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Trump directed Ukraine quid pro quo, key witness says

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WASHINGTON, DC, USA (AP) — Ambassador Gordon Sondland told House impeachment investigators yesterday that he worked with Rudy Giuliani on Ukraine at the “express direction” of President Donald Trump and pushed for a political “quid pro quo” with Kyiv because it was what Trump wanted.

“Mr Giuliani was expressing the desires of the president of the United States, and we knew that these investigations were important to the president,” Sondland testified of his dealings with Trump’s personal attorney.

Sondland, the most highly anticipated witness in the public impeachment probe, made clear that he believed Trump was pursuing his desire for political investigations in return for an Oval Office meeting that the eastern European nation’s new president sought to bolster his alliance with the West.

Sondland said he later came to believe military aid that Ukraine relied on to counter Russia was also being held up until the investigations were launched.

In a blockbuster morning of testimony, Sondland’s opening remarks included several key details: He confirmed that he spoke with Trump on a cellphone from a busy Kyiv restaurant the day after the president prodded Ukraine’s leader to investigate political rival Joe Biden.

He also said he kept Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other top administration officials aware of his dealings with Ukraine on the investigations Trump sought.

Sondland said he specifically told Vice-President Mike Pence he “had concerns” that US military aid to Ukraine “had become tied” to the investigations.

“Everyone was in the loop,” Sondland testified in opening remarks.

“It was no secret.”

A top Pence aide denied that the conversation between the vice-president and Sondland occurred.

It “never happened”, said Pence Chief of Staff Marc Short.

Trump has insisted he did nothing wrong in his dealings with Ukraine, casting the impeachment inquiry as a politically motivated effort to push him from office.

Speaking to reporters outside the White House on yesterday, he said he wanted nothing from the Ukrainians and did not seek a quid pro quo. He also distanced himself from Sondland, a major donor to his inauguration.

“I don’t know him very well. I have not spoken to him much,” Trump said, speaking from notes on the hearing, written with a black marker.

The impeachment inquiry focuses significantly on allegations that Trump sought investigations of former Vice- President Biden and his son — and the discredited idea that Ukraine, rather than Russia, interfered in the 2016 US election — in return for the badly needed military aid for Ukraine and the White House visit.

In Moscow yesterday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was pleased that the “political battles” in Washington had overtaken the Russia allegations, which are supported by the US intelligence agencies.

“Thank God,” Putin said, “no one is accusing us of interfering in the US elections anymore. Now they’re accusing Ukraine.”

Sondland said that conditions on any potential Ukraine meeting at the White House started as “generic” but “more specific items got added to the menu, including Burisma and 2016 election meddling”.

Burisma is the Ukrainian gas company where Joe Biden’s son Hunter served on the board. And, he added, “the server”, the hacked Democratic computer system.

“I know that members of this committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a ‘quid pro quo?

“As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes,” he said. Sondland said he didn’t know at the time that Burisma was linked to the Bidens but has since come to understand that, and that the military aid also hinged on the investigations.

“President Trump never told me directly that the aid was conditioned on meetings,” he testified.

“The only thing we got directly from Giuliani was that Burisma and 2016 elections were conditioned on the White House meeting… The aid was my own personal guess … two plus two equals four.”

Sondland’s hours of testimony didn’t appear to sway Trump’s GOP allies in the Senate. Mike Braun of Indiana said the president’s actions “may not be appropriate, but this is the question: Does it rise to the level of impeachment?

And it’s a totally different issue and none of this has. “I’m pretty certain that’s what most of my cohorts in the Senate are thinking and I know that’s what Hoosiers are thinking… and most of middle America.”

Sondland, a wealthy hotelier and Trump donor, has emerged as a central figure in an intense week in the impeachment probe that has featured nine witnesses testifying over three days.

Both Democrats and Republicans were uncertain about what Sondland would testify to, given that he had already clarified parts of his initial private deposition before lawmakers.

Sondland appeared prepared to fend off scrutiny over the way his testimony has shifted in closed-door settings, saying “my memory has not been perfect”.

He said the State Department left him without access to e-mails, call records and other documents he needed in the inquiry. Republicans called his account “the trifecta of unreliability”.

Still, he did produce new e-mails and text messages to bolster his assertion that others in the administration were aware of the investigations he was pursuing for Trump from Ukraine.

Sondland insisted, twice, that he was “adamantly opposed to any suspension of aid” for Ukraine.

