Intelligence officials have found it hard to keep President Trump’s attention when they are describing complex geopolitical conflicts during his daily briefings. Yet Trump has regularly zeroed in on the status of individual Americans imprisoned overseas.

Such was the case with Otto Warmbier.

“What are we doing for that kid in North Korea?” he repeatedly asked his briefers, according to a U.S. official familiar with the Oval Office meetings.

Multiple times Trump sought to talk with the parents of the captive university student, who was arrested as a tourist last year, but the Warmbiers declined. Two U.S. officials described internal discussions surrounding the Warmbier case on the condition of anonymity. When U.S. officials learned this month that Warmbier was in a coma, Trump personally approved a risky operation to send a diplomat and two doctors to Pyongyang to demand the 22-year-old man’s release. Warmbier died Monday in a hospital, days after being reunited with his family.

The president’s intervention in such individual cases, when Americans are involved, stands in contrast to his resistance to promoting human rights more broadly. Trump has proposed slashing U.S. programs that promote democratic values in other countries and rarely raises human rights concerns in public or private; his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has said such advocacy “creates obstacles” to advancing other American interests in foreign countries.

Yet the president has been willing to lean on countries when it comes to the treatment of Americans held in jails overseas. Even then, however, White House officials say such requests are better made quietly and in private.

“The previous administration spent a lot of time beating people up,” one administration official said. Trump has taken a different approach, advocating in private in the hope of developing closer relationships with world leaders that can “get us more leverage at the table,” the official said.

Trump aides point to Egypt’s release of Aya Hijazi, an Egyptian-American aid worker who had been jailed in Cairo for three years, as an example of the efficacy of Trump’s willingness to make a personal appeal for the release of an American.

That example, however, underscores the contrast with Trump’s approach to human rights collectively. When he welcomed Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi in early April, Trump stayed silent on Sisi’s crackdown on dissent and freedom of expression in his country, where tens of thousands of Egyptians have been detained. But during meetings about improving counter-terrorism cooperation between the U.S. and Egypt, Trump privately asked Sisi to release Hijazi.

Hijazi, who was raised in Falls Church, Va., and graduated from George Mason University, was released several days later, and soon after her return to the U.S. she met with Trump in the Oval Office.

Trump also intervened privately with Chinese officials to convince them to release Phan Phan-Gillis, an American businesswoman who had been imprisoned in China on espionage charges for more than two years. Phan-Gillis was deported to the U.S. in late April, about two weeks after Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Trump at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla.

“When it’s not about abstract notions of human rights and when American citizens are involved, I’ve never seen him wimp out,” a White House official said of Trump.

“In the ‘America first’ foreign policy, there’s no hesitation about doing the right thing for Americans whose rights have been denied them,” the official added.

Critics counter that such a narrow focus on specific cases of American citizens wrongly ignores the broader problem of how authoritarian governments like China and Egypt treat their own citizens and, by extension, any American unlucky enough in the future to be caught up in a repressive legal system.

One of the unintended consequences of the White House’s focus on Americans overseas, as officials acknowledge, is that it increases their value as hostages for a rogue regime like North Korea. Indeed, while Trump maneuvered for Warmbier’s release, two other Americans were arrested there in April and May, “when the North Koreans realized we were paying attention,” the U.S. official said.

“We had not had dialogue with the North Koreans and suddenly we wanted to talk about the hostages,” the official said. A fourth American, arrested months before Warmbier, also remains in North Korea’s custody.

Trump was in another country that is often criticized for its human rights record, Saudi Arabia, when he laid out his policy for withholding judgment of other governments, during his first foreign trip in May.

“We must seek partners, not perfection,” Trump told a gathering of Arab leaders, calling his approach “principled realism.”

“We will make decisions based on real-world outcomes — not inflexible ideology,” he said.

Aides say it is simply easier to get Trump to act on a case with a face and a name, a senior U.S. official said.

As Trump prepared to take the oath of office in January, intelligence briefers outlined in stark detail the ways North Korea was speeding up its effort to place a nuclear bomb on a ballistic missile that could reach U.S. cities.

Trump was alarmed, but he was fixated on the fact that the pariah state held two Americans when he took office: Warmbier, a University of Virginia student arrested in January 2016 while on a tour, and Kim Dong-chul, a Korean American who owned a business inside North Korea’s special economic zone.

In April and May, North Korea detained two additional American citizens, Kim Hak-song and Tony Kim, who were both affiliated with Pyonyang University of Science and Technology. Administration officials saw that as a play for negotiating leverage at a time when Trump was pressing China to force its ally Pyongyang to end its nuclear weapons program.

Trump was furious. He instructed Tillerson to “take all appropriate measures” to secure the Americans’ release, an administration official said. That effort picked up on June 6, when U.S. officials learned Warmbier was in a coma. Trump “put their feet to the fire,” the official said.

Warmbier’s father, Fred, said last week that, at Trump’s direction, State Department officials “aggressively pursued” a resolution.

The Obama administration had told Warmbier’s family “to take a low profile” as it worked to bring him home — to refrain from hanging ribbons on trees or doing media interviews to bring attention to the case. After Trump took office, Warmbier said, he and his wife “decided the time for ‘strategic patience’ was over” — using the term for President Obama’s policy toward the rogue government in Pyongyang.

