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Monthly Archives: February 2017

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Business: Stocks edge lower, breaking a 12-day win streak for the Dow

(PhatzNewsRoom / AP)    —   A slide led by Target and other big retailers pulled U.S. stock indexes lower Tuesday, snapping a 12-day winning streak for the Dow Jones industrial average.

Industrial stocks and phone companies were also among the big decliners. Energy companies fell as crude oil prices edged lower. Utilities stocks eked out a gain.

Investors were focused on an evening speech by President Donald Trump to Congress in hopes of gleaning more details on the timing of tax cuts and other policies.

“The next direction of this market, in our view, is going to be very much driven by the ability of the administration to start putting into action some of the things that the market has gotten excited about, mainly tax reform more than anything else,” said Rob Eschweiler, global investment specialist at J.P. Morgan Private Bank.

The Dow fell 25.20 points, or 0.1 percent, to 20,812.24. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index slid 6.11 points, or 0.3 percent, to 2,363.64. The Nasdaq composite index lost 36.46 points, or 0.6 percent, to 5,825.44.

Small-company stocks fell more than the rest of the market. The Russell 2000 index slumped 21.29 points, or 1.5 percent, to 1,386.68.

Bond prices fell. The 10-year Treasury yield rose to 2.39 percent from 2.37 percent late Monday.

Trump was scheduled to deliver his first speech to a joint session of Congress Tuesday evening. On Monday the president told a group of governors that his budget would propose increasing defense spending by $54 billion while cutting domestic programs and foreign aid by the same amount. He also said “We’re going to start spending on infrastructure big.”

Since the election in November, expectations of tax reform, deregulation and ramped up spending on defense and infrastructure projects has pushed the stock market higher. Investors are looking for more clarity on business-friendly policies, but also on trade, immigration and other Trump administration policy initiatives that have made some investors nervous.

“(The market) has priced in all the positive aspects of some of his campaign promises, but what it hasn’t done is price in the negatives that could result from health care, trade policies, border taxes, things like that which are a little bit less clear,” said Lindsey Bell, investment strategist at CFRA Research.

Traders weren’t entirely focused on Washington on Tuesday. They continued to size up the latest company earnings and outlooks.

Target plunged 12.2 percent after the retail chain’s latest quarterly profit fell short of Wall Street’s forecasts. The company also issued a weak outlook. The stock was lost $8.14 to $58.77.

Perrigo slumped 11.7 percent after investors reacted to several disclosures by the Irish drugmaker, including disappointing guidance for 2017 and the company’s decision to sell its royalty rights to a multiple sclerosis drug for as much as $2.85 billion. Perrigo said the sale will hurt its earnings, but noted it plans to use the proceeds to pay down some of its debts. The stock slid $9.91 to $74.77.

Improved earnings and outlooks gave weight loss company Nutrisystem a big boost. The stock vaulted $7.30, or 18.6 percent, to $46.50.

Shares in Priceline climbed 5.6 percent after the online booking company posted strong quarterly earnings. The stock gained $92.12 to $1,724.13.

Online brokers fell sharply after Fidelity announced a cut in trading commissions.

ETrade Financial fell $2.69, or 7.2 percent, to $34.51, while Charles Schwab gave up $1.32, or 3.2 percent, to $40.41. TD Ameritrade slid $4.56, or 10.5 percent, to $39.10. Fidelity is privately held.

Signet Jewelers was the biggest decliner in the S&P 500 following a report of widespread sexual harassment and discrimination at a subsidiary. The Washington Post first reported the allegations Monday, based on newly released class-action arbitration filings. The stock tumbled $9.29, or 12.7 percent, to $63.59.

Investors also weighed new data on the economy. The Commerce Department said that the U.S. economy grew at a 1.9 percent rate in the last three months of 2016, unchanged from an initial estimate. The increase in the gross domestic product, the broadest measure of economic health, represented a significant slowdown from 3.5 percent growth recorded in the third quarter.

The major indexes in Europe notched gains. Germany’s DAX rose 0.1 percent, while the CAC 40 in France gained 0.3 percent. The FTSE 100 index of leading British shares added 0.1 percent.

Earlier in Asia, Japan’s benchmark Nikkei 225 index trimmed strong earlier gains to finish less than 0.1 percent higher. South Korea’s Kospi rose 0.3 percent. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng lost 0.8 percent. Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 shed 0.2 percent to 5,712.20.

Benchmark U.S. crude slipped 4 cents, or 0.1 percent, to close at $54.01 a barrel in New York. Brent crude, which is used to price international oils, fell 34 cents, or 0.6 percent, to close at $55.59 a barrel in London.

In other energy trading, wholesale gasoline shed 2 cents to $1.51 a gallon, while heating oil slid 2 cents to $1.62 a gallon. Natural gas futures rose 8 cents, or 3 percent, at $2.77 per 1,000 cubic feet.

Among metals, the price of gold fell $4.90 to $1,253.90 an ounce. Silver added 7 cents to $18.42 an ounce. Copper rose 2 cents to $2.70 a pound.

In currency trading, the dollar fell to 112.17 yen from 112.80 on Monday. The euro strengthened to $1.0597 from $1.0589.

Judge to hear arguments on Dakota Access oil pipeline work

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BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A federal judge will hear arguments Tuesday about whether to stop the final bit of construction on the disputed Dakota Access pipeline, perhaps just days before it could start moving oil.

U.S. District Judge James Boasberg in Washington, D.C., will consider a request by the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes to order the Army Corps of Engineers to withdraw permission for developer Energy Transfer Partners to lay pipe under Lake Oahe in North Dakota. The stretch under the Missouri River reservoir is the last piece of construction for the $3.8 billion pipeline that’s to move oil through the Dakotas and Iowa to a shipping point in Illinois.

The tribes argue that the mere existence of an oil pipeline under the reservoir that provides water to the neighboring reservations violates their right to practice their religion, which relies on clean water.

“The granting of the easement and resulting construction activity violates the tribe’s and its members’ constitutional rights, and will result in immediate and irreparable harm to the tribe and its members before this court will be able to rule on the merits of this claim,” tribal attorney Nicole Ducheneaux said in court documents.

When they filed the lawsuit last summer, the tribes argued that the pipeline threatens Native American cultural sites and their water supply. Their religion argument is new, however, and both the Corps and Energy Transfer Partners argue that the delay in raising it is a reason for Boasberg to reject the argument.

Company attorney William Scherman also said the tribes’ claim is suspect based on other man-made infrastructure under the lake, and that the company respects the tribe’s religious beliefs but has no legal duty to make concessions for them.

Corps attorney Erica Zilioli said the government’s permission for the company to lay pipe under the lake “does not substantially burden the exercise of the tribe’s religious beliefs.”

Earlier this month, Boasberg declined the tribes’ request to order an immediate halt to the pipeline construction, ruling that as long as oil wasn’t flowing through the pipeline, there was no imminent harm to the tribes.

In a court filing Friday, Ducheneaux argued the claim is “about the religious harm arising from the mere siting of this pipeline under the tribe’s sacred waters.”

Boasberg’s decision on the matter won’t be the end of the court battle. Both tribes have asked him to overturn the federal permission for the Lake Oahe crossing and to bar the Corps from granting permission in the future. The judge won’t rule until at least April.

Hundreds and sometimes thousands of pipeline opponents who sided with tribal opposition to the pipeline camped on federal land near the drill site for months, often clashing with police. There have been about 750 arrests in the region since August. Authorities last week closed the camp in advance of spring flooding season and set up roadblocks to prevent protesters from returning.

Work under Lake Oahe had been held up in the courts until President Donald Trump last month instructed the Corps to advance construction. The Army is involved because its engineering branch manages the river and its system of hydroelectric dams, which is owned by the federal government.

Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners began drilling under the lake Feb. 8. The pipeline could be operating as early as Monday and no later than early April, according to Scherman.

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Follow Blake Nicholson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/NicholsonBlake

Washington Post Just Dropped A New FBI-Trump-Russia Bombshell

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(PhatzNewsRoom / DM)  —-   The Washington Post has just announced that the Federal Bureau of Investigation ordered former MI6 agent Christopher Steele to continue his investigation into the notorious “golden showers” dossier following the confirmation that the Russians had interfered in the United States 2016 election on behalf of Republican Donald Trump.

There was even talk of payments for him to continue his work – but those discussions were quickly canned as the report leaked to the public and a firestorm of curiosity – and mockery – dominated the news cycle.

Steele is considered a credible source and was instrumental in the FBI’s exposing of a massive corruption scandal within the governing body of international soccer, FIFA.

The Post remarks that crucially, the “FBI’s arrangement with Steele shows that bureau investigators considered him credible and found his line of inquiry to be worthy of pursuit.”

The continued Republican refusal to investigate the Trump-Russia connection means that they are putting the word of a pathological liar over the carefully considered assessment of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and are thus putting our national security in grave danger.

The fact that Republicans, at the behest of Trump, went to the FBI and begged them to bury the Russia story is clear evidence of their own complicity in this potentially treasonous scandal.

The dossier, parts of which have been collaborated by intelligence wiretaps, alleges that the Russian government has compromising video and audio of President Donald Trump engaged in…some unusual acts.

Those acts allegedly involve Donald Trump paying prostitutes to urinate on a bed once slept in by President Obama and First Lady Michelle in a petty act of vengeance from Obama’s mocking of Trump at the 2013 White House Correspondents’ Dinner and a St. Petersberg orgy with still more Russian prostitutes. The Federal Security Service (FSB) allegedly has film and audio of both incidents.

“[the] Russian regime has been cultivating, supporting and assisting TRUMP for at least 5 years” says Steele.

The new revelations are yet another indication that there is something very real behind Trump’s Russian scandal. Between the hacks of the Democratic National Committee servers and the email account of Clinton campaign manager John Podesta, the secret communications between the Trump team throughout the campaign and after the election, there are too many red flags for this to be swept under the rug.

The vehemency of Trump’s denials is just the caviar on this blini.

Iraqi forces battling Islamic State reach Mosul bridge

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BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi forces reached one of Mosul’s five destroyed bridges on Monday as they pushed deeper into the western half of Iraq’s second largest city, driving Islamic State militants back with the help of U.S.-led airstrikes.

Maj. Gen Thamir al-Hussaini said the militarized Federal Police advanced in the face of snipers, anti-tank missiles and suicide car bombs, describing “fierce” clashes in which Iraqi forces suffered casualties, without providing exact numbers.

Just a few kilometers (miles) from the front, wounded troops streamed into field hospitals, many of them suffering from shrapnel wounds. One soldier had lost the lower part of his leg in an explosion.

Frontline medics at one field hospital said they had received more than 20 casualties by midday. The medics spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations as Iraq’s military does not release casualty information.

U.S.-led airstrikes disabled all of Mosul’s bridges spanning the Tigris River last year in a bid to isolate the militants in the western half of the city. Iraq declared eastern Mosul “fully liberated” last month but the militants have carried out attacks there since then.

Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV aired live footage from the western Gawsaq neighborhood, showing Iraqi troops in armored vehicles and Humvees rolling through dusty streets as gunfire rattled. Thick black smoke could be seen billowing up after airstrikes.

Iraqi forces took Mosul’s international airport and a sprawling military base next to it last week before pushing into Mamun, the first neighborhood in the western half of the city after the airport.

Mosul is Iraq’s second largest city, and its western half is the last significant urban area held by IS in the country.

Iraq launched a massive operation in October aimed at retaking Mosul, which fell to IS in the summer of 2014, along with large swaths of northern and western Iraq.

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EL-ARISH, Egypt (AP) — In the past three days, Islamic State militants in Egypt’s volatile northern Sinai region abducted four men accused of collaborating with the government, three of them during a brazen raid in the middle of a public market. Two of the men have been found slain while the others remain missing; Egyptian officials say that one of the slain men had his eyes plucked out and was set on fire before being shot to death.

Women are being threatened with punishment if they don’t wear the niqab and farmers are being forced to pay financial tribute to IS under the guise of the “zakat” mandatory Islamic donation to charity. The militants have set up their own checkpoints especially on the roads around the city of Rafah, which borders the Gaza Strip. Passengers are forced to recite from the Quran before being allowed to pass, according to area residents and tribal leaders.

This recent show-of-strength campaign by IS loyalists in northern Sinai comes on the heels of a recent easing of the military campaign against them and represents a move to reassert their control over the local civilian population, according to residents, tribal leaders and officials.

“The messages the militants are sending are terrifying,” said a prominent tribal leader. “The numbers of militants is not that big … But the army campaign stopped and the militants returned.”

