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Deputy Secretary of State Steve Biegun pointed Wednesday to “a growing number of disputes” between the US and China over Beijing’s “increasingly hardline and aggressive actions” that have led the administration to take action, including closing the consulate in Houston.

Lawmakers, former officials and experts said strong pushback is needed to counter China’s cyber and industrial espionage, its human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang and aggressive expansion in the South China Sea — but some suggested the Houston consulate was a politically driven and very carefully calibrated target, one chosen to create the appearance of toughness while avoiding the risk of a major clash.
White House officials have privately outlined a strategy of getting tough on Beijing to bolster President Donald Trump‘s sagging poll numbers before the election, partly to deflect blame for the disastrous and economically damaging White House response to the coronavirus pandemic, but also to return to economic nationalism themes that carried Trump to victory in 2016.

Jeff Moon, a former assistant US trade representative for China, noted the State Department said the Houston order was a response to Chinese intellectual property theft and said that raised questions about why only one consulate was targeted.

“If that were the real reason, the US would close the San Francisco consulate, which covers Silicon Valley,” said Moon, who was among those who suggested politics might be at work. “This action is red meat for Trump supporters who are eager to retaliate against China and divert attention from Trump’s disastrous Covid-19 policy.”

US State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said the consulate was directed to close “in order to protect American intellectual property and Americans’ private information,” but did not immediately provide additional details of what prompted the closure. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is scheduled to give a speech on China Thursday and just completed a trip in Europe to urge a tougher stance against Beijing, declined to offer details about the consulate decision. The State Department didn’t respond to requests for further explanation.

Sen. Angus King, an independent of Maine who caucuses with Democrats, told CNN’s John Berman on “New Day” Wednesday that he was not aware of any “recent intelligence of particular Chinese activities, either with regard to our elections, or the whole confrontation between our two countries — theft of intellectual property” that may have driven the decision.

“There certainly is a good reason to confront China. My concern is, escalating this tension, is it really about confronting China, or does it have something to do with an election in four months?” King, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said.

A former official who left the Trump administration last year said that Trump often pushed back on advisers who urged him to impose tougher punitive measures on China out of concern that it would jeopardize trade negotiations.

Even so, as Covid-19 began devastating public and economic health in the US, the President’s Republican allies and influential White House staff, including Jared Kushner, began arguing that one way to energize the President’s political base is by blasting China over its failure to stem the spread of the disease early on, administration officials and three people familiar with Kushner’s thinking have told CNN.

Moon, who now runs China Moon Strategies, a consultancy on US-China trade and economic relations, said targeting the Houston consulate was a way for the President to thread the needle between appearing tough yet not taking on much risk.

The US and Chinese governments informally pair their consulates, with China’s Houston facility informally linked to the US consulate in Wuhan. Moon noted that the Wuhan consulate reportedly remains closed due to coronavirus, “so China could ‘close’ and escalate the diplomatic war as little as possible.”

A ‘vast network of spies’

On Wednesday, Biegun told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Trump moved to close the consulate because of increasing aggression by China.

Biegun pointed to “commercial espionage and intellectual property theft from American companies; unequal treatment of our diplomats, businesses, NGOs, and journalists by Chinese authorities; and abuse of the United States’ academic freedom and welcoming posture toward international students to steal sensitive technology and research from our universities in order to advance the PRC’s military capabilities.”

“It is these factors which led the President to direct a number of actions in response, including yesterday’s notification to the PRC that we’ve withdrawn our consent for the PRC to operate its consulate in Houston, Texas,” he said.

On Wednesday, Trump said “it’s always possible” that he will order more Chinese consulates closed, adding that US officials thought there was a fire at the Houston consulate but apparently “they were burning documents.”

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, wrote on Twitter Wednesday that closing the Houston consulate “needed to happen,” and claimed it is a “central node of the Communist Party’s vast network of spies.”

Asked about that allegation, a current US intelligence official agreed, telling CNN that “of course it was” used for spying. “We’ve been watching them for a while,” they said. That official declined to comment on why the decision was taken now to close the Houston consulate.

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The Justice Department’s top national security official said the closure was unrelated to federal charges unsealed Tuesday against two Chinese hackers for a 10-year campaign to steal intellectual property from hundreds of businesses across the globe, including recently from four American companies researching the coronavirus.

Instead, Assistant Attorney General John Demers said the administration moved against the Houston consulate to disrupt China’s theft of defense and trade secrets after a “slow buildup” of activity. “It wasn’t so much one particular thing but a slow buildup of what we’ve been seeing over time and a decision made to take a strong step to not just confront it in a general sense but to actually disrupt it by closing that consulate,” Demers said.

