Day: October 23, 2019

The Latest: Lawmaker urges EU to give UK a Brexit extension

LONDON — The Latest on Britain’s impending departure from the European Union (all times local):

11:55 a.m.

European Parliament President David Sassoli says European leaders should accept a Brexit extension that the British government has requested.

Britain is now scheduled to leave the 28-nation bloc on Oct. 31. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has asked for a three-month extension to get his Brexit divorce deal approved by the British Parliament.

In a statement Wednesday, Sassoli said an extension to the Oct. 31 deadline will “allow the United Kingdom to clarify its position and the European Parliament to exercise its role.”

European Council President Donald Tusk has said he will urge the other 27 EU nations to approve Britain’s Brexit delay.

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9 a.m.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is weighing whether to push for an early election or try again to pass his stalled European Union divorce deal, after Parliament blocked a fast-track plan to approve his Brexit bill before the U.K.’s scheduled departure from the bloc on Oct. 31.

Late Tuesday, lawmakers backed the substance of Johnson’s divorce deal in principle, but rejected the government’s plan to fast-track the legislation through Parliament in a matter of days, saying it didn’t provide enough time for scrutiny.

The government is now waiting for the EU’s response to its request for a three-month extension to the Brexit deadline.

European Council President Donald Tusk said in a tweet that because of the vote he would recommend that the other 27 EU nations grant Britain a delay in its departure to avoid a chaotic no-deal exit in just eight days.

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Follow AP’s full coverage of Brexit and British politics at https://ift.tt/2QQDXv6

The Associated Press

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The diplomat took notes. Then he told a story.

WASHINGTON — A secret cable. A disembodied voice. A coded threat.

William Taylor, a career diplomat, went behind closed doors in the basement of the Capitol on Tuesday and told a tale that added up to the ultimate oxymoron — a 10-hour bureaucratic thriller.

His plot devices were not cloak and dagger, but memos, text messages — and detailed notes.

His testimony was laden with precision — names, dates, places, policy statements and diplomatic nuance, not typically the stuff of intrigue. But from the moment Taylor revealed that his wife and his mentor had given him conflicting advice on whether he should even get involved, the drama began to unfold.

Their counsel split like this: Wife: no way. Mentor: do it.

The mentor won out — or the story would have ended there.

Instead, on June 17, Taylor, a West Point graduate, Vietnam veteran and tenured foreign service officer, arrived in Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv as the chief of mission. He had been recalled to service after the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine had been forced out. That alone offered foreshadowing of troubles to come.

And, soon enough, Taylor said in his written opening statement, he discovered “a weird combination of encouraging, confusing and ultimately alarming circumstances.”

The story Taylor related from there amounted to a detailed, almost prosecutorial, rejoinder to White House efforts to frame President Donald Trump’s actions in Ukraine as perfectly normal and unworthy of an impeachment investigation. With each documented conversation, he made it harder for the president to press his argument that there was no quid pro quo in which he held up military aid to advance his political interests.

Over three months, Taylor told legislators, he fought his way through a maze of diplomatic channels and rival backchannels as he tried to unravel the story behind the mysterious hold-up of $400 million in U.S. military aid that Ukraine desperately needed in order to defend itself against the Russians.

First came mixed signals about whether Trump would follow through on his promise to invite Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, to meet with him in the Oval Office.

Taylor was told by other U.S. diplomats that Trump needed “to hear from” Zelenskiy before the meeting would be scheduled. And that Zelenskiy needed to make clear he was not standing in the way of “investigations.”

Next, Taylor wrote, there was “something odd:” Gordon Sondland, a Trump ally and U.S. ambassador to the European Union, “wanted to make sure no one was transcribing or monitoring” a June 28 call that the diplomats made to Zelenskiy.

Soon enough, Taylor was detecting that Zelenskiy’s hopes of snagging the coveted Oval Office meeting were contingent on the Ukrainian leader agreeing to investigate Democrats in the 2016 election and to look into a Ukrainian company linked to the family of Trump political foe Joe Biden.