The violence poses a fresh challenge to President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s government to put down an IS-led insurgency in northern Sinai and prevent spillover that at times has reached the Egyptian mainland.

The extremists have repeatedly targeted Christian residents, causing more than 100 Christian families to flee from the city of el-Arish. IS militants in northern Sinai recently vowed in a video message to step up a wave of attacks on the embattled Christian minority, a threat that highlights a possible shift in tactics — targeting vulnerable and less-defended civilians instead of the usual police and military targets. A devastating IS-claimed suicide bombing at a Cairo church in December killed nearly 30 people.

According to an employee of the North Sinai governor’s office, militants at a checkpoint recently stopped a bus carrying female civil servants and threatened the women if they didn’t start wearing the all-concealing niqab garment.

“They took our names and wrote them down, so if we don’t follow their orders, they punish us,” said one of the female government employees.

The official at the governor’s office said that the women were given several days off so that additional security could be arranged.

The northern part of the Sinai Peninsula, bordering the Gaza Strip and Israel, has been a battleground since 2011, when the region sank into lawlessness after the 18-day uprising that led to the ouster of longtime autocratic President Hosni Mubarak.

But the militant campaign accelerated after the military overthrew elected Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in 2013.

El-Sissi, who as defense minister led Morsi’s ouster, declared a state of emergency in northern Sinai in 2014. Hundreds of soldiers and police officers have been killed in the conflict and hundreds of houses along the Gaza border have been razed in order to stop the smuggling trade through cross-border tunnels.

Still, the insurgency has shown little sign of calming.

According to a second tribal leader, the militants are now raising cash by imposing taxes on the people running the smuggling tunnels.

IS militants “are living at large in Rafah,” he said.

In a statement late Monday, el-Sissi said the state is keen to help residents of el-Arish who have been threatened and he urged the country to maintain national unity.

He said Egypt is determined to “eliminate the terrorist elements in North Sinai and eradicate terrorism,” describing the targeting of citizens as “a cowardly act and evil plan to shake confidence in the state and undermine national unity.”

The government employee and the tribal leaders spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. The Egyptian officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak to the press.

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BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian activists say pro-government forces have reached the outskirts of Palmyra in their push to drive Islamic State militants from the ancient town.

It’s the Syrian government forces second such offensive this year.

The activist-run Palmyra Coordination Committee says Syrian forces and their allies from the Lebanese Shiite militant Hezbollah group and Iranian advisers are at the town’s western gateway, located about 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the famed Roman ruins.

The activist group also reported there were airstrikes across the town on Tuesday morning. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Hezbollah’s media outlets also reported the advances.

The government lost control of Palmyra in December, less than one year after it reclaimed the town from IS extremists. Archeologists have decried the damage to Palmyra’s priceless ruins.

3 dead, 2 injured in plane that hits houses in California

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RIVERSIDE, Calif. (AP) — Three people died and two were injured when a small plane carrying them home from a cheerleading competition crashed into two Southern California homes and sparked a major fire Monday, authorities said.

A husband, wife and three teenagers were on the plane that had just taken off from Riverside Municipal Airport at 4:40 p.m. intending to return to San Jose after the weekend cheerleading event at Disneyland when it crashed in the residential neighborhood, Riverside Fire Chief Michael Moore said.

One of the teenagers, a girl, was thrown from a back seat of the plane on impact but had only minor injuries, Moore said. Three witnesses told TV stations she crawled from the home asking for help. She was able to talk to firefighters about what had happened as she was taken to Riverside Community Hospital, Moore said.

Firefighters entered one of the burning houses and pulled out another plane passenger, who was unconscious. That victim underwent surgery at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in San Bernardino and was in critical condition, Moore said.

Three bodies, all from the plane, were found in the combined wreckage of the aircraft and the homes.

“It’s horrible,” Moore said, especially given that they had gone to a cheer competition and it was “supposed to be a happy time.”

Authorities had earlier said four were dead, and that the critically injured victim was a resident of the homes, but later reduced the death toll to three and said all five victims had been on the plane. They have not given the ages or identities of the victims.

All the residents of the homes have been accounted for, Moore said.

Moore did not give the name of the cheerleading competition, but the Jr. USA Nationals for girls age 15 and under was held at Disney California Adventure Park over the weekend.

The two homes that were hit directly were destroyed, and there was minor damage to some neighboring houses, Moore said.

The plane was broken into hundreds of pieces, its propeller sitting on the roof of a nearby home, and the fire burning with jet fuel was still ablaze several hours after the crash. Firefighters found plane pieces about a half-mile away.

H.L. Reyes, who lives about a quarter-mile from the crash site, told The Associated Press she felt the ground shake and saw plumes of black smoke.

“I thought it was a possible earthquake, and we heard all the birds just suddenly react outside, too,” Reyes said. “This was just like a nightmare coming true.”

Shannon Flores, a teacher at an elementary school about three blocks away, said she saw the plane out her classroom window. She said it was raining during the crash, though other witnesses said the rain was very light.

“As soon as we saw it fly over, we knew it wasn’t a good thing,” Flores told KABC-TV. “We watched it go down very quickly … Before we knew it, there was a loud crash and huge plumes of smoke.”

Partisan discord tainting probes of Russia, Trump, election

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Partisan discord is seeping into House and Senate intelligence committee investigations of the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 presidential election and whether President Donald Trump has ties to Russia.

Both Republicans and Democrats say they can still conduct bipartisan probes, but there are renewed calls for a special prosecutor and revelations that the White House enlisted GOP chairmen of the intelligence committees to push back against news reports suggesting Trump advisers were in contact with Russians.

The issue will likely surface at Tuesday’s Senate confirmation hearing for Dan Coats, a former senator from Indiana who is Trump’s pick to be the next national intelligence director.

Federal investigators have been looking into possible contacts between Trump advisers and Russia for months, along with Russia’s role in political hacking during the campaign. Trump has denied knowing that any of his campaign advisers were in contact with Russians during the campaign. He has also said he has no financial ties or other connections to Russia.

Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina said he wasn’t taking questions about whether the White House enlisted him to talk to reporters, as reported by The Washington Post.

“I’m in a comfortable place. I didn’t do anything to jeopardize my investigation,” Burr told The Associated Press on his way out of the Capitol after Senate votes Monday night.

Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, a Democrat on the intelligence committee, said if Burr did call reporters at the behest of the White House, it would be troubling. “If these reports are true, I think it’s going to be very hard to convince the public that there could be an impartial inquiry,” Wyden said.

On the House side, there was a simmering dispute Monday between the intelligence committee’s top Republican and Democrat.

The GOP chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes of California, said that so far, he has not received any evidence from the intelligence community that anyone in Trump’s orbit was in contact with Russians during the presidential campaign.

Nunes — a member of Trump’s presidential transition team — has said the White House asked him to talk with one reporter about the matter, but didn’t give him any guidance on what to say. He said he told that reporter the same thing he’s said to many other reporters in the course of discussions.

The top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, also of California, said the committee has not reached any conclusion on whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, Russian officials or any Russian contacts.

“Nor could we,” he said. “We have called no witnesses thus far. We have obtained no documents on any counterintelligence investigation and we have yet to receive any testimony from the FBI of potential links between the Trump campaign and Russia.”

Mostly Democrats have requested a special prosecutor, saying they worry that Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who worked on Trump’s presidential campaign, is not in a position to oversee such an investigation

“I would recuse myself from anything that I should recuse myself on,” Sessions said Monday.

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Associated Press writer Eric Tucker contributed to this report.

N. Korean diplomats in Malaysia to seek Kim’s brother’s body

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — A high-level North Korean delegation arrived in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday seeking the body of leader Kim Jong Un’s half brother, the victim of a nerve-agent attack that many suspect the North itself of orchestrating.

The body of Kim Jong Nam, killed Feb. 13 at Kuala Lumpur’s airport, is at the center of a heated diplomatic battle between North Korea and Malaysia. North Korea opposed Malaysian officials even conducting an autopsy, while Malaysia has resisted giving up the body without getting DNA samples and confirmation from next of kin.

The delegation includes Ri Tong Il, a former North Korean deputy ambassador to the United Nations, who told reporters Tuesday outside the North Korean Embassy that the diplomats were in Malaysia to retrieve the body and seek the release of a North Korean arrested in the case. He said the delegation also wants “development of the friendly relationship” between North Korea and Malaysia.

FILE – This combination of Feb. 19, 2017, photos released by Royal Malaysia Police shows detained Indonesian suspect Siti Aisyah, left, and detained Vietnamese suspect Doan Thi Huong are displayed on a screen during a press conference at the Bukit Aman national police headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (Royal Malaysia Police via AP)

Malaysia has confirmed that the victim of the attack was Kim Jong Nam. North Korea, however, has identified the victim only as a North Korean national with a diplomatic passport.

The killing of Kim Jong Nam took place amid crowds of travelers at Kuala Lumpur’s airport and appeared to be a well-planned hit. Malaysian authorities say North Koreans put the deadly nerve agent VX on the hands of two women who then placed the toxin on Kim’s face. Kim died on the way to a hospital, within about 20 minutes of the attack, they say.

Malaysian Attorney General Mohamed Apandi Ali said Tuesday in a text message to The Associated Press that the two women accused of killing Kim Jong Nam — Indonesian Siti Aisyah and Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong — will be charged with murder Wednesday and would face a mandatory death sentence if convicted. Both women have been arrested, and authorities must file charges by Wednesday or release them.

Both women have reportedly said they thought they were part of a prank TV show when they put their hands on Kim. Indonesian officials have said Aisyah told them she was paid the equivalent of $90.

“For Aisyah, we will always provide legal assistance and advocacy to ensure her rights in accordance with applicable law,” said Lalu Muhammad Iqbal, director of citizen protection at Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry. “We have assigned lawyers who would accompany her during the process.”

Two other suspects in the killing have been arrested: a Malaysian who is out on bail and a North Korean who remains in custody. Asked if the North Korean will be charged, Apandi said it depends on the outcome of the investigation.

Authorities are seeking seven other North Korean suspects, four of whom fled the country the day of Kim’s death and are believed to be back in North Korea. Others sought include the second secretary of North Korea’s embassy and an employee of North Korea’s state-owned airline, Air Koryo.

Malaysia hasn’t directly accused North Korea of having masterminded the killing, but South Korea has. It has not provided evidence, but suspicions were heightened over the weekend when Malaysia announced that VX killed Kim. Producing the deadly toxin requires a highly sophisticated lab, and VX is one of many chemical weapons North Korea is believed to possess.

South Korean lawmakers said Monday that the country’s National Intelligence Service told them in a private briefing that four of the North Koreans identified as suspects are from the Ministry of State Security, the North’s spy organ.

Kim Jong Nam was estranged from Kim Jong Un. He reportedly fell out of favor with their father, the late Kim Jong Il, in 2001, when he was caught trying to enter Japan on a false passport to visit Tokyo Disneyland.

He had been heading to Macau, where he has a home, when he was killed.

Isolated North Korea has a long history of ordering killings of people it views as threats to its regime. Kim Jong Nam was not known to be seeking political power; he was best known for his penchants for drinking, gambling and expensive restaurants. But his position as eldest son of the family that has ruled North Korea since it was founded could have made him appear to be a danger.

Malaysia continues to seek DNA samples from Kim Jong Nam’s immediate family. He is believed to have two sons and a daughter with two women living in Beijing and Macau.

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AP video journalist Yves Dam Van in Kuala Lumpur and writer Ali Kotarumalos in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.

UN defends refugee vetting as Trump mulls revised entry ban

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AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — In an office cubicle at the U.N. refugee agency, a Syrian woman and her three daughters took turns staring into a camera for iris scans. Their biometric registration, a first step toward possible resettlement in the West, is to be followed by interviews and background checks that can take months or even years.

The 31-year-old part-time hairdresser, who fled to Jordan in 2014 after her husband went missing in Syria’s civil war, feels fortunate. But the long road ahead for many Syrian refugees could grow even more arduous if U.S. President Donald Trump fulfils campaign vows to impose “extreme vetting.”

Many of the 5 million Syrian refugees who scratch out a living in overwhelmed neighboring states such as Jordan aren’t necessarily candidates for a rare slot in the resettlement program. Priority is given to the most vulnerable, including women heading households, medical patients and victims of torture.

Still, the vetting process has come under intense scrutiny since Trump took office.

A week after his inauguration, Trump suspended refugee admissions, arguing that the displaced pose a potential terrorism threat and that his administration needs time to impose more stringent vetting procedures. A federal judge blocked the order, but Trump has said a new version will be announced soon.

U.S. involvement in refugee resettlement is bound to shrink this year, even if a new executive order softens earlier provisions, such as the open-ended ban on the entry of displaced Syrians.

