Posts Tagged ‘White House’

White House official: House intel panel broke an agreement on limiting scope of questions for Bannon

January 17, 2018
  • The White House believed it had an agreement with the House Intelligence Committee to limit questions for Steve Bannon only to events on the presidential campaign, a White House official told CNBC.
  • According to the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, staffers for the committee and the White House on Friday discussed the parameters of Bannon’s testimony.
  • Asked if negotiations over Bannon’s testimony are ongoing as of Wednesday morning, the official said: “There’s no negotiation now, they haven’t engaged with us.”
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Jacquelyn Martin | AP
Former White House strategist Steve Bannon leaves a House Intelligence Committee meeting where he was interviewed behind closed doors on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018, in Washington.

The White House believed it had an agreement with the House Intelligence Committee to limit questions for Steve Bannon only to events on the presidential campaign, and not during the ousted former chief strategist’s time in the Trump administration, a White House official told CNBC.

According to the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, staffers for the committee and the White House on Friday discussed the parameters of Bannon’s testimony. The White House emerged from that conversation believing it had an agreement to limit the questioning of Bannon just to events during the campaign, and not during the transition period or his time in the White House.

Then, hours into Bannon’s closed door testimony, Bannon’s lawyers informed the White House from Capitol Hill that the questions would extend beyond the scope of what the White House understood the agreement to be. At that point, the White House told Bannon not to answer any further.

 Image result for adam schiff, photos
Adam Schiff

“We said ‘Hey, hey, pump the brakes,'” the official said. “We said to Bannon, ‘Don’t answer those questions because we haven’t agreed to that scope under the process.'”

The official declined to say who initiated the mid-testimony phone call or who took part on behalf of the White House.

At that point, House Intelligence Committee Republicans and Democrats joined forces to issue Bannon a subpoena on the spot to compel his testimony. It is not clear what, if any, questions Bannon answered after that. A Reuters report said the former top Trump aide refused to comply with the subpoena.

Bannon did not comment substantively Tuesday evening as he left Capitol Hill.

The House Intelligence Committee didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from CNBC.

Despite the attempt to limit questioning of Bannon, the White House official insisted the administration is not asserting executive privilege. “We’re not asserting anything,” the official said. “They need to discuss it with us. There’s a process that’s existed for decades.”

The official would not say what the White House wants to discuss with House Intelligence or what questions about Bannon’s time on the transition or in the White House the administration would seek to block.

Still, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders used the phrase “executive privileges” when asked Tuesday whether the White House was blocking Bannon from testifying fully.

“Look, we’ve been completely cooperative throughout this entire process,” Sanders said. “We’re going to continue to be cooperative. But we’re also going to maintain some of the executive privileges here at the White House.”

In essence, the White House is hoping to reap many of the benefits of executive privilege, without President Donald Trump officially asserting the privilege. Formally asserting executive privilege could be embarrassing for the White House, which has insisted it has nothing to hide in the ongoing Russia investigation and that it is cooperating fully.

Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., one of the Republicans leading the committee’s investigation, reacted with exasperation to Bannon and the White House’s claims.

“It is the most tortured analysis of executive privilege I have ever heard of,” Gowdy said on Fox News. “Executive privilege now covers things before you become the chief executive — which is just mind-numbing and there is no legal support for it.”

Democrats were also frustrated with the 10-hour Bannon meeting.

“This was effectively a gag order by the White House preventing this witness from answering almost any question concerning his time in the transition or the administration and many questions even after he left the administration,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee.

The committee had earlier rebuffed a White House offer Friday to have a White House attorney sit in on the Bannon session to referee the questions surrounding scope of the interview. “The committee’s belief was it was not necessary,” the official said.

Asked if negotiations over Bannon’s testimony are ongoing as of Wednesday morning, the White House official said: “There’s no negotiation now, they haven’t engaged with us.”

But committee members say they still want to hear from Bannon.

“We have additional questions,” said Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas. “The subpoena remains in effect. And we have additional questions we don’t have the answers to yet. We’re going to work to get those answers.”


At UN, diplomats are watching candidate Nikki Haley — “She is so much smarter than him.”

January 13, 2018

US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Mick Mulvaney listen as US President Donald Trump holds a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington, US, January 10, 2018. (Reuters)

UNITED NATIONS: One year into the job, Nikki Haley stands out as the star of President Donald Trump’s administration, and diplomats say the UN ambassador is directing some of that star power into a likely White House bid.

