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Election in Spain Only Deepens Political Uncertainty

MADRID — A general election called to end political deadlock in Spain has only deepened uncertainty about the future of the European Union’s fifth-largest economy and raised the possibility of yet another ballot — the fifth in five years — next year.

No party achieved a clear mandate to govern in Sunday’s vote, which was the second election in seven months and was intended to clear away the stalemate. Further weeks or months of political jockeying now lie ahead.

Incumbent Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s left-of-center Socialists captured the most seats, with 120. But that is far short of a majority in the 350-seat chamber, meaning the Socialists will have to negotiate deals with other parties if they are to govern.

The outcome also threw up a new roadblock: Support surged for far-right party Vox, which was launched just six years ago.

It collected 52 seats, more than double its showing in the last election in April, making it the third largest party in parliament behind the Socialists and the conservative Popular Party, which recovered to collect 88 seats.

Across Europe, far-right parties have made gains in recent years, setting off alarm bells about the bloc’s political direction.

Some analysts put down Vox’s rise to nationalist sentiment stirred up as a result of mass protests by separatists in the wealthy northeastern region of Catalonia. The protests have included recent violent clashes with police that left more than 500 people injured.

The push for Catalan independence, which the national government won’t allow, is Spain’s most serious political issue in decades and shows no signs of abating. Three Catalan separatist parties won a combined 23 seats, one more than in April.

José Ignacio Torreblanca, an analyst and head of the Madrid office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the Catalan separatists helped give rise to Vox.

“The one thing that the Catalans have achieved is to get a radical right equally as radical as they are on the other end, a kind of a mirror thing and with that make everyone’s life more miserable,” he said.

On Monday, Catalan radicals resumed their protests by blocking a major highway crossing the border between France and Spain and promising to keep it closed for three days. French police pushed them back toward Spain and scuffles broke out.

Vox leader Santiago Abascal said Monday that his party won’t support a Socialist government and issued a warning: “We demand that order be restored in Catalonia.”

Contemplating the election outcome and another fragmented parliament, many people on the streets of Madrid were scratching their heads Monday over what would happen next.

“I think we are worse than before: We are more divided,” said Antonio Prados, a 44-year-old police officer. “I don’t know, there’s a possibility to form a government, but I don’t know how they will come up with the numbers.”

Andrew Dowling, an expert on contemporary Spanish politics at Cardiff University in Wales, said Sánchez’s plan to reconfigure parliament to his benefit had backfired, leaving Spain once again at the mercy of an unpredictable political landscape.

“The Spanish Socialist party made a major miscalculation in calling new elections,” Dowling said.

The next step will be for parliamentarians to select a house speaker in the coming weeks and then for talks between King Felipe VI and party leaders to begin so that one of them, most likely Sánchez, will be called on to try to form a government.

Sanchez was meeting with his party leadership later Monday. Party secretary José Ábalos said Sánchez will sound out other party leaders over the coming days and seek to form a government as soon as possible.

Ábalos said the Socialists would not build any coalitions with parties on the right, indicating it would seek support instead from other leftist groups and regional parties.

But Sánchez’s closest political allies, the left-wing United We Can party, fell from 42 to 35 seats. Sunday’s ballot also went badly for the right-of-center Citizens party, which captured just 10 seats in parliament, down from 57 seats in April. Party leader Albert Rivera quit Monday.

In all, 12 parties gained parliamentary representation.

Capital Economics, a London-based research company, said it expected no short-term economic difficulties after Sunday’s vote because Spain’s economy has remained healthy despite the past four years of political gridlock.

But it warned Monday that deep, long-term economic reforms are needed in Spain’s labor markets and pension systems to keep Spain competitive.

___

Hatton reported from Lisbon, Portugal. Associated Press reporters Helena Alves in Madrid and Felipe Dana on the France-Spain border contributed to this report.

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Bolivian President Evo Morales’ Removal Denounced as Coup

Bolivia’s socialist President Evo Morales was forced to resign Sunday under threat from the nation’s military, police forces, and violent right-wing protestors who have burned and ransacked the homes of members of Morales’ party, assaulted supporters of the president, and kidnapped a Bolivian mayor.

Political leaders and activists around the world immediately denounced Morales’ ouster as a military coup that leaves Bolivia without a constitutionally elected government. Williams Kaliman, the chief commander of the Bolivian armed forces, pressured Morales to resign earlier Sunday.

“The coup mongers are destroying the rule of law,” Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, tweeted hours after announcing his resignation in a televised address.

Morales said he and his vice president, Álvaro García Linera, resigned because they “don’t want to see any more families attacked” under orders from right-wing former president Carlos Mesa and opposition leader Luis Fernando Camacho.

“This is not a betrayal to social movements,” Morales added. “The fight continues. We are the people, and thanks to this political union, we have freed Bolivia. We leave this homeland freed.”

Morales’ resignation came following his announcement early Sunday that he would hold new elections after the U.S.-dominated Organization of American States (OAS) questioned Morales’ October victory and claimed the vote was fraught with irregularities. Trump administration officials and Republican lawmakers like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) were quick to parrot the OAS.

Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), tweeted Sunday that OAS “never did find any evidence of fraud in the October 20th election, but the media repeated the allegation so many times that it became ‘true,’ in this post-truth world.”

The latest OAS “audit”, repeats a major falsehood from their previous reports, pretending that there was an “unusual” jump in Evo’s vote margin towards the end of the quick count. But the change was in fact gradual, as later-reporting areas were more pro-Evo than earlier ones: pic.twitter.com/oFiUFFAl5H

— Mark Weisbrot (@MarkWeisbrot) November 10, 2019

Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was freed from prison Friday after spending more than a year behind bars on politically motivated charges, was among those who denounced the coup in Bolivia late Sunday.

“There was a coup in Bolivia and comrade Evo Morales was forced to resign,” Lula tweeted. “It is unfortunate that Latin America has an economic elite that does not know how to live with democracy and the social inclusion of the poorest.”

A chorus of political leaders in Latin America and across the globe echoed Lula.

Jeremy Corbyn, the U.K. Labour leader, said Sunday that to see Evo Morales who, along with a powerful movement, has brought so much social progress forced from office by the military is appalling.”

“I condemn this coup against the Bolivian people,” said Corbyn, “and stand with them for democracy, social justice, and independence.”

U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) tweeted Sunday: “There’s a word for the president of a country being pushed out by the military. Its called a coup.”

There’s a word for the President of a country being pushed out by the military. It’s called a coup.

We must unequivocally oppose political violence in Bolivia. Bolivians deserve free and fair elections.

— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) November 11, 2019

Morales’ resignation did not bring a halt to right-wing violence, the Washington Post reported.

“Socialist officials denounced the ransacking of Morales’ home late Sunday,” according to the Post. “The former head of Bolivia’s electoral tribunal, Maria Eugenia Choque, was detained, police said.”

Amid widespread chaos and concerns for Morales’ safety, the government of Mexico said it would grant the ousted Bolivian president asylum upon request.

“In Bolivia there is an ongoing military operation, we reject it, it is similar to those tragic events that bloodied Latin America in the last century,” Marcelo Ebrard, Mexico’s foreign minister, tweeted late Sunday. “Mexico will maintain its position of respect for democracy and institutions. Coups, no.”

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Bolivia President Resigns Amid Military, Public Pressure

LA PAZ, Bolivia — Bolivian President Evo Morales announced his resignation Sunday under mounting pressure from the military and the public after his re-election victory triggered weeks of fraud allegations and deadly protests.

The decision came after a day of fast-moving developments, including an offer from Morales to hold a new election. But the crisis deepened dramatically when the country’s military chief went on national television to call on him to step down.

“I am sending my resignation letter to the Legislative Assembly of Bolivia,” the 60-year-old socialist leader said in a statement.

Morales’ claim to have won a fourth term last month plunged the country into the biggest crisis of his nearly 14 years in power. The unrest left three people dead and over 100 injured in clashes between his supporters and opponents.

Earlier in the day Sunday, the Organization of American States said in a preliminary report that it had found a “heap of observed irregularities” in the Oct. 20 election and that a new vote should be held.

Morale agreed to that. But within hours, military chief Gen. Williams Kaliman made it clear that would not be sufficient.

“After analyzing the situation of internal conflict, we ask the president to resign, allowing peace to be restored and stability to be maintained for the good of our Bolivia,” Kaliman said.

The leadership crisis escalated in the hours leading up to the resignation announcement. Two government ministers in charge of mines and hydrocarbons, the Chamber of Deputies president and three other pro-government legislators announced their resignations. Some said opposition supporters had threatened their families.

In addition, the head of Bolivia’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal stepped down after the OAS findings were released. Also, the attorney general’s office said it will investigate judges on the tribunal for alleged fraud.

Morales in 1996 became the first president from Bolivia’s indigenous population, and he went on to preside over a commodities-fed economic boom in South America’s poorest country. The former leader of a coca growers union, he paved roads, sent Bolivia’s first satellite into space and curbed inflation.

But many who were once excited by his fairy-tale rise have grown wary of his reluctance to leave power.

He ran for a fourth term after refusing to abide by the results of a referendum that upheld term limits for the president. He was able to run because Bolivia’s constitutional court disallowed such limits.

After the Oct. 20 vote, Morales declared himself the outright winner even before official results indicated he obtained just enough support to avoid a runoff with opposition leader and former President Carlos Mesa. A 24-hour lapse in releasing results fueled suspicions of vote-rigging.

The OAS sent a team to conduct what it called a binding audit of the election. Its preliminary recommendations included holding new elections with a new electoral body.

“Mindful of the heap of observed irregularities, it’s not possible to guarantee the integrity of the numbers and give certainty of the results,” the OAS said in a statement.

During the unrest since the election, protesters have torched the headquarters of local electoral tribunal offices and set up roadblocks that paralyzed parts of Bolivia.

Pressure on Morales increased ominously on Saturday when police on guard outside Bolivia’s presidential palace abandoned their posts and police retreated to their barracks in at least three cities.

__

Associated Press writer Luis Andres Henao in Buenos Aires, Argentina, contributed to this report.

