Trump impeachment inquiry: 10 developments you may have missed

Transcripts, scheduled public hearings and more depositions: What happened this week in the Trump impeachment inquiry?

FILE - In this Dec. 13, 2018, file photo, President Donald Trump listens during a meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington. New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood and Trump’s charitable foundation reached a deal on Tuesday, Dec. 18 to dissolve the foundation and distribute its remaining assets to other nonprofit groups. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File) [The Associated Press]

FILE – In this Dec. 13, 2018, file photo, President Donald Trump listens during a meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington. New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood and Trump’s charitable foundation reached a deal on Tuesday, Dec. 18 to dissolve the foundation and distribute its remaining assets to other nonprofit groups. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File) [The Associated Press]

Democrats leading the House of Representatives’s impeachment inquiry of US President Donald Trump took a significant step this week, announcing the first public hearings of the probe.

The hearings, scheduled for next week, come after House investigators released the transcripts from closed-door sessions with a number of key witnesses.

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This week’s developments also included a witness revising his testimony after his memory was “refreshed”, and a report that Trump sought a public declaration from the Department of Justice clearing him of any wrongdoing – a report the US president denied.

The impeachment investigation is focused on a July 25 phone call in which Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to investigate former Vice President Biden, a leading Democratic rival, and his son Hunter, who was on the board of a Ukrainian gas company that had been investigated for corruption. There has been no evidence of wrongdoing by the Bidens.

Trump froze nearly $400m in US military assistance to Ukraine shortly before speaking to Zelenskyy, prompting accusations from Democrats that he had misused taxpayer dollars destined for a vulnerable US ally for personal gain.

Trump has repeatedly said there was no “quid pro quo” (Latin for a “favour for a favour”) and labelled the inquiry a “witch-hunt”.

As the impeachment probe prepares to enter the public hearing phase, here are 10 key developments related to the probe from this week.

1. Public hearing schedule

Adam Schiff, who is leading the impeachment investigation, said the committee will hear from top Ukraine diplomat William Taylor and career department official George Kent next Wednesday and from former US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch next Friday.

All three state department officials had previously appeared in the closed-door sessions.

Stay up-to-date on the public hearing schedule here.

2. Gordon Sondland: A ‘refreshed’ memory

Gordon Sondland, a top ally of Trump and the US ambassador to the EU, had initially denied knowledge of any link between the Ukraine military aid and Trump’s request that the Eastern European country investigate the Bidens. But he revised his testimony this week, saying that “in the absence of any credible explanation for the suspension of aid, I presumed that the aid suspension had become linked to the proposed anti-corruption statement”.

The details appeared to bolster the initial whistle-blower complaint that led to the investigation by three US House of Representatives committees. The testimony also corroborated other witnesses who said Trump sought to pressure the Ukrainians into conducting investigations that appeared to be aimed at helping his re-election campaign.

sondland
Sondland, arrives for a joint interview with the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and House Committee on Oversight and Reform on Capitol Hill [File: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo]

The White House said the Sondland transcript undermined the impeachment inquiry. White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham pointed to Sondland’s inability to say who ordered the aid to Ukraine be withheld and that he admitted he “presumed” there was a link between the demand for a statement from the Ukrainians and releasing the aid.

Trump ally Sondland admits tying Ukraine aid to Biden probe

“No amount of salacious media-biased headlines, which are clearly designed to influence the narrative, change the fact that the president has done nothing wrong,” Grisham said in a statement.

Sondland sent a text message in September in which he said Trump insisted there was “no quid pro quos”.

But according to his testimony, he told a Ukrainian presidential adviser that the “resumption of US aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks”.

Read more about Sondland’s testimony here.

3. Transcripts, transcripts and more transcripts

The transcripts of Kurt Volker, Michael McKinely, Marie Yovanovitch, William Taylor, George Kent, Fiona Hill and Alexander Vindman were also released this week.

Kurt Volker

Volker, Trump’s former special representative for Ukraine negotiations, detailed what he described as the role of Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, as a conduit between Washington and Kyiv.

Volker and Sondland, with Trump’s secretary of energy, Rick Perry, were known as the “three amigos”, responsible for Trump’s unofficial channel to Ukrainian government officials, witnesses testified.

Volker
Kurt Volker, a former special envoy to Ukraine, arrives for a closed-door interview with House investigators, as House Democrats proceed with the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump [File: Scott Applewhite/AP Photo]

Volker said his decision to resign on September 27 was because of the impeachment inquiry.