Trump went further on Tuesday, implicitly blaming Obama for Warmbier’s death, calling the man’s treatment “a total disgrace” and suggesting he might not have died had he been retrieved sooner.

“Frankly, if he were brought home sooner, I think the results would have been a lot different,” Trump told reporters Tuesday in the Oval Office.

The three other Americans remain in North Korea.

Twitter: @ByBrianBennett

brian.bennett@latimes.com



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Johnny Depp predicted this story would be written — probably because that’s what happens when someone famous talks about assassinating President Trump. 

“When was the last time an actor assassinated a president?” the “Pirates of the Caribbean” star asked a cheering crowd Thursday night at the Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts in Somerset, England, where he was introducing his 2004 film “The Libertine” at the fest’s Cineramageddon stage. 

“I want to qualify, I am not an actor,” Depp added, per the Guardian. “I lie for a living. However, it has been a while and maybe it is time.”

The answer to his question would be 152 years, two months and seven days since John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln on April 15, 1865.

Depp talked about Trump after taking questions from the crowd before “The Libertine” screened, the Guardian said. 

“I think he needs help and there are a lot of wonderful dark, dark places he could go,” he said. “It is just a question — I’m not insinuating anything. By the way, this is going to be in the press. It will be horrible. I like that you are all a part of it.”

In late May, comic Kathy Griffin learned how far is too far when she published a photo, in the style of Islamic State, showing herself holding a bloody, decapitated head in the likeness of Trump. 

Facing backlash from people on both sides of the aisle, she apologized and took down the image. However, days later, she held a news conference where she broke down in tears, said the Trump family had bullied her and and broken her, then vowed, “I’m going to make fun of the president, and I’m going to make fun of him more now.”



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Opera knows a little something about conflating Julius Caesar with an American president. It also knows a little something about Donald Trump.

In the early 1980s, a young director made a name for himself by staging a daring production of Handel’s “Giulio Cesare.” It opened with a news conference at a fancy international hotel by a cocksure U.S. president having just arrived in the oil-rich Middle East.

“The text of his speech,” as Peter Sellars wrote with strange prescience in his updated plot synopsis of an 18th century libretto, “concerns itself at length with the palm trees, which he clearly admires. Perhaps they remind him of Palm Beach. Let them belong to the victors.”

A few years later, Sellars famously set Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” in an apartment in the then-new Trump Tower, 52 floors above Fifth Avenue. This is the world, to quote Sellars’ plot synopsis of an old libretto again, of beautiful people for whom “perjury, loss of happiness and absence of consciousness can be compensated for by the feel of money, the sense of being on top and the sweet certainty that their own barren lives will be enriched by the amusement and consolation offered by the collapse of the hopes and plans of others.”

Neither of these examples, however, was a foretaste of the Public Theater’s recent production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” which portrayed Trump as the Roman emperor. Sellars did not presume direct correlation between past and present. The U.S. president was someone in the future, not specifically Ronald Reagan, then in office. The “Figaro” apartment in the Trump Tower was not Trump’s gilded one but a modern duplex dominated by a large Frank Stella-like painting. The Count in no way physically resembled Trump or his lifestyle.

In both cases, Sellars wasn’t in the business of singling out individuals. Handel and Mozart were artists with great insight into society, and Sellars was instead seeking what light their work — work that has survived centuries — shined on our own values.

That might sound very much like the intent of the controversial New York Shakespeare in the Park production of “Julius Caesar,” with a Caesar resembling Trump. Director Oskar Eustis sounded as though he was after something similar to what Sellars was up to with Handel and Mozart, using Shakespeare’s tragedy as a mirror to nature, often revealing “disturbing, upsetting, provoking things.”

The result then offers, you might say, a teaching moment about the ramifications of political violence. As a general, Caesar had committed genocide, killing nearly every soldier-age male in Gaul, possibly as many as a million. He was assassinated by a cabal of senators when, after declaring himself a god, he attempted to turn the republic of Rome into a kingdom. Follow this parallel with Trump through to its logical conclusion, and you would need to have Caesar’s last words in the updated play be “Et tu, Bernie.”

From there, anything ridiculous goes.

Opera is far from blameless in unscrupulous updating. But when the intent is noble, the point is not to place a specific individual in someone else’s shoes. When Sellars has chosen to focus on historical figures, such as Richard Nixon or Robert Oppenheimer, he made a new opera about them as a way of better understanding their inner lives. When he updates a classic work, he helps us to imagine ourselves capable of the spiritual growth that Handel proffers his Caesar and Mozart his Count.

In the end, a director has to be true to the work, or everything starts to unravel. Instead of generating a discussion about political violence, the recent “Julius Caesar” seemed to incite dangerous vitriol. Public Theater sponsors Delta Air Lines and Bank of America pulled their support.

So now we have a new debate about whether we should patronize companies that don’t stand for what we believe to be right. Therein lies another cautionary tale.

Around the time Sellars made his “Giulio Cesare” and “Figaro” productions, the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s most generous sponsor was Philip Morris. That led a few artists to boycott BAM for accepting money from a tobacco company.

The difference here was that the chairman of Philip Morris happened to be an arts lover. When asked by the New York Times whether the BAM sponsorship was intended to improve the company’s image, Hamish Maxwell’s reply was that he was thinking of it more as a stimulus to his employees. Philip Morris employees got discount tickets, and the exposure to avant-garde art was a way to inspire them to be more innovative. And this was in the Reagan era, no less.