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Iran Discovers New Oil Field That Could Boost Its Reserves by 33%

TEHRAN, Iran — Iran has discovered a new oil field in the country’s south with over 50 billion barrels of crude, its president said Sunday, a find that could boost the country’s proven reserves by a third as it struggles to sell energy abroad over U.S. sanctions.

The announcement by Hassan Rouhani comes as Iran faces crushing American sanctions after the U.S. pulled out of its nuclear deal with world powers last year.

Rouhani made the announcement in a speech in the desert city of Yazd. He said the field was located in Iran’s southern Khuzestan province, home to its crucial oil industry.

Some 53 billion barrels would be added to Iran’s proven reserves of roughly 150 billion, he said.

“I am telling the White House that in the days when you sanctioned the sale of Iranian oil and pressured our nation, the country’s dear workers and engineers were able to discover 53 billion barrels of oil in a big field,” Rouhani said.

Oil reserves refer to crude that’s economically feasible to extract. Figures can vary wildly by country due to differing standards, though it remains a yardstick of comparison among oil-producing nations.

Iran currently has the world’s fourth-largest proven deposits of crude oil and the world’s second-largest deposits of natural gas. It shares a massive offshore field in the Persian Gulf with Qatar.

The new oil field could become Iran’s second-largest field after one containing 65 billion barrels in Ahvaz. The field is 2,400 square kilometers (925 square miles), with the deposit some 80 meters (260 feet) deep, Rouhani said.

Since the U.S. withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal, the other countries involved — Germany, France, Britain, Russia and China — have been struggling to save it. However, they’ve offered no means by which Iran can sell its oil abroad.

Any company or government that buys Iran’s oil faces harsh U.S. sanctions, the threat of which also stopped billions of dollars in business deals and sharply depreciated Iran’s currency, the rial.

Iran has since gone beyond the deal’s stockpile and enrichment limits, as well as started using advanced centrifuges barred by the deal. It also just began injecting uranium gas into centrifuges at an underground facility.

The collapse of the nuclear deal coincided with a tense summer of mysterious attacks on oil tankers and Saudi oil facilities that the U.S. blamed on Iran. Tehran denied the allegation, though it did seize oil tankers and shoot down a U.S. military surveillance drone.

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NRA Turmoil Creates Rift Among Some Big Donors

Joe Olson was once such a passionate supporter of the National Rifle Association that he pledged to bequeath several million dollars from his estate to the gun organization upon his death.

But the steady drip of investigations and misspending allegations and a shakeup at the top ranks of the NRA compelled him to alter his will. The NRA will no longer get his money.

“The rot had gotten worse and I simply decided: No, I’m not giving those people my money,” Olson said.

Olson reflects what has become a new challenge for the NRA as its legal and financial issues stack up: the loss of big donors.

The NRA attributes much of its success and power to rank-and-file members who contribute a few dollars here and there throughout the year, but it’s the big-ticket donors who fuel the organization’s finances. They also play a role in who serves on the board of directors and are active on the NRA social and fundraising scene, whether it’s at galas or hunting trips.

And there are signs that some of them are growing uneasy over the NRA’s troubles.

One of them went so far to as to file a lawsuit against the NRA claiming misuse of funds and started a website that seeks changes to the NRA — from the ouster of longtime CEO Wayne LaPierre, to halving the size of the 76-member board of directors.

The donor, David Dell’Aquila, also claims that he has gotten others like him to withhold millions of dollars.

Over the years, Dell’Aquila has given about $100,000 and he and his wife pledged to bequeath several million dollars from an estate he amassed after a career as a technology consultant.

Large donors have long been a reliable source of money for the NRA, helping fuel the clout that it wields in American politics.

In 2017, the NRA received seven donations of more than $1 million, including one for more than $18 million, according to tax records. The NRA’s 2018 records are not available yet, meaning it’s too early to know how the recent turmoil engulfing the group affected contributions.

Despite the handful of million-dollar-plus donors, the group saw its overall contributions plummet from $124 million in 2016 to $98 million in 2017.

An NRA member for about 20 years, Dell’Aquila became more heavily involved after attending an annual meeting for the first time in 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives. A longtime hunter, Dell’Aquila said it was after that meeting that he decided to contribute big sums to the NRA, seeing it as an organization that would help preserve gun rights.

He went in with gusto, becoming a member of the Charlton Heston Society, an elite group of NRA faithful. Then, earlier this year, Dell’Aquila started to hear the rumors and see media reports of excessive spending by NRA leaders. He witnessed the showdown that spilled out in the public during this year’s annual meeting, when then-President Oliver North was denied a second term after seeking LaPierre’s resignation.

When Dell’Aquila asked some NRA directors and others at headquarters for more information on how donations were being spent, he said he didn’t get sufficient answers.

“I was just getting lip service,” he said.

A few months ago, he filed a lawsuit against the NRA claiming it has engaged in fraud and financial misconduct. The lawsuit cites many of the allegations that have emerged in other legal cases in recent months, including that LaPierre expensed hundreds of thousands of dollars in wardrobe purchases at a high-end clothier.

Carolyn Meadows, the NRA’s new president, called the lawsuit “a misguided and frivolous pursuit.”

“Here’s all you need to know: This lawsuit parrots claims from an individual who has worked for anti-NRA organizations and openly campaigned against our cause and our Association. End of story,” Meadows said.

