March, 2017

 

Highlights: The Trump presidency on March 31 at 02:14 p.m. EDT

(Reuters) – Highlights of the day for U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration on Friday:

RUSSIA AND THE U.S. ELECTION

Trump backs a decision by his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, to seek immunity in congressional probes of possible ties between his campaign and Russia, but there was no immediate sign the request would be granted.

SUPREME COURT NOMINEE

Two Democratic senators voice opposition to Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, ahead of an expected contentious confirmation fight next week on the Senate floor.

CHINA

The Trump administration slams China on a range of trade issues from its chronic industrial overcapacity to forced technology transfers and longstanding bans on U.S. beef and electronic payment services. Beijing seeks to play down tensions with the United States and put on a positive face ahead of President Xi Jinping’s first meeting with Trump next week.

TRADE

Trump will sign executive orders on Friday aimed at identifying abuses that are causing massive U.S. trade deficits and clamping down on nonpayment of anti-dumping and anti-subsidy duties on imports, his top trade officials say.

DEFENSE

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis signals that Washington may soon decide how to respond to what it says are Russian violations of a Cold War-era arms control agreement, saying the United States is conferring with allies.

Germany says NATO’s agreed target of spending 2 percent of members’ yearly economic output is neither “reachable nor desirable,” countering a call by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for all allies to comply and quickly.

HILLARY CLINTON

Former Secretary of State and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton says that the deep budget cuts to foreign aid and diplomacy proposed by Trump to fund increased military spending would make the United States and the world less safe.

EGYPT

Trump will seek to rebuild the U.S. relationship with Egypt at a meeting on Monday with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi focused on security issues and military aid, a senior White House official says.

JORDAN

TRUMP UNIVERSITY

A U.S. judge approves a $25 million settlement to resolve a class action lawsuit that claimed fraud against Trump and his Trump University real estate seminars.

(Compiled by Jonathan Oatis; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Grant McCool)


Germany balks at Tillerson call for more European NATO spending

BRUSSELS (Reuters) –  U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reassured his nervous European counterparts over Washington’s commitment to NATO on Friday and pressed them again to spend more on defense, triggering a rebuke from Germany.

Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said it was neither “reachable nor desirable” for Germany to spend the agreed NATO target of two percent of member states’ economic output on defense. NATO allies have until 2024 to do that.

“Two percent would mean military expenses of some 70 billion euros. I don’t know any German politician who would claim that is reachable nor desirable,” Gabriel told the first meeting of NATO foreign ministers attended by Tillerson.

“The United States will realize it is better to talk about better spending instead of more spending,” he said, noting that humanitarian, development and economic aid to stabilize countries and regions should also count.

Tillerson said allies will need to pay up or outline plans for meeting that target when NATO leaders meet on May 25 for the first top-level summit of the alliance to be attended by U.S. President Donald Trump.

Trump has criticized NATO as “obsolete” and suggested Washington’s security guarantees for European allies could be conditional on them spending more on their own defense. He has also said he wants NATO to do more to fight terrorism.

“Our goal should be to agree at the May leaders meeting that by the end of the year all allies will have either met the pledge guidelines or will have developed plans that clearly articulate how…the pledge will be fulfilled,” Tillerson said.

“Allies must demonstrate by their actions that they share U.S. government’s commitment.”

In Berlin, German government spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said the government was committed to increasing defense spending and would continue to do so “because we know it is necessary and makes sense to further strengthen our armed forces”.

U.S. defense expenditure makes up about 70 percent of the total NATO allies’ defense spending. Only four European NATO members – Estonia, Greece, Poland and Britain – meet the two-percent target.

NATO head Jens Stoltenberg rejected Gabriel’s call to include non-military spending toward the goal, but said Germany was moving “in the right direction” with more military spending after years of cuts.

He said NATO ministers on Friday discussed national plans for arriving at the target as they prepared for the May summit.

In London, Britain’s Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said that other European NATO allies must “raise their game, and those failing to meet the two-percent commitment… should at least agree to year-on-year real terms increases.”

QUESTIONS OVER U.S. COMMITMENT

Tillerson did however offer assurances of Washington’s commitment to NATO during his brief stop in Brussels, although U.S. officials said he did not have time for one-on-one meetings, which are customary during such gatherings.

