Model claiming Trump secrets deported from Thailand

BANGKOK (AFP) – A Belarusian model who claimed she had evidence of Russian efforts to help Donald Trump win office was deported from Thailand on Thursday (Jan 17) after being convicted of participating in a “sex training course”.

Anastasia Vashukevich, known by her pen name Nastya Rybka, was held with several others in a police raid last February in the sleazy seaside resort of Pattaya.

In a case that veered between salacious and bizarre, Vashukevich said she had travelled to Thailand after becoming embroiled in a political scandal with Russian aluminium tycoon Oleg Deripaska – a one-time associate of Trump’s disgraced former campaign director Paul Manafort.

She then set tongues wagging by promising to reveal “missing puzzle pieces” regarding claims the Kremlin aided Trump’s 2016 presidential election victory.

But the material never surfaced and critics dismissed the claims as a publicity stunt.

In the risque Pattaya seminar led by Alex Kirillov, a self-styled Russian seduction guru, some participants wore shirts that said “sex animator” – though one person at the time described it as more of a romance and relationship course.

Vashukevich pleaded guilty alongside seven others to multiple charges, including solicitation and illegal assembly at a Pattaya court on Tuesday, which ordered the group be deported.

Kirillov, who has served as a quasi-spokesman for the mostly Russian group, told reporters as they arrived at court Tuesday that he believed they were set up.

“I think somebody ordered (our arrest)… for money,” he said.

Vashukevich looked sombre as she entered the courthouse and did not respond to questions from the media.

On Thursday afternoon, Vashukevich and the majority of the convicted were put on an Aeroflot flight for Moscow, bringing to an end the Thai side of a baffling case.

Thailand’s immigration chief Surachate Hakparn said the last of the group would leave the country on Thursday evening.

They are also blacklisted from returning to Thailand.

It was unclear what would happen to them on arrival in Moscow but the two Belarusians on the afternoon flight – which would include Vashukevich – are expected to not stay overnight and transit to Belarus.

That may be preferable for Vashukevich, who has more than 120,000 followers on Instagram and penned a book about seducing oligarchs, because she also faces legal problems in Russia.

Deripaska won an invasion of privacy lawsuit against her and Kirillov in July after a video apparently filmed by the model showed the tycoon vacationing with an influential Russian deputy prime minister at the time.

“I don’t think she wants to get out in Moscow,” a Russian friend in Thailand who helped with the case told AFP on Thursday.

Both Washington and Moscow publicly shrugged off Vashukevich’s story, which the US State Department described as “bizarre”.

Kremlin-connected Deripaska and Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, did business together in the mid-2000s.

Manafort has since been convicted in the US of financial crimes related to political work he did in Ukraine before the 2016 election as well as witness tampering.

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Yoweri Museveni 'loves Trump for frankness' with Africa

Yoweri Museveni says he ‘loves’ US president for alleged ‘shithole’ comment as ‘Africans need to solve their problems’.

    Ugandan leader Yoweri Museveni has said he loves US President Donald Trump for being “frank” with Africans, after Trump allegedly called African countries “shitholes”.

    Trump made the comment at an immigration meeting earlier this month, according to senators present at the White House meeting. The US president denied making the comment, saying he used “tough language”.

    “America has got one of the best presidents ever,” Museveni said on Tuesday while addressing members of the regional East African Legislative Assembly in the Ugandan capital, Kampala.

    “I love Trump because he tells Africans frankly. Africans need to solve their problems. They need to be strong. In the world, you cannot survive if you are weak and it is the fault of Africans if they are weak,” Museveni said.

    Museveni’s comments came hours after the US ambassador to the East African country described Trump’s controversial remark as “obviously quite disturbing and upsetting”.

    During his State of the Nation address on January 1, Museveni, who came to power in Uganda more than three decades ago, called Trump an honest man.

    The African Union condemned on January 12 the US leader’s comments “in the strongest terms” and demanded a retraction “as well as an apology, not only to the Africans, but to all people of African descent around the globe”.

    Meanwhile, in Haiti, a country Trump also disparaged in the meeting, thousands took to the streets on Monday to protest the US leader’s comments.

    In June 2017, Trump allegedly said during a meeting that all people from Haiti “have AIDS”, that recent Nigerian immigrants would never “go back to their huts” in Africa, and that Afghanistan is a “terrorist haven”, according to the New York Times.


    Talk to Al Jazeera

    Yoweri Museveni: A five times-elected dictator?

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    Iran: Mass pro-government rallies after days of unrest

    General Mohammad Ali Jafari announces end of unrest as tens of thousands rally in support of the ruling religious elite.

      Tens of thousands of Iranians have taken to the streets to rally in support of the Iranian government, after six days of anti-establishment nationwide protests in which at least 22 people were killed.

      The protests on Wednesday came hours before General Mohammad Ali Jafari, head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), declared the unrest as over.

      “Today we can announce the end of the sedition,” Jafari said, quoted on the Guards’ website.

      “A large number of the trouble-makers at the centre of the sedition, who received training from counter-revolutionaries … have been arrested and there will be firm action against them,” he added.

