PALM BEACH, Fla (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said yesterday that a controversial memo attacking federal law enforcement written by congressional Republicans vindicates him in the investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Trump’s fervent embrace of the memo raised again the prospect that he may use it as justification to fire special counsel Robert Mueller, who is conducting the investigation, or Deputy Attorney Rod Rosenstein, who oversees Mueller.
Tweeting from his resort in Palm Beach, Florida, Trump said the memo “totally vindicates” him but added “the Russian Witch Hunt goes on and on. Their (sic) was no Collusion and there was no Obstruction.” He called the investigation “an American disgrace.”The White House told Reuters on Friday there would be no changes at the Justice Department as a result of the memo’s conclusions.
The memo, written by Republicans on the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee chaired by Devin Nunes, argues the federal investigation of potential collusion between Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and Russia was a product of political bias against Trump at the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Justice Department.
Trump approved the release of the formerly classified memo without redactions, despite objections from the FBI in a move that deepens tension between the White House and senior law enforcement that has existed since Trump first took office.
Democrats contend the four-page memo mischaracterizes highly sensitive classified information and was intended to undermine the Mueller criminal probe that was launched in May 2017 as an outgrowth an earlier FBI investigation.
Jerrold Nadler, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement that Trump’s decision to allow the release of the memo was “part of a coordinated propaganda effort to discredit, disable and defeat the Russia investigation.”
Some Republicans also were critical of the memo’s release. John Kasich, the governor of Ohio and a former rival of Trump’s for the presidential nomination, released a statement yesterday calling it “a disservice to our country.”
Asked by reporters on Friday whether the memo made him more likely to fire Rosenstein or whether he had confidence in him, Trump replied, “You figure it out.”
Dismissing Rosenstein or Mueller would trigger a political firestorm much like the sacking of FBI Director James Comey by Trump last year.
Mueller also is examining whether Trump has obstructed of justice in trying to thwart the Russia investigation.
2 – UK promises to crack down on assets of corrupt oligarchs – The Times
LONDON (Reuters) – Britain will use new powers to seize the assets of foreign criminals and corrupt politicians, The Times newspaper reported yesterday quoting the security minister.
Investors from Russia, China and the Middle East have poured billions into London, buying everything from luxury properties to entire companies, but the provenance of some of those funds has been questioned by transparency campaigners.
It is unclear how much money is laundered through Britain, but the National Crime Agency has said calculations of between 36 billion pounds ($50.83 billion) and 90 billion pounds ($127.08 billion) are “a significant underestimate”.
Security minister Ben Wallace told The Times that the government would use powers regarding unexplained wealth to freeze and recover property if individuals cannot explain how they acquired assets over 50,000 pounds ($70,000).
“When we get to you we will come for you, for your assets and we will make the environment that you live in difficult,” Wallace said.
Last year, British media reported on a “Laundromat” inquiry into an alleged Russian-led money laundering scheme, in which $22.3 billion passed through Moldova using Russian shell companies and fictitious loans from offshore companies based in Britain in 2011-2014.
Wallace said the government was determined to stop such behaviour.
“What we know from the Laundromat exposé is that certainly there have been links to the [Russian] state,” he was quoted as saying. “The government’s view is that we know what they are up to and we are not going to let it happen anymore.”
3 – Turkey says Assad must go ‘at some point’
Istanbul (AFP) – Turkey yesterday said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should leave office “at some point” in the future but denied there was any kind of contact between Ankara and Damascus over ending the seven-year civil war.
Ankara has been a prime foe of Assad throughout the conflict but has occasionally softened its rhetoric in the last months as Turkey strengthened cooperation with the regime’s main ally Russia.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s spokesperson, Ibrahim Kalin, told journalists in Istanbul that Assad was not the leader to unite Syria and had lost legitimacy.
But Kalin said there needed to be a “political transition in Syria”, leading to a new constitution and elections.
“It is not going to be easy but that’s the ultimate goal to reach and at some point Assad will have to go,” he added.
“Where exactly, at what point precisely (Assad leaves), is something that will be answered as we go on, obviously,” he said.
He was speaking after Russia on Tuesday hosted a peace congress on Syria, with both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan expressing “satisfaction”, according to the Kremlin.
Kalin, who is also regarded as Erdogan’s top foreign policy advisor, also indicated that Turkey believed Russia’s priority was ensuring Syria did not become a failed state, rather than concern about Assad himself.
He said the Russian position has been “not so much protecting Assad personally but protecting the state institutions, state apparatus and the Syrian army and the regime elements”.
He said: “They want to make sure that the state doesn’t collapse completely in Syria.”
Turkey’s position on Assad has been under ever greater scrutiny since Ankara on January 20 began a cross-border operation with Syrian allied rebel forces against Kurdish militia based in the town of Afrin.
The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu has called for Ankara to make contact with the Damascus regime as the best way of ensuring Syria’s territorial integrity.
But Kalin denied any contact with Damascus “at any level”.
“There is no communication, no relationship, direct (or) indirect. Nothing with the Syrian regime, at any level. I can say that categorically and very clearly,” he said.
He also rejected the notion that there had been any agreement with Russia allowing the Afrin operation to go ahead in exchange for a deal over the rebel-held neighbouring region of Idlib.
