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Yearly Archives: 2017

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Q&A: Murkiness follows Supreme Court’s action on travel ban

SEATTLE (AP) — On again, off again, off again, off again and now, partly back on: That’s the peculiar route of President Donald Trump’s travel ban after a Supreme Court decision Monday allowing a limited version to take effect.

The high court said the president’s 90-day ban on visitors from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen can be enforced pending arguments scheduled for October as long as those visitors lack a “credible claim of a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States.”

But much remains murky: What exactly is a bona fide relationship? Who gets to decide? Will the travel ban even still be an issue by the time the justices hear arguments?

Here’s a look at some key issues surrounding Trump’s executive order:

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WHO’S THE WINNER?

After the lower courts found the travel ban unconstitutionally biased against Muslims and contrary to federal immigration law, Trump hailed the Supreme Court’s decision as a “clear victory for our national security.”

It was a legal win for the administration — to an extent. Three justices — Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch — said they would have allowed the travel ban to take effect as written.

But the other six kept blocking it as it applies to those traveling to the U.S. on employment, student or family immigrant visas as well as other cases where the traveler can show a “bona fide” connection to the U.S.

That’s no minor exception, according to immigrant groups, who say relatively few people come to the U.S. from the affected countries without such close ties.

Likewise, the justices said, refugees can travel to the U.S. if they demonstrate those connections — contrary to the part of Trump’s executive order suspending the nation’s refugee program.

“This decision is a true compromise,” said Kari Hong, an immigration law expert at Boston College Law School. “It is true that the travel ban is allowed to go into effect, but the Supreme Court substantially narrowed who could be denied entry.”

Immigrant rights advocates welcomed the ruling for showing that the president’s authority on immigration is not absolute and ensuring people with connections in the U.S. will be allowed to enter. But they said they are worried about other immigrants, including refugees who may be desperate for help but lack U.S. relations.

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BUT WHAT’S ‘BONA FIDE’?

The court’s majority laid out the “bona fide” relationships it had in mind. For individuals, a close family relationship is required: A spouse or a mother-in-law would be permitted. So would a worker who accepted a job from an American company, a student enrolled at a U.S. university or a lecturer invited to address a U.S. audience.

What’s not bona fide? A relationship created for purposes of avoiding the travel ban, the justices said.

“For example, a nonprofit group devoted to immigration issues may not contact foreign nationals from the designated countries, add them to client lists, and then secure their entry by claiming injury from their exclusion,” the court wrote.

Still, Thomas, Alito and Gorsuch found that guidance confusing and unworkable.

“Today’s compromise will burden executive officials with the task of deciding — on peril of contempt — whether individuals from the six affected nations who wish to enter the United States have a sufficient connection to a person or entity in this country,” Thomas wrote.

It also could lead to legal challenges amid the “struggle to determine what exactly constitutes a ‘bona fide relationship,’ who precisely has a ‘credible claim’ to that relationship, and whether the claimed relationship was formed ‘simply to avoid’” the travel ban,” he wrote.

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MORE AIRPORT CHAOS TO COME?

Trump’s initial travel ban, issued without warning on a Friday in January, brought chaos and protests to airports nationwide as travelers from seven targeted countries were barred even if they had prior permission to come to the U.S. The State Department canceled up to 60,000 visas but later reversed that decision.

A federal judge in Seattle blocked the order a week later, and Trump eventually revised it, dropping Iraq from the list and including reasons people might be exempted, such as a need for medical treatment.

The limited ban will take effect Thursday morning, the State Department said Monday.

Airports may be less likely to see the same sorts of demonstrations given the advance warning, that those with prior permission to enter are not affected and the months people have had to reach the U.S. since the first ban was blocked.

Matt Adams, legal director of the Seattle-based Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, which filed one of many lawsuits against the policy, said he still expects some confusion at airports, at least initially. Eventually, people likely will be barred from boarding planes to the U.S., he said.

“With many groups, it’s clear-cut from the type of visa: Anyone coming in on family visa or employment visa, by their terms it’s clear they have a bona fide relationship,” he said. “What’s more difficult is if you’re coming in on a tourist visa. I think you’re going to be going through a lengthy inquiry, and we’ll have to see how that plays out.”

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NEXT LEGAL STEPS

The Supreme Court would not hear arguments on the legality of the ban until October. But by then, a key provision may have expired, possibly making the review unnecessary.

That’s because Trump’s order only sought to halt travelers from the six countries for 90 days, to give the administration time to review the screening procedures for those visa applicants.

The administration has argued that the ban would not go into effect until court orders blocking each provision were lifted. The Supreme Court has asked for more arguments about whether the challenges to the travel restriction became moot in June.

David Levine, a professor at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law, said the justices likely will not sidestep a ruling on the executive order on those grounds.

“The underlying issue of presidential power is too important and too likely to occur in the future,” he said.

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Associated Press writers Sudhin Thanawala in San Francisco and Alicia Caldwell in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.

Syria denies US allegations of coming chemical attack

BEIRUT (AP) — The Syrian government on Tuesday dismissed White House allegations that it was preparing a new chemical weapons attack, as activists reported an airstrike on an Islamic State-run jail in eastern Syria that they said killed more than 40 prisoners.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 15 militants were also killed in the airstrike that happened on Monday in the Deir El-Zour province. The activist-run Deir Ezzor 24 media outlet said at least 60 civilians were killed.

The two groups said the U.S.-led coalition was behind the strike. Russia and Syria also carry out airstrikes in Deir el-Zour, and it was not clear how the activists identified the aircraft responsible. The coalition could not immediately be reached for comment.

Ali Haidar, the Syrian minister for national reconciliation, meanwhile dismissed a White House statement Monday that warned Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government against carrying out another chemical attack. Haidar told The Associated Press the charges foreshadowed a new diplomatic campaign against Syria at the U.N.

The Kremlin also dismissed the White House statement, which had warned that Assad and his military would “pay a heavy price” if it goes ahead with the attack. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that “such threats to Syria’s legitimate leaders are unacceptable.”

Russia is Assad’s key backer and sided with him when he denied responsibility for a chemical weapons attack that killed dozens of people in Idlib province on April 4. Days later, President Donald Trump ordered a retaliatory cruise missile strike on a Syrian air base.

Peskov criticized the Trump administration for using the phrase “another chemical weapons attack,” arguing that an independent investigation into the April attack was never conducted despite Russia’s calls for one.

The statement by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the U.S. had “identified potential preparations for another chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime that would likely result in the mass murder of civilians, including innocent children.”

He said the activities were similar to preparations taken before the attack in April, but provided no evidence or further explanation.

Several State Department officials typically involved in coordinating such announcements said they were caught completely off guard by the warning, which didn’t appear to have been discussed in advance with other national security agencies. Typically, the State Department, the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies would all be consulted before the White House issued a declaration sure to ricochet across foreign capitals.

The officials weren’t authorized to discuss national security planning publicly and requested anonymity.

A non-governmental source with close ties to the White House said the administration had received intelligence that the Syrians were mixing precursor chemicals for a possible sarin gas attack in either the east or south of the country, where government troops and allied forces have faced recent setbacks.

A senior Russian lawmaker dismissed the U.S. warning as “provocation.”

Frants Klintsevich, first deputy chairman of the defense and security committee in the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, accused the United States of “preparing a new attack on the positions of Syrian forces.”

The U.S. strike in April was the first direct American assault on the Syrian government and Trump’s most dramatic military order since becoming president.

Trump said at the time that the chemical attack crossed “many, many lines,” and called on “all civilized nations” to join the U.S. in seeking an end to the carnage in Syria.

Syria denied using chemical weapons. Russia’s Defense Ministry said the toxic agents were released when a Syrian airstrike hit a rebel chemical weapons arsenal and munitions factory.

The U.S. attack on a Syrian air base came after years of heated debate and deliberation in Washington over intervention in the bloody civil war. Chemical weapons have killed hundreds of people since the start of the conflict.

The U.S. is providing air support and arms to Kurdish-led Syrian forces who are fighting to drive the Islamic State group from Raqqa, the extremists’ self-styled capital.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Tuesday that Washington would continue to provide weapons after the Raqqa battle is over. His comments were likely to anger Turkey, which views the Kurdish fighters as an extension of the insurgency raging in its southeast.

On Monday, Trump had dinner with Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and other top officials as he hosted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the White House.

Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov talked earlier Monday about the need to secure a cease-fire in Syria, fight extremist groups and prevent the use of chemical weapons, the Russian Foreign Ministry said.

Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, followed up Spicer’s statement with a Twitter warning: “Any further attacks done to the people of Syria will be blamed on Assad, but also on Russia & Iran who support him killing his own people.”

Less than an hour after Spicer issued the statement, Trump was back to tweeting about the 2016 campaign, denouncing investigations into potential collusion between Moscow and his campaign aides as a “Witch Hunt!”

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Colvin reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Josh Lederman, Vivian Salama and Matthew Lee contributed to this report.

Ruling in travel ban leaves myriad questions unanswered

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court’s decision to partially reinstate President Donald Trump’s temporary travel ban has left the effort to keep some foreigners out of the United States in a murky middle ground, with unanswered questions and possibly more litigation ahead.

The justices ruled Monday in an unsigned opinion they would hold a full hearing on the case in October. In the meantime, the administration can bar travelers from six majority-Muslim countries from the U.S. if they don’t have a “credible claim of a bona fide relationship” with someone or some entity in the country.

The Supreme Court allows the Trump administration to go forward with a limited version of its ban on travel from six mostly Muslim countries, a victory for President Donald Trump in the biggest legal controversy of his young presidency. (June 26)

It’s unclear what will ultimately constitute a “bona fide relationship,” though the ruling suggested that an American job, school enrollment or a close relative could meet that threshold. Equally unclear is how many foreigners will be affected from the six countries: Syria, Sudan, Iran, Yemen, Libya and Somalia.

The ruling was seen as at least a partial victory for Trump in the biggest court case of his presidency. Trump claims the temporary ban is needed to prevent terrorist attacks. Opponents reject that and argue it’s a backdoor way to bar Muslims from entering the United States, as Trump promised in his campaign.

The early indications are that the administration will use the decision to take a tough line on travelers from those countries. A senior U.S. official familiar with the situation said the Trump administration has plans in place to relaunch the stalled ban and tourists will be among those kept out.

Under these plans, largely orchestrated by White House adviser Stephen Miller, tourists from those countries and any academics, lecturers or others invited to speak or make presentations in the U.S. will be barred. Those groups are regarded as unable to show a substantial and pre-existing tie to a person or institution in the United States.

The official who described the plans was not authorized to discuss them publicly by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.

But some immigration lawyers and advocates said relatively few people would fall under the ban because these travelers tend to have sufficient relationships with people or institutions in the United States.

Jamal Abdi, policy director for the National Iranian American Council, said most Iranians who visit the United States have relatives here or are coming to work or study. He said his group has no idea how the administration plans to judge family relationships and a hard line could mean a significant number of Iranians will be kept out the country for the time being.

It could also mean more lawsuits if advocates for immigrants believe the administration is going beyond the Supreme Court’s guidelines in barring visitors to the United States.

Like the fate of would-be tourists and scholars, the immediate future for refugees is murky.

In its opinion, the court partially reinstated Trump’s temporary prohibition on refugees from any country, using criteria similar to that used in the travel ban. The effect on refugees could be greater because they are less likely to have family, school or business relationships in the United States.

Lavinia Limon, CEO of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, said she was dismayed by the ruling, but insisted that her agency has “an existing relationship with incoming refugees, certified and arranged through the Department of State.”

“Travel plans are in process, beds have been made and staff around the country plan to meet new Americans at the airports today, tomorrow and in the coming weeks and months,” Limon said.

Trump’s initial travel ban caused panic and chaos at airports around the world in late January as it took effect immediately after being signed. Refugees, legal U.S. residents and visa holders were turned back at airports or barred from boarding U.S.-bound planes. A federal court blocked it about a week later.

There may be less confusion as the ban is partially reinstated. The administration has revised its travel ban to exclude legal residents and visa holders. Also, the government said last week the ban would go into effect 72 hours after the Supreme Court ruling — which would be Thursday morning in Washington.

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Associated Press reporters Ted Bridis and Mark Sherman contributed to this report.

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Follow Alicia A. Caldwell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/acaldwellap. Find her work at http://apne.ws/2svihLQ.

Inmate details 4 prison killings: ‘I did it for nothing’

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — One by one, Denver Simmons recalled, he and his partner lured inmates into his cell. William Scruggs was promised cookies in exchange for doing some laundry; Jimmy Ham thought he was coming to snort some crushed pills.

Over the course of about a half-hour, four men accepted Simmons’ hospitality. None of them made it out alive.

Calmly, matter-of-factly, the 35-year-old inmate told The Associated Press how he and Jacob Philip strangled and beat their blockmates to death and hid their bodies to avoid spooking the next victims. They had nothing against the men; one of them was even a friend, Simmons admitted.

Facing life in prison and unable to kill himself, Denver Simmons came up with a plan to get on death row. In a chilling interview, he tells how he and another convicted murderer lured four prisoners into a cell and killed them. (June 27)

Why did they do it?

Convicted in the cold-blooded shootings of a mother and her teenage son, Simmons knew he would never leave prison alive. Tired of life behind bars, a failure at suicide, he hoped killing these criminals would land him on death row.

Officials say Philip and Simmons have confessed to the April 7 slayings of Ham, 56; Jason Kelley, 35; John King, 52; and Scruggs, 44. But until Simmons talked to the AP, no motive had been made public.

The South Carolina Department of Corrections doesn’t allow in-person interviews with inmates. So the AP wrote letters to the two men. Philip’s attorney responded with an email: “Jacob is a severely mentally ill young man who has been so adjudicated by the court. Accordingly, I would ask that you make no further efforts to interview him or contact him.”

