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Monthly Archives: June 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His aides have mirrored that strategy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trump scrambles for GOP health votes; budget score looms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Authorities delayed investigating gay ‘demons’ case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mohr reported from Jackson, Mississippi.

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

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

Pakistan raises death toll to 157 from fuel truck fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dozens missing after tourist boat sinks in Colombia

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s unclear what caused the boat to sink.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Business: Global markets higher after Wall Street rebound

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis: McConnell stakes it all on health care bill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For now, the outcome can only be guessed at.

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

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

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

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

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

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Associated Press writer Andrew Taylor contributed.

Suicide car bomb in southwest Pakistan kills 11, wounds 20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turkey rejects Gulf Arab states’ demands over its Qatar base

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A look at the demands:

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

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

— Shut down Al-Jazeera and its affiliate stations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ending guessing game, Trump admits there are no Comey tapes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The pattern has continued since Trump’s election.

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

He’s brought trouble to his White House.

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

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

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

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

McConnell faces hunt for GOP votes for Senate health bill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obama held nothing back as he weighed in on Facebook.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Supreme Court could reveal action on travel ban at any time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trump’s tease of possible Comey tapes fits familiar pattern

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

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

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

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

Trump is expected to answer the tapes question this week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The pattern has continued since his election.

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

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

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

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Associated Press writers Ken Thomas and Deb Riechmann contributed reporting.

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

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

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

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

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

These are the three key legal questions surrounding their relationship.

Question 1: Could Trump fire Mueller?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Question 2: Under what circumstances would Rosenstein recuse himself?

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

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

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

Question 3: Can Mueller indict Trump?

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

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

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

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

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

Flynn may have aided Russian company the US opposed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FBI: No ‘wider plot’ suspected in Michigan airport stabbing

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FLINT, Mich. (AP) — A Canadian man from Tunisia shouted in Arabic before stabbing a police officer in the neck at a Michigan airport, and referenced people being killed overseas during the attack that’s now being investigated as an act of terrorism, federal and court officials said.

Amor Ftouhi, 49, of Montreal, was immediately taken into custody. A criminal complaint charging him with committing violence at an airport says Ftouhi asked an officer who subdued him why the officer didn’t kill him.

Officials on Wednesday evacuated an airport in Flint, Michigan, where a witness said he saw an officer bleeding from his neck and a knife nearby on the ground. (June 21)

The attack Wednesday at Bishop International Airport in Flint, Michigan, is being investigated as an act of terrorism, but authorities have no indication at this time that the suspect was involved in a “wider plot,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge David Gelios.

“At this time we view him as a lone-wolf attacker,” Gelios said. “We have no information to suggest any training.”

The criminal complaint says Ftouhi stabbed airport police Lt. Jeff Neville with a large knife after yelling “Allahu akbar,” the Arabic phrase for “God is great.” According to the FBI, Ftouhi said something similar to “you have killed people in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and we are all going to die.”

More charges against Ftouhi could be filed as prosecutors take the case to a grand jury seeking an indictment, Gelios said. The Flint Journal, citing court officials, said that Ftouhi is a dual citizen of Canada and Tunisia.

Neville was in satisfactory condition after initially being in critical condition, airport police Chief Chris Miller said at a Wednesday afternoon news conference where the charge against Ftouhi was announced.

Ftouhi appeared in federal court in Flint to hear the charge and will get a court-appointed attorney. A court spokesman says Ftouhi will remain in custody until a bond hearing next Wednesday.

The attack occurred just before 10 a.m., prompting officials to evacuate and shut down the airport and add security elsewhere in the Michigan city about 50 miles (80.46 kilometers) northwest of Detroit. White House press secretary Sean Spicer said President Donald Trump was briefed on the stabbing, and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he was “proud of the swift response” by authorities from both the U.S. and Canada.

Police in Canada were searching a Montreal apartment. Montreal police spokesman Benoit Boiselle said officers with their department were assisting the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in the search on behalf of an FBI request.

Boiselle said three people staying at the residence had been taken in for questioning.

Luciano Piazza, the building landlord, said Ftouhi was not a difficult tenant and that he is married with children.

“I never had any problems with him,” Piazza said. “I’m really surprised. I would see him at least once a month, when he paid his rent.”