“I was acting in good faith. As a presidential appointee, I followed the directions of the president.”

The son of immigrants, who he said escaped Europe during the Holocaust, Sondland described himself as a “lifelong Republican” who has worked with officials from both parties, including Biden.

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China virus death toll jumps to 17

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BEIJING, China (AFP) — The death toll from a new SARS-like virus that has infected hundreds in China rose to 17 yesterday, as authorities urged people to steer clear of the city at the centre of the outbreak.

The coronavirus has caused alarm because of its similarity to SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), which killed nearly 650 people across mainland China and Hong Kong in 2002-2003.

With hundreds of millions of people travelling across China this week for the Lunar new year holiday, the National Health Commission announced measures to contain the disease — including sterilisation and ventilation at airports and bus stations, as well as inside planes and trains.

In Wuhan — the epicentre of the epidemic — large public events were cancelled and international football matches were moved to a new location. Visitors were urged to stay away, while residents were advised not to leave the central city, which is home to 11 million people.

“If it’s not necessary we suggest that people don’t come to Wuhan,” Wuhan Mayor Zhou Xianwang told State broadcaster CCTV.

The illness is mainly transmitted via the respiratory tract and there “is the possibility of viral mutation and further spread of the disease”, health commission vice-minister Li Bin told a news conference in Beijing.

More than 500 cases have now been reported, with the majority in Wuhan, capital of Hubei province.

The virus has now infected at least 444 people in Hubei province alone, said provincial officials at a press conference, adding that the death toll had risen from nine to 17.

Major cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, and Chongqing have also reported cases, as well as provinces in north-eastern, central, and southern China.

The World Health Organization started an emergency meeting yesterday to decide whether or not to declare a rare global public health emergency over the disease, which has now been detected in the United States, Taiwan, Thailand, Japan, South Korea, and Macau.

The Chinese Government has classified the outbreak in the same category as the SARS epidemic, meaning compulsory isolation for those diagnosed with the illness and the potential to implement quarantine measures.

But they still have not been able to confirm the exact source of the virus.

“We will step up research efforts to identify the source and transmission of the disease,” Li said, adding that “the cases are mostly linked to Wuhan”.

Countries have intensified efforts to stop the spread of the pathogen — known by its technical name 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV).

Passengers are facing screening measures at five US airports and a host of transport hubs across Asia. Britain and Italy yesterday also announced enhanced monitoring of passengers from Wuhan.

A prominent expert from China’s National Health Commission confirmed this week that the virus can be passed between people.

However, animals are suspected to be the primary source of the outbreak.

A Wuhan market is believed to be the epicentre of the outbreak.

A price list circulating online in China for a business there lists a menagerie of animals or animal-based products including live foxes, crocodiles, wolf puppies, and rats. It also offered civets, the animal linked to SARS.

“We already know that the disease originated from a market which conducted illegal transactions of wild animals,” said Gao Fu, director of the Chinese centre for disease control and prevention.

He said it was clear “this virus is adapting and mutating”.

Hong Kong and British scientists have estimated that between 1,300 and 1,700 people in Wuhan may have been infected.

Health authorities are urging people to wash their hands regularly, avoid crowded places, get plenty of fresh air, and wear a mask if they have a cough.

Anyone with a cough or fever was urged to go to hospital.

In Wuhan, city authorities made it mandatory to wear a mask in public places yesterday, according to State-run People’s Daily.

In response to skyrocketing demand for masks — which were starting to sell out at pharmacies and on some popular websites — China’s industry and information technology ministry said it would “spare no effort in increasing supply”, State media reported.

“These days, I wear masks even in places that are not too crowded, although I wouldn’t have done so in the past,” said Wang Suping, 50, who works at a Beijing arts school.

At the capital’s main international airport, the majority of people were wearing masks.

Hong Kong flag carrier Cathay Pacific said it had agreed to allow staff to wear surgical masks on mainland China flights, and that passengers from Wuhan would be offered masks and antiseptic wipes.

In Wuhan, police were conducting vehicle spot checks for live poultry or wild animals leaving and entering the city, State media said.

Officials also screened people on roads, the airport and the train station for fever.

The local government has cancelled major public activities and banned tour groups from heading out of the city.

Women’s Olympics football qualifiers scheduled for February 3-9 in Wuhan have been moved to the eastern city of Nanjing.

