Palm Beach, Mar 23 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump tweeted Friday that he has reversed his administration's decision to slap new sanctions on North Korea, with his press secretary explaining that the president "likes" leader Kim Jong Un and doesn't think they're necessary.
It's unclear, however, which sanctions the president was referencing in his tweet, which took Treasury officials by surprise.
"It was announced today by the U.S. Treasury that additional large scale Sanctions would be added to those already existing Sanctions on North Korea," Trump wrote from his private club in Palm Beach, Florida.
"I have today ordered the withdrawal of those additional Sanctions!"
The White House did not immediately respond to questions about which sanctions Trump was referring to, or what large-scale sanctions were poised to be added to existing ones already imposed on North Korea.
On Thursday, his administration did sanction two Chinese shipping companies suspected of helping North Korea evade sanctions — the first targeted actions taken against Pyongyang since Trump and Kim met in Hanoi, Vietnam, last month for negotiations about North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
In addition to Trump's talks with North Korea, the U.S. is knee-deep in delicate trade negotiations with China.
A person familiar with the action told The Associated Press that Trump's tweet was not a reversal of existing sanctions, but that the president was talking about not going forward with additional large-scale sanctions on North Korea at this time. The person was not authorized to discuss the president's comments and spoke on condition of anonymity.
It's unclear whether Trump's decision was related to North Korea's move on Friday to abruptly withdraw its staff from a liaison office with South Korea. The development is likely to put a damper on ties between the North and South and further complicate global diplomacy on North Korea's nuclear program. The withdrawal also is seen as a major setback for South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has sought improved relations with North Korea alongside the nuclear negotiations between the North and the United States.
North Korea said it was withdrawing its staff under instructions from unspecified "higher-level authorities," according to a Unification Ministry statement. It didn't say whether the withdrawal would be temporary or permanent. South Korea called the North's decision regrettable and urged the North to return its staff to the liaison office soon.
It was the latest example of Trump's governance-by-tweet, which has often sent agency heads scrambling, trying to figure out what he meant and trying to implement policy proclamations that have not gone through traditional vetting processes. That includes when Trump announced, via tweet, that transgender people would no longer be allowed to serve in the military.
And it came hours after Trump made the official announcement that Islamic State-controlled territory in Syria had been reduced to zero from an airport tarmac, using a printed map he held upside-down, instead of a formal statement or ceremony.
His North Korea tweet prompted reporters to bombard officials at the White House National Security Council and Treasury Department with questions. All declined to comment. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders issued a brief statement saying only that Trump "likes Chairman Kim and he doesn't think these sanctions will be necessary."
When the administration announced the sanctions on Thursday against the Chinese shipping companies, administration officials briefed reporters. They said Thursday's sanctions were evidence the U.S. was maintaining pressure on North Korea in an effort to coax its leader to give up his nuclear weapons program.
The Treasury Department sanctioned Dalian Haibo International Freight Co. Ltd. and Liaoning Danxing International Forwarding Co. Ltd. for using deceptive methods to circumvent international and U.S. sanctions and the U.S. commitment to implementing existing U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Calls to the two companies rang without response Friday or were answered by people who immediately hung up the phone.
The Treasury Department, in coordination with the State Department and the U.S. Coast Guard, also updated a North Korea shipping advisory, adding dozens of vessels thought to be doing ship-to-ship transfers with North Korean tankers or exported North Korean coal in violation of sanctions.
Two senior administration officials, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity to discuss U.S. policy on North Korea, said that illegal ship-to-ship transfers that violate U.S. and international sanctions have increased and that not all countries, including China, are implementing the restrictions. They said the deceptive practices include disabling or manipulating ship identification systems, repainting the names on vessels and falsifying cargo documents.
Washington, Mar 23 (AP/UNB) — Special counsel Robert Mueller closed his long and contentious Russia investigation with no new charges, ending the probe that has cast a dark shadow over Donald Trump's presidency. The Justice Department was expected to release the main findings as soon as Saturday.
Even with the details still under wraps, the end Friday of the 22-month probe without additional indictments by Mueller was welcome news to some in Trump's orbit who had feared a final round of charges could ensnare more Trump associates, including members of the president's family.
