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Monthly Archives: October 2017

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Breaking News: 6 dead, others hurt after motorist drives onto NY bike path

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NEW YORK (AP) — A man in a rented truck drove onto a busy bicycle path near the World Trade Center memorial Tuesday, killing at least six people and injuring several others, police said. The driver was then shot by police after jumping out with what turned out to be two fake guns.

A police official said the attack was being investigated as a possible act of terrorism. The official was not authorized to discuss the investigation and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The attacker was taken into custody. His condition was not immediately disclosed.

Police said the vehicle, a rented Home Depot truck, entered the bike path on West Street a few blocks from the World Trade Center memorial and struck at least 15 people, leaving mangled bicycles behind. At least two bodies could be seen lying on the path beneath tarps.

A man who was riding in an Uber along the West Side Highway near Chambers Street said he saw several bleeding people on the ground after the truck struck several people. Another witness said the truck had also collided with a small bus and one other vehicle.

Tom Gay, a school photographer, was on Warren Street and heard people saying there was an accident. He went down to West Street and a woman came around the corner shouting, “He has a gun! He has a gun!”

Gay said he stuck his head around the corner and saw a slender man in a blue track suit running southbound on West Street holding a gun. He said there was a heavyset man pursuing him.

He said he heard five or six shots and the man in the tracksuit fell to the ground, gun still raised in the air. He said a man came over and kicked the gun out of his hand.

Uber driver Chen Yi said he saw a truck plow into people on a popular bike path adjacent to the West Side Highway. He said he then heard seven to eight shots and then police pointing a gun at a man kneeling on the pavement.

“I saw a lot of blood over there. A lot of people on the ground,” Yi said.

His passenger, Dmitry Metlitsky, said he also saw police standing near a man who was on his knees with his hands up, and another man bleeding on the ground nearby. He said the truck had also collided with a small school bus and one other vehicle.

Militant accused in Benghazi attack on his way to US jail

(PhatzNewsRoom / AP)   —   WASHINGTON — U.S. special operations forces captured a militant in Libya accused of playing an instrumental role in the Benghazi attacks, officials say, in a high-stakes operation designed to bring the perpetrators to justice five years after the deadly violence.

President Donald Trump on Monday identified the militant as Mustafa al-Imam and said his capture signified that the four Americans who died “will never be forgotten.” Justice Department officials were escorting al-Imam by military plane to the United States, where he’s expected to be tried in federal court.

“Our memory is deep and our reach is long, and we will not rest in our efforts to find and bring the perpetrators of the heinous attacks in Benghazi to justice,” Trump said.

The Navy SEAL-led raid marked the first publicly known operation since Trump took office to target those accused of involvement in Benghazi, which mushroomed into a multiyear political fracas centered on Republican allegations of a bungled Obama administration response. Those critiques shadowed Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state at the time of the attacks, through her presidential campaign.

U.S. forces captured al-Imam just before midnight local time Sunday in Misrata, on Libya’s north coast, U.S. officials said. He was taken to a U.S. Navy ship at the Misrata port for transport by military plane to Washington, where he’s expected to arrive within the next two days, one of the officials said.

Once on American soil, al-Imam will face trial in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia as the FBI continues to investigate, the Justice Department said. He faces three criminal charges that were filed in May 2015 but only recently unsealed: killing or conspiring to kill someone during an attack on a federal facility, providing support for terrorists, and using a firearm in connection with a violent crime.

It wasn’t immediately clear how al-Imam was involved in the Sept. 11, 2012, violence. The U.S. attorney’s office said he is a Libyan national and about 46.

Trump said he’d ordered the raid, and thanked the U.S. military, intelligence agencies and prosecutors for tracking al-Imam and enabling his capture. The U.S. officials said the operation was coordinated with Libya’s internationally recognized government. They weren’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he’d spoken with the relatives of some of the Americans who died in Benghazi: U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, State Department information management officer Sean Patrick Smith, and contract security officers Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty. Tillerson said the U.S. would “spare no effort” to ensure al-Imam is held accountable.

Al-Imam will face court proceedings in U.S. District Court, officials said, in an apparent departure from Trump’s previously expressed desire to send militants to the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

In an interview last March with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, Attorney General Jeff Sessions called Guantanamo “a very fine place for holding these kind of dangerous criminals.”

The commando raid also came amid an ongoing debate about the use of U.S. forces to pursue insurgents in Africa and other locations outside of warzones like Iraq and Afghanistan. Four U.S. soldiers were killed in an ambush in Niger earlier this month under circumstances that have remained hazy and prompted Democrats and Republicans in Congress to express concerns.

Earlier this month, another man accused in the Benghazi attack, Abu Khattala, went on trial in federal court in Washington. Khattala, captured during President Barack Obama’s tenure, has pleaded not guilty to the 18 charges against him, including murder of an internationally protected person, providing material support to terrorists and destroying U.S. property while causing death.

The Benghazi assault started in the evening when armed attackers scaled the wall of the diplomatic post and moved through the front gate. Stevens was rushed to a fortified “safe room” along with Smith, but were then siphoned off from security officers when attackers set the building and its furniture on fire. Libyan civilians found Stevens hours later in the wreckage, and he died of smoke inhalation in a hospital, becoming the first U.S. ambassador killed in the line of duty in more than three decades.

A nearby CIA annex was attacked by mortar fire hours after the diplomatic complex, killing Woods and Doherty, who were defending the rooftop.

The attack became fodder for multiple congressional investigations to determine what happened and whether the Obama administration misled the public on the details of the bloody assault. Initial accounts provided by administration officials, notably Obama’s U.N. ambassador, Susan Rice, said the attack grew out of a protest against an anti-Muslim internet film. Later, the administration said it was a planned attack by extremists.

A two-year investigation by a House Benghazi committee focused heavily on Clinton’s role and whether security at the compounds and the response to the attack was sufficient. It was the Benghazi probe that revealed Clinton used a private email server for government work, prompting an FBI investigation that proved to be an albatross for her presidential campaign.

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Associated Press writers Maggie Michael in Cairo and Sadie Gurman in Washington contributed to this report.

With first charges, Mueller sends warning to Trump, aides

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Special counsel Robert Mueller has sent a warning to individuals in President Donald Trump’s orbit: If they lie about contacts between the president’s campaign and Russians, they’ll end up on the wrong end of federal criminal charges.

With the disclosure of the first criminal cases in his investigation, Mueller also showed that he will not hesitate to bring charges against people close to the campaign even if they don’t specifically pertain to Russian election interference and possible collusion with the Trump campaign.

Court papers unsealed Monday revealed an indictment against Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and a guilty plea by another adviser, who admitted to lying to the FBI about meetings with Russian intermediaries.

Perhaps more unsettling for the White House, the plea by George Papadopoulos came weeks ago and his initial arrest has been kept quiet for months, all while he has been cooperating with federal agents. The charges had been sealed specifically to keep the news of his guilty plea from discouraging others from cooperating with the special counsel or from destroying evidence.

The special counsel investigating possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign indicted Trump’s former campaign chairman and a business associate and revealed how an adviser lied to the FBI about meetings with Russians. (Oct. 31)

At Papadopoulos’ plea hearing earlier this month, one of Mueller’s prosecutors, Aaron Zelinsky, hinted at the possibility of more to come. The Mueller probe is “a large-scale ongoing investigation of which this case is a small part,” Zelinsky said, according to a transcript unsealed Monday.

The developments, including the unexpected unsealing of a guilty plea, usher Mueller’s investigation into a new, more serious phase. And the revelations in the guilty plea about an adviser’s Russian contacts could complicate the president’s assertions that his campaign had never coordinated with the Russian government to tip the 2016 presidential election in his favor, the central issue behind Mueller’s mandate.

Manafort, who steered Trump’s campaign for much of last year, and business associate Rick Gates ended the day under house arrest on charges that they funneled payments through foreign companies and bank accounts as part of their political work in Ukraine.

Papadopoulos, also a former campaign adviser, faced further questioning and then sentencing in the first — and so far only — criminal case that links the Trump election effort to the Kremlin.

Manafort and Gates, who pleaded not guilty in federal court, are not charged with any wrongdoing as part of the Trump campaign, and the president immediately sought to distance himself from the allegations. He said on Twitter that the alleged crimes occurred “years ago,” and he insisted anew there was “NO COLLUSION” between his campaign and Russia.

But potentially more perilous for the president was the guilty plea by former adviser Papadopoulos, who admitted in newly unsealed court papers that he was told in April 2016 that the Russians had “dirt” on Democratic rival Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails,” well before it became public that the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails had been hacked.

Papadopoulos was not charged with having improper communications with Russians but rather with lying to FBI agents when asked about the contacts, suggesting that Mueller — who was appointed in May to lead the Justice Department’s investigation — is prepared to indict for false statements even if the underlying conduct he uncovers might not necessarily be criminal.

Mueller’s investigation has already shadowed the administration for months, with investigators reaching into the White House to demand access to documents and interviews with key current and former officials.

The Papadopoulos plea occurred on Oct. 5 but was not unsealed until Monday, creating further woes for an administration that had prepared over the weekend to deflect the Manafort allegations. In court papers, Papadopoulos admitted lying to FBI agents about the nature of his interactions with “foreign nationals” who he thought had close connections to senior Russian government officials.

The court filings don’t say whom Papadopoulos may have told about the Russian claims about possessing emails damaging to Clinton. According to a previous filing in the case, Papadopoulos told the FBI that he didn’t tell anyone in the Trump campaign about the “dirt” on Clinton because he didn’t know if it “was real or fake.”

Previous emails obtained by The Associated Press show Papadopoulos discussing his attempts to line up a meeting between Trump and the Russian government. The emails showed that Manafort and Gates, who were top officials in the campaign at the time, rebuffed those efforts.

Papadopoulos has been cooperating with investigators, according to the court papers. His lawyers hinted strongly in a statement Monday that their client has more testimony to provide.

There, too, the White House scrambled to contain the potential fallout, with press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders contending that Papadopoulos’ role in the campaign was “extremely limited.” She said that “any actions that he took would have been on his own.”

The criminal case against Manafort, who surrendered to the FBI in the morning, had long been expected.

The indictment naming him and Gates, who also had a role in the campaign, lays out 12 counts including conspiracy against the United States, conspiracy to launder money, acting as an unregistered foreign agent, making false statements and several charges related to failing to report foreign bank and financial accounts. The indictment alleges the men moved money through hidden bank accounts in Cyprus, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and the Seychelles.

In total, more than $75 million flowed through the offshore accounts, according to the indictment. Manafort is accused of laundering more than $18 million.

Outside the courthouse, Manafort attorney Kevin Downing attacked the charges and said “there is no evidence that Mr. Manafort or the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government.”

Manafort’s indictment doesn’t reference the Trump campaign or make any allegations about coordination between Russia and campaign aides. But it does allege a criminal conspiracy was continuing through February of this year, after Trump had taken office.

Manafort, 68, was fired as Trump’s campaign chairman in August 2016 after word surfaced that he had orchestrated a covert lobbying operation on behalf of pro-Russian interests in Ukraine. The indictment against Manafort and Gates says the pair had managed a covert Washington lobbying operation on behalf of Ukraine’s ruling political party.

Gates directed the work of two prominent Washington lobbying firms, Mercury LLC and the Podesta Group. The indictment doesn’t refer to the companies by name, but the fallout at one was swift.

Prominent Washington lobbyist Tony Podesta, a Democrat and brother to John, resigned Monday, seeking to avoid further enmeshing his firm in the controversy, according to a person familiar with the decision who spoke anonymously to preserve relationships with former colleagues.

Specifically, the indictment accuses Manafort of using “his hidden overseas wealth to enjoy a lavish lifestyle in the United States, without paying taxes on that income.” That included using offshore accounts to purchase multimillion-dollar properties in the U.S., some of which the government is seeking to seize.

The indictment also cites more than $900,000 in payments to an antique rug store, about $850,000 to a New York men’s clothing store and the purchase of a Mercedes Benz and multiple Range Rovers.

Manafort also had registered with the Justice Department as a foreign agent for parts of Ukrainian work that occurred in Washington. The filing under the Foreign Agents Registration Act came retroactively, a tacit acknowledgment that he operated in Washington in violation of the federal transparency law. The indictment Monday accuses Manafort and Gates of making several false and misleading statements in that FARA filing.

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Associated Press writers Michael Biesecker, Stephen Braun, Tom LoBianco, Sadie Gurman and Jeff Horwitz contributed to this report.

North Korea Could Drop Nuclear Bombs on Western Europe

(PhatzNewsRoom / NewsWeek)   —    North Korea could attack Europe or the U.S. with a nuclear missile, the leader of the military alliance said Monday. North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said North Korean Kim Jong Un had developed the weapons to put Western nations in danger.

“We recognize that Europe has also entered the [North Korean] missile range, and NATO member states are already in danger,” he told theYomiuri Shimbun newspaper. 

Stoltenberg is visiting Japan and South Korea this week ahead of President Donald Trump’s visit to the region later this week to discuss with Asian leaders how to contain North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. “NATO has the capabilities and the resolve to respond to any threat and to any aggressor,” Stoltenberg told Jiji Press in an article published Sunday, adding, “No NATO allies and of course NATO do not want war… that would be a disaster.”