Speculation about Haley’s presidential ambitious has picked up since she defended Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, staring down friends and foes alike at the world body.
The 45-year-old Republican resorted to a veto to block criticism from the UN Security Council and threatened reprisals against those who voted against Washington at the General Assembly.
The clash gave UN ambassadors a reality check: Haley, they say, is a politician, not a diplomat, and at the United Nations, she is playing to a domestic audience.
“She is not trying to win votes at the General Assembly. She is trying to win votes for 2020 or 2024,” a council diplomat said. “She is clearly using this position to run for something, that’s obvious.”
The former South Carolina governor arrived at the United Nations last year, promising a “new day” under Trump’s America First policy and vowing to “take names” of countries that don’t toe the line.
Seen at the outset as a foreign policy lightweight, Haley was quickly taken seriously because of her close ties to the unpredictable Trump.
Over the past year, she has pushed through three new sets of sanctions against North Korea, bringing China and Russia on side to tackle what Trump sees as his administration’s number one security threat.
Those sanctions won the unanimous backing of the council, where finding common ground with Haley is testing diplomatic skills.
The daughter of Indian immigrants, Haley is hawkish on Iran, fiercely pro-Israel and a strong advocate of cost-cutting at the United Nations.
That those three signature issues play well with the US Republican voter base is not lost on most diplomats.
“What matters above all are perceptions internally, in the US,” said another council diplomat, who like many declined to be quoted.
Haley was among the first administration officials to take a hard line on Russia, declaring that sanctions over Crimea would remain in place until Moscow gave the territory back to Ukraine.
Ukrainian Ambassador Volodymyr Yelchenko, who just wrapped up a two-year stint at the Security Council, says Haley is doing an “excellent job.”
“She may be less diplomatic sometimes than some could expect, but this is more an asset than a shortcoming,” he said.
For months, Haley had been tipped as a possible replacement to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, whom she has upstaged with her media appearances and statements that at times appear to break new ground.
In October, she put that speculation to rest, telling reporters that she wasn’t interested.
“I would not take it,” Haley told reporters on a trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo. “I want to be where I’m most effective.”
She is seen as a possible vice president to Mike Pence, should he take over the presidency.
Author Michael Wolff, whose book “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” has become a national sensation, claims Haley has set her sights higher and is eyeing the presidency.
According to published excerpts, Haley began positioning herself as Trump’s heir after concluding in October that he was a one-term president.
Wolff quoted a senior White House staffer who described her “as ambitious as Lucifer” and another who offered the view that while being groomed by Trump, “she is so much smarter than him.”
Haley has brushed aside questions about her political ambitious, saying she is focused on the job at hand as she remains firmly in the limelight as the UN’s most-watched ambassador.

Kushner’s Financial Ties to Israel Deepen Even With Mideast Diplomatic Role

January 7, 2018
Jared Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, at the end of a diplomatic trip to Israel in May. Shortly before, Kushner Companies received a $30 million investment from one of Israel’s largest financial institutions, Menora Mivtachim. Credit Mandel Ngan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Last May, Jared Kushner accompanied President Trump, his father-in-law, on the pair’s first diplomatic trip to Israel, part of Mr. Kushner’s White House assignment to achieve peace in the Middle East.

Shortly before, his family real estate company received a roughly $30 million investment from Menora Mivtachim, an insurer that is one of Israel’s largest financial institutions, according to a Menora executive.

The deal, which was not made public, pumped significant new equity into 10 Maryland apartment complexes controlled by Kushner’s firm. While Mr. Kushner has sold parts of his business since taking a White House job last year, he still has stakes in most of the family empire — including the apartment buildings in and around Baltimore.

The Menora transaction is the latest financial arrangement that has surfaced between Mr. Kushner’s family business and Israeli partners, including one of the country’s wealthiest families and a large Israeli bank that is the subject of a United States criminal investigation.

The business dealings don’t appear to violate federal ethics laws, which only require Mr. Kushner to recuse himself from narrow government decisions that would have a “direct and predictable effect” on his financial interests. And no evidence has emerged that Mr. Kushner was personally involved in brokering the deal.

But the deal last spring illustrates how the Kushner Companies’ extensive financial ties to Israel continue to deepen, even with his prominent diplomatic role in the Middle East. The arrangement could undermine the ability of the United States to be seen as an independent broker in the region. The Trump administration already inflamed tensions there when it said last month that it recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and would move the United States Embassy there from Tel Aviv.

“I think it’s reasonable for people to ask whether his business interests are somehow affecting his judgment,” said Matthew T. Sanderson, a lawyer at Caplin & Drysdale in Washington who specializes in government ethics and was general counsel to Senator Rand Paul’s presidential campaign.

Raj Shah, a deputy White House press secretary, said the Trump administration has “tremendous confidence in the job Jared is doing leading our peace efforts, and he takes the ethics rules very seriously and would never compromise himself or the administration.”

