Monthly Archives: March 2018

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Breaking News: Bolton replacing McMaster as Trump national security adviser

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Charging ahead with the dramatic remaking of his White House, President Donald Trump said he would replace national security adviser H.R. McMaster with the former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, a foreign policy hawk entering an administration facing key decisions on Iran and North Korea.

After weeks of speculation about McMaster’s future, Trump and the respected three-star general put a positive face on the Thursday departure, making no reference to the growing public friction between them. Trump tweeted that McMaster had done “an outstanding job & will always remain my friend.” He said Bolton will take over April 9 as his third national security adviser in just over a year.

The national security shakeup comes as the president is increasingly shedding advisers who once eased the Republican establishment’s concerns about the foreign policy and political novice in the White House. McMaster is the sixth close adviser or aide to announce a departure in a turbulent six weeks, joining ally Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was unceremoniously fired last week.

The White House has said the president is seeking to put new foreign policy leaders in place ahead of a not-yet-scheduled meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jung Un. Bolton is likely to add a hard-line influence on those talks, as well as deliberations over whether to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal.

The White House said McMaster’s exit had been under discussion for some time and stressed it was not due to any one incident, including this week’s stunning leak about Trump’s recent phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

McMaster had briefed Trump before the Putin call — and his team drafted all-caps instructions telling Trump not to congratulate the Russian leader on his re-election victory. Trump did it anyway.

An internal investigation into the leak is underway, said a White House official who — like others interviewed about the announcement and the White House shakeup — demanded anonymity to discuss internal matters.

In a statement released by the White House, McMaster said he would be requesting retirement from the U.S. Army effective this summer, adding that afterward he “will leave public service.”

McMaster had told confidants he would leave the post if at any point he lost credibility on the international stage, according to three White House officials. The feverish speculation about an impending exit sped up the decision for him to depart, the officials said, in part because McMaster believed foreign partners were beginning to doubt his influence.

Chief of staff John Kelly and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis had been pushing Trump to get rid of McMaster and had been escalating their campaign in recent weeks. It had appeared McMaster’s departure was imminent last week — but White House officials insisted the speculation was false.

“Just spoke to @POTUS and Gen. H.R. McMaster — contrary to reports they have a good working relationship and there are no changes at the NSC,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted late last Thursday night.

McMaster never developed a personal rapport with Trump, who chafed at his long-winded briefing style, according to a White House official and a person close to the president. His influence in high-level decision-making had waned in recent months, as Trump has increasingly relied on the direct counsel of Kelly and Mattis.

Yet officials said the president still has genuine respect for McMaster. He had been under consideration for a fourth star, and White House officials hoped it would provide a graceful exit from the West Wing for the longtime soldier. No suitable postings had been identified, leaving McMaster — long an iconoclast among the top brass — with no choice but retirement.

Bolton, probably the most divisive foreign policy expert ever to serve as U.N. ambassador, has been a force in Republican foreign policy circles for decades. He served in the Republican administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, and as a Bush lawyer during the 2000 Florida recount.

A strong supporter of the Iraq war and an advocate for aggressive use of American power, Bolton was unable to win Senate confirmation after his nomination to the U.N. post alienated many Democrats and even some Republicans. He resigned after serving 17 months as a Bush “recess appointment,” which allowed him to hold the job on a temporary basis without Senate confirmation.

The role of national security adviser does not require Senate confirmation.

Bolton met with Trump and Kelly in early March to discuss North Korea and Iran. He was spotted entering the West Wing earlier Thursday.

Tension between Trump and McMaster had grown increasingly public. Last month, Trump took issue with McMaster’s characterization of Russian meddling in the 2016 election after the national security adviser told the Munich Security Summit that interference was beyond dispute.

“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,” Trump tweeted Feb. 17, alluding to frequent GOP allegations of impropriety by Democrats and Hillary Clinton.

Tillerson’s exit also forecast trouble for McMaster, who had aligned himself with the embattled secretary of state in seeking to soften some of Trump’s most dramatic foreign policy impulses.

McMaster told The New York Times last year that Trump’s unorthodox approach “has moved a lot of us out of our comfort zone, me included.”

The military strategist, who joined the administration in February 2017, has struggled to navigate a tumultuous White House. Last summer, he was the target of a far-right attack campaign, as conservative groups and a website tied to former Trump adviser Steve Bannon targeted him as insufficiently supportive of Israel and not tough enough on Iran.

McMaster was brought in after Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was dismissed after less than a month in office. White House officials said he was ousted because he did not tell top advisers, including Vice President Mike Pence, about the full extent of his contacts with Russian officials.


Associated Press writer Jill Colvin contributed to this report.

Mueller examining Cambridge Analytica, Trump campaign ties

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Special counsel Robert Mueller is scrutinizing the connections between President Donald Trump’s campaign and the data mining firm Cambridge Analytica, which has come under fierce criticism over reports that it swiped the data of more than 50 million Facebook users to sway elections.

Mueller’s investigators have asked former campaign officials about the Trump campaign’s data operations, particularly about how it collected and utilized voter data in battleground states, according to a person with direct knowledge of the line of inquiry but not authorized to discuss it publicly.

The investigators have also asked some of Trump’s data team, which included analysts at the Republican National Committee, about its relationship with Cambridge Analytica, according to two former campaign officials. The campaign paid the firm just under $6 million for its work in 2016, according to federal records.

Authorities in Britain and the United States are investigating whether Cambridge Analytica may have used data improperly obtained from Facebook to try to influence elections, including the 2016 White House race.

Mueller is leading a criminal probe into whether Trump’s Republican presidential campaign had ties to Russia and whether he may have obstructed justice.

The Trump campaign has distanced itself from the data mining firm, which had been financed by major Republican donors and, for a time, employed Steve Bannon, the conservative provocateur who later became Trump’s campaign chief executive.

Trump turned to Twitter on Thursday to boast about his campaign’s social media efforts compared with those of his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, but it was not clear what prompted the declaration.

“Remember when they were saying, during the campaign, that Donald Trump is giving great speeches and drawing big crowds, but he is spending much less money and not using social media as well as Crooked Hillary’s large and highly sophisticated staff. Well, not saying that anymore!” Trump wrote.

A request for an explanation from the White House was not returned.

The exact role that Cambridge Analytica played for the Trump campaign has remained murky.

Staffers at Cambridge Analytica made several overtures to the Trump campaign before eventually being retained. They first requested a meeting in spring 2015, before the celebrity businessman officially announced his candidacy, according to four former campaign officials who were not authorized to publicly discuss internal operations and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Alexander Nix, the Cambridge Analytica CEO captured on a sting video released this week, met with then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to make a pitch for the data-mining company’s voter target products, including its so-called psychographic method.

Lewandowski passed, in part because the staff believed Trump would not be willing to make a sizable financial investment in an analytics firm, according to two of the campaign officials.

Cambridge then went to work for the campaign of Trump’s Republican rivals Ben Carson and Ted Cruz. But after Trump became the GOP’s presumptive nominee, the data firm reached out again, this time to Paul Manafort, who had replaced Lewandowski to become campaign chairman.

Manafort was also skeptical about the effectiveness of the firm’s methods, but Cambridge was hired, in part as a friendly gesture to the Mercer family, heavyweight Republican donors who helped fund the company’s launch a few years earlier, according to one of the former campaign officials.

With the Trump campaign concerned that the RNC might not fully invest in Trump — he had clashed repeatedly with the organization — Cambridge was retained. Campaign finance records indicate that the Trump campaign’s first payment of $100,000 to the firm came in July 2016.

Five of the firm’s staff members were assigned to work with the campaign’s digital director, Brad Parscale, at his Texas-based firm, where much of the campaign’s digital operation was located.

Parscale and Jared Kushner, the candidate’s son-in-law, emphasized using social media — and particularly Facebook — to better target voters and pressed its importance on Trump.

The campaign tapped Cambridge to build out a database of small-dollar GOP donors, a dataset the company had from its prior work for the Cruz and Carson campaigns.

But when it became clear the RNC would share its much-improved data operation with the Trump campaign, Cambridge became de-emphasized. Two of the former campaign officials said their tools were not useful, though Parscale, during a Google forum a month after the election, said the firm became involved in daily tracking polls and helped inform the campaign’s decisions on where to spend its resources.

Another of the campaign officials said Cambridge was kept around mostly to placate the Mercers and their allies on Trump’s staff.

All told, the Trump campaign paid Cambridge just under $6 million, according to Federal Election Commission records. The largest payment to Cambridge Analytica — $5 million on Sept. 1, 2016 — was made about two weeks after Bannon was appointed the chief executive of the Trump campaign, according to FEC records. At that same time, another Mercer ally, pollster Kellyanne Conway, was named his campaign manager to replace Manafort.

Bannon, with the Mercers’ backing, served as vice president of the firm from June 2014 to August 2016, when he joined the Trump campaign. He has since had a falling-out with the Mercers and with Trump over disparaging comments he made about the president’s family.

He attempted to draw a line between the campaign and Cambridge while appearing at a Financial Times panel in New York on Thursday. Bannon said he had no knowledge of the data mining operation and instead put the blame on Facebook, saying the social network cared more about profits than privacy and “takes your data for free and creates huge margins.”

Chris Wylie, a former Cambridge Analytica employee who became a whistleblower, told The Washington Post that Cambridge had begun testing phrases like “drain the swamp” and “deep state” well before Trump launched his campaign. The president began incorporating those concepts into his stump speech in the stretch run of the campaign, soon after Bannon came on board.

Wylie has said he fears the data was turned over to Russians who aimed to interfere with the U.S. election.

Parscale, who has been appointed Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, has slammed the firm on Twitter for taking credit for Trump’s victory. “So incredibly false and ridiculous,” he wrote this week, declaring Cambridge’s comments “an overblown sales pitch.”

Lawmakers have demanded answers from both Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, as Sen. Mark Warner, the Virginia Democrat who is vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, declared this week that the blooming scandal was “more evidence that the online political advertising market is essentially the Wild West.”

“Whether it’s allowing Russians to purchase political ads, or extensive micro-targeting based on ill-gotten user data, it’s clear that, left unregulated, this market will continue to be prone to deception and lacking in transparency,” Warner tweeted.

The news of Mueller’s interest in Cambridge Analytica was first reported by ABC News.


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

China targets $3 billion of US goods in tariff spat

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BEIJING (AP) — China announced a $3 billion list of U.S. goods for possible retaliation in a tariff dispute with President Donald Trump and girded Friday for a bigger battle over technology policy as financial markets sank on fears of global disruption.

The Commerce Ministry said higher duties on pork, apples, steel pipe and other goods would offset Chinese losses due to Trump’s tariff hike on steel and aluminum imports. It urged Washington to negotiate a settlement but set no deadline.

In a separate and potentially bigger dispute, the ministry criticized Trump’s decision Thursday to approve a possible tariff hike on Chinese imports worth up to $60 billion over Beijing’s technology policy. It gave no indication of a possible response but a foreign ministry spokeswoman said Beijing was “fully prepared to defend” its interests.

“We don’t want a trade war, but we are not afraid of it,” said the spokeswoman, Hua Chunying.

Financial markets sank on concern the escalating tensions might disrupt the biggest global trading relationship or lead other nations to raise import barriers.

Tokyo’s benchmark tumbled by an unusually large 5.1 percent while the Shanghai Composite Index closed down 3.4 percent.

The dollar dipped to 104.90 yen as investors shifted into the Japanese currency, which is viewed as a “safe haven” from risk.

China’s response Friday appeared to be aimed at increasing domestic U.S. pressure on Trump by making clear which exporters, including farm areas that voted for him in 2016, might be hurt.

“Beijing is extending an olive branch and urging the U.S. to resolve trade disputes through dialogue rather than tariffs,” said economist Vishnu Varathan of Mizuho Bank in a report. “Nevertheless, the first volley of shots and retaliatory response has been set off.”

The list announced Friday was linked to Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs , but companies already were looking ahead to a battle over complaints Beijing steals or forces companies to hand over technology.

The tensions reflect the dueling nationalistic ambitions of Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping.

U.S. efforts to boost exports of technology-based goods, begun under Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, conflict with China’s plan for state-led development of global competitors in fields from robotics to electric cars. Foreign business groups complain Chinese regulators are trying to squeeze them out of promising industries.

The Commerce Ministry announcement Friday made no mention of jetliners, soybeans or other products that are the biggest U.S. exports to China by value. That leaves Beijing room to take more drastic steps.

Chinese officials are trying to figure out how to address U.S. concerns, said Jake Parker, vice president for China operations of the U.S.-China Business Council, which represents American companies that do business with China.

“Until the Trump administration articulates those concerns and how China can address them, it’s going to be very, very difficult for China to make those changes,” said Parker.

Washington doesn’t believe it needs to give Chinese leaders another list of requests because they already know what the United States wants, said a senior U.S. official, who briefed reporters on condition he not be identified further. He said Trump and Xi agreed last year on a 100-day agenda of trade-liberalization measures but Beijing failed to act on about half of them.

Instead, the Trump administration wants Chinese leaders to address more basic structural issues that interfere with market forces, said the official.

The official cited Beijing’s “Made in China 2025” plan as “hugely problematic.” It calls for creating Chinese competitors in electric cars, robots, artificial intelligence and other fields. Business groups complain it will hamper or outright block foreign access to those industries.

The latest proposed Chinese tariffs would add a 25 percent charge on pork and aluminum scrap, mirroring Trump’s 25 percent duty on steel, according to the Commerce Ministry. A second list of goods including wine, apples, ethanol and stainless steel pipe would be charged 15 percent, the same margin as Trump’s tariff hike on aluminum.

Chinese purchases of those goods last year totaled $3 billion, the ministry said.

The U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs also have irked Japan, America’s closest ally in Asia.

“We have repeatedly told the U.S. side that steel and aluminum imports from its ally Japan will not adversely affect America’s national security, and that Japan should be excluded,” said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.

China’s top economic official, Premier Li Keqiang, appealed to Washington on Tuesday to “act rationally” and said, “we don’t want to see a trade war.”

The United States buys little Chinese steel or aluminum, but analysts have said Beijing would feel obligated to take action to avoid looking weak.

