NEW YORK — President Donald Trump said he will take action as soon as Saturday to ban TikTok, a popular Chinese-owned video app that has been a source of national security and censorship concerns.
Trump’s comments came after published reports that the administration is planning to order China’s ByteDance to sell TikTok. There were also reports Friday that software giant Microsoft is in talks to buy the app.
“As far as TikTok is concerned, we’re banning them from the United States,” Trump told reporters Friday on Air Force One as he returned from Florida.
Trump said he could use emergency economic powers or an executive order to enforce the action, insisting, “I have that authority.” He added, “It’s going to be signed tomorrow.”
Reports by Bloomberg News and the Wall Street Journal citing anonymous sources said the administration could soon announce a decision ordering ByteDance to divest its ownership in TikTok.
There have been reports of U.S. tech giants and financial firms being interested in buying or investing in TikTok as the Trump administration sets its sights on the app. The New York Times and Fox Business, citing an unidentified source, reported Friday that Microsoft is in talks to buy TikTok. Microsoft declined to comment.
TikTok issued a statement Friday saying that, “While we do not comment on rumours or speculation, we are confident in the long-term success of TikTok.”
ByteDance launched TikTok in 2017, then bought Musical.ly, a video service popular with teens in the U.S. and Europe, and combined the two. A twin service, Douyin, is available for Chinese users.
TikTok’s fun, goofy videos and ease of use has made it immensely popular, and U.S. tech giants like Facebook and Snapchat see it as a competitive threat. It has said it has tens of millions of U.S. users and hundreds of millions globally.
But its Chinese ownership has raised concerns about the censorship of videos, including those critical of the Chinese government, and the potential for sharing user data with Chinese officials.
TikTok maintains it doesn’t censor videos based on topics sensitive to China and it would not give the Chinese government access to U.S. user data even if asked. The company has hired a U.S. CEO, a former top Disney executive, in an attempt to distance itself from its Chinese ownership.
U.S. national-security officials have been reviewing the Musical.ly acquisition in recent months, while U.S. armed forces have banned their employees from installing TikTok on government-issued phones. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said earlier this month that the U.S. was considering banning TikTok.
These national-security worries parallel a broader U.S. security crackdown on Chinese companies, including telecom providers Huawei and ZTE. The Trump administration has ordered that the U.S. stop funding equipment from those providers in U.S. networks. It has also tried to steer allies away from Huawei because of worries about the Chinese government’s access to data, which the company has denied it has.
The Trump administration has stepped in before to block or dissolve deals on national-security concerns, including stopping Singapore’s Broadcom from its $117 billion bid for U.S. chipmaker Qualcomm in 2018 in an effort to help retain U.S. leadership in the telecom space. It also told China’s Beijing Kunlun Tech Co. to sell off its 2016 purchase of gay dating app Grindr.
Other countries are also taking action against TikTok. India this month banned dozens of Chinese apps, including TikTok, citing privacy concerns, amid tensions between the countries.
Associated Press writers Kevin Freking aboard Air Force One and Zeke Miller in Washington contributed to this report.
Tali Arbel, The Associated Press
Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica faces funding crunch as COVID-19 curbs tourism
MONTREAL — One of Canada’s best-known religious landmarks, the Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal, is seeking urgent government assistance to withstand a budget shortfall caused by COVID-19.
Claudia Morissette, director of the historic church in Old Montreal, said Notre-Dame expects to be short about $12 million in revenues this year as cultural events and guided visits remain suspended due to the pandemic.
“It’s huge. It represents 85 per cent of our total revenue,” Morissette said in an interview.
She said that money is “absolutely necessary” to preserve and restore the stone church, which was constructed in the 1820s in the Gothic Revival style and remains one of the main tourist destinations in the city, welcoming around one million visitors per year before the pandemic.
A first phase of restoration work is already underway on its facade, but Morissette said the church is concerned it will not be able to finance the second and third phases of restoration on the building’s east and west towers.
These first three phases are expected to cost $9.2 million out of a total of nearly $30 million of work needed to preserve and restore the building over the next decade, the church estimates.
“We can’t press pause (on phases two and three) because that would risk putting the integrity of the towers in peril and (could) even become dangerous,” said Morissette, adding that delays on the work could also lead to an increase in overall costs.