While some big donors such as Olson and Dell’Aquila have pulled back, other big donors have doubled down.

Janet Nyce, a longtime member who along with her husband has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years, said she called up NRA headquarters and felt they were open and honest about the challenges facing the organization, assuring her that the donations were being well spent.

When she got a call one day from another NRA member asking if she wanted to participate in a movement to withhold donations, she and her husband instead pulled out their wallets and wrote out checks to the NRA.

“We are supporting the NRA, there’s just no two ways about it,” she said.

Joe Gregory, who is the CEO of an investment firm and founder of the NRA’s Golden Ring of Freedom — a group of NRA donors who have contributed or pledged at least $1 million — chalked up the turmoil to internal politics and defended LaPierre’s expenses as a necessary part of being a CEO.

The demands pushed by Dell’Aquila, he said, “border on being unrealistic and not serious.”

He’s especially disappointed to see some of his fellow big donors start to abandon the NRA, particularly as the 2020 presidential election approaches and the NRA’s influence in preserving the Second Amendment is at stake.

“It’s important that we stick together,” he said.

For Dell’Aquila’s part, he’s not ready to back down from his fight.

He’s even planning to attend next year’s annual meeting, which will again be held in Nashville. He said he wants to see if LaPierre and others in the inner circle will talk with him.

“I’m not one to back down,” he said.

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Justices Take Up High-Profile DACA Case Over Young Immigrants

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court is taking up the Trump administration’s plan to end legal protections that shield 660,000 immigrants from deportation, a case with strong political overtones amid the 2020 presidential election campaign.

All eyes will be on Chief Justice John Roberts when the court hears arguments Tuesday. Roberts is the conservative justice closest to the court’s center who also is keenly aware of public perceptions of an ideologically divided court.

It’s the third time in three years that the administration is asking the justices to rescue a controversial policy that has been blocked by several lower courts.

The court sided with President Donald Trump in allowing him to enforce the travel ban on visitors from some majority Muslim countries, but it blocked the administration from adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

Roberts was the only member of the court in the majority both times, siding with four conservatives on the travel ban and four liberals in the census case. His vote could be decisive a third time, as well.

The program before the court is Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an Obama-era program that aimed to bring out of the shadows people who have been in the United States since they were children and are in the country illegally. In some cases, they have no memory of any home other than the U.S.

With Congress at an impasse over a comprehensive immigration bill, President Barack Obama decided to formally protect people from deportation while also allowing them to work legally in the U.S.

But Trump made tough talk on immigration a central part of his campaign and less than eight months after taking office, he announced in September 2017 that he would end DACA.

Immigrants, civil rights groups, universities and Democratic-led states quickly sued, and courts put the administration’s plan on hold.

There are two questions before the Supreme Court: whether federal judges can even review the decision to end the program and, if they can, whether the way the administration has gone about winding down DACA is legal.

In that sense, the case resembles the dispute over the census citizenship question, which focused on the process the administration used in trying to add the question to the 2020 census. In the end, Roberts wrote that the reason the administration gave for wanting the question “seems to have been contrived.”

There also are similarities to the travel ban case, in which the administration argued that courts had no role to play and that the executive branch has vast discretion over immigration, certainly enough to justify Trump’s ban. In the Supreme Court decision, Roberts wrote that immigration law gives the president “broad discretion to suspend the entry of aliens into the United States. The President lawfully exercised that discretion.”

The Supreme Court fight over DACA has played out in a kind of legal slow motion. The administration first wanted the justices to hear and decide the case by June 2018. The justices said no. The justice Department returned to the court a year ago, but the justices did nothing for more than seven months before agreeing to hear arguments.

The delay has bought DACA recipients at least two extra years because a decision now isn’t expected until June 2020, which also could thrust the issue into the presidential campaign.

In part the court’s slow pace can be explained by a preference to have Congress legislate a lasting resolution of the issue. But Trump and Congress failed to strike a deal on DACA.

Janet Napolitano, the University of California president who served as Obama’s homeland security secretary when DACA was created, said the administration seems to recognize that ending DACA protections would be unpopular.

“And so perhaps they think it better that they be ordered by the court to do it as opposed to doing it correctly on their own,” Napolitano said in an interview with The Associated Press. She is a named plaintiff in the litigation.

Solicitor General Noel Francisco, who is arguing the administration’s case at the Supreme Court, pushed back against that criticism.

“We think the way we did it is entirely appropriate and lawful. If we did it in a different way, it would be subject to challenge,” Francisco said at a Smithsonian Institution event exploring the current Supreme Court term.

The Trump administration has said it moved to cut off the program under the threat of a lawsuit from Texas and other states, raising the prospect of a chaotic end.

Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions determined DACA to be unlawful because Obama did not have the authority to adopt it in the first place. Sessions cited an expansion of the DACA program and a similar effort to protect undocumented immigrants who are parents of American children that were struck down by federal courts. A 4-4 Supreme Court tie in 2016 affirmed the lower court rulings.

Texas and other Republican-led states eventually did sue and won a partial victory in a federal court in Texas.