The U.S. is a member of NATO. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis stopped in South Korea Saturday to discuss Pyongyang, which has made threats to send targets to the U.S. territory of Guam. “Make no mistake – any attack on the United States, or our allies, will be defeated. And any use of nuclear weapons will be met with a massive military response that is both effective and overwhelming,” he said.

France warned in September that it was vulnerable to an attack from North Korea “within months.” “We see a North Korea whose objective is to have missiles capable of transporting a nuclear weapon tomorrow,” France’s foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told RTL radio. “In a few months, that will be a reality. At that moment, when it has the capability to hit the U.S., even Europe and at the very least Japan and China, with a nuclear weapon, the situation will be explosive.”

Trump will start his 12-day tour of Asia later this week, visiting Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. It’s unclear if Trump will be able to convince world leaders to stand with him against North Korea.

“It is a big deal. The Obama administration made a point of investing in these regional institutions in order to demonstrate we are an Asia Pacific power, a resident power in the region. This will only raise more questions about American credibility,” Derek Mitchell, a former U.S. ambassador to Burma, to told The Washington Postof Trump’s tour. “Multilateralism in Asia is often just about showing up, but even that appears to be hard for him.”

Catalan ex-leader to speak in Brussels as asylum rumors grow

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BRUSSELS (AP) — Catalonia’s ousted regional president will give a news conference in Brussels on Tuesday, European officials said, as speculation mounted that he might seek political asylum in Belgium and try to avoid possible prosecution in Spain for declaring Catalan independence.

Carles Puigdemont arrived in Brussels on Monday, the same day that Spanish prosecutors announced they were seeking rebellion, sedition and embezzlement charges against him and other Catalan officials.

European officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said that Puigdemont would speak publicly in Brussels at around 12 p.m. (1100 GMT; 7 a.m. EDT).

Over the weekend, a Belgian government official said that it wouldn’t be “unrealistic” for Puigdemont to request asylum.

Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis said that the central government in Madrid would be surprised if Puigdemont sought asylum in Belgium and were granted protection there.

Dastis told Spain’s Cadena SER radio that there is a level of “reciprocal trust” about the rule of law among members of the European Union.

“It would be surprising that he could receive the right to asylum under the current circumstances,” Dastis said, adding that the acceptance of an asylum petition “would not be a situation of normality” in relations between the two countries.

Belgium allows asylum requests by citizens of other European Union nations, and in the past, some Basque separatists weren’t extradited to Spain while they sought asylum, causing years of friction.

Spain took control over prosperous northeastern Catalonia this weekend after Puigdemont led the regional parliament to proclaim a new republic on Friday.

The Spanish government immediately sacked him and his Cabinet, dissolved the regional parliament and called a new Catalan election for Dec. 21.

One of the main separatist civil society groups of Catalonia, the National Catalan Assembly, said Tuesday it accepted the regional election, despite the fact it was called under the Spanish government’s intervention.

The group, whose leader is in jail on provisional sedition charges, is not a political party but it has been the driving civic force behind the independence movement in recent years.

It said grassroots organizations need to prepare a “joint strategy” ahead of the elections with the goal of “obtaining an uncontested victory that will ratify the Republic.”

Meanwhile, some of the official websites of the Catalan government tied to the previous administration were down Tuesday, in a further sign of the takeover by central authorities.

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Aritz Parra reported from Barcelona, Spain.

SKorea, China move to resolve disputes and hold summit talks

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea and China announced Tuesday that they will work to improve their relationship, which has been badly strained by the deployment of an American missile defense system, with Seoul saying their leaders are set to hold talks next week.

The thaw in relations comes amid increased regional tensions over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and ahead of President Donald Trump’s scheduled visit to both countries next week as part of his first Asian tour.

Relations between Beijing and Seoul have been testy since South Korea allowed the U.S. to deploy a contentious missile defense system on its soil, triggering economic retaliation from China. China views the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system’s powerful radar as a threat to its own security. South Korea and the U.S. say the system is purely defensive and aimed at countering possible North Korean threats.

China and South Korea recently agreed that they should soon normalize their relations and boost cooperation for a peaceful, diplomatic resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue, Seoul’s Foreign Ministry said Tuesday.

The ministry statement said Beijing reaffirmed its opposition to THAAD and asked South Korea to handle “relevant issues appropriately,” while South Korea reiterated the system doesn’t target China. It said military officials of the two countries will discuss Chinese worries about the THAAD system.

Seoul’s presidential office announced separately that President Moon Jae-in and Chinese President Xi Jinping will hold summit talks next week on the sidelines of an annual regional forum in Vietnam. It would be their second one-on-one meeting since Moon’s inauguration in May.

China’s Foreign Ministry in its own statement did not mention a summit. In that statement, Beijing repeated its objection to the anti-missile system but it indicated an interest in improving ties. It said both sides attached great importance to their relationship and were willing to push forward on developing a cooperative partnership.

Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said later Tuesday that Beijing had noted that South Korea stated it would not consider deploying an additional THAAD battery on its soil and made other gestures toward China’s concerns.

“We hope South Korea can honor its commitments, translate its words into actions and properly deal with the relevant issue,” Hua told reporters at a daily news briefing.

Tuesday’s South Korean statement didn’t mention whether it has agreed not to deploy more THAAD batteries, but the country’s foreign minister, Kang Kyung-wha, told lawmakers in Seoul on Monday that South Korea wasn’t considering an additional deployment.

A protracted standoff over the THAAD issue was not expected to benefit either country and restoring ties is seen as in both China and South Korea’s best interests.

Many analysts say China appeared to have used its THAAD opposition to bolster its regional clout but that such a stance could push South Korea closer to the United States and Japan for a potential anti-Beijing trilateral alliance.

In South Korea, there have been growing worries about frosty ties with China, which is its largest trading partner and some South Koreans say might one day replace the United States as the world’s sole superpower. In retaliation for the THAAD deployment, Beijing suspended visits to South Korea by Chinese tour groups and trips to China by South Korean entertainers. South Korean retail and auto businesses in China suffered anti-South Korea sentiments.

It remained unclear how quickly China would move to remove its sanctions against South Korea. Staff contacted at travel agencies in northern China said they had yet to receive official word from the government that group tours might resume.

The move to thaw relations with South Korea comes as China grows increasingly frustrated with North Korea, which has relied on Beijing as its main trading partner. As North Korea’s last major diplomatic ally, China’s cooperation is seen as crucial to the success of international sanctions on the North’s weapons programs.

China banned imports of North Korean coal, seafood and textiles and ordered North Korean-owned businesses to close in line with new U.N. sanctions imposed after the North its sixth and most powerful nuclear test in September.

North Korea has vowed to continue its nuclear program and build a more reliable arsenal of missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. It has previously called the THAAD deployment an American plot to bolster its military hegemony in the region.

Tuesday’s announcements by Seoul and Beijing came after Xi consolidated his already considerable power at a twice-a-decade Communist Party congress that concluded last week.

Maine Medicaid expansion vote seen as Obamacare referendum

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — The roiling national debate over the government’s proper role in health care is coming to a head in a state more commonly known for moose, lobster and L.L. Bean.

On Nov. 7, voters in Maine will decide whether to join 31 other states and expand Medicaid under former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. It is the first time since the law took effect nearly four years ago that the expansion question has been put to voters.

The ballot measure comes after Maine’s Republican governor vetoed five attempts by the politically divided Legislature to expand the program and take advantage of the federal government picking up most of the cost.

It also acts as a bookend to a year in which President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans tried and failed repeatedly to repeal Obama’s law.

Activists on both sides of the issue are looking at the initiative, Maine Question 2, as a sort of national referendum on one of the key pillars of the law, commonly known as Obamacare. Roughly 11 million people nationwide have gained coverage through the expansion of Medicaid, the state-federal health insurance program for lower-income Americans.

Republican consultant Lance Dutson called Maine’s initiative a national bellwether in which the needs of the people could trump political ideology.

A pillar of former President Barack Obama’s health care law faces a test in Maine, where voters will decide whether to expand Medicaid. If voters pass the initiative, Maine would become the 32nd state to accept the expansion. (Oct. 31)

“People believe there are good parts to Obamacare and bad parts to Obamacare. And without taking Medicaid expansion, we are leaving one of the good parts on the table while still suffering from the bad parts of it,” said Dutson, who supports Question 2.

Maine may not be the last state to put the Medicaid question before voters. Expansion proponents in Idaho and Utah have launched similar efforts in those states aimed at the 2018 ballot.

If the initiative passes, an estimated 70,000 people in Maine would gain health coverage. The issue is personal to many in an aging, economically struggling state with a population that is smaller than the city of San Diego.

Nature painter Laura Tasheiko got dropped from Medicaid three years ago after successfully battling breast cancer. Since then, she has relied on the charitable services of a hospital near her home in Northport, a seaside village of less than 2,000 people about 100 miles northeast of Portland.

She worries about having another serious health problem before she is eligible for Medicare when she turns 65 next year.

“Some of the after-effects of the chemo can be severe, like heart failure,” she said. “Having no insurance is really scary.”

Maine’s hospitals support the Medicaid expansion and say charity care costs them over $100 million annually. The initiative’s supporters have reported spending about $2 million on their campaign, with hundreds of thousands of dollars coming from out-of-state groups. By comparison, the lead political action committee established to oppose the measure has spent a bit less than $300,000.

Among those who say Maine will benefit from the expansion is Bethany Miller. She said her adult son, Kyle, needed Medicaid because he couldn’t afford subsidized monthly insurance premiums even though he was working.

She remembers watching as her son’s eyes went hollow and his body turned skeletal in the weeks before he died, at age 25, from a diabetic coma a year ago.

“He had a job, but he didn’t make enough money to pay for his basic needs and his insulin, and he couldn’t live without his insulin,” said Miller, who lives in Jay, a small paper mill town about 70 miles north of Portland.

LePage, a Trump supporter, is lobbying furiously against the initiative. He and other critics warn that the expansion will be too costly for Maine, even with the federal government picking up most of the tab. After 2020, the state’s share of paying for the expansion population would be 10 percent.

LePage warns that he would have to divert $54 million from other programs — for the elderly, disabled and children — to pay for Medicaid expansion.

“It’s going to kill this state,” he said.

LePage said he considers Medicaid another form of welfare and wants to require recipients to work and pay premiums.

Maine currently serves about 268,000 Medicaid recipients, down from 354,000 in 2011. LePage credits the drop to his administration’s tightened eligibility restrictions.

If Question 2 passes, the Medicaid expansion would cover adults under age 65 with incomes at or below 138 percent of the federal poverty level. That’s $16,643 for a single person or $22,412 for a family of two.

State Rep. Deborah Sanderson, a Republican, said Maine is already struggling to serve its rapidly aging population as nursing homes shutter and rural hospitals struggle.

“I get accused on occasion of trying to pit one population of folks against another,” she said. “It’s a case of only having a certain amount of resources to take care of a large number of needs.”

Finances are a concern in a state marked by factory closures and sluggish wage growth.

But with more people living on the margins, advocates of the expansion say that is all the more reason to extend the benefits of Medicaid. About 8 percent of Maine residents do not have insurance, a little less than the national percentage.

Democratic Sen. Geoffrey Gratwick, a retired rheumatologist, said he has seen many patients throughout his career who did not have health insurance and came to him with a disease already in its late stages. He voted for all five Medicaid expansion attempts.

“They are just as good people as you or I, but their lives will be shorter and they will be sicker,” he said. “Compassion, common sense and our economic interest demand that we get them the health care they need.”

Nathalie Arruda and her husband, Michael, are in that group that is sometimes without insurance. They live in the farming community of Orland, halfway between New Hampshire and the state’s eastern border with New Brunswick, Canada.

The couple run a computer business and rely on herbal teas and locally grown greens to stay healthy as they fall in and out of Medicaid eligibility. LePage restricted Medicaid eligibility for adults with dependents, like the Arrudas.

“There have absolutely been times when my husband or I have put off getting something looked at that we probably should have because we didn’t have coverage,” Arruda said.

In Miller’s view, her son would still be alive if LePage had signed one of the Medicaid expansion bills sent to him by the Legislature.

When Kyle turned 21, he was one of thousands who lost MaineCare coverage under the governor’s reforms. She said he juggled construction jobs but couldn’t afford his $80 subsidized monthly premium for private insurance.

He struggled to pay medical bills from emergency room visits, Miller said.

Before Kyle died last November, he had landed a steady job at a plastics factory that promised health insurance. He didn’t live long enough to get the coverage, falling into a diabetic coma.

“He started rationing his insulin so he could buy food,” his mother said. “And it cost him his life.”

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Follow Marina Villeneuve on Twitter at https://twitter.com/marinav13

Business: World shares mixed after Wall St pull-back, weak China data

TOKYO (AP) — Global shares were mixed Tuesday, with European benchmarks marking gains in early trading after a lackluster session in Asia.

