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Monthly Archives: February 2018

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The Man Who Might Bring Down Benjamin Netanyahu

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(PhatzNewsRoom / The Atlantic)    —    Over the course of his career, Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, has faced many formidable rivals. There’s been Yasser Arafat, the late former leader of the Palestinians, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, and Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general of Hezbollah. But Netanyahu never accused any of them of leading a “Bolshevik campaign” to derail his agenda and kick him out of office. The only man to receive such praise from Netanyahu is Arnon “Noni” Mozes, the owner and publisher of Yediot Aharonot, which means “latest news” in Hebrew. Since the 1990s, Mozes’s popular tabloid, which his family founded in 1939, has been a constant nuisance for the prime minister, regularly featuring negative coverage about the Netanyahus. (Behind closed doors, Netanyahu has reportedly referred to Mozes as “Voldemort.”)

This is why many Israelis were shocked to learn early last year that Netanyahu and Mozes were under investigation for allegedly concocting a secret bribe deal. Last week, the police concluded their investigation, recommending that Israel’s attorney general indict both Mozes and Netanyahu for bribery. This investigation is one of three different cases involving Netanyahu, all of which include suspicions for bribery, and eyebrow-raising relationships between the prime minister and powerful media tycoons. The police also recommended indicting him in a separate corruption investigation involving Arnon Milchan, an Israeli billionaire and Hollywood producer who allegedly gave Netanyahu and his family expensive gifts worth more than $200,000 over the last decade. Netanyahu claimed that Milchan gave the gifts not as part of some secret quid-pro-quo, but, rather, because they are friends.

That defense won’t be available to Netanyahu with the Mozes case. Their rivalry has become the stuff of legends in Israel. Now, they may be closer than ever to achieving that goal—ironically, at each other’s expense.

For much of his 30-plus years as the owner and chief editor of Yediot Aharonot, Mozes has been criticized for leveraging the paper’s immense popularity to curry favor with politicians from across the spectrum. In its heyday, Yediot’s circulation reached more than 50 percent of newspaper readers in Israel. Former editors and writers at Yediot have described a “favorites list” kept by the paper’s senior management, which reportedly includes the names of politicians, business moguls, and other powerful people who helped advance the Mozes family’s interests. In return, they have received positive coverage, according to former Yediot workers. The paper’s management has consistently denied these allegations.

True or not, one thing is clear: If there is such a list, Netanyahu certainly isn’t mentioned in it. Yediot has broken some of the most damaging stories of his career. That includes a report on a tape recording in which his wife, Sara, was heard saying: “Bibi is too great for this country. Let this country burn, we will move to live abroad.” Rottem Danon, the editor of Israel’s top weekend news broadcast and an expert on Netanyahu’s complicated history with the Israeli media, told me it wasn’t always this way. Danon said that when Netanyahu served as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations in the 1980s, Yediot covered him favorably, praising his command of English and writing about the “admiration” he received from America’s Jewish community.

But things changed in the 1990s, when Netanyahu became the leader of the opposition in the Knesset, and went up against then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. When Rabin was murdered by a right-wing extremist in 1995, large parts of the Israeli media, including Yediot, blamed Netanyahu for encouraging wild incitement against Rabin before the murder. After Rabin’s death, Netanyahu ran for prime minister against Shimon Peres. Despite Yediot‘s pro-Peres coverage, Netanyahu eked out a narrow win. For the next two and a half years, he stumbled from one public relations disaster to another before being forced to call an early election. Through it all, he believed that Mozes’s paper was ignoring his achievements and turning minor incidents into scandals.

Netanyahu’s frustration boiled over in 1999, after he suffered a humiliating election defeat. “Netanyahu thought that his loss wasn’t a result of policy, credibility or character flaws,” Alon Pinkas, a former senior Israeli diplomat (who occasionally writes political commentary for Yediot), told me. “He attributed the loss to a comprehensive campaign that Yediot supposedly waged against him. It became an obsession for him.”

Following another election loss seven years later, Netanyahu reportedly told some of his close associates that, in order for his right-wing supporters to reclaim power, they needed media outlets of their own. That dream finally became reality in 2007, when Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas-based American billionaire and ardent Netanyahu supporter, established a daily tabloid called Israel Hayom, or “Israel Today” in Hebrew. Adelson has reportedly invested tens of millions of dollars in the newspaper; unlike Mozes’s tabloid, which is sold in stores or distributed to paying subscribes, Adelson’s paper is free.

At the time of Israel Hayom’s debut, Ehud Olmert, a member of the centrist Kadima Party, was Israel’s prime minister, and Netanyahu was once again the leader of the opposition. Olmert was considered one of Yediot’s ultimate favorites. The paper drew criticism for supposedly trying to shield him from the corruption investigations that would ultimately lead to his downfall. Adelson’s paper tried to position itself as spearheading “the fight against corruption,” constantly praising the police and attorney general for their investigations into the bribe accusations against Olmert.

In 2009, following Olmert’s indictment and resignation, Netanyahu was once again elected prime minister. Israel Hayom offered him its unwavering support, even acquiring the portmanteau “Bibiton”—a combination of Netanyahu’s nickname and the Hebrew word for newspaper. (Some of Netanyahu’s own coalition partners have publicly compared it to Pravda, the famous mouthpiece of the communist party in Russia.)

Yediot, meanwhile, resumed its negative coverage of the old-new prime minister with vigor. In 2010, it lost its status as an officially designated monopoly in the Israeli newspaper market, after Israel Hayom surpassed its circulation. Yediot remained influential, but its decades-old slogan—“The Newspaper of the Country”—no longer rang true.

But when Israelis elected a new parliament in 2012, Netanyahu received a painful reminder of Yediot’s enduring power. In the elections, his Likud party underperformed, winning 31 seats instead of the projected 40-plus. Meanwhile, two parties that received positive coverage from Yediot beat the pollsters’ expectations and won a combined 31 seats of their own. Netanyahu had no choice but to bring them into his coalition.

In subsequent off-the-record briefings with Israeli journalists, Netanyahu regularly ranted about Mozes’s influence, describing him “in almost satanic terms,” in the words of one reporter who attended one of the briefings. Another recurring feature in those briefings was Netanyahu’s frustration with what he saw as Israel Hayom’s limited influence. “If only the Bibiton had even half the influence as the anti-Bibiton,” one reporter quoted him saying.

Yet despite Netanyahu’s paranoid obsessions, Yediot was no longer what it once was. Israel Hayom’s success, along with the broader challenges faced by media organizations in the digital news era, were inflicting serious damage on the Mozes family’s most important asset.

This was the state of affairs for Israeli media in late 2014, when a group of lawmakers in the Knesset proposed a bill, nicknamed “The Israel Hayom Law,” that would impose limitations on the distribution of free newspapers with wide circulation. Many in Israel, even left-wing members of the Knesset, criticized the bill as a transparent attempt to hurt Israel Hayom’s popularity in service of Yediot. Mozes was personally involved in promoting the legislation, and the police suspect that he even took part in writing it. In public, Netanyahu railed against the bill, describing it as an anti-democratic attempt to shut down a newspaper through legislation. That didn’t stop many members of his own coalition from voting for it. In November 2014, the bill passed a preliminary vote by a wide margin.

But according to the police, while Netanyahu was publicly attacking the law, behind the scenes he dealt with it differently. He and Mozes arranged to meet in secret to end the hostilities between them. It has been reported that they held at least two lengthy meetings in Netanyahu’s office, where they discussed how to deal with  journalists that the prime minister deemed too critical of him, and brainstormed ways ofpromoting Mozes’s business interests. “Steering the media is a craft,” Mozes told Netanyahu in one of the meetings. “I’m speaking to you as one master craftsman to another,” Netanyahu replied.

The deal they were trying to concoct would be tough to implement. According to reports, rather than fighting the Israel Hayom bill, Netanyahu would quietly allow it to become law. Mozes, in return, would make Netanyahu a Yediot favorite. “It will be an earthquake, we need to think how to do it wisely,” Mozes told the prime minister. Netanyahu told him to take it slow: “Take down the hostility towards me from 9.5 to 7.5.” Mozes replied, “I get it. We need to make sure you stay prime minister.”

While the meetings were promising, the deal eventually fell apart. According to one report, Netanyahu told Mozes that he would only be able to deliver on his end of the deal after the election; Mozes responded by ending the negotiation. Then, rather than giving Netanyahu favorable coverage in the run-up to the 2015 election, he doubled down on the attacks against Netanyahu. “They lost their journalistic compass,” Gadi Baltiansky, who served as the spokesperson for former prime minister Ehud Barak, told me. “It was embarrassing.”

Netanyahu began calling out Mozes by name, attacking him in a Facebook post for trying to “bring down” his government and “take back his control over the media market.” Over the next several weeks, when a story critical of Netanyahu appeared in a news outlet, his spokespeople would allege that it was part of a conspiracy by Mozes—even if it was published by a Yediot competitor.

On election night, Netanyahu arrived at a conference center in Tel Aviv. Exit polls suggested a clear victory for his Likud party. In his victory speech, the crowd began chanting “Noni has been screwed! Noni has been screwed!” Netanyahu burst out laughing.

In December 2015, nine months after Netanyahu’s victory, the police arrested Ari Harow, one of his closest aides, and a suspect in a separate corruption investigation unrelated to the prime minister. As the officers reviewed potential evidence from Harow’s apartment, they discovered recordings of the Netanyahu-Mozes negotiation. No one in Israel except for Netanyahu, Mozes, Harow, and perhaps a handful of others, knew these secret negotiations took place. The recordings amounted to what investigators often call “golden evidence”: a politician and a business tycoon speaking freely about an alleged bribe. The politician offers favorable legislation, and the tycoon offers an extremely valuable commodity—favorable coverage ahead of a critical election. In the recordings, Netanyahu also promised Mozes that he would ask Adelson to scale back some of Israel Hayom’s operations, thus reducing its threat to Yediot. This part of the recording raised disturbing questions not just about Netanyahu’s discussions with Mozes, but also about his relationship with Israel Hayom.

Why Netanyahu and Harow recorded the negotiations with Mozes remains a mystery. When the investigators first asked Netanyahu about the recording, he claimed that he only wanted to record Mozes offering him a bribe, and never actually meant to follow through on any of his promises to the publisher. But the investigators were unconvinced: They pointed out that if Netanyahu’s only intention was to secretly record Mozes and then use the recording against him, the prime minister could have simply delivered it to the police after their last meeting. Mozes would have likely gone to jail for trying to bribe Netanyahu, while Netanyahu would have been publicly hailed for exposing his corruption. But Netanyahu never did that. This convinced the police that Netanyahu, at least for a while, was seriously planning to fulfill his side of the alleged bribe deal.

To make things worse, the police also found evidence allegedly showing that Netanyahu and Mozes fully intended to carry out the bribe deal. Netanyahu, the police claimed, asked lawmakers in his party to find ways to allow the passage of an amended version of the Israel Hayom law, despite his public opposition to it. (Netanyahu denied this allegation.) The police also claimed that he asked Adelson to carry out some of Mozes’s requests, such as limiting Israel Hayom’s circulation on weekends. Netanyahu has also denied this.

Since under Israeli law a “conspiracy to conduct a bribe deal” is a felony, the investigators recommended that both Netanyahu and Mozes should be indicted, despite the fact that their alleged bribe deal eventually collapsed. Netanyahu and Mozes, who for the first time in decades find themselves on the same side of a public dispute, both claim that the police recommendation is based on an exaggerated and false interpretation of their conversations.

While the attorney general is looking into the Mozes matter, the police are already investigating a separate case in which Netanyahu could very soon become a suspect. It involves steps that he allegedly took to favor the owner of Bezeq, Israel’s largest telecommunications company, in return for censoring negative coverage of Netanyahu on Walla, a popular news website owned by the company. On Sunday, two of Netanyahu’s closest confidantes were arrested in connection to this scandal, and one of them, the former director general of Israel’s Ministry of Communications, has already agreed to become a state witness against the prime minister. Israel’s Channel 10 reported on Wednesday that Netanyahu will be summoned for questioning as early as next week.

The Netanyahu-Mozes affair has become a source of embarrassment for some of Netanyahu’s supporters, who had attacked Yediot for years, only to discover that he was dealing with its publisher behind closed doors. At the same time, the episode has appeared to affirm many of the criticisms against Yediot, providing strong evidence that Mozes used his paper’s influence to promote his business interests.

“Netanyahu is the son of a historian and has a profound sense of history,” Danon said. “He is well aware of the fact that news coverage constitutes the first draft of history. Perhaps that’s why he’s so obsessed with how the media covers him—he understands that today’s headlines will shape the next decade’s biographies.”

How those biographies detail the current drama remains to be seen. But based on the events of the last few weeks, a happy ending may elude Netanyahu.

Analysis: What This Lawyer’s Guilty Plea Tells Us About Mueller’s Investigation

(PhatzNewsRoom / Mother Jones)   —   Alex Van Der Zwaan pleaded guilty in Federal District Court in Washington Tuesday afternoon, acknowledging that he lied to prosecutors and FBI agents during a November 3, 2017 meeting. The 33-year-old former lawyer, and the reported son-in-law of Russian billionaire German Khan, is now the fourth person to admit guilt in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s sprawling investigation into President Trump’s ties with Russia. He joins Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos, and, most recently, Richard Pinedo, whose admission that he unwittingly helped 13 Russian agents create fake PayPay and other financial accounts was revealed Friday. But Van Der Zwaan, a Dutch citizen and former associate in the London office of massive international law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, is not exactly a major player in the Trump-Russia drama. Rather, he appears to be a small fish snapped up by prosecutors in a bid to obtain evidence against the president or some of his top associates; the case suggests that Mueller thinks one way to penetrate the inner circle is by continuing to go after undisclosed foreign lobbying.

Van Der Zwaan, a Russian speaker, worked on a report that Skadden produced in 2012 that defended the government of then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Russia leader, over its prosecution and imprisonment of Yulia Tymoshenko, a political rival. The report by the top-tier law firm was supposedly independent, giving a veneer of legitimacy to  Tymoshenko’s prosecution, which was widely denounced in Europe and the United States. Skadden was brought on to produce the report by Paul Manafort, then a political adviser to Yanukovych. Rick Gates, Manafort’s longtime business associate, oversaw the production of the report. Both men went on to become Trump campaign officials. 

After Yanukovych’s ouster by a popular revolution in 2014, Ukraine’s new government began investigating the circumstances of the report. The country’s investigation revealed that Skadden agreed to an unusual payment formula: The firm initially accepted a fee of about $12,000 for the report, less than the amount that required public bidding in Ukraine, Bloomberg reported. The following year, with no new work done, Ukraine paid Skadden about $1.1 million. After the Justice Department questioned Skadden about the payment, the firm refunded $567,000 to Ukraine, saying it had been overpaid.

The firm’s report was one piece of a broader pro-Yanukovych lobbying effort overseen by Manafort and Gates. They also arranged for Ukraine to hire the Podesta Group, a Democratic-leaning lobbying firm, and Mercury Consulting, a GOP-friendly firm, to represent the government’s interests in Washington.

Prosecutors working under Mueller charged Manafort and Gates in October with money laundering and fraud related to their Ukrainian lobbying work. The indictment also alleged that the men’s failure to disclose their lobbying work on behalf of the Ukrainian government violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA. Gates is reportedly set to plead guilty this week and cooperate against Manafort.

Andrew Weissmann, a top prosecutor on Mueller’s team, said at Van De Zwaan’s plea hearing Tuesday that the charges against him are part of an investigation into “FARA violations by Paul Manafort, Rick Gates and others.”  Weissmann did not elaborate on the identity of the “others” under investigation.

Weissmann said the defendant made a series of false statements to prosecutors during a November 2017 interview. Van Der Zwaan pleaded guilty to falsely claiming his last conversation with Gates occurred in mid-August 2016 and that his last conversation with an unnamed “Person A” occurred in 2014. In his plea, Van Der Zwaan admits that he in fact spoke with Gates and Person A in September 2016 about the report and possibility that Skadden, Manafort, and a former Ukrainian minister could face criminal charges related to the report.

Person A, who Weissmann said lives largely in Ukraine, appears to be Konstantin Kilimnik, Manafort’s longtime business associate in the country. Prosectors have previously suggested that Kilimnik has ties to Russian intelligence. He also functioned in 2016 as an intermediary between Manafort and Oleg Deripaska, an aluminum oligarch suspected of providing intelligence on the US presidential election to Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2016. In one email Manafort sent while he chaired Trump’s campaign, he told Kilimnik that he was willing to privately brief Deripaska on the 2016 presidential contest. Kilimnik’s involvement appears to further tie Van Der Zwaan’s case to Mueller’s broader investigation.

Prosecutors also charge that Van Der Zwaan told other lies about his role in preparing the report. These include giving a false explanation for why he failed to turn over to his own lawyers and to prosecutors a September 12, 2016 email in Russian from Person A. The email included a request that Van Der Zwaan communicate though an encrypted messaging application called Viber. Weissmann said in court that Van Der Zwaan secretly recorded a follow up conversation in which Person A said the “payments [to Skadden] that were public” were the tip of the iceberg.

Mueller’s team may have prosecuted Van Der Zwaan in part to warn other witnesses. “This charge sends a message to every potential witness in the Mueller investigation—you will be charged if you lie to the FBI,” Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor who’s been tracking Mueller’s probe, tweeted on Tuesday.

The allegations, however, also suggest that Mueller’s investigation into undisclosed lobbying for Ukraine is not limited to Manafort and Gates. This avenue of investigation by Mueller’s team signals continued legal concerns not only for Skadden, but for Mercury and former employees of the Podesta Group, which dissolved earlier this year. Both firms filed under FARA only last year after their work drew media coverage and attention from prosecutors.

