Author: Michele Kelemen

Sessions Revelations Put ‘Quiet, Behind-The-Scenes’ Russian Envoy In Spotlight

Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak arrives before President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of the Congress on Feb. 28. Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, is not known to seek the limelight. He’s a mild-mannered diplomat and an arms control expert who came to Washington as ambassador in 2008. But he has been in the news a lot of late, as Trump administration contacts with him come under scrutiny. Michael Flynn, President Trump’s original national security adviser, had to resign after misleading the administration about his phone calls with Kislyak. And now, Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has come under fire for meeting twice with the ambassador last year. “I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign,” Sessions said Thursday. But he announced he would recuse himself “from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for president of the United States.” Speaking at Stanford University last November, Kislyak defended his contacts with Trump surrogates. “Our job is to talk to all the people, be it Republicans, be it Democrats, whether they work for a campaign, whether they don’t work for a campaign,” he said. “Our job is to understand.” He also lamented the souring of U.S.-Russia relations. “We are living in the worst point in our relations after the end of...

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Repeal Of Anti-Corruption Rule May Hurt National Security, Critics Warn

  President Donald Trump signs a bill repealing a rule passed last July that required oil, gas and mining companies to disclose payments to overseas governments. The rule was meant to promote transparency. Critics of the repeal argue it served as an important national security tool since corruption often leads to violence, instability and terrorism. Pool/Getty Images One of the very first bills President Trump signed into law this month killed a Securities and Exchange Commission rule meant to promote transparency in countries riddled with corruption. Trump said getting rid of the rule, which required oil, gas and mining companies to disclose overseas royalties and other payments, would bring back jobs and save extraction companies many hours of paperwork and, potentially, hundreds of millions of dollars. But critics of this rollback say it could make the U.S. less safe. The rule was an important national security tool, they argue, since corruption often leads to violence, instability and terrorism. Former Sen. Richard Lugar, the Indiana Republican who co-authored the original legislation to require the transparency rule, was disappointed to see his fellow Republicans vote overwhelmingly in both houses of Congress to invalidate the SEC rule, which hadn’t even gone into effect yet. “History shows that many resource-rich countries are very poor because the vast mineral resources have bred corruption that has led to poverty, hunger and instability,” Lugar told NPR. He...

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Tillerson Takes The Helm At The State Department, Promising Respect And Honesty

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visits memorial wall plaques in the lobby of the State Department on Feb 2, 2017. The plaques honor employees who died in the line of duty. Andrew Harnik/AP When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrived at the State Department for his first day on the job, he made a point of visiting two walls in the entry way that pay tribute to fallen foreign service personnel. “They died in service of causes far greater than themselves,” Tillerson told the hundreds of employees who packed the C Street lobby at Foggy Bottom. “As we move forward in a new era, it is important to honor the sacrifices of those who have come before us, and reflect on the legacy that we inherit.” It was a message many diplomats needed to hear, after the White House called on “career bureaucrats” to “get with the program” or leave, remarks that were meant to target those who have expressed dissent over recent Trump administration moves. Tilleron’s visit was also in stark contrast to President Trump’s speech in front of a memorial at the CIA, where the President spent more time trashing media coverage of his inauguration than remembering career professionals, who died on the job. At the State Department, there are 248 names on the memorial plaques, the first of which was unveiled in 1933 by Secretary of State...

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For Trump’s Top Diplomat, Questions Loom About Conflicts Of Interest

LM Otero/AP Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, President-elect Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, will have his Senate confirmation hearing in January. Before then, experts say, he’ll have to think hard about how to divest from a company where he’s spent his entire career. Tillerson reportedly owns 2.6 million shares of Exxon Mobil stock, which would be worth about $240 million, as of the Wall Street close on Tuesday. When John Kerry became secretary of state nearly four years ago, he and his wife, Teresa Heinz, divested from a long list of companies to avoid any possibility of a conflict of interest. For the same reason, George Shultz — an executive at Bechtel before serving as Ronald Reagan’s top diplomat — set up a blind trust, says Davis Robinson, the State Department’s legal advisor at the time. But, Robinson says, “His was not as complicated as Mr. Tillerson, because Mr. Tillerson owns so much of Exxon Mobil stock.” Blind trusts and divestment are two of the most common options to meet the requirements of federal ethics laws. And tax breaks allow wealthy appointees to defer capital gains taxes when they sell off assets so they can serve in government. Paul Light, the Paulette Goddard Professor of Public Service at New York University, says divestment is the most effective cure to conflict of interest concerns. “If you are to reassure...

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Trump Is In Contact With Foreign Leaders, But Not The State Department

Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images The State Department’s transition office has been quiet, as Trump and his top advisors remain in New York. State Department spokesman John Kirby says officials stand ready and willing to offer any briefing materials to the Trump team, but so far, there just haven’t been any calls. “It’s not our place to inject ourselves into those decisions about who the president-elect is going to speak to and what they’re going to discuss,” Kirby told reporters Wednesday. “I mean, those are his staff’s decisions to make. We, of course, stand ready to assist the president-elect’s team in any way that they deem fit. But as I said, there’s been no outreach to date.” And there were no contacts with either the Trump transition team or Japanese officials before a meeting planned for today in New York between Trump and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Trump’s first face-to-face meeting with a foreign leader since the election. The schedule was only made clear this morning — and that may have unsettled officials in Japan, a key U.S. ally. A quick call by Trump’s staff to the State Department could have avoided any ruffled feathers, says Ronald Neumann, a longtime U.S diplomat. “It might have been useful if they had the kind of knowledge that State could give them about Japanese sensitivities and protocol,” he says. “But it wouldn’t necessarily...

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