Report: US Special Counsel Mueller to Testify Before House Panels July 17

U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who issued a report in April on Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election,  will testify in open session before the House of Representatives Judiciary and Intelligence Committees on July 17, the panels’ Democratic chairmen said on Tuesday.

Representative Jerrold Nadler, chairman of the judiciary panel, and Representative Adam Schiff, head of the intelligence panel, said in a joint statement that Mueller had agreed to testify after the two committees issued subpoenas on Tuesday.

This is a breaking story. Please check back for updates.

US Confirms 200 Unaccompanied Minors Removed From CBP Facility

VOA’s Victoria Macchi contributed to this report.

WASHINGTON — More than 200 children held in a border facility described as unsafe and unsanitary last week were transferred to the care of another U.S. agency by Tuesday, U.S. health authorities confirmed.

In a statement emailed to VOA, U.S. Health and Human Services acknowledged it worked with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to remove 249 unaccompanied children from the CBP Clint Station facility in Texas.

The statement came after the Associated Press reported unsanitary living conditions and inadequate food and medical treatment at the facility.

The children held at Clint Station were those who crossed the border without authorization and without a guardian, and are referred to as “unaccompanied alien children,” or UACs.

Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, joined at left by Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., vice chair of the Democratic Caucus, speaks with reporters following a meeting of fellow Democrats focusing on a path to emergency humanitarian aid to help migrant detained on the southwestern border.

While CBP is the agency that detains unauthorized border crossers, HHS generally takes custody of detained, unaccompanied children within 72 hours, as is mandated by law except for rare occasions in which a child is held by CBP for longer.

“UAC are waiting too long in CBP facilities that are not designed to care for children,” an HHS official told VOA.

The agency said it was able to expedite how soon children in its care were released to sponsors  often an extended family member, like a grandparent. A process that was taking 90 days in November 2018 was down to an average of 44 days in May, according to HHS.

But like other agencies working with children and families detained at the border, HHS and CBP are struggling to meet the demands of the recent increase in arrivals.

Trump “personally concerned”

Meanwhile, despite the confirmation from HHS that 249 children were removed from the Clint facility, media outlets reported that an official from CBP, who briefed reporters on Tuesday, said the government moved more than 100 children back to the same facility .

CBP drew criticism from human rights groups and federal lawmakers  over the AP report last week.

After signing an affordable housing executive order in the Oval Office on Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump said he was “personally concerned about the conditions” at border facilities after AP’s report. 

Trump said “A lot of these young children come from places that you don’t even want to know about, the way they’ve lived, the way they’ve been.” 

He also said his administration is trying to get Democrats to give “some humanitarian aid humanitarian money.”

CBP chief resigning

It is also unclear whether that report played a role in the announcement on Tuesday that the head of CBP, Acting Commissioner John Sanders, is resigning.

He will leave his post on July 5, a CBP official confirmed in an email to VOA.

The agency declined to provide further comment on the resignation.

Europe Set to Experience Scorching Heat Wave This Week

A heat wave is set to descend upon Europe this week, weather so intense that a forecaster in Spain warned, “El infierno (hell) is coming.”

El infierno is coming.

— Silvia Laplana (@slaplana_tve) June 24, 2019

The heat wave is expected to peak between Wednesday and Friday when temperatures are expected to top 40 degrees Celsius from Spain to Poland.

Authorities warned early summer heat waves are especially dangerous because people have not had to adapt to the higher temperatures.

French Health Minister Agnes Buzyn said more than half of France is on alert for high temperatures. Public service announcements on TV, radio, and on buses and trains urged the French to keep an eye out for older family members and neighbors.

Most of France is under an orange alert, the second-highest level on the country’s heat scale. The scale was established after the 2003 heat wave killed some 15,000 people.  

The French Education Ministry ordered the national school exams to be postponed to next week. Paris city officials mobilized teams to hand out water to the homeless. The city also extended the hours for city pools, and set up thousands of misting tents and cooling rooms.

Authorities in Switzerland also raised that country’s alert to its second-highest level, especially for regions along the southern and northern borders with Italy and Germany.

Germany’s meteorological agency said temperatures Wednesday could break the current record in June of 38.5 Celsius.

Temperatures also soared in the Baltics, sending scores of people to lakes and rivers to cool down, leading to a spike in drownings. In Lithuania, where the highs reached 35.7 degrees Celsius, 27 people were reported to have drowned.

Heat waves are becoming more common across Europe and are expected to double in frequency by 2050, the French  meteorological agency says.

Pompeo Hopes for Afghan Peace Deal Before September

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday during a visit to Afghanistan that the Trump administration is aiming for a peace deal in the war-ravaged country by September.

His visit came as American and Taliban negotiators are scheduled to meet in Qatar later this week (June 29) for the next round of talks in their months-long dialogue aimed at finding a political settlement to the Afghan war.