Christine Taylor, a spokeswoman for the Kushner Companies, said the company has partners around the world. It “does no business,” she said, “with foreign sovereigns or governments, and is not precluded from doing business with any foreign company simply because Jared is working in the government.”


Mr. Kushner and Ms. Trump behind her father, President Trump, and the first lady, Melania Trump, at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem during the trip. Credit Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

Menora, which is also Israel’s largest manager of pension funds, has done numerous other real estate deals, including several in the United States, said Ran Markman, Menora’s head of real estate. He said he had never met Mr. Kushner. In negotiating the deal with Kushner Companies, Mr. Markman said, he worked with Laurent Morali, the firm’s president.

The deal was “not done because of the so-called connections of Jared Kushner or Donald Trump,” Mr. Markman said. “The connection to the president was not an issue. It didn’t make us do the deal, it didn’t make us not do the deal.”

Mr. Kushner resigned as chief executive of Kushner Companies when he joined the White House last January. But he remains the beneficiary of a series of trusts that own stakes in Kushner properties and other investments. Those are worth as much as $761 million, according to government ethics filings, and most likely much more: The estimate nets out the significant debt accumulated by the firm, which has done about $7 billion of deals in the past decade.

The Baltimore-area buildings in which Menora invested were the subject of an article by a ProPublica reporter in the The New York Times Magazine last year that documented the poor living conditions and aggressive tactics used by Kushner Companies, including garnishing the bank accounts of low-income tenants and turning off heat and hot water.

The White House has said Mr. Kushner would work with his ethics advisers to ensure he recused himself from “any particular matter involving specific parties in which he has a business relationship with a party to the matter.”

But a White House official also said Mr. Kushner had sold stakes in properties that would present unique complexity. For example, he sold his stake in the company’s headquarters at 666 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, which is seeking new investors around the world.

It is unclear why Mr. Kushner hasn’t applied that same principle to the buildings in Maryland that received an investment from Menora.

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Michael Wolff: Who is the ‘Fire and Fury’ author?

January 5, 2018

Wolff’s expose on the Donald Trump presidency “Fire and Fury” shot to the top of Amazon’s best-seller list even before it was released. So who is the man behind the most-talked about book of the year?

Head shot of author Michael Wolff.

After more than 40 years in journalism, Michael Wolff has become an overnight sensation with the publication of an expose of the Trump presidency.

Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, paints a picture of a bumbling and dysfunctional White House under US President Donald Trump. Such is the interest the book has aroused, publication has been brought forward to Friday.

Just days ago, 64-year-old Wolff was little known outside of America’s media ecosystem, but his new book, dismissed by the White House as nothing more than “trashy tabloid fiction,” has already shot to the top of Amazon’s best-seller list.

What’s his background?

Wolff was born in New Jersey; attended Columbia University in New York City and began his career working as a copy boy for the New York Times.

Nowadays, he is a contributor to USA TodayVanity Fair and New York magazines, but has also written for GQ and the Hollywood Reporter among other publications.

Read more: Fake news ‘casts wide net but has little effect’

Has he written a book before?

Yes. He has written at least half-a-dozen books. His first one was White Kids, published in 1979. But he’s probably best known, until now, for his 2008 profile of Rupert Murdoch, entitled: The Man Who Owns the News.

The media mogul was largely displeased with Wolff’s book, making it all the more puzzling why Trump granted him such wide latitude to roam the White House — watching the comings and goings, but also talking to people. He reportedly conducted some 200 interviews for the book, including with Trump, and recorded many of them.

Couldn’t be happier (obviously) with coverage of FIRE AND FURY. @JohnCassidy in New Yorker particularly gratifying. 

Michael Wolff’s Withering Portrait of President Donald Trump

A new book describes a dysfunctional and bitterly divided White House, but its most consequential allegations focus on the firing of James Comey.

How credible is Wolff?  

While Trump likes to label any news story he doesn’t like as “fake news,” Wolff has come under fire in the past from fellow journalists who have questioned his fidelity to the truth.

One of the more noted articles about Wolff is a 2004 profile by Michelle Cottle for The New Republic magazine, in which she writes:

“Even Wolff acknowledges that conventional reporting isn’t his bag. Rather, he absorbs the atmosphere and gossip swirling around him at cocktail parties, on the street, and especially during those long lunches.”

Still he has twice won the National Magazine award, including one for a series he wrote on the Iraq War in 2003.

What does Trump think about the book?

Not surprisingly, very little. It is chock-a-block with startling revelations. And some of the most remarkable comments came from former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, who was dismissed over the summer amid ongoing internecine battles within the White House.

