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Senate Confirms Tillerson As Secretary Of State In Contentious Vote

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate confirmed Rex Tillerson as President Donald Trump’s secretary of state on Wednesday, filling a key spot on the Republican’s national security team despite concerns about the former Exxon Mobil Corp chief executive officer’s ties to Russia.

In the vote, 56 senators backed Tillerson, and 43 voted no. The tally was largely along party lines, with every Republican favoring Tillerson, along with four members of the Democratic caucus, Senators Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Manchin, and Mark Warner as well as Angus King, an independent.

Democratic Senator Chris Coons did not vote.

Senate Democrats had tried, but failed, to delay the vote because of Trump’s executive order banning immigration from seven mostly Muslim countries and temporarily halting the entry of refugees. They said they wanted to ask Tillerson more questions about the issue after Trump signed the order on Friday.

Senators had also expressed concerns over Tillerson’s ties to Russia after the executive spent years there working for the oil company. Some faulted him for failing to promise to recuse himself from matters related to Exxon Mobil businesses for his entire term as secretary of state rather than only the one year required by law.

Republicans said they thought Tillerson would be a strong leaders as the country’s top diplomat. They also said it was important to fill key slots on Trump’s national security team quickly.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Alden Bentley and Jeffrey Benkoe)

IMAGE: Rex Tillerson, the former chairman and chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil, testifies during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing to become U.S. Secretary of State on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. January 11, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Senate Confirms Pompeo To Be Trump’s CIA Director

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate confirmed Representative Mike Pompeo as President Donald Trump’s CIA director on Monday, after a delay tied to some lawmakers’ worries he might expand surveillance or allow the use of certain interrogation techniques widely considered torture.

Sixty-six senators backed Pompeo and 32 voted against. All the opposition was from Democrats, except for Senator Rand Paul, a leading Republican advocate for strict control of surveillance. Shortly afterward, Pompeo was sworn in by Vice President Mike Pence.

Some senators felt Pompeo, 53, had not pledged strongly enough to allow only the use of interrogation techniques included in the Army Field Manual, as required by law, rather than return to waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques,” or EITs, used by the CIA in the years after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, signed an executive order in 2009 banning waterboarding – a form of simulated drowning – and other EITs, which are denounced by many lawmakers and rights groups as torture.

In response to written questions from the Senate Intelligence Committee, Pompeo said he was open to changing policy under certain circumstances. “I will consult with experts… on whether the Army Field Manual uniform application is an impediment to gathering vital intelligence to protect the country.” Pompeo wrote.

Trump promised during his presidential campaign to bring back waterboarding and “a hell of a lot worse.”

Democratic Senator Ron Wyden spoke for more than an hour in the Senate in opposition to Pompeo’s nomination, saying he had provided inconsistent answers on surveillance and interrogation tactics, making it impossible to know how he would implement policy at the CIA.

Wyden cited an op-ed Pompeo co-authored last year that called for restarting the bulk collection of domestic telephone metadata and combining it with financial and lifestyle information into one searchable database.

He accused Pompeo of having proposed “the most sweeping new surveillance program I have ever heard of.”

Paul wrote in an op-ed: “I voted against the new CIA Director because I worry that his desire for security will trump his defense of liberty.”

Most Republicans called Pompeo, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, an excellent choice.

Senator John McCain, a leader of the fight for legislation barring the use of the rough interrogation methods, said: “I have no reason to doubt Congressman Pompeo’s word.”

McCain added: “I fully support his confirmation. Going forward, I will continue to closely monitor this issue, and use my oversight powers to ensure the law is obeyed.”

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Additional reporting by Dustin Volz; Editing by Sandra Maler and Peter Cooney)

IMAGE: Representative Mike Pompeo (R-KS) arrives to testify before a Senate Intelligence hearing on his nomination of to be become director of the CIA at Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo

By A Narrow Margin, Senate Panel Clears Tillerson’s Path To Be Secretary Of State

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump’s choice for secretary of state, former Exxon Mobil Corp Chairman Rex Tillerson, narrowly won approval from a Senate committee on Monday, but is expected to be confirmed by the full Senate.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 11-10 to approve Tillerson, with every Republican backing the former oil executive and every Democrat opposing him.