The former head of the Podesta Group, Tony Podesta (also the brother of Hillary Clinton’s former campaign chairman John Podesta) and Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman who helms Mercury, have both already been questioned by prosecutors about their work with Manafort. It’s clear now that Mueller is not done looking at the broader lobbying done on behalf of Ukraine.

Van Der Zwaan is expected to receive a sentence of up to six months in prison as result of the plea bargain, according to District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson. Jackson agreed to an expedited April 3 sentencing date after Van Der Zwaan’s attorney explained that Van Der Zwaan’s wife is expecting to give birth in August. The request, and the government’s agreement, highlighted Van Der Zwaan’s status as a low-level defendant. But his prosecution should certainly not be ignored.

Read Van Der Zwaan’s statement of offense here:

Angry teens swarm into Florida Capitol; demand new gun laws

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — A week after a shooter slaughtered 17 people in a Florida high school, thousands of protesters, including many angry teenagers, swarmed into the state Capitol on Wednesday, calling for changes to gun laws, a ban on assault-type weapons and improved care for the mentally ill.

The normally staid Florida Statehouse filled with students, among them more than 100 survivors of the Feb. 14 attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, on the edge of the Everglades. They held signs, chanted slogans and burst into lawmakers’ offices demanding to be heard.

The teens were welcomed into the gun-friendly halls of power, but the students’ top goal — a ban on assault-style rifles such as the weapon used in the massacre — was taken off the table a day earlier, although more limited measures are still possible.

Many protesters complained that lawmakers were not serious about reform, and they said they would oppose in future elections any legislator who accepts campaign contributions from the National Rifle Association.

“We’ve spoke to only a few legislators and … the most we’ve gotten out of them is, ‘We’ll keep you in our thoughts. You are so strong. You are so powerful,’” said Delaney Tarr, a senior at the high school. “We know what we want. We want gun reform. We want commonsense gun laws. … We want change.”

She added: “We’ve had enough of thoughts and prayers. If you supported us, you would have made a change long ago. So this is to every lawmaker out there: No longer can you take money from the NRA. We are coming after you. We are coming after every single one of you, demanding that you take action.”

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students march to the state capitol. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Outside the building, the crowd burst into chants of “Vote them out!” as speakers called for the removal of Republican lawmakers who refuse to address gun control issues. One sign read, “Remember the men who value the NRA over children’s lives” and then listed Republicans in Florida’s congressional delegation. Other signs said, “Kill the NRA, not our kids” and “These kids are braver than the GOP.”

About 30 people left an anti-gun rally outside Florida’s Old Capitol and began a sit-in protest at the office of four House Republican leaders, demanding a conversation about gun legislation.

“They’re not speaking to us right now. We only asked for five minutes and so we’re just sitting until they speak,” Tyrah Williams, a 15-year-old sophomore at Leon High School, which is within walking distance of the Capitol.

In Washington, students and parents delivered emotional appeals to President Donald Trump to act on school safety and guns. The president promised to be “very strong on background checks,” adding that “we’re going to do plenty of other things.”

And at a news conference Wednesday, Broward County, Florida, Sheriff Scott Israel ordered all deputies who qualify to begin carrying rifles on school grounds. The rifles will be locked in patrol cars when not in use until the agency secures gun lockers and lockers, he said.

“We need to be able to defeat any threat that comes into campus,” Israel said.

The sheriff said the school superintendent fully supported his decision.

Stoneman Douglas’ school resource office was carrying a weapon when the shooting happened last week, but did not discharge his firearm. It’s unclear what role he played in the shooting. The sheriff said those details are still being investigated.

At a town hall held by CNN in Sunrise, Florida, on Wednesday night, thousands of angry students, teachers and parents booed Republican Sen. Marco Rubio when he indicated that he would not support an assault-weapons ban and applauded Dem. Rep. Bill Nelson when he pushed Rubio to work on a bill that they both could support. They also booed a spokeswoman from the NRA when she said the answer was not to ban weapons but to ensure they stay out of the hands of the mentally ill.

Also Wednesday, teens in at least a dozen South Florida schools walked out of class to protest gun violence and commemorate the shooting victims. About 2,000 students, parents, teachers and supporters held hands and chanted outside the Parkland campus.

Megan Mui, a 15-year-old, walked 2 ½ hours from her school to Stoneman Douglas.

“I want to show my support for the changes we need to make so this never happens again,” she said, adding that she would like to see a ban on weapons like the AR-15. “They should be strictly for military” purposes.

The suspect, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, has been jailed on 17 counts of murder. Defense attorneys, state records and people who knew him indicate that he displayed behavioral troubles for years, including getting kicked out of the Parkland school. He owned a collection of weapons.

“How is it possible that this boy that we all knew was clearly disturbed was able to get an assault rifle, military grade, and come to our school and try to kill us?” one 16-year-old student asked the president of the state Senate, Joe Negron.

Students enter a house legislative committee hearing. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Negron did not answer directly. “That’s an issue that we’re reviewing,” he said.

When another lawmaker said he supported raising the age to buy assault-style weapons to 21 from 18, the students broke into applause.

Florida lawmakers have rebuffed gun restrictions since Republicans took control of both the governor’s office and the Legislature in 1999.

Saying the tragedy at the high school was “completely unavoidable,” Republican legislative leaders say they will consider legislation that will likely call for raising the age limit to purchase a rifle in Florida and increasing funding for mental health programs and school-resource officers, the police assigned to specific schools.

Lawmakers are also considering a program promoted by one Florida sheriff that calls for deputizing someone to carry a weapon on campus. Legislators may also enact a waiting period for rifle purchases.

“I am extremely, extremely angry and sad,” 16-year-old student Alfonso Calderon said at a news conference at the Statehouse after meeting with lawmakers. “I don’t know if I will have faith in my state and local government anymore.”

He added, “People are losing their lives and it’s still not being taken seriously.”

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This story has been edited to correct the name of the school to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, instead of Marjorie.

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Associated Press writers Terry Spencer and Kelli Kennedy in Parkland, Freida Frisaro in Miami, Joe Reedy in Tallahassee and Tamara Lush in St. Petersburg contributed to this report.

New sealed charges brought in case against ex-Trump campaign manager

 

WASHINGTON, Feb 21 (Reuters) – New sealed criminal charges have been filed in federal court in the case brought by Special Counsel Robert Mueller against two of President Donald Trump’s former campaign officials, a court record indicated on Wednesday.

The single-page document, filed at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, did not reveal the nature of the new charges in the case involving former campaign manager Paul Manafort and aide Rick Gates.

Its inclusion in a binder in the court clerk’s office that is routinely updated with new criminal charges signals that Mueller’s office may have filed a superseding indictment replacing a previous one from last year against the two men.

Manafort, who was Trump’s campaign manager for almost five months in 2016, and Gates, who was deputy campaign manager, were indicted by Mueller’s office in October. They face charges including conspiracy to launder money, conspiracy to defraud the United States and failure to file as foreign agents for lobbying work they did on behalf of the pro-Russian Ukrainian Party of Regions. Both have pleaded not guilty.

It was unclear when any new charges would be announced publicly.

Last Friday, Mueller’s office revealed in a court filing that it had uncovered “additional criminal conduct” by Manafort in connection with a series of “bank frauds and bank fraud conspiracies” related to a mortgage on his property in Fairfax, Virginia, a Washington suburb.

Mueller is probing Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia and whether the Republican president has unlawfully sought to obstruct the investigation. Russia denies the allegations. Trump says there was no collusion.

The Special Counsel’s office declined to comment on the new court filing. Attorneys for Manafort and Gates could not be immediately reached for comment. A spokesman for Manafort declined to comment.

Last year, U.S. intelligence agencies found that Russia had meddled in the election and that its goals eventually included aiding Trump who won a surprise victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

HOUSE ARREST

Manafort has been under house arrest since he was charged. He and prosecutors have struggled to agree on bail terms to permit him to leave his home, though some of those details have remained under seal.

However, on Friday, Mueller’s office revealed that it is concerned about alleged bank fraud in connection with one of the properties that Manafort pledged as collateral.

In Friday’s filing, prosecutors claimed that Manafort secured his mortgage from the Chicago-based Federal Savings Bank by doctoring profit and loss statements from his lobbying firm and “overstating its income by millions of dollars.”

Prosecutors said they plan to offer the court more evidence about the alleged misconduct at the next bail hearing.

The Federal Savings Bank is led by Stephen Calk, who served on a Trump campaign economic advisory panel. Calk did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mueller on Tuesday stepped up pressure on Manafort and Gates to cooperate in his investigation, unsealing a criminal charge against a Dutch lawyer, Alex van der Zwaan, for lying to Mueller’s investigators.

The charge arises from work that van der Zwaan, the son-in-law of one of Russia’s richest men, did on a 2012 report about the trial of Ukraine’s former prime minister while he was employed as a lawyer at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP.

The report was used to justify the pre-trial detention of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko by her rival, and Manafort’s client, pro-Russian former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

Manafort and Gates lobbied in connection with the rollout of the report, and are accused by Mueller’s office of facilitating secret payments for the report through off-shore bank accounts.

Mueller’s office last Friday also indicted 13 Russians and three Russian companies for their alleged involvement in a criminal and espionage conspiracy to tamper in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.

Hospitals overwhelmed by bombing blitz of Damascus suburbs

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(PhatzNewsRoom / AP)   —   BEIRUT — Doctors in Syria’s rebel-controlled suburbs of Damascus said Wednesday they were unable to keep up with the staggering number of casualties, amid a ferocious bombing campaign by government forces that has targeted hospitals, apartment blocks and other civilian sites, killing and wounding hundreds of people in recent days.

The bombardment has forced many among the nearly 400,000 residents to sleep in basements and makeshift shelters, and has overwhelmed rescue workers who have spent days digging out survivors from the wreckage of bombed out buildings.

Dr. Waleed Awata described a desperate, chaotic scene at the small hospital where he works as an anesthesiologist in the town of Zamalka, one of a cluster of settlements that make up the Damascus suburbs known as eastern Ghouta. The facility, with just 17 beds, received 82 patients on Tuesday night alone, he said.

“We had to give them IVs and treat them on the floor,” the 44-year-old physician told The Associated Press. He said the bodies of two women and two children killed in Wednesday’s shelling were also brought to the hospital.

The hospital was struck Tuesday by barrel bombs — crude, explosives-filled oil drums dropped from helicopters at high altitudes — as well as sporadic artillery fire, Awata said. Like many hospitals in the area, patients had been moved into the basement to shield them from airstrikes. No one was hurt but the hospital’s generator, water tanks and several ambulances were damaged.

Another doctor said he, too, was as the hospital where he works in the town of Saqba when it came under attack Tuesday, killing some of the patients and forcing others to be moved to nearby homes because the airstrikes made it too dangerous to take them to other hospitals.

“By God, I am exhausted in every sense of the word,” said the physician, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared for the safety of relatives in government-controlled areas of Damascus.

The international medical organization Doctors Without Borders said 13 hospitals and clinics that it supports have been damaged or destroyed over the past three days. The International Committee of the Red Cross called for immediate access to tend to the wounded, saying medical personnel in the rebel-held areas were unable to cope amid shortages of medicines and supplies.

Syrian government forces supported by Russian aircraft have shown no signs of letting up their aerial and artillery assault on eastern Ghouta since they stepped up strikes late Sunday as part of a new, determined push to recapture the territory that has been controlled by rebels since 2012.

The U.N. human rights office said in a statement Wednesday that at least 346 people had been killed in eastern Ghouta since the Syrian government and its allies escalated their offensive on the region on Feb. 4. At least 92 of those deaths occurred in just one 13-hour period on Monday, it said, adding that the toll was far from comprehensive, documented in the midst of chaos and destruction. Another 878 people have been wounded, mostly in airstrikes hitting residential areas.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which closely monitors the fighting through activists on the ground, said at least 300 people have been killed since Sunday night alone. The dead included 10 people killed in a new wave of strikes Wednesday on the town of Kafr Batna.

The opposition’s Syrian Civil Defense search-and-rescue group, also known as the White Helmets, reported similar numbers, saying government forces targeted the town with airstrikes, artillery fire and barrel bombs.

Photos and video posted by the Syrian Civil Defense and local activist groups showed scenes resembling the aftermath of an earthquake in Kafr Batna and rescuers searching the rubble for survivors. In one video, workers were seen carrying away a man, his hair and clothes covered in dust and debris, blood running down his face. Sirens wailed in the background and people screamed in panic. Photos showed children being treated for wounds at a hospital and bodies shrouded in white lined up alongside makeshift graves.

The doctor in Saqba said he had returned home Tuesday to rest after two back-to-back days of treating the wounded when a barrage of rockets landed in his neighborhood, shaking his apartment and breaking the windows.

Minutes later, the airstrikes began. The first one hit his house, the doctor said, adding that he couldn’t see anything through the dust as he called out to his pregnant wife and two young children, ages 2 and 1. Neighbors came to their rescue and helped them evacuate to the basement, where they spent the night. They suffered only superficial wounds.

“I’m one of the fortunate ones. I know that not everyone in my place in Ghouta would have been so lucky,” he said.

The U.N.’s regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria, Panos Moumtzis, said he was “alarmed” by the very high number of casualties.

“Ghouta is a 10-mile drive from the hospitals in Damascus and it’s heartbreaking to think of children, women, and elderly who are in need, unable to be evacuated, and in a situation of fear, hiding in basements and not being able to go out,” he said by phone from Amman, Jordan.

Paul Donohoe, the Beirut-based media officer for International Rescue Committee, said his group supports five medical facilities in eastern Ghouta that, because of the severity of the bombardment, were only able to treat the most urgent cases. He said more than 700 people, including some with chronic illnesses that need urgent medical evacuation, were trapped.

“People are terrified. … We need a cease-fire immediately because of the horrible, horrendous number of people who have died so far,” he said.

Rebels in eastern Ghouta retaliated by sending mortar shells crashing Wednesday into Damascus, seat of President Bashar Assad’s power.

The Russian military is again supporting Assad’s forces as it did in the all-out assault on the rebel-held half of Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, in late 2016, which drove the rebels from their enclave there. Tens of thousands of civilians were forced to flee their homes, and many have been unable to return. Hundreds more were killed in indiscriminate shelling and bombardment. A subsequent U.N. investigation charged that the campaign amounted to forced displacement of a population and rose to the level of a war crime.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said earlier this week that the assault on Aleppo could serve as a model for the military campaign in eastern Ghouta, which he said was necessary to uproot al-Qaida-linked militants from the area.

On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, rejected allegations from the U.S. and others that the Russian military shares responsibility, along with Assad’s forces, for civilian casualties in eastern Ghouta, calling such claims “unfounded.”

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Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Bassam Hatoum in Beirut contributed to this report.

Business: World stocks lower after Fed report renews bond yield fears

HONG KONG (AP) — World stock markets generally declined Thursday, tracking Wall Street’s fall after the latest Fed report rekindled fears about inflation and rising bond yields.

KEEPING SCORE: European markets fell in early trading. Britain’s FTSE 100 slid 1 percent to 7,205.21 and Germany’s DAX lost 0.5 percent to 12,384.33. France’s CAC 40 retreated 0.4 percent to 5,279.97. Wall Street was poised to open lower. Dow futures fell 0.3 percent to 24,716.00 and broader S&P 500 futures dipped 0.1 percent to 2,695.80.

ASIA’S DAY: Japan’s benchmark Nikkei 225 index sank 1.1 percent to close at 21,736.44 and South Korea’s Kospi shed 0.6 percent to 2,414.28. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng lost 1.5 percent to 30,965.68 but the Shanghai Composite jumped 2.2 percent to 3,268.56, fueled by pent-up demand from investors in mainland China, where markets reopened after a weeklong holiday. Australia’s S&P ASX 200 edged up 0.1 percent to 5,950.90. Taiwan’s benchmark fell and Southeast Asian indexes were mostly lower.

MEETING MINUTES: The Federal Reserve’s minutes from its most recent policy meeting indicated bullish sentiment among policymakers about the outlook for U.S. and global economic growth, reinforcing expectations of further interest rate rises this year. Wall Street initially welcomed the report but soon U.S. Treasury yields spiked to their highest level in four years, snuffing out the market rally in a sign of renewed worries about rising inflation. Higher yields generally hurt stock prices by making bonds more attractive than equities.

MARKET VIEW: Investor sentiment is “still fairly positive and the global economy is still doing well but when we go into this uncertainty over the Federal Reserve Board’s narrative I think that confusion reigns and that’s the issue we’re having right now,” said Stephen Innes, head of Asian trading at OANDA.

GERMAN GROWTH: Investors get more insight into the global economy with the upcoming release of a monthly survey on German business confidence. The Ifo institute’s report is a closely watched indicator for Europe’s biggest economy. No other major economic data releases are expected Thursday.

ENERGY: Benchmark U.S. crude fell 63 cents to $61.05 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract fell 11 cents to settle at $61.68 per barrel on Wednesday. Brent crude, used to price international oils, lost 49 cents to $65.00 per barrel in London.

CURRENCIES: The dollar weakened to 107.29 yen from 107.77 yen in late trading Wednesday. The euro edged higher to $1.2286 from $1.2284.

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This story has been corrected to show that decline in benchmark oil prices was Wednesday, not Thursday.

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— Federal Reserve officials at their January meeting saw a brightening global economic picture and the effects of recently passed tax cuts raising the prospect for solid growth and continued interest rate increases.

The minutes of the Fed’s Jan. 30-31 discussions showed that the officials were more optimistic about the economy than they had been in December. They noted a stronger U.S. and global economy as well as expectations that the Republican tax cuts enacted in December would boost growth.