“I didn’t think I would be able to go to Ukraine or meet with Russians and be able to carry out those duties in that way anymore,” he said. He also said he wanted to provide testimony “with as much candour and integrity as I possibly could”.

Marie Yovanvitch

Yovanovitch, who was abruptly removed from her post as the US ambassador to Ukraine in May, told the inquiry on October 11 that she felt threatened by Trump describing her on the call to Zelenskyy as “bad news” a transcript showed.

“I was very concerned,” she said. “I still am.”

Yovanovitch
Former US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, arrives on Capitol Hill [J Scott Applewhite/AP Photo]

A previously released White House summary of the call showed that Trump told Zelenskyy that the ambassador was “bad news” and was going to “go through some things”.

Trump impeachment inquiry: What do the first transcripts show?

Yovanovitch also told investigators she had been told to “watch my back” and that people were “looking to hurt” her.

Michael McKinley

McKinley told the inquiry last month that he recommended a statement of support for the now-removed US ambassador to Ukraine, Yovanovitch, but was told US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo decided “better not to … at this time”.

“The timing of my resignation was the result of two overriding concerns: the failure, in my view, of the State Department to offer support to Foreign Service employees caught up in the impeachment inquiry; and, second, by what appears to be the utilisation of our ambassadors overseas to advance domestic political objectives,” McKinley said, according to the transcript released by House committees.

William Taylor

Taylor, the top US diplomat in Ukraine, told the investigators he understood that the security assistance, and not just a White House meeting for Ukraine’s new president, was conditioned on the country committing to investigations of Joe Biden and the 2016 election.

“That was my clear understanding, security assistance money would not come until the president committed to pursue the investigation,” Taylor said.

Amassador impeach
Ambassador William Taylor is escorted by US Capitol Police as he arrives to testify before House committees [File: J Scott Applewhite/AP Photo]

Politicians asked if he was aware that “quid pro quo” meant “this for that”.

US diplomat had ‘clear understanding’ of Ukraine quid pro quo

“I am,” Taylor replied.

George Kent

Kent, a deputy assistant secretary of state, told the Trump impeachment inquiry that he was subject to attacks by Giuliani but was told to “keep my head down” by a senior State Department official.

Giuliani is central to the inquiry and has been mentioned frequently in testimony by State Department diplomats who have painted a picture of the former New York City mayor running a shadow US policy toward Ukraine to pressure it to carry out a corruption investigation into Biden and his son.

George Kent
George Kent, deputy assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasian Affairs, arrives to testify at a closed-door deposition as part of the impeachment inquiry into US President Donald Trump [File: Carlos Jasso/Reuters]

Kent mentioned Giuliani 73 times.

“His assertions and allegations against former Ambassador Yovanovitch were without basis, untrue, period,” Kent testified, referring to the Trump lawyer.

“Mr Giuliani, at that point, had been carrying on a campaign for several months full of lies and incorrect information about Ambassador Yovanovitch, so this was a continuation of his campaign of lies,” Kent said.

Giuliani has not commented on Kent’s testimony, but has said he played a role in the effort to remove Yovanovitch.

Kent said Ukrainian officials understood when they met Giuliani that he was not a regular private citizen and understood he represented Trump.

“Giuliani was not consulting with the State Department about what he was doing in the first half of 2019. And to the best of my knowledge, he’s never suggested that he was promoting US policy,” Kent said.

Kent also said that “POTUS wanted nothing less than President Zelenskyy to go to the microphone and say investigations, Biden and Clinton”.

According to the transcripts, he added: “That was the message … Zelenskyy needed to go to a microphone and basically, there needed to be three words in the message, and that was the shorthand.”

Fiona Hill

Hill, a former White House Russia adviser, said that during a White House meeting, Trump’s then-National Security Adviser John Bolton “immediately stiffened” as Sondland “blurted out: Well, we will have an agreement” with Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, “for a meeting if these investigations in the energy sector start” – a reference to the firm, Burisma, where Biden’s son was on a board.

Hill said then Bolton abruptly ended the meeting.

Alexander Vindman

Vindman, an Army officer assigned to the National Security Council, said he alerted superiors on two occasions, including after he listened to the July 25 call between Trump and Zelenskyy.

He also said there was “no ambiguity” that Sondland told Ukrainian officials to investigate the Bidens.

“There was no ambiguity. I guess, in my mind. He was calling for something, calling for an investigation that didn’t exist into the Bidens,” Vindman said.

He added that the US-Ukraine relations “is damaged” and “will continue to be damaged and undercut”.