Notre-Dame is not the only church in Quebec facing economic challenges due to COVID-19, which has hit the province hard.
Across the province, where the Catholic Church historically played a central role but has seen a decline in recent decades, many churches have struggled to pay rent and maintain their aging buildings as the pandemic forced them this spring to suspend in-person services.
Quebec’s Culture Department announced last month that it would invest $15 million to preserve religious heritage, targeting 62 buildings and three organs. Culture Minister Nathalie Roy said the investment also would help stimulate the economy and create jobs for artisans and labourers.
Morissette said Notre-Dame received $1 million last year from Quebec’s Religious Heritage Council, a non-profit organization that supports the conservation of historic buildings, to help finance part of phase one of its restoration. But the church did not get any of the new funding.
“We understand that (the money) goes quickly, and we also understand that we’re not the only ones. We know that COVID-19 affected many people,” Morissette said. “But we’re a major attraction. We are one of the major patrimonial jewels.”
The Quebec Culture Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Canadian Press.
Andreanne Jalbert-Laramee, cultural heritage adviser at Quebec’s Religious Heritage Council, said that if Notre-Dame is struggling, smaller and less renowned churches are no doubt struggling, too.
“The worry is that if their financial situation is difficult, they will delay these restoration projects, this work, and that will make the situation even more difficult for those buildings,” Jalbert-Laramee said in an interview.
She said that while about $40 million is needed to restore and preserve religious heritage buildings across Quebec, the government’s $15-million investment is a good step.
“These are interventions that are essential for the survival of these buildings,” Jalbert-Laramee said. “We see that the need is great, the need is there.”
For her part, Morissette said she remains concerned the Notre-Dame Basilica will not be able to finance its restoration.
While daily masses resumed last month, guided tours and shows that draw tourists to the church have not — meaning that Notre-Dame missed out on the summer tourist season, which typically draws hundreds of thousands of visitors.
The church said it sold nearly 833,500 tickets for guided tours and over 227,000 tickets to its light show called Aura in 2018.
Morissette called for any of the three levels of government — federal, provincial and municipal — to provide urgent financial aid to help Notre-Dame withstand its losses.
“Because it’s the symbol of the founding of the City of Montreal, that it’s one of the most well-known religious monuments in North America, that it’s the main tourist attraction in Old Montreal … we need to preserve this gem so that the next generations can enjoy it,” she said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 14, 2020.
Jillian Kestler-D’Amours, The Canadian Press
Ex-FBI lawyer to plead guilty in Durham look at Russia probe
WASHINGTON — A former FBI lawyer plans to plead guilty to making a false statement in the first criminal case arising from U.S. Attorney John Durham’s investigation into the probe of ties between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign.
Kevin Clinesmith is being charged in federal court in Washington and is expected to plead guilty to one count of making a false statement, his attorney Justin Shur told The Associated Press.
The case against Clinesmith is likely to be cheered by President Donald Trump and his supporters as they look to the Durham investigation to lift Trump’s wobbly reelection prospects and to expose what they see as wrongdoing as the FBI opened an investigation into whether the Trump campaign was co-ordinating with the Kremlin to sway the outcome of the 2016 election.
The Durham investigation, which is also examining the intelligence community’s assessment about Russian election interference, has caused deep concern among Democrats, who view it as a politically charged exercise meant to relitigate an already closed investigation and fear criminal charges or public reports issued so close to the 2020 election could be timed to affect November’s vote.
The investigation has proceeded alongside a parallel effort by Senate Republicans to discredit the Russia probe and as Attorney General William Barr has escalated his own criticism of the FBI’s probe.
Barr foreshadowed the legal action in a Fox News Channel interview on Thursday night in which he said there would be a development Friday that was “not earth shattering” but would be an indication that the investigation was moving along.
Justice Department policy directs prosecutors not to take investigative steps for the purpose of affecting an election and frowns upon taking public actions in the weeks before an election. But Barr has said he did not feel constrained by that policy in part because the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, former Vice-President Joe Biden, is not a target of Durham’s investigation, and Barr has signalled that he will look to make Durham’s findings public before the election.