Beijing reported a trade surplus of $275.8 billion with the United States last year, or two-thirds of its global total. Washington reports different figures that put the gap at a record $375.2 billion.

Trump’s technology order is in response to “unfair and harmful acquisition of U.S. technology,” said a statement by the U.S. Trade Representative’s office. It said USTR would pursue a World Trade Organization case against Beijing’s “discriminatory technology licensing.”

A USTR statement said possible measures include a 25 percent tariff on Chinese-made aerospace, computer and information technology and machinery but gave no details.

China is unlikely to respond until Washington acts but might launch an investigation of imports of U.S. corn and soybeans “as a warning shot,” said Parker. He noted Beijing began a probe of U.S. sorghum in February after Trump announced the steel and aluminum tariffs.

On Tuesday, the Chinese premier promised at a news conference Beijing will “open even wider” to imports and investment as part of efforts to make its state-dominated economy more productive.

Li said Beijing would “fully open” manufacturing, with “no mandatory requirement for technology transfers.” However, Chinese officials already insist companies aren’t required to hand over technology, so it was unclear how policy might change.


AP Writers Gillian Wong and researcher Yu Bing contributed. Mari Yamaguchi contributed from Tokyo.

Activists: Hours before cease-fire, 37 killed in Syrian town

BEIRUT (AP) — Airstrikes killed at least 37 people in a Syrian town in the eastern Ghouta region near the Syrian capital, Damascus, as another rebel group called for a cease-fire to negotiate evacuations with the government and its backer Russia, rescuers and a rebel spokesman said Friday.

The rebel group Faylaq al-Rahman, one of at least three operating in the sprawling region, said the cease-fire went into effect by midnight Thursday. Spokesman Waiel Olwan said intense government attacks targeted the area controlled by his group amid a ground push.

Rescuers, known as White Helmets, said all 37 people died in a single airstrike that hit an underground shelter in Arbeen. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported the attacks and said government troops advanced in Hazeh south of Arbeen.

Olwan said his group has reached out to the United Nations to negotiate the cease-fire amid the government escalation. Negotiations with Russia will follow to allow for the evacuation of civilians from the area, he said.

“We expect these negotiations to find a solution and a way out in the face of widespread suffering in eastern Ghouta,” Olwan added.

A similar deal with another rebel group, Ahrar al-Sham, led to the evacuation of hundreds of fighters and civilians from Harasta, an eastern Ghouta town in the north.

The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement on Friday that 1,895 rebels and their family members left the town of Harasta on Thursday.

They headed to the northwestern Idlib province, one of a few remaining areas in the hands of the opposition.

Syrian state-run Al-Ikhbariya broadcast from the crossing area from Harasta Friday, saying that 10 buses have arrived to continue the evacuation.

The evacuation deal was an effective surrender after a long siege and bombing campaign of the enclave just miles outside of Damascus. Rebels had controlled eastern Ghouta since 2012, keeping the farming area a thorn in the seat of the government during the years of conflict. The government imposed a siege on the area shortly after rebels controlled it, but failed to recapture eastern Ghouta.

In February, a concerted military offensive, backed by Russian airstrikes, squeezed the rebels and civilians in the area under an intense bombing campaign and tightened the siege. The U.N. estimated that nearly 400,000 people remained in the enclave before the latest offensive began.

The government assault sparked a tide of people trying to escape the violence in the Damascus suburbs. Some have moved deeper into the rebel-held enclave, while about 50,000 others have crossed the front lines toward government-controlled areas.

Over the last weeks, ground troops have cut the enclave into three areas, isolating them and keeping up the bombing.

On Friday, Syrian state media said more residents have left from Douma, one of the three pockets isolated by the offensive and where the bombing continues, through a crossing linking it to the capital Damascsus. No cease-fire has been reached in Douma, the largest town in eastern Ghouta. Douma is controlled by the Army of Islam, the largest and most powerful rebel group in the region.

The surrender deal with Ahrar al-Sham in Harasta is likely to serve as a blueprint for the talks with Faylaq al-Rahman rebels.


Associated Press writer Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to ths report.

Protest over shooting of unarmed black man overtakes freeway

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Protesters decrying this week’s fatal shooting of an unarmed black man marched from Sacramento City Hall and onto a nearby freeway Thursday, disrupting rush hour traffic and holding signs with messages like “Sac PD: Stop killing us!”

Hundreds of people rallied for Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old who was shot Sunday in the backyard of his grandparents’ home. Police say they feared he had a handgun when they confronted him after reports that he had been breaking windows in the South Sacramento neighborhood.

But police found only a cellphone.

“We are at a place of deep pain” because of recent violence directed at black people in Sacramento and elsewhere, said the Rev. Les Simmons, a community leader. He said the city’s first black police chief, Daniel Hahn, is doing what he can but protested the actions of Hahn’s officers.

Clinton Primm said he was friends with Clark, who was nicknamed “Zoe,” for about six years and fears others are also at risk at being shot by police.

“He was a great dad,” he recalled of Clark, the father of sons ages 1 and 3. “He loved both of them to death.”

Sacramento resident Vanessa Cullars said she has lost two family members to police violence.

Two officers yelled for a suspect to show his hands, then shouted “Gun! Gun! Gun!” moments before fatally shooting the man, who turned out to be unarmed, body camera footage released by Sacramento police shows. (March 22)

“I’m fed up with this,” she said at the protest. “I feel like our lives don’t matter to them.”

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg earlier said he was horrified but won’t second-guess the “split-second decisions” of the officers. He praised Hahn for quickly releasing videos of the shooting and said the department has improved its policies since the fatal shooting of a mentally ill black man in 2016.

But independent experts said the footage from body cameras and an overhead helicopter raises more questions than it answers.

The officers appeared to believe they were in danger, they said, and if so the shooting was likely legally justified.

One officer is heard “doing a mental inventory to make sure there’s no holes in his body” because the officers appear to think Clark may have shot at them and missed, said Peter Moskos, a former police officer and assistant professor in the Department of Law and Police Science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

But Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina and an expert on police use of force, said the officers may have a tough time explaining why they jumped to the conclusion that Clark had a gun.

He also questioned why an arriving backup officer had the two original officers turn off the microphones on their body cameras, eliminating what he called “important evidence.”

In an ideal world, the two officers should have immediately provided first aid instead of waiting five minutes for backup, said Eugene O’Donnell, a professor of police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “But that could be more the product of hope than reality,” he said, with the officers still in shock and worried about their own safety.

The Sacramento Police Department said officers were responding to reports of a man seen breaking into at least three vehicles and later into a neighbor’s home. The police said deputies in the helicopter saw Clark break a neighbor’s sliding glass door before jumping a fence.

As a result, “their threat radar is really high,” said Plumas County sheriff’s deputy and special prosecutor Ed Obayashi, who trains officers and testifies in court on police use of force.

“They have to assume that their lives are in danger at that very second,” he said.


Associated Press writers Jonathan J. Cooper and Kathleen Ronayne contributed.


Congress OKs $1.3 trillion budget, averting another shutdown

WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress gave final approval Friday to a giant $1.3 trillion spending bill that ends the budget battles for now, but only after late scuffles and conservatives objected to big outlays on Democratic priorities at a time when Republicans control the House, Senate and White House.

Senate passage shortly after midnight averted a third federal shutdown this year, an outcome both parties wanted to avoid. But in crafting a sweeping deal that busts budget caps, they’ve stirred conservative opposition and set the contours for the next funding fight ahead of the midterm elections.

The House easily approved the measure Thursday, 256-167, a bipartisan tally that underscored the popularity of the compromise, which funds the government through September. It beefs up military and domestic programs, delivering federal funds to every corner of the country.

But action stalled in the Senate, as conservatives ran the clock in protest. Then, an unusual glitch arose when Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, wanted to remove a provision to rename a forest in his home state after the late Cecil Andrus, a four-term Democratic governor.

At one point, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., stepped forward to declare the entire late-night scene “ridiculous. It’s juvenile.”

In the end, Risch lost. But the fight contributed to late-night delays before passage of the massive spending package,

Once the opponents relented, the Senate began voting, clearing the package by a 65-32 vote a full day before Friday’s midnight deadline to fund the government.

“Shame, shame. A pox on both Houses – and parties,” tweeted Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who spent the afternoon tweeting details found in the 2,200-page bill that was released the night before. “No one has read it. Congress is broken.”

Paul said later he knew he could only delay, but not stop, the outcome and had made his point.

The omnibus spending bill was supposed to be an antidote to the stopgap measures Congress has been forced to pass — five in this fiscal year alone — to keep government temporarily running amid partisan fiscal disputes.

Leaders delivered on President Donald Trump’s top priorities of boosting Pentagon coffers and starting work on his promised border wall, while compromising with Democrats on funds for road building, child care development, fighting the opioid crisis and more.

But the result has been unimaginable to many Republicans after campaigning on spending restraints and balanced budgets. Along with the recent GOP tax cuts law, the bill that stood a foot tall at some lawmakers’ desks ushers in the return of $1 trillion deficits.

Trump only reluctantly backed the bill he would have to sign, according to Republican lawmakers and aides, who acknowledged the deal involved necessary trade-offs for the Democratic votes that were needed for passage despite their majority lock on Congress.

“Obviously he doesn’t like this process — it’s dangerous to put it up to the 11th hour like this,” said Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., who opposed the bill and speaks regularly to Trump. “The president, and our leadership, and the leadership in the House got together and said, Look, we don’t like what the Democrats are doing, we got to fund the government.”

White House legislative director Marc Short framed it as a compromise. “I can’t sit here and tell you and your viewers that we love everything in the bill,” he said on Fox. “But we think that we got many of our priorities funded.”

Trying to smooth over differences, Republican leaders focused on military increases that were once core to the party’s brand as guardians of national security.

“Vote yes for our military. Vote yes for the safety and the security of this country,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., ahead of voting.

But even that remained a hard sell. In all, 90 House Republicans, including many from the conservative House Freedom Caucus, voted against the bill, as did two dozen Republicans in the Senate.

It was a sign of the entrenched GOP divisions that have made the leadership’s job controlling the majority difficult. They will likely repeat in the next budget battle in the fall.

Democrats faced their own divisions, particularly after failing to resolve the stalemate over shielding young Dreamer immigrants from deportation as Trump’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program has left it for the courts to decide.

Instead, Trump won $1.6 billion to begin building and replacing segments of the wall along the border with Mexico. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus opposed the bill.

Also missing from the package was a renewal of federal insurance subsidies to curb premium costs on the Affordable Care Act exchanges. Trump ended some of those payments as part of his effort to scuttle President Barack Obama’s health care law, but Republicans have joined Democrats in trying to revive them.

Bipartisan efforts to restore the subsidies, and provide additional help for insurance carriers, foundered over disagreements on how tight abortion restrictions should be on using the money for private insurance plans. Senate Republicans made a last-ditch effort to tuck the insurance provisions into the bill, but Democrats refused to yield on abortion restrictions.

Still, Democrats were beyond pleased with the outcome. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., chronicled the party’s many gains, and noted they could just have easily withheld votes Republicans needed to avert another shutdown.

“We chose to use our leverage to help this bill pass,” Pelosi said.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said as the minority party in Congress, “We feel good.” He added, “We produced a darn good bill.”


Associated Press writers Matthew Daly and Jill Colvin contributed to this report.

Follow Mascaro on Twitter at https://twitter.com/LisaMascaro and Fram at https://twitter.com/AsFram


Business: World markets roiled by rising fears of US-China trade war

HONG KONG (AP) — Fears of a trade war roiled financial markets and sent the dollar wobbling Friday after Beijing retaliated against the Trump administration’s tariff hikes by threatening import duties on U.S. goods.

Stocks plunged on Wall Street after U.S. President Donald Trump imposed sanctions Thursday on goods and investment from China. The Dow Jones industrial average dropped more than 700 points as investors feared trade tensions between the world’s largest economies would escalate.

That fear rippled into Europe. In early trading, Germany’s DAX slid 1.3 percent to 11,941.68, France’s CAC 40 lost 1.3 percent to 5,101.63 and Britain’s FTSE 100 shed 0.8 percent to 6,899.14.

In Asia, markets ended sharply lower after a stomach-churning ride. Japan’s benchmark Nikkei 225 index plunged 4.5 percent to 20,617.86, its second-biggest daily decline in a year, and South Korea’s Kospi tumbled 3.2 percent to 2,416.76. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng lost 2.5 percent to 30,309.29 and the Shanghai Composite in mainland China sank 3.4 percent to 3,152.76. Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 skidded 2 percent to 5,820.70. Benchmarks in Taiwan, Southeast Asia and India also posted sizeable losses.

Wall Street was poised to open lower. Dow futures fell 0.4 percent to 23,859.00 and broader S&P/500 futures were down 0.3 percent to 2,636.70.

“If the tariffs go ahead as planned, then we believe China will retaliate. It is impossible to imagine that they cannot. And then we expect the U.S. to retaliate further,” said Rob Carnell, ING’s chief Asia economist. “This can turn ugly on a global scale very quickly.

The planned U.S. sanctions include tariffs on $48 billion worth of Chinese imports as well as restrictions on Chinese investments. Trump said he was acting in response to theft of American technology.

The U.S. Trade Representative identified 1,300 product lines as potential targets, including aerospace, information and communication technology, and machinery. A more complete list is due soon, to be followed by a 30-day comment period.

Concern that trade conflicts could wreak havoc on the world economy deepened as China responded to Trump’s recent tariff hikes on steel and aluminum by warning it could order higher import duties on U.S. goods including pork, apples and steel pipe.

China’s Commerce Ministry urged Washington to negotiate a settlement, saying tariffs undermine the global trading system.

“Everbody’s pushing each other around to do some negotiating,” said David Collins, chief operations officer at CMC China Manufacturing Consultants, which advises companies on setting up factories in China. “Trump is negotiating. He’s pushing back on the Chinese, and the Chinese will push back.”

On Thursday, investors fled stocks and bought bonds, which sent bond prices higher and yields lower. With interest rates falling, banks took some of the worst losses. Technology and industrial companies, basic materials makers and health care companies also fell sharply.

Peter Donisanu, an investment strategy analyst for the Wells Fargo Investment Institute, said the risk of a damaging trade war is still low because the Trump administration is targeting specific goods that aren’t central to China’s economy. That could change if it puts tariffs on products like electronics or appliances imported from China.