For now, the report is accessible to only a handful of Justice Department officials while Attorney General William Barr prepared to release the "principal findings" soon.
The Justice Department said the report was delivered by a security officer Friday afternoon to the office of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and then it went to Barr. Word of the delivery triggered reactions across Washington, including Democrats' demands that it be quickly released to the public and Republicans' contentions that it ended two years of wasted time and money.
The next step is up to Barr, who is charged with writing his own account of Mueller's findings and sending it to Congress. In a letter to lawmakers , he declared he was committed to transparency and speed. He said he could provide details as soon as this weekend.
The White House sought to keep some distance from the report, saying it had not seen or been briefed on the document. Trump, surrounded by advisers and political supporters at his resort in Florida, stayed uncharacteristically quiet on Twitter.
With no details released at this point, it's not known whether Mueller's report answers the core questions of his investigation: Did Trump's campaign collude with the Kremlin to sway the 2016 presidential election in favor of the celebrity businessman? Also, did Trump take steps later, including by firing his FBI director, to obstruct the probe?
But the delivery of the report does mean the investigation has concluded without any public charges of a criminal conspiracy between the campaign and Russia, or of obstruction by the president. A Justice Department official confirmed that Mueller was not recommending any further indictments.
That person, who described the document as "comprehensive," was not authorized to discuss the probe and asked for anonymity.
That's good news for a handful of Trump associates and family members dogged by speculation of possible wrongdoing. They include Donald Trump Jr., who had a role in arranging a Trump Tower meeting at the height of the 2016 election campaign with a Kremlin-linked lawyer, and Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who was interviewed at least twice by Mueller's prosecutors. It wasn't immediately clear whether Mueller might have referred additional investigations to the Justice Department.
All told, Mueller charged 34 people, including the president's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and three Russian companies. Twenty-five Russians were indicted on charges related to election interference, accused either of hacking Democratic email accounts during the campaign or of orchestrating a social media campaign that spread disinformation on the internet. Five Trump aides pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with Mueller and a sixth, longtime confidant Roger Stone, is awaiting trial on charges that he lied to Congress and engaged in witness tampering.
It's unclear what steps Mueller might take if he uncovered what he believes to be criminal wrongdoing by Trump, in light of Justice Department legal opinions that have held that sitting presidents may not be indicted.
In his letter to lawmakers, Barr noted the Justice Department had not denied any request from the special counsel, something Barr would have been required to disclose to ensure there was no political inference. Trump was never interviewed in person, but submitted answers to questions in writing.
The mere delivery of the confidential findings set off swift, full-throated demands from Democrats for full release of Mueller's report and the supporting evidence collected during the sweeping probe. As Mueller's probe has wound down, Democrats have increasingly shifted their focus to their own investigations, ensuring the special counsel's would not be the last word on the matter.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer declared it "imperative" to make the full report public, a call echoed by several Democrats vying to challenge Trump in 2020.
"The American people have a right to the truth," Schumer and Pelosi said in a joint statement.
Democrats also expressed concern that Trump would try to get a "sneak preview" of the findings.
"The White House must not be allowed to interfere in decisions about what parts of those findings or evidence are made public," they said in a joint statement.
It was not clear whether Trump would have early access to Mueller's findings. Spokeswoman Sarah Sanders suggested the White House would not interfere, saying "we look forward to the process taking its course." But Trump's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, told The Associated Press Friday that the legal team would seek to get "an early look" before they were made public.
Giuliani said it was "appropriate" for the White House to be able "to review matters of executive privilege." He said had received no assurances from the Department of Justice on that front. He later softened his stance, saying the decision was "up to DOJ and we are confident it will be handled properly."
The White House did receive a brief heads-up on the report's arrival Friday. Barr's chief of staff called White House Counsel Emmet Flood Friday about 20 minutes before sending the letter went to the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate and House Judiciary committees.
The chairman of the Senate panel, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, was keynote speaker Friday night at a Palm Beach County GOP dinner at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort. Early in the evening, the president appeared on a balcony to wave at the crowd of more than 600 enjoying cocktails and appetizers by the pool, according to party vice-chairwoman Tami Donnally, who attended the event.