His initial decision to skip his first meeting with NATO foreign ministers had added to questions about the Trump administration’s commitment. The meeting was later rescheduled and he attended on Friday.

“The United States is committed to ensuring NATO has the capabilities to support our collective defense,” Tillerson said. “We will uphold the agreements we have made to defend our allies.”

Tillerson said NATO was fundamental to countering Russian aggression in Ukraine. A meeting on Thursday between ambassadors from NATO and Russia called on Moscow to do more to rein in the Moscow-allied separatists battling Kiev’s forces there.

Stoltenberg said ties between European NATO members and the United States were “rock solid”.

He said “fair burden sharing to keep the trans-atlantic bond strong” and “stepping up NATO efforts to project stability and fight terrorism” were on the agenda on Friday as the bloc seeks to respond to the new, harsher tone from across the Atlantic.

(Additional reporting by Tom Koerkemeier in Brussels, Andrea Shalal in Berlin and Kylie MacLellan in London; Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Louise Ireland)


Trump lacks team and clear plan for quick tax reform

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump has neither a clear White House tax plan nor adequate staff yet to see through a planned tax reform, according to interviews with people in the administration, in Congress and among U.S. tax experts.

In an echo of its attempt to roll back Obamacare that ended in an embarrassing collapse in Congress, the Trump administration has vowed quick action on taxes. But it has yet to appoint people with the skills to evaluate complex tax laws, draft legislation and sell it to deeply divided lawmakers.

Burned by last week’s failed healthcare measure largely authored by House of Representatives Republicans, Trump is determined not to count on Congress so much this time for handling the details on taxes, his second major legislative initiative.

But that only underscores his need for a strong White House tax team, which the administration still lacks. Many policy options are still being studied, from deficit-funded tax cuts to a European-style value-added tax.

“They’re still sorting out who’s in charge, who’s going to take the lead,” said William Hoagland, a longtime Senate Republican aide who worked on the last successful comprehensive tax reform effort in 1986.

“You need someone who has the ear and support of the president who can sell a tax plan, and you need the technical support for that person,” said Hoagland, now senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank.

Financial markets have been reassessing expectations of fast action on taxes that have helped fuel a Trump stocks rally.

Members of Trump’s tax team are known, but not their exact duties. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn are senior team leaders. Others include White House advisers Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

Trump huddled with Mnuchin on Thursday to discuss taxes.

“We are at the first stages of this process, beginning to engage with members of Congress, policy groups, business leaders, industry, constituents from around the country, and other stakeholders,” White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters on Thursday, Trump’s 69th day in office.

When Trump was elected in November, Republican lawmakers enthusiastically joined his call to rewrite the tax code and dismantle Obamacare in the first 100 days of his presidency.

In early February, Trump promised a “phenomenal” tax plan by early March that never appeared. Mnuchin spoke on Feb. 23 of enacting tax reform by August. Spicer acknowledged this week that the timetable could be slipping.

Another senior White House official said the administration had assumed it would still be working on healthcare at this point, not tax reform yet. The official, not authorized to speak publicly, spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity.

So far, Trump’s tax campaign is a far cry from President Ronald Reagan’s 1986 effort, in which Don Regan, as Treasury secretary and then White House chief of staff, spent many months developing legislation that won bipartisan support in Congress.

“The process under Reagan was much more developed, elaborate and long, and there was a strong bench of top-rate technicians putting things together,” said Steven Rosenthal, senior fellow at the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, a think tank.

Under Trump, he said, “None of that is happening.”

‘A LOT SIMPLER’

During the 2016 election campaign, Trump issued a tax plan that partly resembled one developed by House Speaker Paul Ryan, but Trump does not now appear wedded to either. It is a safe bet he will not lean heavily on the plan from Ryan, who drafted and championed the ill-fated plan to gut Obamacare.

“Trump now desperately needs a policy victory … I would expect the president to play a much more activist role,” said Stephen Moore, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a think tank. Moore helped write the Trump campaign tax plan.

Mnuchin last week talked about a middle-class tax cut. He also said tax reform in many ways would be “a lot simpler” than healthcare, dismaying tax experts who said that is not so.