The Public Theater has admirably stood up to Delta and Bank of America, saying that it will not be censored by any sponsor. Both companies will find they can’t win, since pulling out of the Public will prompt other customers to boycott them, which has the unfortunate consequence of changing the subject once again. Is it OK to fly an airline or bank with an institution only if it gives money for Shakespeare in the Park?

How much harder will it be to get other companies to support the arts? Will arts groups less financially robust as the Public rethink the kind of work they put on, lest they create a controversy and lose sponsorship?

It’s not a pretty picture. It is also one that opera, generally the most expensive of the performance arts, faces regularly. Censorship is part of opera history, and composers and librettists have found all kinds of innovative ways around it. Handel did so by being entrepreneurial. Mozart, by being subversive.

Companies today in countries like Germany and Austria get massive state support with few or no strings attached. Elsewhere though, young people are thinking about opera on a much smaller, independent scale that allows more freedom, especially when they see what happens when an opera is misunderstood.

The Metropolitan Opera pulled the radio broadcast of John Adams’ “The Death of Klinghoffer” three years ago because of pressure from a sponsor. However unsympathetic the opera ultimately was to terrorism, it prompted death threats and protests from people who objected to showing the underlying thinking and emotions of both sides of the Israeli and Arab conflict. This sours the American opera scene, which increasingly plays it safe.

There are no simple answers. Things may well get worse before they get better.

Artists can’t pull punches. But the punches need to hit the mark. Treating theater as an early warning system, like the recent “Julius Caesar,” does little good when it preaches to the converted and offends those for whom the warnings are meant. Giving offense, moreover, has become honey to social media.

But showing the capacity for grace in the graceless, as Sellars did with “Giulio Cesare” and “Figaro” and as he promises to do this summer in his Salzburg Festival production of Mozart’s “La Clemenza di Tito,” in which an emperor learns compassion — that is where hope lies. That is theater’s one chance of being lucky enough to change minds.

mark.swed@latimes.com



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Top Trump administration officials held high-level meetings Wednesday with their Chinese counterparts as the White House struggles to find new ways to put pressure on North Korea to throttle back its nuclear arms program.

“We hope China will do their part,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters after he and Secretary of Defense James Mattis met at the State Department with China’s State Councilor Yang Jiechi and People’s Liberation Army Chief of Joint Staff Gen. Fang Fenghui.

Unable to persuade or coerce North Korea to rein in its nuclear arms and ballistic missile programs, the White House had publicly appealed to China to help ease the threat — and then appeared to blame Beijing when that strategy failed.

Tillerson said China should apply more economic and political pressure on Pyongyang, including refusing to do business with North Korean entities that have been blacklisted by the United Nations.

The meeting occurred a day after President Trump acknowledged that his attempts to convince Chinese President Xi Jinping to do more had not paid off. The two met in early April at Trump’s beachfront estate in Florida, Mar-a-Lago.

“While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out,” Trump said via Twitter on Tuesday. “At least I know China tried!”

That followed the death Monday of former University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier, who was released last week from 17 months detention in North Korea on charges of stealing a propaganda poster from his hotel. He was flown home in a coma and never recovered.

Asked if Trump’s tweet represented frustration with China, Mattis said the frustration lay with North Korea because of its mistreatment of the 22-year-old American.

“There is no way that we can look at a situation like this with any kind of understanding,” he said. “This goes beyond any kind of understanding of law and order, of humanity, of responsibility towards any human being. So what you’re seeing, I think, is the American people’s frustration with a regime that provokes, and provokes, and provokes, and basically plays outside the rules, plays fast and loose with the truth, that sort of thing.”

Three other Americans are held in North Korean jails, according to the State Department. It routinely warns against traveling to North Korea but about 1,000 Americans visit the rigidly ruled Communist nation each year.

U.S. officials said the focus of Wednesday’s meeting was the “urgent threat” posed by North Korea and the U.S. attempts to seek China’s help.

Susan Thornton, acting assistant secretary of State for east Asian and Pacific affairs, said Washington would hold North Korea accountable for its “flagrant and repeated disregard” for U.N. resolutions that bar its ballistic missile and nuclear tests.

She said the goal was to create a “global echo chamber” so the international community would speak with one voice in condemning North Korea.

The United States and the United Nations have imposed numerous trade and travel sanctions on North Korea’s leadership, military and companies over the last two decades. But leader Kim Jong Un has circumvented many of the restrictions, often with the help of Chinese companies or individuals.

How hard China has tried to stop them, or to moderate North Korean behavior, is a matter of debate.

China has imposed a ban on North Korea’s coal exports, which account for 40% of its total exports to China, for the rest of 2017. But some U.S. officials say China also should block the country’s oil imports, which would hurt its economy far more.

Other countries have denied the North Korean airline landing and refueling rights, have expelled diplomats or lowered diplomatic ties, and frozen some assets. China, which is wary of creating too much instability in its nuclear-armed neighbor, has not.

U.S. relations with China have hit several rough spots recently. Washington and Beijing are still far apart on the territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea, for example.

Over the last few years, China has built up several shoals and reefs into airstrips and military sites, and the Pentagon has responded by sending warships and aircraft into the area to assert freedom of navigation.

Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and several other countries accuse Beijing of trying to militarize the resource-rich area, and have challenged China’s claims of sovereignty over the islands.

