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Reports: Toys ‘R’ Us to Shut or Sell All US Stores

Toys ‘R’ US plans to sell or close all of its US stores, potentially hitting 33,000 jobs, U.S. media reported Wednesday.

The debt-plagued retailer, which filed for bankruptcy protection in September, told employees that the retailer planned to file liquidation papers ahead of a Thursday court hearing, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post reported.

“We’re putting a for sale sign on everything,” CEO David Brandon said on a conference call with staff, according to the Journal.

Company officials did not immediately reply for a request for comment.

Started in 1948 amid the postwar US economic boom, Toys ‘R’ US has 881 stores in U.S. territories and nearly 65,000 employees globally, according to the company’s most recent press release last month.

The New Jersey-based company was saddled with debt following a leveraged buyout in 2005 by a consortium that included the KKR Group and Bain Capital.

Much like other retailers, Toys ‘R’ Us has also been bruised by competition from Amazon and other online retailers.

A weak holiday shopping season weighed on the company’s efforts to reorganize, analysts said.

Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail, blamed the company’s woes on poor leadership.

“As the competitive dynamics of the toy market intensified, management failed to respond and evolve. As such, the brand lost relevance, customers and ultimately sales,” Saunders said in a note Wednesday.

“The main tragedy of liquidation will be the extensive loss of jobs. In our view, those on the shop-floor have been badly let down by management and those doing financial deals.”

The company is exploring strategies for keeping the brand alive, including the sale of 200 U.S. stores that could be packaged with its Canadian business, CNBC and the Journal reported.

Brandon outlined this and other possibilities at the New Jersey meeting, CNBC reported. Brandon also told workers they have 60 more days of employment at the company.

In February, the company’s British business announced plans for an “orderly wind-down” of the company’s store portfolio. Toys ‘R’ Us employs 3,200 people at 100 stores in Britain.


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House Democrats Cite ‘Evidence’ of Trump-Russia Collusion

Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee are sharply disagreeing with Republicans on the panel who say they don’t see any evidence of collusion or coordination between President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia. 

California Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the panel, said Tuesday that he believes there is “significant evidence” of collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia, though he couldn’t say if there was criminal wrongdoing. 

Republicans on the committee announced Monday that they’d completed a draft report and they saw no evidence of collusion. Schiff, who saw the GOP report for the first time on Tuesday, said Democrats on the committee would try to continue the investigation where possible and would write their own report to lay out conclusions from the intelligence panel’s yearlong investigation into Russian meddling. 

The GOP report “misleadingly characterizes events, and paints a portrait and tells a story that could not have been better written if it was written in the White House itself,” Schiff said. 

Trump enthusiastically praised the draft Republican report, telling reporters Tuesday morning that the White House is “very, very happy” with the GOP conclusions.

“It was a powerful decision that left no doubt and I want to thank the House intelligence committee,” Trump said.

Democrats have said for some time that they believed Republicans weren’t conducting a serious investigation. Schiff on Tuesday released a 22-page report detailing threads that Democrats still believe the committee should pursue and witnesses they still want to hear from. Those include White House officials, campaign officials and people in the intelligence community.

As examples of evidence of coordination, Schiff cited multiple contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russia, including a meeting in Trump Tower in June 2016 and information passed on to an Australian diplomat by a former Trump campaign aide, George Papadopolous, that the Russians had dirt on Hillary Clinton. 

Schiff said Democrats would try to release all committee interview transcripts in their report. He also signaled that he would reopen or begin certain lines of inquiry if Democrats retake the majority of the House this November. 

Texas Rep. Mike Conaway, the Republican leading the Russia probe, previewed some of the GOP report’s findings on Monday, but said the public will not see the full document until Democrats have reviewed it and the intelligence community has decided what information can be released, a process that could take weeks. 

