Trump: US Trade Talks with China Making ‘Big Progress’

President Donald Trump said Sunday “big progress” is being made in U.S. trade talks with China on what he calls “so many different fronts.”

“Our country has such fantastic potential for future growth and greatness on an even higher level,” the president tweeted.

Trump said last week he might put off the March 1 deadline to increase tariffs on China if a trade deal is close.

But a China trade expert who served in the Obama administration says he has only seen “incremental progress” toward a trade deal with China.

“The realistic approach is that the deadline gets extended and the negotiations possibly go into the end of this year, I would suspect,” former Assistant Trade representative for China Jeff Moon tells VOA.

Moon believes negotiators on both sides are failing to address the real reason the U.S. imposed stiff sanctions on China in the first place — allegations that it is stealing U.S. intellectual property, and China’s demands that U.S. firms turn over trade secrets if they want to keep doing business in China.

“It’s not possible to resolve those issues in two weeks. Those are very complex issues that require longer talks…so a quick settlement is not a good settlement. It just glosses things over,” Moon said.

He forecast things getting “messy” over the long run if those matters are not settled.

He also said Trump has “muddied” the negotiations by letting politics creep into the trade talks with such issues as North Korea.

Trump has threatened to hike tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese imports to the U.S. from 10 to 25 percent if there is no trade deal reached by March 1.

China has accused the U.S. of violating global trade rules, saying it is preventing the Chinese economy from thriving.

Current U.S. sanctions on China were met with retaliation from Beijing by sanctions on U.S. goods.

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Trump: ‘Nothing Funny’ about Jokes Aimed at Him

Can U.S. President Donald Trump laugh at a joke at his own expense?

Not if it’s coming from NBC’s satirical Saturday Night Live show and Trump impersonator Alec Baldwin, who has periodically contorted his face and snarled his way to fame mocking the 45th president.

On Saturday night Baldwin was jabbing at Trump again, a day after Trump declared a national emergency to divert money in the government’s budget to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border without congressional authorization.

“You all see why I gotta fake this emergency, right? I have to because I want to,” Baldwin said as the sketch show opened. “It’s really simple.

We have a problem. Drugs are coming into this country through no wall.”

But Baldwin as Trump said, “Wall works, wall makes safe. You don’t have to be smart to understand that  in fact it’s even easier to understand if you’re not that smart.”

The fake president mimicked Trump’s singsong voice during part of his Friday news conference announcing the national emergency.

“I’ll immediately be sued and the ruling will not go in my favor and then it will end up in the Supreme Court and then I’ll call my buddy [Brett] Kavanaugh (a justice appointed by Trump) and I’ll say, It’s time to repay the Donny,’ and he’ll say, new phone, who dis?'” Baldwin joked.

But by then, Baldwin-as-Trump said, a report by special counsel Robert Mueller, who has been investigating links between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia, “will be released, crumbling my house of cards and I can plead insanity and do a few months in the puzzle factory and my personal hell of playing president will finally be over.”

The show also lampooned the results of Trump’s recent annual physical exam.

“I’m still standing 6-7, 185 pounds — shredded,” Baldwin said, although Trump actually is several centimeters shorter and weighs more than 110 kilograms, defined by U.S. health standards as obese.

Trump gave the sketch and the show a thumbs down.

“Nothing funny about tired Saturday Night Live on Fake News NBC!” Trump said on Twitter. “Question is, how do the Networks get away with these total Republican hit jobs without retribution? Likewise for many other shows? Very unfair and should be looked into. This is the real Collusion!”

“THE RIGGED AND CORRUPT MEDIA IS THE ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE!” he tweeted minutes later.

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Trump’s National Emergency Declaration Rocks Washington

Washington has been plunged into a power struggle between the executive and legislative branches of government — one that America’s third branch, the courts, ultimately may resolve. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, President Donald Trump’s national emergency declaration aims to jumpstart wall construction along the U.S.-Mexico border that Congress did not authorize.

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Convenience Stores are Getting Even More Convenient

The store checkout line may be a thing of the past sooner than we think. A year after Amazon opened its first store without a cashier, retailers and start-ups are competing to get similar technology in other stores worldwide, so shoppers do not have to stand in line. VOAs Deborah Block has a report.

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San Antonio Wildlife Ranch Celebrates, Protects Endangered Animals

Being surrounded by wild animals, feeding them and taking care of their little ones this is exactly what Tiffany Soechting wanted to do all her life. Anush Avetisyan met with the woman who is the human “mom” to the 500 animals that live on her family’s wildlife preserve in Texas.