China and the Trump administration also have clashed over the U.S. deployment in South Korea of a sophisticated antiballistic missile system known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD.

Beijing claims the system’s sophisticated radars could be used to peer deep into China, negating its military deterrent. Washington insists the system would only be used to track and knock down North Korean ballistic missiles in event of an attack.

A Pentagon spokesman, Cmdr. Gary Ross, said the antimissile system is “absolutely critical” to defend South Korea and U.S. forces stationed there.

Times staff writer W.J. Hennigan contributed to this article.

.

tracy.wilkinson@latimes.com

For more on international affairs, follow @TracyKWilkinson on Twitter



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With Los Angeles embroiled in a particularly complex phase of its bid to host the 2024 Summer Games, President Trump will meet with the head of the International Olympic Committee at the White House on Thursday.

The visit coincides with IOC President Thomas Bach’s trip to the United States to announce a new sponsorship deal with Intel.

All three American members of the IOC — Larry Probst, Anita DeFrantz and Angela Ruggiero — will be in attendance as a matter of protocol, a source close to the situation said.

The U.S. Olympic Committee and the LA 2024 bid committee declined to comment on the meeting, which was first reported by the New York Times citing a White House official.

The timing is interesting, given that the IOC is considering an unusual move in coming weeks.

With Los Angeles and Paris locked in a close race, Olympic leaders have signaled their desire to name two winners, giving 2024 to one city and 2028 to the other.

The full IOC membership is expected to approve that recommendation in a mid-July vote, triggering backroom negotiations to determine if either city is willing to go second.

Paris has pushed back against the idea, but LA 2024 has repeatedly said it would negotiate, especially because the candidate that waits around another four years could be in a position to ask for better terms.

Trump has previously expressed support for L.A.’s bid, but has so far not been involved in the effort.

Though the 2024/2028 arrangement is expected to be raised during the president’s meeting with Bach, no LA 2024 executives are expected to attend, so it is doubtful any substantive talks on the issue could take place.

david.wharton@latimes.com

Twitter: @LAtimesWharton

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The U.S. military’s role in Syria has steadily escalated since President Trump took office, but even as fighting intensifies, the administration has said little to the public about its goals, nor has it released a long-stalled update on its strategy for the war-torn country.

The latest escalation came over the weekend as U.S. forces shot down a Syrian attack plane near Islamic State’s self-declared capital of Raqqah, where multiple warring groups have been engaged in increasingly intense fighting.

The Pentagon has now twice deliberately targeted Syrian President Bashar Assad’s military and launched three other airstrikes against what it calls “pro-regime” forces — a sharp reversal of the hands-off stance toward Assad that the U.S. took during the opening weeks of Trump’s presidency.

Despite that shift, however, administration officials have not made clear the full objectives of U.S. policy or its limits.

“Right now what we have is a policy of ambiguity,” said Ilan Goldenberg, director of the Middle East security program at the Center for a New American Security. “And what do adversaries do when there’s ambiguity? They test.”

Syria and its allies will continue to grab territory until they are told there are consequences, he said.

Administration statements since the downing of the Syrian jet have done little to clarify the policy.

“The escalation of hostility among all the factions that are operating there doesn’t help anybody,” White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Monday. “The Syrian regime and others need to understand that we will retain the right to self-defense for coalition forces aligned against ISIS,” he added, using the administration’s preferred acronym for the Islamic State militants who still control a large swath of territory in eastern Syria.

The mounting violence around Raqqah and Syria’s eastern border region illustrates the difficulty facing the administration as it seeks to simultaneously accomplish several sometimes conflicting tasks: fight Islamic State, coordinate and defend Syrian rebel groups that are trying to overthrow the government, and counter the influence of Iran, which, along with Russia, has backed the Assad government.

The problem is not unique — the Obama administration was widely criticized for lacking a coherent Syria strategy — but Trump’s difficulty in developing one comes as the U.S. military presence in the country has steadily escalated.

The Pentagon has deployed hundreds of U.S. special operations forces to work alongside Syrian rebels fighting Islamic State. Elsewhere in the country, U.S. warplanes and a Marine Corps artillery unit provide firepower on a daily basis for the advancing forces.

The risk of further escalation is steadily mounting. Armed forces belonging to the U.S., Russia, Syria and Iran are operating in an increasingly compressed environment as they converge on Syrian cities now controlled by a common enemy: Islamic State.

Once that territory is retaken — and Islamic State militants are gone — the White House will have to decide whether it will continue to deepen its involvement and protect its partners against Assad’s forces and their backers.

The U.S. has been on a potential collision course with the Syrian government at least since President Obama authorized air strikes in 2014 and introduced special operations forces a year later.

Until recently, however, Syrian forces and the U.S. and the rebel groups it backs had largely focused on different parts of the country. That changed when two different groups of U.S.-supported rebels launched separate campaigns for control of Raqqah and Dair Alzour, provinces of eastern Syria in which Islamic State holds significant territory.

Their advance prompted Damascus and its allies to step up their own operations in the two provinces.

Those moves have led to clashes between armed groups backed by the U.S. and those backed by the Syrian government.

On Sunday, Assad’s forces attacked a U.S.-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab militia fighters known as the Syrian Democratic Forces in the town of Jadin, south of Raqqah, Islamic State’s self-declared capital. The Syrian Democratic Forces have been part of a large-scale offensive aimed at capturing Raqqah.