      State media had previously reported the arrests of at least 530 people: 450 in Iran’s capital, Tehran, and 80 in the central city of Arak.

      Earlier on Wednesday, pro-government demonstrators gathered in at least 10 cities, including Tehran, to condemn the rallies that put Iran in turmoil for almost a week, according to state media.

      TV pictures showed people carrying banners in support of the government and shouting slogans against the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

      The footage of the pro-government rallies by state media was in broad contrast to the coverage of the past week’s demonstrations against Iran’s leadership.

      Those protests started in the city of Mashhad on December 28 before spreading to other cities.

      Participants initially protested against rising prices, long-standing unemployment and economic inequality, but their grievances quickly turned political, in the biggest display of public dissent since pro-reform rallies swept the country in 2009.

      Iran restricted access to Instagram and Telegram social media apps as a security measure during the anti-government rallies, according to state TV.

      On Tuesday, in his first public remarks since the rallies erupted, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed external “enemies” for the turmoil.

      Khamenei said that powers against Iran allied and used the various means they have available, including “money, weapons, politics, and intelligence services”, to stir unrest.

      “The dignity, security, and progress of the Iranian nation are owed to the self-sacrifice of the martyrs. What prevents enemies from exerting their atrocities is the spirit of courage, sacrifice, and faith within the nation,” he said.

      His comments came hours before the US said it would seek emergency talks at the United Nations regarding the situation in the country.

      US President Donald Trump called the Iranian government “oppressive”, in a series of tweets, and warned it to respect the people’s right to protest.

      “Oppressive regimes cannot endure forever. The world is watching!” he said in a tweet last week.

      “The people of Iran are finally acting against the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime,” he said in another on Tuesday.

      Relations between Washington and Tehran have been particularly tense since Trump decertified the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

      Under Trump’s administration, the two sides have also been clashing on a number of foreign policy issues.

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      As shutdown bites, Trump foots bill for fast food feast

      WASHINGTON (AFP) – With White House residence staff among those hit by the US government shutdown, Donald Trump personally ordered in an “all American” feast of burgers and pizza on Monday (Jan 14) for a visiting football team.

      “Because of the shutdown, as you know… we went out and we ordered American fast food paid for by me,” the president quipped, as he prepared to host the Clemson Tigers university players to celebrate their national championship win.

      “I think they’d like it better than anything we could give,” said Trump, after landing back at the White House following a day trip to New Orleans.

      “We have pizzas, we have 300 hamburgers, many, many French fries, all of our favourite foods – I want to see what’s here when we leave, because I don’t think it’s going to be much,” the president mused.

      Asked to name his own favorite fast food – as he stood smiling behind the gargantuan spread – Trump demurred, insisting: “I like them all.”

      “If it’s American, I like it. It’s all American stuff.”

      “The reason we did this is because of the shutdown,” he added. “We want to make sure that everything is right, so we sent out, we got this.”

      Around 800,000 federal employees – including much of the White House residence staff – have been on mandatory leave or working without pay for 24 days as Donald Trump and Congress wrangle over funding for a wall on the southern border.

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      Opinion | Donald Trump and His Team of Morons

      There have been many policy disasters over the course of U.S. history. It’s hard, however, to think of a calamity as gratuitous, an error as unforced, as the current federal shutdown.

      Nor can I think of another disaster as thoroughly personal, as completely owned by one man. When Donald Trump told Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, “I will be the one to shut it down,” he was being completely accurate — although he went on to promise that “I’m not going to blame you for it,” which was a lie.

      Still, no man is an island, although Trump comes closer than most. You can’t fully make sense of his policy pratfalls without acknowledging the extraordinary quality of the people with whom he has surrounded himself. And by “extraordinary,” of course, I mean extraordinarily low quality. Lincoln had a team of rivals; Trump has a team of morons.

      If this sounds too harsh, consider recent economic pronouncements by two members of his administration. Predictably, these pronouncements involve bad economics; that’s pretty much a given. What’s striking, instead, is the inability of either man to stay on script; they can’t even get their right-wing mendacity right.

      First up is Kevin Hassett, chairman of Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers, who was asked about the plight of federal workers who aren’t being paid. You don’t have to be a public relations expert to know that you’re supposed to express some sympathy, whether you feel it or not. After all, there are multiple news reports about transportation security workers turning to food banks, the Coast Guard suggesting its employees hold garage sales, and so on.

      So the right response involves expressing concern about those workers but placing the blame on Democrats who don’t want to stop brown-skinned rapists, or something like that. But no: Hassett declared that it’s all good, that the workers are actually “better off,” because they’re getting time off without having to use any of their vacation days.

      Then consider what Sean Hannity had to say about taxing the rich. What’s that? You say that Hannity isn’t a member of the Trump administration? But surely he is in every sense that matters. In fact, Fox News isn’t just state TV, its hosts clearly have better access to the president, more input into his decisions, than any of the so-called experts at places like the State Department or the Department of Defense.

      Anyway, Hannity declared that raising taxes on the wealthy would damage the economy, because “rich people won’t be buying boats that they like recreationally,” and “they’re not going to be taking expensive vacations anymore.”