The administration’s best argument is a simple one, said Josh Blackman, a professor at South Texas College of Law in Houston: “The Supreme Court should allow the Trump Administration to wind down a policy it found to be unlawful, even if reasonable judges disagree about DACA’s legality.”

Trump has said he favors legislation on DACA, but that it will take a Supreme Court ruling for the administration to spur Congress to act.

On at least one point, Trump and his DACA critics agree.

“Only legislation can bring a permanent sense of stability for all of these people,” said Microsoft president Brad Smith. Microsoft joined the challenge to the administration because, Smith said, 66 employees are protected by DACA.

The Department of Homeland Security is continuing to process two-year DACA renewals so that in June 2020, hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients will have protections stretching beyond the election and even into 2022.

If the high court rules for the administration, it is unclear how quickly the program would end or Congress might act.

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Trump Wants to Charge Asylum Fees for Refugees Fleeing Hardship

The Trump administration this coming week will formalize a proposal that could make it one of just four countries in the world that charge asylum-seekers for entry.

As the New York Times reported late Friday, the administration plans to publish in the Federal Register a proposal to require a $50 application fee for asylum-seekers as well as a $490 charge for work permits.

“It’s an unprecedented weaponization of government fees,” Doug Rand of the immigrant assistance company Boundless Immigration told the Times.

Currently, the only countries in the world that charge asylum-seekers—who are often fleeing war, persecution or violence in their home countries—are Iran, Fiji and Australia.

Also included in the plan, proposed on Friday by Ken Cuccinnelli, head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), were significant increases in fees for renewal of DACA protections and citizenship.

Young people protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which is the subject of a Supreme Court case beginning Tuesday, will be required to pay $765 for renewal rather than $495.

Citizenship fees could go up 60 percent, from $725 to $1,170.

Cuccinnelli claimed Friday that the charges are needed to help confront his agencies $1.3 billion deficit. By contrast, the total U.S. deficit approached $1 trillion in 2019 under President Donald Trump—yet the president has requested more spending on the military and his proposed border wall.

The immigrant rights group United We Dream denounced the plan to impose financial burdens of young undocumented immigrants and asylum-seekers as “outrageous.”

USCIS is trying to raise #DACA renewal fees to $765, this is outrageous! Raising this fee will only put more youth at risk.

Right now the fee remains at $495! Help us make sure youth are able to renew their protection from deportation!

Donate now: https://t.co/eYT4sT7NdW

— United We Dream (@UNITEDWEDREAM) November 9, 2019

“Charging an asylum application fee is simply barbaric,” added Daniel Altschuler of Make the Road Action.

Increasing #DACA renewal fees is senseless and cruel.

Charging an asylum application fee is simply barbaric. https://t.co/LhADrCxWuA

— Daniel Altschuler (@altochulo) November 9, 2019

Matthew Soerens of the faith-based refugee aid group tweeted that if Cuccinnelli’s proposal goes into effect, the fee for U.S. citizenship will have gone up by more than $1,000 in two decades.

In 1998, the fee to apply for citizenship in the US was $95

When I began working at @worldrelief in 2006, helping churches host naturalization workshops, it was $400

At the workshop my church hosted today, $725

Now, @USCIS proposes raising it to $1170 https://t.co/i9gmtN4ak4

— Matthew Soerens (@MatthewSoerens) November 9, 2019

The newly proposed fee “will actually be even more than $1,170, presuming that does not include a required biometrics fee,” Soerens added. “And none of these prices include paying an attorney, which can be thousands of dollars in some cases.”

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Germany, Allies Celebrate 30 Years Since Berlin Wall Fell

BERLIN—Germany marked the 30th anniversary Saturday of the opening of the Berlin Wall, a pivotal moment in the events that brought down Communism in eastern Europe.

Leaders from Germany, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic attended a ceremony at Bernauer Strasse — where one of the last parts of the Berlin Wall remains — before placing roses in the once-fearsome barrier that divided the city for 28 years.

“The Berlin Wall, ladies and gentlemen, is history,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said later at a memorial service inside a small chapel near where the Wall once stood. “It teaches us: No wall that keeps people out and restricts freedom is so high or so wide that it can’t be broken down.”

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Noting the cruelty of the East German regime — which had torn down a previous church on the former death strip site so snipers could get a better shot at people fleeing to the West — Merkel paid tribute to those who were killed or imprisoned during the Communist dictatorship and insisted that the fight for freedom worldwide isn’t over.

“We are bereft of excuses, challenged to do our part for freedom and democracy,” she said.

In a statement issued by his office, U.S. President Donald Trump congratulated Germany on its anniversary, saying that “courageous men and women from both East and West Germany united to tear down a wall that stood as a symbol of oppression and failed socialism for more than a quarter of a century.”

“The United States and our allies and partners remain steadfast in our unwavering allegiance to advancing the principles of individual liberty and freedom that have sustained peace and spawned unparalleled prosperity,” he added.

Speaking to European leaders at Bernauer Strasse, head of the Berlin Wall memorial site, Axel Klausmeier, recalled the images of delirious Berliners from East and West crying tears of joy as they hugged each other on the evening of Nov. 9, 1989 .