The attack drove the militia fighters from the town, so the U.S. scrambled an aircraft to roar over the battlefield in “a show of force” that halted the pro-government forces’ advance.

In the air, however, a Syrian Su-22 attack aircraft bombed the American allies. That prompted a U.S. F/A-18 fighter jet to shoot it down — the first air-to-air kill by U.S. forces in two decades.

After the shoot-down, the Pentagon issued a statement stressing that it took a defensive action and did not seek “to fight Syrian regime, Russian, or pro-regime forces partnered with them.”

That was the same reason given for launching three airstrikes against forces loyal to Assad in the town of Tanf, farther south along the Iraqi-Syrian border, where U.S. forces train Syrian rebels at a small military base. Earlier this month, a U.S. fighter jet shot down an Iranian-made drone that dropped a bomb near forces patrolling the base.

U.S. officials have been stressing they have no plans to escalate fighting against Assad.

Meantime, Assad’s forces have repeatedly tested the U.S. to see how much they can get away with. Their goal appears to be to prompt the U.S. to state on record that it has no business inside Syria after Islamic State militants are defeated, said Jennifer Cafarella, a Syria analyst at the nonpartisan Institute for the Study of War in Washington.

“The goal is to get the U.S. to repeatedly confirm that it has no military intentions inside Syria, aside from eliminating the Islamic State,” she said. “That cedes the rest of Syria to the regime and its partners to do what they want.”

Unlike the Obama administration, Trump has not called for Assad to leave power to a transition government. Nor has the new administration made a major diplomatic effort to persuade the warring factions into a cease-fire and peace negotiations.

Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was repeatedly asked during an appearance Monday at the National Press Club in Washington what the administration’s strategic policies were inside several countries in the Middle East and Africa where the U.S. military is active.

“We’re trying to support our partners on the ground in driving the level of violence down to where local security forces can actually deal with security challenges with a minimum amount of international support,” he said. “And we’re trying to do that from West Africa to Southeast Asia because what we’re dealing with is a transregional threat.”

william.hennigan@latimes.com



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President Trump on Friday rolled back some, but not all, of his predecessor’s historic opening to Cuba, making it more difficult to travel to and do business with the Communist-ruled island.

In a speech in Miami’s Little Havana enclave, Trump said Cuban rulers were profiting from better relations with Washington but that ordinary Cuban citizens continued to be repressed.

Trump said he was “completely canceling” the “terrible and misguided deal” that President Obama forged in secret negotiations in 2014 with Pope Francis and other international leaders.

“We will not be silent in the face of Communist oppression any longer,” Trump said. “Effective immediately, I am canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba.”

The actual order Trump signed, however, was considerably more modest than that sweeping rhetoric might suggest. His directive left key elements of Obama’s overtures open: He did not close the U.S. embassy in Havana, nor did he completely block commerce.

In addition, the new restrictions will not take place immediately and are not expected to force businesses to unwind existing deals, an administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters in a briefing Thursday.

John Kavulich, director of the Cuba Trade Organization, which tracks business with the island, said businesses will have 90 days to make deals before the American government shuts down.

“The starter pistol has been fired,” he said.

Despite those limitations, the new restrictions drew objections from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which said in a statement that Trump’s moves “actually limit the possibility for positive change on the island.”

The main goal of the new regulations is to keep keep money out of the hands of Cuba’s military and intelligence services and “empower the Cuban people,” a White House official said.

The new rules include prohibitions on Americans spending money on businesses controlled by the military, which has a wide reach in the Cuban economy. That change would affect some proposed hotel projects in which Cuban entities controlled by the military would be partners.

In addition, rules on American travel to Cuba will be tightened, limiting casual tourism. But airlines will continue to be able to fly to Havana, and cruise ships will still dock at the island’s ports.

Trump’s speech, before an audience that included aging veterans of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion — an effort by CIA-backed Cuban exiles to overthrow Fidel Castro’s government — was heavy with Cold War rhetoric and references to images, such as gunshots in the ocean breeze, that no longer exist in Cuba.

It amounted to an effort to partially return to the status quo from before December 2014, when President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced they were reopening diplomatic ties after a half-century of hostility.

Soon, Americans could travel to Cuba and businesses, including the tourism industry and food-producing farm states, were involved in commercial deals.

But conservative members of Congress, especially those based here in south Florida, objected, saying that it was mostly the Communist government and Cuban military who were benefiting. Until Cuba’s human rights situation improved, they argued, deals with Cuba should be limited.

Florida’s Republican Sen. Marco Rubio had lobbied Trump intensely to stick with his campaign pledge to roll back the opening to Cuba.

The timing and location of Trump’s announcement raised some eyebrows. He came to Miami as his vice president and three Cabinet secretaries were hosting leaders of Mexico and Central America in a two-day conference on immigration and regional prosperity.

All of the visiting Latin Americans were among the hemisphere’s leaders who welcomed Obama’s decision to recognize Havana. Until then, the United States was the only country in the world that continued to maintain a hostile position toward Cuba, and Obama’s decision to reverse that gained enormous good will for the United States throughout the Western Hemisphere.

Trump’s announcement is all but certain to anger Latin America and erode U.S. ability in the region, including Washington’s efforts to pressure Venezuela’s abusive, leftist government.

