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Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Rash of media murders highlights deadly threats in Mexico

Rash of media murders highlights deadly threats in Mexico
 

AP Photo
Journalists hold up photos of slain colleague Javier Valdez during a protest to call attention to the latest wave of killings of journalists, at the Angel of Independence in Mexico City, Tuesday, May 16, 2017. Valdez, an award-winning reporter who specialized in covering drug trafficking and organized crime, was slain Monday in the northern state of Sinaloa. "In Mexico they are killing us," wrote a dozen reporters in Spanish at the base of the Angel of Independence monument, next to the phrase "No to silence". The messages were constructed using photo copies of the journalists who were killed in recent years.
  
MEXICO CITY (AP) -- A journalist is shot dead as she pulls out of her garage in the morning with her young son. Gunmen ambush another journalist while he lazes in a car wash hammock. An award-winning reporter is hauled out of his vehicle and gunned down a block from his office.

On Monday, Javier Valdez became the sixth journalist slain in Mexico since early March, a deadly spree unusual even in a country that ranks behind only Syria and Afghanistan for such murders. There's no evidence directly linking the killings to each other, but collectively they are a grim signal that lawlessness and impunity continue to threaten the lives and work of journalists across much of the country.

The killings come at a time when overall homicides rose 29 percent in the first three months of the year from the same period in 2016; high-stakes state elections and a presidential vote next year have been bitterly contested; corruption scandals are regular news; and a decade-old militarized offensive against brutal drug cartels shows no sign of being won.

"Mexico has become more dangerous in general over the past year, and that is affecting the way there is more fighting," Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope said. "Tensions are running really high in the underworld, so I think that people that are covering this are getting themselves into much riskier situations."

Valdez wrote the "Mala Yerba" column for Riodoce, the publication he helped found, in which he told stories without using real names. His last entry was titled "El Licenciado," a possible allusion to a Sinaloa cartel boss who used that nickname. Valdez also reported on organized crime, incidents involving state security forces such as a police attack on three women and alleged corruption during the term of Sinaloa state's previous governor.

Eduardo Buscaglia, an international organized crime expert and consultant, said Valdez and Riodoce had interviewed him many times and probed "links between politics, society and criminal groups, and that entails ... enormous risk."

The chief prosecutor of Sinaloa said he was unaware of any threats against the journalist. But the national newspaper La Jornada, to which Valdez contributed, said he had recently received threats "of a different caliber" that caused him and his wife to be concerned. Valdez traveled to Mexico City to consult with colleagues, who recommended he leave the country.

The spate of six killings began March 2 with the murder of Cecilio Pineda, an independent journalist in the southern state of Guerrero. The rest came in quick succession: March 19 in Veracruz. Four days later in Chihuahua. April 14 in Baja California Sur. May 2 in Morelos.

There were plenty of other non-fatal attacks during the same span, including the wounding of a media executive in Jalisco the same day that Valdez was slain; an assault and robbery of seven traveling reporters by a mob of 100 gunmen in Guerrero over the weekend; and an attempt on a reporter's life in Baja California Sur that killed his bodyguard.

One commonality running through all the states where the killings have taken place is the presence of both organized crime and endemic corruption, a particularly toxic combination.

Security analyst Raul Benitez noted that in several states, such as Sinaloa, Veracruz and Chihuahua, political control recently changed from one party to another. That can destabilize illicit alliances and force criminal gangs to adjust and seek new ones.

In Sinaloa there has also been a fragmentation and power struggle among factions in the drug cartel of the same name following the arrest and extradition to the United States of notorious kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. Chihuahua is in a similar situation. Meanwhile, Baja California Sur, Sinaloa and Veracruz have seen homicide spikes this year that far outpace the nationwide increase.

"The bands of killers have no leader and are taking vengeance on whomever they want," Benitez said.

In some places such as Tamaulipas state, critical media expression has become practically nonexistent, with criminal gangs and corrupt public servants essentially setting editorial lines. Self-censorship as a survival mechanism is common, leading to news blackouts on sensitive topics. Some journalists are bought off by criminals or corrupt officials, or threatened with death if they won't accept bribes for favorable or soft coverage.

None of the killings attracted more attention or generated more outrage than that of Valdez, who was pulled from his car a block from the offices of Riodoce, shot dead and left in the street.

On Tuesday some Mexican media outlets went dark online in protest, and editorials and headlines lamented the slaying. "They are killing us in Mexico," demonstrating journalists scrawled on the pavement at the capital's Angel of Independence monument. At a wake in Culiacan, Valdez's body lay in a coffin crowned by his trademark Panama-style hat.

Riodoce did not respond to requests to make someone available for an interview, and the paper's future without a man known as a highly prolific journalist is unclear. In April the newspaper Norte in Chihuahua state announced it was shutting down in part for security reasons after the March 23 killing of Miroslava Breach, one of its contributors.

At a news conference, journalists from Riodoce and other outlets angrily questioned Sinaloa Gov. Quirino Ordaz about Valdez's killing.

"We are clear that in the face of these acts words are not enough and a government response is required," federal Interior Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong said at a separate event.

President Enrique Pena Nieto called Valdez's murder an "outrageous crime" and ordered an investigation.

But many Mexican journalists accused the government of doing too little to combat the problem.

This year's killings "are apparently unconnected occurrences but they are happening in a pre-electoral context and in an environment of tension in which there are groups that may want to create fear," said Jose Reveles, a journalist and writer specializing in drug trafficking.

The government "is paralyzed and doesn't know what to do, and that can multiply the violent acts," he added.

Valdez, 50 years old and married with two children, was always conscious of the risks he faced.

"Journalism is walking an invisible line drawn by the bad people who are in drug trafficking and in the government," he once wrote. "One must beware of everything and everyone."

He earned a national and international reputation as a courageous authority on drugs and security in Sinaloa, winning prestigious awards from the Committee to Protect Journalists and Columbia University.

Everard Meade, the director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego who collaborated closely with Valdez, said the reporter specialized in recounting the human side of the violence that surrounded him. Beyond merely the production and distribution of drugs, Valdez was interested in where power resided and how it was used.

"How the difference between soldiers, drug traffickers, different police agencies and other armed men, for ordinary people, is almost nonexistent," Meade said.

He added that lately Valdez had been writing more about connections between organized crime and elected officials, and he wondered if those "blistering critiques" may have been what got him killed.

Valdez had been particularly outspoken about the killing of Breach, who like him also contributed to La Jornada. Breach was the woman shot dead in her driveway while taking her son to school.

"Miroslava was killed for talking too much," Valdez tweeted two days after she was slain. "May they kill all of us, if that is the death penalty for reporting on this hell. No to silence."

Trump asked Comey to shut down Flynn investigation

Trump asked Comey to shut down Flynn investigation
 

AP Photo
FILE - In this May 8, 2017, file photo, then-FBI Director James Comey speaks to the Anti-Defamation League National Leadership Summit in Washington. The White House is disputing a report that President Donald Trump asked Comey to shut down an investigation into ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn.
  
WASHINGTON (AP) -- FBI Director James Comey wrote in a memo that President Donald Trump had asked him to shut down an FBI investigation into ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn, a person familiar with the situation told The Associated Press Tuesday.

The person had seen the memo but was not authorized to discuss it by name and spoke on condition of anonymity. The existence of the memo was first reported Tuesday by The New York Times.

The White House denied the report.