      Um, that’s not the answer a conservative is supposed to give. You’re supposed to insist that low taxes on the rich give them an incentive to work really really hard, not make it easier for them to take lavish vacations. You’re supposed to declare that low taxes will induce them to save and spend money building businesses, not help them afford to buy new yachts.

      Even if your real reason for favoring low taxes is that they let your wealthy friends engage in even more high living, you’re not supposed to say that out loud.

      Again, the point isn’t that people in Trump’s circle don’t care about ordinary American families, and also talk nonsense — that’s only to be expected. What’s amazing is that they’re so out of it that they don’t know either how to pretend to care about the middle class, or what nonsense to spout in order to sustain that pretense.

      So what’s wrong with Trump’s people? Why can’t they serve up even some fake populism?

      There are, I think, two answers, one generic to modern conservatism, one specific to Trump.

      On the generic point: To be a modern conservative is to spend your life inside what amounts to a cult, barely exposed to outside ideas or even ways of speaking. Inside that cult, contempt for ordinary working Americans is widespread — remember Eric Cantor, the then-House majority leader, celebrating Labor Day by praising business owners. So is worship of wealth. And it can be hard for cult members to remember that you don’t talk that way to outsiders.

      Then there’s the Trump effect. Normally working for the president of the United States is a career booster, something that looks good on your résumé. Trump’s presidency, however, is so chaotic, corrupt and potentially compromised by his foreign entanglements that anyone associated with him gets tainted — which is why after only two years he has already left a trail of broken men and wrecked reputations in his wake.

      So who is willing to serve him at this point? Only those with no reputation to lose, generally because they’re pretty bad at what they do. There are, no doubt, conservatives smart and self-controlled enough to lie plausibly, or at least preserve some deniability, and defend Trump’s policies without making fools of themselves. But those people have gone into hiding.

      A year ago I pointed out that the Trump administration was turning into government by the worst and the dumbest. Since then, however, things have gotten even worse and even dumber. And we haven’t hit bottom yet.

      Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.

      Paul Krugman has been an Opinion columnist since 2000 and is also a Distinguished Professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center. He won the 2008 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his work on international trade and economic geography. @PaulKrugman

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      Many of Trump's advisers tried to derail Syria withdrawal

      WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) – President Donald Trump dispatched national security adviser John Bolton on a cleanup mission a week ago, with a three-day itinerary in Israel that was intended to reassure a close ally that Mr Trump’s impulsive decision to immediately withdraw troops from Syria would be carried out more slowly and with important caveats.

      The plan seemed to work at first. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was all smiles, thanking Mr Bolton profusely for the show of US support.

      But by the end of the week, attempts to dissuade Mr Trump or place conditions on the withdrawal faded as the US military announced it had “begun the process of our deliberate withdrawal from Syria”.

      A multipronged effort by alarmed US national security officials, foreign allies and Republican hawks in Congress to significantly alter or reverse Mr Trump’s decision was effectively a bust.

      Since Mr Trump’s abrupt Syria announcement last month, a tug of war with allies and his advisers has roiled the national security apparatus over how, and whether, to execute a pullout.

      Mr Netanyahu spoke to Mr Trump two days before the President’s announcement and again a day afterwards. French President Emmanuel Macron tried to get the President to change his mind. Even Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who liked the policy, was concerned it could not be safely executed so quickly.

      The episode illustrates the far-reaching consequences of Mr Trump’s proclivity to make rash decisions with uneven follow-through, according to accounts of the discussions from more than a dozen current and former US officials and international diplomats. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly.

      The President’s erratic behaviour on Syria cost him the most respected member of his Cabinet, former defence secretary James Mattis; rattled allies and partners unsure about US commitment to the region; and increased the possibility of a military confrontation between Turkey and Kurdish forces.

      “Starting the long overdue pullout from Syria while hitting the little remaining ISIS territorial caliphate hard, and from many directions,” Mr Trump tweeted on Sunday (Jan 13) in another confusing message.

      “Will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds,” Mr Trump wrote.

      Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sought to reassure allies in a lengthy tour of Arab capitals last week, promising that the US withdrawal will not alter the Trump administration’s commitment to fully defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and drive Iranian forces out of Syria.

      Expelling “every Iranian boot on the ground is an ambitious directive, but it’s ours. It is our mission”, Mr Pompeo told reporters during a stop in the United Arab Emirates on Saturday (Jan 12).

      “The fact that a couple thousand unformed personnel in Syria will be withdrawing is a tactical change. It doesn’t materially alter our capacity to perform military actions we need to perform.”

      The message did little to reassure jittery allies. One person familiar with the internal Syria debate said those in the president’s inner sanctum are to blame for the mess.

      “They don’t give him the kinds of options that he wants, and then he lashes out,” this person said.

      “It’s not like it came out of thin air that he wanted to leave Syria. He campaigned on that. You can say it’s a bad decision, you can say it’s not helping stability, but you can’t say you’re surprised that he wanted to do it.”

