FBI Acting Chief Contradicts Trump on Comey

Claims and counterclaims reverberated across Washington concerning President Donald Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey and the status of an ongoing investigation of Russian meddling in last year’s U.S. election. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, the FBI’s acting director contradicted White House claims that Comey had lost the agency’s confidence when the president dismissed him.

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Top US Intelligence Officials Warn of More Aggressive Russia, North Korea

The lingering threat from Russia following its attempts to meddle with the U.S. presidential election is unlikely to recede anytime soon, with the nation’s top intelligence officials warning that Moscow is likely to get both more aggressive and more unpredictable. VOA National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin.

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Trump Spokesman on Navy Reserve Duty at Key Time

If you’ve been missing your daily dose of White House press secretary Sean Spicer, it’s because President Donald Trump’s chief spokesman has been serving the country in another way: He’s been on Navy Reserve duty.

Spicer’s commitment for monthly service occasionally pulls him away from his high-profile job as the public face of the Trump administration.

The obligation also kept Spicer away Wednesday, one of the most important days of Trump’s presidency: the day after Trump fired James Comey as FBI director. Trump dismissed Comey Tuesday, which was the last day this week that Spicer briefed the White House press corps.

Sanders fills in

Deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has filled in during Spicer’s absence, which renewed speculation that Trump was giving the daughter of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee a tryout with an eye toward possibly replacing Spicer with her.

A White House official denied that Spicer’s job was in jeopardy, saying that using Sanders, 34, to cover Spicer’s absence is part of a broader plan to give her some on-camera briefing experience because she is Spicer’s chief deputy. The official requested anonymity to discuss internal White House planning.

Spicer was also on reserve duty last Thursday and Friday.

“Sean is actually on Navy Reserve duty, so you guys are stuck with me — today and tomorrow,” Huckabee Sanders said as she opened Thursday’s less formal, off-camera briefing, which is known as a “gaggle.” “So brace yourselves for a fun 24 hours.”

Briefings must-see TV

Spicer’s often-combative question-and-answer sessions with the reporters who cover Trump have become must-see TV. Since taking over as press secretary, he has made a number of gaffes at the podium that ended up shining the media spotlight on him, instead of on Trump and his policies.

Spicer, 45, joined the U.S. Navy Reserve in 1999. He was expected back at the podium Friday.

Spicer, who holds the rank of commander, works out of the Pentagon as a public affairs specialist assigned to Capt. Greg Hicks, spokesman for Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Reservists commit to serving a minimum of one weekend a month plus two weeks a year, although flexible options permit service on weekdays, according to the Navy’s website.

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China to Get American Beef and Gas Under Trade Agreement

A sweeping trade agreement, ranging from banking to beef, has been reached between Washington and Beijing, the U.S. Commerce Department announced on Thursday.

“It was pretty much a Herculean accomplishment to get this done,” said U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. “This is more than has been done in the whole history of U.S.-China relations on trade.”

The breakthrough results from an agreement U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping made during their meeting at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, on April 6.

Trump “was briefed more or less every single day” as negotiations progressed since then, Ross said.

Beef imports

Following one more round of “technical consultations,” China has agreed to allow U.S. beef imports no later than July 16, consistent with international food and animal safety standards, Ross told reporters at the White House.

The United States Cattlemen’s Association applauded the agreement, saying market access to China is crucial for its members.

“Success in this arena will drive the U.S. cattle market and increase demand for U.S. beef” in China, association president Kenny Graner told VOA.

In exchange, Washington and Beijing are to resolve outstanding issues that would allow imports to the U.S. of cooked poultry from China “as soon as possible,” according to the Commerce Department.

Another significant breakthrough will see American liquefied natural gas (LNG) going to China. Under the agreement Chinese companies will be permitted “at any time to negotiate all types of contractual arrangement with U.S. LNG exporters, including long term contracts,” according to the Commerce Department.

This is “a very big change,” said Ross, noting China is trying to wean itself off coal at a time “it doesn’t produce enough natural gas to meet its needs.”