"While the President has repeatedly expressed his view that General Flynn is a decent man who served and protected our country, the President has never asked Mr. Comey or anyone else to end any investigation, including any investigation involving General Flynn," the White House said in a statement.

Trump abruptly fired Comey last week, saying he did so based on his very public handling of the Hillary Clinton email probe.

But the White House has provided differing accounts of the firing. And lawmakers have alleged that the sudden ouster was an attempt to stifle the bureau's investigation into Trump associates' ties to Russia's alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

Comey's memo detailing his conversation with Trump would be the clearest proof to date that the president has tried to influence that investigation. The Times said it was part of a paper trail Comey created documenting what he saw as Trump's efforts to improperly interfere in the ongoing probe.

The Justice Department declined to comment.

According to the Times, Comey wrote in the February memo that Trump told him Flynn had done nothing wrong. But Comey did not say anything to Trump about limiting the investigation, replying, "I agree he is a good guy."

The newspaper said Comey was in the Oval Office that day with other national security officials for a terrorism threat briefing. When that ended, Trump asked everyone to leave except Comey, and he eventually turned the conversation to Flynn.

On Tuesday, for the second night in a row, Senate Republicans and Democrats were caught off-guard as they entered the chamber for a scheduled vote.

"I don't know the facts, so I really want to wait until I find out what the facts are before commenting," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told reporters.

Asked if it would be obstructing justice for Trump to have asked Comey to drop the Flynn investigation, Cornyn said: "You know, that's a very serious charge. I wouldn't want to answer a hypothetical question."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., emphatically said he's not commenting on news stories anymore.

"Let's get to the bottom of what happened with the director. And the best way to get to the bottom of it, is for him to testify. ... I'm not going to take a memo, I want the guy to come in," Graham told reporters, adding, "If he felt confident enough to write it down, he should come in and tell us about it."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said Comey needs to come to Capitol Hill and testify.

Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he will ask Comey for additional material as part of the panel's investigation. "Memos, transcripts, tapes - the list keeps getting longer," he said.

Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut tweeted: "Just leaving Senate floor. Lots of chatter from Ds and Rs about the exact definition of 'obstruction of justice.'"

There is no sign the FBI's Russia investigation is closing. Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe told Congress last week the investigation is "highly significant" and said Comey's dismissal would do nothing to impede the probe.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

White ex-officer pleads guilty in black man's slaying

White ex-officer pleads guilty in black man's slaying

AP Photo
Judy Scott raises her hands to praise God for justice for her dead son, Walter Scott, as other family members and the family's lawyer stand nearby during a news conference, Tuesday, May 2, 2017, in Charleston, S.C. Michael Slager, a white former police officer whose killing of an unarmed Walter Scott running from a traffic stop was captured on cellphone video pleaded guilty Tuesday to federal civil rights charges that could send him to prison for decades.

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) -- A white former police officer whose killing of an unarmed black man running from a traffic stop was captured on cellphone video pleaded guilty Tuesday to federal civil rights charges that could send him to prison for decades.

The plea from Michael Slager, 35, came five months after a jury deadlocked on state murder charges against him in the 2015 shooting of Walter Scott. South Carolina prosecutors had planned to retry Slager, but as part of Tuesday's plea bargain, they agreed to drop the murder case.

Slager admitted violating Scott's civil rights by shooting him without justification. He could get up to life in prison and a $250,000 fine at sentencing, though prosecutors agreed to ask for about 20 years behind bars. 

No sentencing date was set.

A bystander's grainy video of the shooting, viewed millions of times online, showed the 50-year-old motorist breaking away after struggling with Slager over the officer's Taser. Slager then began firing at Scott's back from 17 feet away. Five of eight bullets hit him.

The former North Charleston officer spoke little in court except to quietly answer the judge's questions. Several of Scott's relatives sat in the front row in the gallery as the prosecutor read a bare-bones description of the shooting. One of them closed his eyes tightly, while another hung his head.

Slager, who has been out on bail for much of the time since the shooting, was led away in handcuffs as the family looked on.

"God never fails," Scott's mother, Judy Scott, said outside court.

The chilling video helped fuel the Black Lives Matter movement that emerged around the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. It was seized on by many as vivid proof of what they had been arguing for years: that white officers too often use deadly force unnecessarily against black people.

When the jury failed to reach a verdict in the murder case in December, many black people and others were shocked and distressed, because the video seemed to some to be an open-and-shut case. Some despaired of ever seeing justice.

The plea agreement made no mention of race but said Slager used deadly force knowing that it was "unnecessary and excessive, and therefore unreasonable under the circumstances."

The state prosecutor who pursued the murder charges, Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, said in a statement that she is satisfied with the case's resolution. She said it "vindicates the state's interests" by holding Slager accountable.

Slager had pulled Scott over on April 4, 2015, because of a broken brake light on his 1990 Mercedes. Scott's family said he may have bolted because he was worried about going to jail because he was $18,000 behind on child support.

The officer, who was fired after the video became public, testified at his murder trial that he feared for his life because Scott was trying to grab his stun gun.

The video showed Slager picking the Taser up off the ground and dropping it near Scott's body in what prosecutors suggested was an attempt to plant evidence. Slager denied that, testifying he was following his training in accounting for his weapons.

Slager also testified last year that he regretted what happened, saying, "My family has been destroyed by it. The Scott family has been destroyed by it. It's horrible."

Outside court Tuesday, Chris Stewart, an attorney who won $6.5 million for the Scott family in a settlement with the city of North Charleston, said: "We know what justice truly looks like. It doesn't look like a big settlement check. It looks like today."

As for what punishment Slager should receive, Scott's brother, Anthony, said, "Murder deserves life in prison."

Slager attorney Andy Savage had little to say outside court. "This is a day for the Scott family and the government," he said.


Sunday, April 23, 2017

NKorea detains US citizen, the 3rd American being held there

NKorea detains US citizen, the 3rd American being held there
 

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) -- North Korea has detained a U.S. citizen, officials said Sunday, bringing to three the number of Americans now being held there.

Tony Kim, who also goes by his Korean name Kim Sang-duk, was detained on Saturday, according to Park Chan-mo, the chancellor of the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.

Park said Kim, who is 58, taught accounting at the university for about a month. He said Kim was detained by officials as he was trying to leave the country from Pyongyang's international airport. A university spokesman said he was trying to leave with his wife on a flight to China.

The Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang said it was aware of a Korean-American citizen being detained recently, but could not comment further. The embassy looks after consular affairs for the United States in North Korea because the two countries do not have diplomatic relations.

The State Department said it was aware of the report about a U.S. citizen being detained, but declined further comment "due to privacy considerations."

Park said Kim had taught at the Yanbian University of Science and Technology in China before coming to Pyongyang. He said he was informed that the detention had "nothing to do" with Kim's work at the university but did not know further details.

As of Sunday night, North Korea's official media had not reported on the detention.

The Pyongyang University of Science and Technology is the only privately funded university in North Korea. 
It held its first classes in 2010. It is unique in the North for its large number of foreign staff.

Colin McCulloch, the director of external affairs, said the university was not under investigation and was continuing its normal operations. He said he could not immediately confirm Kim's hometown.

Though no details on why Kim was detained have been released, the detention comes at a time of unusually heightened tensions between the U.S. and North Korea. Both countries have recently been trading threats of war and having another American in jail will likely up the ante even further.

Last year, Otto Warmbier, then a 21-year-old University of Virginia student from suburban Cincinnati, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in prison after he confessed to trying to steal a propaganda banner.