      ‘I NEVER SAID FAST OR SLOW’

      Mr Netanyahu was the second foreign leader to learn of Mr Trump’s decision last month; the first was Mr Erdogan, to whom Mr Trump had blurted out his sudden declaration of withdrawal in a Dec 14 phone call. The two rival US allies have since played central roles in the Syria drama.

      Mr Trump’s first call with the Israeli leader on Dec 17 was arranged after a weekend of effort by Mr Bolton, Mr Mattis and others to steer Mr Trump from an abrupt decision. Current and former officials familiar with the events said some US national security aides hoped that Mr Netanyahu could help persuade Mr Trump to slow the withdrawal, even if he went ahead with a planned announcement that week.

      Mr Netanyahu expressed concern that Iran would be the unintended beneficiary of what Mr Trump cast as an “America first” disentanglement from foreign wars, people familiar with the conversations said.

      Speaking diplomatically, he told Mr Trump that Israel would “defend ourselves, by ourselves”, but would prefer more time to adjust, according to people familiar with their conversations.

      Mr Trump announced a 30-day withdrawal two days later. Mr Netanyahu and Mr Trump spoke again as bipartisan and international criticism mounted on Dec 20 – the day that Mr Mattis resigned over what he considered a hasty abandonment of the Kurdish fighting force.

      “This is, of course, an American decision,” Mr Netanyahu said at the time. “We will study its timetable, how it will be implemented and – of course – its implications for us. In any case, we will take care to maintain the security of Israel and to defend ourselves in this area.”

      Mr Netanyahu renewed his concerns in a talk with Mr Pompeo when they were both in Brazil this month. Israel, meanwhile, appeared to increase its secretive campaign of airstrikes in Syria, including attacks near the capital Damascus on Christmas Day. (Israel took the unusual step of acknowledging another round of strikes this weekend.)

      Mr Trump was stung by Mr Mattis’ resignation, which the President saw as an inappropriate public rebuke, people familiar with his views said. He was also angry about media coverage of his decision, including fact checks refuting his claim that the ISIS had been defeated.

      But in the weeks to follow, as he was also waging a battle with Democrats over a partial government shutdown, there were signs that Mr Trump might be moderating his Syria position.

      Mr Trump has seemed less bothered by what he viewed as the reflexive caution and slow-walking of his directives by aides, more than a half dozen US officials and international diplomats familiar with the debate said.

      The Pentagon suggested a departure timetable of four months rather than one, and Mr Trump has distanced himself from his stated policy while denying that there was a shift.

      “I never said fast or slow,” Mr Trump told reporters recently.

      Mr Trump’s visit to Iraq last month – his first trip to a combat area as President – was also a factor in his apparent equivocation, current and former officials said. He was struck by the level of security surrounding his visit, which was due partly to the regional threat from the ISIS.

      While in Iraq, Mr Trump also heard directly from US commanders about the risks of defeating terrorist groups in one place only to have them pop up in another.

      On New Year’s Eve, Mr Trump had lunch with senator Lindsey Graham, who favours a US presence in Syria. The South Carolina Republican said Mr Trump agreed during the lunch to meet several objectives before pulling troops out.

      “We’re slowing things down,” Mr Graham said in an interview early last week.

      “The president has bought into three objectives that have to be met for our withdrawal to be successful: that ISIS is defeated, that Iran will not fill into the vacuum and that the Kurds are protected,” Mr Graham said. “He told me he agreed with all three of those objectives.”

      ‘DIDN’T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY’

      Mr Bolton’s trip to Israel, and a subsequent stop in Turkey, was supposed to soothe any still-ruffled feathers. Instead, he ignited a new controversy.

      US forces will remain in Syria until they are no longer needed and until Washington is assured that Kurdish allies are safe, Mr Bolton said in Jerusalem. He assured Mr Netanyahu that the US sees the Iranian threat the same way he does.

      Mr Erdogan was enraged, however, by Mr Bolton’s statement that one condition of withdrawal was a guarantee that Turkey would not harm “the Kurds” and that he had warned Turkey off military action not cleared with the US.

      Mr Bolton intended to refer to Syrian Kurdish rebels fighting alongside the US against the ISIS, but he struck a nerve by using imprecise language and appearing to dictate to Mr Erdogan, US and Turkish officials said.

      The remarks immediately upended negotiations in Ankara between Turkish officials and Mr Trump’s newly designated special envoy to the coalition fighting the ISIS, Mr James Jeffrey, who was angered by the misstep, according to three people familiar with the negotiations.

      Mr Erdogan said Mr Bolton made a “serious mistake”, and his pro-government English-language paper, Daily Sabah, said Mr Bolton was orchestrating a “soft coup against Trump” from inside his administration.

      “It was probably a bad idea for Bolton to go rogue and try to impose conditions on the United States withdrawal from Syria,” the paper said.

      The Turkish leader refused to meet with Mr Bolton, who returned early to Washington, and told others that he does not believe the US national security adviser speaks for the Trump administration, a person familiar with his comments said.

      Mr Bolton did see other Turkish officials in what one official familiar with the trip described as an effort to “get Trump’s ill-considered leap to withdraw from Syria into a better place – a slower pace of withdrawal with assurances from Turkey not to target” the fighters.

