Aboard The Uss Abraham Lincoln, Jun 9 (AP/UNB) — Under a starry sky, U.S. Navy fighter jets catapulted off the aircraft carrier's deck and flew north over the darkened waters of the northern Arabian Sea, a unmistaken signal to Iran that the foremost symbol of the American military's global reach is back in its neighborhood, perhaps to stay.
The USS Abraham Lincoln , with its contingent of Navy destroyers and cruisers and a fighting force of about 70 aircraft, is the centerpiece of the Pentagon's response to what it calls Iranian threats to attack U.S. forces or commercial shipping in the Persian Gulf region. In recent years, there has been no regular U.S. aircraft carrier presence in the Middle East.
U.S. officials have said that signs of heightened Iranian preparations to strike U.S. and other targets in the waters off Iran as well as in Iraq and Yemen in late April emerged shortly after the Trump administration announced it was clamping down further on Iran's economy by ending waivers to sanctions on buyers of Iranian crude oil.
The administration went a step beyond that on Friday, announcing penalties that target Iran's largest petrochemical company.
On Saturday the Lincoln was steaming in international waters east of Oman and about 200 miles from Iran's southern coastline. One month after its arrival in the region, the Lincoln has not entered the Persian Gulf, and it's not apparent that it will. The USS Gonzalez, a destroyer that is part of the Lincoln strike group, is operating in the Gulf.
Rear Adm. John F. G. Wade, commander of the Lincoln strike group, said Iran's naval forces have adhered to international standards of interaction with ships in his group.
"Since we've been operating in the region, we've had several interactions with Iranians," he said. "To this point all have been safe and professional — meaning, the Iranians have done nothing to impede our maneuverability or acted in a way which required us to take defensive measures."
The Lincoln's contingent of 44 Navy F-18 Super Hornets are flying a carefully calibrated set of missions off the carrier night and day, mainly to establish a visible U.S. "presence" that Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of Central Command, said Saturday seems to have caused Iran to "tinker with" its preparation for potential attacks.
He said on Friday that he thinks Iran had been planning some sort of attack on shipping or U.S. forces in Iraq. Two other officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive details, said Iran was at a high state of readiness in early May with its ships, submarines, surface-to-air missiles and drone aircraft.
"It is my assessment that if we had not reinforced, it is entirely likely that an attack would have taken place by now," McKenzie said.
In an interview on the bridge, or command station, of the Lincoln with reporters who are traveling with him throughout the Gulf region, McKenzie said the carrier has made an important difference.
"We believe they are recalculating. They have to take this into account as they think about various actions that they might take. So we think this is having a very god stabilizing effect," he said.
"They are looking hard at the carrier because they know we are looking hard at them," McKenzie said.
He said earlier in the week that he had not ruled out requesting additional defensive forces to bolster the deterrence of Iran, whose economy is being squeezed hard by U.S. sanctions after President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. last year from the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers. The U.S. already has announced plans to send 900 additional troops to the Mideast and extend the stay of 600 more as tens of thousands of others also are on the ground across the region.
Iran's influential Revolutionary Guard has said it doesn't fear a possible war with the U.S. and asserted that America's military might has not grown in power in recent years. "The enemy is not more powerful than before," the Guard spokesman, Gen. Ramazan Sharif, said in late May.
The U.S. has accused Iran of being behind a string of recent incidents, including what officials allege was sabotage of oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates.
McKenzie spent two days aboard the Lincoln to confer with naval commanders, observe both daytime and nighttime flight operations, and to thank crew members. Their deployment plans were disrupted when the White House approved McKenzie's request in early May that the Lincoln cut short its time in the Mediterranean Sea and sail swiftly to the Arabian Sea.
"I am the reason you are here," the general said in an all-hands announcement to the nearly 6,000 personnel on the Lincoln Friday night shortly after he flew aboard by Navy helicopter from Oman.
"I requested this ship because of ongoing tensions with Iran," he said. "And nothing says you're interested in somebody like 90,000 tons of aircraft carrier and everything that comes with it. Our intent by bringing you here was to stabilize the situation and let Iran know that now is not the time to do something goofy."
