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Trump envoy is selling out Afghanistan in Taliban peace talks: senior Afghan official



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By Dan De Luce

A top Afghan government official on Thursday blasted the Trump administration’s peace talks with the Taliban, accusing a U.S. presidential envoy of shutting out the Kabul government and betraying the trust of a close ally.

“We don’t know what’s going on. We don’t have the kind of transparency that we should have,” Hamdullah Mohib, Afghan national security adviser, told reporters during a visit to Washington.

Asked if President Donald Trump’s envoy for reconciliation in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, was consulting the Afghan government on his talks with the Taliban insurgents, Mohib said: “No. We get bits and pieces of information.”

He added: “The last people to find out are us.”

The commanders of Afghan security forces were deeply concerned about the situation, Mohib said.

“How am I supposed to convince them that they are not being sold out?”

The Afghan government was asked to send a negotiating team to recent talks in the United Arab Emirates to take part in possible three-way proximity talks among the Taliban, the United States and Kabul representatives, he said. But the Afghan representatives were reduced to waiting in hotel lobbies and were not properly briefed by the U.S. delegation, according to Mohib, who served as Afghan ambassador to the United States until he returned to Kabul last year.

“It was a humiliation for the Afghan government,” he said.

His extraordinary criticism revealed a bitter divide between the two countries at a moment when the Trump administration is pushing hard to broker an end to the 17-year-old war and allow for the withdrawal of American troops. U.S. lawmakers from both parties and some former U.S. diplomats have warned against a hasty negotiation with the Taliban that could amount to an American capitulation.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani previously has spoken of the risks of moving too hastily to cut a deal with the Taliban and warned Washington not to sideline his government in the talks. But his national security adviser’s broadside went a step further, accusing Washington of selling out Afghanistan and questioning the motives of Trump’s Afghan-born envoy.

“We think there may be personal ambitions, because there is a lack of information,” Mohib said.

Khalilzad has been considered a possible presidential candidate in Afghanistan in the past, and has held discussions with opposition Afghan political figures in Kabul, he said.

“The perception in Afghanistan, people in the government think that perhaps, perhaps all this talk is to create a caretaker government of which he will then become the viceroy,” Mohib said.

Qatari officials participate in peace talks in an undisclosed location in Doha, Qatar, on Feb. 25, 2019. U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, is seen, second left, and the Deputy Commander of the Taliban Movement for Political Affairs, Abdul Ghani Baradar, right.Qatar Foreign Ministry / AP

A State Department official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, dismissed the allegations.

“Mr. Mohib’s comments are inaccurate and unhelpful, and we will be responding to them privately today,” the official said. His comments do not in any way reflect the high level of U.S.-Afghan coordination on all matters involving peace in Afghanistan. “It is vital that the Afghans take this opportunity for peace.”

At a State Department press briefing, spokesman Robert Palladino said that Mohib’s comments did not warrant a public response.

But he said the U.S. remains in close consultation with President Ashraf Ghani and other senior officials, that Khalilzad has paid frequent visits to Kabul to hold discussions with Afghan leaders and that the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and his team are in contact with Ghani on “a near daily basis.”

“There is no lack of coordination,” Palladino said.

He later offered an account of a meeting on Thursday afternoon between David Hale, undersecretary of state for political affairs, and Mohib.

Hale reminded Mohib that Khalilzad represents the secretary of state, and “that attacks on Ambassador Khalilzad are attacks on the Department and only serve to hinder the bilateral relationship and the peace process,” Palladino said in a statement.

A White House National Security Council official rejected Mohib’s comments and said the United States values its longstanding relationship with Afghanistan.

“We are fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with Afghan security forces to stabilize the country and defeat terrorist threats, and at the same time we are working together toward bringing an end to the war,” the official said in an email.

“We recognize that for any peace settlement to be sustainable, the Taliban must engage with the Afghan government and other Afghan stakeholders to establish a political road map for Afghanistan’s future.”

Given that Khalilzad enjoys the full backing of the administration in his role as envoy, Mohib’s harsh criticism could end up only complicating the Afghan government’s relations with Washington, said one former senior U.S. diplomat, Laurel Miller.