“The optics are not the best,” said a senior international Latin American finance official in Miami for the conference. Like many diplomats, he spoke on condition of anonymity to talk about the Trump administration.

“The entire region welcomed the United States’ normalization of relations with Cuba,” said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America program at the nonpartisan Wilson Center think tank in Washington. The hardening of policy “can only add to the growing distance between Washington and the region’s democracies.”

National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton denied that the timing was aimed at Latin American leaders.

“There’s nothing intentional about the timing. It’s not a slap in the face,” he told reporters on Air Force One as Trump flew to Miami.

“We hope we can get support from other Latin American leaders for this policy,” Anton said. “This is a policy that favors the Cuban people over and against an oppressive regime.”

But even among Cuban Americans here, some were dismayed.

Arsencio Acevedo, a Cuban who has lived in Miami for nearly 30 years, was critical of Trump’s gesture.

“We need communication,” Acevedo, 48, who works as a waiter, said. “It is communication that helps us all connect. Cut that off, and you cut off everything.”

tracy.wilkinson@latimes.com

For more on international affairs, follow @TracyKWilkinson on Twitter

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President Trump plans to roll back some of President Obama’s opening to Cuba on Friday while leaving other changes — including the embassy in Havana opened two years ago — intact.

White House aides, speaking on condition of anonymity Thursday, revealed some of the policy changes Trump plans to announce during a speech in Miami on Friday.

The main goal of the new regulations is to keep keep money out of the hands of Cuba’s military and intelligence services and “empower the Cuban people,” the White House officials said. The new rules include prohibitions against Americans spending money on businesses controlled by the military, which has a wide reach in the Cuban economy. That change would immediately affect some proposed hotel projects in which Cuban entities controlled by the military would be partners.

Many details of the new policy will be subject to regulations that have yet to be drafted by Cabinet secretaries, including the Treasury Department, which will determine how to interpret some of the new limits on investment and spending.

The changes, part of a months-long review, are aimed at fulfilling a campaign promise Trump made to roll back Obama’s moves to reopen ties with the island. The promise helped Trump win support from hard-liners within south Florida’s large Cuban American community, an important constituency for Republican presidential candidates for decades. Winning Trump’s agreement has been a major priority for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

In addition to the limits on investment, Trump plans to more strictly enforce the ban on American tourism to Cuba, eliminating “people to people” exchanges that have allowed far more visits to the island for recreation, with little enforcement of rules that require trips to have an educational or cultural component.

The new rules would still allow other forms of travel, including family visits, and would not prohibit visits by cruise ships or commercial flights, administration officials said.

Critics of the changes warn that scaling back travel could hurt small businesses that have sprung up in Cuba, catering to a wave of U.S. tourists who have come to the island since the travel ban was relaxed.

In addition to retaining the embassy in Havana, the Trump policy would keep Obama’s immigration changes in place. In January, Obama ended the long-standing so-called wet-foot, dry-foot policy, which had allowed migrants who reach U.S. shores automatic visas and an easy path to permanent residency.

The administration wants to see better commercial ties with the island, but “it’s entirely up to Raul Castro to make that happen,” an official said. Trump wants to see improved human rights, free elections and the release of political prisoners, officials said. That’s a contrast with other aspects of the administration’s foreign policy that have played down human rights concerns.

The officials said Castro had not lived up to promises made when Obama agreed to liberalize relations, one of his signature second-term accomplishments. Obama’s policy shift was designed in part to improve relations with other Latin American countries that opposed a U.S.-led embargo against Cuba, in place since 1960. The embargo, which has the force of law, was not ended under Obama.

But the Trump administration acknowledged that some of Obama’s initiatives had momentum that made reversal of the former president’s opening impractical.

“We want this relationship to be one in which we can encourage the Cuban people through economic interaction,” an official said. “You can’t put the genie back in the bottle 100%.”

noah.bierman@latimes.com

Twitter: @noahbierman

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Trump administration backs away from fight over California’s power to set rules for cars and trucks

After a day on message, Trump slips back into old habits



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The Trump administration is backing off its threat to revoke California’s unique authority to set its own tough pollution standards for cars and trucks — rules that have become a crucial tool for states to combat climate change without help from Washington.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt assured lawmakers on Thursday that his agency is not currently looking to take away the power that California has used for decades to reduce emissions that cause smog and heat up the planet.

Earlier this year, Pruitt had suggested that the Trump administration might try to weaken or revoke California’s authority, which would have put Washington on a collision course with the state over a crucial environmental issue.

But asked about the subject Thursday at a House hearing on the EPA’s budget, Pruitt struck a very different tone, praising California for “leadership” on clean air.

“Currently the waiver is not under review,” Pruitt said, referring to the legal rubric under which the state is allowed to waive federal rules and impose its own. “This has been something that has been granted going back to the beginning of the Clean Air Act because of the leadership California demonstrated.”

Bill Magavern, policy director for the Los Angeles-based Coalition for Clean Air, said the testimony was “a rare bit of good news out of the Trump administration.”

California’s standards have been adopted by a dozen other states, as permitted under the Clean Air Act. Those rules help form the basis for the effort by Democratic-run states and cities to continue to fulfill the U.S. commitments under the Paris accord on climate change, which the Trump administration recently quit.

Meeting those goals will be difficult without the federal government behind the effort. Without California’s waiver authority, environmental experts say, getting there would probably be impossible.