“There’s no deal with Russia ‘you give Idlib and take Afrin’… they are two separate operations,” he said.
Kalin indicated that Turkey’s position on Syria was less well aligned with the other major ally of the Damascus regime, Iran.
“Iran supports the regime but we don’t, and they want to keep Assad the person and we don’t,” said Kalin, noting that Tehran had “clear leverage” over the Damascus regime.
4 – German spy chief alleges North Korea uses Berlin embassy for procurement
BERLIN (Reuters) – North Korea has been using its embassy in Berlin to procure parts for its missile programme, the head of Germany’s BfV domestic intelligence agency told a German broadcaster.
In a programme to be aired on NDR television tomorrow, BfV head Hans-Georg Maassen said: “We determined that procurement activities have been carried out from there that are, in our view, done with a view to the missile programme and sometimes also for the nuclear programme.”
He said it was often so-called dual use goods, which can be used for both civil and military purposes.
Comments released by NDR ahead of the broadcast showed Maassen said German authorities prevented such activities when they found them but he added: “We can’t guarantee that we can detect and prevent this in all cases.”
He said it was necessary to presume that parts for North Korea’s launch programme “were acquired via other markets or underground buyers had acquired them in Germany”.
North Korea has defied years of multilateral and bilateral sanctions with a weapons programme aimed at developing nuclear-tipped missiles capable of hitting the United States.
5 – Zuma should resign, says senior official in South Africa’s ruling party
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – South African President Jacob Zuma should step down, a senior ruling African National Congress official said, raising fresh pressure on Zuma who has been weakened since Cyril Ramaphosa became ANC leader in December.
Deputy President Ramaphosa is in pole position to win an election next year and many in the party want Zuma out so that Ramaphosa can embark on his anti-corruption agenda.
“There should be a change of guard. You can’t have two centres of power. The best possible way is if the state president exits,” ANC treasurer-general Paul Mashatile told CNBC Africa late on Friday.
“How do you do it? …. Go to him and say ‘look we’re not booting you out but we think we can work better this way’,” he said. There was no immediate comment from an ANC spokeswoman.
Zuma faces a no-confidence vote on Feb. 22 after a request from the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters but Mashatile said he opposed that method of removing the president.
Zuma, who is battling corruption allegations, has been in a weakened position since he was replaced as leader of the ANC in December by Cyril Ramaphosa, the deputy president.
Mashatile, Ramaphosa and the rest of the top-six leadership team, were in the northern Limpopo province yesterday to meet traditional leaders.
6 – Germany’s potential coalition partners wrangle over health and labour
BERLIN (Reuters) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives and the Social Democrats (SPD) sought to resolve disputes on healthcare and labour rules yesterday during talks to form a government more than four months after an election.
The two camps aim to seal a deal to renew the “grand coalition” that has governed Europe’s largest economy since 2013 by the end of today, although some politicians say they could run into to tomorrow or Tuesday.
SPD deputy Manuela Schwesig urged the conservatives to compromise on abolishing fixed-term contracts for workers and reforming Germany’s public-private healthcare system.
“I don’t think Mrs Merkel can explain why there can’t be any movement there,” she said as she arrived for talks.
The SPD wants to prove to its sceptical members that it would be able to push through those core policies in the role of junior partner to make another “grand coalition” more appealing.
Many of the SPD’s 443,000 members – who will get the chance to vote on any coalition deal – would prefer to revamp the party in opposition rather than another alliance with Merkel after suffering their worst post-war election result in September.
As a compromise, the conservatives have offered to ban the repeated renewal of fixed-term contracts but they do not want to prevent employers from using them. The parties are still working on the topic.
The conservatives reject replacing the current system with a “citizen’s insurance” as called for by the SPD and talks are now expected to focus on improving the position of those with public healthcare such as by changing billing rules for doctors, who earn more by treating private patients.
In a sign they are getting closer to a deal, the parties reached an accord on energy and environment, agreeing to set legally binding climate targets for sectors like energy, transport, agriculture and construction to reach by 2030.
Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks said national climate targets for 2020 would not be quite reached but the new targets, which would be written into law in 2019, would ensure Germany can remain a “climate protection pioneer”.
They also agreed on agriculture, saying they wanted to put an end to the use of weedkiller glyphosate as quickly as possible and ban the cultivation of genetically modified plants.
In a full day of negotiations, the parties were also hoping to tick off issues including finances, rents and real estate prices and municipalities.
They reached a deal on migration on Friday, agreeing to stick to the wording of January’s coalition blueprint that said the parties did not expect annual migration to exceed 220,000 per year.
But the two were still wrangling over its meaning on Saturday, with Joachim Herrmann – a member of Merkel’s CSU Bavarian allies who have called for an upper limit – telling Rheinische Post his party had secured a migrant cap.
Meanwhile, SPD deputy Ralf Stegner insisted the number is merely a prediction, writing on Twitter: “The fact remains that the SPD has not agreed to any upper limit and will not do so.”
Migration is a sensitive issue given the influx of more than a million migrants since mid-2015 and the conservatives’ subsequent loss of support to the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) in September’s national election.
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