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Monthly Archives: March 2017

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Christie office rejects judge’s comments on venomous culture

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TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Gov. Chris Christie’s administration defended itself Thursday against comments made by a federal judge who suggested a venomous climate inside state government led two Christie aides to orchestrate traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge to punish a political rival.

Former Christie deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly “got caught up in a culture and an environment that lost its way,” Judge Susan Wigenton said Wednesday before sentencing her to 18 months in prison. Co-defendant Bill Baroni, the deputy executive director at the bistate agency that controls the bridge, was sentenced to two years in prison.

“It’s very clear the culture in Trenton was ‘you’re either with us or you’re not,'” Wigenton said.

Brian Murray, a spokesman for the Republican governor, called Wigenton’s remarks “ill-advised” and said they were based on lies from the testimony of Baroni, Kelly and self-described mastermind David Wildstein, who pleaded guilty in the case.

“The work of the people who have been employed by the Governor’s Office has been honest, honorable, bi-partisan and effective,” Murray said. “The actions of the felons was the sad and unacceptable exception to the way the office has conducted itself for seven years.”

Baroni and Kelly are appealing their convictions for conspiracy, wire fraud and other offenses for causing the gridlock near the bridge in September 2013 to punish a Democratic mayor who didn’t endorse Christie’s re-election.

Christie was not charged with any wrongdoing in the federal case. State prosecutors have declined to pursue a citizen’s criminal complaint lodged against him, but questions remain over how much he knew about the plot.

His version of events, that he was not aware that anyone in his office was involved until months after the fact, was contradicted by testimony from multiple people.

Kelly testified that Christie approved what she told him was a traffic study proposed by Wildstein. Christie has denied that.

“I will not allow myself to be the scapegoat in this case,” Kelly told reporters after the sentencing.

Kelly’s attorney, Michael Critchley, homed in on her testimony about telling Christie about the traffic jams while they were happening. Christie wasn’t called to testify at the trial.

“You could say she’s lying, but that testimony is uncontradicted,” he told the judge. “They didn’t call the governor to contradict her. That’s not been contradicted one iota, and I think the silence there is deafening.”

The scandal sank Christie’s 2016 White House bid and likely cost him the chance to be President Donald Trump’s running mate. Christie has since turned his attention in his final year in office to addressing the state’s opioid epidemic, and on Wednesday he was at the White House, where he was selected to lead a drug addiction task force .

Christie, who is term-limited, has seen his approval ratings hover around 20 percent recently. His future after politics is unclear, though he has said he plans to make money in private life after nearly two decades in the public spotlight. He was U.S. attorney for New Jersey before running for governor in 2009.

Kelly and Baroni were sentenced the same month that another Christie ally, former Port Authority chairman David Samson, was sentenced to probation and a year of home confinement for using his position to pressure United Airlines to reinstate a money-losing flight route to give him easier access to his weekend home.

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Contact Catalini at https://www.twitter.com/mikecatalini

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Porter reported from Newark.

Dem opposition to Trump court pick grows; Schumer warns GOP

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Democratic opposition to President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee swelled Friday as Democrats neared the numbers needed for a filibuster, setting up a showdown with Republicans who have the votes to confirm Neil Gorsuch.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York warned Republicans against changing Senate rules, which could prove momentous for the chamber and would allow all future Supreme Court nominees to get on the court regardless of opposition from the minority party. He says President Donald Trump should just pick a new nominee if Gorsuch is blocked.

Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Brian Schatz of Hawaii became the latest Democratic senators to announce their opposition to Gorsuch, a 49-year-old federal appeals court judge in Denver whose conservative rulings make him an intellectual heir to the justice he would replace, the late Antonin Scalia.

Blumenthal, a Senate Judiciary Committee member who questioned Gorsuch on judicial independence and other topics in last week’s hearings, complained that the judge didn’t give straightforward responses.

“We must assume that Judge Gorsuch has passed the Trump litmus test — a pro-life, pro-gun, conservative judge,” Blumenthal said in a statement. “In question after question, Judge Gorsuch had an opportunity to distance himself from right-wing groups. His refusal to answer only deepens the doubt that he is not a neutral follower of the law — an umpire who just calls balls and strikes — but instead an acolyte of hard-right special interests.”

There are now at least 35 Senate Democrats who oppose Gorsuch and have pledged to block him with a filibuster, just six shy of the number that would be required to mount a successful filibuster. All of the Senate’s 52 Republicans are expected to support him. The vote is expected next week.

Republicans are furious at the Democrats’ plans, arguing that filibusters of Supreme Court justices have been exceedingly rare, and accusing Democrats of responding to political pressures from a liberal base that still hasn’t accepted Trump’s election win. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is expected to respond to a Democratic filibuster by unilaterally changing Senate rules to lower the threshold for Supreme Court justices from 60 votes to a simple majority in the 100-member Senate.

Although such a change might seem procedural or obscure, it is known on Capitol Hill as the “nuclear option” because it would amount to a dramatic departure from Senate norms of bipartisanship and collegiality.

Schumer warned against the rules change in an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday, arguing that Republicans would be the ones to blame if it does occur.

“Senate Republicans are acting like if Gorsuch doesn’t get 60 votes they have no choice but to change the rules,” Schumer said. “That is bunk.”

Schumer’s comments came after Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota became the first two Democrats to announce their support for Gorsuch, and the only ones so far. Manchin said in a statement, “I hold no illusions that I will agree with every decision Judge Gorsuch may issue in the future, but I have not found any reasons why this jurist should not be a Supreme Court Justice.”

In another development, audio surfaced of Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., laying out the risks to Democrats in the Gorsuch vote as she spoke privately to donors. The audio was obtained by the Kansas City Star from Republicans. The senator is part of a group of 10 Democrats up for re-election next year in states Trump won, all weighing whether to vote for Gorsuch and risk angering their liberal base — Or oppose him, prompting Republicans to permanently change Senate rules to eliminate the filibuster.

With the filibuster gone, Trump could nominate another justice next time there’s a vacancy without having to compromise with Democrats at all, and “all of a sudden, the things I fought for with scars on my back to show for it in this state are in jeopardy,” McCaskill is heard saying.

If confirmed, Gorsuch would replace Scalia, who died in February 2016. But if one of the more liberal justices dies or retires, Trump’s next pick could fundamentally alter the balance of the court. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 84 and fellow liberal Justice Stephen Breyer is 78. Justice Anthony Kennedy, the pivotal vote closest to the court’s center, is 80.

Changing Senate rules would not be unprecedented. In 2013, Democrats were in the majority and upset about appellate court nominees getting blocked. They pushed through a rules change lowering the vote threshold on all nominees except for the Supreme Court from 60 to a simple majority.

Hill panels says it’s too soon to discuss immunity for Flynn

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Congressional investigators on Friday rebuffed former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s offer of cooperation in exchange for immunity, saying it’s too early in their probe of his Russia connections to discuss a deal.

Flynn’s attorney said there were talks about immunity from prosecution in exchange for testimony with the congressional committees conducting investigations into Russia’s meddling with the election.

A congressional aide confirmed that preliminary discussions with the Senate intelligence committee involved immunity but that it was too early in the investigation to set terms. The aide was not authorized to discuss private conversations and spoke on condition of anonymity. The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, of California, said the committee would be discussing the issue with the Senate intelligence committee and the Justice Department. He said that Flynn has even suggested immunity is a significant development.

“We should first acknowledge what a grave and momentous step it is for a former national security adviser to the president of the United States to ask for immunity from prosecution,” Schiff said in a statement Friday.

Flynn’s attorney, Robert Kelner, said no “reasonable person” with legal counsel would answer questions without assurances that he would not be prosecuted, given calls from some members of Congress that the retired lieutenant general should face criminal charges.

“General Flynn certainly has a story to tell, and he very much wants to tell it, should the circumstances permit,” Kelner said Thursday.

Trump weighed in Friday, tweeting that Flynn “should ask for immunity in that this is a witch hunt (excuse for big election loss), by media & Dems, of historic proportion!”

Flynn’s ties to Russia have been scrutinized by the FBI and are under investigation by the House and Senate intelligence committees. Both committees are looking into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election and any ties between Trump associates and the Kremlin.

Since July, the FBI has been conducting a counterintelligence investigation into Russia’s interference in the election and possible coordination with Trump associates.

The spokesman for Rep. Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House intelligence committee, said there was never an immunity deal offered to Flynn.

The committee “had a preliminary conversation with Michael Flynn’s lawyer about arranging for Flynn to speak to the Committee,” Nunes’ spokesman, Jack Langer, said Friday. “The discussions did not include immunity or other possible conditions for his appearance.”

Schiff, who has called for Nunes’ recusal from the investigation because of his close ties to the White House, said the committee is interested in Flynn’s testimony, but lawmakers are also “mindful” of the Justice Department’s interests.

Congress has the authority to grant someone immunity, but doing so could jeopardize the Justice Department’s ability to use that testimony as the basis for any criminal case it wants to bring.

“When the time comes to consider requests for immunity from any witness, we will of course require a detailed proffer of any intended testimony,” Schiff said.

Kelner released a statement late Thursday after The Wall Street Journal first reported that Flynn’s negotiations with the committee included discussions of immunity. The lawyer described the talks as ongoing and said he would not comment on the details.

Four other Trump associates have come forward in recent weeks, saying they would talk to the committees. As of Wednesday, the Senate intelligence committee had asked to interview 20 people as part of the probe.

In his statement, Kelner said the political climate in which Flynn is facing “claims of treason and vicious innuendo” is factoring into his negotiations with the committees.

“No reasonable person, who has the benefit of advice from counsel, would submit to questioning in such a highly politicized, witch hunt environment without assurances against unfair prosecution,” Kelner said.

In September, Flynn weighed in on the implications of immunity on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” criticizing Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her associates in the FBI’s investigation into her use of a private email server.

“When you are given immunity, that means that you have probably committed a crime,” Flynn said during the interview.

Flynn was fired from his job as Trump’s first national security adviser after it was disclosed that he misled Vice President Mike Pence about a conversation he had with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. during the transition.

In the weeks after he resigned, Flynn and his business registered with the Justice Department as foreign agents for $530,000 worth of lobbying work that could have benefited the Turkish government.

The lobbying occurred while Flynn was a top Trump campaign adviser. The Turkish businessman who hired Flynn, Ekim Alptekin, has told the AP that Flynn’s firm registered under pressure from the Justice Department.

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Follow Chad Day on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ChadSDay

Charleston church shooter to plead guilty to murder charges

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Convicted South Carolina church shooter Dylann Roof is set to plead guilty to state murder charges, avoiding a second death sentence and effectively bringing to a close the prosecutions against him for the 2015 slaughter.

Solicitor Scarlett Wilson told The Associated Press on Friday that Roof is scheduled to enter a guilty plea during a hearing on April 10 in Charleston. The plea on all of his state charges, including nine counts of murder, comes in exchange for a sentence of life in prison, the prosecutor said.

