Monthly Archives: February 2018

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What we learned from the Democratic response to the Nunes memo — and what we didn’t

(PhatzNewsRoom / WAPO)    —    To hear President Trump tell it, the memo released on Saturday that provides the Democratic counterpoint to the document prepared by staff for Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) earlier this year both bolsters Nunes’s case and, somehow, was a total bust for the minority party. But, then, Trump’s response to all things related to the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election — and any points of contact with his campaign — has always been dismissal without nuance.

Understanding the memo released by the Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee requires the context of Nunes’s original memo, released to great fanfare earlier this month in an effort to paint the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference as politically biased. Nunes presented a scenario in which a Trump campaign staffer, Carter Page, faced federal surveillance on the basis of information collected by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, who was working indirectly for the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton’s campaign through a research firm called Fusion GPS.

Trump saw the Nunes memo as proving that the Russia investigation was biased and unfair because, working backward, it was essentially founded on surveillance that was politically motivated and false. (Nunes argues that his memo was solely part of his oversight duties, though this was the second time in a year that he has risen to Trump’s defense on the strength of debatable interpretations of classified material.)

The Democrats’ memo was meant to point out where Nunes’s memo missed its goal of proving bias in the Russia investigation. There’s not much new in it — but it did reconfirm some reported information, and there are some new components. There is also some promised information that still hasn’t surfaced.

The investigation into whether Trump’s campaign was aiding Russian interference began July 31, 2016. We’ve known for months that the investigation into interactions between Trump’s campaign team and Russia’s interference effort began in July. The Democratic memo affixes a specific date: July 31, 2016.

That counterintelligence investigation began, both sides agree, after a Trump campaign adviser named George Papadopoulos was told by a Russia-connected contact that the country had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of emails. Papadopoulos conveyed that to a diplomat from Australia during a meeting in London in May 2016. Once the emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee began being released by WikiLeaks and others in June and July, the Australians informed U.S. intelligence officials about what Papadopoulos had said.

This also means that the investigation began four days after Trump publicly asked Russian hackers during a news conference to release emails stolen from Clinton’s private server if they had them.

By September 2016, the FBI had opened investigations into four members of Trump’s campaign team. The Democratic memo says the information compiled by Steele into his infamous “dossier” of 17 raw intelligence reports didn’t get to the FBI’s counterintelligence team until the middle of September. By that point, we can conclude thanks to a sloppy redaction (noted by former intelligence officer Matt Tait) and an unredacted footnote that Page, Papadopoulos, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn, who would go on to be Trump’s national security adviser, were all already under investigation.

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While Steele’s research began in June and he reached out to the FBI shortly after beginning it, the Democratic memo argues that it was only after an FBI team was checking into Page that the dossier came to their attention. Why? For one thing, we can assume, Page had visited Russia during July to give a speech. For another, he’d been interviewed by the FBI in 2013 after Russian intelligence agents were observed mentioning him as a potential target for recruitment.

The initial warrant application for Page and the three renewals of it were approved by Republican-appointed judges. Four judges — two appointed by George W. Bush, one by George H.W. Bush and one by Ronald Reagan — approved the surveillance of Page. The warrant, called a FISA warrant after the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, needed to be renewed every 90 days. By the time the first warrant for Page was approved in October 2016, he was no longer serving as an adviser to the Trump campaign (because news reports including allegations from Steele’s dossier tied him to senior Russian officials during that July trip to Moscow).

We learned exactly how Steele’s relationship to the Democratic Party and Clinton was described in the initial application. Nunes’s memo contended that the Steele dossier’s allegations about Page meeting senior officials was the primary driver of the FISA warrant application and yet Steele’s bias in compiling that information wasn’t conveyed to the judges. The Democratic memo articulates specifically how that relationship was described. (All identifiers in the quote below have been added by The Washington Post except the identification of “Source #1″.)

[Steele] was approached by an identified U.S. Person [apparently Fusion GPS’s Glenn Simpson], who indicated to Source #1 [Steele] that a U.S.-based law firm [Perkins Coie, which hired Fusion on behalf of the DNC and the Clinton campaign] had hired the identified U.S. Person to conduct research regarding Candidate #1’s [Trump’s] ties to Russia. (The identified U.S. Person and Source #1 have a long-standing business relationship.) The identified U.S. person hired Source #1 to conduct this research. The identified U.S. Person never advised Source #1 as to the motivation behind the research into Candidate #1’s ties to Russia. The FBI speculates that the identified U.S. Person was likely looking for information that could be used to discredit Candidate #1’s campaign.

The original FISA application was at least 56 pages long. Tait also noted that a footnote in the Democratic document cites Page 56 of the FISA application — meaning that it was at least that long and probably longer. The quote above concerning the presumptive bias of Simpson appears on the 15th and 16th pages of the application.

Why is this important? Because the Nunes memo implied that the evidence from Steele formed the bulk of the rationale for a warrant included in the application.

Page allegedly lied in his sworn testimony before the House committee. A redacted section of the document alleges that Page lied under oath when testifying before the House Intelligence Committee.

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Some of Steele’s research was corroborated by the FBI after the initial warrant. In response to the Democrats’ response to his memo, Nunes offered a counter-counter-response. Part of that document addresses a statement from the Democrats that the Justice Department “provided additional information obtained through multiple independent sources that corroborated Steele’s reporting.”

Nunes’s memo notes that this was only after the initial FISA warrant.

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Some part of Steele’s report was corroborated with additional information before one of the renewals of the warrant, but we don’t know what — and it wasn’t entirely confirmed.

Interestingly, that section of the Democratic memo hints that some of the corroborated information involved Arkady Dvorkovich, a Russian deputy prime minister to whom Page admitted speaking briefly in testimony to the Intelligence Committee. In an email to Trump campaign after returning from Moscow, Page wrote that he’d had a “private conversation” with Dvorkovich.

Analyst Julian Sanchez notes that Dvorkovich’s last name isn’t paired with an identifier in the Democratic memo, suggesting that he is included in part of the preceding redactions.

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How then-FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe described the importance of the Steele information. Nunes’s original memo states that McCabe told the committee that “no surveillance warrant would have been sought from the [Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court] without the Steele dossier information.” That’s a quote from the Nunes memo, not McCabe.

Earlier this month, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), who sits on the committee, told CNN’s Jake Tapper that Nunes represented McCabe’s words incorrectly and that the Democratic memo “would put into focus what exactly [McCabe] said.”

It doesn’t — and Nunes’s representation of McCabe’s words have already been used to undercut the Democratic memo.

Florida students return to ‘picture of education in fear’

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PARKLAND, Fla. (AP) — About 50 uniformed officers marched into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School early Wednesday, just one aspect of the heavy security as classes resumed for the first time since 17 students and teachers were killed by a troubled teenager with an AR-15, thrusting them into the center of the nation’s gun debate.

The heavily armed police presence, designed to make the community feel secure, is also disturbing in itself, some students said.

“This is a picture of education in fear in this country. The NRA wants more people just like this, with that exact firearm to scare more people and sell more guns,” said David Hogg, who has become a leading voice in the students’ movement to control assault weapons. “I know one of those bullets could be shredding through me if I was misidentified as a school shooter,” Hogg added.

Grief counselors are on campus as well “to provide a lot of love, a lot of understanding” and help students “ease back” into their school routines, Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie said. Officers with therapy dogs also stood outside.

Wednesday’s class schedule started with 4th period, so that students and teachers could return to the people they were with during the shooting. The freshman building where the massacre took place remains cordoned off.

Parents of Marjory Stoneman Douglas victims were in Tallahassee on Tuesday as Florida lawmakers considered gun legislation. A House committee approved a bill that would raise the minimum age for long gun buyers and let some teachers carry arms. (Feb. 28)

Casey Sherman, a 17-year-old junior, thinks the schedule was a good idea so kids can “get it over with,” and not worry about it all day. Up until 11:30 p.m. working on preparations for the March 14 national school walkout against gun violence, she said she’s not afraid to be returning, “just nervous.”

“We did go through a tragedy,” said Sherman, who walked in holding hands with her boyfriend. “It was terrible but if you let it stop you … it’s not how you go down, it’s how you get back up.”

A long line of cars circled the school and dozens of television trucks and vehicles were camped out nearby as students, parents and staff were ushered through a security cordon, past a “Welcome Eagles” banner and a walkway lined with flowers, photographs and other memorials. Some were returning despite severe gun wounds, but even those who weren’t hit by bullets spoke of emotional trauma.

Alexis Grogan, a 15-year-old sophomore, planned to wear a Stoneman Douglas color — maroon — on the first day back to class Wednesday, plus sneakers that say “MSD Strong, be positive, be passionate, be proud to be an eagle” and “2/14/18″ in honor of those who died.

She feels nervous, like it might be too soon to go on as usual without slain friends like Luke Hoyer, who sat two seats behind her in Spanish. Still, the support from her fellow students, and their fight to strengthen gun control laws have buoyed her spirits.

“I am so proud of how the kids at my school have been fighting because we all want change to happen and, as we see the progression, it really shows us that people do care and they do hear what we have to say,” Grogan said in a text message.

Meanwhile, Dick’s Sporting Goods announced it will immediately end sales of assault-style rifles in its stores and won’t sell guns to anyone under 21 years old. Dick’s Chairman and CEO Edward Stack said on ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Wednesday that after the Florida shooting, the company “felt it needed to do something.”

The victims’ relatives kept up the pressure in Florida’s capital Tuesday, with emotional testimony during a legislative hearing on a bill to raise the age limit to buy long guns from 18 to 21, and create a program allowing teachers to carry concealed weapons in their classrooms, if their school district allows it, they get law-enforcement training and are deputized by the local sheriff’s office.

The Broward superintendent has spoken out firmly against the idea of arming teachers. Hogg also thinks the idea is misguided.

The House Appropriations Committee’s 23-6 vote in favor of the bill Tuesday followed more than four hours of emotional discussion with the parents of some of the 17 killed, and nearly two weeks of activism by students on social media and in televised debates.

Gov. Rick Scott, who met with officials in Miami-Dade County on Tuesday, said at a news conference that he hopes a gun and school-safety bill is passed before Florida’s annual legislative session ends on March 9. He had proposed measures that overlap with the Legislature’s plan but did not include arming teachers. However, he declined to say Tuesday whether he would veto the sweeping package if it included that provision.

The Senate’s version of the school-safety bill was approved by a second committee on a 13-7 vote Tuesday evening. Sen. Bill Galvano, who is designated to become the next Senate president and is ushering through the bill, said the earliest it will be considered by the full Senate is Friday.

Marion Hammer, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association and Unified Sportsmen of Florida, told the House Appropriations Committee that she supports tightening school security and keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, but not the House bill’s gun-ownership restrictions, which she later said would not have stopped the Parkland shooting.

“Part of what we need to do is make people understand that guns are not the problem,” she said after the hearing. “So passing more laws dealing with guns as a solution to a problem that exists within the enforcement of laws is just kind of silly.”

Max Schachter, father of 14-year-old victim Alex Schachter, said the bill the House committee eventually approved doesn’t go far enough — but could have saved his son.

“If we would have had these measures in place, I would not have had to bury my son next to his mother a week and a half ago. … I’m pleading for your help. I’m willing to compromise. Are you?” he asked.


Associated Press writers Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee, Florida, and Curt Anderson in Miami contributed to this report.


Follow the AP’s complete coverage of the Florida school shooting here: https://apnews.com/tag/Floridaschoolshooting .

As Xi Jinping Extends Power, China Braces for a New Cold War

(PhatzNewsRoom / NYT)   —-   BEIJING — Having cast aside presidential term limits, China is bracing for relations with the United States to enter a dangerous period under the continuing leadership of President Xi Jinping, intending to stand firm against President Trump and against policies it sees as attempts to contain its rise, according to Chinese analysts.

Even before the announcement on Sunday that he could rule for the foreseeable future, Mr. Xi had ordered the Chinese military to counter the Pentagon with its own modernization in air, sea, space and cyber weapons, the analysts said, partly in response to Mr. Trump’s plans to revitalize American nuclear forces.

Rather than beginning a final term next month as a lame duck, Mr. Xi will govern with new authority to pursue his agenda of making China a global power even if it risks putting Beijing in conflict with Washington and triggering a new Cold War after 40 years of mutual engagement, the analysts said.

“In the Asia-Pacific, the dominant role of the United States in a political and military sense will have to be readjusted,” said Cui Liru, former president of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, a think tank under the Ministry of State Security that often reflects official thinking. “It doesn’t mean U.S. interests must be sacrificed. But if the U.S. insists on a dominant role forever, that’s a problem.”

Asked if conflict was likely in the region, Mr. Cui said: “I don’t exclude that possibility. In this transitional period, it depends on how the two sides handle it.”

He added that it was “not normal for China to be under U.S. dominance forever. You can’t justify dominance forever.”

Mr. Xi appears to share the view of many Chinese analysts and military officials that the United States is a superpower in decline — and that China must step into the vacuum it leaves behind.

He has accelerated the military’s plans to build a blue-water navy, increased spending on weaponry in outer space, and established China’s first military bases abroad. He has promoted a global infrastructure program to extend Beijing’s influence and ignored Western concerns about human rights, which have diminished under the Trump administration.

The move in Beijing to scrap constitutional limits on presidential terms comes as former officials in Washington have expressed growing remorse about the longstanding bipartisan push for trade with China — which they now worry has allowed Beijing to prosper at America’s expense.

Mr. Xi’s emergence as a strongman has driven home the disappointment among American policymakers that China has not become more open and democratic as it has become more wealthy. At the same time, Beijing has rejected pleas for fairer terms of trade, angering both Democrats and Republicans.

President Trump himself has veered between sharp criticism of China on trade and lavish praise of Mr. Xi. He congratulated Mr. Xi on his “extraordinary elevation” at a leadership congress in October and likened him to a “king.”

Mr. Xi’s attitude toward China’s place in the world was echoed Tuesday in the state-run newspaper, Global Times, which proclaimed in an editorial that “the country must seize the day, must seize the hour.”

“Our country must not be disturbed by the outside world or lose our confidence as the West grows increasingly vigilant toward China,” it said.

In some respects, Mr. Xi’s move to extend his rule in tandem with his drive to make China a dominant global power should not have surprised the United States, Chinese analysts said.

“It is now clear Xi’s agenda to rebuild an Asian order with China at its center is here to stay,” said Hugh White, a scholar and former defense official in Australia who has argued that the United States must be prepared to share power with China in the Asia-Pacific region.

“I think Xi is impatient,” Mr. White added. “He wants China to be the predominant power in the Western Pacific. He wants to do it himself and for it to go down in history as his achievement. That makes him formidable.”

At the same time, analysts said, Mr. Trump has shown little interest in global institutions and ripped up an ambitious trade pact that included more than a dozen Asia-Pacific nations as one of his first acts in office.

“Xi is exploiting the space that America voluntarily abandoned,” said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University. In contrast, he said, “China speaks again and again of globalization as a good thing.”

Most worrying for the United States, analysts said, was the strategic competition emerging in Asia, where China is seeking to challenge American military dominance that has been the status quo since World War II.

“China’s military objective is to break through the first chain of islands,” said Mr. Cui, referring to the waters beyond Japan and Taiwan where the Chinese military wants to establish a presence.

Chinese military experts have also emphasized the importance of dominating nuclear, space and cyber technologies, said Phillip C. Saunders, a China expert at the National Defense University in Washington.

Their views mirror those of American strategists who also see these fields as critical to success in modern war, he said.

The Trump administration announced this month a new nuclear policy calling for revitalization of the nation’s nuclear arsenal to counter Russia and to a lesser degree China — an approach that has upset Beijing.

“Trump is obsessed with strategic forces,” Mr. Shi said. “He is determined to maintain American military predominance in face of China’s strategic buildup. That will make the relationship more profoundly confrontational.”

The United States has also tried to build a stronger “Indo-Pacific” coalition with Australia, India and Japan as a counterweight to China’s rise. The four democracies would increase military cooperation and invest in infrastructure to compete with Chinese projects in the region.

But Chinese analysts said that Beijing did not believe the effort would amount to much because the United States was unwilling to spend money on the projects.

“In the short term,” Mr. Shi said, “China does not care about it because the ability to form a real coalition is limited.”

Hicks acknowledges ‘white lies’ for Trump, but not on Russia

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WASHINGTON (AP) — White House communications director Hope Hicks acknowledged to a House intelligence panel that she has occasionally told “white lies” for President Donald Trump but has not lied about anything relevant to the Russia investigation, according to those present for Hicks’ closed-door testimony.

Hicks was interviewed for nine hours Tuesday by the panel investigating Russia interference in the 2016 election and contact between Trump’s campaign and Russia. One of Trump’s closest aides, Hicks was his spokeswoman during the 2016 presidential campaign and is now White House communications director.

The top Democrat on the intelligence panel, California Rep. Adam Schiff, said after the meeting was over that Hicks answered questions about her role in Trump’s campaign and answered some questions about the transition period between the election and the inauguration. But she would not answer any questions about events since Trump took the oath of office, similar to some other White House officials who have spoken to the committee. Schiff said Hicks did not assert any type of executive privilege, but just said she had been advised not to answer.

President Donald Trump’s longtime aide Hope Hicks is declining to answer questions about her time in the White House in a closed-door interview Tuesday with the House intelligence committee. (Feb. 27)

Hicks did answer a question about whether she had ever lied for her boss, saying she had told “white lies” for Trump on occasion, according to a person familiar with the testimony. The person, who declined to be named because the committee’s interviews are not public, said Hicks told the panel she had not lied about anything substantive.

Republican Rep. Tom Rooney of Florida, a member of the intelligence panel who was in the interview, said Hicks’ answer was completely unrelated to the Russia investigation.

“When specifically asked whether or not she was instructed to lie by the president, or the candidate, with regard to Russia, the investigation or our investigation, the answer to that question was no,” Rooney said. “And that’s our jurisdiction. Not whether or not he asked her to cancel a meeting for him, or something like that.”

While the investigation is focused on Russian interference during the campaign, House investigators also had questions about her time in the White House, including her role in drafting a statement responding to news reports about a 2016 meeting between Trump campaign officials and Russians. That statement has been of particular interest to special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating matters related to the Russian meddling and potential obstruction of an ongoing federal inquiry.

The White House has said the president was involved in drafting the statement after news of the meeting broke last summer. The statement said the meeting primarily concerned a Russian adoption program, though emails released later showed that Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., enthusiastically agreed to the sit-down with a Russian lawyer and others after he was promised dirt on Trump’s presidential rival, Democrat Hillary Clinton. Hicks was with the president on Air Force One while they were writing the initial statement.

“All of our questions about what went into that statement went unanswered,” Schiff said.