Simmons, though, called the AP three times, once using another inmate’s time slot. And he described a twisted compact between two men who had “a whole lot in common” from the moment they met — most important, both despair and a willingness to kill again.

Jacob Philip, along with fellow inmate Denver Simmons, strangled four other prisoners in a bid to get the death penalty. (South Carolina Department of Corrections via AP, File)

“I’d always joke with him — from back in August and September and October of 2015 — that if we weren’t going to kill ourselves, that we could make a name for ourselves, so to speak, and get the death penalty,” Simmons, told the AP. “The end of March of this year, he was willing to do it. So, we just planned to do it. And we did it.”

Each man was serving life without the possibility of parole for a double murder.

In May 2010, Simmons shot an acquaintance, 45-year-old Sheila Faye Dodd of Round O, an unincorporated community northwest of Charleston. Prosecutors say he ate a pizza he’d bought with the dead woman’s debit card, picked her 13-year-old son, William, up from school and killed him.

Simmons agreed to plead guilty in exchange for prosecutors taking the death penalty off the table.

In August 2015, Philip pleaded guilty but mentally ill to strangling his girlfriend, Ashley Kaney, 26, and her 8-year-old daughter, Riley Burdick, two years earlier. At the time, he’d been attending the U.S. Navy’s nuclear training school in nearby Goose Creek.

Both men were sent to Kirkland Correctional Institution, a maximum security facility a few miles from the state capitol in Columbia. They were being housed in a unit for inmates who need significant mental health help but whose conditions aren’t serious enough to require hospitalization.

Simmons said spending the rest of his life in prison would be a meaningless life of fear and boredom. Inmates are always scheming to take advantage or hurt fellow prisoners and guards only see the men behind bars as numbers.

“It’s just not a good place to live, you know, day in and day out,” Simmons said.

Because of their relatively clean records in custody, Simmons said he and Philip, 26, were named “dormkeepers” for their unit. That meant their doors remained open when others were on lockdown.

Just two officers were assigned to the dorm, which housed 139 inmates, Corrections Director Bryan Stirling told lawmakers in April. He said pay that starts at $33,600 and chronic low funding from the Legislature make it almost impossible to even approach the national standard of four officers for every 30 inmates.

About 9:30 the morning of April 7, Simmons said, he hung a “flap” over the narrow window to his room — in this case, a clear trash bag on which he’d scrawled the words, “Using restroom. Don’t open.”

“You’re not supposed to keep a flap,” Simmons said. “But if you’re using the restroom, you know, they turn a blind eye to it.”

Simmons said the original plan was to wait until cells were being cleaned, “where ALL the doors were open.” But that morning, they opted for a different strategy.

“We just decided, you know, we’d use my room,” he said. “Until it was full. And then we’d use Jacob’s. And that’s just how it started.”

So, how did they choose their victims?

“This is the part that’s gonna sound bad,” Simmons said. “They, they trusted us. We talked to these people every day. One of them was a friend of both of ours. And they just trusted us. We come up with something for each one.”

The first name on the list was King, who was in for burglary, theft and larceny.

They knew King liked coffee. And there was a bonus, in Simmons’ mind: At 5-foot-4 and just 132 pounds, he was the smallest.

John King was among four people killed at a South Carolina prison by two inmates trying to get the death penalty. (Kirkland Correctional Institution via AP)

“He was older, but he was small,” Simmons said. “And he wouldn’t offer much resistance.”

Since Philip was the experienced strangler, he took the first turn, Simmons said.

“He took his from behind and put his arm on his neck and just choked him,” he said. “It happened really fast.”

They slid King’s body under the lower bunk and went looking for their next victim in the common area known as “the Rock.”

William Scruggs, killer of a disabled veteran, was waiting in line for the restroom. Simmons knew him as a lifer who did laundry in exchange for goods from the canteen.

“I said I had some cookies for him. ‘Just come up to my room,’” Simmons said. Scruggs showed up a few minutes later, and Simmons said Philip dragged him to the floor.

Unlike Philip, Simmons said, he’d never strangled anyone.

“It’s totally different than killing somebody with your hands,” he said.

Simmons said he grabbed an extension cord from a lamp and wrapped it around Scruggs’ neck. Scruggs was facing him, but his eyes were closed.

“And, you know, he didn’t suffer a long time, man,” Simmons said. “I know that sounds lame. But he didn’t suffer a long time.”

The two placed Scruggs’ body, the cord still tied around his neck, on the lower bunk. They hung a sheet from the top bunk to conceal the corpse, then went in search of their next victim.

Simmons said Philip chose Jimmy Ham, who was to be released in November after serving nearly a decade for aggravated assault and battery, grand larceny and two counts of burglary.

“I didn’t want him on the list, because I knew he would fight,” Simmons said. “And Jacob, as big as he is, he’s not a fighter.”

But Philip prevailed, and Ham was invited in to snort some drugs.

Simmons said Philip told their guest to break up the tablets on a stool that was in the room. As Ham bent over the stool, Simmons said, Philip pounced — but he slipped.

Simmons said Ham had Philip pinned down on his back. As the two men struggled on the floor, Simmons said he grabbed a broken broom handle that he’d hidden in his room and hit Ham twice in the head with it. In the struggle, Simmons tried to silence Ham by jamming the broomstick in his mouth (“there could be no noise”) and Ham “just died. I mean, he died very fast.”

Simmons said they placed Ham’s body on the bunk beside Scruggs and let the curtain fall back into place.

“And we just went on the Rock,” Simmons said with a sigh, “and Jacob said, ‘Who’s next?’”

Simmons chose Jason Howard Kelley, who was serving time for stabbing his teenage stepson.

Jason Kelley was among four people killed at a South Carolina prison by two inmates trying to get the death penalty. (Kirkland Correctional Institution via AP)

Everything about Kelley “was just annoying,” Simmons said. But unlike the others, he considered Kelley a friend.

Once in the cell, Simmons said, Philip told Kelley, “Look behind the curtain.”

“And he literally peeked behind and he said, ‘What the?’” Simmons recalled. “And Jacob grabbed him and threw him down.”

Simmons said he climbed on top of his friend and pressed the broomstick against his throat until he stopped struggling. And as Kelley lay there — dead or just unconscious, Simmons couldn’t tell which — Simmons thrust the stick in his ear.

By then, the murderers were too tired to bother with hiding Kelley’s body. When they stepped outside, Simmons said, he asked Philip, “Who do you want to do now?”

“I’m tired,” Philip replied, according to Simmons. “I don’t want to do anymore.”

“And I said, ‘Are you sure? Because this is going to be our only chance,’” Simmons recalled. “And he said, ‘Yeah.’”

It was just before 10 a.m., about 15 minutes before the next head count. Simmons said they walked down to the guard station and told what they’d done.

The Department of Corrections referred the AP’s questions to the State Law Enforcement Division, which has declined to comment on the case.

Simmons was asked why he did not commit suicide, if prison life was unbearable.

He said he’d tried several times: “You know, killing yourself is, it sounds easy. It’s really hard. Your body even fights you when you cut yourself.”

He said he’d even discussed having Philip “choke me out.”

“The original plan was that if I decided that I wanted to do it, I would be the last person,” he said. “And I’ll be honest with you. After I saw how it works, I guess you would say I was scared. I just couldn’t see myself going through with it.”

Simmons expressed no remorse for the killings.

“Honestly, we could have got staff members,” he said. “But they’re just there doing their job, you know? The people we killed, whether they deserved it or not, were not fine, upstanding members of society. You know, none of us are, or we wouldn’t be in where we’re at.”

And the more you kill, he said, the easier it gets.

“The second time, the third time, it’s just, I guess you’re desensitized to it.”

In retrospect, he said, the plan was not well thought out.

“Because Jacob’s not going to get the death penalty either way,” he said. “He’s legitimately mentally ill.”

As for himself, South Carolina hasn’t carried out an execution in six years, and court challenges likely will keep capital punishment on hold for the foreseeable future. Even a recently confessed killer of seven got life without parole, he noted.

Simmons said he imagines he’ll do the next 10 years in solitary and probably get another four life sentences tacked onto the two he was already doing.

“I did it all, I did it for nothing,” he said. “So that makes it especially bad for me, you know?”

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Breed, an Associated Press national writer, reported from Raleigh, North Carolina.

Budget office sees 22 million fewer covered with Senate bill

WASHINGTON (AP) — Rebellious Republican senators are forcing Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to scramble to rescue the party’s health care bill before debate even begins. The dissension is swelling after Congress’ nonpartisan budget referee said the high profile measure would leave 22 million more people uninsured by 2026 than President Barack Obama’s law, which the GOP wants to scrap.

McConnell, R-Ky., was hoping Tuesday to staunch his party’s rebellion, a day after the Congressional Budget Office released its report. He’s been aiming at winning Senate passage this week, before a weeklong July 4 recess that leaders worry opponents will use to weaken support for the legislation.

President Donald Trump spoke to FOX News Channel’s FOX & Friends, saying that he never taped former FBI Director James Comey, but he believes Comey changed his story once the possibility of recordings was raised. (June 23)

The CBO analysis suggested some ammunition GOP leaders could use, saying the Senate bill would cut federal deficits by $202 billion more over the coming decade than the version the House approved in May. Senate leaders could use some of those additional savings to attract moderate votes by making Medicaid and other provisions more generous, though conservatives would rather use that money to reduce red ink.

“You don’t want to bring something up unless you know you have the votes to pass it. But I also think we may not know if we have the votes to pass it until we bring it up,” said No. 3 GOP Senate leader John Thune of South Dakota.

The projected boost in uninsured people fed concerns by moderate Republican lawmakers that the Senate measure, annulling parts of Obama’s 2010 overhaul, was too drastic. Yet conservatives were unhappy that it didn’t do enough to dismantle Obama’s law and lower premiums by repealing coverage requirements, leaving McConnell with little margin for error — the bill fails if three of the 52 GOP senators vote no.

The 22 million extra Americans were just 1 million fewer than the number the budget office estimated would become uninsured under the House version. President Donald Trump has called the House bill “mean” and prodded senators to produce a package with more “heart.”

Minutes after the report’s release, three GOP senators threatened to oppose a procedural vote to begin debate expected Wednesday — enough to derail the legislation.

Moderate Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she would vote no. She tweeted that she favors a bipartisan effort to fix Obama’s statute but added, “CBO analysis shows Senate bill won’t do it.”

Conservative Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said he would oppose that motion unless the bill was changed. And fellow conservative Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said he had “a hard time believing” he’d have enough information to back that motion this week.

Moderate Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., on Friday said he’d oppose the procedural motion without alterations.

Those rebels were just part of McConnell’s problem. Two other conservatives — Texas’ Ted Cruz and Utah’s Mike Lee — have also said they’d vote no without revisions, and several other moderates have expressed worries about the bill’s Medicaid cuts and reductions in people with coverage.

The budget office report said the Senate bill’s coverage losses would especially affect people between ages 50 and 64, before they qualify for Medicare, and with incomes below 200 percent of poverty level, or around $30,300 for an individual.

In one example, the report says that in 2026 under Obama’s law, a 64-year-old earning $26,500 would pay premiums amounting to $1,700 a year, after subsidies. Under the Senate bill, that person would pay $6,500, partly because insurers would be able to charge older adults more.

The Senate plan would end the tax penalty that law imposes on people who don’t buy insurance, in effect erasing Obama’s so-called individual mandate, and on larger businesses that don’t offer coverage to workers.

It would let states ease Obama’s requirements that insurers cover certain specified services like substance abuse treatments, and eliminate $700 billion worth of taxes over a decade, CBO said, largely on wealthier people and medical companies that Obama’s law used to expand coverage.

It would cut Medicaid, which provides health insurance to over 70 million poor and disabled people, by $772 billion through 2026 by capping its overall spending and phasing out Obama’s expansion of the program. Of the 22 million people losing health coverage, 15 million would be Medicaid recipients.

CBO said that under the bill, most insurance markets around the country would be stable before 2020. It said that similar to the House bill, average premiums around the country would be higher over the next two years — including about 20 percent higher in 2018 than under Obama’s statute — but lower beginning in 2020.

But the office said that overall, the Senate legislation would increase out of pocket costs for deductibles and copayments. That’s because standard policies would be skimpier than currently offered under Obama’s law, covering a smaller share of expected medical costs.

In another troublesome finding for the legislation, the budget office warned that in some rural areas, either no insurer would be willing participate in the individual market or the policies offered would be prohibitively expensive. Rural America was a stronghold for Trump in the 2016 presidential election.

Vice President Mike Pence invited four GOP senators to dinner Tuesday to discuss the bill, his office said: Lee and Sens. James Lankford of Oklahoma, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Ben Sasse of Nebraska.

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Associated Press writers Erica Werner, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Ken Thomas and Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.

EU fines Google a record 2.42 billion euros

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BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union’s competition watchdog slapped a record 2.42 billion euro ($2.72 billion) fine on internet giant Google on Tuesday for breaching antitrust rules with its online shopping service.

European regulators said “Google has abused its market dominance as a search engine by giving an illegal advantage to another Google product, its comparison shopping service.”

It gave the Mountain View, California, company 90 days to stop or face fines of up to 5 percent of the average daily worldwide turnover of parent company Alphabet.

The European Commission, which polices EU competition rules, alleges Google elevates its shopping service even when other options might have better deals.

The Commission said Google “gave prominent placement in its search results only to its own comparison shopping service, whilst demoting rival services. It stifled competition on the merits in comparison shopping markets.”

Google maintains it’s just trying to package its search results in a way that makes it easier for consumers to find what they want.

“When you shop online, you want to find the products you’re looking for quickly and easily. And advertisers want to promote those same products. That’s why Google shows shopping ads, connecting our users with thousands of advertisers, large and small, in ways that are useful for both,” Kent Walker, senior vice president at Google, said in a statement.

