American diplomats fall ill in China after hearing odd noises

Two American diplomats stationed in Guangzhou, China were reportedly evacuated from the region when they fell ill after hearing mysterious noises — as the baffling sicknesses, which began in Cuba, continues to haunt US embassies.

The diplomats were flown out by the State Department, which also sent in a medical team to evaluate other employees at the American Consulate along with their families, who may be experiencing similar symptoms, according to The New York Times.

The illnesses in Guangzhou began when Mark Lenzi and his family started experiencing chronic headaches after he described hearing “marbles bouncing and hitting a floor then rolling on an incline with a static sound,” the Washington Post reported.

The State Department acknowledged the Lenzi incident late last month.

In a similar event at the US embassy in Havana, Cuba in 2016 — 24 employees and their families experienced headaches, nausea, hearing loss and cognitive issues.

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Trump tweets misleading pictures of border wall

The images that President Trump included in a tweet about being briefed on the start of his signature wall were actually of cranes replacing a barrier fence along the Mexican border, according to reports.

“Great briefing this afternoon on the start of our Southern Border WALL!” the president tweeted Wednesday along with four photos apparently from the scene of a small barrier replacement project in Calexico, California.

The images were from a months-long project – whose plans began in 2009 – to replace a 2.25-mile stretch of barrier along the Mexican border, the LA Times reported, citing a recent statement from US Customs and Border Protection.

Border Patrol agents emphasized that it should not be confused with Trump’s long-promised 2,000-mile wall that he said Mexico would pay for.

“First and foremost, this isn’t Trump’s wall,” Jonathan Pacheco, a spokesman for the Border Patrol’s El Centro Sector, told a group on a border tour in early March, the paper reported.

“This isn’t the infrastructure that Trump is trying to bring in…. This new wall replacement has absolutely nothing to do with the prototypes that were shown over in the San Diego area,” he added.

The original fence in Calexico, built in the 1990s, had been constructed from recycled metal scraps and old landing mat, according to the CBP. It is being replaced with a 30-foot-high, bollard-style wall.

“Although the existing wall has proven effective at deterring unlawful cross border activity, smuggling organizations damaged and breached this outdated version of a border wall several hundred times during the last two years,” the agency said.

Justin Castrejon, a spokesman for the Border Patrol’s El Centro Sector, told the LA Times that “it was ultimately funded under the current administration in 2017, but is completely separate of any political talk or commentary.”

But despite the agency’s statements, when asked by the LA Times on Wednesday whether the project and Trump’s wall were one and the same, a spokesman sent a one-word response: “Yes.”

Trump has complained to associates that he felt jilted when lawmakers included only $1.6 billion for his wall in the omnibus spending bill he signed last week, the Washington Post reported.

Frustrated that neither Mexico nor Congress will foot the more than $20 billion bill of the wall, Trump said he wanted the US armed forces to pick up the tab by framing it as a national security issue that falls under the Pentagon’s purview.

“Because of the $700 & $716 Billion Dollars gotten to rebuild our Military, many jobs are created and our Military is again rich,” Trump tweeted Sunday.

“Building a great Border Wall, with drugs (poison) and enemy combatants pouring into our Country, is all about National Defense. Build WALL through M!” he continued, in reference to the military.

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Senate passes GOP tax bill, sets stage for House revote

The Senate passed a sweeping overhaul of the country’s tax system early Wednesday — with the House a lock to do the same later in the day, after its initial approval of the bill on Tuesday was canceled by a minor technicality.

The measure, which will provide savings for a majority of taxpayers while sending a windfall to corporations and the wealthiest Americans, now goes to President Trump, who has promised it as a Christmas gift to taxpayers.

The package passed the Senate just after midnight in a strictly party-line vote of 51-48. It was expected to be on Trump’s desk on Wednesday after the House revotes.

“The United States Senate just passed the biggest in history Tax Cut and Reform Bill,” Trump tweeted early Wednesday. “Terrible Individual Mandate (ObamaCare) Repealed. Goes to the House tomorrow morning for final vote. If approved, there will be a News Conference at The White House at approximately 1:00 P.M.”

