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Thousands of crows fly at dusk over the city skyline in Bucharest
FILE PHOTO: Thousands of crows fly at dusk over the city skyline in Bucharest November 27, 2012. REUTERS/Radu Sigheti

March 27, 2019

By Luiza Ilie and Marc Jones

BUCHAREST/LONDON (Reuters) – Almost every former Eastern Bloc country has suffered growing pains at some point over the last few decades. Romania’s just seem to keep coming back.

Fumbling attempts to bring in new bank, energy and telecoms taxes in recent months are the latest example of its struggle to assert itself as a fully functioning economy.

Two years ago, growth outpaced nearly all its European peers, spurring hopes it was finally harnessing the potential of its 20 million population — the second biggest in central Europe behind Poland — and its own oil and gas reserves.

But having been inflated by some potent fiscal stimulus, the expansion is now fading so fast again — to 4 percent last year from 7 percent in 2017 — that some analysts fear another boom and bust is playing out.

Expectations are dimming that equity index provider MSCI might promote Romania to emerging market status alongside peers like Poland and the Czech Republic as soon as this year, which would draw money into its undersized financial markets.

The IPO market is at a standstill and the new taxes worried S&P enough that it threatened to change Romania’s credit rating outlook to negative.

Bucharest averted that by promising to tweak the measures to preserve central bank independence. But the confusion has only added to a view that policymaking has become unpredictable.

“The frequency of legislative changes has been increasing and often seems to come out of the blue,” said Franklin Templeton’s Romania CEO, Johan Meyer, who manages the Fondul Proprietatea fund which has stakes in a slew of state-owned firms.

“Sometimes the decisions do get reversed or watered down, but at that point the reputational damage has been done.”

As the country gears up for four elections in 2019-20, Finance Minister Eugen Teodorovici had said the measures would help the economy “aggressively in the good way” by lowering borrowing costs and energy prices.

A ROAD TO NOWHERE

In the 12 years since it joined the European Union, Romania’s per capita national output has doubled, to roughly 60 percent of the euro zone average, while record low unemployment led to double-digit average wage growth in the last four years.

But income inequalities are among the bloc’s highest. One-third of the population lives in poverty and millions lack sufficient access to healthcare and basic amenities like indoor plumbing.

Its population is both shrinking and aging, while backsliding in the battle against chronic corruption has led to mass street protests.

“Investor confidence is being eroded by persistent legislative instability, unpredictable decision-making, low institutional quality and the continued weakening of the fight against corruption,” the European Commission said in February.

And while Romania is up 16 places on the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index since joining the EU, Bulgaria, which also joined in 2007, has leapfrogged it.

Graphic: Poverty levels in EU interactive – https://tmsnrt.rs/2UR8cEa

This month, a businessman from northeastern Romania opened a one-meter-long motorway, built in a day and paid for by him, in protest at the state of the country’s roads.

Romania has only 800 kilometers of motorways, less than half that of Hungary even though it is more than double the size of its neighbor and has almost twice as many people.

Just 75 kilometers have been built in the last three years and none go border-to-border despite years of government promises.

Central Bank Governor Mugur Isarescu routinely uses roads to highlight poor infrastructure that impedes economic development.

“Romania will be ready to join the euro when it has a motorway crossing the Carpathian mountains,” he has said.

Graphic: Romania motorways interactive – https://tmsnrt.rs/2Ol8Abt

PATCHY IMPROVEMENTS

A series of International Monetary Fund-led aid deals in 2009-2015 helped Romania shrink its budget and current account deficits, seen as a key weakness of the economy, and it won back its investment-grade rating in 2014. Its debt to debt-to-GDP is low, in line with the Czech Republic’s at around 38 percent.

But those twin deficits are rising again after tax cuts and wage and pensions hikes that have inflated consumption.

The external shortfall was 4.7 percent of GDP in 2018, a decade high, although the government has kept the budget deficit under the EU’s 3 percent ceiling by postponing investments.

“Policies focused on raising public sector wages and pensions have widened imbalances and at some point their adjustment will be unavoidable,” said the head of Romania’s fiscal watchdog Ionut Dumitru.

“The current account deficit is at a level that can no longer be ignored.”

Graphic: Romania’s boom and bust cycles – https://tmsnrt.rs/2OfoiEO

PROMOTION PROSPECTS

Its financial markets are lagging too. Bucharest’s main stock market has only 16 companies and the tax changes have knocked banking and energy firms, leaving it with the lowest price-to-earnings ratio in the region.

Privatisations of firms like power utility Hidroelectrica, which were supposed to broaden and deepen the market and help its prospects of an MSCI promotion, have not materialized.

“They (Romania) are always remain on our radar screen. But so far it hasn’t reached the market classification framework requirements,” MSCI’s Sebastien Lieblich said, citing the small number of listed stocks.

Franklin Templeton’s Meyer blames government foot-dragging and a system whereby company directors can serve for just a few months, so that turnover at board level can hamper the six-to-nine month process of preparing a firm for the stock market.

He reckons up to five state-owned firms could easily be floated but sees none happening soon.

“It is like any promotion,” Meyer said of MSCI. “If you only do the bare minimum in your job you don’t get it.”