“We will review the Commission’s decision in detail as we consider an appeal, and we look forward to continuing to make our case,” he said.

The fine is the highest ever imposed in Europe for anti-competitive behavior, exceeding a 1.06 billion euros penalty on Silicon Valley chip maker Intel in 2009.

But the penalty is likely to leave a bigger dent in Google’s pride and reputation than its finances. Alphabet has more than $92 billion (82 billion euros) in cash, including nearly $56 billion (50 billion euros) in accounts outside of Europe.

Business: Global shares mixed, awaiting cues from central bankers

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Shares slipped in early European trading and were higher in Asia on Tuesday as investors awaited remarks by the U.S. and European Central Bank chiefs.

KEEPING SCORE: Germany’s DAX dropped 0.9 percent to 12,657.32 and the CAC 40 of France lost 1.1 percent to 5,240.43. The FTSE 100 of Britain lost 0.4 percent to 7,416.87. Wall Street looked poised for a slow start, with Dow futures down 0.1 percent and S&P futures 0.2 percent lower.

CENTRAL BANKERS: Investors will pay attention to upcoming remarks by central bankers around the world but do not expect major revelations on monetary policies. Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, is scheduled to speak at the ECB forum in Sintra, Portugal, later in the day. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen is due to speak in London.

ASIA’S DAY: Japan’s Nikkei 225 rose 0.4 percent to 20,225.09 while South Korea’s Kospi added 0.1 percent to 2,391.95. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index edged 0.1 percent lower to 25,839.99. China’s Shanghai Composite Index added 0.2 percent to 3,191.20. Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 slipped 0.1 percent to 5,714.20. Stocks fell in Taiwan were lower but gained in Singapore and the Philippines.

ANALYST’S TAKE: “Heading into the half-way mark for 2017, the absence of tier-one data releases or a coherent theme in markets is hard to ignore. On the whole, a fading external demand boost from earlier in the year may be gaining some attention,” Mizuho Bank said in a commentary.

OIL: Benchmark U.S. crude rose 31 cents to $43.69 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract rose 37 cents, or 0.9 percent, to settle at $43.38 a barrel on Monday. Brent, the international standard, gained 39 cents to $46.43 per barrel in London.

CURRENCIES: The dollar fell to 111.59 yen from 111.84 yen. The euro strengthened to $1.1260 from $1.1185.

Trump’s Deflections and Denials on Russia Frustrate Even His Allies

(PhatzNewsRoom / NYT)    —-    In the span of 72 hours, President Trump described the email hacking that roiled the 2016 campaign as a Democratic “hoax” and as clear aggression by Russia that his predecessor, President Barack Obama, failed to address.

Other times, Mr. Trump has said the hacking might have been done by China.

Or, as he claimed during the first general election debate, the hacking could have been the work of a lone wolf weighing 400 pounds, sitting on his bed at home.

Then there was the time Mr. Trump blamed “some guy in his home in New Jersey.”

Or, as Mr. Trump has also suggested, there might not even have been hacking at all…

On Saturday, Mr. Trump tried again to focus attention on Mr. Obama.

“Since the Obama Administration was told way before the 2016 Election that the Russians were meddling, why no action?” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter. “Focus on them, not T!”

He followed that up with: “Obama Administration official said they ‘choked’ when it came to acting on Russian meddling of election. They didn’t want to hurt Hillary?”

Government officials, members of Congress from both parties and even some Trump supporters had hoped that, with the campaign behind him, Mr. Trump would finally speak declaratively about the email hacking and recognize the threat Russian cyberattacks present, without asterisks, wisecracks, caveats or obfuscation.

That hope has dissipated. The latest presidential tweets were proof to dismayed members of Mr. Trump’s party that he still refuses to acknowledge a basic fact agreed upon by 17 American intelligence agencies that he now oversees: Russia orchestrated the attacks, and did it to help get him elected.

“I think he would be rewarded politically for being tough on Russia,” said Mike DuHaime, a Republican strategist and an adviser to Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey. Mr. DuHaime suggested that it was time for Mr. Trump to help himself with a public declaration definitively laying the blame on Russia.

“Most people grew up hearing the Russians are not our allies,” Mr. DuHaime said. “He should be tough on them for what they attempted to do.”

It is not easy to explain why the president won’t concede the Russia question, but aides and friends say the matter hits him where he is most vulnerable. Mr. Trump, who often conflates himself with the institutions he serves, sees questions about Russia as an effort by Democrats and stragglers from the “Never Trump” movement to delegitimize his election victory.

There is another reason, too. Mr. Trump is a wealthy businessman from New York, but he is not a Wall Street titan or a master investor. He is a real estate mogul whose life view is predicated on making deals and who treats almost everything as an open-ended discussion. When it comes to where he stands on Russia and the 2016 election, Mr. Trump, in keeping with his signature approach to almost every issue, appears to be leaving his options open.

It was a winning formula during the campaign. Mr. Trump talked in generalities, refusing to commit to specific policy proposals. “We’re going to have to look at a lot of things very closely,” was a frequent, vague refrain.

He would speak supportively of both sides of an issue, sometimes in the same sentence, forcing interviewers to scramble to pin him down and leaving supporters and detractors reading what they chose into his words.

“President Trump treats every issue like an ongoing negotiation by hedging his comments with phrases that allow a flexible interpretation of his position,” said Ryan Williams, a Republican strategist and a former aide to Mitt Romney. “He refuses to get backed into a corner or pinned down on a specific position so that he always has the option of changing his mind and making a course correction in the future.”

His aides have mirrored that strategy.

On Friday, when Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, was asked by a reporter if the president stood by his lone January statement that Russia was behind the email hacking, Mr. Spicer replied vaguely: “Of course. He’s concerned about any country or any actor that wants to interfere in elections.”

But the campaign is long over. While many of Mr. Trump’s allies and supporters are still reluctant to blame Russia, the American intelligence community has said that Russian interference is a fact, not an opinion. Mr. Trump’s strategy of muddying his position has let the Russia issue grow, gumming up the gears in his administration’s efforts to move forward with major legislation and decisions.

“Geopolitically, it touches everything,” Mr. DuHaime said.

That includes some important decisions Mr. Trump will have to make: whether to support tougher sanctions against Russia; to give back Russian properties seized by the Obama administration; or to try to remove Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel investigating whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia.

Officials in a number of states have in the meantime complained that the White House has done little to try to safeguard the 2018 and 2020 elections against potential Russian intrusions, even as evidence grows that there were efforts to tamper with voter rolls last year.

Through it all, the president’s allies continue to see Russia as a boogeyman for Democrats and a rapacious news media, an issue his core voters think is manufactured.

“He doesn’t want to be set by this narrative that the Russians hacked the election when he has to negotiate with Russia, who, by the way, sits on China’s border,” said Sam Nunberg, a former campaign aide to Mr. Trump. “If Putin adamantly denies that he did it, it’s frankly not an issue to the president.”

Breaking News – Supreme Court travel ban ruling: What it means

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The Supreme Court delivered a mixed ruling on Monday that will allow President Trump to implement his travel ban against six Muslim majority nations — but only for visitors lacking ties to the United States.

The court ruled that Trump may bar people from six majority Muslim countries — Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — if they have no “bona fide” relationship to the U.S. Those that have established ties will be allowed to continue entering the country.

That means officials at the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department will have to begin sorting through each application submitted by travelers from the six targeted countries to determine if they have enough of a link to the U.S. to enter.

The justices provided several examples to explain who may enter the country:

  • If  U.S. citizens claim close relatives from one of the targeted countries, they will be able to do so.
  • If U.S. universities have accepted students from one of the targeted countries, the students will be able to enter the U.S. and start their studies.
  • If a U.S. business has given a job to a worker from one of the targeted countries, the worker will be able to do that job.

“In practical terms, this means that (the executive order) may not be enforced against foreign nationals who have a credible claim of a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States,” the court wrote.

Two federal appeals courts had blocked the entire ban from going into effect, one saying it violates constitutional protections for religion and the other saying it violates immigration law.

The Supreme Court ruled that a complete ban went too far, and it only blocked that part affecting those with “standing” to challenge Trump’s executive order in U.S. courts.

The court ruled that Trump’s order may have violated the rights of U.S. citizens, universities and businesses by preventing them from bringing in their relatives, students and employees from overseas.

But the court concluded that foreigners who have no ties to the U.S. cannot argue, on their own, that constitutional protections apply to them. They’re not U.S. citizens, U.S. students or U.S. employees, so the protections established in the Constitution do not apply to them.

The court ruled that the administration’s main argument — that the travel ban is needed to improve vetting procedures to stop would-be terrorists from entering the country — is at its “peak” when applied to foreigners who have no ties to the U.S.

“The interest in preserving national security is, ‘an urgent objective of the highest order,'” the justices wrote. “To prevent the Government from pursuing that objective by enforcing (the travel ban) against foreign nationals unconnected to the United States would appreciably injure its interests, without alleviating obvious hardship to anyone else.”

Justice Clarence Thomas issued a warning about creating such an arrangement, warning that a “flood of litigation” will soon follow as the administration tries to walk the line established by the Supreme Court.

“I fear that the Court’s remedy will prove unworkable,” Thomas wrote. “Today’s compromise will burden executive officials with the task of deciding — on peril of contempt — whether individuals from the six affected nations who wish to enter the United States have a sufficient connection to a person or entity in this country.”

The earliest the administration can begin enforcing the portions of the travel ban allowed by the Supreme Court is Thursday.

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WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed Monday to let President Trump’s immigration travel ban go into effect for some travelers, reversing the actions of lower federal courts that had put the controversial policy completely on hold.

The court also agreed to hear the case in the early fall, leaving open the chance that it could reverse Monday’s verdict if challengers can prove the ban is illegal or unconstitutional.

The justices’ action gives Trump a partial victory following a string of defeats from coast to coast. Some courts struck down the travel ban as a form of religious discrimination against Muslims. Others said it showed bias based on nationality and exceeded the president’s authority without a firm national security justification.

It represents a setback for immigration rights and civil liberties groups that had bottled up two executive orders through legal action, exacerbating the president’s battles with federal courts that began during the election campaign.

The revised travel ban, issued in March, blocks most new immigrants from six predominantly Muslim countries for 90 days and all refugees for 120 days. As a result of the high court’s action, the ban can be implemented for some travelers, along with a long-delayed review of vetting procedures used to screen foreigners trying to enter the United States.

Since he signed the first executive order Jan. 27, Trump has pitched the travel ban as a temporary anti-terrorism policy needed to give the government time to review and improve screening procedures, both worldwide and for the particular countries in question: Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

The court’s action was written without an author, but with a partial dissent from Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch, who would have allowed the ban to apply to all travelers.

“The government’s interest in enforcing (the ban), and the executive’s authority to do so, are undoubtedly at their peak when there is no tie between the foreign national and the United States,” the court said.

On the other hand, it said the ban “may not be enforced against foreign nationals who have a credible claim of a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States.”

The action isn’t expected to set off the kind of chaos seen around the world when Trump signed the first travel ban into effect on Jan. 27. That executive order, which went into effect immediately, barred all travelers from seven countries from entering the U.S. even if they had green cards, valid visas or refugee status. It led to at least 746 people temporarily detained at U.S. airports, some being deported back to their home countries, and untold numbers of others prevented from boarding their flights at airports overseas.

The revised travel ban, with the court’s limitations, now can go into effect this week, based on a memorandum recently signed by the president. It allows travelers with green cards and visas to continue entering the U.S., but still forbids all refugees. That means some refugees may get stuck, but nowhere near the number of people ensnared by the first ban.

The travel ban originally was proposed as a way to free resources for the review of screening procedures, but the two were separated by the most recent federal appeals court ruling that allowed only the review to go forward. That created the possibility that the review could be completed before the Supreme Court heard arguments in the travel ban case, rendering the dispute moot.

Because visa and green card holders were included in the first ban, it immediately produced confusion and protests at U.S. airports. Within days, federal judges in New York and Boston intervened, and a third federal judge in Seattle issued a nationwide injunction in early February.

Trump unveiled a revised order in March that smoothed out some of the original ban’s rougher edges. It called for a 90-day ban on travelers from six countries and 120 days for refugees, but it excluded visa and green card holders, deleted a section that gave preference to Christian minorities, and included a waiver process for those claiming undue hardship.

That order was blocked by a federal judge in Hawaii hours before it was to go into effect on March 16, as well as by another federal judge in Maryland. The Justice Department appealed both rulings, leading to similar slap-downs by federal appeals courts in Richmond May 25 and San Francisco June 12.

As it reached the Supreme Court, the travel ban had been struck down on both constitutional and statutory grounds. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled 10-3 that it discriminated against Muslims by targeting only countries with overwhelmingly large Muslim majorities. But a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled unanimously that the ban violated federal immigration law by targeting people from certain countries without improving national security.

Through all the defeats, Trump was forced to play on what amounts to his opponents’ home turf: The 9th Circuit, based in San Francisco, is dominated by President Bill Clinton’s nominees. The 4th Circuit, based in Richmond, is dominated by President Barack Obama’s nominees. All 13 judges on those two courts who voted to strike down the revised travel ban were appointed by Democratic presidents.

By contrast, the Supreme Court includes five justices named by Republican presidents and four by Democrats. Chief Justice John Roberts is a strong proponent of executive authority, particularly in foreign affairs. Alito has spent his entire career working for the government. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in a 2015 immigration case that a “legitimate and bona fide” reason for denying entry to the United States can pass muster. Gorsuch is a stickler for the written text of statutes — and banning Muslims isn’t mentioned in Trump’s executive order. Thomas is the most conservative of all.

