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4 lakh staff will go without pay, 3.8 lakh ‘on leave’ as US shutdown begins

WASHINGTON, Dec 22: The US government was partially shut down early on Saturday in a fierce dispute over President Donald Trump’s demands that Congress assign USD 5 billion for a wall along the border with Mexico.

After failing to strike a budget deal on Friday, congressional leaders and the White House pledged to keep talking through the weekend in search of a deal to end the shutdown ahead of the Christmas holiday.

The impasse came after Trump threw a wrench into the works earlier in the week by refusing to agree to a short-term funding deal cut by Democratic and Republican senators because it did not include the USD 5 billion for his border wall.

The US House of Representatives, where Republicans have a majority until Democrats take over on January 3, then passed a bill that including the $5 billion, but it ran aground in the Senate and the shutdown began at midnight on Friday.

After it became clear the House bill lacked the votes to pass, Senate leaders huddled with vice president Mike Pence and other White House officials to try to figure out a path forward.

They failed and lawmakers in both houses of Congress were sent home.

Trump tried to blame Democrats.

“We’re going to have a shutdown. There’s nothing we can do about that because we need the Democrats to give us their votes,” he said in a video posted to his Twitter account two hours before the midnight deadline.

Democrats repeatedly reminded Trump, and voters, that he said last week he would be “proud” to shut the government down in order to get wall funding.

“President Trump has thrown a temper tantrum and now has us careening towards a ‘Trump shutdown’ over Christmas,” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor on Friday.

About three-quarters of federal government programs are funded through to Sept 30 next year, but the financing for all others - including the departments of Homeland Security, Justice and Agriculture - expired at midnight.

Federal parks will close and more than 400,000 federal “essential” employees in those agencies will work without pay until the dispute is resolved. Another 380,000 will be “furloughed”, meaning they are put on temporary leave.

Law enforcement efforts, border patrols, mail delivery and airport operations will keep running.

For the shutdown to end, both the House and the Senate will have to approve any deal negotiated between Trump’s team and Republican and Democratic leaders.

The shutdown could persist at least until a new Congress convenes on January 3, and Democrats take control of the House from Republicans. That does not necessarily mean, however, that Trump would agree to a compromise.

The shutdown comes at the end of a perilous week for the president, one that saw Defense Secretary James Mattis resign in protest after Trump’s sudden decision to pull US troops out of Syria.

The Syria move was widely criticized, even by senior Republicans in Congress. And continued heavy losses in the stock market were in part fueled by the political turmoil.

While Trump made the promise of building a border wall a fixture of his 2016 election campaign, it is not a top-tier priority for most Americans.

According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll in late November, only 31 percent of those surveyed said improved border security should be one of the top three priorities for Congress.

That suggests Trump is taking a political risk by gambling on a shutdown to press his point at a time when Democrats are gearing up for their 2020 presidential primary and looking for issues with which to seize an advantage.

US defence secretary James Mattis quits

WASHINGTON, Dec 21: US secretary of defense James Mattis, a towering American icon and unparalleled supporter of ties with India, resigned on Thursday, day after the Trump administration abruptly announced the withdrawal of American troops from Syria, and told the president in a resignation letter he deserved someone at the Pentagon “whose views are better aligned with yours”.

Mattis, like many other Trump aides and advisers, had opposed the pullout and tried one last time to persuade the president to reverse his decision at a meeting at the White House in the afternoon. But he failed, as the president was not only in no mood to relent but had dug in and was punching back even at close allies who were opposing him on the pullout.

Mattis has been the most enthusiastic and influential supporter of ties with India in the Trump administration, according to several Indian and US officials who spoke to Hindustan Times off the record over the past many months.

“His departure is a loss, we lost a champion,” said an Indian official.

Trump announced Matti’s departure shortly after the defense secretary’s failed pitch for pullout reversal in a tweet. “General Jim Mattis will be retiring, with distinction, at the end of February, after having served my Administration as Secretary of Defense for the past two years.” He went on to describe some of the secretary’s contributions and that he will leave in February. But he sought to portray his departure as retirement, when it was anything but. Mattis, a four-star Marine corps general retired long time ago.