Republicans said the measure will bring much needed relief to working-class families and jump-start the economy.

Democrats derided the bill as a handout to big donors and wealthy individuals, who will see the largest cuts, along with corporations, whose top tax rate will shrink from 35 percent to 21 percent.

Protesters chanting, “Kill the bill, don’t kill us” interrupted the Senate vote. Vice President Mike Pence, who was in the chamber in case he was needed for a tie-breaking vote, called on the sergeant at arms to restore order.

The tax cuts total nearly $1.5 trillion over the next decade and will take effect in January. Workers will start to see changes in the amount of taxes withheld from their paychecks in February.

The bill gives Trump his first significant legislative victory, and he celebrated after the House vote earlier in the day.

“Congratulations to Paul Ryan, Kevin McCarthy, Kevin Brady, Steve Scalise, Cathy McMorris Rodgers and all great House Republicans who voted in favor of cutting your taxes!” he tweeted.

Ryan (R-Wis.), the House speaker, crowed after his chamber OK’d the bill, “Today, we give the people of this country their money back.”

At which a woman shouted from the gallery, “You’re lying, you’re lying! Only the rich people are going to get any money!”

She was quickly escorted out.

Not long afterward, it emerged that the House would need a do-over Wednesday after Democrats discovered that several provisions in the bill it passed violated Senate rules. The new vote, though, was regarded as a formality.

Many New Yorkers and residents of other high-income, high-tax states like New Jersey and Connecticut might see their taxes remain flat or even rise because of the way the bill is structured — which prompted a fierce debate on the House floor between two Empire State lawmakers, Queens Democrat Joe Crowley and upstate Republican Tom Reed.

In a fervent speech before the vote, Crowley called the tax bill a “scam” that will benefit the Trump family and corporate special interests. He shook his finger at the Republicans and asked how they could vote for the bill with a “clear conscience.”

“Is this bill going to make life better for cops, firefighters, nurses, truck drivers, students, veterans, teachers and shift workers? Hell no!” Crowley yelled.

Reed, who helped write the legislation as a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, rose to shoot down Crowley.

“All the people you referenced in the middle class, I say hell yes!” Reed said. “They are going to be helped by this bill.”

Crowley tried to interrupt, but Reed refused to yield the floor.

“It’s going to let them keep their money in their pocket that they earned,” Reed said.

Ryan dismissed multiple polls that show a majority of Americans opposes the bill.

“This is the greatest example of a promise being made and a promise being kept,” he said, predicting that “results are going to make this popular.”

The tax plan won’t affect returns covering the 2017 tax year.

Officials said taxpayers will start noticing changes next year when their paychecks are different because of new withholding rates.

The plan will double the standard deduction to $12,000 for single filers and around $24,000 for couples, while the top bracket drops from 39.6 percent to 37 percent.

A dozen House Republicans voted against the tax overhaul — eight of them from New York and New Jersey, where residents could be hardest hit by the $10,000 cap on deductions for state and local income, sales and property taxes.

Trump wants to judge immigrants by their English-speaking and job skills

President Donald Trump endorsed an immigration bill that would cut legal immigration by 50 percent over the next decade and overhaul the current system to prevent “low-skilled” immigrants from entering the country.

Speaking from the White House’s Roosevelt Room on Wednesday, Trump called the RAISE Act the most “significant reform of our immigration system in half a century,” and said it would replace “our low-skill system with a new points system.”

Under the bill, green card applicants would earn “points” based on English skills, their ability to support themselves financially, job offers, and skill set. Trump argued that these tests would help working-class Americans who feel wage competition with low-skilled immigrants. The bill faces long odds: Eight Democrats in the Senate would have to vote “yes” for it to pass.

The plan’s authors, Republican Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia, also cast their plan as a defense of working-class Americans.

“Only 1 in 15 out of a million new immigrants [each year] come here because of their job skills and their ability to succeed in this economy,” Cotton said, speaking at the presidential podium after Trump spoke. “For some people, they may think that’s a symbol of America’s virtue and generosity. I think it’s a symbol that we’re not committed to working-class Americans.”