Roof, 22, has been awaiting trial on state murder charges for the deaths of nine black parishioners at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church in June 2015. Authorities said Roof spent months planning out his attack on the historic black church, sitting through an hour of Bible study one Wednesday night before opening fire during a closing prayer, while participants’ eyes were closed.

The deal won’t save Roof from a possible execution. Earlier this year, a federal jury sentenced him to death on charges including hate crimes.

The plea marks the end of the trial proceedings against Roof, who has been in custody ever since his arrest the day after the shootings. Aside from trips to and from court, he’s been housed in the Charleston County jail, several miles north of the city where the slayings took place.

After his federal sentencing, Roof was returned to that jail instead of federal death row in Terre Haute, Indiana, since his state trial was expected to come this year. Now, if this deal goes through, he’ll be able to be transferred to serve his sentence.

Wilson also had sought the death penalty in state court. Talking with AP on Friday, she said she was confident the federal case against Roof would be upheld.

“I think it is highly unlikely that anything will be disturbed on appeal in federal court,” she said. “This just gives an insurance policy against that.”

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Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP . Read more of her work at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/meg-kinnard/

Atlanta highway collapse snarls traffic; fire investigated

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ATLANTA (AP) — Atlanta’s dreadful rush-hour traffic got even worse Friday, the morning after a raging fire underneath Interstate 85 collapsed an elevated portion of the highway and shut down the heavily traveled route through the heart of the city.

Traffic was bumper to bumper on nearby streets as drivers were forced to take a detour. Many commuters in some of Atlanta’s densely populated northern suburbs will probably have to find new routes or ride mass transit for weeks or even months.

The blaze broke out Thursday afternoon in an area used to store construction materials, equipment and supplies, sending flames and smoke high into the air. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said PVC plastic materials in a vehicle may have caught fire.

Authorities were trying to determine how the blaze started.

Firefighters shut down the section of highway before it gave way, and no injuries were reported.

“This is about as serious a transportation crisis as we can imagine,” Mayor Kasim Reed said.

I-85 carries 250,000 cars a day through the city and is one of the South’s most important north-south routes.

Connie Bailey-Blake, of Dacula, 37 miles northeast of Atlanta, waited for a MARTA commuter train to reach her job in downtown Atlanta. She typically drives to work, often using the interstate.

“I’m supposed to be at work at 9 a.m. and it’s 9:15 a.m.,” Bailey-Blake said. “The first few days are going to be difficult. This will be my new life.”

Amelia Ford picked another route to work by car and said it took her 45 minutes to travel 3 miles from her Atlanta home to the nearest open on-ramp to the interstate.

“It’s actually pretty civil for morning commute traffic,” Ford said by phone as she drove. “I think people kind of realize that there’s not a whole bunch we can all do about it and we’ll be dealing with it for months.”

Georgia officials said there is no way to tell when the highway can be safely reopened in either direction. The northbound lanes collapsed, and the southbound side was also damaged.

The governor said federal highway officials were providing assistance that will let crews immediately assess the damage and begin repairs. But he warned that it will be a long process, saying beams will have to be produced, tested, transported and installed.

The collapse effectively “puts a cork in the bottle,” Georgia State Patrol Commissioner Mark McDonough said.

MARTA increased rail service and said it will have additional staff on hand to help passengers figure out how to get where they’re going.

Bobby Barnhart, who works for a financial technology company near the interstate, said he and his colleagues watched the collapse from about 60 yards away. He said he heard several explosions, followed by a slow rumbling.

With the interstate closed, Barnhart said his morning commute was much more jammed than usual and took him about 30 minutes rather than the normal 10 to 15.

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AP video journalist Alex Sanz in Atlanta contributed to this report.

Sessions: Ferguson emblem of tense relationship with police

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ST. LOUIS (AP) — Ferguson, Missouri, has become “an emblem of the tense relationship” between law enforcement and those it serves, especially minority communities, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Friday during a visit to St. Louis.

Sessions, speaking to a gathering of law enforcement leaders at the federal courthouse that sits roughly 12 miles from Ferguson, said the Justice Department will work with them to battle the rising tide of violent crime in America. He said he supports “proactive, up-close policing — when officers get out of their squad cars and interact with everyone on their beat — that builds trust, prevents violent crime, saves lives and creates a good atmosphere.”

But Sessions said that sort of police work has become increasingly difficult in what he called “an age of viral videos and targeted killings of police.”

“Unfortunately, in recent years law enforcement as a whole has been unfairly maligned and blamed for the crime and unacceptable deeds of a few in their ranks,” Sessions said. “Amid this intense public scrutiny and criticism, morale has gone down, while the number in their ranks killed in the line of duty has gone up.”

Ferguson, he said, has become “an emblem of the tense relationship between law enforcement and the communities we serve, especially our minority communities.”

Ferguson became a flashpoint after 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was black and unarmed, was killed by white officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9, 2014. Months of often violent protests followed the shooting. A St. Louis County grand jury and the Justice Department cleared Wilson of wrongdoing in November 2014, and he resigned that same month.

But the Justice Department investigation under then-Attorney General Eric Holder found significant racial profiling and bias in both Ferguson’s police department and municipal court. The city and the Justice Department settled a lawsuit last year that requires significant changes in policing. That process is ongoing.

Sessions is taking a far different approach than Holder. Civil rights investigations of police were common during the Obama administration. Sessions has suggested that civil rights investigations hinder police, causing them to back off out of fear of scrutiny of their every move. In fact, some have labeled the phenomenon the “Ferguson Effect.”

Ferguson Police Chief Delrish Moss, who attended the speech, said he was encouraged by Sessions’ commitment to battling violent crime. And Moss believes the Justice Department remains steadfast in working with Ferguson leaders to eliminate racial bias.

“We’re working with the Department of Justice, in fact, on a weekly basis,” Moss said. “They remain as committed as they always have been to the reforms we’ve agreed upon.”

President Ronald Reagan chose Sessions for a federal judgeship in the 1980s, but the nomination was rejected amid concerns about racially charged comments and his failed prosecution of three black civil rights activists on voting fraud charges.

Denise Lieberman, a St. Louis lawyer with the civil rights group Advancement Project, said Sessions’ approach is concerning at a time when allegations of violence by police are at an all-time high.

“We also know that the role of the Department of Justice is absolutely critical to ensuring that policing agencies are complying with the law, and they are a crucial step in bringing accountability to policing,” Lieberman said. “We see that right here in Ferguson.”

Sessions told the St. Louis audience he has ordered the creation of a crime-fighting task force that brings together the leaders of the FBI, DEA, ATF and U.S. Marshals Service. He said battling the heroin and opioid epidemic is a crucial element of the fight to stem violent crime.

John L. Harrison Jr., of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, dies

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — John L. Harrison Jr., who served as a World War II pilot with the famed all-black Tuskegee Airmen, has died. He was 96.

Harrison died March 22 at a hospice in Philadelphia, according to the Murphy Ruffenach Funeral Home. A funeral with military honors was held Friday.

Harrison was 22 when he became one of America’s first black military airmen, one of nearly 1,000 pilots who trained as a segregated unit with the Army Air Forces at an airfield near Tuskegee, Alabama.

“We were Americans, we were young, and we wanted to defend our country, just like everyone else,” Harrison said in a 2009 oral history.

Fellow Tuskegee airman Eugene Robinson said that becoming a pilot was a childhood dream of Harrison’s after seeing airplanes in Omaha, Nebraska, where he grew up, and reading in a magazine about black men being trained as pilots.

Robinson said it was a big dream for a black child during segregation.

“He wanted to fly an airplane, like so many young people,” Robinson said.

Harrison saw combat in Italy during World War II and remained in the service until his retirement as an Air Force major after two decades.

He flew all types of planes, including prop fighters, jet fighters, twin-engines, four engines and sea planes. His family said Harrison crossed the Pacific Ocean more than 50 times, and the Atlantic Ocean 35 times as a pilot for the Military Air Transport Service. Harrison was stationed and traveled in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Arctic.

He also served as an officer and a director for the Peace Corps, based in East Africa. He worked in the administrations of President Richard Nixon and Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh, and as director of affirmative action for the Boeing Aircraft Company.

In 2007, the Tuskegee Airmen were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor. President George W. Bush saluted the then-300 surviving airmen at a ceremony in the Capitol, and apologized for “all the unreturned salutes and unforgivable indignities” they had endured.

AP Interview: US pilot describes challenges of bombing IS

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ABOARD THE USS GEORGE H.W. BUSH (AP) — The crowded skies over Islamic State-held territory have complicated U.S.-led airstrikes targeting the extremists, though military planners are working to keep fliers safe, an American pilot involved in the bombing campaign has told The Associated Press.

Lt. Cmdr. William Vuillet also described the efforts American forces use to try to minimize civilian casualties from strikes on major cities like Mosul, where allied forces are trying to sweep the remaining militants out of the western half of Iraq’s second-largest city.

Vuillet said he believes coalition forces will “eradicate” the extremist group responsible for mass killings, beheadings and other atrocities targeting civilians across the Middle East and around the world.

It “is really above and beyond what we saw in the past from al-Qaida,” he said. “It is really a fight of good and evil.”

Vuillet, whose hometown is Athens, Georgia, though he grew up in Paris, spoke to the AP near his F-18 fighter jet in one of the hangars onboard the USS George H.W. Bush. The nuclear-powered, Nimitz-class aircraft carrier arrived in the Persian Gulf this week after leaving its homeport of Norfolk, Virginia.

The carrier launched airstrikes targeting the Islamic State group in February as it transited through the Mediterranean Sea. It will resume those strikes in the coming days during its tour of the Gulf, with many coming from Vuillet’s Strike Fighter Squadron 37, which is usually based at Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

He and other coalition pilots enter an increasingly busy airspace when flying missions against the extremists, especially in Syria. Russian and Syrian aircraft regularly strike insurgents battling to overthrow President Bashar Assad, and Israel carries out occasional strikes aimed at preventing advanced weaponry from falling into the hands of the Lebanese Hezbollah group.

Vuillet, 33, who flies under the call sign “Vieter,” credited U.S. air traffic controllers at the al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar with protecting American pilots. Military officials there also remain in touch with Russian forces and others to ensure nothing goes wrong.

“There’s some de-confliction in terms of timing, de-confliction with altitude,” he said. “There’s also a command-and-control structure that’s in place at all times that we can remain in communication with that provides real-time warning in terms of other aircraft that may be in the air.”

The lieutenant commander previously flew combat missions over Afghanistan, but said the Islamic State fight represented a far different challenge. He said the use of drones has resulted in several close calls for American pilots.

“With the remotely piloted aircraft, obviously there’s no crew on board, so they don’t have the same visual lookout that we do,” Vuillet said. “So it happens every once in a while that we have passes with those.”

