WASHINGTON — The Trump administration hit Venezuela with a new round of economic sanctions Wednesday in a bid to discourage President Nicolas Maduro from rewriting his nation’s constitution, which U.S. officials said could doom Venezuela’s democracy.

The sanctions target 13 current and former civilian and military officials, including the heads of several police agencies and the electoral board.

They represent the third round of sanctions for Venezuela in the six months of the Trump presidency in what one administration official called the “steady drumbeat” of efforts to put pressure on Maduro.

The Venezuelan president has scheduled a Sunday meeting of the constituent assembly, a body stacked with his supporters, that would be in charge of rewriting the constitution. Opponents of Maduro say the project is a thinly veiled attempt by the leftist president to hold on to power indefinitely.

“It could be the end of democracy in Venezuela,” a senior administration official said. The official and two others briefed reporters on condition of anonymity in keeping with White House practices.

President Donald Trump has said he would take additional “strong and swift” actions if Maduro goes ahead with the assembly. The administration officials would not say what those actions might be, only that all options are on the table.

One option might include imposing restrictions on the oil that the U.S. imports from Venezuela. Before the current crisis, oil-rich Venezuela was a top supplier of crude to the United States.

After months of mismanagement, corruption and falling oil prices, once-prosperous Venezuela has plunged into social and economic disaster. It suffers triple-digit inflation, massive shortages of basic consumer goods and one of the highest rates of murder and violence in the hemisphere.

Near-daily protests against the Maduro government have grown increasingly desperate. More than 100 people have been killed and 4,000 arrested.

Millions of government opponents voted July 16 in a symbolic referendum against holding the constituent assembly. The action was praised by the Trump administration.

But it seems likely Maduro will proceed with the assembly.

—Tribune Washington Bureau


Mnuchin cautions Congress about cost of impasse on debt limit

WASHINGTON — U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin warned lawmakers that there’s a cost to delaying an increase to the government debt limit and said prolonging the decision burdens taxpayers and creates unease among investors.

While the secretary reiterated that the government can finance itself through September, he urged lawmakers to raise the debt limit as soon as possible.

The government has been relying on special accounting maneuvers since March to stay under the nearly $20 trillion current debt cap. Aside from the “implied cost” of market uncertainty, special measures to stave off a default have pushed up interest rates for some government borrowing, Mnuchin told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Wednesday. The Treasury is using cash-management tactics such as suspending investments in pension funds for federal workers.

“There is a real cost to doing that,” he said. “There is also an implied cost of uncertainty into the market. And the longer we wait, the more that uncertainty will be.”

Mnuchin’s comments increase pressure on lawmakers to act on the government’s borrowing authority, amid lawmaker wrangling over President Donald Trump’s key legislative goals like health care reform and a tax overhaul. Mnuchin on Wednesday repeated that the U.S. must honor its debt obligations as the world’s reserve currency.

Mnuchin has called on Congress to pass a “clean” debt ceiling increase — without any policy riders. White House budget director Mick Mulvaney, backed by conservatives in the House, has suggested using the bill to try to force Democrats to accept spending cuts.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates the Treasury can fund the government through early- to mid-October under the current borrowing limit.

—Bloomberg News


Man held after deadly king cobras smuggled into US in potato chip cans

LOS ANGELES — Customs officers made a startling discovery earlier this year while inspecting a package on its way to a Monterey Park apartment: three highly venomous king cobra snakes, each about 2 feet long, hidden in potato chip cans.

On Tuesday, the alleged intended recipient — Rodrigo Franco, 34 — was arrested on a federal smuggling charge after a monthslong investigation that also involved the seizure of a young crocodile, three alligator snapping turtles and five diamond back terrapins, all of which are protected species, federal officials said.

For months, according to federal court records, Franco used WhatsApp, a smartphone messaging platform, to negotiate shipments of snakes and turtles to and from Hong Kong.

In March, authorities intercepted the package with the three deadly snakes along with three albino Chinese soft-shelled turtles. That same day, Franco had attempted to mail six other turtles wrapped in socks to Hong Kong. That package also was intercepted.

A day later, a postal worker delivered the package with the turtles shipped from Hong Kong to Franco’s Monterey Park home. Authorities had removed the cobras from the package, noting that delivering them posed a safety risk.

After the package was accepted, federal agents approached with a warrant to search the home. Inside a children’s bedroom, they found a glass tank with the crocodile, along with tanks containing endangered turtles.

Franco told authorities that he had previously received two other packages with 20 king cobras, all of which, he said, had died in transit.

Franco was charged with one count of illegally importing merchandise into the United States, which carries a maximum of 20 years in federal prison. He is scheduled to be arraigned in August.

—Los Angeles Times

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