Washington, Sep 18 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump on Wednesday named Robert O'Brien, his chief hostage negotiator and an established figure in Republican policy circles, as his new national security adviser.
O'Brien, the fourth person in two years to hold the job, becomes the administration's point person on national security amid rising tensions with Iran following the weekend attack on Saudi oil installations and fresh uncertainty in Afghanistan after the halt in peace talks with the Taliban.
The announcement of O'Brien's selection comes a week after Trump ousted John Bolton from the post, citing policy disagreements . O'Brien, who made headlines in July when he was dispatched to Sweden to monitor the assault trial of American rapper A$AP Rocky, was among five candidates Trump said Tuesday were under consideration.
"I am pleased to announce that I will name Robert C. O'Brien, currently serving as the very successful Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs at the State Department, as our new National Security Advisor," Trump tweeted. "I have worked long & hard with Robert. He will do a great job!"
Trump abruptly forced out Bolton on Sept. 10, after he and his hawkish national security adviser found themselves in strong disagreement over the administration's approach to Iran, Afghanistan and a host of other global challenges. The sudden exit marked the latest departure of a prominent voice of dissent from Trump's inner circle as the president has grown more comfortable following his gut instinct over the studious guidance offered by his advisers.
As the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs at the State Department, O'Brien worked closely with the families of American hostages and advised administration officials on hostage issues. He helped secure the release in February of American citizen Danny Burch, who was freed after 18 months in captivity.
He has also worked on the case of missing U.S. journalist Austin Tice, who was captured in Syria in 2012. O'Brien has said he is confident Tice is still alive though it's unclear who is holding him.
The White House sent O'Brien to Sweden to monitor the case of A$AP Rocky, who was charged with assault. The rapper, whose real name is Rakim Mayers, was permitted to return to Los Angeles to await the verdict of a Swedish court that found him guilty in a street brawl.
Last month, the wife of a Princeton University graduate student detained in Iran told reporters that she would like to see the same level of personal attention from the government as A$AP Rocky received.
O'Brien previously helped lead the department's public-private partnership for justice reform in Afghanistan during the Bush and Obama administrations.
He began to emerge as a front-runner to replace Bolton last week when it became clear that an early favorite, Iran envoy Brian Hook, would face opposition from hawks who think he has not been tough enough on Iran, according to Republicans familiar with the matter.
Another short-listed candidate, North Korea envoy, Stephen Biegun, was taken out of the mix when Pompeo suggested he might be better placed as Deputy Secretary of State to replace John Sullivan, who is widely expected to be nominated to be the next U.S. ambassador to Russia, officials said.
From 2008 through 2011, O'Brien was a presidentially appointed member of a government committee that advises on issues related to the trafficking of antiquities and other cultural items. In 2005, President George W. Bush nominated O'Brien to be U.S. Representative to the U.N. General Assembly, where he worked with Bolton. O'Brien was confirmed by the Senate.
He also was an adviser on the Republican presidential campaigns of former Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
Earlier in his career, O'Brien was a senior legal officer for the U.N. Security Council commission that decided claims against Iraq that arose from the Gulf War. He was a major in the U.S. Army Reserve.
O'Brien has a law degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and co-founded a law firm in Los Angeles focused on litigation and international arbitration issues. O'Brien is the author of "While America Slept," a collection of essays on U.S. national security and foreign policy billed as a "wake-up call to the American people."
The book warned that the world had become more dangerous "under President Obama's lead-from-behind foreign policy."
Washington, Sep 18 (AP/UNB) — She's done a lot with the place.
Like anyone who has ever spruced up their home, Melania Trump will have a few new touches to showcase Friday when guests visit the White House for only the second state dinner of the Trump presidency.
There's refreshed wall fabric in the Red Room, repurposed draperies in the Green Room and restored furniture in the Blue Room. And those are just some of the home improvement projects the first lady has overseen to keep the well-trod public rooms at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. looking their museum-quality best.
Some of the projects were long overdue.