Financial, other business services

Among other action listed in the 100-Day Action Plan:

* China is to allow, by July 16, “wholly foreign-owned financial services firms” to provide credit ratings services and to begin licensing procedures for credit investigation.

* U.S.-owned suppliers of electronic payment services (EPS) will be able to apply for licensing in China under new guidelines.

* China is to issue bond underwriting and settlement licenses to two qualified U.S. financial institutions by July 16.

* China’s National Biosafety Committee is to meet by the end of this month to conduct science-based evaluations of all eight pending U.S. biotechnology product applications “to assess the safety of the products for their intended use.” Those that pass the tests are to get certificates within 20 working days.

The outcome of the joint dialogue will also see a United States delegation attending China’s Belt and Road Forum in Beijing next week.

A U.S.-China Comprehensive Economic Dialogue will be held this summer, according to the Commerce Department, to deepen engagement on these and other issues.

“There are probably 500 items you could potentially discuss” in the wider one-year plan for bilateral trade, Ross added.

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Cash and Chemicals: For Laos, Chinese Banana Boom a Blessing and Curse

Kongkaew Vonusak smiles when he recalls the arrival of Chinese investors in his tranquil village in northern Laos in 2014. With them came easy money, he said.

The Chinese offered villagers up to $720 per hectare to rent their land, much of it fallow for years, said Kongkaew, 59, the village chief. They wanted to grow bananas on it.

In impoverished Laos, the offer was generous. “They told us the price and asked us if we were happy. We said okay.”

Elsewhere, riverside land with good access roads fetched at least double that sum.

Three years later, the Chinese-driven banana boom has left few locals untouched, but not everyone is smiling.

Experts say the Chinese have brought jobs and higher wages to northern Laos, but have also drenched plantations with pesticides and other chemicals.

Last year, the Lao government banned the opening of new banana plantations after a state-backed institute reported that the intensive use of chemicals had sickened workers and polluted water sources.

China has extolled the benefits of its vision of a modern-day “Silk Road” linking it to the rest of the world – it holds a major summit in Beijing on May 14-15 to promote it.

The banana boom pre-dated the concept, which was announced in 2013, although China now regards agricultural developments in Laos as among the initiative’s projects.

Under the “Belt and Road” plan, China has sought to persuade neighbors to open their markets to Chinese investors. For villagers like Kongkaew, that meant a trade-off.

“Chinese investment has given us a better quality of life. We eat better, we live better,” Kongkaew said.

But neither he nor his neighbors will work on the plantations, or venture near them during spraying. They have stopped fishing in the nearby river, fearing it is polluted by chemical run-off from the nearby banana plantation.

Chinese frustration

Several Chinese plantation owners and managers expressed frustration at the government ban, which forbids them from growing bananas after their leases expire.

They said the use of chemicals was necessary, and disagreed that workers were falling ill because of them.

“If you want to farm, you have to use fertilizers and pesticides,” said Wu Yaqiang, a site manager at a plantation owned by Jiangong Agriculture, one of the largest Chinese banana growers in Laos.

“If we don’t come here to develop, this place would just be bare mountains,” he added, as he watched workers carrying 30-kg bunches of bananas up steep hillsides to a rudimentary packing station.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said he was not aware of the specific issues surrounding Chinese banana growers in Laos, and did not believe they should be linked directly to the Belt and Road initiative.

“In principle we always require Chinese companies, when investing and operating abroad, to comply with local laws and regulations, fulfil their social responsibility and protect the local environment,” he told a regular briefing on Thursday.

Laos’ Ministry of Agriculture did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment for this article.

China is the biggest foreign investor in Laos, a landlocked country of 6.5 million people, with over 760 projects valued at about $6.7 billion, according to Chinese state-run media.

This influence is not only keenly felt in the capital Vientiane, where Chinese build shopping complexes and run some of the city’s fanciest hotels. It also extends deep into rural areas that have remained largely unchanged for decades.

Banana rush

Lao people say Chinese banana investors began streaming across the border around 2010, driven by land shortages at home.

Many headed to Bokeo, the country’s smallest and least populous province.