Gelios said Ftouhi legally entered the U.S. at Champlain, New York, on June 16 and made his way to the Flint airport on Wednesday morning.

Ftouhi spent some time in public, unsecured areas of the airport before going to a restroom where he dropped two bags before attacking the officer with a 12-inch knife that had an 8-inch serrated blade, Gelios said.

Ftouhi never went through any security screening, Gelios said. He described Ftouhi as “cooperative” and talking to investigators.

Witnesses described seeing the suspect being led away as Neville was bleeding, a knife on the ground.

“The cop was on his hands and knees bleeding from his neck,” Ken Brown told The Flint Journal. “I said they need to get him a towel.”

Cherie Carpenter, who was awaiting a flight to Texas to see her new grandchild, told Flint TV station WJRT she saw the attacker being led away in handcuffs. She described the man in custody as appearing “blank, just totally blank.”

Miller, the airport chief, said Neville “fought him to the end,” managing to stop the stabbing and bring Ftouhi to the ground as Miller and other officers arrived to help.

After the stabbing, officials stationed police officers at Flint City Hall a few miles away. Mayor Karen Weaver said in a release the situation was “under control” but that officials sought to take “extra precautions.”

Genesee County Commissioner Mark Young, a friend of Neville’s who retired from the county sheriff’s office in 1997, said Neville left that department two years after him. He said Neville served in various capacities with the sheriff’s office including in the jail, on road patrol and as a court officer.

Neville retired from the sheriff’s office as a lieutenant.

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Karoub reported from Detroit. Associated Press writers Ed White and Corey Williams in Detroit, Rob Gillies in Toronto, Kenneth Thomas in Washington and Sadie Gurman in Phoenix, Arizona, contributed to this story.

In Yemen’s secret prisons, UAE tortures and US interrogates

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MUKALLA, Yemen (AP) — Hundreds of men swept up in the hunt for al-Qaida militants have disappeared into a secret network of prisons in southern Yemen where abuse is routine and torture extreme — including the “grill,” in which the victim is tied to a spit like a roast and spun in a circle of fire, an Associated Press investigation has found.

Senior American defense officials acknowledged Wednesday that U.S. forces have been involved in interrogations of detainees in Yemen but denied any participation in or knowledge of human rights abuses. Interrogating detainees who have been abused could violate international law, which prohibits complicity in torture.

The United Arab Emirates and Yemeni forces run a secret network of prisons where prisoners are brutally tortured. The U.S. has questioned some detainees, and have regular access to their testimony — a potential violation of international law. (June 21)

The AP documented at least 18 clandestine lockups across southern Yemen run by the United Arab Emirates or by Yemeni forces created and trained by the Gulf nation, drawing on accounts from former detainees, families of prisoners, civil rights lawyers and Yemeni military officials. All are either hidden or off limits to Yemen’s government, which has been getting Emirati help in its civil war with rebels over the last two years.

The secret prisons are inside military bases, ports, an airport, private villas and even a nightclub. Some detainees have been flown to an Emirati base across the Red Sea in Eritrea, according to Yemen Interior Minister Hussein Arab and others.

Several U.S. defense officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the topic, told AP that American forces do participate in interrogations of detainees at locations in Yemen, provide questions for others to ask, and receive transcripts of interrogations from Emirati allies. They said U.S. senior military leaders were aware of allegations of torture at the prisons in Yemen, looked into them, but were satisfied that there had not been any abuse when U.S. forces were present.

“We always adhere to the highest standards of personal and professional conduct,” said chief Defense Department spokeswoman Dana White when presented with AP’s findings. “We would not turn a blind eye, because we are obligated to report any violations of human rights.”

In a statement to the AP, the UAE’s government denied the allegations.

“There are no secret detention centers and no torture of prisoners is done during interrogations.”

Inside war-torn Yemen, however, lawyers and families say nearly 2,000 men have disappeared into the clandestine prisons, a number so high that it has triggered near-weekly protests among families seeking information about missing sons, brothers and fathers.

