The Trump administration has quietly released more than $100 million in military assistance to Lebanon after months of unexplained delay that led some lawmakers to compare it to the aid for Ukraine at the center of the impeachment inquiry.
The $105 million in Foreign Military Financing funds for the Lebanese Armed Forces was released just before the Thanksgiving holiday and lawmakers were notified of the step on Monday, according to two congressional staffers and an administration official.
All three spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly to the matter.
The money had languished in limbo at the Office of Management and Budget since September although it had already won congressional approval and had overwhelming support from the Pentagon, State Department and National Security Council. The White House has yet to offer any explanation for the delay despite repeated queries from Congress.
Lawmakers such as Rep. Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., had been pressing the administration since October to either release the funds or explain why it was being withheld. The State Department had notified Congress on Sept. 5 that the money would be spent.
Earlier this month, the delay came up in impeachment testimony by David Hale, the No. 3 official in the State Department, according to the transcript of the closed-door hearing. Hale described growing consternation among diplomats about the delay.
The White House and the Office of Management and Budget have declined to comment on the matter. The State Department had offered only a cryptic response to queries, defending the assistance but also calling for Lebanese authorities to implement economic reforms and rein in corruption.
As with the Ukraine assistance, OMB did not explain the delay. However, unlike Ukraine, there has been no suggestion that President Donald Trump is seeking "a favor" from Lebanon in exchange for the aid, according to officials familiar with the matter.
The delay had frustrated the national security community, which believes the assistance that pays for U.S.-made military equipment for the Lebanese army is essential, particularly as Lebanon reels from financial chaos and mass protests."
The aid is intended to help counter Iran's influence in Lebanon, which is highlighted by the presence of the Iranian-supported Shiite Hezbollah movement in the government and the group's militias, officials have said.
"Holding the money weakened the Lebanese military just at the moment that they were holding the country together," Sen. Murphy said in response to the release. "There's literally nothing in the Middle East this White House can't screw up."
Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., who joined Engel in demanding an explanation for the delay, said he was "pleased to see this critical aid finally resuming. Our assistance is crucial to help Lebanon counter Iran-backed Hezbollah and other groups threatening the region."
Some pro-Israel members of Congress have sought to defund the Lebanese military, arguing that it has been compromised by Hezbollah, which the U.S. designates as a "foreign terrorist organization." Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas has long advocated cutting the assistance and is expected to introduce legislation that would bar such aid as long as Hezbollah is part of Lebanon's government.
The Pentagon and State Department reject that view, saying the army is the only independent Lebanese institution capable of resisting Hezbollah.
Prince Andrew suffered fresh scrutiny Monday night when the woman who says she was a trafficking victim made to have sex with him when she was 17 asked the British public to support her quest for justice.
Virginia Roberts Giuffre told BBC Panorama that people "should not accept this as being OK."
Giuffre's first UK television interview on the topic describes how she says she was trafficked by notorious sex offender Jeffrey Epstein beginning in 2001 and ordered to have sex with Andrew three times, including once in London.
"This is not some sordid sex story. This is a story of being trafficked, this is a story of abuse and this is a story of your guys' royalty," Giuffre tells the program.
Andrew, 59, has categorically denied having sex with Giuffre and apologized for his association with Epstein, who died in prison in August in what New York City officials said was a suicide.
The disgraced prince has stepped down from royal duties "for the foreseeable future" because of his friendship with Epstein and the allegations of sexual wrongdoing with an underage girl. He says he is willing to cooperate with appropriate law enforcement inquiries if required to do so.
The scandal is one of the worst to have gripped the royal household in recent decades and has severely tarnished the reputation of Andrew, one of Queen Elizabeth II's four children.
U.S. law enforcement agencies have not commented publicly on whether his actions are being investigated. British police looked into Giuffre's claim, made in 2015, that she was trafficked into England to have sex with Andrew but did not launch a full-scale investigation.
Andrew tried to contain the damage by giving a televised interview on the topic in November, but it backfired because he did not express concern for Epstein's victims and because he defended his friendship with Epstein as "honorable."
The televised documentary broadcast Monday night painted a detailed portrait of how Epstein abused dozens of young women at his luxury properties in the Caribbean and New York and quoted Giuffre's account of being ordered to have sex with Andrew on three occasions.
Giuffre, now 35, described how she says she was recruited by Ghislaine Maxwell to give Epstein massages when she was working as a locker room attendant at Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, FL. and later taken to London to meet Andrew.
Maxwell has denied any wrongdoing.
Breaking down in tears, Giuffre described the humiliating aftermath of being made to have sex with Andrew at a townhouse in London after a night out at the exclusive Tramp nightclub. She said she was told to dance with him by Maxwell, Epstein's girlfriend at the time.