“We found no evidence of collusion,” Conaway said, suggesting that those who believe there was collusion are reading too many spy novels. “We found perhaps some bad judgment, inappropriate meetings, inappropriate judgment in taking meetings. But only Tom Clancy or Vince Flynn or someone else like that could take this series of inadvertent contacts with each other, or meetings or whatever, and weave that into sort of a fiction page-turner, spy thriller.”

In addition to the statement on coordination with Russians, Republicans said the draft challenges an assessment by U.S. intelligence agencies that the Russian government, at the direction of President Vladimir Putin, waged a covert influence campaign to interfere in the election with the goal of hurting Clinton’s candidacy and helping Trump’s campaign.

House Intelligence Committee officials said they spent hundreds of hours reviewing raw source material used by the intelligence services in the assessment and that it did not meet the appropriate standards to make the claim about helping Trump. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the intelligence material.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a statement soon after the GOP announcement, saying it stood by the intelligence community’s findings. 

Conaway appeared to walk that conclusion back a bit on Tuesday, saying it was clear that the Russians intended to hurt Clinton and make her a less effective president, if she won. 

“Whether or not they were trying to hurt Hillary, help Trump, whatever it is – it’s kind of the glass half full, glass half empty,” Conaway said. 

Conaway said there will be a second report just dealing with the intelligence assessment and its credibility.

According to Conaway, the GOP report will agree with the intelligence assessment on most other details, including that Russians did meddle in the election. It will detail Russian cyberattacks on U.S. institutions during the election and the use of social media to sow discord. It will also show a pattern of Russian attacks on European allies – information that could be redacted in the final report. It will blame officials in former President Barack Obama’s administration for a “lackluster” response and look at leaks from the intelligence community to the media.

The Senate Intelligence Committee, which is also investigating the Russian intervention, is expected to have a more bipartisan report out in the coming weeks dealing with election security. The Senate panel is expected to issue findings on the more controversial issue of coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia at a later date.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, also investigating the meddling, is expected to release transcripts soon of closed-door interviews with several people who attended the 2016 meeting between the Trump campaign and Russians. It’s unclear if the Judiciary panel will produce a final report.

The congressional investigations are completely separate from special counsel Robert Mueller’s criminal probe into Trump campaign ties to Russia and possible obstruction of justice, which is likely to take much longer. So far, Mueller has charged nearly 20 people as part of his investigation, including three Trump associates who have pleaded guilty.

House Democrats signaled they were pinning their hopes on the Senate, and on Mueller. 

Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said they will continue to try to probe the meddling, but “we also hope the Senate investigation will go further, will get out more to the American people, and then of course special counsel Mueller will do his job.” 

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Student Walkouts Planned Across US to Protest Gun Violence

Tens of thousands of students and teachers across the United States will walk out of schools Wednesday in a politically charged tribute to the victims of a high school shooting in Florida exactly one month ago.

The walkout will take place at 10 a.m. local time at each site and will last for 17 minutes — one for each person killed when a gunman opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Valentine’s Day. Nearly 3,000 walkouts are set to be held across the country and around the world, organizers said.

Women’s March Youth Empower, the youth branch of Women’s March, planned the walkout “to protest Congress’ inaction to do more than tweet thoughts and prayers in response to the gun violence plaguing our schools and neighborhoods,” according to a statement.

“Students and staff have the right to teach and learn in an environment free from the worry of being gunned down in their classrooms or on their way home from school,” the statement said. “Parents have the right to send their kids to school in the mornings and see them home alive at the end of the day.”

Students at any given site could face disciplinary action if their walkout is not sanctioned by their school’s administration. But many educational institutions have signaled they will allow the 17-minute memorial to proceed as planned.

It’s one of several protests planned for the coming weeks.

​March for Our Lives

The March for Our Lives rally for school safety is expected to draw hundreds of thousands to Washington on March 24. Another round of walkouts is planned for April 20, the 19-year anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado.

Since last month’s shooting, students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas have taken the lead in calling for gun legislation reform, forming Never Again MSD, a student-led gun control organization.