Sunlight streaming into the Red Room had left some of the wall fabric "so faded it was almost pink," said Stewart McLaurin, president of the White House Historical Association, which helps finance upkeep of some rooms in the 132-room mansion. First lady Jacqueline Kennedy founded the private, nonprofit organization in 1961.
"Those rooms should always look their very best and it was just very faded and really, really needed to be done," McLaurin said.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his wife, Jenny, and guests for Friday's three-course state dinner in their honor should have an opportunity to check out the spiffed-up public rooms.
In her role as caretaker, the first lady — whoever she is — meets regularly with the chief usher, the head curator and other White House staff to figure out what improvements should top the to-do list.
Mrs. Trump, who keeps a relatively low profile as first lady, has put her interest in history to use overseeing the restoration projects.
"Our family is grateful to live in this true symbol of our nation's history, but we are even more honored to play a part in restoring and enhancing our country's sacred landmark," she said at a May reception.
The first lady designed a new rug for the Diplomatic Reception Room, the main entrance off the South Lawn, after foot traffic wore a path across the old one, McLaurin said. The replacement has a border showing the flowers of the 50 states, a touch added by the first lady.
The White House also refreshed draperies in the Green Room by switching material from the backside to the front, eliminating the need — and cost — of replacing the curtains entirely, McLaurin said. Only the fringe had to be replaced.
Last year, Mrs. Trump returned to the Blue Room several restored pieces from a historic 53-piece furniture set known as the Bellangé suite.
Decor upgrades are a bit more complicated at the White House than for typical homeowners.
Renovation ideas are shared with the Kennedy-created Committee for the Preservation of the White House, which provides advice on preserving the public rooms on the Ground and State floors.
The committee requests funding from the historical association, whose board typically authorizes spending $1 million to $1.5 million on such projects each year.
The White House serves several purposes: It's an office for the president and his staff, a home for his family and a living museum. Approximately half a million tourists visit every year, apart from dignitaries and others who attend receptions and other events.
"The White House does get a lot of wear and tear," McLaurin said.
The Bellange suite furnishings were brought to the White House in 1817 by President James Monroe, formerly the U.S. ambassador to France.
But in 1860, nearly all the pieces were sold at an auction.
One hundred years later, Jacqueline Kennedy arrived and was appalled to discover the White House was furnished with reproductions from a New York department store, McLaurin said. She created the historical association, the advisory committee and a curator to help the White House collect and exhibit only the best, McLaurin said.
The White House has managed to reacquire 10 pieces from the original suite, made in Paris by Pierre-Antoine Bellangé. The rest of the collection is "lost to history," McLaurin said.
The Bellangé restoration project began during Michelle Obama's time as first lady and was completed last year, costing the historical association more than $450,000 since 2013.
The wood, brass and lighting inside an elevator that takes the president to and from the private living quarters has also been refinished.
Next up? New upholstery on chairs and benches in the high-traffic Diplomatic Reception Room.
Mrs. Trump also renovated a bowling alley in the White House residence that dates to the Nixon administration and was last renovated in 1994 under President Bill Clinton. The Bowling Proprietors' Association of America paid for the renovation.
During the Obama years, the red carpet in the Cross Hall, or hallway, on the State Floor was replaced.
Mrs. Obama also oversaw projects with an eye on leaving her family's mark on the White House, as is the case with every president and first lady. She replaced the rug, draperies and high-back chairs around the table in the State Dining Room.
Mrs. Obama also updated the Old Family Dining Room, a smaller room adjacent to the State Dining Room, by swapping its sunny yellow walls and drapery and light-toned rug for gray walls, contrasting red draperies and a rug with a contemporary design.
Four works of American abstract art also were added to the Old Family Dining Room, including a work that made Alma Thomas the first African-American female artist featured in the White House collection.
Washington, Sep 18 (AP/UNB) — In less than three years, President Donald Trump has named more former lobbyists to Cabinet-level posts than his most recent predecessors did in eight, putting a substantial amount of oversight in the hands of people with ties to the industries they're regulating.