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Charity Group Turns Leftover Food Into Real Help For Needy People

For many families, putting healthy food on the table is challenging. But a non-profit organization is determined to help, by repackaging donated prepared meals and packaged food, distributing it to families, schools and other social organizations. From a one-man operation, Nourish Now has grown into a large organization which recovers more than 20,000 kilograms of food to serve 700 families each month. Rendy Wicaksana has more, from NourishNow’s headquarter in Rockville, Maryland.

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Last Defenders of Islamic State’s Caliphate Surrounded

The last defenders of the Islamic State terror group’s self-proclaimed caliphate are surrounded in a small neighborhood in the eastern Syrian village of Baghuz, facing imminent defeat.

The assessment Saturday, from a commander of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, follows days of slow and difficult fighting as IS fighters cling to an ever-shrinking sliver of land, pausing only for intermittent negotiations over a possible surrender.

“In a very short time, we will spread the good tidings to the world of the military end of Daesh,” Jiya Furat, the SDF commander leading the final assault, told reporters during a news conference outside Baghuz.

Furat said the self-proclaimed caliphate, which once covered large swaths of Syria and Iraq, had been reduced to an area covering no more than about 600 square meters, and that IS fighters were coming under fire from every direction.

But efforts to finish off the final IS enclave have been slowed due to concerns about civilians, including the wives and children of the terror group’s fighters, trying to escape to safety.

“There have been some lapses in the battle as we continue to see hundreds of civilians still attempting to flee,” coalition spokesman, Col. Sean Ryan, told VOA via email Saturday. “Strikes have been reduced to help protect the civilians.”

Those civilians who have escaped say IS has been using them as human shields, shooting at them if and when they attempt to leave.

The SDF advance has also been slowed by IS’ use of booby traps and other improvised explosive devices [IEDs], and counterattacks using suicide bombers and cars or motorcycles laden with explosives.

There are also concerns about additional IS fighters hiding in what appears to be an extensive system of tunnels and caves.

Monitoring groups, including the Syrian Observatory for Human rights, reported a group of IS fighters launched a counterattack late Friday, targeting coalition-backed forces near the al-Azraq oilfield. But they said the assault was quickly repelled with the help of coalition warplanes.

Just days ago, coalition officials had described the fight against IS in its final hold-out of Baghuz as a clearing operation, with one top commander saying, “The end of the physical caliphate is at hand.”

And on Friday, U.S. President Donald Trump stirred up anticipation that a final declaration of victory over the IS was fast-approaching.

“We have a lot of great announcements having to do with Syria and our success with the eradication of the caliphate,” Trump said at the White House. “That’ll be announced over the next 24 hours.”

On Saturday, though, both coalition officials and the SDF suggested there was no longer any set timeline for an announcement.

U.S. officials have also been quick to point out that even once the last pocket of IS-held territory is taken, the fight will not be over.

Speaking at the Munich Security Conference in Germany Saturday, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence promised the U.S. would maintain a strong presence in the Middle East and would “track down” any remnants or offshoots of the Islamic State.

Top U.S. military officials have warned the terror group still has 20,000 to 30,000 followers, including fighters, spread across Syria and Iraq.  And they worry about the ability of their Syrian partners, in particular, to keep IS in check once U.S. troops withdraw.

The U.S. official has also been talking with other members of the coalition about increasing their help as U.S. troops prepare to leave. But so far, other coalition members, many of whom have no troops on the ground in Syria, have been unwilling to make any specific commitments.

“I think there’s a tremendous desire to have a security arrangement or mechanism that doesn’t result in a security vacuum. What that is…is still being developed,” a senior defense official said Friday on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.

“We’ve been pretty clear that this is going to be a deliberate withdrawal,” the official added. “There’s a timeline associated with that that’s conditions-based. We’ve said publicly on a number of occasions that it will be here in months, not weeks and not years.”

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Vatican Expels Former US Cardinal McCarrick

The Vatican said Saturday that Pope Francis has defrocked disgraced former U.S. cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

In July of last year, Francis accepted McCarrick’s resignation from the College of Cardinals following allegations he had sexually abused minor and adult seminarians over a period of decades.

The Vatican said in a statement that in January 2019 it had found McCarrick guilty of “. . . solicitation in the Sacrament of Confession and sins against the Sixth Commandment with minors and with adults, with the aggravating factor of the abuse of power.” (The Sixth Commandment says ‘Thou shall not commit adultery’ and is one of the Ten Commandments the Bible says were given by God.  The Commandments are fundamental to Judaism and Christianity.)

McCarrick appealed the decision expelling him from the priesthood, but it was upheld and McCarrick was notified of the decision Friday. .

The Vatican statement said its decision “is definitive and admits of no further recourse or appeal.”

McCarrick had been a highly respected and longtime ambassador of the Catholic Church was was a confident of popes and U.S. presidents.

The 88-year-old McCarrick was ordained a priest in 1958.  His appointments included:  auxiliary bishop of New York, bishop of Metuchen, archbishop of Newark, and archbishop of Washington.  