The minutes released Wednesday said “a majority of participants noted that a stronger outlook for economic growth raised the likelihood that further gradual policy firming would be appropriate.”

The Fed held rates steady at the January meeting, which was the last to be led by Janet Yellen before her term as chair ended this month and she was succeeded by Jerome Powell. Last month’s meeting preceded the stock market plunge in early February and the budget deal in Congress that will boost spending on military and domestic programs by an additional $300 billion over two years.

Some economists have suggested that the market turbulence and the prospect of higher federal debt — and higher bond yields — might make the Fed more cautious about raising short-term rates.

But others say they think the central bank will discount those developments and focus instead on the stimulative effects of the Republicans’ $1.5 trillion tax cut and the additional spending from the budget deal. The possibility of higher inflation resulting from the tax cuts and spending increases could even make the Fed likelier to tighten credit.

Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics, said he is forecasting four Fed rate hikes this year on the basis of his expectations that inflation will finally rebound this year and the decisions by Congress to cut taxes and boost spending will increase economic growth.

“The minutes … show that officials were firmly on track to raise interest rates again in March, even before the latest incoming data showing stronger wage growth and core inflation,” Ashworth said.

The Fed raised rates three times in 2017 and signaled at its December meeting that it expected to do so three more times in 2018. But many analysts now think the Fed may accelerate its rate increases and boost rates four times this year. That would likely cause consumer rates such as mortgage rates to rise more quickly.

The Fed’s benchmark rate remains at a still-low 1.25 to 1.5 percent.

Investors are awaiting the release Friday of the Fed’s twice-a-year monetary policy report to Congress for further clues to the likely path for rate increases. They will also be listening next week when Powell testifies on Capitol Hill about the report. It will be Powell’s first public appearance since he assumed the Fed’s chairmanship early this month.

Powell, who has been a Fed board member since 2012, was tapped by President Donald Trump to be the next Fed chairman after the president decided not to offer Yellen a second term.

Powell is expected to continue the same gradual approach to raising rates that Yellen followed.

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– Here are the top five things you need to know in financial markets on Thursday, February 22:

1. Global Stocks Slump Amid Fed-Driven Jitters

Global stocks were on the backfoot, after minutes of the Federal Reserve’s January meeting underlined expectations for faster U.S. interest rate hikes, souring appetite for riskier assets around the world.

Asian markets ended broadly lower, with Hong Kong’s Hang Seng and Japan’s Nikkei 225 faring the worst, closing down around 1.5% and 1.1% respectively.

But Chinese markets were in a better mood, returning from their long holiday break with a gain of about 2.2% for the Shanghai blue-chip index.

In Europe, stocks were notably weaker in mid-morning trade. The Stoxx Europe 600 index, the region’s broadest measure of share prices, fell 0.9%, with all sectors and major bourses in negative territory.

Meanwhile, early indications from U.S. futures suggest another day in the red for Wall Street. Dow futures were down nearly 100 points, or around 0.4%, while S&P 500 futures fell 5 points, or about 0.2%. Nasdaq 100 futures lost 30 points, or roughly 0.4%.

U.S. stocks ended a tumultuous session firmly lower on Wednesday, with the Dow erasing gains of nearly 300 points following the release of the hawkish Fed minutes.

2. Dollar, Treasury Yields Stand Tall Thanks To Hawkish Fed View

The U.S. dollar rose to a one-and-a-half-week high against a basket of major currencies, boosted by speculation the Fed will raise interest rates at a faster pace than currently expected.

The dollar index, which gauges the U.S. currency against a basket of six major rivals, reached its best level since Feb. 12 at 90.17 in overnight trade. It was last at 90.05, well above a three-year low of 88.15 touched last week.

Meanwhile, yields on the 10-year bond were last trading at 2.925%. They rose to a four-year peak of 2.957% a day earlier, creeping ever closer to 3% – a huge psychological milestone for bulls and bears alike.

There are a number of Fed speakers Thursday. Markets will especially be watching for comments from New York Fed President William Dudley, who will hold a 10AM ET (1500GMT) briefing about Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, but he could say something beyond that topic, especially after Wednesday’s turbulent trading.

Atlanta Fed President Raphael Bostic speaks at 12:10PM (1710GMT) on the economic outlook, while Dallas Fed President Rob Kaplan speaks at 3:30PM (2030GMT) in Vancouver on trade.

On the data front, the highlight of Thursday’s rather light economic calendar will be weekly jobless claims figures at 8:30AM ET (1330 GMT).

3. Oil Under Pressure Ahead of EIA Weekly Supply Report

The U.S. Energy Information Administration will release its weekly report on oil supplies, which comes out one day later than usual due to Monday’s Presidents’ Day holiday, at 11:00AM ET (1600GMT), amid analyst expectations for a gain of nearly 1.8 million barrels.

The American Petroleum Institute said late Wednesday that U.S. oil inventories fell by 0.9 million barrels last week. There are often sharp divergences between the API estimates and the official figures from EIA.

Oil prices were under pressure, with WTI crude futures dropping 1% to $61.11 per barrel, while Brent crude futures were at $64.91 per barrel, down 0.8%.

4. Bitcoin Slides Back Towards $10,000-Level

The prices of major cryptocurrencies continued lower for the second day in a row, with Bitcoin, Ethereum and Ripple all suffering significant declines, as overall market sentiment waned.

The price of the world’s biggest virtual currency by market cap, Bitcoin lost around 4% to $10,521, after hitting an overnight low of $10,200. After nearly doubling in price since the Feb. 6 low close to $6,000, traders have begun dumping some of their holdings, market participants said.

The news was no better for other major digital currencies, with Ethereum, the world’s second largest cryptocurrency by market cap, falling around 5% to a one-week low of $842.20.

The third largest cryptocurrency Ripple slumped around 4% to trade at $0.96571. It has declined more than 60% so far this year, making it one of the worst performing digital currencies of 2018.

5. UK Economic Growth Revised Lower

Britain’s economy grew more slowly than first thought during the three months to December, official figures showed, raising questions about the economy’s strength as the Bank of England prepares to raise interest rates.

Gross domestic product grew by 0.4% between October and December, the Office for National Statistics said, below economists’ forecasts and a preliminary estimate of 0.5%. In year on year terms, downwardly revised growth of 1.4% was the weakest in more than five years.

The pound lost ground against the dollar, with GBP/USD falling to a one-week low of 1.3880.

Breaking News: Evangelist Billy Graham, who reached millions, dies at 99

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MONTREAT, N.C. (AP) — The Rev. Billy Graham, who transformed American religious life through his preaching and activism, becoming a counselor to presidents and the most widely heard Christian evangelist in history, died Wednesday. He was 99.

Graham, who long suffered from cancer, pneumonia and other ailments, died at his home in North Carolina, spokesman Mark DeMoss told The Associated Press.

More than anyone else, Graham built evangelicalism into a force that rivaled liberal Protestantism and Roman Catholicism in the United States. His leadership summits and crusades in more than 185 countries and territories forged powerful global links among conservative Christians, and threw a lifeline to believers in the communist-controlled Eastern bloc. Dubbed “America’s pastor,” he was a confidant to U.S. presidents from Gen. Dwight Eisenhower to George W. Bush.

In 1983, President Reagan gave Graham the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor. When the Billy Graham Museum and Library was dedicated in 2007 in Charlotte, former Presidents George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton attended.

“When he prays with you in the Oval Office or upstairs in the White House, you feel he’s praying for you, not the president,” Clinton said at the ceremony.

Beyond Graham’s public appearances, he reached untold millions through his pioneering use of prime-time telecasts, network radio, daily newspaper columns, evangelistic feature films and globe-girdling satellite TV hookups. Graham’s message was not complex or unique, yet he preached with a conviction that won over audiences worldwide.

“The Bible says,” was his catch phrase. His unquestioning belief in Scripture turned the Gospel into a “rapier” in his hands, he said.

A tall, striking man with thick hair, stark blue eyes and a firm jaw, Graham was a commanding presence at his crusades. He would make the altar call in his powerful baritone, asking the multitudes to stand, come down the aisles and publicly make “decisions for Christ,” as a choir crooned the hymn “Just As I Am.”

By his final crusade in 2005 in New York City, he had preached in person to more than 210 million people worldwide. No evangelist is expected to have his level of influence again.

“William Franklin Graham Jr. can safely be regarded as the best who ever lived at what he did,” said William Martin, author of the Graham biography “A Prophet With Honor.”

Born Nov. 7, 1918, on his family’s dairy farm near Charlotte, North Carolina, Graham came from a fundamentalist background that expected true Bible-believers to stay clear of Christians with even the most minor differences over Scripture. But as his crusades drew support from a widening array of Christian churches, he came to reject that view.

He joined in a then-emerging movement called New Evangelicalism, that abandoned the narrowness of fundamentalism to engage broader society. Fundamentalists at the time excoriated the preacher for his new direction, and broke with him when he agreed to work with more liberal Christians in the 1950s.

Graham stood fast. He would not reject people who were sincere and shared at least some of his beliefs, Martin said. He wanted the widest hearing possible for his salvation message.

“The ecumenical movement has broadened my viewpoint and I recognize now that God has his people in all churches,” he said in the early 1950s.

In 1957, he said, “I intend to go anywhere, sponsored by anybody, to preach the Gospel of Christ.”

His approach helped evangelicals gain the influence they have today. Graham’s path to becoming an evangelist began taking shape at age 16, when the Presbyterian-reared farmboy committed himself to Christ at a local tent revival.

“I did not feel any special emotion,” he wrote in his 1997 autobiography, “Just As I Am.” ″I simply felt at peace,” and thereafter, “the world looked different.”

After high school, he enrolled at the fundamentalist Bob Jones College, but found the school stifling, and transferred to Florida Bible Institute in Tampa. There, he practiced sermonizing in a swamp, preaching to birds and alligators before tryouts with small churches. He still wasn’t convinced he should be a preacher until a soul-searching, late-night ramble on a golf course.

“I finally gave in while pacing at midnight on the 18th hole,” he said. “‘All right, Lord,’ I said, ‘If you want me, you’ve got me.’”

Graham, who became a Southern Baptist, went on to study at Wheaton College, a prominent Christian liberal arts school in Illinois, where he met fellow student Ruth Bell, who had been raised in China where her father had been a Presbyterian medical missionary.

The two married in 1943, and he planned to become an Army chaplain. But he fell seriously ill, and by the time he recovered and could start the chaplain training program, World War II was nearly over.

Instead, he took a job organizing meetings in the U.S. and Europe with Youth for Christ, a group he helped found. He stood out then for his loud ties and suits, and a rapid delivery and swinging arms that won him the nickname “the Preaching Windmill.”

A 1949 Los Angeles revival turned Graham into evangelism’s rising star. Held in a tent dubbed the “Canvas Cathedral,” Graham had been drawing adequate, but not spectacular crowds until one night when reporters and photographers descended. When Graham asked them why, a reporter said that legendary publisher William Randolph Hearst had ordered his papers to hype Graham. Graham said he never found out why.

The publicity gave him a national profile. Over the next decade, his massive crusades in England and New York catapulted him to international celebrity. His 12-week London campaign in 1954 defied expectations, drawing more than 2 million people and the respect of the British, many of whom had derided him before his arrival as little more than a slick salesman. Three years later, he held a crusade in New York’s Madison Square Garden that was so popular it was extended from six to 16 weeks, capped off with a rally in Times Square that packed Broadway with more than 100,000 people.

The strain of so much preaching caused the already trim Graham to lose 30 pounds by the time the event ended. It remains his longest revival meeting ever.

As his public influence grew, the preacher’s stands on the social issues of his day were watched closely by supporters and critics alike. One of the most pressing was the civil rights movement. Graham was no social activist and never joined marches, which led prominent Christians such as theologian Reinhold Niebuhr to publicly condemn Graham as too moderate. Still, Graham ended racially segregated seating at his Southern crusades in 1953, a year before the Supreme Court’s school integration ruling, and long refused to visit South Africa while its white regime insisted on racially segregated meetings.

In a 2005 interview with The Associated Press, before his final crusade which was held in New York, Graham said he regretted that he didn’t battle for civil rights more forcefully.

“I think I made a mistake when I didn’t go to Selma” with many clergy who joined the historic Alabama march led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “I would like to have done more.” Graham more robustly took on the cause of anti-Communism, making preaching against the atheist regime part of his sermons for years.

As America’s most famous religious leader, he golfed with statesmen and entertainers and dined with royalty. Graham’s relationships with U.S. presidents also boosted his ministry and became a source of pride for conservative Christians who were so often caricatured as backward. But those ties proved problematic when his close friend Richard Nixon resigned in the Watergate scandal, leaving Graham devastated and baffled. He resolved to take a lower profile in the political world, going as far as discouraging the Rev. Jerry Falwell, a founder of the Moral Majority, from mixing religion and politics.

“Evangelicals can’t be closely identified with any particular party or person. We have to stand in the middle, to preach to all the people, right and left,” Graham said in 1981, according to Time magazine. “I haven’t been faithful to my own advice in the past. I will in the future.”

Yet, in the 2012 election, with Graham mostly confined to his North Carolina home, he all but endorsed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. And the evangelist’s ministry took out full-page ads in newspapers support a ballot referendum that would ban same-sex marriage.

His son, the Rev. Franklin Graham, who runs the ministry, said his father viewed the gay marriage question as a moral, not a political, issue. Graham’s integrity was credited with salvaging the reputation of broadcast evangelism in the dark days of the late 1980s, after scandals befell TV preachers Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker.

He resolved early on never to be alone with a woman other than his wife. Instead of taking a share of the “love offerings” at his crusades, as was the custom, he earned a modest salary from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

His ministry was governed by an independent board that included successful Christian businessmen and other professionals — a stark departure from the widespread evangelical practice of packing boards with relatives and yes-men.

“Why, I could make a quarter of a million dollars a year in this field or in Hollywood if I wanted to,” Graham said. “The offers I’ve had from Hollywood studios are amazing. But I just laughed. I told them I was staying with God.”

While he succeeded in preserving his reputation, he could not completely shield his family from the impact of his work. He was on the road for months at a time, leaving Ruth at their mountainside home in Montreat, North Carolina, to raise their five children: Franklin, Virginia (“Gigi”), Anne, Ruth and Nelson (“Ned”).

Anne Graham Lotz has said that her mother was effectively “a single parent.” Ruth sometimes grew so lonely when Billy was traveling that she slept with his tweed jacket for comfort. But she said, “I’d rather have a little of Bill than a lot of any other man.” She died in June 2007 at age 87.

“I will miss her terribly,” Billy Graham said, “and look forward even more to the day I can join her in heaven.”

In his later years, Graham visited communist Eastern Europe and increasingly appealed for world peace. He opened a 1983 convention of evangelists from 140 nations by urging the elimination of nuclear and biological weapons.

He told audiences in Czechoslovakia that “we must do all we can to preserve life and avoid war,” although he opposed unilateral disarmament. In 1982, he went to Moscow to preach and attend a conference on world peace. During that visit, he said he saw no signs of Soviet religious persecution, a misguided attempt at diplomacy that brought scathing criticism from author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, among others.

“It’s worth taking a risk for peace,” Graham contended, although he was clearly stung by the controversy.

Graham’s relationship with Nixon became an issue once again when tapes newly released in 2002 caught the preacher telling the president that Jews “don’t know how I really feel about what they’re doing to this country.”

Graham apologized, saying he didn’t recall ever having such feelings and asking the Jewish community to consider his actions above his words on that tape. Health problems gradually slowed Graham, but he did not cease preaching.

In 1995, his son, Franklin, was named the ministry’s leader. Along with the many honors he received from the evangelical community and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Graham received the $1 million Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1982 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1996.

Graham will be buried by his wife, Ruth, at the Billy Graham Museum and Library.

“I have been asked, ‘What is the secret?’” Graham had said of his preaching. “Is it showmanship, organization or what? The secret of my work is God. I would be nothing without him.”

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Online: Billy Graham Evangelistic Association: http://www.billygraham.org

Billy Graham Center archives: http://www.wheaton.edu/bgc/archives/archhp1.html

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Retired Associated Press Religion Writer Richard N. Ostling contributed to this report.

 

‘I will not shut up,’ Haley tells Palestinian negotiator

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(PhatzNewsRoom / CNN)   —   Pledging she “will not shut up,” US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said Tuesday that the Trump administration will not change its decision to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

But her message at the UN Security Council went unheard by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who opted to leave the chamber prior to Haley’s remarks.

Abbas exited the meeting shortly after he addressed the Security Council — calling out the US for failing to clarify its stance on a two-state solution and keeping the Palestine Liberation Organization on the terror watch list.

“We met with the President of the United States, Mr. Donald Trump, four times in 2017, and we have expressed our absolute readiness to reach a historic peace agreement,” Abbas said in a rare appearance before the Security Council.

© UNTV

© UNTV


“Yet, this administration has not clarified its position. Is it for the two-state solution or the one-state solution?” he added.

Joined by Trump’s Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, Haley’s speech was designed to deliver a direct message to Abbas: “Our negotiators are sitting right behind me, ready to talk. But we will not chase after you. The choice, Mr. President, is yours.”

According to Haley, that choice consists of two different paths.

“There is the path of absolutist demands, hateful rhetoric, and incitement to violence. That path has led, and will continue to lead, to nothing but hardship for the Palestinian people,” Haley said.

“Or there is the path of negotiation and compromise. History has shown that path to be successful for Egypt and Jordan, including the transfer of territory. That path remains open to the Palestinian leadership, if only it is courageous enough to take it,” she added.

Haley also took the opportunity to respond to comments made earlier this month by Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who said she should “shut up” with her criticism of Abbas.