As the interview wore on, Hicks and her lawyer relented on one area of questioning — the transition period between the election and the inauguration. She initially refused to answer all those questions, but Schiff said it became clear to the House lawmakers that she had answered questions about that time period in a separate interview with the Senate intelligence panel. That committee is also investigating the meddling and spoke to Hicks several months ago.

After House lawmakers argued that she should treat the two committees equally, Hicks and her lawyer conferred with the White House, Schiff said. She then began to answer some questions related to the transition. Schiff said Democrats had asked for a subpoena after she refused to answer questions, but Republicans had declined to issue one.

That marks a difference from the GOP response to former White House strategist Steve Bannon, who also refused to answer questions, including about the transition. Republicans subpoenaed him during his interview in January when he declined to answer, but Bannon has yet to fully cooperate, despite a return visit to the panel two weeks ago. The House is now considering whether to hold Bannon in contempt.

Rooney, who is one of the Republicans leading the Russia probe, said he didn’t think Hicks should be subpoenaed, saying she was “very forthright and open to the questions that we’ve had.”

Hicks arrived shortly after 10 a.m. through a rear entrance to the committee’s interview space and did not answer shouted questions from reporters. In the hours before Hicks’ arrival, Trump tweeted several times, quoting cable news commentators who said they hadn’t seen evidence of collusion between Trump and Russia. One tweet encouraged investigations of Clinton. And a closing tweet simply said, “WITCH HUNT!”

Asked about Hicks’ refusal to answer some questions, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday that “we are cooperating because as the president has said repeatedly there is no collusion, and we’re going to continue to cooperate, and hopefully they’ll wrap this up soon.”


Associated Press writer Darlene Superville contributed to this report.

Thousands of well-armed rebel fighters are in Syria’s Ghouta

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BEIRUT (AP) — The Syrian government’s battle to recapture the rebel-held eastern suburbs of Damascus is likely to be a long and bloody fight because of the presence of thousands of battle-hardened fighters who have had years to prepare.

Many of the fighters entrenched in eastern Ghouta are originally from the area and move around using an elaborate network of underground tunnels, giving them an advantage against President Bashar Assad’s forces and their Russian- and Iranian-backed allies.

The territory of some 400,000 residents is the last major opposition-controlled area near Assad’s seat of power, and the rebels have been targeting the capital with volleys of mortar shells, disrupting life in a reminder that they can deprive the city of peace as the government, backed by Russia, rains down bombs and carnage on the besieged area. If government forces retake eastern Ghouta, only one small pocket south of the capital held by the Islamic State group will remain out of government control.

Among the more than 20,000 fighters in eastern Ghouta, a few hundred belong to the al-Qaida-linked Levant Liberation Committee, giving the government a pretext to continue with its assault. Rebel factions want the al-Qaida-linked fighters to leave and blame the government for preventing it.

In a letter on Monday to U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, the three main rebel factions in eastern Ghouta said they were committed to making al-Qaida-linked fighters and their families leave within 15 days. An official with one of the most powerful groups, the Army of Islam, said that if the al-Qaida-linked fighters don’t leave or abandon the fight, “all options” are open against them, including the use of force.

Here is a look at the rebel groups involved in the battle for eastern Ghouta.



One of the most powerful rebel factions in Syria, the Army of Islam is backed by Saudi Arabia and adheres to the ultraconservative Salafi ideology of Islam. It was founded by Zahran Alloush, who was in prison for anti-government activities and adopting a hard-line Islamic ideology when the uprising against Assad began in March 2011. He was released months later.

Since the rise of the Islamic State group in 2014, the Army of Islam has repeatedly clashed with the extremists, as well as with al-Qaida-linked fighters. The group is headquartered in the town of Douma, the most populated area in eastern Ghouta.

The group started with a small number of fighters soon after protests in Syria turned into an armed insurgency, and grew under Alloush to an estimated 10,000 fighters armed with tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery and mortars.

The Army of Islam has been blamed for major human rights violations, including the 2013 kidnapping of a prominent opposition activist, Razan Zeitouneh, and her colleagues, who remain missing. The Army of Islam denies it was behind the kidnapping.

In 2015, when eastern Ghouta was under intense government bombardment, Alloush ordered members of Assad’s Alawite minority confined to cages in public areas and markets, using them as human shields to try to prevent further airstrikes, and drove the captives around Ghouta in cages placed on trucks. Alloush was killed in an airstrike in eastern Ghouta on Christmas Day 2015 that was blamed on Russia.

Abu Ammar Dalwan, the Army of Islam’s political chief, vowed in an interview with The Associated Press to fight until the end. “We will not negotiate to leave Ghouta,” he said.

The Army of Islam is taking part in U.N.-sponsored peace talks in Geneva, as well as negotiations in the Kazakh capital of Astana sponsored by Russia, Iran and Turkey.



Failaq al-Rahman, or Al-Rahman Corps, is the second-largest rebel group in eastern Ghouta after Army of Islam. Backed by Turkey and Qatar, it controls most of the central parts of the region, including the towns of Arbeen, Kfar Batna, Saqba and Hammouriyeh, which have been among the hardest hit in recent fighting. The group also controls parts of the Damascus neighborhood of Jobar.

The group has about 8,000 fighters, the vast majority of them from eastern Ghouta. Like the Army of Islam, it is well-armed, and a video released recently showed it has primitive factories that produce mortar shells and rocket-propelled-grenades.

The group’s military commander, Abdul-Nasser Shmeir, is a former captain of the Syrian army. The group is also taking part in the peace talks in Geneva and Astana.



Ahrar al-Sham has been involved in deadly battles against fighters of the al-Qaida-linked Levant Liberation Committee in the northern province of Idlib and Aleppo.

Although at the start of their rise the group adopted an extreme ideology, now it markets itself as a moderate rebel group. In eastern Ghouta, it has a strong presence in the Damascus suburb of Harasta and nearby areas.

Months after the uprising against Assad’s government began in March 2011, Ahrar al-Sham was founded by several Islamists, including Mohammed Baheya, who had links to al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri. Baheya reportedly fought against U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Baheya was killed in a suicide bombing in 2014 while trying to mediate between the Islamic State group and the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front. Ahrar al-Sham survived its most serious blow in September 2014, when an explosion in Idlib province killed some of its top figures, including its leader, Hassane Abboud.



The Levant Liberation Committee rejects any peace talks with the government and because of its ties to al-Qaida is considered a terror organization by the United Nations.

It has about 600 fighters in eastern Ghouta, a small number compared to the estimated 20,000 rebel fighters in the area.

Since the end of 2017, there have been on-and-off negotiations to try to evacuate the al-Qaida-linked fighters and their families from eastern Ghouta, but the rebels say Assad’s government has frustrated all such attempts as a pretext to keep attacking the area.

White House downgrades Kushner’s security clearance

WASHINGTON (AP) — The security clearance of White House senior adviser and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner has been downgraded, significantly reducing his access to classified information, according to two people informed of the decision.

Kushner had been operating with an interim clearance at the “top secret/sensitive compartmented information” level for more than a year. Now he is authorized to access information only at the lower “secret” level, according to a White House official and a person familiar with the decision, both of whom spoke on condition of anonymity. Neither source was authorized to discuss the decision publicly.

Tuesday’s news set off rampant speculation among Trump allies that Kushner’s days in the White House might be numbered. On the same day, the departure of a third Kushner ally in the West Wing in as many months was announced. And the selection of a Kushner ally to serve as Trump’s 2020 campaign manager appeared to suggest the campaign could provide Kushner with a convenient place to land after his White House duties end.

Kushner lost his access to the nation’s deepest secrets after chief of staff John Kelly ordered that White House officials with interim clearances pending since before June 1, 2017, be cut off if they hadn’t received permanent clearances by last Friday. A White House official confirmed to The Associated Press that Kelly’s order has been implemented.

President Donald Trump could have reversed Kelly’s decision and unilaterally offered Kushner a clearance, but deferred to Kelly. Kushner is one of dozens of White House aides who have been working without permanent security clearances for the better part of a year.

His attorney told the AP that Kushner’s ability to do his job won’t be affected by any change to his clearance.

“Those involved in the process again have confirmed that there are dozens of people at Mr. Kushner’s level whose process is delayed, that it is not uncommon for these clearance reviews to take this long in a new administration, and that the current backlogs are now being addressed,” said Peter Mirijanian, a Kushner spokesman.

Kushner’s portfolio once included the U.S. relationships with China and Japan and a host of domestic priorities, including infrastructure, trade and economic development. But his freewheeling reach in the foreign policy space — which was viewed as undermining Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — already had been curtailed somewhat under Kelly.

Still, Kushner is reportedly said to have reviewed the highly secret presidential daily brief and has been in the room for some of Trump’s most consequential domestic and foreign policy decisions.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Tuesday that she would not comment on individual security clearances but called Kushner “a valued member of the team, and he will continue to do the important work that he’s been doing since he started in the administration.”

The Washington Post reported Tuesday that officials in at least four countries had privately discussed ways they could manipulate Kushner by taking advantage of his complex business arrangements, financial difficulties and lack of foreign policy experience.

The nations included the United Arab Emirates, China, Israel and Mexico, the Post reported, citing current and former U.S. officials familiar with intelligence reports on the matter. The newspaper said it was unclear if any of those countries had acted on the discussions, but said Kushner’s contacts with foreign government officials had raised concerns within the White House and were among the reasons Kushner had not yet been able to obtain a permanent security clearance.

Intelligence officials expressed concern that Kushner’s business dealings were a topic of discussion in conversations he was having with foreign officials about foreign policy issues of interest to the U.S. government, a former intelligence official said.

The official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity to discuss Kushner’s security clearance review, said there was a difference of opinion among intelligence officials about the significance.

Some believed Kushner knew his business dealings would likely come up in the conversations and was too naive or inexperienced to know how to exit the topic in light of his position as Trump’s adviser, the official said. Others thought Kushner knew the topic would likely surface and used the opportunity while talking to the foreign officials to engage in conversations about his business interests.

Either way, intelligence officials were concerned because there were instances where the discussions either crossed the line or straddled the fence of what would be appropriate given his White House position, the official said.

The official said Kushner’s conversations themselves were not surveilled, but details about what was discussed in meetings with the president’s son-in-law came from surveillance conducted on certain foreign individuals abroad. According to the official, the information was known from the beginning of the FBI’s background investigation work, which started after Kushner joined the White House. In some cases, the intelligence revealed discrepancies in the information Kushner disclosed on his security clearance application about foreign contacts, the official said.

Kushner’s contacts with foreign officials also have been a part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, a former U.S. official told the AP. Mueller’s team, in its interviews for the ongoing Russia probe, has asked people about the protocols Kushner used when he set up conversations with foreign leaders.

The Kushner Cos., for example, had attempted to raise money for its struggling 666 Fifth Avenue skyscraper in New York from a large Chinese insurer with ties to the ruling Communist Party. Those talks ended after lawmakers and government ethics experts expressed worry that China could be using a deal to curry favor with the White House.

Kushner stepped down as CEO of his family’s real estate company to join his father-in-law’s administration.

With a top-secret clearance, Kushner would have had access to information about covert operations and intelligence sources and methods. With a secret clearance, he would still have access to intelligence assessments, but not necessarily the information behind why the U.S. knows what is being shared with him.

The downgrade would mean that anyone giving top-secret material to Kushner could be accused of mishandling classified material, according to David Priess, who wrote a history of the President’s Daily Brief, the highest-level intelligence document produced in the United States. Still, a president has the ultimate authority to classify or declassify information, so he could show the brief — covering hot spots around the globe, U.S. covert operations and intelligence about world leaders— “to whomever he damn well pleases,” Priess tweeted.

The White House’s handling of security clearances has come under intense scrutiny in the wake of revelations that former White House staff secretary Rob Porter had worked for more than a year with only interim clearance. Porter, whose job gave him constant access to the most sensitive of documents, had been accused of domestic abuse by his two ex-wives. The White House has repeatedly changed its timeline about who knew what and when about the allegations.

Kushner has been forced to repeatedly correct omissions in his “SF-86,” the government-wide form used to apply for clearances, as well as his financial disclosure forms, which experts said could delay or even nix his chances of earning a clearance through the normal process.


Lemire reported from New York. Associated Press writers Ken Thomas, Catherine Lucey and Jill Colvin in Washington contributed to this report.

Business: Global shares fall after US Fed chief says he’s optimistic

TOKYO (AP) — Global shares slid in subdued trading Wednesday after the head of the U.S. Federal Reserve said he’s feeling more optimistic about the economy.

KEEPING SCORE: France’s CAC 40 lost 0.4 percent in early trading to 5,322.28, while Germany’s DAX was down 0.5 percent at 12,427.95. Britain’s FTSE 100 shed 0.4 percent to 7,252.20. U.S. shares were set to drift to a recovery with Dow futures up 0.1 percent at 25,443. S&P 500 futures were also up 0.1 percent at 2,750.

ASIA’S DAY: Japan’s benchmark Nikkei 225 slipped 1.4 percent to finish at 22,068.24. Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 was down 0.7 percent at 6,016.00. South Korea’s Kospi lost 1.2 percent to 2,427.36. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng was down 1.4 percent at 30,844.72, while the Shanghai Composite index stood at 3,259.41, down nearly 1.0 percent.

THE FED: Testimony by Fed Chairman Jerome Powell before Congress was highly anticipated, and he gave encouraging words about the economic data that has arrived in recent weeks. But some investors speculated it could mean the central bank will get more aggressive in raising interest rates. The Fed raised its key policy interest rate three times last year and has signaled another three increases may be coming this year.

WALL STREET: The S&P 500 fell 35.32 points, or 1.3 percent, to 2,744.28. It had been bouncing between modest gains and losses, but the losses accelerated after Powell began answering questions on Capitol Hill. The Dow Jones industrial average lost 299.24, or 1.2 percent, to 25,410.03, and the Nasdaq composite fell 91.11, or 1.2 percent, to 7,330.35.

THE QUOTE: “While the majority of Fed chair Jerome Powell’s testimony had been within the market’s expectations, the strengthened ‘personal outlook’ from the Fed chair had certainly inspired bets for further hikes. U.S. markets responded in kind, providing weak leads for Asian equities into the end of the month,” said Jingyi Pan, market strategist at IG in Singapore.

CHINA FACTOR: Data on China’s manufacturing activity, which showed that it had weakened to its lowest level in more than a year and a half, also dampened sentiments. The official purchasing managers’ index slipped to 50.3 in February from 51.3 the previous month, its biggest drop in nearly six years. The last time the index was lower was in July 2016.

ENERGY: Benchmark U.S. crude slid 29 cents to $62.72 a barrel. It fell 90 cents to $63.01 per barrel Tuesday. Brent crude, the international standard, dropped 28 cents to $66.24 per barrel.

CURRENCIES: The dollar rose to 107.18 yen from 106.99 late Tuesday. The euro dipped to $1.2202 from $1.2331.


– Here are the top five things you need to know in financial markets on Wednesday, February 28:

1. Global Stocks Slide Amid Fed Jitters

Global equities slumped, after hawkish comments from Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell revived fears that interest rates will increase faster than expected this year.

Asian shares ended broadly lower, with markets in Japan and mainland China faring the worst, closing down 1.4% and 1% respectively. A miss in Japanese and Chinese manufacturing data further weighed on sentiment.

In Europe, nearly all the continent’s major bourses traded in negative territory in mid-morning trade. The Stoxx Europe 600 index, the region’s broadest measure of share prices, fell around 0.4%, with most sectors in the red.

Meanwhile, on Wall Street, U.S. stock futures inched higher, an indication that equities may be ready to bounce back from the Tuesday’s drop. Dow futures were up nearly 60 points, or around 0.2%, while S&P 500 futures added 6 points, or about 0.2%, and Nasdaq 100 futures tacked on 12 points, or roughly 0.2%.

Earnings ahead of bell are expected from home improvement retailer Lowe’s (NYSE:LOW) and TJ Maxx parent company TJX Companies (NYSE:TJX). After the bell, Victoria’s Secret-parent L Brands (NYSE:LB), Monster Beverage (NASDAQ:MNST), and Salesforce.com Inc (NYSE:CRM) report.

U.S. stocks suffered their biggest daily drops since a selloff three weeks ago, with the Dow Jones industrial average falling nearly 1.2%, or about 300 points.

2. Dollar Jumps To Five-Week High

The U.S. dollar rose to its strongest level in more than five weeks, boosted by bets that the Fed could increase interest rates as many as four times this year.

The Fed’s last round of economic projections in December pointed to three rate hikes in 2018.

The dollar index, which measures the greenback’s strength against a basket of six major currencies, was last at 90.40, after hitting an overnight high of 90.50, the best level since Jan. 22.

Meanwhile, the U.S. 10-year Treasury yield stood at 2.901%, staying within sight of a four-year high of 2.957% reached last week.

Wednesday’s economic calendar features the second estimate of GDP growth for the fourth quarter, due at 8:30AM ET (1330GMT), expected to show a small downward revision from 2.6% to 2.5%. A survey on manufacturing activity in the Chicago-area will be released at 9:45AM ET (1445GMT), followed by pending home sales figures at 10AM ET (1500GMT).

3. EU To Publish First Draft Of Brexit Deal

The European Commission will unveil the first full draft of the historic Brexit withdrawal treaty later today, with just three weeks left to agree on the Brexit transition phase.

The 100-page document is likely to infuriate euroskeptics in British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative government, piling further pressure on her at a critical time.

The document is expected to say Northern Ireland might have to continue following EU single market rules if it wants to avoid a “hard” border with the Irish Republic, according to reports. Downing Street’s already dismissed the possibility of a hard border.

The pound inched down against the dollar at 1.3885.

4. Soft Euro Zone Inflation Backs Up Slow ECB Tapering

Inflation in the euro zone slowed in February, remaining below the European Central Bank’s target, lending support to the bank’s decision to withdraw monetary stimulus only slowly.

Consumer prices rose 1.2% this month, the European Union’s statistics office said. That was in line with expectations and compared to a final reading of a 1.3% advance in the prior month. In a further blow to the ECB’s drive to boost inflation, the core rate remained unchanged at 1%.

The euro was lower at 1.2220 against the dollar, after touching its worst level since Jan. 18 at 1.2199 earlier.

Losses were amplified as analysts said investors were cautious on the single currency due to political risks in Italy, which holds a general election on March 4.

5. EIA Weekly Oil Supply Report Ahead

The U.S. Energy Information Administration will release its weekly report on oil supplies at 10:30AM ET (1530GMT), amid analyst expectations for a gain of 2.4 million barrels.

The American Petroleum Institute said late Tuesday that U.S. oil inventories rose by 933,000 barrels in the week to Feb. 23. There are often sharp divergences between the API estimates and the official figures from EIA.