Meanwhile, American personnel remain concerned with limiting civilian casualties in their strikes. Airwars, a London-based group that tracks civilian deaths from airstrikes targeting IS in Iraq and Syria, estimates the over 19,000 strikes conducted by the coalition have killed more than 2,700 civilians. The U.S. military’s Central Command says at least 220 civilians have been killed, and that its forces “regret the unintentional loss of civilian lives.”

Vuillet said limiting civilian casualties is a priority, with planners spending “several weeks, up to a month at times,” to pick targets.

“There’s an extremely long vetting process that happens behind the scenes,” he said. “We try to minimize any kind of collateral damage effects we may have by employing … the smallest weapon possible, delaying the fusing sometimes, so basically having that bomb kind of bury itself prior to exploding.”

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Associated Press writer Fay Abuelgasim contributed to this report.

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Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellap. His work can be found at http://apne.ws/2galNpz.

Michael Flynn in talks with Congress, wary of prosecution

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn is in discussions with the House and Senate intelligence committees on receiving immunity from “unfair prosecution” in exchange for agreeing to be questioned as part of ongoing probes into possible contacts between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia, his attorney says.

“General Flynn certainly has a story to tell, and he very much wants to tell it, should the circumstances permit,” attorney Robert Kelner said Thursday.

Kelner said no “reasonable person” with legal counsel would answer questions without assurances that he would not be prosecuted, given calls from some members of Congress that the retired lieutenant general should face criminal charges.

Flynn’s ties to Russia have been scrutinized by the FBI and are under investigation by the House and Senate intelligence committees. Both committees are looking into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election and any ties between Trump associates and the Kremlin.

Since July, the FBI has been conducting a counterintelligence investigation into Russia’s interference in the election and possible coordination with Trump associates.

Kelner released a statement after The Wall Street Journal first reported that Flynn’s negotiations with the committee included discussions of immunity. The lawyer described the talks as ongoing and said he would not comment on the details.

A congressional aide confirmed that discussions with the Senate intelligence committee involved immunity. The aide spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

House intelligence committee spokesman Jack Langer said Flynn has not offered to testify to the panel in exchange for immunity.

Four other Trump associates have come forward in recent weeks, saying they would talk to the committees. As of Wednesday, the Senate intelligence committee had asked to interview 20 people as part of the probe.

In his statement, Kelner said the political climate in which Flynn is facing “claims of treason and vicious innuendo” is factoring into his negotiations with the committees.

“No reasonable person, who has the benefit of advice from counsel, would submit to questioning in such a highly politicized, witch hunt environment without assurances against unfair prosecution,” Kelner said.

In September, Flynn weighed in on the implications of immunity on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” criticizing Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her associates in the FBI’s investigation into her use of a private email server.

“When you are given immunity, that means that you have probably committed a crime,” Flynn said during the interview.

Flynn was fired from his job as Trump’s first national security adviser after it was disclosed that he misled Vice President Mike Pence about a conversation he had with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. during the transition.

In the weeks after he resigned, Flynn and his business registered with the Justice Department as foreign agents for $530,000 worth of lobbying work that could have benefited the Turkish government.

The lobbying occurred while Flynn was a top Trump campaign adviser. The Turkish businessman who hired Flynn, Ekim Alptekin, has told the AP that Flynn’s firm registered under pressure from the Justice Department.

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Follow Chad Day on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ChadSDay

Malaysians return, Kim Jong Nam’s body handed to North Korea

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Nine Malaysians held in North Korea returned to Malaysia’s capital early Friday after the government released the body of Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half brother of North Korea’s leader, to the North. The exchange ended a bitter diplomatic battle between the two countries more than a month after Kim’s murder at Kuala Lumpur’s airport.

Following negotiations that he described as “very sensitive,” Prime Minister Najib Razak said Malaysia agreed to release the body in exchange for the return of the nine Malaysians held in Pyongyang.

There were no details on what led to the breakthrough, but North Korea appeared to win some important concessions: Custody of the body and the release of at least two suspects who had been holed up in its embassy in Kuala Lumpur.

The Malaysians — three embassy workers and six family members including four children — were flown home in a government jet and greeted by Foreign Minister Anifah Aman at the airport early Friday. Anifah said their safe return reflected “diplomacy at its best” but declined to provide further details on the deal with North Korea.

Oh Ei Sun, an adjunct senior fellow with Singapore’s Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said it was not a surprise that North Korea did well in the negotiations.

“North Korea has been performing despicable deeds around the world such as kidnapping and assassinations throughout the decades with impunity,” Oh said.

The public poisoning of Kim, which took place amid crowds of travelers in the budget terminal at Kuala Lumpur’s airport on Feb. 13, has prompted speculation that North Korea dispatched a hit squad to assassinate its leader’s estranged older brother.

Although Kim was not an obvious political threat, he may have been seen as a potential rival in the country’s dynastic dictatorship.

Malaysia has never directly accused North Korea of being behind the murder, but many say the weapon — VX nerve agent, a banned chemical weapon — suggests the North must have orchestrated it. Experts say the VX was almost certainly produced in a sophisticated state weapons laboratory, and North Korea is widely believed to possess large quantities of chemical weapons.

Malaysia’s investigation has enraged North Korea. It has denied any role in the killing and denounced the investigation as flawed and politically motivated. North Korea does not even acknowledge the victim is Kim Jong Nam, referring to him instead as Kim Chol, the name on the passport he was carrying when he died.

But North Korea has always demanded custody of the body, arguing that the victim was a citizen.

As tensions escalated in recent weeks, both countries withdrew their ambassadors and North Korea blocked nine Malaysians who were in the country at the time from leaving. Malaysia responded in kind, barring North Koreans from exiting its soil, including three North Korean suspects believed to be hiding in the North Korean Embassy.

On Thursday, both sides appeared to emphasize that ties were on the mend.

“Both countries agreed to lift the travel ban imposed on citizens of the other country and guarantee their safety and security,” said a statement from North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency.

The two countries did not say whether that included the three suspects. However, Japanese media released a video reportedly showing two of the suspects — an embassy employee and a worker for the North Korean state airline, Air Koryo — on an airplane, and of cargo identified as Kim’s casket.

Four other North Korean suspects left the country on the day Kim was killed.

Custody of the body has been a flashpoint in the case since the start. Until now, Malaysia refused to hand it over. Malaysia said it held on to the body in order to formally identify the corpse, which it now says it has done, using DNA from Kim’s son.

The KCNA statement said Malaysia had agreed to transfer the body “to the family of the deceased” in North Korea.

Kim, however, is believed to have children with women living in Macau and Beijing, not in North Korea. Government officials could not immediately be reached for further details.

Kim, who was in his mid-40s and had lived abroad for years, was estranged from his younger brother, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The elder Kim was reportedly pushed aside by his stepmother, then completely fell out of favor when he was caught trying to enter Japan on a false passport in 2001, saying he wanted to visit Tokyo Disneyland. While he is believed to have kept out of politics, he has given brief interviews criticizing dynastic succession in North Korea.

In the airport attack , a series of grainy images taken by security cameras show two women— identified by police as an Indonesian and a Vietnamese— rub something on Kim’s face before swiftly walking away in opposite directions. The women, who were quickly arrested and charged with murder, say they were duped into thinking they were taking part in a hidden-camera prank TV show.

Thursday’s diplomatic deal signaled a mending of relations between Malaysia and North Korea, at least on the surface.

While it isn’t one of North Korea’s key diplomatic partners, Malaysia had been one of the few places in the world where North Koreans could travel without a visa.

Although that visa arrangement was scrapped after the killing, it meant that Malaysia had been a quiet destination for North Koreans looking for jobs, schools and business deals.

White House tells Russia probers: Come see intel yourselves

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House refused Thursday to say whether it secretly fed intelligence reports to a top Republican lawmaker, fueling concerns about political interference in the investigation into possible coordination between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign.

Fending off the growing criticism, the administration invited lawmakers from both parties to view classified material it said relates to surveillance of the president’s associates. The invitation came as The New York Times reported that two White House officials — including an aide whose job was recently saved by President Donald Trump — secretly helped House intelligence committee chairman Devin Nunes examine intelligence information last week.

Nunes is leading one of three investigations into Russia’s attempt to influence the campaign and Trump associates’ possible involvement.

Late Thursday, an attorney for Michael Flynn, Trump’s ex-national security adviser, said Flynn is in discussions with the House and Senate intelligence committees about speaking to them in exchange for immunity. The talks are preliminary, and no official offers have been made.

“General Flynn certainly has a story to tell, and he very much wants to tell it, should the circumstances permit,” Flynn’s attorney, Robert Kelner, said in a statement.

Other Trump associates have volunteered to speak with investigators, but have not publicly raised the issue of immunity.

Flynn, a member of the Trump campaign and transition, was fired as national security adviser after it was publicly disclosed that he misled the vice president about a conversation he had with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. Flynn’s ties to Russia have been scrutinized by the FBI and are under investigation by the House and Senate intelligence committees.

The House panel’s work has been deeply, and perhaps irreparably, undermined by Nunes’ apparent coordination with the White House. He told reporters last week that he had seen troubling information about the improper distribution of Trump associates’ intercepted communications, and he briefed the president on the material, all before informing Rep. Adam Schiff, the committee’s top Democrat.

Speaking on Capitol Hill Thursday, Schiff said he was “more than willing” to accept the White House offer to view new information. But he raised concerns that Trump officials may have used Nunes to “launder information to our committee to avoid the true source.”

“The White House has a lot of questions to answer,” he declared.

Instead, the White House continued to sidestep queries about its role in showing Nunes classified information that appears to have included transcripts of foreign officials discussing Trump’s transition to the presidency, according to current and former U.S. officials. Intelligence agencies routinely monitor the communications of foreign officials living in the U.S., though the identities of Americans swept up in that collection is to be protected.

The Senate intelligence committee, which has thus far taken a strikingly more measured and bipartisan approach to its own Russia investigation, responded to the White House’s invitation by asking for the intelligence agencies “that own the intelligence documents in question to immediately provide them directly to the Committee.”

In Russia, President Vladimir Putin said there was nothing to the allegations of election meddling.

Did Russia interfere in the U.S. campaign, he was asked at a forum in the northern Russian city of Arkhangelsk? Injecting a bit of humor, Putin answered by quoting George H.W. Bush from the 1992 U.S. presidential campaign.

“Read my lips: No,” he said, pronouncing the last word in English for emphasis.

In Washington early last week, White House officials privately encouraged reporters to look into whether information about Trump associates had been improperly revealed in the intelligence gathering process. Days later, Nunes announced that he had evidence, via an unnamed source, showing that Trump and his aides’ communications had been collected through legal means but then “widely disseminated” throughout government agencies. He said the collections were not related to the Russia investigation.