“I hope we have a peace deal before September 1st. That’s certainly our mission set,” Pompeo told reporters at the U.S. embassy in Kabul after his meetings with Afghan leaders. The country is due to hold presidential elections on September 28.

The U.S.-Taliban dialogue process is primarily focused on working out a timeline for the withdrawal of American and NATO forces from Afghanistan in return for assurances international terrorists will not be allowed to use Taliban-controlled areas for attacks against other countries.

The insurgent group controls or contests more than 50% of the Afghan territory and continues to inflict battlefield losses on U.S.-backed Afghan security forces,

“We have made real progress and are nearly ready to conclude a draft text outlining the Taliban’s commitments to join fellow Afghans in ensuring that Afghan soil never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists,” Pompeo noted.

He said discussions with the Taliban regarding foreign troop withdrawal have begun.  Pompeo also said insurgent claims that Washington has agreed to pull out of Afghanistan are not true.

“While we’ve made clear to the Taliban that we are prepared to remove our forces, I want to be clear we have not yet agreed on a timeline to do so,” Pompeo explained. He acknowledged the U.S.-Taliban discussions will be the basis for intra-Afghan peace and reconciliation talks.

Pompeo visited Kabul on a day when members of opposition groups held a large public gathering in the city to protest against extension given to President Ashraf Ghani by the country’s Supreme Court. They insisted Ghani’s constitutional five-year term ended in May and demanded the president must step down. The incumbent president is seeking re-election.

“We call upon the former president (Ghani) to withdraw his candidacy if he should continue to hold office as a caretaker president for the purpose of realization of the principles of justice and impartiality,” said a post-rally statement by the Council of Presidential Candidates (CPC).

Pompeo also emphasized the need for a credible Afghan presidential election.

“I urge the Afghan government, the Independent Election Commission, and all political stakeholders to take all necessary steps to ensure that the elections are credible,”  Pompeo stressed.

US Plays Down Expectations of Trump-Xi Meeting

Top U.S. officials are saying no one should expect any major deals when President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet later this week at the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan.

The officials say the main purpose of the meeting is to reach agreement to restart trade negotiations that broke off in May.

Eleven rounds of talks have failed to ease U.S. concerns over China’s massive trade surplus with the U.S. and alleged intellectual property theft. 

Trump has already threatened another $325 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods, which would cover just about everything China exports to the U.S. that is not already covered by the current 25% tariff on $250 billion in Chinese imports.

China has slapped its own tariffs on U.S. products, including those produced by already financially strapped American farmers.

FILE – In this April 8, 2019, file photo, Boeing 737 Max aircraft are parked near a Boeing Co. production facility in Renton, Wash. From airplanes to fruit to wheat no other state will feel the effect of tariffs like Washington.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Tuesday in Beijing the meeting will hopefully “promote mutual trust” and “resolve some of the outstanding issues we are facing now.”

A senior U.S. official said Monday the meeting will provide Trump the chance to get China’s position on the escalating trade war. The official added Trump would be “comfortable with any outcome” of the meeting.

The U.S. has accused China of building a huge trade surplus with the U.S. while stealing technological and trade secrets. It alleges China demands U.S. businesses operating in China to give up some of that information if they want access to the Chinese market. 

China denies the charges and says the U.S. is trying to deny a competitor a piece of the global marketplace.

Trump Imposes New Iran Sanctions Targeting Khamenei

A spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that new U.S. sanctions against Iran mark a permanent end to a diplomatic path for resolving tensions between the two countries.

“Imposing fruitless sanctions on Iran’s leadership and the chief of Iranian diplomacy mean the permanent closure of the road of diplomacy with the frustrated U.S. administration,” Abbas Mousavi wrote on Twitter.

He added that U.S. President Donald Trump’s approach is “destroying the established international mechanisms for maintaining world peace and security.”

The comments follow Trump’s move to impose what he called “hard-hitting” new financial sanctions against Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and eight senior commanders in the Iranian military and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

Trump signed an executive order Monday he said would curb access that Khamenei and Iran would have to world financial markets. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the action would “literally” lock up “tens and tens of billions of dollars” of Iranian assets.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gestures to a crowd at a June 4, 2019 ceremony in Tehran.

Mnuchin also said the United States could also target Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, one of Tehran’s best known figures on the world stage, with sanctions in the coming days.

Trump called his order a “strong and proportionate” American response to Tehran’s shoot-down last week of an unmanned U.S. drone, which Washington says occurred in international airspace near the Strait of Hormuz and Iran claims occurred over its airspace.

The U.S. leader said he imposed the sanctions because of a series of “belligerent acts” carried out by Iran, which U.S. officials say include Iran’s targeting of Norwegian and Japanese ships traversing the Strait of Hormuz with mine explosions days before the attack on the drone.