His approval by the panel, a victory for Trump, had been in doubt until earlier on Monday, when Senator Marco Rubio, a committee member who had been Tillerson’s most vocal Republican critic, said he would back the nominee.

Tillerson’s confirmation by the 100-member Senate, where Republicans hold 52 seats, is not expected before next week. Democrats want more time to debate and the chamber may not be in session all this week.

Rubio’s backing had been in doubt after his tough questioning during Tillerson’s confirmation hearing, focusing on issues including concerns about Tillerson’s support for human rights. Rubio ultimately decided he would approve the nominee in deference to Trump, as well as to fill a critical top job.

Democrats said they voted against Tillerson over fears he might lift sanctions on Russia, where he did business for years, questions about his views on human rights and his refusal to recuse himself from matters related to his former employer during his entire term as the top U.S. diplomat.

Tillerson pledged to recuse himself only for the year required by law.

Amid Democratic anger over allegations that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election, Tillerson also raised committee hackles by saying he did not know Exxon Mobil lobbied against sanctions on Russia while he was running the company.

Senator Ben Cardin, the committee’s top Democrat, said Tillerson’s “business orientation” and responses at his hearing “could compromise his ability as secretary of state to forcefully promote the values and ideals that have defined our country and our leading role in the world for more than 200 years.”

The Senate confirmed only two of Trump’s Cabinet nominees on Friday, his Inauguration Day, a relatively low number among recent presidencies.

Democrats have been unable to block any of his choices because they changed Senate rules in 2013 to allow nominees to be confirmed with just a majority, not 60 votes. Instead, they have used Senate rules to slow the confirmation of nominees they say hold extreme views, are unqualified or have not completed ethics disclosures.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Peter Cooney)

IMAGE: Rex Tillerson, the former chairman and chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil, smiles during his testimony before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing on his nomination to be U.S. secretary of state in Washington, U.S. January 11, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Obama Administration Ends ‘Wet Foot, Dry Foot’ Policy For Cubans

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Obama administration on Thursday repealed a measure granting automatic residency to virtually every Cuban who arrived in the United States, whether or not they had visas, ending a longstanding exception to U.S. immigration policy.

The end of the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which allowed any Cuban who reached U.S. soil to stay but returned any picked up at sea, is effective immediately. Cuban officials had sought the change for years.

The shift had been in the works for months. It was announced abruptly because advance warning might have inspired thousands more people to take to the seas between the Communist-ruled island and Florida in order to beat a deadline.

The United States and Cuba spent several months negotiating the change, including an agreement from Cuba to allow those turned away from the United States to return.

“With this change we will continue to welcome Cubans as we welcome immigrants from other nations, consistent with our laws,” Obama said in a statement.

The Department of Homeland Security also ended a parole program that allowed entry for Cuban medical professionals. That program was unpopular with Havana because it prompted doctors to leave, sapping the country’s pool of trained health workers.

The U.S. Coast Guard intercepts thousands of Cubans attempting the 90-mile (145-km) crossing to Florida every year, but tens of thousands who reach U.S. soil, including via Mexico, have been allowed to stay in the country, while immigrants from other nations have been rounded up and sent home.

Cuba welcomed the policy changes, saying they would benefit the whole region by discouraging people-trafficking and dangerous journeys that led to bottlenecks of Cubans in Central America last year.

“Today, a detonator of immigration crises is eliminated. The United States achieves legal, secure and ordered migration from Cuba,” said Josefina Vidal, the Cuban foreign ministry’s chief for U.S. affairs.

El Salvador’s foreign ministry also welcomed the move, saying “there cannot be migrants of different categories.” Honduras, from where thousands flee each year without the attraction of favorable U.S. immigration policies, said it would wait to see if the flow of Cubans actually reduced.

Anticipating the end of the policy, Cuban immigration has surged since the 2014 normalization, said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser.

“People were motivated to migrate,” Rhodes told reporters on a call, noting some 40,000 Cubans arrived in 2015 and about 54,000 in 2016.