Trump spokesman Sean Spicer said Thursday the material the White House wants the House and Senate intelligence leaders to view was discovered by the National Security Council through the course of regular business. He would not say whether it was the same material Nunes had already seen.

A congressional aide said Schiff did not receive the White House letter until after Spicer announced it from the White House briefing room.

Spicer had previously dismissed the notion that the White House had funneled information to Nunes, saying the idea that the congressman would come and brief Trump on material the president’s team already had “doesn’t pass the smell test.” The White House quickly embraced Nunes’ revelations, saying they vindicated Trump’s explosive and unverified claim that President Barack Obama wiretapped his New York skyscraper.

Nunes has said the information he received did not support that allegation, which has also been disputed by Obama and top intelligence officials.

The Times reported that Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence at the White House National Security Council, and Michael Ellis, a White House lawyer who previously worked on the House intelligence committee, played roles in helping Nunes view the materials.

Cohen-Watnick is among about a dozen White House officials who would have access to the types of classified information Nunes says he viewed, according to current and former U.S. officials. He’s become a controversial figure in intelligence circles, but Trump decided to keep him on over the objections of the CIA and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, according to the officials. They spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly by name.

Cohen-Watnick and Nunes both served on the Trump transition team.

Stephen Slick, a former CIA and NSC official, said it would be “highly unusual and likely unprecedented” for a member of Congress to travel to the White House to view intelligence reports “without prior authorization.”

Nunes has repeatedly sidestepped questions about who provided him the intelligence reports, though he pointedly has not denied that his sources were in the White House. House Speaker Paul Ryan, in an interview with “CBS This Morning” that aired Thursday, said Nunes told him a “whistleblower-type person” provided the information.

A spokesman for Ryan later said the speaker was not aware of Nunes’ source and continues to have “full confidence” in the congressman’s ability to run the Russia investigation.

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Associated Press writer Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.

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Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC and Eileen Sullivan at http://twitter.com/esullivanap

North Carolina’s “bathroom bill” repeal: who’s satisfied?

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina has rolled back a state law that blocked some anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people, but questions persist whether politicians have done enough to coax back the businesses and sports leagues who withdrew lucrative plans from the state.

Initial reactions were largely muted on Thursday’s compromise repeal that seems to have pleased no one, and which advocates say still leaves gays, lesbians and transgender people vulnerable to discrimination.

The law passed by the Republican-led legislature and signed quickly by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper repeals the best-known section of House Bill 2: a requirement that transgender people use the public restrooms that correspond to the sex on their birth certificate.

HB2 supporters argued that the law was needed to preserve people’s privacy and protect them from sexual predators. Opponents said that was nonsense and that the danger was imaginary.

At stake is whether the repeal legislation was enough to persuade some businesses, state and city governments and sports organizations including the NCAA to end their de facto boycott of North Carolina. An Associated Press analysis (http://apne.ws/2ocOSnu) this week found that the law would cost the state more than $3.76 billion in lost business over a dozen years.

“House Bill 2 stopped a number of businesses from expanding here or coming here to North Carolina,” Cooper said at a news conference after signing the repeal. “Companies that I have talked to, companies that I have recruited, who were hesitant or refusing to bring businesses to our state before the passage of today’s bill now are telling me: We are coming.”

Consultants who advise companies looking for a good place to build operations and create jobs were divided on whether North Carolina had turned a page.

Companies seeking to avoid business risks and costs generally avoid places embroiled in turbulent social issues, said Paige Webster, a site selection consultant in Phoenix, Arizona. The repeal could be enough to restore North Carolina’s reputation as a dynamic, progressive state, which took a hammering in the year since HB2 became law, he said.

“I think that stigma will go away,” Webster said. “It’s going to open the doors for corporations to take another look.”

But the angry reaction by gay-rights and other liberal groups over provisions that prevent municipalities from passing their own anti-discrimination ordinances until December 2020 means the issue could remain a red flag for companies, said Pete Mohan, a site selection consultant in Jacksonville, Florida. The signal is that the angry discussions over LGBT rights and bathroom protections haven’t ended with the repeal law, he said.

“I think it’s far from a panacea. It’s more of a stopgap than anything else,” Mohan said. “The whole situation has sort of soured the broader national desire to locate in North Carolina.”

The compromise plan was worked out under mounting pressure from the NCAA, which threatened to withhold sporting events from the basketball-obsessed state until at least 2023. The NCAA pulled events from the state over the past year in part because six states had banned non-emergency spending on travel to North Carolina, for example by sports teams from public universities.

The NCAA’s governing board would review North Carolina’s law next week, President Mark Emmert said Thursday.

“Everybody loves being in North Carolina for our games. It’s a state obviously that in many ways is synonymous with college sport,” Emmert said. “Nobody made the decision to leave North Carolina casually. It was a very, very difficult decision for the board to make. And I’m sure the next decision will be very difficult as well.”

The stakes are high for North Carolina: The Associated Press calculated that the state made $71.4 million from 28 neutral-site NCAA events in the five academic years ending last spring. A potentially more lucrative slate of events is in jeopardy in this latest round of decisions.

Cities including Raleigh and Greensboro have submitted 133 bids to host NCAA championship events in such sports as golf, swimming and basketball through the 2021-22 academic year, with a potential economic impact of about $250 million, according to the North Carolina Sports Association.

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Associated Press writer Gary D. Robertson contributed to this report.

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Follow Dalesio on Twitter at www.twitter.com/emerydalesio .

Civilian casualties in Iraq, Syria undercut US victories

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BAGHDAD (AP) — Islamic State group and al-Qaida-linked militants are quickly moving to drum up outrage over a sharp spike in civilian casualties said to have been caused by U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, posting photos online of a destroyed medical center and homes reduced to rubble. “This is how Trump liberates Mosul, by killing its inhabitants,” the caption reads.

The propaganda points to the risk that rising death tolls and destruction could undermine the American-led campaign against the militants.

During the past two years of fighting to push back the Islamic State group, the U.S.-led coalition has faced little backlash over casualties, in part because civilian deaths have been seen as relatively low and there have been few cases of single strikes killing large numbers of people. In Iraq — even though sensitivities run deep over past American abuses of civilians — the country’s prime minister and many Iraqis support the U.S. role in fighting the militants.

But for the first time anger over lives lost is becoming a significant issue as Iraqi troops backed by U.S. special forces and coalition airstrikes wade into more densely populated districts of Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, and U.S. -backed Syrian fighters battle closer to the Islamic State group’s Syrian stronghold of Raqqa.

That has the potential to undercut victories against the militants and stoke resentments that play into their hands.

At least 300 civilians have been killed in the offensive against IS in the western half of Mosul since mid-February, according to the U.N. human rights office — including 140 killed in a single March 17 airstrike on a building. Dozens more are claimed to have been killed in another strike last weekend, according to Amnesty International, and by similar airstrikes in neighboring Syria in the past month.

In Syria, as fighting around Raqqa intensified, civilian fatalities from coalition airstrikes rose to 198 in March — including 32 children and 31 women — compared to 56 in February, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which documents Syria’s war. Over the course of the air campaign, from September 2014 through February, an average of 30 civilians were killed a month, according to the Observatory.

The U.S. military is investigating what role the U.S. played in the March 17 airstrike in Mosul, and American and Iraqi officials have said militants may have deliberately gathered civilians there and planted explosives in the building. The blast left an entire residential block flattened, reducing buildings to mangled concrete.

Among those who lost loved ones, resentment appears to be building toward the U.S.-led coalition and the ground forces it supports.

“How could they have used this much artillery on civilian locations?” asked Bashar Abdullah, a resident of the neighborhood known as New Mosul, who lost more than a dozen family members in the March 17 attack. “Iraqi and American forces both assured us that it will be an easy battle, that’s why people didn’t leave their houses. They felt safe.”

U.S. officials have said they are investigating other claims of casualties in Syria and Iraq.

Islamic State group fighters have overtly used civilians as human shields, including firing from homes where people are sheltering or forcing people to move alongside them as they withdraw. The group has imposed a reign of terror across territories it holds in Syria and Iraq, taking women as sex slaves, decapitating or shooting suspected opponents and destroying archaeological sites. Mass graves are unearthed nearly every day in former IS territory.

Now, the group is using the civilian deaths purportedly as a result of U.S.-led airstrikes in its propaganda machine.

Photos recently posted online on militant websites showed the destruction at the Mosul Medical College with a caption describing the Americans as the “Mongols of the modern era” who kill and destroy under the pretext of liberation. A series of pictures showing destroyed homes carried the comment: “This is how Trump liberates Mosul, by killing its inhabitants under the rubble of houses bombed by American warplanes to claim victory. Who would dare say this is a war crime?”

In Syria, IS and other extremist factions have pushed the line that the U.S. and Russia, which is backing President Bashar Assad’s regime, are equal in their disregard for civilian lives.

U.S. “crimes are clear evidence of the ‘murderous friendship’ that America claims to have with the Syrian people, along with its claimed concern for their future and interests,” said the Levant Liberation Committee, an al-Qaida-led insurgent alliance.

Some Syrian opposition factions allied with the U.S. have also criticized the strikes, describing them as potential war crimes.

An analysis by the Soufan Group consultancy warned that rumors and accusations of coalition atrocities “will certainly help shape popular opinion once Mosul and Raqqa are retaken, thus serving a purpose for the next phase of the Islamic State’s existence.”

Criticism has also come from Russian officials, whose military has been accused of killing civilians on a large scale in its air campaign in Syria, particularly during the offensive that recaptured eastern Aleppo from rebels late last year.

“I’m greatly surprised with such action of the U.S. military, which has all the necessary equipment and yet were unable to figure out for several hours that they weren’t striking the designated targets,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, speaking at the U.N. Security Council about the March 17 strike.

Joseph Scrocca, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, acknowledged the spike in civilian casualty reports could change the way the coalition is conducting the war. He said it was a “very valid” concern that loss of life and destruction could play into the hands of IS or cause some coalition members to waver.

“But the coalition is not going to back down when (the fight) gets hard or there’s a lot of pressure,” he said. “That’s what ISIS wants.”

In Syria, the deadliest recent strike occurred earlier this month in a rebel-held area in the north. Opposition activists said a mosque was hit during evening prayers, killing around 40 people, mostly civilians, and wounding dozens of others. The U.S. said it struck an al-Qaida gathering across the street from the mosque, killing dozens of militants, adding they found no basis for reports that civilians were killed.

In Mosul, the scale of destruction wrought by increased artillery and airstrikes is immense in some areas.

Abdullah, the resident of New Mosul, buried 13 members of his family in a single day.

Standing in a field now being used as a graveyard, he said: “This was not a liberation. It was destruction.”

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Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Maamoun Youssef in Cairo, Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Mstyslav Chernov in Mosul, Iraq, contributed to this report.

Business: Global stock markets sink after Wall Street gains

BEIJING (AP) — Global stock markets sank Friday after U.S. President Donald Trump said his first meeting with his Chinese counterpart next week will be “very difficult.”