McKenzie also requested, and received, four Air Force long-range B-52 bombers. They were in the region 51 hours after being summoned and were flying missions three days later. They are now operating from al-Udeid air base in Qatar. There had been no U.S. bomber presence in the Gulf region since late February.
In an interview Friday after speaking with B-52 pilots at al-Udeid, McKenzie said it's hard to know whether that gap in a bomber presence had emboldened the Iranians.
"Cumulatively, the fact that we had drawn down in (the Mideast) may have had an effect on Iranian behavior," he said. "We do know that bringing stuff back in seems to have had an effect on their behavior," noting that there have been no Iranian attacks on U.S. forces.
On Saturday aboard the Lincoln, McKenzie was asked whether there have been any incidents between Iranian and American naval force in recent weeks.
"No, actually I think things are pretty quiet right now," he said.
Washington, Jun 9 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump's deal to avert his threatened tariffs on Mexico includes few new solutions to swiftly stem the surge of Central American migrants flowing over America's southern border.
But it delivers enough for Trump to claim a political win.
The decision — announced by tweet late Friday — ended a showdown that business leaders warned would have disastrous economic consequences for both the U.S. and one of its largest trading partners, driving up consumer prices and driving a wedge between the two allies. And it represented a win for members of Trump's own party who had flooded the White House with pleading calls as well as aides who had been eager to convince the president to back down.
But ultimately, it gives Trump the ability to claim victory on a central campaign promise that has been largely unfulfilled as he prepares to formally launch his 2020 campaign.
"In the face of naysayers, President Trump yet again delivered a huge victory for the American people," Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said in a statement, applauding the president for using "the threat of tariffs to bring Mexico to the table" and "showing that he is willing to use every tool in his toolbox to protect the American people."
Trump ran in 2016 pledging to crack down on illegal immigration, but instead has watched as the number of border crossings has spiked to its highest level in over a decade — with U.S. Border Patrol apprehending more than 132,000 people in May, including a record 84,542 adults and children traveling together. That surge has been straining federal resources, leaving officials struggling to provide basic housing and health care to families fleeing violence and poverty in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
With Trump overseas and an unproductive opening negotiating session with Mexican officials Wednesday, many at the White House had expected Trump to move forward with the 5% tariff he'd threaten to slap on all Mexican goods on Monday in an effort to strong-arm the country into action, according to people familiar with the deliberations. Aides including Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were no personal fans of the policy, but they understood Trump's frustration and presented several suggestions to the Mexican delegation to walk him back. They also made clear that Trump was dead set on the tariffs without dramatic action.
U.S. officials were nonetheless surprised when talks resumed Thursday and Mexico agreed to some of the things Pence had put on the table, including an expansion of a program that forces some asylum-seekers to return to Mexico as they wait for their cases to be adjudicated. And while such a measure never made it into the agreement, Mexican officials also expressed an openness to discussing something they had long opposed: having Mexico become a "safe third country," which would make it harder for asylum-seekers who pass through the country to claim refuge in the U.S.
Conversations continued Friday during a marathon session at the State Department led by White House counsel Pat Cipollone, with Trump briefed by phone aboard Air Force One.
A final decision was made during an evening conference call once Trump return to the White House on Friday evening, and shortly thereafter he fired off his tweet announcing the deal.
The decision was a relief for Trump aides— nearly all of whom were united in opposition to the tariffs, disagreeing on principle and in practice. It also came as relief for Republican lawmakers and their allies in the business community, who'd spent the week burning up White House phones and personally nudging the president to back down. In a rare rebuke, several had threatened to block the effort, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell saying publicly there was little support.
Still, one Republican who discussed the situation on condition of anonymity said the outreach from Capitol Hill appeared to play far less a role than the concessions made by the Mexicans — particularly the agreement to expand the remain-in-Mexico policy.
Critics, meanwhile, pointed out that little announced on Friday appeared to be new.
A joint statement released by the State Department said Mexico had agreed to "take unprecedented steps to increase enforcement to curb irregular migration," including the deployment of its new National Guard, with a focus on its porous southern border with Guatemala. Mexico, however, had already intended to deploy the National Guard to the southern border and had made that clear to U.S. officials.