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Rains, heavy waves cause road damage in Negril

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Rains, heavy waves cause road damage in Negril

Thursday, January 23, 2020

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A section of the main road in West End, Negril, was yesterday reduced to single lane access after water from rains and heavy waves crashing along from the rough sea caused erosion. Motorists were advised to proceed with extreme caution, especially as giant-sized waves continue to impact the embankment. The National Works Agency said a technical team had been dispatched to the area and the necessary damage assessment is being done. Photo shows a section of the damaged road. (Photo: NWA)


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US top diplomat skirts question on the yanking of Vaz, Paulwell visas

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US top diplomat skirts question on the yanking of Vaz, Paulwell visas

BY ARTHUR HALL
Editor-at-Large
halla@jamaicaobserver.com

Thursday, January 23, 2020

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THE top diplomat in the United States Government, Mike Pompeo, has hinted at a possible review of the decision to revoke the visitor’s visas of Cabinet member Daryl Vaz, and former Cabinet member Phillip Paulwell.

But Pompeo has maintained the stance of the State Department of refusing to say why the visas were revoked as Transparency International prepares to release the latest date on the perceived level of corruption in Jamaica.

Late last year the two senior members of Jamaica’s political directorate confirmed that their US visitor’s visas, which they both held for several years, had been revoked without any explanation.

Since then efforts by the Jamaican media to get US officials to comment on the reasons for the action have been met with little more than a pointer to the State Department’s website which lists the reasons a visa might be revoked.

This has sparked speculations and allegations about the reasons for the US decision with further reputational damage for Jamaica, which was already battling a perception of widespread corruption across the island.

During a joint media briefing with Prime Minister Andrew Holness in Kingston yesterday, Pompeo, the US secretary of state, also refused to speak to the individual cases but declared that the US is willing to return visas in cases that it acted it error.

“I can’t respond in the specific because we don’t talk about decisions we make on granting visas, but the Jamaica people should know, we grant hundreds, thousands of permits for Jamaicans to come travel to America [and] you return the favour,” said Pompeo.

“We have a process by which we evaluate each and every person who seeks entry into the United States. It is an even process, a fair- handed process and we do our best to make sure that if we get such a decision wrong we continue to review it, so that we can make sure that we are doing the right thing.

“We, just like Jamaica, have security interest when we think about how we approach these problems that is almost foremost in our minds,” added Pompeo.

The decision by the US to withdraw the US visas of the two politicians and the allegations of corruption at a number of State agencies, including the Caribbean Maritime Institution, over the past year, are expected to hurt Jamaica when Transparency International releases the 2019 Corruption Index (CPI) today.

Last year Jamaica was ranked 70 out of 180 countries listed on the 2018 CPI. This represented a drop of two places as Jamaica previously recorded a CPI score of 44 in 2017. Jamaica also scored a CPI of 39 in 2016.

Transparency International, which released the rankings, noted that the index ranks countries and territories by their perceived levels of public sector corruption according to experts and business people, uses a scale of zero to 100, where zero is highly corrupt and 100 is very clean.

A CPI score of below 50 means that a country has a corruption problem.

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Fruitful talks

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Fruitful talks

Pompeo’s assurance of support for requests from Jamaica leaves Holness smiling

BY ARTHUR HALL
Editor-at-large
halla@jamaicaobserver.com

Thursday, January 23, 2020

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Prime Minister Andrew Holness emerged from closed-door bilateral talks with United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo just after nine yesterday morning with a broad smile, but it was almost at the end of the just over 20-minute joint media briefing afterwards that the reason for his cheerful demeanour became clear.

After delivering prepared presentations and taking four questions — two from members of the local media and two from American journalists — Holness pointed to what he deemed the major success of the almost hour-long discussion of the two delegations.

“I probably didn’t convey how well our meeting went. We had very frank discussions. Jamaica was able to raise, in direct ways, our perspective on difficult and complex issues, and I believe that the United States [delegation] was equally upfront in their perspectives as well,” said Holness, having earlier outlined some of the areas of support Jamaica was seeking from the US.

“I am pleased to say that we found common understanding on the urgent need to scale up our security cooperation. The main focus will be on bolstering Jamaica’s capacity to counter transnational organised crime, secure our borders and ports, and interrupt the flow of illicit weapons into the country,” said Holness.

“I cannot overstate the urgency with which we need to address these security matters. The Jamaican public most recently heard me underscore this in my new year’s message, and I have also emphasised their importance in my discussions with Secretary Pompeo today. Mr Secretary, we are therefore greatly heartened to have your pledge of support as we move to rigorously implement Plan Secure Jamaica,” added Holness.