      Mr Bolton’s trip was “entirely unfortunate”, said one adviser to Mr Trump, who along with US officials, former officials and international diplomats requested anonymity to describe the chaotic process more freely.

      “They screwed this whole thing up, and it didn’t have to be this way,” the adviser said. “It could have been a defensible decision, done thoughtfully.”

      A State Department official called the accounts of Mr Jeffrey’s anger “categorically false”, but did not elaborate.

      “We will not respond to any questions regarding diplomatic discussions,” the official said.

      A spokesman for Mr Bolton did not respond to questions about his remarks and interactions with US officials.

      Speaking on Friday (Jan 11) in an interview with conservative radio host and Washington Post contributing columnist Hugh Hewitt, Mr Bolton played down the snub and suggested Mr Erdogan may have engaged in “a little display of politics” ahead of national elections this spring.

      “I delivered the message that the president wanted delivered to my counterpart,” Mr Bolton said.

      ‘A REVELATION OF FRUSTRATION’

      The back-and-forth debate over Syria resembles what has happened many times in the past, one person familiar with the discussions said: Mr Trump gets frustrated by resistance within his administration, announces a decision on a whim, and then those around him scramble.

      “When he goes out of sequence like this, it’s a revelation of frustration,” this person said.

      The resignations of Mr Mattis and Mr Brett McGurk, the US envoy to the international coalition fighting the ISIS, along with lobbying by Mr Graham, Mr Netanyahu and others led Mr Trump to temper his initial order, even if he remains intent on withdrawing in the near term, this person said.

      Mr Mattis, Mr Bolton and Mr Pompeo arranged others to talk to Mr Trump to convince him that it would be deleterious to immediately exit.

      An official familiar with months of discussions of Syria among Cabinet agencies and the National Security Council asserted that the policy is “recentering”, now that Mr Trump has been assured that US forces will come out eventually.

      “It’s largely what meets the eye,” the person said.

      “The president has long been skeptical of continuing our troop commitments in the Middle East – Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, too. And from the beginning, there’s been this pushing and pulling with him, with pretty much all the national security officials being on the other side and in favour of the merits of continuing our deployment there.”

      Mr Trump seems unlikely to change his mind. When he visited senators on Capitol Hill on Wednesday (Jan 9) to talk about the shutdown, he first launched into a 20-minute soliloquy that included condemnation of “endless wars” and how expensive they were.

      As for Syria and other foreign conflicts, Mr Trump said: “We’re winning.”

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      President Donald Trump suggests Vietnam for US-North Korea summit: Report

      SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) – United States President Donald Trump suggested holding the anticipated second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam in mid-February, a Japanese newspaper said on Sunday (Jan 13).

      The Yomiuri Shimbun reported that North Korea appears to review the US proposal but has not yet give a response, citing officials familiar with the matter.

      The report comes amid rising speculation that the two leaders are soon to hold the second summit to resume the stalled talks on denuclearisation, following their first meeting in Singapore in June last year.

      Mr Trump had previously confirmed that talks on the location of the second summit with Mr Kim were underway and that they are to announce it in “not-too-distant future”.

      Mr Kim, in his New Year’s speech, had also expressed his willingness to meet Mr Trump again “at any time”.

      For the second meeting, Vietnam, Singapore and Hawaii had been mentioned as possible venues for the bilateral summit. But experts thought Vietnam and Singapore held higher possibilities, as they have North Korean embassies, while Hawaii does not.

      Vietnam reportedly has delivered messages to both South and North Korea that it wishes to host the envisioned summit in its resort town of Danang.

      Former officials of the US government that worked on the North Korean issue have also expected the second US-North Korea summit to happen soon, but they also expressed doubts on whether the two would be able to reach an agreement.

      The nuclear talks has failed to advance after the first summit last year, due to the differences of their stance on denuclearisation. While the US insists that North Korea takes more concrete action towards denuclearisation and submits a list of its nuclear weapons, Pyongyang demands a reciprocal gestures, such as easing economic sanctions.

      In an interview with Radio Free Asia (RFA), a US news outlet, last Friday, former US nuclear negotiator with North Korea, Mr Robert Gallucci, said the second summit is likely to take place at the end of this month or next.

      Another former US envoy expressed scepticism as to whether progress would come from the envisioned summit.

      “The two leaders of the United States and North Korea will shake hands, have dinner banquets and hold a summit like they did in the Singapore summit,” Mr Robert King, the US former special envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues told RFA. But a practical outcome is not expected, he added.

      US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated their stance on a “full and final” denuclearisation while expressing hope that the US and North Korea make substantial progress this year.

      “Reducing the threat from North Korea, whether that’s by our success to date in stopping their missile testing, stopping their nuclear testing, those are the important elements. We’ve got to get to full and final denuclearisation,” he said in an interview with Fox News last Friday.

      “I don’t think there has been a single variant from the core proposition, which is the fully denuclearised North Korea as verified by international experts, (which) is the objective of this administration. We intend to achieve that,” said Mr Pompeo.

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      US Government shutdown is longest ever as Trump’s border wall feud hits day 23

      Donald Trump’s partial government shutdown becomes the longest in the country’s history – and there’s still no end in sight.

