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Trump Linking Huawei, China Trade Roils Justice Department

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President Donald Trump shocked some last month when he suggested that the criminal charges against Chinese telecom giant Huawei Technologies and its chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, might be used as leverage in his administration’s ongoing trade talks with China.

 

“We’re going to be discussing all of that during the course of the next couple of weeks,” Trump told reporters at the White House Feb. 22 in response to a question about Meng’s case.  “We’ll be talking to the U.S. attorneys. We’ll be talking to the attorney general. We’ll be making that decision. Right now, it’s not something we’ve discussed.”

 

The president’s apparent willingness to possibly barter away the prosecution of Huawei and one of its executives in exchange for a favorable trade deal with China alarmed legal experts who say it could lead to pushback at the Justice Department. 

“If the White House told the Department of Justice that it wanted Justice to dismiss altogether the case against Huawei and Ms. Meng, I’d expect there to be mighty objections and resistance to that,” said David Laufman, who served as a senior national security official at the Justice Department until last year and is now in private practice. 

Ron Cheng, a former federal prosecutor who was the Justice Department’s sole resident envoy in Beijing, said it would be highly unusual for the criminal case against Meng to be affected by the trade talks. “There are a number of concerns about the precedent something like that would establish,” said Cheng, now a partner at the O’Melveny & Myers law firm.

The Justice Department unsealed criminal charges against Meng, Huawei and several subsidiaries on Jan. 29 for violating U.S. sanctions on Iran and stealing U.S. intellectual property, nearly two months after Meng was arrested in Canada at the request of U.S. authorities. 

The indictments exacerbated tensions with China, which called the case against Meng “political persecution.” That prompted Trump’s overture.

Trump, who prides himself on his negotiating skills, could well have been bluffing in hopes of enticing the Chinese into a trade agreement.But a quid pro quo deal as part of the trade talks is not without precedent.

Last year, Trump ordered the Commerce Department to lift a ban imposed on ZTE Corporation, Huawei’s smaller rival.  ZTE had violated the terms of an agreement with the department to settle charges that it had exported U.S. goods to Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions.   

In Huawei’s case, the extent of Trump’s personal involvement and the nature of any talks between the White House and the Justice Department about the company’s fate remain unclear.  After Meng’s arrest in December, a spokesman for National Security Adviser John Bolton said that neither Bolton nor Trump had been told about her detention in advance. Trump later said the White House had talked to the Justice Department about the Huawei case  

 

Senior Justice Department officials have sought to tamp down talk of any linkage between the Huawei case and the ongoing trade talks with China. Asked about the issue after the Justice Department unsealed the indictments in January, then acting attorney general Matt Whitaker said, “We do our cases independent from the federal government writ large because that’s the way the criminal system has to be.”

 

A spokesman for the Justice Department declined to say whether the White House had engaged the department in any discussions about Huawei since Trump’s latest comments.   The company has pleaded not guilty to the charges brought in New York and Seattle. Spokespeople for the U.S. Attorneys for those cities said the cases are proceeding.  

The charges against Huawei come as the Trump administration has stepped up a global campaign against the telecom behemoth, warning that the company founded by a former People’s Liberation Army official poses a national security threat and urging allies to keep it out of their 5-G networks. While Australia and New Zealand have imposed a ban, other U.S. allies have demurred.  

With business operations in more than 170 countries and annual revenues of $108 billion, Huawei is the world’s largest supplier of telecom equipment. Last year, the multinational company beat Apple to become the No. 2 manufacturer of smartphones and tablets in the world.

In national security related criminal cases, it is not uncommon for the Justice Department to notify the White House about impending law enforcement actions.This allows officials to deescalate conflict if necessary or weigh in on the timing of an announcement.  “It’s not to give the White House prior approval authority or veto authority,” Laufman said. 

Some experts see the real possibility that the White House crosses the line and intervenes in the criminal case.  Short of calling for a dismissal of the case, the White House could press the Justice Department to devise a resolution that would afford the agency a measure of vindication without appearing to let the company or Meng off the hook.

Such a resolution could involve Huawei admitting responsibility, paying a hefty fine, and agreeing to a stringent compliance regime and other conditions, according to Laufman. 

“But I think even there, that will likely engender concern throughout the Justice Department,” Laufman said.

 

That is how ZTE settled charges of violating U.S. sanctions. In 2017, ZTE pleaded guilty and paid $430 million for exporting U.S. goods and technology to Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions. 

The company later admitted to violating the terms of its settlement with the Commerce Department and faced near collapse after the department responded by forbidding U.S. companies from selling it crucial components. 

After Trump intervened, the Commerce Department lifted its ban, but not without imposing what it called the most “stringent compliance measures.”   

The Huawei case could well be settled under similar terms. But there is a hitch.  Because she faces criminal charges, Meng would have to appear in a U.S. court to enter a plea.  

“The only way to resolve a case like this with some sort of a formal disposition is to come to the United States,” Cheng said. 

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Venezuelans Find Ways to Cope with Inflation and Hunger

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Francibel Contreras brings her three malnourished children to a soup kitchen in the dangerous hillside Caracas slum of Petare where they scoop in spoonfuls of rice and scrambled eggs in what could be their only meal of the day.

 

Part of the tragedy of daily life in socialist Venezuela can be glimpsed in this small volunteer soup kitchen in the heart of one of Latin America’s biggest slums, which helps dozens of children as well as unemployed mothers who can no longer feed them.

 

Some Venezuelans manage to endure the nation’s economic meltdown by clinging to the shrinking number of well-paid jobs or by receiving some of the hundreds of millions of dollars sent home by friends and relatives abroad — a quantity that has swollen in recent years as millions of Venezuelans have fled.

 

But a growing percentage of people across the country, especially in slums like Petare, are struggling to cope.

 

Contreras’s husband, Jorge Flores, used to have a small stand at a local market selling things like bananas and yucca, eggs and lunchmeat — trying to scrape out a profit in a place where hyperinflation often made his wholesale costs double from day to day. Then he was robbed at gunpoint by a local gang. And his brother crashed the motorcycle he used to supply his stand.

So Flores abandoned the market stall and looked for other work. He does some plumbing jobs and the family has turned its living room into a barbershop, sheltered beneath a corrugated metal roof held down by loose bricks and planks. It’s decorated with origami-like stars that the family has made out Venezuela’s colorful but rapidly depreciating bolivar bills.

 

“Our currency is worthless,” Contreras said. “These days, I prefer trading a bag of flour for a manicure or a haircut.”