He argued that at the wider level, securing Jamaica also requires sustained intervention on the economic and social front.

“We are determined to position Jamaica to take advantage of every opportunity that presents itself to grow the economy so that large and small businesses, as well as our communities and citizens, can reap the benefits.

“I therefore reaffirmed Jamaica’s keen interest in and plans to build upon the economic partnership between the United States and Jamaica. We will bolster cooperation in the area of energy security, increased trade, and importantly, we re-stated our desire to see greater US investment in Jamaica and across the region,” declared Holness.

He also underscored the importance of the Jamaica/US partnership in confronting natural disasters through risk reduction, building resilient communities and improving disaster response.

Holness added: “We, therefore, very much welcome the US-Caribbean Resilience Partnership launched last April, as it has given greater impetus to our efforts in this truly existential challenge for Jamaica and the Caribbean as a whole.

“For our regional engagement, the US-Caribbean 2020 Engagement Strategy also sets the course for further work to promote prosperity, energy security, health and well-being, peace and security, and ongoing high-level political engagement in the years ahead.”

While not providing details on the discussions regarding Venezuela and the controversy surrounding the looming election for the secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS), Holness said during the talks the US and Jamaica concurred on the importance of these issues being resolved in a peaceful, but timely manner and for the people who face hardship to receive the fullest support of the international community in order to exercise their rights and enjoy their dignity.

“We reiterated the valuable role of the OAS in supporting countries of the hemisphere and expressed the desire for the OAS to continue playing this role through strong leadership, strategic and sustainable planning, and of course, responsible action by its members,” said Holness.

For his part Pompeo used the media briefing to underscore the historical close relationship between Jamaica and the US which, he said, extended beyond the proximity of the two nations.

“Today in our meeting, the prime minister and I strengthened our country’s friendship and set the table for greater engagement,” said Pompeo as he noted that American companies have already invested nearly $1 billion in energy infrastructure in Jamaica.

“The United States has supported Caribbean nations with more than $600 million in much-needed funding for this fight [against drug flow and transnational crime] over this past decade,” added Pompeo as he declared his commitment to work with the Jamaican Government in the future.

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Trump says yes, then backtracks

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WASHINGTON, DC, United States (AP) — President Donald Trump said yesterday he is open to new witnesses at his impeachment trial, a major demand by Democratic prosecutors, but he immediately backtracked, suggesting it could never happen despite what he said was his willingness.

Separately, Trump’s lawyers let a deadline pass without filing a motion to outright dismiss the articles of impeachment, ensuring that the trial will continue.

Trump, who was in Davos, Switzerland, for an economic conference, seemed at one point to break with Republican opposition to Democratic motions to immediately call witnesses and subpoena documents. He said he’d like to see aides, including former national security adviser John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, testify as witnesses.

In fact, his Administration is citing executive privilege as a reason they cannot be forced to testify, and he said yesterday there are “national security” reasons for them to be kept out of the trial.

“The Senate is going to have to answer that,” he said.

Republicans have resisted the idea of additional witnesses, though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said there could be votes on the subject late in the trial. Republicans hold a 53-47 majority in the Senate.

As for outright dismissal, Trump has taken both sides. He has said the charges are groundless and should be thrown out, but he also has said he wants a full trial to vindicate him.

Tuesday’s day-long session started with a setback for McConnell and the president’s legal team — agreement to give prosecutors more days to make their case — but it ended near 2 a.m. Wednesday with Republicans easily approving the rest of the trial rules largely on their terms.

With the rules settled, the trial is now on a fast track. At issue is whether Trump should be removed from office for abuse of power stemming from his pressure on Ukraine to investigate Democratic rival Joe Biden and Biden’s son Hunter as Trump was withholding aid to the country, and for obstructing Congress’ ensuing probe.

Chief Justice John Roberts gavelled open the session, with House prosecutors on one side, Trump’s team on the other, in the well of the Senate, as senators sat silently at their desks, under oath to do “impartial justice.” No cellphones or other electronics were allowed.

As the day stretched deep into the night, lawyerly arguments gave way to more pointed political ones. Tempers flared and senators paced the chamber. Democrats pursued what may be their only chance to force senators to vote on hearing new testimony.

After one particularly bitter post-midnight exchange, Roberts intervened, admonishing both the Democratic House managers prosecuting the case and the White House counsel to “remember where they are”.