None of the dozens of people interviewed by AP contended that American interrogators were involved in the actual abuses. Nevertheless, obtaining intelligence that may have been extracted by torture inflicted by another party would violate the International Convention Against Torture and could qualify as war crimes, said Ryan Goodman, a law professor at New York University who served as special counsel to the Defense Department until last year

At one main detention complex at Riyan airport in the southern city of Mukalla, former inmates described being crammed into shipping containers smeared with feces and blindfolded for weeks on end. They said they were beaten, trussed up on the “grill,” and sexually assaulted. According to a member of the Hadramawt Elite, a Yemeni security force set up by the UAE, American forces were at times only yards away. He requested anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter.

“We could hear the screams,” said a former detainee held for six months at Riyan airport. “The entire place is gripped by fear. Almost everyone is sick, the rest are near death. Anyone who complains heads directly to the torture chamber.” He was flogged with wires, part of the frequent beatings inflicted by guards against all the detainees. He also said he was inside a metal shipping container when the guards lit a fire underneath to fill it with smoke.

Like other ex-detainees, he spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being arrested again. The AP interviewed him in person in Yemen after his release from detention.

The AP interviewed 10 former prisoners, as well as a dozen officials in the Yemeni government, military and security services and nearly 20 relatives of detainees. The chief of Riyan prison, who is well known among families and lawyers as Emirati, did not reply to requests for comment.

Laura Pitter, senior national security counsel at Human Rights Watch, said the abuses “show that the US hasn’t learned the lesson that cooperating with forces that are torturing detainees and ripping families apart is not an effective way to fight extremist groups.” Human Rights Watch issued a report Thursday documenting torture and forced disappearances at the UAE-run prisons and calling on the Emirates to protect detainees’ rights.

Defense Secretary James Mattis has praised the UAE as “Little Sparta” for its outsized role in fighting against al-Qaida.

U.S. forces send questions to the Emirati forces holding the detainees, which then send files and videos with answers, said Yemeni Brig. Gen. Farag Salem al-Bahsani, commander of the Mukalla-based 2nd Military District, which American officials confirmed to the AP. He also said the United States handed authorities a list of most wanted men, including many who were later arrested.

Al-Bahsani denied detainees were handed over to the Americans and said reports of torture are “exaggerated.”

18 secret prisons in Yemen controlled by the United Arab Emirates

The network of prisons echoes the secret detention facilities set up by the CIA to interrogate terrorism suspects in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. In 2009, then-President Barack Obama disbanded the so-called “black sites.” The UAE network in war-torn Yemen was set up during the Obama administration and continues operating to this day.

“The UAE was one of the countries involved in the CIA’s torture and rendition program,” said Ryan Goodman, a law professor at NYU, who served as special counsel to the Defense Department until last year. “These reports are hauntingly familiar and potentially devastating in their legal and policy implications.”

The UAE is part of a Saudi-led, U.S.-backed coalition meant to help Yemen’s government fight Shiite rebels known as Houthis, who overran the north of the country. At the same time, the coalition is helping the U.S. target al-Qaida’s local branch, one of the most dangerous in the world, as well as Islamic State militants.

A small contingent of American forces routinely moves in and out of Yemen, the Pentagon says, operating largely along the southern coast. Under the Trump administration, the U.S. has escalated drone strikes in the country to more than 80 so far this year, up from around 21 in 2016, the U.S. military said. At least two commando raids were ordered against al-Qaida, including one in which a Navy SEAL was killed along with at least 25 civilians.

A U.S. role in questioning detainees in Yemen has not been previously acknowledged.

A Yemeni officer who said he was deployed for a time on a ship off the coast said he saw at least two detainees brought to the vessel for questioning. The detainees were taken below deck, where he was told American “polygraph experts” and “psychological experts” conducted interrogations. He did not have access to the lower decks. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared retaliation for discussing the operations.

Senior U.S. defense officials flatly denied the military conducts any interrogations of Yemenis on any ships.

“We have no comment on these specific claims,” said Jonathan Liu, a CIA spokesman, adding that any allegations of abuse are taken seriously.

The Yemeni officer did not specify if the ‘Americans on ships’ were U.S. military or intelligence personnel, private contractors, or some other group.

Two senior Yemen officials, one in Hadi’s Interior Ministry and another in the 1st Military District, based in Hadramawt province where Mukalla is located, also said Americans were conducting interrogations at sea, as did a former senior security official in Hadramawt. The three spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the U.S. role.