 

The scarcity of milk, medicine and other basics — along with routine violence —  has eroded support for socialist President Nicolas Maduro even in poor neighborhoods like Petare that once were his strongholds. Maduro says there’s an opposition-led plot to oust him from power and says U.S. economic sanctions and local opposition sabotage are responsible for the meltdown.

 

Various local polls show he retains support from roughly a fifth of the population, many of them ideological stalwarts, government-connected insiders or poor voters dependent on government handouts, including the so-called CLAP boxes of oil, flour, rice, pasta, canned tuna and other goods that arrive several times a year.

 

Contreras’ family of four gets those boxes, but it’s not enough to get by on for long. For months, they’ve been relying on the soup kitchen launched by opposition politicians as the main source of protein for their children. On a recent day, her 7-year-old son Jorbeicker played a pickup soccer game in the hilly, dusty streets in front of her home, while her husband practiced styling his mother’s hair.

 

“I’m barely getting by,” Flores said, scissors in hand.

 

The four-day power outage that brought most of Venezuela to a halt this month added to Flores’ misery. He wasn’t able to use the electric clippers needed to give customers the sort of trims they demand.

 

“It hit us in a big way,” he said. “You absolutely need the clippers.”

The couple estimates the power outage cost the family the equivalent of $11 in missed haircuts — a significant sum in a country where the minimum wage amounts to $6 a month, even if most people supplement that figure by working side jobs and pooling resources with friends and neighbors.

Contreras and Flores charge 2,500 bolivars — about 70 U.S. cents — for a trim. A government-subsidized kilogram of flour can cost almost three times that, and Contreras says that lines for the rationed goods can be endless and she sometimes comes back empty-handed. She also said she feels unsafe in the lines. Dozens of people have been killed in gang crossfires over the years, and some have been crushed to death when lines of shoppers turned into stampedes of desperate looters.

 

Next-door neighbor Dugleidi Salcedo sent her 4-year-old daughter to live with an aunt in the city of Maracay, two hours away, because she could no longer feed her. “My boys cry,” the single mother of four said. “But they resist more than her when I tell them that there’s no food.”

After walking back from the soup kitchen, she opened the rusty door to her home of scraped, mint-colored walls. Inside, her 11-year-old son Daniel, who was born partially paralyzed and with developmental disabilities, lay on a stained couch while flies flew over his twisted, uncovered legs.

 

When she took the lid off a plastic container to show her last bag of flour, a cockroach crawled out, making her jump back and scream.

 

“This is so tough,” she said. “I don’t have a job. I don’t have any money.”

 

Salcedo used to sell baked goods and juices to neighbors from the window of her kitchen. Then, her fridge broke down and she couldn’t find the money to fix it.

 

These days, she relies on the kindness of neighbors, or asks a friend who owns a small food shop for credit while she waits for loans from family members in other parts of Venezuela.

 

“This country has never been as bad,” the 28-year-old said. “Just buying some rice or flour is something so hard, so expensive, and often, they don’t even have any.”

 

A few days later, thieves broke into the soup kitchen and stole food. Then, a fire broke out in the slum, burning 17 homes to the ground. It was caused by candles that were apparently being used for light after a power outage — an almost everyday occurrence in many parts of Venezuela. Opposition lawmaker Manuela Bolivar, whose Nodriza Project runs the soup kitchen, said that when firefighters arrived, they lacked water and had to put out the blaze with dirt.

 

“It’s a social earthquake,” Bolivar said. “They lose their homes. They’re left in the open air. The soup kitchen was robbed. It’s so many adversities: It’s the infections, the lack of water and food.”

At an outdoor market a short distance from Petare in the middle-class district of Los Dos Caminos, Carmen Gimenez shopped for carrots and other vegetables for a stew. When her 14-year-old daughter Camila asked if they could take some other products, she told her that they would have to stick to the basics.

 

Although she has a job at a bank, she still struggles to make ends meet.

 

“It doesn’t matter where you live. The need is the same,” said Gimenez, 43.

 

“The poor, the rich, and the middle class — we’re all suffering somehow because the government has leveled us all downwards,” she adds with anger. “How did they dominate us? Through the stomach.”

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In End of 20th Century Fox, a New Era Dawns for Hollywood

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The Fox Studio backlot, first built in 1926 on a Culver City ranch in Los Angeles, was enormous. Before much of it was sold off in the 1960s, it was four times the size of its current, and still huge, 53 acres.

 

Shirley Temple’s bungalow still sits on the lot, as does the piano where John Williams composed, among other things, the score to “Star Wars.” A waiter in the commissary might tell you where Marilyn Monroe once regularly sat.

 

When the Walt Disney Co.’s $71.3 billion acquisition of Fox is completed at 12:02 a.m. Wednesday, the storied lot — the birthplace of CinemaScope, “The Sound of Music” and “Titanic” — will no longer house one of the six major studios. It will become the headquarters for Rupert Murdoch’s new Fox Corp., (he is keeping Fox News and Fox Broadcasting) and Fox’s film operations, now a Disney label, will stay on for now as renters under a seven-year lease agreement.

 

The history of Hollywood is littered with changes of studio ownership; even Fox Film Corporation founder William Fox, amid the Depression, lost control of the studio that still bears his name. But the demise of 20th Century Fox as a standalone studio is an epochal event in Hollywood, one that casts long shadows over a movie industry grappling with new digital competitors from Silicon Valley and facing the possibility of further contraction. After more than eight decades of supremacy, the Big Six are down one.

 

“It’s a sad day for students of film history and I think it’s potentially a sad day for audiences too,” said Tom Rothman, former chairman of Fox and the current chief of Sony Pictures. “There will just be less diversity in the marketplace.”

 

Disney’s acquisition has endless repercussions but it’s predicated largely on positioning Disney — already the market-leader in Hollywood — for the future. Disney, girding for battle with Netflix, Apple and Amazon, needs more content for its coming streaming platform, Disney+, and it wants control of its content across platforms.

“The pace of disruption has only hastened,” Disney chief Robert A. Iger said when the deal was first announced. “This will allow us to greatly accelerate our director-to-consumer strategy.”

 

The Magic Kingdom will add 20th Century Fox alongside labels like Marvel, Pixar and Lucasfilm. But film production at Fox, which has in recent years released 12-17 films a year, is expected to wane. Due to duplication with Disney staff, layoffs will be in the thousands.

 

Disney will also take over FX, NatGeo and a controlling stake in Hulu, which has more than 20 million customers. It will gain control of some of the largest franchises in movies, including “Avatar,” “Alien” and “The Planet of the Apes.” Fox’s television studios also net Disney the likes of “Modern Family,” “This Is Us” and “The Simpsons.” Homer, meet Mickey.