Graphic: Price-to-earnings ratio of Romania’s stock market – https://tmsnrt.rs/2OaW3Hr

(Reporting by Luiza Ilie in Bucharest and Marc Jones in London; Additional reporting by Karin Strohecker in London; Editing by Catherine Evans)

Source: OANN

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FILE PHOTO: Rajat Gupta departs Manhattan Federal Court after being sentenced in New York
FILE PHOTO: Former Goldman Sachs Group Inc board member Rajat Gupta departs Manhattan Federal Court after being sentenced in New York, October 24, 2012. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

March 26, 2019

By Martin Howell

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Rajat Gupta, one of the most prominent members of the global financial elite until he was convicted of insider trading in 2012, has revealed he was kept in solitary confinement for weeks during his incarceration in an American federal prison.

Gupta, who ran the global management consultants McKinsey for nine years and was on the board of investment bank Goldman Sachs, said he was twice placed in a “special housing unit” – a euphemism for solitary confinement – at the Devens Correctional Facility in Ayer, Massachusetts.

The first time was only for a week but the second time he had to spend seven weeks there. And after that, Gupta said, he was transferred to a higher security federal prison on an adjoining site because prison officers decided he wasn’t suitable for a camp-type lockup because of his “poor living skills”.

There he joined more violent offenders for the final eight months of his time in jail. Altogether, he was locked up for 19 months before being released in January 2016.

India-born Gupta, now 70, disclosed his ordeal in his autobiography, Mind Without Fear, which was published this week, and in an interview with Reuters in New Delhi.

A representative of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons declined to comment on Gupta’s claims.

Gupta said when he was taken to the special housing unit the first time, he was handcuffed, strip-searched, given a special orange uniform to wear, called “the bad guy” by prison officers, lost access to almost all his possessions (such as a music player), and denied almost all access to visitors.

On the second occasion, his visitation rights were taken away for 60 days – more than the whole length of the solitary confinement.

Gupta said the first episode of solitary occurred because he bent down to tie his shoe lace just as the prison officer did one of the daily stand-up counts of prisoners. The second because he had created a pillow for his sore back by sewing together two towels and thus created an unauthorized object regarded as contraband.

HINDU HOLY BOOK

Exercise during those weeks in solitary consisted of walking around a cage thirty feet by 10 feet once a day. There was also the chance of a few muttered greetings to other inmates walking the cage.

“I followed the rules as best I could, but I didn’t walk around like a repentant criminal. I felt more like a political prisoner,” Gupta says in the book of his relatively harsh treatment.

He says it was only by persuading guards not to take away his copy of the ancient Hindu holy book, the Bhagavad Gita, with its teachings on ethical dilemmas and the path to salvation, that helped keep him sane.

Gupta, who was found guilty by a New York jury of providing boardroom secrets he learned at Goldman to hedge fund manager Raj Rajaratnam, still insists he is innocent of the charges under which he was convicted. Rajaratnam was locked up in the same higher security prison as Gupta after being convicted of securities fraud and conspiracy and the two met and even played cards and chess together there.

Gupta said his father was a political prisoner during India’s fight for independence from colonial ruler Britain. Ashwini Gupta was locked up repeatedly, beaten in jail until his flesh split open and lost one of his lungs to tuberculosis after being put in the same cell as an infected prisoner, according to Rajat Gupta.

“In many ways our situations could not have been more different – he was jailed for a noble cause and a high-minded ideal; I was jailed for alleged personal gain, for a fabricated white collar-crime and, at most, a careless mistake.”

He said he thinks his father “would have been proud of the way I behaved in prison”.

But was Gupta himself too proud? And did this make his sentence tougher than it might have been? “Perhaps,” he acknowledges.

He said that he never heard his father “express a hint of bitterness or resentment towards the British” and Gupta said he was determined to be free of anger towards those whose actions had led to his imprisonment.

In his book, though, Gupta very much divides the world into individuals and organizations who supported him through his roughest days, and those who acted against his interests or simply stopped taking his phone calls.

There were plenty on both sides of the ledger.

(Reporting by Martin Howell; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Source: OANN

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Walmart's logo is seen outside one of the stores in Chicago
Walmart’s logo is seen outside one of the stores in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., November 20, 2018. REUTERS/Kamil Krzaczynski

March 20, 2019

By Nandita Bose

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Walmart Inc. Chief Technology Officer Jeremy King is leaving the company, according to an internal company memo, even as the retailer races to transform its e-commerce business and close the gap with rival Amazon.com Inc.

King, who joined the company in 2011, led a revamp of Walmart’s U.S. e-commerce technology platform by making it faster, more competitive and customer-friendly, all of which have been key to the retailer’s fight against its e-commerce rivals.

Under King, Walmart integrated its massive stores and online systems and began offering shoppers services such as in-store pickup of online orders, easy returns and online grocery pickup, among other benefits.  

King also led the company’s technology arm, Walmart Labs, through more than 10 acquisitions and was key in moving the company’s operations to the cloud, which gave the retailer more resources to compete with Amazon. He also oversaw the opening of four new tech offices.

In the past two years, King oversaw the tech transformation of Walmart’s roughly 4,700 U.S. stores.

Fiona Tan, senior vice-president of customer technology, Walmart Labs, will take on more responsibility as King’s replacement is found. She has been asked to become a liaison for the technology team, Walmart U.S. and the U.S. ecommerce leadership team, according to the memo, a copy of which Reuters has seen.