4. More no-shows

A number of current and former Trump administration officials did not show up for their scheduled testimony this week, heeding to White House instructions to not comply with the investigation.

Among them was John Bolton, the former national security adviser who was forced out by Trump earlier this year.

A US House of Representatives Intelligence Committee official said that Bolton has threatened to take the committee to court if it subpoenas him. A congressional source to Reuters news agency said the inquiry is unlikely to go down that route.

The Washington Post, citing people familiar with Bolton’s views, said although he is willing, he wants to see how a court battle between Congress and the White House over the constitutionality of the subpoenas shakes out first. The battle is likely to go to the Supreme Court and could spill into next year.

President Donald  J. Trump (L) speaks as National security advisor John Bolton (R) listens during a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington
rump speaks as then-National Security Adviser John Bolton listens during a meeting [File: Oliver Contreras/EPA-EFE]

Members of the committees conducting the inquiry have said they want to see if Bolton will corroborate previous witnesses’ testimony that he was alarmed at Trump asking a foreign government to get involved in domestic politics.

On Friday, the New York Times reported that Bolton’s lawyer said that his client was “part of many relevant meetings and conversations” pertaining the the impeachment inquiry.

Charles Cooper made the revelation in a letter that suggests Bolton will appear before Congress only if a judge orders him to do so.

The letter, addressed to the top lawyer for the House of Representatives, seeks to distinguish Bolton and former deputy Charles Kupperman from other current and former White House officials who have testified so far to impeachment investigators. The letter said that Bolton and Kupperman, unlike the other witnesses, provided direct advice to Trump regularly and would be asked during any congressional appearance to disclose sensitive foreign policy and national security information.

“As I emphasised in my previous responses to letters from the House Chairs, Dr Kupperman stands ready, as does Ambassador Bolton, to testify if the Judiciary resolves the conflict in favour of the legislative branch’s position respecting such testimony,” Cooper wrote.

Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s acting chief of staff, also failed to appear for a scheduled deposition.

Democrats subpoenaed Mulvaney late on Thursday as the White House signalled that he would not appear.

An official working on the inquiry told the Associated Press that Mulvaney’s lawyer informed the committees leading the impeachment probe one minute before the deposition was supposed to start that Mulvaney had been directed not to comply with the subpoena. The person said Mulvaney’s lawyer said he has “absolute immunity”, a claim that Democrats have challenged in court for other administration witnesses.

Mick Mulvaney - White House
Trump listens as Director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney delivers a report during a Cabinet meeting [Shawn Thew/EPA]

Mulvaney said in a news conference last month that the Trump administration’s decision to hold up military aid was linked to Trump’s demand for the investigations. He later walked back his remarks, but Democrats said that was tantamount to a confession and have cited it as evidence in their inquiry.

5. Who did appear?

Jennifer Williams, a career foreign service officer and special adviser to Vice President Mike Pence for Europe and Russia, did testify in a closed-door hearing in front of members of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs, Intelligence and Oversight committees after receiving a subpoena to compel her testimony.

Williams was one of a handful of US officials who listened in on the call between Trump and the Ukrainian leader.

Williams told investigators she found Trump’s July call with Zelenskyy unusual because it was political, not diplomatic in nature, CNN reported, citing an unnamed source.

But she did not raise concerns about the call with her superiors and, when asked what Pence knew, said she never heard him mention anything about investigations of the 2016 elections, Burisma or the Bidens.

Pence aide
Jennifer Williams, special adviser for Europe and Russia in the Office of US Vice President Mike Pence arrives on Capitol Hill [File: Tom Brenner/Reuters]

The State Department’s third-ranking official also testified this week.

David Hale met with investigators for more than six hours. He was expected to tell the House committees that political considerations were behind the State Department’s refusal to deliver a robust defence of former Ambassador to Ukraine Yovanovitch.

6. Lev Parnas will comply: Reuters

Lev Parnas, an indicted Ukrainian American businessman who has ties to President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Giuliani, is now prepared to comply with requests for records and testimony from congressional impeachment investigators, his lawyer told Reuters News Agency this week.

Parnas helped Giuliani look for dirt on Biden.

Rudy Giuliani has coffee with  Lev Parnas
Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani has coffee with Ukrainian American businessman Lev Parnas at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC [File: Aram Roston/Reuters]

His apparent decision to work with the congressional committees represents a change of heart. Parnas rebuffed a request from three House of Representatives committees last month to provide documents and testimony.