Kim Dong Chul, who was born in South Korea but is also believed to have U.S. citizenship, is serving a sentence of 10 years for espionage.

Another foreigner, a Canadian pastor, is also being detained in North Korea. Hyeon Soo Lim, a South Korean-born Canadian citizen in his 60s, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 2015 on charges of trying to use religion to destroy the North Korean system and helping U.S. and South Korean authorities lure and abduct North Korean citizens.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Manhunt underway for man who livestreamed homicide

Manhunt underway for man who livestreamed homicide
 

CLEVELAND (AP) -- A manhunt is underway for a suspect who police say killed a man on the street Sunday while streaming it live on Facebook.

Law enforcement is searching the Cleveland area and beyond for Steve Stephens, the suspect police say walked up to an elderly man and shot him while on video, said Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams.
The victim has been identified as 74-year-old Robert Goodwin Sr.

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson publicly urged Stephens to turn himself into police and not to "do anymore harm to anybody."

"Any problems he is having, we can have a conversation," Jackson said.

In the video, Stephens claimed to have killed more than a dozen other people. Williams said police have not verified that information.

"There are no more victims that we know are tied to him," he added.

The chief also said they've been talking with Stephens' friends and family.

"What happened today was senseless," Williams said.

Authorities say Stephens broadcast the video live on the social media network Sunday afternoon. It was up for about three hours before it was removed. Stephens Facebook page has also been removed.

"This is a horrific crime and we do not allow this kind of content on Facebook," said a spokesperson for Facebook. "We work hard to keep a safe environment on Facebook, and are in touch with law enforcement in emergencies when there are direct threats to physical safety."

Police say Stephens should be considered armed and dangerous.

Williams said Stephens may be driving a newer model white Ford Fusion, possibly with a temporary license plate. He is described as a black man with a bald head and beard, standing 6 foot 1 inch and weighing 240 pounds. Anyone with information is asked to call 911.


Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Chicago-area chef, cancer worker charged in terrorist case

Chicago-area chef, cancer worker charged in terrorist case

CHICAGO (AP) -- Two suburban Chicago men who posed for photos holding a black Islamic State group flag at a Lake Michigan beach park were arrested Wednesday on federal terrorist charges, and an undercover operative said one of the men suggested homosexuals should be thrown off the city's tallest building.

An FBI sting begun in 2015 compiled evidence that Joseph D. Jones and Edward Schimenti sought to provide material support to Islamic State, including by provided cellphones to one person working for the FBI and posing as an IS supporter believing the phones would be used to detonate car bombs in Syria, the 65-page complaint says.

Jones, a part time chef, and Schimenti, who worked at a cancer treatment center, drove the FBI operative to Chicago's O'Hare International Airport last week on what they thought would be the first leg of a journey to Syria. The complaint says Schimenti told him to "drench that land ... with blood."

The 35-year-old men looked tired standing in street clothes with their hands folded behind their backs during a brief initial hearing Wednesday in federal court in Chicago. When Magistrate Judge David Weisman asked if they understood the charges, both answered calmly that they did.

If convicted, the two would face a maximum prison term of 20 years. A detention hearing was set for Monday, after which they would enter pleas.

The complaint includes photos of them holding the IS flag at the Illinois Beach State Park in Zion, where they live. It also included details of postings on their social media accounts.

While he helped the man he believed would go to Syria get into condition at a local gym, Schmimenti conceded he wasn't close to fighting shape, the complaint says. "I'm all big, fat," he is quoted as saying. "But (God willing), the brothers will just have me be the one to cut the neck."

Schimenti, who also went by "Abdul Wali," allegedly told one person in on the sting in February that he was angry about a co-worker because the person was gay. Under Islamic Law, Schimenti was quoted as saying, "We are putting you (homosexuals) on top of Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower) and we drop you."

A photo posted on Schimenti's Google Plus profile shows a masked man holding a knife, and caption written in capital letters says that if you can't travel abroad to fight, "then slaughter the pagans next to you." After watching an IS video of captured soldiers being burned alive as they spoke a language he didn't understand, Schimenti says, "I don't know what they're saying but I love it," the complaint says.

A video was posted on Jones' Google Plus profile entitled, "Some of the Deadly Stabbing Ways: Do not Forget to Poison the Knife," the complaint says. Another time, a person in on the FBI sting asked Jones if he ever thought about traveling to Syria to live in Islamic State territory. Jones, who was also known as "Yusuf Abdulhaqq," allegedly answered: "Every night and day."

This is the latest of several area cases related to Islamic State. A Chicago federal judge last year sentenced former Illinois National Guard Hasan Edmonds to 30 years in prison and his cousin, Jonas Edmonds, to 21 years for plotting to join Islamic State fighters and to attack a National Guard armory just outside Chicago.

The complaint makes a brief reference to Schimenti allegedly suggesting in March that the Naval Station Great Lakes, a training ground for U.S. sailors just south of Zion, could be a terrorist target.

The sting started in September 2015 when an undercover agent approach Jones at the Zion Police Department - where Jones was being questioned about the killing of one of his friends - and the two began talking about Islam. The complaint didn't offer details about the killing.

Schimenti grew increasingly suspicious about the undercover agents, suggesting that at least some weren't actually Islamic State sympathizers. He once suggested something was "fishy" about them, adding that he had a good sense of that because of his own criminal history. Jones also spoke about past convictions, the complaint says.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Michigan boy, 11, hangs himself after social media prank

Michigan boy, 11, hangs himself after social media prank
  

DETROIT (AP) -- Tysen Benz was at home when he saw social media posts indicating that his 13-year-old girlfriend had committed suicide. The posts were a prank, but the 11-year-old boy apparently believed them.

Moments later, his mother found him hanging by the neck in his room in Marquette, Michigan. Now a prosecutor is pursuing criminal charges against a juvenile accused of being involved in the scheme, which Katrina Goss described as "a twisted, sick joke."

Goss described her son as appearing "fine" just 40 minutes before she found him.

"I just want it be exposed and be addressed," Goss said of school bullying in general and cyberbullying in particular. "I don't want it be ignored."

Using a cellphone he bought without his mother's knowledge, Tysen on March 14 was reading texts and other messages about the faked suicide and decided he would end his life too, his mother said.

After seeing the posts about his girlfriend, Tysen replied over social media that he was going to kill himself, and no one involved in the prank told an adult, Goss said.

The boy died Tuesday at a Detroit-area hospital.

Authorities would not release the age of the juvenile charged or comment on what relationship the person had with Tysen. The juvenile is being charged with malicious use of telecommunication services and using a computer to commit a crime.

The girl whose death was faked and friends who were in on the prank attended the same school as Tysen, Goss said. Even though the prank occurred outside of school, she said, the school should have done more to protect her son.

"The principal, the assistant principal - that's their job, especially for little kids," she said. "Kids take things to heart."

In a statement released Thursday, Marquette Area Public Schools Superintendent William Saunders agreed with Goss's concerns about the dangers of social media. He said the district has been educating students and parents through its health curriculum, health fairs, community forums and other efforts.

"After the gut-wrenching loss of a student, we ask ourselves, 'How can we do more?'" Saunders wrote.

Most states, including Michigan, have enacted legislation designed to protect children from bullies.

Michigan's anti-bullying act, signed in 2011 by Gov. Rick Snyder, requires school districts to have anti-bullying policies on the books. It was known as "Matt's Safe School Law" after Matt Epling, a 14-year-old who killed himself after a 2002 hazing incident.

The law was updated two years ago to direct school districts to add language to those policies that address cyberbullying.