The administration had rejected Cuban entreaties to overturn the policy before President Barack Obama’s historic visit to the island last year, although even some White House aides argued that it was outmoded given efforts to regularize relations between the former Cold War foes.

“Wet foot, dry foot” began in 1995 under President Bill Clinton after an exodus of tens of thousands of Cubans who were picked up at sea by the Coast Guard as they tried to reach Florida.

Obama has been working to normalize relations with Cuba since he and President Raul Castro announced a breakthrough in diplomatic relations in December 2014. His administration has eased restrictions on travel and trade, allowing more U.S. business with Cuba and improved communications with the island.

“MIXED EMOTIONS IN LITTLE HAVANA”

The move to end the policy comes just eight days before the Democratic president turns the White House over to Republican Donald Trump, who has said the United States should get more concessions from Havana in exchange for improved relations.

U.S. immigration policy has given Cubans benefits granted to nationals from no other country. Until now, virtually every Cuban who made it to U.S. soil was granted the right to stay in the country, the right to apply for work permits and, later, green cards, which convey lawful permanent residency.

Jeh Johnson, secretary of Homeland Security, said on a call that Cuba will take back citizens as long as less than four years have passed between the time the migrant left Cuba and the start of the U.S. deportation proceedings.

Under the agreement Cuba will take back some 2,700 people who left the island among 125,000 others during the Mariel boat lift of 1980, fulfilling an agreement made in 1984 to take back 2,746 people who the United States did not grant citizenship to, mainly people with criminal convictions.

Cuba has previously taken back only a handful of that group.

The new policy sparked mixed emotions in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood.

Mario Garcia, a Cuban mechanic in Little Havana, said the change angered him.

“It’s not like Communism has ended in Cuba, so why stop this that has saved people’s lives?” he said.

But Eulalia Jimenez, who is Venezuelan, said the policy was not fair to migrants from other countries who also flee bad conditions.

“Why should only the Cuban people be able to come and make a life for themselves?” Jimenez said.

Some U.S. lawmakers had been demanding a fresh look at the immigration rules, saying Cubans coming to the United States simply for economic reasons should not be automatically granted benefits intended for refugees.

“This is a welcome step in reforming an illogical and discriminatory policy that contrasted starkly with the treatment of deserving refugees from other countries,” Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, said in a statement.

Republican Senator Jeff Flake also said eliminating the policy was “a win for taxpayers, border security and our allies in the Western Hemisphere.”

Flake and Leahy both support Obama’s moves toward freer trade and travel with Cuba. But U.S. Senator Marco Rubio said the incoming Trump administration should reverse the part of the executive order that ended the medical parole system, and said Cubans fleeing political persecution should receive asylum.

The Department of Homeland Security is also eliminating an exemption that prevented the use of expedited removal programs for Cuban nationals picked up at ports of entry or near the border.

But an existing Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program is not affected by Thursday’s announcement and remains in effect.

(Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Eric Beech, Roberta Rampton and Ayesha Rascoe in Washington D.C., Zachary Fagenson in Miami; Nelson Acosta and Marc Frank in Havana; Gustavo Palencia in Honduras and Nelson Renteria in El Salvador; Editing by Michael Perry and Frank Jack Daniel)

IMAGE: U.S. President Barack Obama waves as he arrives to deliver a speech at the Gran Teatro in Havana, Cuba March 22, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Hillary Clinton: ‘Fake News A Threat To U.S. Democracy’

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called “fake news” a danger that must be addressed quickly, in a rare public appearance on Thursday, a month after she lost the presidential election in a campaign marked by a flood of such propaganda.

“We must stand up for our democracy,” Clinton said during a tribute to retiring Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, referring to what she called “the epidemic of malicious fake news and false propaganda that flooded social media over the past year.”

Clinton urged action from both the private and public sectors to combat the false reports.

“It’s now clear that so-called ‘fake news’ can have real-world consequences. This isn’t about politics or partisanship. Lives are at risk. Lives of ordinary people just trying to go about their days, to do their jobs, contribute to their communities,” she said.