“I will decline the advice I was recently given by your top negotiator, Saeb Erekat. I will not shut up. Rather, I will respectfully speak some hard truths,” Haley said.

But Abbas — who left the room after addressing the council — was not present to hear Haley’s comments.

“I expected Mr. Abbas to stay with us and have a dialogue, unfortunately he’s once again running away,” Israel’s ambassador to the UN Danny Danon said.

“Look what just happened in this room. Mr. Abbas came in, he put his demands on the table, and he left, and he’s expecting you to deliver the results. It’s not going to work that way. The only way to move forward is to have direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians,” he said.

During his remarks, Abbas told the council that the Palestinians have not “rejected negotiations” and believe talks are the only path to peace.

White House spokesman Josh Raffel said that the administration was hoping to hear some new ideas from Abbas and noted the “recognition that Jerusalem is holy to Jews in addition to Muslims and Christians is a step in the right direction.”

“But as Ambassador Haley warned, setting forth old talking points and undeveloped concepts for each of the core issues will not achieve peace,” Raffel added. “We are trying to do the opposite and will continue working on our plan which is designed to benefit both the Israeli and Palestinian people. We will present it when it is done and the time is right.”

Chances of a peace agreement have seemed particularly dim since Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the administration’s decision to move the US embassy there in December — a decision that will not change, Haley said Tuesday.

“The United States knows the Palestinian leadership was very unhappy with the decision to move our embassy to Jerusalem,” Haley said.

“You don’t have to like that decision. You don’t have to praise it. You don’t even have to accept it. But know this: that decision will not change,” she added.

The United States’ role as a broker in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has come under fire following the decision. Top Palestinian officials condemned the move, saying it disqualified the US from playing the role of arbiter. The United Nations voted overwhelmingly to condemn the decision.

There is broad international consensus that the issue of Jerusalem’s status should be resolved mutually toward the very end of negotiations. Many saw the US move as potentially prejudicing the outcome, though the administration has insisted that should not be the case.

Both Israel and the Palestinians claim Jerusalem as their historic capital.

Abbas slammed the embassy move as “unlawful” during his own remarks.

“In a dangerous, unprecedented manner, this administration undertook an unlawful decision which was rejected by the international community to remove the issue of Jerusalem off the table without any reason,” he said.

Last week, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was asked whether the US decision on Jerusalem complicated his work and made the pursuit of an Israeli-Palestinian peace even more difficult.

He did not answer the question, but earlier in the news conference, he had said, “the decision taken on Jerusalem was about the United States and our recognition of Jerusalem and where we choose to place our embassy, but the President was clear also on his statement … that the final status, the final borders in Jerusalem, are up to the parties to decide. So it does not preclude a two-state solution.”

Tillerson also said that the Trump administration’s Middle East peace plan is “fairly well advanced” after several months of work, though he offered no details on when the proposal might be unveiled or what it might contain.

Earlier this month, Trump also declined to give a timeline for releasing the US plan for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, telling an Israeli newspaper that he is not convinced that either party is committed to the process.

“Right now, I would say the Palestinians are not looking to make peace, they are not looking to make peace. And I am not necessarily sure that Israel is looking to make peace,” Trump said. “So we are just going to have to see what happens.” he told Israel Hayom.

Florida shooting survivors in capital, demand action on guns

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Students who survived the Florida school shooting prepared to flood the Capitol Wednesday pushing to ban the assault-style rifle used to kill 17 people, vowing to make changes in the November election if they can’t persuade lawmakers to change laws before their legislative session ends.

About 100 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students arrived at a Tallahassee high school to extended applause late Tuesday after a 400-mile (640-kilometer) trip on three buses. They told the 500 students and parents waiting for them that they are fighting to protect all students.

“We’re what’s making the change. We’re going to talk to these politicians tomorrow. We’re going to talk to them the day after that. We’re going to keep talking, we’re going to keep pushing until something is done because people are dying and this can’t happen anymore,” said Alfonso Calderon, a 16-year-old junior. “You guys are what we’re trying to protect.”

Despite their enthusiasm and determination, the students and their supporters aren’t likely to get what they really want: a ban on AR-15s and similar semi-automatic rifles. Republican lawmakers are talking more seriously about some restrictions, but not a total ban.

An estimated 100 students arrived in Tallahassee to work with Florida State Senator Lauren Book in drafting gun control legislation after a gunman fatally shot 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. (Feb 21)

Instead, they’re discussing treating assault-style rifles like the one suspected gunman Nikolas Cruz is accused of using in the Valentine’s Day attack more like handguns than long guns. That could mean raising the minimum age to purchase the weapon to 21, creating a waiting period and making it more difficult for people who exhibit signs of mental illness from buying the weapon even without a diagnosis.

Democrats attempted to get a bill to ban assault rifles and large-capacity magazines heard on the House floor on Tuesday. Republicans, who dominate the chamber, easily dismissed it. Students who were at the Capitol ahead of their classmates who arrived late Tuesday found Republicans steered the conversation away from gun restrictions.

Rachel Catania, 15, a sophomore at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland said she got a lot of non-answers from the politicians she spoke with Tuesday.

“I know it’s going to be hard, but I know we can do it,” she said. “We’re not going to be the school that got shot, we’re going to be the school that got shot and made something happen. A change is going to happen.”

The students on the seven-hour bus ride checked their phones, watching videos and reading comments on social media about the shooting, some of which accused them of being liberal pawns.

As the grieving Florida students demanded action on guns, President Donald Trump on Tuesday directed the Justice Department to move to ban devices like the rapid-fire bump stocks used in last year’s Las Vegas massacre. It was a small sign of movement on the gun violence issue that has long tied Washington in knots.

“We must do more to protect our children,” said Trump, a strong and vocal supporter of gun rights. He added that his administration was working hard to respond to the Florida rampage.

The students planned to hold a rally Wednesday to put more pressure on the Legislature.

“I really think they are going to hear us out,” said Chris Grady, a high school senior aboard the bus.

The Feb. 14 attack initially appeared to overcome the resistance of some in the state’s political leadership, which has rebuffed gun restrictions since Republicans took control of both the governor’s office and the Legislature in 1999. However, many members of the party still have strong resistance to any gun-control measures.

The Parkland students also plan to meet Wednesday with top legislative leaders, including House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron.

Florida has a reputation for expanding gun rights. Negron sponsored a 2011 bill that Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed into law that banned cities and counties from regulating gun and ammunition sales.

Scott organized three committees to look at school safety, mental health and gun safety issues that met Tuesday and vowed to make changes to better protect students. While Scott told reporters several times that “everything is on the table,” he did not answer whether his proposal would include any bans on any type of weapons.

Instead, Scott said he is interested in making it harder for people who are temporarily committed to obtain a gun. He also pledged to increase spending on school safety programs and on mental health treatment.

Authorities said Cruz, 19, had a string of run-ins with school authorities that ended with his expulsion. Police were repeatedly called to his house throughout his childhood. His lawyers said there were many warning signs that he was mentally unstable and potentially violent. Yet he legally purchased a semi-automatic rifle.

Stoneman Douglas senior Diego Pfeiffer was realistic about what change would happen before the Legislature goes home March 9, but said anything is a good first step.

“The best case scenario is we move a step forward and that’s all we’re asking here. We’re asking to help save student lives,” he said. “Whether it’s funding or mental health or gun safety or any of that sort of stuff — I am pro any of that.”

But he also said if change doesn’t come in the Legislature, he noted he’s now 18 and he has the power of his vote.

“You’re our senators and you’re our representatives for now. If you don’t help us make a change soon, you will be left in the dust,” he said. “I’m happily going to vote for anybody who’s going to be on our side, the side of children’s lives. How can you say no to that?”

Lush reported from St. Petersburg, Florida. Associated Press writers Gary Fineout in Tallahassee and Sadie Gurman in Washington contributed to this report.

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

State Department says NKorea passed up meeting with Pence

WASHINGTON (AP) — Vice President Mike Pence was all set to hold a history-making meeting with North Korean officials during the Winter Olympics in South Korea, but Kim Jong Un’s government canceled at the last minute, the Trump administration said Tuesday.

A potential meeting between Pence and the North Koreans had been the most highly anticipated moment of the vice president’s visit to Pyeongchang, South Korea, where he led the U.S delegation to the opening ceremonies. Ahead of Pence’s visit, Trump officials had insisted they’d requested no meeting with North Korea, but notably left open the possibility one could occur.

There was no indication that a meeting had indeed been planned — and then canceled on short notice — until Tuesday, more than a week after Pence returned to the United States. The State Department said that Pence had been “ready to take this opportunity” but would have used it to insist Pyongyang abandon its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

“At the last minute, DPRK officials decided not to go forward with the meeting,” said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, using an acronym for the North’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “We regret their failure to seize this opportunity.”

That seemed to contradict North Korea’s own claim that it had no interest in meeting with Pence while he was in Pyeongchang.

“We have no intention to meet with the U.S. side during the stay in South Korea,” a Foreign Ministry official was quoted as saying by the North’s official news agency on Feb. 8, the day Pence arrived in South Korea. “We are not going to use such a sports festival as the Winter Olympics as a political lever. There is no need to do so.”

A Trump administration official said the U.S. had expected the meeting to occur Feb. 10, the last day of Pence’s three-day visit to the Olympic Games. The administration did not say exactly how much notice it received from North Korea that the meeting had been called off, nor where the meeting would have taken place or under what conditions.

Nor was it immediately clear whether North Korea scheduled the meeting before the vice president arrived in South Korea or after he had already arrived. The day before landing in Pyeonchang, Pence told reporters that “we haven’t requested a meeting with North Korea.”

“But if I have any contact with them — in any context — over the next two days, my message will be the same as it was here today: North Korea needs to once and for all abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions,” Pence said.

A potential high-level interaction between the U.S. and North Korea, which would have broken years of estrangement between the two countries, loomed prominently over the Winter Games, where North Korea made a last-minute move to send its athletes to compete on a combined team with South Korea, the host of the games.

Since taking office, the Trump administration has been working to increase economic pressure on the North to abandon its nuclear programs while also threatening military action, insisting at the same time that a diplomatic solution would be preferable for all sides. Yet for months the Trump administration had offered inconsistent messages about what conditions would be needed for a tete-a-tete — such as whether North Korea would have to agree that its nuclear program was on the table before the United States would be willing to sit down.

Pence’s office, acknowledging the scrapped meeting on Tuesday, said North Korea had “dangled a meeting” in hopes that doing so would entice the vice president to ease up on the North. Pence’s office suggested that North Korea later bailed because it became clear he would hold firm on the U.S. stance if a meeting did occur.

Pence’s chief of staff, Nick Ayers, said that the planned meeting — first reported by The Washington Post — would have included an “uncompromising message” delivered by Pence about the “maximum pressure campaign” the Trump administration is waging to try to deter North Korea from proceeding with its nuclear program.

“Perhaps that’s why they walked away from a meeting, or perhaps they were never sincere about sitting down,” Ayers said.

Pyongyang sent its nominal head of state, Kim Yong Nam, the highest-level visitor to the South from the North in recent memory. It also sent Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong. Ostensibly, Pence would have met with one or both of those significant North Korean figures.

Pence’s guest for the Olympic Opening Ceremonies was Fred Warmbier, the father of Otto Warmbier, the U.S. student who died in 2017 shortly after he was released from North Korean detention. Pence also announced in the run-up to his visit that the Trump administration was preparing to unveil a particularly tough round of sanctions punishing the North for its nuclear weapons program.

Pence’s trip came after President Donald Trump days earlier hosted a group of North Korean defectors in the Oval Office, including Ji Seong-ho, whom the president had referenced in his State of the Union address. The White House cast that meeting as part of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign to counter the North Korean nuclear program. The plan centers around rallying the international community to further isolate North Korea both diplomatically and economically.

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Associated Press writer Zeke Miller and AP Pyongyang bureau chief Eric Talmadge, on assignment in Pyeongchang, contributed to this report.

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

Israeli media: Netanyahu confidant to testify against him

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JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli media reported Wednesday that one of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s closest confidants has turned state witness and will incriminate him in corruption allegations, the latest in a dizzying series of developments that threaten to topple the beleaguered Israeli leader.

Police would not confirm whether long-time aide Shlomo Filber would testify against Netanyahu, but all the major Israeli media outlets said a deal to do so had been reached.

Filber, the former director of the Communications Ministry under Netanyahu, is under arrest on suspicion of promoting regulation worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Israel’s Bezeq telecom company. In return, Bezeq’s popular news site, Walla, allegedly provided favorable coverage of Netanyahu and his family.

The reports came shortly after another bombshell allegation that a different confidant attempted to bribe a judge in exchange for dropping a corruption case against Netanyahu’s wife. Nir Hefetz, a longtime media adviser to Netanyahu and his family, remains in custody.

The prime minister, who held the communications portfolio until last year, has not yet been named a suspect, though he may soon be questioned. Netanyahu has denied all the charges, calling them part of a media-orchestrated witch hunt that has swept up the police and prosecution as well, and has vowed to carry on.

Still, the string of accusations appears to be taking its toll. Senior Cabinet ministers from his ruling Likud party, who until just recently have marched out dutifully to defend him, have largely gone silent. Netanyahu himself appeared ashen in a video released late Tuesday calling the claims “total madness.”

Aluf Benn, editor-in-chief of the Haaretz daily, wrote Wednesday that “these are the final days of Benjamin Netanyahu’s rule.”

Other leading columnists suggested that if Filber told all he knew, Netanyahu was probably more worried about avoiding prison than staying in office.

“When so many dark clouds accumulate in the sky, the chances of rain increase,” wrote Nahum Barnea in Yediot Ahronot. “His appearance lent the fight he is waging the dimensions of a Shakespearean tragedy. This isn’t the end. It isn’t even the beginning of the end. But it cannot have a different end.”

Filber is one of the closest people to Netanyahu, a loyal aide dating back to when Netanyahu first took office in 1996. Netanyahu’s former chief of staff Ari Harow has also signed a state witness settlement in which he agreed to testify against his former mentor. The collapse of Netanyahu’s inner circle has spawned rampant speculation that he may step down in return for a deal that offers him amnesty.

Avi Gabbay, head of Labor Party, said he was preparing for elections.

“The Netanyahu era is over,” he said. “These are not easy days. Netanyahu’s personal battle for survival has been accompanied by the corrupting of the public service and the harming of the free press.”

The latest probes come days after police announced that there was sufficient evidence to indict Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in two separate cases.

Attorney General Avihai Mandelblit, a Netanyahu appointee, will make the final decision on whether to file charges — a process that is expected to take several months.

Netanyahu is accused of receiving lavish gifts from Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer. In return, police say Netanyahu operated on Milchan’s behalf on U.S. visa matters, legislated a tax break and connected him with an Indian businessman.

In the second case, Netanyahu is accused of offering a newspaper publisher legislation that would weaken his paper’s main rival in return for more favorable coverage.

Attorney admits he lied to Mueller’s federal agents

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WASHINGTON (AP) — A 33-year-old attorney fired last year by a prominent international law firm became the fourth person to plead guilty in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, admitting Tuesday that he lied to federal investigators about his contacts with a Trump campaign official.

Alex van der Zwaan, who worked at the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, admitted in Washington’s federal court Tuesday to making false statements about his interactions with former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates. His plea deal may allow him to avoid prison.

Van der Zwaan’s plea comes on the heels of an extraordinary indictment from Mueller last week that charged 13 Russian individuals and three Russian companies in a hidden but robust social media effort that provoked on-the-ground rallies and sought to meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential election by denigrating Democrat Hillary Clinton and boosting the successful campaign of Republican Donald Trump.

But the charge against the attorney, who is also the son-in-law of a Russian billionaire, does not involve election meddling or relate to the Trump campaign’s operations. Instead, it stems from the special counsel’s investigation into Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chair, and Gates, who is a longtime business associate of Manafort.

Gates and Manafort were indicted last year on charges that they conspired to launder millions of dollars and directed a covert Washington lobbying campaign on behalf of pro-Russian Ukrainian interests. Both men have pleaded not guilty.

On Tuesday, van der Zwaan, a Dutch citizen who authorities say lives in London, admitted to lying to federal investigators while they questioned him about the production of a report that Manafort and Gates are accused of secretly funding by funneling $4 million through an offshore account.

The report, authored by Skadden Arps, focused on the trial of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, a political foe of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, whose political party was a client of Gates and Manafort.

The false statements van der Zwaan admitted to making involved the timing of his last communication with Gates and a person, described as “Person A,” who was a longtime business associate of Manafort and Gates in Ukraine.

According to court papers attached to his plea agreement, the conversations, including some using encrypted applications, occurred in September 2016 and involved possible criminal charges being brought in Ukraine against a former Ukrainian official, Manafort and “Law Firm A,” an apparent reference to Skadden Arps.

The Nov. 3, 2017, questioning of van der Zwaan occurred just days after Manafort’s indictment and, according to court papers, while prosecutors still were investigating potential violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

The charge against van der Zwaan carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison, though sentencing guideline ranges discussed in court placed the more likely punishment from zero to six months.

In addition to the false statements, court papers reveal that in late July or early August of 2012, van der Zwaan, without authorization, gave an advance draft of the Tymoshenko report to a public relations firm working for the Ukrainian Ministry of Justice. In September 2012, he also provided Gates with talking points for use in a public relations campaign.

On Tuesday, Skadden Arps released a statement saying it had fired van der Zwaan last year, and it “has been cooperating with authorities in connection with this matter.”

“The conduct to which Alex has pled guilty is contrary to our values, policies and expectations,” the firm added.