KEEPING SCORE: In early trading, London’s FTSE 100 lost 0.5 percent to 7,333.81 and France’s CAC 40 shed 0.3 percent to 5,074.11. Germany’s DAX declined 0.1 percent to 12,246.81. On Thursday, the DAX and CAC 40 gained 0.2 percent while the FTSE 100 lost 0.5 percent. Wall Street looked set for declines with futures for the Dow Jones industrial average down 0.2 percent and Standard & Poor’s down 0.3 percent.

ASIA’S DAY: Tokyo’s Nikkei 225 fell 0.8 percent to 18,909.20 and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng lost 0.8 percent to 24,111.59. Sydney’s S&P-ASX 200 declined 0.5 percent to 5,864.90 and Seoul’s Kospi retreated 0.2 percent to 2,160.23. India’s Sensex gave up 0.2 percent to 29,583.58 and Taiwan and New Zealand rose. Singapore gained while other Southeast Asian bourses fell.

WALL STREET: Stocks were boosted by gains for banks and other financial companies on rising bond yields, which result in higher rates on loans. That nudged the Nasdaq composite index to an all-time high. Energy companies also gained as crude oil prices rose. Utilities and other high-dividend stocks fell. The Dow Jones industrial average rose 0.3 percent to 20,728.49. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index added 0.3 percent to 2,368.06. The Nasdaq gained 0.3 percent to 5,914.34.

TRUMP WATCH: Trump tweeted that his April 6-7 meeting with Xi Jinping “will be a very difficult one in that we can no longer have massive trade deficits and job losses.” On Friday, Trump was due to sign orders calling for an official report on trade abuses by other governments and for authorities to step up collection of anti-dumping duties on imports. “A bad meeting with President Xi would raise the prospect of a trade war,” Tim Condon of ING said in a report.

ANALYST’S TAKE: “Perhaps all eyes would be on the first meeting between the current leaders of U.S. and China,” Jingyi Pan of IG said in a report. Trump’s comment that the encounter will be difficult “perhaps adds on to the importance of this meeting and any animosity created could perhaps dent markets on both ends.”

CHINESE MANUFACTURING: Factory activity accelerated in March in what the government said is a sign economic growth is stabilizing. A purchasing managers’ index released by the National Bureau of Statistics rose to 51.8 from February’s 51.6 on a 100-point scale in which numbers above 50 show activity expanding.

US GDP: The Commerce Department raised its estimate for economic growth in the fourth quarter of 2016 to 2.1 percent from 1.9 percent. It said consumer spending increased more than expected. The Labor Department said applications for unemployment benefits dipped last week. The latest data follow positive reports on consumer confidence and housing this week.

OIL DEAL: ConocoPhillips agreed to sell most of its Canadian assets to Canada’s Cenovus Energy in a deal valued at $13.2 billion. ConocoPhillips stock was the biggest gainer in the S&P 500 index, climbing $4.05 to $50.

CURRENCY: The dollar declined to 111.86 yen from Thursday’s 111.91 yen. The euro rose to $1.0696 from $1.0677.

ENERGY: Benchmark U.S. crude fell 11 cents to $50.24 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract rose 84 cents on Thursday to close at $50.35. Brent crude, used to price international oils, shed 16 cents to $52.97. It gained 59 cents the previous session to $53.13.

Business: US stocks close higher; Nasdaq climbs to an all-time high

(PhatzNewsRoom / AP)   —-   Banks and other financial companies led U.S. stocks modestly higher Thursday, nudging the Nasdaq composite index to an all-time high.

Rising bond yields, which can result in higher interest rates on loans and bigger profits for banks, helped put traders in the mood to buy banking stocks. Energy companies also notched gains as crude oil prices rose. Utilities and other high-dividend stocks fell.

Investors also bid up shares in companies that released strong quarterly results or announced big transactions. ConocoPhillips jumped 8.8 percent after the energy company agreed to sell most of its Canadian assets.

“Equities are ending the first quarter in a reasonably good place,” said Terry Sandven, chief equity strategist at U.S. Bank Wealth Management. “I do think equities trend sideways, probably for the next month. The rally since the election has centered around improved sentiment regarding tax reform and infrastructure spending, and that’s still a work in progress.”

The Dow Jones industrial average rose 69.17 points, or 0.3 percent, to 20,728.49. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index added 6.93 points, or 0.3 percent, to 2,368.06. The Nasdaq gained 16.80 points, or 0.3 percent, to 5,914.34. Small-company stocks fared better than the other indexes, sending the Russell 2000 index up 10.70 points, or 0.8 percent, to 1,382.35. The four stock indexes last set record highs on March 1.

Bond prices edged lower. The 10-year Treasury yield rose to 2.41 percent from 2.38 percent late Wednesday.

Trading was mostly subdued at the start of trading Thursday following mixed action in overseas markets. But soon investors got another batch of encouraging economic news: The Commerce Department raised its estimate for economic growth in the fourth quarter to 2.1 percent from 1.9 percent, noting that consumer spending increased more than expected. And the Labor Department said applications for unemployment benefits dipped slightly last week.

The latest economic data followed positive reports on consumer confidence and housing earlier this week.

“Today’s action and the little bit of strength we’ve seen the past couple of days is maybe investors focusing a little bit more on fundamentals and the fact that the economy and earnings are in the same trajectory as they were two weeks ago when the markets were at all-time highs, and we’re slightly below that,” said Sean Lynch, co-head of global equity strategy at Wells Fargo Investment Institute.

Financial sector stocks rose 1.2 percent, the biggest gain among the 11 sectors in the S&P 500. The sector, which is up 2.8 percent this year, accounted for more than half of the index’s gains Thursday.

Traders bid up shares in big banks such as Capital One Financial, which rose $2.46, or 2.9 percent, to $87.14.

“What we know is that probably interest rates are rising and the Fed is going to raise rates, and that probably less regulation is on the way, and that might be why sometimes you see financials kick up on a day like this,” Lynch said.

ConocoPhillips jumped after the energy company agreed to sell most of its Canadian assets to Canada’s Cenovus Energy in a deal valued at $13.2 billion. The stock was the biggest gainer in the S&P 500 index, climbing $4.05 to $50.

Extreme Networks surged 14.2 percent after the network infrastructure equipment maker agreed to buy a data center, switching, routing and analytics business from Brocade Communications once Brocade is acquired by Broadcom. Shares in Extreme Networks rose 92 cents to $7.38.

Several companies rose after turning in strong quarterly results.

Irrigation equipment maker Lindsay Corp. climbed $6.42, or 7.9 percent, to $87.81.

Other companies failed to impress traders.

Lululemon sank 23.4 percent a day after the yoga clothing company’s forecast for the quarter fell well short of Wall Street’s expectations. The stock slid $15.54 to $50.76.

Science Applications International tumbled 13.1 percent after the information technology company’s latest quarterly results missed estimates. The company cited a variety of problems, including delays and declines in contract work. The stock lost $11.28 to $74.97.

World stocks were mixed. In Europe, Germany’s DAX and France’s CAC 40 each gained 0.4 percent, while Britain’s FTSE 100 slipped 0.1 percent. Earlier, some Asian indexes fell after Chinese authorities tightened liquidity in the financial system of the world’s second-largest economy.

Hong Kong’s Hang Seng shed 0.4 percent, while Tokyo’s benchmark Nikkei 225 index lost 0.8 percent. South Korea’s Kospi slipped 0.1 percent. Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 rose 0.4 percent. Southeast Asian indexes were mixed.

In energy futures trading, benchmark U.S. crude oil rose 84 cents, or 1.7 percent, to close at $50.35 a barrel in New York. Brent crude, used to price international oils, gained 54 cents, or 1 percent, to $52.96 a barrel in London. Natural gas slipped 4 cents to $3.19 per 1,000 cubic feet, wholesale gasoline rose a penny to $1.68 per gallon and heating oil gained 2 cents to $1.56 per gallon.

The price of gold fell $8.70 to settle at $1,245 an ounce. Silver slid 5 cents to $18.21 per ounce. Copper slipped a penny to $2.67 per pound.

In currency trading, the dollar rose to 111.60 yen from 111.03 yen on Wednesday. The euro fell to $1.0691 from $1.0760.

Mosul lays bare the challenge of asymmetric warfare

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BAGHDAD (AP) — As the fight for the Iraqi city of Mosul drags on, many might ask: Why has it taken the combined militaries of the United States and Iraq backed by an international coalition more than two years to dislodge a relatively small force of militants lacking heavy weaponry?

Donald Trump raised the question during his campaign, promising to turn up the heat against the Islamic State group if he became president. Now the growing controversy over the high number of civilian casualties believed caused by recent U.S. airstrikes has touched on a major part of the answer: The militants are mingled among tens of thousands of civilians in Mosul and are willing to take the population down with them.

Inevitably, the more force brought to bear to crush the fighters, the greater the danger civilians will be killed.

To avoid that, strikes must be more surgical and more cautiously used, and the battle turns to street-by-street fighting where the technological edge is often neutralized. Minimizing civilian deaths is more than just a humanitarian concern: Heavy bloodshed can fuel public resentments that push some to join militant groups.

Another factor is whether the extremists have support from at least part of the population. It’s even further complicated if they can claim to be fighting for national liberation — as, for example, with the Hamas group in its battles with Israel in Gaza. In Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State group clearly holds the population hostage in many cases, but it also seeks to sway some support by claiming to defend Sunnis against a mostly Shiite force from Baghdad.

After a March 17 explosion that residents say killed at least 100 people in Mosul, the U.S. military acknowledged an airstrike was involved. But the top commander of U.S. forces in Iraq said investigations may reveal a more complicated explanation, including the possibility that militants rigged the building with explosives after forcing civilians inside.

Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend said recent civilian casualties in Mosul were “fairly predictable” given the densely populated urban neighborhoods the IS fighters are defending against Iraqi troops.

Over the past 2½ years, Iraqi forces backed by U.S. special forces and coalition airstrikes have managed to push IS out of most of the territory they overran in the summer of 2014 — retaking three major cities and numerous smaller communities. The fight for Mosul, launched in mid-October, has been the longest battle yet.

With each fight, the Islamic State group has adapted its use of civilians as human shields, creating increasingly deadly battlefields.

In Tikrit and Sinjar, IS let the population flee early on, allowing Iraqi and coalition forces to liberally use airstrikes and artillery to retake the areas by the autumn of 2015.

IS then tightened its grip on other cities and towns. It locked down Ramadi in western Anbar province with checkpoints to prevent civilians from fleeing. Only those with serious health conditions were allowed out — and only if they left behind a relative, property or thousands of dollars to guarantee their return.

After Iraqi forces punched into Ramadi, fleeing IS fighters forced civilians to go with them to thwart airstrikes. Moving west along the Euphrates River, Iraq’s military responded to the use of human shields by largely empting towns of their populations as they retook territory. The massive displacement resulted in humanitarian crises. Thousands were left without shelter and little food or water in desert camps.