“If the Trump administration really wanted to hurt China and start a trade war, then they would go after those larger sectors,” he said.

The risk of a U.S-China trade war is a regional concern, given the myriad supply chains and other ties across Asia. For example, South Korea’s largest trading partner is China. The U.S. is its second biggest.

“I’m worried that it would affect the national economy,” said S. E. Kim, an employee at a construction company in Seoul. “If the U.S. imposes tariffs on China like that, I think there would be some damage on us in the long term as well.”

Concern over higher U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum eased somewhat when the Trump administration said some countries will be exempt. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said Thursday that the tariffs won’t apply to the European Union, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil and Australia.

Japan’s trade minister described the U.S. decision not to exclude Japanese exports as “extremely regrettable.”

“We will continue our effort patiently to persuade the U.S. to remove Japan from the list,” Japanese Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Hiroshige Seko told reporters.

A traditional “safe haven” from risk, the Japanese yen touched a 17-month high against the U.S. dollar in response to the jitters over trade.

The dollar fell to 104.87 yen from 105.28 yen in late trading Thursday. The euro rose to $1.2337 from $1.2302.

Oil futures rallied. Benchmark U.S. crude rose 48 cents to $64.77 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract shed 87 cents, or 1.3 percent, to close at $64.30 a barrel in New York. Brent crude, used to price international oils, rose 33 cents to $68.71 a barrel in London.


– Here are the top five things you need to know in financial markets on Friday, March 23:

1. China strikes back against Trump tariffs

After U.S. President Donald Trump signed a memorandum announcing tariffs on about $50 billion worth of Chinese exports a day earlier, citing China’s unfair seizure of U.S. intellectual property, China warned the U.S. to “pull back from the brink”.

“China doesn’t hope to be in a trade war, but is not afraid of engaging in one,” the Chinese commerce ministry responded in a statement in which it outlined plans to target agricultural goods important to rural U.S. regions that tend to support Trump.

The world’s second largest economy announced plans to levy additional duties on up to $3 billion of U.S. imports including fresh fruit, wine and nuts in response to import tariffs Trump announced earlier this month on steel and aluminum, which were due to go into effect on Friday.

2. Stocks sell off as trade war fears escalate

Trump’s tariff announcement led to a sharp selloff on Wall Street Thursday that quickly spread to Asian stocks as investors fretted than a standoff between the U.S. and China could impact global trade.

Miners stocks were particularly hard hit, while Australia’s stock exchange slumped 2% over concerns of the impact on its biggest export, iron ore. Japan’s Nikkei led losses in Asia, slumping around 4.7%, while China’s Shanghai Composite closed down 3.4%.

European shares fell on Friday with tech, basic resources stocks and banks bearing the brunt of a wide sell-off triggered by worries that U.S. tariffs on imports from China could escalate into a fully-blown trade war.

U.S. futures also pointed to further losses at the open on Wall Street. At 5:56AM ET (9:56GMT), the blue-chip Dow futures fell 189 points, or 0.79%, S&P 500 futures lost 16 points, or 0.60%, while the Nasdaq 100 futures slid 72 points, or 1.06%.

3. Gold spikes 1% as traders flock to safe haven

Gold prices spiked to a one-month high in early morning trade on Friday as mounting fears over the prospect of a trade war stoked demand for the precious metal.

Investor interest in bullion is regaining momentum as the trade fight stokes concerns global growth will slow, hurting risk assets including equities and industrial commodities such as steel.

Gold, which was received support on Wednesday as the Federal Reserve held its forecasts for just a total of three rate hikes and was perceived to be less hawkish than feared, was on track for weekly gains of more than 2%.

Gold futures for April delivery on the Comex division of the New York Mercantile Exchange jumped $15.10, or around 1.14%, to trade at $1,342.40 by 5:57AM ET (9:57GMT). That was its highest level since February 20.

4. Dollar breaks below 105 level vs. yen

The dollar slumped further against the yen to this week’s lowest point of 104.65, breaking the 105 level, on Friday as investors are stocked up on the safe-haven currency during the recent bout of market volatility

At 5:57AM ET (9:57GMT), USD/JPY shed 0.38% to 104.87, even as the U.S. dollar index, which measures the greenback’s strength against a trade-weighted basket of six major currencies, fell 0.17% at 89.33.

Traders in the greenback will also keep an eye on durable goods orders and new home sales out later in the session.

In the wake of this week’s Fed decision to hike rates by 25 basis points, market participants will also pay attention to appearances from Atlanta Fed chief Raphael Bostic, Minneapolis Fed president Neel Kashkari and Dallas Fed president Robert Kaplan.

5. Oil gets boost on hints of production cut extension

Oil prices continued to rise on Friday, bolstered by news that production cuts from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and Russia could be extended into 2019.

Saudi Arabian Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said on Thursday that OPEC members will need to continue coordinating with Russia and other non-OPEC oil-producing countries on supply restraints in 2019 to reduce the global oil oversupply.

OPEC, of which Saudi Arabia is the de-facto leader, has been cutting crude output by 1.8 million barrels per day (bpd) to prop up oil prices.

U.S. crude oil futures rose 0.22% to $64.44 at 6:07AM ET (10:07GMT), Friday, while Brent oil gained 0.06% to $68.95.

Offsetting OPEC-led production cuts, increasing output stateside has been stoking concerns that the escalation of U.S. shale would counteract attempts to rebalance the market.

Market participants will get the latest indication of the status quo when Baker Hughes releases its most recent weekly rig count data later on Friday.

Analysis: Three women with legal actions against Trump. Who poses the greatest danger?

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(PhatzNewsRoom / NBC News)   —    Which of these three cases present the greatest threat to Trump and his presidency?

The answer: The first case to get him into discovery, and a deposition, where he would answer questions under oath. If a litigant can depose Trump, they likely will depose Trump. So which one of the three has the best chance? Let’s take a look.

Karen McDougal

Her case is similar to Daniels’ in that both are asking a court for a declaration of their rights under certain contracts. But McDougal’s legal situation differs from my Daniels’ in several aspects.

First, at the core of this dispute is not a settlement agreement or a nondisclosure agreement. It’s a licensing agreement.

AMI paid McDougal to license her story, much the way a company might pay a recording artist to license a song. The language in the contract is harsh, and unsurprisingly slanted toward AMI, which is run by David Pecker, a friend of the president.

Under the contract, McDougal grants the rights to any story about any physical relationship she has ever had with “any then-married man.” The grant of rights to her story to AMI was complete and exclusive. Importantly, McDougal reserved none of the rights in her own story — which means her own tale was no longer hers to tell, under the contract.

Model Karen McDougal attends Playboy’s Super Saturday Night Party at Sagamore Hotel on Feb. 6, 2010 in Miami Beach, Florida. Bennett Raglin / Getty Images for Bacardi

McDougal is now asking a state court to declare the AMI contract void from its inception — or void “ab initio” — for three reasons: (1) there was “fraud in the execution” — she was fraudulently denied knowledge of the essential terms of the contract; (2) the contract was essentially for an illegal corporate contribution, which makes the contract illegal; and (3) it’s against public policy.

To prove fraud in the execution, McDougal will have to show she signed the contract without knowledge or without reasonable opportunity to learn of its essential terms. This allegation is key for another reason: Claims of fraud in the execution may be resolved by the trial court, and not by arbitration.

McDougal’s illegality theory is that the entire transaction was a disguised agreement to make an undisclosed, illegal corporate contribution to the Trump campaign, for the ultimate purpose of influencing the 2016 presidential general election. An illegal contract is void. McDougal will argue that because the arbitration agreement was part of an illegal contract, she may avoid arbitration altogether.

Her lawyer alleges that she and Trump had a 10-month affair that ended in 2007. The White House has denied Trump has any relationship with McDougal.

Stormy Daniels

Like McDougal, the path to legal victory for Daniels lays in avoiding the arbitration clause contained in her agreement.

The defendants in her lawsuit have removed the case to federal court, but the next maneuver by the Trump defense will be a motion to return the case to arbitration. If the McDougal and Daniels cases are forced into arbitration, there will be no discovery, no jury trial and no depositions under oath.

Daniels claims she had sex with Trump in 2006. The White House has denied that Trump had an affair with her.

Summer Zervos

She’s in a totally different position. And that’s why her case has suddenly overtaken the others as the greatest present threat to the Trump presidency.

Zervos is not bound by the strictures of any contract. Her case is not based on a contract but in “tort” law. Contract law enforces the intentions of parties to an agreement. Tort law is primarily designed to vindicate social policy, and right civil wrongs committed by one person against another.

Summer Zervos, a former contestant on “The Apprentice” arrives at the New York County Criminal Court on December 5, 2017. Kena Betancur / AFP – Getty Images file

Zervos alleges that in 2007 Trump kissed her and touched her in a sexual way. Trump has repeatedly denied her claims.

Zervos’ defamation claim against Trump is that he intentionally published a false statement of fact which injured her. Now that a New York Court has allowed her case to proceed, the next step is discovery, where the parties exchange information, and appear for depositions. These are interviews conducted under oath, where the witness must answer all questions, unless privileged or plainly improper and prejudicial.

Additionally, because depositions are sworn testimony, the perils of perjury lurk behind every answer to every question.

If Trump is forced to sit for a deposition, he’s in as much peril as if special counsel Robert Mueller had subpoenaed him to testify before a grand jury. In that sense, the civil cases against him are as perilous as the Russia investigation.

Mueller investigated Sessions for perjury on Russia statements

(PhatzNewsRoom / AP)   —   Special counsel Robert Mueller and the FBI investigated Attorney General Jeff Sessions last year for misleading lawmakers about his contacts with Russians before eventually closing that part of the case, according to three people with knowledge of the matter.

The investigation, which examined statements Sessions made last year during his confirmation process to become attorney general, was authorized by former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, according to the people, who asked not to be identified discussing a sensitive matter. Sessions fired McCabe on March 16 for a lack of candor and misleading Justice Department officials in a separate matter.

The probe into Sessions shows the breadth of Mueller’s investigation and offers a rare glimpse into an episode that the special counsel has decided to close without charges. The investigation into Sessions was first reported Wednesday by ABC News.

“The Special Counsel‘s Office has informed me that after interviewing the Attorney General and conducting additional investigation, the Attorney General is not under investigation for false statements or perjury in his confirmation hearing testimony and related written submissions to Congress,” Charles Cooper, Sessions’ lawyer and founder of Cooper & Kirk PLLC, said in a statement Wednesday.

Sessions wasn’t aware of the investigation into his actions when he fired McCabe, according to a person close to the attorney general.

Sessions, at the time a senator from Alabama, was an early and avid surrogate for Donald Trump during his 2016 presidential campaign. He came under criticism from Democratic lawmakers after denying during his confirmation process that he had had contacts with any Russians. Sessions later acknowledged that he had met at least twice in 2016 with Sergey Kislyak, who was then Russia’s ambassador to the U.S.

Sessions has defended himself by saying he didn’t recall meeting with Kislyak.

Sessions has also said he was correct in not mentioning the contact during his confirmation hearing in January 2017. He said that was because he was responding to a question about what he’d do if he found out that anyone affiliated with Trump’s team was communicating with Russian officials during the campaign.

The revelation about his contact with Kislyak prompted Sessions to recuse himself last March from being in charge of the federal criminal investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election. Mueller was appointed to led the investigation last May after Trump fired then FBI Director James Comey.

McCabe’s role in the Sessions probe is notable. He served in the Federal Bureau of Investigation for 22 years and was terminated by Sessions two days before he was set to retire and become eligible to collect his full federal pension.

Sessions made the decision to fire McCabe after the FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility recommended he be dismissed for not being forthcoming about authorizing discussions with a reporter about a pending investigation. Sessions said he relied on internal assessments that McCabe lacked candor on multiple occasions.

McCabe responded with a lengthy, combative statement saying he was the target of a political attack by Trump and that he has knowledge of events that took place after Trump fired Comey — events which have been a focus of Mueller’s probe.

McCabe said he’d been “singled out and treated this way because of the role I played, the actions I took, and the events I witnessed in the aftermath of the firing of James Comey.”

Leaders finalize US budget bill; voting could begin Thursday

WASHINGTON (AP) — Congressional leaders have finalized a sweeping $1.3 trillion budget bill that substantially boosts military and domestic spending but leaves behind young immigrant “Dreamers,” deprives President Donald Trump some of his border wall money and takes only incremental steps to address gun violence.

As negotiators stumbled toward an end-of-the-week deadline to fund the government or face a federal shutdown, House Speaker Paul Ryan dashed to the White House amid concerns Trump’s support was wavering. Although some conservative Republicans balked at the size of the spending increases and the rush to pass the bill, the White House said the president backed the legislation.

Trump himself sounded less than enthused, tweeting late Wednesday: “Had to waste money on Dem giveaways in order to take care of military pay increase and new equipment.”

Talks had stretched into Wednesday evening before the 2,232-page text was finally released.

“No bill of this size is perfect,” Ryan said. “But this legislation addresses important priorities and makes us stronger at home and abroad.”

Leaders hoped to start voting as soon as Thursday. A stopgap measure may be needed to ensure federal offices aren’t hit with a partial shutdown at midnight Friday when funding for the government expires.

Negotiators have been working for days — and nights — on details of the bill, which is widely viewed as the last major piece of legislation likely to move through Congress in this election year. Lawmakers in both parties sought to attach their top priorities.

Two of the biggest remaining issues had been border wall funds and a legislative response to gun violence after the clamor for action following recent school shootings, including the one in Parkland, Florida.

On guns, leaders agreed to tuck in bipartisan provisions to bolster school safety funds and improve compliance with the criminal background check system for firearm purchases. The bill states that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can do research on gun violence, though not advocacy, an idea Democrats pushed.

But there was no resolution for Dreamers, the young immigrants who have been living in the United States illegally since childhood but whose deportation protections are being challenged in court after Trump tried to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Democrats temporarily shut down the government earlier this year as they fought for that protection. But the issue only rose to a discussion item when Trump made a late-hour push for a deal in exchange for $25 billion in border wall funds.