In the ensuing years, Lao banana exports jumped ten-fold to become the country’s largest export earner. Nearly all of the fruit is sent to China.

For ethnic Lao like Kongkaew, Chinese planters paid them more for the land than they could earn from farming it.

For impoverished, hill-dwelling minorities such as the Hmong or Khmu, the banana rush meant better wages.

At harvest time, they can earn the equivalent of at least $10 a day and sometimes double that, a princely sum in a country where the average annual income was $1,740 in 2015, according to the World Bank.

They are also most exposed to the chemicals.

Most Chinese planters grow the Cavendish variety of banana which is favoured by consumers but susceptible to disease.

Hmong and Khmu workers douse the growing plants with pesticides and kill weeds with herbicides such as paraquat. Paraquat is banned by the European Union and other countries including Laos, and it has been phased out in China.

The bananas are also dunked in fungicides to preserve them for their journey to China.

Switching crops

Some banana workers grow weak and thin or develop rashes, said Phonesai Manivongxai, director of the Community Association for Mobilizing Knowledge in Development (CAMKID), a non-profit group based in northern Laos.

Part of CAMKID’s work includes educating workers about the dangers of chemical use. “All we can do is make them more aware,” she said.

This is an uphill struggle. Most pesticides come from China or Thailand and bear instructions and warnings in those countries’ languages, Reuters learned. Even if the labeling was Lao, some Hmong and Khmu are illiterate and can’t understand it.

Another problem, said Phonesai, was that workers lived in close proximity to the chemicals, which contaminated the water they wash in or drink.

In a Lao market, Reuters found Thai-made paraquat openly on sale.

However, some workers Reuters spoke to said they accepted the trade-off. While they were concerned about chemicals, higher wages allowed them to send children to school or afford better food.

There is no guarantee the government’s crackdown on pesticide use in banana production will lead to potentially harmful chemicals being phased out altogether.

As banana prices fell following a surge in output, some Chinese investors began to plant other crops on the land, including chemically intensive ones like watermelon.

Zhang Jianjun, 46, co-owner of the Lei Lin banana plantation, estimated that as much as 20 percent of Bokeo’s banana plantations had been cleared, and said some of his competitors had decamped to Myanmar and Cambodia.

But he has no plans to leave. The environmental impact on Laos was a “road that every underdeveloped country must walk” and local people should thank the Chinese, he said.

“They don’t think, ‘Why have our lives improved?’ They think it’s something that heaven has given them, that life just naturally gets better.”

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Americans Rush to Trademark Catchy Phrases

Ideas were flying at a brainstorming session to create a slogan for a group of North Carolina Democrats when Catherine Cloud blurted out a phrase that made a colleague’s eyes light up: “Because this is America.”

The words were quickly scrawled on a notepad, and the New Hanover County Democratic Party in Wilmington began its scramble to own the phrase. It applied days later for a trademark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

From President Donald Trump’s dash to own “Keep America Great” for his 2020 re-election campaign — even before he took office — to a rush by a foundation for the victims of the September 11 attacks to claim “Let’s Roll” just days after New York’s Twin Towers were reduced to rubble, Americans are rushing to trademark catchy phrases.

There were 391,837 trademark applications filed last year, with the number growing an average of 5 percent annually, government reports show. The USPTO does not break out how many of those applications were for phrases.

‘That’s Hot’

The surge is the result of headline-grabbing cases like socialite Paris Hilton’s winning settlement of a lawsuit over her trademarked catchphrase “That’s Hot” from her former television reality show, said trademark attorney Howard Hogan of Washington.

“It can’t help but inspire others,” Hogan said. “It feels good to get recognition of something you feel you have created.”

Trademarks can mean cash from everything from bumper stickers to thongs printed with the protected phrase. More important for some, however, is claiming ownership of a powerful message.

” ‘Because this is America’ is a rallying cry that focuses on what we have in common, rather than what divides us,” Cloud said.