      On Sunday the stand-off etched into its 23rd day, surpassing the previous record held by Bill Clinton in 1995-96 by 48 hours.

      The President has promised to perpetuate the closure until Democrats acquiesce to his $5.8 billion (£4.5bn) budgetary demand to fund a border wall between Mexico and the US.

      A quarter of the federal government will remain closed until an agreement is made, leaving 800,000 employees without paycheques in the meantime.

      On Friday, such workers – ranging from airport staff to FBI agents – received $0 in their first paycheques of the year.

      And that isn’t likely to change any time soon.

      Last week, President Trump said he was “proud” of the shutdown and insisted the impasse could last months “or even years” as he locks horns with congress.

      Despite figures showing a sharp decrease in illegal border crossings between Mexico and the US in recent years, Trump holds firm that a steel or concrete wall is a necessity.

      Democrats have refused to approve funding for additional border fencing, believing it to be an ineffective and uneconomical method of security.

      They are refusing to allocate anymore more than the $1.6 billion already agreed upon in Congress.

      Trump allegedly threw a “temper tantrum” during a meeting with Democratic leaders on Wednesday, later storming out of the room.

      The President branded the meeting a “total waste of time” on Twitter .

      Despite claiming he’d make Mexico pay for the wall during his 2016 presidential bid, Trump is now “holding Americans hostage” over the debate, says house speaker Nancy Pelosi.

      To bypass the stand off, Trump can declare a national emergency in order to source the funds he needs for the wall but he cooled speculation this week.

      Trump called it an “easy way out” and insisted he’d rather let Congress solve the issue.

      “If they can’t do it…I will declare a national emergency,” he warned however.

      “I have the absolute right.”

      Food banks in Washington DC are arranging pop-up markets to supply meals to unpaid federal workers.

      The US advertising website Craigslist has also been overloaded with listings from government workers desperately trying to sell their possessions.

      Airport queues are said to be out of control and National Parks are overflowing with rubbish as unpaid workers are calling in sick as protest.

      The shutdown, which began on December 22, continues into its 23rd day.

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      Trump concealed details of meetings with Putin: US officials

      WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) – United States President Donald Trump has gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal details of his conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, including, on at least one occasion, taking possession of the notes of his own interpreter and instructing the linguist not to discuss what had transpired with other administration officials, current and former US officials said.

      Mr Trump did so after a meeting with Mr Putin in 2017 in Hamburg that was also attended by then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

      US officials learnt of Mr Trump’s actions when a White House adviser and a senior State Department official sought information from the interpreter beyond a readout shared by Mr Tillerson.

      The constraints that Mr Trump imposed are part of a broader pattern by the President of shielding his communications with Mr Putin from public scrutiny and preventing even high-ranking officials in his own administration from fully knowing what he has told one of the US’ main adversaries.

      As a result, US officials said there is no detailed record, even in classified files, of Mr Trump’s face-to-face interactions with the Russian leader at five locations over the past two years.

      Such a gap would be unusual in any presidency, let alone one that Russia sought to install through what US intelligence agencies have described as an unprecedented campaign of election interference.

      Special counsel Robert Mueller is thought to be in the final stages of an investigation that has focused largely on whether Mr Trump or his associates conspired with Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign.

      The new details about Mr Trump’s continued secrecy underscore the extent to which little is known about his communications with Mr Putin since becoming president.

      Former US officials said that Mr Trump’s behaviour is at odds with the known practices of previous presidents, who have relied on senior aides to witness meetings and take comprehensive notes then shared with other officials and departments.

      Mr Trump’s secrecy surrounding Mr Putin “is not only unusual by historical standards, it is outrageous”, said Mr Strobe Talbott, a former deputy secretary of state now at the Brookings Institution, who participated in more than a dozen meetings between President Bill Clinton and then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s.

      “It handicaps the US government – the experts and advisers and Cabinet officers who are there to serve (the president) – and it certainly gives Putin much more scope to manipulate Trump.”

      A White House spokesman disputed that characterisation and said that the Trump administration has sought to “improve the relationship with Russia” after the Obama administration “pursued a flawed ‘reset’ policy that sought engagement for the sake of engagement”.

      The Trump administration “has imposed significant new sanctions in response to Russian malign activities”, said the spokesman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity and noted that Mr Tillerson in 2017 “gave a fulsome readout of the meeting immediately afterwards to other US officials in a private setting, as well as a readout to the press”.

      Trump allies said the President thinks the presence of subordinates impairs his ability to establish a rapport with Mr Putin, and that his desire for secrecy may also be driven by embarrassing leaks that occurred early in his presidency.

      The meeting in Hamburg happened several months after The Washington Post and other news organisations revealed details about what Mr Trump had told senior Russian officials during a meeting with Russian officials in the Oval Office. Mr Trump disclosed classified information about a terror plot, called former FBI director James Comey a “nut job,” and said that firing Mr Comey had removed “great pressure” on his relationship with Russia.

      The White House launched internal leak hunts after that and other episodes, and sharply curtailed the distribution within the National Security Council of memos on the President’s interactions with foreign leaders.