So the government changed tactics. It asked civilians to stay in their homes, a decision that was controversial with commanders faced with clearing militants from dense residential areas.

In Mosul, an estimated 1 million people were in the city when Iraqi forces breached its eastern edge. IS fighters fired from the rooftops of homes where civilians sheltered, targeting those who fled with mortars and gunfire. In denser neighborhoods, even precision munitions inflicted heavy casualties. In western Mosul, IS fighters forced civilians into explosives-rigged homes, then took up positions on the roofs, Iraqi and coalition officials said.

A similar battle looms in the Islamic State group’s Syrian stronghold of Raqqa.

There, the militants have taken even greater pains to trap the population. Land mines and checkpoints circle the city. And all the men have been ordered to wear the jihadis’ garb of baggy pants and long shirts, making it difficult to distinguish militants from civilians.

Here are other cases where advanced militaries have wrestled with the issue.

THE UNITED STATES

The U.S. has faced backlash over civilian deaths in nearly all its recent conflicts — Korea, Vietnam, and more recently Iraq and Afghanistan. Public fury in Iraq and Afghanistan over deaths in airstrikes and at checkpoints and abuses by U.S. troops has been a major factor shaping the evolution of U.S. tactics since 9/11. The response has been to turn increasingly to special operations forces and armed drones and to work with local fighters.

In Iraq from 2005 to 2007, the more secretive elements of U.S. special operations, led by Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, combined intelligence with night raids to capture or kill insurgents, including the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. This — and the enlisting of Sunni tribesmen to fight the insurgents — proved far more effective than conventional forces kicking in doors.

Still, drone strikes that kill civilians continue to raise an outcry in Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere.

And militants also evolve. Al-Qaida in Iraq was all but extinguished by 2009, but a kernel of militant leaders who met in U.S.-run prisons transformed it into the Islamic State group by exploiting Iraq’s Sunni-Shiite divide, which worsened after U.S. forces left in 2011.

RUSSIA IN GROZNY

The Russian assault on the Chechen capital, Grozny, in 1999 and 2000 was the centerpiece of President Vladimir Putin’s drive to end Chechen separatist ambitions.

It was also a case of a military — and government — that seemingly cared little about how much destruction it wrought to crush the rebels. Russian forces unleashed heavy bombardment with artillery and airstrikes that leveled apartment buildings and even city blocks. Most of the population had fled but a significant number remained. There was an international outcry over the brutality, but public opinion in Russia strongly backed the assault, giving Putin freedom of action.

It took just four months before Putin declared Grozny liberated in February 2000. Thousands of civilians are believed to have been killed, and the United Nations called Grozny the “most destroyed” city in the world.

ISRAEL IN GAZA

The Israeli military knows the challenges of fighting an enemy embedded in a civilian population. Wars against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006 and against Hamas in Gaza in 2009, 2012 and 2014 killed hundreds of civilians. Israel blames its adversaries for the tolls, noting they used civilian areas to hide or to attack from.

The Israeli military says it takes numerous steps to minimize civilian casualties. It drops leaflets telling residents to leave. It makes phone calls and sends text messages to inhabitants of targeted buildings and sometimes strikes homes with nonexplosive shells as warnings to evacuate.

According to the United Nations, 2,251 Palestinians, including 1,462 civilians, were killed during the 2014 Gaza fighting, including 551 children and 299 women. Israel disputes these figures. A U.N. report accused both Israel and Hamas of committing possible war crimes.

FRANCE IN ALGERIA

As France’s empire was coming undone in the 1950s, it fought its most brutal battle for one precious piece of turf: Algeria, colonized beginning in 1830. The war to hold onto Paris’ crown jewel lasted seven years, 1954-1962, and left scars that have yet to heal.

The conflict, which began as an insurgency and continued with urban terror-style attacks on the French, was ferocious. Some Algerian lawmakers still call for reparations. The toll remains debated, but a leading French historian says 350,000-400,000 Algerian civilians died.

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Perry reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writers Robert Burns in Washington and Howard Amos in Moscow contributed to this report.

UK negotiator denies govt is blackmailing EU on security

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LONDON (AP) — Britain’s chief negotiator in the country’s divorce from the European Union on Thursday rejected suggestions the U.K. has threatened to end security cooperation unless it gets the trade deal it wants.

David Davis said Prime Minister Theresa May’s letter triggering talks on Britain’s departure made clear Britain wants to continue to work with the EU on a range of issues, including security, for both sides.

“We want a deal, and she was making the point that it’s bad for both of us if we don’t have a deal,” Davis told the BBC. “Now that, I think, is a perfectly reasonable point to make and not in any sense a threat.”

May’s six-page letter triggering two years of divorce negotiations makes 11 references to security, and said that without a good deal, “our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened.”

The tabloid Sun was in no doubt about what May meant: “Your money or your lives,” was its front-page headline Thursday, along with the words “PM’s Brexit threat to EU.”

Britain is a European security powerhouse — one of only two nuclear powers in the bloc and with some of the world’s most capable intelligence services.

May said Wednesday that Britain will probably have to leave the EU police agency, Europol, after Brexit but wants to “maintain the degree of cooperation on these matters that we have currently.”

Home Secretary Amber Rudd, whose responsibilities include intelligence and security, also denied there was a threat, but told Sky News: “If we left Europol, then we would take our information … with us. The fact is, the European partners want to keep our information.”

Senior European leaders responded positively to the warm overall tone of May’s letter — but they could not miss the steely undertone.

“I find the letter of Mrs. May very constructive generally, but there is also one threat in it,” said European Parliament Brexit coordinator Guy Verhoftstadt, saying May seemed to be demanding a good trade deal in exchange for continued security cooperation.

“It doesn’t work like that,” he told Sky News. “You cannot abuse the security of citizens to have then a good deal on something else.”

A day after triggering its EU exit process, the British government was outlining on Thursday how it intends to convert thousands of EU rules into British law when it leaves the bloc in 2019.

The government is publishing details of a Great Repeal Bill that will transform existing EU laws into British statute so that “the same rules will apply after exit day” as before.

Opposition lawmakers are unhappy at plans to give government ministers power to change some laws without votes in Parliament.

They call that a government power grab. But the government says the authority would only be used to make “mechanical changes” so laws can be applied smoothly. It says Parliament will be able to scrutinize all “substantive policy changes,” including new customs and immigration laws.

NTSB to begin probe of Texas bus-truck crash that killed 13

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UVALDE, Texas (AP) — Federal investigators are getting their first look Thursday at the scene of a head-on collision involving a small church bus and a pickup truck that killed 13 senior adult church members onboard the bus.

The Texas Department of Public Safety reported the lone bus survivor remains hospitalized in critical condition, and the pickup truck driver is in stable condition.

The National Transportation Safety Board sent investigators to the scene to begin seeking the cause of the crash, NTSB spokesman Terry Williams said Wednesday.

Twelve bus occupants, including the driver, were dead at the scene of Wednesday’s crash, DPS Lt. Johnny Hernandez said. One bus passenger died later at a San Antonio hospital.

The wreck happened about 12:30 p.m. on U.S. 83, a two-lane highway, outside Garner State Park in northern Uvalde County. The area is about 75 miles (120.7 km) west of San Antonio.

It was not immediately clear what caused the collision about 120 miles (193.1 km) from the church, where the members were headed.

Photos and video of the crash’s aftermath showed heavy damage to the front drivers’ sides of both vehicles where it appeared the two had collided. The back of the bus was up on a guardrail, with glass and debris scattered onto the grass below.

Hein said the small bus was a 2004 Turtle Top, though he did not know the specific model. Turtle Top’s website features shuttle buses with capacities ranging from 17 to 51 passengers, which they bill as “a great alternative to the standard 15-passenger van.” Safety concerns have long surrounded the 15-passenger vans, also frequently used by churches and other groups, with advocates saying they can be difficult to control in an emergency.

Church officials said in a statement on the First Baptist website that the members were returning from a three-day retreat at the Alto Frio Baptist Encampment in Leakey, about 9 miles (14.5 km) north of where the crash happened.

The church officials were “ministering to family members to help them deal with this tragedy,” according to the statement. Counselors also were scheduled to be available Thursday at the church.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and his wife, Cecilia, offered their condolences in the hours after the crash.

“We are saddened by the loss of life and our hearts go out to all those affected,” their statement said. “We thank the first responders working on the scene in the wake of this unimaginable tragedy, and ask that all Texans join us in offering their thoughts and prayers.”

A look at latest ruling on Trump administration travel ban

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HONOLULU (AP) — A federal judge in Hawaii who temporarily blocked President Donald Trump’s revised travel ban hours before it was set to take effect issued a longer-lasting order Wednesday.

U.S. District Judge Derrick Watson held a hearing Wednesday on Hawaii’s request to extend his temporary hold. Several hours later, he issued a 24-page order blocking the government from suspending new visas for travelers from six Muslim-majority countries and halting the U.S. refugee program.

Hawaii Attorney General Douglas Chin argued that even though the revised ban has more neutral language, the implied intent is still there. He likened it to a neon sign flashing “Muslim Ban,” which the government hasn’t bothered to turn off.

Chad Readler, a Department of Justice attorney defending Trump’s executive order, told the judge via telephone that Hawaii hasn’t shown how it is harmed by various provisions, including one that would suspend the nation’s refugee program.

Watson disagreed.

Here’s a look at Watson’s ruling and what comes next:

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THE PREVIOUS RULING

This month, Watson prevented the federal government from suspending new visas for people from six countries and freezing the nation’s refugee program. The ruling came just hours before the ban was to take effect.

Watson, nominated to the bench by former President Barack Obama in 2012, agreed with Hawaii that the ban would hurt the state’s tourism-dependent economy and that it discriminates based on nationality and religion.

Trump called the ruling an example of “unprecedented judicial overreach.”

The next day, a judge in Maryland also blocked the six-nation travel ban but said it wasn’t clear that the suspension of the refugee program was similarly motivated by religious bias.

The federal government appealed the Maryland ruling to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and sought to narrow the Hawaii ruling.

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THE LATEST RULING

Like his temporary order, Watson notes that Hawaii has shown the state’s universities and tourism industry will suffer from the ban. A plaintiff in Hawaii’s lawsuit, the imam of a Honolulu mosque, will be harmed if the ban is enforced, Watson said: “These injuries have already occurred and will continue to occur if the Executive Order is implemented and enforced; the injuries are neither contingent nor speculative.”

Government attorneys have tried to convince the judge not to consider comments Trump has made about the travel ban. “The court will not crawl into a corner, pull the shutters closed, and pretend it has not seen what it has,” Watson wrote.

Watson also refused to narrow his ruling to only apply to the six-nation ban, as the government requested.

The ruling won’t be suspended if the government appeals, Watson said.