Last year, van der Zwaan married the daughter of Ukrainian-Russian billionaire German Khan, according to the Russian editions of Forbes and Tatler magazines.

Khan, who was born in Kiev, shares control of one of Russia’s biggest financial and industrial investment conglomerates, Alfa Group, with fellow billionaires Mikhail Fridman and Alexei Kuzmichev. Forbes estimates Khan is worth about $10 billion.

Khan and his partners are suing Buzzfeed News over its publication of a dossier of allegations about ties between Trump and Russia. The dossier, which is a collection of memoranda authored by former British spy Christopher Steele, makes several claims about Alfa Group that the partners say are false and defamatory.

Buzzfeed is fighting the lawsuit. The dossier has become a political lightning rod because Steele’s work was funded in part by Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee. Parts of Steele’s work were also used in obtaining a secret warrant to monitor Carter Page, a former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser.

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Associated Press writers Jeff Horwitz and Desmond Butler in Washington and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.

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Read van der Zwaan’s plea agreement: http://apne.ws/3H8TtLg

 

New strikes kill 10 in rebel-held suburbs of Syrian capital

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BEIRUT (AP) — New airstrikes and shelling on the besieged, rebel-held suburbs of the Syrian capital killed at least 10 people on Wednesday, a rescue organization and a monitoring group said.

Syrian government forces and Russian aircraft have shown no signs of letting up their indiscriminate aerial and artillery assault on eastern Ghouta since they stepped up strikes late Sunday.

At least 260 people have been killed since Sunday night, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, including 10 people in a wave of strikes on the town of Kafr Batna on Wednesday.

The Syrian Civil Defense search-and-rescue group, also known as the White Helmets, said government forces targeted the town with airstrikes, artillery fire, and barrel bombs — crude, explosives-filled oil drums dropped from helicopters at high altitudes. It reported that several other people were wounded.

The locally-run Ghouta Media Center reported strikes on Kafr Batna and other towns in the region outside Damascus.

The Russian military is supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces and was instrumental to the all-out assault on the eastern half of Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, in late 2016 to eject rebels from their enclave there.

Tens of thousands of civilians ended up fleeing their homes. Many have been unable to return. Hundreds more were killed in indiscriminate shelling and bombardment. A subsequent U.N. investigation charged that the campaign amounted to forced displacement of a population and rose to the level of a war crime.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said earlier this week eastern Aleppo could serve as a model for eastern Ghouta.

Pro-government forces have been amassing since the weekend on the perimeter of the rebel-held region, a collection of towns and farmland that once provided grain and fruit to the capital before nearly seven years of warfare turned it into a landscape of havoc and despair.

At least 400,000 people have been killed in Syria’s civil war, sparked by a violent crackdown on popular demonstrations against Assad in 2011.

US military wants Russia to get used to it being in the Black Sea

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(PhatzNewsRoom / CNN)   —   The US Navy is ramping up its presence in the Black Sea as part of a bid to counter Russia’s increased presence there, a US military official tells CNN.

It’s a region that has become increasingly fraught with tensions as Russia has reinforced its military forces in the area following its seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, a move rejected by the vast majority of the international community.

On Saturday the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Carney joined the USS Ross in the Black Sea to “conduct maritime security operations,” according to a statement from the US Navy’s 6th Fleet, which oversees US naval operations in the region. It’s the first time two US Navy warships have been in the Black Sea since July 2017.

“Our decision to have two ships simultaneously operate in the Black Sea is proactive, not reactive,” US Navy Vice Adm. Christopher Grady, the commander of 6th Fleet, said in a release announcing the Carney’s arrival.

“We operate at the tempo and timing of our choosing in this strategically important region,” Grady said, adding that “the continued presence of the U.S. Navy in the Black Sea demonstrates our enduring commitment to regional stability, maritime security of our Black Sea partners, and the collective defense of our NATO allies”

On Sunday Russia announced its own naval deployments to the area, with the Russian Ministry of Defense issuing a statement saying that a Russian frigate, the Admiral Essen, and two patrol ships had entered the Black Sea for a series of exercises.

A US military official told CNN that the decision to deploy both the Carney and the Ross to the Black Sea was part of an effort to “desensitize Russia” to the presence of US military forces in the Black Sea, which sits between Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Western Asia.

© Spec. 2nd Class John Herman/U.S. Navy The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Ross (DDG 17) is underway in the Mediterranean Sea. Ross, forward-deployed to Rota, Spain, is conducting naval operations in the U.S. 6th Fleet area of responsibility in support of U.S. national security interests in Europe. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class John Herman/Released)

© Spec. 2nd Class John Herman/U.S. Navy
The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Ross (DDG 17) is underway in the Mediterranean Sea. Ross, forward-deployed to Rota, Spain, is conducting naval operations in the U.S. 6th Fleet area of responsibility in support of U.S. national security interests in Europe. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class John Herman/Released)

 

 

Two US defense officials based in Europe told CNN that Russia is particularly sensitive to US military operations in the Black Sea given recent Russian moves to militarize Crimea.

US and NATO officials have accused Moscow of deploying large numbers of troops and military hardware to Crimea in recent years.

A NATO official told CNN that Russia had deployed submarines to Crimea, saying that while the Western alliance was not looking for a tit-for-tat deployment of military assets to the region, NATO was strengthening its position in southeastern Europe.

“Basically anything new that they have they are putting in Crimea,” a US defense official based in Europe said of Russia’s military activity.

The official told CNN that Russia was “putting in the full panoply of their weapons systems” in Crimea, saying Moscow had stood up a new Army Corps there and was deploying “a lot of their new anti-access missile systems, coastal defense, air defense” systems, in addition to the ground troops.

Given Russia’s increased military presence, US officials say Moscow has become increasingly sensitive to US forces in the region, fearing that US military capabilities could undermine Russia’s advantages.

Another US defense official based in Europe told CNN that the Russians “are very sensitive to our precision strike capability” as well as US ballistic missile defense assets such as the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System, which is deployed on both the Ross and Carney.

“You get ships up in the Black Sea, that makes them feel more threatened,” the official added.

Officials say that same Russian sensitivity explains why Russian aircraft have appeared to perform more unsafe intercepts of US surveillance aircraft in the area than they do in other areas.

US officials say the surveillance flights are necessary to better understand Russian military activity.

“Russia is also not particularly transparent in what they do, which obviously requires us to then be able to monitor them by other means, and reconnaissance is one of those means,” one defense official said.

An armed Russian Su-27 jet performed an unsafe intercept of a US Navy EP-3 surveillance plane while it was in international airspace over the Black Sea last month, flying within 5 feet of the US military aircraft, according to the US Navy. A similar incident took place in the skies over the Black Sea in November.

Following the January incident, the US State Department issued a statement saying that such unsafe actions “increase the risk of miscalculation, danger to aircrew on both sides, and midair collisions.”

The Russian Ministry of Defense said the intercept was “in accordance with international rules for the use of airspace” and that the Russian jet had prevented the US plane from entering claimed Russian airspace near Crimea.

A Europe-based US defense official criticized Russia’s attitude of ownership over the Black Sea, noting that “NATO nations have more coastline by far on the Black Sea than Russia does, so it’s certainly not a Russian lake.”

In addition to Russia, the Black Sea is bordered by NATO members Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania as well as NATO partners Ukraine and Georgia. NATO has boosted its activity in the area as part of its “tailored forward presence,” which is headquartered in Romania, one of only six NATO nations to spend 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense.

Officials say that given the heightened tensions and increased military activity in the region it is important to increase the frequency of US activity in the area and desensitize Russia to the presence of US military forces there, helping to establish rules for how the two countries should safely operate in proximity to each other, as they did in the Cold War.

“In the Cold War we had a dance we did and everybody knew their roles in the dance: You fly your bomber here, I’ll fly my bomber there. You put a ship here, I’ll put a ship there,” another US defense official in Europe told CNN.

“I don’t think we’ve got to that level yet, and so we’re still trying to figure out what that dance looks like in the year 2018 versus what it was back in the Cold War, and I think there are some growing pains, obviously,” the official added.

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Business: World shares mixed after Wall Street sell-off, focus on Fed

TOKYO (AP) — Shares slid Wednesday in Europe after a day of gains in Asia as attention turned to minutes from the latest meeting of the Federal Reserve.

KEEPING SCORE: Germany’s DAX slipped 0.5 percent to 12,432.70 and the CAC 40 of France lost 0.5 percent to 5,265.04. Britain’s FTSE 100 lost 0.2 percent to 7,234.56. Dow futures edged 0.1 percent lower to 24,933.00 and S&P 500 futures also were down 0.1 percent at 2,712.50, pointing to losses on the open in New York.

ASIA’S DAY: Japan’s Nikkei 225 index climbed 0.2 percent to 21,970.81 and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng advanced 1.8 percent to 31,431.89. Australia’s S&P ASX 200 edged 0.1 percent higher to 5,943.70 and the Kospi in South Korea added 0.6 percent to 2,429.65. India’s Sensex gained 0.3 percent to 33,801.94 while shares in Southeast Asia were mixed. Markets in mainland China were closed for a final day of lunar new year holidays.

WALL STREET: Walmart’s stock sank 10 percent on Tuesday, its biggest drop in 30 years, after the retailer reported fourth-quarter results that missed Wall Street’s expectations as its e-commerce sales in the U.S. slowed. The late sell-off erased early gains led by technology companies. Grocery store operators, retailers, health care companies and industrial stocks accounted for much of the market’s slide.

FED WATCH: Investors have been bracing for signs the U.S. central bank might tighten monetary policy in minutes from its Jan. 30-31 policy meeting due out Wednesday. Jitters over inflation remain after the spate of volatility earlier this month.

BONDS LOOMING: Adding to the risks, the rising yield on the 10-year Treasury, which is used as a benchmark for mortgages and other loans, is making bonds more appealing than stocks. It has been rising in recent months from a low of 2.04 percent in September. On Wednesday it was at 2.89 percent. “Some of the broader concerns on investors’ minds right now are looking across to the bond market and seeing the 10-year Treasury starting to approach that 3 percent level,” said Bill Northey, vice president at U.S. Bank Wealth Management.

JAPAN MANUFACTURING: Preliminary results from a survey of manufacturers in February showed indicators at their strongest level since early 2014. The Nikkei Japan Manufacturing PMI (purchasing managers index) was at 54 on a 0-100 scale where reading exceeding 50 indicate expansion. Job creation hit an 11-year high. “Export growth slowed from January’s peak but remained solid,” Bernard Aw, principle economist for IHS Markit said in the report.

ENERGY: Benchmark U.S. crude fell 67 cents to $61.12 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. It rose 24 cents to settle at $61.79 per barrel in New York. Brent crude, used to price international oils, shed 72 cents to $64.53 per barrel. It gained 42 cents to close at $65.25 a barrel in London.

CURRENCIES: The dollar rose to 107.64 yen from 107.33 yen on Tuesday. The euro slipped to $1.2316 from $1.2337.

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– Here are the top five things you need to know in financial markets on Wednesday, February 21:

1. Fed FOMC Meeting Minutes

Investors will be looking closely at the the Federal Reserve minutes of its most recent policy meeting, scheduled for release on Wednesday at 2:00PM ET (1900GMT).

The U.S. central bank left interest rates unchanged following its meeting on Jan. 31, the last under the leadership of Janet Yellen, and said inflation was likely to rise this year. Those comments signaled that borrowing costs will continue to climb under new central bank chief Jerome Powell.

The Fed is scheduled to hold its next policy meeting on March 20-21, with interest rate futures pricing in an 82% chance of a rate hike at that meeting, according to Investing.com’s Fed Rate Monitor Tool.

A recent batch of stronger-than-expected U.S. inflation data has bolstered bets that the Fed could increase interest rates as many as four times this year, more than the three it currently forecasts.

2. Global Markets Mixed

Global markets were mixed on Wednesday, as investors look ahead to the Fed FOMC meeting minutes.

Asian stocks were up on Wednesday, with Japan’s Nikkei 225 rising 0.21% while South Korea’s KOSPI increased 0.60% and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng surged 1.81%

In Australia, stocks were flat. Chinese markets will open Thursday after being closed most of the week for the New Year.

In Europe, stocks were down. In Germany the DAX fell 0.88% as of 5:13 AM ET (10:13 GMT) while France’s CAC 40 decreased 0.67% and in London the FTSE 100 lost 0.34%. Meanwhile Spain’s IBEX 35 slumped 11.19% and the pan-European Euro Stoxx 50 inched down 0.82%.

Wall Street closed in the red on Tuesday, as the owner of America’s largest brick-and-mortar store, Wal-Mart Stores Inc (NYSE:WMT), had its worst day since 1988. Shares of the retailer fell over 10% after it reported a fall in profit and online sales amid pressure from online retailer Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN).

U.S. futures pointed to a lower opening bell. The S&P 500 futures fell 0.17% while Dow futures decreased 0.22%. Meanwhile tech heavy Nasdaq 100 futures was down 0.09%.

3. Dollar Rises Ahead of Fed Minutes

The U.S. dollar rose to a one-week high ahead of the Fed minutes.

Any sign of a faster pace of monetary tightening could boost the greenback, which has been weakened in recent months.

Concern over corporate tax cuts and increased government spending impacting the U.S. fiscal deficit has weighed on the dollar. The deficit is expected to surge to nearly $1 trillion in 2019.

The U.S. dollar index, which measures the greenback’s strength against a basket of six major currencies, was up 0.12% to 89.75.

The index has climbed higher after it sank to a low of 88.15 on Friday, the weakest since December 2014.

4. UK Jobless Rate Inches Up

The UK unemployment rate rose from its lowest level in December, undermining the possibility of the Bank of England rising interest rates at its next policy meeting.

The Office for National Statistics said that the rate of unemployment rose to 4.4% in the three months to December, up from 4.3%.

Meanwhile, the average earnings index, including bonuses, rose by a seasonally adjusted 2.5% in the three months to December, unchanged from the preceding three-month period.

Excluding bonuses, wages rose by 2.5%, following a 2.3% increase in the three months to November.

The numbers show that inflation has increased at a higher rate than wage growth, as a weaker pound has put pressure on UK households.

5. Bitcoin Struggles to Stay Over $11,000

Bitcoin rose after losing steam in Asian trading on Wednesday as it struggles to stay over $11,000.

Bitcoin was trading at $11,170 on the Bitfinex exchange, gaining ground from its earlier losses but still down 1.44% from its daily high of $11,724.

The cryptocurrency has rebounded after falling to a two month low of $6,000 on February 6 amid regulatory concerns. Still, the price is 20% lower for the year to date.

Digital currencies have been bolstered by recent comments from regulators on the need for balancing regulation with consumer protection.

In South Korea, Financial Supervisory Service chief Choe Heung-sik said that there was a need for normalization rather than increased regulation. Last week the South Korean government said it would allow the trading of cryptocurrencies rather than an outright ban, which was welcome news to investors.

6. Black Business Expo showcases contributions of Spokane’s African-American entrepreneurs

When Shania Wright’s husband was stationed at Fairchild Air Force Base, she struggled to find hair dressers familiar with African-American styles and who stocked products suitable for her hair.

The experience led to WrightWay Beauty Supplies, which opened in September at 2103 N. Division St. The store – owned by Wright and her husband, Michael – sells ethnic beauty supplies.

“We’re solving a problem for African-American women,” Michael Wright said. “We sell wigs, and we do braiding and weaves. We also sell beauty supplies, shampoos, conditioners and oils.”

On Sunday, the couple will be promoting their store at the Black Business Expo, which runs 2 to 5 p.m. at Emmanuel Family Life Center, 631 S. Richard Allen Court, in Spokane’s East Central neighborhood.

The expo is part of Black History Month observations. It’s designed to showcase the economic contributions of African-American entrepreneurs in the greater Spokane area, said Sandra Williams, editor and publisher of Black Lens News, a local African-American newspaper and one of the event’s sponsors.

About 30 local companies will be featured at the expo. The businesses run the gamut from traditional black-owned enterprises such as barber shops and restaurants, to urban farmers, real estate agents and birthing coaches. To participate, a company must be 50 percent African-American owned.

Nationally, blacks make up 12 percent of the U.S. labor force, but represent only 2 percent of business ownership, according to a 2016 report published by the Center for Global Policy Solutions.

When people of color start companies, they often hire other people of color, which promotes employment among minority populations, Williams said. For minorities, however, difficulties securing capital, lack of business experience and lower educational levels can be barriers to starting companies, the report said.

Sunday’s event is designed to help local African-American business owners network among themselves and also introduce them to the greater Spokane community. Williams picked Sunday for the expo, because she said it’s typically a day off for small-business owners.

Williams started Black Lens News three years ago. She ended up with handfuls of business cards from black-owned establishments, but couldn’t find any type of local, black-owned business directory that new entrepreneurs or prospective clients could consult.

“Running a business by itself is challenging. Being a person of color launching a business is challenging,” Williams said.

When minority business owners can share information, it creates a community that supports entrepreneurial efforts, she said.

Other sponsors of Sunday’s Black Business Expo are the Spokane Ministers’ Fellowship, the Spokane NAACP and Spokane’s African American, Hispanic, Asian and Native American Business and Professional Association.

The Wrights, who are both Air Force veterans, were at Fairchild from 2006 to 2012. After Michael Wright’s retirement, the couple moved back to Spokane from Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls to launch WrightWay Beauty Supplies.

They picked a Division Street location for the store so they could benefit from the exposure of high-volume vehicle traffic.

They also visited local black churches to introduce themselves to potential customers.

The couple also promote other black-owned companies at WrightWay Beauty Supplies, Shania Wright said. Other business owners leave their cards, which the Wrights share with their customers.

“The networking is starting to grow,” she said. “There’s a woman who runs a nursing home. She came in and talked to customers.”