Comprehensive tax reform is so complex that it has defied Congresses and presidents since Reagan. Tax law is riddled with loopholes embedded in the economy and defended by beneficiaries.

Some fundamental questions remain unanswered within the Trump team. For instance, it is unclear if Trump would support a plan that adds to the budget deficit. Past tax reform efforts have tried to be “revenue neutral.”

Trump also has sent mixed messages on Ryan’s proposed “border adjustment tax” that would end the corporate deduction for import costs and make export income tax-free, aiming to boost exports and raise new tax revenues.

The Trump team is heavy on Wall Street experience, but short on tax expertise. At Treasury, Mnuchin is the only Senate-confirmed political appointee in place. The job of Treasury assistant secretary for tax policy is unfilled.

A person familiar with the hiring process for the job said: “Treasury needs more capable tax expertise ASAP, or the White House will yank total control for tax reform from the department for the rest of the year, maybe beyond.”

Mark Mazur, who held the Treasury tax job under former Democratic President Barack Obama, said Mnuchin has too much on his plate to concentrate fully on taxes.

Mnuchin has praised Treasury’s 100 tax policy career staff, but they can only offer options to Trump appointees, said Mazur, now director of the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.

“The political appointees are the ones who need to turn the crank on the sausage-making machine,” Mazur said.

(Additional reporting by Jennifer Ablan in New York; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Alistair Bell)


Top Venezuela official breaks with government, protests mount

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s powerful attorney general on Friday broke ranks with President Nicolas Maduro’s government after the judiciary annulled congress, a rare show of internal dissent as protests and international condemnation grew.

Luisa Ortega, appointed attorney general in 2007 and a staunch ally of the Socialists who have ruled for the last 18 years, rebuked the Supreme Court’s controversial move to take over the opposition-led National Assembly’s functions.

“It constitutes a rupture of the constitutional order,” the 59-year-old said in a speech. “It’s my obligation to express my great concern to the country.”

While various prominent political figures have leveled criticism after leaving the government, it is extremely rare for a senior Venezuelan official to criticize like this.

One person who has known Ortega for years said it was not the first time she had expressed dissent within government, though never so publicly.

“Luisa has suffered a lot of threats from all sides for her principled actions,” the person said, asking not to be named for fear of reprisals.

Throughout Friday, pockets of protesters blocked roads, unfurled banners and chanted slogans against Maduro’s unpopular government.

In Caracas, several dozen students marched to the Supreme Court, but were pushed back by soldiers with riot shields.

Some protesters also briefly blocked highways in the capital, holding banners reading: “No To Dictatorship.”

Police moved them on, and several were detained, according to a local human rights group

“We have to demand our rights, in the streets, without fear,” said opposition lawmaker Miguel Pizarro, who led a knot of demonstrators into a subway train.

In volatile western Tachira state, several dozen demonstrators tore up copies of court sentences in front of local judicial buildings.

Having already shot down most of the National Assembly’s measures since the opposition won control in 2015, the pro-Maduro Supreme Court on Wednesday said it was assuming the legislature’s functions because it was in “contempt” of the law.

Foes lambasted that as a “coup” against an elected body.

Some government critics were skeptical of Ortega’s criticism, speculating her comments may have been a show to feign separation of powers and give the government an excuse to tweak the controversial decision.

Venezuelan bonds plummeted on the uncertainty, with the country’s benchmark Global 2027 and state oil company’s PDVSA 2037 both around 7 percent lower. The country’s currency fell 9 percent on the black market against the dollar.

BROAD CONDEMNATION

Maduro, 54, a former bus driver and self-declared “son” of late leftist predecessor Hugo Chavez, was narrowly elected in 2013 amid widespread support for the ruling Socialist Party’s oil-fueled welfare programs.

But his ratings have plummeted to just over 20 percent as Venezuelans struggle with a fourth year of recession, scarcities of food and medicines and the highest inflation in the world.

Critics blame a failing socialist system, whereas the government says its enemies are waging an “economic war”. The fall in oil prices since mid-2014 has exacerbated the crisis.

The court’s move brought condemnations and concern from the United States, Organization of American States (OAS), European Union, United States and major Latin American nations.

Ally Russia, however, bucked the trend in a statement on Friday urging the world to leave Venezuela alone.

“External forces should not add fuel to the fire,” it said.