Instead, Trump is now poised to win $1.6 billion for barriers along the border, but none of it for the new prototypes he recently visited in California. Less than half the nearly 95 miles of border construction, including levees along the Rio Grande in Texas, would be for new barriers, with the rest for repair of existing segments.

In one win for immigrant advocates, negotiators rejected Trump’s plans to hire hundreds of new Border Patrol and immigration enforcement agents.

“We are disappointed that we did not reach agreement on Dreamer protections that were worthy of these patriotic young people,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

The emerging plan removes a much-debated earmark protecting money for a rail tunnel under the Hudson River. The item was a top priority of Trump’s most powerful Democratic rival, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, but Trump vowed to veto the bill over the earmark. Under the legislation, the project would remain eligible for funding, however, and a Schumer aide said it was likely to win well more than half of the $900 million sought for the project this year.

The core purpose of the bill is to increase spending for military and domestic programs that have been sharply squeezed under a 2011 agreement that was supposed to cap spending. It gives Trump a huge budget increase for the military, while Democrats scored wins on infrastructure and other domestic programs that they failed to get under President Barack Obama.

That largesse has drawn opposition from some fiscal conservatives and could make passage a potentially tricky process.

Last month, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul triggered a brief government shutdown over his objections to the deficit spending. On Wednesday, he tweeted his opposition to the emerging legislation, known as an “omnibus.”

“It’s a good thing we have Republican control of Congress or the Democrats might bust the budget caps, fund planned parenthood and Obamacare, and sneak gun control without due process into an Omni … wait, what?” Paul tweeted.

Most essential was support from Trump, who has been known to threaten to veto legislation even when his team is involved in the negotiations.

Word of Trump’s discontent sent Ryan to the White House, where he was invited to a face-to-face with the president, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on the phone.

White House aides said the president’s support was never in doubt, but one senior White House official said the president was concerned that details of the package weren’t being presented as well as they could be, both to members of Congress and the public.

The group discussed how they could better sell the package, said the official, who was granted anonymity to discuss the private conversation.

“The president and the leaders discussed their support for the bill,” said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, adding that it would fund Trump priorities such as wall construction, add money to combat the opioid crisis and provide new infrastructure spending.

Both parties touted $4.6 billion in total funding to fight the nation’s opioid addiction epidemic, a $3 billion increase. More than $2 billion would go to strengthen school safety through grants for training, security measures and treatment for the mentally ill. Medical research at the National Institutes of Health, a longstanding bipartisan priority, would receive a record $3 billion increase to $37 billion. Funding was also included for election security ahead of the 2018 midterms.

Child care and development block grants would receive a huge $2.4 billion increase to $5.2 billion. And an Obama-era transportation grant program known as TIGER would see its budget tripled to $1.5 billion. Head Start for preschoolers would get a $610 million boost, while an additional $2.4 billion would go for child care grants.


Associated Press writers Jill Colvin, Alan Fram and Matthew Daly contributed to this report.

Syrian rebels to leave key town in eastern Ghouta enclave

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BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels and their families were preparing to leave a besieged town in the eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus on Thursday, in a deal that could see the bombed-out town handed over to the government following years of siege.

It is the first such arrangement for a town inside the besieged enclave, which has endured more than one month of relentless shelling and bombardment as the government, backed by its ally Russia, pushed to retake the region after seven years of revolt.

As rebels prepared to depart the town of Harasta, thousands of civilians streamed out of other areas in eastern Ghouta that were still being bombed by the government.

The government’s assault has sparked a tide of displacement in the Damascus suburbs as civilians try to escape the violence. Some have moved deeper into the rebel-held enclave, while some 50,000 others have crossed the front-lines, to government authorities.

The government’s air and ground assault, which escalated Feb. 18, has seen the once sprawling territory at the doors of the capital shrink to three disconnected rebel-held islands. The evacuation by Ahrar al-Sham rebels from Harasta, if it goes through Thursday, could serve as a blueprint for other rebels in other towns, bringing President Bashar Assad’s government closer to recapturing the entire territory.

The international medical charity Doctors Without Borders said the advancing government forces had captured or destroyed 19 of the 20 hospitals the group was supporting just one week ago. It said medical staff were fleeing the approaching front lines.

Rebels hold just 20 percent of the eastern Ghouta territory they held one month ago, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group. But that territory includes several densely populated residential zones including Douma, the largest town in eastern Ghouta.

The Observatory said some 4,000 people evacuated Douma since Wednesday. The Russian military said more than 5,000 people left eastern Ghouta.

Rebels and the government exchanged 18 prisoners ahead of the Harasta evacuation, according to pro-government media.

The 13 men released by the Syrian rebels identified themselves to the media outside Harasta as soldiers and civilians attached to the Syrian army, who were captured by rebels in the fighting for Harasta. Crying in relief, they thanked God, the Syrian army and President Assad for their freedom.

The deal for Harasta will see 1,500 rebels and 6,000 civilians leave to a rebel-held province in northwest Syria, according to the state-affiliated Military Media Center.

Monther Fares, a spokesman for the rebel faction Ahrar al-Sham, confirmed that his group’s fighters were preparing to depart. Fares said the rebels agreed to leave because of “civilian pressure” resulting from intensive airstrikes and “warplanes that do not leave the sky,” adding that residents of Harasta have spent the last three months inside shelters.

But the arrangement leaves other fighters for the Failaq al-Rahman group still inside. They government is threatening to move on them if they do not also agree to depart.

State-affiliated al-Ikhbariya TV cast the deal as a victory for the country. Its correspondent Rabieh Dibeh said the government would restore its authority over Harasta once the “terrorists” left the town. He said defectors from the army would be ordered to rejoin the service.

Critics say it is a formula for displacement that legitimizes the government’s brutal siege tactics that have deprived hundreds of thousands of civilians of food and medicines and subjected them to a half-decade of violence. Numerous, top U.N. officials have likened the tactics to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The civilians expected to leave Harasta include family members of rebels and as well as activists and others who do not trust the government’s vindictive security services to grant them amnesty. An unknown number of others have already been forced out of their homes or killed in the government’s ferocious campaign against eastern Ghouta.

Harasta appeared in ruins in a broadcast from al-Ikhbariya, and apartment blocks in the town looked gutted.

The United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross are not facilitating the evacuations; they will be completed in coordination with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

The deal is modeled after others that have had rebels surrender swaths of territory around the capital and other major cities to the government. In all cases, the arrangements followed indiscriminate campaigns by the government against hospitals, markets, and other civilian targets, driving thousands of civilians out of their homes.


An Associated Press journalist in Damascus, Syria and AP writer Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.

Can Zuckerberg’s media blitz take the pressure off Facebook?

NEW YORK (AP) — In the wake of a privacy scandal involving a Trump-connected data-mining firm, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg embarked on a rare media mini-blitz in an attempt to take some of the public and political pressure off the social network.

But it’s far from clear whether he’s won over U.S. and European authorities, much less the broader public whose status updates provide Facebook with an endless stream of data it uses to sell targeted ads.

On Wednesday, the generally reclusive Zuckerberg sat for an interview on CNN and gave another to the publication Wired, addressing reports that Cambridge Analytica purloined the data of more than 50 million Facebook users in order to sway elections. The Trump campaign paid the firm $6 million during the 2016 election, although it has since distanced itself from Cambridge.

Zuckerberg apologized for a “major breach of trust,” admitted mistakes and outlined steps to protect users following Cambridge’s data grab.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologized for a “major breach of trust,” admitted mistakes and outlined steps to protect user data in light of a privacy scandal involving the Trump-connected data-mining firm during a CNN interview. (March 22)

“I am really sorry that happened,” Zuckerberg said on CNN. Facebook has a “responsibility” to protect its users’ data, he added, noting that if it fails, “we don’t deserve to have the opportunity to serve people.”

His mea culpa on cable television came a few hours after he acknowledged his company’s mistakes in a Facebook post , but without saying he was sorry.

Zuckerberg and Facebook’s No. 2 executive, Sheryl Sandberg, had been quiet since news broke Friday that Cambridge may have used data improperly obtained from roughly 50 million Facebook users to try to sway elections. Cambridge’s clients included Donald Trump’s general-election campaign.

Facebook shares have dropped some 8 percent, lopping about $46 billion off the company’s market value, since the revelations were first published.

While several experts said Zuckerberg took an important step with the CNN interview, few were convinced that he put the Cambridge issue behind hm. Zuckerberg’s apology, for instance, seemed rushed and pro forma to Helio Fred Garcia, a crisis-management professor at NYU and Columbia University.

“He didn’t acknowledge the harm or potential harm to the affected users,” Garcia said. “I doubt most people realized he was apologizing.”

Instead, the Facebook chief pointed to steps the company has already taken, such as a 2014 move to restrict the access outside apps had to user data. (That move came too late to stop Cambridge.) And he laid out a series of technical changes that will further limit the data such apps can collect, pledged to notify users when outsiders misuse their information and said Facebook will “audit” apps that exhibit troubling behavior.

That audit will be a giant undertaking, said David Carroll, a media researcher at the Parsons School of Design in New York — one that he said will likely turn up a vast number of apps that did “troubling, distressing things.”

But on other fronts, Zuckerberg carefully hedged otherwise striking remarks.

In the CNN interview, for instance, he said he would be “happy” to testify before Congress — but only if it was “the right thing to do.” Zuckerberg went on to note that many other Facebook officials might be more appropriate witnesses depending on what Congress wanted to know.

At another point, the Facebook chief seemed to favor regulation for Facebook and other internet giants. At least, that is, the “right” kind of rules, such as ones requiring online political ads to disclose who paid for them. In almost the next breath, however, Zuckerberg steered clear of endorsing a bill that would write such rules into federal law, and instead talked up Facebook’s own voluntary efforts on that front.

“They’ll fight tooth and nail to fight being regulated,” said Timothy Carone, a Notre Dame business professor. “In six months we’ll be having the same conversations, and it’s just going to get worse going into the election.”

Even Facebook’s plan to let users know about data leaks may put the onus on users to educate themselves. Zuckerberg said Facebook will “build a tool” that lets users see if their information had been impacted by the Cambridge leak, suggesting that the company won’t be notifying people automatically. Facebook took this kind of do-it-yourself approach in the case of Russian election meddling, in contrast to Twitter, which notified users who had been exposed to Russian propaganda on its network.

In what has become one of the worst backlashes Facebook has ever seen, politicians in the U.S. and Britain have called for Zuckerberg to explain its data practices in detail. State attorneys general in Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey have opened investigations into the Cambridge mess. And some have rallied to a movement that urges people to delete their Facebook accounts entirely.

Sandy Parakilas, who worked in data protection for Facebook in 2011 and 2012, told a U.K. parliamentary committee Wednesday that the company was vigilant about its network security but lax when it came to protecting users’ data.

He said personal data including email addresses and in some cases private messages was allowed to leave Facebook servers with no real controls on how the data was used after that.

Paul Argenti, a business professor at Dartmouth, said that while Zuckerberg’s comments hit the right notes, they still probably aren’t enough. “The question is, can you really trust Facebook,” he said. “I don’t think that question has been answered.”


Danica Kirka and Gregory Katz reported from London. AP Technology Writer Mae Anderson in New York contributed to this story.


Police: Austin bomber’s motive still unknown, despite video

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PFLUGERVILLE, Texas (AP) — A 25-minute cellphone video left behind by the bomber whose deadly explosives terrorized Austin for weeks details the differences among the weapons he built and amounts to a confession, police said. But his motive remains a mystery.

Mark Anthony Conditt, an unemployed college dropout who bought bomb-making materials at Home Depot, recorded the video hours before he died after detonating one of his own devices as SWAT teams closed in. It seemed to indicate the 23-year-old knew he was about to be caught, said Austin Police Chief Brian Manley.

“It is the outcry of a very challenged young man talking about challenges in his own life,” Manley said of the recording, which authorities declined to release amid the ongoing investigation.

Conditt was tracked down using store surveillance video, cellphone signals and witness accounts of a customer shipping packages in a disguise that included a blond wig and gloves. Police finally found him early Wednesday at a hotel in a suburb north of Austin.

Officers prepared to move in for an arrest. When the suspect’s sport utility vehicle began to drive away, they followed. Conditt ran into a ditch on the side of the road, and SWAT officers approached, banging on his window.

Police have discovered a 25-minute recording on a cellphone found with bombing suspect Mark Conditt and Austin Police Chief Brian Manley says he considers it a “confession.” (March 21)

Within seconds, the suspect had detonated a bomb inside his vehicle, blasting the officers backward, Manley said. One officer then fired his weapon at Conditt, the chief said. The medical examiner has not finalized the cause of death, but the bomb caused “significant” injuries, he said.

Law enforcement officials did not immediately say whether Conditt acted alone in the five bombings in the Texas capital and suburban San Antonio that killed two people and badly wounded four others. Fred Milanowski of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said investigators were confident that “the same person built each one of these devices.”

Investigators released few details about Conditt, except his age and that he was white. Neighbors say he was home-schooled. He later attended Austin Community College from 2010 to 2012, according to a college spokeswoman, but he did not graduate.

In a 2012 online blog that the college spokeswoman said Conditt created as part of a U.S. government class project, he gives his opinion on several issues, often in response to someone else’s commentary. Conditt wrote that gay marriage should be illegal, argued in favor of the death penalty and gave his thoughts on “why we might want to consider” eliminating sex offender registries.

In the “about me” section of the blog, Conditt wrote that he wasn’t “that politically inclined” but did view himself as conservative.

Jay Schulze, who lives in Pflugerville, said he was jogging Tuesday night when he was stopped by police and asked about the bombings. He said police flew drones over Conditt’s home for about six hours between Tuesday evening and early Wednesday morning.

Schulze described the home as “a weird house with a lot of people coming and going” and a bit rundown.

A neighbor who watched Conditt grow up said he always seemed smart and polite. Jeff Reeb said he has lived next to Conditt’s parents for about 17 years and described them as good neighbors. Conditt had visited his parents regularly, he said.

Conditt’s family released a statement saying they had “no idea of the darkness that Mark must have been in.” His uncle, Mike Courtney, said his nephew was a “computer geek” who was intelligent and kind.