Trump has announced that he is reducing the U.S. limit for taking in refugees from all over the world from 110,000 to 50,000 a year, leaving even fewer spots for refugees from the conflict-scarred Middle East.

The U.S. has been a leading resettlement destination, taking in about half of the 20,000 refugees, most of them Syrians, who left to the West from Jordan in 2016, said Daniela Cicchella, a senior refugee agency official in Jordan.

Cicchella described the vetting as stringent, but said all involved are open to ways of improving it.

The program is “one of the most scrutinized” ways of entering the United States, Cicchella said during a tour of the vetting area at the agency headquarters in Jordan’s capital.

“We have been working very closely with different countries, including with the U.S. authorities, in the last years,” she said.

Trump’s initial order asked officials to review the refugee approval process in search of possible security loopholes, but did not say what additional vetting he wants to see.

For now, the process includes in-person interviews during which refugees provide information about families, friendships, social or political activities, employment, phone numbers and email accounts.

They also provide biometric information, including fingerprints, and federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies are consulted for background checks. Syrians are subject to additional classified checks. Their vetting can take up to two years.

Last year, the U.S. Homeland Security Department said it planned to look more closely at social media postings of people seeking to come to the United States.

The Syrian hairdresser said she hoped to move with her daughters, ranging in age from 7 to 13, to Britain, where she has family. In a small office, a U.N. staffer logged their details into a computer, including the names and ages of the woman’s siblings.

After registration, they were led to another cubicle for an in-depth interview with another U.N. staffer. After the first hurdle, there’ll be more refugee agency interviews and checks by the prospective new host country. Jordan’s security agencies also get involved in clearing refugees for departure.

“I want to leave Jordan, and it is a chance to improve my daughters’ education levels,” said the woman, whose name was withheld at the request of the refugee agency, which cited protection concerns.

She said she understood Western concerns about weeding out potential terrorists. “But I don’t think I will pose any threat,” she said, adding that she and her daughters “want to live in peace.”

Analysts at the Homeland Security Department’s intelligence arm have found insufficient evidence that citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries covered by Trump’s travel ban, including Syria, pose a terror threat to the U.S.

A draft document that surfaced last week concluded that citizenship is an “unlikely indicator” of terrorism threats and that few people from the seven Muslim-majority countries listed in the travel ban carried out attacks or were involved in terrorism-related activities since the 2011 start of Syria’s civil war.

A Homeland Security official said at the time that the document is not a final comprehensive review of the government’s intelligence.

The initial travel ban created confusion among refugees awaiting resettlement.

At the time, about 300 Syrian refugees had tickets to fly from Jordan to the United States, said Cicchella.

“They were shocked, they were sad,” she said. Many had sold their belongings and were left stranded. Flights were rebooked a few days later, after the court suspension of the ban, and most have since reached the United States, she said.

Overall, 673 Syrian refugees arrived in the U.S. in the past month, according to a U.S. refugee aid agency, citing government statistics.

Several thousand others are in the pipeline, having been submitted to the U.S. as candidates for resettlement after initial screenings by the refugee agency. With shrinking U.S. refugee quotas, their prospects are uncertain.

In 2017, the U.N. refugee agency hopes to resettle 76,800 refugees from the Middle East and North Africa and 169,000 globally, but the scope depends on the quotas being offered by host countries.

Jordan, a key U.S. military ally in the fight against the Islamic State group and a major recipient of U.S. aid, has refrained from criticizing Trump’s immigration policies.

However, the kingdom views resettlement as one of the ways, along with international financial aid, to ease the disproportionately heavy refugee burden on regional host countries.

More than 650,000 Syrian refugees live in Jordan, close to 3 million in Turkey and more than 1 million in Lebanon. Schools, hospitals and state budgets, especially in Jordan and Lebanon, have been strained by the mass influx.

Government spokesman Mohammed Momani said Sunday that the international community must do more to help Syrian refugees.

“If we don’t do this, then we will have generations of lost refugees, uneducated refugees, abandoned refugees that will continue to create further problems to the host communities (in the region),” he said.

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Associated Press writer Alicia A. Caldwell in Washington contributed to this report.

Business: World stocks edge higher before Trump speech, China congress

HONG KONG (AP) — World stocks eked out modest gains and the dollar weakened against the yen on Tuesday as investors awaited a speech by President Donald Trump to the U.S. Congress.

KEEPING SCORE: European shares posted modest gains in early trading. Britain’s FTSE 100 rose less than 0.1 percent to 7,256.23 and France’s CAC 40 climbed 0.2 percent to 4,854.14. Germany’s DAX added 0.1 percent to 11,833.89. U.S. stocks were poised for a mixed open a day after closing at record highs, with Dow futures practically unchanged at 20,816.00 and broader S&P 500 futures slipping less than 0.1 percent to 2,367.20.

BIG SPEECH: Investors are hoping Trump’s first speech to a joint session of Congress, scheduled for Tuesday evening — or Wednesday morning in Asia will bring more clarity on promised tax cuts, infrastructure spending and other business friendly policies. On Monday the president told a group of governors, “We’re going to start spending on infrastructure big.” He also said his budget would propose increasing defense spending by $54 billion while cutting domestic programs and foreign aid by the same amount.

INVESTOR INSIGHT: “Traders prefer to sit on the sidelines and refrain from taking any big bets ahead of the U.S. President’s congressional address later today in what seems to be the key market driver for the week,” said Hussein Sayed, chief market strategist at FXTM. “Expectations are very high on delivering some concrete plans this time and if President Trump fails to do so, many investors will be ready to push the sell button.”

CHINA CONGRESS: China’s national legislature and a parallel advisory body will begin meetings this week that will help signal the direction for the region’s largest economy. Financial stability and sustainable growth are on the agenda.

ASIA’S DAY: Japan’s benchmark Nikkei 225 index trimmed strong earlier gains to finish less than 0.1 percent higher at 19,118.99 and South Korea’s Kospi rose 0.3 percent to 2,091.64. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng lost 0.8 percent to 23,740.73 while the Shanghai Composite index in mainland China climbed 0.4 percent to 3,241.73. Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 shed 0.2 percent to 5,712.20.

CURRENCIES: The dollar slipped to 112.31 yen from Monday’s 112.79 yen. The euro rose to $1.0592 from $1.0587.

ENERGY: Benchmark U.S. crude lost 2 cents to $54.04 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract rose 6 cents to close at $54.05 a barrel on Monday. Brent crude, used to price international oils, rose 4 cents to $56.46 in London.

California dam spillway outflow slowed to clear debris

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OROVILLE, Calif. (AP) — California water authorities started slowing the outflow Monday from the Oroville Dam’s crippled spillway to allow workers to remove debris blocking a hydroelectric plant from working.

After a winter of heavy storms, water managers earlier this month used the emergency spillway for the first time in the 48-year history of the country’s tallest dam after a chunk of concrete tore out the main spillway.

But the flow of water ripped through a road below and carved out deep chasms in the ground, leading authorities to evacuate nearly 200,000 people Feb. 12 for two days for fear the emergency spillway could fail.

Monday’s slowdown started at 6:45 a.m. and will continue throughout the day, said state Department of Water Resources spokeswoman Lauren Bisnett. The amount of water released will gradually go from 50,000 cubic feet per second to zero.

Crews have already been working to fortify the badly eroded emergency spillway.

The outflow from behind the 770-foot-tall dam will be stopped for several days to give workers time to clear concrete and other debris from a pool at the bottom of the spillway.

The debris must be removed in order to restart the underground Hyatt Power Plant. The plant helps manage reservoir levels.

The reservoir’s water level has been reduced nearly 60 feet since it reached capacity at 901 feet earlier this month, the department said.

The department said it will continue releasing 50,000 cubic feet of water per second the rest of Sunday and overnight. With inflows of water at only 25,000 cubic feet of water per second, more space will be made at the reservoir before the outflows are cut on Monday.

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FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — The bill to repair California’s crumbling roads, dams and other critical infrastructure hammered by an onslaught of storms this winter could top $1 billion, including nearly $600 million alone for damaged roadways that more than doubles what the state budgeted for road repair emergencies, officials said Friday.

Adding to the problems, many communities have drained their emergency budgets and are looking to the state and federal government for help. But on top of the latest damage, the nation’s most populated state is struggling with a $6 billion annual backlog of repairs for roads, highways and bridges that leaders can’t agree on a way to fund.

Winter storms have dumped enough rain and snow on the northern part of the state to end a five-year drought. But with the wet weather, comes a host of problems for crumbling infrastructure.

A section of mountain highway between Sacramento and South Lake Tahoe has buckled, with repairs estimated to cost $6.5 million. In the Yosemite Valley, only one of three main routes into the national park’s major attraction is open because of damage or fear the roads could give out from cracks and seeping water, rangers said.

On central California’s rain-soaked coast, a bridge in Big Sur has crumbled beyond repair, blocking passage on the north-south Highway 1 through the tourist destination for up to a year. Until it is rebuilt, visitors can drive up to view the rugged coastline, then turn back.

The total cost for responding to flooding, storm damage and repairs statewide in the first two months of 2017 will probably exceed $1 billion, Gov. Jerry Brown’s finance director, Michael Cohen, said Friday. Much of it will be covered by the federal government, which is helping the state recover from severe storms, he said.

The tally includes $595 million to clean up mudslides and repair state highways. Costs for evacuations and non-highway damage, as well as for repairs at Oroville Dam, whose spillways threatened to collapse and flood communities downstream, have not been precisely tallied, he said.

Early estimates put the fixes at the nation’s tallest dam as high as $200 million.

Several more weeks remain in California’s wet season, which brings the potential for more costly infrastructure damage.

The California Department of Transportation, which is responsible for maintaining highways, roads and overpasses, has a reserve fund of $250 million that’s far short of what it would cost to fix recent storm damage.

“This is for 2017,” Caltrans spokeswoman Vanessa Wiseman said. “So, essentially we’re talking only two months.”

Storms across the state have wrecked more than 350 roads, shutting down traffic on at least 35 that await rebuilding or shoring up of stretches that washed out, sunk or got covered in mud and rocks, officials said.

To cover the shortfall for emergency repairs, Caltrans will ask for more money next month from an appointed board that allocates state cash for road projects, Wiseman said.

Aside from emergency road repairs, Gov. Brown said Friday that California has $187 billion in unmet needs for water and transportation infrastructure. He suggested tax increases may be required, but he wasn’t prepared to offer “the full answer” to raising enough money to shore up infrastructure.

That’s bad news for local communities hardest hit by the storms. They say rebuilding will cost millions of dollars they don’t have.

In San Jose, where storm flooding forced 14,000 residents from their homes this week, officials say they have not yet calculated the cost of the damage. Some people have not even returned home yet.

Storms in January cost Sonoma County, north of San Francisco, $12.5 million, mostly for road work. Spokeswoman Jennifer Larocque said the county is requesting federal emergency relief funding.

Dennis Schmidt, Butte County’s public works director, said storms that led to the emergency at Oroville Dam tore out two roads and left potholes that will cost more than $1 million to repair. He said that will wipe out the county’s emergency budget.

“I’m looking out the window, and it’s blue skies and sunny,” Schmidt said. “We need it for a couple days to get out and patch some potholes. Our residents will greatly appreciate that.”

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This story has been corrected to show that Brown suggested tax increases may be necessary, not that they may be the only solution.

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Associated Press writer Jonathan J. Cooper in Sacramento contributed to this article.

Takata pleads guilty in air bag scandal, agrees to pay $1B

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DETROIT (AP) — Japanese auto parts maker Takata Corp. pleaded guilty to fraud Monday and agreed to pay a $1 billion penalty for concealing a deadly defect in millions of its air bags.

Takata admitted hiding evidence that its air bag inflators can explode with too much force, hurling shrapnel into drivers and passengers.

The inflators are blamed for at least 16 deaths worldwide — 11 of them in the U.S. — and more than 180 injuries. The problem touched off the biggest recall in U.S. automotive history, involving 42 million vehicles and up to 69 million inflators.

The company’s chief financial officer, Yoichiro Nomura, entered the guilty plea on Takata’s behalf in federal court in Detroit. He also agreed that Takata will be sold or merge with another company.

The penalties include $850 million in restitution to automakers, $125 million for victims and families and a $25 million criminal fine.

Separately, three former executives are charged with falsifying test reports. They remain in Japan.

Takata’s inflators use ammonium nitrate to create a small explosion that inflates air bags in a crash. But when exposed to prolonged high temperatures and humidity, the chemical can deteriorate and burn too fast. That can blow apart a metal canister.