Trump reacted on Twitter, saying the book was fiction and reliant on fake sources.

I authorized Zero access to White House (actually turned him down many times) for author of phony book! I never spoke to him for book. Full of lies, misrepresentations and sources that don’t exist. Look at this guy’s past and watch what happens to him and Sloppy Steve!

“I authorized Zero (sic) access to White House (actually turned him down many times) for author of phony book,” Trump said. “Full of lies, misrepresentations and sources that don’t exist. Look at this guy’s past and what happens to him and Sloppy Steve.”

Can Trump block publication?

Almost certainly not. His lawyer sent cease and desist letters to Wolff and the publisher Henry Holt and Co. threatening legal action if the book was published. Rather than consider stopping publication, Holt decided to accelerate it, citing the book’s valuable contribution to public discourse.

Prosecutors Examine Loan Made to Kushner Cos. Before Election

December 23, 2017

Unclear whether request is related to inquiry regarding company’s use of EB-5 investment-for-immigration program

Federal prosecutors in New York are examining a $285 million loan that Deutsche Bank AG made one month before election day last year to the real-estate company run by the family of Jared Kushner, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Prosecutors from the Brooklyn U.S. attorney’s office issued a document request in mid-November to Kushner Cos., asking for contracts and other information pertaining to the loan from the bank, this person said.

Chris Taylor, a spokeswoman for Kushner Cos., said the company “has cooperated and will continue to cooperate with any reasonable request for information.” A spokesman for Deutsche Bank declined to comment.

A spokesman for the Brooklyn U.S. attorney’s office said he couldn’t “confirm or deny the existence of any investigation.”

In October 2016, the Kushner Cos. finalized a $285 million loan from Deutsche Bank as part of a refinancing package for the purchase of a retail space in the former New York Times building in Times Square.

At the time of the transaction, Mr. Kushner was chief executive officer of Kushner Cos. and was advising the presidential campaign of his father-in-law, Donald Trump.

After the election, Mr. Kushner, who is now special adviser to the president, resigned from the business and sold his personal stake in some projects and assets to family members and others, but he retains a stake in parts of the business, according to his most recent personal financial disclosure form.

An attorney for Mr. Kushner directed questions to Kushner Cos.

A financial disclosure form filed by Mr. Kushner as part of his White House employment shows he has a line of credit from Deutsche Bank worth between $5 million and $25 million. While in the administration, Mr. Kushner has recused himself from matters to which Deutsche Bank is a party because he has provided personal guarantees on loans the bank has made, a person familiar with his ethics arrangement told The Wall Street Journal in May.

The New York Times reported earlier Friday that the Brooklyn U.S. attorney’s office had subpoenaed Deutsche Bank in recent weeks for “bank records about entities associated” with Kushner Cos. That report didn’t specify any particular transactions identified in the subpoena. A spokeswoman for the bank told the Times that it “takes its legal obligations seriously and remains committed to cooperating with authorized investigations into this matter.”

Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn have been probing Kushner Cos. for several months in an inquiry regarding the company’s use of an investment-for-immigration program known as EB-5, The Wall Street Journal has reported.

It is unclear whether the document request sent in mid-November is tied to that inquiry, but the prosecutors who sent the request are the same as those who have been working on the U.S. attorney’s EB-5 investigation, according to the person familiar with the matter.

The retail project for which Kushner Cos. obtained the loan from Deutsche Bank didn’t involve the use of the EB-5 program, according to people familiar with the matter.

Kushner Cos.’ general counsel, Emily Wolf, has previously said that “Kushner Cos. utilized the program, fully complied with its rules and regulations and did nothing improper. We are cooperating with legal requests for information.”

According to one person familiar with the probe, the Brooklyn U.S. attorney’s inquiry doesn’t appear tied to the investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election and whether it involved collusion by people involved with the Trump campaign. Mr. Mueller’s probe has been examining Deutsche Bank’s role as a correspondent bank, The Journal has reported, in which it served as a middleman in international transactions, facilitating transfers for other banks into countries where they have limited or no operations. Deutsche Bank has said it is cooperating with inquiries.

As part of the special counsel investigation, Deutsche Bank has been subpoenaed multiple times, including for information concerning people or entities affiliated with Mr. Trump, and asked to hand over information about transactions that could be linked to former national security adviser Michael Flynn or entities connected to him, The Journal has reported.

Mr. Trump has called the special counsel’s investigation a “witch hunt,” and Moscow has denied meddling in the election.

Write to Erica Orden at

Dispute Over Political Strategy Erupts Inside the White House

December 22, 2017

An Oval Office meeting involving President Trump and his top advisers on Wednesday devolved into a heated exchange between his former campaign manager and the White House political director, people briefed on the discussion said.