The Cabinet choices are another sign that Trump's populist pledge to "drain the swamp" is a catchy campaign slogan but not a serious attempt to change the way Washington works. Instead of staring down "the unholy alliance of lobbyists and donors and special interests" as Trump recently declared, the influence industry has flourished during his administration.
The amount spent in 2019 on lobbying the U.S. government is on pace to match or exceed last year's total of $3.4 billion, the most since 2010, according to the political money website Open Secrets. Trump also has pulled in hefty contributions from industries with business before his administration, and his hotel near the White House has been a magnet for lobbyists and foreign interests since he was elected.
"An administration staffed by former industry lobbyists will almost certainly favor industry over the general public, because that's the outlook they're bringing to the job," said Lee Drutman, a senior fellow in the political reform program at the think tank New America and author of the book "The Business of America is Lobbying."
Former lobbyists run the Defense and Interior departments, Environmental Protection Agency and office of the U.S. Trade Representative. The acting Labor secretary, Pat Pizzella, is a former lobbyist and Trump's pick to run the department, Eugene Scalia, also is an ex-lobbyist. Scalia's confirmation hearing before a GOP-controlled Senate committee is scheduled for Thursday and Democrats are expected to grill him on his long record of opposing federal regulations .
A seventh ex-lobbyist, Dan Coats, resigned as Trump's intelligence chief in August.
President Barack Obama had five former lobbyists in his Cabinet during two terms in office and President George W. Bush had three, also during eight years in the White House, according to lobbying and foreign agent disclosure records. The review was limited to the Trump, Obama and Bush administrations because prior to 1995 there was no central database of federal lobbying registrations and the law was hazy about who was supposed to register.
Shortly after taking office, Trump signed an executive order that revoked an Obama directive prohibiting lobbyists from being appointed to a post at a federal agency they'd lobbied within the last two years. While this "cooling off" period was cast aside, Trump's order continued to bar for two years lobbyists-turned-government-employees from participating in particular matters that they'd lobbied on during the two preceding years.
"Without the cooling off period, these Cabinet heads appear to be serving their former employers' and clients' special interests," said Virginia Canter, chief ethics counsel of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Trump's Cabinet includes the heads of the 15 executive departments and seven other senior-level posts, such as EPA administrator and director of national intelligence. Obama's Cabinet had the same number of members and Bush's Cabinet had two fewer.
Scalia, the Labor Department nominee, has spent much of his career as a partner in the Washington office of the Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher firm, where he ran up a string of victories in court cases on behalf of business interests challenging labor and financial regulations. Scalia, the son of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, served for a year as the Labor Department's top lawyer during the George W. Bush administration.
His financial disclosure report lists 49 clients who paid him $5,000 or more for legal services, including e-cigarette giant Juul Labs, Facebook, Walmart and Bank of America. Disclosure records show Scalia was registered in 2010 and 2011 to lobby for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Pizzella has been the acting secretary since Alexander Acosta resigned the post in July amid renewed criticism of how, as a federal prosecutor, he handled a 2008 secret plea deal with wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Pizzella lobbied for clients that ranged from Microsoft Corp. to the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. He also worked on several accounts with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, although Pizzella was never accused of any misconduct or wrongdoing.
Obama chose Pizzella for a GOP seat on the Federal Labor Relations Authority and he was an assistant Labor secretary during the George W. Bush administration.
Two Trump Cabinet officials, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler, have been accused by congressional Democrats and public interest groups of failing to honor their ethics pledges.
Both Bernhardt and Wheeler, backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have played leading roles in the administration's rollback of environmental regulations. They also both worked at the agency they now lead during prior administrations.
Interior's inspector general launched an investigation of Bernhardt earlier this year after receiving seven separate ethics allegations against him. A complaint filed by the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center alleged that shortly after joining the department in August 2017 Bernhardt became involved in matters that were the focus of his lobbying for California's Westlands Water District that lasted until mid-November 2016.