In 2001, McCarrick became a cardinal.

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Moscow Court Extends Arrest of US Investor Accused of Fraud

A Russian court has decided to prolong the detention of American investor Michael Calvey, founder of Baring Vostok Capital Partners, a Moscow-based private equity group.

Late Friday the court moved to extend Calvey’s arrest for at least 72 hours and called for a second hearing Saturday.

Four other defendants in the case have been ordered to remain in pretrial custody for two months.

A spokeswoman for the Moscow district court Friday announced that Calvey had been detained along with other members of the firm Thursday on suspicion of stealing $37.5 million (2.5 billion rubles), a charge that carries of a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.

Private equity group partner

Calvey, 51, is a senior partner who founded Baring Vostok in 1994. According to the firm’s website, the private equity group holds more than $3.5 billion in committed capital and is a controlling shareholder in Russia’s Vostochny Bank, which focuses on Siberian and Far Eastern markets.

A statement on the Baring Vostok website said the company “believes that the detention of its employees and the charges that have been brought are a result of a conflict with shareholders of Vostochniy [sic] Bank. We have full confidence in the legality of our employees’ actions and will vigorously defend their rights. Baring Vostok’s activities in the Russian Federation are fully compliant with all applicable laws.”

Before launching Baring Vostok, Calvey worked for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and for Salomon Brothers. Since arriving in Moscow in the mid-1990s, he’s become a prominent and highly visible member of Moscow investment community. He is a board member of the Washington-based Atlantic Council.

​Pleas from investment community 

The announcement of Calvey’s detention sent shockwaves through the international investment community, prompting numerous pleas for his immediate release.

Herman Gref, head of Sberbank, Russia’s biggest state bank, issued a statement calling Calvey a “decent, honest man,” while Kirill Dmitriev, the head of Russia’s $10 billion sovereign wealth fund and a close contact of Russian President Vladimir Putin, described Calvey as “committed to the highest ethical standards accepted in the investment community.”

Kremlin officials Friday said Putin wasn’t aware of the charges being brought against Calvey.

“We are aware that a U.S. citizen was arrested on February 14, 2019, in Russia, a State Department spokesperson said Friday. “We have no higher priority than the protection of U.S. citizens abroad. Due to privacy considerations, we do not have any additional information at this time.”

Calvey is the third Westerner to face prosecution in Russia since Dec. 31, when American citizen Paul Whelan, a former Marine, was jailed on accusations of spying. Last week a Russian court sentenced Dennis Christensen, a Danish adherent of the Jehovah’s Witnesses religion, to six years in prison for “organizing the activity of an extremist organization.”

Although Russia has jailed foreign investors who were vocal opponents of the Kremlin, Calvey has no such record of public political opinions.

Russia is “a do-it-yourself market,” Calvey told The Washington Post in 2011. “You can’t rely on outside service providers.”

In that interview, Calvey said his group operates with 20 investors, four full-time lawyers and three government relations managers, along with a host of accountants and administrative support. At that time, all 10 of his partners were Russian nationals.

“International firms aren’t equipped for Russia,” he told the Post. “And they usually have a low tolerance threshold for uncertainty and no sense of humor for Russian surprises,” which he described as surprise audits, seizure of assets for back taxes, and sudden, sometimes seemingly arbitrary, business license reviews.

‘The final straw’

Vocal Kremlin critic and Hermitage Capital co-founder Bill Browder was denied entry into Russian in 2005 after his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, began investigating governmental misconduct and corruption in response to suspicious tax evasion charges brought against Hermitage by Russia’s Interior Ministry.

Magnitsky died under suspicious circumstances in Russian custody in 2009.

“The arrest of Mike Calvey in Moscow should be the final straw that Russia is an entirely corrupt and [uninvestable] country,” Browder said in a tweet Friday. “Of all the people I knew in Moscow, Mike played by their rules, kept his head down and never criticized the government.”

Pete Cobus is VOA’s acting Moscow correspondent. State Department correspondent Nike Ching contributed reporting from Washington. Some information is from Reuters.

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Omar’s Edgy Israel Tweet No Surprise to Some in Minnesota

As Ilhan Omar was running last year to become one of the first Muslim women in Congress, several Minnesota Jewish leaders invited her to talk privately about past statements they considered anti-Semitic and anti-Israel.

Most came away dissatisfied by what they heard.

Their concerns were confirmed this week when Omar suggested on Twitter that members of Congress support Israel for money, igniting a bipartisan uproar.

Democratic state Sen. Ron Latz, who hosted the meeting, says he’s grateful that she seems to be willing to be engaged in conversations with the Jewish community, but she doesn’t seem to be learning from those conversations.

In tweets this week, Omar said she is learning, and she’s grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating her on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes.

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