Former officials were perplexed. Danny Russell, the former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs who left the department in 2017, said that when he was at State and the National Security Council, “the Chinese consulate in Houston did not have a particular reputation as an acute vector of espionage.”

“It is very hard for me to figure out what China could do uniquely from its consulate in Houston that it could not equally well do from its consulates in Boston, LA, or NY, from the embassy in DC or through non-official cover,” Russell said. “It is inconceivable that shutting down a consulate will stop espionage.”

“The drama of this action makes it seem like a teaser for Pompeo’s” speech Thursday, Russell added. “This has a very distinct wag-the-dog feel to it.”

CNN’s James Griffiths in Hong Kong, and Jamie Crawford, David Shortell, Zachary Cohen and Jennifer Hansler in Washington contributed to this report



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Romney faces another crossroads on Trump’s Supreme Court push

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Romney’s short Senate career has been punctuated by big moments of distancing himself from the president: marching in a Black Lives Matter protest and penning an op-ed before he even took his Senate seat vowing to push back against Trump when needed. He also occasionally criticizes Trump’s rhetoric, but he’s careful not to get dragged into a back and forth with the president on Twitter or elsewhere.

Yet the party’s 2012 presidential nominee has also largely backed Trump’s appointments and much of his agenda. His voting record is a regular reminder that he’s still a conservative, which his GOP colleagues hope is a sign that he will divorce his differences with Trump from the monumental opportunity the conservative movement sees before it.

“I really don’t know what he’ll do,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.). “I think he’s probably wrestling with it just like he has on other issues.”

Romney’s opinion may not be decisive: He’d need one other Republican senator to join him and Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Collins in opposition to derail McConnell’s hopes of a swift confirmation. For now, that would take a surprise defection after vulnerable Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) backed McConnell’s strategy.

But should Romney be the only other Republican to join the Senate GOP’s moderate bloc, it would invite the explosive scenario of Vice President Mike Pence breaking a 50-50 vote on the Senate floor for a Supreme Court nominee, perhaps just days before Election Day.

Romney’s decision may do a lot to illustrate what kind of senator he will be as he finishes his first two years in the chamber. Romney has little of the baggage of his colleagues over past Supreme Court fights or battles over precedent. At a 2018 debate, Romney said Senate Republicans’ blockade of President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, set no new standard and did not say how he would handle an election-year confirmation under Trump.

Conservative advocacy groups are keeping a close eye on Romney. The Judicial Crisis Network announced Monday that it was pouring $2.2 million into ads boosting the effort to fill the seat. The targeted states are home to vulnerable GOP incumbents, except one: Romney’s Utah.

But Romney is insulated from immediate political ramifications. His term isn’t up until 2024, and that gives Romney significant freedom to make his own way.

With the filibuster gutted on all nominations after recent rules changes by both parties, Senate Democrats are powerless to stop Trump’s appointment on their own. But many enjoy good relationships with Romney and are counting on him to take yet another stand against Trump.

“He’s shown extraordinary courage before,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “I hope he does again.”

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A Former Government Minister Is Leading Calls By Tory MPs For Boris Johnson Not To Put The Country Back Into Lockdown

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The former minister Simon Clarke is leading calls by Tory MPs for the country not to be put back into a full lockdown amid a surge in coronavirus cases.

The Middlesborough MP made a “plea for proportionality” to Matt Hancock in his first contribution to the Commons since standing down as a local government minister earlier this month.

Speaking to PoliticsHome he said: “I’ve seen constituents commit suicide during the first lockdown. When you get those emails it’s quite sobering about the human cost about what it is that we’re demanding of people.

“And it made me reflect that we should lever do so lightly, and that frankly if there are intervening measures before we get to those – then I would strongly hope we would exhaust all of them.”

Speaking ahead of a statement by Boris Johnson on Tuesday, where he is expected to introduce tighter restrictions to prevent the spread of Covid-19, Mr Clarke warned: “there are very, very significant economic tradeoffs” to such measures.

He is calling for a “graduated tradeoff” of freedom “rather than fire off all our artillery now”, adding it will be “a very long winter if we moved into lockdown now”.

Although he is in favour of local lockdowns he added: “But I just think a suite of national measures which set the economy even further back, and really do impose massive restrictions on people’s quality of life, are to be avoided as such time as they are totally unavoidable.”

Mr Clarke urged his former colleagues to “maintain fundamental liberty for people at this stage of autumn” after suggestions it may take six months to tackle the virus.

With the ‘rule of six’ only recently introduced he called for “other rules kick in before preventing households to mix”, saying “things which cut across basic human freedoms and basic human needs are to be avoided until they are an absolute last-ditch option”.