Barr has said he wants to make as much public as possible, but any efforts to withhold details is sure to prompt a tussle between the Justice Department and lawmakers who may subpoena Mueller and his investigators to testify before Congress. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., threatened a subpoena Friday.
Such a move would likely be vigorously contested by the Trump administration.
The conclusion of Mueller's investigation does not remove legal peril for the president . Trump faces a separate Justice Department investigation in New York into hush money payments during the campaign to two women who say they had sex with him years before the election. He's also been implicated in a potential campaign finance violation by his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, who says Trump asked him to arrange the transactions. Federal prosecutors, also in New York, have been investigating foreign contributions made to the president's inaugural committee.
No matter the findings in Mueller's report, the investigation has already illuminated Russia's assault on the American political system, painted the Trump campaign as eager to exploit the release of hacked Democratic emails and exposed lies by Trump aides aimed at covering up their Russia-related contacts.
The special counsel brought a sweeping indictment accusing Russian military intelligence officers of hacking Democrat Hillary Clinton's campaign and other Democratic groups during the 2016 campaign. He charged another group of Russians with carrying out a large-scale social media disinformation campaign against the American political process that also sought to help Trump and hurt Clinton.
Mueller also initiated the investigation into Michael Cohen, the president's former lawyer, who pleaded guilty in New York to campaign finance violations arising from the hush money payments and in the Mueller probe to lying to Congress about a Moscow real estate deal. Another Trump confidant, Stone, is awaiting trial on charges that he lied about his pursuit of Russian-hacked emails ultimately released by WikiLeaks.
Mueller has also been investigating whether the president tried to obstruct the investigation. Since the special counsel's appointment in May 2017, Trump has increasingly tried to undermine the probe by calling it a "witch hunt" and repeatedly proclaiming there was "NO COLLUSION" with Russia.
But one week before Mueller's appointment, Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, later saying he was thinking of "this Russia thing" at the time.
Miami, Mar 22 (AP/UNB) — Every year, hundreds of pregnant Russian women travel to the United States to give birth so that their child can acquire all the privileges of American citizenship.
They pay anywhere from $20,000 to sometimes more than $50,000 to brokers who arrange their travel documents, accommodations and hospital stays, often in Florida.
While the cost is high, their children will be rewarded with opportunities and travel advantages not available to their Russian countrymen. The parents themselves may benefit someday as well.
And the decidedly un-Russian climate in South Florida and the posh treatment they receive in the maternity wards — unlike dismal clinics back home — can ease the financial sting and make the practice seem more like an extended vacation.
The Russians are part of a wave of "birth tourists" that includes sizable numbers of women from China and Nigeria.
President Donald Trump has spoken out against the provision in the U.S. Constitution that allows "birthright citizenship" and has vowed to end it, although legal experts are divided on whether he can actually do that.
Although there have been scattered cases of authorities arresting operators of birth tourism agencies for visa fraud or tax evasion, coming to the U.S. to give birth is fundamentally legal. Russians interviewed by The Associated Press said they were honest about their intentions when applying for visas and even showed signed contracts with doctors and hospitals.
There are no figures on how many foreign women travel to the U.S. specifically to give birth. The Center for Immigration Studies, a group that advocates for stricter immigration laws, estimated that in 2012, about 36,000 foreign-born women gave birth in the U.S., then left the country.
The Russian contingent is clearly large. Anton Yachmenev of the Miami Care company that arranges such trips, told the AP that about 150 Russian families a year use his service, and that there are about 30 such companies just in the area.
South Florida is popular among Russians not only for its tropical weather but also because of the large Russian-speaking population. Sunny Isles Beach, a city just north of Miami, is even nicknamed "Little Moscow."
"With $30,000, we would not be able to buy an apartment for our child or do anything, really. But we could give her freedom. That's actually really cool," said Olga Zemlyanaya, who gave birth to a daughter in December and was staying in South Florida until her child got a U.S. passport.
An American passport confers many advantages. Once the child turns 21, he or she can apply for "green card" immigration status for the parents.