      “Over time, it got harder and harder, I think, because of a sense from Trump himself that the leaks of the call transcripts were harmful to him,” said a former administration official.

      Senior Democratic lawmakers describe the cloak of secrecy surrounding Mr Trump’s meetings with Mr Putin as unprecedented and disturbing.

      Democratic Representative Eliot Engel from New York, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in an interview that his panel will form an investigative subcommittee whose targets will include seeking State Department records of Mr Trump’s encounters with Mr Putin, including a closed-door meeting with the Russian leader in Helsinki last summer.

      “It’s been several months since Helsinki and we still don’t know what went on in that meeting,” Mr Engel said. “It’s appalling. It just makes you want to scratch your head.”

      The concerns have been compounded by actions and positions Mr Trump has taken as president that are seen as favourable to the Kremlin. He has dismissed Russia’s election interference as a “hoax”, suggested that Russia was entitled to annex Crimea, repeatedly attacked Nato allies, resisted efforts to impose sanctions on Moscow, and begun to pull US forces out of Syria – a move that critics see as effectively ceding ground to Russia.

      At the same time, Mr Trump’s decision to fire Mr Comey and other attempts to contain the ongoing Russia investigation led the bureau in May 2017 to launch a counterintelligence investigation into whether he was seeking to help Russia and if so, why, a step first reported by the New York Times.

      It is not clear whether Mr Trump has taken notes from interpreters on other occasions, but several officials said they were never able to get a reliable readout of the President’s two-hour meeting in Helsinki. Unlike in Hamburg, Mr Trump allowed no Cabinet officials or any aides to be in the room for that conversation.

      Mr Trump also had other private conversations with Mr Putin at meetings of global leaders outside the presence of aides. He spoke at length with Mr Putin at a banquet at the same 2017 global conference in Hamburg, where only Mr Putin’s interpreter was present. Mr Trump also had a brief conversation with Mr Putin at a Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires last month.

      Mr Trump generally has allowed aides to listen to his phone conversations with Mr Putin, although Russia has often been first to disclose those calls when they occur and release statements characterising them in broad terms favorable to the Kremlin.

      In an e-mail, Mr Tillerson said that he “was present for the entirety of the two presidents’ official bilateral meeting in Hamburg”, but declined to discuss the meeting and did not respond to questions about whether Mr Trump had instructed the interpreter to remain silent or had taken the interpreter’s notes.

      In a news conference afterwards, Mr Tillerson said that the Trump-Putin meeting lasted more than two hours, covered the war in Syria and other subjects, and that Mr Trump had “pressed President Putin on more than one occasion regarding Russian involvement” in election interference. “President Putin denied such involvement, as I think he has in the past,” Mr Tillerson said.

      Mr Tillerson refused to say during the news conference whether Mr Trump had rejected Mr Putin’s claim or indicated that he believed the conclusion of US intelligence agencies that Russia had interfered.

      Mr Tillerson’s account is at odds with the only detail that other administration officials were able to get from the interpreter, officials said. Though the interpreter refused to discuss the meeting, officials said, he conceded that Mr Putin had denied any Russian involvement in the US election and that Mr Trump responded by saying, “I believe you.”

      Senior Trump administration officials said that White House officials including then-National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster were never able to obtain a comprehensive account of the meeting, even from Mr Tillerson.

      “We were frustrated because we didn’t get a readout,” a former senior administration official said. “The State Department and (National Security Council) were never comfortable” with Trump’s interactions with Putin,” the official said. “God only knows what they were going to talk about or agree to.”

      Because of the absence of any reliable record of Mr Trump’s conversations with Mr Putin, officials at times have had to rely on reports by US intelligence agencies tracking the reaction in the Kremlin.

      Previous presidents and senior advisers have often studied such reports to assess whether they had accomplished their objectives in meetings as well as to gain insights for future conversations.

      US intelligence agencies have been reluctant to call attention to such reports during Trump’s presidency because they have at times included comments by foreign officials disparaging the president or his advisers, including his son-in-law Jared Kushner, a former senior administration official said.

      “There was more of a reticence in the intelligence community going after those kinds of communications and reporting them,” said a former administration official who worked in the White House. “The feedback tended not to be positive.”

      The interpreter at Hamburg revealed the restrictions that Mr Trump had imposed when he was approached by administration officials at the hotel where the US delegation was staying, officials said.

      Among the officials who asked for details from the meeting were Ms Fiona Hill, the senior Russia adviser at the NSC, and Mr John Heffern, who was then serving at State as the acting assistant secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs.

      The State Department did not respond to a request for comment from the interpreter. Mr Heffern, who retired from State in 2017, declined to comment.

      Through a spokesman, Ms Hill declined a request for an interview.

      There are conflicting accounts of the purpose of the conversation with the interpreter, with some officials saying that Ms Hill was among those briefed by Mr Tillerson and that she was merely seeking more nuanced information from the interpreter.

      Others said the aim was to get a more meaningful readout than the scant information furnished by Mr Tillerson. “I recall Fiona reporting that to me,” one former official said. A second former official present in Hamburg said that Mr Tillerson “didn’t offer a briefing or call the ambassador or anybody together. He didn’t brief senior staff,” although he “gave a readout to the press”.