This time, Mattis, 68, was resigning. The Pentagon set the record straight by releasing Mattis’s resignation letter shortly. “One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships,” Mattis wrote.

“Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.” That’s a resignation, and over differences.

The two men had differed on an entire range of issues, from banning transgender troops to Trump’s Space Force to a French Bastille-Day style military parade. Earlier, when they were still on good terms, Mattis would simply slow-deal issues that he did not agree with. That was the time when the men met frequently, sometimes over dinner at the White House — over hamburgers and briefing books.

Mattis had then formed a group of senior Trump officials who were called the men in the room, who brought order and discipline to Trump’s chaotic administration, with former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a long-time CEO of ExxonMobil, and John Kelly, another US military general who was secretary of homeland secretary. And then they began falling out of favor.

Tillerson was thrown out in March, while he was on an official visit to Africa, and Kelly was fired earlier this month as chief of staff. Many more went on their own or were forced out, in between, before and since — cabinet secretaries Tom Price and Scott Pruitt, ambassador to UN Nikki Haley, attorney general Jeff Sessions, National Security Adviser H R McMaster and interior secretary Ryan Zinke, And some, such as homeland security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, are said to be standing in the doorway, waiting to be tipped over.

Turnover in the Trump administration has been high, record breaking, in fact. Brookings, a leading US think tank, said in an October analysis, ”President Trump is breaking records.”

“Ten (or 83%) of the most senior-ranking White House advisers have departed, sparking a cascade of turnover in the junior ranks as well.” At this stage of the presidency, two years down, President Ronald Reagan (1981 to 1989) had 59% turnover; George H W Bush (1989-1993) 17%; Bill Clinton (1993-2001) 58%; George W Bush (2001-2009) 17%; and Barack Obama (2009-2016) 41%, according to the study.

Donald Trump defends troop pullout rom Syria, allies France and UK disagree

WASHINGTON, Dec 21: Facing mounting backlash at home and abroad, United States President Donald Trump is defending his decision to withdraw American troops from Syria, saying it should not come as a surprise as it had been a campaign promise and that it’s time for others to pick up the war against the Islamic State (IS).

He had earlier said the war was over, and the terrorist outfit had been defeated.

Allies France and United Kingdom disagreed and warned in public statements that though the IS was on the run, much “remains to be done” and that the outfit poses a threat even without territory. Paris has said its troops will remain in Syria “because the fight against Islamic State is essential”.

At home, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a close Trump ally, called the decision a “disaster” and a “stain on the honor of the United States” as it amounted to betraying allies in the region. He joined five other senators, from both parties, to write to Trump urging him to reverse his decision.

Trump showed no sign of relenting and, in fact, retweeted praise for the decision from others. And doubled down: “Getting out of Syria was no surprise,” he wrote in one of three Syria posts on Twitter Thursday. “I’ve been campaigning on it for years, and six months ago, when I very publicly wanted to do it, I agreed to stay longer. Russia, Iran, Syria & others are the local enemy of ISIS. We were doing there work.”

Pressing that line, he went on to ask if the United States wanted to be the “Policeman” of West Asia, fighting other’s wars. Russia, Iran and Syria should fight these these battles as local enemies of IS he said, contending they will not be happy with US withdrawal, as they will have to continue the fight “without us”.

Russia, at least, is not unhappy. Not publicly at least. “Donald’s right, and I agree with him,” President Vladimir Putin said at his annual news conference and called it the “right decision”. But he appeared doubtful it the Americans will actually leave, citing American forces in Afghanistan who have stayed through several self-posted deadlines for 17 years now.

The United States has an estimated 2,000 troops in Syria as part of an international coalition to fight the IS — stationed mostly in the northern parts of the country — and the Trump administration has claimed sweeping successes in throwing out the terrorists outfit that had entrenched itself taking advantage of the civil strife.

Trump’s abrupt announcement of the Syria pullout has raised questions about the presence of 15,000 US troops in Afghanistan and 5,000 in Iraq. While he has said the Afghanistan decision will be conditions-based and not one on deadlines, experts fear he could change his mind, going against advice.

Critics of the president’s decision acknowledge the Islamic State is on the run, but insist it remains a threat. Adam Kinzinger, a US military veteran and Republican congressman, has said estimates of IS fighter still at large vary between 2,000 and 20,000.