In the U.S., 19 automakers are recalling the inflators. Worldwide, the total number of inflators being recalled is over 100 million.

Plaintiffs in dozens of lawsuits against Takata and five automakers allege the car companies knew the products were dangerous yet continued to use them for years to save money.

Takata, which also makes seatbelts, has racked up two straight years of losses over the recalls but said it hopes to start turning a profit again this fiscal year.

Takata’s penalty is small compared with the one imposed on Volkswagen, which must buy back cars and pay up to $21 billion in penalties and compensation to owners over its emissions-cheating scandal.

Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Kelley Blue Book, said authorities may have kept the penalty manageable so Takata could stay in business and continue to carry out the giant recall.

“My sense is there has been more kid-gloves treatment of Tataka simply because destroying them makes the problem much worse,” Brauer said.

Recent developments surrounding the South China Sea

BANGKOK (AP) — A look at recent developments in the South China Sea, where China is pitted against smaller neighbors in multiple disputes over islands, coral reefs and lagoons in waters crucial for global commerce and rich in fish and potential oil and gas reserves:

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a weekly look at the latest developments in the South China Sea, home to several territorial conflicts that have raised tensions in the region.

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US NAVY READIES MORE FREQUENT MISSIONS

A U.S. administration official said the deployment of the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier strike group in the South China Sea, less than a month after President Donald Trump took office, signaled U.S. intent to have a more active naval presence in the region.

The Pentagon says that the Carl Vinson, accompanied by a guided-missile destroyer and aircraft, began “routine operations” in the South China Sea on Feb. 18. It last deployed to the Western Pacific in 2015 when it conducted an exercise with the Malaysian navy and air force.

The official declined to comment on whether the Carl Vinson would undertake a freedom of navigation operation, but noted that senior administration figures have spoken about the importance of asserting that right. The official expected such operations to be undertaken frequently by U.S. vessels.

The official requested anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to journalists on the administration’s policy.

Under the Obama administration, the U.S. Navy periodically sailed close to disputed territories on so-called freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, but faces calls to step up the tempo in response to China’s massive campaign of land reclamation and construction of seven artificial islands.

During his Senate confirmation hearing for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson stirred controversy by comparing China’s island-building and deployment of military assets to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, and suggesting China’s access to the island should not be allowed.

Defense Secretary James Mattis, however, has stressed the importance of diplomacy in resolving disputes in the South China Sea rather than military maneuvers. He has said the U.S. will exercise freedom of navigation in international waters.

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SATELLITE IMAGES APPEAR TO SHOW SAM STRUCTURES ON ISLANDS

Recent images by the Center for Strategic and International Studies appear to show that China has nearly completed structures for surface-to-air missiles on the three largest man-made islands in the South China Sea.

Satellite imagery taken on Nov. 2 and again on Feb. 7 of Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi Reefs purportedly show eight of the buildings being constructed on each of the three outposts, according to the think tank. The suspicion is they may be used for HQ-9 SAM missiles that China has already deployed on Woody Island in the Paracel archipelago.

CSIS says China appears to have begun construction on the buildings between late September and early November.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said his government was “carrying out normal facility construction, including deploying necessary and appropriate national defense facilities, on its own territory.” He said that China is “exercising a right bestowed by international law to sovereign states.”

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PHILIPPINES-LED ASEAN TALKS RAISE CONCERN OVER CHINA’S MILITARIZATION

The Philippines led Southeast Asian nations in expressing concern over China’s weapons systems on man-made islands in comments criticized by Beijing, which also abruptly canceled a trade delegation to Manila.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay, after hosting counterparts from the 10-member Association of Southeast Nations, said they want to prevent the militarization of the South China Sea, calling it a “great concern,” by moving forward with a long-delayed effort to draft rules for avoiding conflict in the disputed waters.

Although saying it favors negotiating a Code of Conduct with ASEAN in the South China Sea, Beijing has dragged its feet for years, apparently avoiding having its hands tied while it built artificial islands with runways and military installations. Representatives from China and ASEAN will meet in the Indonesian resort of Bali on Monday to discuss the way forward.

Yasay said he was confident a framework agreement could be finalized by mid-year “on the basis of the fact that everyone, including all of the ASEAN member states and China are pushing hard for this.”

But he cautioned that whether, in fact, China will cooperate “we cannot say for now.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters in Beijing that Yasay’s remarks about China’s militarization of the islands are “baffling and regrettable.”

“Such comments were only his opinion and do not represent the view of ASEAN as a whole,” Geng said, adding they also appeared to contradict agreements reached between Presidents Xi Jinping and Rodrigo Duterte on improving Chinese-Philippine relations.

China also canceled a scheduled visit by Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng to witness the signing of trade agreements in Manila. Geng said the meeting was postponed due to scheduling reasons. President Rodrigo Duterte said that China may have misunderstood Yasay.

China and the Philippines, long at loggerheads over who owns the South China Sea islands, have moved to mend ties since Duterte took office last June. Yasay said after the ASEAN meeting last week that Chinese structures, already in place on seven man-made islands, could be removed only by force and “this is something that we will not engage ourselves in.”

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PHILIPPINES SAY XI PROMISED NOT TO BUILD ON DISPUTED SHOAL

According to the Philippine foreign secretary, Chinese President Xi Jinping has promised not to turn the disputed Scarborough Shoal into another Chinese military outpost.

The fate of Scarborough — a tiny, uninhabited reef that China seized from the Philippines in 2012 — has been driving the South China disputes. A year after Chinese vessels took control of the shoal after a tense standoff with Philippine vessels, the Philippines initiated an international arbitration that ruled against China’s maritime claims, but which Beijing refuses to recognize. The Philippines also has a defense pact with the U.S. and is counting on Washington to step in should China attempt to expand the shoal and build military installations close to Manila.

Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay said any Chinese construction in Scarborough Shoal would be “a very serious, provocative act” that would undermine the Philippine claim to the rich fishing area.

“If they would do that, that will really be a game-changer,” Yasay said, adding that Xi told the Philippine leader during their meetings in Beijing last year that China had no plans to build on Scarborough.

Xi also made a promise to former President Barack Obama not to militarize the islands last September, but Chinese officials say that placing defensive weapons does not constitute militarization.

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Associated Press writers Matthew Pennington in Washington, Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, and Christopher Bodeen in Beijing contributed to this report.

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Follow Hrvoje Hranjski at www.twitter.com/hatbangkok

Iraqi forces battling Islamic State reach Mosul bridge

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BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi forces reached one of Mosul’s five destroyed bridges on Monday as they pushed deeper into the western half of Iraq’s second largest city, driving Islamic State militants back with the help of U.S.-led airstrikes.

Maj. Gen Thamir al-Hussaini said the militarized Federal Police advanced in the face of snipers, anti-tank missiles and suicide car bombs, describing “fierce” clashes in which Iraqi forces suffered casualties, without providing exact numbers.

Just a few kilometers (miles) from the front, wounded troops streamed into field hospitals, many of them suffering from shrapnel wounds. One soldier had lost the lower part of his leg in an explosion.

Frontline medics at one field hospital said they had received more than 20 casualties by midday. The medics spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations as Iraq’s military does not release casualty information.

U.S.-led airstrikes disabled all of Mosul’s bridges spanning the Tigris River last year in a bid to isolate the militants in the western half of the city. Iraq declared eastern Mosul “fully liberated” last month but the militants have carried out attacks there since then.

Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV aired live footage from the western Gawsaq neighborhood, showing Iraqi troops in armored vehicles and Humvees rolling through dusty streets as gunfire rattled. Thick black smoke could be seen billowing up after airstrikes.

Iraqi forces took Mosul’s international airport and a sprawling military base next to it last week before pushing into Mamun, the first neighborhood in the western half of the city after the airport.

Mosul is Iraq’s second largest city, and its western half is the last significant urban area held by IS in the country.

Iraq launched a massive operation in October aimed at retaking Mosul, which fell to IS in the summer of 2014, along with large swaths of northern and western Iraq.

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Associated Press writer Susannah George in Abu Saif, Iraq contributed to this report.

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This story has been corrected to show that the Iraqi general’s family name is al-Hussaini, not Ahmed.

House Intel chair: Trump-Russia ties can’t become witch hunt

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WASHINGTON (AP) — House Intelligence chairman Devin Nunes says Congress should not begin a McCarthy-style investigation based on news reports that a few Americans with ties to President Donald Trump had contacted Russians during the 2016 presidential campaign.

“We just cannot go on a witch hunt,” Nunes told reporters.

The Trump administration has pushed back against reports that Trump aides were in contact with Russian intelligence officials during the 2016 presidential campaign. The White House asked Nunes to call a reporter to dispute a report in another publication.

Nunes said he knows of no evidence that Trump aides were in contact with Russian agents. He said he will continue to ask for evidence. Nunes is leading one of three congressional investigations into Trump’s Russia ties.

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To date, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and congressional Republican leaders have resisted calls for an independent investigation of the scandals concerning Russia and Donald Trump and his circle—the most serious of which is possible collusion of members of the Trump campaign in Russia’s interference in the presidential election. If an independent investigation were to happen, it could take many forms—a congressional special committee with joint Democratic-Republican control, a congressionally-created bipartisan special commission (along the lines of the 9/11 Commission), a special prosecutor appointed under Department of Justice regulations, or an independent prosecutor given the full delegated power of the Attorney General. Although the circumstances cry out for an aggressive and independent inquiry of some kind, none of the possibilities above seem likely at the moment, given the unified opposition of President Trump, Sessions, and Republican congressional leadership. (It is possible that unanimity may crack, however.)

For now, we are left with the second best option of congressional and FBI investigations. The FBI has at least three separate investigations open, two into hacking and one, according to Reuters, a “counterintelligence inquiry [which] includes but is not limited to examination of financial transactions by Russian individuals and companies who are believed to have links to Trump associates.” Michael Flynn was also interviewed by the FBI about his communications with the Russian ambassador about sanctions prior to the inauguration, in what may have been a separate investigation.

On the congressional side, the major investigations are being handled by the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism. The House Intelligence Committee seems to be reluctantly investigating a bit also, and the Senate Judiciary Committee has requested some Russia-related information from the executive branch.

Neither the congressional nor the FBI investigations are immune to interference from the White House or Republican allies of the President. By law, the FBI Director may be fired by the president for any or no reason (though political realities often give the FBI director some protection). The FBI, as part of the Department of Justice, is “responsible”—the Bureau’s word—to the Attorney General. Furthermore, despite strong arguments that Sessions should recuse himself from the FBI’s Trump-Russian investigation on the grounds of the prominent role he played in Trump’s campaign, Sessions has refused to do so. In the last few days, a DOJ spokesperson issued only a tepid response to a report that the White House chief of staff pushed the FBI to make Trump-friendly statements to the media about the Russia investigation.

The credibility and independence of the congressional investigations are also in question. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader of the Senate, might be one the most partisan people in the Capitol, and openly disdains many norms of good government. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has a more benign public image, but often acts in a deeply partisan manner nonetheless. The House leadership has already been protecting Trump on Russia and other issues.

Republican congressional committee chairs have some degree of independence from the leadership, but not unlimited. But that practical degree of independence is only meaningful if the chairs want to assert it. The Republican chairs of both the Senate and House Intelligence committees have admitted in recent days that they were voluntarily enlisted by the White House to contact news organizations to criticize press reporting about Trump campaign ties to Russia—actions that call into question their commitment to a credible inquiry. The House Chair, Devin Nunes, was a member of Trump’s transition team. The Senate Chair, Richard Burr, was a national security adviser to Trump during the campaign.

Given the seriousness of the allegations that are being investigated, it is crucial that the public, the law enforcement and security bureaucracies, and the out-of-power Democratic Party can trust that the FBI and congressional investigations are thorough, nonpartisan, and independent of the White House. But how can that happen, under the circumstances?

Maybe it can’t. But since we living in a second-best world—with no truly independent and trustworthy investigative body—it is worth thinking about how to gauge the credibility of those investigations that are occurring.

The FBI and congressional investigations will take place largely behind tightly closed doors, since they will pervasively involve sensitive and classified material. Because direct public knowledge of the investigative processes and the fruits of the investigations will likely remain hidden, what can we look for as proxies for judging the credibility of the FBI and congressional efforts?

 

What are credible insiders saying and doing?

FBI Director James Comey certainly made some errors in his handling of the Hillary Clinton email matter. Many on the left will be reluctant or unwilling to put any faith in him. But many serious, nonpartisan people who have worked with or know Comey describe him as a man of high integrity. There is little reason to think that Comey would want to cover up for Russian malfeasance or unseemly or illegal connections between Trump and his circle and Russia. As long as Comey stays in his job, and gives no indication that the White House, Jeff Sessions, or Trump-friendly FBI agents are attempting to derail the investigation, that will provide some indication that the FBI process can be trusted.