Oil prices were on the backfoot, with U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude futures slipping 30 cents, or 0.4% to $62.71 per barrel, while London-traded Brent crude futures were at $66.23 per barrel, down 40 cents, or 0.6%.

Dateline White House: What’s next for Jared Kushner’s security clearance?

(PhatzNewsRoom / CBS News)   —    The White House’s insistence that Jared Kushner’s work will not be affected by chief of staff John Kelly’s crackdown on interim clearances — a move Kelly made after former staff secretary Rob Porter’s situation became public— may prompt as many questions as it settles regarding Kushner’s role in the White House and his level of access to sensitive information.

President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser has the ear of the president and a portfolio that has expanded in the last year, encompassing issues from relations with Mexico to Middle East peace. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders has repeatedly declined to comment on Kushner’s clearance status, saying it isn’t the policy of the White House to do so. Kushner has reportedly operated on an interim clearance to do his job since joining the White House in January 2017.

But Kelly ordered an end to all top-level security clearances with investigations pending since June 1, a change that went into effect on Friday. Also on Friday, Mr. Trump stated that he would leave any decision about whether to grant Kushner a waiver up to his right-hand man, Kelly.

“That’ll be up to General Kelly,” Mr. Trump said in a press conference with the Australian prime minister Friday. “General Kelly respects Jared a lot, and General Kelly will make that call. I won’t make that call.”

But questions about the status of Kushner’s clearance, his access going forward, and why he has been unable to obtain a permanent clearance so far remain unanswered. The White House did not return a request for comment for this story.

On Friday, the Washington Post reported Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein called White House counsel Don McGahn on Feb. 9 to tell him there were significant issues with Kushner’s clearance, and that was currently keeping him from gaining a permanent clearance. The Post did not explain what those issues might be.

To former Intelligence Community Inspector General Charles McCullough, who is now a security clearance attorney for Tully Rinckey PLLC, it’s shocking that Kushner — and reported dozens of others in the White House — still lack permanent clearances after more than a year.

“I guess the thing that really stuns me is that, here we are a year into this, and I’m sure most of these people are clearable,” McCullough said in an interview. “I don’t think this is a situation where they’re not clearable. I’m just wondering why they’re not cleared yet. What’s going on bureaucratically that the bureau can’t work with the White House Security Office and get everyone cleared?”

White House staffers are “usually an extreme priority,” he said.

“You would think someone like the president’s son-in-law wouldn’t be waiting very long for his clearance,” he added.

There are, however, a few things that could be holding up the clearance of not only Kushner, but others in the Trump White House, McCullough said.

Kushner, whose vast business interests include foreign investments and foreign contacts, could certainly be part of the holdup, McCullough said. Kushner has amended his financial disclosure forms dozens of times since joining the White House, according to public records from the Office of Government Ethics.

“I guess he’s got a lot of foreign travel, I understand that. He has a lot of foreign investments, I understand that,” McCullough said. “But this is the president’s relative, his son-in-law. I would think that — a key position in the White House.”

Being unwilling to divest some financial interests could also pose problems, McCullough said. The two most common reasons for delaying or denying a security clearance, McCullough said, are foreign influence and failure to disclose information on an initial security clearance application, called an SF-86.

Part of why it’s taking so long for the White House clearance process — NBC reported earlier this month that more than 130 people working in the executive office of the president had an application pending as of November — is that the Trump White House has ushered in aides without previous government experience who have extensive business ties, and business ties abroad, McCullough said.

“These people are in business, so they’re jet-setting all over the place,” McCullough said. “They have a lot of money and they have a lot of investments. These are just tailor-made for headaches for the clearance process, because these are people who are not like your typical 25- year-old just coming in.”

“Draining the swamp, you’re also draining the government people who are cleared,” McCullough said.

The influx of non-government business people working in the administration is probably the best explanation for some of these delays, said Sean Bigley, a national security attorney and managing partner of Bigley Ranish, LLP, who worked in former President George W. Bush’s White House.

“It takes time to really unravel all that and really get a picture of what those interests are and what potential concerns there might be from a national security perspective, or you know, just a conflict of interest perspective even,” Bigley said. “That’s something that I think is unusually prevalent in this administration. But it’s not necessarily a bad thing, it just means that it takes more time.”

The small Executive Office of the President (EOP) security office has also long been a “chokepoint” in the security clearance process generally speaking for the White House, said Bigley.

“There’s not a lot of accountability in that office,” Bigley said, citing “bureacratic inefficiency” and a “lack of real motivation to work.” “And so I think that’s what you saw with General Kelly’s memorandum is kind of reading between the lines, he’s saying, ‘All right, we’re going to go around these guys and neutralize this as a problem,’ because that is truly where the choke point is.”

“This particular office has presented a challenge I think for a lot of administrations,” Bigley added. “You look back historically, even Obama, Bush, there were always complaints about security clearances taking a long time. And that’s not supposed to be the case. When you have high-level political appointees, they’re supposed to be handled on an expedited basis. And normally the FBI as the investigative entity, they do that. But they they turn over their findings to EOP security for adjudication and they sit and sit and sit. I mean, I’ve had cases where people’s adjudications have been sitting on somebody’s desk in EOP security for a year. And it’s like, what on earth are you guys doing? It’s that bad.”

But McCullough said special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe, whether directly or indirectly, could also be throwing a wrench in Kushner’s clearance.

As CBS News reported in September, members of the president’s legal team became concerned about Kushner’s role in the White House after they became aware of his June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., and a Russian lawyer. The Senate Judiciary Committee has certainly expressed interest in any Kushner contact with Russians. That committee asked for more information from Kushner about a “Russian backdoor overture and dinner invite.” CNN reported last week that Mueller’s investigation has expanded to include Kushner’s alleged attempts to acquire foreign financing for his family’s company during the presidential transition.

“It gets twisted up in the Russia thing too,” McCullough said. “If you have somebody who is under — I won’t use the phrase under criminal investigation — but somebody who could be a witness or a subject who is right now a subject of a criminal investigation, and there was all this stuff just the last couple weeks about Jared coming out about how they’re looking at his finances, and everything else. The bureau (FBI) is also doing the clearance. And so, the right hand and left hand do talk to each other over there. The last thing they want to do is go grant the clearance and then indict him a week later.”

“I know that they are conducting a fairly broad investigation that involves many people currently in the White House,” McCullough added. “That’s certainly something they would have to consider is, where is the investigation going? Because we have security clearances that we’re about to adjudicate and grant for these people.”

McCullough said it’s still likely Kushner gets cleared eventually. In the meantime, the White House has insisted Kushner’s role is unaffected by Kelly’s changes. That could have a few implications.

The New York Times has reported Kushner may be outside the June 1 deadline set by Kelly. Kushner, the Times reported, initially failed to disclose scores of contacts on the standard form required for all prospective government officials, and has since amended his submission, in a way that delayed his background check. The Times reported that his background information was not submitted in its entirety until after the June 1 cutoff.

But, if Kushner’s clearance is yanked by Kelly, he wouldn’t be able to participate in the president’s daily briefings any longer, McCullough said.

Of course, the president — as the original classifying authority — could choose to declassify any information he wants for Kushner, McCullough said. Still, the president has said he would leave a decision for any waiver of Kushner’s clearance up to Kelly.

But the White House’s confidence that Kushner can continue in his role also raises questions about whether he absolutely needs a clearance in the first place, McCullough said.

“Well, if he’s doing the same thing he was before but he doesn’t need a clearance, why did he need a clearance to begin with?” McCullough said.

Case against Florida shooting suspect returns to court

PARKLAND, Fla. (AP) — The criminal case against the gunman accused in the Florida high school shooting returns to court Tuesday with prosecutors seeking hair samples, fingerprints, DNA and photographs of the suspect.

Nikolas Cruz, who has been charged with 17 counts of murder, will not appear in court because he waived his right to attend the hearing. He is being held without bail at the Broward County Jail.

In a separate court matter, Cruz’s lawyers are seeking to disqualify a judge from presiding over the case. The defense says in court papers that Circuit Court Judge Elizabeth Scherer is biased in favor of prosecutors, threatening Cruz’s right to a fair trial.

Cruz, who is 19, signed an affidavit in a barely legible printed scrawl that resembled the writing of a young child.

As the case moves through the courts, it has fueled a debate over gun control in the halls of the Florida Capitol in Tallahassee, hours from where the shooting took place at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

On Monday, a state Senate committee approved a bill Monday to raise the age for buying a gun from 18 to 21 and imposing a three-day waiting period for all gun purchases. The bill would also allow teachers to carry guns in schools if their school district approves and the teachers undergo law enforcement training and are deputized by the local sheriff’s office.

About 300 gun safety advocates packed the room and dozens pleaded with senators to include an assault weapons ban in the bill. That idea was rejected on a 6-7 vote.

Stoneman Douglas students Katherine Guerra and Bela Urbina, both 15, stood together to argue for a ban on assault-style rifles.

“This weapon has killed so many people. It is a militarized weapon that we don’t need. We don’t need civilians to have it,” Urbina said.

In reference to hunting, Guerra added, “Do you think that your sport is more important than human lives? And if you believe that, you need to reassess yourselves.” The students received thunderous applause.

A similar House bill was going to be considered by a committee on Tuesday.

Bused in from around the state, protesters wore orange T-shirts saying #GunReformNow. One held a sign with an image from the movie “The Sixth Sense,” with the words “I SEE DEAD PEOPLE … THANKS TO THE GOP AND NRA.” Another said “Hey Lawmakers! Take the Pledge. No NRA Money.”

Students are scheduled to return to school Wednesday, for the first time since the Feb. 14 shooting.

The Florida House is expected to subpoena records from Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel and several agencies that interacted with Cruz. Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s office has asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate the police response, and the agency confirmed it would begin the probe immediately.

Also Monday, the attorney for the sheriff’s deputy assigned to guard the high school said that his client never entered the building to confront the suspect because he believed the gunfire was coming from outside.

Scot Peterson has been called a coward and worse for failing to stop the massacre. The criticism intensified as President Donald Trump blasted the deputy and other officers who were there, saying they “weren’t exactly Medal of Honor winners.”

If he had been there, Trump said, he would have raced into the school during the attack even if he were unarmed.

Peterson’s attorney issued his first public statement about the attack, saying it was “patently untrue” that the deputy failed to meet sheriff’s department standards or acted with cowardice at the scene of the Feb. 14 assault. He resigned after Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said he felt sick to his stomach over his deputy’s failure to intervene.

“Let there be no mistake, Mr. Peterson wishes that he could have prevented the untimely passing of the 17 victims on that day, and his heart goes out to the families of the victims in their time of need,” attorney Joseph DiRuzzo said in the statement.

The sheriff’s account of Peterson’s actions that day was a “gross oversimplification” of the events, the attorney said.

The sheriff’s office declined to comment, explaining that Peterson’s conduct is being investigated by its internal affairs division. Under state law, the agency is prohibited from discussing the matter until that investigation has concluded.


Associated Press writers Freida Frisaro and Adriana Gomez Licon in Miami; Gary Fineout in Tallahassee, Florida; Tamara Lush in St. Petersburg, Florida; and Jeffrey Collins in Columbia, South Carolina; contributed to this report.

Russia-ordered ‘pause’ goes into effect east of Damascus

BEIRUT (AP) — A Russia-ordered “humanitarian pause” has gone into effect to allow civilians to leave a rebel-held enclave near Damascus, giving a brief respite to the residents of the besieged area that has been under intense attack by the Syrian government for weeks.

Syria’s state-run Al-Ikhbariya TV broadcast footage from a crossing point manned by the Syrian military between the enclave, known as eastern Ghouta, and Damascus, saying preparations were under way to allow civilians to leave, including those in medical vehicles. The TV said a restaurant was also set up there.

Russia’s state news agency Tass said Russian military police on the ground have set up the humanitarian corridor with the Syrian troops.

The Wafideen crossing point is near Douma, one of the largest towns in eastern Ghouta, and is about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the center of Damascus. The TV showed small buses waiting at a parking area, but there were no signs of anyone coming out of the enclave.

Al-Ikhbariya’s journalist on the ground said mortar shells had targeted the crossing, preventing civilians from leaving. It was not immediately possible to verify the claim. A least a couple of mortars were heard as the broadcast was live, some appeared to be outgoing from government areas.

The director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdurrahman, said about five shells from government areas fell on the enclave. One shell fell in an area where the government had began a ground offensive, and it was not clear if it was fired by the government or the rebels.

Russian Gen. Viktor Pankov told Tass that residents can’t leave because of the shelling.

The Russian five-hour humanitarian pause, ordered by President Vladimir Putin, comes as a U.N. cease-fire failed to take hold in eastern Ghouta. Residents and aid groups criticized such unilateral truces for lacking international monitoring and consensus of all the parties.

Ingy Sedky, spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said humanitarian corridors need to be well planned and must be implemented with the consent of parties on all sides.

“This is essential so that people can leave safely, if they chose to do so,” she said. “And for those who decide to leave, all measure should be taken to provide assistance, protection and shelter to them. And those who remain must be protected from any attacks.”

The enclave’s residents fear they could face harassment and possibly arrest if they go into government areas, after years of living in the rebel-held enclave.

A weekend resolution unanimously approved by the U.N. Security Council for a 30-day cease-fire across Syria failed to stop the carnage in eastern Ghouta where more than 500 people have been killed since last week.

At least 34 people were killed on Monday by airstrikes and shelling, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The U.N. estimates that nearly 400,000 people live in dire conditions from the siege in eastern Ghouta, which has been under intensive bombing by government forces for weeks.

Rami Aburrahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said violence has dramatically declined in eastern Ghouta overnight but reported a number of shells on Tuesday morning. It was not immediately clear where they landed or who fired them, Abdurrahman said.

Firas Abdullah, a Douma activist, said a bomb landed in the town after the pause began, as well as three ground missiles.

Civilians caught in the violence have mocked Putin’s order of a five-hour open corridor, saying it gives only a couple of hours of calm before violence resumes. The Army of Islam, which is the largest insurgent group in Ghouta, said the Russia-ordered pauses circumvents the U.N. resolution.

Russia’s military campaign to support Syrian President Bashar Assad has helped turned the tide of the war in the Syrian government’s favor.

The eastern Ghouta residents also fear their region would meet the same fate as the eastern, rebel-held half of the city of Aleppo, where a similar Russian-ordered pause in 2016 called on residents to evacuate the area and for gunmen to lay down their arms.

A full ground assault followed, finally bringing Aleppo under government control.

Abu Ammar Dalwan, a member of the Army of Islam in Ghouta, said government shelling continued after the cease-fire and helicopters were flying overhead. He denied his group was shelling the Wafideen corridor.

Dalwan said Ghouta residents had decided to stay following years of violence, even though they had the option of leaving through tunnels which were operational until the recent assault began.

Dalwan said evacuating people under the threat of shelling amounted to a war crime. “We want the international community to stop such a war crime,” he said.


Associated Press writers Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.

Saudi military leaders replaced amid stalemated war in Yemen

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Saudi Arabia replaced its military chief of staff and other defense officials early on Tuesday morning in a shake-up apparently aimed at overhauling its Defense Ministry during the stalemated and ruinous war in Yemen.

The kingdom also announced a new female deputy minister of labor and social development as it tries to broaden the role of women in the workplace.

Saudi Arabia made the announcement in a flurry of royal decrees carried by the state-run Saudi Press Agency. As with many announcements in the ultraconservative Sunni kingdom, it was short on details.

King Salman “approved the document on developing the Ministry of Defense, including the vision and strategy of the ministry’s developing program, the operational pattern targeting its development, the organizational structure, governance and human resources requirements,” one statement said.

That restructuring was part of a “multi-year effort,” Prince Faisal bin Farhan, a senior adviser at the Saudi Embassy in Washington, wrote on Twitter.

Prominent among the personnel changes was the firing of military chief of staff Gen. Abdulrahman bin Saleh al-Bunyan. Another announcement said the general would become a consultant to the royal court.

Al-Bunyan was replaced by Gen. Fayyadh bin Hamid al-Rwaili, who once had been the commander of the Royal Saudi Air Force, among the nation’s premier military forces.

Also appointed as an assistant defense minister was Khaled bin Hussain al-Biyari, the CEO of the publicly traded mobile phone and internet service provider Saudi Telecom Co.

The decisions come as the Saudi-led coalition, chiefly backed by the United Arab Emirates, remains mired in a stalemate in Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country. Over 10,000 people have been killed in the war in which Saudi-led forces back Yemen’s internationally recognized government against Shiite rebels and their allies who are holding the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, and much of the north of the country.

The kingdom faces wide international criticism for its airstrikes killing civilians and striking markets, hospitals and other civilian targets. Aid groups also blame a Saudi-led blockade of Yemen for pushing the country to the brink of famine.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the heir to the throne after his father King Salman, is the Saudi defense minister and architect of the Yemen war. While the crown prince has burnished his reputation abroad with promises of business-friendly reforms and other pledges, his role in Yemen haunts that carefully considered public personae.

But the overhaul in the Saudi defense forces should not be seen only as a reaction to the Yemen war, said Becca Wasser, a Washington-based RAND Corp. analyst specializing in Gulf security who has traveled to Saudi Arabia in the past.

The war in Yemen functions “to push these reforms forward, but it’s not the driver,” Wasser told The Associated Press.

In general, Wasser said such an overhaul would include improving training and recruitment of troops, allocating better resources and changing a military’s leadership to one willing to hear new ideas and make changes.

Also noticeable was an effort to include a “careful balancing” of appointments of others in the Al Saud royal family, said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a research fellow at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University

“It seems the Saudi shake-up is more about moving forward with Mohammed bin Salman’s attempt to put in place a new generation of leadership in tune with his vision to transform the structure of Saudi decision making,” Ulrichsen told the AP.

The appointment of a woman in a ministerial position, Tamadhir bint Yosif al-Rammah as deputy minister of labor and social development, comes as the kingdom prepares to allow women to drive this year and pushes to have more women in Saudi workplaces.

Also appointed was Prince Turki bin Talal Al Saud as deputy governor of the Asir region. The prince’s brother is billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who recently was detained for months at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh as part of what the government described as an anti-corruption campaign.

As with the anti-corruption purge, Wasser said the military overhaul also fit into the consolidation of power by Crown Prince Mohammed.

“Reform is a tricky thing to do. To create change in a larger bureaucratic structure like a military is difficult. To create change in Saudi Arabia … is incredibly difficult,” she said. “It is not going to be easy and change is not going to happen tomorrow. This is much more of a long-term endeavor.”