The Wrights also used word of mouth to get information out about a black-owned photography business and a travel agency.

Williams said the entire Spokane community benefits when minority-owned businesses succeed and grow.

“If Spokane can be a place where everyone thrives, it increases the economic base for everyone,” she said.

Analysis: Rob Porter’s Charisma and Ambition Disguised Flare-ups of Anger

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(PhatzNewsRoom / NYT)   —   WASHINGTON — People who crossed paths with Rob Porter in Harvard classrooms or the hallways of Capitol Hill describe him in glowing terms: He was articulate enough to be secretary of state. Intelligent enough to be a Supreme Court justice. Driven enough to be president.

Until Mr. Porter resigned as a White House aide amid domestic abuse accusations, plunging the Trump administration into a scandal over the vetting of West Wing hires, most were certain he would have his pick of positions.

Described as charismatic, intense and privileged, Mr. Porter, the son of Roger B. Porter, a Harvard professor and a former domestic policy adviser to President George Bush, spent years building on his pedigree. He grew up Mormon in a family with close ties to the elite Mormon enclave of Belmont, Mass., collected degrees from Harvard and Oxford University and amassed prestigious job titles.

Though many described him as composed and calm, others in his ultracompetitive workplaces described him as tightly wound, revealing occasional glimpses of how angry he could become, particularly if anyone got in his way. A former White House official said the temper flare-ups left him with the sense that Mr. Porter was more volatile and troubled than his clean-cut image let on.

“He’s smarter than most people,” Taylor West, who attended Harvard with Mr. Porter and saw him as a mentor, said in an interview. “He was a natural leader. But the No. 1 North Star for Rob Porter was ambition.”

After a series of jobs in the Senate, Mr. Porter, 40, was hired as President Trump’s staff secretary in January 2017. He had access to some of the same sensitive information Mr. Trump saw, but lacked a permanent security clearance.

His resignation, on Feb. 7 after two ex-wives accused him of abuse and photos surfaced of one with a black eye she said he had given her, prompted scrutiny over White House aides’ clearances. Some, including Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, may now have their access to closely held materials revoked as investigations into their backgrounds continue.

Mr. Porter has denied abusing his ex-wives, and has instead suggested that the women have not shared the whole story. Several of his friends and former colleagues in Congress and in the White House share this belief. Mr. Porter has also privately told people that he believes the security clearance debacle says more about the dysfunction at the White House than it does about his behavior.

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© Jonathan Ernst/Reuters Former White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter with President Trump at Bedminster, New Jersey, in August.

Mr. Porter declined to comment for this story. This account is based on interviews with two dozen people, many of whom would not be named because they still work in politics, were not authorized to comment or were reticent to speak publicly in his defense.

The elder Mr. Porter, a former aide to Presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan and a Harvard professor since 1977, set high expectations for his oldest son, who followed his father’s blueprint closely. Both were Rhodes scholars.

The family spent years gathering for dinners and events at the red brick Dunster House dormitory on the Harvard campus, where the elder Mr. Porter was a master. Mr. Porter’s mother, who died in 2017, was the faculty dean of Dunster House, along the banks of the Charles River.

The family kept a home in Belmont, Mass., the town where the construction of a 69,600 square-foot Mormon temple was completed in 2000. The Porters socialized with other prominent Mormon families, full of high-achieving children and known to compete with each other. Mr. Porter and his three siblings were competitive, too — his youngest sister was the only Porter sibling not to attend Harvard.

Tally Zingher, another former classmate, described Mr. Porter as “an upstanding guy driven by morals.”

“My memory of him is ‘totally positive golden boy,’” Ms. Zingher added.

In 2000, Mr. Porter started dating his first wife, Colbie Holderness, who publicly accused him this month of abuse.

Others from his time in school or professional settings described being stunned at the allegations. Melissa Langsam Braunstein, a former vice president of the Harvard Republican Club who overlapped with Mr. Porter there, said he had a picture-perfect image at Harvard.

“It’s unsettling, shocking and surprising,” she said in an interview.

Mr. Porter graduated from Harvard in 2002 with a degree in government. According to the Harvard Gazette, a magazine published by the university, he chaired the university’s chapter of Students for Bush, in addition to his work with the Republican Club.

A year after he graduated, Mr. Porter and Ms. Holderness were married. The two were in love but sometimes argued over Mr. Porter’s ambition, according to two people who were close to both during their marriage. In 2005, Ms. Holderness said that Mr. Porter punched her while the two were on vacation in Europe, and that he later took photos of a black eye she sustained during their argument. In 2008, Mr. Porter and Ms. Holderness divorced.

By late 2009, he was married to Jennifer Willoughby. Months later, she filed a restraining order against him for trying to enter her apartment while they were separated.

Through his personal struggles, Mr. Porter had support from his father, whose influence in Washington helped him secure jobs there.

“His dad had a very strong hand in decisions that he made,” Ms. Willoughby recalled, “and also sometimes made connections for Rob.” She, like his first wife, is Mormon as well.

When he arrived on Capitol Hill in 2011, Mr. Porter was seen by many who knew him as confident and capable. Several colleagues say Mr. Porter was a consummate professional. As a chief counsel for Senator Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, Mr. Porter reprimanded an aide who made an inappropriate comment toward a woman who worked in the office, according to two people who worked there at the time.

“I’ve known Rob for several years, as both a friend and a co-worker,” Ellen James, who worked with Mr. Porter in Mr. Lee’s office, wrote in an email. “I was never aware of any of the allegations that have become public over the last few days. To my knowledge, he always treated everyone with the utmost respect and professionalism in the workplace.”

Kevin Smith, a spokesman for Senator Rob Portman, the Republican of Ohio in whose office Mr. Porter briefly worked as general counsel, said in a statement that no indication of inappropriate behavior was seen during Mr. Porter’s time there.

After working in Mr. Portman’s office, Mr. Porter took the chief of staff job with Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, in 2014. According to two aides who worked with him there, Mr. Porter was arrogant and overly ambitious, even in a town that seems to have limitless capacity for both. He would occasionally lose his temper and become red in the face when he found himself on the losing end of a workplace argument, the aides said.

As he worked his way through Capitol Hill, Mr. Porter went through his second divorce in 2013. At some point during that separation, friends say Mr. Porter began to be less active within his Mormon community and began drinking, which is discouraged in the faith.

Two friends of Mr. Porter’s, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation for appearing to defend him, said that Mr. Porter had at times struggled to reconcile a stringent religious background with his failed marriages. To be divorced once in the Mormon faith is unusual, they both said, and to be divorced twice is rare.

Usually private about his personal life — few who knew him, including his colleagues at the White House, were even aware he had been married twice — he mentioned to at least one former colleague on Capitol Hill that he would never marry a Mormon woman again.

At the White House, Mr. Porter was seen a capable, if somewhat overeager, presence. The former White House official said that Mr. Porter had been discussed as a possibility as deputy chief of staff, but it was unclear whether his issues obtaining a security clearance prevented him from advancing.

Questions remain over who knew what, and when, about the investigation into Mr. Porter’s background, including John F. Kelly, the chief of staff, and Donald F. McGahn II, the White House counsel. Late last year, a distraught girlfriend told Mr. McGahn that Mr. Porter had anger problems, according to people familiar with the conversation.

Mr. McGahn, who knew the woman, raised the issue with Mr. Porter, but did not follow up.

Students head to Florida capital to press for gun law change

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PARKLAND, Fla. (AP) — A hundred Stoneman Douglas High School students are busing 400 miles to Florida’s capital Tuesday to urge lawmakers to act to prevent a repeat of the massacre that killed 17 students and faculty last week.

The students plan to hold a rally Wednesday in hopes that it will put pressure on the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature to consider a sweeping package of gun-control laws, something some GOP lawmakers said Monday they would consider. Shortly after the shooting, several legislative leaders were taken on a tour of the school to see the damage firsthand and they appeared shaken afterward.

“I really think they are going to hear us out,” said Chris Grady, a 19-year-old senior who is going on the trip. He said he hopes the trip will lead to some “commonsense laws like rigorous background checks.”

The attack last Wednesday seemed to overcome the resistance of some in the state’s leadership, which has rebuffed gun restrictions since Republicans took control of both the governor’s office and the Legislature in 1999. However, there is still strong resistance by many in the party to any gun-control measures, leaving the fate of new restrictions unclear.

Candlelight vigils were held in a number of Florida locations on Monday night, to honor the victims of last week’s deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. (Feb. 20)

Students also have vowed to exert pressure on Congress as the aftermath of the rampage resonates beyond Florida and from coast to coast. Hundreds of chanting protesters converged Monday on a downtown Los Angeles park, demanding tougher background checks and other gun-safety measures after the shooting. Some signs held up by the California demonstrators read, “Your Children Are Counting On You.”

Sen. Bill Galvano, a Republican and the incoming Florida senate president, said the state Senate was preparing a package that would include raising the age to purchase any firearm to 21, creating a waiting period for purchasing any type of firearm, banning bump stocks that can allow semi-automatic guns to spray bullets quickly and creating gun-violence restraining orders.

Authorities said suspect Nikolas Cruz, 19, had a string of run-ins with school authorities that ended with his expulsion. Police also were repeatedly called to his house throughout his childhood. Cruz’s lawyers said there were repeated warning signs that he was mentally unstable and potentially violent. Yet he legally purchased a semi-automatic rifle.

“We need to make sure everything is working and to learn from the experience,” said Galvano, who was among those who visited the school.

The Senate is also considering boosting spending on mental health programs for schools and giving law-enforcement greater power to involuntarily hold someone considered a danger to themselves. The body will also look at a proposal to deputize a teacher or someone else at school so they are authorized to have a gun.

Galvano said senators want to examine ways to protect schools that do not have resource officers — often armed law enforcement officers — on site.

State House leaders and Gov. Rick Scott also are considering possible changes to firearms rules but have not given any details. Scott planned meetings Tuesday on school safety, and said he would announce proposals on mental health issues later in the week.

Still, some Republicans questioned whether additional gun restrictions are the answer.

“I really don’t want to see this politicized into a gun debate,” Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley.

Referring to gun-control advocates, he said: “Sometimes I wish they were right, that this would fix it, but it won’t … We have a terrible problem with obesity, but we’re not banning forks and spoons.”

Democrats believe raising the age limit and creating a waiting period to buy rifles isn’t enough.

“That’s unacceptable. That’s a joke,” said Democratic Sen. Gary Farmer of Broward County. “I don’t see that as a restriction. It never should have been that an 18-year-old could buy an assault weapon. No Floridians should be able to buy an assault weapon.”

Cruz legally purchased at least seven long guns, including an AK-47-style rifle he bought less than a month ago, a law enforcement official said Monday. The official is familiar with the investigation but isn’t authorized to discuss it and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Federal law allows those 18 and over to buy rifles, and Cruz passed background checks necessary to obtain the weapons.

Cruz made his first appearance in court Monday. Wearing a prison jumpsuit, he kept his head down and did not appear to make eye contact with the judge or others in the courtroom, though he responded briefly to someone on the defense team. A previous appearance was by a video connection from jail.

His lawyers have said he will plead guilty if prosecutors agree not to pursue the death penalty. No decision has been made on that.

Since the attack, students from the school have become increasingly vocal in their demands for gun-control measures. Many have pointed out politicians who take financial support from the National Rifle Association, and some have lashed out at President Donald Trump, saying he was busy blaming Democrats for failing to pass gun restrictions while taking no action of his own.

After staying largely mum in the last few days about the massacre and the escalating debate about weapons, Trump said Monday that he was supportive of a bipartisan effort to strengthen federal background checks for gun purchases.

Students are also calling for anti-gun violence demonstrations in Washington and other cities March 24.

Organizers behind the anti-Trump Women’s March called for a 17-minute nationwide walkout by teachers and students on March 14, and a gun-control group was calling for a rally to ban assault weapons Wednesday at the Florida Capitol.

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Anderson reported from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Farrington reported from Tallahassee, Florida. Associated Press Writer Gary Fineout in Tallahassee contributed to this report.

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

Top Democrat suggests proof of Trump-Russia collusion still to come

(PhatzNewsRoom / The Guardian)   —   The top Democrat on the House intelligence committee suggested on Monday that Robert Mueller may still present evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, despite last week’s indictments stating that such connections relating to those cases were merely “unwitting”.

“It’s very clear from this 37-page indictment that this was a massive Russian operation and part of its design was to promote the campaign of Donald Trump,” Schiff said.Adam Schiff, a frequent foe of Donald Trump’s whom the president called “the leakin’ monster of no control” at the weekend, told WNYC he felt that a web of collusion had already been established.

The indictment, he said, “tore any veneer off the argument that the Russians were not involved, and were involved for the purpose of helping him and hurting others.”

On Friday, Mueller’s office revealed that 13 Russians and three Russian entities, including one named the Internet Research Agency, had been indicted by a grand jury.

The allegations included claims that the Russians’ operations “included supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J Trump … and disparaging Hillary Clinton.”

But the indictment did not allege that Trump’s team had knowingly colluded, only that Russian operatives “communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump campaign”.

Asked if he believed the investigation would claim “witting participation” with Russian by anyone working for the president, Schiff said it was clear that the president was aware of Russia’s hacking and dumping of documents because the intelligence community had said in October 2016 it was being carried out at Putin’s behest.

“Then-candidate Trump used this information on a daily basis to denigrate Hillary Clinton … and we know there were conversations about getting dirt on Hillary Clinton between very high levels of the campaign, including the president’s own son, son-in-law and campaign manager met in the secret meeting at Trump Tower where the Russians had offered to send someone out from Moscow … who was part of the Russian government effort to help elect Donald Trump.”

Schiff claimed the Russians communicated “something very similar” to George Papadopoulos, the former member of Trump’s foreign policy advisory panel who has pleaded guilty to making false statements to FBI agents about contacts he had with the Russian government.

“What we don’t know is: what did Papadopoulos share with others in the campaign and what was the message that went back from the Trump tower to the Kremlin? ‘We’d love to have your help, although what you delivered at that meeting wasn’t useful’?

Schiff pointed out that “very shortly after that meeting was when the dumping of stolen documents first began”.

Trump initially greeted Mueller’s indictments with glee, claiming that the failure to charge anyone in his political orbit with collusion was an exoneration. But over the weekend, he launched a multi-target Twitter attack blaming Democrats for Russian meddling and claiming the investigations were playing into Moscow’s hands.

“They are laughing their asses off in Moscow. Get smart America!” Trump tweeted on Sunday.

But Schiff said it was important to realize that the indictments only covered “one facet of the Russian active measures campaign … the use of social media to try to motive people to get out and protest for or against different candidates.

“There was a whole different vector the Russian used. They hacked democratic institutions, they leaked stolen documents, and that’s not covered at all in this indictment.”

Schiff said there may be good reason why Mueller is choosing to separate aspects of his investigation, if indeed he is.

“The fact that he didn’t allege in one active and willing participation by the Trump campaign doesn’t mean he won’t in the other,” said Schiff.

Police suspect Netanyahu associate of trying to bribe judge

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli police on Tuesday said they suspect a close confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of offering a sitting judge a top posting in exchange for dropping a corruption case against Netanyahu’s wife.

The development marks the latest scandal to engulf the beleaguered Israeli leader’s inner circle. Netanyahu already stands accused of bribery in two other cases.

Nir Hefetz, a former spokesman of the Netanyahu family, is suspected of suggesting to Judge Hila Gerstel that she could be appointed attorney general if she killed a pending case against Sara Netanyahu’s excessive household spending.

The offer never materialized.

Earlier, police named Hefetz as one of two Netanyahu associates under arrest for their suspected role in a separate wide-ranging corruption probe.

Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing and says the latest charges against him were merely a continuation of a wider media orchestrated witch hunt against him and his family.

“Nir Hefetz never presented this ludicrous offer to the prime minister and his wife, he was never asked by them to make such an offer and we can’t imagine that Hefetz would even imagine such a thing,” Netanyahu said.

Earlier Tuesday, with an initial gag order lifted, police identified Hefetz and Shlomo Filber, the former director of the communications ministry under Netanyahu, as the two suspects in promoting regulation worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Israel’s Bezeq telecom company, in return for favorable coverage of Netanyahu in a highly popular subsidiary news site.

Netanyahu, who held the communications portfolio until last year, has not yet been named as a suspect in the case but is expected to be questioned.

Bezeq’s controlling shareholder Shaul Elovitch is also in custody, along with his wife, son and other top Bezeq executives. Former journalists at the Walla news site have attested to being pressured to refrain from negative reporting of Netanyahu.

The new probe comes days after police announced there was sufficient evidence to indict Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in two separate cases.

Netanyahu is accused of receiving lavish gifts from Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer. In return, police say Netanyahu had operated on Milchan’s behalf on U.S. visa matters, legislated a tax break and connected him with an Indian businessman.

In the second case, Netanyahu is accused of offering a newspaper publisher legislation that would weaken his paper’s main rival in return for more favorable coverage.

Netanyahu has long accused the Israeli press corps of being biased against him and has taken steps to counter it by promoting more sympathetic outlets to him.

Ex-workers at Russian ‘troll factory’ trust US indictment

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ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — While Russian officials scoff at a U.S. indictment charging 13 Russians with meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, several people who worked at the same St. Petersburg “troll factory” say they think the criminal charges are well-founded.

Marat Mindiyarov, a former commenter at the innocuously named Internet Research Agency, says the organization’s Facebook department hired people with excellent English skills to sway U.S. public opinion through an elaborate social media campaign.

His own experience at the agency makes him trust the U.S. indictment, Mindiyarov told The Associated Press. “I believe that that’s how it was and that it was them,” he said.