“We will honour and not avoid the committee’s requests to the extent they are legally proper, while scrupulously protecting Mr Parnas’s privileges including that of the Fifth Amendment,” said the lawyer, Joseph Bondy, referring to his client’s constitutional right to avoid self-incrimination.

7. Trump may release summary of April call with Zelenskyy

Trump said on Friday that he is considering releasing the transcript of an April call he had with Zelenskyy.

He says that if House investigators want to see a summary of the April 21 call, he has “no problem” giving it to them.

That call came three months before the July 25 call that sparked the impeachment inquiry.

U.S. President Trump meets with Ukraine's President Zelenskiy in New York City, New York
Zelenskyy speaks during a bilateral meeting with Trump on the sidelines of the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly [File: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]

Trump on Friday also dismissed the significance of the impeachment inquiry testimony that has been released so far.

He said, “No one seems to have any first-hand knowledge” and claims that, “Every one of those people cancelled themselves out.”

He’s criticised Democrats in the House for planning public hearings, even though the White House pushed for them to happen.

8. Did Trump ask DOJ to publicly clear him?

Trump on Thursday denied a report that he wanted Attorney General William Barr to hold a news conference to declare he broke no laws during a July phone call in which Trump pressed his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate Democrats.

Trump denies he wanted Barr to publicly clear him

Trump tweeted just after midnight that the story, first reported by The Washington Post, “is totally untrue and just another FAKE NEWS story with anonymous sources that don’t exist”.

The Washington Post reported that Barr rebuffed the request, which came in September around the time the White House released a rough transcript of Trump’s July 25 call. The paper, citing unidentified people familiar with the effort, said the request was relayed from the president to White House officials, and then to the Justice Department.

Read more here.

9. White House adds aides to deal with impeachment investigation

The White House is beefing up its communications staff as it tries to grapple with the ongoing House impeachment investigation.

Pam Bondi, the former attorney general of Florida, and Tony Sayegh, a former Treasury Department spokesman, are expected to join the White House communications team to work on “proactive impeachment messaging” and other special projects, a senior administration official told The Associated Press.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal staffing, said that the roles would be temporary and that Bondi and Sayegh would be working as special government employees.

10. Whistle-blower offers to take written questions

The whistle-blower has offered to answer written questions submitted by House Republicans, his lawyers said.

The surprise offer on Sunday, made to Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the intelligence committee leading the inquiry, would allow Republicans to ask questions of the whistle-blower without having to go through the committee’s Democratic chairman, Adam Schiff.

 

US government’s annual budget deficit balloons to $984 BILLION! Yay, USA!

With the recent tax cut and spending increases, the national debt continues to demand ever-larger interest payments.

The fiscal health of the United States has decreased markedly in the Trump era, though the economy continues to grow [Carlos Jasso/Reuters]
The fiscal health of the United States has decreased markedly in the Trump era, though the economy continues to grow [Carlos Jasso/Reuters]

The United States government ended fiscal year 2019 with the largest budget deficit in seven years, as gains in tax receipts were offset by higher spending and growing debt service payments, the US Department of the Treasury said on Friday.

The figures reflect the second full budget year under US President Donald Trump, a Republican, and come at a time when the country has an expanding tax base – with strong economic growth and an unemployment rate currently near a 50-year low.

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The budget deficit widened to $984bn, which was 4.6 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP).

The deficit for the previous fiscal year – which runs through the end of September – was $779bn, with a deficit-to-GDP-ratio of 3.8 percent. Total revenue increased by four percent but outlays rose by 8.2 percent.

Fiscal uncertainty

The deficit reached a peak of $1.4 trillion in 2009 as the administration of former US President Barack Obama and Congress took emergency measures to shore up the nation’s banking system during the global financial crisis and provide stimulus to an economy in recession.

The annual budget deficit had been reduced to $585bn by Obama’s second term in 2016, but Republicans in Congress during that time criticised the Democratic president for not reducing it further.

Since then, the budget deficit has jumped due in part to the Republicans’ overhaul of the tax system. In the short term, that sharply reduced corporate tax income revenues and was accompanied by an increase in military spending.

By the end of fiscal year 2019, corporate tax payments were up five percent. Customs duties, which have been boosted by the Trump administration’s trade war with China and others, were up 70 percent year-on-year.

There was also higher spending on defence, healthcare and Social Security programmes. The US has an ageing population, and economists have warned that the cost of mandatory spending on Social Security and Medicare will become fiscally unsustainable.