“Enforcement of these provisions in all places, including the United States, at all United States borders and ports of entry, and in the issuance of visas is prohibited, pending further orders from this court,” he wrote.

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WHAT’S NEXT FOR HAWAII’S LAWSUIT?

Watson’s ruling allows Hawaii’s lawsuit challenging the ban to work its way through the courts.

“While we understand that the President may appeal, we believe the court’s well-reasoned decision will be affirmed,” the Hawaii attorney general’s office said in a statement.

Ismail Elshikh, the imam of a Honolulu mosque who joined the lawsuit as a plaintiff, argues that he’s harmed by Trump’s order because it prevents his Syrian mother-in-law from visiting family in the U.S. It’s not clear how Watson’s ruling will affect the mother-in-law’s ability to obtain a visa.

The Department of Justice didn’t immediately comment after Watson issued his decision.

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DEFENDING TRUMP’S EXECUTIVE ORDER

The Department of Justice opposed Hawaii’s request to extend Watson’s temporary order. But the department said that if the judge agrees, he should narrow the ruling to cover only the part of Trump’s executive order that suspends new visas for people from Somalia, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Libya and Yemen.

Other provisions of the order have little or no effect on Hawaii, including a suspension of the nation’s refugee program, Department of Justice attorney Chad Readler said Wednesday.

In an attempt to downplay the effect suspending the nation’s refugee program would have on Hawaii, Readler said only a small amount of refugees have been resettled in Hawaii. But Watson questioned that reasoning by noting that the government said there have been 20 refugees resettled in Hawaii since 2010.

Other parts of Trump’s order allow the government to assess security risks, which don’t concern the plaintiffs in Hawaii’s lawsuit, Readler said.

The revised order removes references to religion, he said.

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CAN AN APPEALS COURT AFFECT THE HAWAII RULING?

The president is asking the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to put the ruling by the judge in Maryland on hold while it considers the case.

The Richmond, Virginia-based appeals court will hear arguments May 8. If the court sides with the federal government, it would not have a direct effect on the Hawaii ruling, legal experts said.

The Trump administration’s best bet for saving the travel ban is to have the case go before the U.S. Supreme Court, said Richard Primus, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Michigan law school.

“What a ruling in 4th Circuit in favor of the administration would do is create a split in authority between federal courts in different parts of the country,” he said. “Cases with splits in authority are cases the U.S. Supreme Court exists to resolve.”

Senate hearing to focus on Russian disinformation tactics

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Some tactics Russia used to meddle in last year’s presidential election would give shivers to anyone who believes in American democracy, the Senate intelligence committee’s top Democrat says.

Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia spoke ahead of a committee session Thursday that will address how the Kremlin allegedly uses technology to spread disinformation in the U.S. and Europe. Warner and the panel’s chairman, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., provided an update the committee’s investigation into activities Russia might have taken to alter or influence the 2016 elections and whether there were any campaign contacts with Russian government officials that might have interfered with the election process.

“There were upwards of 1,000 paid internet trolls working out of a facility in Russia, in effect, taking over series of computers, which is then called a botnet,” Warner told reporters on Capitol Hill Wednesday.

Warner said the committee was investigating to find out whether voters in key states, such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, might have been served up Russian-generated fake news and propaganda along with information from their traditional news outlets.

“We are in a whole new realm around cyber that provides opportunity for huge, huge threats to our basic democracy,” Warner said. “You are seeing it right now.”

Burr added that Russians are trying to influence elections in Europe as well.

“I think it’s safe by everybody’s judgment that the Russians are actively involved in the French elections,” Burr said.

Scheduled to appear at the committee’s open hearing are: Eugene Rumer, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Roy Godson, professor of government emeritus at Georgetown University; Clint Watts, senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute Program on National Security; Kevin Mandia, chief executive officer of the cybersecurity firm FireEye Inc.; and retired Gen. Keith Alexander, former director of the National Security Agency and president of IronNet Cybersecurity.

Pledging cooperation, Burr and Warner said they would steer clear of politics in their panel’s probe of Russian meddling. They made a point of putting themselves at arm’s length from the House investigation that has been marked by partisanship and disputes.

Democrats have called for House intelligence committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes to recuse himself because of his ties to the Trump team, especially because the investigation includes looking at contacts that Russians had with President Donald Trump’s associates. Nunes, R-Calif., met with a secret source on the White House grounds last week to review classified material, which he says indicates that Trump associates’ communications were captured in “incidental” surveillance of foreigners. Nunes says he sees no reason to step aside.

Burr said that so far, the Senate committee has requested 20 individuals to be interviewed. Five have been scheduled, and the remaining 15 are likely to be scheduled within the next 10 days. Additional witnesses could also be interviewed.

Burr identified just one of the witnesses: Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. The White House has said that Kushner, a senior adviser to Trump, has volunteered to answer questions about arranging meetings with the Russian ambassador and other officials.

Asked whether the committee had spoken to former national security adviser Michael Flynn or his representatives, Burr told reporters, “It’s safe to say that we have had conversations with a lot of people, and you would think less of us if Gen. Flynn wasn’t in that list.”

An attorney for Flynn said his client had not yet been interviewed by the Senate committee. One of Flynn’s lawyers, Robert Kelner, said they have had discussions with committee staff members, but Flynn has not been contacted directly.

Trump asked Flynn, a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, to step down last month from his post as national security adviser. The president said he made the decision because Flynn had misled Vice President Mike Pence and other White House officials about his conversations with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S.

Business: Asia shares fall on China liquidity fear; Europe edges up

HONG KONG (AP) — Asian stock markets fell Thursday, led by a slide in Chinese shares on investor concerns about liquidity. European indexes edged higher as concerns waned over Britain’s formal request to leave the European Union.

KEEPING SCORE: European shares rose gently in early trading. Germany’s DAX climbed 0.3 percent to 12,232.99 and France’s CAC 40 crept 0.1 percent higher to 5,074.89. Britain’s FTSE 100 added 0.1 percent to 7,380.20. U.S. shares were poised for a flat open. Dow futures were unchanged at 20,601.00 while broader S&P 500 futures were less than 0.1 percent higher at 2,357.30.

BREXIT: The market reaction in Europe was fairly unremarkable a day after British Minister Theresa May filed Britain’s formal request to leave the European Union to EU Council President Donald Tusk. With two years of negotiations before Britain can leave the union, investors are taking a wait-and-see attitude.

ASIAN SCORECARD: The Shanghai Composite index skidded 1 percent lower to end at 3,210.24 and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng shed 0.4 percent to 24,301.09. Tokyo’s benchmark Nikkei 225 index lost 0.8 percent to 19,063.22 and South Korea’s Kospi slipped 0.1 percent to 2,164.64. Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 rose 0.4 percent to 5,896.20. Southeast Asian indexes were mixed.

LIQUIDITY ISSUES: China’s central bank refrained from open market operations for a fifth straight day, effectively siphoning money from the banking system. The People’s Bank of China said in a statement that liquidity in the banking system was at a “relatively high level,” the official Xinhua news agency reported.

MARKET INSIGHT: “Definitely one of the problems is the liquidity problem at this moment, mainly driven by the People’s Bank of China,” said Dickie Wong, research director at Kingston Financial Group. He predicted that China would continue to hike interest rates this year, which would improve profit margins at Chinese banks and financial services, but investors might be tempted to sell their shares if earnings reports don’t beat expectations. “It gives the perfect reason for investors to sell on spec and pull back all of their money.”

SAMSUNG: Shares of the South Korean electronics giant rose 0.5 percent after it unveiled its first major smartphone since the embarrassing recall of its fire-prone Note 7. The Galaxy S8 comes in two sizes but doesn’t have more battery capacity, giving it more breathing room.

TOSHIBA FILING: The embattled Japanese company’s shares jumped 4 percent after its U.S. nuclear unit Westinghouse Electric filed for bankruptcy protection. The Chapter 11 petition is an important step for Toshiba as it fights to stop hemorrhaging losses at the ailing nuclear business, which has been hit with rising costs because of safety concerns and regulations, and rising anti-nuclear sentiment in some countries.

ENERGY: Oil stabilized after a big rally. Benchmark U.S. crude oil futures climbed 10 cents to $49.61 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract rose $1.14, or 2.4 percent, to close at $49.51 a barrel on Wednesday. Brent crude, used to price international oils, lost 18 cents to $52.36 a barrel in London.

CURRENCIES: The dollar rose to 111.07 yen from 111.04 yen. The euro fell to $1.0737 from $1.0767.

It’s not EU, it’s me: UK files for EU divorce after 44 years

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LONDON (AP) — Britain filed for divorce from the European Union on Wednesday, with fond words and promises of friendship that could not disguise the historic nature of the schism — or the years of argument and hard-nosed bargaining ahead as the U.K. leaves the embrace of the bloc for an uncertain future as “global Britain.”

Prime Minister Theresa May triggered the two-year divorce process in a six-page letter to EU Council President Donald Tusk, vowing that Britain will maintain a “deep and special partnership” with its neighbors in the bloc. In response, Tusk told Britain: “We already miss you.”

May’s invocation of Article 50 of the EU’s key treaty sets the clock ticking on two years of negotiations until Britain becomes the first major nation to leave the union — as Big Ben bongs midnight on March 29, 2019.

The U.K.’s departure could not come at a worse time for the EU, which has grown from six founding members six decades ago to a vast, largely borderless span of 28 nations and half a billion people. Nationalist and populist parties are on the march across the continent in revolt against the bloc’s mission of “ever-closer union.” And in Washington, President Donald Trump has derided the EU, NATO and other pillars of Western order built up since World War II.

“This is an historic moment from which there can be no turning back,” May told lawmakers in the House of Commons, moments after her letter was hand-delivered to Tusk in Brussels by Britain’s ambassador to the EU, Tim Barrow.

In the letter, May said the two sides should “engage with one another constructively and respectfully, in a spirit of sincere cooperation.”

But for all the warmth, the next two years will be a tough test of the notion that divorcees can remain good friends.

May is under pressure from her Conservative Party and Britain’s largely Euroskeptic press not to concede too much in exchange for a good trade deal with the EU. For their part, the other 27 members of the bloc will need to stick together and stand firm as they ride out the biggest threat in the union’s history.

Brexit has been hailed by populists across Europe — including French far-right leader Marine Le Pen — who hope the U.K. is only the first in a series of departures. EU leaders are determined to stop that happening.

“The European Union is a historically unique success story,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in Berlin. “It remains one even after Britain’s withdrawal. We will take care of that.”

Britons voted 52 percent to 48 percent in favor of leaving the bloc in a referendum nine months ago, and they remain deeply divided over Brexit.

In the pro-Brexit heartland of Dover on England’s south coast — whose white cliffs face toward France — some were jubilant as May pulled the trigger.