Other credible insiders whose words and deeds will matter include Mark Warner, the Democratic Vice Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee—one of the congressional committees conducting an investigation. According to Warner, the Intelligence Committee investigation is not off to a good start, because of the chair’ willingness to join a White House public relations campaign challenging reports of connections between the administration and the Kremlin. As the Washington Post reports, Warner has expressed “grave concerns about what this means for the independence” of the investigation.

Senate Intelligence Committee members Diane Feinstein (Democrat) and Susan Collins (Republican) have bipartisan credentials on security matters. Republicans Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio, also on the committee, cannot be accused of excessive bipartisanship, but they are both Russia hawks and hence their views matter as well. Another Senate investigation of Russia-Trump connections is being led by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, the chair and ranking minority member of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism. Both are credible voices. If these senators stand by the credibility of their own and the FBI’s investigations, that will be a good sign.

 

Watch the leaks.

When National Security Advisor Michael Flynn lied about his discussion of sanctions with the Russian ambassador, a large number of national security insiders leaked the truth to the media, based on information seemingly gleaned from a sensitive national security wiretap. That numerous people would risk legal jeopardy to put out the truth suggests a deep level of distrust in the national security bureaucracy of connections between Russia and Trump people. Going forward, the nature and frequency of leaking will give signals about how important insiders think that the Russia-Trump investigations are being handled.

 

Watch Russia-related policy initiatives.

If Trump and the White House follow through with pro-Russia policies, such as weakening or removing sanctions, that will provide indirect evidence that they are not feeling much heat and pressure from the investigations. By contrast, if pro-Russia policy changes remain on hold, as they seem to be now, that might suggest that the investigations are causing discomfort behind the scenes.

 

Are lots of people lawyering up?

If the New York City and Washington DC rumor mills pick up talk about numerous lawyers specializing in white collar criminal defense and congressional investigations being retained by people with Trump or Russia connections, that will provide some reason for comfort that the investigations are being run aggressively.

 

Is anyone being indicted?

Depending on what actually occurred with Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee and other entities, Trump-Kremlin ties during the campaign, the Michael Flynn scandal, and other events as yet unknown, a slew of federal criminal laws may have been broken—everything from seeking to evade U.S. sanctions, to unauthorized access to computer networks, to lying to the FBI. If the FBI investigation is serious and aggressive, it seems reasonable to think that there should be some indictments.

 

Are congressional Democrats on the relevant committees empowered to take the initiative?

Congressional committees could authorize the ranking minority (Democratic) leaders to issue subpoenas for documents or testimony as they see fit; or Republicans could keep control of these powerful tools. Which will occur?

 

Follow the money.

Simply wanting to improve relations with Russia is not strange; both George W. Bush and Barack Obama entered office desiring just that. But the level of Trump’s affection and solicitousness for the odious Putin regime cries out for explanation. Even more strange and troubling is his stated desire to give Russia unilateral policy concessions that would reward Putin’s bad behavior—such as recognizing Russian theft of Crimea, and lifting sanctions that were imposed for the election hacking.

To understand whether Trump has financial ties that are affecting his views of Russia, or which built him relationships with Kremlin insiders, the investigations must access his personal tax returns, the tax returns of the many corporations and other entities through which he does business, and related financial documents. The press should ask senators on the relevant committees and the White House press office whether tax returns and other financial documents have been requested, and whether Trump is cooperating.

Oscars flap eclipses ‘Moonlight’ win, but civility reigns

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — The 89th Academy Awards got off on the right foot, with a song and dance, but ended with the most stunning mistake ever to befall the esteemed awards show when the best picture Oscar was presented to the wrong movie. Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, holding an incorrect envelope, wrongly presented the top prize to “La La Land” instead of “Moonlight.”

The moment at the conclusion of the Sunday-night show was so jaw-dropping, it eclipsed everything else in a ceremony that was packed to the brim with Donald Trump jabs, fun stunts, heartfelt positivity and a stunning upset by “Moonlight” over what had been a “La La” juggernaut throughout the awards season. Yet somehow, even the embarrassing moment pivoted into grace.

As confusion and bafflement overwhelmed those in the Dolby Theatre and at home on their couches, “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins and “La La Land” director Damien Chazelle shared a hug on the back of the stage, out of sight from the television cameras.

“The folks of ‘La La Land’ were so gracious. I can’t imagine being in their position and having to do that,” Jenkins told reporters backstage. “It was unfortunate that things happened as they did but, goddamn, we won best picture.”

Oscar tabulators PwC, in their 83rd year providing the service to the academy, later apologized in a statement and are investigating why it happened.

There’s no denying, though, that “Moonlight’s” win over “La La Land” was a massive upset, made only more pointed by the envelope gaffe. Chazelle’s candy-colored musical was widely presumed to be a shoo-in for the top prize after its record-tying 14 nominations and a relative sweep of the awards season. The film still won six Oscars, including best director for Chazelle, who at 32 became the youngest ever to take the prize, and for score, song (“City of Stars”) and actress to Emma Stone.

The actress, who pledged her deep love of “Moonlight,” said later, “Is that the craziest Oscar moment of all time? Cool!”

The best picture mix-up apparently wasn’t the only gaffe at the Oscars. An Australian film producer’s photo was mistakenly included in the “In Memoriam” tribute. Jan Chapman’s photo was shown with the name of Janet Patterson, an Australian costume designer who died in 2015. The Academy didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The academy usually throws awards at films that gaze lovingly at Hollywood, but Barry Jenkins’ heartfelt coming-of-age drama seduced academy voters in the end — a subtle tide change perhaps informed by both a prickly political climate and an urgent imperative to honor more diverse films after two consecutive years of OscarsSoWhite.

Diversity could be found in every corner of the awards this year, with supporting acting wins for “Moonlight’s” Mahershala Ali and “Fences'” Viola Davis, although the best actor category proved to be a bit of an upset when Casey Affleck won for “Manchester by the Sea” over Denzel Washington of “Fences,” who had picked up momentum in recent weeks.

The improvement followed efforts by Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences President Cheryl Boone Isaacs to diversify the membership of the largely white, older and male film academy. “Tonight is proof that art has no borders, no single language and does not belong to a single faith,” said Isaacs.

Davis gave a particularly powerful speech in which she praised the late “Fences” playwright August Wilson who, she said, “Exhumed and exalted the ordinary people.” Kimmel said later that Davis, “Just got nominated for an Emmy for that speech.”

Ezra Edelman, whose nearly eight-hour epic “O.J.: Made in America” took best documentary, dedicated the award to the victims of the famous crime, Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.

Rich Moore, one of the three directors of Disney’s best animated film winner “Zootopia,” described the movie as about “tolerance being more powerful than fear of the other.”

The majority of speeches were moving and personal and generally in praise of art’s ability to create empathy in the world, including Jenkins’ in his win for adapted screenplay, who said, “All you people out there who feel like there isn’t a mirror out there for you, the Academy has your back, the ACLU has your back, and for the next four years we will not leave you alone, we will not forget you.” But not one speech came close to Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes barnburner.

“Personally, I didn’t say anything because my head was completely blank,” Affleck said backstage of his not political speech.

Instead, politics stayed largely with host Jimmy Kimmel, who kept his barbs coy and irreverent, stating at the start that he wasn’t the man to unite the country.

The host peppered the evening with digs at President Trump, at one point asking the crowd to stand for the “overrated Meryl Streep,” and, later, for any news outlet with the word “Times” in its name to leave, saying, “We have no tolerance for fake news.”

Kimmel even jokingly thanked the president for shifting the focus of the night.

“Remember last year when it seemed like the Oscars were racist?” he said in the opening.

The evening’s most blunt protests against Trump came not from the A-list stars but from foreigners, a few of whom were not even in attendance and could communicate their sentiments only through statements.

Kimmel, as if predicting that this would be the case, said early that the Oscars are watched by 225 countries “that now hate us.”

Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, whose “The Salesman” won best foreign film, his second win in the category, did not attend the ceremony in protest of Trump’s travel ban to seven predominantly Muslim nations.

Anousheh Ansari, an Iranian astronaut, read a statement from Farhadi.

“I’m sorry I’m not with you tonight,” it read. “My absence is out of respect for the people of my country and those of other six nations who have been disrespected by the inhumane law that bans entry of immigrants to the U.S.”

Gael Garcia Bernal, the Mexican actor, while presenting an award, also declared: “As a migrant worker, as a Mexican, and as a human being, I am against any wall.”

But, of course, the big best picture mistake will be the thing that history remembers about the 89th Academy Awards.

“Let’s remember this is just an awards show,” Kimmel said at the close. “I knew I would screw this show up, I really did. I promise I’ll never come back.”

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AP Film Writer Jake Coyle contributed from Los Angeles.

Trump budget will hike defense spending by $54 billion

WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House says President Donald Trump’s upcoming budget will propose a whopping $54 billion increase in defense spending and impose corresponding cuts to domestic programs and foreign aid. The result is that Trump’s initial budget wouldn’t dent budget deficits projected to run about $500 billion.

White House budget officials outlined the information during a telephone call with reporters Monday given on condition of anonymity. The budget officials on the call ignored requests to put the briefing on the record, though Trump on Friday decried the use of anonymous sources by the media.

Trump’s defense budget and spending levels for domestic agency operating budgets will be revealed in a partial submission to Congress next month, with proposals on taxes and other programs coming later.

The increase of about 10 percent for the Pentagon would fulfill a Trump campaign promise to build up the military. The senior budget official said there will be a large reduction in foreign aid and that most domestic agencies will have to absorb cuts. He did not offer details, but the administration is likely to go after longtime Republican targets like the Environmental Protection Agency.

The tentative proposals for the 2018 budget year that begins Oct. 1 are being sent to agencies, which will have a chance to propose changes.

In Congress, Democrats and some Republicans are certain to resist the cuts to domestic agencies, and any legislation to implement them would have to overcome a filibuster threat by Senate Democrats. A government shutdown is a real possibility.

“It is clear from this budget blueprint that President Trump fully intends to break his promises to working families by taking a meat ax to programs that benefit the middle class,” said Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer of New York. “A cut this steep almost certainly means cuts to agencies that protect consumers from Wall Street excess and protect clean air and water.”

The White House says Trump’s budget also won’t make significant changes to Social Security or Medicare.

The president told American governors at the White House on Monday that “we’re going to make it easier for states to invest in infrastructure” and that, overall, “we’re going to do more with less and make the government lean and accountable to the people.”

Trump’s first major fiscal marker is landing in the agencies one day before his first address to a joint meeting of Congress. For Trump, the prime-time speech is an opportunity to refocus his young presidency on the core economic issues that were a centerpiece of his White House run.

The upcoming submission covers the budget year starting on Oct. 1. But first there’s an April 28 deadline to finish up spending bills for the ongoing 2017 budget year, which is almost half over. Any stumble or protracted battle there could risk a government shutdown as well.

The March budget plan is also expected to include an immediate infusion of 2017 cash for the Pentagon that’s expected to register about $20 billion or so, and to contain the first wave of funding for Trump’s promised border wall and other initiatives like hiring immigration agents.

The president previewed the boost in military spending during a speech Friday to conservative activists, pledging “one of the greatest buildups in American history.”

“We will be substantially upgrading all of our military, all of our military, offensive, defensive, everything, bigger and better and stronger than ever before,” he said.

In an interview with Fox News Channel’s “Sunday Morning Futures,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said cuts to Social Security and Medicare would not be part of the administration’s first budget. Trump’s priority is passing legislation to reduce middle-class and corporate taxes, he said.

As a candidate, Trump promised to leave major entitlements untouched, breaking with some Republican leaders who believe the costly programs need to be reformed.

By increasing defense and leaving Medicare and Social Security untouched, the Trump budget plan is sure to project sizable deficits. In the campaign Trump promised huge tax cuts, but top GOP leaders like House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin don’t want this year’s tax reform drive to add to the budget deficit.

Malaysian officials run into N. Korean’s diplomatic immunity

TOKYO (AP) — Malaysian police investigating the killing of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s estranged half brother believe they know somebody who might help them solve one of the most bizarre murder mysteries they have ever faced. They know his name, his nationality and have a pretty good idea where he’s holed up.

The problem is he’s a North Korean diplomat.

It’s unusual for any country to simply hand over a diplomat, no matter the alleged crime. Two years ago, for example, a Saudi Arabian diplomat accused of repeatedly raping and abusing two Nepalese maids left India under cover of diplomatic immunity.