Despite those advantages, Trump at times has been his own worst enemy. His presidential campaign speeches, official statements and tweets gave opponents of the ban fodder for their challenges — from Trump’s vow in 2015 to seek “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” to his lament this month that his lawyers should have pushed for a “much tougher version” rather than the “politically correct” order he signed in March.

Trump scrambles for GOP health votes; budget score looms

WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Republicans skeptical about a GOP health overhaul bill are expressing some doubt about holding a vote this week as they await a key analysis from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. President Donald Trump, making a final push to fulfill a key campaign promise, insists Republicans are not “that far off” and signaled last-minute changes are coming to win votes.

“We have a very good plan,” Trump said in an interview aired Sunday. Referring to Republican senators opposed to the bill, he added: “They want to get some points, I think they’ll get some points.”

Senate Republicans launched their plan for dismantling Barack Obama’s health care law Thursday, edging a step closer to their dream of repeal with a bill that would drastically cut Medicaid and end tax increases on the wealthy. (June 22)

So far, five Republican senators are expressing opposition to the Senate GOP plan that would scuttle much of former President Barack Obama’s health law. That’s more than enough to torpedo the measure developed in private by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and deliver a bitter defeat for the president.

The holdouts are expressing willingness to negotiate, but many of them are pushing revisions that could risk alienating moderate Republicans in the process.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said seven to eight additional senators including herself were troubled by provisions in the Senate bill that she believes could cut Medicaid for the poor even more than the House version. Collins, who also opposes proposed cuts to Planned Parenthood, said she was awaiting the CBO analysis before taking a final position. But she said it will be “extremely difficult” for the White House to be able to find a narrow path to attract both conservatives and moderates.

The CBO cost estimate, including an analysis on the number of people likely to be covered, is expected to be released as early as Monday.

“It’s hard for me to see the bill passing this week,” Collins said.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., one of the five senators opposing the bill, said he also wants to review the CBO score.

“I would like to delay,” he said. “These bills aren’t going to fix the problem. They’re not addressing the root cause,” he said, referring to rising health care costs. “They’re doing the same old Washington thing, throwing more money at the problem.”

In the broadcast interview, Trump did not indicate what types of changes to the Senate bill may be in store, but affirmed that he had described a House-passed bill as “mean.”

“I want to see a bill with heart,” he said, confirming a switch from his laudatory statements about the House bill at a Rose Garden ceremony with House GOP leaders last month. “Health care’s a very complicated subject from the standpoint that you move it this way, and this group doesn’t like it.”

“And honestly, nobody can be totally happy,” Trump said.

McConnell has said he’s willing to make changes to win support, and in the week ahead, plenty of backroom bargaining is expected. He is seeking to push a final package through the Senate before the July 4 recess.

Addressing reporters Sunday, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican said passing a health care bill won’t get any easier if Republican leaders delay a Senate vote on the GOP health care plan. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said there is “a sense of urgency” to push forward but acknowledged the outcome is “going to be close.”

He told reporters at a private gathering hosted by the libertarian Koch brothers in Colorado that Trump will be “important” in securing the final votes.

“We’re trying to hold him back a little bit,” Cornyn said with a smile.

The Senate bill resembles legislation the House approved last month. A CBO analysis of the House measure predicts an additional 23 million people over the next decade would have no health care coverage, and recent polling shows only around 1 in 4 Americans views the House bill favorably.

The legislation would phase out extra federal money that more than 30 states receive for expanding Medicaid to additional low-income earners. It would also slap annual spending caps on the overall Medicaid program, which since its inception in 1965 has provided states with unlimited money to cover eligible costs.

Conservative Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said he is opposing the Senate bill because it “is not anywhere close to repeal” of the Affordable Care Act. He says the bill offers too many tax credits that help poorer people to buy insurance.

“If we get to impasse, if we go to a bill that is more repeal and less big government programs, yes, I’ll consider partial repeal,” he said. “I’m not voting for something that looks just like Obamacare.”

Trump said he thinks Republicans in the Senate are doing the best they can to push through the bill.

“I don’t think they’re that far off. Famous last words, right? But I think they’re going to get there,” Trump said of Republican Senate leaders. “We don’t have too much of a choice, because the alternative is the dead carcass of Obamacare.”

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York said Democrats have been clear they will cooperate with Republicans if they agree to drop a repeal of the Affordable Care Act and instead work to improve it. Still, Schumer acknowledged it was too close to call as to whether Republicans could muster enough support on their own to pass the bill.

He said they had “at best, a 50-50 chance.”

Trump was interviewed by “Fox & Friends,” while Collins, Schumer and Paul appeared on ABC’s “This Week.” Johnson spoke on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

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Associated Press writer Steve Peoples in Colorado Springs, Colorado, contributed to this report.

Authorities delayed investigating gay ‘demons’ case

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SPINDALE, N.C. (AP) — For two years, Matthew Fenner said he pleaded with authorities to investigate his allegations that a group of fellow congregants at the Word of Faith Fellowship church had punched, slapped and choked him to expel his “homosexual demons.”

An Associated Press investigation found that Rutherford County investigators and then-District Attorney Brad Greenway delayed investigating and told Fenner his only option was to pursue misdemeanor charges against the church members he said assaulted him for nearly two hours in the evangelical church’s sanctuary.

The AP’s conclusions are based on more than a dozen interviews and court documents, along with a series of secretly made recordings that were provided of Fenner’s meetings with law enforcement authorities, including Rutherford County Sheriff Chris Francis.

In February, the AP detailed how many Word of Faith Fellowship congregants were regularly attacked both physically and verbally in an attempt to “purify” sinners by beating out devils.

The church has come under scrutiny by law enforcement and social services authorities on numerous occasions with little effect, mostly because followers refused to cooperate. But Fenner’s relentless pursuit eventually led to the indictment of five congregants, who were charged with kidnapping and assault.

“The whole investigation should have taken a month,” said Michael Davis, who spent 15 years as a Rutherford County sheriff’s investigator before retiring last year, and was not involved in Fenner’s case. “They should have interviewed witnesses. They should have gone to the church. They should have written up a report and sent it over to the sheriff, then to the DA. But that didn’t happen. None of that happened.”

Greenway said he couldn’t recall details of the Fenner case, but initially believed it wasn’t a “big deal” based on what the sheriff told him. Francis said Greenway made the decision not to pursue charges early on.

In May, more than four years after Fenner said he was assaulted, longtime minister Brooke Covington became the first of the five church members to go on trial in proceedings that attracted national attention due to AP’s investigation.

Superior Court Judge Gary Gavenus declared a mistrial when the jury foreman shared three unauthorized documents during deliberations, and a retrial is scheduled for Sept. 11.

The judge also issued a gag order that is being challenged by the AP preventing witnesses, prosecutors and jurors from discussing the case. The witnesses interviewed for this story talked to AP before that order was issued.

During the trial, Fenner, now 24, testified that he didn’t call police the night of the Jan. 27, 2013, attack because he was afraid he would be beaten again. At the time, Fenner said he and nearly 20 other people were living in Covington’s house.

When Fenner fled to his grandparents two days later, they called authorities. But Fenner told the jury that law enforcement — ranging from the Rutherford County sheriff’s office to the Federal Bureau of Investigation — didn’t take his allegations seriously.

The AP found that Fenner not only told law enforcement agencies about what happened to him, but also warned of ongoing abuse in the church.

“Over the last two decades, it appears that different politicians or leaders in the community have had a certain fear of the Word of Faith and for whatever reason that sort of encapsulated them and made them untouchable,” said Jerry Wease, chairman of the Rutherford County Democratic Party and a licensed counselor who has worked with people who left the church.

He added: “If no one is going to stand up and say choking, beating, violence and abuse is illegal and morally wrong, I have one question: Why? Why is every elected official not standing up and saying this?”

The sect was founded in 1979 by Jane Whaley, a former math teacher, and her husband, Sam, a former used car salesman. Under Jane Whaley’s leadership, Word of Faith Fellowship grew from a handful of followers to a congregation of about 750 in North Carolina and nearly 2,000 members in churches in Brazil, Ghana and affiliations in Sweden, Scotland and other countries.

Allegations of abuse at Word of Faith Fellowship date back years, but church leaders have dodged any serious consequences. In another previous story, the AP outlined how congregants were ordered by church leaders to lie to authorities looking into reports of abuse and coached on what to say by two assistant district attorneys and a veteran social worker who are members of the church.

After that report, the prosecutors left their jobs and the social worker resigned. All three had worked in nearby counties.

Fenner was a teenager when he joined the church with his mother and brothers in 2010. During his years at Word of Faith, he testified that he saw congregants, including children, subjected to violent deliverance and a practice called blasting — an ear-piercing verbal onslaught often conducted in hours-long sessions meant to cast out devils.

He said he experienced both himself, but nothing like what happened in January 2013, when he was surrounded by nearly two dozen people while leaving a service.

Danielle Cordes, one of four former church members who told AP they witnessed the attack, said, “They just kept hitting him over and over. It was horrible. … I thought that he was going to be the first person they killed.”

Several witnesses told the AP that when Fenner initially talked to a Rutherford County sheriff’s deputy the day after fleeing the church, he wasn’t ready to press charges.

“I was still confused and hurt. I needed time to think,” he told the AP.

On Jan. 31, 2013, he met with FBI agent Fred Molina, who was investigating a complaint from another congregant who said he was beaten because he was gay. Fenner detailed what happened to him, along with the abuse of other congregants, six people told the AP.

A month later, Fenner called the FBI to check on the progress of the agency’s inquiry and was told a new agent was on the case because Molina was about to retire. That agent never called him back, Fenner said. When he received a letter months after that saying the FBI wasn’t going to investigate, he inquired why and said he was told it was because the other church member who reported being attacked had recanted.

Molina declined to talk to the AP, saying he was told by his former bosses not to discuss the case. But Nancy Burnette, who became familiar with the church through her court work with foster children and who helped some congregants flee, said Molina told her that he was pulled from the investigation. He urged her to “keep fighting” to get the “truth out,” she said.

The FBI referred questions to the Charlotte office of U.S. Attorney Jill Rose, who said Fenner’s allegations did not rise to the level of a federal crime.

Fenner said he talked to sheriff’s detective Joey Sisk about the assault on June 7, 2013, and that he and other former church members pressed Sisk for updates for months.

On an October 2013 recording obtained by the AP, Sisk told Fenner that Greenway, then the district attorney, read Fenner’s statement about the attack and said no criminal charges would be pursued.

Sisk said Fenner’s only recourse was trying to file misdemeanor charges with the local magistrate, which is allowed under North Carolina law, though experts say magistrates rarely issue warrants.

“Ok, so let me get this straight,” Fenner said on the recording. “He’s willing to look at assault by strangulation, slapping, holding me against my will and say, ‘That’s just a misdemeanor?’”

“That’s what he’s telling me,” Sisk responded. Sisk could not answer questions from the AP because he is barred from speaking under the gag order.

The AP found that Fenner kept pushing the issue, telling the directors of two local child-welfare agencies that ministers were abusing children in the church’s K-12 school.

“During my time, I watched a lot of bad things happen to a lot of people,” Fenner told the director of the Rutherford County Department of Social Services in a December 2013 meeting that was secretly taped.

The director, John Carroll, declined to comment to the AP about the meeting.

Fenner also met in January 2014 with Rose, who was then an assistant U.S. attorney in Charlotte, hoping to get help under a federal law governing hate crimes motivated by a victim’s sexual orientation, gender and race.

On a tape obtained by the AP, Fenner, two former church members and two advocates told Rose about widespread abuse at Word of Faith. Rose responded that she was familiar with the church because she was an assistant prosecutor in a North Carolina district that included Spindale in the 1990s.

“We had a horrible time trying to make cases against them,” she said on the recording. “For whatever reason, it was always something.”

At the end of the meeting, Rose said she would think about her next step and promised to stay in touch. But Fenner said she did not return any follow-up calls.

Rose told the AP that she decided Fenner’s allegations did not fully meet the requirements of the federal hate crimes statute for religion or sexual orientation because they contained no element of interstate commerce, involving movement across state lines.

All the while, Fenner had been trying to set up meetings with Greenway and Francis, the sheriff. He finally succeeded in landing a meeting with Francis in August 2014 as he was preparing to start classes at the University of North Carolina.

“I have not looked at one thing in your case file,” the sheriff said in a recording of the meeting obtained by the AP, adding that Greenway “personally reviewed” the allegations and decided not to prosecute.

Then Francis suggested that Fenner file misdemeanor charges with the magistrate. “I’ll walk you over there right now,” he said.

When Fenner returned to Spindale on his fall break in October, he camped outside Greenway’s office with five family members and friends. Within an hour, they said, Greenway met with them.

The AP talked to three people who attended the meeting, who said they told Greenway that both Francis and Sisk earmarked the district attorney as the one who declined to prosecute.

Although Sisk had told Fenner a year earlier that Greenway had read Fenner’s statement, Greenway told them he didn’t know details of the case because he hadn’t seen an incident report. Fenner said he soon discovered that either no one at the sheriff’s office had created a report or it couldn’t be located.

“Greenway refused to do anything until he got one,” said Fenner’s aunt, Lynn Rape. So Fenner and his family walked across the street to the sheriff’s office and found a “sympathetic” deputy who took his statement, Rape said.

In an interview with the AP this February, Greenway said he could not recall many details about the Fenner case.

“The sheriff told me early on it was not a felony kidnapping case,” he said. When asked how he came to that conclusion, Greenway responded: “I don’t know.”

Francis disputed that characterization. He told the AP that the protocol is for his department to present information to the district attorney’s office for a determination on whether to file charges. The sheriff also said he had limited involvement in the investigation.

As for Greenway, he told the AP that the church was influential and that its accusers weren’t always reliable. The church “would make sure they would bring in all these well-dressed congregants to tell a different story. Don’t take this the wrong way — and I knew people were being abused down there — but you just got tired going against them,” he said.