The U.S. also hailed Mexico's agreement to embrace the expansion of a program under which some asylum-seekers are returned to Mexico as they wait out their cases. But the remain-in-Mexico program was implemented earlier this year and, from the start, U.S. officials have vowed to rapidly expand it, even without Mexico's public support. Indeed, officials from the Department of Homeland Security were working to spread the program, which has already led to the return of about 10,000 to Mexico, before the latest blowup, though it has been plagued with scheduling glitches and delays. Immigration activists also have challenged the program in court, arguing that it violates migrants' legal rights. An appeals court recently overturned a federal judge who had blocked the program as it makes its way through the courts.
Administration officials noted the deal leaves open the possibility of "further actions" if "the measures adopted do not have the expected results." And while the "third safe country" agreement did not make it into the deal, it is something officials plan to continue to discuss in the coming months.
The reversal nonetheless sparked mocking from Democrats, including Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, who sarcastically declared Friday "an historic night!" after Trump claimed the deal would "greatly reduce, or eliminate, Illegal Immigration coming from Mexico and into the United States."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also weighed in, calling the tariff threat "reckless" and panning the remain-in-Mexico policy as a violation of migrants' legal rights.
"Threats and temper tantrums are no way to negotiate foreign policy," she said.
Tijuana, Jun 9 (AP/UNB) — Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said he was reluctantly prepared to slap retaliatory tariffs on U.S. goods if negotiators in Washington had failed to strike a deal, addressing a boisterous celebratory rally Saturday in the border city of Tijuana.
The president's comments came shortly after his foreign minister and chief negotiator, Marcelo Ebrard, told the rally the country had emerged from the high-stakes talks that avoided U.S. tariffs on Mexico's exports with its "dignity intact."
López Obrador said that as an admirer of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela he opposes retaliation but had been prepared to impose tariffs on U.S. goods. "As chief representative of the Mexican State I cannot permit that anyone attacks our economy or accept an unjust asymmetry unworthy of our government."
The rally in Tijuana, a short walk from the border, was originally scheduled as an act of solidarity in the face of President Donald Trump's threat to impose a 5% tariff on Mexico's exports if it did not stem the flow of Central American migrants crossing its territory toward the U.S.
But after Mexican and U.S. officials reached an accord late Friday that calls on Mexico to crackdown on migrants in exchange for Trump backing off his threat, officials here converted the rally into a celebration.
Ebrard, who helped negotiate the deal, said when he gave the president his report, he told López Obrador: "There are no tariffs, Mr. President, we emerged with our dignity intact."
Speaking about the migrants, Ebrard said, "while they are in Mexico, we are going to be in solidarity with them."
A series of speakers at the government-organized gathering spoke of the importance of the U.S.-Mexico relationship and applauded Mexico's negotiating team. The rally had the feeling of a campaign event with lots of paraphernalia from López Obrador's ruling Morena party.
Lopez Obrador spoke of the long and intertwined histories of the two countries, noting that they "are protagonists in the largest demographic exchange in the world."
Tijuana residents at the rally said they supported the terms of the agreement. But residents just a block away expressed concern the deal could mean more asylum seekers having to wait in Tijuana and other Mexican border cities for the resolution of their cases in the U.S. That process can take months or even years.
Critics of the deal in Mexico say that other than a vague reiteration of a joint commitment to promote development, security and growth in Central America, the agreement focuses almost exclusively on enforcement and says little about the root causes driving the surge in migrants seen in recent months.
The deployment of 6,000 National Guard troops appears to be the key commitment in what was described as "unprecedented steps" by Mexico to ramp up enforcement, though Interior Secretary Olga Sánchez Cordero said that had already been planned and was not a result of external pressure.
Another key element of the deal is that the United States will expand a program known as the Migrant Protection Protocol, or MPP. According to Mexican immigration authorities, since January there have been 10,393 returns by migrants to Mexico while their cases wend their way through U.S. courts.
Observers said a concern is that if the MPP rolls out on a mass scale along the United States' entire southern border, it could overwhelm Mexican border cities.
Laguna Nigel, Jun 8 (AP/UNB) — Southern California's San Onofre nuclear power plant was permanently closed in 2013, but the site remains home to 3.5 million pounds (1.59 million kilograms) of nuclear waste that has nowhere else to go.