"It was horrible and this guy was sweating all over me," she said. "His sweat was like it was raining basically everywhere, I was just like grossed out from it, but I knew I had to keep him happy because that's what Jeffrey and Ghislaine (Maxwell) would have expected from me."
She said that Maxwell told her she would have to do for Andrew what she had done for Epstein, meaning she would have to have sex with the prince.
"That just made me sick," Giuffre said.
"There was a bath," she said. "It started there, then went into the bedroom. It didn't last very long, the whole procedure. It was disgusting."
She said: "He got up and he said 'Thanks'. I sat there in bed, just horrified and ashamed and felt dirty."
Giuffre said she felt trapped: "It was a wicked time in my life. It was a really scary time in my life. I had just been abused by a member of the royal family ... Yeah, I didn't have chains, but these powerful people were my chains."
She admitted that her memory was foggy at time and that she might have some dates and place wrong but insisted she was certain of the key facts.
In his recent interview, Andrew said he had never met Giuffre. He said he had a medical condition that prevented him from sweating.
Epstein was a wealthy financier with many powerful friends. He was in prison on sex trafficking charges when he died.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter was admitted to a south Georgia hospital over the weekend for treatment of a urinary tract infection, a spokeswoman said Monday.
Deanna Congileo, a spokeswoman for The Carter Center, said in a statement that the 95-year-old former president was admitted to Phoebe Sumter Medical Center in Americus over the weekend.
"He is feeling better and looks forward to returning home soon. We will issue a statement when he is released for further rest and recovery at home," she added.
Carter has overcome several health challenges in recent years.
He was diagnosed with melanoma in 2015, announcing that the cancer had spread to other parts of his body. After partial removal of his liver, treatment for brain lesions, radiation and immunotherapy, he said he was cancer-free.
A fall last spring required him to get hip replacement surgery.
Then on Oct. 6, he hit his head in another fall and received 14 stitches, but still traveled to Nashville, Tennessee, to help build a Habitat for Humanity home shortly thereafter. He fractured his pelvis in another fall later that month and was briefly hospitalized.
Last Wednesday, Carter was released from Emory University Hospital in Atlanta after recovering from surgery to relieve pressure on his brain caused by bleeding from a fall.
The Trump administration is proposing tariffs on up to $2.4 billion worth of French imports — including Roquefort cheese, handbags, lipstick and sparkling wine — in retaliation for France's tax on American tech giants like Google, Amazon and Facebook.
The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative charged Monday that France's new digital services tax discriminates against U.S. companies. The trade office will accept public comments on the tariffs, which could hit 100%, through Jan. 6 and hold a hearing Jan. 7.
The French tax is designed to prevent tech companies from dodging taxes by putting headquarters in low-tax European Union countries. It imposes a 3% annual levy on French revenues of digital companies with yearly global sales worth more than 750 million euros ($830 million) and French revenue exceeding 25 million euros.
The U.S. also criticized the French tax for targeting companies' revenue, not their profits, and for being retroactive.
The decision to pursue tariffs "sends a clear signal that the United States will take action against digital tax regimes that discriminate or otherwise impose undue burdens on U.S. companies," U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said.
His agency investigated the French tax under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974 — the same provision the Trump administration used last year to probe China's technology policies, leading to tariffs on more than $360 billion worth of Chinese imports in the biggest trade war since the 1930s.
Lighthizer warned that the U.S. is also exploring whether to pursue Section 301 investigations into digital taxes introduced by Austria, Italy and Turkey.
The decision to target France got bipartisan endorsement from Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley and Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden. In a joint statement, they assailed the French digital tax as "unreasonable, protectionist and discriminatory."
The tech trade group ITI said it welcomed the administration's decision and urged continued negotiations on international taxes under the auspices of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The tariff announcement is likely to increase tension between the United States and Europe. The U.S. is already readying tariffs on $7.5 billion in EU imports over illegal subsidies for the European aircraft giant Airbus. The World Trade Organization on Monday gave the U.S. a greenlight to impose those levies, ruling that the EU had not complied with an order to end the subsidies.
And in another reminder that Washington's trade conflicts extend well beyond a 16-month standoff with China, President Donald Trump on Monday pledge to slap tariffs on steel and aluminum from Brazil and Argentina.
Both South American nations were among a group of U.S. allies that Trump exempted from steel and aluminum tariffs in March 2018. The American president's threat to reverse that decision and impose the metals tariffs is the latest example of his mercurial approach to trade policy.
Trump accused the countries of manipulating their currencies lower to make their exports less expensive in world markets and gain an unfair trade advantage.
But the countries' weak currencies reflect their weak economies. Brazil is contending with double-digit unemployment and economic stagnation after two years of deep recession. Argentina is battling an economic crisis marked by runaway inflation, huge debts and widespread poverty.