KEEPING SCORE: The CAC 40 of France edged up less than 0.1 percent to 5,495.72 while Britain’s FTSE 100 added 0.4 percent to 7,510.77. Germany’s markets were closed for a public holiday. Dow futures gained 0.1 percent to 23,317.00 and S&P 500 futures were up 0.2 percent to 2,572.10, pointing to an upbeat start to Halloween on Wall Street.

CENTRAL BANK WATCH: The Bank of England is set to raise interest rates for the first time in a decade on Thursday to help keep a lid on inflation. That could hurt the British economy while it is struggling with the uncertainties of Brexit. Meanwhile, investors expect President Donald Trump to announce his choice to next head the U.S. Federal Reserve within days, a decision that could have far-ranging effects on the markets. The Fed is due to start a two-day meeting on Tuesday. It’s expected to raise rates at its next meeting in December, which would be the third increase of the year.

BANK OF JAPAN: The Bank of Japan wrapped up a policy meeting Tuesday with no changes to its ultra-lax stimulus program. It slightly raised its forecast for growth in this fiscal year but cut its outlook for inflation to 0.8 percent from an earlier forecast of 1.1 percent, saying that while the economy is gaining momentum, growth is not yet pushing wages higher or boosting consumer demand enough to fuel inflation.

EARNINGS: This week will see more than 100 companies in the S&P 500 index report their earnings results for July through September. In Asia, Samsung Electronics Co. reported another record high in quarterly earnings on a breathtaking run for a company that is fighting to get its leader out of jail. The South Korean company’s July-September net income surged 150 percent to 11 trillion won ($9.8 billion), compared with 4.4 trillion won a year earlier.

CHINA MANUFACTURING: An official survey said Chinese manufacturing activity expanded in October at a slower pace than the previous month as output weakened. The purchasing managers’ index released Tuesday fell to 51.6 from 52.4 in September. The index is based on a 100-point index where 50 divides expansion from contraction. The surveys are closely watched leading indicators for China’s economy, the world’s second biggest.

ASIA’S DAY: Japan’s Nikkei 225 index was flat at 22,011.61 while the Hang Seng in Hong Kong lost 0.3 percent to 28,245.54. The Shanghai Composite index regained lost ground to close 0.1 percent higher at 3,393.34. South Korea’s Kospi advanced 0.9 percent to 2,523.43 after Samsung reported record profits. The S&P ASX 200 in Australia slipped 0.2 percent to 5,909.00. Shares in Taiwan rose and markets in Southeast Asia were mixed.

ENERGY: Benchmark U.S. crude oil lost 14 cents to $54.02 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. It rose 25 cents to settle at $54.15 per barrel on Monday. Brent crude, the international standard, lost 19 cents to $60.40.

CURRENCIES: The dollar strengthened 113.25 Japanese yen from 113.18 yen late Monday. The euro slipped to $1.1638 from $1.1650 and the British pound rose to $1.3209 from $1.3208.

Analysis – The ‘dossier’ and the uranium deal: A guide to the latest allegations

(PhatzNewsRoom / WAPO)   —-    As a service to readers bound to be confused by an increasingly tangled story, here’s a brief guide to the latest developments in the tangled allegations involving Russia, President Trump and Hillary Clinton.

The Dossier

Background: The “dossier” is a collection of 17 memos concerning President Trump and Russia written by Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer, between June 20 and Dec. 13, 2016. Steele produced his memos under a contract with Fusion GPS, a strategic intelligence firm run by former journalists.

The memos are written as raw intelligence, based on interviews Steele had with unidentified Russian sources (identified, for instance, as “Kremlin insider”), some of whom he paid for information. Raw intelligence is essentially high-grade gossip, without the expectation it would be made public unless it is further verified.

The memos, among other things, allege the Russian government had been seeking to split the Western alliance by cultivating and supporting Trump and also gathering compromising information — “kompromat” — on him in an effort to blackmail him. The memos, among other allegations, claim the Russian government fed the Trump campaign “valuable intelligence” on Clinton.

Why It’s Important: The dossier mirrors a separate conclusion by U.S. intelligence agencies that the Russian government intervened in the U.S. election in an effort to bolster Trump and harm Clinton, such as through hacking the Democratic National Committee and distributing materials to WikiLeaks to publish at key moments. As the official declassified report stated:

“We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. We have high confidence in these judgments.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin intensely disliked Clinton because he was convinced that when she was secretary of state she had promoted anti-Putin, pro-democracy efforts in his country. The FBI considered the information gathered by Steele to be of sufficient importance that it considered paying him for his research, although it later dropped the idea.

What’s New: The DNC and Clinton campaign were revealed as the “Democratic donors” who paid Fusion GPS for Steele’s research. (Technically, Perkins Coie, the law firm of Marc Elias, an attorney representing the Clinton campaign and the DNC, funded the research.)

Separately, a “Republican donor” who had earlier hired Fusion GPS for information on Trump was revealed to be the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative website. But that earlier effort is unrelated to the Democratic-funded research that yielded the dossier.

We should note that, in another assignment, Fusion had been hired by a U.S. law firm in early 2014 to assist on the defense against a civil action filed by the U.S. government alleging fraud by Prevezon Holdings. Prevezon is owned by Denis Katsyv, the son of a senior Russian government official.

Why is that relevant? Natalia Veselnitskaya, who was also working for the law firm on the Prevezon case, met with Trump campaign officials at the Trump Tower in June 2016, including Donald Trump Jr., campaign manager Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner, the husband of Ivanka Trump. Donald Trump Jr. agreed to meet with Veselnitskaya after an intermediary promised dirt on Clinton. She arrived with a memo containing talking points that had been previously shared by Yuri Chaika, Russia’s prosecutor general who is known as a master of kompromat.

What’s controversial: The Trump White House has tried to use the connection between the dossier and Clinton to claim that this shows that rather than Trump colluding with Russia, Clinton colluded with Russia. (The theory appears to be that because Steele was getting information from Russian officials in part with funds provided by the Clinton campaign, the Russians were helping Clinton.) But that ignores the fact that DNC emails — as well as the email account of the Clinton campaign chairman — were hacked and then published by WikiLeaks as part of the pro-Trump Russian operation identified by U.S. intelligence agencies.

Steele started producing his memos in June 2016, about the same time that intelligence agencies began investigating possible ties between Russia and people close to Trump. The connection between Steele’s research and official government investigations is murky, but for some Republicans it raises questions about whether the official probe begun in the Obama administration was influenced by information gathered by someone being paid by Democrats.

CNN, for instance, reported that the FBI used information in the Steele memos to obtain approval from the secret court that oversees the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to monitor the communications of Carter Page, who Trump had said was a key adviser on national security issues. Presumably, the FBI had verified the information before it could cite it in court. Steele had quoted an “ethnic Russian close associate” of Trump as saying Page was an intermediary in “a well-developed conspiracy of co-operation” between the Trump campaign and the Russian leadership. Page has adamantly denied any wrongdoing.

Steele, during the campaign, at Fusion’s direction also briefed reporters from some U.S. news organizations, including The Washington Post, on his findings, according to court filings. Only one publication, Mother Jones, published information based on the briefing before the election.

The Uranium deal

Background: In 2010, Rosatom, the Russian nuclear energy agency, acquired a controlling stake in Uranium One, a Canadian-based company that had mining licenses for about 20 percent of U.S. uranium extraction capacity. The agreement was approved by the Obama administration when Clinton was secretary of state.

Frank Giustra, a Canadian mining financier and a major contributor to the Clinton Foundation, had sold a company, UrAsia, to Uranium One in 2007. Individuals related to Uranium One and UrAsia, including Giustra, donated to the Clinton Foundation, totaling about $145 million. Meanwhile, in 2010, Bill Clinton received $500,000 from a Russian bank to give a speech at a conference in Moscow.

Trump, during the campaign, tossed all of these separate facts together to falsely claim that Clinton “gave 20 percent of our uranium — gave Russia for a big payment.” But numerous fact checks have found no evidence for this claim. The original suggestion of wrongdoing was first raised in a book underwritten by an organization headed by Stephen K. Bannon, a key adviser to Trump.

Why It’s Important: Whenever news about the Russia investigation heats up, the Trump White House cites the uranium deal in an effort to muddy the waters and suggest that Russia had gained something from Clinton in exchange for money. Trump himself has claimed the case is “Watergate, modern age.”

But there is no evidence Clinton even was informed about this deal. The Treasury Department was the key agency that headed the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States which approved the investment; Clinton did not participate in the CFIUS decision. The deal was also approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Ultimately, only the president could have blocked or suspended the arrangement.

Moreover, no uranium produced at U.S. mines may be exported, except for some uranium yellowcake which is extracted and processed in Canada before being returned to the United States for use in nuclear power plants.

What’s New: The Hill newspaper on Oct. 22 reported the FBI had gathered evidence at the time of the sale that a Russian Rosatom official had conducted a massive bribery scheme, compromising an American trucking company that shipped uranium for Russia. The official eventually was convicted in 2015, but Republicans have said the case should have raised alarms about the Rosatom investment in Uranium One and possibly blocked the deal. But there is no evidence that U.S. officials weighing the transaction knew about the FBI investigation.

The reporting prompted House Republicans to announce they would launch an investigation. With the apparent urging of President Trump, the Justice Department gave a former FBI informant in the case approval to testify before Congress. The informant’s lawyer claimed he would discuss his work “uncovering the Russian nuclear bribery case and the efforts he witnessed by Moscow to gain influence with [former president Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton] in hopes of winning favorable uranium decisions from the Obama administration.”

What’s controversial: Any suggestion that Russian money was directed to influence Clinton’s decisions would be explosive. But the fatal flaw in this allegation is Hillary Clinton, by all accounts, did not participate in any discussions regarding the Uranium One sale which — as we noted — does not actually result in the removal of uranium from the United States.

Analysis: 5 Possible Outcomes of First Mueller Indictments

(PhatzNewsRoom / Roll Call)   —   The uncharacteristically quiet day at the White House was upended Friday evening by a report that the first indictments in the Justice Department’s Russia probe are imminent.

A Washington, D.C., federal grand jury has approved a set of initial charges stemming from the Robert S. Mueller III-led investigation into Russia’s meddling into the 2016 U.S. presidential election. CNN was the first to report that the former FBI director turned special counsel could take the first individuals into custody as soon as Monday.

While all indications are that President Donald Trump has yet to be interviewed by Mueller, there’s a list of his top 2016 campaign aides, current and former White House aides and longtime confidants who could be rounded up by Mueller’s team early next week.

Here are five indictments and related outcomes that are possible then:

Leading indicators

Paul Manafort is indicted. We know that the former Trump campaign chairman has plenty of ties to Russia and other former clients in the region, including former senior Ukrainian leaders.

Most recently, reports surfaced of alleged business dealings totaling $60 million over the past decade between Manafort and Oleg Deripaska, a Russian billionaire with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Manafort worked for Deripaska from 2005 to 2009, The Associated Press reported.

Mueller has reportedly warned Manafort — who is said to have supplied the Putin-connected Deripaska with briefings on the 2016 campaign — that he likely would be indicted.

Michael Flynn is indicted. The retired Army three-star general was once a well-respected military intelligence officer. He rose through the ranks to lead the Pentagon’s top espionage entity, the Defense Intelligence Agency. Then, former aides and confidants have told NPR and other outlets, something changed.

Flynn became enamored with the kind of conservative conspiracy theories that helped power Trump to the White House. The longtime soldier, who had gone into the consulting world after being fired from the DIA by President Barack Obama, became a leading national security and foreign policy adviser to candidate Trump.

But Flynn brought to the campaign a list of questionable decisions, many involving his ties to Russian officials, as a general turned consultant. Flynn served just 24 days as Trump’s first White House national security adviser before being fired for misleading Vice President Mike Pence.

House Democrats have pressed for their Republican counterparts to subpoena the White House for documents they allege will show Flynn’s “egregious conflicts of interest” due to his business dealings with foreign governments. One is Turkey. Another is Russia.

“We believe this paper trail must be pursued to answer the gravest question of all: Did Gen. Flynn seek to change the course of our country’s national security to benefit the same private interests he previously promoted, whether by advising President Trump, interacting with foreign officials, or influencing other members of the Trump administration?” House Oversight ranking member Elijah E. Cummings wrote in a recent letter to panel Chairman Trey Gowdy that featured nearly 20 other Democratic signatures.

Carter Page is indicted. The Trump-connected energy consultant came under scrutiny in 2016 for alleged questionable ties to Putin’s government while he was part of the Trump campaign.

Though Page has denied any nefarious links to Russian officials, he has informed the Senate Intelligence Committee that he plans to plead the Fifth if called to testify in that panel’s Russia probe. He is slated to appear before the House Intelligence Committee next week but has given no indication if he will be cooperative in that investigation.

The long shots

Jared Kushner or Donald Trump Jr. is indicted. The latter is the president’s eldest son and the former is his son-in-law and a senior White House adviser. Both were present during a June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer who allegedly came with dirt on Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

After nearly three hours of testimony before Senate Intelligence staffers on July 24, Kushner stood outside the White House and denied colluding with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign, saying all of his actions were both legal and proper.