“I’m a local church minister, and I said to my wife, ‘All I want to do before I die is see my country free from the shackles of Europe,'” said 70-year-old Mike Piper, buying a copy of the Sun tabloid with the front-page headline “Dover and Out.”

Former UKIP leader Nigel Farage, who campaigned for years to take Brexit from a fringe cause to reality, said Britain had passed “the point of no return.”

“I can still, to be honest with you, scarcely believe today has come,” he said.

But many young Britons — who have grown up in the EU and voted overwhelmingly for Britain to remain a member — worried about how much they would lose.

“I’m really anxious about it. It was a bad idea,” said Elaine Morrison, an 18-year-old who was traveling to Barcelona with friends. “I like traveling to other countries And it will be a trouble now. The pound is weaker so it will cost more to buy the euros, and the costs of travel will be more expensive. And there will be red tape.”

People in London’s financial district, the City, were anxious about uncertainty.

“No one knows how this is going to go,” said City worker Nicola Gibson. “It’s a gamble, it’s a risk.”

May’s six-page letter to Tusk was polite and conciliatory, stressing that Britons want to remain “committed partners and allies to our friends across the continent.”

But there was a hint of steel in May’s assertion that without a good deal, “our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened.”

That could be seen by some in Europe as a threat to withdraw British security cooperation if the U.K. does not get its way.

Tusk said he will respond by Friday with draft negotiating guidelines for the remaining 27 member states to consider. They’ll meet April 29 to finalize their platform.

Talks between the EU’s chief negotiator, French diplomat Michel Barnier, and his British counterpart, Brexit Secretary David Davis, are likely to start in the second half of May.

As in many divorces, the first area of conflict is likely to be money. The EU wants Britain to pay a hefty bill — Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the EU’s executive Commission, put it at around 50 billion euros ($63 billion) — to cover pension liabilities for EU staff and other commitments the U.K. has agreed to.

Britain acknowledges it will have to pay something, but is sure to quibble over the size of the tab.

Negotiations will also soon hit a major contraction: Britain wants to strike “a bold and ambitious free trade agreement” with the bloc of some 500 million people, but says it will restore control of immigration, ending the right of EU citizens to live and work in Britain. The EU says Britain can’t have full access to the single market if it doesn’t accept free movement, one of the bloc’s key principles.

Both Britain and the EU say a top priority will be guaranteeing the rights of 3 million EU citizens living in Britain, and 1 million Britons living elsewhere in the bloc. In her letter, May said “we should aim to strike an early agreement about their rights” — but for now they remain in limbo.

The two sides also appear to disagree on how the talks will unfold. EU officials say the divorce terms must be settled before negotiators can turn to the U.K.’s future relationship with the bloc, while Britain wants the two things discussed simultaneously.

European Parliament President Antonio Tajani was adamant that the EU and Britain must finalize the terms of their divorce agreement, including how much money London owes, before discussing trade or other issues.

“This is not negotiable,” he said.

The U.K. has raised the prospect it could walk away without a deal if talks falter, though May said in her letter that both sides should “work hard to avoid that outcome.”

Brexit has profound implications for Britain’s economy, society and even unity. The divisive decision to leave the EU has given new impetus to the drive for Scottish independence and shaken the foundations of Northern Ireland’s peace settlement.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who says the Brexit vote means Scotland should get a referendum on independence, accused May of making “a reckless gamble.”

But anti-EU politicians saluted Wednesday as the day Britain regained its sovereignty from Brussels bureaucrats.

“If you’ve been locked inside a dark and cramped dungeon and you step out into sunlight, it’s going to be a bit intimidating,” said pro-Brexit lawmaker Douglas Carswell. “You’re going to have to learn how to use some of the faculties you were not using for a long time. We as a country have got to rediscover the art of self-governance.”

___

Follow Jill Lawless on Twitter at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless

___

Casert reported from Brussels. Associated Press writers Danica Kirka, Siobhan Starrs and Jonathan Shenfield in London, Lorne Cook in Brussels, Geir Moulson in Berlin, Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen and Monika Scislowska in Warsaw contributed to this report.

Trump’s top health official gets bipartisan grilling

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump’s top health official got strong pushback Wednesday from lawmakers of both parties about deep cuts the White House is pressing in medical research, public health and social service programs.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price also dodged repeated attempts by Democrats to flush out the administration’s next move on the Obama-era health insurance law. President Donald Trump’s push to repeal the health care law failed last week because of disagreement among Republicans.

“This is a tough budget year. There’s no doubt about it,” Price told the House panel that oversees his budget. When Democrats accused him of trying to dismantle a government department that provides vital services, he shot back: “It is not the goal of this secretary to deconstruct the department.” Democrats were pummeling Price with a phrase used by White House strategist Stephen Bannon, who has said “deconstruction of the administrative state” is Trump’s mission.

Most of the $1 trillion-plus HHS spends is for entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid, which are insulated from the annual budgeting process, called appropriations. But the White House wants a 16 percent cut in everything else. The National Institutes of Health, the nation’s premier medical research institution, faces a cut of nearly 20 percent.

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who chairs the appropriations subcommittee that oversees HHS, told Price that’s highly unlikely. He said NIH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are every bit as important as national defense. “Frankly, you’re much more likely to die in a pandemic than you are in a terrorist attack,” said Cole, adding: “I’d rather fight Ebola (the deadly virus) in West Africa than in West Dallas.”

While Price said he personally values and admires the work of both agencies, he suggested that NIH research grants to medical investigators contain a hefty portion of lard: 30 percent for “indirect expenses … something other than the research.” A Republican committee member said private foundation medical research grants allocate much less or nothing at all for such expenses.

Price said more detail is coming in another White House budget document due in late May, and he hinted that would include proposals on entitlement programs, or “mandatory” spending.

Price tried to walk a fine line on the Affordable Care Act, the Barack Obama law that has helped reduce the nation’s uninsured rate to a record low under 9 percent. While acknowledging that the ACA remains the law of the land, he would not commit on specific steps to help keep it working, or on what the administration might try to do to change it.

Upholding federal law “is my sworn oath,” said Price. “So long as the law is on the books, we at the department are obligated to enforce the law.”

Asked about a looming decision on whether to continue to provide billions of dollars in ACA subsidies to cover insurance deductibles and copayments for low-income people, Price said he couldn’t respond because the matter is under litigation. Asked if the administration is exploring ways to loosen the ACA’s “essential” required benefits, he sidestepped.

“This really is a strange hearing,” Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., told Price. “You come before us with a skinny budget (and) the few clear details will have catastrophic results for Americans.”

Key findings of the AP-NORC poll on health care

WASHINGTON (AP) — More than 6 in 10 Americans disapprove of the way President Donald Trump is handling health care, according to a new poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Most oppose key elements of the short-circuited GOP proposal to overhaul President Barack Obama’s health care law, including Medicaid cuts and surcharges for people whose coverage lapses.

The poll was conducted over five days before and after House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., withdrew the bill ahead of a planned House vote.

Key findings:

—By a 62 percent to 36 percent margin, most disapprove of the way Trump is handling health care. Ninety percent of Democrats, 62 percent of independents and even 31 percent of Republicans disapprove of Trump on the issue, his worst of seven issues tested in the poll.

—Trump’s approval rating overall is only slightly better, with 42 percent approving and 58 percent disapproving of his performance so far.

—Americans are likelier to support than oppose President Barack Obama’s health care law, 45 percent to 38 percent. That’s down slightly since January, when 50 percent supported it.

-Of six changes the GOP bill would have made to health care, five drew more opposition than support. Those included allowing insurers to charge older customers higher premiums than is now allowed (80 percent opposed), surcharges for people whose insurance coverage lapses (70 percent opposed), reducing funding for Medicaid (64 percent opposed) and denying federal funding to Planned Parenthood (56 percent opposed). In addition, more oppose than favor replacing income-based subsidies with age-based subsidies for people buying insurance, 48 percent to 16 percent.

—By a 48 percent to 35 percent margin, more Americans favor than oppose removing the requirement that all Americans have health insurance or pay a fine.

—Among Republicans, majorities favor removing the mandate that all Americans buy insurance (66 percent) and denying funds to Planned Parenthood (54 percent). But most oppose surcharges for people who did not previously have coverage (59 percent) and allowing insurers to charge older Americans more than they can now (74 percent). Republicans are also slightly more likely to oppose than favor cutting Medicaid funding, 43 percent to 35 percent.

—More than half of Americans — 56 percent — are extremely or very concerned about people losing their insurance if the GOP proposal had passed. But they are relatively evenly divided on whether it’s the federal government’s responsibility to make sure all Americans have insurance. A slim majority — 52 percent — say it is, but nearly as many — 47 percent — say it’s not.

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The AP-NORC poll of 1,110 adults was conducted March 23-27 using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 4.0 percentage points.

Interviews were conducted online and using landlines and cellphones.

___

Online:

AP-NORC: http://www.apnorc.org/

Trump administration seeks delay in ruling on climate plan

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Hours after President Donald Trump signed an executive order seeking to undo his predecessor’s efforts to curb climate change, his administration has asked a federal appeals court to postpone ruling on lawsuits over Obama-era restrictions on carbon emissions.

The regulations — known as the Clean Power Plan — have been the subject of long-running legal challenges by about two dozen mostly Republican-led states and industry groups that profit from burning coal.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit heard arguments in the case last year and could issue a ruling any time.

“Because the rule is under agency review and may be significantly modified or rescinded through further rulemaking in accordance with the executive order, holding this case in abeyance is the most efficient and logical course of action here,” lawyers for the Justice Department said in their motion late Tuesday.

A coalition of 16 mostly Democratic-led states and environmental groups involved in the legal case say they will oppose the administration’s request for a delay. A ruling in favor of the carbon restrictions from the D.C. appeals court could help blunt the Trump administration’s efforts to undo them and put the issue before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Rewriting the Clean Power Plan and other carbon-limiting federal regulations is likely to take years to complete and is expected to face legal challenges from big Democratic-leaning states as New York and California.

In a call with reporters, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said presidents don’t have legal authority to just do away with Environmental Protection Agency regulations with the stroke of a pen.

Trump’s executive order did not attempt to withdraw a key 2009 EPA ruling that greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide endanger the public’s health and welfare. The Trump administration is also bound by a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that requires the federal agency to regulate planet-warming carbon emissions.

“We’re very confident that the EPA can’t simply dismantle the Clean Power Plan and leave nothing in its place,” said Schneiderman, a Democrat. “We regret the fact that the president is trying to dial back history, but it’s not going to happen.”

Meanwhile, members of the conservative coalition that sued to stop Obama’s plan were already declaring a “monumental victory” for their side.

“President Trump’s decisive action lets everyone know this unlawful, job-killing regulation will find no support in his administration,” said West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. “That’s a tremendous relief for every coal miner and family that depends upon coal’s success.

___

Follow Associated Press writer Michael Biesecker at www.Twitter.com/mbieseck

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