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‘Lot of hand movement…Is he crazy or just the way he acts?’



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By Jonathan Allen

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Thursday that he was struck by Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke’s gesticulations during the former Texas congressman’s first day on the campaign trail.

“Well, I think he’s got a lot of hand movement. I’ve never seen so much hand movement. I said, ‘Is he crazy or is that just the way he acts?'” Trump said at the White House. “I watched him a little while this morning, during I assume it was some kind of a news conference, and I’ve actually never seen anything quite like it.”

O’Rourke, who served three terms in the House before losing to Trump-backed Republican incumbent Ted Cruz in a Senate race last November, launched his campaign with a video sent to supporters and spoke with voters in Iowa Thursday.

He excited many Democratic activists across the country with a campaign that turned ruby-red Texas into a competitive battleground in 2018, with Cruz defeating him by just 2.5 percentage points. But he entered a crowded field for his party’s presidential nomination and the right to take on Trump in 2020.

Trump dodged a question about whether he thought O’Rourke or former Vice President Joe Biden, who has not yet announced his intentions, would make for a tougher opponent.

“I just say whoever it is, I’ll take him on,” Trump said, repeating himself but adding “or her” to reflect the possibility that the Democratic nominee could be one of several women who are running.

While Trump likes to give his rivals derisive nicknames — he calls Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., “Pocahontas” to remind voters that she has claimed Native American heritage — the White House is instead referring to O’Rourke as “Robert Francis,” which is his given name. “Beto” is a nickname he has used since childhood.

Courtney Buble contributed.

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Nuclear industry pushing for fewer inspections at plants



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By Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The nuclear power industry is pushing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to cut back on inspections at nuclear power plants and throttle back what it tells the public about plant problems. The agency, whose board is dominated by Trump appointees, is listening.

Commission staffers are weighing some of the industry’s requests as part of a sweeping review of how the agency enforces regulations governing the country’s 98 commercially operating nuclear plants. Recommendations are due to the five-member NRC board in June.

Annie Caputo, a former nuclear-energy lobbyist now serving as one of four board members appointed or reappointed by President Donald Trump, told an industry meeting this week that she was “open to self-assessments” by nuclear plant operators, who are proposing that self-reporting by operators take the place of some NRC inspections.

The Trump NRC appointees and industry representatives say changes in oversight are warranted to reflect the industry’s overall improved safety records and its financial difficulties, as the operating costs of the country’s aging nuclear plants increase and affordable natural gas and solar and wind power gain in the energy market.

But the prospect of the Trump administration’s regulation-cutting mission reaching the NRC alarms some independent industry watchdogs, who say the words “nuclear safety” and “deregulation” don’t go together.

For example, “the deregulatory agenda at SEC is a significant concern as well, but it’s not a nuclear power plant,” said Geoffrey Fettus, a senior attorney for nuclear issues at the Natural Resources Defense Council, referring to the federal government’s Securities Exchange Commission.

“For an industry that is increasingly under financial decline … to take regulatory authority away from the NRC puts us on a collision course,” said Paul Gunter, of the anti-nuclear group Beyond Nuclear. With what? “With a nuclear accident,” Gunter said.

The industry made its requests for change in a letter delivered by the Nuclear Energy Institute group. A “high-priority” ask is to eliminate press releases about lower-level safety issues at plants — meaning the kind of problems that could trigger more inspections and oversight at a plant but not constitute an emergency.

The industry group also asked that the NRC reduce the “burden of radiation-protection and emergency-preparedness inspections.”

Nuclear plant operators amplified their requests at an annual meeting in the Washington, D.C, area this week.

Scaling back disclosure of lower-level problems at plants is “more responsible … than to put out a headline on the webpage to the world,” said Greg Halnon, vice president of regulatory affairs for Ohio-based FirstEnergy Corp., which says its fleet of nuclear and other power plants supplies 6 million customers in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic.

When the NRC makes public the problems found at a plant, utilities get “pretty rapid calls from the press, SEC filings get impacted because of potential financial impact,” Halnon said.

Requests by utilities for rate increases also can be affected, Halnon said.

Trump has said he wants to help both the coal and nuclear power industries. So far, it’s the more politically influential coal industry that’s gotten significant action on the regulatory rollbacks that it sought from the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies.

In January, Trump appointees to the NRC disappointed environmental groups by voting down a staff proposal that nuclear plants be required to substantially — and expensively — harden themselves against major floods and other natural disasters. The proposal was meant to be a main NRC response to the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster after Japan’s 9.0 earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

Caputo, who previously worked for nuclear plant operator Exelon Corp, told operators this week her aim was “risk-informed decision-making,” concentrating regulatory oversight on high-risk problems.

“We shouldn’t regulate to zero risk,” said David Wright, a former South Carolina public-utility commissioner appointed to the NRC board last year.

“The NRC mission is reasonable assurance of adequate protection — no more, no less,” Wright said.

Tony Vegel, a Texas-based reactor safety official for the NRC, pushed back when industry executives publicly made their case for fewer NRC inspections.

“It’s difficult to come across as an independent regulator and rely on self-assessment” from plants, Vegel said.

The current review, commissioned by the new NRC panel, was looking at the inspections issues and related ones, NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said. Commissioners will decide after receiving the staff recommendations whether to adopt any of them, Burnell said.

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Trump admin to ban entry of International Criminal Court investigators



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By Dan De Luce and Abigail Williams

The United States will repeal or deny visas to International Criminal Court staff seeking to investigate Americans in Afghanistan or elsewhere and may take similar action to protect Israelis or other allied forces from prosecution, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Friday.