The collapse of the Berlin Wall was brought about largely by peaceful protests and a stream of people fleeing East Germany that piled pressure on the country’s Communist government to open its borders to the West and ultimately end the nation’s post-war division.

Thirty years on, Germany has become the most powerful economic and political force on the continent, but there remain deep misgivings among some in the country about how the transition from socialism to capitalism was managed.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel acknowledged this in a recent interview with daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung, saying that “with some things, where one might have thought that East and West would have aligned, one can see today that it might rather take half a century or more.”

She also recalled that Nov. 9 remains a fraught date in German history, as it also marks the anniversary of the so-called Night of Broken Glass, an anti-Jewish pogrom in 1938 that foreshadowed the Nazi’s Holocaust.

Light installations, concerts and public debates were planned throughout the city and other parts of Germany to mark the fall of the Wall, including a concert at Berlin’s iconic Brandenburg Gate.

Among those who had come to Berlin to celebrate were members of the Trabant Club Middle Hesse, an association that promotes the old East German car affectionately known as the Trabi.

Jens Schmidt, who fled East Germany before the fall of the Wall by driving his Trabi to Hungary and then across the open border to the West, said the club has many young members for whom learning to repair the simple but sturdy vehicles can be a lesson in history and civics, too.

“The team spirit,” he said. “It was stronger back then.”

___

Follow AP’s coverage of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall at https://www.apnews.com/FalloftheBerlinWall

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Pot or Not? Busts Highlight Growing Confusion Over Hemp

NEW YORK (AP)—The CBD craze might be leaving the war on drugs a bit dazed and confused.

The extract that’s been showing up in everything from candy to coffee is legally derived from hemp plants, which look and smell an awful lot like that other cannabis—marijuana. They’re so similar, police officers and the field tests they use on suspected drugs sometimes can’t tell the difference.

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Case in point, New York City police boasted on social media this week about what seemed like a significant drug bust: 106 pounds (48 kilograms) of funky, green plants that officers thought sure seemed like marijuana.

But the Vermont farm that grew the plants and the Brooklyn CBD shop that ordered them insisted they’re actually industrial hemp, and perfectly legal. And, they said, they have paperwork to prove it.

Nevertheless, when the shop’s owner brother went to the police station to straighten things out, he was arrested. Police said a field test had come back positive for marijuana.

Shop owner Oren Levy said that’s likely because hemp often tests positive for a permissible, trace amount of THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, which is the chemical in cannabis that causes people to get high.

Field tests used by law enforcement officers can detect THC but aren’t sophisticated enough to specify whether a shipment is legal hemp or low-grade illegal pot, and drug-sniffing dogs will alert on both.

“He was a hungry cop. He thought he had the bust of the day,” said Levy, whose Green Angel CBD NYC sells oils, teas and other products containing the extract. He said he fears the seizure could force him out of business.

CBD, or cannabidiol, is also found in marijuana but does not have an intoxicating effect. Some people say it provides them with pain and anxiety relief.

“I can’t believe I’m going through this for a legal business,” Levy said. “I can’t believe my poor brother got locked up.”

Oren and Ronen Levy are not alone.

Since the U.S. government removed industrial hemp last year from the list of illegal drugs, a number of similar cases have cropped up across the country.

In July, a man who said he was delivering 300 pounds (136 kilograms) of hemp to a Minnesota CBD-oil processing company was arrested in South Dakota after authorities there said it tested positive for THC. The substance “looked and smelled like raw marijuana,” a state trooper said.

In January, Idaho authorities arrested a truck driver and seized nearly 7,000 pounds (3,175 kilograms) of what they believed to be marijuana, even though the company shipping the material said accompanying paperwork made clear it was industrial hemp.

At least two other truckers and two security guards involved in transporting what they said was industrial hemp have been arrested and charged with felony drug trafficking. In May, the U.S. Agriculture Department sent a memorandum instructing states not to block the transportation of hemp that contains 0.3% or less THC.

The Nov. 2 Brooklyn bust that landed Ronen Levy in handcuffs stemmed from a tip from a FedEx worker who suspected the load of plants on their way from Fox Holler Farms in Fair Haven, Vermont to Levy’s shop were marijuana, New York City police said.

“We got information about a large package of drugs. We got it in here. We field tested it as marijuana, called the individual in. He was placed under arrest,” said NYPD Chief of Department Terence Monahan.

“It is currently at the lab at this point to make a final determination, was it hemp?” Monahan said. “The individual had no bill of lading justifying its delivery.”

Ronen Levy, who runs his own CBD business catering to pets, pleaded not guilty to multiple counts of felony criminal possession of marijuana. He was released on his own recognizance and is due back in court on Nov. 19.

The police department drew attention to the bust by posting pictures on its official Facebook and Twitter accounts showing the officers in a room full of the seized plants. Oren Levy and the farm fought back with posts of their own.

Fox Holler Farms said in a statement posted on its Facebook page that the shipment bound for Levy’s shop was fully compliant with Vermont, New York and federal laws.

The farm’s lawyer, Timothy Fair, said that before the hemp shipment left Vermont, it was tested at FedEx’s request by a local police department. The level of THC was less than half the allowable threshold, he said.