In December 2014, a month after Greenway lost his re-election bid, a grand jury indicted the five Word of Faith Fellowship members.

“If it wasn’t for our pressure,” Rape said, “nothing would have happened.”

Added Davis, the former sheriff’s investigator: “They just wanted the case to go away. They never expected Fenner to push so hard.”

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Mohr reported from Jackson, Mississippi.

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Read more of AP’s investigation of the Word of Faith Fellowship here: http://apne.ws/2lmuzDA

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The AP National Investigative Team can be reached at investigate@ap.org

Pakistan raises death toll to 157 from fuel truck fire

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MULTAN, Pakistan (AP) — Pakistan’s prime minister cut short a trip abroad to rush to the side of victims of a massive fuel tanker fire as authorities on Monday raised the death toll from the blaze to 157.

The truck, carrying some 25,000 liters (6,600 gallons) of gasoline, was traveling from the southern port city of Karachi to Lahore, the Punjab provincial capital, when the driver lost control and crashed on a highway outside the town of Bahawalpur early on Sunday.

Alerted by an announcement over a mosque loudspeaker that an overturned tanker truck was leaking fuel, scores of villagers rushed to the scene to collect the spilled fuel when the blaze ignited. The wreck had exploded, engulfing people in flames as they screamed in terror.

Dr. Nahid Ahmed at the Nishter Hospital in the city of Multan, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) away from the site of the fire, said four of the victims that were brought from Bahawalpur had died overnight, bringing the death toll to 157. Ahmed said 50 more severely burned victims were being treated at his hospital.

Rescue official Mohammad Baqar at the Bahawalpur hospital said 20 more victims were transported on Monday by a military C-130 plane to Lahore for better medical care.

Prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who visited the Victoria Hospital in Bahawalpur on Monday, ordered that more of those most critically hurt be transferred to bigger hospitals in the area, Baqar said.

Sharif cut short his trip abroad and rushed back home, reaching Bahwalpur on Monday to visit the victims and console the affected families. Sharif also announced 2 million rupees — almost $20,000 — as financial assistance for each family that had lost a family member in the highway inferno. Sharif also handed over checks of 1 million rupees ($10,000) for each burned victim being treated at the hospital in Bahawalpur.

“This is not compensation, no compensation is possible for precious human life, but it is to help the affected families in distress,” Sharif said, expressing his prayers for those killed and for a speedy recovery of the burned victims.

Many of the bodies were burned beyond recognition and will have to be identified through DNA testing, said Baqar.

“I have never seen anything like it in my life. Victims trapped in the fireball. They were screaming for help,” said Abdul Malik, a police officer who was among the first to arrive on the scene of horror in Pakistan’s Punjab province.

When the flames subsided, he said, “we saw bodies everywhere. So many were just skeletons. The people who were alive were in really bad shape.”

Some of the most badly burned were immediately evacuated by army helicopters to Multan. The dead included men, women and children.

The disaster struck on the eve of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr that follows the holy month of Ramadan. While Saudi Arabia and most other Muslim countries started celebrating the holiday Sunday, Pakistanis are marking it on Monday.

The scope of Sunday’s tragedy was a first in Pakistan but in cases of massive oil leaks in impoverished countries, many of the poorest and least educated often rush to the scene to collect the spilled fuel, unaware of the grave danger they face. In recent years, such incidents have been reported in Nigeria and Sudan.

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Associated Press Writer Zarar Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report.

Dozens missing after tourist boat sinks in Colombia

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GUATAPE, Colombia (AP) — A tourist boat packed with about 160 passengers for the holiday weekend capsized Sunday on a reservoir near the Colombian city of Medellin, leaving at least six people dead and 31 missing, officials said.

Rescuers including firefighters and air force pilots in helicopters searched for survivors at the Guatape reservoir where El Almirante ferry sank. A flotilla of recreational boats and jet skis rushed to the scene, pulling people from the boat as it went down and avoiding an even deadlier tragedy.

Dramatic videos circulating on social media show the turquoise and yellow trimmed party boat rocking back and forth as people crawled down from a fourth-floor roof as it sank in a matter of minutes. Survivors described hearing a loud explosion near the men’s bathroom that knocked out power a few minutes after the boat began its cruise around the giant lake. As water flooded on board, pressure built and people were sucked under by the sinking ship.

“Those on the first and second floors sank immediately,” survivor Lorena Salazar told local media. “All we could do was scream and call for help….it was completely chaotic.”

Margarita Moncada, the head of the disaster response agency in Antioquia state, said that according to a preliminary report 99 people were rescued and another 40 managed to find a way to shore on their own. Speaking to reporters from the reservoir, she said nine people had been killed and around 28 were missing.

But later Sunday President Juan Manuel Santos arrived to Guatape and said 122 people were either rescued or found their way to shore. Six had died and another 31 were missing, he said. The discrepancies in the number of fatalities could not be immediately reconciled.

It’s unclear what caused the boat to sink.

Some people who witnessed the tragedy from the nearby shore said the boat appeared to be overloaded but Santos said it was sailing well below capacity. None of the passengers were wearing a life vest. Complicating the search, there wasn’t even a passenger list.

“Nobody really knows what happened,” said Santos, adding that naval officials were brought in to carry out an investigation.

Carlos Espinosa, an independent journalist from Guatape, said about a month ago townspeople awoke to find the El Almirante filled with water and sinking at its dock, suggesting that perhaps the vessel wasn’t ready to return to the water.

“What makes you angry is there are no controls by the government,” he said.

As night fell, the usually festive town was silent as people began to register the magnitude of the loss. Among those huddled under the rain near the port looking for information about loved ones was Alberto Villegas, who was separated from a cousin and uncle in the mad rush to abandon the sinking ship.

“All we ask is that they don’t give up the search,” said Villegas.

Authorities were at a loss to say exactly how many people were on the boat and asked passengers or their loved ones to report to a rescue center hastily set up along the shore. They also made a call for scuba divers to assist with the search.

The reservoir surrounding the soaring rocky outcrop of El Penol is a popular weekend destination a little more than an hour from Medellin. It was especially busy Sunday as Colombians celebrated a long holiday weekend.

Armario reported from Bogota, Colombia and AP Writer Joshua Goodman contributed to this report from Caracas, Venezuela.

Travel ban, church-state case await action by Supreme Court

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Before taking their long summer break, the Supreme Court justices are poised to act on the Trump administration’s travel ban and a separation of church and state dispute involving a Missouri church playground.

But something could overshadow rulings in those high-profile cases: If Justice Anthony Kennedy were to use the court’s last public session on Monday to announce his retirement.

Kennedy has given no public sign that he would step down this year and give President Donald Trump his second high court pick in the first months of his administration. Kennedy’s departure would allow conservatives to take firm control of the court.

But Kennedy turns 81 next month and has been on the court for nearly 30 years. Several of his former law clerks have said they think he is contemplating stepping down in the next year or so. Kennedy did not address the retirement rumors when he and his clerks gathered over the weekend for a reunion, according to three clerks who were there. The decision to push up the reunion by a year helped spark talk he might be leaving the court.

The justices on Monday were expected to decide the case of Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Missouri, which was excluded from a state grant program to pay for soft surfaces on playgrounds run by not-for-profit groups.

The case was being closely watched by advocates of school vouchers, who hope the court will make it easier to use state money to pay for private, religious schooling in states that now prohibit it.

Missouri has since changed its policy under Republican Gov. Eric Greitens so that churches may now apply for the money.

Also expected in the next few days, though there’s no deadline by which the court must decide, was a ruling on whether to allow the administration to immediately enforce a 90-day ban on visitors from six mostly Muslim countries.

Justice Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee, could play a pivotal role in both the travel ban and church playground cases.

In all, six cases that were argued between November and April remain undecided. Three of those, all involving immigrants or foreigners, were heard by an eight-justice court, before Gorsuch joined the bench in April.

If the eight justices are evenly divided, those cases could be argued a second time in the fall, with Gorsuch available to provide the tie-breaking vote.

Business: Global markets higher after Wall Street rebound

BEIJING (AP) — Global stock markets rose Monday after Wall Street rebounded from losses to end last week higher on stronger oil and gas prices.

KEEPING SCORE: France’s CAC-40 rose 0.8 percent to 5,309.52 and the FTSE 100 in London gained 0.6 percent to 7,467.23. Germany’s DAX advanced 0.6 percent to 12,806.92. On Friday, the DAX lost 0.5 percent, the CAC-40 declined 0.3 percent and the FTSE 100 slipped 0.2 percent. On Wall Street, the future for the Dow Jones industrial average rose 0.3 percent and that for the Standard & Poor’s 500 index gained 0.2 percent.

ASIA’S DAY: The Shanghai Composite Index rose 0.9 percent to 3,185.44 and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng added 0.7 percent to 25,862.49. Tokyo’s Nikkei 225 advanced 0.1 percent to 20,153.35 and Seoul’s Kospi gained 0.4 percent to 2,388.66. Sydney’s S&P-ASX 200 rose 0.1 percent to 5,720.20 and benchmarks in New Zealand, Taiwan and Bangkok also gained. Markets in India, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia were closed for a holiday.

WALL STREET: Stocks edged higher Friday after energy companies clawed back some of the week’s losses, propelled by higher prices for oil and natural gas. The S&P 500 rose 0.2 percent while the Dow slipped less than 0.1 percent and the Nasdaq gained 0.5 percent. Energy stocks in the S&P 500 climbed 0.8 percent. Health care stocks climbed as the Senate unveiled its proposal to revamp how Americans get medical care. Technology companies are forecast to report strong earnings growth.

TAKATA BANKRUPTCY: Japanese air bag maker Takata Corp. filed for protection from its creditors in Tokyo and the United States on Monday, overwhelmed by lawsuits and recall costs related to its production of defective air bag inflators linked to 16 deaths. Takata confirmed most of its assets will be bought by rival Key Safety Systems for about $1.6 billion (175 billion yen). Takata’s inflators can explode with too much force when they fill up an air bag, spewing out shrapnel. So far 100 million inflators have been recalled worldwide. The recalls, which are being handled by 19 automakers, will continue. Experts say the companies must pay for a significant portion of the recalls because Takata’s assets are inadequate.

OIL: Oil prices last week hit their lowest point since August before rebounding but still are about 15 percent below where they were a year ago on expectations supplies exceed demand. That is a boon to China and other energy-intensive manufacturing economies but spurs questions about whether exporters will be able to pay their bills. Lower prices also depress profits for energy companies. On Wall Street, shares of EQT, a producer of natural gas and crude, jumped 8 percent on Friday. Cabot Oil & Gas climbed 3.8 percent.

ENERGY: Benchmark U.S. crude rose another 46 cents to $43.47 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract gained 27 cents on Friday to $43.01. Brent crude, used to price international oils, advanced 34 cents to $46.88 in London. It added 32 cents on Friday to close at $45.54.

CURRENCY: The dollar rose to 111.67 yen from Friday’s 111.27. The euro declined to $1.1186 from $1.1194.

Analysis: McConnell stakes it all on health care bill

WASHINGTON (AP) — Pass or fail, there will be one man singularly responsible for the fate of health care legislation in the Senate: Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

The shrewd Kentuckian has made himself practically the sole arbiter of the bill and will be largely responsible for the outcome, whether it’s a win, a loss, or a win that turns into a loss over time as unpopular consequences of the legislation take hold.

McConnell decided to keep the bill close, writing it in secret with a close circle of aides and eschewing committee hearings, despite grumbling from fellow Republicans. GOP senators were largely in the dark until the legislation was unveiled Thursday and were still getting briefed, without seeing copies of the bill, when it was posted publicly online.

McConnell made it clear to President Donald Trump on more than one occasion that Senate business should be left to him, and as a result Trump largely stayed out of the process, unlike during the House’s health care deliberations.

And McConnell made the decision to release the bill this week and push toward a vote next week, ignoring pleas from some lawmakers for more time. After seven years of GOP promises to repeal and replace former President Barack Obama’s health care law, McConnell said, they’d already had time enough.

“Republicans believe we have a responsibility to act — and we are,” McConnell said Thursday on the Senate floor.

For McConnell, 75, whose reputation as a legislative tactician has grown to near legendary proportions, the health care bill may be the biggest test of all. He’s dealing with an unpopular piece of legislation that affects nearly every American personally and a diverse conference that includes moderates and conservatives, both of whom have problems with the bill.

And, he has almost no margin for error. McConnell will be able to lose only two senators from his 52-member conference and still pass the bill, with Vice President Mike Pence casting the tie-breaking vote. Democrats are unanimously opposed.

“It’s like walking through a minefield for him,” said Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina. “We all have different constituencies, and the ability to thread the needle for all those constituencies is a very difficult task.”

Nonetheless, allies say if anyone can get the job done, it’s McConnell. In a decade leading Senate Republicans, McConnell has displayed his legislative skills time and again. His record is not perfect, but he commands unquestioned respect from most of his conference, especially after his decision to hold a Supreme Court seat vacant after Antonin Scalia’s death last year paid off when Trump won the presidency and appointed conservative Neil Gorsuch to a lifetime seat.

At the annual Republican congressional retreat earlier this year, colleagues stood up and applauded McConnell for his strategy on the Supreme Court, which some had initially questioned.

And now, on health care, McConnell is moving forward with similar resolve, once again ignoring reservations and second-guessing.

“Somebody has to lead, and somebody has to govern. He’s the leader, and the Republicans are supposed to be governing right now,” said fellow Kentuckian GOP Rep. James Comer.

“If there’s one member of Congress that I believe has the ability to bring us together on a health care bill, it’s Mitch McConnell,” Comer added. “If he can’t do it, then it cannot be done.”

McConnell’s challenges became clear immediately after the bill was released, as four conservative senators announced their opposition to the legislation as drafted. Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, Ted Cruz of Texas, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Rand Paul of Kentucky said they thought the bill didn’t go far enough to undo “Obamacare,” but that they were open to negotiation.