The meeting centered on the midterm elections and came as Republicans face a daunting landscape next year, particularly after a bruising loss in the Alabama special election this month. It also came as the White House faces an expected string of departures from the West Wing, including that of a deputy chief of staff, Rick Dearborn, on Thursday. Mr. Dearborn, who was close to Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump during the transition, had been overseeing a broad cross section of departments, including the political department, which was a source of contention during the meeting.

The meeting prompted the political director, Bill Stepien, to call an official at the main political group supporting Mr. Trump, America First Policies, to say its counsel should be involved at future gatherings.

It also underlined the turf battles and strategic disagreements that have long been characteristic of Mr. Trump’s circle, dating to his presidential campaign.

A White House spokeswoman declined to comment.

The initial meeting included Mr. Trump; Mr. Stepien; John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff; Kellyanne Conway, the White House counselor; and Hope Hicks, the communications director. Also in attendance were Corey Lewandowski, Mr. Trump’s former campaign manager, and Brad Parscale, both of whom are advisers to America First Policies.

Mr. Lewandowski aggressively criticized the Republican National Committee, as well as several White House departments, five people briefed on the discussion said. He told the president that his government staff and political advisers at the party committee were doing little to help him, three of the people briefed on the meeting said. He pointed to, among other thinned-out departments, the Office of Public Liaison.

One attendee, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the discussion was intended to be private, said Mr. Lewandowski took pointed aim at the political operation led by Mr. Stepien. Another attendee insisted that Mr. Lewandowski lashed out at nearly every department but the political shop.

Mr. Lewandowski called the White House team too insular, and he said it had done little to tend to fellow Republicans or to conduct outreach with outside groups and supporters. Asked for an example, Mr. Lewandowski said he knew of a senator who had not been invited to the White House Hanukkah party, one attendee said.

Mr. Trump, who often pits advisers against one another, appeared to be receptive to the argument. “A lot of people” have been telling the president that his White House team needs improvement, a person briefed on the meeting said.

After the meeting, Mr. Lewandowski and Mr. Stepien got into an argument outside the Oval Office, continuing the exchange elsewhere on the White House grounds. They eventually reached a cordial place, three people briefed on the exchange said.

But on Thursday morning, Mr. Stepien called a leading official at America First Policies, Brian O. Walsh, and said its counsel needed to be present for future meetings, according to a person briefed on the events.

“America First Policies exists for one reason: to support the president of the United States and his agenda,” Mr. Walsh said. “Everything else is just noise. We commend the president for getting tax reform passed and making America great again.”

Mr. Stepien appears to be the latest front in a rotating cast of advisers surrounding Mr. Trump over the last three years. A series of election defeats, coupled with legislative inertia through much of the year, has made him the target of criticism, primarily from outside the White House.

But Mr. Stepien has his defenders, among them Mr. Kelly, who two attendees at the Oval Office meeting said was put off by Mr. Lewandowski’s criticism. So were other attendees of the meeting, according to two people present, although Mr. Trump did not appear to be one of them.

Mr. Lewandowski declined to comment.

Trump Deputy Chief of Staff to Step Down

December 22, 2017

Rick Dearborn, latest high-profile departure from West Wing, plans to pursue private sector work

President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. One of the president’s top aides, deputy chief of staff Rick Dearborn, plans to step down early next year.
President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. One of the president’s top aides, deputy chief of staff Rick Dearborn, plans to step down early next year. PHOTO: MANUEL BALCE CENETA/ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON—Rick Dearborn, one of President Donald Trump’s top aides, will step down early next year to pursue private-sector work, White House officials said, becoming the latest high-profile departure from the West Wing in recent weeks.

“Rick loyally served the president for two and a half years and brought tremendous energy to the White House staff,” White House Chief of Staff John Kelly said. “He’s a super guy and it breaks my heart to see him leave, but I look forward to his continued personal friendship and support for the president’s agenda.”

A deputy chief of staff who oversaw the White House’s political operation, public outreach and legislative affairs, Mr. Dearborn will remain at the White House for the first month or two of next year, according to people familiar with the planning.

Mr. Dearborn’s decision comes after Dina Powell, the deputy national security adviser, informed Mr. Trump earlier this month about her plans to leave in the new year. The White House is bracing for a raft of departures as the president hits the one-year mark in office.

Mr. Dearborn has worked for Mr. Trump for more than two years. He helped set up the campaign’s Washington office and was executive director of the presidential transition team after the election.