A FedEx spokeswoman said even if the plants were hemp, they should not have been shipped using its service. The company’s service guide lists hemp plants, leaves, oil and CBD derived from hemp among its prohibited items.

Oren Levy said he would’ve gone to the police station himself but couldn’t because he was recovering from a recent surgery. Soon enough, Oren Levy said, Ronen texted him: “I think I’m getting arrested.”

“They treated him like a drug dealer,” Oren Levy said. “He’s never been to jail in his whole life. He still hasn’t slept. He’s paranoid.”

__

Jennifer Peltz in New York and Wilson Ring in Montpelier, Vermont, contributed reporting.

The post Pot or Not? Busts Highlight Growing Confusion Over Hemp appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

Iran Offers Clue to Fate of Ex-FBI Agent Robert Levinson, Missing for 12 Years

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates—Iran is acknowledging for the first time it has an open case before its Revolutionary Court over the 2007 disappearance of a former FBI agent on an unauthorized CIA mission to the country, renewing questions over what happened to him.

In a filing to the United Nations, Iran said the case over Robert Levinson was “on going,” without elaborating.

It wasn’t immediately clear how long the case had been open, nor the circumstances by which it started. However, it comes amid a renewed push to find him with an offer of $20 million for information from the Trump administration amid heightened tensions between Iran and the U.S. over Tehran’s collapsing nuclear deal with world powers. That’s in addition to $5 million earlier offered by the FBI.

The Associated Press on Saturday obtained the text of Iran’s filing to the U.N.’s Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.

“According to the last statement of Tehran’s Justice Department, Mr. Robert Alan Levinson has an on going case in the Public Prosecution and Revolutionary Court of Tehran,” the filing said.

It did not elaborate. Iran’s Revolutionary Court typically handles espionage cases and others involving smuggling, blasphemy and attempts to overthrow its Islamic government. Westerners and Iranian dual nationals with ties to the West often find themselves tried and convicted in closed-door trials in these courts, only later to be used as bargaining chips in negotiations.

Iran’s mission to the U.N. did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and its state media has not acknowledged the case. The U.S. State Department did not respond to a request for comment about Iran’s acknowledgement.

The Washington Post first reported on the ongoing case.

Levinson disappeared from Iran’s Kish Island on March 9, 2007. For years, U.S. officials would only say that Levinson, a meticulous FBI investigator credited with busting Russian and Italian mobsters, was working for a private firm on his trip.

In December 2013, the AP revealed Levinson in fact had been on a mission for CIA analysts who had no authority to run spy operations. Levinson’s family had received a $2.5 million annuity from the CIA in order to stop a lawsuit revealing details of his work, while the agency forced out three veteran analysts and disciplined seven others.

Since his disappearance, the only photos and video of Levinson emerged in 2010 and 2011. He appeared gaunt and bearded with long hair, and was wearing an orange jumpsuit similar to those worn by detainees at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay.

The video, with a Pashtun wedding song popular in Afghanistan playing in the background, showed Levinson complaining of poor health.

Rumors about him have circulated for years, with one account claiming he was locked up in a Tehran prison run by Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard and U.S. officials suggesting he may not be in Iran at all. Dawud Salahuddin, an American fugitive living in Iran who is wanted for the assassination of a former Iranian diplomat in Maryland in 1980, is the last known person to have seen Levinson before his disappearance. Iran has offered a series of contradictory statements about Levinson in the time since. It asked the U.N. group to close its investigation into Levinson in February, saying “no proof has been presented by the claimant in this case to prove the presence of the aforesaid in Iran’s detention centres.”

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French Paper: French Woman Claims Rape by Polanski in 1975

PARIS — A French woman in her early 60s claims she was violently raped at age 18 by Oscar-winning filmmaker Roman Polanski, a fugitive from the U.S. for more than four decades since pleading guilty to a sex offense with a minor, a French newspaper reported Friday.

Le Parisien said the woman, Valentine Monnier, alleges she was raped in 1975 at Polanski’s chalet in Gstaad, Switzerland, when she was 18.

The paper quoted Polanski’s lawyer, Herve Temime, as saying that the 86-year-old Polanski “firmly contests” the allegation. The attorney could not be immediately reached by The Associated Press.

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Temime “deplored” in his response to the newspaper that the claim is being made public shortly before Polanski’s latest film, “J’Accuse” (An Officer and a Spy) is being released in France. Monnier told Le Parisien that it was the film that triggered her decision to go public, saying that “rape is a time bomb.”

AP does not normally disclose the identities of purported rape victims, but Monnier gave her consent to be identified by Le Parisien after contacting the paper in mid-September. The paper said she had previously written letters to the Los Angeles police, French first lady Brigitte Macron and others. One of several who responded was Marlene Schiappa, junior minister for gender equality, who noted the case was too old for judicial action.

Polanski’s latest film is the story of what is known as the Dreyfus Affair, the infamous 19th century scandal in France in which army Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew, was wrongly convicted of treason. It underscored the failure of justice.

Monnier said publicity surrounding the film revived the “traumatic memory” of her encounter with Polanski, in particular what she claims was a comparison the filmmaker made in one interview of the relentless pursuit of Dreyfus to what he has been subjected to over the American case. Polanski pleaded guilty in the U.S. in 1977 to having sex with a 13-year-old, then fled to Europe the following year.