“You start messing around with this, and the ability for states to address climate pollution starts falling apart,” said Simon Mui, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The federal government has never tried to revoke a Clean Air Act waiver, and any attempt would be fiercely contested in court. But Pruitt’s earlier talk about doing so had sent shock waves through California and environmental groups.

The waiver is poised to become increasingly important as the Trump administration looks at rolling back aggressive fuel mileage standards set by the Obama administration during its final weeks in office.

California has vowed to push forward with tougher rules on tailpipe emissions, which are scheduled to take effect from 2022 through 2025. With the other states that have adopted California’s rules, the tougher standards hold sway over roughly 40% of the U.S. vehicle market.

Even if Trump loosens federal rules, automakers would be under pressure to follow the more stringent standards to avoid having to manufacture different versions of vehicles for different areas of the country. When federal and California rules haven’t synced up in the past, automakers have often chosen to build cars to California standards.

Under Obama administration rules, passenger cars would have to average about 54 miles per gallon by 2025, up from about 36 today.

Ann Carlson, an environmental law professor at UCLA, said regulatory pressure on the vehicle industry is critical for fighting climate change because the economics haven’t been helping: The low price of gasoline has dampened enthusiasm for electric cars.

That’s the opposite of what has happened with power generation, the other largest source of greenhouse emissions in the U.S. There, the declining costs of natural gas and renewable energy have helped make dirtier coal electricity less attractive despite Trump’s efforts to roll back Obama-era regulations that discourage coal use. Electricity generation accounted for 29% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2015, the most recent federal statistics available. Transportation was close behind at 27%.

“California’s power to regulate auto emissions is probably the most important power any state has,” Carlson said.

Pruitt’s assurances Thursday about California’s waiver came in response to a question from Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona), who emphasized years of bipartisan support for the state’s authority. Only one request has ever been rejected, a decision made by President George W. Bush’s administration.

The remarks came at a hearing in which Republicans alternately praised the Trump administration for quitting the Paris climate deal and expressed alarm at how deeply it’s proposing to cut environmental programs that help their districts. Their concern reflects the Republican caucus’ criticism of the White House for proposing a spending plan that they fear puts clean air and water in jeopardy.

Analysts noted that Trump and Pruitt could reverse course and target the waiver once their review of fuel mileage rules is complete, a process that could spill into next year.

“It’s good news, but it’s only good news if they don’t end up changing their minds,” said Kate Larsen, an Oakland-based director at the Rhodium Group, which tracks climate policies.

However, car companies don’t appear to be spoiling for a fight over the waiver.

“We’ve not asked for the agency to review that decision,” said Daniel Gage, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

Dan Becker, director of the Washington-based Safe Climate Campaign, suspects automakers felt they wouldn’t win in court.

“If they attacked California, they would ultimately lose, and there would be little time left in the Trump administration” for other, less dramatic changes the automakers would like to win, he said.

There are still other battles looming over California’s regulatory power The state may want additional regulations to increase the number of zero-emission vehicles on its roads, for example. A request for a new waiver to allow those rules to take effect could be rejected by the Trump administration, igniting a legal war.

“We still have the threat down the line,” Magavern said. “But I don’t think anybody is really gunning for that now.”



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President Trump can’t stop boasting about nearly $400 billion in military and business deals his administration made during his two-day visit to Saudi Arabia last month.

“These deals will bring many thousands of jobs to our country,” he said as he convened his first full Cabinet meeting Monday. Then he upped the tally: “In fact, will bring millions of jobs ultimately.”

But a detailed review by The Times shows that only some of the deals have produced signed contracts, others may never be realized, and the primary goal of many of the initiatives is boosting the economy of Saudi Arabia, not the United States.

The centerpiece of the agreement — a $110-billion arms deal — must contend with legal, financial and political tests before it can be realized.

As he announced the package of agreements at a news conference with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Riyadh last month, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir valued the commercial deals as “in excess of $380 billion,” coming over a period of 10 years.

Tillerson said the deals included 23 foreign investment export licenses which would lead to $350 billion in direct investment, in addition to a $110-billion arms package. Both men said the agreements would result in “hundreds of thousands of jobs” in both nations.

“This is an indication of the confidence that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has in the United States’ investment climate,” Tillerson said.

The details tell a less definitive story.

The two largest commercial deals announced involve initiatives launched in partnership with a Saudi government-managed investment fund.

In one of the initiatives, backed by Japanese telecom giant SoftBank, a tech-focused “Vision Fund” would use $100 billion to buy pieces of private and public firms, focused on the so-called Internet of things, artificial intelligence, robotics and mobile communications. The fund is based on the British island of Jersey, with support from teams in in London, Tokyo and Silicon Valley, and its outlays won’t be limited to U.S. companies.

The announcement appeared to follow up on one made by Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son during a visit to Trump Tower in New York in December. At that point, he said the investment fund could create 50,000 new jobs in the U.S.

A source familiar with the fund, speaking anonymously to comment on its business plan, said that Softbank views the United States as “a very attractive, pro-business” market, but that there is “no specific focus” for its investments. Saudi Arabia’s role in the fund was announced in October, before Trump took office; the announcement during Trump’s visit focused on new commitments from Apple, Qualcomm and other investors.