The executive order is aimed at pushing Tehran back to one-on-one talks with the U.S. over its nuclear weapons program after Trump last year withdrew from the 2015 international pact restraining Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Trump called the international deal negotiated by his predecessor, former President Barack Obama, “a disaster.”

“We’d love to be able to negotiate a deal,” Trump said.

But he declared, “Never can Iran have a nuclear weapon,” adding, “They sponsor terrorism like no one’s seen before.”

He said, “I look forward to the day when sanctions can be lifted and Iran can be a peace-loving nation. The people of Iran are great people.”

Mnuchin said earlier sanctions imposed when Trump pulled out of the international agreement have been “highly effective in locking up the Iranian economy.”

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin testifies before a House Appropriations subcommittee, April 9, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

He said some of the sanctions Trump imposed Monday had been “in the works” before the drone was shot down, and some were being imposed because of the attack on the drone.

The Treasury Department headed by Mnuchin said that any foreign financial institution that engages in a “significant financial transaction” with the Iranians targeted by the sanctions could be cut off from U.S. financial deals.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the new sanctions as “significant” as he left Washington on Sunday for a trip to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to continue the Trump administration’s effort to build a coalition of allies to counter Iran. Pompeo met Monday with Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

“The world should know,” Pompeo said, “that we will continue to make sure it’s understood that this effort that we’ve engaged in to deny Iran the resources to foment terror, to build out their nuclear weapon system, to build out their missile program, we are going to deny them the resources they need to do that thereby keeping American interests and American people safe all around the world.”

Iran has defended its missile work as legal and necessary for its defense. Tehran has sought support from the remaining signatories to the 2015 agreement to provide the economic relief it wants, especially with its key oil exports as the U.S. has tightened sanctions in an attempt to cut off Iranian oil shipments.

US Public Might Not Be Told About Foreign Efforts to Alter Next Election

Senior U.S. officials say they are already busy buttressing the nation’s defenses against foreign interference for the 2020 presidential election. Only they admit the public may be kept in the dark about attacks and intrusions.

Intelligence and election security officials have warned repeatedly that Russia, among other state and nonstate actors, remains intent on disrupting the upcoming elections and that the Kremlin may even have gone easy on the U.S. during the 2016 midterm elections, seeing the ability to impact the 2020 presidential race as the bigger prize.

At the same time, election and security officials have come under increased scrutiny for failing to reveal the size and scope of Russia’s efforts to hack into voter databases and other critical systems.

In April, special counsel Robert Mueller released his report into Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election as well as allegations of obstruction of justice by President Donald Trump.

Florida representatives

In May, two U.S. representatives from Florida, Republican Michael Waltz and Democrat Stephanie Murphy, wrote to the FBI and Justice Department, demanding a classified briefing on the extent of Russia’s exploits after the Mueller report indicated Moscow managed to infiltrate critical systems in at least one county during the 2016 presidential election.

“Florida voters have the right to know the extent to which foreign actors may have breached our state’s election security systems, and what the federal government is doing to prevent it from happening again,” Murphy said in a statement.

Senior Trump administration officials, however, cautioned Monday they may decide to keep information like that from the public.

“There are hard choices to be made,” one official told reporters while briefing them on efforts to protect the 2020 election from foreign interference.

“The ultimate question is going to be whether the federal or national interests in doing so — publicly disclosing it — outweigh any counter veiling consideration,” the official added.

Intelligence and law enforcement officials said the ability to disclose information can often be limited by the need to protect the sources and methods that discovered the attacks or intrusions in the first place.

Impact on victims

There are also concerns about the impact on the victims.

“Victims who work with the FBI do so because they trust that we’ll protect and handle their information appropriately,” a senior law enforcement official said. “For example, the majority of technical information that we were able to give election officials during the 2016 time frame was initiated from this type of trusted outreach.”

In cases involving foreign influence campaigns, the decision to make them public can be even more difficult.

“Disclosing a foreign influence operation might do more harm than good because it might draw more attention to an operation that would otherwise go unnoticed,” the senior administration official said.

A senior intelligence official agreed that in some cases, the less said, the better.

“It’s less about highlighting for the public that there might be a problem,” the official said. “We actually want to stop it from happening, whether we do that through cyber channels or diplomatic channels or other operations.”

2020 campaign

With the 2020 presidential campaign getting under way, intelligence agencies, along with the Department of Homeland Security and FBI, have set about briefing the candidates and making them aware of the resources available should their campaign come under attack.

There are also increased efforts to reach out to U.S. state and local officials to make sure they have the information they need to protect their voter databases and election systems from attacks.

Officials said there have even been ongoing discussions with the private sector, both those that provide voting machines and other election infrastructure, as well as with social media companies.