 

Some parts of Fox, like the John Landgraf-led FX and Fox Searchlight, the specialty label overseen by Stephen Gilula and Nancy Utley, are expected to be kept largely intact. Searchlight, the regular Oscar contender behind films such as “12 Years a Slave,” “The Shape of Water” and “The Favourite,” could yield Disney something it’s never had before: a best picture winner at the Academy Awards.

 

Nowhere is the culture clash between the companies more apparent than in “Deadpool,” Fox’s gleefully profane R-rated superhero. While Spider-Man still resides with Sony, Disney now adds Deadpool, the X-Men and the Fantastic Four to its bench of Marvel characters. How they will all fit with Disney’s PG-13 mission remains to be seen, though Iger last month suggested in a conference call with investors that there may be room for an R-rated Marvel brand as long as audiences know what’s coming.

 

The question of how or if Disney will inherit Fox’s edginess matters because Fox has long built itself on big bets and technological gambits. It was the first studio built for sound. It was nearly bankrupted by the big-budget Elizabeth Taylor epic “Cleopatra.” It backed Cameron’s seemingly-ill-fated “Titanic,” as well as Ang Lee’s “The Life of Pi” and the Oscar-winning hit “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

 

“We were a studio of risk and innovation,” says Rothman, who also founded Fox Searchlight. “It was a very daring place, creatively. That’s what the movies should be.”

 

But will the more button-down Disney have the stomach for such movies? “Deadpool” creator Robert Liefeld, for example, has said Fox’s plans for an X-Force movie have been tabled, a “victim of the merger.”

 

Some were surprised regulators gave the deal relatively quick approval. The Department of Justice approved the acquisition in about six months, about four times less than the time it took investigating AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner. The New York Times editorial page suggested the deal benefited from President Trump’s relationship with Murdoch.

 

“Disney will have probably north of 40 percent market share in the U.S. That’s one area where a deal does suggest that the market influence is going to be outsized,” says Tuna Amobi, a media and entertainment analyst with investment firm CFRA. “Having one studio control that much is unprecedented. And it could increase from there given the pipeline that we see.”

Disney is about to have more influence on the movies Americans and the rest of the world see than any company ever has. Last year, it had 26 percent of the U.S. market with just 10 movies which together grossed more than $3 billion domestically and $7.3 billion worldwide. Fox usually counts for about 12 percent of market share.

 

Fewer studios could potentially mean fewer movies. That’s a concern for both consumers and theater owners, many of whom already rely heavily on Disney blockbusters to sell tickets and popcorn.

 

“Certainly, consolidation poses a challenge in some respects to the supply of movies,” says John Fithian, president and chief executive of the National Organization of Theater Owners. “The fewer suppliers you have, the chances are we’re going to get fewer movies from those suppliers.”

 

But Fithian believes other companies are stepping into the breach, and he holds out hope that Netflix might eventually embrace more robust theatrical release. More importantly, Fox was bought by a company in Disney that is, as Fithian said, “the biggest supporter of the theatrical window.”

 

Still, Disney has been willing to throw its weight around. Ahead of the release of “The Last Jedi,” the studio insisted on more onerous terms from some theater owners, including a higher percentage of ticket sales.

 

More experimentation in distribution is coming. Later this year, WarnerMedia, whose Warner Bros. is regularly second in market share to Disney, will launch its own streaming platform. Apple is ramping up movie production. Amazon Studios is promising bigger, more attention-getting projects.

 

Ahead of a blizzard of new streaming options, Fox — and a giant piece of film history — will fade into an ever-expanding Disney world. Film historian Michael Troyan, author of “20th Century Fox: A Century of Entertainment,” has studied enough of Hollywood’s past to know that relentless change is an innate part of the business.

 

“It’s sad when any historical empire like that comes to end,” says Michael Troyan. “You can record in other places but when you’re on a lot like Fox, you feel the gravitas, you feel the history.”

 

Rothman says he will pause for a “wistful moment” Wednesday, but he believes consolidation doesn’t mean obsolescence.

 

“I don’t think it remotely arguers the end of the glories of the film business overall,” says Rothman. “I believe there remains eternal appetite for original, vibrant, creative theatrical storytelling.”

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High-Stakes Boeing Inquiry Hinges on Ethiopia Black Box Secrets

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The investigation into the final minutes of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 turned on Tuesday to the secrets in the cockpit voice recorder as Boeing and a shaken global aviation industry hung on the outcome.

The voices of Captain Yared Getachew and First Officer Ahmednur Mohammed could reveal what led to the March 10 crash of the Boeing 737 MAX that has worrying parallels with another disaster involving the same model off Indonesia in October.

The twin disasters killed 346 people.

Black box data was downloaded in France but only Ethiopian experts leading the probe have heard the dialogue between Getachew, 29, and Mohammed, 25. The data was back in Addis Ababa on Tuesday, sources familiar with the probe told Reuters.

Experts believe a new automated system in Boeing’s flagship MAX fleet — intended to stop stalling by dipping the nose — may have played a role in both crashes, with pilots unable to override it as their jets plunged downwards.

Both came down just minutes after take-off after erratic flight patterns and loss of control reported by the pilots.

However, every accident is a unique chain of human and technical factors, experts say.

The prestige of Ethiopian Airlines, one of Africa’s most successful companies, and Boeing, the world’s biggest planemaker and a massive U.S. exporter, is at stake.

Awkward questions for industry

Lawmakers and safety experts are questioning how thoroughly regulators vetted the MAX model and how well pilots were trained on new features. For now, regulators have grounded the existing fleet of more than 300 MAX aircraft and deliveries of nearly

5,000 more — worth well over $500 billion — are on hold.

Pressure on the Chicago-headquartered company has grown with news that federal prosecutors and the U.S. Department of Transportation are scrutinizing how carefully the MAX model was developed, two people briefed on the matter said.

The U.S. Justice Department was looking at the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) oversight of Boeing, one of the people said. And a federal grand jury last week issued at least one subpoena to an entity involved in the plane’s development. The rest of the world is watching anxiously.

The European Union’s aviation agency EASA promised its own deep look at Boeing’s software updates and failure modes.

“We will not allow the aircraft to fly if we have not found acceptable answers to all our questions,” its executive director Patrick Ky told an EU parliament committee hearing.

“Whatever the FAA does. OK? This is a personal guarantee that I make in front of you.”

Canada said it would independently certify the MAX in future, rather than accepting FAA validation, and would also send a team to help U.S. authorities evaluate proposed design changes.

In the hope of getting its MAX line back into the air soon, Boeing said it will roll out a software update and revise pilot training. In the case of the Lion Air crash in Indonesia, it has raised questions about whether crew used the correct procedures.