“It was clear that this condition was driven by the irregular policy channel I had come to understand was guided by Mr. Giuliani,” Taylor said, referring to Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor and Trump lawyer who was involving himself in Ukrainian affairs.

The dueling channels of communication were highly unusual.

Then things got more strange:

Toward the end of a routine July 18 video conference with National Security Council officials in Washington, “a voice on the call” from an unknown person who was off-screen announced that the Office of Management and Budget would not approve any more U.S. security aid to Ukraine “until further notice.”

“I and others sat in astonishment,” Taylor recounted.

From there, Taylor made his way through a confusing web of conversations, text messages, cables and other contacts trying to figure out why this was happening.

His diplomatic parrying was punctuated by a detour to the front lines of the Russia-Ukraine fighting in northern Donbas, where Taylor witnessed firsthand “the armed and hostile Russia-led forces on the other side of the damaged bridge across the line of contact.”

That frozen military aid was no mere abstraction.

“More Ukrainians would undoubtedly die without the U.S. assistance,” Taylor wrote.

The diplomat was so troubled that he requested a private meeting with John Bolton when the national security adviser visited Kyiv in late August.

Bolton’s counsel to Taylor: Send a “first-person cable” to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo laying out his concerns. Taylor took the advice and sent a secret cable describing the “folly” of withholding assistance.

He got no specific response.

He still couldn’t explain to the Ukrainians why they weren’t getting their aid.

And time was running out: If the assistance weren’t delivered by Sept. 30, the end of the government’s fiscal year, it would vanish.

In early September, the puzzle pieces began to fit together.

It wasn’t just the Oval Office meeting that was contingent on Zelenskiy investigating Democrats, Taylor learned, it was the military aid.

Taylor said Sondland told him that if Zelenskiy didn’t publicly announce the investigations, there would a “stalemate.”

He took “stalemate” to be code for holding up the assistance.

Taylor’s text messages take the story forward:

“I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” he wrote to Sondland.

Sondland waited five hours to respond with a clinical denial of any such contingency: “The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind.” He reportedly talked to Trump before he sent the response.

The explanation didn’t satisfy Taylor.

But, at last, on Sept. 11, Taylor got word that the hold on releasing the money had been lifted and the security assistance would be provided.

Taylor summed up his tale as “a rancorous story about whistleblowers, Mr. Giuliani, side channels, quid pro quos, corruption, and interference in elections.”

Democrats found it riveting, with Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois describing Taylor as “like a witness out of central casting.”

White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham, though, dismissed it as part of a “co-ordinated smear campaign from far-left lawmakers and radical unelected bureaucrats waging war on the Constitution.”

In the end, Taylor said he wished he could have told a different story altogether — a “positive, bipartisan one” about a “young nation, struggling to break free of its past.”

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AP writer Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report

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Follow Benac on Twitter at http://twitter.com/nbenac.

Nancy Benac, The Associated Press



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AP News in Brief at 12:19 a.m. EDT

US diplomat: Trump linked Ukraine aid to demand for probe

WASHINGTON (AP) — A top U.S. diplomat testified Tuesday that President Donald Trump was holding back military aid for Ukraine unless the country agreed to investigate Democrats and a company linked to Joe Biden’s family, providing lawmakers with a detailed new account of the quid pro quo central to the impeachment probe.

In a lengthy opening statement to House investigators obtained by The Associated Press, William Taylor described Trump’s demand that “everything” President Volodymyr Zelenskiy wanted, including vital aid to counter Russia, hinged on making a public vow that Ukraine would investigate Democrats going back to the 2016 U.S. election as well as a company linked to the family of Trump’s potential 2020 Democratic rival.

Taylor testified that what he discovered in Kyiv was the Trump administration’s “irregular” back channel to foreign policy led by the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and “ultimately alarming circumstances” that threatened to erode the United States’ relationship with a budding Eastern European ally facing Russian aggression.