Austin was hit with four bombings starting on March 2. The first explosions were from packages left on doorsteps. Then a bomb with a tripwire was placed near a public trail. A fifth parcel bomb detonated early Tuesday at a FedEx distribution center near San Antonio.

Rep. Michael McCaul, a Republican from Austin, said Conditt’s “fatal mistake” was walking into a FedEx store to mail a package because that allowed authorities to obtain surveillance video that showed him and his vehicle, along with his license plate number. From there, investigators could identify the suspect and eventually track him using his cellphone.

Police warned of the possibility that more bombs had yet to be found.

“We don’t know where this suspect has spent his last 24 hours, and therefore we still need to remain vigilant to ensure that no other packages or devices have been left to the community,” Manley said.

By late afternoon, federal officials had a “reasonable level of certainty” that there were no more package bombs “out in the public,” said Milanowski, the agent in charge of the Houston division of the ATF. But authorities urged continued awareness just in case.

“We think we’re on top of this, but we just don’t know,” FBI agent Chris Combs said.

Homemade explosives were recovered from Conditt’s home in Pflugerville, a community where portions of “Friday Night Lights” were filmed. His two roommates were detained for questioning. One was later released.

Investigators said one room in the home contained bomb components and explosive materials but no finished bombs. They were analyzing Conditt’s internet history to find out how he learned to make bombs.

Isaac Figueroa said he and his brother heard sirens and helicopters around 2 a.m. Wednesday in the area and drove toward them, then cut through nearby woods on foot after they hit a police roadblock.

The 26-year-old said they saw an SUV that was pinned between large vans and “looked like it had been rammed off the road.” He said police later deployed a robot to go examine the vehicle.

The suspect’s death followed a day of rapid-fire developments in the case. On Tuesday, the bomb at the FedEx shipping center in suburban San Antonio exploded on a conveyer belt.

Later, police sent a bomb squad to a FedEx facility outside the Austin airport to check on a suspicious package. Authorities subsequently said that package contained an explosive that was tied to the other bombings.

Officers then recovered footage of Conditt wearing a blond wig and gloves as he turned over packages to send at a FedEx store in south Austin. That was enough to set in motion the manhunt that ended with Wednesday’s fatal explosion.


Associated Press writers Paul J. Weber, Emily Schmall and John Mone in Austin; Sadie Gurman in Washington; and Tim Jacobs in Chicago contributed to this report.

China vows to defend its interests against US trade actions

BEIJING (AP) — The Chinese government vowed Thursday to take “all necessary measures” to defend the country’s interests if President Donald Trump targets it for allegedly stealing American technology or pressuring U.S. companies to hand it over.

“China will not sit idly to see its legitimate rights damaged and must take all necessary measures to resolutely defend its legitimate rights,” the Commerce Ministry in Beijing said in a statement on its website.

The Trump administration is expected later Thursday to impose trade sanctions on China, perhaps including restrictions on Chinese investment and tariffs on as much as $60 billion worth of Chinese products.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters that Beijing hoped the U.S. would “refrain from taking actions that are detrimental to both sides.”

Dozens of industry groups sent a letter last weekend to Trump warning that “the imposition of sweeping tariffs would trigger a chain reaction of negative consequences for the U.S. economy, provoking retaliation; stifling U.S. agriculture, goods, and services exports; and raising costs for businesses and consumers.”

The announcement will mark the end of a seven-month U.S. investigation into the hardball tactics China has used to challenge U.S. supremacy in technology, including dispatching hackers to steal commercial secrets and demanding that U.S. companies hand over trade secrets in exchange for access to the Chinese market. The administration argues that years of negotiations with China have failed to produce results.

Business: Global shares mostly lower following Fed interest rate hike

BANGKOK (AP) — Shares were mixed in Asia on Thursday after U.S. stock indexes finished with small losses following the Federal Reserve’s interest rate hike. Beijing said it was prepared to defend its interests as the administration of President Donald Trump prepared to announce tariffs on imports from China.

KEEPING SCORE: Britain’s FTSE 100 dropped 0.6 percent to 6,999.86 and Germany’s DAX lost 0.9 percent to 12,193.57. The CAC 40 in France shed 0.7 percent to 5,204.02. Futures for the S&P 500 lost 0.7 percent and Dow futures gave up 0.6 percent, pointing to a downbeat start in Wall Street.

THE DAY IN ASIA: Japan’s Nikkei 225 index gained 1.0 percent to 21,591.99 while the Kospi in South Korea added 0.4 percent to 2,496.02. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng dropped 1.1 percent to 31,071.05 and the Shanghai Composite index lost 0.5 percent to 3,263.48. Australia’s S&P ASX 200 fell 0.2 percent to 5,937.20. Shares were mixed in Southeast Asia.

FED RATE HIKE: The Fed, headed by its new chairman, Jerome Powell, said the U.S. economy and the job market continued to improve over the last two months and it still expects to raise interest rates three times this year. It said it might raise rates three more times next year instead of two.

CHINA TRADE: China’s Commerce Ministry said it would take “all necessary measures” to defend China’s interests if President Donald Trump targets China for allegedly stealing American technology or pressuring U.S. companies to hand it over. The Trump administration was expected to impose trade sanctions on China, perhaps including restrictions on Chinese investment and tariffs on as much as $60 billion worth of Chinese products. A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters Thursday that Beijing hoped the U.S. would “refrain from taking actions that are detrimental to both sides.”

ENERGY: Benchmark U.S. crude shed 37 cents to $64.80 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. It gained $1.63, or 2.6 percent, to $65.17 a barrel on Wednesday. Brent crude, used to price international oils, shed 50 cents to $68.57 per barrel.

CURRENCIES: The dollar fell to 105.67 yen from 106.05 yen. The euro fell to $1.2325 from $1.2340.


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

1. Global Stocks Wobble As Fed, Trade Jitters Weigh

Global equities were on the back foot, as traders assessed the implications of higher borrowing costs in the U.S., while persistent worries about a global trade war kept markets on edge.

Asian markets closed mostly lower, with bourses in the region giving up early gains to close in negative territory.

Chinese markets led losses in the region after the People’s Bank of China raised the interest rate on seven-day reverse repurchase agreements, a key short-term interest rate, by 5 basis points, in response to the Fed’s move overnight.

The rate increase was the PBOC’s first major policy decision under new Governor Yi Gang, who was appointed by parliament on Monday.

Elsewhere, in Europe, the pan-European Stoxx 600 index, the region’s broadest measure of share prices, was down 0.4% in mid-morning trade to hit their lowest level in two weeks, with all sectors and major bourses in the red.

Meanwhile, on Wall Street, U.S. stock futures pointed to significant losses at the open.

The blue-chip Dow futures slumped 160 points, or around 0.6%, the S&P 500 futures dropped 19 points, or about 0.7%, while the tech-heavy Nasdaq 100 futures lost 76 points, or roughly 1.1%.

2. Dollar Sags To 1-Month Low As Fed Sticks To Current Rate Outlook

The dollar fell to one-month lows against a currency basket, after the Federal Reserve raised interest rates, but stuck to its forecast for two more hikes this year.

Some investors had expected the Fed to project three more rate hikes this year so the decision to stick to its forecast for two additional hikes was seen by some as less hawkish than expected.

The U.S. dollar index, which measures the greenback’s strength against a basket of six major currencies, was down 0.2% to 89.12, its lowest level since February 19. The index fell 0.74% on Wednesday, its largest one-day decline since mid-January.

In the bond market, the U.S. 10-year Treasury yield declined 6.2 basis points to 2.845%, after reaching 2.936% a day earlier.

3. Attention Now Shifts To The Bank of England

With the Fed out of the way, attention now shifts to the Bank of England’s policy meeting.

The BoE will announce its rate decision at 1200GMT (8:00AM ET), and while it is not expected to hike rates or make any changes to the size of its asset purchase program, investors will be looking for clues regarding the timing of its next hike.

Robust British wage data on Wednesday cemented expectations that the central bank will raise rates as early as May.

Sterling edged higher, with GBP/USD rising 0.2% to 1.4165, after hitting its highest since Feb. 2 at 1.4181 earlier.

4. Trump Set For China Tariff Announcement

President Donald Trump is expected to announce tariffs targeting $60 billion of Chinese imports, in a move aimed at curbing theft of U.S. technology that is likely to trigger retaliation from Beijing and stoke fears of a global trade war.

Trump will sign a memorandum “targeting China’s economic aggression” at 12:30PM ET (1630GMT), which will be imposed under Section 301 of the 1974 U.S. Trade Act.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said on Wednesday the tariffs would target China’s high-technology sector and could also include restrictions on Chinese investment in the United States.

Investors worry such a move could trigger countermeasures by China, possibly causing a vicious cycle of escalating retaliation.

According to several sources, China is already preparing to retaliate with tariffs of their own focused on U.S. exports of soybeans, sorghum and live hogs.

Investors were also eyeing a European Council meeting, with the European Union aiming to secure an exemption from U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum imports set to come into force on Friday.

5. Euro Zone Private Sector Output Loses Momentum

Euro zone businesses rounded off the first quarter of 2018 with their slowest growth in over a year, much weaker than expected, as new business took another hit from a stubbornly strong euro, a survey showed.

IHS Markit’s composite flash PMI for the euro zone, seen as a good guide to economic health, slumped to 55.3 this month, far below forecasts for a more modest dip to 56.7 from February’s final reading of 57.1.

The slowdown could be widespread, with earlier data from Germany showing growth in Europe’s largest economy slowed much faster than analysts had expected. A sister PMI suggested France’s expansion rate had also weakened.

The euro was little changed at 1.2340 against the dollar.

Austin bomber blows self up; fears of more explosives remain

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ROUND ROCK, Texas (AP) — The suspect in a series of bombing attacks that terrorized Austin over the past few weeks blew himself up early Wednesday as law enforcement closed in on him. Authorities warned of concern that more explosives might still be out there.

Authorities had zeroed in on the suspect in the last 24 to 36 hours and located his vehicle at a hotel on Interstate 35 in the suburb of Round Rock, Austin Police Chief Brian Manley said at a news conference. They were waiting for ballistic vehicles to arrive to move in for an arrest when his vehicle began to drive away, Manley said. Authorities followed the vehicle, which ran into a ditch on the side of the road, the police chief said.

When members of the SWAT team approached, the suspect detonated an explosive device inside the vehicle, the police chief said. The blast knocked back one officer, while a second officer fired his weapon, Manley said.

Authorities identified the suspect only as a 24-year-old white man and wouldn’t say if he was from Austin.

Austin has been targeted by four package bombings since March 2 that killed two people and seriously wounded four others. A fifth parcel bomb detonated at a FedEx distribution center near San Antonio early Tuesday.

Austin, Texas police chief Brian Manley says the suspect in a string of bombings in that city is dead, and that the suspect blew himself up in his vehicle on Wednesday morning as officers approached. (March 21)

Authorities on Wednesday warned of the possibility that more bombs had yet to be found.

“We don’t know where this suspect has spent his last 24 hours and therefore we still need to remain vigilant to ensure that no other packages or devices have been left to the community,” Manley said.

Manley said the suspect is believed to be responsible for all the major Austin bombings. Authorities also said they didn’t know his motive.

Fred Milanowski, an agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said it was “hard to say” if the bombing suspect had acted alone.

“What we do know is we believe the same person built each one of these devices,” said Milanowski, the agent in charge of the Houston division of the ATF. “We are not 100 percent convinced there’s not other devices out there.”

Asked if the suspect built bombs before the Austin attacks, Milanowski said: “We know when he bought some of the components. It’s hard to say whether he was building along the way.”

Mayor Steve Adler thanked law enforcement for their work in bringing down the suspect and urged residents to continue to report anything that appeared suspicious or out of place.

“We’re just really relieved and just incredibly thankful for this army of law enforcement that has been in our community here for the last week or so,” he said on NBC’s “Today” show. “We’re asking people to remain vigilant and still identify things in the community that seem suspicious or out of place, as we have been doing.”

Isaac Figueroa, 26, said he and his brother heard sirens and helicopters early Wednesday in the area and drove toward them, then cut through nearby woods on foot after they hit a police roadblock.

Figueroa said they saw a silver or gray Jeep Cherokee that was pinned between black and white vehicles and “looked like it had been rammed off the road.” He said he saw police deploy a robot to go examine the Jeep.

President Donald Trump, who had earlier said whoever was responsible for the Austin bombings was “obviously a very sick individual or individuals,” tweeted, “AUSTIN BOMBING SUSPECT IS DEAD. Great job by law enforcement and all concerned!”

The suspect’s death followed a day of rapid-fire developments in the case.

On Tuesday, a bomb inside a package exploded around 1 a.m. as it passed along a conveyer belt at a FedEx shipping center in Schertz, northeast of San Antonio and about 60 miles (95 kilometers) southwest of Austin. One worker reported ringing in her ears and was treated at the scene.

Later in the morning, police sent a bomb squad to a FedEx facility outside the Austin airport to check on a suspicious package. Federal agencies and police later said that package had indeed contained an explosive that was successfully intercepted and that it, too, was tied to the other bombings.

Authorities also closed off an Austin-area FedEx store where they believe the bomb that exploded in Schertz was shipped. They roped off a large area around the shopping center in the enclave of Sunset Valley and were collecting evidence.

The Schertz blast came two days after a bombing wounded two men Sunday night in a quiet Austin neighborhood about 3 miles (5 kilometers) from the FedEx store. It was triggered by a nearly invisible tripwire, suggesting a “higher level of sophistication” than agents saw in three package bombs previously left on doorsteps, Milanowski said.

Authorities have not identified the two men who were hurt Sunday, saying only that they are in their 20s. But William Grote told The Associated Press that his grandson was one of them and that he had what appeared to be nails embedded in his knees.

Authorities believe the suspect who died with SWAT officers closing in on him was behind all of the bombings in Austin this month.

Authorities believe the suspect who died with SWAT officers closing in on him was behind all of the bombings in Austin this month.

Authorities believe the suspect who died with SWAT officers closing in on him was behind all of the bombings in Austin this month.

Law enforcement had a scare Tuesday night at a Goodwill store in southern Austin, where someone had dropped off a device sometimes used in military training and it went off, injuring a worker. Authorities don’t believe it was the work of the bomber or a copycat. They said such military items are occasionally donated to Goodwill instead of being properly disposed of.