On the other side, moderate-leaning senators like Susan Collins of Maine were also expressing reservations.

For now, the outcome can only be guessed at.

But McConnell has made a career out of navigating such cross currents, especially since obtaining his dream job as majority leader after Republicans won Senate control in 2014.

During the Obama years — whether leading the GOP minority or as Senate majority leader since 2015 — McConnell was a key player on several must-pass items: a 2011 budget and debt deal; an early 2013 “fiscal cliff” tax bill; and several “omnibus” spending packages.

He leaned on his relationship with Vice President Joe Biden, especially in the 2013 fiscal bill, after which Democrats like former Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada griped that Biden gave McConnell too much.

McConnell also tried to prevent the 2013 government shutdown, but was overridden by tea party forces in the House. And on several occasions he helped orchestrate orderly action on must-do legislation to raise the so-called debt limit.

He doesn’t always prevail. McConnell is not a fan of unnecessary conversation and plays his cards close to his chest, which can create the impression that he has a secret plan up his sleeve when that’s not the case. Confounding his predictions, and on his watch, Congress let the Patriot Act expire two years ago —resulting in a temporary halt to some U.S. spying activities before a substitute bill could pass.

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Associated Press writer Andrew Taylor contributed.

Suicide car bomb in southwest Pakistan kills 11, wounds 20

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QUETTA, Pakistan (AP) — A suicide car bomber struck near the office of the provincial police chief in southwestern Pakistan on Friday, killing at least 11 people and wounding 20, officials said. A breakaway Taliban faction later claimed responsibility for the attack.

The bombing came ahead of the Muslim holiday of Eid-al-Fitr, which follows the holy month of Ramadan, expected to end this weekend.

The explosion near the police chief’s office in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province, was powerful enough that it was heard across the city, shattering windows on nearby buildings, said police spokesman Shahzada Farhat.

Wasim Beg, a spokesman at a government hospital, said the death toll from the bombing had risen to 11 throughout the morning. He said some people remained in critical condition.

TV footage showed several badly damaged cars and a road littered with broken glass.

Hours after the attack, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a breakaway faction of the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility for the bombing. Asad Mansoor, the militants’ spokesman, said the bombing was part of their campaign aimed at enforcing Islamic laws in the country. He vowed more such attacks.

Anwarul Haq Kakar, a spokesman for the provincial government, blamed neighboring India for the blast but offered no evidence to back up the allegation.

Pakistan and India routinely trade charges of interference and inciting attacks on one another’s soil.

On Thursday, Pakistan said that an Indian naval officer, Kulbhushan Jadhav, who was sentenced to death by a Pakistani military court on charges of espionage and sabotage, had petitioned for mercy.

Jadhav, who Pakistan said had crossed into Baluchistan from neighboring Iran, was arrested in March 2016 and sentenced to death in April.

In New Delhi, the Ministry of External Affairs insisted Jadhav was sentenced on “concocted charges” and expressed doubts about the existence of the petition for mercy. It also reiterated that the proceedings against Jadhav have been shrouded “in opacity.”

Baluchistan has long been the scene of a low-level insurgency by Baluch nationalists and separatists, who want a bigger share of the regional resources or outright independence, but also attacks blamed on the Pakistani Taliban and others. Those militant groups include Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which is considered a close ally of IS, as well as Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, which has taken credit for several previous attacks in Baluchistan and elsewhere and has bases in Pakistan’s tribal regions.

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Associated Press writers Katy Daigle in New Delhi and Munir Ahmed in Islamabad contributed to this report.

Turkey rejects Gulf Arab states’ demands over its Qatar base

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Turkey on Friday rejected a key demand by several Arab states involved in a major dispute with Qatar, saying Ankara has no plans to shut down its military base in the small Gulf country.

The demand that Turkey pull out its forces was one of a steep list of ultimatums from Saudi Arabia and others who have cut ties with Doha that they say must be fulfilled within the next 10 days. Qatar has confirmed receiving the 13-point list of demands on Thursday from Kuwait, which is mediating the dispute, but has not yet commented on them.

The list says Turkey’s military base in Qatar must be closed immediately, and insists that Doha also shutter broadcaster Al-Jazeera, cut back diplomatic relations with Iran and sever all ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the 13-point list in Arabic from one of the countries involved in the dispute.

Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik said on Friday that the Turkish base aims to train Qatari soldiers and increase the tiny Persian Gulf nation’s security. According to the Milliyet newspaper’s online edition, he also said that “no one should be disturbed by” the Turkish presence in Qatar.

Turkey has sided with Qatar in the dispute and its parliament has ratified legislation allowing the deployment of Turkish troops to the base. The military said a contingent of 23 soldiers reached Doha on Thursday.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain broke ties with Qatar and restricted access to land, sea and air routes earlier this month over allegations the Persian Gulf country funds terrorism — an accusation that President Donald Trump has echoed. The move has left Qatar, whose only land border is shared with Saudi Arabia, under a de facto blockade by its neighbors.

Qatar vehemently denies funding or supporting extremism. But the country acknowledges that it allows members of some extremist groups such as Hamas to reside in Qatar, arguing that fostering dialogue with those groups is key to resolving global conflicts.

Those countries have now given Qatar 10 days to comply with all of the demands, which include paying an unspecified sum in compensation.

Underscoring the growing seriousness of the crisis, state-run Qatar Petroleum acknowledged early Friday that some critically important employees “may have been asked to postpone” trips abroad “for operational reasons” as a result of the embargo against Qatar.

It described the move as “a very limited measure that could take place in any oil and gas operating company” to ensure uninterrupted energy supplies to customers.

Under Qatari law, foreigners working in the country must secure their employer’s consent to receive an exit permit allowing them to leave. The practice, which has been in place for years, has been assailed by rights groups who say it limits workers’ freedom of movement and leaves them open to abuse.

Qatari officials in Doha did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the AP. But the list included conditions that the gas-rich nation had already insisted would never be met, including shutting down Al-Jazeera. The network also had no immediate comment.

Qatar’s government has said it won’t negotiate until Arab nations lift their blockade. The demands were also likely to elicit Qatari objections that its neighbors are trying to dictate its sovereign affairs by imposing such far-reaching requirements.

“At the moment, there is no likelihood of bringing the matter back to the table,” said Isik, the Turkish defense minister.

Earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had warned the demands must be “reasonable and actionable,” underscoring the American administration’s frustration at how long it was taking Saudi Arabia and others to formalize a list of demands, complicating U.S. efforts to bring about a resolution to the worst Gulf diplomatic crisis in years.

According to the list, Qatar must refuse to naturalize citizens from the four countries — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt — and expel those currently in Qatar, in what the countries describe as an effort to keep Qatar from meddling in their internal affairs.

They are also demanding that Qatar hand over all individuals who are wanted by those four countries for terrorism; stop funding any extremist entities that are designated as terrorist groups by the U.S.; and provide detailed information about opposition figures that Qatar has funded, ostensibly in Saudi Arabia and the other nations.

Qatar’s neighbors have also accused it of backing al-Qaida and the Islamic State group’s ideology throughout the Middle East. Those umbrella groups also appear on the list of entities whose ties with Qatar must be extinguished, along with Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the al-Qaida branch in Syria, once known as the Nusra Front.

More broadly, the list demands that Qatar align itself politically, economically and otherwise with the Gulf Cooperation Council, a regional club that has focused on countering the influence of Iran. Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-led nations have accused Qatar of inappropriately close ties to Iran, a Shiite-led country and Saudi Arabia’s regional foe.

The Iran provisions in the document say Qatar must shut down diplomatic posts in Iran, kick out from Qatar any members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard, and only conduct trade and commerce with Iran that complies with U.S. sanctions. Under the 2015 nuclear deal, nuclear-related sanctions on Iran were eased but other sanctions remain in place.

The Revolutionary Guard has deployed its forces to conflict zones such as Syria and Iraq. It is not known to have a presence in Qatar.

Cutting ties to Iran would prove incredibly difficult. Qatar shares a massive offshore natural gas field with Iran which supplies the small nation that will host the 2022 FIFA World Cup its wealth.

Also, not only must Qatar shut down the Doha-based satellite broadcaster, the list says, but also all of its affiliates. That presumably would mean Qatar would have to close down Al-Jazeera’s English-language sister network.

Supported by Qatar’s government, Al-Jazeera is one of the most widely watched Arabic channels, but it has long drawn the ire of Mideast governments for airing alternative viewpoints. The network’s critics say it advances Qatar’s goals by promoting Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood that pose a populist threat to rulers in other Arab countries.

The list also demands that Qatar stop funding a host of other news outlets including Arabi21 and Middle East Eye.

Beirut-based political analyst George Alam said Qatar is unlikely to agree to the demands.

“They are impossible to be met because they interfere in Qatar’s foreign policy and Qatar considers its foreign policy a sovereign matter that is nonnegotiable, he said.

If Qatar agrees to comply, the list asserts that it will be audited once a month for the first year, and then once per quarter in the second year after it takes effect. For the following 10 years, Qatar would be monitored annually for compliance.

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Acting as a mediator, Kuwait has presented Qatar a long-awaited list of demands from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, four Arab nations that cut ties with Qatar in early June. A copy of the list was obtained by The Associated Press and translated from Arabic.

A look at the demands:

— Curb diplomatic ties with Iran and close its diplomatic missions there. Expel members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard from Qatar and cut off any joint military cooperation with Iran. Only trade and commerce with Iran that complies with U.S. and international sanctions will be permitted.

— Sever all ties to “terrorist organizations,” specifically the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic State group, al-Qaida, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Formally declare those entities as terrorist groups.

— Shut down Al-Jazeera and its affiliate stations.

— Shut down news outlets that Qatar funds, directly and indirectly, including Arabi21, Rassd, Al Araby Al-Jadeed and Middle East Eye.

— Immediately terminate the Turkish military presence currently in Qatar and end any joint military cooperation with Turkey inside of Qatar.

— Stop all means of funding for individuals, groups or organizations that have been designated as terrorists by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, the United States and other countries.

— Hand over “terrorist figures” and wanted individuals from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain to their countries of origin. Freeze their assets, and provide any desired information about their residency, movements and finances.

— End interference in sovereign countries’ internal affairs. Stop granting citizenship to wanted nationals from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain. Revoke Qatari citizenship for existing nationals where such citizenship violates those countries’ laws.

— Stop all contacts with the political opposition in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain. Hand over all files detailing Qatar’s prior contacts with and support for those opposition groups.

— Pay reparations and compensation for loss of life and other, financial losses caused by Qatar’s policies in recent years. The sum will be determined in coordination with Qatar.

— Align itself with the other Gulf and Arab countries militarily, politically, socially and economically, as well as on economic matters, in line with an agreement reached with Saudi Arabia in 2014.

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Lederman reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey; Hussain Al-Qatari in Kuwait City; Jon Gambrell in Dubai; Mustafa Najjar in Beirut; and Vivian Salama in Washington contributed to this report.

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Follow Josh Lederman on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joshledermanAP .

Follow Adam Schreck on Twitter at www.twitter.com/adamschreck .

Ending guessing game, Trump admits there are no Comey tapes

WASHINGTON (AP) — Ending a month-long guessing game that he started with a cryptic tweet and that ensnared his administration in yet more controversy, President Donald Trump declared he never made and doesn’t have recordings of his private conversations with ousted former FBI Director James Comey,

“With all of the recently reported electronic surveillance, intercepts, unmasking and illegal leaking of information,” Trump tweeted Thursday, he has “no idea” whether there are “tapes” or recordings of the two men’s conversations. But he proclaimed “I did not make, and do not have, any such recordings.”

That left open the possibility that recordings were made without his knowledge or by someone else. But he largely appeared to close the saga that began in May, just days after he fired Comey, then the head of an investigation into Trump associates’ ties to Russian officials. Trump has disputed Comey’s version of a January dinner during which the director said the president had asked for a pledge of loyalty.

Trump responded at that time, via Twitter, that Comey “better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”

That apparently angry missive triggered a series of consequences, each weightier than the last. Comey has suggested that the tweet prompted him to ask an associate to release damaging information to the media. The resulting news reports built pressure on a top Justice Department official to appoint an independent prosecutor to oversee the Russia investigation. That special counsel, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, is now reportedly investigating Trump’s own actions in a probe that could dog his presidency for the foreseeable future.

Trump showed concern about that situation as well, telling Fox News Channel in an interview that Mueller is “very, very good friends with Comey which is bothersome.”

Trump’s declaration now that there are no recordings appears to settle a key dynamic in that investigation: It’s now the president’s word against Comey’s notes.

Without recordings, Comey’s version of his conversations with Trump — which he documented at the time, shared with close associates and testified about to Congress — will likely play a key role as prosecutors consider whether Trump inappropriately pressured the lawman to drop the investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Investigators will also weigh the credibility of Comey against a president who has shown a wobbly commitment to accuracy.

Trump’s tweets, old and new, left many perplexed about whether there was motive or strategy behind the whole affair. The president appeared to enjoy ginning up mystery and spinning Washington reporters about the possibility there was a trove of surreptitiously recorded Oval Office conversations.

“I think he was in his way instinctively trying to rattle Comey,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a longtime Trump confidant, said before the Thursday tweets. “He’s not a professional politician. He doesn’t come back and think about Nixon and Watergate. His instinct is: ‘I’ll out-bluff you.’”

Thursday’s revelation came a day ahead of a deadline to turn over any tapes to the House intelligence committee. The timing drew attention away from the release of the Senate’s health care bill, which the White House hopes can provide Trump a much-needed legislative victory to boost his sagging poll numbers.