King’s departure comes at a time when Walmart is in the middle of making massive investments in its e-commerce business to compete more effectively. In February, the company said it expects its e-commerce losses to increase this year due to ongoing investments and it is focused on increasing return customer visits and strengthening its online product assortment.

The retailer’s ecommerce success has been erratic over the years but sales growth in the past few quarters has shown signs of consistency.

In the most recent quarter, online sales grew 43 percent and matched the previous quarter’s increase. The company credited that to a broader assortment of goods on its website and improved delivery, as well as store pickup of online grocery orders.

“The operational decisions made during (King’s) time were key to the success of our technology team and led to more agile ways of working,” said the memo sent on Wednesday to Walmart staff by U.S. Chief Executive Greg Foran and U.S. e-commerce chief Marc Lore.

“During Jeremy’s tenure, we created important relationships with Microsoft, Google, NVIDIA and others that will help carry our digital transformation well into the future,” the memo said.

It was not immediately clear what King intends to do once he leaves the retailer. His last day with the company will be March 29, according to the memo.

(Reporting by Nandita Bose in Washington; Editing by Dan Grebler)

Source: OANN

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A man casts his vote during European Parliament election in Riga
A man casts his vote during European Parliament election in Riga, Latvia, May 25, 2019. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

May 25, 2019

By Alastair Macdonald

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Europeans vote on Sunday in an election expected to further dent traditional pro-EU parties and bolster the nationalist fringe in the European Parliament, putting a potential brake on collective action in economic and foreign policy.

Right-wing populists top opinion polls in two of the big four member states – Italy and supposedly exiting Britain – and could also win in a third, France, rattling a pro-Union campaign championed by centrist President Emmanuel Macron.

However, exit polls in some countries that have already voted have given pro-EU parties some comfort. The Dutch Labour party, all but written off, looks to have finished first, helped by the visibility of having the EU socialists’ lead candidate, current EU deputy chief executive Frans Timmermans.

In the Netherlands, pro-Union parties scored 70%, up three points on the last European Parliament vote in 2014, and left the upstart anti-immigration party of Thierry Baudet fourth on 11%.

The Dutch also turned out in bigger numbers, albeit at just 41%, reinforcing hopes in Brussels of reversing a 40-year trend of declining turnout that critics cite as a “democratic deficit” that undermines the legitimacy of European Union lawmaking.

An exit poll after Friday’s vote in deeply pro-EU Ireland pointed to an expected “Green Wave”. Across the bloc, concerns about climate change and the environment may bolster the pro-EU Greens group and could mean tighter regulations for industry and for the terms the EU may set for partners seeking trade accords.

Britain also voted on Thursday and a new party focused on getting out of the EU was forecast by pre-vote opinion polls to come top, but there has been no exit poll data. Attention there has focused on the resignation of Prime Minister Theresa May. Results will be out late on Sunday, when all countries have voted.

WAY AHEAD UNCLEAR

The challenges facing the European project include unprecedented transatlantic slights from a U.S. president who fetes Europe’s populists, border rows among its own members over migrants and an economy hobbled by public debt and challenged by the rise of China.

But parties seeking collective action on shared issues such as trade, security, migration or climate change should still dominate, albeit with a smaller overall majority.

Europeans are preparing to remember events that shaped the Union. It is 75 years since Americans landed in France to defeat Nazi Germany and since Russian forces let the Germans crush a Polish bid for freedom, and 30 since Germans smashed the Berlin Wall to reunite east and west Europe. But memories of wars, hot and cold, have not sufficed to build faith in a united future.

Mainstream parties pushing closer integration of the euro currency zone’s economy are struggling to capture the imagination of a public jaded by political elites.

Matteo Salvini’s League in Italy may pip the Christian Democrats of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the bloc’s power broker, to become the biggest single party in the 751-seat chamber.

Right-wing ruling parties in Poland and Hungary, defying Brussels over curbs to judicial and media independence, will also return eurosceptic lawmakers on Sunday.

The results should be clear by late on Sunday, with exit polls in Germany at 1600 GMT and France at 1800 GMT setting the tone before the final end of voting, in Italy at 2100 GMT, sees the Parliament publish its own seat forecast.

The result will usher in weeks of bargaining among parties to form a stable majority in the Parliament, and among national leaders to choose successors to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and other top EU officials.

Many expect a clash as early as Tuesday, when leaders meeting in Brussels are likely to snub Parliament’s demands that one of the newly elected lawmakers should run the EU executive.

(EU election graphic: https://tmsnrt.rs/2HvZs1M)

(Reporting by Alastair MacDonald; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Source: OANN

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FILE PHOTO: An Afghan man casts his vote during the parliamentary election at a polling station in Kabul, Afghanistan
FILE PHOTO: An Afghan man casts his vote during the parliamentary election at a polling station in Kabul, Afghanistan October 21, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani/File Photo

March 20, 2019

KABUL (Reuters) – Afghanistan’s presidential election has been postponed by two months to Sept. 28, as authorities try to iron out problems with the voting process, the election board said on Wednesday.

The election was pushed back for the second time to allow time for reforms to the voting system, Independent Election Commission spokesman Abdul Aziz Ibrahimi said.

It was originally scheduled for April but was delayed to July 20 due to concerns about winter conditions and security.

Afghanistan’s parliamentary election took place in autumn after months of wrangling and delay.

That vote was marred by accusations of widespread fraud including ballot-stuffing, technical problems with biometric registration equipment, and attacks by Taliban insurgents.

