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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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Bank CEO Stephen Calk charged with soliciting Manafort for Trump admin job



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By Tom Winter, Joe Valiquette and Adiel Kaplan

Bank CEO Stephen Calk tried to exchange $16 million in loans to Paul Manafort for a top position within the Trump administration, according to an indictment against the banking executive unsealed Thursday.

Calk, the president of the Federal Savings Bank, approved millions in “high-risk loans in an effort to secure a personal benefit, namely to an appointment as Secretary of the Army, or another similar high-level position in the incoming presidential administration,” said Deputy U.S. attorney Audrey Strauss of the Southern District of New York.

Stephen CalkThe Federal Savings Bank

Federal investigators were probing last year whether Manafort, the former Trump campaign chair, promised Calk a job in the White House in return for $16 million in home loans, NBC News first reported in February 2018.

Calk, who surrendered to the FBI Thursday morning, allegedly approved multiple high-risk loans for Manafort, who urgently needed them to avoid foreclosure. While the loans were pending approval, Calk allegedly provided Manafort with a ranked list of positions he desired. At its head were the two top positions at the U.S. Treasury, followed by Secretary of Commerce and Secretary of Defense. The list also included 19 high-level ambassadorships, among them ambassador to the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy.

Manafort received three separate loans in December 2016 and January 2017 from Federal Savings Bank for homes in New York City, Virginia and the Hamptons. The three loans were questioned by other officials at the bank, two sources with direct knowledge of the matter told NBC News last February.

The loans raised red flags at the bank in part because of Manafort’s history of defaulting on prior loans and that the size made Manafort’s debt the single largest lending relationship at the bank, according to prosecutors. Calk was required to authorize an unusual lending scheme to avoid passing the lending cap to a single borrower.

In exchange, Manafort provided Calk with personal benefits, prosecutors said. The bank CEO was appointed to Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers in August 2016, just days after the bank approved a proposed $9.5 million loan to Manafort.

According to the indictment, Manafort and his son-in-law, Jeffrey Yohai, approached the bank in an effort to refinance loans tied to a construction project in Los Angeles.

During a meeting held on July 27, 2016 — while Manafort was Trump campaign chairman — Calk allegedly broached the idea of him joint the Trump campaign. By the next day, the first loan of $5.7 million was approved. Less than a week later, Manafort offered Calk a position on the economic advisory committee for Donald Trump, according to the indictment.

Calk issued another loan for over $9 million later in the fall of 2016. Then, Calk reached out to Manafort asking him if he was involved in the Trump presidential transition following the election, according to the indictment.

Manafort allegedly responded, “total background but involved directly.”

Shortly after the election, in November or December 2016, Manafort recommended Calk for an administrative position, leading to a formal interview of Calk for Under Secretary of the Army at the transition team headquarters in Trump Tower in 2017. When Manafort made the recommendation, he had more than $6 million in loans pending approval at Calk’s bank.

Calk ultimately was not hired for the position.

Months later, the loans to Manafort were downgraded by the banks regulator, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. Calk allegedly lied to regulators, telling them he never desired a position in the presidential administration.

A November 14, 2016 email Calk sent to Manafort that included his resume and list of desired positions in ranked order was as exhibit in the Manafort trial.

Charlie Gile contributed.

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European elections UK results time: What time is the result of EU election due?



THE EUROPEAN elections kicked off in the UK this morning, with polling stations open from 7am. What time is the result of the EU election due?

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Trump lashes out at Rex Tillerson for saying Putin out-prepared him



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By Allan Smith

President Donald Trump lashed out at Rex Tillerson on Thursday morning after his former secretary of state reportedly told a House committee that the president was ill-prepared for a 2017 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Rex Tillerson, a man who is ‘dumb as a rock’ and totally ill prepared and ill equipped to be Secretary of State, made up a story (he got fired) that I was out-prepared by Vladimir Putin at a meeting in Hamburg, Germany,” Trump tweeted. “I don’t think Putin would agree. Look how the U.S. is doing!”

The tweet followed a Washington Post report that Tillerson told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that Putin out-prepared Trump for the meeting at the 2017 G-20 summit. Tillerson said Putin’s higher level of preparation put Trump at a disadvantage during the meeting.

The U.S. had anticipated a shorter meeting between the two leaders, but it instead turned into a two-hour plus discussion of geopolitical issues, committee aides told the Post. Tillerson spoke before the committee for seven hours in a closed-door session on Tuesday.

“We spent a lot of time in the conversation talking about how Putin seized every opportunity to push what he wanted,” a committee aide told the Post. “There was a discrepancy in preparation, and it created an unequal footing.”

Tillerson spoke with a bipartisan group of lawmakers and staff at the request of the panel’s chairman, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the newspaper reported. Unlike Trump’s solo meeting with Putin in Helsinki last summer, advisers — including Tillerson — were present alongside him at the meeting with the Russian president in Germany.

Tillerson and Trump had sparred for months before the president fired him in March of last year. The former secretary of state nearly resigned in the summer of 2017 amid mounting policy disputes and clashes with the White House, NBC News reported, citing senior administration officials. As tensions came to a head, Tillerson called Trump a “moron” following a meeting at the Pentagon with Cabinet officials and members of Trump’s national security team, three officials familiar with the incident said.

In December, Tillerson told CBS News that Trump was “undisciplined,” didn’t read much and tried to do things that would violate the law. In response, Trump said Tillerson “didn’t have the mental capacity needed” to be secretary of state.

“He was dumb as a rock and I couldn’t get rid of him fast enough,” Trump tweeted. “He was lazy as hell.”

In hiring Tillerson to run the State Department, Trump pointed to the former Exxon Mobil executive’s “vast experience at dealing successfully with all types of foreign governments” and called him “a world class player and dealmaker.”

“He will be a star,” Trump tweeted after Tillerson was sworn in.

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