AP News in Brief at 12:04 a.m. EST

January 13, 2020 Off By The Wall of Law

Esper says he’s seen no hard evidence embassies under threat

WASHINGTON (AP) — Defence Secretary Mark Esper explicitly said Sunday that he had seen no hard evidence that four American embassies had been under possible threat when President Donald Trump authorized the targeting of Iran’s top commander, raising questions about the scale of the threat described by Trump last week.

As the administration struggled with its justification for the drone strike that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Esper and other officials tried to refocus attention on voices of dissent in Iran.

Esper said street protests in Tehran show the Iranian people are hungry for a more accountable government after leaders denied, then admitted shooting down a Ukrainian passenger plane. The plane was downed shortly after Iran launches strikes against US bases in Iraq in retaliation for Soleimani’s killing.

“You can see the Iranian people are standing up and asserting their rights, their aspirations for a better government — a different regime,” Esper said. He appeared on two Sunday news shows while national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, was interviewed on three others — pressing the White House’s campaign to bring “maximum pressure” on Tehran to change its behaviour.

O’Brien suggested the United States sees this moment as an opportunity to further intensify pressure on Iran’s leaders, with whom the U.S. has been at odds for four decades. Iran’s leaders already are under enormous strain from economic sanctions that have virtually strangled Iran’s main source of income — oil exports.

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As trial nears, Trump keeps discredited Ukraine theory alive

The theory took root in vague form well before Donald Trump laid claim to the White House in 2016. The candidate’s close confidant tweeted about it. His campaign chairman apparently spoke about it with people close to him.

What if, the idea went, it was actually Ukraine — and not Russia — that was interfering in the 2016 election?

Never mind that the notion has since been amplified by the president of Russia, the country that U.S. intelligence agencies unequivocally blame for interfering in that year’s presidential race. Or that Trump’s hand-picked FBI director and other American officials have said there’s no information pointing to Ukraine interference. Or that 25 Russians stand charged in U.S. courts with hacking into Democratic emails and waging a covert social media campaign to sway American public opinion.

The Ukraine theory lives on.

Now, Trump’s request for Ukraine to investigate the matter and a political rival, former Vice-President Joe Biden, is at the heart of a congressional inquiry that produced Trump’s impeachment by the House of Representatives. A Senate trial is next.

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Defying police, Iranians protest over plane shootdown

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iranian demonstrators defied a heavy police presence Sunday night to protest their country’s days of denials that it shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane carrying 176 people, the latest unrest to roil the capital amid soaring tensions with the United States.

Videos posted online showed protesters shouting anti-government slogans and moving through subway stations and sidewalks, many around Azadi, or Freedom, Square after an earlier call for people to demonstrate there. Other videos suggested similar protests were taking place in other Iranian cities.

Protesters often wore hoods and covered their faces, probably to avoid being recognized by surveillance cameras. Some online videos purported to show police firing tear gas sporadically, though there was no immediate wholesale crackdown on demonstrators.

Meanwhile, in an emotional speech before parliament, the head of the Revolutionary Guard apologized for the shootdown and insisted it was a tragic mistake.

“I swear to almighty God that I wished I was on that plane and had crashed with them and burned but had not witnessed this tragic incident,” said Gen. Hossein Salami. “I have never been this embarrassed in my entire life. Never.”

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Trump, Pelosi square off ahead of impeachment trial

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump and Speaker Nancy Pelosi squared off Sunday ahead of his impeachment trial, as she said senators will “pay a price” for blocking new witnesses and he quickly retorted that she and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff should both testify.

The House plans to vote this week to transmit the articles of impeachment to the Senate for the historic trial on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress over Trump’s actions toward Ukraine. It will be only the third presidential impeachment trial in American history and could start this week.

Trump and Pelosi, the two most powerful party leaders in the nation, communicated as often happens in this presidency — with the president responding on Twitter to a television interview.

“It’s about a fair trial,” Pelosi told ABC’s “This Week.” “We’ve done our job. We have defended the Constitution of the United States. We would hope the Senate would do that as well.”

She warned, “Now the ball is in their court to either do that or pay a price.”

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Lava gushes from Philippine volcano as ash spreads to Manila

TAGAYTAY, Philippines (AP) — Red-hot lava gushed out of a Philippine volcano Monday after a sudden eruption of ash and steam that forced villagers to flee and shut down Manila’s international airport, offices and schools.

There were no immediate reports of casualties or major damage from Taal volcano’s eruption south of the capital that began Sunday. But clouds of ash blew more than 100 kilometres (62 miles) north, reaching the bustling capital, Manila, and forcing the shutdown of the country’s main airport with more than 240 international and domestic flights cancelled so far.

An alternative airport north of Manila at Clark freeport remained open but authorities would shut it down too if ashfall threatens flights, the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines said.

The government’s disaster-response agency reported about 8,000 villagers have moved to at least 38 evacuation centres in the hard-hit province of Batangas and nearby Cavite province, but officials expect the number to swell with hundreds of thousands more being brought out of harm’s way. Some residents could not move out of ash-blanketed villages due to a lack of transport and poor visibility. Some refused to leave their homes and farms, officials said.

“We have a problem, our people are panicking due to the volcano because they want to save their livelihood, their pigs and herds of cows,” Mayor Wilson Maralit of Balete town told DZMM radio. “We’re trying to stop them from returning and warning that the volcano can explode again anytime and hit them.”