But for North Korea, in particular, the line between immunity and impunity can seem to be a pretty fine one.

Take the 2015 case of the first secretary of North Korea’s embassy in Bangladesh, who was found to be carrying a diplomatic bag full of 170 undeclared gold bars worth an estimated $1.4 million. He was arrested but later released, with no charges filed, and left the country. The following year, another official at the same embassy was asked to leave the country after an attempt to smuggle a shipping container full of 1 million cigarettes and electronics worth another $1 million.

Last year, a report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime said a South Africa-based North Korean diplomat may have been involved in smuggling rhino horn but managed to evade charges because of his legal immunity.

Enter first secretary Hyon Kwang Song, the current person of interest.

Malaysian police investigating the killing of Kim Jong Nam in an airport lobby on Feb. 13 are seeking seven North Korean nationals in connection with the case. Most have left the country, but authorities say they believe three — diplomat Hyon, an employee of Air Koryo, the country’s flag carrier, and a person named Ri Ji U — remain.

If so, it’s not hard to imagine where they might be: the North Korean Embassy, a plain, yellow two-story house in an affluent neighborhood just 10 minutes from downtown. A large group of journalists and photographers has camped outside the embassy since news of Kim Jong Nam’s killing broke.

Whether they are indeed at the embassy is anybody’s guess. Police can’t check because to do so they need permission from North Korea, which so far has said absolutely not and suggested the investigation is a witch hunt inspired by some unnamed foreign power.

National police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said investigators have submitted a request through Malaysia’s foreign ministry to the North Korean Embassy to interview the diplomat.

“If you have nothing to hide, you do not have to be afraid,” he said. “You should cooperate.”

But that’s not what international practice says.

The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations says a foreign diplomat is “inviolable” and is not liable to any form of arrest or detention. It says the host country must treat a foreign diplomat “with due respect and shall take all appropriate steps to prevent any attack on his person, freedom or dignity.”

It also adds that “a diplomatic agent shall enjoy immunity from the criminal jurisdiction of the receiving state.” That can only be waived by the diplomat’s own government.

Because of allegations the North uses its embassies abroad to make money for its nuclear and missile programs, United Nations sanctions now call for vigilance against North Korean diplomats engaged in illicit activity. All member states are required to reduce the number of staff at its diplomatic missions and consular posts and limit the number of bank accounts each can have.

Even so, few things are more established in the way the diplomatic community around the world conducts its day-to-day business than the concept of diplomatic immunity — the essential freedom of diplomats to travel and conduct their duties without the fear of being arrested or harassed for political reasons.

But while diplomats aren’t always the perfectly law-abiding citizens that we might hope, when diplomatic immunity and the realities of a criminal investigation butt heads, local police tend to have the weaker hand.

And that doesn’t bode well for Malaysian investigators hoping North Korea will open its doors.

“If he is a Korean diplomat with a diplomatic passport, then he has immunity no matter a criminal case or otherwise,” lawyer Sankara Nair, who has handled several cases involving diplomats, told The Associated Press in Kuala Lumpur. “The police can apply any warrants they want but it can easily be set aside by the embassy.”

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Associated Press writer Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, contributed to this report. Talmadge is the AP’s Pyongyang bureau chief. Follow him on Instagram @erictalmadge

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This story has been corrected to show that officials believe three North Korean suspects are still in Malaysia, not two.

White House dodging questions of Sessions’ role in FBI probe

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House is dodging questions about whether Attorney General Jeff Sessions should consider withdrawing from the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

A prominent Republican, California Rep. Darrell Issa, has called for a special prosecutor and said it would be improper for Sessions to lead the investigation as the nation’s chief law enforcement official. Sessions was an early supporter of President Donald Trump’s candidacy.

Deputy White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders is steering clear of directly answering whether the former Alabama senator should step aside from overseeing the bureau’s investigation.

She tells ABC’s “This Week” that congressional committees need to complete their own investigations, and then it would be appropriate to discuss Sessions’ role.

But those are separate reviews, independent of the FBI’s work.

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WASHINGTON (AP) — A Republican congressman has called for a special prosecutor to investigate whether Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election and was in touch with President Donald Trump’s team during the campaign.

Rep. Darrell Issa (EYE’-suh) of California says it would be improper for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to lead the investigation.

Issa made the comments Friday on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher.”

Issa said: “You’re right that you cannot have somebody — a friend of mine, Jeff Sessions — who was on the campaign and who is an appointee. You’re going to need to use the special prosecutor’s statute and office.”

It’s unclear whether Issa would have any influence on Sessions. Issa supported Trump during the election, but barely held onto his own seat in November.

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The White House made a messy attempt on Sunday to control public perceptions of a widening scandal over alleged contacts between aides to Donald Trump and Russian intelligence officials during the 2016 election, alleging that the FBI had dismissed reports of such links.

The scandal has shown little sign of coming under control, with a Republican congressman calling for an independent inquiry, multiple congressional committees pursuing investigations and Trump escalating a war with the media in an apparent attempt at distraction.

While the White House has, by its own clumsy admission, been working behind the scenes to try to manage the conduct of Congress and intelligence agencies in the scandal, those efforts have so far backfired.

Contacts between the White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, and top FBI officials have come in for particular criticism as a violation of a necessary line separating the White House from justice department investigations with potential targets inside the administration.

On Sunday, a Trump spokeswoman once again tested that line, saying the FBI had dismissed allegations of inappropriate Trump-Russia ties as “BS” – bullshit.

“The FBI has already said this story is BS,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on ABC’s This Week. “Those were their words, so I apologize to my mom. But literally those are the words of the FBI, that the story is BS.”

The FBI has in fact made no public comment on its investigation into alleged contact between Trump associates and Russian operatives, which was first reported two weeks ago by the New York Times and CNN, citing anonymous law enforcement and intelligence community sources. The labelling of the story as “BS” has been attributed to the FBI’s deputy director, Andrew McCabe, by anonymous administration officials.

The White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, has confirmed that Priebus had asked top FBI officials to publicly debunk the matter, which they declined to do.

Under fire, Trump has lashed out on two fronts. The president attacked the intelligence community over the story, warning that the sources of the leaks that fed the news reports would be punished. But he saved his sharpest attacks for the media, which he called “enemies of the people” in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference.

That line of attack was redoubled on Sunday by Sanders, who is the daughter of former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.

“Just because reporters say something over and over and over again doesn’t start to make it true,” she said.

Trump himself tweeted that the Russia story was “FAKE NEWS” put out by the Democrats.

White House attempts to write the story off as a confabulation were undermined, however, by expressions of alarm on Capitol Hill. In an appearance on HBO on Friday, Republican congressman Darrell Issa, a fiercely partisan warrior, called on the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who was a member of the Trump campaign, to recuse himself from justice department investigations of the affair.

“You’re going to need to use the special prosecutor’s statute and office,” Issa said. “You can’t just give it to your deputy. That’s another political appointee.”

Former CIA director John Brennan, who served in top intelligence roles under presidents Barack Obama and George W Bush, said on Sunday investigations of the Trump-Russia affair were in the early stages and that no one yet knew where the facts would lead.

“Anybody who claims that the facts are already known in terms of what did or didn’t happen between Russian officials and US persons during the election, I think is speaking very prematurely,” Brennan told CBS’s Face the Nation.

“And the White House needs to understand that the interaction with the FBI on criminal investigations is something that really they need to steer clear of.”

Brennan defended the FBI director, James Comey, one of the officials acknowledged to have spoken with Priebus about the White House request to deny the story of links between the Trump campaign and Moscow.

Brennan said he doubted whether Comey would have spoken with Priebus about the progress of the FBI inquiry.

“It’s been my experience, working with Jim, that he wouldn’t do anything to compromise the integrity of an ongoing investigation,” he said.

Comey’s impartiality came under question, however, when he made a double announcement in the final weeks of the election that the FBI had opened a new thread in its investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails and, subsequently, found nothing.

Brennan also denied that he himself was a source for leaked reports of contacts between Trump associates and Moscow, including reports that former national security adviser Michael Flynn had inappropriate conversations with Russian diplomats.

“Anybody who thinks I’m responsible for that are dead wrong,” Brennan said.

Trump blamed Flynn’s exit on his “unfair” treatment at the hands of the media, and the president has spent days advancing the media as a culprit for his administration’s woes. A poll released on Sunday by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal put Trump’s favorability rating at a historic low of -4 points, compared with +30 and more for previous young presidencies.

It is unclear, however, that the media is much more popular, a fact Trump used during his campaign and now uses to sow doubt about damaging stories.

As spokespeople were deployed on cable news to attack the media on Sunday morning, Trump tweeted an attack against the New York Times and a television commercial the newspaper planned to run during the broadcast of the Academy Awards.

“For first time the failing @nytimes will take an ad (a bad one) to help save its failing reputation,” Trump wrote. “Try reporting accurately & fairly!”

The ad asserts that “The truth is under attack. The truth is worth defending.” It’s unclear what Trump meant by “for first time” – the newspaper has created many television ads in the past.

New anti-IS strategy may mean deeper US involvement in Syria

WASHINGTON (AP) — A new military strategy to meet President Donald Trump’s demand to “obliterate” the Islamic State group is likely to deepen U.S. military involvement in Syria, possibly with more ground troops, even as the current U.S. approach in Iraq appears to be working and will require fewer changes.

Details are sketchy. But recommendations due at the White House on Monday are likely to increase emphasis on nonmilitary elements of the campaign already underway, such as efforts to squeeze IS finances, limit the group’s recruiting and counter IS propaganda that is credited with inspiring recent violence in the U.S. and Europe. One official with knowledge of the recommendations said the report would present a broad overview of options as a starting point for a more detailed internal discussion. The official wasn’t authorized to speak to reporters about the contents of the document and demanded anonymity

Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday that the emerging strategy will take aim not just at the Islamic State militants but at al-Qaida and other extremist organizations in the Middle East and beyond, whose goal is to attack the United States. He emphasized that it would not rest mainly on military might.

“This is a political-military plan,” he said. “It is not a military plan.”

Dunford’s comment suggests that Pentagon leaders have a more nuanced view of the IS problem than is reflected in Trump’s promise to “obliterate” the group, as he put it on Friday. Dunford said the U.S. should be careful that in solving the IS problem it does not create others, hinting at the sensitive question of how to deal with Turkey, which is a NATO ally with much at stake in neighboring Syria, and Russia, whose military action in Syria has had the effect of propping up the Syrian regime.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is giving the White House the ingredients of a strategy, which officials say will be fleshed out once Trump has considered the options. Officials described the Mattis report as a “framework” built on broad concepts and based on advice from the State Department, the CIA and other agencies. Officials have indicated the recommended approaches will echo central elements of the Obama administration’s strategy, which was based on the idea that the U.S. military should support local forces rather than do the fighting for them. Mattis already has signaled publicly that he sees no value in having U.S. combat forces take over the ground war.

“I would just tell you that by, with and through our allies is the way this coalition is going against Daesh,” Mattis said last week in Baghdad, using an Arabic term for the Islamic State group. “We’re going to continue to go after them until we destroy them and any kind of belief in the inevitability of their message.”

Trump signed an executive order on Jan. 28 giving Mattis 30 days to present a “preliminary draft” of a plan. He said it should include a comprehensive strategy that would not only deliver a battlefield victory but also “isolate and delegitimize” the group and its radical ideology.

Asked if adding more U.S. troops or arming the Syrian Kurds was under discussion, Mattis said he will “accommodate any request” from his field commanders.

“We owe some degree of confidentiality on exactly how we’re going to do that and the sequencing of that fight so that we don’t expose to the enemy what it is we have in mind in terms of the timing of the operations,” Mattis told reporters. But he said those are “some of the issues that we’ll be dealing with as we go forward, and we’ll be addressing each one of them, from intelligence, to tactics, to logistics as we sustain the fight going into this.”

Army Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Mideast, has said more American troops may be needed to speed up the fight in Syria. The U.S. currently has about 500 special operations forces in Syria helping to organize, advise and assist local forces.

One of the thorniest problems the Trump administration will consider is whether to change the U.S. approach to Russia’s military role in Syria. Although Trump has suggested an interest in working with Russia against IS, the Pentagon has been reluctant to go beyond military-to-military contacts aimed at avoiding accidents in the airspace over Syria.

Senior military leaders, including Mattis, seem more confident in the Iraqi military campaign, lending weight to the idea that the options will put a greater emphasis on Syria.

Officials say providing more heavy equipment and arms to the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds is a likely — but politically sensitive — option.