Report: Aides told Trump not to congratulate Putin on win

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump called Russian President Vladimir Putin to congratulate him on his re-election, drawing bruising criticism from members of his own party, including a leading senator who scorned the election as a “sham.” Trump also said he and Putin might meet “in the not too distant future” to discuss the arms race and other matters.

What they didn’t discuss on Tuesday was noteworthy as well: Trump did not raise Russia’s meddling in the U.S. elections or its suspected involvement in the recent poisoning of a former spy in Britain.

Trump’s aides had warned him in an all-caps note to refrain from congratulating Putin, The Washington Post reported. It said aides included a section in his briefing materials stating: “DO NOT CONGRATULATE.”

It was unclear whether Trump, who prefers oral briefings, read the talking points prepared by his national security team before the call.

Criticism came quickly.

“An American president does not lead the free world by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee and has pressed the Trump administration to respond aggressively to Russia’s interference in the U.S. presidential election.

President Donald Trump said he had “a very good call” with Russian President Vladimir Putin to congratulate him on his re-election and discuss a possible meeting. Trump also blamed the bombings in Austin, Texas on a “very sick individual.” (March 20)

Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a frequent Trump critic, called the president’s call “odd.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Trump “can call whomever he chooses” but noted that calling Putin “wouldn’t have been high on my list.”

At the State Department, spokeswoman Heather Nauert said it was “no surprise” that Putin was re-elected, commenting that some people were paid to turn out to vote and opposition leaders were intimidated or jailed. She also cited a preliminary report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that said Russia’s election took place in an overly controlled environment that lacked an even playing field for all contenders.

Her comments were notably tougher on Russia than those coming from the White House.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended Trump’s call, and noted that President Barack Obama made a similar call at the time of Putin’s last electoral victory.

“We don’t get to dictate how other countries operate,” Sanders said.

The action and reaction fit a Trump White House pattern of declining to chide authoritarian regimes for undemocratic practices.

Trump himself has long been reluctant to publicly criticize Putin. He said that during their hoped-for meeting the two men would likely discuss Ukraine, Syria and North Korea, among other things.

“I suspect that we’ll probably be meeting in the not too distant future to discuss the arms race, to discuss the arms race, which is getting out of control, but we will never allow anybody to have anything even close to what we have,” Trump said.

Russia has received global condemnation after Britain blamed Moscow for the recent nerve agent attack that sickened Sergei Skripal and his daughter. Russia has denied the accusation.

Trump’s call came at a period of heightened tensions between the two nations after the White House imposed sanctions on Russia for its interference in the 2016 U.S. election and other “malicious cyberattacks.” Sanders insisted that the administration has scolded Putin at the appropriate times.

“We’ve been very clear in the actions that we’ve taken that we’re going to be tough on Russia, particularly when it comes to areas that we feel where they’ve stepped out of place.”

The Kremlin said in a statement that Trump and Putin spoke about a need to “coordinate efforts to limit the arms race” and for closer cooperation on strategic stability and counterterrorism.

“Special attention was given to considering the issue of a possible bilateral summit,” the Kremlin statement said.

In addition, the two presidents expressed satisfaction with the apparent easing of tensions over North Korea’s weapons program, according to the Kremlin.

No details were released about the timing or location of a possible meeting, which would be their third since Trump took office in January 2017. They met on the sidelines of an international summit in Germany last summer and again more informally at another gathering of world leaders in Vietnam in November.

The presidents “agreed to develop further bilateral contacts, taking into account changes in the U.S. State Department,” the Kremlin statement said in a reference to Trump’s decision to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Russia has repeatedly said it hoped for better ties with the U.S. under Trump.

Putin received calls from a number of other foreign leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Many others, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, sent congratulatory telegrams.

The White House had said Monday that it was “not surprised by the outcome” of Sunday’s presidential election in Russia and that no congratulatory call was planned.

Trump continues to grapple with the shadow of the ongoing investigation into whether his campaign colluded with Russian officials during the 2016 election that sent him to the White House.

Last month, special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russian individuals and three organizations on charges of interfering in the election. Three of Trump’s associates — former national security adviser Michael Flynn, deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates and campaign aide George Papadopoulos — have pleaded guilty to lying to investigators and agreed to cooperate. Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort has pleaded not guilty to a variety of money laundering and other criminal charges.


Isachenkov reported from Moscow. AP writer Zeke Miller contributed from Washington.

Witnesses: Boko Haram returns Nigerian kidnapped schoolgirls

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LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Boko Haram extremists returned almost all of the 110 girls abducted from their Nigeria boarding school a month ago with an ominous warning, witnesses said Wednesday.

The fighters rolled into Dapchi around 2 a.m. in nine vehicles and the girls were left in the center of town. As terrified residents emerged from their homes, the extremists said “this is a warning to you all,” resident Ba’ana Musa told The Associated Press.

“We did it out of pity. And don’t ever put your daughters in school again,” the extremists said. Boko Haram means “Western education is forbidden” in the Hausa language.

Nigeria’s information minister said 91 of the 110 schoolgirls had been confirmed freed. The fate of the others was not immediately clear.

“No ransoms were paid,” the minister, Lai Mohammed, said in a statement. The girls were released “through back-channel efforts and with the help of some friends of the country, and it was unconditional.”

Family members were en route to the town Wednesday morning.

“When I get there we will do a head count to see if all of them have been released,” said Bashir Manzo, whose 16-year-old daughter was among those kidnapped during the Feb. 19 attack.

Manzo confirmed that his daughter was among those freed.

“As I speak to you there is jubilation in Dapchi,” he said.

The mass abduction and the government response brought back painful memories of the 2014 attack on a boarding school in Chibok. Boko Haram militants abducted 276 girls, and about 100 of them have never returned. Some girls were forced to marry their captors, and many had children fathered by the militants.

The latest mass abduction is thought to have been carried out by a Boko Haram splinter group aligned with the Islamic State, one that has criticized the leader of the main Boko Haram organization for targeting civilians and has focused instead on military and Western targets.

Residents in Dapchi fled on Wednesday morning upon hearing that Boko Haram vehicles were headed toward the town.

“We fled but, from our hiding, we could see them and surprisingly, we saw our girls getting out of the vehicles,” Umar Hassan told the AP.

“They assembled the girls and talked to them for some few minutes and left without any confrontation,” said another resident, Kachallah Musa.

Their release came a day after an Amnesty International report accused the Nigerian military of failing to heed several warnings of the imminent attack last month. The military has called the report an “outright falsehood.”

Nigeria’s government celebrated the girls’ release. “GREAT NEWS from Dapchi, Yobe State. Thank God for the safe return of our sisters. Alhamdulillah!” an aide to President Muhammadu Buhari, Bashir Ahmad, said on Twitter.


Associated Press writers Ibrahim Abdulaziz in Yola, Nigeria; Sam Olukoya in Lagos and Bashir Adigun in Abuja, Nigeria contributed.

Allegations from women in his past shadow Trump

WASHINGTON (AP) — The chorus of women from President Donald Trump’s past is getting louder.

Accusations about Trump’s past sexual exploits bubbled up on three fronts Tuesday, with two women pressing court cases and a porn actress publicly needling the president. Trump has so far weathered the rising #MeToo movement, but the latest developments served as a fresh reminder about the shadow thrown by questions about the thrice-married businessman’s past.

In short order on Tuesday:

—A former Playboy model who claims she had an affair with Trump in 2006 filed a lawsuit in California seeking to invalidate a confidentiality agreement so she can discuss her alleged relationship.

—A New York City judge ruled that a defamation lawsuit by a former contestant on “The Apprentice” can move forward while Trump is in office. She has accused Trump of unwanted sexual contact.

—Porn actress Stormy Daniels and her lawyer continued their media campaign against Trump as she seeks to invalidate a nondisclosure agreement she signed days before the 2016 presidential election so she can discuss their relationship.

“People DO care that he lied about it, had me bullied, broke laws to cover it up, etc.,” Daniels tweeted.

Trump has consistently denied accusations from all three women. He has previously called his accusers “liars” and has deemed such reports “made up stuff.” But it was another distraction for a White House already contending with a rash of high-level departures and a stalled legislative agenda.

Some longtime allies questioned whether the accusations would have much impact. More than a dozen women came forward during the 2016 campaign to say that Trump had harassed them or worse, many speaking out in the wake of the “Access Hollywood” tape in which he was heard bragging about groping women. Some of them spoke out again as the #MeToo movement took off.

“I think we learned through the campaign something we never thought was true. People were able to bifurcate the person from the policies,” said former campaign adviser Barry Bennett. “They were willing to overlook the personal behavior or the words on tape.”

In the case of the Playboy model, Karen McDougal filed suit Tuesday in Los Angeles County Superior Court against American Media Inc., the company that owns the supermarket tabloid National Enquirer. It had paid her $150,000 during the 2016 presidential election. The lawsuit alleges that McDougal was paid for the rights to her story of an affair, but the story never ran. It also alleges that Trump’s attorney, Michael Cohen, was secretly involved in her discussions with American Media.

McDougal’s lawsuit was filed on the same day a New York judge sided with Summer Zervos, a 2006 “Apprentice” contestant. She sued Trump after he dismissed as “fabricated” and “made-up” her claims of misconduct at a hotel in Beverly Hills, California, in 2007. Her lawsuit sought an apology and at least $2,914.

In saying the suit can go forward, Judge Jennifer Schecter wrote, “No one is above the law.”

Trump’s lawyers had argued the Constitution immunized him from being sued in state court while he’s president and had said the case should at least be delayed until he’s out of office. They said their position was supported by a long line of Supreme Court cases requiring courts to show deference to the president and his schedule.

In 1997, the Supreme Court ruled that a sitting president was not immune from civil litigation on something that happened before taking office and was unrelated to the office. The ruling came after Paula Jones filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against President Bill Clinton. That case was dismissed by a judge, but was appealed. The appeal was still pending when Clinton agreed to pay $850,000 to Jones to settle the case. He did not admit wrongdoing.

Also Tuesday, an attorney for Daniels — her real name is Stephanie Clifford — tweeted what he described as a 2011 photo of Clifford taking a lie detector test during which she addressed her relationship with Trump. Lawyer Michael Avenatti added the hash tags #searchforthetruth, #whosenext? and #buckle-up.

Daniels and McDougal have offered strikingly similar stories about their alleged relationships with Trump. Both women claim to have had sexual encounters with him in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, in 2006. McDougal, who was the 1998 Playboy Playmate of the Year, said Trump also brought her to his private bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

In a time of rising concern about the treatment of women, the president has repeatedly offered sympathy for men accused of misconduct.

After White House aide Rob Porter was pushed out over public reports that two ex-wives had accused him of abuse, Trump praised Porter and then appeared to cast doubt on the ex-wives’ allegations. The president last year backed Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, who was accused of pursuing romantic relationships with teenage girls when he was in his 30s, saying that Moore “totally denies it.”

Porter’s exit put White House leadership under a harsh spotlight, raising questions about the security clearance process, and prompting calls for the president to state his support for victims of domestic violence. A week later, Trump declared he was “totally opposed to domestic violence.”


Associated Press writers Mike Balsamo in Los Angeles and Colleen Long in New York City contributed.

Death toll from market attack in Syrian capital rises to 44

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BEIRUT (AP) — The death toll from an insurgent mortar assault on a Damascus market has risen to 44, state media said Wednesday, making it one of the deadliest attacks in the capital since the start of Syria’s seven-year civil war.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the death toll from Tuesday’s attack at 43, including 11 pro-government fighters. Videos of the aftermath posted online showed scenes of chaos, with people screaming and bodies and mannequins strewn across the ground.

The government blamed the attack on rebels in the eastern Ghouta suburbs, where Syrian troops backed by Russian warplanes have been waging a major offensive over the past month that has killed hundreds of people.

Hospital director Mohammed Haitham al-Husseini told Al-Ikhbariya TV that 35 others were wounded in the mortar attack, with six in intensive care. He said most of the casualties were women and children.

Witnesses told state-run TV that the mortar fell during rush hour in the popular market on the eve of Mother’s Day, celebrated in the Middle East with the start of spring. A child said he was out shopping with his family for Mother’s Day when they heard a huge explosion. “Everyone started running, and people were going into narrow streets to give first aid to others,” the child said.

A woman speaking in the hospital said her niece, who was wounded by shrapnel, lost her four-year old son. “We just saw him in the morgue,” the woman told Al-Ikhbariya. The TV network did not identify the woman or the child.

Government forces meanwhile continued to pound opposition-held areas with shelling and airstrikes. The first-responders group known as the White Helmets said 56 civilians were killed Tuesday in Douma, the largest town in eastern Ghouta, updating an earlier toll. Videos from the White Helmets showed rescue workers surrounded by fires and ongoing shelling struggling to retrieve survivors from a building in Douma.

The assault on eastern Ghouta has displaced 45,000 people, the United Nations said Tuesday. Before the latest offensive, it was estimated that 400,000 people were trapped in the besieged region. The rebels first seized the area in 2012,

Government forces have made major gains in recent days, leaving just a small fraction of eastern Ghouta under rebel control. President Bashar Assad paid a rare visit to troops on the front lines over the weekend.

Syrian and Russian forces have opened a third corridor in eastern Ghouta to allow civilians to leave the town of Harasta, which is home to an estimated 20,000 people. Russia’s Maj. Gen. Vladimir Zolotukhin said 300 civilians and 15 militants have exited through the corridor in the past 24 hours. He said the number of civilians fleeing rebel-held areas has been declining after tens of thousands left in recent days.

As in other besieged parts of Syria, government forces have pressed the rebels to enter into local cease-fire agreements under which the militants and their families would relocate to other parts of the country. The Syrian opposition has criticized such agreements, saying they reward the government’s siege tactics and legitimize the forced displacement of civilians from their homes.

The Observatory said the Ahrar al-Sham rebel group, which controls Harasta, has reached a cease-fire agreement with the government that will come into effect later Wednesday if there are no violations. Monther Fares, a spokesman for Ahrar al-Sham in eastern Ghouta, said the negotiations are still underway.

Business: Asian stocks mixed ahead of Fed meeting, Tokyo closed

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Asian shares were mixed on Wednesday as some markets erased earlier gains ahead of the Federal Reserve’s first meeting since the appointment of its new chair, Jerome Powell.