Trump’s son-in-law defended himself during rare public remarks, saying: “I did not collude with Russia, nor do I know of anyone else in the campaign who did so.”

“I had no improper contacts” during the campaign and transition period, Kushner said, adding, “I have not relied on Russian funds for my business.”

He has said he left the Trump Tower meeting with the Kremlin-linked lawyer after concluding she had nothing of value for his father-in-law’s campaign.

Steven Hall, the CIA’s former chief of Russia operations, on Friday took to Twitter to summarize what might have Trump Jr. in legal hot water when it comes to that June 2016 meeting: “Don Jr took a mtg to get info Russians wanted to give.”

But an email exchange surfaced this summer with a former Russian business partner of his father that shows Trump Jr. enthusiastically accepting the man’s offer to pass the alleged Kremlin-provided dirt on Clinton to the Trump campaign.

“If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer,” Trump Jr. wrote during the email exchange with Rob Goldstone, a British-born entertainment publicist who met his father when he was trying to do business in Russia. Their email exchange began on June 3, 2016, about a month and a half before Trump accepted the Republican presidential nomination.

If Mueller is targeting the commander in chief, going after his son or son-in-law this early would be a way of getting Trump’s attention.

Trump fires Mueller. Remember, Trump already ousted FBI Director James B. Comey, who has said the president asked him to drop the investigation into Flynn.

“No, not at all,“ Trump told reporters during an impromptu Oct. 16 Rose Garden press conference when asked if he was considering firing Mueller from the special counsel post.

But that was before the president, who values and rewards loyalty, was facing the first wave of indictments in the Russia probe. And Trump made his disgust clear that day about the ongoing DOJ investigation.

“I’d like to see it end. Look, the whole Russian thing was an excuse (by the Democrats),” he said. “So that was just an excuse for the Democrats losing an election that, frankly, they have a big advantage in the Electoral College. … So there has been absolutely no collusion. … They ought to get to the end of it because I think the American public is sick of it.”

There is a modern precedent, though controversial and presidency-ending, for such a move.

The modern standard bearer is Richard Nixon, the president whom Trump’s critics often cite when pointing to his rhetoric and missteps. The so-called Saturday Night Massacre in 1973 went down after Nixon’s insistence that the special prosecutor investigating the Watergate cover-up be fired and ended with the top two Justice Department officials quitting. Nixon eventually resigned in 1974 after the House Judiciary Committee reported articles of impeachment but before the full House could vote.

(Note: White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her top two deputies were asked to respond to the CNN report. None of the senior White House officials responded by time of publication.)

Puerto Rico’s utility cancels controversial contract with Montana firm to repair electric grid

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The Puerto Rico electric power company said Sunday that it is canceling a controversial $300 million contract it had signed with a small Montana-based company and tasked with a central role in repairing the territory’s hurricane-ravaged electric grid.

The move came after Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said the contract was a distraction and should be canceled after critics in the electric power industry, Congress and the Federal Emergency Management Agency raised questions about whether the company, Whitefish Energy, was well equipped to respond to the hurricane damage.

Thirty-nine days after Hurricane Maria hit the territory — and only two days before a hearing of the Senate Homeland and Governmental Affairs Committee — Rosselló said that he would request assistance from Florida and New York under mutual aid arrangements that utilities traditionally activate to help other states during an emergency. About 80 percent of the people living on the commonwealth’s main island still have no electricity.

“As a result of the information that has been revealed and the need to protect the public interest, as governor I am asking the power authority to cancel the Whitefish contract immediately,” Rosselló said in an unusual Sunday morning news conference at La Fortaleza, the governor’s mansion. He did not cite particular new information beyond what has been in the press.

Ricardo Ramos, executive director of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or PREPA, said Whitefish would be paid to complete ongoing work on a transmission line. He defended his agency and the deal, citing Puerto Rico’s emergency needs.

“The best thing that can happen is its cancellation,” Ramos said. “But the investigations will continue.”

In tweets Sunday morning, Rosselló also called for additional measures to scrutinize contracting by the territory’s power authority more carefully. He said there should be a “special outside coordinator” to monitor the utility’s purchases so we “can have more clarity in this process.”

The governor’s statements, however, added to the confusion about the oversight of the utility and the commonwealth, both of which are bankrupt. A financial oversight board that Congress created for Puerto Rico is planning to ask a federal court this week for clear authority to examine contracts as small as $10 million. The federal judge is overseeing the restructuring of Puerto Rico’s more than $70 billion in debts.

Just last week, the oversight board said it would use its existing authority to install its own emergency manager — dubbed chief transformation officer — to pay closer attention to the day-to-day operations of the utility. The governor is opposing the appointment and said he would name his own administrator for PREPA’s purchases.

Rosselló, who like many Puerto Ricans has complained that the federal government plays a colonial role in the territory, has been battling the influence of the oversight board, created under the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act.

However, Congress sees the board’s role as crucial. “Transparent accountability at PREPA is necessary for an effective and sustained recovery in Puerto Rico,” Parish Braden, spokesman for the House Committee on Natural Resources, said in an email. He called for cooperation between the governor, the oversight board, the chief transformation officer and federal partners.

The governor did not say how the utility would disentangle itself from the contract with Whitefish Energy.

Whitefish Energy, which had just two employees the day Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, now has about 325 people working on restringing transmission lines, clearing debris and erecting fallen poles. It has been working under contract with PREPA.

Whitefish, Mont., is the home of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, although the company said he played no role in securing the business. One of Zinke’s sons worked for Whitefish Energy over the summer.

The company’s chief executive, Andrew Techmanski, has extensive experience in the electric transmission business, but the company has focused mostly on unsuccessfully trying to set up a plant to manufacture transformers. It has also received small grants from the Energy Department. It is backed by HBC Investments’ partners fund, a Dallas-based private equity firm whose members have a long record of financial support for the Republican Party.

Many people in the utility business had said that PREPA would have been better off tapping into the well-established networks of utilities that have formed mutual aid groups expressly for the purpose of emergency relief.

In addition, many in the industry have suggested that Whitefish Energy’s pay scales — as high as $462 an hour — were much higher than is typical even in an emergency such as the one facing Puerto Rico. The contract rates included costs, administrative expenses and profits for Whitefish.

The rates PREPA agreed to pay Whitefish for supervisors would work out to $900,000 a year. The rate of $319.04 an hour for a lineman works out to $622,000 a year.

While the conditions in Puerto Rico are difficult and lineman work is dangerous, there are companies and agencies seeking to do the work for substantially less, according to people familiar with figures from four companies from the mainland.

The Army Corps is doing essentially the same work as Whitefish in Puerto Rico and has been offering to pay as much as $195.04 an hour for a journeyman lineman and $230.32 an hour for a general foreman, according to a document provided to The Post.

The average rate for a lineman who helped restore electric power to Florida residents after Hurricane Irma hit there was $165 per hour — and that included some high-priced crews from the Northeast. Five local firms charged $116 per hour, said a source familiar with the rates.

The Whitefish Energy contract also had a clause that said that the pay rates and other terms of the agreement could not be audited or reviewed by FEMA, the commonwealth, the comptroller general or PREPA. The contract also required that PREPA, before signing, had confirmed that FEMA had reviewed and approved the agreement to ensure that money spent would “qualify for funding from FEMA.”

FEMA said Friday that it had not approved the Whitefish Energy agreement.

“Based on initial review and information from Prepa, FEMA has significant concerns with how Prepa procured this contract and has not confirmed whether the contract prices are reasonable,” the agency said in a statement.

In a news conference Sunday, PREPA chief Ramos said he learned of those contract clauses from the media.

Trump Tries to Shift Focus as First Charges Reportedly Loom in Russia Case

(PhatzNewsRoom / NYT)   —   WASHINGTON — President Trump’s frustration at the investigations into his campaign’s ties with Russia boiled over on Sunday, as he sought to shift the focus to a litany of accusations against his 2016 rival, Hillary Clinton, as the special counsel inquiry was reportedly poised to produce its first indictment in the case.

In a series of midmorning Twitter posts, Mr. Trump said Republicans were now pushing back against the Russia allegations by looking into Mrs. Clinton. But the president, who has often expressed anger that his allies were not doing more to protect him from the Russia inquiries, made it clear he believed that Mrs. Clinton should be pursued more forcefully, writing, “DO SOMETHING!”

He did not specify who should take such action, though critics have accused him of trying to improperly sway the inquiries.

Mr. Trump was apparently referring in his tweets to revelations last week that Mrs. Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee had paid for research that was included in a salacious dossier made public in January by BuzzFeed. The dossier contained claims about connections between Mr. Trump, his associates and Russia.

The president was also reviving unproved allegations that Mrs. Clinton was part of a quid pro quo in which the Clinton Foundation received donations in exchange for her support as secretary of state for a business deal that gave Russia control over a large share of uranium production in the United States.

And he was returning to questions about Mrs. Clinton’s use of a private email server and how James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, handled an investigation into the matter, which was closed with no charges being filed. Mr. Trump initially cited the email case as a reason for firing Mr. Comey before conceding that it was because of the Russia inquiry.

The president’s Twitter fusillade came as he and his advisers braced for the first public action by Robert S. Mueller III, the special prosecutor named after Mr. Comey’s ouster to investigate Russian meddling in the 2016 election. As part of his inquiry, Mr. Mueller is believed to be examining whether there was collusion between Mr. Trump’s campaign and Moscow, and whether the president obstructed justice when he fired Mr. Comey.

CNN reported on Friday that a federal grand jury in Washington had approved the first charges in Mr. Mueller’s investigation, and that plans had been made for anyone charged to be taken into custody as early as Monday. CNN said the target of the charges was unclear. The New York Times has not confirmed that charges have been approved.

Multiple congressional committees have undertaken their own investigations into Russian meddling in the elections, following up on the conclusion of United States intelligence agencies that Moscow sought to sway the contest in favor of Mr. Trump — an idea that he has frequently dismissed as a hoax.

Speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio, said the president had been “too defensive” about Mr. Mueller’s inquiry. “We ought to instead focus on the outrage that the Russians meddled in our elections,” said Mr. Portman, who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Ty Cobb, the White House lawyer handling the response to the Russia investigation, said that the president’s tweets were “unrelated to the activities of the special counsel, with whom he continues to cooperate.”

The tweets came days after House Republicans announced that they were opening new investigations into two of Mr. Trump’s most frequently cited grievances: the Obama Justice Department’s investigation of Mrs. Clinton’s emails and the uranium deal.

Mr. Trump is working to fuel those inquiries. The White House acknowledged on Friday that the president had urged the Justice Department to lift a gag order on an informant in a federal investigation into Russia’s attempts to gain a foothold in the United States’ uranium industry during the Obama administration.

Critics called the move improper presidential interference in a federal criminal inquiry, but Mr. Trump’s advisers said he was merely encouraging transparency.

In recent days, Mr. Trump has suggested that he believes that the questions he has been raising about Mrs. Clinton’s conduct should put to rest any allegations about his own actions, and end the scrutiny of Russia’s meddling in the election.

“This was the Democrats coming up with an excuse for losing an election,” Mr. Trump told reporters last week. “They lost it by a lot. They didn’t know what to say, so they made up the whole Russia hoax. Now it’s turning out that the hoax has turned around, and you look at what’s happened with Russia, and you look at the uranium deal, and you look at the fake dossier. So that’s all turned around.”

Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who serves on the Intelligence Committee, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday that while she had seen “lots of evidence that the Russians were very active in trying to influence the elections,” she had yet to encounter “any definitive evidence of collusion.”

Senators to press Tillerson and Mattis on new war authority

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump’s national security brain trust faces Congress on the need for a new war authorization as the deadly ambush in Niger is igniting a push among many lawmakers to update the legal parameters for combat operations overseas.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are scheduled to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Monday. They told the panel behind closed doors three months ago that a 2001 law gave the military ample authority to fight terrorist groups.

But that’s a position that won’t wash with a growing number of congressional Republicans and Democrats, many of whom were startled by the depth of the U.S. commitment in Niger and other parts of Africa. They’ve argued that the dynamics of the battlefield have shifted over the past 16 years and it’s well past time to replace the post-Sept. 11 authorization with a law that reflects current threats.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said last week he believed most Americans would be surprised by the extent of the operations in Africa that U.S. forces are involved in. Kaine and Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., are sponsoring legislation to install a new war authority for operations against the Islamic State group, al-Qaida and the Taliban.

“I don’t think Congress has necessarily been completely kept up to date and the American public, I think, certainly has not,” Kaine said after leaving a classified briefing conducted by senior Pentagon officials on the assault in Niger that killed four American soldiers.

Roughly 800 U.S. service members are in Niger as part of a French-led mission to defeat the extremists in West Africa. There are hundreds more American forces in other African countries.

U.S. troops also are battling an enemy — Islamic State militants — that didn’t exist 16 years ago in a country — Syria — that the U.S. didn’t expect to be fighting in. Nor did the 2001 authorization anticipate military confrontations with the Syrian government. Trump in April ordered the firing of dozens of Tomahawk missiles at an air base in central Syria and American forces in June shot down a Syrian Air Force fighter jet.