NATO ally Turkey considers the Kurdish fighters, known as the YPG, a terrorist organization. But the YPG forms the main force to retake Raqqa, the Islamic State militants’ self-proclaimed capital and base of operations. Some in the Pentagon have suggested giving the Kurds heavy weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns and heavy combat vehicles, but the Obama administration rejected the idea.

Other options include sending more Apache helicopters into the fight, and sending in more U.S. troops to help train Syrian forces.

The options on Iraq may well include decisions on the future U.S. commitment to the country. Both Mattis and Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said that they believe the U.S. will have an enduring partnership with Iraq.

“I imagine we’ll be in this fight for a while, and we’ll stand by each other,” Mattis said in Baghdad.

Townsend declined to say how long the U.S. will stay in Iraq. But, he said, “I don’t anticipate that we’ll be asked to leave by the government of Iraq immediately after Mosul,” he said, referring to the city that U.S.-backed Iraqi forces are in the midst of retaking.

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FILE – In this Jan. 21, 2107 file photo, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford greets Defense Secretary Jimn Mattis at the Pentagon. A new military strategy to meet President Donald Trump’s demand “to obliterate” the Islamic State group is likely to deepen U.S. military involvement in Syria, possibly with more ground troops, even as the current U.S. approach in Iraq appears to be working and will require fewer changes. Dunford said Feb. 23 that the strategy will take aim not just at the Islamic State but at al-Qaida and other extremist organizations in the Middle East and beyond whose goal is to attack the United States. He emphasized that it would not rest mainly on military might. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

Associated Press writer Bradley Klapper contributed to this report.

Analysis: I Was a Muslim in Trump’s White House

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(PhatzNewsRoom / The Atlantic)    —-   In 2011, I was hired, straight out of college, to work at the White House and eventually the National Security Council. My job there was to promote and protect the best of what my country stands for.

I am a hijab-wearing Muslim woman––I was the only hijabi in the West Wing––and the Obama administration always made me feel welcome and included.

Like most of my fellow American Muslims, I spent much of 2016 watching with consternation as Donald Trump vilified our community. Despite this––or because of it––I thought I should try to stay on the NSC staff during the Trump Administration, in order to give the new president and his aides, a more nuanced view of Islam, and of America’s Muslim citizens.

I lasted eight days.

When Trump issued a ban on travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries and all Syrian refugees, I knew I could no longer stay and work for an administration that saw me and people like me not as fellow citizens, but as a threat.

The evening before I left, bidding farewell to some of my colleagues, many of whom have also since left, I notified Trump’s senior NSC communications advisor, Michael Anton, of my departure, since we shared an office.

His initial surprise, asking whether I was leaving government entirely, was followed by silence––almost in caution, not asking why. I told him anyway.

I told him I had to leave because it was an insult walking into this country’s most historic building every day under an administration that is working against and vilifying everything I stand for as an American and as a Muslim.

I told him that the administration was attacking the basic tenets of democracy. I told him that I hoped that they and those in Congress were prepared to take responsibility for all the consequences that would attend their decisions.

He looked at me and said nothing.

It was only later that I learned he authored an essay under a pseudonym, extolling the virtues of authoritarianism and attacking diversity as a “weakness,” and Islam as “incompatible with the modern West.”

My whole life and everything I have learned proves that facile statement wrong.

My parents immigrated to the United States from Bangladesh in 1978 and strove to create opportunities for their children born in the states. My mother worked as a cashier, later starting her own daycare business.

My father spent late nights working at Bank of America, and was eventually promoted to assistant vice president at one of its headquarters. Living the American dream, we’d have family barbecues, trips to Disney World, impromptu soccer or football games, and community service projects. My father began pursuing his PhD, but in 1995 he was killed in a car accident.

I was 12 when I started wearing a hijab. It was encouraged in my family, but it was always my choice. It was a matter of faith, identity, and resilience for me. After 9/11, everything would change. On top of my shock, horror, and heartbreak, I had to deal with the fear some kids suddenly felt towards me. I was glared at, cursed at, and spat at in public and in school. People called me a “terrorist” and told me, “go back to your country.”

My father taught me a Bengali proverb inspired by Islamic scripture: “When a man kicks you down, get back up, extend your hand, and call him brother.” Peace, patience, persistence, respect, forgiveness and dignity. These were the values I’ve carried through my life and my career.

I never intended to work in government. I was among those who assumed the government was inherently corrupt and ineffective. Working in the Obama White House proved me wrong. You can’t know or understand what you haven’t been a part of.

Still, inspired by President Obama, I joined the White House in 2011, after graduating from the George Washington University. I had interned there during my junior year, reading letters and taking calls from constituents at the Office of Presidential Correspondence. It felt surreal––here I was, a 22-year-old American Muslim American woman from Maryland who had been mocked and called names for covering my hair, working for the president of the United States.

In 2012, I moved to the West Wing to join the Office of Public Engagement, where I worked with various communities, including American Muslims, on domestic issues such as health care. In early 2014, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes offered me a position on the National Security Council (NSC).

For two and a half years I worked down the hall from the Situation Room, advising President Obama’s engagements with American Muslims, and working on issues ranging from advancing relations with Cuba and Laos to promoting global entrepreneurship among women and youth.

A harsher world began to reemerge in 2015. In February, three young American Muslim students were killed in their Chapel Hill home by an Islamophobe. Both the media and administration were slow to address the attack, as if the dead had to be vetted before they could be mourned.

It was emotionally devastating. But when a statement was finally released condemning the attack and mourning their loss, Rhodes took me aside to tell me how grateful he was to have me there and wished there were more American Muslims working throughout government.  America’s government and decision-making should reflect its people.

Later that month, the evangelist Franklin Graham declared that the government had “been infiltrated by Muslims.” One of my colleagues sought me out with a smile on his face and said, “If only he knew they were in the halls of the West Wing and briefed the president of the United States multiple times!” I thought: Damn right I’m here, exactly where I belong, a proud American dedicated to protecting and serving my country.

Graham’s hateful provocations weren’t new. Over the Obama years, right-wing websites spread  an abundance of absurd conspiracy theories and lies, targeting some American Muslim  organizations and individuals––even those of us serving in government.

They called us “terrorists,” Sharia-law whisperers, or Muslim Brotherhood operatives. Little did I realize that some of these conspiracy theorists would someday end up in the White House.

Over the course of the campaign, even when I was able to storm through the bad days, I realized the rhetoric was taking a toll on American communities. When Trump first called for a Muslim ban, reports of hate crimes against Muslims spiked. The trend of anti-Muslim hate crimes is ongoing, as mosques are set on fire and individuals attacked––six were killed at a mosque in Canada by a self-identified Trump supporter.

Throughout 2015 and 2016, I watched with disbelief, apprehension, and anxiety, as Trump’s style of campaigning instigated fear and emboldened xenophobes, anti-Semites, and Islamophobes. While cognizant of the possibility of Trump winning, I hoped a majority of the electorate would never condone such a hateful and divisive worldview.

During the campaign last February, Obama visited a Baltimore mosque and reminded the public that “we’re one American family, and when any part of our family starts to feel separate…It’s a challenge to our values.” His words would go unheeded by his successor.

The climate in 2016 felt like it did just after 9/11. What made it worse was that this fear and hatred were being fueled by Americans in positions of power. Fifth-grade students at a local Sunday school where I volunteered shared stories of being bullied by classmates and teachers, feeling like they didn’t belong here anymore, and asked if they might get kicked out of this country if Trump won.

I was almost hit by a car by a white man laughing as he drove by in a Costco parking lot, and on another occasion was followed out of the metro by a man screaming profanities: “F**k you! F**k Islam! Trump will send you back!”

Then, on election night, I was left in shock.

The morning after the election, we lined up in the West Colonnade as Obama stood in the Rose Garden and called for national unity and a smooth transition. Trump seemed the antithesis of everything we stood for. I felt lost. I could not fully grasp the idea that he would soon be sitting where Obama sat.

I debated whether I should leave my job. Since I was not a political appointee, but a direct hire of the NSC, I had the option to stay. The incoming and now departed national security advisor, Michael Flynn, had said things like “fear of Muslims is rational.”

Some colleagues and community leaders encouraged me to stay, while others expressed concern for my safety. Cautiously optimistic, and feeling a responsibility to try to help them continue our work and be heard, I decided that Trump’s NSC could benefit from a colored, female, hijab-wearing, American Muslim patriot.

The weeks leading up to the inauguration prepared me and my colleagues for what we thought would come, but not for what actually came. On Monday, January 23, I walked into the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, with the new staffers there. Rather than the excitement I encountered when I first came to the White House under Obama, the new staff looked at me with a cold surprise. The diverse White House I had worked in became a monochromatic and male bastion.

The days I spent in the Trump White House were strange, appalling and disturbing. As one staffer serving since the Reagan administration said, “This place has been turned upside down. It’s chaos. I’ve never witnessed anything like it.”

This was not typical Republican leadership, or even that of a businessman. It was a chaotic attempt at authoritarianism––legally questionable executive orders, accusations of the press being “fake,” peddling countless lies as “alternative facts,” and assertions by White House surrogates that the president’s national security authority would “not be questioned.”

The entire presidential support structure of nonpartisan national security and legal experts within the White House complex and across federal agencies was being undermined. Decision-making authority was now centralized to a few in the West Wing. Frustration and mistrust developed as some staff felt out of the loop on issues within their purview.

There was no structure or clear guidance. Hallways were eerily quiet as key positions and offices responsible for national security or engagement with Americans were left unfilled.

I might have lasted a little longer. Then came January 30. The executive order banning travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries caused chaos, without making America any safer. Discrimination that has existed for years at airports was now legitimized, sparking mass protests, while the president railed against the courts for halting his ban.

Not only was this discrimination and un-American, the administration’s actions defending the ban threatened the nation’s security and its system of checks and balances.

Alt-right writers, now on the White House staff, have claimed that Islam and the West are at war with each other. Disturbingly, ISIS also makes such claims to justify their attacks, which for the most part target Muslims.

The Administration’s plans to revamp the Countering Violent Extremism program to focus solely on Muslims and use terms like “radical Islamic terror,” legitimize ISIS propaganda and allow the dangerous rise of white-supremacist extremism to go unchecked.

Placing U.S. national security in the hands of people who think America’s diversity is a “weakness” is dangerous. It is false.

People of every religion, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, and age pouring into the streets and airports to defend the rights of their fellow Americans over the past few weeks proved the opposite is true––American diversity is a strength, and so is the American commitment to ideals of  justice and equality.American history is not without stumbles, which have proven that the nation is only made more prosperous and resilient through struggle, compassion and inclusiveness. It’s why my parents came here. It’s why I told my former 5th grade students, who wondered if they still belonged here, that this country would not be great without them.

Iraq: Police Commandos recapture new neighborhood in Mosul

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BAGHDAD — Iraqi militarized police captured two neighborhoods on the western side of Mosul on Sunday amid fierce clashes with Islamic State militants, as thousands of people continued to flee the battle to government-controlled areas, security officials said.

Iraqi forces, backed by aerial support by the U.S.-led international coalition, launched a new push last week to drive IS militants from Mosul’s west, capturing so far the city’s international airport and an adjacent military base. Iraqi authorities declared Mosul’s eastern half “fully liberated” from the Sunni militants in January, three months after launching the operation to take back Iraq’s second-largest city.

At dawn Sunday, the Federal Police Commandos Division moved into the Tayaran neighborhood amid fierce clashes, Maj. Gen. Haider al-Maturi told The Associated Press from Baghdad. Al-Maturi said the neighborhood “is now under their full control.”

Al-Maturi said IS militants deployed at least 10 suicide car bombs, but nine of them were blown up before reaching their targets. The 10th killed two policemen and wounded five. Al-Maturi added that his forces arrested two militants — an Iraqi and a foreigner who speaks Russian.

Further west, Iraqi special forces captured the Mamun neighborhood by early Sunday afternoon, Brig. Gen. Haider Fadhil of the special forces said. Fadhil said IS militants attacked the advancing troops with more than 15 suicide car bombs, but all were blown up before hitting the troops.

“The neighborhood is fully liberated,” he said. “We are clearing it up and beefing up fortifications.”

Up to 3,000 people fled from the Mamun neighborhood Sunday morning, according to Iraqi special forces Brig. Gen. Salam Hashed, who oversees a screening center south of Mosul. Hashed said just over 2,500 people fled the previous day.

According to the U.N. figures, about 750,000 civilians are believed to be trapped in their houses in western Mosul, one of several challenges expected to slow the advance of the Iraqi troops. Another complication is western Mosul’s old and narrow streets, which will force Iraqi soldiers to leave the relative safety of their armored vehicles.