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

Administration pressed to expand mental health treatment

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Amid the outcry over the Florida school shootings, the Trump administration says it is “actively exploring” ways to help states expand inpatient mental health treatment using Medicaid funds.

President Donald Trump again brought up the issue of mental hospitals in a meeting with governors on Monday, invoking a time when states maintained facilities for mentally ill and developmentally disabled people.

“In the old days, you would put him into a mental institution,” Trump said, apparently referring to alleged shooter Nikolas Cruz, whose troubling behavior prompted people close to him to plead for help from authorities, without success. “We’re going to have to start talking about mental institutions …we have nothing between a prison and leaving him at his house, which we can’t do anymore.”

Organizations representing state officials and people with mental illness say no one wants to go back to warehousing patients. But they also say that federal action is needed to reverse a decades-old law known as the “IMD exclusion,” which bars Medicaid from paying for treatment in mental health facilities with more than 16 beds. IMD stands for “institution for mental diseases.”

Last year, the Trump administration opened the way for states to seek waivers from the policy in cases involving treatment for substance abuse. On Monday a spokesman said states are pressing the administration for similar waivers for mental health care, and officials are looking for ways to address those requests.

“We’ve continued to receive … proposals and strong interest from states to allow similar demonstrations for individuals with serious mental illness,” Johnathan Monroe, a spokesman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said in a statement. “We are actively exploring how best to provide states with new opportunities to improve their mental health delivery systems.”

There’s no telling if a more robust mental health care system would have saved the 17 lives lost in Parkland, Florida, as well as other victims of mass shootings that have become tragically commonplace. Democrats say it’s no substitute for stronger gun control laws.

But state officials would welcome a change to Medicaid’s exclusionary rule, said Matt Salo, head of the nonpartisan National Association of Medicaid Directors, which supports full repeal of the policy and, short of that, expanded waivers.

“There is a need for a spectrum of services for people suffering from mental illness and substance abuse,” Salo said. “That spectrum should include everything from community-based resources as well as more structured institutional care.”

Medicaid is the federal-state health program for low-income people, a major source of coverage for mental health treatment. Experts say the program’s longstanding restriction on inpatient treatment is at odds with changes in federal law over the last 20 years to create parity between coverage for mental and physical diseases.

The government’s top mental health official said the president is acknowledging that more needs to be done to make Americans safe in their communities.

“The IMD exclusion makes it very difficult for people with serious mental illness to get a bed when they need that care, and the 24-7 safety, security and treatment that an inpatient facility provides,” said Elinore McCance-Katz, assistant secretary of Health and Human Services for Mental Health and Substance Use. “That contributes to jails and prisons becoming de facto mental institutions in this country.”

McCance-Katz also said expansion of community-based and outpatient treatment is needed.

Last year a government advisory panel recommended repealing Medicaid’s IMD exclusion, and the idea has bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress. But the cost of full repeal has been estimated at $40 billion to $60 billion over 10 years, daunting for lawmakers. State waivers may provide a more manageable path.

Advocates question the cost estimates, saying that savings from keeping mentally ill people out of jail should be factored in as well.

Whether mental illness contributes to violence is a debate rife with misconceptions. On the whole, medical experts say people with mental illness are no more likely to be violent than others.

But McCance-Katz and others say research shows that untreated serious mental illness is a risk factor for violent behavior. The term “serious mental illness” connotes a degree of severity that impairs a person’s ability to carry out usual functions of daily life. Treatment effectively reduces risks, said McCance-Katz.

Advocates are making the same point.

“There is no argument that stepping forward and addressing the IMD exclusion would have a huge benefit to mental health systems in states across the country,” said John Snook, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center, a nonprofit trying to broaden access to mental health treatment. “We have a situation where the most severely ill are cycling in and out of emergency rooms and jails.”

Supreme Court decision on ‘dreamers’ puts pressure back on Congress to act

(PhatzNewsRoom / WAPO)    —   The Supreme Court declined Monday to intervene in a legal battle over the fate of the “dreamers” under President Trump, effectively extending a temporary reprieve to young undocumented immigrants shielded from deportation and providing Congress more time to come up with a legislative solution.

The high court rejected the Trump administration’s unusual request to bypass an appellate court and review a lower court’s injunction that has blocked Trump from terminating the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

The lower court said the nearly 700,000 people already in the program may continue to apply for renewals of their work permits indefinitely beyond a March 5 deadline Trump set for most of them to expire. The administration is not required to accept new applicants for the program.

Even as immigrant-rights advocates hailed the news, they emphasized that DACA recipients remain in limbo and fretted that lawmakers would be lulled into a false complacency after failing to strike a legislative deal this month.

“We need to give young immigrants who came to our country as children permanent assurance that they are safe here, and we need to give them this peace of mind now,” former vice president Joe Biden wrote on Twitter. “They shouldn’t have to spend another day living with fear and uncertainty.”

Some senior Republicans said the court’s decision also puts the onus on Congress to act.

“It would be foolish to take, sort of, false confidence or hope that somehow the courts are going to save us from having to make a decision,” said John Cornyn of Texas, the Senate’s ­second-highest-ranking Republican.

But both sides in the debate acknowledged there appears to be no clear path for a legislative solution and predicted that the lack of a hard deadline over DACA would reduce pressure on lawmakers, ensuring that dreamers will remain a tense political issue heading into November’s midterm elections.

“This takes away the urgency to do something,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports reducing immigration levels. “Everybody will be like, ‘Let’s kick the can down the road and deal with it when­ever.’ ”

Trump, who over the past week has tried to blame Democrats for the failure of a deal on the dreamers, offered a muted reaction to the court’s decision. “We’ll see what happens,” he said during a meeting with governors Monday at the White House.

In a statement, White House spokesman Raj Shah called the DACA program “clearly unlawful” and suggested that a San Francisco judge’s injunction in December represented an “usurpation of legislative authority.”

He added, “The fact that this occurs at a time when elected representatives in Congress are actively debating this policy only underscores that the district judge has unwisely intervened in the legislative process.”

Although the Supreme Court said it expects the appeals court to act quickly, legal analysts said the litigation could take months. It is extremely unlikely that the high court would agree to take the case before the next term, which begins in October.

Efforts to address the fate of dreamers have bogged down in Congress since four immigration bills that would have provided a path to citizenship for up to 1.8 million dreamers were defeated in the Senate two weeks ago. Among them was a proposal from Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) that included deep cuts to legal immigration and was supported by the White House. The Trump administration strenuously opposed an alternative bill offered by a bipartisan group of 16 senators, saying it would have weakened border control.

The House is continuing to consider its own immigration plans, and some lawmakers have discussed a temporary fix to extend the DACA program for a year or more by adding language to a spending package next month.

Marielena Hincapié, the executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, which has sought to protect dreamers, said there are “definitely people on both sides who’ve shown a genuine interest in solving this.”

But she added that Trump, who last year expressed empathy for the dreamers, has not acted in good faith in terminating DACA and then opposing bipartisan proposals from Congress.

“There’s a credibility deficit for this president in the immigration community,” Hincapié said. “The big question mark is whether the president himself wants a solution.”

Former president Barack Obama created DACA through executive action in 2012, offering renewable, two-year work permits to young undocumented immigrants who met educational and residency requirements. Last fall, in the face of a legal challenge from Texas and several other Republican-led states, the Trump administration said the program was unconstitutional, and the president announced plans to terminate it.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup in San Francisco ruled in December that plaintiffs challenging the decision are probably right that the way the administration is ending the program violates the Administrative Procedure Act, because it is arbitrary and capricious.

A nationwide injunction is warranted, Alsup said, because “our country has a strong interest in the uniform application of immigration law and policy.”

This month, a district judge in New York came to an almost identical conclusion in a separate case brought against the administration by immigrant-rights groups.

No appellate court has reviewed those decisions, and it would have been exceedingly rare for the Supreme Court to take up a case without that interim step. In the past, the court has granted such cases only in matters of grave national importance, such as the controversy over President Richard M. Nixon’s White House tapes or solving the Iranian hostage crisis.

The administration could try to restart the process to end the program in a way that the courts would accept, by providing more context for its decision. But the administration has already signaled it opposes having to turn over material relating to the decision, such as White House memos.

“I think the decision puts more pressure on Congress and the White House to come up with a solution,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D), who was among the group that challenged the administration’s decision, said in an interview Monday.

He added that the fact the Supreme Court will not likely consider the case until the fall provides more time for lawmakers to come up with a good deal that is not rushed because of time constraints.

But the reaction on Capitol Hill showed lawmakers seeking to shift blame on the impasse.

“The need for the Dream Act is no less urgent following the Supreme Court’s decision,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said in a statement. “Now it’s up to the President and Republican leaders in Congress to take yes for an answer and accept any of the six bipartisan solutions on the table to save these young people.”

AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), said the House leadership is continuing to build support for an immigration plan offered by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.). That plan is opposed by Democrats.

“While the court’s decision appears to have pushed this deadline beyond March, House Republicans are actively working toward a solution,” Strong said.

Trump has sought to blame his rivals, too, asserting in a tweet over the weekend that “Dems are no longer talking DACA!” and adding that “Republicans stand ready to make a deal!” Administration officials said Trump intends to visit San Diego in mid-March to view prototypes for a potential wall on the border with Mexico, for which he has yet to win congressional funding.

Immigrant-rights advocates said Republicans will ultimately be blamed by voters in November if a deal is not reached. Polls show broad public support for allowing the dreamers to remain in the United States.

“The president’s efforts to play the blame-game are bordering on silly,” said Cecilia Muñoz, who served as the White House domestic policy adviser under Obama. “They created this crisis. Their motivations are very clear.”

Business: Global markets mixed ahead of Fed chair testimony

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Global stock markets were mixed Tuesday ahead of the Federal Reserve chair’s testimony in the U.S. Congress later in the day, his first public appearance as head of the Fed.

KEEPING SCORE: Britain’s FTSE 100 added 0.1 percent to 7,298.20 and France’s CAC 40 inched up 0.1 percent to 5,350.35. Germany’s DAX was flat at 12,525.16. Futures augured a lukewarm start on Wall Street. S&P futures dipped 0.2 percent and Dow futures also fell 0.2 percent.

ASIA’S DAY: Japan outperformed the region, with its benchmark Nikkei 225 jumping 1.1 percent to 22,389.86. South Korea’s Kospi finished 0.1 percent lower at 2,456.14. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index dropped 0.7 percent to 31,268.66, while China’s Shanghai Composite Index slumped 1.1 percent to 3,292.07. Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 gained 0.2 percent to 6,056.90. Stocks in Taiwan and Singapore turned lower while other Southeast Asian countries were higher.

ANALYST’S TAKE: “The focus is no doubt set ahead to Fed Chair Jerome Powell’s speech, though the market continues to reflect little concern over the possibility of any overtly hawkish comments,” said Jingyi Pan, a market strategist at IG in Singapore.

FED WATCH: Powell’s public debut as chair of the Fed starts with his testimony to the House Financial Services Committee. Investors will be looking for clues about when and how quickly the Fed will continue to raise interest rates. In December, the Fed forecast that it would raise rates three times in 2018, but many think it may accelerate that pace. Investors will also want to know whether Powell is becoming convinced that the Fed is finally on the verge of achieving its 2 percent inflation target and if so, whether it might soon feel the need to speed up its rate increases.

OIL: Benchmark U.S. crude fell 19 cents to $63.72 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract rose 36 cents to settle at $63.91 per barrel on Monday. Brent crude, the international standard, lost 42 cents to $67.09 per barrel.

CURRENCIES: The dollar strengthened to 106.99 yen from 106.93 yen. The euro rose to $1.2331 from $1.2316.


– Here are the top five things you need to know in financial markets on Tuesday, February 27:

1. Fed Chair Powell Goes To Capitol Hill

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell will deliver his first semi-annual monetary policy testimony when he appears before the House Financial Services Committee, at 10:00AM ET (1500GMT). Text of the testimony will be released 90 minutes before he starts speaking at 8:30AM ET (1330GMT).

Powell’s comments will be monitored closely for any new insight on his views on the recent uptick in inflation and how that can potentially affect the Fed’s current rate-hiking path. Investors will also be watching for comments on the markets themselves, in light of the recent bout of increased volatility.

Following Powell’s morning testimony, two former Fed chairs will make a public appearance Tuesday afternoon. Former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke interviews former Fed Chair Janet Yellen in an event at the Brookings Institution at 2PM ET (1800GMT). It will be Yellen’s first public appearance since leaving her post at the top of the central bank earlier this month.

2. Dollar Treads Water Ahead of Data, Powell

The dollar was little changed, as investors awaited a slew of economic data and Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell’s testimony, which could determine whether the U.S. currency’s recovery from a three-year low has more room to run.

The dollar index, which measures the greenback’s strength against a basket of six major currencies, held steady around the 89.75-mark, remaining well above a three-year trough near 88.15 set on Feb. 16.

Meanwhile, the U.S. 10-year Treasury yield inched up a tad to 2.87%, staying within sight of a four-year high of 2.957% reached last Wednesday.

Economic reports Tuesday include durable goods orders at 8:30AM ET (1330GMT), followed by a reading on home prices from S&P/Case-Shiller at 9AM ET (1400GMT) and the Conference Board’s consumer confidence survey at 10AM ET (1500GMT).

3. Global Stocks Slip As Rally Runs Out Of Steam

Global equities slipped as a recent rally ran out of steam ahead of Jerome Powell’s first congressional testimony as Fed chair.

Asian markets ended broadly lower, with mainland Chinese shares faring the worst, closing down 1.1% as it ended a six-day winning streak. Japan, though, held up as the Nikkei finished with a 1.1% gain.

In Europe, the pan-European Stoxx 600 was 0.2% lower in mid-morning trade, with the various sectors moving in different directions. Media stocks outperformed in early deals following news that U.S. media giant Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) is making a proposed cash offer to buy Sky (LON:SKYB) for 22.1 billion pounds ($31 billion). Sky shares jumped on the news and hit the top of the European benchmark, up 18%.

Meanwhile, on Wall Street, U.S. stock futures pushed lower, threatening to break a string of three winning sessions. Dow futures were down nearly 60 points, or around 0.2%, while S&P 500 futures declined 7 points, or about 0.3%. Nasdaq 100 futures lost 17 points, or roughly 0.3%.

Earnings ahead of bell are expected from Macy’s (NYSE:M), AutoZone (NYSE:AZO), Toll Brothers (NYSE:TOL) and SeaWorld (NYSE:SEAS). After the bell, Etsy (NASDAQ:ETSY), Square (NYSE:SQ), Hertz Global (NYSE:HTZ) and Weight Watchers (NYSE:WTW) report.

U.S. stocks soared on Monday, with each of the major U.S. indexes rising more than 1%.

4. Bitcoin Jumps Towards $11K Amid Broad Crypto Rally

Bitcoin jumped back toward the $11,000-level, amid broad gains in the cryptocurrency market. The world’s biggest virtual currency by market cap surged around 13% to $10,743, marking a gain of more than $1,100.

Other major cryptocurrencies also traded higher, with Ethereum, the world’s second largest cryptocurrency by market cap, rising about 5.5% to $890.36.

The third largest cryptocurrency Ripple rallied roughly 8% to trade at $0.94981.

Sentiment improved after cross-border currency exchange company Circle announced that it is acquiring Poloniex, a leading cryptocurrency trading platform.

5. Oil Snaps Win Streak As Focus Shifts to U.S. Supply Data

Oil prices slipped following a three-day rally, as investors looked ahead to weekly data from the U.S. on stockpiles of crude and refined products to gauge the strength of demand in the world’s largest energy consumer.

Industry group the American Petroleum Institute is due to release its weekly report at 4:30PM ET (2130GMT), amid forecasts for an oil-stock gain of around 2.6 million barrels.

U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude futures shed 19 cents, or 0.3%, to $63.72 per barrel, while Brent futures dipped 12 cents, or 0.2%, to $67.17 per barrel.

Both benchmarks hit their highest level in almost three weeks on Monday amid growing optimism that rebalancing in crude markets are well underway thanks to OPEC-led production cuts.



— When Jerome Powell testifies to Congress on Tuesday in his first public appearance as chairman of the Federal Reserve, investors will be paying close attention to his every word.

Financial markets are always on high alert for any hints of policy shifts when the leader of the world’s most powerful central bank speaks publicly. But in this case, they will be listening with particular care. It will be the first time they will hear Powell articulate his views since he succeeded Janet Yellen.

Most of all, investors will be parsing Powell’s words for any signal of when or how quickly the Fed will continue to raise interest rates. The Fed had forecast in December that it would raise rates three times in 2018. But many analysts think economic developments might lead it to accelerate that pace.

Powell will be offering his thoughts on the Fed’s twice-a-year monetary report to Congress, which lays out its thinking on the economy and interest rates. He will testify Tuesday to the House Financial Services Committee and on Thursday to the Senate Banking Committee.

Here are five things to listen for:



The financial markets threw a rotten welcoming party for Powell. On Feb. 5, his very first day as Fed chairman, the Dow Jones industrial average plunged by 1,100 points — and fell further in subsequent days. After that wild start to the month, the markets have since stabilized and regained much of the lost ground that had put stocks into correction territory.

Powell is sure to face questions about just what the market turbulence means and whether he worries that the volatility will harm the economy. Does Wall Street’s long bull market — and the surge in stocks that followed the 2016 election — leave him worried that share prices have formed a dangerous asset bubble that could pop with disastrous consequences?

If Powell does think so, the Fed might be prepared to accelerate its rate hikes this year to try to further deflate stock prices. On the other hand, the Fed might feel that the stock market plunge at the start of February has already served as a prudent warning to investors that will ease pressure to quicken its pace of rate hikes.



The minutes of the Fed’s most recent meeting in January showed that many of the policymakers were upgrading their forecasts for economic growth based on a brightening global picture and the prospect that the Republicans’ tax cuts could quicken growth.

Stronger growth would follow years in which the recovery from the Great Recession has plodded along with expansion of only around 2 percent annually — the slowest recovery since World War II. But some economists say the subpar pace of growth has actually contributed to the recovery’s durability. It is now the third-longest economic expansion on records dating to the 1850s.

Powell will likely be asked about how the Fed might respond to a pickup in growth at a time when unemployment is at a 17-year low of 4.1 percent and the Fed is gradually raising rates to ensure that inflation doesn’t pose a problem. Will the Powell-led Fed be pleased with stronger growth? Or might it feel compelled to accelerate its rate hikes to prevent faster growth from igniting inflation later on?

James Bullard, president of the Fed’s St. Louis regional bank, said Monday, “I have been a little bit concerned if the (Fed) goes too far, too fast.” Bullard suggested that the Fed needs to avoid becoming overly aggressive with rate hikes if not warranted by the latest economic data.