Others have warned that the withdrawal would betray regional allies such as the Kurds, and leave them vulnerable to Turkey, which views them as a threat. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said in a strongly worded statement: “The war against terrorism has not ended and (the Islamic State group) has not been defeated.”

The United States has not yet announced a pullout timeline, but officials have said the process has started.

Afghan Govt delegation joins US-Taliban talks into second day

ABU DHABI, Dec 18: Talks in Abu Dhabi between the Taliban, the United States and several other countries stretched into a second day Tuesday as an Afghan government delegation arrived, raising the prospect that rebel and government representatives might meet face-to-face for the first time.

Initially, the talks between the Taliban emissaries and a team led by U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, as well as officials from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, were expected to last one day, but Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid confirmed that the meetings would continue through Tuesday.

The Taliban said Monday that its delegates had no plans to meet with members of the Kabul government, which it insists is just a puppet of the Americans and too divided internally to negotiate effectively.

The government team is led by President Ashraf Ghani’s chief of staff, Abdul Salam Rahimi. According to spokesman Harun Chakhansoori, it will “begin proximity dialogue with the Taliban delegation” to prepare for a “face-to-face meeting between the two sides.”

He added that the government delegation will be in the UAE for some days to come.

During Monday’s talks, the Taliban insisted on the pullout of U.S.-led troops from Afghanistan, according to a statement by Mujahid.

“Talks revolved around the withdrawal of occupation forces from Afghanistan, ending the oppression being carried out by the United States and her allies,” it said.

Taliban officials said that also under discussion was a six-month cease-fire, as well as naming a Taliban representative to a future caretaker government.

The UAE talks come after at least a couple rounds of meetings between Taliban delegates and U.S. diplomats in Qatar, where a group of Taliban negotiators has lived for years.

The meeting in UAE is said to be more inclusive because it involves other nations and at least two new Taliban negotiators who have apparently traveled from Pakistan.

The Taliban controls more territory in Afghanistan than at any time since its fall from power in 2001. Casualties from the war are soaring among government troops, Taliban fighters and civilians as the warring sides step their attacks.

Amid a stalemate on the battlefield and as ordinary Americans are questioning the need for a U.S. troop presence after 17 years of war, President Trump assigned Khalilzad in September to resume efforts to engage with the Taliban.

Ghani plans to run for reelection in April, and his government has vehemently rejected a reported proposal that he delay the presidential election and instead form an interim government while the talks with the Taliban continue, then later hold a vote with Taliban participation.

The State Department denies that Khalilzad has made any such proposal.

“At no time has Special Representative Khalilzad ever suggested the formation of an interim government in lieu of elections,” State Department spokeswoman Heidi Hattenbach said. “The timing of Afghan elections is for Afghans alone to decide.”

Briefing members of the United Nations Security Council on Monday, the U.N. secretary general’s special representative for Afghanistan, Tadamichi Yamamoto, said the possibility of a negotiated end to the conflict has never been more real in the past 17 years than it is now.

US adds Pakistan to blacklist of countries that violate religious freedom

WASHINGTON, Dec 11: The United States said Tuesday it has added Pakistan to its blacklist of countries that violate religious freedom, ramping up pressure over its treatment of minorities.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he had designated Pakistan among “countries of particular concern” in a congressionally mandated annual report, a year after the State Department put Pakistan on a watchlist without legal consequences.

US should not even give one dollar till Pakistan acts on terrorism: Nikki Haley

NEW YORK, Dec 10: Pakistan continues to harbour terrorists that turn around and kill American soldiers, US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has said, asserting that Washington should not give Islamabad even a dollar until it addresses the issue.

Haley, the first Indian-American ever appointed to a Cabinet position in any US presidential administration, said the US did not need to give money to countries that wish harm to America, go behind its back and try and “stop us from doing things”.

“...I think there should be a strategic view on which countries we partner with, which ones we count on to work with us on certain things, and move forward accordingly. I think we just blindly allow money to keep going without thinking that this is real leverage. We have to use it,” Haley told US magazine ‘The Atlantic’.