Westlands has federal contracts to provide irrigation water to 700 family-owned farms in the fertile San Joaquin Valley. The complaint said Bernhardt had "lobbied on discrete provisions of a law directing Interior to maximize water supplies to his clients, and to minimize Endangered Species Act protections in that region."
Then, after joining Interior, Bernhardt breached his ethics pledge by directing government officials under him "to advance the particular matters he had previously lobbied on," according to the complaint.
"It is very hard to tell where Bernhardt's lobbying career ended and where his public service begins," said Brendan Fischer, director of the Campaign Legal Center's federal reform program.
An Interior spokesman said in a statement, "Secretary Bernhardt is and always has been committed to upholding his ethical responsibilities, and he has fully complied with those obligations."
Thomas Birmingham, Westlands' general manager, said the agency is actually disadvantaged with Bernhardt as secretary because he's not been able to engage with him as he did past Interior secretaries, like Ken Salazar and Sally Jewell.
"I don't know what Mr. Bernhardt has done or has not done at Interior," Birmingham said.
Wheeler worked as a lobbyist for eight years and his more than 20 different clients included coal magnate Bob Murray, who pushed hard on the Trump administration to grant a series of breaks for the sagging domestic coal industry.
"I think he's doing a great job," Betsy Monseu, CEO of the American Coal Council, said of Wheeler. "We're pleased to see the regulatory reform agenda moving forward."
But Canter's organization, known as CREW, urged the EPA inspector general earlier this year to investigate whether Wheeler broke his ethics pledge. Among the allegations, CREW said Wheeler had participated in the easing of standards for storing coal ash in 2018 even though he had lobbied on those regulations the year before for Murray Energy.
The inspector general's office declined to say if it had open an investigation, directing a reporter to file a Freedom of Information Act request.
An EPA statement called CREW's complaint "baseless and just flat out false." It said Wheeler works closely with career EPA ethics officials and abides by all ethics requirements.
The Pentagon's top official, Mark Esper, spent seven years lobbying for defense industry juggernaut Raytheon, a company that stands to gain handsomely from Trump's push to boost military spending by billions of dollars. The company closed out 2018 by hitting a record $27.1 billion in net sales, up nearly seven percent from the $25.3 billion the year before.
Esper, who was secretary of the Army when Trump chose him to be defense secretary, faced opposition from only a handful of Democrats and he was confirmed in July by a 90-8 margin.
As Army secretary, Esper hasn't participated in Raytheon-related matters under the terms of an ethics agreement that runs through this November. After that, Esper told Pentagon ethics officials that he will continue to avoid Raytheon issues unless his participation as defense secretary is determined to be essential.
Robert Lighthizer, the U.S. Trade Representative, lobbied primarily for steel companies between 1999 and 2003. Beginning in 2004, he represented just one company, U.S. Steel, which paid his firm, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, $3.2 million over a seven-year period.
Washington, Sep 14 (AP/UNB) — The White House announced Saturday that Hamza bin Laden , the son of the late al-Qaida leader who had become an increasingly prominent figure in the terrorist organization, was killed in a U.S. counterterrorism operation in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.
A statement issued in President Donald Trump's name gave no further details, such as when Hamza bin Laden was killed or how the United States had confirmed his death. Administration officials would provide no more information beyond the three-sentence statement from the White House. American officials have said there are indications that the CIA, not the U.S. military, conducted the strike.
The White House statement said Hamza bin Laden's death "not only deprives al-Qaida of important leadership skills and the symbolic connection to his father, but undermines important operational activities of the group." It said Osama bin Laden's son "was responsible for planning and dealing with various terrorist groups."
The U.S. officials had suspected this summer that Hamza bin Laden was dead, based on intelligence reports and the fact that he had not been heard from in some time. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters. Defense Secretary Mark Esper told Fox News Channel in a late August interview that it was "my understanding" that Hamza bin Laden was dead.