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12 shot, five dead, in single day of shootings in Baltimore

BALTIMORE (AP) — Authorities say 12 people were shot, five of them fatally, in eight separate weekend shootings in Baltimore.

The first of Saturday’s shootings was reported at about 2:30 a.m. and involved three female victims, all found with apparent gunshot wounds in a car in a northeastern section of the city. One victim, a 28-year-old woman, died shortly after arriving at a hospital.

A few hours later, police responding to a shooting in southeast Baltimore found a 46-year-old man with a gunshot wound to the leg. Then, a second shooting victim, a 40-year-old man, walked into a hospital seeking treatment for a gunshot wound to his leg.

Shortly after 2:30 p.m. Saturday, police found a man fatally shot in southeast Baltimore. That was followed less than half an hour later by a shooting in central Baltimore that left a 37-year-old man wounded.

A 38-year-old man was found with a gunshot wound around 7 p.m. Saturday in northeast Baltimore.

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AP Analysis: Taiwan vote signals growing divide with China

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — The landslide reelection of Taiwan’s leader underscores the population’s embrace of an identity distinct from China — a shift that the communist leaders of China refuse to accept.

It’s a contradiction that will keep the island of 23 million people at odds with its much larger neighbour for the foreseeable future and put increasing strains on the one-China principle, which holds that Taiwan and China are part of one country.

President Tsai Ing-wen swept to a second four-year term Saturday with 57% of the vote. Her opponent, Han Kuo-yu, tallied 39%. The results soundly rejected the China-friendly views of his Nationalist Party, which has struggled to adapt to the emergence and evolution of a Taiwanese identity.

The question for the next four years is whether the governments on both sides of the 160-kilometre- (100-mile-) wide Taiwan Strait will stay the course or escalate their battle of wills.

China may step up its campaign to try to isolate Taiwan both diplomatically and economically, though it may also be rethinking that approach after efforts to do so during Tsai’s first term only seemed to build support for her at home.

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Queen prepares for royal family summit over Harry and Meghan

LONDON (AP) — Ensconced with aides at her royal retreat, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II prepared Sunday for a crisis family meeting to work out a future for Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, after their dramatic decision to walk away from royal roles.

Well-wishers cheered the monarch as she made her weekly trip to a church at her Sandringham estate in eastern England. Meanwhile, supporters of the royal family’s feuding factions used the British media to paint conflicting pictures of who was to blame for the rift.

Royal officials said the queen had summoned her grandson Harry, his elder brother Prince William and their father Prince Charles to Sandringham, 100 miles (160 kilometres) north of London, for a meeting on Monday.

The summit reflects the queen’s desire to contain the fallout from Harry and Meghan’s decision to “step back” as senior royals, work to become financially independent and split their time between Britain and North America. The couple, also known as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, made the announcement Wednesday without telling the queen or other senior royals first.

William is expected to travel to Sandringham from London and Harry from his home in Windsor, west of the British capital. Charles will fly back from the Gulf nation of Oman, where he was attending a condolence ceremony Sunday following the death of Sultan Qaboos bin Said.

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Oscar nominations are Monday morning: Here’s what to expect

Who will be celebrating Oscar morning? Brad Pitt for sure. Jennifer Lopez almost certainly. And very possibly the Obamas, too.

Nominations for the 92nd Academy Awards, which will begin at 8:18 a.m. EST Monday, should bring plenty of star power to the Feb. 9 ceremony — a good thing, too, since the show will for the second straight year go without a host.

Thankfully, this Oscar year isn’t lacking for drama. Netflix is gunning for its first best picture win, a year after Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” fell just short. It has not just one but at least two contenders led by Martin Scorsese’s elegiac crime epic “The Irishman” and Noah Baumbach’s intimate divorce drama “Marriage Story.”

But in the lead up to Monday’s nominations, much of the momentum has gone to a pair of movies that exalt the big screen with showmanship and celebrity: Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” with Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, and Sam Mendes’ continuous World War I thrill ride, “1917.” Hollywood, in the midst of a streaming upheaval, has so far favoured the traditionally released movies.

Still, no definite front-runner has emerged, and nominations morning could tip the scales anew in a rapid-paced awards season that, while not lacking for the usual battery of parties, screenings and Q&As, is more condensed than usual.

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Packers hold off Seahawks 28-23 to reach NFC title game

GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) — Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers have relied more on character and resilience than offence or defence this season, lagging well behind past editions in esthetics.

This divisional round win over Seattle, though, was a vintage Rodgers performance. He helped the Packers pull within a game of the Super Bowl with an array of clutch completions at the most critical of moments.

Rodgers connected with Davante Adams eight times for 160 yards and two touchdowns, Green Bay’s spruced-up defence fended off a spirited Seahawks rally, and the Packers held on for a 28-23 victory Sunday night to reach the NFC championship game for the third time in six years.

“It’s one of those feelings that starts to creep up in warmups, when you really feel like you’re locked in,” Rodgers said, “and I was glad it translated to the field.”

Aaron Jones rushed for 62 yards and two first-half scores for the Packers (14-3), who will travel next weekend to take on top-seeded San Francisco. Rodgers, who went 16 for 27 for 243 yards in his 17th career post-season start, Rodgers has 38 touchdown passes in the playoffs. That’s good for fifth in league history.

The Associated Press

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