The AP learned the names of five suspects held at black sites who were said to have been interrogated by Americans. The Yemeni official on the ship identified one of the detainees brought there. Four others were identified by former detainees who said they were told directly by the men themselves that they were questioned by Americans.

One detainee, who was not questioned by U.S. personnel, said he was subject to constant beatings by his Yemeni handlers but was interrogated only once.

“I would die and go to hell rather than go back to this prison,” he said. “They wouldn’t treat animals this way. If it was bin Laden, they wouldn’t do this.”

___

Associated Press writers Lolita Baldor and Desmond Butler in Washington and Ahmed al-Haj and Maad al-Zikry in Yemen contributed to this report.

___

Follow Maggie Michael on Twitter at https://twitter.com/mokhbersahafi

4 detained in raids linked to Brussels rail station attack

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BRUSSELS (AP) — Belgian authorities said Thursday that police detained four people in a series of raids in Brussels linked to the failed bombing at a rail station this week by a man shouting “Allahu akbar.”

The federal prosecutor’s office said that the four were picked up during searches in the Molenbeek neighborhood, as well as in Anderlecht and Koekelberg. The attacker in Tuesday’s violence at Brussels Central Station was a 36-year-old Moroccan national also living in Molenbeek, but he wasn’t known to authorities for being involved in extremist activities.

Many of the suspects linked to attacks in Brussels and in Paris in November 2015 lived in or passed through the Molenbeek neighborhood

Prosecutors said in a statement that the four suspects allegedly linked to the latest incident in Brussels were “taken in for thorough questioning” and that an investigating judge would decide later Thursday whether to keep them in custody. Authorities didn’t say whether anything had been seized in the raids, and declined to provide further details.

The raids are among several launched since Tuesday’s attempted attack at Brussels Central Station in which the man blew up a device that didn’t fully detonate. He was then fatally shot by soldiers after charging at them while shouting “Allahu akbar,” the Arabic phrase for “God is great.” No one else was hurt.

Belgium has been on high alert since suicide bombers killed 32 people at the Brussels airport and a subway station last year.

Authorities said the quick shooting of the attacker averted fatalities. He had been trying to detonate a larger nail bomb.

“It was clear he wanted to cause much more damage than what happened,” federal prosecutor Eric Van der Sypt said Wednesday. “The bag exploded twice, but it could have been a lot worse.”

Business: Global stocks lower after oil prices drag down Wall Street

BEIJING (AP) — Global financial markets declined for a second day Wednesday after weak crude prices dragged down energy stocks on Wall Street.

KEEPING SCORE: In early trading, France’s CAC-40 fell 0.5 percent to 5,249.15 and London’s FTSE 100 shed 0.4 percent to 7,413.74. Germany’s DAX lost 0.3 percent to 12,739.01. On Wednesday, the CAC-40 fell 0.4 percent, while the DAX and the FTSE-100 both slipped 0.3 percent. On Wall Street, the future for the Standard & Poor’s 500 index was off 0.2 percent and that for the Dow Jones industrial average was off 0.1 percent.

ASIA’S DAY: The Shanghai Composite Index declined 0.3 percent to 3,147.45 and Tokyo’s Nikkei 225 lost 0.1 percent to 20,110.51. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng gave up 0.1 percent to 25,674.53. Sydney’s S&P-ASX 200 gained 0.7 percent to 5,706.00 and India’s Sensex was up 0.6 percent to 31,458.07. Seoul’s Kospi added 0.5 percent to 2,370.37 and benchmarks in New Zealand and Taiwan also gained. Manila and Jakarta declined.

WALL STREET: Energy stocks dived as oil dropped to its lowest price since last summer. Gains for health care and technology stocks helped reduce losses for broader market indexes. The S&P 500 lost 0.1 percent and the Dow fell 0.3 percent. The Nasdaq composite rose 0.7 percent. Energy stocks in the S&P 500 tumbled 1.6 percent, a day after falling 1.2 percent. They are down nearly 15 percent for the year, when the overall S&P 500 is up 8.8 percent.

OIL PRICES: The price of oil has dropped more than 20 percent this year, breaking into what traders call a bear market. On Wednesday, crude dropped for a third straight day and touched its lowest price since August on expectations supplies will exceed demand. That helps big consumers such as China and other Asian manufacturers but hurts the ability of exporting countries to pay their bills. Accelerating corporate profits have been a big reason for rise in U.S. stock prices this year, and energy companies had been forecast to provide some of the biggest gains.