“I think it is appropriate at this point for me to admonish both the House managers and the president’s counsel in equal terms to remember that they are addressing the world’s greatest deliberative body,” the usually reserved Roberts said. He told them that description of the Senate stemmed from a 1905 trial when a senator objected to the word “pettifogging”, because members should “avoid speaking in a manner and using language that is not conducive to civil discourse”.

Over and over, Republicans turned back Democratic amendments to subpoena documents from the White House, State Department, Defence Department and budget office. By the same 53-47 party-line, they turned away witnesses with front-row seats to Trump’s actions including acting White House chief of staff Mulvaney and Bolton, the former national security adviser critical of the Ukraine policy.

Only on one amendment, to allow more time to file motions, did a single Republican, Senator Susan Collins of Maine, join Democrats. But it, too, was rejected, 52-48.

Motions from the Trump legal team were due yesterday, but the attorneys didn’t file any, said Jay Sekulow, one of the president’s lawyers. That means there will be no motion to dismiss the case as some Republicans had discussed. The House also didn’t file any of its own motions, and House managers were expected to begin their opening arguments.

On Tuesday, the proceedings quickly took on the cadence of a trial.

“It’s not our job to make it easy for you,” Rep Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee leading the prosecution, told the Senate. “Our job is to make it hard to deprive the American people of a fair trial.”

White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, the president’s lead lawyer, called the trial “a farce”. He scoffed that the House charges against Trump were “ridiculous”.

The White House legal team did not dispute Trump’s actions, when he called Ukraine and asked for a “favour”, which was to investigate Biden as he withheld military aid the ally desperately needed as it faced off with hostile Russia on its border. But the lawyers insisted the president did nothing wrong.

“Absolutely no case,” Cipollone said.

Schiff, the California Democrat, said America’s Founders added the remedy of impeachment in the Constitution with “precisely this type of conduct in mind — conduct that abuses the power of office for a personal benefit, that undermines our national security, and that invites foreign interference in the democratic process of an election”.

Said Schiff: “It is the trifecta of constitutional misconduct justifying impeachment.”

Sekulow, the other lead lawyer on Trump’s team, retorted, “I’ll give you a trifecta,” outlining complaints over the House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry process.

In Davos, Trump repeated his attacks on Democratic House managers serving as prosecutors in the trial, saying that he’d like to “sit right in the front row and stare at their corrupt faces” on the Senate floor during the trial but that his attorneys might have a problem with it.

And he said he wants to deliver the State of the Union as scheduled on February 4 even if the trial is ongoing, calling the address “very important to what I am doing” in setting his administration’s agenda. The impeachment trial is set against the backdrop of the 2020 election. All four senators who are Democratic presidential candidates were off the campaign trail, seated as jurors.

No president has ever been removed from office. With its 53-47 Republican majority, the Senate is not expected to mount the two-thirds vote needed for conviction.

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Reid, Pinnock return to court today

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Reid, Pinnock return to court today

Thursday, January 23, 2020

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FORMER Education Minister Ruel Reid and his co-accused, Professor Fritz Pinnock, will this morning reappear in the St Andrew Parish Court.

The two, who are facing multiple corruption charges related to the education ministry and the Caribbean Maritime University (CMU), were released on bail on October 10 last year following their arrest the day before.

On December 24, the Supreme Court struck down an application from the men’s attorneys for the court to throw out the fraud case against them on the grounds that their arrest by the Financial Investigations Division (FID) was illegal.

Reid and Pinnock — who is on special leave as president of the CMU — are facing charges of breaches of the Corruption Prevention Act, conspiracy to defraud, misconduct in a public office at common law and breaches of the Proceeds of Crime Act.

The accused were detained after months of investigations while controversial reports of multimillion-dollar contracts for consultancies and other services to the CMU played out in the public domain.

Seven months prior to the arrests Reid was dismissed from his position as education minister as corruption questions and rumours surfaced.

On Tuesday, the House of Representatives descended into chaos when the Opposition and Speaker Pearnel Charles clashed over whether Parliament should debate the report, given that it is a matter now in court.

The report was tabled yesterday after a week of media stories from the findings.

Pinnock, Reid, his wife Sharen, their daughter Sharelle, and Jamaica Labour Party Councillor Kim Brown Lawrence were arrested and charged in relation to the alleged corruption probe at the CMU and the education ministry. They were all granted bail in the St Andrew Parish Court on October 10.

— Alphea Saunders

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