A growing number of Tory MPs have also expressed concern over what they see as a growing lack of parliamentary scrutiny over Coronavirus legislation. 

Peter Bone MP told PoliticsHome: “I think there’s a growing number of MPs who think you shouldn’t be making these significant regulations without parliamentary approval.”

He said the powers were handed over via emergency legislation but it was when there wasn’t “a functioning Parliament”, at the time, and MPs should not get a chicane to defat, amend and vote on them.

As an example he said the “rule of six” would likely have still been passed, but perhaps amended not to include children or a month-long sunset clause.

Asked whether Number 10 had been ignoring its own MPs, Mr Bone said: “Well I think they get used to it, they got used to in an emergency just doing it ,and they’ve continued. There is a drift within government to a more presidential type of government.

Clarke’s call to avoid lockdown was backed up in the Commons by the ex-transport secretary Chris Grayling, who said he did not believe there is a case for a new national lockdown.

He told the Commons: “Given the huge consequences of this virus for people in our communities on their mental health, particularly the younger generation who are paying a very heavy price, can I say to him that given those regional variations – and in the full knowledge of all the pressures that he is facing – I do not believe the case for further national measures has yet been made.”

Mr Hancock replied: “He’s absolutely right that there are some parts of the country where the number of cases is still thankfully very low and so the balance between what we do nationally and what we do locally is as important as the balance in terms of what we do overall.”

Another former minister – Sir Edward Leigh – said public consent for lockdowns is “draining away”.

Addressing the House of Commons, he said: “The trouble with authoritarianism is that’s profoundly inimical to civil liberties, it is also increasingly incompetent, it relies on acquiescence and acquiescence for lockdowns, particularly national ones, is draining away.

“If you tell a student not to go to a pub, they will congregate in rooms, even worse.”

Mr Hancock said in his reply: “As a Conservative, I believe in as much freedom as possible consistent with not harming others.”

But fellow Tory MP Pauline Latham called for more Parliamentary scrutiny of such decisions, saying: “Could I remind the Secretary of State, I think he’ll be going to a Cobra meeting tomorrow, could he explain to the Prime Minister that we actually live in a democracy not a dictatorship and we would like a debate in this House?”

Mr Hancock replied: “Yes, there absolutely will be a debate in this House on the measures… that we have to use. We do have to move very fast.”

The chairman of the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers, Sir Graham Brady, then asked the minister if: “Balancing the measures to tackle Covid with the other health consequences such as cancer patients going undiagnosed or not treated in time and the economic and social consequences is a political judgment?”

He added: “And does he further agree with me that political judgments are improved by debate and scrutiny?”

Mr Hancock replied: “Yes I do and I do come to this despatch box as often as possible. I’m very sorry that I wasn’t able to come on Friday for Friday’s decision but the House wasn’t sitting.”

He added: “The more scrutiny the better is my attitude.”

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GE: Industrial giant will stop building coal-fired power plants

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In a dramatic reversal, one of the world’s biggest makers of coal-fired power plants is to exit the market and focus on greener alternatives.

US industrial giant General Electric said it would shut or sell sites as it prioritised its renewable energy and power generation businesses.

It comes ahead of a US Presidential election in which the candidates hold starkly different views on coal.

NGO the Natural Resources Defense Council said the move was “about time”.

GE has said in the past it would focus less on fossil fuels, reflecting the growing acceptance of cleaner energy sources in US power grids.

But just five years ago, it struck its biggest ever deal – paying almost £10bn for a business that produced coal-fuelled turbines.

‘Attractive economics’

In a statement, the firm suggested the decision had been motivated by economics.

Russell Stokes, GE’s senior vice president, said: “With the continued transformation of GE, we are focused on power generation businesses that have attractive economics and a growth trajectory.

“As we pursue this exit from the new build coal power market, we will continue to support our customers, helping them to keep their existing plants running in a cost-effective and efficient way with best-in-class technology and service expertise.”

US President Donald Trump has championed “beautiful, clean coal” at a time when other developed countries are turning away from polluting fossil fuels.

In a bid to revive the struggling US industry, Mr Trump has rolled back Obama-era standards on coal emissions. But it has not stopped the decline as cheaper alternatives such as natural gas, solar and wind gain market share.

GE said it would continue to service existing coal power plants, but warned jobs could be lost as a result of its decision.

The firm is already cutting up to 13,000 job cuts at GE Aviation, which makes jet engines, due to the pandemic.

In a tweet, the Natural Resources Defense Council said: “Communities and organizers have been calling on GE to get out of coal for years. This is an important and long overdue step in the right direction to protect communities’ health and the environment.”

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