Former Republican state Rep. Phil Potvin, who sponsored the original bill, said schools have a responsibility to do more than include anti-cyberbullying rules in their written policies.

"They have to have a person - spelled out - to make sure that policy is followed," said Potvin, of Cadillac in northern Michigan. "Some schools have failed to do that. They may have put something in, but there is no follow-up. There is no checking up on these things."

In 2006, Megan Meier committed suicide after a woman who lived in her family's neighborhood in St. Charles County, Missouri, encouraged the 13-year-old to kill herself. The woman had created a fake MySpace admirer named "Josh," who befriended Megan.

The woman was convicted in a California federal court of three misdemeanors, but a judge overturned the conviction.

Pranks "definitely happen," said Tina Meier, who runs a national bullying and cyberbullying prevention foundation named after her daughter.

"The problem is when they are pranking somebody ... to them it's just been a joke," Meier said. "To the other person, it's been real."

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Gorsuch heads for confirmation as Senate tears up own rules

Gorsuch heads for confirmation as Senate tears up own rules

AP Photo
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky. signals a thumbs-up as he leaves the Senate chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, April 6, 2017, after he led the GOP majority to change Senate rules and lower the vote threshold for Supreme Court nominees from 60 votes to a simple majority in order to advance Neil Gorsuch to a confirmation vote.
  
WASHINGTON (AP) -- In a confrontation that could reshape the Supreme Court for generations, Republicans tore up the Senate's voting rules Thursday to allow Trump nominee Neil Gorsuch to ascend to the high court over furious Democratic objections.

Democrats denounced the GOP's use of what both sides dubbed the "nuclear option" to put Gorsuch on the court, calling it an epic power grab that would further corrode politics in Congress, the courts and the nation. Many Republicans bemoaned reaching that point, too, but they blamed Democrats for pushing them to it.

"We will sadly point to today as a turning point in the history of the Senate and the Supreme Court," declared Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York.

"This is going to be a chapter, a monumental event in the history of the Senate, not for the better but for the worse," warned Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a senior Republican.

A final confirmation vote on Gorsuch is expected Friday, and he should be sworn in soon to hear the final cases of the term. He was nominated by President Donald Trump shortly after the January inauguration.

The Senate change, affecting how many votes a nominee needs for confirmation, will apply to all future Supreme Court candidates, likely ensuring more ideological justices chosen with no need for consultation with the minority party. Trump himself predicted to reporters aboard Air Force One that "there could be as many as four" Supreme Court vacancies for him to fill during his administration.

"In fact, under a certain scenario, there could even be more than that," Trump said. There is no way to know how many there will be, if any, but several justices are quite elderly.

Even as they united in indignation, lawmakers of both parties, pulled by fierce political forces from left and right, were unwilling to stop the confirmation rules change.

The maneuvering played out in a tense Senate chamber with most members in their seats, a rare and theatrical occurrence.

First Democrats tried to mount a filibuster in an effort to block Gorsuch by denying him the 60 votes needed to advance to a final vote. That was successful only briefly, as Gorsuch fell five votes short. Then Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., raised a point of order, suggesting that Supreme Court nominees should not be subjected to a 60-vote threshold but instead a simple majority in the 100-member Senate.

McConnell was overruled, but he appealed the ruling. And on that he prevailed on a 52-48 party-line vote. The 60-vote filibuster requirement on Supreme Court nominees was effectively gone, and with it the last vestige of bipartisanship on presidential nominees in an increasingly polarized Senate.

The developments were accompanied by unusually bitter accusations and counter-accusations. And yet in many ways the showdown had been pre-ordained, the final chapter in years of partisan warfare over judicial nominees.

In 2005, with the Senate under GOP control, Republicans prepared to utilize the "nuclear option" to remove the filibuster for lower-court nominees. A bipartisan deal at the time headed off that change. But then in 2013, with Democrats in charge and Republicans blocking President Barack Obama's nominees, the Democrats did take the step, removing the filibuster for all presidential appointments except the Supreme Court.

McConnell accused Democrats of forcing his hand by trying to filibuster a highly qualified nominee in Gorsuch, 49, a 10-year veteran of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver with a consistently conservative record.

"This is the latest escalation in the left's never-ending judicial war, the most audacious yet, and it cannot and will not stand," McConnell said.

But Democrats were unable to pull back from the brink, partly because they remain livid over McConnell's decision last year to block Obama's Supreme Court nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, who was denied even a hearing after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016. Instead McConnell kept Scalia's seat open, a calculation that is now paying off for Republicans and Trump.

Even as Graham and other senior Republicans lamented the voting change, McConnell and some allies argued that all they were doing was returning to a time, not long ago, when filibusters of judicial nominees were unusual, and it was virtually unheard-of to try to block a Supreme Court nominee in that fashion. Even Clarence Thomas got onto the court without a filibuster despite highly contentious confirmation hearings involving sexual harassment claims.

Some senators fear that the next to go could be the legislative filibuster, one of the last remaining mechanisms to force bipartisan cooperation on Capitol Hill. Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Democrat Chris Coons of Delaware were circulating a letter to colleagues Thursday in support of keeping the filibuster in place for legislation.

With his final vote set for Friday, Gorsuch counts 55 supporters: the 52 Republicans, along with three moderate Democrats from states that Trump won - Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana. A fourth Senate Democrat, Michael Bennet from Gorsuch's home state of Colorado, refused to join in the filibuster Thursday but announced he would vote against Gorsuch's confirmation.

Pressure builds on Syria's Assad after chemical attack

Pressure builds on Syria's Assad after chemical attack
 

AP Photo
President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov speaks with The Associated Press in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, April 6, 2017. Peskov tells The Associated Press that Russia's support for Syrian President Bashar Assad is not unconditional, with Putin's Spokesman talking just days after a suspected chemical weapons attack on a Syrian rebel-held province.
  
BEIRUT (AP) -- President Bashar Assad's government came under mounting international pressure Thursday after a chemical attack in northern Syria, with even key ally Russia saying its support is not unconditional.

Turkey, meanwhile, said samples from victims of Tuesday's attack, which killed more than 80 people in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, indicate they were exposed to sarin, a highly toxic nerve agent.

Syria rejected the accusations, and Moscow warned against apportioning blame until an investigation has been carried out.

The United States said it hopes for a vote late Thursday on a U.N. Security Council resolution that would condemn the chemical attack. President Donald Trump hinted at military action and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Assad should no longer have a role in governing the Syrian people.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in an interview with The Associated Press that "unconditional support is not possible in this current world."

But he added that "it is not correct to say that Moscow can convince Mr. Assad to do whatever is wanted in Moscow. This is totally wrong."

Russia has provided military support for the Syrian government since September 2015, turning the balance of power in Assad's favor. Moscow has used its veto power at the Security Council on several occasions since the civil war began six years ago to prevent sanctions against Damascus.

The two countries "enjoy a relationship of cooperation, of exchange of views and full mutual support," said Peskov, a spokesman for President Vladimir Putin. Assad and his army are "the only real power in Syria that can resist terrorists on the ground," he said.

Syria maintains it didn't use chemical weapons, blaming opposition fighters for stockpiling the chemicals. Russia's Defense Ministry said the toxic agents were released when a Syrian airstrike hit a rebel chemical weapons arsenal and munitions factory on the eastern outskirts of Khan Sheikhoun.

"I stress, once again, that the Syrian Arab Army did not and will not use such weapons even against the terrorists who are targeting our people," Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Moallem told reporters in Damascus.