Cotton’s embrace of Trump’s “America First” ethos was also an implicit rebuttal of the famous Emma Lazarus poem etched on the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”), which Democratic lawmakers have frequently quoted in the Trump era.

The proposed bill would also limit the number of refugees admitted to the United States to 50,000 per year. There are currently 22.5 million refugees worldwide, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency, and over half are under 18.

While the bill’s immediate chances of passage are slim, the president’s embrace of a plan to reduce legal immigration marks a dramatic shift from the immigration reform efforts of recent decades. President Ronald Reagan granted amnesty to millions of undocumented immigrants and George W. Bush attempted to pass a bipartisan immigration bill that would provide a path to citizenship to the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants. A similar effort by Barack Obama in 2013 passed the Senate 68-32 with support from both parties before stalling out in the House.

In an interview with VICE News, Democratic Congressman Ted Lieu of California, who immigrated to America from Taiwan, voiced his opposition to the bill. “To restrict legal immigration will make America weaker,” Lieu said. “We never would have made it to this country if this bill had been law, because my parents weren’t financially stable nor did they speak English well.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a leading supporter of the Bush and Obama immigration reform efforts, came out against Trump’s proposal on Wednesday. He said he supported merit-based immigration but opposed the cutting of legal immigration levels. “I fear this proposal will not only hurt our agriculture, tourism, and service economy in South Carolina, it incentivizes more illegal immigration as positions go unfilled,” he said in a statement.

The bill is yet another sign of the more nativist approach to immigration that’s been steadily gaining ground on the right for the past decade. Its emergence helped fuel Trump’s candidacy as he took the most hard-line immigration stance in the 2016 Republican presidential primary.

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” Trump said in the spring 2016 speech announcing his presidential bid. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems [to] us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

In American history, the pendulum of immigration policy has repeatedly swung between welcoming immigrants and shunning them. Before the Immigration and Naturalization Act passed in 1965 — which largely remains in place to this day –the immigration system more closely resembled what Trump is proposing. The Immigration Act of 1924 instituted “literacy tests” and banned all immigration from an “Asiatic Barred Zone” — basically every Asian country except Japan and the Philippines — because politicians claimed Asians could not successfully integrate in America.

While this particular bill may not pass, it could very well foreshadow another swing of the pendulum.

Credit: VICE

House passes spending bill with $1.6B for Trump’s border wall

WASHINGTON — The House passed a $788 billion spending bill Thursday that combines a $1.6 billion down payment for President Donald Trump’s controversial border wall with Mexico with a whopping budget increase for the Pentagon.

The 235-192 vote both eases a large backlog of unfinished spending bills and gives Trump and his House GOP allies political wins heading into the August recess. Challenging hurdles remain in front of the measure, however, which will meet with more powerful Democratic opposition in the Senate.

The 326-page measure would make good on longtime GOP promises to reverse an erosion in military readiness. It would give veterans programs a 5 percent increase and fund a 2.4 percent military pay raise.

GOP leaders used the popularity of the Pentagon and veterans programs to power through Trump’s border wall.

“Every single dime the President requested to start building a wall on our southern border he’s going to get,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. “Most importantly, we’re sending more to the VA to fix veterans’ health care and reform outdated VA systems.”

Still, a potential government shutdown battle over the U.S.-Mexico wall looms with Senate Democrats this fall. The generous defense spending increases also run afoul of strict spending limits set by an earlier budget law, and there’s been no progress on a bipartisan budget deal that would be a prerequisite for the higher spending to take full effect.

The House added Trump’s wall funding by a 230-196 procedural vote that denied angry Democrats an up-or-down vote. The wall gets low marks in public opinion polls and is opposed by many of the GOP’s more moderate lawmakers.

Trump promised at nearly every rally and campaign event that Mexico would pay for the wall. Mexico said no, and U.S. taxpayers will have to provide the money.