Earlier this year, the US Congress passed a two-year budget deal backed by Trump that would increase federal spending on defence and other domestic programmes.

Some of the widening of the deficit came from more spending on interest payments on the national debt, as borrowing has increased over the past year.

For September, the US government recorded an $83bn surplus, a 31 percent drop from the same month last year – when quarterly tax estimate payments typically augment receipts by a significant amount.

When accounting for calendar adjustments applied to the whole year, the adjusted deficit was $1 trillion.

In Washington, a presidential impeachment inquiry has overshadowed prospects of a looming government shutdown – which will occur on November 21 if funding for federal operations is not approved by then.

Al Jazeera: BlackRock in Amazon: ‘World’s largest investor in deforestation’

Report by Friends of the Earth faults asset manager for investing in companies that contribute to Brazil’s fire risk.

by
An aerial view of a burning tract of Amazon jungle as it is cleared by loggers and farmers near Porto Velho, Brazil [Ricardo Moraes/Reuters]
An aerial view of a burning tract of Amazon jungle as it is cleared by loggers and farmers near Porto Velho, Brazil [Ricardo Moraes/Reuters]

As Amazon fires spark unprecedented deforestation, a report released on Friday shows that BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, holds extensive investments in the sectors deemed responsible for the devastation of forests in Brazil.

With $6.5 trillion of assets under management, BlackRock was labeled the “world’s largest investor in deforestation” by the report’s authors – Friends of the Earth US, Amazon Watch, and Dutch research firm Profundo.

The report, BlackRock’s Big Deforestation Problem, looks at financial data from 2014 to 2018 showing the global investment management firm to be among the top three shareholders in 25 of the planet’s largest publicly traded companies with “deforestation risk”.

The data reveal that BlackRock’s holdings in six sectors – soy, beef, palm oil, rubber, timber and pulp/paper – have increased by more than $500m in the last five years.

Jeff Conant, the report’s lead author and senior international forest programme manager with Friends of the Earth US, said that “BlackRock’s investments are directly causing the forest fires in the Amazon and deforestation around the globe”.

“I don’t believe that BlackRock and their providers are even looking at deforestation risk,” he told Al Jazeera. “There are not a lot of worse companies out there than the companies on [our] list.”

Of the 167 deforestation-risk companies identified by the researchers, BlackRock held shares in 61 of them – valued at $1.5bn by the end of last year.

“Sound corporate governance practices, including how companies manage the material environmental and social factors inherent to their business models, have the potential to impact the long-term value of our clients’ assets,” BlackRock said in a statement provided to Al Jazeera.

“Our obligation as an asset manager and a fiduciary is to manage our clients’ assets consistent with their investment priorities,” the company added.

“Absent the option to divest from these companies, we engage with them to evaluate how they manage the material sustainability-related risks and opportunities within their businesses, and encourage them to adopt the robust business practices consistent with sustainable long-term performance.”

ESG: ‘Do whatever they want’

Conant said that BlackRock makes money off of environmentally destructive agribusiness, particularly through commodity holdings in index funds that passively track global markets.

“[BlackRock] can get the ESG industry to do whatever they want,” Conant said, referring to environmental, social and governance factors that thus far appear unsuccessful at screening out companies with deforestation risk from such funds. “Passive investment is an active problem.”

“Most ESG funds are based on data from the ESG industry, which is really not necessarily looking at the whole picture and scanning the right sources for information,” he added. “They are not thinking extremely deeply about what environmental impacts are – and their relative weights.”

Overuse of land, water and pesticides – when combined with the adverse effects of climate change – have contributed to fires raging in Brazil, as well as in the Arctic, Indonesia and Central Africa.

Conant said, however, that these blazes are “to be expected and we will see more of them”.

He also suggested that the problems were exacerbated by the “authoritarian regime of [Brazilian President Jair] Bolsonaro, which is being backed by global finance”.

High-risk holdings and conflict-linked securities could pose a dilemma for BlackRock that is financial, environmental and moral.

Earlier in August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that deforestation and other land-use practices account for almost one-quarter of greenhouse gas emissions.

“BlackRock can follow the lead of other global asset managers and make change for the good of the rainforest, the climate, and its customers by shifting investments out of companies wrecking the planet, and applying maximum pressure to change company behaviour,” said Moira Birss of Amazon Watch.

The report cited the Norwegian Government Pension Fund for having blacklisted many companies in BlackRock’s portfolios. In addition, CalPERS – which provides benefits for public employees in the US state of California – has recognised deforestation as a “material investment risk”.