As deputy chief of staff in the White House, Mr. Dearborn oversaw a wide portfolio. Inside the West Wing, he’s credited as a key member of the team—Mr. Kelly made a pitch to keep him on Wednesday, officials said. But his tenure was marked by some bruising experiences: the political shop suffered a pair of defeats when Mr. Trump endorsed the losing candidate in the Alabama Senate primary, and then again in the general election. The office of public liaison, which is the main connection between the White House and the public, doesn’t have a director.

Mr. Dearborn, who told friends he had planned to leave government service two years ago, views this week’s congressional passage of a sweeping tax plan as a finale for his White House service, he told others in the White House.

Before joining Mr. Trump’s team, Mr. Dearborn was a longtime Senate aide. He was chief of staff for then-Sen. Jeff Sessions and worked for former Sen. Bob Kasten of Wisconsin.

“Rick has been a real stalwart,” said Gary Cohn, the president’s top economic adviser. “I’ve really relied on him as part of the tax team.”

Write to Michael C. Bender at


Tillerson meets EU, NATO leaders under cloud

December 5, 2017

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, left, looks on next to EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini during a joint press conference at the EU Council building in Brussels on Tuesday. (AFP)

BRUSSELS: US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met his European counterparts in Brussels Tuesday to shore up ties, with allies insisting he still plays a “key role” despite doubts over his future.

Tillerson held talks over lunch with EU foreign ministers and the bloc’s diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini, before a two-day NATO meeting set to focus on North Korea’s missile program and concerns over perceived hostility from Russia.
But his visit comes against a difficult backdrop — a rift with President Donald Trump has led to reports he could be replaced within weeks, calling into question his authority to speak for Washington.
And there are major differences between Washington and Europe on a number of key policy areas, notably the Iran nuclear deal which Trump has vehemently condemned but which Brussels is desperate to preserve.
Trump’s possible decision to recognize the contested holy city of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital could also prove to be thorny, after the EU warned the move could provoke “serious repercussions.”
Tillerson was welcomed by Mogherini at the European Council building in Brussels, after an earlier meeting with US Embassy staff.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said Monday it was vital international powers worked together to tackle the North Korean crisis, after Pyongyang tested a long-range missile it said could hit anywhere in the continental US.
“Last week’s launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile showed that all allied nations could be within range,” Stoltenberg said on Monday.
“The whole world needs to apply maximum pressure on North Korea in order to achieve a peacefully negotiated solution.”
He said the 29-member alliance had been “clear and consistent” in its condemnation of Pyongyang’s weapons program, which has seen the reclusive state carry out a series of ballistic missile and nuclear tests in defiance of international sanctions.
The EU has been ramping up economic sanctions on the North in a bid to force it to the negotiating table — but with no success so far.
But if the US and EU can present a unified front on North Korea, the deal with Iran to end the Islamic republic’s nuclear program in return for the lifting of sanctions is more problematic.
Trump has slammed the historic 2015 accord, agreed after years of painstaking talks between Iran and the US, Britain, France, China, Germany and Russia, as a bad deal and threatened to pull America out.
European powers are keen to maintain the deal and Mogherini last month traveled to Washington to lobby US lawmakers not to withdraw from the agreement.
“Preserving the nuclear deal with Iran and its full implementation is a key security priority for Europe,” Mogherini said on Friday.
Tillerson’s Brussels visit comes at the start of a European tour taking in Paris and Vienna for the 57-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Anonymous White House leaks have suggested Tillerson could be out of a job within weeks and even while denying this on Friday, President Donald Trump reminded him: “I call the final shots.”
On Monday, Stoltenberg gave his backing to Tillerson’s efforts in tackling the North Korean crisis — an issue where Trump has publicly criticized his top diplomat, saying he was “wasting his time” pursuing contacts with Pyongyang.
“Secretary Tillerson has played a key role, both in sending the message of deterrence, the unity and the resolve of the whole alliance, but also when it comes to the need for continuing to work for a peaceful solution,” Stoltenberg said.
Tillerson has dismissed as “laughable” reports that Trump’s closest aides want him to resign, but rumors were expected to dog him when he sat down with his European peers.

No ‘wins on the board yet’ for US foreign policy, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says

December 5, 2017

BRUSSELS — Dec 5, 2017, 11:44 AM ET
ABC News

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told U.S. diplomats in Brussels today that the U.S. State Department has yet to achieve foreign policy “wins” since he took over nearly a year ago.

“While we don’t have any wins on the board yet, I can tell you we’re in a much better position to advance America’s interests around the world than we were 10 months ago,” Tillerson said.

Speaking to diplomats who work at the U.S. missions to NATOEuropean Union and Belgium, Tillerson also said the department would announce “quick wins” in the next couple of weeks.