The phrase is the tagline in a commercial that was set for online release Thursday about the New Hanover Democrats’ key issues: “Clean water. Because this is America,” “Quality education for every child. Because this is America,” and “No matter your ethnicity, you are welcome here. Because this is America.”

Mindful that the slogan that could easily be employed by rival Republicans, the county Democratic committee filed to trademark it just 18 days after Cloud said it.

Trump looks ahead

Two days before Trump’s inauguration on January 20, Donald J. Trump for President Inc. applied to trademark the phrase he said he intends to use for his 2020 re-election campaign: “Keep America Great,” both with and without an exclamation point. The campaign committee already owns the trademark for Trump’s 2016 slogan: “Make America Great Again.”

Just 15 days after Todd Beamer inspired fellow airline passengers to overwhelm hijackers above a Pennsylvania field on September 11, 2001, the Todd M. Beamer Memorial Foundation applied to trademark his rallying cry, “Let’s Roll.”

Three days after “Nasty Woman” grabbed headlines when Trump used it to describe his opponent Hillary Clinton in an October 19, 2016, debate, entrepreneurs across America started filing trademark applications for the phrase. There are at least 11 applications pending to trademark “Nasty Woman” for the sale of products as wide-ranging as pillows, wine, firearms, scented body spray, mugs, backpacks and jewelry.

Typically it takes about 18 months for the Patent Office to grant a trademark.

But it can take much longer, as cartoonist Bob Mankoff of The New Yorker learned when he tried to trademark the caption to a 1993 cartoon. Two decades passed before he was allowed to register it on January 19, 2016.

Ironically, the phrase aptly describes Mankoff’s anticipated payday from the sale of merchandise, bearing the words that first appeared under his cartoon of a businessman trying to schedule a meeting: “How about never — is never good for you?”

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Прикордонники: підстав не впускати в Україну болгарського учасника «Євробачення» не було

Державна прикордонна служба України заявляє, що на момент в’їзду до країни учасника пісенного конкурсу «Євробачення» від Болгарії Крістіана Костова підстав забороняти йому в’їзд не було. Так речник ДПСУ Олег Слободян відреагував на повідомлення в ЗМІ, що влітку 2014 року Костов виступав в анексованому Росією Криму.

За його словами, прикордонслужба разом зі Службою безпеки України перевірить цю інформацію.

«Ми діємо у межах наданих повноважень. На момент, коли даний громадянин перетинав кордон, жодної інформації чи з нашої, чи від інших правоохоронних органів про те, що, можливо, даний громадянин порушував законодавство України, у нас не було. Всю інформацію, яка була у Державної прикордонної служби про перетин, чи, можливо, про підозри відносно якихось громадян в якихось протиправних заходах ми перевіряли. На даний момент, всі учасники і люди зі складу делегацій в’їхали на територію України на законних підставах», – сказав Слободян у коментарі Радіо Свобода.

У Службі безпеки України у зв’язку з цим нагадали, що рішення про заборону в’їзду до України ухвалює центральний орган виконавчої влади, що забезпечує реалізацію державної політики у сфері міграції, СБУ або органи держкордону.

«Служба безпеки України ухвалює рішення про заборону в’їзду до України іноземцям або особам без громадянства в інтересах гарантування національної безпеки України», – написала речниця СБУ Олена Гітлянська на сторінці у Facebook.

Вона нагадала, що рішення про заборону в’їзду до України особі ухвалюють у разі, якщо є наявність достатньої інформації, одержаної в установленому законом порядку, про факт вчинення нею суспільно небезпечного діяння, незалежно від території здійснення, що суперечить інтересам гарантування безпеки України, попередження, виявлення, припинення і розкриття якого зараховано до компетенції СБУ.

Раніше в ЗМІ з’явилося відео з виступом представника Болгарії на Євробаченні-2017 Крістіана Костова в анексованому Росією Криму 1 червня 2014 року, через кілька місяців після анексії. 17-річний музикант представить Болгарію у другому півфіналі Євробачення-2017, що відбудеться ввечері 11 травня.