Trump said the attack crossed "many, many lines," and put the blame squarely on Assad's forces. Speaking Thursday on Air Force One, Trump would not discuss what the U.S. might do in response but hinted at military action. He said the attack "shouldn't have happened, and it shouldn't be allowed to happen."

Asked if Assad should remain in power, he said that "he's there and I guess he's running things so something should happen."

On Wednesday, his U.N. envoy Nikki Haley strongly hinted some U.S. action was coming if the Security Council doesn't act.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hopes Trump will take military action, Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency quoted him as saying.

Erdogan said Turkey would be prepared to do "whatever falls on us" to support possible military action, the news agency reported.

At the U.N., the United States, which currently holds the presidency of the Security Council, it drafted a resolution along with Britain and France that condemns the use of chemical weapons, particularly in the attack on Khan Sheikhoun, "in the strongest terms."

Russia objected to key provisions in the resolution and negotiations have been underway to try to bridge the differences.

Britain's deputy ambassador Peter Wilson said "what we want is a unanimous resolution ... and we want to see this done soon."

A day earlier, Russia had argued against holding Assad's government responsible.

France's U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre indicated difficulty in reaching agreement on a resolution.

"We have engaged into negotiations in good faith to adopt a resolution - but make no mistake about it we need a robust text," he said. "We cannot be willing to have a text at any cost."

"There are fundamentals we cannot compromise with when it's about the barbaric murder of civilians, among them many children, with chemical weapons," Delattre said adding that he didn't know whether the council will be able to adopt a resolution. If Russia cast a veto, he said, "that would be a terrible responsibility in front of history."

But Delattre told the AP later he thought there was "still a chance" for an agreement with Russia.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the attack "barbaric" and a war crime, and she said everything must be done to investigate it urgently. She also criticized the Security Council for failing to pass a resolution condemning the attack, saying those who don't support it "should think about what responsibility they are shouldering."

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault urged a resumption of peace talks and said he wants Assad's government prosecuted. He told CNews television that a U.N. resolution and peace negotiations should be a top priority - not new military interventions.

"France is still seeking to talk with its partners on the Security Council ... Russia in particular," Ayrault said.

"These crimes must not remain unpunished. ... One day, international justice will rule on Assad," he added.

After the attack, hospitals around Khan Sheikhoun were overwhelmed, and paramedics sent victims to medical facilities across rebel-held areas in northern Syria, as well as to Turkey. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group put the death toll at 86.

The attack happened in Syria's Idlib province about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the Turkish border, and the Turkish government - a close ally of Syria's rebels - set up a decontamination center at a border crossing in Hatay province, where the victims were treated initially.

Turkish officials said nearly 60 victims of the attack were brought to Turkey for treatment and three of them died.

Victims showed signs of nerve gas exposure, including suffocation, foaming at the mouth, convulsions, constricted pupils and involuntary defecation, the World Health Organization and Doctors Without Borders said. Paramedics used fire hoses to wash the chemicals from the bodies of victims.

Visuals from the scene were reminiscent of a 2013 nerve gas attack on the suburbs of Damascus that left hundreds dead.

In Turkey, Anadolu and the private DHA news agencies on Thursday quoted Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag as saying "it was determined after the autopsy that a chemical weapon was used."

The Turkish Health Ministry said later that "according to the results of the first analysis, there were findings suggesting that the patients were exposed to chemical substance (sarin)."

WHO experts took part in the autopsies in the Turkish city of Adana late Wednesday, Turkish media reported.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said it has "initiated contact" with Syrian authorities and its Technical Secretariat has been collecting and analyzing information about the allegations. 

"This is an ongoing investigation," it said.

Russia has warned against fixing blame for the attack until an investigation is completed.

At a news conference in Damascus, Moallem echoed that statement, saying the Syrian army bombed a warehouse belonging to al-Qaida's branch in Syria that contained chemical weapons. He did not say whether the government knew in advance that the warehouse contained chemical weapons.

The minister said al-Qaida and the Islamic State group have been bringing chemical weapons from neighboring Iraq.

Asked whether Syria would give access to a fact-finding mission on the use of chemical weapons, Moallem said: "Our experiences with international investigating committees were not encouraging, because they come out of Damascus with certain indications, which then change at their headquarters."

Syria wants guarantees that any investigation would be impartial and not politicized, Moallem said.

The area of Khan Sheikhoun is difficult to access, and as more time passes since the attack, it will be increasingly difficult to determine exactly what happened.

Jan Egeland, the top humanitarian aid official with the U.N.'s Syria office, said he believes an awareness of the need to protect civilians is finally "sinking in."

He expressed hope for a "watershed moment" with "all of these world leaders saying that they have again woken up to the suffering of the civilians that we see every day."

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Mounting confidence nerve gas was used in Syria attack

Mounting confidence nerve gas was used in Syria attack

AP Photo
Britain's United Nations Ambassador Matthew Rycroft speaks during a meeting of the Security Council on Syria at U.N. headquarters, Wednesday, April 5, 2017. Rycroft said the attack in Syria's rebel-held Idlib province "bears all the hallmarks" of President Bashar Assad's regime and the Britain believes a nerve agent capable of killing over a hundred people was used.
   
BEIRUT (AP) -- Diplomats at the U.N. Security council sparred Wednesday over whether to hold President Bashar Assad's government responsible for a chemical weapons attack that killed more than 80 people in northern Syria, while U.S. intelligence officials, Doctors Without Borders and the U.N. healthy agency said evidence pointed to nerve gas exposure.

The Trump administration and other world leaders said the Syrian government was to blame, but Moscow, a key ally of Assad, said the assault was caused by a Syrian airstrike that hit a rebel stockpile of chemical arms.

Early U.S. assessments showed the use of chlorine gas and traces of the nerve agent sarin in the attack Tuesday that terrorized the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun, according to two U.S. officials who weren't authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity.

Israeli military intelligence officers also believe Syrian government forces were behind the attack, Israeli defense officials told the Associated Press. Israel believes Assad has tons of chemical weapons still in his arsenal, despite a concerted operation three years ago by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to rid the government of its stockpile, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to brief the media. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also blamed the Syrian government for the attack.

In Khan Sheikhoun, rescue workers found terrified survivors still hiding in shelters as another wave of airstrikes battered the town Wednesday. Those strikes appeared to deliver only conventional weapons damage.

Among those discovered alive were two women and a boy found hiding in a shelter beneath their home, the Civil Defense search and rescue group told the AP.

The effects of the attack overwhelmed hospitals around the town, leading paramedics to send patients to medical facilities across rebel-held areas in northern Syria, as well as to Turkey. The Turkish Health Ministry said three victims died receiving treatment inside its borders. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for 
Human Rights monitoring group put the toll at 86 killed.

Victims of the attack showed signs of nerve gas exposure, the World Health Organization and Doctors Without Borders said, including suffocation, foaming at the mouth, convulsions, constricted pupils and involuntary defecation. Paramedics were using fire hoses to wash the chemicals from the bodies of victims.
Medical teams also reported smelling bleach on survivors of the attack, suggesting chlorine gas was also used, Doctors Without Borders said.

The magnitude of the attack was reflected in the images of the dead - children piled in heaps for burial, a father carrying his lifeless young twins.

The visuals from the scene were reminiscent of a 2013 nerve gas attack on the suburbs of Damascus that left hundreds dead and prompted an agreement brokered by the U.S. and Russia to disarm Assad's chemical stockpile. Western nations blamed government forces for that attack, where effects were concentrated on opposition-held areas.