Beyond that, Trump approved a troop increase in Afghanistan, the site of America’s longest war, and the U.S. backs a Saudi Arabia-led coalition carrying out airstrikes in Yemen.

“As we face a wide array of threats abroad, it is perhaps more important than ever that we have a sober national conversation about Congress’ constitutional role in authorizing the use of military force,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the committee chairman, said in a statement.

But previous attempts to ditch the old authorization and force Congress to craft a new one have failed. Democrats in the House complained that Speaker Paul Ryan used underhanded tactics after an amendment was stripped from a military spending bill that would have repealed the 2001 war authorization 240 days after the bill was enacted. Proponents of the measure said eight months was enough time to approve new war authority.

GOP leaders said voting to rescind existing war authority without a replacement in hand risks leaving U.S. troops and commanders in combat zones without the necessary legal authority they need to carry out military operations.

A similar effort in the Senate led by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., also came up well short. Paul, a member of the committee and a leader of the GOP’s noninterventionist wing, has accused his colleagues of surrendering their war-making power to the White House.

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Follow Richard Lardner on Twitter at http://twitter.com/rplardner

Health law sign-ups start, and some see a ‘hostile takeover’

WASHINGTON (AP) — It’s sign-up season for the Affordable Care Act, but the Trump administration isn’t making it easy — cutting the enrollment period in half, slashing advertising and dialing back on counselors who help consumers get through the process.

Many people already faced fewer choices and higher premiums. But President Donald Trump’s decision to cancel a subsidy to insurers that lowers consumer costs compounded the turmoil, pushing premiums even higher.

Add it all up and the number of uninsured people may start rising again, eroding gains that drove the uninsured rate to a historic low.

“It certainly is a hostile takeover,” said health policy expert Joe Antos of the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute. “We are going to see a decline in enrollment. The people who will drop out in droves are the ones who are not getting a premium subsidy.”

Open enrollment starts Wednesday and ends Dec. 15 in most states, a sign-up period six weeks shorter than last year’s.

Some 9 million to 10 million people currently have private plans through the ACA’s government-sponsored markets. More than 8 in 10 receive subsidized premiums, and are cushioned from rate increases. Federal help paying premiums is still available despite GOP efforts to repeal the health law.

Subsidized customers have a strong incentive to renew, but how many new people will join remains an open question. They’re vital because healthier, younger people are needed to keep rising premiums from destabilizing the marketplaces.

Already this year there was a big drop-off among consumers who buy individual coverage outside the government markets, and aren’t eligible for premium subsidies. Their costs, however, are generally tied to rising “Obamacare” rates. A recent analysis found premiums for popular silver plans rising an average of 34 percent next year. Monthly premiums can be as a high as a mortgage payment in some cases.

Polls show widespread consumer confusion. Some are unsure if the health law has been repealed.

Trump administration officials say they’re aiming for smooth and efficient sign-ups. HealthCare.gov has new features intended to make it more user-friendly and the call center is fully staffed.

Officials say they cut ads because spending so much money wasn’t warranted, and the scaled-back counseling programs weren’t enrolling many consumers. The programs take issue with that.

Consumers who already have “Obamacare” are worried.

“It’s gone beyond what I would have called the politics of the normal,” said Elizabeth Stone, a real estate agent in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. She was diagnosed with lymphoma in her mid-20s, and with treatment has kept the cancer in check for five years. She doesn’t qualify for subsidized premiums, but without the ACA she questions if any insurer would have covered her.

“People have forgotten that everyone can get sick,” said Stone. “This battle has become so politicized that they’re not thinking of the consequences for themselves, for their friends and their families.”

Karen Vied coaches people in treatment for substance abuse. She and her husband David live in Millsboro, Delaware, a short drive from the shore.

Vied said she voted for Trump because she believed he would deal with the opioid epidemic. Now she’s scared, she says, because she and her husband rely on their subsidized ACA coverage for treatment of her rheumatoid arthritis and his heart problems. David, a marine technician, has not been physically able to work as much lately.

“I literally wonder from day to day, am I going to have insurance next month?” said Karen, who’s not yet 60. “I can’t turn around and go from paying $450 a month for premiums to $2,000. That’s just not going to happen.”

Her husband said without insurance one hospitalization could wipe out their home equity. “I’m not asking the government to give me insurance, but I am asking them to do what they need to make it affordable,” said David Vied. He voted for Hillary Clinton.

Trump’s own words leave little doubt where his administration stands.

“ObamaCare is a broken mess,” the president tweeted recently.

And on Sunday, he said: “As usual, the ObamaCare premiums will be up (the Dems own it), but we will Repeal & Replace and have great Healthcare soon after Tax Cuts.”

While repeal remains Trump’s goal, he also abruptly stopped paying a “cost sharing” subsidy to insurers. Officials say the payments were never properly approved by Congress, although they are called for under the ACA.

Those payments offset reduced copays and deductibles for people with modest incomes, and unless they’re restored insurers will lose an estimated $1 billion the remainder of this year. State regulators have approved premium increases in the double digits to compensate insurers.

In Austin, Texas, a nonprofit that provides support services for the working poor is trying to prove Trump wrong. Foundation Communities has helped more than 22,800 enroll for coverage since 2014, without any federal money for its efforts.

“We’re hoping to enroll about 5,000 people; of course we have to do that in half the time,” said insurance program director Elizabeth Colvin. “Full steam ahead.”

Around the country, other nonprofits are ramping up. Some insurers plan on advertising. States running their own insurance markets remain focused on growing enrollment.

In Las Vegas, lawyer Kaine Messer says he and his wife decided to renew their unsubsidized plan partly as a way of standing with their community — “Vegas Strong.”

Pondering the mass shooting that traumatized the city, Messer said it dawned on him that the hundreds injured would need health insurance to recover. Before the ACA, their wounds might have been deemed a pre-existing condition and a barrier to coverage.

“While Obamacare is by no means perfect,” said Messer, “it is a step in the right direction.”

Business: Asian markets mixed as market awaits Trump’s Fed decision

BEIJING (AP) — Most Asian markets rose Monday as investors waited to learn U.S. President Donald Trump’s pick to head the Federal Reserve and watch for regional data releases.

KEEPING SCORE: Tokyo’s Nikkei 225 index lost under 0.1 percent to 22,002.40 and the Shanghai Composite Index declined 0.8 percent to 3,390.67. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng was nearly flat at 28,431.35 and Sydney’s S&P-ASX 200 advanced 0.3 percent to 5,919.10. Seoul’s Kospi gained 0.1 percent to 2,499.25 and India’s Sensex rose 0.4 percent to 33,277.32. Benchmarks in New Zealand, Taiwan and Jakarta also rose while Singapore and Bangkok declined.

FED WATCH: Investors expect Trump to announce his choice for Fed chair as early as Monday. News reports Friday suggested Trump most likely would not offer Janet Yellen a second term and was instead leaning toward Jay Powell, a Fed board member who until recently was the only Republican on the board. Analysts see Powell as a safe choice who would follow Yellen’s monetary strategy.

ANALYST’S TAKE: “President Trump should announce who the new Fed Chair will be after keeping us on tenterhooks for the last few months. The market favorite is continuity candidate Jerome Powell (though with President Trump, you never know until the ink on the contract has dried),” said Rob Carnell of ING in a report. “This may make for an interesting (awkward) FOMC meeting on 1 November, though besides teeing the market up for a December rate hike, no one is expecting much from this.”

WALL STREET: U.S. stocks set new records on Friday as Microsoft and Alphabet soared following strong third-quarter reports, as did online retail giant Amazon. Intel made its biggest gains in three years, while Microsoft had its biggest jump in two years and Alphabet, Google’s parent company, made its largest move in more than a year after each company’s results were better than Wall Street expected. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index rose 0.8 percent to a record 2,581.07. The Dow Jones industrial average gained 0.1 percent to 23,434.19. The Nasdaq composite made its biggest gain since November as it soared 2.2 percent, to a record 6,701.26.

ASIA’S WEEK: Investors are looking ahead to a week of potentially market-moving Asian data. China and other countries are due to report monthly manufacturing indexes, along with Korean trade, factory production and inflation. Tokyo will report its economic indicators for September, while the Bank of Japan is due to announce interest rate policy on Tuesday.

ENERGY: Benchmark U.S. crude was flat at $53.90 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract soared $1.26 on Friday to close at $53.90. Brent crude, used to price international oils, lost 4 cents to $60.09 in London. It jumped $1.09 the previous session to $60.13.

CURRENCY: The dollar edged down to 113.63 yen from Friday’s 113.68 yen. The euro rose to $1.1619 from $1.1609.

Breaking News: First Charges Filed in Russia Probe Led by Special Counsel

(PhatzNewsRoom / CNN)    —    A federal grand jury in Washington, D.C., on Friday approved the first charges in the investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller, according to sources briefed on the matter.

The charges are still sealed under orders from a federal judge. Plans were prepared Friday for anyone charged to be taken into custody as soon as Monday, the sources said. It is unclear what the charges are.

A spokesman for the special counsel’s office declined to comment.

Mueller was appointed in May to lead the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

Under the regulations governing special counsel investigations, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who has oversight over the Russia investigation, would have been made aware of any charges before they were taken before the grand jury for approval, according to people familiar with the matter.

On Friday, top lawyers who are helping to lead the Mueller probe, including veteran prosecutor Andrew Weissmann, were seen entering the court room at the D.C. federal court where the grand jury meets to hear testimony in the Russia investigation.

Reporters present saw a flurry of activity at the grand jury room, but officials made no announcements.

Shortly after President Donald Trump abruptly fired then-FBI Director James Comey, Rosenstein appointed Mueller as special counsel. Mueller took the reins of a federal investigation that Comey first opened in July 2016 in the middle of the presidential campaign.

Mueller is authorized to investigate “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation,” according to Rosenstein’s order.

The special counsel’s investigation has focused on potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, as well as obstruction of justice by the President, who might have tried to impede the investigation. CNN reported that investigators are scrutinizing Trump and his associates’ financial ties to Russia. — (CNN)

Mueller’s team has also examined foreign lobbying conducted by former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and others. His team has issued subpoenas for documents and testimony to a handful of figures, including some people close to Manafort, and others involved in the Trump Tower meeting between Russians and campaign officials.

Last year, the Comey-led investigation secured approval from the secret court that oversees the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to monitor the communications of Manafort, as well as former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, as part of the investigation into Russian meddling.

In addition to Mueller’s probe, three committees on Capitol Hill are conducting their own investigations.

***

CNN’s Marshall Cohen, Mary Kay Mallonee and Laura Robinson contributed to this report.

White House: Trump plans to make choice for Fed next week

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump said Friday that he has someone “very specific in mind” to be the next chairman of the Federal Reserve and he will be announcing his choice next week.

“It will be a person who hopefully will do a fantastic job,” Trump said in a video address he tweeted out late Friday. “I think everybody will be very impressed. But most importantly, I think at the end of eight years, you really will be impressed because things are looking good.”

Trump did not give any hints about the person he has selected but various media reports Friday said that current Fed Chair Janet Yellen most likely will not be offered a second term and Trump is instead leaning toward Jay Powell, a Fed board member who up until recently was the only Republican on the Fed board.

Asked about those reports during a White House briefing, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said she could confirm that the announcement is expected next week but “beyond that I don’t have any other details to offer.”

In the video remarks he tweeted out, Trump said he knew that “people are anxiously awaiting my decision as to who the next head of the Fed will be.”

Yellen’s four-year term ends in February. Trump earlier this week said his choice was down to “two and maybe three people.” That group is believed to include Yellen, Powell and John Taylor, a Stanford University economist.

The group of finalists had originally also included former Fed board member Kevin Warsh and Gary Cohn, head of the president’s National Economic Council. But the White House let it be known this week that Trump wanted to keep Cohn in his current job to help push the administration’s tax cut plan through Congress.

Trump said in the video that things were looking good for the country and the U.S. economy. Earlier in the day, the government reported that the overall economy, as measured by the gross domestic product, grew at an annual rate of 3 percent in the July-September quarter after 3.1 percent growth in the second quarter. It was the strongest back-to-back quarters of GDP growth in three years.

“We’ve got a lot of jobs coming into our country. Go out and get a good one,” Trump said in the video. “Wages are going up, the economy is strong. Have fun. God bless America.”

Mattis says threat of nuclear attack by N.Korea accelerating

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Saturday the threat of nuclear missile attack by North Korea is accelerating.

In remarks in Seoul with South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo at his side, Mattis accused the North of illegal and unnecessary missile and nuclear programs — and vowed to defeat any attack.

Mattis said North Korea engages in “outlaw” behavior and that the U.S. will never accept a nuclear North.

He added that regardless of what the North might try, it is overmatched by the firepower and cohesiveness of the decades-old U.S.-South Korean alliance.

“North Korea has accelerated the threat that it poses to its neighbors and the world through its illegal and unnecessary missile and nuclear weapons programs,” he said, adding that U.S.-South Korean military and diplomatic collaboration thus has taken on “a new urgency.”

