Japan’s embattled PM Abe hits back over scandal as support plunges

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, bottom, raises his hand to answer questions during a budget committee session of the upper house in Tokyo on Monday, March 19. Abe hit back at critics over a favoritism and cover-up scandal that has seen his popularity suffer. (AFP)
Updated 19 March 2018

Japan’s embattled PM Abe hits back over scandal as support plunges

TOKYO: Japan’s embattled prime minister hit back at critics on Monday over a favoritism and cover-up scandal that has seen his popularity plunge and loosened his iron grip on power.
In a hotly awaited statement in parliament, Shinzo Abe denied he had ordered bureaucrats to alter documents relating to a controversial land sale as he comes under mounting pressure over the affair.
“I have never ordered changes,” he said.
The scandal surrounds the 2016 sale of state-owned land to a nationalist operator of schools who claims ties to Abe and his wife Akie.
The sale was clinched at a price well below market value amid allegations that the high-level connections helped grease the deal.
The affair emerged early last year, but resurfaced after the revelation that finance ministry documents related to the sale had been changed.
Versions of the original and doctored documents made public by opposition lawmakers appeared to show passing references to Abe were deleted, along with several references to his wife Akie and Finance Minister Taro Aso.
Aso has blamed the alterations on “some staff members” at the ministry.
But Jiro Yamaguchi, a politics professor at Hosei University in Tokyo, said the public was “not at all convinced” by this explanation.
“Why was the land sold at a discount price? Without any political pressure, this could never happen, and voters are angry about it,” said Yamaguchi.
The prime minister repeated an apology, saying he “keenly felt” his responsibility over the scandal that has “shaken people’s confidence in government administration.”
The affair is hitting Abe’s ratings hard, with a new poll in the Asahi Shimbun showing public support nosediving by 13 percentage points from the previous month to 31 percent.
The figure is the lowest approval rating for Abe in the poll since his return to power at the end of 2012.
Another survey suggested that for the first time since before a general election in October, more people disapproved of the cabinet’s performance than approved.
The scandal is harming Abe’s hopes of winning re-election as head of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in September, which would make him Japan’s longest-serving prime minister.
Political analyst Yamaguchi said that if support continues to tumble, LDP members might begin to feel Abe is a liability ahead of upper house elections next year.
Abe insisted that, even before the alterations, the documents showed that his hands were clean.
“If you look at the documents before the alterations, it is clear there is no evidence that I or my wife was involved in the sale of the national land or approval of the school.”
But the opposition is demanding that Abe fall on his sword over the issue.
“This is a problem that is worthy of the resignation of the whole of the cabinet,” opposition upper house member Shoji Namba demanded as he questioned Abe over the scandal.
Masayuki Kubota, chief strategist at Rakuten Securities, noted there were “growing voices” calling for Abe and Aso to be held responsible.
“Various polls have shown his cabinet approval rating plunging and the stable base of the Abe administration is wobbling,” he said in a commentary.
The political uncertainty was beginning to take its toll on the Japanese stock market.
The benchmark Nikkei 225 index fell 0.90 percent or 195.61 points to close at 21,480.90 Monday, while the broader Topix index was down 0.96 percent or 16.66 points at 1,719.97.
Toshikazu Horiuchi, a broker at IwaiCosmo Securities, said the affair was expected to continue hurting market sentiment for now, saying: “It’s unlikely we will see the scandal disappearing tomorrow.”


Ex-Trump lawyer Michael Cohen back in prison over gag order

Updated 55 min 4 sec ago

Ex-Trump lawyer Michael Cohen back in prison over gag order

  • Cohen, who pleaded guilty to tax evasion, campaign finance fraud and lying to Congress, had been released May 21 on furlough

NEW YORK: President Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, was returned to federal prison Thursday, after balking at certain conditions of the home confinement he was granted because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Records obtained by The Associated Press said Cohen was ordered into custody after he “failed to agree to the terms of Federal Location Monitoring” in Manhattan.
But Cohen’s attorneys disputed that, saying Cohen took issue with a condition of his home confinement that forbid him from speaking with the media and publishing a tell-all book he began working on in federal prison. The rules also prohibited him from “posting on social media,” the records show.
“The purpose is to avoid glamorizing or bringing publicity to your status as a sentenced inmate serving a custodial term in the community,” the document says.
Cohen has written a tell-all book that he had been preparing to publish about his time working for the Trump Organization, his lawyers said.
“Cohen was sure this was written just for him,” his attorney, Jeffrey Levine, said of the home confinement conditions. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
A Justice Department official pushed back on that characterization and said Cohen had refused to accept the terms of home confinement, specifically that he submit to wearing an ankle monitor. The official could not discuss the matter publicly and spoke to AP on condition of anonymity.
Cohen legal adviser Lanny Davis called that “completely false,” adding that “at no time did Michael ever object to the ankle bracelet.”
Cohen later agreed to accept all of the requirements of home confinement but was taken into custody nevertheless, Davis said. “He stands willing to sign the entire document if that’s what it takes” to be released.
Cohen was being held late Thursday at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan, Levine said. His legal team, meanwhile, was preparing an emergency appeal to spring him from custody.
Cohen, who pleaded guilty to tax evasion, campaign finance fraud and lying to Congress, had been released May 21 on furlough as part of an attempt to slow the spread of the virus in federal prisons. Cohen, 53, began serving his sentence in May 2019 and had been scheduled to remain in prison until November 2021 but was permitted to serve the remainder of this three-year term at home.
The conditions restricting the publication of his book would only extend through the end of his term.
Cohen was once one of Trump’s closest advisers but became a loud critic after pleading guilty.
Cohen’s convictions were related to crimes including dodging taxes on $4 million in income from his taxi business, lying during congressional testimony about the timing of discussions around an abandoned plan to build a Trump Tower in Russia, and orchestrating payments to two women to keep them from talking publicly about alleged affairs with Trump. Prosecutors said the payments amounted to illegal campaign contributions. Trump, who denied the affairs, said any payments were a personal matter.
Roger Adler, one of Cohen’s attorneys, told the AP that the FBI had agreed to return to Cohen two smartphones it seized as part of its investigation, adding Cohen had planned to pick them up Thursday after an appointment at the federal courthouse in Manhattan concerning his home confinement.
Davis added the appointment with federal authorities was intended to finalize the conditions of Cohen’s home confinement. Cohen also had been expected to receive an ankle bracelet, he said.
“It was nothing other than routine,” Davis said, adding the appointment with his probation officers had nothing to do with him being photographed dining out. Days before Cohen’s return to prison, the New York Post had published photos of Cohen and his wife enjoying an outdoor meal with friends at a restaurant near his Manhattan home.
“It’s not a crime to eat out and support local businesses,” Adler said, adding Cohen had been “thrown back into a petri dish of coronavirus.”
A federal judge had denied Cohen’s attempt for an early release to home confinement after serving 10 months in prison and said in a May ruling that it “appears to be just another effort to inject himself into the news cycle.” But the Bureau of Prisons can move prisoners to home confinement without a judicial order.
Prison advocates and congressional leaders had pressed the Justice Department to release at-risk inmates, arguing that the public health guidance to stay 6 feet (2 meters) away from other people is nearly impossible behind bars.
Attorney General William Barr ordered the Bureau of Prisons to increase the use of home confinement and expedite the release of eligible high-risk inmates, beginning at three prisons identified as coronavirus hot spots. Otisville, where Cohen was housed, was not one of those facilities.