Emma Gonzalez, one of the students who helped found the Never Again MSD, gave a speech shortly after the shooting in which she called out politicians for not addressing mass shootings.

“Politicians who sit in their gilded House and Senate seats funded by the NRA [National Rifle Association, a U.S. gun lobby], telling us nothing could have ever been done to prevent this, we call BS,” Gonzalez said. “They say that no laws could have been able to prevent the hundreds of senseless tragedies that have occurred. We call BS.”

The impact of student activism has already been felt in their home state. Last week, Florida enacted stricter gun control measures, including raising the minimum age to buy a firearm from 18 to 21. But the legislation also paved the way for the arming of teachers, a proposal backed by U.S. President Donald Trump but opposed by many students and teachers.

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Trump Ousts Tillerson, Replaces Him With Pompeo

President Donald Trump has ousted his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and is replacing him with CIA director Mike Pompeo.

Pompeo is to be replaced at CIA by Gina Haspel, Pompeo’s deputy at CIA. 

“Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA, and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all!,” Trump said on Twitter Tuesday.

“The President wanted to make sure to have his new team in place in advance of the upcoming talks with North Korea and various ongoing trade negotiations,” said a senior White House official, regarding the timing of the announcement.

President Trump announced last week he had agreed to meet in person with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.  Details have yet to be worked out.

Under Secretary of State Steve Goldstein said Tillerson “did not speak to the President and is unaware of the reason, but he is grateful for the opportunity to serve, and still believes strongly that public service is a noble calling.”

VOA White House correspondent Steve Herman contributed to this report


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Summit Raises Hope North Korea Will Release 3 US Detainees

Hopes for the release of three American citizens imprisoned in North Korea got a big boost by the news of a possible summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Freeing the prisoners would be relatively low-hanging fruit and a sign of goodwill by Kim. It would also mark something of a personal success for Trump, who has highlighted the issue since last June, when University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier died days after North Korea turned him over to American authorities.


Trump banned Americans from traveling to the North in response and featured Warmbier’s father prominently in his State of the Union speech in January.


A look at who the current American prisoners are and what a prison sentence in North Korea can entail:



The prisoners


All three Americans now doing time in the North are men, and all three are ethnic Koreans.


Two of them – Tony Kim and Kim Hak Song – were instructors at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology prior to their arrest and conviction. They are accused of anti-state activities and trying to overthrow the government. The university, which has not been linked to their arrests, is the only privately funded college in the North, founded in 2010 on donations from Christian groups.


Tony Kim, who taught accounting, has been in custody since April last year and is serving a 15-year sentence. Kim Hak Song, an agriculture specialist and evangelical minister who resided with his wife in China, was taken into custody about a month later. He remains in custody, but it’s not clear whether he has been sentenced or what his current status is.


The third and longest-serving prisoner, Kim Dong Chul, is a former Virginia resident who reportedly claims to have been the president of a trade and hotel services company in Rason, a special economic zone on the North Korean border with Russia. He was sentenced in April 2016 to 10 years in prison with hard labor after being convicted of espionage.



How they are tried


Suspects are often arrested when they try to leave North Korea. Warmbier, who was charged with anti-state crimes and the attempted theft of a propaganda banner, and Tony Kim were taken into custody at Pyongyang’s international airport. Kim Hak Song was taken while on a train on his way home to China.


Before being put on trial, detainees are often held in a house-arrest-type situation at their hotel, and some say they were expected to pay the hotel bill for the extra days. They may also be moved to guesthouses or places where they are less likely to be seen by others while the investigation is underway.


Suspects are pushed hard to sign a confession, which many recant after they leave the country, and guilt is generally assumed by the time the case reaches a judge, or a panel of three judges. With little doubt about the outcome, rarely do the proceedings take more than one day _ or even a few hours _ to complete.


Foreigners charged with serious crimes such as espionage generally have their cases sent directly to the Supreme Court.