But the episode tired Trump’s defenders and aides, who for weeks have been dodging questions about the recordings. Advisers who speak to Trump regularly have said he had not mentioned the existence of tapes during their conversations. More than a half-dozen aides said they were unaware of any recording devices. All demanded anonymity to speak about private discussions with the president.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Thursday she didn’t think Trump regretted the initial tweet. As for his possible motivation, she would only say it was perhaps about “raising the question of doubt in general.” She also could not explain Trump’s new reference to possible surveillance.

Trump’s earlier suggestion about tapes evoked the secret White House recordings that led to Richard Nixon’s downfall in the Watergate scandal. Under a post-Watergate law, the Presidential Records Act, recordings made by presidents belong to the people and can eventually be made public. Destroying them would be a crime.

Mark Warner of Virginia, top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, said, “This administration never ceases to amaze me.” He said the tweeting is an example of Trump’s “willingness to just kind of make things up.”

“It’s remarkable the president was so flippant to make his original tweet and then frankly stonewall the media and the country for weeks,” Warner said. “I don’t know how this serves the country’s interests.”

This is not the first time that Trump, the former star of reality TV and tabloids, has manufactured a melodrama that begins with bluster but often ends with a whimper.

Trump flirted with presidential runs in 1988 and 2000 before abandoning them. He offered to help rebuild the World Trade Center in 2004 but never followed through. And his embrace of birtherism, which questioned whether Obama was born in the United States and was eligible to become president, fueled his own political rise. He never produced any evidence.

The pattern has continued since Trump’s election.

On New Year’s Eve, he claimed he knew “things that other people don’t know” about foreign hacking of last year’s election, and that the information would be revealed “on Tuesday or Wednesday.” Those days came and went without an answer. In March, he tweeted the incendiary claim that he was wiretapped by his predecessor, a charge he’s never supported.

He’s brought trouble to his White House.

At a Senate committee hearing this month, Comey suggested that the president’s reference to possible recordings inspired him to disclose to the media through an intermediary a memo he had written of their Oval Office conversation. In that meeting, according to the memo, Trump told Comey he hoped he would let the Flynn investigation go. Comey said he understood that to be a request to drop the probe.

One week after the memo was disclosed, the Justice Department appointed Mueller as special counsel to take over the investigation into contacts between Russia and the Trump political campaign.

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Associated Press writers Jill Colvin, Ken Thomas and Deb Riechmann contributed reporting.

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Follow Lemire on Twitter at http://twitter.com/@JonLemire

McConnell faces hunt for GOP votes for Senate health bill

WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has finally unwrapped his plan for dismantling President Barack Obama’s health care law. Now comes his next challenge — persuading enough Republicans to back the measure and avert a defeat that would be shattering for President Donald Trump and the GOP.

McConnell released the bill Thursday, drafted after weeks of closed-door meetings searching for middle ground between conservative senators seeking an aggressive repeal of Obama’s statute and centrists warning about going too far. Erasing Obama’s law has been a marquee pledge for Trump and virtually the entire party for years.

Senate Republican leaders are ready to release their plan for rolling back much of President Barack Obama’s health care law. (June 22)

The bill would cut and redesign the Medicaid program for low-income and disabled people, and erase taxes on higher earners and the medical industry that helped pay for the roughly 20 million Americans covered by Obama’s law. It would let insurers provide fewer benefits, offer less generous subsidies than Obama to help people buy policies and end the statute’s tax penalties on people who don’t buy policies and on larger firms that don’t offer coverage to workers.

“I am very supportive of the Senate #HealthcareBill. Look forward to making it really special! Remember, ObamaCare is dead,” Trump tweeted late Thursday.

Shortly after the 142-page bill was distributed, more than a half-dozen GOP lawmakers signaled concerns or initial opposition. McConnell, R-Ky., has little margin for error: Facing unanimous Democratic opposition, “no” votes by just three of the 52 GOP senators would sink the legislation.

McConnell, eager to approve the legislation next week, indicated he was open to changes before it reaches the Senate floor. But he said it was time to act.

“No amount of 11th hour reality-denying or buck-passing by Democrats is going to change the fact that more Americans are going to get hurt unless we do something,” he said.

Democrats said the GOP measure would take coverage away from people and raise their out-of-pocket costs, all in the name of paring taxes on the wealthy.

“This bill may change, but Republicans will only be putting lipstick on a devastating blow to Americans’ health care,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

Four conservative senators expressed opposition but openness to talks: Ted Cruz of Texas, Kentucky’s Rand Paul, Mike Lee of Utah and Ron Johnson from Wisconsin. They said the measure missed delivering a GOP promise to Americans “to repeal Obamacare and lower their health care costs.”

In an interview with Fox News Channel, Trump was asked about the four conservatives opposing the bill. “Well, they’re also four good guys, four friends of mine and I think that they’ll probably get there,” he said. “We’ll have to see.”

Sens. Dean Heller of Nevada, facing a competitive 2018 re-election battle, Rob Portman of Ohio and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia expressed concerns about the bill’s cuts to Medicaid and drug addiction efforts.

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine reiterated her opposition to language blocking federal money for Planned Parenthood, which many Republicans oppose because it provides abortions. The bill would also bar using tax credits to buy coverage that includes abortions.

Obama held nothing back as he weighed in on Facebook.

“If there’s a chance you might get sick, get old or start a family, this bill will do you harm,” he wrote. He said amendments during the upcoming debate “cannot change the fundamental meanness at the core of this legislation.”

The House approved its version of the bill last month. Though Trump lauded its passage in a Rose Garden ceremony, he called the House measure “mean” last week.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said that under the House bill, 23 million fewer people would have coverage by 2026. The budget office analysis of the Senate measure is expected early next week.

The Senate bill would phase out extra money Obama’s law provides to 31 states that agreed to expand coverage under the federal-state Medicaid program. Those additional funds would continue through 2020, then gradually fall and disappear entirely in 2024.

The measure largely uses people’s incomes as the yardstick for helping those without workplace coverage to buy private insurance. That would focus the aid more on people with lower incomes than the House legislation, which bases its subsidies on age.

Caroline Pearson, a senior vice president of the consulting firm Avalare Health, said the Senate subsidies would be smaller than Obama’s because they’re keyed to the cost of a bare-bones plan and because additional help now provided for deductibles and copayments would eventually be discontinued.

The bill would let states get waivers to ignore some coverage requirements under Obama’s law, such as specific health services insurers must now cover.

States could not get exemptions to Obama’s prohibition against charging higher premiums for some people with pre-existing medical conditions, but the subsidies would be lower, making coverage less affordable, Pearson said.

For the next two years, the Senate would also provide money that insurers use to help lower out-of-pocket costs for millions of lower income people. Trump has been threatening to discontinue those payments, and some insurance companies have cited uncertainty as a reason they are abandoning some markets and boosting premiums.

Supreme Court could reveal action on travel ban at any time

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court has almost certainly decided what to do about President Donald Trump’s travel ban affecting citizens of six mostly Muslim countries.

The country is waiting for the court to make its decision public about the biggest legal controversy in the first five months of Trump’s presidency. The issue has been tied up in the courts since Trump’s original order in January sparked widespread protests just days after he took office.

The justices met Thursday morning for their last regularly scheduled private conference in June and probably took a vote about whether to let the Trump administration immediately enforce the ban and hear the administration’s appeal of lower court rulings blocking the ban.

The court’s decision could come any time and is expected no later than late next week, after which the justices will scatter for speeches, teaching gigs and vacations.

Exactly when could depend on whether there are justices who disagree with the outcome and want to say so publicly. It might take time for such an opinion to be written — and perhaps responded to by someone in the majority.

It takes five votes to reinstate the ban, but only four to set the case for argument. Justice Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s nominee who was confirmed in April, is taking part in the highest-profile issue yet in his three months on the court.

The case is at the Supreme Court because two federal appellate courts have ruled against the Trump travel policy, which would impose a 90-day pause in travel from citizens of Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, said the ban was “rooted in religious animus” toward Muslims and pointed to Trump’s campaign promise to impose a ban on Muslims entering the country as well as tweets and remarks he has made since becoming president.

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the travel policy does not comply with federal immigration law, including a prohibition on nationality-based discrimination. That court also put a hold on separate aspects of the policy that would keep all refugees out of the United States for 120 days and cut by more than half, from 110,000 to 50,000, the cap on refugees in the current government spending year that ends Sept. 30.

Trump’s first executive order on travel applied to travelers from the six countries as well as Iraq, and took effect immediately, causing chaos and panic at airports over the last weekend in January as the Homeland Security Department scrambled to figure out who the order covered and how it was to be implemented.

A federal judge blocked it eight days later, an order that was upheld by a 9th circuit panel. Rather than pursue an appeal, the administration said it would revise the policy.

In March, Trump issued a narrower order, but it too has been blocked.

The justices have a range of options. They could immediately allow the administration to stop travel from the six countries and hear arguments on the administration’s broader appeal in October. That’s the path the administration has urged.

But the 90-day ban will have run its course by then, and there might be little left for the court to rule on.

The government has said the ban was needed to allow for an internal review of the screening procedures for visa applicants from the six countries.

That too should be complete before the Supreme Court reconvenes for its new term on October 2.

The administration also could issue a new ban that includes more countries or is permanent, or both. That might make the current case go away and also could give rise to new legal challenges.

The high court also might keep the ban on hold, but set the case for argument in October. This course might be palatable both to justices who object to the ban and those who don’t like the breadth of the lower court rulings against the president.

But it also could mean that a new policy is in effect before the court ever hears the case.

The justices also could keep the ban from being reinstated and, at the same time, decline to review the lower court rulings. That outcome would essentially end the case.

One barrier to that option could be that the court usually likes to have the last word when a lower court strikes down a federal law or presidential action.

Business: World shares mixed as investors assess oil, China clampdown

HONG KONG (AP) — World stock markets were mixed on Friday as oil prices stabilized and investors assessed Beijing’s moves to tighten up on some Chinese companies as well as the latest survey on eurozone economic growth.

KEEPING SCORE: European shares fell in early trading. France’s CAC 40 shed 0.3 percent to 5,266.34 and Germany’s DAX lost 0.3 percent to 12,761.29. Britain’s FTSE 100 slipped 0.3 percent to 7,418.06. Wall Street was poised to open higher, with Dow futures up 0.1 percent to 21,368.00 and broader S&P 500 futures rising 0.1 percent to 2,435.30.

ASIA’S DAY: Japan’s benchmark Nikkei 225 index finished 0.1 percent higher at 20,132.67 and South Korea’s Kospi added 0.4 percent to 2,378.60. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng was practically unchanged at 25,670.05 while the Shanghai Composite in mainland China swung between gains and losses before ending 0.3 percent higher at 3,157.87. Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 crept up 0.2 percent to 5,715.90.

EBBING ENERGY: Crude oil’s extended decline this week and the effect it is having on broader financial markets weighed on investor sentiment and dragged down energy shares. Crude prices rose on Thursday for the first time in four days but prices are still near their lowest level since August. Benchmark U.S. crude rose 24 cents to $42.98 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract rose 21 cents to settle at $42.74 per barrel on Thursday. Brent crude, the international standard, added 20 cents to $45.42 per barrel.

QUOTEWORTHY: “Falling oil prices continue to temper sentiment in global macro markets,” said Stephen Innes, senior trader at OANDA. “While the Nervous Nellies take solace as oil prices based overnight, don’t get too comfortable as the oil patch narrative will likely be the primary catalyst in the coming months.”

CHINA CLAMPDOWN: Mainland shares fluctuated as officials tightened up on some companies. Authorities ordered three popular internet services, including Sina Weibo, to stop streaming video after they violated censorship rules on sensitive issues. Adding to the pessimism, reports in the South China Morning Post newspaper and financial magazine Caixin on Thursday said the banking regulator is tightening up scrutiny of companies behind a wave of recent overseas acquisitions by ordering banks to check credit-risk exposure to Wanda, Fosun, Anbang and HNA.

EUROPEAN GROWTH: A monthly survey revealed that economic activity in the 19-country Eurozone slipped to a five-month low in June. However, the IHS Markit composite purchasing managers’ index remained well into positive territory, with job creation and business confidence still strong.

MEDICAL SHARES: U.S. health care stocks rallied after the Senate unveiled its proposal to revamp how Americans get medical care. Investors were betting that overseas companies could also benefit from the bill, with Australian bionic ear maker Cochlear up 1.1 percent and blood plasma maker CSL up 1.7 percent.

CURRENCIES: The dollar slipped to 111.24 yen from 111.32 yen in late trading Thursday. The euro rose to $1.1181 from $1.1154.

Trump’s tease of possible Comey tapes fits familiar pattern

WASHINGTON (AP) — Donald Trump said he had a secret.

He dangled it on Twitter. He parried reporters’ questions about it. He milked the moment, drawing out the drama for weeks.

That big tease played out in 2011, when Trump promised to reveal what his private investigators had found in Hawaii about President Barack Obama’s birth certificate. (Trump never did release anything.)

Now, Trump has stretched out a new high-stakes guessing game, this time in the White House, by hinting that he might have recordings of his conversations with fired FBI Director James Comey.

Trump is expected to answer the tapes question this week.

If they do exist, they could become a central piece of evidence in the Russia investigation that has transfixed Washington and cast a shadow over the future of Trump’s presidency. If they don’t, questions will be raised about why the president would stake his reputation and political capital on promoting something that just isn’t real.

Several outside advisers who speak to Trump regularly said the president has not mentioned the existence of tapes during their conversations. White House aides have been known to grimace when the subject comes up, and more than a half-dozen staffers said they were unaware of any recording devices. All demanded anonymity to speak about private discussions with the president.

Whether the tapes exist or not, this is far from the first time that Trump, the former star of reality TV and tabloids, has manufactured a melodrama that begins with bluster but often ends with a whimper.