At the Vatican, Pope Francis said during his general audience that he was "watching with horror at the latest events in Syria," and that he "strongly deplored the unacceptable massacre."

Tuesday's attack happened just 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the Turkish border, and the Turkish government - a close ally of Syrian rebels - set up a decontamination center at a border crossing in the province of Hatay, where the victims were initially treated before being moved to hospitals.

At the United Nations, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley warned the Trump administration would take action if the Security Council did not in response to the attack.

"When you kill innocent children, innocent babies - babies, little babies - with a chemical gas that is so lethal, people were shocked to hear what gas it was, that crosses many, many lines," Donald Trump said in the White House Rose Garden. The president declined to say what the U.S. would do in response, but he did say that his "attitude towards Syria and Assad has changed very much."

The council was convened in an emergency session to consider a resolution that would back an investigation by the chemical weapons watchdog into the attack and compel the Syrian government to cooperate with a probe. It was drafted by the U.S., Britain and France.

Syria's government denied it carried out any chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun, but Russia's Defense Ministry said the toxic agents were released when a Syrian airstrike hit a rebel chemical weapons arsenal and munitions factory on the town's eastern outskirts.

British Ambassador Matthew Rycroft dismissed that account, saying the U.K. had seen nothing that would suggest rebels "have the sort of chemical weapons that are consistent with the symptoms that we saw yesterday."

Diplomats were also meeting in Brussels for a major donors' conference on the future of Syria and the region. Representatives from 70 countries were present.

A top Syrian rebel representative said he held U.N. mediator Staffan De Mistura "personally responsible" for the attack. Mohammad Alloush, the rebels' chief negotiator at U.N.-mediated talks with the Syrian government, said the envoy must begin labeling the Syrian government as responsible for killing civilians. He said the U.N.'s silence "legitimizes" the strategy.

"The true solution for Syria is to put Bashar Assad, the chemical weapons user, in court, and not at the negotiations table," said Alloush, who is an official in the Islam Army rebel faction.

Syria's rebels, and the Islam Army in particular, are also accused of human rights abuses in Syria, but rights watchdogs attribute the overwhelming portion of civilian causalities over the course of the six-year war to the actions of government forces and their allies.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Worst humanitarian crisis hits as Trump slashes foreign aid

Worst humanitarian crisis hits as Trump slashes foreign aid
 

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) -- The world's largest humanitarian crisis in 70 years has been declared in three African countries on the brink of famine, just as President Donald Trump's proposed foreign aid cuts threaten to pull the United States from its historic role as the world's top emergency donor.

If the deep cuts are approved by Congress and the U.S. does not contribute to Africa's current crisis, experts warn that the continent's growing drought and famine could have far-ranging effects, including a new wave of migrants heading to Europe and possibly more support for Islamic extremist groups.

The conflict-fueled hunger crises in Nigeria, Somalia and South Sudan have culminated in a trio of potential famines hitting almost simultaneously. Nearly 16 million people in the three countries are at risk of dying within months.

Famine already has been declared in two counties of South Sudan and 1 million people there are on the brink of dying from a lack of food, U.N. officials have said. Somalia has declared a state of emergency over drought and 2.9 million of its people face a food crisis that could become a famine, according to the U.N. 

And in northeastern Nigeria, severe malnutrition is widespread in areas affected by violence from Boko Haram extremists.

"We are facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the United Nations," Stephen O'Brien, the U.N. humanitarian chief, told the U.N. Security Council after a visit this month to Somalia and South Sudan.

At least $4.4 billion is needed by the end of March to avert a hunger "catastrophe" in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in late February.

But according to U.N. data, only 10 percent of the necessary funds have been received so far.

Trump's proposed budget would "absolutely" cut programs that help some of the most vulnerable people on Earth, Mick Mulvaney, the president's budget director, told reporters last week. The budget would "spend less money on people overseas and more money on people back home," he said.

The United States traditionally has been the largest donor to the U.N. and gives more foreign aid to Africa than any other continent. In 2016 it gave more than $2 billion to the U.N.'s World Food Program, or almost a quarter of its total budget. That is expected to be reduced under Trump's proposed budget, according to former and current U.S. government officials.

"I've never seen this kind of threat to what otherwise has been a bipartisan consensus that food aid and humanitarian assistance programs are morally essential and critical to our security," Steven Feldstein, a former deputy assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration, told The Associated Press.

In an interview last week with the AP in Washington, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell rejected the proposed cuts to foreign aid. "America being a force is a lot more than building up the Defense Department," he said. "Diplomacy is important, extremely important, and I don't think these reductions at the State Department are appropriate because many times diplomacy is a lot more effective - and certainly cheaper - than military engagement."

The hunger crises in Nigeria, Somalia and South Sudan are all the more painful because they are man-made, experts said, though climate change has had some impact on Somalia and Nigeria's situations, said J. Peter Pham, the head of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council.

South Sudan has been entrenched in civil war since late 2013 that has killed tens of thousands and prevented widespread cultivation of food. In Nigeria and Somalia, extremist groups Boko Haram and al-Shabab have proven stubborn to defeat, and both Islamic organizations still hold territory that complicates aid efforts.

If Trump's foreign aid cuts are approved, the humanitarian funding burden for the crises would shift to other large donors like Britain. But the U.S.'s influential role in rallying global support will slip.

"Without significant contributions from the U.S. government, it is less able to catalyze contributions from other donors and meet even minimal life-saving needs," Nancy Lindborg, president of the United States 
Institute of Peace, said in prepared remarks to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, neighboring African countries will feel the immediate consequences of famine, experts said. On 
Thursday, the U.N. refugee chief said Uganda was at a "breaking point" after more than 570,000 South Sudanese refugees had arrived since July alone.

Others fleeing hunger could aim for Europe instead.

"We are going to see pressure on neighboring countries, in some cases people joining traditional migration routes both from the Sahel into Europe, or south into various destinations in Africa," Joseph Siegle, director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, told the AP.

"You have 19 countries facing some degree of food stress in Africa, and three of them are facing famine conditions. All three of them are facing conflict, and the vast majority of the countries facing more serious crises are non-democratic governments," Siegle said.

He described a series of possible consequences. Most likely there will be increased flows of people migrating from Somalia and the vast Sahel region north into Libya, where trafficking routes are a valuable source of finance for the Islamic State, he said.

Closer to home, people from South Sudan and Somalia seeking food likely will strain the resources of neighboring countries where political will and goodwill to refugees can be fleeting, said Mohammed Abdiker, director of operations and emergencies with the International Organization for Migration.

The regional consequences will depend on how the international community responds, Abdiker said.

Alex De Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation, summed up the situation: "Famine can be prevented if we want."

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Police: Random racist violence ends in death of black man

Police: Random racist violence ends in death of black man
 

AP Photo
This composite screen shot shows the Twitter page of 66-year-old Timothy Caughman featuring his March 20, 2017, post and a photo he posted of himself in November 2016 after voting on election day, as seen on a computer monitor in New York on Thursday, March 23, 2017. The Twitter post was his last before being stabbed to death in New York while collecting bottles on the street. Police say James Harris Jackson, a white U.S. Army veteran from Baltimore bent on making a racist attack, took a bus to New York, randomly picked out a black man - Caughman - and killed him with a sword. Jackson turned himself in at a Times Square police station early Wednesday, about 25 hours after Caughman staggered into a police precinct bleeding to death.
  