In a date-by-date account, detailed across several pages, the seasoned diplomat who came out of retirement to take over as charge d’affaires at the embassy in Ukraine details his mounting concern as he realized Trump was trying to put the newly elected president of the young democracy “in a public box.”

“I sensed something odd,” he testified, describing a trio of Trump officials planning a call with Zelenskiy, including one, Ambassador Gordon Sondland, who wanted to make sure “no one was transcribing or monitoring” it.

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Russia, Turkey seal power in northeast Syria with new accord

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Russia and Turkey reached an agreement Tuesday that would cement their power in Syria, deploying their forces across nearly its entire northeastern border to fill the void left by President Donald Trump’s abrupt withdrawal of U.S. forces.

The accord caps a dramatic and swift transformation of the Syrian map unleashed by Trump’s decision two weeks ago to remove the American soldiers.

U.S. troops in Syria fought five years alongside Kurdish-led forces in northeast Syria and succeeded in bringing down the rule of the Islamic State group there at the cost of thousands of Kurdish fighters’ lives. Now much of that territory would be handed over to U.S. rivals.

The biggest winners are Turkey and Russia. Turkey would get sole control over areas of the Syrian border captured in its invasion, while Turkish, Russian and Syria government forces would oversee the rest of the border region. America’s former U.S. allies, the Kurdish fighters, are left hoping Moscow and Damascus will preserve some pieces of their autonomy dreams.

Meanwhile, the Americans are stumbling out of Syria in a withdrawal that has proved chaotic, its extent and goals seeming to shift on the fly as they grasp to keep some influence on the ground.

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Lori Loughlin, other parents charged again in college scheme

BOSTON (AP) — “Full House” actress Lori Loughlin, her fashion designer husband and nine other parents faced new federal charges Tuesday in a scandal involving dozens of wealthy parents accused of bribing their children’s way into elite universities or cheating on college entrance exams.

A grand jury in Boston indicted the parents on charges of trying to bribe officials at an organization that receives at least $10,000 in federal funding. In this case, they’re accused of paying to get their children admitted to the University of Southern California.

The charge of conspiracy to commit federal program bribery carries a maximum sentence of up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. Prosecutors are pressuring those who have pleaded not guilty in the college admissions scandal to acknowledge their guilt.

A total of 35 wealthy and celebrity parents have been charged in the scheme that showed how far some will go to get their children into top universities like Stanford and Yale.

Some parents are accused of paying admissions consultant William “Rick” Singer to falsely portray their children as star athletes and then bribe college sports officials to get them admitted as recruited athletes. Others are accused of paying Singer to help cheat on their children’s SAT and ACT exams.

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Trump finds no simple fix in Syria, other world hotspots

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump’s plan to reverse America’s involvement in “endless wars” has run up against a difficult truth: When it comes to national security, rarely can a simple solution solve a complex problem.

After abruptly announcing last week that he would “bring our soldiers home” from Syria, Trump recalibrated, and his administration said it would instead redeploy more than 700 to western Iraq to help counter the Islamic State group.

And now his latest plan faces another wrinkle: The Iraqi military said Tuesday those U.S. troops don’t have permission to stay in Iraq.

Meanwhile, Turkey and Russia announced Tuesday that they would jointly patrol most of the northeastern Syrian border with Turkey, underscoring the effects of the U.S. creating a power vacuum the Russians have been quick to fill.

In Washington, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, typically a strong Trump supporter, introduced legislation prodding the president to halt the withdrawal. But he counselled against economic sanctions on Turkey, lest the U.S. “further drive a NATO ally into the arms of the Russians.”

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Ballistics database helps bring Houston gang war into focus

HOUSTON (AP) — Kenneth Roberson’s lyrics chronicled the gang violence he saw in his hometown of Houston.

“Momma’s crying, son is dying on this crime scene,” he rapped. Those words became prophetic as the aspiring artist was killed during a September 2018 drive-by shooting that left his mother, Yvonne Ferguson-Smith, heartbroken.