A key factor triggering the market turbulence earlier this month was a surprise report that average wages rose in January compared with a year ago at the fastest pace in eight years. Some other barometers of inflation have also shown increases. Still, the Fed’s preferred measure of inflation remains stubbornly below its target of 2 percent annually.

Investors will want to know whether Powell is becoming convinced that the Fed is finally on the verge of achieving its 2 percent inflation target — and, if so, whether it might soon feel the need to speed up its rate increases. With the current 4.1 percent unemployment rate well below the Fed’s own 4.6 percent designation for full employment, how much of an acceleration in inflation might the central bank tolerate before deciding to step up its rate hikes?



When President Donald Trump proposed a budget two weeks ago, it forecast a dramatic jump in deficits over the next decade compared with his first budget last year. The new budget expects deficits will total $7.1 trillion over the next decade, more than double the deficits the administration projected last year.

Much of the increase will come from the $1.5 trillion tax cut Trump pushed through Congress in December. And critics contend that even the expected sizable jump in deficits understates the amount of red ink that will likely flow. That’s because the administration’s budget didn’t include the $300 billion in increased spending that was included in a government funding deal Congress passed right before Trump released his budget.

What’s more, Trump’s new budget is counting on growth to accelerate from the 2 percent pace seen since the recovery began to rates of 3 percent or better. The Fed has a far dimmer view: More in line with most economists, the Fed projects the long-run growth rate at around 1.8 percent.

Powell will likely be quizzed about this discrepancy and about whether the Fed worried about potential economic overheating and inflation from the increased government stimulus.



At his Senate confirmation hearing, Powell indicated support for the tougher bank regulations in the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, which was enacted after the 2008 financial crisis. But he also said he could see areas where the regulations could be eased, especially for community banks.

Powell’s stance didn’t go as far as Trump’s position. Trump has called Dodd-Frank a disaster that should be scrapped because of the harm he said it was doing to the economy by making it harder for banks to make loans. Lawmakers will likely press the new Fed chairman on the issue of bank regulations, given that both the House and the Senate have put forth bills that would overhaul Dodd-Frank.

That effort could be bolstered by support from Powell and other Trump nominees to the Fed. The central bank has four vacancies on its seven-member board that Trump will be able to fill.

Seoul: US should lower threshold for talks with North Korea

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea’s president said Monday that the United States should lower the threshold for talks with North Korea and that the two countries should start a dialogue soon.

President Moon Jae-in made the remarks in a meeting with Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong one day after a senior North Korean official told Moon that his country is willing to open talks with the United States.

The officials were in South Korea for the closing ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics on Sunday.

According to his office, Moon asked for China’s support for U.S.-North Korea talks, and Liu responded that China would help facilitate them. Moon also said that North Korea should show a commitment to denuclearization, something it has refused to do.

Earlier, the U.S. said the international community needs to maintain maximum pressure on North Korea until it gives up its nuclear weapons development.

“We will see if Pyongyang’s message today, that it is willing to hold talks, represents the first steps along the path to denuclearization,” the White House said in a statement.

Moon met Sunday with a North Korean delegation led by Kim Yong Chol, a former general whom South Korea has accused of being behind two attacks on the South that killed 50 people in 2010. Kim told Moon that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wanted to improve ties with Washington and had “ample intentions of holding talks,” according to the South Korean president’s office.

The North Korean delegation met with Moon’s national security chief on Monday. Moon’s office said the two sides agreed that the Olympics had been a meaningful stepping stone toward restoring inter-Korean ties, and to continue to collaborate to seek a permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.

South Korean protesters burned a North Korean flag and used a knife to slash a portrait of Kim Jong Un near a hotel where the North Korean delegation was staying.


— The White House says it will wait and see whether a new overture by North Korea for talks with the United States means it is serious about disarming, a step President Donald Trump and other world leaders agree must be the outcome of any future dialogue.

“We will see,” was the response from White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who was on the Korean peninsula Sunday as a member of the U.S. delegation attending the Olympic games in South Korea. The delegation was led by Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter.

Sanders said President Trump remains committed to achieving the “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization” of the peninsula and that his “maximum pressure campaign” against North Korea must continue until it abandons its nuclear and missile programs.

Trump imposed fresh sanctions against North Korea late last week as part of the pressure effort.

During Sunday’s closing ceremony for the games, the office of South Korean President Moon Jae-in announced that a North Korean delegate to the Olympics said his country is willing to hold talks with the U.S. The move comes after decades of tensions between the two countries, which have no formal diplomatic relations, and a year of escalating rhetoric, including threats of war, between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The North has “ample intentions of holding talks with the United States,” Moon’s office said. The North’s delegation also agreed that “South-North relations and U.S.-North Korean relations should be improved together,” the statement said.

Sanders said the U.S., South Korea and the international community “broadly agree” that denuclearization must be the outcome of any dialogue with North Korea. She said North Korea has a bright path ahead of it if it chooses denuclearization.

“We will see if Pyongyang’s message today, that it is willing to hold talks, represents the first steps along the path to denuclearization,” she said in a written statement. “In the meantime, the United States and the world must continue to make clear that North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs are a dead end.”

Trump once scolded Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who favors diplomacy with North Korea over military confrontation, for “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” which is Trump’s derisive nickname for North Korea’s leader.

At the Olympics opening ceremony earlier this month, the North Korean leader’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, shared a VIP box with Moon and Vice President Mike Pence, who led a separate U.S. delegation, creating some awkward moments. Though Pence stood to cheer the entrance of the U.S. team, he remained seated when athletes from North and South Korea marched together behind a “unification” flag, leaving Moon to instinctively turn around and shake Kim’s sister’s hand.

Pence and Kim Yo Jong did not speak. Pence’s office claimed afterward that the North pulled out of a planned meeting at the last minute.

During her visit, Ivanka Trump sat in the same box with Kim Yong Choi, vice chairman of North Korea’s ruling Worker’s Party Central Committee. They did not appear to interact when Jae-in shook hands with dignitaries at the beginning of Sunday’s closing ceremony.

Trump stepped up the pressure campaign against North Korea on Friday by slapping sanctions on scores of companies and ships accused of illicit trading with the pariah nation. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the U.S. has now blacklisted virtually all ships being used by the North.

Trump has vowed to use force if necessary to prevent North Korea from acquiring a nuclear-tipped missile that could strike the U.S. mainland. At a White House news conference on Friday, he warned that the U.S. would move to “phase two” in its pressure campaign if sanctions don’t work. Trump said such a step could be “very rough” and “very unfortunate for the world.” He did not elaborate.

“If we can make a deal it will be a great thing. If we can’t, something will have to happen,” Trump said.


Follow Darlene Superville on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/dsupervilleap

China paves way for Xi Jinping to remain leader for years

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BEIJING (AP) — China’s ruling Communist Party has proposed scrapping term limits for the country’s president, the official news agency said, appearing to lay the groundwork for party leader Xi Jinping to rule as president beyond 2023.

The party’s Central Committee proposed to remove from the constitution the expression that China’s president and vice president “shall serve no more than two consecutive terms,” the Xinhua News Agency said Sunday.

“Xi Jinping has finally achieved his ultimate goal when he first embarked on Chinese politics — that is to be the Mao Zedong of the 21st century,” said Willy Lam, a political analyst at the Chinese University in Hong Kong, referring to the founder of communist China.

Xi, 64, cemented his status as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao in the 1970s at last year’s twice-a-decade Communist Party congress, where his name and a political theory attributed to him were added to the party constitution as he was given a second five-year term as general secretary.

It was the latest move by the party signaling Xi’s willingness to break with tradition and centralize power under him. Xi has taken control of an unusually wide range of political, economic and other functions, a break with the past two decades of collective leadership.

“What is happening is potentially very dangerous because the reason why Mao Zedong made one mistake after another was because China at the time was a one-man show,” Lam said. “For Xi Jinping, whatever he says is the law. There are no longer any checks and balances.”

Xi is coming to the end of his first five-year term as president and is set to be appointed to his second term at an annual meeting of the rubber-stamp parliament that starts March 5. The proposal to end term limits will likely be approved at that meeting.

Term limits on officeholders have been in place since they were included in the 1982 constitution, when lifetime tenure was abolished.

Political analysts said the party would likely seek to justify the proposed removal of the presidential term limit by citing Xi’s vision of establishing a prosperous, modern society by 2050.

“The theoretical justification for removing tenure limits is that China requires a visionary, capable leader to see China through this multi-decade grand plan,” Lam said.

“But the other aspect of it could just be Mao Zedong-like megalomania; he is just convinced that he is fit to be an emperor for life,” he said.

Hu Xingdou, a Beijing-based political commentator, said while Xi might need an extra five-year term or two to carry out his plans, the country is unlikely to return to an era of lifetime tenure for heads of state.

“President Xi may be in a leading position for a relatively long time,” Hu said. “This is beneficial to pushing forward reforms and the fight against corruption, but it’s impossible for China to have lifetime tenure again.”

“We have drawn profound lessons from the system of lifetime tenures,” Hu said, referring to the chaos and turmoil of Mao’s 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution.

Xi’s image dominates official propaganda, prompting suggestions that he is trying to build a cult of personality, and evoking memories of the upheaval of that era. Party spokespeople reject such talk, insisting Xi is the core of its seven-member Standing Committee, not a lone strongman.

At last year’s party congress, Xi hailed a “new era” under his leadership and laid out his vision of a ruling party that serves as the vanguard for everything from defending national security to providing moral guidance to ordinary Chinese. At the close of the congress, the party elevated five new officials to assist Xi on his second five-year term, but stopped short of designating an obvious successor to him.

Political analysts said the absence of an apparent successor pointed to Xi’s longer-term ambitions.

Sunday’s announcement on term limits came before the Central Committee was to begin a three-day meeting in Beijing on Monday to discuss major personnel appointments and other issues.

The son of a famed communist elder, Xi rose through the ranks to the position of Shanghai’s party leader before being promoted to the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee in 2007.

When Xi did assume the top spot in 2012, it was as head of a reduced seven-member committee on which he had only one reliable ally, veteran Wang Qishan. He put Wang in charge of a sweeping anti-corruption crackdown that helped Xi eliminate challengers, both serving and retired, and cow potential opponents.

Xi, whose titles include head of the armed forces, has lavished attention on the military with parades and defense budget increases. But he’s also led a crackdown on abuses and a push to cut 300,000 personnel from the 2.3 million-member People’s Liberation Army, underscoring his ability to prevail against entrenched interests.


— The ruling Chinese Communist Party’s move to enable President Xi Jinping to stay in power indefinitely is likely to ensure some degree of political stability while also reviving the specter of a return to one-man rule, analysts said Monday.

In a sign of the leadership’s sensitivities, Chinese censors acted quickly to remove satirical commentary online about the development.

A day after the party announced a proposed constitutional amendment ending term limits, internet users found themselves unable to signal approval or disapproval by changing their profiles. Key search topics such as “serve another term” were censored.

Nevertheless, social media users shared images of Winnie the Pooh hugging a jar of honey along with the quote, “Find the thing you love and stick with it.”

The Disney bear’s image has been compared to President Xi Jinping, prompting periodic blocks on the use of Pooh pictures online.

Other online commenters wrote, “Attention, the vehicle is reversing” — an automated announcement used by Chinese delivery vehicles — suggesting that China is returning to the era of former dictator Mao Zedong or even imperial rule.

The country’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress, is all but certain to pass the amendment when it meets for its annual session early next month. Under the 1982 constitution, the president is limited to two five-year terms in office, but Xi — already China’s most powerful leader since Mao — appears to want additional terms to see through his agenda of fighting corruption, eliminating poverty and transforming China into a modern leading nation by mid-century.

Or, some speculated, he may simply wish to retain near-absolute power for as long as possible.

“It is most likely that it will turn into a post of lifelong tenure,” said Zhang Ming, a retired political scientist who formerly taught at Beijing’s Renmin University.

A retired Beijing railroad worker, who gave only his surname, Liu, said he approved of Xi’s performance over his first five years in office and voiced no objection to the lifting of term limits.

“As the leader, he has done pretty well in terms of reform and economic growth,” said Liu, 67. “In foreign policy, he also did a good job by taking tough positions in the face of provocations from the U.S.”

Xi has made robust diplomacy and a muscular military posture in the South China Sea and elsewhere a hallmark of his rule and more can be expected, experts said.

In terms of trade relations with the U.S., entrenched differences between the world’s No. 1 and No. 2 economies will likely remain, said James Zimmerman, former chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China.

“This announcement on the one hand potentially means continuity, predictability, and stability. But, on the other hand, it also means more of the same; namely, stalled market reforms and limitations on market access,” Zimmerman said.

Professor and political commentator Hu Xingdou said he doubted that Xi wants to be president-for-life, but there were concerns that China could “slide into a kind of fascism or personal dictatorship which will cause very serious consequences.”

“Many consider this a lifetime tenure, but I think it will probably be extended to three or four terms. Maybe an unspoken agreement has been reached inside the Chinese Communist Party that one has to step down after three or four terms,” Hu said.

Others pointed out that authoritarian rule without term limits often leads to abuses and severely complicates the succession process.

In the near term, “this move could actually increase stability, since there would presumably be less jockeying for power,” said William Nee, an Amnesty International researcher on China. “In the long run, however, this will probably further complicate the perennial problem that authoritarian states confront in finding a way to peacefully and orderly transfer power.”

However long Xi wishes to hold on to office, he currently faces little opposition from within the party or mainstream society. Xi already has a firm grip on power as head of the military and party general secretary, a position for which there are no term limits, and has eliminated all challenges to his leadership.

China holds no competitive elections for leadership posts, and the body responsible for reappointing Xi to a second five-year term and amending the constitution next month generally approves the party’s pre-ordained decisions.

Xi appeared to signal his intention at last year’s party national congress by breaking with the convention of appointing an heir-apparent to the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee.

In addition, Xi has already won two highly significant victories in being named the “core” of the current generation of party leaders, and having his eponymous governing philosophy inserted into the party constitution at last year’s congress.

Recent months have also seen a growing number of references in state media to Xi as “leader,” a minimalist title reserved up until now for Mao. “People love the leader of the people,” read a commentary on the website of state broadcaster CCTV on Monday.

Yet, extending his rule while centralizing power also poses political risks for Xi, making him solely responsible for dealing with knotty problems including the ballooning public debt, an anemic public welfare system, unemployment in the bloated state sector and pushback against China’s drive for regional dominance and global influence.

In recent months, critics have pointed to two major policy missteps.

An effort to cut winter air pollution in the frigid north by slashing coal use had to be reversed after factories were left idle and millions of people shivering in their homes.

Around the same time, a push to clear unregistered residents from Beijing and other cities in the name of safety and social order was roundly criticized for throwing migrant families out of their homes in the dead of winter.

Xi’s rule has been characterized by a relentless crackdown on critics and independent civil society voices such as lawyers netted in a sweeping crackdown on legal activists that began in July 2015.

Following the passage of the constitutional amendment, “there will be even less tolerance of criticism,” said Joseph Cheng, a long-time observer of Chinese politics now retired from the City University of Hong Kong.

“The regime will be even more severe in all kinds of repression,” Cheng said.


Associated Press writer Gillian Wong and video journalist Wayne Zhang contributed to this report.

Congress returns amid pressure to act on gun violence

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WASHINGTON (AP) — After a 10-day break, members of Congress are returning to work under hefty pressure to respond to the outcry over gun violence. But no plan appears ready to take off despite a long list of proposals, including many from President Donald Trump.

Republican leaders have kept quiet for days as Trump tossed out ideas, including raising the minimum age to purchase assault-style weapons and arming teachers, though on Saturday the president tweeted that the latter was “Up to states.”

Their silence has left little indication whether they are ready to rally their ranks behind any one of the president’s ideas, dust off another proposal or do nothing. The most likely legislative option is bolstering the federal background check system for gun purchases, but it’s bogged down after being linked with a less popular measure to expand gun rights.

The halting start reflects firm GOP opposition to any bill that would curb access to guns and risk antagonizing gun advocates in their party. Before the Feb. 14 shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people, Republicans had no intention of reviving the polarizing and politically risky gun debate during an already difficult election year that could endanger their congressional majority.

“There’s no magic bill that’s going to stop the next thing from happening when so many laws are already on the books that weren’t being enforced, that were broken,” said Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., the third-ranking House GOP leader, when asked about solutions. “The breakdowns that happen, this is what drives people nuts,” said Scalise, who suffered life-threatening injuries when a gunman opened fire on lawmakers’ baseball team practice last year.

Under tough public questioning from shooting survivors, Trump has set high expectations for action.

“I think we’re going to have a great bill put forward very soon having to do with background checks, having to do with getting rid of certain things and keeping other things, and perhaps we’ll do something on age,” Trump said in a Fox News Channel interview Saturday night. He added: “We are drawing up strong legislation right now having to do with background checks, mental illness. I think you will have tremendous support. It’s time. It’s time.”

Trump’s early ideas were met with mixed reactions from his party. His talk of allowing teachers to carry concealed weapons into classrooms was rejected by at least one Republican, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., both spoke to Trump on Friday. Their offices declined comment on the conversations or legislative strategy.

Some Republicans backed up Trump’s apparent endorsement of raising the age minimum for buying some weapons.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said he would support raising the age limit to buy a semi-automatic weapon like the one used in Florida. Rubio also supports lifting the age for rifle purchases. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., a longtime NRA member, wrote in The New York Times that he now supports an assault-weapons ban.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., said he expects to talk soon with Trump, who has said he wants tougher background checks, as Toomey revives the bill he proposed earlier with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., to expand presale checks for firearms purchases online and at gun shows.

First introduced after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 in Connecticut, the measure has twice been rejected by the Senate. Some Democrats in GOP-leaning states joined with Republicans to defeat the measure. Toomey’s office said he is seeking to build bipartisan support after the latest shooting.

“Our president can play a huge and, in fact, probably decisive role in this. So I intend to give this another shot,” Toomey said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

The Senate more likely will turn to a bipartisan bill from Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., to strengthen FBI background checks — a response to a shooting last November in which a gunman killed more than two dozen people at a Texas church.

That bill would penalize federal agencies that don’t properly report required records and reward states that comply by providing them with federal grant preferences. It was drafted after the Air Force acknowledged that it failed to report the Texas gunman’s domestic violence conviction to the National Criminal Information Center database.

The House passed it last year, but only after GOP leaders added an unrelated measure pushed by the National Rifle Association. That measure expands gun rights by making it easier for gun owners to carry concealed weapons across state lines.

The package also included a provision directing the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to review “bump-stock” devices like the one used during the shooting at a Las Vegas music festival that left 58 people dead and hundreds injured.