ANALYST’S TAKE: “Falling oil prices continue to dampen sentiment in global macro markets,” said Citigroup in a report. U.S. credit spreads are rising and concern in currency markets is increasing, they said. “Falling oil prices also hurts sentiment towards the higher-yielding emerging markets, but a steep drop in the price of oil usually spreads bearish sentiment more broadly.”

ENERGY: Benchmark U.S. crude lost 11 cents to $42.42 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract dropped 98 cents on Wednesday to close at $42.53. Brent crude, used to price international oils, fell 16 cents to $44.66 in London. It plunged $1.20 the previous session.

CURRENCY: The dollar declined to 111.03 yen from Wednesday’s 111.37 yen. The euro retreated to $1.1163 from $1.1170.

C.I.A. Feared Flynn Could Be Blackmailed, but Its Director Told Him Secrets

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(PhatzNewsRoom / NYT)    —-   WASHINGTON — Senior officials across the government became convinced in January that the incoming national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, had become vulnerable to Russian blackmail.

At the F.B.I., the C.I.A., the Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence — agencies responsible for keeping American secrets safe from foreign spies — career officials agreed that Mr. Flynn represented an urgent problem.

Yet nearly every day for three weeks, the new C.I.A. director, Mike Pompeo, sat in the Oval Office and briefed President Trump on the nation’s most sensitive intelligence — with Mr. Flynn listening. Mr. Pompeo has not said whether C.I.A. officials left him in the dark about their views of Mr. Flynn, but one administration official said Mr. Pompeo did not share any concerns about Mr. Flynn with the president.

The episode highlights another remarkable aspect of Mr. Flynn’s stormy 25-day tenure in the White House: He sat atop a national security apparatus that churned ahead, despite its own conclusion that he was at risk of being compromised by a hostile foreign power.

The concerns about Mr. Flynn’s vulnerabilities, born from misleading statements he made to White House officials about his conversations with the Russian ambassador, are at the heart of a legal and political storm that has engulfed the Trump administration. Many of Mr. Trump’s political problems, including the appointment of a special counsel and the controversy over the firing of the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, can be ultimately traced to Mr. Flynn’s tumultuous tenure.

Time and again, the Trump administration looked the other way in the face of warning signs about Mr. Flynn. Mr. Trump entrusted him with the nation’s secrets despite knowing that he faced a Justice Department investigation over his undisclosed foreign lobbying. Even a personal warning from President Obama did not dissuade him.

Mr. Pompeo sidestepped questions from senators last month about his handling of the information about Mr. Flynn, declining to say whether he knew about his own agency’s concerns. “I can’t answer yes or no,” he said. “I regret that I’m unable to do so.” His words frustrated Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat and a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“Either Director Pompeo had no idea what people in the C.I.A. reportedly knew about Michael Flynn, or he knew about the Justice Department’s concerns and continued to discuss America’s secrets with a man vulnerable to blackmail,” Mr. Wyden said in a statement. “I believe Director Pompeo owes the public an explanation.”

After Mr. Pompeo’s Senate testimony, The New York Times asked officials at several agencies whether Mr. Pompeo had raised concerns about Mr. Flynn to the president and, if so, whether the president had ignored him. One administration official responded on the condition of anonymity that Mr. Pompeo, whether he knew the concerns about Mr. Flynn or not, had not told the president about them.

A C.I.A. spokesman declined to discuss any interactions between the president and Mr. Pompeo.

“Whether the C.I.A. director briefed the president on a specific intelligence issue during a specific time frame is not something we publicly comment on and we’re not about to start today,” said Dean Boyd, a C.I.A. spokesman.

Concerns across the government about Mr. Flynn were so great after Mr. Trump took office that six days after the inauguration, on Jan. 26, the acting attorney general, Sally Q. Yates, warned the White House that Mr. Flynn had been “compromised.”

Ms. Yates’s concerns focused on phone calls that Mr. Flynn had in late December with Sergey I. Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States. When the White House faced questions about whether the two men had discussed lifting American sanctions on Russia, Vice President Mike Pence told reporters that Mr. Flynn had assured him that sanctions were not discussed. Intelligence officials knew otherwise, based on routine intercepts of Mr. Kislyak’s conversations.