      A similar issue arose in Helsinki, the setting for the first formal US-Russia summit since Mr Trump became president. Ms Hill, national security adviser John Bolton and other US officials took part in a preliminary meeting that included Mr Trump, Mr Putin and other senior Russian officials.

      But Mr Trump and Mr Putin then met for two hours in private, accompanied only by their interpreters. Mr Trump’s interpreter Marina Gross could be seen emerging from the meeting with pages of notes.

      Alarmed by the secrecy of Mr Trump’s meeting with Mr Putin, several lawmakers subsequently sought to compel Ms Gross to testify before Congress about what she witnessed. Others argued that forcing her to do so would violate the impartial role that interpreters play in diplomacy. Ms Gross was not forced to testify. She was identified when members of Congress sought to speak with her. The interpreter in Hamburg has not been identified.

      During a joint news conference with Mr Putin afterwards, Mr Trump acknowledged discussing Syria policy and other subjects but also lashed out at the media and federal investigators, and seemed to reject the findings of US intelligence agencies by saying that he was persuaded by Mr Putin’s “powerful” denial of election interference.

      Previous presidents have required senior aides to attend meetings with adversaries including the Russian president largely to ensure that there are not misunderstandings and that others in the administration are able to follow up on any agreements or plans. Detailed notes that Mr Talbot took of Mr Clinton’s meetings with Mr Yeltsin are among hundreds of documents declassified and released last year.

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      President Donald Trump's Justice nominee faces questions over Russia probe

      WASHINGTON (AFP) – President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of Justice, Mr Bill Barr, faces tough questions in the Senate next week on whether he intends to curb Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia collusion investigation.

      After the conservative lawyer criticised Mr Mueller last year, opposition Democrats fear that Mr Barr, as attorney-general, will protect Mr Trump from the investigation and a possible impeachment effort arising from it.

      Mr Mueller has spent 20 months investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, and possible collusion between Mr Trump’s campaign and Russia, in a probe increasingly focused on Mr Trump and his inner circle.

      Mr Mueller has issued indictments for 33 individuals, most of them Russians, and secured convictions of three former top Trump aides.

      Mr Barr, a longtime Republican ally who served as attorney-general once before from 1991-93, will go before the Senate Judiciary Committee in confirmation hearings on Tuesday (Jan 15) and Wednesday. Democrats want him to pledge publicly to protect the investigation.

      Mr Barr’s approval is likely, given the Republican majority in the committee and the full Senate.

      Senators who spoke to Mr Barr in private meetings say he has indicated that he will not interfere with Mr Mueller, but that he also supports Mr Trump using his executive powers to defend himself.

      “I think the main thing people want to know is, what’s his view of the Mueller investigation?” said the Judiciary Committee’s Republican Chairman Lindsey Graham, after meeting with Mr Mueller last Wednesday.

      “I can assure you, based on what I heard, that he has a high opinion of Mr Mueller.”

      Mr Barr “has no reason for Mr Mueller to stop doing his job, and is committed to allowing Mr Mueller to finish”, Mr Graham added.

      Senator Dianne Feinstein, the senior Democrat on the committee, said last Thursday that Mr Barr had told her he would not disrupt the probe, according to media reports. But The Washington Times quoted her as saying: “I don’t take to the bank anything unless it is in the public sector and everyone can hear, and it’s on the record.”

      Mr Trump nominated Mr Barr in December, a month after sacking Mr Jeff Sessions, who irked the president by recusing himself from overseeing the Mueller probe, which Mr Trump labels a “witch hunt”.

      Mr Barr has a record of endorsing strong executive powers, which could play into high-stakes legal battles on everything from immigration policy, to war powers, to whether the president can be required to provide testimony or release privileged documents in the Russia investigation.

      He expressed support in May 2017 when Mr Trump fired then-FBI director James Comey, which has led Mr Mueller to allegations that Mr Trump obstructed justice.

      He has also echoed Mr Trump’s own claims that Mr Mueller’s team is packed with investigators allied with the Democratic Party.

      Mr Barr himself, though, is a strong Republican supporter. Over the past two decades he and his wife donated nearly US$800,000 to Republican candidates and groups, according to The Washington Post.

      Last year, he submitted an unsolicited legal criticism of the Mueller probe to the Justice Department, and reportedly to the White House.

      It argued that Mr Trump’s presidential prerogatives are protection against any obstruction allegation in the Comey firing.

      The memo, in particular, has focused the opposition to Mr Barr’s nomination.

      Mr Barr is “fatally conflicted…when it comes to the special counsel”, Mr Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader, said, calling for Mr Trump to withdraw the nomination.

      The biggest concern is what Mr Barr will do with the report that Mr Mueller is expected to prepare on his findings.

      According to The Washington Post, the president’s lawyers are already planning to use executive privilege to stifle material that could be damaging to Mr Trump or support an impeachment effort by Democrats.

      Mr Graham said Mr Barr indicated he would be “erring on the side of transparency”.

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