“The president has promised this funding, the American people want this funding, and today the House is making good on that promise,” said Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss.

Critics say that existing fencing is more than enough and that the portions of the border without it are too remote for crossings and that tribal law, environmental requirements, and personal property rights have blocked fencing for most of the rest.
“Nobody would know it from the President’s hysterical rhetoric, but there are already 700 miles of fence down there on the border — vehicular fencing, pedestrian fencing,” said Rep. David Price, D-N.C. “I know about it because most of that fencing was built when I was chairman of the homeland security appropriations subcommittee.”

At issue are the spending bills passed by Congress each year to fund the day-to-day operations of federal agencies. Trump is pushing for a sweeping increase for the Pentagon and commensurate cuts of more than $50 billion, or 10 percent, from domestic agencies and foreign aid. House Republicans are responding by adding even more for defense but have significantly scaled back Trump’s cuts to domestic programs like community development grants and medical research.

GOP leaders had hoped to advance a broader “omnibus” package that would have included each of the 12 measures. But the GOP rank and file balked, so Republicans devised a smaller bill anchored by the Pentagon budget, funding for veterans programs, and money for the wall.

But most of the sweeping Pentagon increases — which total about $60 billion above current levels and almost $30 billion higher than Trump’s budget — would evaporate next year unless there’s a bipartisan agreement to raise budget “caps” set by a 2011 budget pact. A two-year agreement that eased those “sequestration” spending limits expires in September.

Both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate want additional funding for domestic programs. Democrats have lots of leverage because their votes are needed to pass the funding measures. For now, the Senate is working in a bipartisan fashion on a sharply different set of bills that, on average, are frozen at current levels. 

Earlier this year, Congress and Trump came together of spending bills for the current budget year that largely stuck to work done last year under former President Barack Obama. Trump reluctantly signed a $1.2 trillion catchall spending bill in May after his demand for border wall money looked like it would stall the measure.

The current bill, however, reflects the changed balance of power in GOP-controlled Washington. Weapons procurement is a top priority, including two additional littoral combat ships above Trump’s request and 14 unrequested next-generation F-35 fighters.

Democrats said the big gains for now are illusory since automatic budget cuts known as sequestration remain in place.

“We do not give certainty to our defense or confidence to our troops when we legislate with phony numbers, when we refuse to make honest choices about our Defense budget,” said Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “Instead of giving certainty to our heroes in uniform, this bill would breach the sequester spending limit by more than $70 billion, forcing a mandatory 13 percent cut to all defense accounts.”

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White House can’t explain why Trump products aren’t ‘Made in America’

President Trump on Monday launched “Made in America Week” to salute businesses that make products in the US — but the White House struggled to explain why so many Trump-branded products were manufactured overseas.

The president and Vice President Pence later schmoozed with manufacturers from all 50 states who displayed their products on the South Lawn “Where’s the fire? I’ll put it out!” Trump quipped as he eyeballed a firetruck made by Pierce Manufacturing of Wisconsin.

The products included everything from New-York made Steinway pianos to New Jersey’s Campbell’s Soup to Sikorsky helicopters manufactured in Connecticut.

There was also wine from California, cider doughnuts from New Hampshire and beer from Rhode Island.

But what didn’t appear on the list the White House released were any Trump-branded products or items from Ivanka Trump’s fashion line, virtually all of which were manufactured in countries with cheap labor such as China Vietnam, and Bangladesh.

On Monday, for example, shoppers at Lord & Taylor in Manhattan could purchase a white ruffled top for $69 that was made in Indonesia or a pair of blue ankle length pants for $79 made in Vietnam.

One of the manufacturers on hand, Rick Johnson, CEO of Ditch Witch in Oklahoma, which made a horizontal directional drill displayed on the South Lawn, said when asked that he hoped Trump would move manufacture of some products to the US.

“I think it would set a good example for all companies,” he told The Post.

Peter O’Connell, president of Maine’s Hinckley boat makers, agreed.

“I think companies should build their products in America. I haven’t found any reason why you shouldn’t build them here. It’s a very competitive skilled workforce,” he said.