The MAX, which offers cost savings of about 15 percent on fuel, was developed for service from 2017 after the successful launch by its main rival of the Airbus A320neo.

Argus Research cut Boeing stock to “hold” from “buy”, giving the planemaker at least its fourth downgrade since the crash, Refinitiv data showed. Its shares, however, were enjoying a rare respite on Tuesday, up 1.6 pct to $378 and cutting losses since the crash to under 11 pct.

Global ramifications

In the hot seat over its certification of the MAX without demanding additional training and its closeness to Boeing, the FAA has said it is “absolutely” confident in its vetting.

The crisis has put pressure on airline companies.

Norwegian Airlines has already said it will seek compensation after grounding its MAX aircraft.

Various firms are reconsidering Boeing orders, and some are revising financial forecasts given they now cannot count on maintenance and fuel savings factored in from the MAX.

Illustrating the hoops airlines were jumping through, Air Canada said it intends to keep its MAX aircraft grounded until at least July 1, would accelerate intake of recently acquired Airbus A321 planes, and had hired other carriers to provide extra capacity meantime.

Beyond the corporate ramifications, anguished relatives are still waiting to find out what happened.

Many have visited the crash site in a charred field to seek some closure, but there is anger at the slow pace of information and all they have been given for funerals is earth.

“I’m just so terribly sad. I had to leave here without the body of my dead brother,” said Abdulmajid Shariff, a Yemeni relative who headed home disappointed on Tuesday.

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Warner Bros.’ Chief Tsujihara Steps Down Following Scandal

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Warner Bros. chief Kevin Tsujihara, one of the highest ranking Hollywood executives to be felled by sexual misconduct allegations, stepped down from the studio Monday following claims that he promised roles to an actress with whom he was having an affair.

WarnerMedia chief executive John Stankey announced Tsujihara’s exit as chairman and chief executive of Warner Bros., saying his departure was in the studio’s “best interest.”

 

“Kevin has contributed greatly to the studio’s success over the past 25 years and for that we thank him,” said Stankey. “Kevin acknowledges that his mistakes are inconsistent with the company’s leadership expectations and could impact the company’s ability to execute going forward.”

 

Earlier this month, WarnerMedia launched an investigation after a March 6 Hollywood Reporter story detailed text messages between Tsujihara and British actress Charlotte Kirk going back to 2013. The messages suggested a quid pro quo sexual relationship between the aspiring actress and the studio head in which he made promises that he’d introduce her to influential executives and she’d be considered for roles in movies and television.

 

In a memo to Warner Bros. staff on Monday, Tsujihara said he was departing “after lengthy introspection, and discussions with John Stankey over the past week.”

 

“It has become clear that my continued leadership could be a distraction and an obstacle to the company’s continued success,” said Tsujihara. “The hard work of everyone within our organization is truly admirable, and I won’t let media attention on my past detract from all the great work the team is doing.”

 

Tsujihara’s attorney, Bert H. Deixler, earlier stated that Tsujihara “had no direct role in the hiring of this actress.” He declined further comment Monday.

 

Tsujihara, who has headed the Burbank, California, studio since 2013, earlier pledged to fully cooperate with the studio’s investigation and apologized to Warner Bros. staff for “mistakes in my personal life that have caused pain and embarrassment to the people I love the most.”

 

The scandal unfolded just as Warner Bros. was restructuring on the heels of AT&T’s takeover of WarnerMedia, previously known as Time Warner. Tsujihara’s role had just been expanded on Feb. 28 to include global kids and family entertainment including oversight of Adult Swim and the Cartoon Network.

Kirk appeared in Warner Bros.’ “How to Be Single” in 2016 and “Ocean’s 8” in 2018. She has denied any inappropriate behavior on the part of Tsujihara or two other executives, Brett Ratner and James Packer, who she communicated with. “Mr. Tsujihara never promised me anything,” Kirk said in an earlier statement.

 

But the details of the leaked text messages between Tsujihara and Kirk immediately put his future at Warner Bros. in jeopardy. Kirk wrote in one 2015 message to him: “Are u going to help me like u said u would?” Tsujhara responded, “Richard will be reaching out to u tonight,” referring to Richard Brener, president of Warner Bros.’ New Line label.

 

Other exchanges suggested the kind of give-and-take of Hollywood’s “casting couch” culture. Kirk was introduced to Tsujihara by James Packer, the Australian billionaire. Warner Bros. was then finalizing a $450-million co-financing deal with Packer and Brett Ratner, the director-producer. In a message to Ratner, Kirk said she was “used as icing on the cake.”

 

WarnerMedia, the studio’s parent company, said Monday that its internal investigation into the situation, carried out by a third-party law firm, will continue.

 

Tsujihara’s exit follows other high-profile executive departures in the post-Harvey Weinstein (hash)MeToo era. CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves was pushed out after numerous women accused him of sexual harassment. Walt Disney Animation chief John Lasseter was ousted after he acknowledged missteps in his behavior with employees.

 

The 54-year-old Tsujihara, the first executive of Asian descent to head a major Hollywood studio, presided over a largely positive Warner Bros. era with little fanfare. A former home video and video game executive at the company, Tsujihara focused on franchise creation, some of which have worked, some of which haven’t.

 

After poor marks from fans and critics, the studio’s DC Comics films have recently been retooled and found their footing in hits like “Wonder Woman” and “Aquaman.” Other franchises — like “The Lego Movie” and the “Harry Potter” spinoff “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” — have seen diminishing returns on their latest incarnations. The studio has also fostered its connection with filmmakers like Christopher Nolan (“Dunkirk”) and Bradley Cooper (whose “A Star Is Born” was Warner Bros.’ top Oscar contender). Warner Bros. last year amassed $5.6 billion in global ticket sales, its best haul ever.

 

The studio will now begin a search for a new chief as it also prepares to launch a streaming service designed to compete with Netflix.

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AP Source: Justice Dept. Probing Development of Boeing Jets

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U.S. prosecutors are looking into the development of Boeing’s 737 Max jets, a person briefed on the matter revealed Monday, the same day French aviation investigators concluded there were “clear similarities” in the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines Max 8 last week and a Lion Air jet in October.

 

The Justice Department probe will examine the way Boeing was regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration, said the person, who asked not to be identified because the inquiry is not public.

 

A federal grand jury in Washington sent a subpoena to someone involved in the plane’s development seeking emails, messages and other communications, the person told The Associated Press.