President Ashraf Ghani, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah and former national security adviser Mohammad Haneef Atmar are among the declared candidates for the presidential election.

It is unclear how recurring peace talks between U.S. officials and the Taliban may affect the election.

The Taliban has so far refused to talk with the Ghani government, which it considers illegitimate.

(Reporting by Hamid Shalizi in Kabul; Writing by Rod Nickel; Editing by Catherine Evans and Andrew Cawthorne)

Source: OANN

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Staff evacuated as rocket strikes near foreign oil firms in Iraq

An Iraqi soldier stands next to a military vehicle at the entry of Zubair oilfield after a rocket struck the site of residential and operations headquarters of several oil companies in Basra
An Iraqi soldier stands next to a military vehicle at the entry of Zubair oilfield after a rocket struck the site of residential and operations headquarters of several oil companies at Burjesia area, in Basra, Iraq June 19, 2019. REUTERS/Essam Al-Sudani

June 19, 2019

By Aref Mohammed and Ahmed Rasheed

BASRA, Iraq (Reuters) – A rocket hit a site in southern Iraq used by foreign oil companies on Wednesday, including U.S. energy giant ExxonMobil, wounding three people and threatening to further escalate U.S.-Iran tensions in the region.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack near Iraq’s southern city of Basra, the fourth time in a week that rockets have struck near U.S. installations.

Three previous attacks on or near military bases housing U.S. forces near Baghdad and Mosul caused no casualties or major damage. None of those incidents were claimed.

An Iraqi security source said it appeared that Iran-backed groups in southern Iraq were behind the Basra incident.

“According to our sources, the team (that launched the rocket) is made up of more than one group and were well trained in missile launching,” the security source said.

He said they had received a tip-off several days ago the U.S. consulate in Basra might be targeted but were taken by surprise when the rocket hit the oil site.

Abbas Maher, mayor of the nearby town of Zubair, said he believed Iran-backed groups had specifically targeted Exxon to “send a message” to the United States.

U.S.-Iranian hostility has risen since President Donald Trump withdrew Washington from a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and other world powers in May last year.

Trump has since reimposed and extended U.S. sanctions on Iran, forcing states to boycott Iranian oil or face sanctions of their own. Tehran has threatened to abandon the nuclear pact unless other signatories act to rein in the United States.

The U.S. face-off with Iran reached a new pitch following attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf in May and June that Washington blames on Tehran. Iran denies any involvement.

ESCALATION FEARED

While the long-time foes say they do not want war, the United States has reinforced its military presence in the region and analysts say violence could nonetheless escalate.

Some Western officials have said the recent attacks appear designed to show Iran could sow chaos if it wanted.

Iraqi officials fear their country, where powerful Iran-backed Shi’ite Muslim militias operate in close proximity to some 5,200 U.S. troops, could become an arena for escalation.

The United States has pressed Iraq’s government to rein in Iran-backed paramilitary groups, a tall order for a cabinet that suffers from its own political divisions.

Iraq’s military said three people were wounded in Wednesday’s strike by a short-range Katyusha missile. It struck the Burjesia site, west of Basra, which is near the Zubair oilfield operated Italy’s Eni SpA.

Police said the rocket landed 100 meters from the part of the site used as a residence and operations center by Exxon. Some 21 Exxon staff were evacuated by plane to Dubai, a security source said.

Zubair mayor Maher said the rocket was fired from farmland around three to four kilometers (2 miles) from the site. A second rocket landed to the northwest of Burjesia, near a site of oil services company Oilserv, but did not explode, he said.

“We cannot separate this from regional developments, meaning the U.S.-Iranian conflict,” Maher said.

“These incidents have political objectives … it seems some sides did not like the return of Exxon staff.”

EXPORTS UNAFFECTED

Exxon had evacuated its staff from Basra after a partial U.S. Baghdad embassy evacuation in May and staff had just begun to return.

Burjesia is also used as a headquarters by Royal Dutch Shell PLC and Eni., according to Iraqi oil officials.

The officials said operations including exports from southern Iraq were not affected.

A separate Iraqi oil official, who oversees foreign operations in the south, said the other foreign firms had no plans to evacuate and would operate as normal.

A Shell spokesman said its employees had “not been subject to the attack … and we continue normal operations in Iraq.”

Wednesday’s rocket strike fits into a pattern of attacks since May, when four tankers in the Gulf and two Saudi oil pumping stations were attacked.

They have been accompanied by a spate of incidents inside Shi’ite-dominated Iraq, which is allied both to the United States and fellow Shi’ite Muslim Iran.

The attacks in Iraq have caused less damage but have all taken place near U.S. military, diplomatic or civilian installations, raising suspicions they were part of a campaign.

A rocket landed near the U.S. embassy in Baghdad last month causing no damage or casualties. The United States had already evacuated hundreds of diplomatic staff from the embassy, citing unspecified threats from Iran.

Iran backs a number of Iraqi Shi’ite militias which have grown more powerful after helping defeat Islamic State.

Iraqi officials say that threats from Iran cited by Washington when it sent additional forces to the Middle East last month included the positioning by Iran-backed militias of rockets near U.S. forces.

Rockets hit on or near three separate military bases housing U.S. forces near Baghdad and in the northern city of Mosul in three separate attacks since Friday.