Western Mosul is the last significant urban area IS holds in Iraq. The city is split roughly in half by the Tigris River.

Mosul fell to IS in the summer of 2014, along with large swaths of northern and western Iraq.

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George reported from south of Mosul. Associated Press writer Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad contributed to this report.

EU lawmakers, in unusual move, pull the plug on racist talk

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BRUSSELS (AP) — With the specter of populism looming over a critical election year in Europe, the European Parliament has taken an unusual step to crack down on racism and hate speech in its own house.

In an unprecedented move, lawmakers have granted special powers to the president to pull the plug on live broadcasts of parliamentary debate in cases of racist speech or acts and the ability to purge any offending video or audio material from the system.

Trouble is, the rules on what is considered offensive are none too clear. Some are concerned about manipulation. Others are crying censorship.

“This undermines the reliability of the Parliament’s archives at a moment where the suspicion of ‘fake news’ and manipulation threatens the credibility of the media and the politicians,” said Tom Weingaertner, president of the Brussels-based International Press Association.

After Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, the rising popularity of anti-immigrant candidates like Geert Wilders in the Netherlands or far-right Marine Le Pen in France is worrying Europe’s political mainstream. Le Pen, who is running for the French presidency this spring, has promised to follow Britain’s lead.

At the European Parliament, where elections are due in 2019, many say the need for action against hate speech, and strong sanctions for offenders, is long overdue.

The assembly— with its two seats; one in the Belgian capital of Brussels, and the other in Strasbourg in northeast France — is often the stage for political and sometimes nationalist theater. Beyond routine shouting matches, members occasionally wear T-shirts splashed with slogans or unfurl banners. Flags adorn some lawmakers’ desks.

Yet more and more in recent years, lawmakers have gone too far.

“There have been a growing number of cases of politicians saying things that are beyond the pale of normal parliamentary discussion and debate,” said British EU parliamentarian Richard Corbett, who chaperoned the new rule through the assembly.

“What if this became not isolated incidents, but specific, where people could say: ‘Hey, this is a fantastic platform. It’s broad, it’s live-streamed. It can be recorded and repeated. Let’s use it for something more vociferous, more spectacular,'” he told The Associated Press.

In a nutshell, rule 165 of the parliament’s rules of procedure allows the chair of debates to halt the live broadcast “in the case of defamatory, racist or xenophobic language or behavior by a member.” The maximum fine for offenders would be around 9,000 euros ($9,500).

Under the rule, not made public by the assembly but first reported by Spain’s La Vanguardia newspaper, offending material could be “deleted from the audiovisual record of proceedings,” meaning citizens would never know it happened unless reporters were in the room. Weingaertner said the IPA was never consulted on that.

A technical note seen by the AP outlines a procedure for manually cutting off the video feed, stopping transmission on in-house TV monitors and breaking the satellite link to halt broadcast to the outside world. A videotape in four languages would be kept running to serve as a legal record during the blackout. A more effective and permanent system was being sought.

It is also technically possible to introduce a safe-guard time delay so broadcasts appear a few seconds later. This means they could be interrupted before offending material is aired.

But the system is unwieldy. Lawmakers have the right to speak in any of the European Union’s 24 official languages. An offending act could well be over before the assembly’s President Antonio Tajani even has a chance to hit the kill switch. Misunderstandings and even abuses could crop up.

During a debate in December, Gerolf Annemans, from Belgium’s Flemish independence party Vlaams Belang, expressed concern that the rule “can be abused by those who have hysterical reactions to things that they qualify as racist, xenophobic, when people are just expressing politically incorrect views.”

Even those involved in the move acknowledge that it’s a sensitive issue.

Helmut Scholz, from Germany’s left-wing Die Linke party, said EU lawmakers are elected — indeed the EU parliament is the bloc’s only popularly elected institution — and must be able to express their views about how Europe should work.

“You can’t limit or deny this right,” he said.

He worries about fake news too, but of the kind made from selective extracts of debates.

“If you are following the whole debate that is one thing, but if you have certain media who are taking out individual sentences you could falsify the whole issue,” he said.

Still, Nazi rallying cries and racist obscenities are relatively rare but not unheard of.

“We need an instrument against that, to take it out of the record, to stop distribution of such slogans, such ideas,” Scholz said.

Congress returns, with health care, Supreme Court on agenda

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress returns to Washington this week to confront dramatic decisions on health care and the Supreme Court that may help determine the course of Donald Trump’s presidency.

First, the president will have his say, in his maiden speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night. Majority Republicans in the House and Senate will be closely watching the prime-time address for guidance, marching orders or any specifics Trump might embrace on health care or taxes, areas where some of his preferences remain a mystery.

Congressional Republicans insist they are working closely with the new administration as they prepare to start taking votes on health legislation, with the moment finally upon them to make good on seven years of promises to repeal and replace former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. House Republicans hope to pass their legislation by early April and send it to the Senate, with action there also possible before Easter.

Republicans will be “keeping our promise to the American people,” House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said as he sent lawmakers home for the Presidents Day recess armed with informational packets to defend planned GOP changes to the health law.

But land mines await.

The recess was dominated by raucous town halls where Republicans faced tough questions about their plans to replace the far-reaching law with a new system built around tax credits, health savings accounts and high risk pools. Important questions are unanswered, such as the overall cost and how many people will be covered. There’s also uncertainty about how to resolve divisions among states over Medicaid money.

The lack of clarity created anxiety among voters who peppered lawmakers from coast to coast with questions about what would become of their own health coverage and that of their friends and family. It’s forced Republicans to offer assurances that they don’t intend to take away the law and leave nothing in its place, even though some House conservatives favor doing just that.

“What I have said is repeal and replace and more recently I have defined that as repairing the ACA moving forward,” Rep. Leonard Lance, R-N.J., insisted to an overflow crowd in his politically divided district this past week. “I think we have a responsibility in Washington to try to make the system better.”

It remains to be seen whether the release of detailed legislation in the coming days will calm, or heighten, voters’ concerns. Details on the size of tax credits to help people buy insurance, and how many fewer people will be covered than the 20 million who gained coverage under Obama’s law, could create bigger pushback and even more complications.

With lawmakers set to return to the Capitol on Monday, it will become clearer whether the earful many got back home will affect their plans. GOP leaders are determined to move forward, reckoning that when confronted with the reality of voting on the party’s repeal and replace plan, Republicans will have no choice but to vote “yes.”

Many Republicans say that how they will handle health legislation will set the stage for the next big battle, over taxes. And that fight, many believe, will be even trickier than health care. Already, it has opened major rifts between House and Senate Republicans.

Senators also will be weighing the nomination of federal appeals Judge Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s pick for the Supreme Court. Hearings soon will get underway in the Senate Judiciary Committee; floor action is expected before Easter.

Despite Gorsuch’s sterling credentials, Democrats are under pressure from their liberal supporters to oppose him, given voters’ disdain for Trump and the GOP’s refusal last year to allow even a hearing for Obama’s nominee for the high court vacancy, federal appeals Judge Merrick Garland.

Yet some Democrats are already predicting that one way or another, Gorsuch will be confirmed. Even if he doesn’t pick up the 60 votes he needs, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., could use a procedural gambit to eliminate Democrats’ ability to filibuster Gorsuch, an outcome that Trump has endorsed.

Congress is awaiting a budget from the Trump administration, and the slow process of rounding out Trump’s Cabinet will move forward as Republicans tee up more nominees over Democratic protests. The Senate has confirmed 14 Cabinet and Cabinet-level officials, fewer than other presidents at this point.

The most controversial nominees, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt have been confirmed. Next up: financier Wilbur Ross for commerce secretary, Rep. Ryan Zinke to lead the Interior Department, retired neurosurgeon and 2016 GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson to be housing secretary and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry at the energy department.

How Democrats vote will be telling, given the extreme pressures on them to oppose Trump at every turn. It’s a dynamic to which those with potential presidential ambitions are particularly sensitive. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, among others, took heat for voting in favor of Carson in committee, while Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York as opposed nearly all the nominees.

What popular tax breaks are at risk if GOP overhauls taxes?

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WASHINGTON (AP) — When Republicans say they want to lower taxes and get rid of loopholes to make up the lost revenue, they’re talking about eliminating some very popular tax breaks enjoyed by millions of people.

That’s why making big changes to tax laws is so hard — and why it hasn’t been done for 30 years.

Unless Congress simply cuts taxes for everyone, there will be winners and losers, and the losers won’t go quietly. If Congress does cut taxes for everyone, lawmakers risk exploding an already large budget deficit.

Republican leaders in the House and Senate say they don’t want a tax overhaul to add to the national debt. That’s what they mean when they say “revenue neutral.” The new system would raise the same amount of tax revenue as the old one, after taking into account some broader economic effects.

President Donald Trump has said he will make public a tax proposal in the coming weeks. Republicans in Congress are also working on plans, with the House GOP taking the lead.

Last year, House Republicans released a blueprint that would lower income tax rates and reduce the number of tax brackets. The gist of the plan is to lower tax rates for just about everyone, and make up the lost revenue by scaling back exemptions, deductions and credits.

A look at the biggest tax breaks enjoyed by individuals, along with The Associated Press’ assessment of how safe they are as Congress works to overhaul taxes. All estimates are from the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation, the official scorekeeper for Congress.

___

RETIREMENT SAVINGS

Contributions to pension plans are tax-exempt, including defined benefit plans and defined contribution plans, such as 401(k)s. This exemption saved taxpayers $180 billion in 2016, making it the biggest tax break for individuals.

RATING: Safe.

___

EMPLOYER-PROVIDED HEALTH INSURANCE

Nearly half of all those in the United States get their health insurance from an employer. The value of those insurance policies is exempt from taxation, saving taxpayers $155 billion in 2016.

Proposals to start taxing at least some health benefits are dividing House Republicans as they struggle to replace President Barack Obama’s health law. Some see it as another version of Obama’s “Cadillac” tax on high-cost health insurance, which has been delayed until 2020.

RATING: In danger.

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CAPITAL GAINS AND DIVIDENDS

Investors pay reduced tax rates on long-term capital gains and qualified dividends, saving them $131 billion in 2016. The tax rate for investment income is 15 percent for most investors, though the very wealthy pay a top rate of 20 percent. The top tax rate on regular income is 39.6 percent.

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan raised taxes on investments and used the revenue to dramatically reduce tax rates for regular income. Today, few Republicans embrace the idea of increasing taxes on investments.

RATING: Safe, as long as Republicans are in charge.

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EARNED INCOME CREDIT

Nearly 30 million families claimed the earned income tax credit in 2016, which targets low-income working families with children. They saved a total of $73 billion. Republicans like the credit because it rewards work. Democrats like it because it is one of the federal government’s largest anti-poverty programs.

RATING: Safe, but there could be changes.

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STATE AND LOCAL TAXES

More than 43 million families deducted their state and local income, sales and personal property taxes from their federal taxable income in 2016. The deductions reduced their federal tax bills by nearly $70 billion. More than 90 percent of taxpayers who itemize take advantage of this deduction. Nevertheless, the House Republican blueprint would repeal it to help pay for lower tax rates.

RATING: In danger.

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MORTGAGE INTEREST

Nearly 34 million families claimed the mortgage interest deduction in 2016, reducing their tax bills by $65 billion. Some economists say the deduction is an inefficient way to promote home ownership. But it has strong support among home owners and every industry associated with buying and building homes. Recognizing the political peril of targeting this deduction, the House GOP blueprint would keep it.

RATING: Safe, but it could get a haircut for high-priced homes.

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CHARITABLE CONTRIBUTIONS

Nearly 36 million families claimed deductions for charitable contributions in 2016, reducing their tax bills by more than $57 billion. Most tax overhaul proposals, including the House GOP blueprint, would spare this deduction.

RATING: Safe.

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CHILD TAX CREDIT

More than 35 million families claimed the $1,000-per-child in 2016. They saved more than $54 billion.

RATING: Safe. Some proposals would increase it.

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SOCIAL SECURITY AND RAILROAD RETIREMENT

Most Social Security and railroad retirement benefits are not taxed, saving these people $40 billion in 2016. Individuals with a combined income below $25,000 do not have to pay taxes on Social Security. The income threshold for married couples is $32,000.

RATING: Safe.

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PROPERTY TAXES

Nearly 35 million families deducted their taxes on their home or other real estate from their federal taxable income in 2016. They saved a total of $33 billion. This deduction makes it easier for school districts to raise money from property taxes. It is, however, targeted for elimination in the House GOP blueprint.

RATING: In danger.

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Follow Stephen Ohlemacher on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/stephenatap

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