“Responsible stewardship is about more than just public statements,” said Ward Warmerdam of Profundo, which performed much of the research for the report. “It is about aligning your investment strategy with broadly accepted environmental and social standards.”

Earlier this summer, a report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis faulted BlackRock for losing $90bn through fossil fuel investments during the past decade.

The new report says that BlackRock could instruct companies active in the Amazon to audit their supply chains, and in turn remove investments at all linked to the current fires.

“It takes time to unwind those investments but a public statement is very easy,” Conant told Al Jazeera. “[BlackRock] should ask all index providers to develop default fossil-fuel and deforestation-free investment funds.”

He criticised the Brazilian government’s efforts to “wipe out one of the world’s most precious ecosystems for short-term profit”, adding that BlackRock should “take an active stance in rejecting that offer to destroy the Amazon for business“.

SOURCE: AL JAZEERA NEWS

Burning retail market lights up Canada’s cannabis vape race!

Canada’s major tobacco companies are aiming high in the cannabis e-cigarette market.

by Kristine Owram • Bloomberg
With declining cigarette sales, many tobacco companies are turning to cannabis and vape markets [David Mercado/Reuters]
With declining cigarette sales, many tobacco companies are turning to cannabis and vape markets [David Mercado/Reuters]

Ontario will triple its pot-store count beginning in October, just two months before the introduction of new product formats that are expected to significantly boost sales in Canada’s most-populous province.

While chatter about the next wave of legalization in Canada tends to focus on products like edibles and beverages, many of the biggest players entering the space say consumers will opt for the more conventional format of vapes.

The Canadian market for vapes could be as big as C$600 million ($451 million) by 2021, according to Tim Pellerin, Pax Labs Inc.’s general manager of Canada.

San Francisco-based Pax, which split from e-cigarette company Juul Labs Inc. in 2017 to focus on cannabis, captures about 17% of the U.S. market for pot vape devices. It’s the top seller in the extremely fragmented market, and hopes to capture at least as much share in Canada. Pax has partnered with Aphria Inc., Aurora Cannabis Inc., Organigram Holdings Inc. and Supreme Cannabis Co. to sell their oils in its devices.

“We’ll be disappointed if we’re not able to match or exceed our performance in the U.S. market” in Canada, Pellerin said in an interview.

It’s shaping up to be a fierce fight, with two tobacco giants joining the fray via investments in Canadian pot companies.

Marlboro-maker Altria Group Inc. bought a 45% stake in Cronos Group Inc. via a C$2.4 billion investment that closed in March, while Imperial Brands Plc announced last month that it will invest C$123 million in Auxly Cannabis Group Inc. by way of a convertible debenture.

Imperial decided to invest in cannabis after conducting a strategic review to identify new opportunities to offset declining tobacco sales, according to Chief Financial Officer Oliver Tant.

“It’s relatively obvious to most that the tobacco sector is ex-growth and over the longer term that inevitably presents some challenges,” Tant said in a phone interview. “We looked at caffeine, we looked at high-energy drinks, it wasn’t limited to cannabis, but cannabis seemed like the one we had the most obvious overlap and connectivity with.”

Oxford deal

Imperial dipped its toe into the sector last year with an investment in closely held Oxford Cannabinoid Technologies Ltd. and decided to investigate the Canadian market after it legalized recreational pot in October.

“I think we probably talked to the majority of the larger listed entities” before settling on Auxly, Tant said.

Auxly will be Imperial’s exclusive global cannabis partner and will gain access to its vaping technology and Liverpool-based R&D lab Nerudia, which is already licensed to work with cannabis.

“The vape IP is a huge portion of the non-financial value in this transaction and ensures that Auxly is going to have best-in-class vape devices,” said Hugo Alves, who will replace Chuck Rifici as Auxly’s chief executive officer this week.

Imperial’s technology won’t show up in Auxly’s vape devices when they’re first released on Dec. 16, the day vapes, edibles and beverages will join dried flower and oils on legal Canadian store shelves.

Vape market

“We’ve been at it now for close to a year, so I’m happy to report that our vapes are designed, our oils are formulated, our pens are tuned to our specific oil and the hardware is ready,” Alves said. “Our collaboration with Nerudia is forward looking.”

Tant believes the Canadian market for derivative products like vapes will be worth about C$6 billion by 2025. Although Imperial is taking a go-slow approach for now, he sees future opportunities to expand its investments in cannabis.

“We’re taking a pretty cautious approach to investing in the space, we haven’t spent the $1.4 billion that Altria spent in Cronos,” he said.