(Additional reporting by Rania El Gamal in Dubai; Writing by John Davison; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Jon Boyle and Andrew Cawthorne)

Source: OANN

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Former Trump aide Hope Hicks arrives for closed congressional testimony

Former White House Communications Director Hope Hicks is seen during a closed door interview before the House Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill
Former White House Communications Director Hope Hicks is seen during a closed door interview before the House Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., June 19, 2019. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

June 19, 2019

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Hope Hicks, once a close aide to U.S. President Donald Trump, arrived on Capitol Hill on Wednesday to face questions in Congress about six instances in which Democrats believe Trump may have broken the law during the 2016 presidential campaign and while in the White House.

The White House has asserted immunity over testimony by Hicks involving her 14 months in the Trump administration, according to a knowledgeable source, continuing its strategy of not cooperating with House investigations.

The 30-year-old Hicks, accompanied by two personal lawyers, ignored shouted questions from reporters as she arrived just before 9 a.m. (1300 GMT) to appear under subpoena in a closed session of the House Judiciary Committee.

Two White House lawyers also were expected to join her, according to sources with knowledge of the situation.

Hicks could remain well into the evening, fielding a wide range of questions from the panel’s 41 Democratic and Republican lawmakers and staff.

Hicks was Trump’s former campaign press secretary and his White House communications director until she left in March 2018 and later became chief communications officer and executive president for Fox Corporation, parent company of Fox News.

Democrats want to hear from her about alleged hush money payments made during the campaign to two women, including porn star Stormy Daniels, who say they had affairs with Trump. He has denied the affairs.

They also want Hicks to talk about five examples of potential obstruction of justice by Trump that are laid out in U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian election interference in the 2016 presidential election, as well as the president’s efforts to impede the Mueller investigation.

Hicks was mentioned 183 times in Mueller’s report.

Assertions during questioning of executive privilege, a legal principle sometimes cited by presidents to keep White House information under wraps, would block a key line of inquiry by the committee and could lead to a subsequent legal challenge.

Despite the closed setting, Democrats, who control the House of Representatives, view Hicks’ appearance as a breakthrough for their congressional investigation, which could trigger impeachment proceedings against the president if it unearths evidence of serious misconduct.

Democrats say her appearance could help undermine Trump’s strategy of stonewalling congressional investigators by encouraging others to cooperate with them and by giving investigators the chance to challenge any executive privilege assertions, possibly in federal court.

MANY TOPICS

Democrats want Hicks to testify about an effort by the president to mislead the public about a June 9, 2016, meeting at Trump Tower in New York, where the Mueller report said campaign officials, including the president’s son Donald Trump Jr., met with Russians offering “dirt” on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. A key question is whether Trump himself was aware of the meeting at the time.

Aides said Hicks also would be asked about alleged obstruction by Trump involving McGahn, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, former FBI Director James Comey and former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

A transcript of her testimony, which will be released after the interview, will be featured at a Thursday hearing where the committee will examine an ABC News interview, in which Trump said he saw nothing wrong with accepting damaging information about a U.S. political opponent from a foreign government, aides said.

The White House last month asserted executive privilege to block the release of Mueller’s unredacted report and related evidence, such as investigative interviews. The committee and the Justice Department have since reached an agreement giving panel members access to more of the Mueller report and some underlying material from the investigation.

The House voted 229-191 on June 11 on party lines to

authorize House committees to file lawsuits in federal court seeking orders from judges to compel officials to cooperate with official congressional demands for testimony or evidence.

Former White House Counsel Don McGahn, a star witness in the Mueller report, last month defied a subpoena for his testimony and documents after the White House directed him not to cooperate with the Judiciary panel.

McGahn could face legal action. Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler said last week that other witnesses, including Hicks and former McGahn aide Annie Donaldson, also could face court action if they defy committee subpoenas.

Mueller’s 448-page report found insufficient evidence to establish that the Trump campaign engaged in a criminal conspiracy with Moscow, despite numerous contacts between the campaign and Russia. It also described numerous attempts by Trump to impede Mueller’s investigation but stopped short of declaring that he committed a crime.

(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Peter Cooney and Bill Trott)

Source: OANN

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Trump Campaign Raises $24.8M in Less Than 24 Hours

President Donald Trump raised $24.8 million in the less-than 24 hours after kicking off his re-election campaign.

The staggering sum was announced in a tweet on Wednesday morning by Republican Party Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel. It dwarfs what the top Democratic contenders in the 2020 White House primary raised over the course of the first three months of this year.

It's a demonstration of the power incumbency, while underscoring Democratic worries that they are not doing enough to prepare for the matchup with Trump.

Trump already reported $48.7 million cash on hand at the end of March, spread across three committees tied to his campaign. The Republican National Committee had an additional $34.7 million during the same period.

The Democratic National Committee had just $7.5 million with $6.2 million in debt.

Source: NewsMax Politics

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Russians, Ukrainian to face murder charges over downing of flight MH17

Russian national Oleg Pulatov, accused of downing of flight MH17, is seen in this handout photo
Russian national Oleg Pulatov, one of the accused of downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, nearly five years after the crash that killed 298 passengers and crew, is seen in this handout photo released by Dutch Police and obtained by Reuters on June 19, 2019. Dutch Police/Handout via REUTERS

June 19, 2019

By Toby Sterling and Anthony Deutsch

NIEUWEGEIN, Netherlands (Reuters) – Three Russians and a Ukrainian will face murder charges for the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine which killed 298 people, in a trial to start in the Netherlands next March, an investigation team said on Wednesday.