The federal indictment issued Friday names a businessman linked to President Vladimir Putin and a dozen other Russians. It alleges that Yevgeny Prigozhin — a wealthy restaurateur dubbed “Putin’s chef,” paid for the internet operation that created fictitious social media accounts and used them to spread tendentious messages.

The aim of the factory’s work was either to influence voters or to undermine their faith in the U.S. political system, the 37-page indictment states.

Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Monday that while the indictment focuses on “Russian nationals,” it gives “no indication that the Russian government was involved in this in any way.” Peskov reasserted that Moscow did not interfere in the U.S. election.

Mindiyarov said he failed the language exam needed to get a job on the Internet Research Agency’s Facebook desk, where the pay was double than the domestic side of the factory. The sleek operation produced content that looked as if it were written by native English speakers, he said.

“These were people with excellent language skills, interpreters, university graduates,” he said, “It’s very hard to tell it’s a foreigner writing because they master the language wonderfully.”

The English test he took asked for a writing sample about Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the U.S. presidential vote, Mindiyarov recalled.

“I wrote that her chances were high and she could become the first female president,” he told the AP.

Mindiyarov said he took a job at the troll factory in late 2014 because he was unemployed and curious. At the time, about 400 people occupied four floors of an office building and worked 12-hour shifts, he said. Most of the operation focused on the separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine and Western sanctions against Russia, not political races in the West, he said.

The factory had video and photo departments, Mindiyarov said. The trolls received their wages in cash and operated in teams as they tried to foment public interest with fake discussions, he said.

“We worked in a group of three where one played the part of a scoundrel, the other one was a hero, and the third one kept a neutral position,” he said. “For instance, one could write that Putin was bad, the other one would say it was not so, and the third would confirm the position of the second while inserting some picture.”

After only a couple of months, Mindiyarov quit. He said he hated the work.

“The world in those comments was divided into black and white: America was bad, Putin was good,” he said. “They praised whatever had to do with Putin and criticized anything related to America, ‘gay’ Europe, and so on. That was the principle of the work.”

Another former worker at the St. Petersburg workshop, Lyudmila Savchuk, also described it as an efficient venture that churned out posts around the clock.

Like Mindiyarov, Savchuk was employed in the domestic department of the “troll farm,” not the international division. Nevertheless, she said her experience there corresponds with what she knows of the allegations made by American authorities.

“The posts and comments are made to form the opinion of Russian citizens regarding certain issues, and as we see it works for other countries, too,” Savchuk told the AP.

Paid trolls used carefully crafted fake identities that made them come across like real people, she said.

“The most important principle of the work is to have an account like a real person,” Savchuk said. “They create real characters, choosing a gender, a name, a place of living and an occupation. Therefore, it’s hard to tell that the account was made for the propaganda.”

Prigozhin, aka “Putin’s Chef,” owned restaurants and catering businesses that hosted the Russian leader’s dinners with foreign dignitaries. He used his relationship with Putin to expand his business to include services for the Russian military.

“I’m not at all upset that I’m on this list,” Prigozhin said of the indictment in comments carried by Russia’s state RIA Novosti news agency. “If they want to see the devil, let them see him.”

Along with producing social media supporting Donald Trump’s candidacy and disparaging Clinton, the Internet Research Agency purchased online advertisements using identities stolen from Americans and staged political rallies while posing as American political activists, the indictment alleges. The agency also paid people in the U.S. to promote or ridicule the candidates, the document states.

Analysts and journalists have found that some of the Russian-run accounts accrued national followings in the United States, while far-right Americans and several members of Trump’s team retweeted posts created in St. Petersburg.

It reportedly used doctored videos to spread false reports about a supposed Islamic State attack on a chemical plant in Louisiana and a purported case of Ebola in the state of Georgia. Seeking to sow division and mistrust ahead of the U.S. election, the agency apparently whipped up a fake video of an African-American woman being shot dead by a white police officer in Atlanta.

“All of the trolls knew that it’s Prigozhin who stands behind this all,” Mindiyarov, the ex-commenter who left the organization in early 2015, said. “But nobody had any evidence.”

He said that the employees disliked Prigozhin, in part because he didn’t set up a cafeteria or canteen in the troll factory building even though he owned a sprawling catering business.

“People had to bring food boxes from home,” Mindiyarov said. “Prigozhin did not treat the trolls well. He could at least feed them.”

While the U.S. indictment mentioned 13 people, many more must have been involved in the effort, according to Savchuk.

“Here they laugh about the news that 13 people could influence the elections in the U.S., but there were many more people doing that,” she said. “These technologies are unbelievably effective.”

She added that she learned how effective the troll farm’s work was when she saw regular people sharing opinions and information that she knew were planted by trolls.

“They believed it was their own thoughts, but I saw that those thoughts were formed by the propagandists,” she said.

The Internet Research Agency has reportedly changed locations, moving to another business center in the northern part of St. Petersburg. It’s unclear whether it still goes by that name.

Andrey Zakharov, an investigative journalist with Russian RBC outlet who co-reported an investigation of the troll factory, said the list of indicted Russians looked “quite random” to him.

“They simply included in it all the names they could find,” Zakharov told the AP. “According to our information, some of these people don’t work at the factory now and did not even work there during the (U.S.) elections. This does not look like a result of a solid investigation.”

Although the U.S. indictment is detailed, it makes assertions without providing evidence outright. Russian officials have seized on that, including Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who dismissed the charges as “just blabber.”

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Mstyslav Chernov in St. Petersburg, Iuliia Subbotovska, Nataliya Vasilyeva and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Raphael Satter in Paris contributed to this report.

Activists: 98 dead in assault on rebel-held Damascus suburb

BEIRUT (AP) — Intense Syrian government shelling and airstrikes of rebel-held Damascus suburbs killed at least 98 people in what was the deadliest day in the area in three years, a monitoring group and paramedics said Tuesday.

A day after Monday’s government barrage, retaliatory shells rained down on the capital Damascus, killing at least one person on Tuesday.

The targeted suburbs — scattered across an area known as eastern Ghouta — have been subjected to weeks-long bombardment that has killed and wounded hundreds of people. Opposition activists say government forces have brought in more reinforcements in recent days, suggesting a major assault is imminent to recapture the area that is the last main rebel stronghold near Damascus.

Monday’s bombardment that killed nearly 100 people saw the use of warplanes, helicopter gunships, missiles as well as artillery, in a major escalation of violence near President Bashar Assad’s seat of power.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it was the deadliest days in eastern Ghouta since 2015, adding that 20 children and 15 women were among those killed.

The opposition-affiliated Syrian Civil Defense, also known as White Helmets, said the shelling and airstrikes killed 98 and that some people are still under the rubble. It said the dead included one of the rescue group’s members, Firas Jomaa.

A Syrian monitoring group and paramedics say government shelling and airstrikes on rebel-held suburbs of the capital, Damascus, killed at least 98 people on Monday. More people are believed to be under the rubble. (Feb. 20)

Both the Observatory and the White Helmets reported more airstrikes and shelling on Tuesday in eastern Ghouta as rebels pounded Damascus with mortar shells.

Rebels retaliated by hitting some Damascus neighborhoods with mortar shells, killing one person and wounding six people, according to the state news agency SANA. On Tuesday morning, Damascus residents reported shelling on areas in central Damascus.

“Shells are falling like rain. We are hiding in the corridor,” a Damascus resident told The Associated Press, asking that her name not be mentioned for her own safety. She spoke while hiding in the corridor of an office building.

Videos have surfaced from the eastern suburbs showing paramedics pulling out the injured from under the rubble while others are seen franticly digging through the debris in the dark, in search for survivors.

“The humanitarian situation of civilians in East Ghouta is spiraling out of control,” said Panos Moumtzis, the U.N. regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syria crisis, in a statement late Monday.

“It’s imperative to end this senseless human suffering now. Such targeting of innocent civilians and infrastructure must stop now,” he said.

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Associated Press Writer Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.

Business: Global shares mixed after US break, investors eye Fed notes

TOKYO (AP) — Global shares were mixed Tuesday after a U.S. holiday. Investors were awaiting the release later in the day of minutes from the latest meeting of the U.S. Federal Reserve.

KEEPING SCORE: France’s CAC 40 gained 0.2 percent in early trading to 5,268.98, while Germany’s DAX was up 0.3 percent to 12,423.10. Britain’s FTSE 100 slipped edged less than 0.1 percent higher to 7,248.87. U.S. shares were set to drift lower with Dow futures losing 0.4 percent to 25,136. S&P 500 futures were also down 0.3 percent at 2,725.80.

ASIA’S DAY: Japan’s benchmark Nikkei 225 lost 1.0 percent to finish at 21,925.10. Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 was virtually unchanged, inching down to 5,940.90. South Korea’s Kospi lost 1.1 percent to 2,415.12. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng fell 0.8 percent at 30,873.63. Shares were mixed in Southeast Asia, while markets in mainland China were still closed for lunar new year holidays.

CENTRAL BANKS: Minutes are expected later Tuesday from the latest Federal Reserve meeting. Investors were also watching remarks in Japanese parliament from Bank of Japan Gov. Haruhiko Kuroda. Kuroda was reappointed recently for another five-year term in a show of confidence in his ultra-easy monetary policy.

THE QUOTE: “The Fed’s sequence of interest rate normalization should be the markets’ key focus this week and the primary drivers of near-term volatility,” says Stephen Innes, head of trading at OANDA.

ENERGY: Benchmark U.S. crude added 52 cents to $62.07 per barrel. Brent crude, used to price international oils, was down 27 cents at $65.40 a barrel.

CURRENCIES: The euro slipped to $1.2356 from $1.2408. The dollar rose to 107.08 yen from 106.57 yen.

— Britain wants to lead a “race to the top” in global standards after it leaves the European Union, Britain’s top Brexit negotiator said Tuesday, saying fears of a “‘Mad Max’-style” economic free-for-all are misplaced.

In a speech aimed at allaying European concerns, Brexit Secretary David Davis told Austrian business leaders in Vienna that the U.K. does not want “to undermine Europe or act against the interests of our nearest neighbors.”

Brexit won’t lead to “an Anglo-Saxon race to the bottom, with Britain plunged into a ‘Mad Max’-style world borrowed from dystopian fiction,” he said.

Davis is touring European capitals as Britain tries to persuade EU leaders to strike new deals on trade and security with the U.K.

Britain wants to retain close economic ties with the EU after it leaves the bloc in March 2019, while also becoming free to strike new trade deals around the world.

But EU leaders warn Britain can’t have both freedom from the bloc’s regulations and frictionless trade.

Davis argued that maintaining similar regulations and recognizing one another’s standards would allow trade to continue without friction after Britain leaves the EU.

He said “neither side should put up unnecessary barriers” to free trade.

Opponents of Brexit were unpersuaded by the speech, pointing to previous statements by members of the Conservative government in favor of slashing regulations in areas including workplace rights and environmental standards.

“The government’s real agenda is clear, and it is the direct opposite of what we have just been told,” said Labour Party lawmaker Wes Streeting.

“Their ‘hard Brexit’ ideology will lead to lower standards, weaker protections and a desperate scramble for free trade agreements with the likes of President Trump, none of which will come close to making up for lost trade with Europe, and none of which have public support.”

____

– Here are the top five things you need to know in financial markets on Tuesday, February 20:

1. Global Stocks Mostly Lower As Jitters Creep Back In

Global stocks were mostly lower, as jitters from last week’s sell-off sparked by fears of creeping inflation and higher borrowing costs returned to the market.

Asian stocks slipped, though many markets in the region remained closed for the Lunar New Year holiday. South Korea’s Kospi index and Japan’s Nikkei 225 fared the worst, closing down 1.1% and 1% respectively.

In Europe, shares were a tad lower in mid-morning trade, after ending a three-day recovery in the previous session. London’s FTSE 100 was the biggest loser after earnings from both HSBC (LON:HSBA) and BHP (LON:BLT) disappointed investors.

Meanwhile, U.S. stock futures edged down, as traders returning from the long holiday weekend awaited earnings reports from retail heavyweights Walmart (NYSE:WMT) and Home Depot (NYSE:HD) before the bell.

Dow futures were down nearly 200 points, or around 0.8%, while S&P 500 futures fell 21 points, or about 0.8%. Nasdaq 100 futures lost 55 points, or roughly 0.8%.

Wall Street was closed Monday for Presidents’ Day.

2. Dollar Moves Further Away From Three-Year Lows; 10Y Yield At 2.92%

The U.S. dollar inched higher versus a basket of major currencies, moving further away from a three-year low set last week.

The dollar index, which gauges the U.S. currency against a basket of six major rivals, was nearly 0.5% higher at 89.55, well above Friday’s three-year low of 88.15.

Despite the up-day, the dollar’s outlook remained clouded by concerns that the ballooning U.S. fiscal deficit could disrupt the economy.

Meanwhile, the U.S. 10-year Treasury yield edged up to 2.92%, not far from last week’s four-year peak. The U.S. cash bond market was closed Monday for a holiday.

Later on Tuesday, the Treasury Department is scheduled to hold 3-and-6-month note auctions, as well as 4-week and 2-year sales, deals that should test market appetite for U.S. debt in an environment of rising yields.

3. Euro Zone Bond Yields Up As ECB Speculation Mounts

Euro zone government bond yields rose across the board, as market speculation swirled over the next European Central Bank chief at a time when monetary policy is the main threat for bond markets.

Euro zone finance ministers on Monday chose Spanish Economy Minister Luis de Guindos to succeed European Central Bank Vice President Vitor Constancio in May.

The move is likely to boost the chances of German Bundesbank Governor Jens Weidmann becoming head of the ECB next year to succeed Mario Draghi in 2019, possibly giving the ECB’s policy a more hawkish tilt.

The yield on Germany’s 10-year government bond yield, the benchmark for the region, was up 2 basis points to 0.75%, heading back toward a multi-year high of 0.808% hit earlier this month.

French government bonds mirrored that move, taking the country’s 10-year borrowing costs back up about 1%.

4. Bitcoin Climbs Above $11,000-Level

Bitcoin prices broke through the $11,500-mark for the first time since January, as the digital currency continued to recover from heavy selloffs at the start of this month.

Bitcoin was last up around 4% at $11,315, after hitting its highest level since January 29 at $11,666 earlier. Prices have bounced back sharply after falling to a four-month low of around $6,000 on February 6.

Other major cryptocurrencies traded mixed, with Ethereum, the world’s second largest cryptocurrency by market cap, falling around 1.5% to $932.45.

The third largest cryptocurrency Ripple slumped around 3% to trade at $1.0919.

Meanwhile, Litecoin rallied 7% to $239.10.

5. Oil Markets Mixed As U.S. Crude, Brent Move In Opposite Directions

Oil markets were split, with U.S. crude pushed up by reduced flows from Canada while international Brent prices eased.

U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude futures rose 0.5% to $61.86 per barrel, while Brent crude futures were at $64.94 per barrel, down 1.1%.

Traders said the higher WTI prices were a result of reduced flows from Canada’s Keystone pipeline, cutting Canadian supplies into the United States.

Outside North America, Brent crude eased on the back of a dip in Asian stocks and a stronger dollar.

AP FACT CHECK: Trump lashes out on Russia probe

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump’s Twitter cannon roared over the weekend as the latest turn in the Russia investigation seemingly placed him on the defensive. He denied he had ever absolved Russia of meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, despite his plentiful record of voicing doubts on that question.

Resurrecting an old tale from the campaign, Trump also described a diplomatic transaction between the U.S. and Iran during the Obama years as a dark plot that should have been investigated by U.S. authorities. The transaction actually was money the U.S. owed to Iran from decades ago and one in a series of claims that were addressed by an international tribunal set up by both countries.

Trump’s rash of tweets followed an indictment released Friday charging 13 Russians with running a massive social media trolling campaign and field operations in the U.S. aimed in part at helping him defeat his 2016 Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. The case brought by special counsel Robert Mueller provided the most concrete evidence yet of Russian attempts to subvert the election.

Over the past week, Trump also weighed in on the economy and infrastructure in ways that did not always line up with reality. A look at some of Trump’s recent statements and how they stack up with the facts:

TRUMP: “I never said Russia did not meddle in the election, I said ‘it may be Russia, or China or another country or group, or it may be a 400 pound genius sitting in bed and playing with his computer.’ The Russian ‘hoax’ was that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia – it never did!” — tweet Sunday.

THE FACTS: On multiple occasions Trump has challenged the veracity of the mounting evidence about Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. On Air Force One, during foreign travels in November, he was asked about a conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin: “How did you bring up the issue of election meddling? Did you ask him a question?”

Trump replied: “He just — every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that.’ And I believe — I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it. But he says, ‘I didn’t do that.’ I think he’s very insulted by it, if you want to know the truth.”

And in September, he tweeted: “The Russia hoax continues, now it’s ads on Facebook,” referring to the discovery that Russian entities had posted ads on Facebook critical of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and supportive of him.

Mostly, he has equivocated on the question of Russian interference, speaking at times as if he believes it happened and other times as if he does not, even as lawmakers, intelligence officials and some of his own aides say there is no doubt Russia meddled. He’s been consistent only in denying that his team colluded with Russia.

___

TRUMP: “Never gotten over the fact that Obama was able to send $1.7 Billion Dollars in CASH to Iran and nobody in Congress, the FBI or Justice called for an investigation!” — tweet Sunday.

THE FACTS: It’s not clear what there could be to investigate.

In the late 1970s the Iranian government, under the U.S.-backed shah, paid the U.S. $400 million for military equipment. The equipment was never delivered because in 1979, his government was overthrown and diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iran ruptured. In 1981, both countries agreed on a commission at The Hague to rule on claims by each country for property and assets held by the other. Iran paid more than $2.5 billion to U.S. businesses and citizens to resolve claims.