“I don’t know how to move on,” said Ferguson-Smith, who has started a non-profit group called TEARS to help grieving mothers. “It’s like he was speaking (in his songs) on his own death.”

Roberson’s killing, which had no witnesses, might have gone unsolved if not for a federal ballistics database that linked the 24-year-old’s death to a series of fatal shootings that seem unconnected but that authorities say are part of an ongoing gang war in Houston that’s claimed more than 60 lives the past six years.

The National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, or NIBIN, is a database of scanned bullet casings that has been around for two decades but in recent years has evolved from a purely forensic tool to one that generates leads for investigators. While it has been successful in cities like Houston, the network still faces challenges, including questions about the accuracy of the science behind it and whether it’s being fully utilized by local agencies.

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Trump likens House impeachment inquiry to ‘a lynching’

WASHINGTON (AP) — Stirring up painful memories of America’s racist past, President Donald Trump on Tuesday compared the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry to a lynching, a practice once widespread across the South in which angry mobs killed thousands of black people.

The use of such inflammatory imagery to lash out at the House investigation into Trump’s dealings with Ukraine triggered an outcry from Democratic legislators, some mild rebukes but also some agreement from the president’s Republican allies and condemnation from outside the Washington Beltway. It also led to the unearthing of decades-old comments from some Democratic lawmakers, including now-presidential candidate Joe Biden, comparing the process of impeaching President Bill Clinton to a lynching.

Trump has spent recent days pressuring Republicans to give him stronger support in countering the impeachment investigation.

His tweeted suggestion that they “remember what they are witnessing here — a lynching” came a day after Trump said the GOP needs to “get tougher and fight” against the fast-moving inquiry into whether he tried to withhold U.S. military aid until Ukraine’s government agreed to investigate Biden and his son.

The White House said Tuesday that Trump was not comparing impeachment to “one of the darkest moments in American history.” Spokesman Hogan Gidley said Trump sent the tweet to point out what he feels is his continued mistreatment by the news media.

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2 guilty in $1B fraud as feds auction Burt Reynolds Trans Am

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Two employees of a San Francisco Bay Area solar energy company pleaded guilty Tuesday to participating in what federal prosecutors say was a massive scheme that defrauded investors of $1 billion.

While the company’s owners have not been charged, they agreed to let the government auction their collection of 150 classic, performance and luxury vehicles, including a 1978 Pontiac Trans Am once owned by Burt Reynolds.

The replica of the car the late actor drove in “Smokey and the Bandit” and the other vehicles are to be auctioned Saturday, with online bidding already pushing the accumulated value past $5.5 million.

Bidding on that Trans Am alone had topped $65,000 by late Tuesday. The auction company said it had been driven less than 3,400 miles (5,472 kilometres).

It’s the largest single-owner car collection ever auctioned by the U.S. Marshals Service. Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal Lasha Boyden of the Sacramento office called it “a stunning collection of vehicles” that also includes classic 1960s Ford Mustangs, 1990s Humvees and a 1960 Austin-Healey.

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Boris Johnson inches toward securing Brexit but delay likely

LONDON (AP) — For a brief moment Tuesday, Brexit was within a British prime minister’s grasp.

Boris Johnson won Parliament’s backing for the substance of his exit deal but lost a key vote on its timing, a result that inches him closer to his goal of leading his country out of the European Union — but effectively guarantees it won’t happen on the scheduled date of Oct. 31.

European Council President Donald Tusk tweeted that because of the vote he would recommend that the other 27 EU nations grant Britain a delay in its departure to avoid a chaotic no-deal exit in just nine days.

The good news for the prime minister was that lawmakers — for the first time since Britons chose in 2016 to leave the EU — voted in principle for a Brexit plan, backing by 329-299 a bill to implement the agreement Johnson struck with the EU last week.

But minutes later, legislators rejected his fast-track timetable to pass the bill, saying they needed more time to scrutinize it. The vote went 322-308 against the government.