Maduro accuses Washington of leading a push to topple him as part of a wider offensive against leftists in Latin America. Brazil, Argentina and Peru have all moved to the right recently.

However, new U.S. President Donald Trump seems to have other priorities or has not yet fully formed policy on Venezuela.

OAS head Luis Almagro, whom the Venezuelan government views as a pawn of Washington, has been pushing for its suspension from the 34-nation regional bloc and wants an emergency meeting after the latest developments.

But suspension appears unlikely, diplomats say, given Venezuela’s support from other leftist governments and small nations who have benefited from its oil largesse.

“It’s false there has been a coup d’etat in Venezuela,” Venezuela’s foreign ministry said, alleging a regional right-wing conspiracy.

“On the contrary, institutions have adopted legal correctives to stop the deviant and coup-seeking actions of opposition parliamentarians.”

OPPOSITION OBSTACLES

Venezuela’s disparate opposition Democratic Unity coalition, made up of about two dozen parties and groups, declared itself in “permanent session” and promised rolling street protests to demand a new presidential election.

But the coalition is hobbled by disunity: leaders called at least four overlapping news conferences on Friday.

Opposition supporters are also acutely aware that street tactics have failed on numerous occasions.

Vast rallies in 2002 helped briefly topple Chavez, but he was back about 36 hours later after his supporters poured onto the street and military factions came to his aid.

In 2014, hardline opposition activists led months of protests, but they turned violent and led to 43 deaths, their leader Leopoldo Lopez was jailed, and Maduro consolidated power.

Then last year, hundreds of thousands marched, but still authorities thwarted the opposition’s push for a referendum to recall Maduro and also postponed local elections.

The opposition is hoping the military – whose top ranks still pledge absolute loyalty to Maduro though there is believed to be dissent lower down – may nudge him into bringing forward a presidential election slated for the end of 2018.

But there is no public sign of that happening.

The Supreme Court’s contempt charge stems from vote-buying accusations against three lawmakers from southern Amazonas state. Even though they no longer sit in Congress, the court said parliamentary leaders had not handled their case legally.

International envoys were summoned to a briefing at the court on Friday, though after waiting around an hour, were told it was canceled, according to two foreign diplomats.

(Additional reporting by Liamar Ramos, Diego Ore, Girish Gupta, Eyanir Chinea, Corina Pons, Andreina Aponte in Caracas, and Alexandra Ulmer in Quito.; Kevin O’Flynn in Moscow; Editing by W Simon and Andrew Hay)


Puerto Rico’s major bondholders critical of fiscal turnaround plan

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Groups of Puerto Rico’s creditors issued a rare joint letter late on Monday opposing a plan designed to steer the island out of financial crisis, stoking friction between the U.S. territory, its investors and the board tasked with managing its finances.

In a letter to the federally appointed oversight board, creditors with exposure to $12 billion in Puerto Rican debt said the turnaround plan, approved by the board on March 13, violates the Puerto Rico financial rescue law known as PROMESA by ignoring legal protections on some public debt.

The letter was signed by holders of constitutionally guaranteed general obligation (GO) debt; a group holding junior COFINA debt backed by sales tax revenue; and Assured Guaranty Corp, which insures $3.4 billion of Puerto Rican bonds.

The plan “simply ignores one of the enumerated requirements that Congress imposed” under PROMESA, “namely, that it respect the relative lawful priorities” of debt, the letter said.

With Puerto Rico trying to restructure its debt before the May 1 expiration of PROMESA’s freeze on litigation, the letter illustrates a wide gulf between both sides.

Although Puerto Rico’s relationship with bondholders has always been rocky, Monday’s letter also pits creditors against the oversight board, a bipartisan group appointed last year to help facilitate restructuring talks and oversee the island’s finances.

Puerto Rico faces $70 billion in debt, a 45 percent poverty rate and rampant emigration. The turnaround plan green-lighted by the board contemplates only $800 million a year to pay debt — a fraction of what the island owes — even after imposing strict austerity measures.

In Monday’s letter, creditors said the plan runs afoul of PROMESA by prioritizing government services ahead of General Obligation debt in violation of the island’s constitution. COFINA creditors said it would also unlawfully transfer sales tax revenue, on which they have a lien, into the island’s general fund.