NEW YORK (AP) -- One was a neighborly black man who lived in a rooming house in New York's Garment District, liked to collect autographs outside Broadway's theaters, struck up a Twitter friendship with a Hollywood actress and took photos of himself with Oprah Winfrey and Beyonce.

The other was a white Army veteran from outside Baltimore who was raised in what was described as a churchgoing and liberal family and served in Afghanistan.

Late Monday night, officials say, their paths crossed tragically on the streets of New York in a cold-bloodedly random act of racist violence by the white man.

As 66-year-old Timothy Caughman bent over a trash bin around the corner from his home, gathering bottles to recycle, James Harris Jackson attacked him from behind with a 2-foot sword and walked off, prosecutors say. A bleeding Caughman staggered into a police station and later died at a hospital.

On Thursday, Jackson, 28, was charged with murder as a hate crime. He said nothing in court.

"The defendant was motivated purely by hatred," said Assistant District Attorney Joan Illuzzi, who added that the charges could be upgraded, "as this was an act most likely of terrorism."

Prosecutors said Jackson hated black men, especially those who dated white women.

He came to New York last week to make a splash in the media capital of the world by killing as many black men as possible, authorities said. He saw Caughman on the street and thought he would make good practice for a larger attack in Times Square, they said. But Caughman wound up the only victim.

After seeing his picture in the news, Jackson turned himself in at a police station. He was armed with two knives and told officers he had tossed the sword in a trash bin in Washington Square Park, officials said. It was later recovered.

Investigators said they were trying to determine exactly what drove Jackson to violence. They planned to 
search his laptop and phone and interviewed friends and family.

His attorney, Sam Talkin, said if the allegations are anywhere close to being true, "then we're going to address the obvious psychological issues that are present in this case."

Jackson was in the Army from 2009 to 2012 and worked as an intelligence analyst, the Army said. Deployed in Afghanistan in 2010-11, he earned several medals and attained the rank of specialist.

Dr. Scott Krugman, chairman of pediatrics at Franklin Square Medical Center in Baltimore and a friend of the family, said the allegations were out of character with his family's beliefs and the way he was raised.

Jackson's parents, David and Patricia Jackson, are active members of Towson Presbyterian Church and have two other sons. Patricia Jackson is a former teacher of English-language students in the Baltimore County school system and worked for Well for the Journey, a Christian nonprofit organization that helps people "integrate spirituality into their daily lives in a safe, inclusive space."

"They're liberal as liberal can be," Krugman said. "We were at a dinner party with them and everybody was complaining about the current administration and very open about rights for everybody and making sure we're not excluding immigrants, everything like that. I'm just beyond shocked right now."

In a statement, the Jackson family extended condolences to Caughman's family and said it was "shocked, horrified and heartbroken by this tragedy."

Caughman had lived for 18 years in a former hotel in Manhattan, sharing the building with tenants who were part of a temporary-housing program. Caughman was not part of the program; he was a tenant already living in the century-old, seven-story building.

He was "extremely respectful" of his neighbors and building workers, said Svein Jorgensen, the program's executive director. "He was a great tenant and someone that anyone would be glad to have as a neighbor." He added: "He was a gentleman."

Caughman displayed photos of himself with celebrities on his Twitter page, where he also showed that he was proud to have voted in the election. He struck up a longtime Twitter relationship with Shari Headley, the actress who played Eddie Murphy's love interest in "Coming to America."

After his death, she tweeted: "My heart is heavy typing this. Timothy Caughman was a fan of mine since 1991. He only spread LOVE. His murder was senseless."

His family was upset that he was initially portrayed in some news reports as a homeless man with a criminal past. He had a criminal history, but the most recent offense was a low-level pot arrest in 2002.

His cousin Seth Peek told The New York Times that in the 1970s and '80s, Caughman worked with young people in Queens as part of a youth program.

"He wasn't just a vagrant person collecting bottles," Peek said. "That was not just what his life was. He went to college, and he was concerned with young people in the neighborhood."


Obamacare repeal vote put off in stinging setback for Trump

Obamacare repeal vote put off in stinging setback for Trump

AP Photo
House Freedom Caucus Chairman Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C. reacts to a reporters question on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, March 23, 2017, following a Freedom Caucus meeting. GOP House leaders delayed their planned vote on a long-promised bill to repeal and replace "Obamacare," in a stinging setback for House Speaker Paul Ryan and President Donald Trump in their first major legislative test.
  
WASHINGTON (AP) -- After seven years of fervent promises to repeal and replace "Obamacare," President Donald Trump and GOP congressional leaders buckled at a moment of truth Thursday, putting off a planned showdown vote in a stinging setback for the young administration.

The White House insisted the House vote would still happen - Friday morning instead - but with opposition flowing from both strongly conservative and moderate-leaning GOP lawmakers, that was far from assured.
The delay was announced after Trump, who ran for president as a master deal-maker, failed to close the deal with a group of fellow Republicans in the first major legislative test of his presidency.

Still, leaders of the conservative Freedom Caucus said they were continuing to work with the White House late Thursday on their demands to limit the requirements on insurance companies now in place under former President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act.
"
I can tell you at this point we are trying to get another 30 to 40 votes that are now in the 'no' category to 'yes.' Once we do that I think we can move forward," said Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows of North Carolina.

The figures quoted by Meadows were startling since Republicans can lose only 22 votes in the face of united Democratic opposition. A tally by The Associated Press counts at least 31 solid "no" votes.

Moderate-leaning lawmakers were bailing, too, as the demands from conservatives pushed them even further from being able to support the GOP bill. The legislation would eliminate some of the requirements, taxes and penalties from Obama's health care law, but also would mean millions would lose their health insurance, older voters would pay higher premiums and Medicaid coverage would shrink for many low-income voters across the country.

GOP leaders planned to meet into the night to figure out how to try to resuscitate the bill. At the White House, Trump insisted just before the delay was announced that "we have a great bill and I think we have a very good chance."

As word trickled out that the vote was delayed, one reporter asked the president for a reaction, and Trump just shrugged. White House press secretary Sean Spicer had insisted earlier that Thursday's vote would happen and the bill would be approved.

There was "no plan B," the White House said.

The drama unfolded seven years to the day after Obama signed his landmark law, an anniversary GOP leaders meant to celebrate with a vote to undo the divisive legislation. "Obamacare" gave birth to the tea party movement and helped Republicans win and keep control of Congress and then take the White House.
Instead, the anniversary turned into bitter irony for the GOP, as C-SPAN filled up the time as the House recessed and lawmakers negotiated by playing footage of Obama signing the Affordable Care Act.

"In the final analysis, this bill falls short," GOP Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington state said in a statement Thursday as she became the latest rank-and-file Republican, normally loyal to leadership, to declare her opposition. "The difficulties this bill would create for millions of children were left unaddressed," she said, citing the unraveling of Medicaid.

The Republican legislation would halt Obama's tax penalties against people who don't buy coverage and cut the federal-state Medicaid program for low earners, which the Obama statute had expanded. It would provide tax credits to help people pay medical bills, though generally skimpier than Obama's statute provides. It also would allow insurers to charge older Americans more and repeal tax boosts the law imposed on high-income people and health industry companies.

The measure would also block federal payments to Planned Parenthood for a year, another stumbling block for GOP moderates.