Tant said he wishes Canada’s pot regulations were less fragmented across provinces, while Pellerin at Pax said he wishes advertising rules made it easier to communicate with the consumer.

“We continue to be in an environment which I’ll say is the worst it’ll ever be from a category standpoint,” Pellerin said. “It’s still very difficult to talk to the consumer through all the constraints and controls in place right now.”

Walmart under fire for pro-gun T-shirts

In wake of two shootings, T-shirts sold by third-party vendors on Walmart website ignite social media storm.Following a mass shooting at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas and a shooting at a Walmart in Southaven, Mississippi, the largest retailer in the United States is facing criticism for allowing the sale of pro-gun tee-shirts on its website [File: Luke E. Montavon/Bloomberg]

Following a mass shooting at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas and a shooting at a Walmart in Southaven, Mississippi, the largest retailer in the United States is facing criticism for allowing the sale of pro-gun tee-shirts on its website [File: Luke E. Montavon/Bloomberg]

Walmart Inc., already facing pressure for being a major vendor of guns and ammunition in the U.S. after a pair of shootings inside its stores, is feeling renewed heat on social media over a selection of pro-gun T-shirts for sale on its website from third-party vendors.

One shirt, for sale by a vendor called Tee’s Plus, suggests buyers can either be gun owners or victims. Another, offered by third-party seller Old Glory, is emblazoned with a crosshairs reading “gun control is being able to hit your target.”

Commenters on social media were divided on the gun owner shirt. Some called it “disgusting” and “horrifying,” while others argued that “most people in the country completely agree with the sentiment of this shirt.”

As news outlets began to report on the shirts, some of the original listings were no longer available.

Two people died in a shooting at a Walmart in Mississippi on July 30. More than 40 were shot in an unrelated attack Aug. 3 at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas. An additional shooting may have been thwarted Thursday when a gunman wearing body armor was stopped by an armed private citizen outside a Walmart in Springfield, Missouri.

A spokesman for Walmart did not immediately reply to a request for comment. The t-shirts weren’t being sold by Walmart itself, but by outside sellers who can sign up to advertise products on Walmart’s website.

As one of the country’s biggest firearms retailers, Walmart is a frequent target of anti-violence activists. In 2015, the company stopped selling military-style weapons, citing sluggish demand. Last year the company said it would increase the age to purchase firearms and ammunition to 21 years old.

It’s not the first time Walmart has gotten into hot water for controversial t-shirts for sale on its website. The retailer felt heat in 2017 after a third-party seller offered t-shirts that suggested killing journalists. The t-shirts read: “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required.” Last year, its website offered t-shirts from third-party sellers with “IMPEACH 45” emblazoned across the front in big capital letters — a call to bring down the 45th U.S. president, Donald Trump.

–With assistance from Leslie Patton and Joe Deaux.

Amash first Republican legislator to call for Trump’s impeachment

In a series of tweets, legislator Justin Amash says the US president has engaged in ‘impeachable conduct’.

Amash first Republican legislator to call for Trump's impeachment
Amash sent a series of tweets, faulting Trump and Attorney General William Barr over Mueller’s report 

Republican legislator Justin Amash has said he believes Donald Trump has engaged in “impeachable conduct”, becoming the first politician from his party to call for removing the US president.

The Michigan representative on Saturday also accused Attorney General William Barr of “deliberately” misleading the public over the actual content and tenor of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference aimed at tipping the election to Trump.

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The Mueller report: Can Trump be impeached?

In a series of tweets, Amash – a member of the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus – said “few members of Congress even read Mueller’s report,” which identified “multiple examples of conduct satisfying all the elements of obstruction of justice”.

“Undoubtedly any person who is not the president of the United States would be indicted based on such evidence,” he posted.

“Contrary to Barr’s portrayal, Mueller’s report reveals that President Trump engaged in specific actions and a pattern of behaviour that met the threshold for impeachment.”

Justin Amash

@justinamash

Here are my principal conclusions:
1. Attorney General Barr has deliberately misrepresented Mueller’s report.
2. President Trump has engaged in impeachable conduct.
3. Partisanship has eroded our system of checks and balances.
4. Few members of Congress have read the report.

Amash’s comments went even further than those by most Democratic leaders in Congress.

Fellow Michigan legislator Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat, urged Amash to co-sponsor her impeachment resolution.

“@justinamash come find me in 1628 Longworth. I’ve got an impeachment investigation resolution you’re going to want to cosponsor,” she wrote in response to Amash’s thread.