Life in prison


Americans aren’t thrown into the same prison system as North Koreans.


Kenneth Bae, a missionary from Washington state who spent two years in prison, said he was kept for the most part in a foreigners-only work camp. It’s possible it was, in fact, meant only for him – he never saw another prisoner there.


In an interview in Pyongyang, the capital, just before his 2016 release, Bae told The Associated Press that he was moved from the work camp to a hospital because of failing health and weight loss. He said he was then sent back to the work camp, which he believed was located not far outside Pyongyang. He said he did a lot of digging and farm-related labor.


Bae, who was also accused of trying to overthrow the government, said after his release that his cell was small and barren and he was frequently interrogated early on. But he said he was never beaten and was allowed to keep his Bible and pray openly.



How they are freed


The United States and North Korea do not have diplomatic relations. The Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang acts as a go-between when an American is detained.


North Korea claims that releasing American prisoners before they have completed their sentences is a “humanitarian” decision that must be made by Kim Jong Un himself. So, without any U.S. diplomats or legal advocates on the ground, getting a release often requires a trip by a senior U.S. statesman.


Former President Bill Clinton went to North Korea in 2009 to get two journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, who had crossed into the country illegally from China and were given 12-year sentences. Former CIA director James Clapper visited in November 2014 to bring home Bae and tourist Matthew Miller, who was charged with espionage.


Former President Jimmy Carter – who since leaving office has traveled to North Korea three times and even met with Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Un’s grandfather – brought home Christian missionary Aijalon Gomes in 2010. Gomes had been sentenced to eight years of hard labor for illegal entry and hostile acts against the government.


Joseph Yun, the top U.S. negotiator with North Korea at the time, was the official who went to get Warmbier.


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US Defense Chief Makes Unannounced Visit to Kabul

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis made an unannounced visit to Kabul Tuesday, in the first trip by a Trump administration official to Afghanistan since President Ashraf Ghani offered to hold peace talks with the Taliban.

Ghani, in a conference late last month called the Kabul Process, involving representatives of 25 countries along with the United States and NATO, offered the Taliban political recognition, help in removing their names from international sanctions lists, passports, jobs, and a political office in Kabul if they renounce violence and come to the table.


The Taliban have not yet officially responded to that offer.

But while traveling to Kabul, Mattis told reporters there were signs elements of the Taliban were interested in negotiations.  He acknowledged that these were small groups, not the main Taliban faction led by Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada.


“It may not be that the whole Taliban comes over in one fell swoop. That may be a bridge too far to expect. But there are elements of the Taliban clearly interested in talking to the Afghan government,” he said.


Monday, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah told a bi-weekly meeting attended by the ministers and their deputies that the government has not received a positive response from the militant group.


The Taliban have also not yet applied to attend an end of March meeting in Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent, the Uzbek foreign ministry said according to Reuters. Participants in the meeting are expected to put their weight behind calls for direct negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government.


The Taliban have said they will only talk to the United States and not what they call its puppet regime in Kabul.  


Mattis, who is expected to meet NATO and Afghan leadership, arrived a day after the Taliban briefly overran a western Afghan district, a battlefield success the insurgents failed to achieve in 2017.

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A Look at What’s Ahead in a Landmark Trump-Kim Summit

After a year of threats and diatribes, U.S. President Donald Trump and third-generation North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un have agreed to meet face-to-face for talks about the North’s nuclear program.

It remains to be seen whether a summit, if it takes place, could lead to any meaningful breakthrough after an unusually provocative year. North Korea tested its most powerful nuclear weapon to date and test-launched three intercontinental ballistic missiles theoretically capable of striking the U.S. mainland.

Will there be a breakthrough? Failure? Or merely the start of another long and difficult process meant to remove the North’s nuclear capabilities?

Here’s a look at what may lie ahead and the challenges that remain:

Why now?