A U.S. passport also gives the holder more travel opportunities than a Russian one; Americans can make short-term trips to more than 180 countries without a visa, while Russians can go visa-free only to about 80.
Traveling to the U.S. on a Russian passport often requires a laborious interview process for a visa. Just getting an appointment for the interview can take months.
Some Russians fear that travel opportunities could diminish as tensions grow between Moscow and the West, or that Russia might even revert to stricter Soviet-era rules for leaving the country.
"Seeing the conflict growing makes people want to take precautions because the country might well close its borders. And if that happens, one would at least have a passport of a different country and be able to leave," said Ilya Zhegulev, a journalist for the Latvia-based Russian website Meduza that is sharply critical of the Kremlin.
Last year, Zhegulev sold two cars to finance a trip to California for him and his wife so she could give birth to their son.
Trump denounced birthright citizenship before the U.S. midterm election, amid ramped up rhetoric on his hard-line immigration policies. The president generally focuses his ire on the U.S.-Mexico border. But last fall he mentioned he was considering executive action to revoke citizenship for babies born to non-U.S. citizens on American soil. No executive action has been taken.
The American Civil Liberties Union, other legal groups and even former House Speaker Paul Ryan, typically a supporter of Trump's proposals, said the practice couldn't be ended with an order.
But others, like the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for less immigration, said the practice is harmful.
"We should definitely do everything we can to end it, because it makes a mockery of citizenship," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.
Vladimir Zhirinovsky, an outspoken Russian lawmaker, said the country can't forbid women from giving birth abroad, and many of them also travel to Germany and Israel.
"Trump is doing everything right, because this law is used as a ploy. People who have nothing to do with the U.S. use it to become citizens," Zhirinovsky said.
Floridians have shown no problem with the influx of expectant mothers from Russia.
Yachmenev, the agency manager, says he believes it's good for the state because it brings in sizable revenue.
Svetlana Mokerova and her husband went all out, renting an apartment with a sweeping view. She relished the tropical vibe, filling her Instagram account with selfies backed by palm trees and ocean vistas.
"We did not have a very clear understanding about all the benefits" of a U.S. passport, she said.
"We just knew that it was something awesome," added Mokerova, who gave birth to a daughter after she was interviewed.
Zemlyanaya said that even her two nights in the hospital were a treat, like "a stay in a good hotel."
In contrast to the few amenities of a Russian clinic, she said she was impressed when an American nurse gave her choices from a menu for her meals.
"And then when she said they had chocolate cake for dessert, I realized I was in paradise," Zemlyanaya added.
She even enjoyed how nurses referred to patients as "mommies," as opposed to "rozhenitsa," or "birth-giver" — the "unpleasant words they use in Russian birth clinics."
Zemlyanaya said she was able to work remotely during her stay via the internet, as were the husbands of other women, keeping their income flowing. Yachmenev said his agency doesn't allow any of the costs to be paid by insurance.
Most of the families his agency serves have monthly incomes of about 300,000 rubles ($4,500) — middling by U.S. standards but nearly 10 times the average Russian salary.
Yachmenev said he expects that birth tourism among Russians will only grow.
Business declined in 2015 when the ruble lost about half its value, but "now we are coming back to the good numbers of 2013-14," he said.
Houston, Mar 21 (AP/UNB) — Officials say a fire that was extinguished after burning for days at a Houston-area petrochemicals storage facility briefly flared up.
The blaze in Deer Park had been extinguished at 3 a.m. Wednesday. But the city of Deer Park said in a tweet in the late afternoon that there was a small flare-up of the blaze.
The flare-up, which sent flames and smoke into the air, was contained within 30 seconds by firefighters.
Robert Hemminger, Deer Park's emergency services director, says flare-ups are expected with fires of this scale.
Intercontinental Terminals Company officials didn't immediately return calls or emails seeking comment.
An ITC spokeswoman said earlier Wednesday that crews would continue spraying foam and water on tanks that caught fire to cool them down and prevent the blaze from reigniting.
Some residents and environmental and community groups have concerns following a fire at a Houston-area petrochemicals storage facility despite reassurances from officials that the air quality is safe.