The plan “contains many unexplained numbers and assumptions that creditors need to understand before meaningful negotiations can occur,” the stakeholders said. They added that the plan will “undermine” Puerto Rico’s efforts to regain access to capital markets.

The 6 percent 2042 COFINA bond traded at 48.5 on Tuesday, up from Monday’s last bid of 41.11, yielding 12.96 percent, according to Thomson Reuters data.

After the plan’s approval, Puerto Rico’s benchmark 8 percent 2035 GO bond plunged nearly 10 full points to a bid of 63. The bond, in default, has not traded since March 22.

(Reporting By Nick Brown and Daniel Bases; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Dan Grebler)


‘You can still stop Brexit,’ EU lawmakers to tell Britons

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European Union lawmakers want to tell Britons they can change their minds and stay in the EU after Prime Minister Theresa May triggers a two-year Brexit countdown on Wednesday.

The European Parliament is drafting a resolution to respond to May’s notice of withdrawal under Article 50 of the EU treaty. Senior lawmakers said it would stress London could still halt the process, as long as the other member states agreed.

The resolution text is not yet final but the intent is to strengthen the hand of those in Britain who want to halt Brexit.

“We do not want to close the door to common sense,” Philippe Lamberts, Belgian co-leader of the Greens in the parliament, told reporters. A member of the Brexit team in the legislature, which will have to approve an exit treaty, Lamberts added: “There will be a reference to the revocability of Article 50.”

Elmar Brok, a member of the team from German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, also said there was such a reference in the draft resolution, to be agreed by party leaders on Wednesday and put to a vote in the legislature next week.

Insisting Britain can U-turn enters hazy legal territory.

It defies May, who says the process cannot be halted despite Brexit opponents’ hopes of a new referendum or British parliamentary vote. And although EU officials disagree with May and have said the process can be stopped, with the consent of all states, they do not welcome Brussels lawmakers’ bid to revive the issue.

EU RESIGNED TO BREXIT

Donald Tusk, the European Council President who will receive May’s letter on Wednesday, has said since last June’s referendum vote to leave that he was sure the other 27 member states would agree to let Britain stay if it had a change of heart.

But he will make no mention of that this week when he gives the EU’s response to May by issuing draft guidelines for the Brexit negotiations, EU officials said. Even governments most reluctant to see Britain go have little appetite for the further upset and uncertainty a British U-turn would have.

The bloc’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, had tried to discourage lawmakers from making explicit reference to halting the exit, parliamentary officials said, and had insisted that it include a reference to any cancellation of the Brexit process requiring the unanimous approval of all 27 other member states.

Aides to Barnier declined immediate comment.

The question of whether unanimity would be needed has divided legal opinion in Brussels but EU officials said on Tuesday the prevailing view was that it was necessary.

Last month, former prime minister Tony Blair called on Britons to “rise up” and try to block Brexit if they could.

But that may no longer be entirely in British hands. One senior EU diplomat said of Blair’s campaign: “This bus has left.”

(Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Janet Lawrence)


Trump tweets, then Ford announces investment in three Michigan plants

DETROIT/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Ford Motor Co on Tuesday said it would invest $1.2 billion in three Michigan facilities and create 130 jobs in projects largely in line with a previous agreement with the United Auto Workers union, hours after U.S. President Donald Trump touted a “major investment” by the automaker on Twitter.

In January, Ford scrapped plans to build a $1.6 billion car factory in Mexico and instead added 700 jobs in Michigan following Trumps criticism that centered on trade and investing in America.

Ford said on Tuesday it would spend $850 million on a planned upgrade of a plant in Wayne, Michigan, for the Ford Bronco, an SUV model, and the Ford Ranger – a mid-size pickup truck. The company will also invest $150 million and create 130 jobs at an engine plant in Romeo.

Both projects were part of 2015 negotiations with the UAW.

Ford also said it would invest $200 million in a data center in Flat Rock to support advances in vehicle connectivity and future developments in autonomous vehicles.

The move comes at a time when U.S. new car and truck sales are at an all-time high and investors are watching closely for signs of a possible downturn in the highly-cyclical industry.

“We’re optimistic that we’ll continue to see good economic growth for the U.S. in the near term,” Joe Hinrichs, president of the Americas at Ford, told Reuters. “We feel very confident about our plan and our products and about investing in Michigan and the U.S.”