White house spokesman Sean Spicer declined comment. 

“It’s not appropriate for me to stand up here and comment about a [specific] business. I believe that’s a little out of bounds,” Spicer said.

Asked if Trump was a credible spokesman for a “Made in America” campaign given his own goods are not made in America, he pointed to the president’s business savvy.

“I think he is in a unique way able to talk about the challenges that so many of these companies face,” he said.

Trump later spoke about the importance of American manufacturing and what he said would be better trade deals he hoped to negotiate.

“For decades Washington has allowed other nations to wipe out millions of American jobs through unfair trade practices,” he said, calling free trade “stupid trade.”

“Wait till you see what’s up for you. You are going to be so happy. We’re going to end up having a level playing field.”

Abigail Klem, who heads of Ivanka Trump’s company after she stepped away from the business for a White House job — said she won’t be shifting manufacturing to the US any time soon, explaining “to do it at a large scale is currently not possible.”

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North Korea warns US, rest of the world it will keep building up nuclear arsenal

UNITED NATIONS — North Korea’s U.N. ambassador warned the United States and the rest of the world Wednesday that his country will keep building up its nuclear arsenal regardless of sanctions, pressure or military attack.

Kim In Ryong told the U.N. Security Council that the more than 50-year confrontation between North Korea and the United States came closer to the brink of nuclear war than ever before when the U.S. military held what he called its largest-ever “aggressive” maneuvers with South Korea in April and May.

Since then, he said, the United States has sent B-1B nuclear bombers into South Korean airspace, deployed the THAAD anti-missile system in the country, imposed new U.S. sanctions against North Korea, and spearheaded another U.N. sanctions resolution.

Kim said the Trump administration is pursuing an outdated “hostile policy” toward the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which is North Korea’s official name.

He said the United States is modernizing its nuclear weapons but other countries aren’t allowed “to test or launch any object which goes with the words of nuclear or ballistic.”

“This is really the height of shameless arrogance, self-righteousness and double standards,” he said.

Accusing the U.S. of trying to hold down North Korea and retain a military edge in Asia as part of “its dream of world domination,” Kim said the North Korean people have concluded that to defend their rights and sovereignty they must respond in kind.

“No matter what others say, whatever sanctions, pressure and military attack may follow, we will not flinch from the road to build up nuclear forces, which was chosen to defend the sovereignty of the country and the rights to national existence,” he said.

The North Korean ambassador was making a rare appearance in the Security Council at an open meeting on implementation of a resolution adopted in 2004 aimed at keeping terrorists, extremists and other “non-state actors” from obtaining nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. He has boycotted council meetings dealing with U.N. sanctions against North Korea.

A statement read at the council meeting by Spain’s U.N. ambassador, Roman Oyarzun Marchesi, on behalf of 51 countries that strongly oppose the spread of weapons of mass destruction condemns “proliferation in all possible forms by anyone” — and vows to “make every effort to prevent it.”

“In this connection, we condemn in the strongest terms the nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development activities conducted by the DPRK in flagrant violation of the Security Council’s resolutions,” said the statement, whose signatories include the United States and countries from Asia, Africa, the Mideast, Latin America and Europe.

The U.N. disarmament chief, Izumi Nakamitsu, warned the Security Council that advancements in science and technology in an increasingly interconnected world are making it more difficult to prevent “the disastrous scenario” of terrorists using nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. She said that while globalization brings new opportunities for economic growth and development it also facilitates the rapid movement of materials and the latest scientific and technological discoveries as well as people with expertise.

“While there are still significant technical hurdles that terrorist groups need to overcome to effectively use weapons of mass destruction, a growing number of emerging technologies could make this barrier easier to cross,” Nakamitsu said.“Non-state actors including terrorist organizations will exploit any loophole to obtain these technologies,” she said.

She pointed to the use of drones, 3D printers and the exploitation of “dark web” as a marketplace to buy dual-use equipment and materials.

“Dual use is further complicating our efforts to address the risk posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction,” Nakamitsu said.

Credit: NY Post