Clinton herself has been a target of fake news, with Internet postings claiming that a pizza restaurant in Washington was fronting a child sex ring run by Clinton.

On Sunday, a North Carolina man wielding an assault rifle fired a gun inside the restaurant, located in northwest Washington just a few miles from Thursday’s ceremony, according to police, who said the suspect told them he had come to “investigate” a fake news report.

Clinton’s appearance at the Thursday event, packed with mostly Democratic elected officials including Vice President Joe Biden, was greeted with a standing ovation and raucous applause.

Clinton, also a former senator who served with Reid, made a wry reference to the relatively low profile she has kept since Republican Donald Trump won the Nov. 8 presidential election, referring to “a few weeks of taking selfies in the woods.”

She indirectly acknowledged her defeat as she began her tribute to Reid: “This is not exactly the speech at the Capitol I hoped to be making after the election.”

The new U.S. president delivers an inaugural address on Jan. 20, standing on a large platform erected every four years on the west front of the Capitol building.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Leslie Adler)

IMAGE: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (L-R) and U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) participate in a ceremony to unveil a portrait honoring retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. December 8, 2016.  REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

U.S. Senators Urge Trump To Take Tough Line On Russia

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A bipartisan group of 27 U.S. senators sent a letter to President-elect Donald Trump on Thursday urging him to take a tough line against Russia over what they termed its “military land grab” in Ukraine.

The letter, whose 12 Republican and 15 Democratic signatories included some leading foreign policy voices from Trump’s Republican party, was an early sign that lawmakers will publicly assert themselves on international matters where they disagree with his White House.

The New York property developer becomes president on Jan. 20.

Trump signaled during his campaign that he might take a softer line in dealings with Moscow, repeatedly praising Russian President Vladimir Putin’s leadership. Putin said recently Trump confirmed to him that he was willing to mend ties.

“In light of Russia’s continued aggression and repeated refusal to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereign right to choose its own destiny, we also renew our call for the United States to increase political, economic and military support for Ukraine,” said the letter, led by Senators Richard Durbin, a Democrat, and Rob Portman, a Republican, who are co-chairmen of the Senate Ukraine caucus.

In the letter, seen by Reuters before its public release, the senators also said they believe Russia’s annexation of Crimea should not be accepted and the United States should not lift sanctions imposed on Russia for its behavior in eastern Ukraine.

President Barack Obama and Putin have had a challenging relationship, with stark differences over Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Syria. Tensions have risen more with Obama’s Democratic Party in particular over cyber attacks attributed to Russia during the U.S. presidential election.

Among Republican senators who signed the letter were John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Lindsey Graham, head of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the State Department.

A majority of Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, including ranking Democrat Ben Cardin, signed the letter. Jack Reed, the top Democrat on Senate Armed Services, also did so.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Leslie Adler and Alistair Bell)

IMAGE: U.S. Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) (C) talks with reporters after the weekly Democratic caucus policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S. December 6, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Lindsey Graham Calls For Senate Investigation Into Alleged Russian Hacks

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Senior Democratic and Republican U.S. lawmakers want Washington to respond to Russia’s alleged interference in the U.S. election and actions in Ukraine and Syria, despite Republican President-elect Donald Trump’s calls to improve relations.

Senator Ben Cardin said on Wednesday he was working on what he described as “comprehensive” legislation to respond to Russian actions contrary to U.S. interests in Europe and Syria, as well as cyber attacks blamed on Moscow during the campaign.

“Russia presents a very serious challenge for America. They’re not our partner. They’re a bully,” Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters.

“Whether you attack us by MiG (fighter jet) or by mouse, it’s an attack. It requires a response. It’s clear that they were responsible for the cyber attack on our country in this past election,” Cardin said.

Other lawmakers have also called for action against Russia as they returned to Washington this week for the first time since Trump won the Nov. 8 U.S. election.

On Tuesday, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, one of his party’s senior foreign policy voices, told reporters he wanted Senate hearings on whether Russian President Vladimir Putin interfered in the election.

“We can’t sit on the sidelines,” Graham said.