Members of a House subcommittee held a hearing Friday not far from the defunct plant to highlight the urgency behind efforts to build a long-term national repository for used radioactive fuel, a proposal that has languished for decades in Washington.
"The federal government has failed, and continues to fail, to find a solution to our country's nuclear waste problem," said Rep. Harley Rouda, a Democrat whose district is up the coast from the seaside San Onofre plant.
Even if a bipartisan agreement is reached soon, development of a site would be at least a decade away, he said. In the meantime, 8.4 million residents live within 50 miles (about 80 kilometers) of the plant, which is within sight of a busy freeway and in a region crossed by earthquake faults.
Nationally, one in three Americans lives within 50 miles of nuclear waste, Rouda said. The nation does "not have any more time to waste" to find a solution, he said, citing potential safety risks.
Development of a proposed long-term storage site at Nevada's Yucca Mountain was halted during the Obama administration, although the Trump administration has moved to restart the licensing process while the plan continues to face stiff resistance in Nevada. Meanwhile, proposals in New Mexico and Texas for temporary storage sites are also facing criticism. On Friday, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said she's opposed to plans to build the facility in her state.
Building a long-term storage site would lead to another question: How would the radioactive waste get there from nuclear power plants?
"There is not consensus about health and safety standards, including whether commercial spent fuel is safe where it is," said Don Hancock of the Southwest Research and Information Center, a nonprofit watchdog group. "If it is safe where it is, why move it? If it's not safe where it is, how can it be safe to transport through many other communities?"
During the hearing, Democratic Rep. Mike Levin, whose 49th District includes the plant site, urged federal regulators to increase oversight at San Onofre, which received approval in 2015 to move tons of highly radioactive fuel from storage pools into steel canisters sheathed by concrete.
Those transfers were halted about a year ago after a 50-ton canister of spent fuel was left hanging and at risk of being dropped rather than lowered 18 feet (5.5 meters) into a storage vault. Federal regulators later fined plant operator Southern California Edison $116,000.
Levin has asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to appoint a full-time inspector at the plant, which is no longer producing power. NRC Administrator Scott Morris told the panel it would take a change in policy by the commission.
The NRC has given Edison permission to resume transferring canisters filled with nuclear waste to the separate storage site. But the commission announced this month it will conduct surprise inspections at the plant to help make sure it's running smoothly.
Edison said in a statement that it strongly encourages action by Congress, but warned that "misrepresenting the science and potential consequences of spent nuclear fuel makes the challenge of finding a ... location for storage more difficult."
"The federal government must honor its decades-long obligation to create a permanent repository and begin the process of relocating spent nuclear fuel from reactor sites throughout the country," the company said.
San Onofre was shut down in January 2012 after a small radiation leak led to the discovery of extensive damage to hundreds of tubes inside the virtually new generators.
The plant never produced electricity again. Edison closed San Onofre for good in 2013 amid a fight with environmentalists over whether the plant was too damaged to restart safely.
Washington, Jun 8 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump announced late Friday that he had suspended plans to impose tariffs on Mexico, tweeting that the country "has agreed to take strong measures" to stem the flow of Central American migrants into the United States. But the deal the sides agreed to falls short of some of the dramatic overhauls the U.S. had pushed for.
A "U.S.-Mexico Joint Declaration" released by the State Department said the U.S. "will immediately expand the implementation" of a program that returns asylum-seekers who cross the southern border to Mexico while their claims are adjudicated. Mexico will "offer jobs, healthcare and education" to those people, the agreement stated.
Mexico has also agreed, it said, to take "unprecedented steps to increase enforcement to curb irregular migration," including the deployment of the Mexican National Guard throughout the country, especially on its southern border with Guatemala. And Mexico is taking "decisive action to dismantle human smuggling and trafficking organizations as well as their illicit financial and transportation networks," the State Department said.
The U.S. announced in December that it would make some asylum seekers wait in Mexico while their cases were being proceeded — a begrudging agreement with Mexico that has taken months to scale and that has been plagued with glitches, including wrong court dates, travel problems and issues with lawyers reaching their clients.