 

The Transportation Department’s inspector general is also looking into the FAA’s approval of the Boeing 737 Max, a U.S. official told AP. The official wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. The Wall Street Journal reported on the probe Sunday said the inspector general was looking into the plane’s anti-stall system. It quotes unidentified people familiar with both cases.

 

The anti-stall system may have been involved in the Oct. 29 crash of a Lion Air jet off of Indonesia that killed 189 people. It’s also under scrutiny in the March 10 crash of an Ethiopian Airlines jet that killed 157.

 

The Transportation Department’s FAA regulates Chicago-based Boeing and is responsible for certifying that planes can fly safely.

 

The grand jury issued its subpoena on March 11, one day after the Ethiopian Airlines crash, according to the person who spoke to The Associated Press.

 

Spokesmen for the Justice Department and the inspector general said Monday they could neither confirm nor deny the existence of any inquiries. The FAA would not comment.

 

“Boeing does not respond to or comment on questions concerning legal matters, whether internal, litigation, or governmental inquiries,” Boeing spokesman Charles Bickers said in an email.

 

The company late Monday issued an open letter from its CEO, Dennis Muilenburg, addressed to airlines, passengers and the aviation community. Muilenburg did not refer to the reports of the Justice Department probe, but stressed his company is taking actions to ensure its 737 Max jets are safe.

 

Those include an upcoming release of a software update and related pilot training for the 737 Max to “address concerns” that arose in the aftermath of October’s Lion Air crash, Muilenburg said. The planes’ new flight-control software is suspected of playing a role in the crashes.

The French civil aviation investigation bureau BEA said Monday that black box data from the Ethiopian Airlines flight showed the links with the Lion Air crash and will be used for further study.

 

Ethiopian authorities asked BEA for help in extracting and interpreting the crashed plane’s black boxes because Ethiopia does not have the necessary expertise and technology.

The Ethiopian Accident Investigation Bureau intends to release a preliminary report within 30 days.

The United States and many other countries have grounded the Max 8s and larger Max 9s as Boeing faces the challenge of proving the jets are safe to fly amid suspicions that faulty sensors and software contributed to the two crashes in less than five months.

 

Both planes flew with erratic altitude changes that could indicate the pilots struggled to control the aircraft. Shortly after their takeoffs, both crews tried to return to the airports but crashed.

 

Boeing has said it has “full confidence” in the planes’ safety. Engineers are making changes to the system designed to prevent an aerodynamic stall if sensors detect that the jet’s nose is pointed too high and its speed is too slow.

 

Investigators looking into the Indonesian crash are examining whether the software automatically pushed the plane’s nose down repeatedly, and whether the Lion Air pilots knew how to solve that problem. Ethiopian Airlines says its pilots received special training on the software.

Dennis Tajer, an American Airlines pilot and a spokesman for their union, said Boeing held a discussion with airlines last Thursday but did not invite pilots at American or Southwest, the two U.S. carriers that use the same version of the Max that crashed in Indonesia and Ethiopia.

 

Tajer said airline officials told the unions that Boeing intends to offer pilots about a 15-minute iPad course to train them on the new flight-control software on Max jets that is suspected of playing a role in the crashes. He called that amount of training unacceptable.

 

“Our sense is it’s a rush to comply — ‘let’s go, let’s go, let’s go,'” Tajer said. “I’m in a rush to protect my passengers.”

 

A spokesman for the pilots’ union at Southwest Airlines also said Boeing representatives told that union they expected the upgrade to be ready the end of January.

 

The spokesman, Mike Trevino, said Boeing never followed up to explain why that deadline passed without an upgrade. Boeing was expected to submit a proposed fix to the FAA in early January.

 

 

 

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Brazilian Court Suspends Operations at 2 More Vale Dams

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A Brazilian court has ordered Vale SA, the world’s largest iron ore miner, to suspend operations at two more dams, demanding that it prove the structures are stable.

The court decision dated Friday is the latest in a series of orders forcing Vale to halt operations at various dams that contain the muddy detritus of mining operations after one such barrier collapsed in January, killing some 300 people.

Vale has faced growing pressure to prove that its remaining dams are safe. The fatal disaster in the town of Brumadinho was the second of its kind in four years.

The company’s iron ore production is expected to be 82.8 million tons, or 21 percent, lower than was planned for the year due to the restrictions on its Brazil operations, including the planned decommissioning of all its upstream dams, according to data compiled by Reuters.

Karel Luketic, analyst for steel, iron ore and pulp at XP Investimentos, said on Monday he does not expect the impact on Vale’s earnings to be as large because iron ore prices are rising, which could compensate for lower volumes.

The miner said in a statement that the latest suspension, impacting its Minervino and Cordao Nova Vista dams, will not have a significant impact on its operations. It said that mining waste was already being shipped to “other structures,” which it did not identify.

Vale said on Friday it had received a court order to suspend activities at Ouro Preto dam.

Vale shares closed slightly lower in Sao Paulo, losing 0.18 percent to 50.46 reais, in contrast to a rally in rival miners Rio Tinto and BHP.

The company’s shares fell on the same day the Sao Paulo exchange’s main index reached 100,000 for the first time.

The restrictions to Vale operations in Brazil seem to have impacted shipments, something that was not clear in the first weeks after the disaster in Brumadinho.

According to trade ministry data released on Monday, Brazil’s iron ore shipments for the first two weeks of March were 1.29 million tonnes per day on average.

Shipments in February averaged 1.44 million tons per day while in March 2018 they averaged 1.42 million tons.

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US Wages Wide-Ranging Campaign to Block Huawei

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VOA’s Xu Ning contributed to this report.

Over the past several weeks, the U.S. government has launched a seemingly unprecedented campaign to block the Chinese telecom giant Huawei Technologies from competing in the global rollout of next-generation 5G mobile networking technology, claiming that the company is effectively an arm of the Chinese intelligence services.

In an effort that has included top-level officials from the departments of State, Justice, Defense, Homeland Security, and Commerce, as well as the president himself, the Trump administration has taken steps to curtail Huawei’s ability to operate within the U.S. It has also mounted an extraordinary effort to convince U.S. allies to bar the firm from operating on their soil.

Huawei has long been viewed with suspicion and distrust in many corners of the global economy. The company has a documented history of industrial espionage, and its competitiveness on the global stage has been boosted by massive subsidies from the government in Beijing. Still, the scope of the U.S. government’s current offensive against the company is remarkable.

“Huawei has been accused of many things for a very long time. This is nothing new. What is unique is the extent of the pressure campaign,” said Michael Murphree, assistant professor of International Business at the University of South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business. “In the grand scheme of international technology competition, this is certainly a very strong effort against a specific firm.”