During the campaign, Trump’s Democratic rival, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, criticized him for praising Putin as a strong leader and saying ties with Russia should be improved at a time when Moscow and Washington are at odds over Syria and Ukraine.

Trump also worried U.S. allies with comments questioning NATO’s mutual self-defense pledge and suggesting he might recognize Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region.

Cardin declined to provide specifics about his legislation ahead of a planned speech on Thursday on Russia policy. When asked if it would include additional sanctions, he said, “It will be comprehensive.”

He said he thought it would be difficult to pass a bill before the current Congress wraps up next month, but that he hoped to lay the groundwork for future action.

Cardin also said he wanted Obama to act before he leaves office on Jan. 20. Congress has already passed legislation giving the president the authority to take actions including imposing additional sanctions or sending more arms to Ukraine.

(Additional reporting by Richrd Cowan; Editing by James Dalgleish)

IMAGE: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Graham speaks at the the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition Forum in Des Moine. Reuters. 

Senate Clears Way For $1.15 Billion Arms Sale To Saudi Arabia

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate cleared the way for a $1.15 billion sale of tanks and other military equipment to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, defending a frequent partner in the Middle East recently subject to harsh criticism in Congress.

The Senate voted 71 to 27 to kill legislation that would have stopped the sale.

The overwhelming vote stopped an effort led by Republican Senator Rand Paul and Democratic Senator Chris Murphy to block the deal over concerns including Saudi Arabia’s role in the 18-month-long war in Yemen and worries that it might fuel an ongoing regional arms race.

The Pentagon announced on Aug. 9 that the State Department had approved the potential sale of more than 130 Abrams battle tanks, 20 armored recovery vehicles and other equipment to Saudi Arabia.

The Defense Security Cooperation Agency said General Dynamics Corp would be the principal contractor for the sale.

Paul, Murphy and other opponents of the arms deal were sharply critical of the Riyadh government during debate before the vote, citing Yemen, the kingdom’s human rights record and its international support for a conservative form of Islam.

“If you’re serious about stopping the flow of extremist recruiting across this globe, then you have to be serious that the … brand of Islam that is spread by Saudi Arabia all over the world, is part of the problem,” Murphy said.

The criticism came days before lawmakers are expected to back another measure seen as anti-Saudi, a bill that would allow lawsuits against the country’s government by relatives of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.

President Barack Obama has promised to veto that bill, but congressional leaders say there is a strong chance that lawmakers will override the veto and let the measure become law. Overriding a presidential veto requires a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate.

In Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is battling Iranian-allied Houthis, the Houthis have accused the United States of arming and supporting the Saudis, who intervened on the side of Yemen’s exiled government.

The war has killed over 10,000 people and displaced more than 3 million.

But backers of the deal said Saudi Arabia is an important U.S. ally in a war-torn region, deserving of U.S. support.

“This motion comes at a singularly unfortunate time and would serve to convince Saudi Arabia and all other observers that the United States does not live up to its commitments,” Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Grant McCool and Sandra Maler)

U.S. House Votes To Allow Sept. 11 Families To Sue Saudi Arabia

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation on Friday that would allow the families of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks to sue Saudi Arabia’s government for damages, despite the White House’s threat to veto the measure.

The U.S. Senate in May unanimously passed the “Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act,” known as JASTA. The bill’s passage in the House by voice vote, two days before the 15th anniversary of the attacks that killed about 3,000 people, was greeted with cheers and applause in the chamber.

“We can no longer allow those who injure and kill Americans to hide behind legal loopholes, denying justice to the victims of terrorism,” said Republican Representative Bob Goodlatte, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

Fifteen of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers who crashed airliners in New York, outside Washington and in Pennsylvania were Saudi nationals. The Saudi government, which strongly denies responsibility, has lobbied against the bill.

Opponents of the measure said it could strain relations with Saudi Arabia and lead to retaliatory laws that would allow foreign nationals to sue Americans for alleged involvement in terrorist attacks.

The White House on Friday reiterated that President Barack Obama would veto the bill.