“We are determined to protect the American and allied military and civilian personnel from living in fear of unjust prosecution for actions taken to defend our great nation,” Pompeo said.

The unprecedented move came amid a pending request by the ICC prosecutor’s office to open a probe into possible war crimes by Afghan or U.S. personnel in Afghanistan and after national security adviser John Bolton, a vehement critic of the court, threatened punitive action in September.

The visa restrictions are “a part of the continued effort to convince the ICC to change course with its potential investigation and potential prosecution of Americans for their activities and our allies activities in Afghanistan,” Pompeo told a press conference.

The secretary of state said the administration has already begun to carry out the visa restrictions but did not offer any more details.

Referring to court employees, Pompeo said that “you should know if you’re responsible for the proposed ICC investigation of U.S. personnel in connection with the situation in Afghanistan you should not assume that you will still have or will get a visa or that you will be permitted to enter the United States.”

Pompeo added that the administration was prepared to impose visa restrictions in other cases involving allies, including Israel. “These visa restrictions may also be used to deter ICC efforts to pursue allied personnel including Israelis without allies consent,” he said.

The prosecutor for the ICC has a request pending to investigate possible war crimes in Afghanistan linked to Afghan and U.S. military and intelligence personnel, including at detention sites. A U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee report in 2014 concluded that interrogations of detainees after the 9/11 attacks in Afghanistan and elsewhere were “brutal and far worse than the CIA represented to policymakers and others.”

Pompeo also said the U.S. was ready to increase the pressure on the ICC if necessary.

“These visa restrictions will not be the end of our efforts. We are prepared to take additional steps including economic sanctions if the ICC does not change its course,” he said, without elaborating.

The International Criminal Court in The Hague said it was aware of the U.S. announcement.

“The ICC, as a court of law, will continue to do its independent work, undeterred, in accordance with its mandate and the overarching principle of the rule of law,” ICC spokesman Fadi El Abdallah said in an email.

He added that the ICC is a court of last resort that exercises its jurisdiction only when governments do not meet their responsibility to investigate and prosecute atrocities.

Human rights groups denounced the Trump administration’s decision.

The move represents “a thuggish attempt to penalize investigators at the International Criminal Court for doing their job — investigating war crimes,” said Andrea Prasow, deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch.

“The Trump administration is trying an end run around accountability. Taking action against those who work for the ICC sends a clear message to torturers and murderers alike: Their crimes may continue unchecked,” she said.

In September, after Bolton vowed to penalize the ICC if it did not abandon possible plans to investigate U.S. forces, the court said it would not be deterred by Washington’s threat and would carry on its work.

The U.S. for decades promoted the idea of international criminal justice and was instrumental in establishing the Nuremberg trials after World War II, as well as more recent tribunals prosecuting war crimes in former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Cambodia and elsewhere.

But Washington has never been a member of the ICC. In 2000, the Clinton administration signed the Rome statute that set up the court but never submitted it to the Senate for ratification as there was strong bipartisan opposition to allowing American troops to be prosecuted outside of the U.S.

Under George W. Bush’s administration, Bolton, as a senior State Department official, led the effort to withdraw the United States from the statute for the ICC.

The Obama administration had a less hostile stance toward the court and lent some limited support to the ICC’s investigations, according to legal experts.

The ICC is the only permanent international criminal tribunal with a mandate to investigate and prosecute the crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and aggression.

There are currently 123 countries that have ratified the Rome Statute and are members of the ICC.

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Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s Hollywood ties spark ethics questions in China trade talks



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By Emma Newburger/CNBC

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, one of President Donald Trump’s key negotiators in the U.S.-China trade talks, has pushed Beijing to grant the American film industry greater access to its markets.

But now, Mnuchin’s ties to Hollywood are raising ethical questions about his role in those negotiations. Mnuchin had been a producer in a raft of successful films prior to joining the Trump administration.

In 2017, he divested his stake in a film production company after joining the White House. But he sold that position to his wife, filmmaker and actress Louise Linton, for between $1 million and $2 million, The New York Times reported on Thursday. At the time, she was his fiancée.

That company, StormChaser Partners, helped produce the mega-hit movie “Wonder Woman,” which grossed $90 million in China, according to the Times. Yet, because of China’s restrictions on foreign films, the producers received a small portion of that money. Mnuchin has been personally engaged in trying to ease those rules, which could be a boon to the industry, according to the Times.

Mnuchin’s 2018 disclosure, which was obtained by the Times, shows StormChaser listed as one of Linton’s assets. Because the couple is now married, the asset is considered Mnuchin’s. And he is owed that same $1 million to $2 million, with additional interest, from the company in 2026, the 2018 form disclosed.

Senate Democrats on Thursday questioned Mnuchin about his financial holdings. He responded during the hearing that he has complied with rules of career ethics officials inside the Treasury Department, but declined to discuss details of the transaction.

“I am advised by people at Treasury that I am fully in compliance and I have no ethical issues,” Mnuchin said at the hearing. The Office of Government Ethics has not yet certified his 2018 financial disclosure, the first since his marriage to Linton, the Times reported.

Since trade talks began last year, film lobbyists have met with Mnuchin’s top deputies and officials from the Commerce Department and the office of the U.S. Trade Representative. Mnuchin has reportedly been particularly responsive to lobbying from the film industry.

StormChaser did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment.

A Treasury Department spokesperson said in a statement: “Treasury’s career ethics lawyers certified the Secretary’s financial disclosure on June 27, 2018 and identified no outstanding conflicts of interest. The Secretary is in full compliance with his ethics agreement. We continue to work with the Office of Government Ethics to obtain certification of the disclosure.”

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