“The one example I’ll give you is, look at Pakistan. Giving them over a billion dollars, and they continue to harbour terrorists that turn around and kill our soldiers —that’s never okay. We shouldn’t even give them a dollar until they correct it. Use the billion dollars. That’s not a small amount of change,” she said.

Haley will step down as the UN envoy at the end of this year. US President Donald Trump last week nominated chief State Department spokeswoman and a former Fox News journalist Heather Nauert as Haley’s successor.

In October, Haley announced that she was leaving the post by the end of the year. The 46-year-old former South Carolina governor has served nearly two years in the post.

She said Pakistan should be told “you have to do these things before we will even start to help you with your military or start to help you on counterterrorism”.

Asked if she does not agree that foreign aid can turn an adversary into an ally, or can make a country more favourable than it would be otherwise, Haley said, “no, I think it absolutely can. I think that you do have to use it as leverage”.

“I don’t think you should blindly give it and then expect goodwill. You have to ask for goodwill and then give it when you see good things happen,” she said.

In September, the Trump administration cancelled USD 300 million in military aid to Islamabad for not doing enough against terror groups active on its soil.

Last month, Trump defended his administration’s decision to stop hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Pakistan, saying Islamabad does not do “a damn thing” for the US and its government helped late al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden hide near its garrison city of Rawalpindi.

Referring to Laden and his former compound in Abbottabad in Pakistan, Trump told Fox News, “you know, living – think of this – living in Pakistan, beautifully in Pakistan in what I guess they considered a nice mansion, I don’t know, I’ve seen nicer”.

“But living in Pakistan right next to the military academy, everybody in Pakistan knew he was there,” Trump said.

The US Naval Special Warfare Development Group forces, in a daring helicopter raid, killed Laden in 2011 and demolished the compound.

“We give Pakistan USD 1.3 billion a year... (Laden] lived in Pakistan, we’re supporting Pakistan, we’re giving them USD 1.3 billion a year - which we don’t give them anymore, by the way, I ended it because they don’t do anything for us, they don’t do a damn thing for us,” he said.

Trump began the new year by launching an attack on Islamabad in his first tweet of 2018, accusing it of “lies and deceit”.

“The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies and deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools,” he wrote.

“They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!” Trump added.

People in power are not that smart: Michelle Obama

LONDON, Dec 4: After eight years in the White House as the first lady and attending various high-level events during the presidentship of her husband, Barack Obama, Michelle Obama let out a secret on Monday evening: people at the top are “not that smart”.

A sell-out audience in the Royal Festival Hall gave her something of a rock-star reception at an event to mark the London launch of her memoir, ‘Becoming’ (Penguin). Over 40,000 people tried to get tickets for the hall that accommodates about 2,700 people.

Billed as ‘An evening with Michelle Obama’, the event was marked by much wit, humour and frankness about her upbringing (“we discussed sex at the dinner table”), and issues such as ‘demons’ in her mind about not being good enough, her informal encounter with Queen Elizabeth, and marital problems (“trying to melt two lives together, that is hard”).

In conversation with noted Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Obama, who turns 55 in January, spoke of life lessons, the “art of re-invention” and insisted that she is “not here yet”, much remains to be done, which explains the title of her memoir, Becoming.

Asked for advice to young black women on navigating life, she said: “It’s still hard out there… We are demonised, we are too loud, we are too everything. I experienced that. Just having an opinion, how dare I have a voice and use it? It is a threat not just to white men but to women.”

“Some of my first pricks came from women journalists who accused me of emasculating my husband… You have to start by getting those demons out of your head. The question I ask myself is, am I good enough. That haunts. It is set from the time we are little.”

“Here’s the secret. I’ve been at every powerful table that you can think of. I have worked in non-profits. I have been in foundations, corporations, I’ve served on corporate boards, I’ve been at summits, I’ve sat in at the UN. They are not that smart.”

After a prolonged applause, she added: “They do a lot of things to keep their seats; they do not want to share their power. And that makes you feel that you don’t belong. I am not saying that there are no talented people out there.”

“But I am here to tell you that their ideas are no more exciting. They don’t solve problems any better. There is still a lot of brokenness in the hands of people in power who make us feel that we don’t belong. They haven’t fixed it yet because they need our voices to make that happen.”