Clinesmith was referred for potential prosecution by the department’s inspector general’s office, which conducted its own review of the Russia investigation.
That review found that the Russia probe was opened for a legitimate reason and did not find proof of political bias, but it also concluded that the FBI made significant errors and omissions as it applied for secret national security warrants to eavesdrop on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
Specifically, the inspector general accused Clinesmith, though not by name, of altering an email about Page to say that he was “not a source” for another government agency. Page has said he was a source for the CIA. The Justice Department relied on that assertion as it submitted a third and final renewal application in 2017 to eavesdrop on Page under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Clinesmith told the inspector general that from his conversations he did not understand Page to be a source, or a “recruited asset,” or to have a direct relationship with another government agency. But that relationship was seen as something important to disclose to the FISA court, especially if Page was being tasked by the government to have interactions with Russians.
“Kevin deeply regrets having altered the email,” Shur said. “It was never his intent to mislead the court or his colleagues, as he believed the information he relayed was accurate, but Kevin understands what he did was wrong and accepts responsibility.”
Durham is the U.S. attorney for Connecticut and a veteran prosecutor with a history of special assignments from Washington. Former Attorney General Eric Holder selected him during the Obama administration to investigate the CIA’s harsh interrogation techniques of terror suspects and the destruction of videotapes documenting that interrogation.
Barr appointed Durham just weeks after special counsel Robert Mueller concluded his nearly two-year investigation. Mueller found significant contacts during the 2016 campaign between Russians and Trump associates but did not allege a criminal conspiracy between them.
Mueller also examined multiple episodes in which Trump sought to affect or choke off the Russia investigation, but he did not reach a conclusion on whether Trump had obstructed justice.
Barr signalled his skepticism with the Russia investigation right away, concluding that Trump had not obstructed justice even though Mueller had pointedly left that question unresolved.
More recently, Barr stepped in to dismiss the criminal case against former Trump administration national security adviser Michael Flynn even though Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, and Barr overruled prosecutors to seek a lighter prison term for Trump confidant Roger Stone. The Republican president commuted Stone’s sentence last month.
Eric Tucker And Michael Balsamo, The Associated Press
R. Kelly’s manager charged with phone threats to theatre
NEW YORK — R. Kelly’s manager has been arrested on charges that he threatened a shooting at a Manhattan theatre two years ago, forcing an evacuation and the cancellation of the screening of a documentary addressing allegations that the singer had sexually abused women and girls.
Donnell Russell, 45, of Chicago, was charged with conspiracy and with threatening physical harm by interstate communication. He was scheduled to appear remotely Friday before a magistrate judge in Manhattan federal court. It was not immediately clear who will represent him in court.
The charge comes on the heels of Russell being charged in Brooklyn federal court earlier this week with harassing a Kelly victim and her mother after the unidentified woman filed a lawsuit against Kelly. Authorities said Russell sent a letter to the woman’s lawyer with cropped nude photographs of her and later sent her a text warning her: “Pull the plug or you will be exposed.”
In the latest case, authorities said the threats by Kelly’s manager and adviser in December 2018 forced the cancellation of the screening of Lifetime’s “Surviving R. Kelly” series at the NeueHouse Madison Square as police took precautions, although they determined that there was no imminent threat.
Acting U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss said in a release that a number of the Grammy award-winning R&B singer’s accusers were to attend the screening.
“Threats of gun violence aimed at intimidating and silencing victims of sexual abuse are unlawful as well as unacceptable,” she said.
William F. Sweeney Jr., head of New York’s FBI office, said it “defies logic that a threat like the one alleged here could stop victims from speaking about their alleged abuse.”
Sweeney said Russell succeeded in shutting down one airing of the documentary but failed to silence the women featured in the film.
“Each and every day, we do everything in our power to make sure victims of sexual abuse have the opportunity to be heard, and will continue to do so regardless of those who allegedly use violence as a means to stop them,” he said.
Kelly remains jailed in Chicago after pleading not guilty to dozens of state and federal sex crime charges in Illinois, Minnesota and New York.
The charges range from sexual assault to leading a racketeering scheme aimed at supplying Kelly with girls. Kelly also is accused of having unprotected sex with a minor in 2015 without disclosing he had herpes.
Larry Neumeister, The Associated Press
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