“That created a compromise situation,” Ms. Yates later told Congress, “a situation where the national security adviser essentially could be blackmailed by the Russians.”

Mr. Trump waited 18 days from that warning before firing Mr. Flynn, a period in which Mr. Pompeo continued to brief Mr. Flynn and the president. The White House has offered changing explanations for why the president waited until Feb. 13 — soon after Ms. Yates’s warning made national news — before firing Mr. Flynn.

White House officials have said they moved deliberately both out of respect for Mr. Flynn and because they were not sure how seriously they should take the concerns. They also said the president believed that Ms. Yates, an Obama administration holdover, had a political agenda. She was fired days later over her refusal to defend in court Mr. Trump’s ban on travel for people from several predominantly Muslim countries.

A warning from Mr. Pompeo might have persuaded the White House to take Ms. Yates’s concerns more seriously. Mr. Pompeo, a former congressman, is a Republican stalwart whom Mr. Trump has described as “brilliant and unrelenting.”

Mr. Pompeo was sworn in three days before Ms. Yates went to the White House. He testified last month that he did not know what was said in that meeting. By that time, C.I.A. officials had attended meetings with F.B.I. agents about Mr. Flynn and reviewed the transcripts of his conversations with the Russian ambassador, according to several current and former American security officials. Separately, intelligence agencies were aware that Russian operatives had discussed ways to use their relationship with Mr. Flynn to influence Mr. Trump.

Mr. Pompeo, who briefs the president nearly every day, had frequent opportunities to raise the issue with Mr. Trump.

The President’s Daily Brief, known as the P.D.B., is a rundown of what America’s spies consider the most pressing issues facing the United States. On any given day, it can include details of a terrorist plot being hatched overseas, an analysis of a foreign political crisis that threatens American interests or a look at foreign hackers who are trying to breach American government computer systems.

Each president takes the briefing differently. President Barack Obama was said to prefer reading it on a secure tablet. President George W. Bush liked his briefers to talk through the document they were presenting. Mr. Pompeo has described Mr. Trump as a voracious consumer of the briefing, who likes maps, charts, pictures, videos and “killer graphics.

At an event last month at Westwood Country Club in Northern Virginia, Mr. Pompeo told retired C.I.A. officials that his briefings often run past their scheduled 30 minutes, according to one retired official in attendance. Mr. Pompeo said Mr. Trump is eager for information and asks many questions.

At his confirmation hearing, Mr. Pompeo assured senators that he would provide the president with unvarnished information, even when it would be viewed as unpleasant. “I can tell you that I have assured the president-elect that I’ll do that,” Mr. Pompeo said.

On Capitol Hill, Mr. Wyden questioned why Mr. Pompeo continued having discussions with Mr. Flynn despite the concerns of intelligence officials. “He was the national security adviser,” Mr. Pompeo said. “He was present for the daily brief on many occasions.”

Mr. Flynn had no love for the C.I.A., and the feeling was mutual. An Army general who had risen to lead the Defense Intelligence Agency, Mr. Flynn emerged in retirement as a harsh critic of the C.I.A., blaming the agency for his own firing and what he called its failure to foresee the rise of the Islamic State. He insisted that the Obama administration had politicized the agency, an assertion that Mr. Pompeo later said he saw no evidence to support.

In that way, Mr. Flynn was a kindred spirit for Mr. Trump, who came to office amid a rare public feud with his own intelligence services. He openly questioned their conclusion that the Russian government had unleashed hackers and propagandists to try to help get him elected.

“These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” Mr. Trump’s transition team said in January, comparing their conclusion to one of the biggest intelligence failures in modern history.

Dem loss in Georgia special election underscores challenges

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans just got a big argument for sticking with President Donald Trump and pushing forward with dismantling “Obamacare.” And Democrats are looking almost incapable of translating the energy of their core supporters into actual election wins.

Tuesday night’s outcome in a Georgia special House race was a triumph for the GOP, and the most recent, and devastating, illustration of the Democrats’ problems, from a weak bench and recruiting problems to divisions about what the party stands for.