But some members of Congress have become increasingly restive about relations with Saudi Arabia, long an important player in U.S. Middle East policy. On Thursday, four senators introduced a resolution seeking to block a $1.15 billion arms sale to the kingdom, after 64 House members signed a letter in August asking Obama to delay the sale.

If Obama carries out the veto threat and the required two-thirds of both the Republican-majority House and Senate still support the bill, it would be the first time since Obama’s presidency began in 2009 that Congress had overridden a veto.

The House passed the measure by voice vote, without objections or recorded individual votes. That could make it easier for Obama’s fellow Democrats to uphold his veto later without officially changing their positions.

SOVEREIGN IMMUNITY

JASTA would remove sovereign immunity, preventing lawsuits against governments, for countries found to be involved in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. It also would allow survivors, and relatives of those killed in them to seek damages from other countries.

In this case, it would allow suits to proceed in federal court in New York as lawyers try to prove that the Saudis were involved in the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

Backers say passage is long overdue. They argue that if Saudi Arabia, or any other government, is innocent of involvement in attacks, they have nothing to fear from the legislation.

“If they’ve done nothing wrong, they have nothing to worry about,” said Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, a vocal advocate for the measure.

Previous versions of the bill had stalled in Congress because they provided fewer protections for countries against lawsuits.

Lawmakers had been under intense pressure from the Sept. 11 families to pass JASTA before the 15th anniversary of the attacks on Sunday.

A member of the French parliament, Pierre Lellouche, said he would consider retaliatory legislation in France, and would anticipate it elsewhere, if the final version of JASTA does not include waivers for countries that are U.S. allies and actively involved in fighting terrorism.

“It may trigger similar acts all over the place, and then you enter into a ‘state of jungle’ where everybody sues everybody,” Lellouche, who runs a parliamentary committee on international law, told reporters on a conference call on Friday.

(Additional reporting by Timothy Gardner and Ayesha Rascoe; Editing by Will Dunham and Tom Brown)

Photo: REUTERS/Peter Morgan

Trump NATO Plan Would Be Sharp Break With Decades-Long U.S. Policy

Republican foreign policy veterans and outside experts warned that the suggestion by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump that he might abandon NATO‘s pledge to automatically defend all alliance members could destroy an organization that has helped keep the peace for 66 years and could invite Russian aggression.

“Statements like these make the world more dangerous and the United States less safe,” Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Trump critic who is one of the Republican Party’s leading foreign policy voices and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement on Thursday.

“I can only imagine how our allies in NATO, particularly the Baltic states, must feel after reading these comments from Mr. Trump. I’m 100 percent certain how Russian President Putin feels – he’s a very happy man,” he said.Trump’s comments in a New York Times interview “would seem to put him on the same page with Mr. Putin,” Richard Armitage, who was deputy secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration, said in an interview with Reuters.

In the New York Times interview, Trump, in response to a question about potential Russian aggression toward the Baltic states – Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia – said that if Moscow attacked them, he would decide whether to come to their aid only after reviewing whether those nations “have fulfilled their obligations to us.” He added, “If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.”

“It’s the end of NATO,” Robert Hunter, a former U.S. ambassador to the alliance under President Bill Clinton, told Reuters. “The essence of NATO, more than any other single factor, is the commitment of the United States of America to the security of the other 27 members.”

Asked about Trump’s comments, European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the EU knows it needs to “work more on our defense capabilities,” but said the United States needs to keep solidarity with its allies.

“It’s very simple to realize that in the world of today, which is quite a complicated one and quite a dangerous one, you need friends,” said Mogherini, who spoke in Washington at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“INFLAMMATORY REMARKS”

A letter signed by a bipartisan group of 39 national security experts said Trump’s “inflammatory remarks” do not represent the interests of the United States.

“The strength of our alliances is at the core of those interests,” said the group, which includes prominent Republicans such as former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and former State Department official Eliot Cohen.

The United States must uphold the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s commitments “to all of our allies, including Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania,” the letter said.

U.S. Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the mutual defense commitment was the essence of the Atlantic alliance.

But he added that both Republicans and Democrats “are becoming exasperated that most members of the alliance are not honoring their obligations” for military spending, Corker, a Tennessee Republican, said in a statement.