Murphy told The Associated Press he was invited to discuss gun issues with the White House and he was interested in hearing the president’s ideas. He said he did not expect the Florida shooting to lead to a major breakthrough in Congress for those who’ve long pushed for tighter gun laws.

“There’s not going to be a turning point politically,” he said. Rather, it’s about “slowly and methodically” building a political movement.

Senate Democrats say any attempt to combine the background checks and concealed-carry measures is doomed to fail.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said he was skeptical Trump would follow through on proposals such as comprehensive background checks that the NRA opposes.

“The real test of President Trump and the Republican Congress is not words and empathy, but action,” Schumer said in a statement. He noted that Trump has a tendency to change his mind on this and other issues, reminding that the president has called for tougher gun laws only to back away when confronted by resistance from gun owners. The NRA’s independent expenditure arm poured tens of millions into Trump’s 2016 campaign.

“Will President Trump and the Republicans finally buck the NRA and get something done?” Schumer asked. “I hope this time will be different.”


Follow Mascaro on Twitter at https://twitter.com/LisaMascaro and Daly at https://twitter.com/MatthewDalyWDC

Despite cease-fire, 10 more killed in rebel Damascus suburbs

BEIRUT (AP) — A Syrian monitoring group and paramedics say that despite the U.N. cease-fire resolution, new bombardment of the rebel-held suburbs east of Damascus killed 10 people as airstrikes and bombing resumed.

Syrian state TV broadcast live footage showing the Harasta suburb being pounded by airstrikes and artillery.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the opposition’s Syrian Civil Defense, also known as White Helmets, said nine died in an airstrike shortly after midnight on the suburb of Douma and one person was killed in Harasta on Monday morning.

The new deaths bring to 24 the two-day death toll in eastern Ghouta, on the edge of Damascus, despite U.N. Security Council’s unanimous approval on Saturday of a resolution demanding a 30-day cease-fire across Syria. On Sunday, 14 people were killed.

— In the Syrian city of Homs’ landmark Clock Square, where some of the first anti-government protests erupted in 2011, stands a giant poster of a smiling President Bashar Assad waving his right arm, with a caption that reads: “Together we will rebuild.”

Four years after the military brought most of the city back under Assad’s control, the government is launching its first big reconstruction effort in Homs, planning to erect hundreds of apartment buildings in three neighborhoods in the devastated center of the city.

It is a small start to a massive task of rebuilding Syria, where seven years of war, airstrikes and barrel bombs have left entire cities and infrastructure a landscape of rubble. The government estimates reconstruction will cost some $200 billion dollars and last 15 years. As in neighboring Iraq, which faces a similar swath of destruction after the war against the Islamic State group, no one is offering much to help fund the process.

Moreover, destruction is still being wreaked. For the past 10 days, government forces have been relentlessly bombarding eastern Ghouta, a collection of towns on Damascus’ edge in an all-out push to crush rebels there. Hundreds have been killed and even more buildings have been blasted to rubble in a community already left a wasteland by years of siege.

At the same time, only 10 kilometers (6 miles) away on the other side of Damascus, government workers have begun clearing rubble from Daraya, another suburb wrecked by a long siege, to begin reconstruction.

The question of who will rebuild Syria has become part of the tug of war between Assad and his opponents.

The government can cover $8 billion to $13 billion of the reconstruction costs, according to the Cabinet’s economic adviser, Abdul-Qadir Azzouz. So Damascus says it will need the international community. But it also says only those who “stood by” Syria will be allowed to participate, a reference to staunch allies Russia and Iran. That likely means lucrative rebuilding contracts will be handed to private companies from those countries, as well as probably China.

The international community, in turn, faces a dilemma. It wants to stabilize Syria to allow for millions of refugees to return — the longer it takes, the less likely it becomes that they will go back.

But any support for reconstruction in Syria would buttress Assad and be seen as contributing to the normalization and legitimization of his government. Oil-rich Saudi Arabia, for instance, is unlikely to put money in a country that is backed by its regional archrival, Iran.

“There is little chance that any reconstruction process will happen unless a comprehensive political deal is reached, which is itself very unlikely,” wrote Jihad Yazigi in Syria Deeply recently. “The countries and institutions that have the money and which traditionally fund such large-scale financial efforts, namely the Gulf countries, the European Union, the United States and, through it, the World Bank, have, indeed, lost the Syrian war.”

American officials say the U.S. will not work with Assad’s government, whose leadership they describe as illegitimate.

“Until there is a credible political process that can lead to a government chosen by the Syrian people — without Assad at its helm — the United States and our allies will withhold reconstruction assistance to regime-held areas,” acting Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month.

Even Assad’s allies Russia and Iran are too cash-strapped to fund a massive rebuilding. China’s special envoy on Syria, Xie Xiaoyan, sounded a note of caution not to expect his country to carry the burden. “The tasks ahead are daunting,” he said during a round of the Geneva peace talks in December. “A few countries cannot undertake all the projects. It needs a concerted effort by the international community.”

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of square miles remain a pile of bombed-out buildings and wreckage.

Recent Associated Press drone footage from Daraya outside Damascus and the city of Aleppo in the north shows scenes of destruction reminiscent of World War II devastation. East Aleppo, home to nearly 1.5 million before the war, is still largely empty and in ruins a year after it was recaptured from rebels. Small-scale renovation of government buildings and historical sites has barely begun to scratch the surface.

The same spot in the Salaheddine neighborhood of the eastern half of the Syrian city of Aleppo: on top, a woman passes by on on Jan. 20, 2018; below, a man pushes a baby stroller as he walks past anti-sniper curtains on Dec. 5, 2016 . (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

In eastern Ghouta — an area with a pre-war population of some 400,000 — the United Nations did an assessment of satellite imagery from six of its seven districts and found more than 6,600 damaged buildings, more than 1,100 of which were totally destroyed. And that was before the latest government offensive, which has leveled even more homes and structures.

For reconstruction overall, the Syrian government is trying to scrape together financing from Syrian businessmen and expatriates as well as international allies. It has imposed a 0.5 percent reconstruction tax on some items, including restaurant bills.

The Homs project gives an indication of the scale of the task. The plan, to begin later this year, focuses on three of the city’s most destroyed districts — Baba Amr, Sultanieh and Jobar — and will rebuild 465 buildings, able to house 75,000 people, at a cost of $4 billion, according to Homs’ governor, Talal al-Barrazi.

It was not immediately clear how many housing units that entails — meaning individual apartments — but assuming there is on average five people per household, that would be around 15,000 units. That’s under half of the 35,000 housing units that were estimated to have been destroyed in Homs. And it’s a small fraction of the 1 million housing units al-Barrazi said Syria will need.

Homs saw some of the worst destruction of the war as government forces for months blasted the string of neighborhoods in the city’s center that were held by rebels. The military retook almost all the city in the spring of 2014 but one rebel-held district, al-Waer, held out under siege until last year.

For the past four years, any rebuilding has largely been the work of individuals, with some help from the U.N.

In the devastated Khaldiyeh district, carpenters were fixing the windows and doors of Mohammed Bayraqdar’s charred apartment. The walls inside — even the chandeliers — were still blackened from the fighting years ago.

The 38-year-old coffee vendor fled Khaldiyeh in 2011 and moved to his in-laws in a government-controlled part of the city. Late last year he informed the municipality that he wanted to return home. Once government architects checked that the building is suitable for living, repair work began with the help of a U.N. rebuilding program.

“Everyone should return to his home, even if it means living in one room only,” said Bayraqdar, standing on the roof overlooking a vista of flattened buildings.

Assad’s government controls more than half of Syria, including the largest cities and main population centers. Other than pockets still under rebel control, most of the rest of Syria is in the hands of U.S.-backed Kurdish-led forces that wrested territory in the north and east from the Islamic State group, including the militants’ former de facto capital, Raqqa.

The Kurds have done some rebuilding, particularly in Kobani, a Kurdish-majority border town. Soon after Sunni Arab-majority Raqqa was freed from IS, a Saudi minister visited the city and promised the kingdom would play a role in rebuilding it, though no specific projects have been announced since. According to U.N. assessments, more than half the buildings are damaged in 16 of Raqqa’s 24 districts.

Outside Damascus, Daraya was left an empty ruin after all its population was removed in a deal last year that ended a destructive and grueling siege by Assad’s military. The suburb once had a population of 300,000 and was famous for its furniture, textiles, wood and vineyards, which produced some of Syria’s best grapes.

“Almost all houses, factories, stores in Daraya remain skeletons,” said Daraya’s mayor, Marwan Obeid. He estimated rebuilding infrastructure alone will cost $160 million to $200 million. The government has so far allocated $70 million.

The plan, he said, is to start move some 100,000 people back into the less damaged half of Daraya, which inspectors estimate can accommodate some 100,000 people. The rest of the community, however, is too ruined. Obeid said it was not known how long that will take to rebuild.

In central Homs, Malek Traboulsi and his partner paid nearly $400,000 — even selling off their wives’ jewelry — to renovate their restaurant, Julia Palace, which suffered major damage in the war. It re-opened on Christmas Day 2016.

Some people warned him he was investing in the unknown. But Traboulsi said he could never bear to sell off his property and leave Syria.

“This is my country,” he said on a recent evening as he moved among the tables chatting with customers. “Here is where I breathe, here is my life and I cannot live in any other place.”


Associated Press writer Albert Aji contributed to this report.

Trump’s deregulation drive weakens safety rules

WASHINGTON (AP) — On a clear, dry June evening in 2015, cars and trucks rolled slowly in a herky-jerky backup ahead of an Interstate 75 construction zone in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Barreling toward them: an 18-ton tractor-trailer going about 80 mph.

Despite multiple signs warning of slow traffic, the driver, with little or no braking, bashed into eight vehicles before coming to a stop about 1½ football fields away. Six people died in the mangled wreck and four more were hurt. The driver was convicted of vehicular homicide and other charges last month.

In response to this and similar crashes, the government in 2016 proposed requiring that new heavy trucks have potentially life-saving software that would electronically limit speeds. But now, like many other safety rules in the works before President Donald Trump took office, it has been delayed indefinitely by the Transportation Department as part of a sweeping retreat from regulations that the president says slow the economy.

An Associated Press review of the department’s rulemaking activities in Trump’s first year in office shows at least a dozen safety rules that were under development or already adopted have been repealed, withdrawn, delayed or put on the back burner. In most cases, those rules are opposed by powerful industries. And the political appointees running the agencies that write the rules often come from the industries they regulate.

Meanwhile, there have been no significant new safety rules adopted over the same period.

The sidelined rules would have, among other things, required states to conduct annual inspections of commercial bus operators, railroads to operate trains with at least two crew members and automakers to equip future cars and light trucks with vehicle-to-vehicle communications to prevent collisions. Many of the rules were prompted by tragic events.

“These rules have been written in blood,” said John Risch, national legislative director for the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers. “But we’re in a new era now of little-to-no new regulations no matter how beneficial they might be. The focus is what can we repeal and rescind.”

Trump has made reducing regulations a priority, seeing many rules as an unnecessary burden on industry. Last month he tweeted that his administration “has terminated more UNNECESSARY Regulations, in just 12 months, than any other Administration has terminated during their full term in office…”

“The good news is,” he wrote, “THERE IS MUCH MORE TO COME!”

The Transportation Department declined repeated AP requests since November for an on-the-record interview with Secretary Elaine Chao, Deputy Secretary Jeffrey Rosen or another official to discuss safety regulations. Instead, the department provided a brief statement from James Owens, DOT’s deputy general counsel, saying that new administrations typically take a “fresh look” at regulations, including those that are the most costly.

The department’s position has been that it can reduce regulation without undermining safety. And DOT officials have questioned whether some safety regulations actually improve safety.

“We will not finalize a rule simply because it has advanced through preliminary steps,” the statement said. “Even if a rule is ‘one step away,’ if that rule is not justifiable because it harms safety and imposes unnecessarily high economic costs, for example, that rule will not advance.”

But the rule requiring new trucks to have speed-limiting software would actually have economic benefits, according to a DOT estimate prepared two years ago. It would save as many as 498 lives per year and produce a net cost savings to society of $475 million to nearly $5 billion annually depending on the top speed the government picked. That’s nearly half the 1,100 deaths annually in crashes involving heavy trucks on roads with speed limits of 55 mph or higher. The government didn’t propose a top speed but said it had studied 60, 65 and 68 mph.

The proposal was also expected to solve another problem: Most heavy truck tires aren’t designed to travel over 75 mph, but some states have 80 mph speed limits.

Rick Watts of Morristown, Tennessee, who lost his wife, two young step-daughters and mother-in-law in the I-75 crash, said he can’t understand why the proposal has been sidetracked.

“If you’re going 80 and you’re knocked down to 60, that’s going to lower the impact,” he said. “It just stuns me that you can give these people proof and they say, ‘We’ll look into that.’ It just baffles me that they’re killing so many people every year.”

The American Trucking Associations, an industry trade group, has claimed credit for stalling the rule. After initially supporting it, the group now says it would create dangerous speed differentials between cars and trucks. A news release from the associations said its success in stalling the rule is a significant triumph for the industry.

The trucking industry has developed a strong relationship with Trump. Trucking officials met with Chao within hours after she took office, according to Chris Spear, the trade group’s president. Trump welcomed trucking executives to the White House by climbing behind the wheel of a Mack truck parked on the South Lawn in March.

“Your story is now being told to the highest levels of government,” Spear told his organization’s members in October.

DOT’s position on the speed-limiting software is that it isn’t dead but that the department has limited resources and higher priorities. No action is expected before the end of the federal fiscal year on Sept. 30 at the earliest.

Some rules that were in the works have been abandoned entirely. After four people died when a New York commuter train derailed while speeding around a curve in 2013, investigators determined that the engineer had fallen asleep. He had undiagnosed sleep apnea, a disorder that causes pauses in breathing and prevents restful sleep, and had made no effort to stop the train.

The National Transportation Safety Board blamed the crash in part on federal regulators for not requiring medical screening of engineers for sleep disorders. Yet last summer, DOT withdrew a rule the government was in the early stages of writing to require screening for engineers and truck and bus drivers.

The government said current safety programs either address the problem or it will be addressed in a rulemaking to reduce fatigue risks in the railroad industry. But the fatigue rule is years overdue with no timetable for completion.

The NTSB has cited sleep apnea as a cause of 13 rail and highway accidents it has investigated, including two more commuter train crashes in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 2016, and Brooklyn, New York, in 2017.

“Looking at the multiple piles of broken sheet metal and broken engines and broken people, (DOT’s strategy) doesn’t seem to have been effective,” Dr. Nicholas Webster, an NTSB medical officer, told a recent public meeting on the crashes.

But Dan Bosch, regulatory policy director at the conservative American Action Forum, said the Trump administration is “actually taking a very reasoned and measured approach to how they’re de-regulating.”

Most regulations Trump has taken credit for blocking throughout the government were Obama administration proposals that were on track to be adopted but had yet to be finalized, or that weren’t being actively pursued — “low-hanging fruit,” Bosch said.

There is a longstanding requirement that major federal regulations undergo detailed cost-benefit analyses before they can become final. Even rules expected to save lives are weighed against their economic cost. DOT assigns a value of $9.6 million per life saved in its analyses.

Trump has ordered that two regulations be identified for elimination for every significant new regulation issued. The White House has acknowledged its calculations of savings from rolled-back regulations cited in public statements include only the cost to industry and others without taking into account benefits the rules produce, including lives saved.

Rosen, the deputy secretary, heads DOT’s task force that evaluates regulations for repeal or modification. In extensive written and public comments before joining the administration, he criticized regulations as an indirect tax on industry, but made little mention of their benefits. He has called for curbing federal agencies’ regulatory power by imposing greater analytical requirements and requiring congressional approval before more costly regulations become law. Rosen has also advocated making it easier for industry to challenge regulations in court.

Rosen is an attorney who formerly represented General Motors and an airline industry trade group. Other DOT political appointees with strong ties to the industries they regulate include:

—Daniel Elwell, the acting administrator at the Federal Aviation Administration, who is a former airline lobbyist.

—Cathy Gautreaux, deputy administrator at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates the trucking industry, spent 29 years as executive director of the Louisiana Motor Transport Association, a trucking advocacy group.

—Ron Batory, the head the Federal Railroad Administration, was president of Conrail, a service provider for the CSX and Norfolk Southern freight railroads.

—Howard Elliott, head of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, is a former CSX executive. Among other things, his agency sets safety rules for rail transport of hazardous goods, including crude oil, ethanol and toxic chemicals.

Industry’s influence on regulations generally “is probably more powerful than it has ever been,” said Neil Eisner, who was the DOT assistant general counsel in charge of overseeing the issuing of regulations for more than three decades.

DOT says having industry insiders in leadership positions provides deep practical experience in how the transportation industry works.

In October, DOT published a notice inviting the public to recommend which regulations should be repealed, replaced, suspended, or modified. Accompanying the notice was a list of 20 potential candidates, including 13 of the most significant transportation safety rules of the past decade.

Airlines, automakers, railroads, pipeline operators, trucking companies, chemical manufacturers and others responded to the notice with their wish lists. After the comment period closed, DOT said it would repeal a 2015 rule opposed by freight railroads requiring trains that haul highly flammable crude oil be fitted with advanced braking systems that stop all rail cars simultaneously instead of conventional brakes that stop cars one after the other.

The advanced brakes can reduce the distance and time needed for a train to stop and keep more tank cars on the track in the event of a derailment, DOT said two years ago when it issued the rule.

Freight railroads, which say the rule’s safety benefits are marginal and don’t justify the cost, persuaded Congress to require DOT to revisit the rule. The department now says its revised analysis shows costs would outstrip benefits.

The advanced brakes perform significantly better than conventional brakes alone, but only slightly better in emergency braking situations when trains have locomotives in both the front and the back, said Risch, the union official. But trains aren’t required to have two locomotives and often don’t, he said.

The advanced brakes also have significant safety benefits DOT didn’t consider, Risch said, including the ability to prevent runaway trains like the improperly secured oil train that derailed in Lac Megantic, Canada, in 2013, igniting a fire that killed 47 people. The advanced brakes are already required for trains that haul radioactive waste.

The rule’s repeal, said Risch, a former engineer who has operated trains with advanced brakes, means the government is abandoning “the greatest safety advancement I’ve witnessed in my 41 years in the industry.”


Follow Joan Lowy on Twitter at @AP_Joan_Lowy and @tkrisher

Analysis: Mexicans wonder why their president thought a trip to see Trump was a good idea

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(PhatzNewsRoom / WAPO)   —    MEXICO CITY — What has surprised Mexicans is not that President Trump “lost his temper” in a telephone conversation with his Mexican counterpart, prompting President Enrique Peña Nieto to cancel a trip to Washington, but that Peña Nieto was even thinking about going in the first place.