“I cannot imagine a condition under which the United States would accept North Korea as a nuclear power,” he said.

As he emphasized throughout his weeklong Asia trip, which included stops in Thailand and the Philippines, Mattis said diplomacy remains the preferred way to deal with the North.

“With that said,” he added, “make no mistake — any attack on the United States or our allies will be defeated, and any use of nuclear weapons by the North will be met with a massive military response that is effective and overwhelming.”

Mattis’ comments did not go beyond his recent statements of concern about North Korea, although he appeared to inject a stronger note about the urgency of resolving the crisis.

While he accused the North of “outlaw” behavior, he did not mention that President Donald Trump has ratcheted up his own rhetoric. In August, Trump warned the North not to make any more threats against the United States, and said that if it did, it would be met with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

Song, the South Korean minister, told the news conference that he and Mattis agreed to further cooperation on strengthening Seoul’s defense capabilities, including lifting warhead payload limits on South Korean conventional missiles and supporting the country’s acquisition of “most advanced military assets.” He offered no specifics and refused to answer when asked whether the discussions included nuclear-powered submarines.

Some South Korean government officials have endorsed the nation getting nuclear-powered submarines amid calls for more military strength. There’s a growing concern among the South Korean public that North Korea’s expanding nuclear weapons arsenal, which may soon include an intercontinental ballistic missile that could target the U.S. mainland, would undermine Seoul’s decadeslong alliance with Washington.

South Korea’s conservative politicians have also called for the United States to bring back tactical nuclear weapons that were withdrawn from the Korean Peninsula in the 1990s, which they say would make clearer the U.S. intent to use nukes in a crisis. But Mattis and Song were strongly dismissive of the idea.

“When considering national interest, it’s much better not to deploy them,” said Song, adding that the allies would have “sufficient means” to respond to a North Korean nuclear attack even without placing tactical nukes in the South. Mattis said current U.S. strategic assets are already providing nuclear deterrence and that the South Korean government has never approached him with the subject of tactical nukes.

Also discussed in the meeting were the conditions under which South Korea would be given wartime operational control of its forces. Currently, if war with the North broke out, the South’s forces would operate under the U.S.-led U.N. Command.

Trump entered office declaring his commitment to solving the North Korea problem, asserting that he would succeed where his predecessors had failed. His administration has sought to increase pressure on Pyongyang through U.N. Security Council sanctions and other diplomatic efforts, but the North hasn’t budged from its goal of building a full-fledged nuclear arsenal, including missiles capable of striking the U.S. mainland.

If Trump sticks to his pledge to stop the North from being able to threaten the U.S. with a nuclear attack, something will have to give — either a negotiated tempering of the North’s ambitions or a U.S. acceptance of the North as a nuclear power.

The other alternative would be U.S. military action to attempt to neutralize or eliminate the North’s nuclear assets – a move fraught with risk for South Korea, Japan and the United States.

At his Seoul news conference, Mattis said the North is, in effect, shooting itself in the foot.

“If it remains on its current path of ballistic missiles and atomic bombs, it will be counterproductive, in effect reducing its security,” he said.

Mattis touched off unease in South Korea last month when he told reporters at the Pentagon that the United States has military options for North Korea that doesn’t put Seoul at risk. At Saturday’s briefing, Mattis didn’t offer a direct answer to what those options are or how and when they would be used.

“Our military options as I mentioned are designed to buttress the diplomats’ efforts to maintain a deterrence stance and denuclearize the Korean Peninsula,” he said. While the allies are committed to deterring North Korea, they also need “many different military options that would realistically reduce that threat as low as possible,” Mattis said.

“And yes, we do have those options,” he said.

The North says it needs nuclear weapons to counter what it believes is a U.S. effort to strangle its economy and overthrow the Kim government.

This was Mattis’s second visit to South Korea since taking office in January. He made a point of going to Seoul and Tokyo on his first overseas trip in February, saying he wanted to emphasis the importance he places on strengthening alliances and partnerships.

On Friday he visited the Demilitarized Zone that forms an official buffer between the two Koreas. He appeared there with Song in what they both called a show of solidarity.

U.S. government officials for decades have confidently but mistakenly predicted the approaching collapse of North Korea, given its economic and political isolation.

Twenty years ago, Mattis’s predecessor five times removed, William Cohen, said as he peered into North Korea from inside the DMZ that its communist system was “decaying and dying.” His view was widely shared in Washington, but, like others, he underestimated the resilience of Pyongyang’s family dynasty, which began with Kim Il Sung. The current ruler assumed control of the country shortly after his father, Kim Jong-Il, died in December 2011, and has accelerated the country’s nuclear and missile programs.

Spain takes over Catalonia, fires defiant separatist leaders

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Spain took formal direct control of Catalonia on Saturday, on paper firing the region’s defiant separatist government a day after lawmakers passed a declaration of independence for the prosperous northeastern region.

But there was no immediate sign if top Catalan officials were intending to obey or if they would resist the sacking and throw the region into further turmoil by prolonging a monthlong standoff with central authorities.

The move came after one of the most tumultuous days in the country’s recent history, as the national parliament in Madrid approved unprecedented constitutional measures to halt the secessionist drive by the regional parliament in Barcelona.

Spain made the takeover official by publishing special measures online early Saturday in the country’s gazette.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who now replaces Catalan President Carles Puigdemont as the top decision-maker in the northeastern region, has also dissolved the regional parliament and called a new regional election to be held on Dec. 21.

Still, it was not clear at all whether a new election would solve Spain’s problems with separatists in Catalonia. Polls suggest pro-independence parties would likely maintain their slim advantage in parliamentary seats but would not get more than 50 percent of the vote.

Rajoy said the declaration of independence “not only goes against the law but is a criminal act.”

His comments were met late Friday with jeers and whistles of disapproval in Barcelona, the main city in Catalonia, where thousands had gathered to toast the independence declaration.

Puigdemont and the 12 members of the Catalan Cabinet now will no longer be paid and could be charged with usurping others’ functions if they refuse to obey.

There was no immediate sign they intended to comply with the orders. The Catalan Cabinet met Friday but didn’t make any public appearances or offer statements following Rajoy’s announcement of the planned government takeover. Spanish prosecutors say that top Catalan officials could face rebellion charges as soon as Monday.

Beyond any possible resistance from top Catalan officials, it’s unclear how Rajoy’s government in Madrid will be able to exert its control at lower levels of Catalonia’s vast regional administration.

Catalonia had secured the ability to govern itself in many areas, including education, health and policing, since democracy returned to Spain following the death of dictator Gen. Francisco Franco in 1975.

Some among Catalonia’s roughly 200,000 civil servants have said they will refuse to obey orders from Madrid. They risk being punished or even fired under the special powers granted to central authorities by the nation’s Senate on Friday.

Vice President Soraya Saenz de Santamaria will be Rajoy’s strongwoman in running Catalonia until Dec. 21, when Catalans are expected to choose a new regional parliament. She will coordinate other ministries that take over functions of the region’s regional departments, including finances and security, and appoint officials to implement orders from Madrid.

In one of the first moves, Spain’s Interior Ministry published an order to demote Josep Lluis Trapero from his position as head of the regional Mossos d’Esquadra police in Catalonia. He will be allowed to remain as commissar.

Trapero became a controversial figure as the public face of the police response in mid-August to deadly extremists’ attacks in and near Barcelona. He was praised for effectiveness but also criticized for coordination problems with other national police forces.

Spain’s National Court is also investigating him as part of a sedition probe related to the banned Oct. 1 independence referendum, when the regional police were seen as acting passively — not aggressively — to halt the vote deemed illegal by a top Spanish court.

Trapero’s boss, regional police director Pere Soler, said in a statement that he accepted his firing by central authorities in Madrid.

Website with GOP ties funded research on Trump dossier

NEW YORK (AP) — A conservative website with strong ties to the Republican establishment triggered the investigation into Donald Trump’s past that ultimately produced the dossier that alleged a compromised relationship between the president and the Kremlin.

The Washington Free Beacon on Friday confirmed it originally retained the political research firm Fusion GPS to scour then-candidate Trump’s background for negative information, a common practice known as “opposition research” in politics. Leaders from the Free Beacon, which is funded largely by Republican billionaire Paul Singer, insisted none of the early material it collected appeared in the dossier released later in the year detailing explosive allegations, many uncorroborated, about Trump compiled by a former British spy.

“During the 2016 election cycle we retained Fusion GPS to provide research on multiple candidates in the Republican presidential primary, just as we retained other firms to assist in our research into Hillary Clinton,” wrote the site’s editor-in-chief, Matthew Continetti, and chairman Michael Goldfarb. They continued: “The Free Beacon had no knowledge of or connection to the Steele dossier, did not pay for the dossier, and never had contact with, knowledge of, or provided payment for any work performed by Christopher Steele.”

Earlier in the week, reports revealed that the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee continued funding Fusion’s work after the original GOP source lost interest.

Trump this week called it a “disgrace” that Democrats had helped pay for research that produced the document. But the original source of the research remained a secret.

The president himself hinted that he knew the Republican source earlier in the week, but he refused to share it. The White House had no immediate comment Friday night about the Free Beacon’s involvement.

The Washington Free Beacon was initially founded as a project of the conservative nonprofit group Center for American Freedom, as an alternative to liberal news sites run by progressive nonprofits. The Center for American Freedom was organized as a 501(c)4 and did not reveal its donors, but Singer was the sole funder of the site as recently as 2014, according to a Republican political veteran familiar with the site. The veteran spoke on condition of anonymity to detail the newspaper’s financial background.

The Free Beacon first retained Fusion to investigate Trump in the fall of 2015 and ended its relationship after Trump secured the Republican presidential nomination in late spring of 2016, according to a person close to Goldfarb, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private discussions.

The website and its leaders have strong ties throughout the Republican establishment. Goldfarb was deputy communications director on John McCain’s presidential campaign. Singer was backing Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential bid at the time of the Free Beacon’s involvement. And one of Singer’s closest associates, Republican operative Dan Senor, served as Speaker Ryan’s chief adviser during the 2012 president campaign.

A representative to Singer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Rubio denied any knowledge of the Fusion research or the dossier this week.

“As far as whether it was my campaign, it wasn’t and I’ll tell you why,” he told CNN. “I was running for president. I was trying to win. If I had anything against Donald Trump that was relevant and credible and politically damaging, I would’ve used it. I didn’t have it.”

The document, compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele, emerged this year as a political flashpoint in the broader debate over Trump’s ties to Russia.

A person close to Singer said the billionaire was not aware of Steele’s involvement or the dossier until earlier this year when it was published. The person was not authorized to share internal discussions.

Law enforcement officials have worked to corroborate the dossier’s claims. James Comey, FBI director at the time, advised Trump about the existence of the allegations, and Steele has been questioned as part of an ongoing probe into possible coordination between Russia and the Trump camp.

The U.S. intelligence community has determined that Russia meddled in the 2016 U.S. election. Special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating the Russian interference and whether it was tied to Trump’s campaign.

The House Intelligence Committee will help verify whether the Free Beacon had any involvement with Steele or his dossier, according to Jack Langer, a spokesman for House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes.

“The Beacon has agreed to cooperate with the House Intelligence Committee to help the Committee verify this assertion,” Langer said.

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Miller reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Chad Day, Mary Clare Jalonick, Stephen Braun and Tom LoBianco in Washington contributed to this report.

Virginia race tests energy of anti-Trump resistance

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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia’s gubernatorial election stands as a test for the anti-Donald Trump resistance, and whether it can energize voters and donors for the less glamorous races featuring traditional Democratic politicians.

The Nov. 7 contest pits Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, a physician, Army veteran and former state senator, against Ed Gillespie, onetime aide to President George W. Bush and former head of the Republican Party. The current governor, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, is term-limited.

The stakes in Virginia are immense: Though Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won the state by five percentage points in 2016, Republicans typically are more likely to turn out in off-year statewide elections. Northam has led in most polls, but the race is close. A loss would be devastating after Democrats failed to capture any GOP-held seats in contested special congressional elections earlier this year that galvanized anti-Trump activists.

The next Virginia governor also will have a major say in the state’s next congressional redistricting. A Republican wave in statehouse elections around the country in 2010 — just prior to the last redistricting — has helped the GOP maintain a firm grip on the House.

Former President Barack Obama highlighted the importance of the Virginia race last week at his first large political rally since leaving office, urging Democrats not to get “a little sleepy” in the off-year election.

“I think that it’s great that you hashtag and meme,” the former president told a crowd in Richmond, “but I need you to vote.”

Northam bested former Rep. Tom Perriello, a populist favorite of the resistance who was backed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, in the Democratic primary. Sanders’ political operation, Our Revolution, recently endorsed six Democrats running for the state House of Delegates, but did not endorse Northam. Diane May, a spokeswoman for the group, said it can only endorse candidates recommended by local members and none in Virginia recommended Northam.

Some activists say it’s obvious that the liberal wing of the party isn’t as engaged in the governor’s race.

“We absolutely want to see them win, but that’s the difference between inspiring and driving a Democratic base to get out there for you and someone who you just want to win,” said Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the group Democracy For America. “If he doesn’t win, this will be why.”