Влада України раніше заборонила на три роки в’їзд обраній у Росії учасниці «Євробачення» Юлії Самойловій, бо вона 27 червня 2015 року виступала у Криму і, таким чином, порушила українське законодавство, оскільки потрапила на півострів зі сторони Росії, не через дозволені Україною пункти пропуску.

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Saudis Paid for US Veteran Trips Against 9/11 Lawsuit Law

After Congress passed a new law allowing Sept. 11 victims’ families to sue Saudi Arabia in U.S. courts, opponents mounted an expensive political campaign, including paying American military veterans to visit Capitol Hill and warn lawmakers about what they said could be unintended consequences.

What few people knew, including some of the recruited veterans themselves, was that Saudi Arabia’s government was largely paying for the effort, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Despite a World War II-era U.S. law requiring lobbyists to immediately reveal payments from foreign governments or political parties, some of the campaign’s organizers failed to notify the Justice Department about the Saudi kingdom’s role until months afterward, with no legal consequences.


Even now, some opponents of the law, the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, still won’t say to whom or how many exactly they paid thousands of dollars each to influence state and federal elected officials on behalf of Saudi Arabia, stymieing public knowledge about the scale of foreign influence on the push to overturn the legislation.


The chief lobbyist for the Saudi Embassy in Washington said it encouraged its subcontractors to be as transparent as possible. But the campaign and the allegations surrounding it show what can happen when the often-murky world of lobbying intersects with emotive American issues like patriotism, protecting U.S. troops and the memory of Sept. 11. It also highlights how federal laws governing disclosures of foreign influence in American politics are only as strong as they’re enforced.


“If the purpose of the statute is to make a public record about how foreign sovereigns are spending money to influence U.S. policy, it’s not clear how the Justice Department’s relatively lax enforcement of the statute furthers that goal,” said Stephen Vladeck, a law professor and national security law expert at the University of Texas.


Congress voted overwhelmingly for the law in September, overriding a veto by U.S. President Barack Obama in his final weeks in office. The law, known by the acronym JASTA, gives victims’ families the right to sue any foreign country found to support a terrorist attack that kills U.S. citizens on American soil. Its critics warn the law opens U.S. troops, diplomats and contractors to lawsuits that otherwise couldn’t be filed under the terms of sovereign immunity, a legal doctrine usually protecting governments and its employees in court.


While the bill mentioned no countries, its supporters acknowledged that it took direct aim at Saudi Arabia. Fifteen of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudis. The attacks masterminded by al-Qaida’s Saudi-born leader Osama bin Laden killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.


The U.S. government’s 9/11 Commission’s final report said it found no evidence that the Saudi government or officials funded al-Qaida. However, it said the terror group found “fertile fundraising ground in Saudi Arabia, where extreme religious views are common and charitable giving was … subject to very limited oversight.”


Saudi Arabia’s rulers, who fought a bloody al-Qaida insurgency in the years after 9/11 and who now face another from the Islamic State group, long have denied funding extremists. After JASTA became law, the Saudi Foreign Ministry said it hoped “wisdom will prevail and that Congress will take the necessary steps to correct this legislation in order to avoid the serious unintended consequences that may ensue.”


U.S. President Donald Trump is set to visit Saudi Arabia later this month.


The veterans’ lobbying effort began within a month after the vote. Soon, some 70 new subcontractors would be hired by Qorvis MSLGroup, a Washington-based lobbying and public relations firm that represents Saudi Arabia, according to Justice Department filings examined by The Associated Press. Nearly all listed JASTA as their main focus, with their objective as alerting lawmakers and others to “potential legal liabilities arising for U.S. military, intelligence and diplomatic personnel.”


The veterans who spoke to lawmakers had their flights and accommodation paid for with Saudi money distributed by the subcontractors, according to the filings. Some stayed at the Trump International Hotel in Washington. Saudi Arabia’s involvement was first reported by The Daily Caller, a conservative website, and later explored by the Saudi-skeptic website 28pages.org.


Included among the lobbyists who registered were public relations experts, those who had done work with veterans and a state lawmaker, Nevada assemblywoman Shannon Bilbray-Axelrod. Those who disclosed their salaries listed payments ranging from $12,000 up to $100,000, which Jason E. Jones of Oregon, Wisconsin, received.