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Blood guacamole: In Mexico, avocados bring income, cartels

SAN JUAN PARANGARICUTIRO, Mexico (AP) — Small-scale avocado growers armed with AR-15 rifles take turns manning a vigilante checkpoint to guard against thieves and drug cartel extortionists in this town Michoacan state, the heartland of world production of the fruit locals call “green gold.”

The region’s avocado boom, fueled by soaring U.S. consumption, has raised parts of western Mexico out of poverty in just 10 years. But the scent of money has drawn gangs and hyper-violent cartels that have hung bodies from bridges and cowed police forces, and the rising violence is threatening the newfound prosperity. A recent U.S. warning that it could withdraw orchard inspectors sent a shiver through the $2.4 billion-a-year export industry.

Some growers are taking up arms. At the checkpoint in San Juan Parangaricutiro, the vigilantes are calm but attentive. They say their crop is worth fighting for.

“If it wasn’t for avocados, I would have to leave to find work, maybe go to the United States or somewhere else,” said one of guards, Pedro de la Guante, whose small avocado orchard earns him far more than he would get from any other legal — or illegal — crop.

Luis, another guard who asked that his last name not be used out of fear of reprisals, lists the problems that came to the town with the avocado boom: extortion, kidnappings, cartels and avocado theft. “That is why we are here: We don’t want any of that.”

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US endorses tobacco pouches as less risky than cigarettes

WASHINGTON (AP) — For the first time, U.S. health regulators have judged a type of smokeless tobacco to be less harmful than cigarettes, a decision that could open the door to other less risky options for smokers.

The milestone announcement on Tuesday makes Swedish Match tobacco pouches the first so-called reduced-risk tobacco product ever sanctioned by the Food and Drug Administration.

FDA regulators stressed that their decision does not mean the pouches are safe, just less harmful, and that all tobacco products pose risks. The pouches will still bear mandatory government warnings that they can cause mouth cancer, gum disease and tooth loss.

But the company will be able to advertise its tobacco pouches as posing a lower risk of lung cancer, bronchitis, heart disease and other diseases than cigarettes.

The pouches of ground tobacco, called snus — Swedish for snuff and pronounced “snoose” — have been popular in Scandinavian countries for decades but are a tiny part of the U.S. tobacco market.

The Associated Press

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The Latest: Ex-prosecutor avoids trials with guilty pleas

HONOLULU — The Latest on a retired police chief and his wife pleading guilty in a federal corruption investigation (all times local):

11:45 a.m.

A former deputy Honolulu prosecutor has pleaded guilty to bank fraud, identity theft and a drug-related charge.

A jury in June convicted Katherine Kealoha and her retired police chief husband of conspiracy in a plot to frame a relative to keep him from revealing fraud that financed their lavish lifestyle.

Her plea Tuesday allows her and her husband to avoid additional trials. Louis Kealoha, who filed for divorce last week, is expected plead guilty to bank fraud later Tuesday.

She pleaded guilty to a bank fraud charge that says she filed false information in a bank loan application. She pleaded guilty to identity theft involving a forged police report to help explain bad credit on a loan application.

In a separate indictment for drug-dealing allegations with her pain physician brother, she pleaded guilty to a charge of knowing about his crimes but not reporting them.

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8 a.m.

A retired Honolulu police chief and his wife convicted of conspiracy are pleading guilty in remaining cases against them.

It’s the latest disgrace for Louis and Katherine Kealoha, once considered a power couple. Katherine Kealoha is an ex-deputy Honolulu prosecutor.

Jurors in June convicted the Kealohas in a plot to frame a relative to keep him from revealing fraud that financed their lavish lifestyle.

A second trial for bank fraud and identity theft was scheduled for January. In a deal with prosecutors, the Kealohas are expected to plead guilty Tuesday to bank fraud. Katherine Kealoha’s attorneys say she will also plead guilty to identity theft.

She was facing a third trial for separate drug-dealing allegations with her pain physician brother. She’s also expected to plead guilty in that case.

The Associated Press

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