Why, asked foreign affairs analysts and many Mexicans taking to social media Sunday, would the country’s unpopular president contemplate another tête-à-tête with Trump after two embarrassing encounters — that served to strengthen Trump politically at the expense of Peña Nieto?

No one faulted him for canceling this trip to Washington, which he did Saturday. But many Mexicans questioned what purpose the meeting could have served and wondered if the president and foreign minister, Luis Videgaray, had learned from the humiliations of Peña Nieto’s previous interactions with Trump. In those conversations, the U.S. president brought up his “big, beautiful” border wall and the prospect of Mexico paying for it — which the Mexican government says will never happen.

“There hasn’t been a single meeting [with Trump] in which Peña Nieto has obtained some sort of benefit, whether personal or for the country,” said Brenda Estefan, a foreign affairs analyst and former security attache in the Mexican Embassy in Washington. “It’s absurd to continue asking for a reunion so they can be trampled.”

Others wondered whether the administration still harbored the belief that it could convince Trump of the value of the Mexican relationship and sticking with the North American Free Trade Agreement amid tricky renegotiations.

“How bad could things be, when the best news from yesterday was the cancellation of the EPN/Trump meeting following a heated phone call,” tweeted Gabriel Guerra Castellanos, a former Mexican consul in Toronto. “The incredible part is [the call] saved us from [Trump’s] tantrum and not the foresight of our diplomats.”

The discourteous telephone called served to underscore the difficulties of Peña Nieto’s dealings with Trump, even though Videgaray had described the U.S.-Mexico relationship as being “closer under Trump than in previous administrations.”

The news broke at a tough time for Peña Nieto, though it distracted from a Saturday mishap at Flag Day celebrations, in which soldiers at the official ceremony raised a massive Mexican flag upside down — something seen as oddly apt by many on social media as the country suffers corruption scandals, crises of confidence in public officials and violence rising to record levels.

The ill-tempered Trump call also came as the country gears up for the July 1 presidential election. Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has sunk in the polls, while the sedate speaking style of its candidate, former finance minister José Antonio Meade — picked in part for his clean track record — fails to excite voters or move the polls upward. Some observers speculated that the proposed trip to Washington was as much about raising attention at home as it was to accomplish anything to do with NAFTA or Mexico-U.S. relations.

“Peña Nieto and Videgaray wanted to show ‘leadership’ at a time when they believed that Mexico was doing well in the renegotiation of NAFTA — at least better than Canada — and their candidate is suffering,” said Carlos Heredia, professor at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics.

The trip, however, “didn’t make sense,” he added. “What are they thinking? Any Mexican can tell you that there isn’t any point.

”What are you going to get out of it? Nothing — another humiliation,” Heredia said.

Polls show Meade running a distant third — the newspaper Reforma put his support at just 14 percent — trailing Ricardo Anaya, of the unwieldy left-right coalition, and left-wing populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Surveys also show Mexicans deeply disliking Trump, but election rhetoric has focused on domestic matters rather than promises to confront Trump or defend Mexican dignity.

Trump is “not a factor because it’s not something you can influence at all,” Heredia said. “And because we do not have a constituency inside the United States that could make Trump pay for insulting Mexicans.”

Senate pivots to stopgap ‘Dreamers’ deal

(PhatzNewsRoom / The Hill)    —    The Senate is weighing a short-term fix for “Dreamers” as lawmakers struggle to break a stalemate that has stalled the chamber’s debate.

The hunt for a fallback option comes ahead of the March 5 deadline created by President Trump’s decision to end the immigration program and amid fresh questions about what, if anything, can clear Congress and win over the White House.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) is in talks with Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) about a plan to tie a three-year extension of protections for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients with roughly $7.6 billion in border security.

“I can promise that I’ll be back on the floor, again and again, motioning for a vote until we pass a bill providing relief for those struggling due to our inaction,” Flake said, outlining his plan.

Passing a years-long immigration stopgap is no one’s first choice for restoring protections from the Obama-era program, which the Trump administration announced it was ending last year. Democrats largely refused to touch the idea during the Senate’s debate, while GOP Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) referred to it as “Plan Z.”

But senators appeared increasingly resigned to any potential immigration legislation being a stopgap patch, rather than a permanent fix, after months of closed-door negotiations failed to produce a deal.

How long a potential stopgap agreement could last remains unclear. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) predicted Congress would only be able to punt into 2019, kicking the hot-button issue past the midterm elections.

“I think we wind up punting. I think we’ll do a one-year extension of DACA and punt,” he said.

GOP Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) have offered a bill to provide legal protections for current DACA recipients. But it could struggle to win Democratic support because it includes tens of billions in wall funding without a path to citizenship and doesn’t address the larger 1.8 million population of potential DACA recipients.

With the Senate turning back this week to confirming Trump’s nominees, senators are pointing to a funding bill that needs to passed by March 23 to prevent a government shutdown as their next shot.

“Obviously we’re going to have to deal with the DACA issue probably on the [omnibus] because of what has happened,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told reporters earlier this month, predicting the Senate would settle on including an extension.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the No. 2 Senate Republican, left the door open to dropping immigration into the mammoth spending bill, saying “some temporary provision” could be included if both sides can reach an agreement.

An aide said that Flake and Heitkamp are discussing trying to get the DACA extension included in mammoth omnibus legislation. And a spokesman for Flake added that the GOP senator would support trying to link the proposals.

There’s no guarantee a DACA-border security stopgap could get the 60 needed to clear the Senate as a stand-alone bill, or that leadership is willing to include it in the omnibus. And its path would be even rockier, if not impossible, in the House.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declined to say if the tight-lipped GOP leader supports a years-long immigration fix. Asked if McConnell would oppose including DACA in the omnibus, the aide pointed to his comments after the Senate failed to pass a deal.

McConnell left the door open to returning to immigration if a plan emerged that could pass both the Senate and the more conservative House and had what has so far remained elusive: Trump’s support.

“If a solution is developed in the future that can pass both the House and the Senate and be signed into law by the president, it should be considered. But for that to happen, Democrats will need to take a second look at these core elements of necessary reform,” he said.

But Democrats and the White House appear increasingly dug in, with Trump and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) exchanging barbs.

Trump, during his Conservative Political Action Conference speech, said Democrats had “totally abandoned” DACA recipients.

“They don’t want to do anything about DACA, I’m telling you, and it’s very possible that DACA won’t happen,” he told the conservative crowd.

Meanwhile, Schumer said “it’s clear to everyone but President Trump” that the president is to blame.

“Democrats have been willing to negotiate for months, and have forged several bipartisan deals, but his refusal to take yes for an answer led to his partisan plan that only got 39 votes,” he said.

Democrats have been loath to embrace a short-term fix because they believe it provides no long-term security for “Dreamers,” immigrants brought to the country illegally as children. Schumer hasn’t weighed in on the proposal.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat and a key senator in the immigration fight, is still urging action on immigration before March 5.

“Congress still has a chance to address the DACA crisis before March 5th, when 1,000 people will start losing their legal status every single day,” he said in a tweet.

With no must-pass legislation expected to come up before the deadline, Democrats’ options are limited. They could, for example, try to grind the Senate to a halt by launching an hours-long floor speech, limit the ability for committees to meet or try to get consent to pass an immigration bill.

No Democratic senator has signaled they are planning to create procedural headaches and much of the political oxygen is being sucked up by the debate over gun control following a shooting at a Florida high school, where 17 people were killed.

One Democratic aide described the current DACA debate as a “wait-and-see game.”

“[We’re] waiting to see what kind of traction Mr. Flake garners from his caucus on his 3-year patch proposal,” the aide said.

Two court decisions are further throwing the DACA timeline into limbo and helping feed Congress’s inertia, where lawmakers frequently wait until deadlines to tackle any legislation.

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said that even though two courts ruled the DACA program has to stay on the books for now, “eventually that deadline [is] coming.”

“It’s not going to be March 5, it looks like, but it may be early April, it may be other time periods,” he told an Oklahoma NPR station. “[But] some federal court is going to step out and is going to rule one executive can change another executive’s decisions.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has set up an end of March deadline for action in his chamber and pledged to only bring up a bill that has Trump’s support.

Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar (Texas) said he approached Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the House majority leader, on the floor and urged them to do “queen of the hill” on immigration, pitting Goodlatte and Rep. Michael McCaul’s (R-Texas) bill against a narrower, bipartisan proposal by Reps. Will Hurd (R-Texas) and Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.).

Under queen of the hill, competing proposals are voted on by the House and whichever gets the most votes is passed. But a top GOP leadership aide told The Hill “there is no queen of the hill strategy, the Goodlatte-McCaul bill is what is being whipped.”

And Cuellar said Goodlatte told him the whipping operation had still not garnered 218 votes.

“They were whipping last week, last Wednesday, before we took off. … Thursday, they did not have 218. They didn’t want to give me the numbers, but said, ‘Well, we’re working on it,’ ” said Cuellar.

But Goodlatte said the conversation with Cuellar happened “weeks ago.”

“The Securing America’s Future Act is the product of months worth of meetings and discussions with a diverse range of members and stakeholders. It is clear that this legislation is the only bill that can get a majority of Republican votes in the House,” Goodlatte said of his proposal.

“Last week, we had a positive whip count and we are working quickly to build on that support so that we have the votes needed to pass the Securing America’s Future Act in the House,” he added.

Despite Goodlatte’s optimism on capturing a majority of Republicans, Cuellar said the House Judiciary Committee chairman struck down his queen of the hill proposal, saying, ” ‘No, my bill won’t pass, and your bill will pass. You’ll get 30, 40, 50 Republicans. We need our bill to pass – the Goodlatte bill.’ ”


– Mike Lillis contributed

Business: Global stocks gain after Wall Street rally

BEIJING (AP) — Global stocks rose Monday after Wall Street rallied as investors looked ahead to the U.S. Federal Reserve chairman’s congressional testimony this week for insights into its economic outlook.

KEEPING SCORE: In early trading, Germany’s DAX rose 0.9 percent to 12,593.90 and France’s CAC 40 added 0.7 percent to 5,354.06. Britain’s FTSE 100 advanced 0.5 percent to 7,279.40. On Friday, the DAX and CAC 40 both gained 0.2 percent while the FTSE slid 0.1 percent. On Wall Street, the future for the Dow Jones industrial average rose 0.4 percent while that for the Standard & Poor’s 500 index was little-changed.

ASIA’S DAY: The Shanghai Composite Index rose 1.2 percent while Tokyo’s Nikkei 225 gained 1.2 percent to 22,153.62. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng advanced 0.7 percent to 31,498.60 and Sydney’s S&P-ASX 200 added 0.7 percent to 6,042.20. India’s Sensex was up 0.8 percent at 34,400.63 and benchmarks in Taiwan, New Zealand and Southeast Asia also rose. Jakarta declined.

WALL STREET: Wall Street capped several days of choppy trading with a rally that gave the stock market a modest gain for the week. Technology companies, banks and health care stocks accounted for much of the market’s gains. Energy companies also rose along with crude oil prices. The S&P climbed 1.6 percent while the Dow picked up 1.4 percent. The Nasdaq composite gained 1.8 percent.

FED WATCH: Investors are looking to Chairman Jerome Powell’s testimony Tuesday for insight into the Fed’s outlook. Private sector analysts expect few significant changes in forecasts U.S. inflation will rise toward its 2 percent target and wage growth will stay moderate. Some traders are looking for the Fed to affirm a gradual pace of one interest rate hike per quarter this year.

ANALYST’S TAKE: “Obviously the biggest aspect from Fed Powell’s first testimony to Congress to watch would be comments surrounding interest rate and inflation expectations, but one should not be surprised if the Fed chair rehashes the current rhetoric in order to not rock the market,” said Jingyi Pan of IG in a report. “Over and above the views on rates, insights into the recent bout of volatility and debt concerns may also be market-moving pieces.”

THIS WEEK: A Chinese industry group releases its February manufacturing barometer Tuesday amid expectations it may show activity edging down due to the Lunar New Year holiday leaving the month with fewer work days. Also Tuesday, the South Korean central bank holds a policy meeting, but forecasters expect no additional rate hike. On Wednesday, India reports fourth quarter gross domestic product; the consensus calls for 6.9 percent growth over a year earlier. India’s central bank is due to release minutes of its February meeting. On Thursday, Australia reports private investment growth.

ENERGY: Benchmark U.S. crude shed 1 cent to $63.54 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract rose 78 cents on Friday to close at $63.55. Brent crude, used to price international oils, lost 1 cent to $67.29 in London. It jumped 92 cents the previous session to $67.31.

CURRENCY: The dollar declined to 106.62 yen from Friday’s 106.88. The euro gained to $1.2321 from $1.2298.


– Here are the top five things you need to know in financial markets on Monday, February 26:

1. Global Stocks Start The Week With Gains

Global equities continued to build on recent gains, as investors braced for an event-packed week headlined by the first House testimony by the new head of the Federal Reserve Jerome Powell.

Asian markets ended broadly higher, with Japan’s Nikkei 225 leading the region with an increase of 1.2%, while Chinese blue chips added 1.1%.

In Europe, nearly all the continent’s major bourses traded in positive territory in mid-morning trade. The Stoxx Europe 600 index, the region’s broadest measure of share prices, rose 0.7% to hit its highest level in more than three weeks.

Meanwhile, on Wall Street, U.S. stock futures pushed higher, an indication that equities may be ready to pick up where they left off late last week.

Dow futures were up nearly 160 points, or around 0.6%, while S&P 500 futures rose 10 points, or about 0.4%. Nasdaq 100 futures gained 11 points, or roughly 0.2%.

U.S. stocks rallied more than 1% on Friday, pushing the major indexes higher for the week.

2. Dollar Loses Momentum, U.S. Bond Yields Slide Lower

The U.S. dollar slipped, losing some of its recent momentum, while U.S. bond yields sagged, as investors prepared for Jerome Powell’s first appearance as Fed Chair in which he may give clues on U.S. monetary policy.

The dollar index, which gauges the U.S. currency against a basket of six major rivals, dipped almost 0.4% to 89.48. It gained nearly 0.9% last week, having pulled away from a three-year low of 88.15 set on Feb. 16.

Meanwhile, the U.S. 10-year Treasury yield eased a tad to 2.864%, continuing a pullback from the four-year high of 2.957% reached last Wednesday.

Powell will speak before congressional committees on Tuesday and Thursday. Investors will pay close attention to comments on his views on the recent uptick in inflation and how that can affect the current rate-hiking path.

Before that, traders will be watching for comments from two Fed officials due to speak Monday. St. Louis Fed President James Bullard is due to give a speech on the economy and monetary policy at the National Association of Business Economics in Washington, D.C., at 8AM ET (1300GMT). Fed Vice Chairman Randall Quarles will speak at the same venue at 3:15PM (2015GMT).

On the data front, the highlight of Monday’s rather light economic calendar will be new home sales figures at 10:00AM ET (1500 GMT).

3. Euro Finds Support Ahead of Draghi Speech

European Central Bank President Mario Draghi will testify on monetary policy and the inflation outlook before the European Parliament Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee, in Brussels at 1400GMT (9:00AM ET).

How he views inflation prospects and any clues on how fast the central bank will begin exiting its massive quantitative easing program will be important.

The euro was up 0.3% against the dollar to 1.2345. Gains were limited as analysts said investors were cautious about taking big positions this week due to political risks in Italy, which holds a general election on March 4.

4. Saudi Remarks Lift Oil To Nearly Three-Week High

Oil prices hit their highest level in nearly three weeks, supported by comments from Saudi Arabia that it would continue to curb exports in line with the OPEC-led effort to cut global supplies.

U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude reached $63.90, the highest since Feb. 7, before pulling back to $63.58. London Brent crude was at $67.02, after touching an overnight peak of $67.30, also the strongest since Feb. 7.

Both benchmarks scored weekly gains last week amid growing optimism that rebalancing in crude markets are well underway thanks to OPEC-led production cuts. However, fears that rising U.S. output would dampen OPEC’s efforts to rid the market of excess supplies prevented prices from rising much farther.

5. Bitcoin Falls Towards $9K As Bearish Momentum Continues

The prices of major cryptocurrencies continued lower for the third day in a row, with Bitcoin, Ethereum and Ripple all falling towards their lowest levels in a week, as overall market sentiment waned.

The price of Bitcoin, the world’s biggest virtual currency by market cap, lost around 1% to $9,460, after hitting an overnight low of $9,280, a level not seen since Feb. 14.

The news was no better for other major digital currencies, with Ethereum, the world’s second largest cryptocurrency by market cap, falling around 2% to $824.20.

The third largest cryptocurrency Ripple slumped around 2% to trade at $0.88542.

Analysis: A Democratic Memo Undercuts Key Republican Complaints About the FBI

(PhatzNewsRoom / The Atlantic)    —-     The Republican charge that the FBI misled a secret surveillance court in order to spy on a former Trump campaign operative seemed to unravel on Saturday, when Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee revealed the exact wording that the bureau used when applying for the order in October 2016.

In a memo drafted by the intelligence committee’s Republicans in January and promptly declassified by the White House, the majority claimed that the FBI had misleadingly obscured the origins of a dossier written by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, some of whose research on Trump campaign adviser Carter Page was included in the bureau’s application for a warrant to surveil him. “Neither the initial application in October 2016, nor any of the renewals, disclose or reference the role of the DNC, Clinton campaign, or any party/campaign in funding Steele’s efforts, even though the political origins of the Steele dossier were then known to senior FBI officials,” the Republicans’ memo alleged.

Following its release, Republican lawmakers used it to argue that the FBI’s investigation into whether the Trump campaign aided a Russian effort to sway the 2016 election, and the subsequent special-counsel inquiry into the matter, were both tainted from their inception by partisan bias. Devin Nunes, the chairman of the committee, has accused the FBI of abusing its surveillance power to “fuel” a counterintelligence investigation during the campaign.

But as the original Republican memo also acknowledged, that inquiry began months before the FBI received the Steele dossier, and the FISA court appears to have been aware that Steele was an anti-Trump source. The court also renewed the FISA warrant on Page three separate times following the FBI’s initial application in October 2016, and, according to the Democrats, former FBI Deputy Director told the committee in a December interview that the bureau has worked “vigorously” to vet Steele’s reporting.

In a rebuttal memo released Saturday, Democrats included a portion of the Justice Department’s application to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which described the political origins of Steele’s research into Trump’s Russia ties in 2016.