The push to keep Huawei from playing a major role in the rollout of 5G comes at a time when the U.S. and China are in talks to end a costly trade war that the U.S. launched last year with the imposition of tariffs against hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of Chinese exports. In another unprecedented move, President Donald Trump has even tied at least one of the government’s actions against Huawei — a federal indictment in which the company’s chief financial officer has been named — as a potential bargaining chip in trade discussions.

A corporate spokesman for Huawei declined to comment on the Trump Administration’s aggressive tactics.

The case against Huawei

U.S. officials cite a number of reasons to treat Huawei with extreme suspicion, some of them well-documented, others less so.

Top of the list is a National Intelligence law passed in China in 2017 that gives government intelligence services broad and open-ended powers to demand the cooperation of businesses operating in China in intelligence gathering efforts. U.S. policymakers argue that this presents an unambiguous threat to national security.

“In America we can’t even get Apple to crack open an iPhone for the FBI,” Florida Senator Marco Rubio said in a March 13 appearance on Fox Business Network. “In China, Huawei has to give the Chinese anything they ask for.” He added, “They should not be in business in America.”

And while Huawei has strongly denied that it operates as an arm of the Chinese intelligence services, at least two recent international espionage cases have come uncomfortably close to the firm.

 In January, the Polish government arrested a Huawei executive on charges of spying for China. The company itself has not been charged in the case, and Huawei announced that the employee, a sales manager, had been fired.

Early last year, the French newspaper Le Monde Afrique reported that over the course of several years, the computer systems in the Chinese-financed headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa were secretly transmitting data toservers in Shanghai every night, and that listening devices had been discovered implanted in the building. It was later revealed that the primary supplier of information and communications technology to the project had been Huawei.

No proof has ever been put forward that Huawei was involved in the data theft, and African Union officials have declined to go on the record confirming that the information transfers ever occurred.

One of the most frequent concerns expressed by U.S. officials about Huawei is the least substantiated: the idea that the company could install secret “backdoor” access to communications equipment that would give the Chinese government ready access to sensitive communications, or even enable Beijing to shut down communications in another country at will.

It’s a claim that Ren Zhengfei, Huawei’s 74-year-old founder and president, has personally ridiculed. The government would never make that request, and Huawei would never comply, he told the BBC recently. “Our sales revenues are now hundreds of billions of dollars. We are not going to risk the disgust of our country and our customers all over the world because of something like that. We will lose all our business. I’m not going to take that risk.”

The public battle over Huawei’s image

The sheer number of fronts on which the U.S. federal government is currently engaging with Huawei, sometimes very aggressively, is notable.

The most high-profile of these is a federal indictment of the company naming its Chief Financial Officer, Meng Wanzhou, in an alleged scheme to deceive U.S. officials in order to bypass U.S. sanctions on Iran. Meng was arrested in Canada at the request of U.S. prosecutors, and the Justice Department is seeking her extradition in order to have her face trial in New York. At the same time, a second federal indictment accusing the company of stealing trade secrets, was unsealed in the state of Washington.

It is the Meng case that President Trump has suggested he might use as leverage in ongoing trade talks. Speaking to reporters at the White House last month, he said, “We’re going to be discussing all of that during the course of the next couple of weeks. We’ll be talking to the U.S. attorneys. We’ll be talking to the attorney general. We’ll be making that decision. Right now, it’s not something we’ve discussed.”

There have also been active efforts to dissuade other countries from doing business with Huawei.

Last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned U.S. allies that if they use Huawei telecommunications equipment in their critical infrastructure, they will lose access to some intelligence collected by the United States “If a country adopts this and puts it in some of their critical information systems, we won’t be able to share information with them, we won’t be able to work alongside them,” Pompeo said in an interview with Fox Business Network.

On March 8, the U.S. Ambassador to Germany sent a letter to the German minister for economic affairs, reiterating the U.S. government’s concern about the potential for backdoors in Huawei systems and the threat of tampering during complex software updates. He said that U.S. intelligence sharing would be significantly scaled back if Germany uses Huawei products in its new telecommunications systems.

In February, the U.S. government sent a large delegation to MWC Barcelona, the telecommunications industry’s biggest trade show, where they publicly excoriated the company as “duplicitous and deceitful.” The U.S. delegation included officials from the departments of State, Commerce, and Defense, as well as Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai. Also there were officials from the U.S. Agency for International Development, who made it clear that foreign aid dollars from the U.S. will not be available to help fund purchases from Chinese telecom firms.

In addition, a law signed by President Trump last year bars the federal government from buying equipment from Huawei and smaller Chinese telecom company ZTE. Trump has additionally floated the possibility of an executive order that would block Huawei from any participation at all in U.S 5G networks.

Huawei is fighting back, filing a lawsuit this month that claims it was unfairly banned from U.S. government computer networks. Deng Cheng, a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, said the lawsuit may be aimed at determining what information the U.S. government is using to make its case.

 “There is information that the intelligence community may have that isn’t necessarily going to be made public,” he said. “What is admissible in court is not always the same as the information that is actually available. So I’m not really sure how this court case will even be adjudicated.”

Huawei’s lawsuit is likely also partly aimed at improving the firm’s reputation at a time when it is under siege by American officials.

The risk of pushback from China

At a time when the United States relations with even its closest traditional allies is under strain, Washington’s seemingly unilateral demand that a major global supplier be effectively shut out of an enormous marketplace is an audacious request.

For one thing, it is complicated by the fact that for countries and companies anxious to take advantage of 5G wireless technology, there may not be a ready substitute for the Chinese firm.

This seems to be reflected in recent reports that U.S. allies, in Europe, India, the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere, are showing real resistance to U.S, demands. A report in the New York Times late Sunday said that in Europe, the general sense is that any risk posed by Huawei is manageable through monitoring and selective use of the company’s products. The story noted that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s response to the U.S. was a terse message that Germans would be “defining our standards for ourselves.”

And of course, there is always the possibility — even the likelihood — of Chinese retaliation against countries that accede to the United States’ requests. And in China, where the media is largely controlled by the Communist Party, and access to international news services is sharply limited, that retaliation would likely have widespread public support.

“The very strong perception is that Huawei is a great Chinese company that has done extraordinary things to move to the global frontier, in some respects to the head of the pack, and it is being unfairly treated and held back by the United States for specious reasons,” said Lester Ross, the partner-in-charge of the Beijing office of U.S. law firm Wilmer Hale.

 

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Trump Attacks General Motors for Laying Off Auto Workers

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U.S. President Donald Trump is attacking General Motors, the country’s biggest automaker, for costing 5,400 factory workers their jobs when it closed a manufacturing plant where it built a compact model car that Americans were increasingly not interested in buying.