The younger bin Laden had been viewed as an eventual heir to the leadership of al-Qaida, and the group's leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, had praised him in a 2015 video that appeared on jihadi websites, calling him a "lion from the den of al-Qaida."
The U.S. government in February said it was offering $1 million for help tracking down Hamza bin Laden as part of the State Department's Rewards for Justice program. The department's notice said he was married to a daughter of Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, an al-Qaida leader and Egyptian charged for his role in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa. They were said to have two children, Osama and Khairiah, named after his parents.
He was named a "specially designated global terrorist" in January 2017, and he had released audio and video messages calling for attacks against the U.S. and its allies. To mark one 9/11 anniversary, al-Qaida superimposed a childhood photo of him over a photo of the World Trade Center.
Video released by the CIA in 2017 that was seized during the 2011 U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden showed Hamza bin Laden with a trimmed mustache but no beard at his wedding. Previous images have only shown him as a child.
Hamza bin Laden is believed to have been born in 1989, the year of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, where his father became known among the mujahedeen fighters. His father returned to Saudi Arabia and later fled to Sudan after criticizing the kingdom for allowing U.S. troops to deploy in the country during the 1991 Gulf War. He later fled Sudan for Afghanistan in 1996, where he declared war against the U.S.
As al-Qaida's leader, Osama bin Laden oversaw attacks that included the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, as well as the bombing of the USS Cole off Yemen. He and others plotted and executed the 2001 attacks against the United States that led to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. U.S. Navy SEALs killed the elder bin Laden in a raid on a house in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in 2011.
This past March, Saudi Arabia announced that it had revoked the citizenship of Hamza bin Laden. The kingdom stripped Osama bin Laden's citizenship in 1994 while he was living in exile in Sudan when Hamza bin Laden was just a child. It was unclear where Hamza bin Laden was at the time of the Saudi action.
Hamza bin Laden began appearing in militant videos and recordings in 2015 as an al-Qaida spokesman.
"If you think that your sinful crime that you committed in Abbottabad has passed without punishment, then you thought wrong," he said in his first audio recording.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, a U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan sought to topple the Taliban, an ally of al-Qaida, and seize the elder bin Laden. He escaped and split from his family as he crossed into Pakistan. Hamza was 12 when he saw his father for the last time — receiving a parting gift of prayer beads.
"It was as if we pulled out our livers and left them there," he wrote of the separation.
Hamza and his mother followed other al-Qaida members into Pakistan and then Iran, where other al-Qaida leaders hid them, according to experts and analysis of documents seized after U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Iran later put the al-Qaida members on its soil into custody. During this time, Hamza married.
In March 2010, Hamza and others left Iranian custody. He went to Pakistan's Waziristan province, where he asked for weapons training, according to a letter to the elder bin Laden. His mother left for Abbottabad, joining her husband in his hideout. On May 2, 2011, the Navy SEAL team raided Abbottabad, killing Osama bin Laden and his son Khalid, as well as others. Saber and other wives living in the house were imprisoned. Hamza again disappeared.
In August 2015, a video emerged on jihadi websites of al-Zawahri introducing "a lion from the den of al-Qaida" — Hamza bin Laden. Since then, Hamza had been featured in al-Qaida messages, delivering speeches on everything from the war in Syria to Donald Trump's visit to Saudi Arabia on his first foreign trip as president.
But he hadn't been heard from since a message in March 2018, in which he threatened the rulers of Saudi Arabia.
New York, Sept 14, (CNN/UNB)- President Donald Trump on Thursday evening claimed that energy efficient light bulbs make him look orange, one in a series of bizarre claims about green energy and climate conservation in remarks to Republican House members in Baltimore, reports CNN.
"What's with the lightbulb?" Trump asked introducing one of several environmentally related rants in his more than hour-long remarks. He described energy efficient light bulbs as "many times more expensive than that old, incandescent bulb that worked very well" and "the lights no good."
"The bulb that we're being forced to use, number one, to me, most importantly, I always look orange," he said, to laughs from the audience.