Homeland Security officials have been ramping up slowly, and were already working to spread the program along the border before the latest blowup. About 10,000 people have been returned to Mexico to wait out the processing of their immigration cases since the program began Jan. 29. More than 100,000 migrants are currently crossing the U.S. border each month, but not everyone claims asylum and migrants can wait an entire year before making a claim.
Any sizable increase may also be difficult to achieve. At the San Ysidro crossing alone, Mexico had been prepared to accept up to 120 asylum seekers per week, but for the first six weeks only 40 people per week were returned.
Trump's had announced the tariff plan last week, declaring in a tweet that, on June 10, the U.S. would "impose a 5% Tariff on all goods coming into our Country from Mexico, until such time as illegal migrants coming through Mexico, and into our Country, STOP." U.S. officials had laid out steps Mexico could take to prevent the tariffs, but many had doubts that even those steps would be enough to satisfy Trump on illegal immigration, a signature issue of his presidency and one that he sees as crucial to his 2020 re-election campaign.
After returning from Europe Friday, though, Trump tweeted, "I am pleased to inform you that The United States of America has reached a signed agreement with Mexico." He wrote that the "Tariffs scheduled to be implemented by the U.S. on Monday, against Mexico, are hereby indefinitely suspended."
He said Mexico has agreed to work to "stem the tide of Migration through Mexico, and to our Southern Border" and said those steps would "greatly reduce, or eliminate, Illegal Immigration coming from Mexico and into the United States."
The reversal marked a change in tone from earlier Friday, when his spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told reporters in Ireland before Trump took off: "Our position has not changed. The tariffs are going forward as of Monday." Trump has often said unpredictability helps him negotiate.
The 5% tax on all Mexican goods , which would increase every month up to 25% under Trump's plan, would have had enormous economic implications for both countries. Americans bought $378 billion worth of Mexican imports last year, led by cars and auto parts. Many members of Trump's Republican Party and business allies had urged him to reconsider — or at least postpone actually implementing the tariffs as talks continue — citing the potential harm to American consumers and manufactures.
From the moment Trump announced the tariff threat, observers wondered whether he would pull the trigger, noting his habit of creating problems and then claiming credit when he rushes in to solve them.
In late March, Trump threatened to shut the entire U.S.-Mexico border if Mexico didn't immediately halt illegal immigration. Just a few days later, he backed off that threat, saying he was pleased with steps Mexico had taken. It was unclear, however, what — if anything — Mexico had changed.
U.S. and Mexican officials met for more than 10 hours Friday during a third day of talks at the U.S. State Department trying to hash out a deal that would satisfy Trump's demand that Mexico dramatically increase its efforts to crack down on migrants.
The talks were said to be focused, in part, on attempting to reach a compromise on changes that would make it harder for migrants who pass through Mexico from other countries to claim asylum in the U.S., those monitoring the situation said. Mexico has opposed such a change but appeared open to considering a potential compromise that could include exceptions or waivers for different types of cases. The joint declaration, however makes no mention of the issue.
Leaving the State Department Friday night, Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said he thought the deal struck "a fair balance" because the U.S. "had more drastic proposals and measures at the start."
Earlier, Ebrard tweeted, "Thanks to all the people who have supported us by realizing the greatness of Mexico."
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador also tweeted. "Thanks to the support of all Mexicans, the imposition of tariffs on Mexican products exported to the USA has been avoided," he said, calling for a gathering to celebrate in Tijuana Saturday.
Trump in recent months has embraced tariffs as a political tool he can use to force countries to comply with his demands — in this case on his signature issue of immigration. Beyond Trump and several White House advisers, though, few in his administration had believed the tariffs were a good idea, according to officials familiar with internal deliberations. Those people had worried about the negative economic consequences for Americans and argued that tariffs — which would likely spark retaliatory taxes on U.S. exports — would also hurt the administration politically.
Republicans in Congress had also warned the White House that they were ready to stand up to the president to try to block his tariffs, which they worried would spike costs to U.S. consumers, harm the economy and imperil a major pending U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal .
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., greeted Friday night's news with sarcasm. "This is an historic night!" he tweeted. "Now that that problem is solved, I'm sure we won't be hearing any more about it in the future."