Responding to Trump’s suggestion that his decisions would depend in part on whether states that were attacked were meeting their financial commitments to the alliance, former diplomat Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said it is important not to see NATO or any alliance solely in budget terms.

“More important is the net benefit the U.S. derives from the stability and security of the country and region affected and the price the U.S. would pay if stability were to be lost or its interests undermined,” Haass told Reuters.

Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which created NATO in 1949 and calls an attack on one member an attack on all, has been invoked once – to help defend the United States after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Following the attacks, NATO sent AWACS planes to patrol over U.S. skies, with more than 800 crew members from 13 NATO countries flying over 360 sorties. As part of the eight measures approved to support the United States, NATO, about three weeks later, sent elements of its Standing Naval Forces to patrol the Eastern Mediterranean and monitor shipping, expanding that to include the entire Mediterranean several months later.

A NATO official, speaking on condition of anonymity, also noted that the alliance “deployed a third of the troops in Afghanistan for over a decade, where over one thousand soldiers from non-U.S. NATO allies and partners gave their lives.”

Still, some experts downplayed Trump’s comments, even as they criticized them.

Kurt Volker, who was U.S. ambassador to NATO under both Republican President George W. Bush and Democratic President Barack Obama, said it was inadvisable to create doubts in adversaries’ minds about the consequences they would face if they invaded a country.

“Putin loves it,” Volker said.

But he said the general European attitude was to take Trump’s pronouncements with a grain of salt. “Everyone knows it’s an election campaign,” he said.

 

(Additional reporting by Jonathan Landay, Yara Bayoumy, Warren Strobel, Roberta Rampton and Doina Chiacu in Washington and Emily Stephenson and Ginger Gibson in Cleveland; Editing by Leslie Adler and Jonathan Oatis)

Photo: Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event on the day several states held presidential primaries, including California, at the Trump National Golf Club Westchester in Briarcliff Manor, New York, U.S., June 7, 2016  REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Biden Says Israel Settlements Raise Questions About Commitment To Peace

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Vice President Joe Biden called on Israel’s government on Sunday to demonstrate its commitment to a two-state solution to end the conflict with the Palestinians and said settlement expansion is weakening prospects for peace.

“Israel’s government’s steady and systematic process of expanding settlements, legalizing outposts, seizing land, is eroding in my view the prospect of a two-state solution,” Biden said in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a leading pro-Israel lobbying group.

Biden said he did not agree with Israel President Benjamin Netanyahu’s government that expanded settlements would not interfere with any effort to settle the conflict.

“Bibi (Netanyahu) thinks it can be accommodated, and I believe he believes it. I don’t,” Biden said.

Biden said the region instead seems to be moving toward a one-state solution, which he termed dangerous.

“There is no political will at this moment among Israelis or Palestinians to move forward with serious negotiations. And that’s incredibly disappointing,” Biden said.

Israel says it intends to keep large settlement blocs in any future peace agreement with the Palestinians. Palestinians, who seek to establish a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, say they fear Israeli settlement expansion will deny them a viable country.

Palestinians have cited Israeli settlement activity as one of the factors behind the collapse of U.S.-brokered peace talks in 2014, and a surge of violence over the past five months has dimmed hopes negotiations could be revived any time soon.

“We’ve stressed to both parties the need to take meaningful steps to demonstrate their commitment to a two-state solution that extends beyond mere words,” Biden said.

“There’s got to be a little ‘show-me.’ This cannot continue to erode,” he said.

Biden was cheered for criticizing what he called Palestinian actions at the United Nations to undermine Israel, and he said changes in the region, including the united fight against Islamic State militants, could help thaw relations between Israel and its neighbors.

Israel and the United States are also in talks on a generous military assistance agreement, he said.

“It will, without a doubt, be the most generous security assistance package in the history of the United States,” Biden said of a pact expected to be worth billions of dollars annually to the Jewish state, the largest recipient of such U.S. assistance.

 

 

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Richard Pullin)

Photo: U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speaks as he delivers a joint statement with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting in Jerusalem March 9, 2016. REUTERS/Debbie Hill/Pool