In a danger sign for Republicans, a Quinnipiac University poll found that people disapprove of the GOP legislation by 56 percent to 17 percent, with 26 percent undecided. Trump's handling of health care was viewed unfavorably by 6 in 10.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who as speaker was Obama's crucial lieutenant in passing the Democratic bill in the first place, couldn't resist a dig at the GOP disarray.

"You may be a great negotiator," she said of Trump. "Rookie's error for bringing this up on a day when clearly you're not ready."

Obama declared in a statement that "America is stronger" because of the current law and said Democrats must make sure "any changes will make our health care system better, not worse for hardworking Americans." Trump tweeted to supporters, "Go with our plan! Call your Rep & let them know."

Congressional leaders have increasingly put the onus on the president to close the deal, seemingly seeking to ensure that he takes ownership of the legislation - and with it, ownership of defeat if that is the outcome.

Yet, unlike Obama and Pelosi when they passed Obamacare, the Republicans had failed to build an outside constituency or coalition to support their bill. Instead, medical professionals, doctors and hospitals - major employers in some districts - the AARP and other influential consumer groups were nearly unanimously opposed. So were outside conservative groups who argued the bill didn't go far enough. The Chamber of Commerce was in favor.

Moderates were given pause by projections of 24 million Americans losing coverage in a decade and higher out-of-pocket costs for many low-income and older people, as predicted by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. In an updated analysis Thursday, the CBO said that late changes to the bill meant to win over reluctant lawmakers would cut beneficial deficit reduction in half, while failing to cover more people.

And, House members were mindful that the bill, even if passed by the House, faces a tough climb in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made clear it will need to change to win the support needed to pass.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Documents detail Flynn payments from Russian interests

Documents detail Flynn payments from Russian interests
 

AP Photo
FILE - In this Feb. 10, 2017 file photo, then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn sits in the East Room of the White House in Washington. Documents released in a congressional inquiry show Flynn was paid more than $33,750 by RT, Russia’s government-run television system, for appearing at a Moscow event in December 2015. Flynn had retired months earlier as head of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency.


WASHINGTON (AP) -- Documenting more than $67,000 in fees and expenses paid before the presidential election to former national security adviser Michael Flynn by Russian companies, a Democratic congressman Thursday asked the Trump administration to provide a comprehensive record of Flynn's contacts with foreign governments and interests.

Flynn accepted $33,750 from Russia's government-run television system for appearing at a Moscow event in December 2015 - a few months before Flynn began formally advising President Donald Trump's campaign - and thousands more in expenses covered by the network and in speech fees from other Russian firms, according to the newly released documents.

Flynn's financial relationship with the RT network may violate a constitutional provision against gifts from foreign governments, said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who released documents obtained during the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform's inquiry into Flynn's activities before Trump appointed him to become national security adviser.

In addition to the record of Flynn's foreign contacts, Cummings, the senior Democrat on the committee, also asked the Defense Department to compel Flynn to pay the money he received to the U.S. government.

"I am writing to request information about whether Gen. Flynn fully disclosed- as part of the security clearance and vetting process for his return to government- his communications with Russian agents, Turkish agents and other foreign agents, as well as his payments from foreign sources," Cummings wrote. Last week, Flynn registered with the Justice Department as a foreign agent whose lobbying work may have benefited the Turkish government. The lobbying occurred before Election Day from August to November, during the period when Flynn was Trump's campaign adviser.

Trump fired Flynn as national security adviser last month, saying the former U.S. Army lieutenant general misled Vice President Mike Pence and other White House officials about his conversations with Russia's ambassador to the U.S. Flynn's ties to Russia have been scrutinized by the FBI and are part of House and Senate committee investigations into contacts between Trump campaign officials and Russians.

The newly-released files show that RT - designated by the U.S. intelligence community as a propaganda arm for Russia's government - also paid for luxury hotel stays and other expenses incurred by Flynn and his adult son, Michael Flynn Jr., during the Moscow trip.

Flynn, who was fired in August 2014 as chief of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, sat next to Russian President Vladimir Putin during the climax of the televised RT gala.

Cummings said Flynn's acceptance of payments from RT violated the emoluments provision of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits retired military officers from accepting gifts from foreign powers. RT identifies itself as an independent news network, but a report by U.S. intelligence agencies made public in January said RT has long been considered by the U.S. government a Russian propaganda arm.

In letters sent to Trump, Defense Secretary James Mattis and FBI Director James Comey, Cummings said Flynn "violated the Constitution by accepting tens of thousands of dollars from an agent of a global adversary that attacked our democracy." Cummings was referring to the intelligence agencies' conclusion that Russia instigated cyber-hacking of Democratic party officials and organizations in the months before the presidential election.

The Defense Department has said retired military officers are covered by the emoluments clause because they could be recalled to military service. The department has also noted that the prohibition on accepting foreign gifts includes commercial groups controlled by foreign governments or others "considered instruments of the foreign government."

A Flynn spokesman said Flynn informed the DIA before he went to Moscow and after his return. Price Floyd, a spokesman for Flynn, said that "as many former government officials and general officers have done, Gen. Flynn signed with a speakers' bureau and these are examples of that work."

DIA spokesman Jim Kudla said Thursday that Flynn did report to the agency in advance that he was traveling to Moscow "in accordance with standard security clearance procedures."

Separately, the Army is looking into the matter of Flynn's reporting and compensation, but has found no 
answers yet, according to spokesman Col. Pat Seiber.

Emails indicate Flynn initially asked for a higher fee than the $45,000 paid to his speakers' group, Leading Authorities Inc., but was asked to reduce his price. Flynn's take from RT was ultimately $33,750 after Leading Authorities received its commission.

"If Gen. Flynn is coming, we would like him to be front and central at the Moscow conference," an RT official told Flynn's representatives in a November 2015 email. During his Moscow stay, Flynn was interviewed by an RT personality on national security affairs before attending the lavish RT gala with Putin.

In an addition to the RT payments, Flynn was also paid $11,250 for two speeches in Washington - one in August for Volga-Dnepr Airlines, a Russian charter cargo airline, and a second, in September, for Kaspersky Government Security Solutions Inc., a U.S. subsidiary of Kaspersky Lab, a Russian-based cybersecurity firm.

Flynn and his son also received an unspecified amount in expenses paid by RT for business-class flights to and from Moscow and for their three-day stay at the Hotel Metropol. RT representatives said the stay offered tours of the Kremlin, RT headquarters, the Bolshoi Theater and art museums. Another attendee who took part in some of the tours told The Associated Press they did not see Flynn at those events.

Cummings said he has given the Trump administration, the FBI and the Defense Department until April 7 to produce documents related to Flynn's contacts with foreign nationals and any documentation of funds he received from foreign sources.

Cummings also asked for documents about Flynn's security clearance over the past 10 years. They include how Flynn answered questions about his contact with foreign nationals, his work for foreign governments and businesses, and any international real estate holdings.

The release of the documents comes one week after Flynn and his firm, Flynn Intel Group, registered with the Justice Department as foreign agents whose lobbying work may have benefited the government of Turkey.

The registration involved $530,000 worth of lobbying that Flynn's firm performed for a company owned by a Turkish businessman. In that filing, Flynn acknowledged the lobbying on behalf of the company, Inovo BV, "could be construed to have principally benefited the Republic of Turkey."

The AP reported last week that while Flynn was under consideration for the top national security post, his attorneys informed the presidential transition team that it was likely he would have to register as a foreign agent. After Flynn was appointed, his attorneys then notified the White House counsel's office that a filing was imminent.

The White House initially said it had no recollection of the second discussion but later acknowledged such a contact had occurred.

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