At least 208 people in Iran have been killed amid protests over sharply rising gasoline prices and a subsequent crackdown by security forces, Amnesty International said Monday, as one government official acknowledged telling police to shoot demonstrators.
Iran has yet to release any nationwide statistics over the unrest that gripped the Islamic Republic beginning Nov. 15 with minimum prices for government-subsidized gasoline rising by 50%. Iran's mission to the United Nations disputed Amnesty's findings early Tuesday, though it offered no evidence to support its claim.
Iran shut down internet access amid the unrest, blocking those inside the country from sharing their videos and information, as well as limiting the outside world from knowing the scale of the protests and violence. The restoration of the internet in recent days across much of the country has seen other videos surface.
"We've seen over 200 people killed in a very swift time, in under a week," said Mansoureh Mills, an Iran researcher at Amnesty. "It's something pretty unprecedented event in the history of the human rights violations in the Islamic Republic."
While not drawing as many Iranians into the streets as those protesting the disputed 2009 presidential election, the gasoline price demonstrations rapidly turned violent faster than any previous rallies. That shows the widespread economic discontent gripping the country since May 2018, when President Donald Trump imposed crushing sanctions after unilaterally withdrawing from Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers.
Since the summer, tensions across the Mideast have spiked with attacks the U.S. blames on Tehran. Iran, meanwhile, began to break the deal's centrifuges, enrichment and stockpile limitations with hopes of pressuring Europe to offer it a way to sell crude oil abroad despite Washington's sanctions.
In a statement Monday, Amnesty said there had been "dozens of deaths" in the Tehran suburb of Shahriar, likely one of the areas with the highest toll of those killed in the unrest. Shahriar had seen heavy protests.
Amnesty offered no breakdown for the deaths elsewhere in the country, though it said "the real figure is likely to be higher." Mills said there was a "general environment of fear inside of Iran at the moment."
"The authorities have been threatening families, some have been forced to sign undertakings that they won't speak to the media," she said. "Families have been forced to bury their loved ones at night under heavy security presence."
Authorities also have been visiting hospitals, looking for patients with gunshot wounds or other injuries from the unrest, Mills said. She alleged authorities then immediately detain those with the suspicious wounds.
Iran's U.N. mission in New York called Amnesty's findings "unsubstantiated," without elaborating.
"A number of exile groups (and media networks) have either taken credit for instigating both ordinary people to protest and riots, or have encouraged lawlessness and vandalism, or both," said Alireza Miryousefi, a spokesman at the mission.
The demonstrations began after authorities raised minimum gasoline prices by 50% to 15,000 rials per liter. That's 12 cents a liter, or about 50 cents a gallon. After a monthly 60-liter quota, it costs 30,000 rials a liter. That's nearly 24 cents a liter or 90 cents a gallon. An average gallon of regular gas in the U.S. costs $2.58 by comparison, according to AAA.
Cheap gasoline is practically considered a birthright in Iran, home to the world's fourth-largest crude oil reserves despite decades of economic woes since its 1979 Islamic Revolution. Gasoline there remains among the cheapest in the world, in part to help keep costs low for its underemployed, who often drive taxis to make ends meet.
Iran's per capita gross domestic product, often used as a rough sense of a nation's standard of living, is just over $6,000, compared with over $62,000 in the U.S., according to the World Bank. That disparity, especially given Iran's oil wealth, fueled the anger felt by demonstrators.
Already, Iranians have seen their savings chewed away by the rial's collapse from 32,000 to $1 at the time of the 2015 nuclear accord to 126,000 to $1 today. Daily staples also have risen in price.
The scale of the demonstrations also remains unclear. One Iranian lawmaker said he thought that over 7,000 people had been arrested, although Iran's top prosecutor disputed the figure without offering his own. Meanwhile, a long-detained opposition leader in Iran compared the recent crackdown of protesters to soldiers of the shah gunning down demonstrators in an event that led to the Islamic Revolution, raising the rhetorical stakes of the unrest.
On Twitter, Iranian lawmakers have expressed their anger over the lack of information, although the microblogging website remains otherwise banned in the country.
"In addition to the selective portrayal of destruction of public property, (state-run) Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting should show a few protesters being shot," lawmaker Mahmoud Sadeghi of Tehran wrote sarcastically.
Meanwhile, the governor of a Tehran suburb that saw demonstrations openly acknowledged in a video interview with the state-owned IRAN newspaper that she ordered police to shoot protesters if they stormed her offices. Shahr-e Quds Gov. Leila Vaseghi also said she sent text messages to citizens telling them not to join the "rioters" and that there was a "possibility of a shooting" if they did.
"I had told (the police): 'Shoot at anybody who crosses the gate of the governor office,'" Vaseghi said in the interview.