The Michigan Economic Development Corporation is set to approve new state incentives for Ford at a meeting Tuesday.

The announcement by Ford comes less than two weeks after Trump visited Detroit to promise more auto jobs for Michigan and other Midwestern U.S. states.

Trump pounced on Ford’s announcement before the company could release its plans on Tuesday.

“Major investment to be made in three Michigan plants,” Trump posted on Twitter early Tuesday. “Car companies coming back to U.S. JOBS! JOBS! JOBS!”

Trump has at times promoted job announcements at the White House that had been previously planned or announced. Last week he praised an investment decision by Charter Communications Inc that the company announced before he was elected.

Ford said last week it expected higher investments, as well as other spending, to weigh on 2017 earnings.

U.S. sales of new cars and trucks hit a record high of 17.55 million units in 2016. On Friday, industry consultants J.D. Power and LMC Automotive maintained their 2017 sales forecast of 17.6 million vehicles, an increase of 0.2 percent from 2016.

But they said automakers’ incentive spending in the United States in the first half of March had hit a record for the month, breaking the previously set mark in March 2009 during the height of the Great Recession.

On Monday, Moody’s Investors service said it expected U.S. new vehicle sales to dip in 2017 and warned of a “significant credit risk” for auto lenders as competition for loans intensifies.

Trump has focused on U.S. automotive jobs, meeting with company executives as well as pressuring – and praising – them on Twitter. Executives have also said they hope his administration will pursue tax and regulatory policies that would benefit U.S. manufacturers.

In early trading Tuesday, Ford shares were up almost 1 percent at $11.55.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn, Bernard Orr)


China’s Tencent takes 5 percent stake in electric-car maker Tesla

(Reuters) – Tesla Inc (TSLA.O), the California-based electric carmaker, said Chinese tech giant Tencent Holdings Ltd (0700.HK) acquired a 5 percent stake for $1.78 billion.

The purchase, revealed in a U.S. regulatory filing, pushed Tesla’s stock higher in early trading, making it the second most valuable U.S. auto company ahead of Ford Motor Co (F.N) but behind General Motors Co (GM.N).

The deal gives Shenzhen-based Tencent a growing presence in the rapidly expanding future mobility sector, with investments in U.S. and Chinese startup companies that provide ride sharing services and are developing self-driving electric vehicles.

Tencent’s investment also provides Tesla with an additional cash cushion as it prepares to boost production volume and launch its new Model 3. Tesla’s shares were up 2.6 percent at $277.19 in early trading.

Founded in 1998 by entrepreneur Ma Huateng, Tencent is one of Asia’s largest tech companies, best known for its WeChat mobile messaging app. With a market capitalization of about $275 billion, it is roughly six times the size of Tesla, whose $46-billion market cap on Tuesday topped that of 114-year-old Ford.

Tencent and fellow Chinese tech giants Alibaba Group Holding Ltd (BABA.N) and Baidu Inc (BIDU.O) have invested billions in mobility startups. The services being developed by those newcomers promise to transform the global transportation landscape while providing significant new revenue streams to providers of mobile services.

Tencent was an early investor in NextEV, a Shanghai-based electric vehicle startup which since has rebranded itself as Nio and whose U.S. headquarters in San Jose is not far from Tesla’s Palo Alto base. Tencent also has funded at least two other Chinese EV startups, including Future Mobility in Shenzhen.

In addition, Tencent has invested in Didi Chuxing, the world’s second-largest ride services company behind Uber, and in Lyft, Uber’s chief U.S. rival.

Baidu has invested in Nio, as well as in Uber and Velodyne, a California maker of lidar sensors for self-driving cars. Alibaba’s mobility investments include Didi and Lyft.

As Tesla is doing, many of the mobility startup companies backed by Tencent, Baidu and Alibaba are developing self-driving systems that eventually could be introduced in commercial ride sharing fleets in the U.S. and China after 2020.

Tencent maintains a U.S. office in Palo Alto, in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley. Beijing-based Baidu and Hangzhou-based Alibaba also maintain offices in Silicon Valley.