Trump said on Twitter he talked with Mary Barra, GM’s chief executive, on Sunday, telling her he was “not happy” that the automaker closed the manufacturing plant in the industrial heartland of the country in Lordstown, Ohio, where GM manufactured the Chevrolet Cruze, a smaller car the company says is still popular overseas but not in the U.S.

He said he was miffed that the Lordstown plant was closed earlier this month “when everything else in our Country is BOOMING. I asked her to sell it or do something quickly.”

The plant closure was an indication that prosperity is uneven geographically across the U.S., the world’s largest economy.

But with Trump facing several investigations surrounding his 2016 presidential campaign and his actions during the first 26 months of his presidency, he is counting on the country’s mostly robust economy as a key talking point to voters that he should be re-elected to another four-year term in the November 2020 election.

He wrote on Twitter that he is not happy about the closure.

Trump on Monday tweeted that GM, the fourth biggest automaker in the world, and the UAW are opening negotiations on a new contract in September and October.

But he demanded, “Why wait, start them now! I want jobs to stay in the U.S.A. and want Lordstown (Ohio), in one of the best economies in our history, opened or sold to a company who will open it up fast!”

About 4,500 workers at the Lordstown plant lost their jobs over the last two years as sales of the Cruze model declined sharply, along with another 900 at nearby car parts suppliers.

A small portion of the laid-off workers have found jobs at other GM plants far from the Ohio plant that was closed.

Some of the unemployed workers have sought retraining for new jobs, but often found their years of work on a manufacturing assembly line do not readily translate into the ability to handle jobs where newer technology-related skills are needed.

Annual sales of the Cruze in North America peaked at 273,000 in 2014, but last year totaled just 142,000, as Americans are buying fewer passenger cars and instead opting to purchase bigger sport utility vehicles or pickup trucks.

Even as it closed the Lordstown plant, GM is continuing to manufacture the Cruze model in Mexico, Argentina and China, where the wages it pays workers are substantially less than the wages it was paying the Lordstown employees.

GM says Cruze sales in foreign countries have remained stable, fallen less sharply than in the U.S.. or even increased, as is the case in South America.

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France Starts New Chapter in National Debate Aimed to End Yellow-Vest Crisis

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After wrapping up thousands of town hall meetings, France starts a new chapter of its “great debate,” aimed to address longstanding public grievances and offer solutions to the yellow vest protest movement.

But the broader crisis lingers, seen with upsurge of violence in Paris Saturday, where about 10,000 yellow vests marked their 18th straight week of protests.

Demonstrators smashed and looted businesses on the iconic Champs Elysees and hurled cobble stones at police, who responded with tear gas and water cannons. Others participated in a peaceful climate march that brought together tens of thousand of people—underscoring the diffuse, unorganized complexity of the leaderless protest movement.

Eight weeks of citizen debates, launched in January by an embattled President Emmanuel Macron, have received mixed reviews. Some consider them a groundbreaking experiment in participative democracy. Others dismiss them as a public relations stunt.

The bigger question is whether and how Macron’s centrist government plans to transform the public feedback into tangible policy change that can address pent-up resentments and find an exit to the unrest.

“The problems start now” said analyst Jean Petaux of Sciences-Po Bordeaux University. “To totally finish with the yellow vests, the government has to address at least part of their demands, which are very disparate. And give the sense it is offering credible solutions.”

For Macron, the immediate takeaways have been largely positive. Up to half-a-million French participated in 10,000 town-hall-style meetings nationwide that tackled pre-set topics, ranging from taxes and pubic services, to democracy and the environment. Organizers also received more than 1.4 million online comments outlining other issues of public concern, including jobs and immigration.

“People are learning that politics and how to change a system is a very difficult process,” said Bernard Reber, an expert on participative citizenship at the Paris-based National Center for Scientific Research, citing one early achievement.

A mixed review

The debates have also given the president and his government some breathing room — time that will last through the current “phase two,” which ends in April. Citizens are being randomly selected to participate in regional meetings aimed to prioritize the myriad demands.

Surveys show the majority of French have broadly given the national debates a thumbs up. More than eight in 10 respondents said the meetings gave citizens an opportunity to express themselves, while smaller majorities said they addressed their personal problems and those aired by the yellow vests, according to a Harris Interactive-Agence Epoka poll published this week, echoing others.

But many appear skeptical that all the talking will amount to much. Another survey found roughly two-thirds doubt the government will ultimately take the public feedback into account.

France’s leading Le Monde newspaper, however, gave the effort a careful, initial thumbs up. Critics who dismissed the debates as a diversion “were misguided,” it wrote in an editorial, while the yellow vests “were eclipsed and marginalize by this exercise in democracy.”

“Macron has not yet won,” it added, “he needs to show he hasn’t just listened but heard the country.”

Government members insist that will happen.

“The idea we have to do things differently is obvious,” Territorial Collectives Minister Sebastien Lecornu, who helped to organizing the debates, told the weekly Le Journal du Dimanche. “We may beef up certain themes, accelerate or correct others.”

But Prime Minister Edouard Philippe offered a more cautionary note, those expecting a flurry of government measures emerging from the debates were misguided.

The months of yellow vest protests have slowed Macron’s reformist agenda. The protest movement, named after the fluorescent jackets French keep in their cars, has morphed well beyond its initial opposition to a planned fuel tax hike, to embrace a hodgepodge of grievances of a largely rural and working class France left behind.

The French president took an initial step back by repealing the fuel tax increase. Then in December, he went further, announcing billions of dollars of aid for the most vulnerable and laying out plans the debates. Yellow vests dismissed the announcements as insufficient, the most extreme calling for Macron’s resignation.

“Emmanuel Macron now has to show that his statements — that there is a before and and after the yellow vests — are translated into acts,” says analyst Petaux. “Otherwise, it’s just talk.”

The next step?

So far, there are at least stylistic changes. Often dismissed as arrogant and aloof, Macron has rolled up his sleeves — literally — and participated in roughly a dozen public debates, in a style reminiscent of his presidential campaign.

Political opponents grumble the French leader has hogged media coverage ahead of May European Parliament elections. And indeed, polls show Macron’s approval rating jumped eight points by early March, to reach 28 percent, and his Republic on the March party inching up to overtake the far-right opposition National Rally.

Still, some observers note the debates ultimately involved only a small slice of the population — including many elderly, with time on their hands. “The great majority of French stayed home,” said analyst Petaux. “It’s not that they were sidelined. It’s that they don’t care. They have other things to do.”