“These remarks imply a dangerous misreading of the political and policy environment in Washington. No one here doubts that Khalilzad is an empowered negotiator representing US interests. Important to find a way to swim with the tide not against it,” Miller said in a tweet.

Khalilzad and other U.S. officials have said repeatedly that the administration has consulted with the Afghan government throughout the discussions with the Taliban and is seeking to create the conditions for direct talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

But sources familiar with the talks say Khalilzad’s team has pushed Ghani to engage more with opposition leaders to forge a broader team for peace negotiations, and believe the Afghan president has grown isolated politically.

On Tuesday, Khalilzad wrapped up another round of talks with the Taliban in Doha, saying they had clinched a draft agreement on two key issues — the withdrawal of U.S. troops and the insurgency’s commitment to break ties with Al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups.

“It’s clear all sides want to end the war. Despite ups and downs, we kept things on track and made real strides,” Khalilzad tweeted.

He also said that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”

Trump has made clear he would like to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and his desire to end the American military presence has led to a diplomatic full-court press to end the war.

But Mohib said the Afghan government was skeptical of public statements from the United States or Pakistan that the talks had produced progress.

“We like to hear that progress is made. But what is it?” Mohib said. “Our understanding is if there is a deal, it’s a bad deal.”

Taliban leaders have long refused to hold face-to-face negotiations with the Afghan government, which they portray as a puppet of the United States. They have also insisted that the U.S. must first agree to pull out its troops before any other issues can be settled.

The number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan fluctuates but the Pentagon says about 14,000 are currently on the ground, advising Afghan forces and carrying out counter-terrorism operations against Al-Qaeda or Islamic State fighters.

Mohib said if the U.S. wants to withdraw its troops, the administration could discuss this directly with the Afghanistan government, under the terms of a bilateral agreement between the two countries.

By holding extended talks with the Taliban, Washington was undercutting its ally while lending credibility to an adversary that had claimed the lives of thousands of Americans and Afghans, he said.

“We are told that Ambassador Khalilzad is a great diplomat and he knows what he’s doing. I’m not sure I buy that. He is ostracizing, alienating a very trusted ally and partner,” he said.

Although Khalilzad is officially the U.S. envoy for “reconciliation,” Mohib said: “He is not reconciling. He is alienating.”

Courtney Kube contributed.

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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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Pompeo says he remains hopeful about North Korea denuclearization talks



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By Abigail Williams

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Friday that the U.S. is hopeful denuclearization talks with North Korea will continue despite threats by a senior North Korean official to pull out of the negotiations and resume missile testing.

The official, Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui, “left open the possibility that negotiations would continue for sure,” Pompeo told reporters. “It’s the administration’s desire that we continue to have conversations.”

He also responded directly to threats that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un might consider resuming missile tests.

“In Hanoi, on multiple occasions, he spoke directly to the president and made a commitment that he would not resume nuclear testing, nor would he resume missile testing,” Pompeo said. “That’s Chairman Kim’s word. We have every expectation that he will live up to that commitment.”

North Korea and the United States failed to reach agreement last month at the second summit between President Donald Trump and Kim, and the two sides left in a stalemate over how far North Korea must go toward denuclearization in exchange for sanctions relief.

Speaking at a press conference Thursday, Hui blamed Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton for the breakdown in talks.

“I want to make it clear that the gangster-like stand of the U.S. will eventually put the situation in danger,” Choe said, according to The Associated Press. “We have neither the intention to compromise with the U.S. in any form nor much less the desire or plan to conduct this kind of negotiation.”

Pompeo brushed off the attacks.

“It’s not the first time. I have a vague recollection of being called ‘gangster-like’ from a visit that I took one time previously,” Pompeo said. “And following that we continued to have very professional conversation.”

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Bernie Sanders gets stitches after cutting head on shower door



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By Jane C. Timm

2020 campaign is leaving its mark — on Bernie Sanders’ head.

The Democratic presidential candidate and Vermont independent senator cut his head on the edge of a shower door, his campaign said on Friday, and visited a walk-in clinic as a “precaution.”

He was given seven stitches and an otherwise clean bill of health.

“The senator has proceeded with all of his scheduled events,” the campaign said in a statement.

Sanders, who was a Democratic contender in 2016 before running again for the 2020 nomination, is 77.

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