Republican Karen Handel defeated Democrat Jon Ossoff on Tuesday in Georgia’s hotly contested House race in the Atlanta suburbs. The seat was left vacant when Tom Price resigned to join President Donald Trump’s administration. (June 20)

Instead of a win or even a razor-thin loss by Democrat Jon Ossoff that many had expected, Republican Karen Handel ended up winning by a relatively comfortable 5 percentage point margin in the wealthy suburban Atlanta district previously held by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.

That followed another recent Democratic disappointment in Montana, where the Republican candidate won even after last-minute assault charges, and an earlier loss for the Democrats in Kansas.

Indeed the best news Democrats got Tuesday night was that a different special House race, in South Carolina, ended up closer than the Georgia contest even though it had drawn little national attention. Republican Ralph Norman beat Democrat Archie Parnell by around 3 percentage points in South Carolina, closer than expected and a warning sign to the GOP not to take any seat for granted.

But for Democrats, having failed to unseat a Republican in four special House elections in a row despite an extremely energized base, it’s now a time for soul-searching — and finger-pointing.

Ossoff ran a careful campaign and shied away from talking about Trump, and some groups on the left wasted no time in insisting that Democrats must draw brighter contrasts with the GOP.

“Defeating Republicans in districts that they have traditionally held requires doing something drastically different than establishment Democrats have done before — specifically, running on a bold progressive vision and investing heavily in direct voter contact,” said Jim Dean, chair of Democracy for America.

The Georgia race was the most expensive House race in history, with many millions spent on both sides. The fact that that level of investment failed to pay off with a win against a Republican candidate widely viewed as uninspiring left Democrats frustrated and dispirited heading into the 2018 midterm elections. Democrats will need to pick up 24 House seats to take back the majority.

The outcome “better be a wake-up call for Democrats — business as usual isn’t working,” Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., said over Twitter. “Time to stop rehashing 2016 and talk about the future.”

House Democratic leaders tried to downplay the loss ahead of time, pointing out that the Georgia race took place on GOP-friendly terrain, as did the other recent special elections. Rep. Joe Crowley of New York, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said that there are 71 districts that will be more favorable for Democrats to contest than the one in Georgia.

“This is a heavily Republican district,” Crowley said. “It never should have been this close to begin with.”

But for Republicans from the president on down, it was time to celebrate.

Trump sent supporters a text message crowing, “Congrats to Karen Handel on a HUGE win in GA! Democrats lose again (0-4). Total disarray. The MAGA Mandate is stronger than ever. BIG LEAGUE.”

As the results rolled in Tuesday, AshLee Strong, spokeswoman to House Speaker Paul Ryan, mused over Twitter, “Remember when they told us we’d be punished in the special elexs for following through on our promise to #RepealAndReplace #obamacare?”

Indeed the string of special election wins, especially in Georgia, sent a powerful message to Republicans that they must be doing something right, even though Trump’s approval ratings are low by historical standards and the GOP has yet to notch a single major legislative accomplishment on Capitol Hill. Far from rethinking their support for Trump or their plans to undo former President Barack Obama’s health care law, Republicans seem likely to stay the course.

And as for the Democrats, they, clearly, are doing something wrong. What exactly it is, and whether they can fix it, will be debated in the weeks and months ahead.

___=

Erica Werner has covered Congress for The Associated Press since 2010

C.B.O. Head, Who Prizes Nonpartisanship, Finds Work Under G.O.P. Attack

Staying out of the political fray while working in its epicenter can be daunting, and Mr. Hall inevitably gets thrust into a spotlight that he does not crave.

“We’re a nonpartisan place and we’re working in a partisan world and we get treated as if we’re partisan,” Mr. Hall, 60, said in an interview at his fourth-floor office, which sits in the shadow of the Capitol. “That’s unfortunate.”

Most recently, the partisan pressure has been coming directly from top Trump administration officials.

Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget director, said last month that the C.B.O.’s time had “come and gone” and accused its employees of holding a liberal political bias. He even suggested making changes to the Congressional Budget Act, which created the office, to make the C.B.O. less influential in the legislative process.

“You can have a government without a Congressional Budget Office,” Mr. Mulvaney told The Washington Examiner in May.

The C.B.O. is often a target of criticism, but the fury of the attacks on Mr. Hall and his staff has struck veterans of the agency as a consequence of the toxic tone that has become pervasive in Washington in recent months.