Light bulbs have been a common target for the President who has used them as a symbol to criticize energy and environmental restrictions.
Federal regulators in the Trump administration lifted energy efficiency regulations earlier this month for several common types of light bulbs, which critics believe is the administration's latest assault on efforts to combat climate change and energy use. The administration said the overturned rules, crafted in the final days of the Obama administration and which were set to take effect in January, would cause prices for light bulbs to skyrocket to untenable levels.
Trump also railed against the Paris Climate Accords, which he decided the US would pull out of early in his administration.
"How's that working out for Paris?" Trump asked, pointing to Yellow Vest protesters in France. Trump said the protesters "didn't like all of that money being sent to people that they'd never heard of the country which they came." But specifically, the Yellow Vest demonstrators have protested rising fuel taxes in France and have called for an increase to the minimum wage.
Speaking about the Paris agreement, Trump said, "They were going to take away our wealth. They were going to say we can't do certain businesses. We can't take the oil and gas. We can't do anything. This would have been one of the great travesties."
Trump also said the agreement "would do nothing to improve our environment" but would instead "punish" the United States "while foreign polluters operate with impunity."
As part of the agreement, the Obama administration pledged to slash carbon emissions by 26%-28% below 2005 levels by 2025. Trump announced the US would be pulling out of the agreement in June 2017.
Trump claimed during his speech the Clean Waters Act "didn't give clean waters" -- the same day the Environmental Protection Agency announced the repeal of an Obama-era rule that extended federal authority and protections to streams and wetlands. The regulation defined what bodies of water are protected under the federal Clean Water Act but was a favorite punching bag of Republicans, who ridicule it as government overreach. Democrats defended it as necessary to ensure waterways remained pollution-free.
Trump, in his Baltimore speech, bolstered his campaign pillar of "energy dominance" in the United States, also praising the quality of American air and water. He said "today we have the cleanest air. We have the cleanest water that we've ever had ... in the history of our country for the last 25 years."
As it relates to drinking water, specifically, the US is tied for first among nine other countries for the best in the world, as CNN has previously reported on this claim by the Trump administration. But it's incorrect to categorically assert the US has the cleanest air and water in the world.
Trump later said that for "a virtually insignificant amount of energy" the US would soon be producing cars that are "substantially" less expensive and "much safer" because they will be made of denser materials. He appeared to be referencing new auto industry standards he said would soon be released by the Trump administration.
Trump took to criticizing Democrats' stance on several environmental issues, becoming frustrated with recent efforts to reduce plastic and reiterating his repeated claims about the Green New Deal.
"Then they talk about plastic straws. I said, 'What about the plate? What about the wrapper that's made up of a tougher plastic? What about all the other plastic?'," Trump said, adding that straws are "the only thing we're worried about" now.
He later told Republicans, "We won't let Democrats obliterate the plastic industry and cripple working class families with sky-high energy prices."
He also claimed that the Green New Deal would mean "no more cows. No more planes and I guess no more people, right?"
The resolution looks to overhaul transportation in the US by removing "pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector as much as is technologically feasible." When it comes to cows and farming the language is similar, looking to "remove pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector as much as is technologically feasible."
Trump didn't spare criticism for his former Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, who wanted the country to invest in wind energy and solar energy as part of her 2016 platform.
"Solar is fine, you know, small potatoes compared to what we're talking about. Doesn't have the power, what you need," Trump said.
"The wind is very expensive," he continued, adding that windmills are imported from Germany and China.
He reiterated his previous claims that windmills devalue real estate, kill birds, are noisy and provide intermittent energy, adding, "Think of the pollutants that go in the air when they make in these massive steel things."
Several major academic studies have found no statistically significant decrease in the average property value due to wind turbines in the US.
And while the Department of Energy has said that wind turbines can be noisy and impact wildlife in their path, it has also described the energy source as "cost effective" and "sustainable." A 2018 report from DOE also indicates that the US is a net importer of wind turbine equipment and Germany and China lead the number of wind-specific imports to the US.