Fundraising underscores some ambivalence.

Northam has raised $8 million more than Gillespie through September. He had $5.7 million cash on hand at the end of last month compared with Gillespie’s $2.5 million.

But Northam’s fundraising advantage is due largely to his in-state fundraising efforts, not to out-of-state activists pouring money in. Northam and Gillespie have each raised about $2.5 million from out-of-state contributors, not including Washington-based donors like the Democratic Governors Association and its GOP equivalent, according to nonprofit money tracker the Virginia Public Access Project.

And Northam hasn’t reported any donations from Democratic super donors like billionaires George Soros and Donald Sussman who largely funded his primary opponent’s campaign.

Still, others in the resistance say they’re working hard in the governor’s race and see no lack of enthusiasm. The prominent anti-Trump group Indivisible has sent three paid staffers to Virginia and recently asked its chapters across the country to organize phone banks to help Northam and Democrats in the Virginia state legislative races.

“We have folks who are clamoring to make the calls from across the country,” said Isaac Bloom, the group’s organizing director.

Northam spokesman David Turner said the campaign just came off a record-breaking voter canvassing last weekend and “there’s a lot of enthusiasm and excitement on the ground in Virginia.” He said Obama’s visit has helped highlight to out-of-state activists the importance of this race, particularly when it comes to redistricting.

Act Blue, which channels small-dollar donations to Democratic candidates, says that more than triple the number of people have donated to Virginia races this year as did in all of 2013. Democrats have gained six state legislative seats in special elections in Oklahoma, Florida and New Hampshire even as they lost the more headline-drawing congressional elections.

“We’re just seeing people plain engaged,” Act Blue Executive Director Erin Hill said.

The group Flippable has targeted five House of Delegate races in the state and expects to net as many donations as it did for Democrat Jon Ossoff in the Georgia special congressional election he lost earlier this year. Co-founder Catherine Vaughan said Democrats need to re-learn the importance of state elections after losing more than 1,000 state legislative seats and several governor’s races during the Obama years.

“Democrats kind of dropped the ball there,” Vaughan said, adding she worries that in the rush to win back the House in 2018, activists could lose sight of the importance of state-level wins again.

Michael Casentini, 41, a small business owner in Los Angeles, was devastated by Trump’s election and desperate for ways to fight back. In May, he wrote a $215 check to Ossoff as that race became a rallying cry for the anti-Trump resistance.

Casentini obsessively follows the news, so he knows there’s a tight race for Virginia governor next month. But he didn’t know the name of the Democratic candidate.

“People are tired, people are exhausted,” Casentini said in an interview.

But after talking about the Virginia race with a reporter, he said he realized he should make a donation to Northam. “That’s another one we liberals need to jump on,” Casentini said.

____

Riccardi reported from Denver.

Business: Tech giants lead rally as stocks near records; Amazon surges

NEW YORK (AP) — Some of the biggest companies in the world had their best day in years Friday as Microsoft and Alphabet soared following strong third-quarter reports, as did online retail giant Amazon. U.S. stocks set more records as their winning streak extended to a seventh week.

Intel made its biggest gains in three years, while Microsoft had its biggest jump in two years and Alphabet, Google’s parent company, made its largest move in more than a year after each company’s results were better than Wall Street expected. Amazon jumped 13 percent, its biggest move in two and a half years, after it got a big boost from its latest “Prime Day” promotion and the purchase of the Whole Foods grocery store chain.

“The transition to cloud computing really played a role in all of those tech results to some extent,” said Brad Sorensen, the director of market and sector analysis for the Schwab Center for Financial Research. Technology companies get a lot of their profits outside the U.S. compared to other industries, so the improving global economy is helping them more.

Other stocks were mixed: retailers fell after J.C. Penney cut its annual forecasts. Drugstores, drugmakers, health care suppliers and pharmaceutical distributors and retailers fell.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 index rose 20.67 points, or 0.8 percent, to 2,581.07. The Dow Jones industrial average made a comparatively modest gain of 33.33 points, or 0.1 percent, to 23,434.19 as drugmaker Merck and oil company Chevron skidded after their third-quarter reports. The Nasdaq composite made its biggest gain since November as it soared 144.49 points, or 2.2 percent, to 6,701.26. The Russell 2000 index of smaller-company stocks picked up 10.86 points, or 0.7 percent, to 1,508.32.

The S&P 500 and Nasdaq finished at all-time highs. The S&P 500 also rose for the seventh consecutive week, something that hadn’t happened since late 2014.

Alphabet climbed $42.25, or 4.3 percent, to $1,033.67 and Microsoft soared $5.05, or 6.4 percent, to $83.81. Intel, the world’s biggest chipmaker, jumped $3.05, or 7.4 percent, to $44.40 after a positive fourth-quarter estimate.

Elsewhere Facebook rose $7.25, or 4.2 percent, to $177.88, its largest gain August 2015. Apple advanced $5.64, or 3.6 percent, to $163.05.

Amazon posted strong results and gave an optimistic outlook for the holiday season. Its stock jumped $128.52, or 13.2 percent, to $1,100.95.

Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook are the five most valuable companies on the S&P 500, and with investors clamoring to send them higher, Wall Street didn’t pay quite as much attention to some strong economic data. The Commerce Department estimated that the U.S. economy grew 3 percent between July and September even though the country was hit by two major hurricanes. That was better than analysts had anticipated.

Aside from those giant companies, stocks were mixed. J.C. Penney fell to an all-time low after it cut its profit forecast, saying it’s been lowering prices to try clearing out unsold goods. Its stock lost 54 cents, or 14.8 percent, to $3.12. Other retailers like Macy’s and Foot Locker tumbled as well.

Toy maker Mattel plunged after the company posted a huge third-quarter loss and said it will slash spending and stop paying quarterly dividends. The stock lost $1.37, or 8.9 percent, to $14.

Drugstores and prescription drug distributors fell for a second day following reports that Amazon is receiving state licenses allowing it to do business as a prescription drug wholesaler. Walgreens Boots Alliance lost $2.63, or 3.9 percent, to $64.48 and pharmaceutical distributor McKesson lost $7.92, or 5.5 percent, to $135.62.

However, Jefferies and Co. analyst Brian Tanquilut wrote that Amazon appears to have taken out licenses to sell medical equipment, not drugs. He said the company may stick to medical devices and over-the-counter medicines for now, because in order to distribute prescription drugs Amazon would need to establish relationships with pharmacy benefits managers and health insurers.

Benchmark U.S. crude reached a six-month high as it jumped $1.26, or 2.4 percent, to $53.90 a barrel in New York. Brent crude, used to price international oils, rose $1.14, or 1.9 percent, to a two-year high of $60.44 a barrel in London.

Wholesale gasoline rose 2 cents to $1.77 a gallon. Heating oil gained 2 cents to $1.84 a gallon. Natural gas tumbled 14 cents, or 4.8 percent, to $2.75 per 1,000 cubic feet.

Bond prices jumped. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell to 2.41 percent from 2.46 percent, a seven-month high.

Gold rose $2.20 to $1,271.80 an ounce. Silver slid 6 cents to $16.75 an ounce. Copper lost 7 cents to $3.10 a pound.

The dollar fell to 113.81 yen from 114 yen. The euro slid to $1.1599 from $1.1657.

Germany’s DAX climbed 0.6 percent and the CAC 40 of France gained 0.7 percent. In Britain, the FTSE 100 rose 0.2 percent. The Spanish Ibex sank 1.5 percent after Catalonia’s regional parliament voted to secede from Spain, adding new tensions to the disagreement between the region and the central government in Madrid. Catalonia, which includes Barcelona, accounts for a fifth of the Spanish economy and Spain is deeply set against allowing it to become independent.

The Nikkei 225 of Japan jumped 1.2 percent and South Korea’s Kospi advanced 0.6 percent. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index surged 0.8 percent.

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AP Markets Writer Marley Jay can be reached at http://twitter.com/MarleyJayAP His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/marley%20jayt while Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index surged 0.8 percent.

U.S. Soldiers Were Separated From Unit in Niger Ambush, Officials Say

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(PhatzNewsRoom / WAPO)   —    WASHINGTON — In the chaotic moments after an Army Special Forces team and 30 Nigerien troops were ambushed by militants in a remote corner of West Africa three weeks ago, four of the Americans were separated from the larger group.

Their squad mates immediately alerted commanders that they were under attack — then called for help nearly an hour later, as a top Pentagon official said this week — and ground forces from Niger’s army and French Mirage jets were both dispatched.

About two hours later, the firefight tapering off, French helicopters from nearby Mali swooped in to the rescue on the rolling wooded terrain. But they retrieved only seven of the 11 Americans. The four others were inexplicably left behind, no longer in radio contact and initially considered missing in action by the Pentagon, a status that officials say raises the possibility they were still alive when the helicopters took off without them.

United States officials insisted that other American, French and Nigerien forces were in the area when the helicopters lifted off. When Americans suffer casualties in an operation, the wounded are typically evacuated before the dead, officials said.

The bodies of three dead Americans and the team’s interpreter were found hours later. But American military officials still cannot explain why it took two more days and an exhaustive search by troops from all three countries to find the body of the fourth soldier, Sgt. La David T. Johnson, discovered by Nigerien troops in the woods near the ambush site.

New details emerging from the military’s investigation into the ambush and interviews with military officials and lawmakers have revealed, once again, changes to the timeline in a shifting narrative that has bedeviled top Pentagon officials. It has prompted increasingly frustrated members of Congress to demand answers for how a shadowy mission in an austere region of Africa left four Americans and five Nigeriens dead, including the interpreter.

The questions — including the mission’s shifting goals, the intelligence assessment to back it up, how the soldiers were separated and the frantic search for Sergeant Johnson’s body — were at the forefront on Thursday when senior military officers and their civilian Pentagon bosses traveled to Capitol Hill to give separate two-hour classified briefings for members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees.

Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, who heads the Senate panel and who has criticized the Defense Department for failing to provide lawmakers details of the ambush, praised the briefing without divulging details. But he emphasized that he still had “100 questions” that the officials could not yet answer.

Pentagon officials said they would need 30 days to wrap up their inquiry, Mr. McCain said. Other senators on the committee said it could take up to 60 days. Army Maj. Gen. Roger L. Cloutier Jr., the chief of staff of the military’s Africa Command in Germany, is leading the inquiry.

“It’s clearer, but there’s still a lot of things that they don’t know,” said Senator Bill Nelson, Democrat of Florida. “Why did it take 48 hours to find Sergeant Johnson? We don’t know that yet.”

Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia, said many lawmakers were surprised to learn the scope of American military missions in Africa and, in particular, the size of the military presence in Niger, where 800 United States troops conduct training missions and drone operations. “I don’t think Congress has been completely kept up- to date,” Mr. Kaine said.

The mystery of what happened that day only deepened as new details emerged from interviews with more than a half dozen military officers, Pentagon officials and lawmakers this week.

On the night of Oct. 3, two groups set off in rural southwest Niger. One was a team of American, French and Nigerien commandos on a clandestine operation to kill or capture an Islamic State operative, part of a broader mission code-named Obsidian Nomad. The other group — made up of about eight Army Special Forces, three American soldiers in support roles and their interpreter, along with 30 Nigerien troops — was on a separate reconnaissance patrol. At some later point, the team was asked to back up the first group if needed.

Bad weather scotched the raid, intended to be launched from helicopters. But the second group remained in the region, after being asked by commanders to search further for evidence of the Islamic State jihadist, code-named Naylor Road by the military.

On the morning of Oct. 4, the team swung through the village of Tongo Tongo to resupply and met with local elders out of courtesy. Villagers might have tipped off Islamic State militants in the area, Nigerien and American military officials have said. One military official, however, said on Thursday that a villager told the troops that an important Islamic State emir was in the area, possibly alerting them that the extremists were approaching.

Shortly after the American soldiers, who were led by an Army captain, and the Nigerien troops left the village, heading back to base about two hours away, some 50 Islamic State militants armed with machine guns and heavy weapons ambushed the group at about 11:40 a.m. local time.

Lightly armed with no heavy weapons of their own, the American and Nigerien forces tried to defend themselves. Outgunned and taking casualties, the soldiers tried to stand their ground until additional Nigerien troops rushed to the scene.

It was not clear when the Nigeriens, along with French troops, arrived, but American officials indicated that they had made it to the ambush site by the time the seven Americans were evacuated.

When troops from the elite Joint Special Operations Command were alerted to the situation, however, they were told that several Americans were missing. That calls into question Pentagon officials’ earlier assertions that either the Nigerien forces or French helicopters were with the bodies of at least three of the soldiers until they were recovered — an insistence that underscores the mantra that no soldier is left behind.

© Provided by CBS Interactive Inc. The U.S. military is still unsure how Army Sgt. La David Johnson became separated from forces on the ground in Niger.

© Provided by CBS Interactive Inc. The U.S. military is still unsure how Army Sgt. La David Johnson became separated from forces on the ground in Niger.

“The U.S. military does not leave our troops behind,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said last week.

Eventually, the team of American commandos originally scheduled to target the Islamic State militant the previous night were dropped near the ambush site and found the bodies of three of their comrades: Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright.