Tencent owns about 8.2 million shares in Tesla, the carmaker said. Tencent is now the fifth-largest shareholder in Tesla, behind Elon Musk and investment companies Fidelity, Baillie Gifford and T. Rowe Price.(bit.ly/2nvNeMI)

Elon Musk-led Tesla raised about $1.2 billion by selling common shares and convertible debt earlier this month.

Musk is Tesla’s top shareholder, with a stake of about 21 percent as of Dec. 31.

(Reporting by Rishika Sadam in Bengaluru, Sijia Jiang in Hong Kong and Paul Lienert in Detroit; Editing by Nick Zieminski)


Child victims of Mosul battle fill emergency hospital

BARTELLA, IRAQ (Reuters) – The 9-year-old Iraqi boy was playing football on a patch of wasteground during a lull in the battle for Mosul when a mortar round fired by Islamic State militants landed nearby. It sprayed shrapnel into his lower legs and virtually severed them.

Rushed by ambulance to this emergency field hospital 20 km (15 miles) east of the city, he was operated on overnight and both his feet were amputated.

He now lay sedated in a bed in a tented intensive care unit, clutching a rubber ball while Chris, a volunteer nurse from California, stroked his cheek and sang a lullaby. He probably did not yet realize he had lost his feet, she said.

There have been thousands of civilian casualties from Mosul during a five-month-long government offensive to drive Islamic State fighters from what was once their main stronghold in Iraq.

“The wounds we are seeing here are the face of war – the faces of children and mothers,” said hospital chief Paul Osteen, a surgeon from Houston in the United States. “They are beyond terror. It’s numbness.”

The flow of maimed and wounded has risen as the battle zeroes in on IS-held neighborhoods of western Mosul, where more than half a million civilians are believed to be trapped.

The militants fight with mortars, guns and car bombs, often hiding among civilians in the close-packed houses and narrow streets. The area has also been pounded by air strikes and artillery fire from Iraqi and U.S.-led coalition forces.

This mobile hospital has treated more than 1,000 patients, many of them women and children, since opening in early January.

Their wounds came from shrapnel, blasts, grenades dropped from drones and gunshots – including sniper fire that deliberately targeted civilians, staff said.

During the day, the noise of battle can be heard from Mosul in the distance, signaling that soon enough, more casualties will arrive. “We had a big run last night,” Osteen said.

One man was there after being trapped in rubble for three days. A 12—year-old boy was paralyzed from the waist down after shrapnel shredded his stomach. A 6-year-old girl with a tangled mop of hair and shining dark eyes had a hole in her leg.

Another bed was empty. A youth had been brought in barely alive and had bled to death.

But being so close to the conflict has meant the hospital can save lives that might previously have been lost. Before it opened, the wounded often had to be taken to Erbil, an hour or two away by car depending on conditions. Some did not survive.

The mobile hospital, run by the U.S. Christian aid group Samaritan’s Purse along with Iraq’s Health Ministry and the World Health Organization, was flown in from North Carolina and erected on the Plains of Nineveh near Bartella.

Its tents and huts hold a triage room, two operating theaters, an intensive care unit with top-notch medical equipment, and recovery wards.

The doctors, nurses and other staff are volunteers, mainly but not only from the United States. Iraqi staff play a vital role, including as interpreters between doctors and patients.

During a visit by Reuters, a 12-year-old boy with a gunshot wound was stretchered in through a steel door in the concrete blast wall that surrounds the compound.

As a doctor made his assessment, an Iraqi interpreter translated his questions and soothed the frightened lad.

HATEFUL LIFE

In the recovery ward, Lazim, 32, said he had been living in an apartment that IS fighters took over. His family had survived on bread and water for the past two weeks.

During an air strike, he and his son fled. An IS mortar round landed by them and he was wounded in the stomach.

“My son’s eye popped out,” he recalled. Lazim is recovering but his son lost the eye.

Another patient, 17-year-old Omar, said he had been unable to go to school since Islamic State took over Mosul in 2014. He had once dreamed of being an oil engineer. “It was a hateful life under Daesh,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for IS.

A few days ago, he went up to the roof of their building with his father and two cousins to feed their pet birds. A mortar round hit and his right leg had to be amputated.

“Even if I get better, I don’t know what to do,” he said.