Analysts say Trump’s decision to accept Kim’s invitation for a summit and to do it by May could be linked in part to a desire to claim a significant achievement in his most difficult foreign policy challenge before the U.S. midterm elections in November.

Kim, on the other hand, seems desperate to save a sanctions-battered North Korean economy.

Both leaders have interests in striking a big deal, said Cheong Seong-Chang, a senior analyst at South Korea’s Sejong Institute. Should it happen, the May summit between Trump and Kim will come shortly after a planned April meeting between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

It’s likely that North Korea will also push for summits with China, Russia and Japan later in the year to further break out of its isolation, Cheong said.

Trump will likely try to achieve something dramatic in his meeting with Kim, said Hong Min, an analyst at Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification, including a possible exchange of verbal commitments on the denuclearization of North Korea and a peace treaty between the two countries.


Where to meet?

The United States and North Korea will likely be talking quite a bit in coming months and maybe even exchanging high-level delegations to set up the logistics of the summit.

One of the biggest questions is where it will take place.

The United States would prefer Washington, while North Korea will want Trump to come to Pyongyang, its capital.

Unless the countries agree to a third-country location, which would likely be South Korea, experts see it as more likely that Trump will fly to Pyongyang.

While no incumbent U.S. president has ever set foot in North Korea, Trump might be willing to become the first because it would fit the strong-willed, in-your-face type of leadership he tries to project, Hong said.

It’s hard to imagine Kim going to Washington because he is much less diplomatically experienced; the planned meeting with Moon in April will be his first with any state leader since he took power in 2011.

They could also meet in the truce village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone between the rival Koreas or, Hong said, the southern South Korean resort island of Jeju.

What will North Korea want?

A big question will be whether Trump can accept a freeze of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program rather than its elimination, said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Dongguk University.

Kim will likely want to keep some nukes as a deterrent, but that might be hard for Trump to tolerate when he spent so much time harshly criticizing his predecessor, Barack Obama, for allegedly standing by and watching as North Korea became a nuclear threat.

Still, Kim might express a firmer commitment to denuclearization to Trump, including giving a full report on the North’s current nuclear weapons arsenal and allowing thorough international verification once the denuclearization process takes hold, said Choi Kang, vice president of Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

While some experts speculate that North Korea might ask for a halt of annual military drills between the United States and South Korea or even the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula, Choi said it’s meaningful that Kim, at least according to South Korean presidential official Chung Eui-yong, said he understands that the joint military exercises between the allies “must continue.” This signals an important departure from the past when the North thoroughly rejected the U.S.-South Korea alliance.

Kim might even free several American citizens currently detained in the North to brighten the atmosphere of his summit with Trump, Choi said.

Have we seen this before?

The whirlwind events of the past months might be compared to 1994, when former U.S. President Bill Clinton concluded a major nuclear agreement between Washington and Pyongyang.

Under the “Agreed Framework,” North Korea halted construction of two reactors the United States believed were for nuclear weapons production in return for two alternative nuclear power reactors that could be used to provide electricity but not bomb fuel, and 500,000 annual metric tons of fuel oil for the North.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright traveled to Pyongyang in 2000, and there were talks of a summit between Clinton and then-North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, the father of Kim Jong Un. But there was no arrangement before George W. Bush’s election. The Agreed Framework broke down after U.S. intelligence agencies said North Korea was pursuing a second way to make bombs, using enriched uranium.

North Korea is clearly a different country than it was two decades ago, holding a legitimate nuclear program as a bargaining chip. But Trump, in just his second year in office and facing a similarly strong-willed leader eager to directly break a diplomatic deadlock, could be in a better position to cut a meaningful deal with North Korea than Clinton was at the end of his presidency.

“Chemistry wise, Trump and Kim might get along; they both strive to be bold and could be eager to strike a deal,” said Choi. “After years of diplomatic stalemate over the North’s nuclear program, we could use an injection of top-down decision making.”

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