The suspects are likely to be tried in absentia, however, as the Netherlands has said Russia has not cooperated with the investigation and is not expected to hand anyone over.

“These suspects are seen to have played an important role in the death of 298 innocent civilians”, said Dutch Chief Prosecutor Fred Westerbeke.

“Although they did not push the button themselves, we suspect them of close cooperation to get the (missile launcher) where it was, with the aim to shoot down an airplane.”

Dutch Justice Minister Ferdinand Grapperhaus said in a letter to parliament the Netherlands had taken unspecified “diplomatic steps” against Moscow for failing to fully comply with legal requests or providing incorrect information.

The Dutch-led international team tasked with assigning criminal responsibility for the plane’s destruction named the four suspects as Russians Sergey Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov and Igor Girkin, and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko. It said international arrest warrants for the four had been issued.

Girkin, 48, a vocal and battle-hardened Russian nationalist, is believed to live in Moscow where he makes regular public appearances. He is a commentator on Russian and foreign affairs via his own website and YouTube channel.

“The rebels did not shoot down the Boeing,” Girkin told Reuters on Wednesday without elaborating.

Ukrainian authorities said they would try to detain Kharchenko, the suspect believed to be on their territory.

MH17 was shot out of the sky on July 17, 2014, over territory held by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine as it was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. Everyone on board was killed.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said: “The Russian Federation must now cooperate fully with the prosecution and provide any assistance it requests.” There were 10 Britons on the flight.

RUSSIAN MISSILE

Most of those on board were Dutch. The joint investigation team formed by Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Ukraine found that the plane was shot down by a Russian missile.

Last year Russian President Vladimir Putin called MH17’s downing a “terrible tragedy” but said Moscow was not to blame and there are other explanations for what happened.

The governments of the Netherlands and Australia have said they hold Russia legally responsible.

Asked if she expected the suspects to attend the trial, Silene Fredriksz, whose son Bryce was on the plane, said: “No, I don’t think so. But I don’t care. I just want the truth, and this is the truth.”

Moscow has said it does not trust the investigation.

“Russia was unable to take part in the investigation despite expressing an interest right from the start and trying to join it”, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

The investigation team said Girkin was a former FSB security service colonel who served as minister of defense of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) in the summer of 2014.

It said Dubinsky was head of the military intelligence agency of DNR, while Pulatov was head of a second department of the DNR military intelligence agency. Kharchenko was head of a reconnaissance battalion for the second department, it said.

Prosecutors have said the missile system that brought down the plane came from the Russian 53rd Anti-Aircraft Brigade, based in the western Russian city of Kursk.

(Additional reporting by Bart Meijer in Amsterda, Maria Vasilyeva and Anastasia Teterevleva in Moscow; Editing Hugh Lawson and Janet Lawrence)

Source: OANN

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As Democrats debate reparations for slavery, polls suggest Americans are not convinced

As Democrats consider the idea of reparations to black Americans for slavery, polling indicates that the public is far from convinced about the idea.

House Judiciary Democrats on Wednesday were holding a hearing in the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties subcommittee on H.R. 40 -- a proposal by Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Calif., to set up a commission to study and develop a response to the question of reparations for slavery.

HOUSE HEARING ON REPARATIONS FOR SLAVERY IS SET FOR FIRST TIME IN MORE THAN A DECADE

But polling suggests that such a commission would also need to change the minds of a significant number of Americans for the move to get support.

A Fox News poll in April found that 60 percent of Americans oppose paying cash reparations to descendants of slaves, while just 32 percent support it. A Rasmussen poll in the same month found that just 21 percent of likely voters think taxpayers should pay reparations to black Americans who can prove they are descended from slaves.

However, in a finding that could put 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls in a bind, the Fox poll found that among Democratic primary voters, 54 percent said they were likely to support a candidate who backed reparations, while 33 percent said they were not likely.

Additionally, Data For Progress found in a poll last year that while the measure had only 26 percent of Americans in favor, it had net positive support among voters under 45. A Point-Taken Marist poll in 2016 found that while 68 percent of Americans were opposed to reparations, 6 in 10 black Americans said they were in favor.

A number of 2020 presidential candidates have dabbled in talk of reparations, although they have yet to really dive into the controversial waters -- remaining vague about the extent of their plans.

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., suggested to The Grio in February that it could include a generic tax credit to families making under $100,000 -- a much less controversial proposal. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has gone a step further and said that Native Americans should be “part of the conversation.”

OCASIO-CORTEZ CALLS FOR 'AGENDA OF REPARATIONS' AS 2020 DEMS GET ON BOARD

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., who will testify at the hearing Wednesday, has introduced a Senate version of Lee’s bill to study the question. In his prepared testimony, he says the U.S. has yet to "truly acknowledge and grapple with the racism and white supremacy that tainted this country's founding and continues to cause persistent and deep racial disparities and inequality."

The hearing on Wednesday will include testimony from activist and actor Danny Glover and author Ta-Nehisi Coates -- who wrote an influential 2014 essay on “The Case for Reparations” for The Atlantic.

According to the legislation being discussed at the hearing, the commission would “study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery, its subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes.”

Such plans would likely face significant Republican opposition. In a news conference Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said that he was opposed to reparations.