The fire in Deer Park was extinguished at 3 a.m. Wednesday. It began Sunday at the facility southeast of Houston, sending a huge, dark plume of smoke thousands of feet in the air.
The Environmental Protection Agency says its testing shows the air quality to be within acceptable levels.
But some who live near the facility, including longtime Deer Park resident Terri Garcia, said Wednesday they don't have confidence in those results, saying they are "too perfect."
Bryan Parras, with the Sierra Club, says some residents have reported various symptoms since the fire, including headaches and nausea.
Crews that extinguished a fire that burned for days at a Houston-area petrochemicals storage facility are now cleaning up the site.
Intercontinental Terminals Company spokeswoman Alice Richardson said at a Wednesday news conference the cleanup efforts will allow workers to reach the site and begin the investigation into what caused the blaze.
Richardson says crews will continue spraying foam and water on tanks that caught fire to cool them down and prevent the blaze from reigniting. The tanks contained components of gasoline and materials used in nail polish remover, glues and paint thinner.
The fire in Deer Park was extinguished at 3 a.m. Wednesday. It began Sunday at the facility southeast of Houston, sending a huge, dark plume of smoke thousands of feet in the air.
Adam Adams with the Environmental Protection Agency says testing shows the air quality remains safe.
Crews have extinguished a fire that's burned for days at a Houston-area petrochemicals storage facility.
Intercontinental Terminals Company says the blaze in Deer Park was extinguished as of 3 a.m. Wednesday. The fire began Sunday at the facility southeast of Houston, sending a huge, dark plume of smoke thousands of feet in the air, though officials said air quality remained safe.
ITC says crews will continue to spray foam and water on the storage tanks that caught fire to cool them down and prevent the fire from reigniting.
The company says steam and smoke will be visible, and the fire could still flare back up.
The tanks that caught fire contained components of gasoline and materials used in nail polish remover, glues and paint thinner.
Washington, Mar 21 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump said Wednesday the last pocket of the Islamic State's land in Syria will be liberated by U.S.-backed forces "by tonight."
Trump has previously announced the defeat of the group, but sleeper cells of fighters have re-emerged. With no signs of fighting Wednesday, however, the long-running battle to retake the militants' last outpost in eastern Syria appeared to have reached its conclusion.
"The caliphate is gone as of tonight," Trump said in a speech at a factory in Lima, Ohio, where military tanks are assembled.
The complete fall of Baghouz would mark the end of the Islamic State group's self-declared caliphate, which at its height stretched across large parts of Syria and Iraq. Controlling territory gave it room to launch attacks around the world.
During his speech, Trump held up two maps of Syria — one covered in red representing territory held by the militant group when he was elected president in November 2016 and the other that had only a speck of red.
"When I took over, it was a mess. They were all over the place — all over Syria and Iraq," said Trump, who has said the U.S. will keep 400 troops in Syria indefinitely.
For the past four years, U.S.-led forces have waged a destructive campaign against the group. But even after Baghouz's fall, IS maintains a scattered presence and sleeper cells that threaten a continuing insurgency.
The militants have been putting up a desperate fight, their notorious propaganda machine working even on the brink of collapse. The battle for Baghouz has dragged on for weeks and the encampment had proven a major battleground, with tents covering foxholes and underground tunnels.
The siege has also been slowed by the unexpectedly large number of civilians in Baghouz, most of them families of IS members. Over past weeks they have been flowing out, exhausted, hungry and often wounded. The sheer number who emerged — nearly 30,000 since early January, according to Kurdish officials — took the Syrian Democratic Forces by surprise.
Ciyager Amed, an official with the Kurdish-led SDF, said they were searching for any IS militants hiding in tunnels in a riverside pocket in the village of Baghouz. The SDF has not yet announced a victory over IS.
Associated Press journalists saw SDF soldiers loading women and children into trailer trucks on the hilltop over Baghouz — a sign that evacuations were still underway Wednesday. Black smoke was rising from the village.
On Tuesday, the SDF seized control of the encampment held by IS after hundreds of militants surrendered overnight, signaling the group's collapse after months of stiff resistance.