But analyst Reber, who attended roughly 30 of the town hall meetings, believes the debates should not be underestimated. “They’ve been unprecedented in every sense,” he said.

A few months ago, he said, many would have dismissed the idea that French would show up and hash out often deeply divisive issues. “But that’s not been the case,” Reber added. “People mobilized — and stayed for a long time. I don’t know many countries in the world that allow citizens to participate in hours-long debates.”

Macron is expected to announce the after-debate roadmap next month. So far, the French president has given little indication of his long-term exit strategy. Some believe he doesn’t yet have one.

 “I’m not sure the government has a clear idea of what it’s going to do with this mass of information” Reber said. “But it has all kinds of options.

A referendum may be the most obvious path, many analysts say. But it carries risks — not only in terms timing, notably whether to schedule such a vote during May European Parliament elections — but also the chance French may vote against it.

The next steps for the yellow vests are also unclear. A number of analysts believe the movement will slowly die out.

Some diehards will likely continue and harden the protests, Petaux believes, while another group will be absorbed into existing politics parties — mostly on the far right and far left.

A third “will relive the nostalgia of the Republic of roundabouts,” he said, remembering the solidarity and friendships struck during the protests.

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UK Leader to Lawmakers: Back my Deal or Face Lengthy Delay

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British Prime Minister Theresa May warned Sunday that it would be “a potent symbol of Parliament’s collective political failure” if a Brexit delay meant that the U.K. has to take part in May’s European elections — almost three years after Britons voted to leave the bloc.

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, May also cautioned that if lawmakers failed to back her deal before Thursday’s European Council summit, “we will not leave the EU for many months, if ever.”

 

“If the proposal were to go back to square one and negotiate a new deal, that would mean a much longer extension… The idea of the British people going to the polls to elect MEPs [Members of the European Parliament] three years after voting to leave the EU hardly bears thinking about,” she wrote.

 

May is expected to try to win Parliament’s approval of her withdrawal agreement for the third time this week. After months of political deadlock, lawmakers voted on Thursday to seek to postpone Brexit.

 

That will likely avert a chaotic withdrawal on the scheduled exit date of March 29 — though power to approve or reject an extension lies with the EU. The European Commission has said the bloc would consider any request, “taking into account the reasons for and duration of a possible extension.”

 

By law, Britain is due to leave the EU on March 29, with or without a deal, unless it cancels Brexit or secures a delay.

 

May is trying to persuade opponents in her Conservative Party and its parliamentary allies to support the withdrawal agreement, which Parliament has already resoundingly defeated twice.

 

Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said Sunday his party is against May’s deal — but indicated that it would back an amendment that supports the deal on condition it is put to a new referendum.

 

Corbyn has written to lawmakers across the political spectrum inviting them for talks to find a cross-party compromise.

 

He also told Sky News that he may propose another no-confidence vote in the government if May’s deal is voted down again.

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Brazil Reportedly Weighing Import Quota for US Wheat

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Brazil is considering granting an import quota of 750,000 metric tons of U.S. wheat per year without tariffs in exchange for other trade concessions, according to a Brazilian official with knowledge of the negotiations ahead of President Jair Bolsonaro’s visit to Washington. 

That is about 10 percent of Brazilian annual wheat imports and is part of a two-decade-old commitment to import 750,000 metric tons of wheat a year free of tariffs that Brazil made — but never kept — during the World Trade Organization’s Uruguay Round of talks on agriculture. 

Bolsonaro is scheduled to arrive in Washington on Sunday and meet with U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House on Tuesday.

Farm state senators have asked that wheat sales be on the agenda, in a letter to Trump seen by Reuters. They estimate such a quota would increase U.S. wheat sales by between $75 million and $120 million a year. 

Brazil buys most of its imported wheat from Argentina, and some from Uruguay and Paraguay, without paying tariffs because they are all members of the Mercosur South American customs union. Imports from other countries pay a 10 percent tariff. 

The Brazilian official, who asked not to be named so he could speak freely, said the wheat quota could be sealed during a meeting between Brazil’s Agriculture Minister Teresa Cristina Dias and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue on Tuesday. 

In return, the Brazilian government is hoping to see movement toward the reopening of the U.S. market to fresh beef imports from Brazil that was shut down after a meatpacking industry scandal involving bribed inspectors. 

Brazil is also seeking U.S. market access for its exports of limes that are facing phytosanitary certification hurdles. 

The world’s largest sugar producer also wants tariff-free access to the U.S. market. But Washington is not expected to budge on that issue until Brazil lifts a tariff it slapped on ethanol imports when they exceed 150 million liters in a quarter. 

That is a major demand by U.S. biofuels producers, who are the main suppliers of ethanol imported by Brazil. 

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Iran’s Oil Minister Blames US for Market Tensions 

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Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh said on Saturday that frequent U.S. comments about oil prices had created market tensions, the ministry’s news website SHANA reported. 

U.S. President Donald Trump, who has made the U.S. economy one of his top issues, has repeatedly tweeted about oil prices and the Organization of the Petroleum Producing Countries. He has expressed concern about higher prices, including last month and ahead of OPEC’s meeting in December.

“Americans talk a lot and I advise them to talk less. They [have] caused tensions in the oil market for over a year now, and they are responsible for it, and if this trend continues, the market will be more tense,” SHANA quoted Zanganeh as saying. 

U.S. crude futures briefly hit a 2019 high on Friday but later retreated along with benchmark Brent oil as worries about the global economy and robust U.S. production put a brake on prices. 

OPEC and its allies including Russia, an alliance known as OPEC+, agreed last year to cut production, partly in response to increased U.S. shale output.

Washington granted waivers to eight major buyers of Iranian oil after the U.S. reimposed sanctions on Iran’s oil sector in November, after withdrawing from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. 

“We do not know whether U.S. waivers would be extended or not. We will do our job but they [the U.S.] say something new every single day,” Zanganeh said. 

South Pars

Zanganeh was speaking at a news conference ahead of the planned inauguration on Sunday of four development phases at South Pars, the world’s largest gas field, by President Hassan Rouhani. 

He said Iran had invested $11 billion to complete the phases 13 and 22-24 of the giant field, which Tehran shares with Qatar, and expected to operate 27 phases by next March, SHANA reported. 

France’s Total and China National Petroleum Corp suspended investment in phase 11 of South Pars last year after the United States threatened to impose sanctions on companies that do business in Iran. 

But Zanganeh said talks with CNPC were continuing. 

“Negotiations are ongoing. A senior delegation from China is due to come to Iran for talks. They have promised to come to Iran soon,” said Zanganeh, according to the semiofficial news agency ISNA.