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"I think we're always a work in progress in this country, but no one currently alive was responsible for that, and I don't think we should be trying to figure out how to compensate for it. First of all, it would be pretty hard to figure out who to compensate," he said. "No, I don't think reparations are a good idea.”

It is also unclear to what extent Democratic leaders would support such a push on such a divisive issue. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has supported the commission, but has described reparations as a “challenging issue.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Source: Fox News Politics

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Amazon, Pentagon accused of swampy dealings over $10B contract

Amazon is poised to receive a lucrative government contract with the Pentagon, but a competitor is arguing it's nothing more than a prime example of D.C. swamp politics.

A legal battle waged by Oracle centers on the Defense Department's Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI), which aims to award a $10 billion contract for cloud computing. Oracle alleges in a complaint filed in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims that it is unwise for the government to use only one cloud service, and that the process was rigged from the beginning due to connections between Amazon and DoD officials.

It's unclear whether the dispute has yet caught the attention of President Trump, who for months has taken shots at Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, in large part connected to his ownership of The Washington Post.

HOW AMAZON IS HELPING COPS BUILD LOCAL SURVEILLANCE NETWORKS

Oracle, in its complaint, points to the involvement of former DoD employee Deap Ubhi, who worked at Amazon before joining the DoD in August 2016. Ubhi is now at Amazon once again, with Amazon Web Services, Inc. (AWS) -- the entity that handles cloud computing.

Oracle claims that Ubhi was a project manager for JEDI and pushed for the Pentagon to use a single vendor for cloud computing, despite the Intelligence Community and the Department of Homeland Security each determining that multiple cloud vendors are preferable.

A House Appropriations Committee report addressed JEDI's single vendor plan by stating they were “concerned with this approach given the rapid pace of innovation in the industry and that this approach may lock the Department of Defense into a single provider for potentially as long as ten years.”

The DoD’s own “Cloud Strategy" from December 2018 even says that they “must address the unique mission requirements through a multi-cloud, multi-vendor strategy.”

So why did the DoD move to award a $10 billion cloud contract to a single vendor?

In a Tuesday court filing, the DoD said it would be more cost-effective and better for national security because having multiple cloud vendors would "create seams between clouds that increase security risks."

Oracle, however, claims that Ubhi influenced the decision to grant a single contract. They also say he was involved in setting high standards for bidders that essentially limited the field to Amazon and Microsoft. Oracle and IBM, the only other bidders, both protested.

"Everybody immediately knew it was Amazon," a competing bidder told Vanity Fair based on how the JEDI request for proposal was worded. The DoD argues that JEDI's standards are rational and legal.

Oracle says Ubhi posed a conflict of interest because while he was working on JEDI he had secret negotiations about returning to work at AWS. He recused himself from JEDI after he got an offer, but said it was because Amazon had interest in his startup. At the time, he did not mention his employment offer from Amazon.

The JEDI Contracting Officer said in a court document that a July 2018 review of potential conflicts of interest related to Ubhi and four other government employees with ties to AWS showed that they did not “negatively impact the integrity of the JEDI procurement.”

In February, however, the DoD asked that Oracle's bid protest be put on hold because they were taking another look at Ubhi, "based upon new information provided to the contracting officer.” In April, they concluded that investigation, again finding no negative impact that resulted from any conflicts of interest.

Oracle is not convinced. They claim the DoD only took another look at Ubhi because of pressure stemming from probes by the DoD Inspector General’s Office and the FBI. The Inspector General’s Office declined to comment on the matter when reached by Fox News, and the FBI would neither confirm nor deny the existence of any investigation.

Ubhi’s role in JEDI remains a point of contention. A DoD court filing acknowledged that Ubhi supported a single contract but said others did too and that the final decision was made after Ubhi recused himself. Oracle claims, however, that "belatedly produced Slack messages confirm that before Ubhi left (and as a result of Ubhi's efforts)," the decision had already been made.

AWS said in a Tuesday filing that Oracle overstated Ubhi’s role in JEDI and that the Slack messages were taken out of context.

When reached by Fox News, AWS declined to comment due to the ongoing litigation, but in Tuesday's filing they countered Oracle's arguments by asserting that the DoD’s single-vendor approach was based on “detailed factual findings regarding national security and technological complexity,” and  “mandated” by federal regulations.

Oracle remains concerned, given that Ubhi is not the only one with Amazon ties connected to JEDI.

Anthony DeMartino consulted for AWS until he joined the Pentagon in January 2017. According to Oracle, DeMartino ignored an April 2017 direction from the DoD's Standards of Conduct Office (SOCO) not to participate in anything connected to AWS. In April 2018, SOCO ordered that DeMartino recuse himself from JEDI, and he finally did so after the JEDI request for proposals went out for potential bidders, Oracle alleges.

DeMartino now works at Pallas Advisors, which he co-founded with Sally Donnelly, a former senior aide to former Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Donnelly previously consulted for AWS through her former company SBD Advisors, which is now owned by C5 Capital, a company that has worked with AWS in the past.

Donnelly did not recuse herself from JEDI, but her attorney Michael Levy told Fox News that she "played no role, and exercised no influence, in connection with any government contract, including – as the Department of Defense has confirmed repeatedly – the JEDI contract."