“The directness of the attack by Mick Mulvaney is highly unusual,” said Doug Elmendorf, who was Mr. Hall’s predecessor as the director of the C.B.O. “The attack was unusual in not being just a disagreement with a particular estimate, which is totally legitimate, but an attack on the role of the organization.”

The agency was born out of a clash between Congress and President Richard M. Nixon, who was refusing to disburse appropriated funds that went against his preferred policies. In 1974, lawmakers overrode a presidential veto to reassert their power of the purse and passed the Congressional Budget Act. The law strengthened the budget authority of Congress and established the Congressional Budget Office as an agency to provide impartial economic estimates of legislation.

But the Trump administration thinks that the C.B.O. has amassed too much power, and Mr. Mulvaney is not the only one to target the office. Tom Price, the secretary of health and human services, has also laced into its work recently, pointing to its off-target estimates of the Affordable Care Act as evidence that it is ill equipped to pass judgment over the new Republican health plan.

The barrage of criticism is not without irony. It was Mr. Price, then a Republican congressman from Georgia, who called Mr. Hall in 2015 to inquire about his interest in the job. Mr. Hall was enjoying a comfortable post as chief economist at the International Trade Commission, where he enjoyed a low profile and an exotic travel itinerary while keeping an eye on retirement and the Washington Nationals.

As the party in control of Congress, Republicans were the ones to pick Mr. Hall for the job, and Mr. Price himself hailed the selection as a wise choice.

“Keith Hall will bring an impressive level of economic expertise and experience to the Congressional Budget Office,” Mr. Price said at the time. “His vast understanding of economic and labor market policy will be invaluable to the work of C.B.O. and the important role it will continue to play as Congress seeks to enact policies that support a healthy and growing economy.”

The selection was derided at the time by Democrats, who considered him a conservative economist whose views on poverty and the minimum wage were too far to the right.

Mr. Hall, who made a small donation to the Republican National Committee in 2004, made his name in Washington holding top positions in the Republican administration of President George W. Bush. He served as chief economist for the Council of Economic Advisers and at the Department of Commerce before Mr. Bush tapped him in 2008 to lead the Bureau of Labor Statistics. There he became known as the “recession commissioner” because he was charged with the grim task of announcing millions of job cuts as the economy cratered.

Friends and former colleagues of Mr. Hall describe him as “low key”: someone who is more an erudite academic than a political punching bag.

“He is a no-drama kind of person,” said Erica Groshen, who succeeded Mr. Hall as commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “He is not the kind of guy who is going to try to circumvent the professional work of the agency or to try to skew it in one way or another.”

Although its critics often question its statistical models or economic assumptions, to those who have worked at the C.B.O. the notion that it could cook its books is hard to fathom. The office is closely advised by expert advisory panels, and it frequently seeks comment from policy specialists from all political persuasions.

Mr. Hall said that the most surprising thing to him about the coarse reactions to the C.B.O.’s reports is that lawmakers on congressional committees and their staff members work closely with the office while writing their legislation. Rather than Congress submitting a finished bill to the C.B.O. in a black box, there is a regular exchange of feedback throughout the process.

The C.B.O. will face another round of attacks when it produces an analysis of the health plan being written by Senate Republicans under a shroud of secrecy.

On Wednesday, Mr. Hall will also have to answer for the office’s work when he testifies before Congress on his own office’s budget.

Mr. Hall will undoubtedly get questions about the C.B.O.’s objectivity and calls for its role to be diminished. He finds himself focusing more on protecting his staff of economists and statisticians who work late into the night and over weekends crunching numbers for Congress.

“Part of my job is somewhat to shield them,” Mr. Hall said. “You can see the criticism, you can hear about it, and one of the things that’s been important I think is to tell them that people can have their opinion on things, but it doesn’t change what we do and how we do it.”

He rarely pushes back against his critics in public. Like referees or umpires, he said, there is nothing to be gained from becoming part of the debate.

But Mr. Hall does believe strongly that the C.B.O. should not be weakened or phased out. The work, he said, is especially important at a time when facts and data have increasingly come under assault by politics.

“It’s this idea of where the truth is,” Mr. Hall said. “I hate the term speaking truth to power, but it’s sort of why we’re here.”

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