KEEPING SCORE: Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index erased earlier gains to fall 0.1 percent to 31,516.84 after rising more than 1 percent earlier in the day. China’s Shanghai Composite Index fell 0.3 percent to 3,278.67 and South Korea’s Kospi was flat at 2,484.97. Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 advanced 0.2 percent to 5,950.30. India’s Sensex rose 0.5 percent to 33,174.69. Stocks in Taiwan were flat but markets in Southeast Asia were mostly higher. Japan was closed for a holiday.

FED WATCH: The Federal Reserve policymakers have begun a two-day policy meeting that is expected to result in another interest rate increase on Wednesday. The Fed has said it expects to raise interest rates a total of three times this year, and one of the key debates on Wall Street is whether it will wind up increasing rates three times or four. The current meeting is the Fed’s first since Jerome Powell became chairman, and investors will be watching his comments at a press conference Wednesday afternoon.

ANALYST’S TAKE: No one knows what to expect from the Fed meeting, Stephen Innes of OANDA Trading said in a commentary, “What we do know, however, is this meeting has lots of eyes on it and not just because it’s Jerome Powell’s first post FOMC press conference, but there’s likely to be some nuanced changes in the Fed statement.”

FACEBOOK EFFECT: Facebook stocks dropped another 2.6 percent on Tuesday following reports that the Federal Trade Commission will open investigations on its handling of user data following the revelations that Cambridge Analytica harvested private data of its 50 million users. Its shares have fallen 9 percent this week, its worst performance in two years. Other social media companies in the U.S. also finished the day lower on concerns that the government might enact new laws affecting their businesses. In Asia, reactions were relatively muted. Tencent Holdings, which operates China’s largest social media app WeChat and is expected to announce earnings later in the day, fell 0.3 percent after jumping nearly 2 percent. South Korea’s Naver Corp., parent of Line messenger app, edged 0.1 percent lower.

WALL STREET: U.S. stock indexes finished mostly higher on Tuesday. The S&P 500 index rose 0.1 percent to 2,716.94. The Dow Jones industrial average gained 0.5 percent to 24,727.27. The Nasdaq composite rose 0.3 percent to 7,364.30. The Russell 2000 index of smaller-company stocks dipped 0.16 points to 1,570.41.

OIL: Benchmark U.S. crude rose 15 cents to $63.69 per in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. On Tuesday, it finished at $63.54 per barrel, up $1.42 from the previous session. Brent crude, used to price international oils, added 15 cents to $67.57 per barrel in London. It rose $1.37, or 2.1 percent, to finish at $67.42 per barrel on Tuesday.

CURRENCIES: The dollar fell to 106.37 yen from 106.53 yen. The euro gained to $1.2269 from $1.2241.


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

1. Fed Rate Decision, Powell Press Conference In Focus

The Federal Reserve is widely expected to hike its fed funds target rate range by a quarter point at the conclusion of its first policy meeting under Chairman Jerome Powell at 2:00PM ET (1800GMT).

That would put it in a range between 1.5%-1.75%, the highest benchmark rate since September 2008.

Powell is to hold what will be a closely-watched press conference 30 minutes after the release of the Fed’s statement. It will be the first time he faces questions from the media as head of the central bank.

The Fed will also release new forecasts for economic growth and interest rates, known as the “dot-plot”. The latter has been the topic of market speculation for weeks.

The U.S. central bank projected late last year that it would lift rates three times in 2018, but some investors believe the fiscal stimulus and recent hints of inflation pressures will push policymakers to add an additional increase to the mix.

That could result in a jump in bond yields and a stock market sell-off.

2. Dollar Slips, Treasury Yield Tick Up As Traders Await Fed

The U.S. dollar was a shade lower, while Treasury yields ticked higher, as investors looked ahead to the outcome of the Fed’s meeting for fresh clues on the pace of monetary policy tightening for the remainder of the year.

The dollar index, which gauges the U.S. currency against a basket of six major rivals, dipped 0.3% to 89.70 in early trade. It reached its highest in almost three weeks on Tuesday at 90.02.

In the bond market, the U.S. 10-year Treasury yield inched up to 2.892%.

The more Fed-sensitive two-year yield stood at 2.345%, just below a nine-and-a-half-year high of 2.349% touched on Tuesday, while the yield on the five-year note was at 2.695%, not far from its highest since April 2010.

In addition to the Fed, Wednesday’s calendar features data on existing home sales at 10AM ET (1400GMT).

3. U.S. Stock Futures Point To Lower Open

U.S. stock futures pointed to a lower open on Wall Street, as investors prepared for a likely hike in U.S. interest rates and guidance on how many more to expect this year.

The blue-chip Dow futures slumped 30 points, or around 0.1%, the S&P 500 futures dropped 3 points, or about 0.1%, while the tech-heavy Nasdaq 100 futures lost 29 points, or roughly 0.4%.

Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) shares looked set for another down day, falling 2.4% in premarket action. The stock has lost more than 9% over the past two sessions, wiping around $60 billion off its market value, as a firestorm continued over third parties access to users’ personal data.

Elsewhere, in Europe, the continent’s major bourses traded mostly lower in mid-morning trade. The pan-European Stoxx 600 index, the region’s broadest measure of share prices, edged down 0.3%, as more cyclical sectors such as financials, materials and industrials retreated.

Earlier, Asian equities closed mixed, with some markets giving up significant early gains and finishing the day lower. Volume in the region was muted because of a holiday in Japan.

4. Oil Prices Rise Ahead Of EIA Supply Data

The U.S. Energy Information Administration will release its weekly report on oil supplies at 10:30AM ET (1430GMT), amid analyst expectations for a gain of 2.6 million barrels.

The American Petroleum Institute said late Tuesday that U.S. oil inventories fell by 2.7 million barrels in the week ended March 16. There are often sharp divergences between the API estimates and the official figures from EIA.

Oil prices were hovering near their highest in three weeks, with WTI crude futures rising 30 cents, or 0.5% to $63.84 per barrel, while London-traded Brent crude futures were at $67.80 per barrel, up 38 cents, or 0.6%.

5. Bitcoin, Other Cryptos Rally After Productive G20 Talks

Bitcoin prices surged above the $9,000-level for the first time in six days, as sentiment improved after finance ministers from the world’s top 20 economies expressed no desire to call for a clampdown on the crypto markets.

The group of 20 nations (G20) said on Tuesday they agreed to “monitor” the movement in crypto, while keeping the door open to regulate the booming industry at a later stage.

The world’s biggest virtual currency by market cap rose around 8% to $9,046, marking a gain of more than $600.

Prices of other popular digital coins also jumped, with Ethereum, the world’s second largest cryptocurrency by market cap, rallying about 10% to $572.97.

The third largest cryptocurrency Ripple gained roughly 4% to trade at $0.69953.


Analysis: What Went Wrong in the Stormy Daniels Case

(PhatzNewsRoom / The New Yorker)    —-    When all is said, done, and litigated in the case of Stephanie Clifford, who is known professionally as Stormy Daniels, the biggest question might be why the President of the United States didn’t just let her talk. Clifford, who stars in and directs pornographic films, is suing Donald Trump to nullify what her complaint calls a “hush agreement,” which she signed on October 28, 2016, regarding an affair that she said she’d had with him a decade earlier. She was paid a hundred and thirty thousand dollars, and she kept quiet through the campaign. But her suit contends that she isn’t bound by the agreement, because Trump never signed it and because his lawyer Michael Cohen had spoken—and lied—about it publicly.

The suit also says that the Trump camp used “coercive tactics” to pressure her to stay silent; on Friday, Clifford’s lawyer, Michael Avenatti, said in multiple interviews that there had been intimations of violence, though he declined to give details. He told The New Yorker, “When my client is able to speak openly, we are confident that the American people will believe her when she says she was physically threatened.”

As wild as the story is, it could have amounted to little more than a few tabloid flashes amid the mayhem in the White House last week. On Tuesday, Trump fired Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State, on Twitter, and by Thursday H. R. McMaster, the national-security adviser, was said to be next, along with a raft of variously bungling Cabinet secretaries. And yet the Clifford case is not only singularly revealing of the President’s character and his operations but also a likely harbinger of major troubles ahead.

This Trump crisis, as is the case with so many others, is largely self-inflicted, and involves the usual heedless scramble of denials. When the Wall Street Journal first reported the payment to Clifford, in January, Cohen said that it was his own “private transaction,” using his money, and that the Trump Organization and the Trump campaign had nothing to do with it. This never made much sense, since the Trump Organization employed him. But, even if Cohen’s story were true, it raised questions, more broadly, about where the money comes from and where it goes in Trump’s dealings.

There wouldn’t even be a lawsuit were it not for the fact that, last month, a company that Cohen set up to make the payment to Clifford obtained from an arbitrator a temporary restraining order directing Clifford to remain silent, or risk a million-dollar penalty. This effort was futile: weeks earlier, InTouch had pulled from its archives an unpublished 2011 interview in which Clifford had described her encounter with Trump, in terms that leave little to the imagination. (“He was like, ‘Come here.’ And I was like, ‘Ugh, here we go.’ ”) More than that, the President’s lawyers seem not to have considered what Clifford’s next move would be: challenging the arbitration. They had, in effect, engineered something of a win-win situation for her. Practically speaking, in order for Trump to hold Clifford to the agreement, he has to fight her in court—a process he began Friday—and come out and admit to the deal publicly.

CNN and the Journal reported that one of the lawyers who obtained the order was Jill Martin, another Trump Organization employee. (She was the point person in the Trump University fraud case.) A statement from the company said that, like Cohen, Martin had handled the matter only “in her individual capacity.” This paints a picture of the Trump Organization as a place where anything that the company isn’t quite supposed to do might be done as a personal favor, perhaps dressed up as an act of friendship or loyalty. It is a further sign that the special counsel Robert Mueller’s subpoena of Trump Organization business records, reported last week, might turn up a true morass.

The Trump White House appears to function much like the Trump Organization, in terms of the blurring of lines. Recent weeks have brought a compendium of stories about Cabinet members treating public money as a personal privilege—thirty thousand dollars for Ben Carson’s office dining set, forty thousand for Scott Pruitt’s soundproof phone booth, a million for Steven Mnuchin’s military flights. With the President’s sons meeting with foreign political figures while travelling the world on business trips, with his daughter playing a diplomatic role with leaders of countries where she has commercial interests, and with his son-in-law seemingly marked as a potential recipient of foreign bribes by all and sundry, it’s important to know who pays whom, and for what.

The Trump team’s response to the Clifford debacle seems to have been driven by the President’s vanity, temper, and resentment. All of those have also been on display in his larger response to Mueller’s investigation, from his firing of James Comey, the F.B.I. director—an action that exposed him to possible obstruction-of-justice charges—to his apparent desire, last week, to fire Andrew McCabe, Comey’s former deputy, just days before McCabe’s retirement, in a petty attempt to deny him his full benefits. For a man who has built a career on bluffing and intimidation, Trump is surprisingly clumsy when it comes to those tactics, and oblivious of their costs.

After all, why didn’t the President sign the agreement? Did he never intend to, or could he just not be bothered? With Trump, it can be hard to tell bad will from bad lawyering. He regularly demands that his subordinates operate in accordance with what he thinks the law ought to be, rather than what it is. This has been the case in his berating of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, for failing to make problems go away, and, last week, in reports that Trump’s lawyers were considering trying to block the broadcast, now scheduled for March 25th, of an interview that Anderson Cooper conducted with Clifford for “60 Minutes.” There is no legal rationale for such prior restraint. But it wouldn’t be the first time that the President has indicated that he believes he has, or should have, the power to silence the press.

Then again, Trump’s circle might be trying to enforce Clifford’s confidentiality agreement not for its own sake but in order to send a message to other people, who may have signed similar agreements, about the cost of breaking them. (“In my experience, bullies have one speed and one speed only,” Avenatti told The New Yorker. “They don’t just bully one person. They bully many people.”) A hearing in the case is set for July 12th, in Los Angeles; Clifford has set up an online crowdfunding page to defray her legal costs, which may be considerable. She won’t be the only one with bills like that. In Washington these days, many people find themselves in sudden need of a good lawyer—above all, the President. ♦


This article appears in the print edition of the March 26, 2018, issue, with the headline “A Revelatory Case.” Amy Davidson Sorkin became a staff writer in 2014. She has been at The New Yorker since 1995, and as a senior editor for many years focussed on national security, international reporting, and features. Sorkin helped to reconceive newyorker.com, where she served as the site’s executive editor and the editor of Daily Comment. She is a regular Comment contributor for the magazine and writes a Web column, in which she covers war, sports, and everything in between.

Breaking News: Maryland high school shooting contained, people injured

This gallery contains 1 photo.

GREAT MILLS, Md. (AP) — A shooting at a Maryland high school caused injuries Tuesday morning, and the campus was on lockdown as deputies and federal agents converged on the crime scene.

St. Mary’s County Sheriff spokeswoman Cpl. Julie Yingling says there have been injuries, but she didn’t know how many or the severity. She said she had “no information” about potential fatalities.

The Baltimore Sun reported that a student said the shooting happened around 8 a.m. Terrence Rhames, 18, told the Sun that he heard a gunshot and saw a girl fall as he ran for an exit. “I just thank god I’m safe,” Rhames said. “I just want to know who did it and who got injured.”

The St. Mary’s County Public Schools said situation was “contained” after the shooting at Great Mills High School, which has about 1,600 students and is near the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, about 65 miles (104 kilometers) southeast of Washington.

The county sheriff said deputies are on the scene, and told parents or guardians to stay away, urging them to go instead to Leonardtown High School to reunite with Great Mills students there. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives tweeted that its agents are going to the scene.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Rep. Steny Hoyer tweeted that they’re monitoring reports and urged people to follow the instructions of local law enforcement at the scene.


Analysis: Trump would love to fire Mueller. But here’s why he’s been afraid to so far.

(PhatzNewsRoom / VOX)    —     There are very good reasons the president hasn’t pulled the trigger yet.

President Donald Trump’s tweets furiously criticizing special counsel Robert Mueller this weekend have initiated a new round of discussion about whether the president will finally fire Mueller, in an effort to halt the Russia investigation.