But at least one American was still missing. Commandos from Sigonella, Italy, and Djibouti rushed to Niger’s capital, Niamey, while a reserve unit of Special Forces stationed at Africa Command headquarters in Germany prepared to deploy if needed. Sergeant Johnson’s body was found by Nigeriens on the evening of Oct. 6.

After the ambush, American units in the region were forced to change radio frequencies because communications equipment was missing and believed compromised by enemy forces.

The American-backed operations to topple the Islamic State from its strongholds in Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria, could increase the risks in Africa, if Islamic State fighters flee to the continent to continue their mayhem there, as some have begun to do.

“The more we succeed in the Middle East, the more we’re going to see the snakes run to Africa,” Senator Thom Tillis, Republican of North Carolina, said on Thursday. “We’ve got to be prepared to advise and assist the nations there that are willing to work with us.”

Some lawmakers, including Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, called for hearings to help explain what went wrong in Niger.

“I need to be able to look families in the eye and explain what our mission is, what mistakes were made in this incident, who made them and why,” Mr. Blumenthal said.

***

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US launches ‘most advanced’ stealth sub

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(PhatzNewsRoom / CNN)   —-   Touted as the world’s most technologically advanced fast attack submarine, the USS South Dakota is set to join the US Navy fleet amid a growing threat to American undersea dominance from several foreign rivals.

Operating beneath the ocean’s surface, a submarine’s strategic value is often tied directly to its ability to navigate in or near enemy waters without being detected to conduct reconnaissance or attack missions.

For years, the United States has maintained a technological edge over the submarines developed by rival nations, but recent advances made by Russia and China have sparked concerns of an emerging threat to American undersea superiority.

Christened earlier this month, the nuclear-powered USS South Dakota marks the US Navy’s latest effort to maintain that edge and provides a technological blueprint for future development.

Virginia-class submarines currently cost roughly $2.7 billion each.

The Navy’s 70-boat submarine fleet is made up of three major types of boats: ballistic-missile submarines, attack submarines, and cruise-missile submarines.

The Navy currently fields 17 Virginia-class fast attack submarines, which are built to operate in the world’s littoral and deep waters.

Virginia-class submarines can launch torpedoes at other submarines and at ships. They can also launch missiles at ground targets, gather intelligence, and deploy Navy SEAL units for special operations.

“Their inherent stealth, endurance, mobility and firepower directly enable them to support five of the six maritime strategy core capabilities — sea control, power projection, forward presence, maritime security and deterrence,” the Navy said.

Incorporating “acoustic superiority” that is expected to provide unparalleled stealth capability, the USS South Dakota will be used as a “demonstrator to prove out advanced technologies,” according to Navy spokesperson Lt. Seth Clarke.

Lessons learned from South Dakota will be incorporated into later Virginia-class submarines — “increasing our undersea domain advantage, ensuring our dominance through the midcentury and beyond,” Clarke said.

“Stealth capability is one of the crucial advantages of submarines … the Virginia-class brings capability and capacity that is so crucial as we head into potential peer conflict down the road.” according to Randy Forbes, a former US representative who served as chairman of the Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee while in Congress.

The 360-foot USS South Dakota is scheduled to officially enter the fleet in August 2018.

The Navy plans to upgrade its Virginia-class boats while developing the next-generation, nuclear-armed Columbia-class.

One of those upgrades includes outfitting Virginia-class submarines with additional “Virginia Payload Modules” for Tomahawk or next-generation missiles to provide more strike capacity.

Most Virginia-class submarines currently feature two Virginia Payload Tubes, each capable of launching six Tomahawk cruise missiles, according to the Navy.

Expected to be operational by 2024 or 2025, that added firepower will help fill the gap as the Navy plans to retire several of its aging fast-attack and ballistic-missile submarines in coming years, according to Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain and senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

Brewing submarine rivalry

Forbes said the United States has traditionally been able to track foreign submarines but recent advancements made by the Chinese and Russians highlight the need for developments like those seen on the USS South Dakota to maintain American undersea dominance.

Russia has invested heavily in developing its own underwater stealth capabilities in recent years and their submarine technology is approaching the level of the US fleet, much like the peer-to-peer comparison seen during the Cold War, according to one congressional aide familiar with the issue.

While the Russian military is not necessarily building a large quantity of submarines, it is developing boats with advanced quieting capabilities that are “very competitive” with those in the US fleet, said Hendrix.

“Russia is modernizing its existing fleet of Oscar-class multipurpose attack nuclear submarines and producing their next generation Severodvinsk Yasen-class,” US Pacific Command chief Adm. Harry Harris told the House Armed Services Committee earlier this year.

“The Russians are making a leverage investment … with submarines you don’t have to build a lot of them,” according to Hendrix.

The United States has also recently noticed an uptick in Russian submarine activity — conducting “spurts” of heavy patrols across various regions, according to the aide and a US Navy official.

“They can’t maintain the presence we do with 24/7 operations, but this activity is meant to push the boundary and to see what the US reaction will be,” the aide said.

But while the United States continues to monitor foreign submarine activity, the increase in Russian patrols is widely viewed as presence and testing maneuvers that do not pose an immediate military threat.

It’s something the United States should be reacting to but not overreacting to, the congressional aide told CNN.

In 2016, US Navy commanders told CNN that Russian submarines had become increasing assertive in the Atlantic Ocean and that their undersea activity was reaching levels unseen for decades.

The commander of the USS Missouri submarine, Fraser Hudson, assessed at the time that the renewed Russian activity is not just “a political statement but the Russians are seeking to gain experience in case hostilities were ever to break out between it and the United States.

“Honestly, I think it’s operational experience. You maintain the experience in those (areas of responsibility) so that if anything were ever to happen, they have experience,” he said last year.

A Russian sub also turned up off the coast of Florida in 2012, and the USS Missouri was called on to track it.

In addition to flexing their military muscle in an attempt to show “they still are or want to be a dominant super power,” the Russians are also trying to test whether their submarines can travel for long periods without being detected, according to the aide.

“The Russians are probably at about 80% of the capacity they were at during the Cold War,” according to Forbes, who also noted that they are constantly pushing the envelope in terms of capability.

China, on the other hand, is opting for a quantity over quality approach when it comes to building up its own submarine fleet.

“The Chinese are not as advanced but are getting there and they are producing diesel submarines in numbers,” the congressional aide told CNN. “In the end, numbers are a capability in themselves.”

Hendrix also noted that there is no indication the submarines being developed by China are close to being as advanced as those in the US arsenal but warned their approach of producing a large number of boats does pose a threat.

“Quantity can have a quality,” Hendrix said.

In addition to adding to the size of its submarine fleet, Harris warned earlier this year that they are also advancing their undersea capability.

“China is improving the lethality and survivability of its attack submarines and building quieter, high-end diesel and nuclear-powered submarines,” he said.

Both China and Russia have also increased their presence in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, where Harris said 230 of the world’s 400 foreign submarines are operating.

Roughly 160 of those 230 submarines belong to China, North Korea, and Russia, according to Harris.

Forbes said the United States must also develop a strategy to counter Chinese and Russian activity in “gray zones” where they are incrementally expanding their presence by strategically “fighting and competing” through military posturing.

China’s claims in the South China Sea represent one glaring example as to how they’ve been able to successfully implement this type of strategy in a way that allows them to expand their military reach without engaging in direct confrontation, according to Forbes.

Forbes also explained that the United States has yet to develop a coherent strategy to counter Russian and Chinese gray zone activity — a challenge that will require both the Navy and Congress to reconsider the way it utilizes American sea power.

“Major strategy is not some secret play you pull out in the fourth quarter of a football game,” Forbes said, adding that if US military leaders don’t articulate a strategy to Congress there is no way a plan will be implemented.=

Emerging challenges

By most accounts, the United States still maintains the most capable submarine fleet in the world, but while the addition of the USS South Dakota represents a leap forward in technological advancement, some argue the Navy still faces challenges.

Despite President Donald Trump’s request for additional defense spending, years of budget cuts and continuing resolutions have had a severe impact on the Navy’s maintenance and shipbuilding efforts.

The Navy plans to build 30 Virginia-class submarines and replace its 14 aging Ohio-class boats with 12 Columbia-class submarines, the first of which is expected in fiscal year 2021.

In March 2016, the Government Accountability Office reported that total program acquisition costs will be about $97 billion, including $12 billion for research and development and $85.1 billion for procurement.

An image taken from the video released by General Dynamics Electric Boat shows the newly christened USS South Dakota. © From General Dynamics Electric Boat An image taken from the video released by General Dynamics Electric Boat shows the newly christened USS South Dakota.

There are also discussions about extending deployments and service lives for existing submarines to help make up the difference.

But even if the Navy is able to achieve its goal of producing two or three new fast-attack boats per year, the service will only have 41 attack submarines by 2029, according to the Navy’s FY17 30-year plan.

An attack submarine inventory of 41 boats falls well short of the 65 to 70 boats needed to effectively maintain undersea dominance, according to Hendrix.

Harris told the House Armed Services Committee earlier this year that he agrees with assessments indicating a need for 66 fast attack submarines.

The need to continuously upgrade submarine stealth capabilities also presents a challenge for the Navy, according to Forbes, who said there comes a time when the cost for another decibel of quietness becomes too expensive.

Increased costs and the development of new detection techniques that do not rely on the sound a submarine makes could change the way the US Navy thinks about undersea warfare, according to Forbes.

“If we can’t make up the numbers we will have to move to a different way of fighting,” Forbes said, adding that the current strategic mindset revolves around “one-on-one” submarine combat.

“In the future, submarines may have to fight more like an aircraft carrier,” he said, describing a system in which submarines are complemented by a variety of unmanned platforms.

Spain leader urges Senate to grant powers in Catalan crisis

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MADRID (AP) — In an impassioned address, Spain’s prime minister on Friday urged the country’s Senate to grant special constitutional measures that would allow the central government to take control of Catalonia’s autonomous powers to try to halt the region’s independence bid.

But in Barcelona, separatist lawmakers filed a proposal for Catalonia’s regional parliament to vote later in the day on whether to establish an independent republic, as Spain’s biggest political crisis in decades appeared headed for a showdown. Thousands of pro-secession supporters gathered near the parliament building in anticipation.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who received rapturous applause before and after his speech in the Senate in Madrid, told the chamber Spain was facing a challenge not seen in its recent history.

What is happening in Catalonia is “a clear violation of the laws, of democracy, of the rights of all, and that has consequences,” he said.

Rajoy said the government’s first move would be to dismiss Catalan President Carles Puigdemont and his regional ministers if the Senate approves the Spanish government’s use of Article 155 of the Constitution in a vote later Friday.

The special measures, he said, were the only way out of the crisis, and that Spain isn’t trying to take away liberties from Catalans but instead protect them.

Catalonia’s regional parliament is also to hold a special session starting early Friday afternoon. The Catalan government rejects the moves by Spain’s government and the regional parliament may actually take the step of declaring independence.

“We establish a Catalan Republic as an independent and sovereign state of democratic and social law,” said the proposal submitted to parliament by the ruling Catalan coalition Junts pel Si (Together for Yes) and their allies of the far-left CUP party.

Lawmakers from both parliamentary groups have a slim majority that would in theory allow them to pass the motion during a vote later Friday, if the parliament’s advisory board allows it.

The motion calls for opening the constituent process that includes drafting Catalonia’s new top laws and to open negotiations “on equal footing” with Spanish authorities “aimed at establishing a mutually beneficial regime of cooperation.”

The move is opposed by all the opposition in the prosperous region, with some opposition lawmakers saying they will boycott the vote, and in Madrid, where authorities are seeking to dismiss the Catalan ruling coalition.

It will be the first time in four decades of democratic rule that the Madrid-based national government would directly run the affairs of one of Spain’s 17 semi-autonomous regions, a move that will likely fan the flames of the Catalan revolt.

As lawmakers headed to the regional parliament in Barcelona, thousands of independence supporters gathered outside the park in which the building is located, waving Catalan flags and chanting slogans in favor of a new state being proclaimed.

“I am here today because we will start the Catalan Republic,” said 68-year-old protester Jordi Soler. “Today is the last chance,” he said, noting that Puigdemont had offered to negotiate with Spain’s central government, “but Madrid is starting with total repression and there is no longer any (other) option.”

Rajoy says the measures to take over Catalan affairs are aimed at restoring order and has promised to call a new regional election once that is achieved.

Puigdemont scrapped hopes of a possible end to the political deadlock on Thursday when he opted not to call an early election himself and halt the drift toward independence.

The parliamentary sessions in Madrid and Barcelona are likely to last several hours before each votes on their resolutions.

Rajoy’s conservative Popular Party has an absolute majority in the Senate, thus guaranteeing the approval of his proposals. But he has also sought support from the country’s main opposition parties. It will then be up to the government when to implement them.

Catalonia represents a fifth of Spain’s gross domestic product. Polls show its 7.5 million inhabitants are roughly evenly divided over independence.

___

Parra reported from Barcelona. Elena Becatoros in Barcelona contributed.

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