Fox News reached out to DeMartino through Pallas Advisors, but they did not respond. The DoD acknowledges that he played a role in the JEDI procurement process, but said in their latest filing that it was "minor." According to court documents, the DoD’s investigation looked into possible conflicts involving both Ubhi and DeMartino, finding no negative impacts from any conflicts regarding either of them.

As Fox News’ Tucker Carlson reported, the DoD-Amazon links may go even higher. Mattis himself met with Amazon Vice President Teresa Carlson in March 2017, but the DoD kept it secret. In August 2017, Mattis met with Bezos. That September and October, the DoD took significant steps in market research for JEDI. Despite the timing, however, the DoD claims that Mattis himself was not instrumental in the JEDI decisionmaking process.

PENTAGON PURSUES COMMERCIAL CLOUD FOR MOBILE DEVICES

The JEDI contract would be a windfall for Amazon. They should learn soon whether or not they will ultimately get the lucrative deal.

Judge Eric Bruggink has scheduled oral arguments for Oracle’s bid protest for July. The DoD is barred from granting the contract before July 19, but a ruling is expected before then.

Source: Fox News Politics

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EU’s Tusk ‘cautiously optimistic’ over top jobs deal on Thursday

FILE PHOTO: EU summit following the EU elections in Brussels
FILE PHOTO: European Council President Donald Tusk holds a news conference after a European Union leaders summit following the EU elections, in Brussels, Belgium May 28, 2019. REUTERS/Yves Herman/File Photo

June 19, 2019

By Philip Blenkinsop and Belén Carreño

BRUSSELS/MADRID (Reuters) – European Council President Donald Tusk said on Wednesday that he was “cautiously optimistic” that EU leaders would agree names to hold the bloc’s top jobs when they meet in Brussels on Thursday.

Multiple diplomats and officials have told Reuters it may be too soon for a deal at the summit, which will be chaired by Tusk, citing disagreement between Berlin and Paris over a German candidate Manfred Weber’s bid to take over at the helm of the bloc’s executive Commission later this year.

“There are different views, different interests, but also a common will to finalize this process before the first session of the European Parliament,” Tusk said in an invitation letter to the 28 national leaders.

“I remain cautiously optimistic, as those I have spoken to have expressed determination to decide swiftly. I hope we can make it on Thursday.”

The new leaders will help set the EU’s course for the next five years as the bloc struggles with weak economies and a wave of euroskeptic sentiment at home, as well as facing external challenges from the United States to Russia to China.

Following an EU-wide election last month, the new European assembly is due to gather for the first time on July 2 and should then elect its new president for 2019-24.

That job is part of a package of the EU’s most senior leadership positions that come vacant soon.

They include replacements for European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, the bloc’s chief diplomat Federica Mogherini, the head of the European Central Bank (ECB) in Frankfurt Mario Draghi, and Tusk himself.

“I think that there is a chance of reaching an agreement at the summit,” said a senior EU diplomatic source. “At least, we are going to know which candidacies can fly and which couldn’t.”

Others have pointed out, however, that German Chancellor Angela Merkel could not drop Weber – who is a deputy head of her Bavarian sister party CSU – just yet.

Weber’s bid to lead the European Commission is firmly opposed by French President Emmanuel Macron, as well as the socialist Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez who is seeking to raise Madrid’s sway in the bloc.

WEBER’S LAST DANCE?

Should a deal prove elusive this week, Brussels sources said another leaders’ summit could take place on June 30 or July 1, or even in late August.

“There’s a strong desire to get things done quickly. I don’t see things going on beyond the summer,” another senior EU diplomat said on Wednesday.

The EU needs to balance out political affiliations, regional distribution and the candidate’s own profiles. The bloc is also seeking to let more women into its male-dominated leadership, with expectation that senior Commission roles would go to candidates such as Spain’s Economy Minister Nadia Calvino.

Beyond a firm majority – or, preferably, unanimity – among the 28 national leaders, any candidate to run the next European Commission must also be approved by the new European Parliament.

Despite voting to quit the bloc in 2016, Britain remains one of the 28 members and has members of the European Parliament until it finally leaves.

Political factions in the parliament are still discussing a coalition agreement and a pro-EU majority is in the works between the center-right European People’s Party (EPP), the socialists, the liberals and the greens.

The EPP, the parliament’s largest multi-country grouping, has so far stuck firmly with Weber. The socialists promote Dutchman Frans Timmermans, who currently is a deputy head at the Commission responsible for the rule of law.

The bloc’s current top competition official in Brussels, Denmark’s Margrethe Vestager, runs for the liberals. The group, which includes Macron’s allies, on Wednesday elected a former Romanian prime minister, Dacian Ciolos, as their new leader.

Brussels sources said Merkel’s condition for eventually dropping Weber could be demanding that no other candidate proposed by the European Parliament – Timmermans or Vestager – get to lead the Commission either. Other names in the running include the bloc’s Brexit negotiator and center-right Frenchman Michel Barnier, Belgium’s liberal caretaker Prime Minister Charles Michel, Bulgaria’s World Bank head, Kristalina Georgieva, or Lithuania’s outgoing President Dalia Grybauskaite.

GRAPHIC – EU top jobs race – https://tmsnrt.rs/2WSEMJU

(Additional reporting by Robin Emmott, Peter Maushagen and Sabine Siebold in Brussels, Giselda Vagnoni in Rome, Gederts Gelzis in Riga, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Alison Williams)

Source: OANN


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