Trump took on Mueller by name for the first time on Twitter this Saturday, writing that “the Mueller probe should never have been started,” that it was not “fair” that “the Mueller team” had several Democratic prosecutors, and that the investigation was “a total WITCH HUNT with massive conflicts of interest!” (This came the day after Trump’s Justice Department fired Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe.)

Meanwhile, Trump’s personal lawyer John Dowd went a step further, telling the Daily Beast this weekend that the Justice Department should now “bring an end to” the “alleged Russia Collusion investigation” (though a later statement from White House lawyer Ty Cobb then tried to claim Trump “is not considering or discussing the firing of the Special Counsel”).

Now, all this could well be a PR strategy aimed at discrediting Mueller’s investigation rather than laying the groundwork for firing him. But liberals fear that a recent trend of Trump proving willing to resist advisers who counsel caution will finally lead to him pulling the trigger — and that he’ll get away with it, since a sycophantic Republican Congress would likely take little action in response.

Yet it’s worth keeping in mind that even though Trump has wanted Mueller gone and his investigation shut down for at least nine months — by one account, Trump actually tried to push Mueller out last June — he’s been either reticent or unable to actually make it happen so far. And it’s worth understanding the several reasons why that is.

The process of getting rid of Mueller is much more complicated and legally fraught than, say, firing FBI Director James Comey or Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Furthermore, dismissing Mueller himself wouldn’t end Mueller’s investigation — an even more controversial intervention would be required for that. Then, even if he pulled it off, Mueller’s firing would likely lead to a flood of leaks. Finally, the ensuing backlash could help Democrats regain control of Congress — which could make Trump’s legal and political situation even worse.

It is certainly possible that Trump could change his mind and decide that, despite all this, Mueller’s probe is so dangerous that it’s worth casting caution to the wind and firing him. But he’s been afraid to take that step so far — and for some very good reasons.

1) Firing Mueller would be much more procedurally complicated and legally challenging than firing Comey or Tillerson

Last week, President Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with a tweet. Last May, he fired FBI Director James Comey with a signed letter. Both men served at the president’s pleasure — all the president had to do was say the word, and they were gone.

Things aren’t so simple with Mueller. The special counsel was appointed under a Justice Department regulation that sets restrictions on just how and why he can be fired.

The how, in this case, is by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (since his boss Jeff Sessions recused himself). Rosenstein appointed Mueller, and according to the regulation, he’s the only person who can fire him.

Then there’s the why, which is also very important here. The regulation states that a special counsel can’t be fired on a whim. Instead, it says, he or she can only be fired for “misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, conflict of interest, or for other good cause.”

If Trump truly was hell-bent on dumping Mueller, these problems probably wouldn’t be insurmountable. But the solutions aren’t pretty — they all involve either more firings or some questionable legal claims.

Regarding the why, the regulation does say a special counsel can be fired for “conflict of interest” — which may explain some of Trump’s recent tweets:

Publicly and privately, Trump and his allies have floated several alleged conflicts that they think could be used to justify ousting Mueller — ranging from Mueller’s past working relationship with Comey to a years-old Mueller request for a dues refund from Trump National Golf Club. Legal experts don’t seem particularly convinced by these, and Trump’s own White House counsel Don McGahn reportedly refused to order Mueller’s firing based on these pretexts last year. But a hackish enough Trump Justice appointee could cite them as an excuse for the firing.

The trickier question is the how, considering Rosenstein has repeatedly said he sees no good cause for firing Mueller and has testified that he wouldn’t carry out an order to do so unless he saw good cause.

There are several ways Trump could get around this, though.

  • Trump could fire Rosenstein and whoever replaces Rosenstein in the Justice Department’s line of succession until he finds someone willing to dismiss Mueller.
  • Another path would be through firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Theoretically, a new attorney general would not be recused from overseeing the Russia investigation like Sessions was, and would replace Rosenstein as Mueller’s boss. However, a permanent attorney general appointee would need to be confirmed by the narrowly divided Senate.
  • Trump could also evade both the Justice Department’s line of succession and Senate confirmation by exploiting a little-known law called the Federal Vacancies Reform Act. With it, he could appoint a temporary replacement for Sessions or Rosenstein who’s already been confirmed by the Senate for some other post elsewhere in the government. (Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has been rumored as one possibility.) Whoever this stooge is could then dump Mueller.
  • Trump could also rescind the regulation establishing the special counsel’s office altogether — but revoking a regulation is a lengthy and complex process.
  • Finally, he could make a broad executive power claim that he has the power to fire Mueller on his own. But that could lead to a showdown with his own Justice Department (Rosenstein has testified he believes only he can fire Mueller), and would likely end up in court.

Again — if Trump wants Mueller gone enough, he can probably make it happen. The point is that getting there would be far uglier and look far more corrupt than even the firing of Comey.

2) Firing Mueller does not mean ending the Mueller investigation

All of that lengthy preceding section was just about the complexities of firing Robert S. Mueller III, the person.

It doesn’t even begin to address another problem Trump would have to solve — that is, how to end Mueller’s investigation.

Currently, 17 prosecutors are working under Mueller in the special counsel’s office. They’re working with many FBI agents. They’ve convened at least two grand juries (in Washington, DC, and Alexandria, Virginia). They have live indictments against Paul Manafort (in two jurisdictions) and against 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies. Mueller’s team has also banked guilty pleas from five people who have not yet been sentenced. There could even be sealed indictments we don’t know about (George Papadopoulos’s indictment was sealed for months).

Firing Mueller would not make all this vanish. For that, a more proactive cover-up would be necessary. Trump’s hypothetical stooge at the Justice Department would have to not just be willing to dismiss Mueller, but to affirmatively act to shut down (or at least, rein in) his investigation.

Again, this is something that Trump probably could make happen should he be willing to bear the political consequences. For instance, he could have his Justice Department stooge appoint a crony as a replacement special counsel for Mueller, who will make sure the investigation progresses no further. But it’s yet another step up in difficulty and controversy from just firing one person.

It’s also worth remembering that President Richard Nixon failed at this stage of the cover-up process. He fired his top Justice Department officials until he found one who’d get rid of the special prosecutor investigating Watergate. But then that Justice official (Robert Bork) appointed a new special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, who ended up investigating the case vigorously.

3) Firing Mueller would unleash the leaks

In 10 months of subpoenas, evidence collection, reviews of intelligence intercepts, and witness testimonies, Mueller’s team has gathered an enormous amount of information on the Trump campaign, business, transition, and White House. (For instance, he obtained the full transition team email accounts of 13 Trump aides.)

We don’t know how much of what they have relates to potential criminality, or how much might just be politically damaging were it to become public. But it sure seems likely that, should Trump make a corrupt-looking attempt to shut down Mueller’s investigation, lots of this information would find its way to congressional Democrats or to the media.

Recall what happened when Trump fired Comey back in May — over the ensuing weeks, a remarkable series of bombshell leaks occurred. They were about events both old (Trump’s inappropriate request for Comey’s “loyalty” at a private meeting, his later request that Comey end the investigation into Michael Flynn, and Jared Kushner’s seeking a back channel to communicate with Russia during the transition) and new (Trump’s revelation of classified intelligence to Russian officials in an Oval Office meeting).

Mueller’s probe has been remarkably leak-proof so far. Should the probe be shut down in what looks like a corrupt manner, it seems unlikely that would continue. At least some law enforcement officials would likely prove more willing to take the legal risks for leaking, should they feel it’s the only way to prevent a cover-up. And of course, the leaks after Comey’s firing were eventually followed by Mueller’s appointment.

4) A Trump cover-up could improve Democrats’ chances of retaking Congress — which would worsen the president’s legal woes

It’s well understood that Trump would face a political backlash for firing Mueller. In and of itself, that probably wouldn’t be enough to hold him back from doing it — after all, he’s been willing and even eager to make controversial political moves in the past.

But the real risk for Trump is in what that political backlash could make likely — a Democratic takeover of one or both chambers of Congress in 2018.

Already, the national environment is worrying for Republicans. The president is unpopular. Democrats lead by 9 points in FiveThirtyEight’s average of congressional generic ballot polls. And Democrats have been consistently bettering their 2016 performance in special elections. The enormous controversy that would result from a shutdown of the Mueller investigation could supercharge all this.

The problem for Trump is not that he’d be sentimental about the GOP’s electoral fate. It’s that Democratic control of even one chamber would unleash empowered opposition party–controlled investigations into him and his administration on Russia, obstruction, and a host of other issues.

That is to say, firing Mueller could help Democrats retake Congress, and end up landing Trump in far more investigative hot water and political jeopardy.

Trump could well calculate that despite all this, Mueller’s investigation is dangerous enough to himself, his family, or his allies in the near term that it’s worth taking the enormous risk of shutting it down.

But anyone who thinks firing Mueller would make Trump’s legal problems go away is badly mistaken. Instead, it would be the beginning of a new and far more serious crisis — with no end in sight.

GOP leaders have yet to move to protect special counsel

WASHINGTON (AP) — More Republicans are telling President Donald Trump in ever blunter terms to lay off his escalating criticism of special counsel Robert Mueller and the Russia probe. But party leaders are taking no action to protect Mueller, embracing a familiar strategy with the president — simply waiting out the storm.

Trump blistered Mueller and his investigation all weekend on Twitter and started in again Monday, questioning the probe’s legitimacy with language no recent president has used for a federal inquiry. “A total WITCH HUNT with massive conflicts of interest!” Trump tweeted.

Mueller is leading a criminal probe into whether Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign had ties to Russia and whether there has been obstruction of justice since then.

Trump was told to cut it out on Sunday by such notable Republicans as Trey Gowdy, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, and Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Then on Monday he was told that firing Mueller would be “the stupidest thing the president could do” by Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

But Hatch, on CNN, also said he didn’t see any need for legislation to protect Mueller. And that sentiment was widely echoed by GOP leaders.

The White House insists President Trump is not planning on firing special counsel Robert Mueller. Still, some Republicans are alarmed that about the possibility and warning that Mueller’s investigation should be allowed to play out unimpeded. (March 19)

In recent months, bills to protect the special counsel have stalled, and Republican leaders have stuck to muted statements endorsing Mueller or denying he is in trouble. So far, that tactic has worked for them as Trump has lambasted the Russia investigation on Twitter but allowed Mueller to continue his work.

Democrats say legislation is needed.

“Immediately,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. And Arizona Republican Jeff Flake, a frequent Trump critic, said, “If you don’t pick this fight, then we might as well not be here.”

But GOP leaders saw no reason to leap to stop a firing they don’t think is in sight.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen so I just think it’s not necessary, and obviously legislation requires a presidential signature,” said Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate. “I don’t see the necessity of picking that fight right now.”

Still, Cornyn said there would be “a number of unintended consequences” if Mueller were to be removed, and lawmakers had communicated that message to Trump “informally and formally.”

White House lawyer Ty Cobb issued a statement Sunday tamping down the speculation, saying Trump is not “considering or discussing” Mueller’s removal. White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said Trump has “some well-established frustration” about the probe but insisted there is no internal discussion about removing Mueller.

Separately, Trump’s legal team has provided documents to Mueller summarizing their views on key matters being investigated, according to a person familiar with the situation. That person insisted on anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation.

The records were given as Trump’s lawyers negotiate with Mueller’s team about the scope and terms of a possible interview with the president.

Also, Trump added a new lawyer. Joseph diGenova, a former U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, will join his team later this week.

DiGenova has been outspoken in his defense of Trump, talking of a “brazen plot” to exonerate Hillary Clinton in an email investigation and to “frame” Trump with a “falsely created crime.”

Multiple White House officials said Monday that they believe Trump is now acutely aware of the political — and even legal — consequences of taking action against Mueller. For now, they predicted, Trump will snipe at Mueller from the outside.

His sniping is getting more pointed.

Trump challenged the probe’s existence over the weekend and strongly suggested political bias on the part of Mueller’s investigators.

The tweets ruffled some GOP lawmakers. South Carolina’s Gowdy admonished the president’s lawyers, saying that if Trump is innocent, “act like it.”

But House and Senate leaders remained quiet, and decidedly unruffled.

“As the speaker has always said, Mr. Mueller and his team should be able to do their job,” said AshLee Strong, spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell referred to comments that McConnell made in January saying he wasn’t worried that Mueller would be ousted.

Two bipartisan Senate bills introduced last summer, when Trump first started criticizing Mueller’s probe, would make it harder to fire a special counsel by requiring a judicial review. But Republicans backing the bills have not been able to agree on the details, and Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley has shown little interest in moving them. McConnell has said he thinks they are unnecessary.

Still, some of the White House officials acknowledged that Trump did once flirt with removing Mueller.

That came last summer, when Trump’s legal team — then led by New York attorney Marc Kasowitz — was looking into potential conflicts of interest with Mueller and his team and planning to make a case to have him removed, according to people familiar with the strategy. Those people spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private conversations.

As that strategy was being formulated, Trump directed White House counsel Don McGahn in June to call Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to raise the perceived conflicts and push for Mueller’s removal, according to one of the people familiar with the matter.

McGahn put off making the call because he disagreed with the strategy, the person said. When Trump persisted in pressing the issue, McGahn told other senior White House officials he would resign if Trump didn’t back off. Trump let the matter drop, the person said.

Trump cannot directly fire Mueller. Any dismissal, for cause, would have to be carried out by Rosenstein, who appointed the counsel and has continued to express support.

Trump has fumed to confidants that the Mueller probe is “going to choke the life out of” his presidency if allowed to continue indefinitely, according to an outside adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations with the president.

Likely contributing to Trump’s sense of frustration, The New York Times reported last week that Mueller had subpoenaed the Trump Organization for Russia-related documents. Trump had said Mueller would cross a red line with such a step.

“Why does the Mueller team have 13 hardened Democrats, some big Crooked Hillary supporters, and Zero Republicans?” he tweeted Sunday.

Some of Mueller’s investigators indeed have contributed to Democratic political candidates including Hillary Clinton, but Justice Department policy and federal service law bar discrimination in the hiring of career positions on the basis of political affiliation. Mueller is a Republican.


Associated Press writers Lisa Mascaro, Darlene Superville and Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report.

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