tonnes of drugs in California last month.

US authorities said the illicit cargo – with a street value of A$1.29 billion (S$1.24 billion) – was hidden in two shipping containers carrying audio equipment bound for Australia.

After a series of raids this month, two US nationals and four Australians were arrested this week in the Melbourne and Sydney areas.

They face various charges, including attempting to import illegal drugs, and face maximum sentences of life in prison in Australia if convicted.

The investigation appeared to reveal cooperation between Mexican cartels and Australian biker gangs, developing what the authorities say is a worrying new vector for drugs to arrive to Australia.

“This is a serious warning, we now believe the Mexican cartels are actively targeting Australia,” said Assistant Commissioner Bruce Hill of the Australian Federal Police.

“They have been sending smaller amounts over the years, this is now flagging their intent. Australia is now being targeted,” he said.

“The cartel is one of the most powerful and violent drug trafficking syndicates in the world,” he said, without naming the cartel involved.

Hill pointed to high Australian street prices and prevalent drug use as a “drawcard” for organised crime.

Colombian and Mexican cartels have long looked to local partners to open new markets for their produce and shift legal risk.

Australian police indicated that the country’s biker gangs, with deep involvement in organised crime, were willing interlocutors.

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Russia pledges response to Norwegian military activity

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia on Thursday accused Norway of pushing ahead with a military build-up which it said increased the risks of military action and required some kind of Russian response.

Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Moscow had watched as NATO member Norway had become more and more active in helping the Western military alliance build up its presence in the Arctic region.

Zakharova singled out what she said was a Norwegian plan to this year equip a port near Tromso to be able to receive nuclear submarines.

“Contrary to the historical traditions of neighborly relations and cooperation in the Arctic, Oslo continues to escalate tension and increase the risks of military action. This will not be left without a response,” Zakharova told reporters.

“The Russian Federation will take all possible measures to ensure its own security.”

Norway, which shares a 196-km (122-mile) land border with Russia, has said it is concerned about Moscow building up its own military capacity on the Kola Peninsula, a region dotted with naval bases and restricted military zones.

Norway in October hosted a huge NATO exercise.

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Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s President, Remains in Hospital With Signs of Pneumonia

RIO DE JANEIRO — President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, hospitalized late last month for a procedure related to a stabbing during a September campaign rally, remained in a semi-intensive care unit in São Paulo on Thursday with signs of a possible pneumonia infection.

The Albert Einstein hospital said in a statement that it had carried out tests on Mr. Bolsonaro after an isolated episode of fever Wednesday night.

“He underwent a tomography of the chest and abdomen that showed a good evolution of the intestinal frame and images compatible with pneumonia,” the hospital said.

Doctors said that Mr. Bolsonaro was not eating solid foods. He is doing walking exercises and is in no pain, they added.

Mr. Bolsonaro, a far-right politician elected president in October, checked in at the hospital on Jan. 27 for the removal of a colostomy bag put into place after the stabbing attack.

His recovery in the hospital was initially expected to take seven days.

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Fiat Chrysler paid $77 million in U.S. fuel economy penalties in 2018

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV told Reuters on Thursday it paid $77 million in U.S. civil penalties late last year for failing to meet 2016 model year fuel economy requirements, the first significant sign the industry is facing hurdles meeting rising emissions rules.

The Italian-American automaker has been lobbying the Trump administration to revise fuel economy requirements and last year regulators proposed freezing requirements at 2020 model-year levels through 2026.

Shane Karr, head of external affairs for Fiat Chrysler in North America, said in a statement the fuel economy program should be reformed rather than “requiring companies to make large compliance payments because assumptions made in 2011 turned out to be wrong.”

Karr added that the automaker is “committed to improving the fuel efficiency of our fleet and expanding our U.S. manufacturing footprint.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said in a report dated Dec. 21 that the industry faced $77 million in fines in 2016 and that one unnamed manufacturer “is expected to pay significant civil penalties.” The agency did not immediately comment on Thursday.

The civil penalty payment is much higher than in prior model years. The industry paid $2.3 million in civil penalties in 2014 and $40 million in 2011.

Under federal rules, automakers can accrue credits for overcomplying in some years. In 2012, the Obama administration finalized rules requiring automakers to nearly double the fleet-wide fuel efficiency of vehicles to more than 50 miles per gallon by 2025, but the Trump administration has proposed rolling back those requirements starting in the 2021 model year.

NHTSA also noted that the number of automakers’ fleets with credit shortfalls had risen to 26 in 2016, up from 18 in 2011, and the number of surpluses fell from 26 in 2011 to 15.

Steve Bartoli, a Fiat Chrysler vice president who oversees fuel economy issues, said in September at a public hearing on the fuel rules that starting in 2016 the auto industry had been unable to meet current requirements without using credits earned from prior model years. Bartoli called the gap “a wake-up call that assumptions made seven years ago about the U.S. auto market need to be revisited.”

The NHTSA report also said automakers collectively face projected shortfalls of about $1.2 billion for both the 2017 and 2018 model years, but it was unclear how much in credits can be used to offset the deficits.

Fiat Chrysler said the payment was anticipated and the costs were included in the company’s fourth-quarter financial results released on Thursday.

The company has previously purchased emissions credits from Tesla Inc, Toyota Motor Corp and Honda Motor Co.

Fiat Chrysler paid penalties for its domestically produced car fleet that did not meet efficiency requirements. It noted rules governing domestically produced cars restrict the use of credits.

The company explained the shortfall in part by noting that starting in the 2011 model year some front-wheel-drive utility vehicles previously classified as trucks were moved to the car fleet, which have much tougher fuel-efficiency requirements.

Fiat Chrysler noted those vehicles are taller and require more energy than sedans. In 2016, the company produced four such vehicles: the two-row Dodge Journey, Jeep Cherokee, Jeep Compass and Jeep Patriot.

By contrast, Fiat Chrysler said its average light-truck fuel economy in 2016 was higher than Toyota, Ford Motor Co and General Motors Co, while its car numbers were significantly lower.

The Trump administration said last year the fuel economy freeze would save the automakers more than $300 billion in regulatory costs.

Trump’s proposed freeze would result in 500,000 barrels per day more oil consumption by the year 2030. California says the proposal “would worsen air quality for the most vulnerable (and) waste billions of gallons of gasoline.”

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