“I think he was in his way instinctively trying to rattle Comey,” says former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a longtime Trump confidant. “He’s not a professional politician. He doesn’t come back and think about Nixon and Watergate. His instinct is: ‘I’ll outbluff you.’”

The latest chapter in Trump’s tale of mystery began last month, just days after he fired Comey, then leading the investigation into contacts between the president’s campaign and Russian officials.

A New York Times report cited two unnamed Comey associates who recounted his version of a January dinner with the president in which Trump asked for a pledge of loyalty. Comey declined, instead offering to be “honest.” When Trump then pressed for “honest loyalty,” Comey told him, “You will have that,” the associates said.

Trump tweeted the next day that Comey “better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”

That immediately evoked the secret White House recordings that led to Richard Nixon’s downfall during Watergate. Under a post-Watergate law, the Presidential Records Act, recordings made by presidents belong to the people and can eventually be made public. Destroying them would be a crime.

Comey has claimed that any recordings would support his claims that Trump asked him to pledge loyalty and to drop the investigation into Trump’s former national security adviser.

“Lordy, I hope there are tapes,” Comey declared at a congressional hearing.

But the president has steadfastly refused to clarify whether any tapes exist.

Two weeks ago, he teased reporters in the White House Rose Garden by saying that he’d explain “maybe sometime in the very near future.” He cryptically added: “You are going to be very disappointed when you hear the answer.” White House deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters said Wednesday that an answer would be provided this week, presumably by the Friday deadline set by the House intelligence committee for turning over any tapes.

Trump’s private counsel, Marc Kasowitz, would not be involved in the handover of any tapes, his spokesman said. A White House spokesman did not respond to a question on whether White House counsel Don McGahn would have a role.

The Secret Service has no audio copies or transcripts of any tapes recorded within Trump’s White House, according to a freedom of information request submitted by The Wall Street Journal. But that doesn’t exclude the possibility that recordings were created by another entity.

At his office in New York, Trump was known to worry about possible listening devices, but he also occasionally taped his own phone conversations. Some campaign workers also believed Trump had a system set up to record phone calls.

Trump has a long history of making outsized claims. In the 1980s, he got ensnarled in a battle over a valuable tract of property on Manhattan’s west side he dubbed “Television City,” claiming without proof that major TV networks had promised to build there, according to George Arzt, press secretary for then-Mayor Ed Koch. The project never was built.

“This is all about gamesmanship for him,” said Arzt. “It doesn’t matter what the outcome of the gamesmanship is. He’s a showman and it keeps him in the headlines. There haven’t been repercussions if his bluff fails.”

Trump flirted with presidential runs in 1988 and 2000 before abandoning them. He offered to help rebuild the World Trade Center in 2004 but never followed through. And his embrace of birtherism, which questioned whether Obama was born in the United States and eligible to become president, fueled his political rise. He claimed to have sent investigators to Hawaii and teased their possible findings for months, but never produced any evidence.

The pattern has continued since his election.

Sometimes he’s delivered on the tease: He spent weeks building suspense about whether the United States would remain in the Paris climate agreement and eventually announced in a lavish Rose Garden ceremony that the U.S. would pull out.

But other times he has not. On New Year’s Eve, he claimed he knew “things that other people don’t know” about foreign hacking of last year’s election, and that the information would be revealed “on Tuesday or Wednesday.” Those days came and went without an answer. In March, he tweeted the incendiary claim that he was wiretapped by his predecessor, a charge he’s never supported.

“He follows the paradigm that no news is bad news,” said Sam Nunberg, a former campaign aide. “He knows how to play to America’s insatiable appetite not just for news but for drama and interest. He brought that to Washington: you have a mogul sitting in the White House and he’s going to keep doing it his way.”

___

Associated Press writers Ken Thomas and Deb Riechmann contributed reporting.

___

Follow Lemire on Twitter at http://twitter.com/@JonLemire

Robert Mueller’s Investigation Raises 3 Big Legal Questions. Here’s What We Know

This gallery contains 1 photo.

(PhatzNewsRoom / Time)     —-    President Trump and special counsel Robert Mueller have a complicated relationship.

Mueller must carry out a largely independent investigation into Trump’s dealings with Russia and possibly whether he attempted to obstruct justice; Trump must weigh the political costs of how to respond to Mueller’s probe and what power he can, or should, exert over him.

The legal underpinnings of the relationship are as complex as the public struggle and illuminate the fraught structural balance between a special counsel and the president.

These are the three key legal questions surrounding their relationship.

Question 1: Could Trump fire Mueller?

Trump does not have the direct authority to fire Mueller, but he does have the power to compel someone else to do it for him.

According to the regulations governing special counsels, a special counsel can be removed “only by the personal action of the Attorney General. The Attorney General may remove a Special Counsel for misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, conflict of interest, or for other good cause,” and the reasoning must be provided in writing.

In this case, that means Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, since Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself. So, if Trump wants Mueller fired, he has to order Rosenstein to do it. But that’s where things could get messy and lead down a similar path to President Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre,” when multiple Justice Department officials resigned rather than follow his orders to fire the special prosecutor.

There are indications that Rosenstein might resign if ordered to do this: he reportedly threatened to quit over how Trump handled firing FBI Director James Comey, and during a hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee he said of firing Mueller, “I’m not going to follow any order unless I believe those are lawful and appropriate orders… If there were not good cause, it wouldn’t matter to me what anybody says.”

If Rosenstein resigns rather than follow President Trump’s order (or if Trump fires him), it would begin going down the line of Justice Department officials until Trump finds someone willing to do it. Here’s the catch: legal experts say a Justice official confirmed by the Senate needs to do it, according to an interpretation of a statute. In Nixon’s case, the solicitor general ended up doing it.

But Trump doesn’t have a solicitor general confirmed yet; his Justice Department currently has just three Senate-confirmed officials in place (and three more voted out of committee). The only other Senate-confirmed positions Trump has ready are Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand and Acting Assistant Attorney General for the National Security Division Dana Boente (who is not Senate-confirmed in that position, but has been confirmed as U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia). If Brand and Boente won’t carry out Trump’s wish, then this executive order would designate who comes next.

The other way Trump could potentially fire Mueller and avoid the tricky situation outlined above is if he disregards the special counsel regulations or orders them repealed, and then fires Mueller himself. There’s a constitutional argument for why he could do this, since the president is vested with the ultimate law enforcement power. Special counsel regulations do not and cannot cut into this constitutional authority: they are regulations, not laws. But Trump actually going this route is probably far-fetched.

Question 2: Under what circumstances would Rosenstein recuse himself?

Trump may be under investigation for obstruction of justice. That puts Rosenstein in a sticky situation, because Mueller reports to him, and he was an important player in Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey. (He wrote a memo outlining reasons to fire Comey, which Trump at various times has cited as precipitating his decision.)

This means that if Mueller’s investigation looks into that action, Rosenstein would be a witness in the obstruction of justice probe. Justice Department regulations are largely mum on this exact situation: the sections governing recusal say an official should step back “if he has a personal or political relationship with… any person or organization substantially involved in the conduct that is the subject of the investigation or prosecution.” That’s not quite the case here, but Rosenstein still may want to avoid the appearance of any ethical violations. He reportedly had a private conversation with Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand saying that he’s considering recusing himself.

If Rosenstein does recuse, that means Brand is running the show. The rest of the above questions stay the same, but she would be the top Justice official Mueller reports to instead of Rosenstein.

Question 3: Can Mueller indict Trump?

This is a constitutional question about whether a sitting president can be criminally prosecuted, and there isn’t a clear answer. It has never happened before, and no court has definitively ruled on the issue. (The Supreme Court heard arguments about it in 1974 about Nixon, but never resolved the question.)

Here’s what the Constitution says in Article 1 Section 3: “Judgment in cases of impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, trust or profit under the United States: but the party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to indictment, trial, judgment and punishment, according to law.”

The text of the Constitution doesn’t explicitly state whether a president can be prosecuted while in office, so arguments are based on structure and inference. The official view of the executive branch is that it can’t be done. The Office of Legal Counsel wrote in a 2000 memo arguing a president can’t be indicted, “The indictment or criminal prosecution of a sitting President would impermissibly undermine the capacity of the executive branch to perform its constitutionally assigned functions,” though it acknowledges, “Neither the text nor the history of the Constitution ultimately provided dispositive guidance in determining whether a president is amenable to indictment or criminal prosecution while in office. It therefore based its analysis on more general considerations of constitutional structure.”

In Mueller’s position as special counsel, he is bound by Justice Department policies, but it’s an unresolved question how much deference he must give to the Office of Legal Counsel’s previous legal analyses on this issue. If Mueller decides he can make his own interpretation on this issue and Rosenstein disagrees with his decision, Rosenstein could overrule him by going to Congress and saying that Mueller’s conclusion was “so inappropriate or unwarranted under established Departmental practices that it should not be pursued.”

Still, under the interpretation that the president cannot be indicted in office, Trump would have to resign or be impeached first, and then could be criminally charged afterwards. In that case, if Mueller’s investigation finds what he believes merits an indictment, historically that means he would bring his findings to the House, which would decide if it warrants “high crimes and misdemeanors” to impeach and proceed from there. The basic idea behind this precedent is that if you’re going to undo an election, it should be by a body that is subject to the will of the people.

Flynn may have aided Russian company the US opposed

(PhatzNewsRoom / NYT)    —-    WASHINGTON — Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn may have aided a Russian company the U.S. government opposed during a 2015 visit to Saudi Arabia in which he pushed to be part of an ambitious nuclear-power project, raising new questions about his previously undisclosed trip.

Flynn reportedly made the trip — which was not reported on a security clearance form as required — for what has been described as a joint American/Russian venture to Saudi Arabia in the summer of 2015. Democrats on the House Oversight Committee said he advocated for his company interests in a Saudi nuclear-power development plan.

Not long after Flynn met with Saudi nuclear officials, the Russian nuclear-power giant Rosatom announced a $100 billion deal to build 46 nuclear reactors in Saudi Arabia. It is not known whether Flynn or the American companies he represented had any involvement in the Rosatom effort. Rosatom did not respond to emailed questions.

But a senior National Security Council official under former President Barack Obama confirmed it was U.S. policy in 2015 to discourage developing nations from dealing with Rosatom after the Russian takeover of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

“I think people just assumed that Rosatom was an eventual sanctions target,” the official said, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “When you start building sanctions regimes like the one against Russia, banks and foreign governments adjust not simply to the designated targets — they also start to anticipate potential targets and avoid doing business through them.”

Rosatom was never placed on a sanctions list, and if Flynn did work on behalf of the company it would not have been illegal.

Flynn’s attorney and officials with the companies that Flynn represented in the matter did not respond to emailed requests for a response.

Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee who co-wrote a letter this week asking for information about Flynn, said Wednesday that the possibility that Flynn worked in Saudi Arabia against even an unofficial U.S. policy “raises a flag.”

“Flynn raises a lot of flags right now,” he added.

Engel said the primary concern behind a letter Democrats sent earlier this week is that Flynn appeared to have failed to disclose information on his security-clearance form that he should have disclosed. He said that the extent, if any, of Flynn’s connections to Rosatom, and whether he worked counter to American interests at the time, are part of what should be investigated.

Flynn, a top adviser to Trump’s campaign who served briefly as national security adviser, has been contributing to the spate of bad news about the White House for months.

He was fired in February after he lied to top administration officials, including the vice president, about conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States. But the headlines have continued long after he left for failing to disclose payments from foreign governments after he left the Pentagon.

Trump has been questioned repeatedly about why he trusted Flynn — now under investigation by the FBI — with the nation’s top secrets and why his staff didn’t vet him further after considering him for a job. Democrats have seized on the issue.

Just this week, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., a former prosecutor who is the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on crime and terrorism, suggested that Flynn is cooperating with the special counsel’s Russia investigation.

“If you draw conclusions as a prosecutor about what we can see from the Flynn investigation, all the signals are suggesting that he’s already cooperating with the FBI and may have been for some time,” Whitehouse told CNN.

On Wednesday, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, Rep, Elijah Cummings, D-Md., sent a letter to White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus stating he has serious concerns about whether the White House is “properly safeguarding classified information,” and requesting information about the security clearances of Flynn, senior adviser Jared Kushner and other officials.

The letter, which doesn’t have a co-signer, is unlikely to generate a response, as the White House has decided not to respond to congressional committee requests without the signature of the Republican chair. The House Oversight Committee chair is Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who was only on the letter as a “cc.”

“The letter this week seeks to obtain information about whether — and why — Flynn was working to promote a deal between this Russian-controlled entity that was being heavily scrutinized at the time, why he failed to disclose his involvement, and the extent to which he may have received compensation for his services from any source,” Cummings said.

Officials involved in both security and nuclear policy during the Obama administration said the “unofficial official” discouragement of business with Rosatom was common knowledge in the field.

Rosatom itself mentioned American opposition to the company in a press release. The company said the United States held what it called “hidden meetings” with potential Rosatom clients to make clear that American officials did “not recommend” working with Rosatom.

As the agreement with Saudi Arabia came at a time when the Russian economy was suffering from sanctions, the agreement was greeted with enthusiastic support in Russian media.

It would not be the first time that questions have been raised about Flynn working against U.S. interests.

Ten days before Trump was sworn in, Flynn reportedly told President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, not to go ahead with a Pentagon plan that had been months in the making. The plan was capture Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital, working with Syrian Kurdish forces. The Obama administration had approached Flynn during the transition because the effort was expected to take place after Trump took office. But the request came before Flynn had disclosed that he’d been a paid agent for a company with tight ties to Turkish leadership, and had been hired to represent Turkey’s interests in the United States.

Turkey was strongly against the United States working with Syria Kurds. In the end, Trump approved the plan after firing Flynn in February.

———

(McClatchy Washington bureau reporter Vera Bergengruen contributed to this story.)

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