The “quick wins” referred to a planned reorganization of the department, including updating the IT system and streamlining the operation, a State Department spokesman said later.

After President Donald Trump‘s recent trip to Asia, he touted his wins to reporters on Air Force One, saying, “we’ve had a tremendously successful trip.” The United States netted “at least $300 billion” in trade deals, Trump said.

The next day at the White House, Trump said the United States made “historic strides in reasserting American leadership, restoring American security, and reawakening American confidence.”

Tillerson today acknowledged the slow pace to fill ambassadorship positions. Neither the European Union nor Belgium has a U.S. ambassador in place, and Tillerson has yet to offer nominees for the postings.

“We’re still awaiting on a lot of nominees to clear the processes and be confirmed,” he said. “I get a little criticism for that from time to time.

“The State Department is not missing a beat because we’re still working through the process,” he added. “I have yet to encounter anyone who has not stepped up and assumed responsibilities.”

In his first extensive remarks since reports surfaced about a White House plot to oust him, which Trump has denied, Tillerson barely mentioned the president. He only recalled that the two met for the first time on the day when Trump offered him the prestigious position.

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In Brussels, Rex Tillerson offers EU strong US support

“The partnership between America and the European Union… is based upon shared values, shared objectives for security and prosperity on both sides of the Atlantic and we remain committed to that,” Tillerson said.

By: Reuters | Brussels | Published: December 5, 2017 7:02 pm

Rex Tillerson offers EU strong US support

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. (Source: AP Photo)

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday said the United States remains committed to Europe, offering a public statement of support for European allies worried about foreign policy under President Donald Trump.

“The partnership between America and the European Union… is based upon shared values, shared objectives for security and prosperity on both sides of the Atlantic and we remain committed to that,” Tillerson said before a lunch with 28 EU foreign ministers.

Tillerson, in brief statements with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini after which the two took no questions, said his visit showed “the strong commitment the US has to the European alliance, the important role that the European alliance plays in our shared security objectives.”

US diplomacy adrift in a Trump tempest

December 4, 2017

By Jonathan Eyal
The Straits Times

Tillerson’s troubled relations with his boss are just one sign of a deeper, dangerous malaise at the State Department

LONDON • “Laughable” is how US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson dismissed media reports that the White House is about to get rid of him. And just to prove the point that he remains firmly in charge of US diplomacy, Mr Tillerson is embarking this week on a tour of European capitals, where he will seek to reassure Washington’s closest allies of America’s “ironclad” commitment to their defence, as he put it.

But his reassurances are unlikely to be taken at face value. For the reality is that US foreign policy has seldom been in such disarray, with neither America’s friends nor foes knowing where they stand, or who takes decisions in Washington.

Meanwhile, America’s dispirited diplomats, browbeaten and ignored by their political masters, are abandoning their careers in droves, leaving vacant hundreds of positions both at home and abroad. And all that, as Mr Tillerson himself knows only too well, is most certainly no laughing matter.

The problem is not, as many commentators like to suggest, that President Donald Trump and top officials of his administration came to office knowing next to nothing about foreign policy. Many other presidents were equally unaware of the wider world when they first walked through the doors of the White House, and they include Mr Barack Obama, that darling of intellectuals and foreign policy wonks who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for just getting elected.

Indeed, it could be argued that, in the US, pleading ignorance about foreign policy is a badge of honour and electoral asset; after all, Mr Bill Clinton came to office proclaiming that “It’s the economy, stupid”. So at least in this respect, Mr Trump merely stands for continuity; his disdain of “foreigners” remains the rule among incoming US presidents, not the exception.

The real problem with Mr Trump is that, unlike his predecessors, he not only made no effort to learn about foreign policy after he came to office, but also missed no opportunity to undermine and denigrate his country’s diplomats. President Trump believes that instead of representing US interests to the world, the State Department is merely an advocate for foreign interests in Washington, and that US diplomats are poor negotiators bamboozled by foreigners into signing deals which are detrimental to America’s interests.

The world, according to Mr Trump, is a jungle in which everyone tries to swallow everyone, and where only the fittest survive; “I don’t blame China” – he told Chinese President Xi Jinping during his recent visit to Beijing – “for taking advantage” of America.


The real problem with Mr Trump is that, unlike his predecessors, he not only made no effort to learn about foreign policy after he came to office, but also missed no opportunity to undermine and denigrate his country’s diplomats. He believes that instead of representing US interests to the world, the State Department is merely an advocate for foreign interests in Washington.

