Live Coverage

Today's News: March 31, 2017

A “phased approach” to Brexit talks, Mike Flynn’s offer, and more from the United States and around the world.

European Council President Donald Tusk discusses Brexit in Valletta, Malta, on March 31. Darrin Zammit Lupi / Reuters

—The EU’s draft on Brexit talks propose a “phased approach,” suggesting talks on a trade deal with the U.K. can begin once there’s enough progress on a financial settlement.

—Mike Flynn offers to be interviewed in exchange for immunity from prosecution, the Wall Street Journal and other are reporting. More here

—We’re tracking the news stories of the day below. All updates are in Eastern Daylight Time (GMT -4).


This live blog has concluded

Trump Signs Executive Orders Focused on Trade

Andrew Harnik / AP

President Trump signed two executive orders on Friday, aimed at assessing the fairness of U.S. trade deals. The move represents a more cautious approach from when Trump, as presidential candidate, promised to scrap the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which he called “the worst trade deal ever.” The first order Trump signed calls for a 90-day study to look country-by-country, product-by-product, at abuses that contribute to the U.S. trade deficit. The study would serve as a template for rule- and decision-making when the administration evaluates how to reorganize trade deals. The second order will step up duties collected from countries the U.S. finds to be dumping products at below production costs, often done with heavy subsidies from their governments. The orders come a week ahead of Trump’s meeting with President Xi Jinping of China, which Trump has accused of taking advantage of the U.S. Trump has called the U.S. trade deficit—more than $500 billion last year—a job-killer, and has said he will renegotiate deals like NAFTA to put American interests first. But more so than trade deals, economists have pointed to the increased robotization of factories as the major cause for lost factory jobs. At the signing ceremony Friday, after taking a few questions from the media, Trump abruptly left without actually signing the order. Vice President Mike Pence instead picked up the document and chased after the president.  

New York Mayor De Blasio Plans to Close Rikers Island Jail Within 10 Years

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Friday plans to shutter the Rikers Island jail complex within the next decade in a bid to end the era of mass incarceration in the city.

Closing the 85-year-old facility will be a “long and arduous” process, de Blasio said in a statement, adding “our success in reducing crime and reforming our criminal justice system has paved a path off Rikers Island and toward community-based facilities capable of meeting our criminal justice goals.” De Blasio said the project would require cutting the jail’s nearly 10,000-person population in half, as well as constructing several smaller facilities to replace it. The announcement follows the formation last year of an independent panel commissioned to examine the facility, which, as The New York Times reports, recommended the jail be demolished and replaced with new jails built in each of the city’s five boroughs. More details from the commissions findings are expected to be announced Sunday.

A Federal Judge Approves a $25 Million Trump University Settlement

Carlos Barria / Reuters

A federal judge on Friday approved a deal for President Trump to pay $25 million to settle lawsuits against him over Trump University, the defunct real-estate education program created by Trump. The ruling, by U.S. District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel in the Southern District of California, ends seven years of legal battles, with class-action suits in New York and California. The cases came to national attention during Trump’s election campaign, with plaintiffs saying they’d signed up to learn Trump’s real-estate investment secrets, but instead forked out thousands of dollars for worthless information that could be found free online. Trump had refused to settle the suits, and even promised to reopen the university once he won the court battle. At one point, he complained that Curiel could not possibly oversee the case impartially, because of the Indiana-born judge’s Mexican heritage. Trump later apologized for this comment, reversed his stance on the lawsuit, and after he won the election in November agreed to settle for $25 million. That figure comes to about 90 percent of the money his university took from customers. Not everyone is happy, and there were two plaintiffs who objected to the settlement, one on the grounds that Trump owed them an apology.

Germany Says NATO's Spending Target Neither 'Reachable nor Desirable'

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels, Belgium on March 31, 2017. (Virginia Mayo / Reuters)

Germany called the 2-percent spending goal for all NATO allies neither “reachable nor desirable” Friday in response to repeated calls by the U.S. for members of the military alliance to meet their financial commitments. “Two percent would mean military expenses of some 70 billion euros,” Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s foreign minister, said at a NATO meeting in Brussels, where U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was in attendance. “I don’t know any German politician who would claim that is reachable nor desirable.” His remarks follow repeated demands by the U.S. that NATO members fulfill their treaty obligations and contribute 2 percent of their gross domestic product to defense spending by 2024—a goal that five of the NATO’s 28 members have met. Germany spends about 1.2 percent of its GDP on defense. Tillerson said Friday all allies should by May “either met the pledge guidelines or will have developed plans that clearly articulate how … the pledge will be fulfilled.” He also reaffirmed the U.S. government’s commitment to the alliance—one which President Trump has previously criticized as “obsolete,” having at one point appeared to suggest that U.S. commitment to the body should be predicated upon its members’s defense spending. But Trump reaffirmed his “strong support for NATO” this month during a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who also reaffirmed support for NATO and Germany’s commitment to the the 2 percent spending target. She said: “Last year we increased our defense spending by 8 percent, and we’re going to work together again and again on this.”

The Mike Flynn Bombshell

(Mike Segar / Reuters)

The Wall Street Journal and others reported last night that Mike Flynn, President Trump’s national-security adviser, old the FBI and congressional investigators he is willing to be interviewed in exchange for immunity from prosecution. As Matt Ford wrote: “Why does someone request immunity from prosecution before speaking with federal investigators? That question will likely consume Washington in the weeks ahead after Thursday night’s bombshell...” Robert Kelner, Flynn’s attorney, said: “General Flynn certainly has a story to tell, and he very much wants to tell it, should the circumstances permit.” But The New York Times cited an unnamed congressional official as saying investigators are not willing to broker a deal “until they are further along in their inquiries and they better understand what information Mr. Flynn might offer as part of a deal.” But as Matt wrote last night: “A request for immunity isn’t an admission of guilt or wrongdoing. It may be sought by witnesses who fear that their words could be used against them, as a condition of their testimony. … But the move could also be a purely prophylactic measure.”

EU Suggests a 'Phased Approach' to Brexit

(Darrin Zammit Lupi / Reuters)

The European Union is suggesting a “phased approach” to Brexit in which it will discuss a trade deal with the U.K. only when there’s sufficient progress made on the nature of their separation. The EU’s draft plan, which was released today in Brussels, must now be approved by the bloc’s 27 other members (the U.K. remain the 28th member until its separation from the EU is final; the process is expected to take at least two years). The release of the plan comes two days after the U.K. invoked Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, the process by which Brexit negotiations formally begin. The U.K. wants talks on its exit and trade relations to be discussed simultaneously. Donald Tusk, the European Council president, said in Malta that “will not happen.” “Only once we have achieved sufficient progress on the withdrawal can we discuss the framework for our future relationship,” he said.

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