In January 2016, the U.S. agreed to settle an Iranian claim, paying the $400 million and committing to follow up and pay $1.3 billion in interest, for a total of $1.7 billion. U.S. officials said they settled because they expected the tribunal to rule on the claim soon and assess higher interest. The Obama administration delivered the initial payment the same day Tehran agreed to release four American prisoners, and later acknowledged the cash was used as leverage until the Americans were allowed to leave.

___

TRUMP: “General McMaster forgot to say that the results of the 2016 election were not impacted or changed by the Russians and that the only Collusion was between Russia and Crooked H, the DNC and the Dems. — tweet Saturday.

THE FACTS: H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, would have had no basis to say Russia failed to impact the U.S. election because that is an open question.

McMaster said the indictment provides “really incontrovertible” evidence of Russian malfeasance in the election. The indictment does not allege collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign and does not assert that Russia’s deeds tipped the election in Trump’s favor. But Mueller’s investigation continues and nothing is ruled out.

Trump tweeted Friday about his conviction that Russia had no impact and Vice President Mike Pence said in an Axios interview days earlier that “it is the universal conclusion of our intelligence communities that none of those efforts had any impact on the outcome of the 2016 election.”

U.S. intelligence agencies, however, have reached no such conclusion.

This much is thought to be true: Russia is not known to have succeeded in manipulating voting systems or ballots. Officials said as much months ago. But since then, much more has been discovered about the Russian assault on Facebook, Twitter and Google as propagandists pushed fake or negative news to readers to deepen public discord and influence opinions on whom to vote for. Now the Mueller indictment adds voluminous detail to that understanding.

The extent to which such efforts may have motivated people to vote for Trump may be impossible to measure.

But Pence’s apparent equanimity on the subject was not shared by Trump’s director of national intelligence in testimony to senators Tuesday. “There should be no doubt that Russia perceives its past efforts as successful,” Dan Coats said in warning that Moscow was already meddling in the 2018 midterms. Coats said Russians “upped their game” in the 2016 election, “took advantage, a sophisticated advantage, of social media” and interfered in “pervasive” fashion — a conclusion underscored by the criminal charges brought Friday.

___

TRUMP: “Black unemployment is at the lowest level in history. Hispanic unemployment is at the lowest level in recorded history, which is really something that’s so great.” — remarks to state and local officials at the White House on Feb. 12.

THE FACTS: Wrong on both counts. Trump was citing outdated numbers. Ten days earlier, the government reported the black jobless rate jumped nearly a percentage point to 7.7 percent in January, higher than most of last year and barely below the 7.8 percent of January 2017 when Trump took office. It indeed hit a record low of 6.8 percent a month earlier.

Hispanic unemployment also rose in January, though marginally. The rate stood at 5 percent, up from 4.9 percent the month before and from the record low of 4.8 percent seen in April 2006 and several months last year.

The next day, Trump accurately cast the record on black joblessness in the past tense: “We had the lowest African-American unemployment rate in the history of our country.”

Jobless figures for blacks and Hispanics can jump around from month to month, such that any record can be short-lived. The unemployment rate for whites is consistently much lower than for the other groups, now 3.5 percent.

___

TRUMP: “I do have to say that we do have a pool of 100 million people, of which some of them — many of them — want to work; they want to have a job. A lot of them do better not working, frankly, under the laws. And people don’t like to talk about it. But you’re competing against government. And they have great potential. They sort of want to work, but they’re making less if they work than if they stay home and do other things. So we have to address that situation. That’s a big problem. But we have a pool of 100 million people, a lot of whom want to work.” — meeting with lawmakers Tuesday about trade.

THE FACTS: “Some of them” is true. But that’s not true for most.

Trump’s pool of 100 million (actually 95.7 million, according to the government) consists of all Americans 16 and older who are not working. Of them, only about 5.2 million say they want to be. The vast majority is made up of students 16 and over, the elderly and people who want to stay home to raise their children. That information comes from the same government survey used to calculate the unemployment rate.

The economy is already considered to be close to full employment, meaning it’s harder to find workers to fill new jobs — harder still if Trump succeeds in curbing immigration.

Few economists blame social programs keeping large numbers of people at home and out of work, as Trump appeared to do. Instead, recent economic research suggests opioid addiction is a key reason many Americans can’t get or keep jobs. And past episodes of widespread imprisonment are also a factor: Having a criminal conviction makes it hard for people to find work once they are out of jail.

___

TRUMP: “This will be a big week for Infrastructure. After so stupidly spending $7 trillion in the Middle East, it is now time to start investing in OUR Country!” — tweet Feb. 12.

TRUMP: “I said this morning as of a couple months ago, we have spent $7 trillion in the Middle East — $7 trillion. What a mistake. … $7 trillion in the Middle East, and the Middle East is far worse now than it was 17 years ago when they went in.” — remarks at White House infrastructure event.

THE FACTS: There’s a lot wrong with his $7 trillion figure. First, he’s using an inflated estimate on the cost of wars. Second, he’s referring in part to predicted costs going decades into the future, not money that’s all been “spent.”

Third, some of the spending he calls a “mistake” reflects his own policy decisions. It finances the military effort he brags about against Islamic State militants and his continuing push for U.S. aims in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. He’s added a few thousand troops in Afghanistan and committed the U.S. to remaining there indefinitely.

The Pentagon estimates that wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria have directly cost U.S. taxpayers more than $1.5 trillion. To be sure, actual costs are higher.

Boston University political scientist Neta C. Crawford, as co-director of the Costs of War Project at Brown University, estimated that as of September, U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria — plus additional spending on homeland security, the Pentagon and Veterans Affairs Department since the 2001 terrorist attacks — cost more than $4.3 trillion.

That rises to an estimated $5.6 trillion or more when anticipated future spending on veterans and other factors related to the wars so far are added.

Although that’s an expensive commitment, it’s far short of the $6 trillion or $7 trillion that Trump has been citing for several years, first as a candidate, then president. Even scholarly estimates involve ballpark projections, not just money that is gone.

___

Associated Press writers Robert Burns, Christopher Rugaber and Josh Boak contributed to this report.

___

Find AP Fact Checks at http://apne.ws/2kbx8bd

Follow @APFactCheck on Twitter: https://twitter.com/APFactCheck

Trump’s Evolution From Relief to Fury Over the Russia Indictment

(PhatzNewsRoom / NYT)    —-   WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — President Trump began the weekend believing that something good had just happened to him. An indictment leveled against 13 Russians for interfering with the 2016 election had not accused him or anyone around him of wrongdoing. “No collusion” was his refrain.

But once ensconced at his Florida estate on Friday, Mr. Trump, facing long hours indoors as he avoided breezy rounds of golf after last week’s school shooting a few miles away, began watching TV.

The president’s mood began to change as it became clearer to him that some commentators were portraying the indictment as nothing for him to celebrate, according to three people with knowledge of his reaction. Those commentators called it proof that he had not won the election on his own, a particularly galling, if not completely accurate, charge for a president long concerned about his legitimacy.

What followed was a two-day Twitter tirade that was unusually angry and defiant even by Mr. Trump’s standards. In his tweets on Sunday, Mr. Trump sought to shift the blame to Democrats for Russia’s meddling, saying that President Barack Obama had not done enough to stop the interference.

The president denied — despite the ample evidence to the contrary — that he had ever suggested that Moscow might not have been involved. He called Representative Adam B. Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, a “monster.” And he asserted that the Russians were “laughing their asses off” because the efforts to investigate and combat Moscow’s meddling had only given the Russians what they wanted.

“If it was the GOAL of Russia to create discord, disruption and chaos within the U.S. then, with all of the Committee Hearings, Investigations and Party hatred, they have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams,” Mr. Trump wrote.

The president’s outburst ended a period that had been relatively subdued after the deaths of 17 people in the shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., on Wednesday. He spent the following days praising law enforcement officials and emergency responders, and calling officials in Florida to receive updates. Mr. Trump met with two shooting victims in an unannounced visit to a Florida hospital on Friday evening, the White House said.

As he shunned the golf course over the weekend (his predecessor had been criticized for golfing too soon after tragic events), he instead spent time mingling with his supporters, including Geraldo Rivera. Mr. Rivera said on Twitter on Sunday that he had seen firsthand that the president “was deeply affected” by the time he had spent with victims, “impressed by their courage” and “equally distressed by the savagery of their wounds.”

But Mr. Trump also had time to stew over news coverage of the indictment against the Russians secured by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel leading an investigation into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia. And he was surrounded in Florida by people who are likely to share his grievances: his two oldest sons, as well as John F. Kelly, his chief of staff, and Dan Scavino, the White House social media director, who often emulates his boss’s prose on Twitter.

The indictment says that while the Russians began their scheme in 2014 with the goal of undermining the American democratic system, they eventually shifted their focus to trying to help elect Mr. Trump and disparage his opponent, Hillary Clinton.

The president has repeatedly seized on the fact that the efforts started before he became a candidate, but he has glossed over the conclusion that they evolved toward supporting his candidacy.

The indictment does not assert any wrongdoing by the president or anyone affiliated with him, saying that the Trump campaign was unwitting in its contacts with the Russian effort. It is also silent about whether the Russian campaign affected the election results.

Mr. Trump has long fought the idea that Moscow’s efforts might have influenced the election, branding it as a “hoax” perpetrated by Democrats embarrassed about losing to him. He has made little if any public effort to rally the nation to confront the Russians for their intrusion.

The president’s Twitter eruption began late Saturday night, when he accused the F.B.I. of having missed signals that could have prevented the school shooting because it was “spending too much time trying to prove Russian collusion with the Trump campaign.”

He then lashed out at his national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who had said at a security conference in Germany on Saturday that the indictment provided “incontrovertible” evidence that Russia had interfered in the American democratic system.

Mr. Trump said his adviser had “forgot to say that the results of the 2016 election were not impacted or changed by the Russians and that the only Collusion was between Russia and Crooked H, the DNC and the Dems.” The nation’s intelligence agencies believe that it is not possible to make such a calculation about the election outcome.

Then, on Sunday, Mr. Trump said that he had “never said Russia did not meddle in the election,” quoting a comment he had made in a 2016 presidential debate.

“I said ‘it may be Russia, or China or another country or group, or it may be a 400 pound genius sitting in bed and playing with his computer,” Mr. Trump wrote. “The Russian ‘hoax’ was that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia — it never did!”

Yet he has repeatedly denied that Russia was behind any meddling, going so far in November as to suggest that he believed President Vladimir V. Putin’s denials of interference over the conclusions of American intelligence agencies.

Mr. Trump also called Mr. Schiff, the California congressman, “Liddle Adam Schiff” and branded him “the leakin’ monster of no control,” even as he praised him for his criticism of Mr. Obama’s muted response to the Russian threat.

The president in the past has traded bitter Twitter messages with Mr. Schiff, accusing him of leaking classified information from the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russia’s actions. Mr. Schiff shot back at Mr. Trump on Sunday, saying on Twitter that “if McMaster can stand up to Putin, why can’t you?

Initially, Mr. Trump had been swayed by advisers who described the indictment announced on Friday as a victory for him, since it identified particular bad actors outside the campaign and used the word “unwitting” to describe the contacts with the Trump campaign.

But by Saturday evening, Mr. Trump’s longstanding frustrations with an inquiry that he has branded a “witch hunt” began to erupt. While the deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein, had noted repeatedly in announcing the indictment that it does not say that Russia changed the outcome of the election, Mr. Trump was angry because his own team had not gone further in his defense.

That included General McMaster, who, as an active duty military officer, takes the constrictions on what he can say politically very seriously. When he spoke in Germany, Mr. McMaster did not believe he could go further than the cold facts of the document, a reality that deeply frustrated the president, two administration officials said.

By Sunday afternoon, the focus had returned to the school shooting. The White House announced that Mr. Trump would hold a “listening session” with high school students and teachers in Washington on Wednesday, and meet with state and local officials on school safety on Thursday.

On Saturday afternoon, Mr. Trump called three local officials, including Christine Hunschofsky, the mayor of Parkland. In an interview, Ms. Hunschofsky said she was struck by how affected the president had seemed to be by his hospital visit.

“He gave his condolences, and then he talked quite a bit,” Ms. Hunschofsky said. “He said he had talked to somebody recovering in the hospital. I remember he kept saying ‘how do you recover from that?’”

Shooting survivors on potential collision course with Trump

This gallery contains 1 photo.

PARKLAND, Fla. (AP) — Student survivors of the deadly Florida school shooting who hope to become the face of a revived gun control movement are on a potential collision course with President Donald Trump.

Several of the students have criticized the president, whose election was strongly supported by the National Rifle Association and who ran on a platform opposing gun control. Trump spent the weekend at his estate in South Florida, only an hour’s drive from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School where 17 people were fatally shot last week. His only mentions of the massacre came in tweets Saturday contending that the FBI was too focused on the Russia investigation to respond to warnings about the alleged shooter and mocking Democrats for failing to pass gun control.

“You’re the president. You’re supposed to bring this nation together, not divide us,” said David Hogg, a 17-year-old student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in South Florida, speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“How dare you,” he added.

After more than a day of criticism from the students, the White House said the president would hold a “listening session” with unspecified students Wednesday and meet Thursday with state and local security officials.

Parkland, Florida community members made a memorial for the victims of the high school shooting that killed 17 people. (Feb. 18)

Florida politicians, meanwhile, scrambled to produce legislation in response to the Feb. 14 attack that killed 17 people. Nikolas Cruz, a 19-year-old who had been expelled from the school, is being held without bail in the Broward County Jail, accused of 17 counts of first-degree murder.

In a TV interview, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio embraced a Democratic bill in the Florida legislature to allow courts to temporarily prevent people from having guns if they are determined to be a threat to themselves or others.

Gov. Rick Scott, also a Republican, attended a prayer vigil at the First Church Coral Springs, blocks from the shooting site. He is expected to announce a legislative package with GOP lawmakers this week.

Emma Gonzalez, another student survivor, gave an impassioned speech at a weekend rally with a stinging citation of the NRA’s $30 million in expenditures on Trump’s behalf in the presidential election. On Sunday she cited Trump, Rubio and Scott by name in a warning to politicians backed by the NRA.

“Now is the time to get on the right side of this, because this is not something that we are going to let sweep under the carpet,” she said on “Meet the Press.”

Seeking to increase pressure for gun control, the students plan to visit the state capitol in Tallahassee this week to demand immediate action. They are also calling for anti-gun violence demonstrations in Washington and other cities March 24.

Organizers behind the Women’s March, an anti-Trump and female empowerment protest, called for a 17-minute, nationwide walkout by teachers and students on March 14.

Chris Grady, a 19-year-old senior at the Florida school, was one of several students at Sunday’s rally near the campus. “The kids in Newtown were too young to understand what happened and were too young to have their own voice,” Grady said, referring to the 20 first-graders killed in the 2012 Connecticut school shooting. “We want to be the voice for those kids and thousands of others.”

Not every student at the Florida school was calling for more gun control. James Ciaramello, a freshman in the school’s JROTC program, was heartbroken by the massacre but skeptical firearms regulations could have prevented it.

“He’s just messed up,” Ciaramello said of Cruz, another JROTC member. “I mean, tighter gun control, it’s not gonna help. There’s always a way around it.”

School and government records obtained Sunday show Cruz was diagnosed as developmentally delayed at age 3 and had disciplinary issues dating to middle school. In February 2014, while in 8th grade, Cruz was transferred to a special school for children with emotional and behavioral issues. He stayed there until 10th grade, when he was transferred to Stoneman Douglas. Last year, Cruz was expelled.

On Sept. 28, 2016, an investigator from the Florida Department of Children and Families visited Cruz and his mother, Lynda Cruz, after he posted video on Snapchat showing him cutting himself. The report showed that Cruz had written a racial epithet against African-Americans and a Nazi symbol on his book bag, which his mother had forced him to erase. The investigator said Cruz was suffering from depression and on medication and had told Lynda Cruz he planned to buy a gun, but she couldn’t determine why.

A school counselor told the investigator that Lynda Cruz had always tried to help her son and followed through on his therapy and medication, but the counselor was concerned about the youth’s desire to buy a gun.

A crisis counselor told the DCF investigator he had visited the school and that he did not believe Cruz was a danger to himself or others. The case was closed, with the investigator concluding that Cruz was receiving help from his mother and counselors, and “no other referrals or services were needed.”

After Lynda Cruz died in November, Cruz moved into the home of a teenage friend. The friend’s parents told the Sun-Sentinel newspaper they had no idea the extent of Cruz’s issues.

“We had this monster living under our roof and we didn’t know,” Kimberly Snead told the newspaper in an interview published Sunday. “We didn’t see this side of him.”

James Snead added: “Everything everybody seems to know, we didn’t know. It’s as simple as that.”

The teen kept the AR-15 he allegedly used in the massacre locked in a gun safe with a few other firearms. James Snead thought he had the only key to the cabinet but says Cruz must have had another key. The family kept their own rifles, bought after a burglary a few years ago, in a separate locked cabinet.

They told Cruz he needed to ask permission to take out the guns. He had asked only twice since November. They said “yes” once and “no” once.

Speaking Monday on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” the Sneads said they have only seen Cruz once since the shooting when they briefly saw him at the police station. Kimberly Snead says she yelled at him and “really wanted to strangle him more than anything.” The couple says Cruz told them he was sorry.

___

Associated Press writers Gary Fineout in Tallahasse, Florida, Tamara Lush in St. Petersburg, Florida, and Nicholas Riccardi in Denver contributed to this report.

___

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

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