The Justice Department told the court in its FISA application that Steele had been “approached” by Fusion GPS’s co-founder, Glenn Simpson, to research Trump’s Russia ties. Fusion GPS was first hired in December 2015 by the conservative owner of the Washington Free Beacon to conduct opposition research on Trump. Perkins Coie, a law firm representing the Democratic National Committee, took over funding for the project in April 2016 after Trump won the Republican nomination. Steele was hired in mid-2016 by Fusion GPS.

An extract from the FISA warrant application, reproduced in the Democratic memo, says that despite their “longstanding business relationship” stemming from their past work on Russia-related issues, Simpson did not tell Steele about “the motivation behind the research” into Trump’s Russia ties. But the application noted that “the FBI speculates that [Simpson] was likely looking for information that could be used to discredit [Trump’s] campaign.”

Portions of the Democrats’ memo were redacted by the Justice Department prior to its release, including details about which aspects of Steele’s research on Page the FBI had been able to independently corroborate. But the redactions “were not to the detriment” of the substance of the memo, a Democratic committee source told me, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the classified nature of the material.

Republicans acknowledged earlier this month, following an outcry from Democrats, that the FBI did disclose the dossier’s political origins in a “footnote” on the FISA application. But Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee who spearheaded the majority’s memo, told Fox that a “footnote saying something may be political” was “a far cry from letting the American people know that the Democrats and the Hillary campaign paid for dirt that the FBI then used to get a warrant on an American citizen to spy on another campaign.”

Republicans stuck with that critique following the Democratic memo’s release, complaining that it ignored the fact that the DNC and the Clinton campaign paid for the Steele dossier—a fact that was not explicitly revealed to the court. Democrats, however, have said the Justice Department was upholding its longstanding practice of not identifying U.S. persons and entities in highly classified intelligence reports.

Trump accused the FBI and DOJ of acting illegally in a series of tweets on Saturday, following the release of the Democratic memo.

“The Democrat memo response on government surveillance abuses is a total political and legal BUST. Just confirms all of the terrible things that were done. SO ILLEGAL!” he wrote. He added later that the investigation into whether his campaign team coordinated with Russia to win the election was “an illegal disgrace.”

Nineteen individuals and entities have been indicted or pleaded guilty in the probe so far—including Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, whose deputy Rick Gates pleaded guilty on Friday to conspiracy against the United States and lying to federal agents. Page, for his part, has been on the FBI’s radar since at least 2013 on suspicion of acting as an agent of the Russian government, and the Democrats’ memo—portions of which appeared poorly redacted— confirmed that at least three other “individuals linked to the Trump campaign” other than Page were under FBI scrutiny by September 2016.

In August of 2013, Page wrote a letter to a book editor claiming he had been serving as “an informal adviser to the staff of the Kremlin” on “energy issues,” and he was interviewed again by the FBI in March 2016—just before he joined the Trump campaign.

“As we’ve seen many times before with the felonious news leaks of the past year, this new round of misinformation surrounding efforts by Washington to illegally influence the 2016 election inflicts even more damages on the instigating perpetrators from the swamp,” Page said in a statement on Saturday night. “Today’s memo further underscores the critical importance of the immediate disclosure of all my FISA applications and other relevant documents.”

Inside the Manafort money machine: A decade of influence-peddling, lavish spending and alleged fraud

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(PhatzNewsRoom / WAPO)    —    As Donald Trump crisscrossed the nation promising to drain the swamp, two of his top advisers were busy illegally building a colossal fortress of riches deep inside that swamp, according to federal prosecutors.

For a decade prior and on through Trump’s populist crusade, Paul Manafort and Rick Gates used offshore accounts, hidden income, falsified documents and laundered cash to maintain Manafort’s lush life of multiple homes, fine art, exquisite clothes and exotic travel, the government says.

In a richly detailed expanded indictment filed Thursday, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III parted the curtain shielding how two longtime Washington influence merchants worked the system. The government contends that Manafort, who was Trump’s campaign chairman for five months before being fired, used people all around him, from his buddy Gates to banks, clients and the IRS, to build a life of conspicuous consumption.

Gates, who was Manafort’s deputy in their lobbying firm and on the Trump campaign, pleaded guilty Friday to conspiracy and lying to the FBI, cutting a deal with prosecutors to give them information that could help Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Manafort, meanwhile, has maintained his innocence. His spokesman, Jason Maloni, said that Manafort is “confident that he will be acquitted and violations of his constitutional rights will be remedied.”

An attorney for Gates declined to comment on Thursday’s indictment.

Manafort faces punishment that could put him behind bars for the rest of his life.

But for the years when he was working for Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych, the money poured in by the millions.

From 2006 on, much of it came from Manafort and Gates’ prized client, Yanukovych, and his Party of Regions, which paid their firm $17 million between 2012 and 2014, according to federal filings.

Even after the money stopped flowing, Manafort and Gates found ways — illegal ways, prosecutors say — to maintain and even improve their lifestyles.

After Ukrainians took to the streets in 2014 in an uprising against their government’s corruption, and Yanukovych fled to the protection of his close ally, Russian President Vladi­mir Putin, Manafort and Gates misled banks and borrowed millions, allowing Manafort to live in bigger and better houses, buy fabulous fashions and expand an already impressive collection of antique rugs, prosecutors allege.

With extensive help from Gates, Manafort opened a gusher of spending on personal pleasures, according to the indictment prosecutors filed this week. (Outwardly, Gates, who is 45, lived more modestly, but he, too, had amassed quite a fortune. Although he listed $2.2 million in assets in a court document in 2011, he wrote in a credit application in 2016 that he was worth $25 million and that his wife had assets of $30 million, the indictment says.)

Manafort, a longtime mainstay of Washington politics who tracked delegates for President Gerald Ford’s 1976 campaign and ran Ronald Reagan’s campaign in the South in 1980, and Gates had spent two decades at the pinnacle of Washington’s influence industry, collecting clients such as the Ukrainian leader and other dictators from Congo, the Philippines and other countries who depended on the duo to advance their interests.

Manafort, 68, was not shy about displaying the fruits of that work.

The money went, the government says, to home contractors, with $5.4 million going to one on the East End of Long Island, where Manafort had a lavish, 10-bedroom spread in tony Bridgehampton. (Manafort has since put that property — along with three others in Manhattan, Palm Beach and Alexandria — up as collateral in his $12 million bail deal with the government.)

Prosecutors say that Manafort made monthly payments to the home improvement company, many of them in six-figure amounts, drawn from accounts that he and Gates controlled in Cyprus and the Grenadines, companies with names such as Global Highway Limited and Lucicle Consultants.

Another $655,000 allegedly went to a Hamptons landscaper over a 2½ -year period. A second landscaper got $165,000 over the following two years.

The indictment describes how money poured into the coffers of the businesses that could turn a house into a state-of-the-art entertainment complex. It alleges that a lighting and home entertainment company in Florida got $1.3 million from five Manafort-controlled entities. Over two years, an antique rug shop in Alexandria collected $934,000 from Manafort’s Cypriot accounts, prosecutors say.

Manafort spent $849,000 at one men’s clothing shop in New York City in 34 visits over six years — an average of $25,000 per shopping venture. Another clothing store, in Beverly Hills, collected $520,000 from Manafort on nine dates over five years, about $58,000 per visit.

Manafort allegedly bought Range Rovers (four of them in five years), a Mercedes, art, audio-video systems, a condo, a Manhattan brownstone and his Alexandria house.

He liked to live large and he didn’t mind if others saw how he spent his wealth. He once testified before Congress that although “the technical term for what we do . . . is ‘lobbying,’ . . . I will admit that, in a narrow sense, some people might term it ‘influence peddling.’ ”

His friends loved that chesty bravado of his and some of them called him “the Count of Monte Cristo,” named for the swashbuckling hero of the 19th-century French novel.

But prosecutors describe how much of Manafort’s fortune was not flaunted: Millions were tucked away in an extensive network of foreign companies and bank accounts in Cyprus, the Grenadines and the Seychelles islands. In the lean years that followed the flight of their Ukrainian patron, Manafort and Gates allegedly tapped into their foreign holdings, bringing large sums back home and presenting those transactions not as repatriated assets but as new income — thereby persuading banks to lend them more than $20 million that, prosecutors argue, they otherwise would not have qualified for.

The financial misdeeds that Manafort and Gates have now been accused of have nothing to do with their work for the Trump campaign. Mueller is apparently engaged in a classic prosecutor’s methodology, identifying other crimes committed by people in the orbit of the main subject of their investigation, and then using that evidence to find out if those people have incriminating information about the person they’re really interested in.

On its face, the indictment filed Thursday is a fairly simple case of alleged tax fraud. A federal law called the Bank Secrecy Act says that if you have accounts in foreign banks — whether the accounts are in your name — you must report them to the U.S. Treasury.

The IRS’s 1040 tax form asks, “Did you have an interest in or a signature or other authority over a financial account in a foreign country?” Year after year — all the way up to last October — Manafort and Gates repeatedly answered, “No,” when, in fact, the government says, they had extensive foreign interests.

During the fat years when Yanukovych was on the rise and then in power, Manafort and Gates were able to stockpile millions in those foreign entities, prosecutors say. After 2014, when the cascade of money dried up, Manafort and Gates adapted.

Using the real estate Manafort had acquired with their Ukrainian fees as collateral, he — allegedly with Gates’s assistance — took out millions of dollars in mortgages. To get the mortgages, the government contends, Manafort and Gates concocted fake profit and loss statements that inflated their income.

In 2012, Manafort bought a four-story, 19th-century brownstone rowhouse in the Carroll Gardens section of Brooklyn. He paid $3 million in cash — from one of the men’s Cyprus accounts, prosecutors say — for the place on Union Street and set about renovating it from the guts out. The house already had marble mantelpieces and a Jacuzzi, but Manafort took it to a new level, adding a two-story extension out back, new windows, a roof deck and a slate walkway.

Neither Manafort nor his daughter ever moved in. The daughter, according to the New York Times, told neighbors that she loved the place and intended to live in it. As the renovations continued, Manafort took out a $5 million loan, supposedly to pay for the rehabilitation of the house. But Manafort, the government says, actually had no such intention. “The construction mortgage will allow me to pay back [another Manafort apartment] mortgage in full,” he wrote to his tax preparer in December 2015.

Similarly, Manafort in 2012 bought a $2.85 million condo in Manhattan’s pricey Soho neighborhood — also with cash, also from the accounts in Cyprus, the indictment says. For more than two years, he rented the place out on Airbnb, charging several thousand dollars a week, prosecutors say.

At the same time as he was renting out the apartment, Manafort sought a $3.4 mortgage on it. To get a loan that large, the bank wanted to see that the condo was occupied by its owner. That’s exactly what Manafort claimed was the case, the government says.

“In order to have the maximum benefit, I am claiming Howard St. as a second home,” Manafort wrote in an email cited by prosecutors. “Not an investment property.”

The email was written in January 2016 — smack in the middle of the period when Manafort was renting out the place on Airbnb.

He told the lender that his daughter and son-in-law were using the condo and that it was not a rental property. And Manafort wrote to his son-in-law to remind him that when the bank’s appraiser showed up to assess the condo, he should “remember, he believes that you and [Manafort’s daughter] are living there.”

But the bank got suspicious, discovering that there was, indeed, a mortgage on Manafort’s Brooklyn brownstone, even though Manafort had written on his loan application that he owned the Brooklyn place free and clear.

Gates responded, prosecutors say, by having an insurance broker send the bank an old insurance report that listed no mortgage on the Union Street rowhouse. Gates emailed Manafort to let him know how he had handled the situation, the indictment says. Within hours, Manafort replied: “good job on the insurance issues.”

Still, it wasn’t clear that the lender was going to approve the loan on the Howard Street condo. There was another problem: A tax return that Manafort included in his application showed that he had received a $1.5 million loan from one of the entities in Cyprus that he and Gates controlled. With that large a debt on Manafort’s record, the bank was hesitant to approve a new loan.

In fact, the government alleges, there never was any loan; the money had just been transferred from Cyprus to the U.S., but it had been called a loan so Manafort wouldn’t have to pay taxes on the income.

But now the “loan” was causing a problem, so, prosecutors say, Manafort and Gates had a tax accountant send the lender backdated documents falsely stating that the $1.5 million loan had been forgiven in 2015.

In March 2016, Manafort got a $3.4 million mortgage on the Howard Street condo.

About that same time, Manafort applied to borrow yet more money, this time a business loan. To boost the application’s prospects, prosecutors say, Gates asked a bookkeeper to add $2.4 million to the stated income of their company. “Can you make adjustments on your end and then just send me a new scanned version?” Gates asked in an email.

The bookkeeper refused, the government says, so Gates did it himself. “I am editing Paul’s 2015 P&L statement,” he wrote, sending the altered profit and loss statement to the lender. The loan application claimed that the company Manafort and Gates controlled had $4.45 million in net income; prosecutors say the real income was less than $400,000.

To win approval of the loans, the men needed help from inside the banks. They found what prosecutors call “a conspirator” who worked for one of the lenders. When Manafort and Gates’s loan application first arrived, the lender’s employee wrote back, “Looks Dr’d. Can’t someone just do a clean excel doc and pdf to me??”

The final, successful application included a later and different version of the paperwork.

But sometimes the duo’s methods didn’t work. In 2016, when Manafort applied for a mortgage on his Bridgehampton house, he told the bank that his firm would be getting $2.4 million in income later that year for work on a “democratic development consulting project.”

To back up that claim, the government says, Gates gave the bank a fake invoice for $2.4 million, attesting that the payment was for “services rendered per the consultancy agreement pertaining to the parliamentary elections.”

But the bank wanted more proof that Manafort had sufficient income to be able to pay back a loan. When it wasn’t forthcoming, the bank rejected the application, according to the indictment.

Undeterred, Manafort and Gates applied to a different bank, using what prosecutors say were false and doctored financial documents to overstate their firm’s income by millions.

In October 2016, Manafort emailed Gates a PDF version of their firm’s actual profit and loss report, showing that they’d lost more than $600,000. Gates then allegedly converted the PDF into a Word document so it could be edited. He sent that back to Manafort, who then added more than $3.5 million in income to the document and returned it to Gates, who converted it back to a PDF that was sent to the bank.

Still, the bank had another problem with the application: Manafort owed American Express $300,000, and the debt had damaged his credit rating. So Manafort replied that he had actually lent his credit card to Gates, who had spent the money and failed to reimburse his partner. Manafort sent the bank a letter from Gates, who said that he had incurred the Amex charges and would pay his partner back.

The result, the government says: two loans worth $16 million.

Sources: Coral Springs police upset at some Broward deputies for not entering school

(PhatzNewsRoom / CNN)    —    When Coral Springs police officers arrived at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on February 14 in the midst of the school shooting crisis, many officers were surprised to find not only that Broward County Sheriff’s Deputy Scot Peterson, the armed school resource officer, had not entered the building, but that three other Broward County Sheriff’s deputies were also outside the school and had not entered, Coral Springs sources tell CNN. The deputies had their pistols drawn and were behind their vehicles, the sources said, and not one of them had gone into the school.

With direction from the Broward deputies who were outside, Coral Springs police soon entered the building where the shooter was. New Broward County Sheriff’s deputies arrived on the scene, and two of those deputies and an officer from Sunrise, Florida, joined the Coral Springs police as they went into the building.

Some Coral Springs police were stunned and upset that the four original Broward County Sheriff’s deputies who were first on the scene did not appear to join them as they entered the school, Coral Springs sources tell CNN. It’s unclear whether the shooter was still in the building when they arrived.

Deputy who stayed outside during school shooting had glowing reviews, his personnel records show

What these Coral Springs officers observed — though not their feelings about it — will be released in a report, likely next week. Sources cautioned that tapes are currently being reviewed and official accounts could ultimately differ from recollections of officers on the scene.

The resentment among Coral Springs officials toward Broward County officials about what they perceived to be a dereliction of duty may have reached a boiling point at a vigil the night of February 15, where, in front of dozens of others, Coral Springs City Manager Mike Goodrum confronted Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel. A source familiar with the conversation tells CNN that Goodrum was upset that the Broward deputies had remained outside the school while kids inside could have been bleeding out, among other reasons.

People walk among a makeshift memorial outside the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert) © Gerald Herbert/AP People walk among a makeshift memorial outside the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Goodrum said in a statement to CNN, “Given the horrific events of that day emotions were running high and the sheriff and I had a heated moment the following evening. Sheriff Israel and I have spoken several times since and I can assure you that our departments have a good working relationship and the utmost respect for each other.” Goodrum declined to comment on the content of their conversation.

Sgt. Carla Kmiotek, public information officer for the Coral Springs Police Department, would not comment about CNN’s story. “The Coral Springs Police Department will speak on behalf of our officers and their response in that incident,” she said. ” We will not speak on behalf of Broward Sheriff’s deputies and their response to the incident.”

“Our police department has continued to work alongside the Broward Sheriff’s Office to assist in any investigation pertaining to this incident,” the department said later in a statement. “The Coral Springs Police Department has a tremendous working relationship with the men and women of the Broward Sheriff’s Office, and while we are being transparent through this investigation, everyone should respect the process. There were countless deputies and officers who responded on that fateful day from multiple jurisdictions, whose actions were nothing short of heroic. As already reported, any actions or inactions that negatively affected the response will be investigated thoroughly, and the information will be released officially from the proper agency spokesperson.

Two days after the shooting, Coral Springs Police Chief Tony Pustizzi addressed some of the concerns voiced by his officers in an internal email obtained by CNN that said, among other items, “I understand that another agency has given the impression that it had provided the majority of the rescue efforts, and that the tremendous work of the Coral Springs Police and Fire Departments has not been recognized. Please know that this issue will be addressed, and the truth will come out in time. The focus for us now, however, must be on healing — for ourselves, our families, our community and those residents surrounding us. While recognition is not the reason we choose to do what we do, our Commission, City Manager and residents are well aware of the actions our members took in the face of danger and the heroes that you are.”

The Broward County Sheriff’s Office did not return multiple requests for comment.

Information about ways the Broward County Sheriff’s Office didn’t sufficiently handle the shooter both before and during the incident started coming out in full force on Thursday, when Broward County Sheriff Israel announced that video showed Deputy Peterson outside the building where students were being shot for “upwards of four minutes.”

“What I saw was a deputy arrive … take up a position and he never went in,” Israel said at a news conference. Israel said Peterson should have “went in. Addressed the killer. Killed the killer.” Peterson was suspended without pay, after which he resigned.

County Superintendent Robert Runcie said, “I’m in shock and I’m outraged to no end that he could have made a difference in all this. It’s really disturbing that we had a law enforcement individual there specifically for this reason, and he did not engage. He did not do his job. It’s one of the most unbelievable things I’ve ever heard.”

Israel also announced an investigation into how two other deputies had handled warnings about the gunman prior to the shooting.

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