In the other initiative, U.S.-based Blackstone signed a memorandum of understanding to launch an infrastructure fund anchored by $20 billion from Saudi Arabia’s Private Investment Fund with a goal of ultimately investing $100 billion in projects. The money would be aimed primarily, though not exclusively, at projects in the United States.

The remaining commercial deals that Tillerson and Jubeir touted appear be a mix of previously announced or updated agreements between U.S. and Saudi firms, some primarily aimed at boosting employment in Saudi Arabia.

A press release from GE, for instance, said its $15-billion package would benefit both nations, but said the plans were geared toward Saudi Vision 2030, an initiative led by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that aims to spur new economic development in Saudi Arabia to counterbalance the long-term decline of oil production.

GE estimates that the new announcements could double its workforce in Saudi Arabia while adding, directly or indirectly, 20,000 jobs in the United States, mainly through additional exports.

An announcement by ExxonMobil and Saudi-based chemical producer SABIC only commits each to study the possibility of a jointly run petrochemical complex in Texas. An estimated $50 billion in deals between U.S. energy companies and Saudi Aramco include a mix of joint ventures, memoranda of understanding, and feasibility studies for projects in Saudi Arabia that could add more than 13,000 jobs there, according to the Saudi oil giant.

The White House has not produced its own itemized accounting for its $350-billion figure or an analysis of how many jobs it would create.

One document that officials allowed a reporter to briefly review in Riyadh listed 31 proposed memoranda of understanding, broken down by industry sectors with estimates of economic impact. Impact estimates, the document noted, were “supplied by Saudi sources and are not verified.” The document estimated the total impact at nearly $275 billion, with some projects undetermined.

The Trump administration’s insistence that the big-ticket defense deals will boost American jobs also appears exaggerated: Assembly of the weapons has been underway for years – even decades; the defense contractors have committed to do much of the work inside Saudi Arabia, not the U.S.; and based on past experience, some share of the proposed arms deals will never materialize.

The arms deal does, potentially, keep assembly lines running for a longer time and offer non-economic benefits to the U.S.

“The Saudi deal is huge, but it unfolds over many years and has many moving parts,” said Loren Thompson, a defense policy analyst at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. “At the very least, it strengthens ties between Washington and Riyadh at a time when Saudi support remains crucial to U.S. geopolitical and energy goals.”

A senior administration official who was not authorized to speak on the record said the long-term commitments made by the Saudis — announced publicly, rather than agreed to in private — were “unprecedented, particularly for that magnitude.” The fact that the commitments were public makes it more likely that they will ultimately be realized, the official said.

“The Saudis had been seriously considering equipment from other countries,” the official said. “It’s emblematic that you had to have confidence in the strategic relationship in order to see that through.”

But the direct jobs benefits are likely to be limited. Lockheed Martin Corp., for instance, said the final assembly of 150 S-70 Black Hawk utility helicopters that the Saudis hope to buy will be carried out inside the country. The program, part of deal potentially worth more than $28 billion, is expected to create 450 jobs in Saudi Arabia.

Raytheon Co., maker of missiles and military electronics, announced the formation of a unit called Raytheon Arabia, to focus on helping build Saudi capability to provide defense, aerospace, and security on their own.

“We fully anticipate this work will enable us to expand our business in the kingdom with new programs that will benefit both local and U.S.-based job growth,” said Corinne Kovalsky, a company spokeswoman.

General Dynamics Corp., maker of submarines and tanks, agreed to localize up to 50% of design, engineering, manufacturing, and support of armored combat vehicles inside Saudi Arabia.

Building the weapons in their own country is “something that brings national pride,” said Saeed Wahabi, a Saudi analyst based in Abu Dhabi. “Saudis are seeing other countries like Turkey and Iran building their own, having their own military-industrial complex.”

Moreover, it remains unclear whether the deals will all come to fruition, defense analysts say.

The Obama administration formally notified Congress of about $115 billion in offers of weapons, training, and military support services to Saudi Arabia, and only half of them resulted in agreements, according to William D. Hartung, director of the arms and security project at the Center for International Policy, a left-leaning think tank in Washington.

“It’s not like Trump issuing a press release about $110 billion in arms offers means U.S. companies or communities will see that kind of money any time soon,” Hartung said.

Defense deals can take five years or more between the two nations. The Saudi air force received the first of 152 F-15 fighter jets, made by Boeing Co., in December, even though the deal was initially announced to Congress in October 2010.

And a growing chorus on Capitol Hill wants the Trump administration to reconsider its commitment to arming the longtime regional ally.

On Tuesday, the Senate rejected a bipartisan measure that would have blocked a small portion of the new arms package. But the 47-53 vote on the measure, offered by Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, reflected concerns about further entangling the U.S. in Saudi Arabia’s escalating sectarian conflict with neighboring Yemen, and ultimately Iran.

“What do you think Iran thinks when Saudi Arabia [gets] weapons? They think to themselves, if the Saudis are getting more, we need more,” Paul said ahead of the vote.

“I hope the Saudis heard this message loud and clear,” Sen. Christopher S. Murphy (D-Conn.) told reporters after the vote, noting that 20 more senators voted to block this deal than backed a similar measure last fall. Support in Congress for cutting back on arms sales is building, he said. “That day will come if the Saudis don’t change their behavior.”

michael.memoli@latimes.com

william.hennigan@latimes.com

For more follow @mikememoli and @wjhenn on Twitter.

Times staff writer Molly Hennessy-Fiske contributed from Riyadh.

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