Trump has proclaimed he was fully exonerated by Mueller’s report.

But some Democrats, including Senator Elizabeth Warren, a 2020 presidential candidate who has called for impeachment proceedings, argue that the document lays out multiple occasions in which the president may have obstructed justice.

What is US impeachment? Six things to know

Other senior Democrats including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have cautioned against such a move, stressing it could deeply divide the nation of about 325 million people.

These Democrats warn it could backfire politically in the run-up to the 2020 election, especially with the Republican-controlled Senate likely to acquit the president in the event of impeachment by the House of Representatives.

Putin tells Pompeo he wants to ‘fully restore’ US-Russian ties

US secretary of state met Russian president and foreign minister to discuss Iran, Ukraine, Venezuela and Syria.

The Russian President Putin told Pompeo his country had not interfered in US elections [Pavel Golovkin/Pool via Reuters]
The Russian President Putin told Pompeo his country had not interfered in US elections

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he would like to “fully restore” relations with the United States and believes that his US counterpart Donald Trump wants to do the same.

Putin on Tuesday told US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo he came to that conclusion after a phone call with Trump a few days ago.

The Russian president, speaking ahead of  a meeting with Pompeo, also said that his country had not interfered in US elections.

Earlier, Pompeo met Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi in hopes of finding common grounds in strategic issues over Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela.

At a joint news conference following the meeting, Pompeo urged Russia to end support for President Nicolas Maduro, but his call was flatly rejected by Moscow.

“The time has come for Nicolas Maduro to go, he has brought nothing but misery to the Venezuelan people, and we hope that Russian support for Maduro will end,” Pompeo said. The US along with about 50 other countries, backs the opposition movement led by Juan Guaido, who declared himself interim president in January.

For his part, Lavrov said Maduro’s future should be decided by the Venezuelan people and called US pressure on him undemocratic.

‘Many differences’ on Iran

Speaking on Iran, Russia’s ally, Lavrov said that Russia and the US “have many differences” and criticized the US decision to unilaterally withdraw from Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement meant to rein in the country’s nuclear programme.

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Pompeo said that the US will respond appropriately to any Iranian attacks on US interests, in an apparent reference to the Iranian military’s threat to shut the strategic strait of Hormuz in the Gulf. The US secretary, however, added that his country did not “seek war with Iran”.

The US recently tightened restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programme by revoking key sanctions waivers, a move staunchly opposed by Moscow, over a year after Washington withdrew from a landmark deal that curbed Iran’s nuclear programme. It also imposed new sanctions on the country’s metal sector.

On the Ukrainian crisis, an issue the sides are also loggerheads, the Pompeo said the US would not recognize Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and would keep in place economic sanctions imposed on Russia over that move.

Mike Pompeo met Sergey Lavrov in Sochi to discuss a range of issues including Iran, Venezuela and Ukraine [Pavel Golovkin, Pool/AP]

Pompeo said he asked Moscow to free a group of Ukrainian sailors, seized by Russia last November, and to work with Ukraine‘s new president to bring peace to eastern Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Lavrov said that the Kremlin would welcome an official request by Washington for a meeting between the US and Russian presidents at a G20 summit scheduled for June.

US warning on 2020 polls

Pompeo also said he had made it clear to Lavrov that there could be no repeat of election interference of the kind Washington accuses Moscow of undertaking in the 2016 United States presidential election.

If Russia interferes in the 2020 presidential election, “it would put our relationship in an even worse place,” Pompeo said.

Ties between the two countries have been damaged by allegations that Russia tried to influence the results of the election in favour of Trump, a claim denied by Moscow.

Putin tells Pompeo he wants to ‘fully restore’ US-Russian ties

“It’s clear that such insinuations are absolute fiction,” Lavrov said at the joint press conference.

Pompeo’s visit represents the first high-level contact between Moscow and Washington since US Special Counsel Robert Mueller submitted a report examining the nature of Russia’s role in the 2016 election.

His inquiry had cast a pall over US-Russian relations, and Russian officials had expressed hope that Washington would have more scope to build friendlier relations with Moscow once it was out of the way.

Before his meeting with Pompeo, Putin praised the report.

“Despite the exotic nature of Mr Mueller’s commission, on the whole he conducted quite an objective investigation and confirmed the absence of any collusion between the US administration and Russia.”

The Mueller report called Russia’s efforts to influence the election “the most recent expression of Moscow’s longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order, but these activities demonstrated a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations”.