Jones told the AP on a conference call he organized with other veterans that all involved clearly were told that Saudi money funded the effort. He also acknowledged organizers suggested that veterans wear their medals when meeting with Congress.


“It was entirely up to them,” he said. “It’s no secret: People pay attention on the Hill — staffers, members — when you show that you’re a combat veteran up there speaking your mind.”


But David Casler and brothers Dan and Tim Cord, two other veterans on the tour, said their first inkling Saudi money funded the trip was when Jones told the assembled group in Washington that they should speak for themselves and “not the king of Saudi Arabia.” They later spoke out on social media over their concerns.


“It was very evident that they weren’t forthcoming; they weren’t telling us the whole truth,” said Casler, a former U.S. Marine sergeant who took part in one of the events. “They flat-out lied to us on the first day with the statement: ‘This is not paid for by the Saudi Arabian government.'”


That’s not the view of Chuck Tucker, a retired U.S. Air Force major general who took part in the lobbying and Jones’ conference call with the AP. He said it was clear that Saudi money funded it.


“You stay with your wingman. We have allies. They’re not perfect, we’re not perfect,” Tucker said. “It’s not like it was blood money. We’re taking money from somebody who is our friend and ally helping us around the world.”


Other lobbying firms also disclosed they were doing work on behalf of Saudi Arabia after the JASTA vote, without mentioning specific efforts. Among them was the Glover Park Group, founded by former White House and Democratic campaign officials, which subcontracted three months of work to the CGCN Group for $60,000 and more work to the McKeon Group for an undisclosed sum, according to Justice Department filings. Glover Park declined to comment.


Qorvis MSLGroup subcontracted with Flywheel Government Solutions for $25,000 to “conduct outreach to governors and lieutenant governors” about JASTA and try to get them to write columns or make public statements opposing it. Flywheel declined to comment about its work.


A parallel veteran effort involved with Qorvis MSLGroup was run by Scott Wheeler, a resident of Lake Elsinore, California, who runs a political action committee called The National Republican Trust. Wheeler’s firm, called the Capitol Media Group, reported receiving $365,000 from the Saudi Embassy in three payments corresponding to visits by veterans to Washington.


Wheeler’s firm “was retained to organize, supervise and escort” the veterans, receiving $30,000 per trip as a “service and administration fee,” Justice Department filings show. The filing said the firm paid $3,000 to cover expenses of “groups of 25-35” in three trips, saying it could offer “individual names” if requested.


Under federal law, anyone working on behalf of a foreign government is required to register within 10 days of being contracted and before beginning any work. But in Wheeler’s case, a lawyer filed his paperwork on March 31 — three trips and months after being contracted.


Wheeler declined to answer any questions about his lobbying work, saying the AP was “perseverating over a non-story.”


Matt J. Lauer, an executive vice president at Qorvis MSLGroup, said his organization told all its subcontractors to comply with federal lobbying regulations. He said his organization had a long history of filing full reports with authorities on its foreign agent lobbying activities.


“Overall, we would have a very compliant and transparent process,” Lauer said. “We encourage everyone to understand the guidelines set by the Department of Justice.”


But those Foreign Agents Registration Act’s guidelines, first put in place over concerns about Nazi propagandists operating in the U.S. ahead of World War II, require the Justice Department to enforce them. Between 1966 to 2015, the Justice Department has brought only seven criminal cases involving the act, according to an inspector general report released in September. The report recommended the Justice Department’s National Security Division, which oversees registrations, improve its oversight, including making sure filings are made on time.


The Justice Department declined to comment.


In recent months, the act has gotten more attention due to controversies surrounding the foreign work done by President Donald Trump’s one-time campaign manager Paul Manafort and his former national security advisor Michael Flynn. But Vladeck, the professor, said more needs to be done to make sure that the law to inform the public is properly enforced.


“The whole point is that this [foreign lobbying] is perfectly legal, but we have a right to know,” he said.




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