Obama recalled the challenges her husband faced before being elected president but did not dwell on life under the current president, Donald Trump, except to say that she is “hopeful. Change is not a straight line”.

“We mistakenly thought that Barack Obama was going to erase hundreds of years of history in eight years; that’s ridiculous. We are putting down markers and we make progress. Going back doesn’t mean that progress wasn’t real.”

“It just means that it is just hard what we are trying to do, which is to shift culture. We are trying to overcome hundreds of years of racism and segregation borne out of slavery.”

Recalling one of her first trips to London as the first lady, Obama said it was “incredibly irritating” that British journalists, including women journalists, focused on what she was wearing rather than on the work she was trying to do.

Obama recalled many protocol briefings before meeting Queen Elizabeth during a state visit, when the later, driving her car, picked them up from their helicopter at Windsor and told them: “Sit wherever … it’s all rubbish, just get in.”

First Indian-American senator Kamala Harris ‘to decide on 2020 US presidential race’

WASHINGTON, Dec 3: Kamala Harris, the first Indian-American US senator, will decide whether she will run for the White House in 2020 “over the holiday”. “It will ultimately be a family decision,” she said at an event in San Francisco on Saturday. “And over the holiday, I will make that decision with my family.”

If Harris decides to run, as has been speculated from the time she was elected to the Senate in 2016, she will notch up a pair of firsts: the first Indian American woman and the first African-American woman to mount a bid for the White House. Her mother is from India and father from Jamaica. The California senator has been frequently mentioned along with a growing list of Democrats said to be planning a run for the Democrat party nomination to go up against Republican Donald Trump in 2020, and deny him a second term.

It’s a packed field at present. But Harris is among the favourites, coming in at Number 3 in a poll by CNN in October, behind former vice president Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders, in the first and second positions respectively. She narrowly edged out Senator Elizabeth Warren, the firebrand lawmaker who has clashed with Trump.

Tulsi Gabbard, the Democratic member of the House of Representatives from Hawaii, did not figure in that early poll by CNN. But she is said to be considering a run as well, according to some Indian Americans sounded out by her. If she decides to, she will be the first Hindu to run for the country’s elective top office. Bobby Jindal, the first Indian American to get into the race, in 2016, is Christian.

Democrats are rushing to the starting line more and more as President Trump has appeared vulnerable, besieged by an unending litany of scandals and probes. The 2018 midterm elections last month did not help him much. Though he sought to portray it as a victory as Republicans improved their tally in the Senate, the party lost the House of Representatives by a wide margin. There is talk of Republicans planning to “primary” him as well, run against him in the primaries, which is rare for a sitting president.

‘BIG leap forward,’ says Donald Trump on US-China relations

WASHINGTON, Dec 3: US President Donald Trump on Monday said that America’s relationship with China has taken a “BIG leap forward” and he was willing to have a trilateral discussion involving Russia to reduce the arms race, a day after his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Argentina.

“My meeting in Argentina with President Xi of China was an extraordinary one. Relations with China have taken a BIG leap forward!” Trump tweeted.

During the meeting on Saturday, Xi and Trump agreed to suspend any new tariffs and take steps to address the trade disputes, which over the past few months had threatened to spill over into a trade war between the world’s two largest economies.

Trump agreed that on January 1, 2019, he will leave the tariffs on USD 200 billion worth of product at the 10 per cent rate, and not raise it to 25 per cent at this time.

“Very good things will happen. We are dealing from great strength, but China likewise has much to gain if and when a deal is completed. Level the field!” Trump said.

“Farmers will be a a very BIG and FAST beneficiary of our deal with China. They intend to start purchasing agricultural product immediately. We make the finest and cleanest product in the World, and that is what China wants. Farmers, I LOVE YOU!” the US president tweeted.

Trump said he and Xi “have a very strong and personal” relationship.

“He and I are the only two people that can bring about massive and very positive change, on trade and far beyond, between our two great Nations. A solution for North Korea is a great thing for China and ALL!” he asserted.

Trump also talked about reducing arms race between US, China and Russia.

“I am certain that, at some time in the future, President Xi and I, together with President Putin of Russia, will start talking about a meaningful halt to what has become a major and uncontrollable Arms Race. The US spent 716 Billion Dollars this year. Crazy!” Trump tweeted.

 

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