US Treasury Inspector to Look Into Delay of New Tubman $20 Bill

The U.S. Treasury inspector general says he will look into why the Trump administration decided to scrap plans to put escaped slave turned abolitionist Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced the move last month, saying the change is because of “counterfeiting issues.”

But Democratic Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer said he is not satisfied with Mnuchin’s vague explanation, saying it lacked credibility.

He asked the Treasury’s watchdog to investigate the circumstances “including any involvement by the White House.”

“There are no women, there are no people of color on our paper currency today even though they make up a significant majority of our population,” Schumer said.

The redesigned bill was to have entered circulation next year, but Mnuchin said it will be put off until 2028. It is also unclear whether Tubman will still be on the new bill when it is finally rolled out.

He said the “imagery feature” (who will appear on the bill) will not be a matter until long after he and U.S. President Donald Trump are out of office.

The $20 bill currently features a picture of 19th century U.S. President Andrew Jackson. Jackson owned slaves and forced Native Americans out of their ancestral lands in the southeastern U.S. leading to the deaths of thousands of Indians. 

The move to replace Jackson, preferably with a historically-important woman, was announced during the Obama administration. 

Tubman was chosen from an online poll of Americans.

President Trump is said to be an admirer of Andrew Jackson — not because of Jackson’s racism — but because Trump regards him as a populist and anti-establishment. 

Trump called replacing Jackson with Tubman “pure political correctness” and proposed putting Tubman on the $2 bill, which is rarely printed. 

Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery in Maryland as a young woman and returned to the southern U.S. to help other slaves escape and to work as a union government spy during the Civil War.

She was thought to be in her early 90s when she died in 1913.

Brazil’s Bolsonaro to Meet China’s Xi for First Time at G-20

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who criticized China last year for “buying” up his country, will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping for the first time on the sidelines of this week’s G-20 meeting in Japan, his office said on Monday.

Bolsonaro, a far-right firebrand, has softened his stance on Brazil’s largest trading partner since taking office in January and will meet with Xi for 40 minutes on Friday morning before the summit of leaders of the world’s 20 largest economies kicks off in Osaka, according to the schedule released by his office.

A representative of China’s embassy in Brazil said the two countries were discussing a bilateral meeting, although the details had yet to be agreed to. Given the packed schedule at the G-20, any bilateral meeting would likely be informal and brief, the diplomat said, speaking on background.

China is by far the largest buyer of Brazilian soybeans and iron ore, and Brazil hopes to upgrade its commodities exports to include products with greater added value.

Bolsonaro expressed concern about Chinese domination during his election campaign. Citing the purchase of electrical assets by Chinese companies, he complained that “China isn’t buying in Brazil, China is buying Brazil.”

But he has dropped his criticisms as the reality of Brazil’s dependence on the Chinese market set in.

His vice president, retired general Hamilton Mourao, visited Beijing in May to resume high-level talks that had stalled under the previous government. Mourao’s visit followed Agriculture Minister Tereza Cristina’s mission to China seeking to widen food sales to China.

Mourao met in Beijing with Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. Chief Executive Ren Zhengfei and later told journalists that Brazil had no plans to follow the United States in barring the Chinese telecom company’s participation when Latin America’s largest country launches its 5G network next year.

Washington has asked countries to reject Huawei technology in the development of new mobile phone networks due to security concerns.

Bolsonaro and Xi are expected to discuss a date for the Brazilian leader’s planned visit to Beijing later this year, before Xi visits Brazil in November for the summit of the BRICS leading emerging economies.

Italian Mafia Don Escapes From Uruguayan Prison

A notorious Italian Mafia boss has escaped from a prison in Uruguay where he was awaiting extradition to Italy. 

Rocco Morabito and three other inmates got out of  the National Institute of Rehabilitation in Montevideo “through the roof,” the Uruguayan interior ministry said Monday.  

The fugitives made their way to a nearby farm and robbed its owner, the ministry statement said. 

A member of the Ndrangheta or Calabrian cartel, Morabito has been one of Italy’s most-wanted fugitives since 1994. He was arrested in Uruguay in 2017 after more than 20 years on the run.

He was sentenced to 30 years in prison by an Italian court, Prosecutors say Morabito was instrumental in drug trafficking operations between South America and Milan. 

“It’s disconcerting and serious that a criminal like Rocco Morabito, a boss of Ndrangheta, has  managed to escape from an Uruguay prison while waiting to be extradited to Italy,” Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said on Twitter. “I’m making two pledges: shedding full light on the escape, asking for immediate explanations from the Montevideo government, and chasing Morabito, wherever he is, to throw him in prison as he deserves.”

When he was arrested, Morabito had been living a life of luxury under a false Brazilian identity with fake Portuguese passports.