Dr. Brock Adams said they saw many serious blast wounds. “We’ve got kids with big holes in their legs,” he said. “We try not to amputate but we’ve done several in the past few days, including double amputations.”

Many of the patients were also weak and undernourished due to the lack of food, Osteen said.

Families fleeing Mosul in recent weeks have talked of high numbers of civilians killed by air strikes. The death toll is unclear but some estimates put it as high as 3,500.

Click tmsnrt.rs/2mZWV4j for graphic on Battle for Mosul

(Reporting by Angus MacSwan; Editing by Tom Heneghan)


Thursday Morning Briefing

(Reuters) – Police arrested eight people in the investigation into a lone-wolf attacker who killed three people and injured 40 before being shot dead by police near parliament in London, Britain’s most senior counter-terrorism officer said on Thursday. Prime Minister Theresa May said the attacker was British-born and known to intelligence services. The attacker sped across Westminster Bridge in a car, ploughing plowing into pedestrians along the way, then ran through the gates of the nearby parliament building and stabbed a policeman before being shot dead.

A woman assists an injured person after an incident on Westminster Bridge in London, March 22, 2017. REUTERS/Toby Melville

A woman assists an injured person after an incident on Westminster Bridge in London, March 22, 2017. REUTERS/Toby Melville

U.S.

The Republican chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives intelligence committee set off a political firestorm on Wednesday when he said the communications of members of Donald Trump’s transition team were caught up in incidental surveillance targeting foreigners. The White House seized on Representative Devin Nunes’ remarks, which had cited anonymous sources, to bolster Trump’s unproven assertion that former President Barack Obama’s administration spied on the incoming president.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has directed U.S. diplomatic missions to identify “populations warranting increased scrutiny” and toughen screening for visa applicants in those groups, according to diplomatic cables seen by Reuters. “What this language effectively does is give the consular posts permission to step away from the focused factors they have spent years developing and revising, and instead broaden the search to large groups based on gross factors such as nationality and religion,” said Jay Gairson, a Seattle-based immigration attorney.

U.S. President Donald Trump and House of Representatives leaders pushed on Wednesday for votes for their plan to overhaul Obamacare and said they were making progress in their efforts to win over conservative Republicans who have demanded changes to the legislation, such as scrapping “essential health benefits” outlined under Obamacare, such as mental health care. But the bill appeared to be losing traction among Republican moderates. Representative Charlie Dent, a leader of the “Tuesday Group” of House Republican moderates, issued a statement saying he could not back the bill on the grounds that it would “lead to the loss of coverage and make insurance unaffordable for too many Americans, particularly for low- to moderate-income and older individuals.”

A police officer and three other people were killed in a string of shootings, including at a bank and a law firm, in central Wisconsin following what police referred to as domestic incident, media reported on Wednesday.

As a grueling U.S. Senate confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch finishes on Thursday, the spotlight turns to whether he will gain the support of vulnerable Democratic senators who are up for re-election in 2018.

Business

Wall Street readies itself for a Trump Tantrum.

Stocks and sterling held their ground on Thursday as markets took the latest European terror attack largely in stride.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s White House has said his plans to slash environmental regulations will trigger a new energy boom and help the United States drill its way to independence from foreign oil. But the top U.S. oil and gas companies have been telling their shareholders that regulations have little impact on their business, according to a Reuters review of U.S. securities filings from the top producers.

Verizon and AT&T joined a list of well-known British brands such as retailer Marks and Spencer Group Plc deserting Alphabet Inc’s Google. Google is under fire in Europe from politicians and brands angered by ads appearing alongside videos on its YouTube platform carrying homophobic or anti-Semitic messages.

World

China said on Thursday the United States should respect its air defense identification zone (ADIZ), after CNN reported China had warned a U.S. bomber it was illegally flying inside China’s self-declared zone in the East China Sea. Both Japan and the United States have refused to recognize it.

A South Korean ferry that sank nearly three years ago, killing 304 people, most of them children on a school trip, slowly emerged from a gray sea on Thursday, a somber reminder of a tragedy that traumatized the country.

Turkey is in talks with the United States and Britain to exclude Turkish Airlines and Istanbul’s main Ataturk airport from a ban on passengers carrying electronics larger than cell phones, Turkey’s foreign ministry spokesman said on Thursday.