But in this jungle, the job of defending the supposedly innocent, vulnerable and often naive United States is far too important to be left to those limp-wristed American diplomats, good only for speaking foreign tongues and eating foreign food; the job needs real men able to “make America great again”. As outlandish as these may seem, such views have been commonplace among far-right politicians in the US for decades; the only difference is that a believer in this narrative is now sitting in the Oval Office.

And the impact on American policy has been little short of catastrophic. One of Mr Trump’s first actions after taking office was to order a cut of almost a third in the State Department’s budget. And with an almost uncanny ability for timing, he undermined every single one of his country’s major foreign policy initiatives, by simply firing off a tweet at a critical moment.

“I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” Mr Trump tweeted, just as the head of America’s diplomacy embarked on shuttle talks with regional leaders over the Korean nuclear crisis; “Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done,” he added, implying that Mr Tillerson’s effort not merely had no chance of success, but did not enjoy the President’s backing either.

Mr Tillerson also tried to uphold the nuclear deal which the US signed with Iran; “We are going to stay in,” he told US legislators in mid-October, only to be contradicted days later by the President, who did precisely the opposite. The same happened when the Secretary of State tried to mediate in the ongoing dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar; just when America’s chief diplomat was shuttling from one Gulf capital to another, a single tweet from Mr Trump scuppered all his efforts.

When Mr Tillerson was appointed Secretary of State, the assumption among policymakers in Washington was that he’d be able to withstand pressure from the President and assert the State Department’s prerogatives in running foreign policy. But exactly the opposite has happened.

Mr Tillerson spent most of his time trying to reform the State Department by poring over headcounts and organisational charts and by engaging in the incomprehensible management-speak so dear to people who undertake such exercises: as he grandly told congressmen in August, he wanted to create “an evidence-based and data-driven process to enhance policy formulation and execution, as well as optimise and realign our global footprint”.

The usual management consultants were called in. And the consultants, of course, first had to engage in a “listening tour” of US embassies around the world, before they offered their wisdom as to what the State Department needed to do to reform. And, yes, you guessed it: the highly paid consultants flew from one embassy to another in business class, while America’s own ambassadors are legally obliged to fly in economy.

Meanwhile, the US has still to appoint new ambassadors to key countries such as France, Germany and Saudi Arabia. It has no permanent representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency. And it has no policy chiefs at the level of assistant secretaries of state for the Middle East or for East Asia and the Pacific, and all this while President Trump is talking of a potential war with North Korea.

This US administration “is not divided into people who are loyal to Trump and those who are not. Rather, it is divided between those who know how to manipulate his vanity, his hatreds, his sensitivities, and those who do not”, Mr Eliot Cohen, a former US senior diplomat who now teaches at Johns Hopkins University, wrote recently. Sadly, Mr Tillerson belongs to the latter category.

Yet it’s worth remembering that the emasculation of America’s foreign diplomacy and the marginalisation of the State Department did not start with, but merely accelerated under, Mr Trump; if the State Department were a piece of complicated machinery, it started seizing up under the Obama presidency, when the White House insisted on micro-managing every detail, and when not doing anything to handle global crises was elevated to the highest form of art.

Either way, worse may lie ahead for America’s diplomats. Mr Trump’s “Twitter adventures” continue unabated. In an extraordinary turn of events, the President, who refuses to admit that he was simply wrong to retweet recently inflammatory and racist videos circulated by anti-Muslim fringe activists in Britain, is now effectively trolling the British Prime Minister, the leader of one of America’s closest historic allies; a more bizarre turn of events can hardly be imagined.

And more significantly still, Mr Trump is now engaging in private diplomacy on some of the world’s most sensitive potential crises, a sure recipe for potential disaster.

The “peace package” which is apparently touted throughout the Middle East by Mr Jared Kushner, the President’s son-in-law, without any consultation or even the knowledge of the State Department is such an example; chances are high that instead of settling a conflict between Palestinians and Israelis which has lasted for over seven decades, the half-baked Kushner plan would merely give the wrong message to everyone, and exacerbate violence.

 Image result for donald trump, photos

Mr Trump’s supposed personal communications with President Xi are another example of a disaster waiting to happen: undocumented, unsupervised and understaffed, such contacts could well end up just muddying diplomatic waters. And the idea that the current administration may consider mounting a pre-emptive strike against North Korea’s nuclear installations when it cannot even coordinate a proper dialogue between the White House and the State Department does not even bear thinking about.

“If it’s as bad as it seems to be described, I’m not seeing it, I’m not getting it,” is how Mr Tillerson reacted when confronted recently with the litany of America’s diplomatic troubles.

But that, in a nutshell, is America’s key difficulty: its leaders are just not getting it.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 04, 2017, with the headline ‘US diplomacy adrift in a Trump tempest ‘.