“Is this tenable, under the pretext of a film, the cover of history to hear ‘I accuse’ from the man who marked you like with iron when it is forbidden for you, the victim, to accuse him?” the paper quoted Monnier as saying.

Monnier, now 62, told the newspaper that the alleged episode occurred when a friend invited her to go skiing, with a stay in Polanski’s chalet.

According to her account, after a night run down the slopes, she and Polanski returned to the chalet to change. She said that he called to her to come, and when she did he was nude. She said he struck her, disrobed her, tried to make her swallow a pill and raped her.

Monnier said she feared for her life because “he can’t take the risk that this bcomes known.” But he also apologized immediately afterwards and cried, Le Parisien quoted her as saying.

Monnier said she “took refuge” with an acquaintance of Polanski — and contacted him for the first time a month ago, Le Parisien reported. The newspaper met with the man, who asked to remain anonymous, in his lawyer’s office.

“I asked Valentine if she wanted to go to the police … In shock, she didn’t know what to do,” the paper quoted the man as saying. He said he believed her story.

Another man contacted by Monnier, and by Le Parisien, former movie producer John Bentley, said he remembered her well. But he also said he not recall her saying that she had been raped, “or I would have done something.”

Polanski won the best director Oscar for “The Pianist” in 2003, and his films have been nominated for 28 Oscars. But he was expelled last year from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences over the U.S. case and lost an appeal to restore his membership this year.

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The White Supremacist Group Hiding in Plain Sight

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.

In the hours after the slaughter in El Paso, Texas, on Aug. 3, a final toll emerged: 22 dead, most of them Latinos, some Mexican nationals. A portrait of the gunman accused of killing them soon took shape: a 21-year-old from a suburb of Dallas who had been radicalized as a white supremacist online and who saw immigrants as a threat to the future of white America.

While much of the country reacted with a weary sense of sorrow and outrage, word of the mass killing was processed differently by members of Patriot Front, one of the more prominent white supremacist groups in the U.S.

In secret chat forums, some Patriot Front members embraced the spirit of the anti-immigrant manifesto left behind by the accused gunman. Others floated false conspiracy theories: the CIA was behind the murders; the accused killer was actually Jewish. Still other members cautioned that the group had its own “loose cannons” to worry about. It would be a bad look if the next mass murderer was one of their own.

But there was little, if any, regret over the loss of life.

“It shouldn’t be hard to believe that the group facing the harshest oppression from our ruling elite are producing shooters,” one Patriot Front member wrote. “White men are being slowly destroyed in a way calculated to produce resentment and a sense of helplessness. Of course, some of them decide to lash out.”

Several Patriot Front members alerted others to the need to be careful, for the killings in El Paso would likely make the group a target of the FBI.

“Watch your backs out there,” one wrote.

Patriot Front was formed in the aftermath of the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. While many on America’s far-right cheered the rally, its violence struck others as a public-relations debacle for the white nationalist brand that was sure to attract greater oversight by law enforcement.

Patriot Front aspired to help chart a new way forward: spread propaganda espousing its version of a nascent American fascism; quietly recruit new members worried about a nation overrun by immigrants and a world controlled by Jews; avoid talking about guns or violence online, but engage in a mix of vandalism and intimidation to foster anxiety; wear masks in public and communicate secretly.

“The organization is not about its members,” the group’s leader, Thomas Rousseau, once wrote to its members in the secret chats. “It is about its goals. Each person behind the mask is just another awoken member of the nation, who could be anyone who’s had enough.”

ProPublica spent several months examining the makeup and operations of Patriot Front, which records suggest numbers about 300 members.

While the group is careful not to talk about guns online, two members in the last year have been arrested with arsenals of illegally owned high-powered rifles and other weapons. While many of the group’s propaganda “actions” are legal exercises of free speech, its members have been arrested in Boston and Denver in recent months for acts of vandalism. In Boston, three members engaged in a nighttime propaganda effort last winter were arrested on suspicion of weapons possession and assaulting a police officer. What the group touts as political protests have felt to those targeted like acts of menace, as was the case in San Antonio, Texas, last year when Patriot Front members filmed themselves trashing an encampment of immigration activists.

One person whose establishment was targeted by Patriot Front in recent months spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing the group’s return.

“Ordinarily would you call the police if somebody put a big sticker on your door? No,” the person said. “However, once you find out what this is all about, and who is involved, and what they are promoting? Then, yeah, now we are in hate speech space.”

To the Southern Poverty Law Center, Patriot Front is a white hate group and a genuine criminal threat. To some of the more avowedly violent neo-Nazi groups in the U.S., Patriot Front is a laughable collection of clowns and cowards, content to chat online and put up stickers while a race war awaits.

But for law enforcement, gauging how serious a threat Patriot Front might pose is difficult. Patriot Front shares qualities both with groups engaged in real domestic terrorism and with fringe political groups.

Asked about the group, the FBI issued a statement that reflected these complexities and the limitations they place on police agencies.

“When it comes to domestic terrorism, our investigations focus solely on the criminal activity of individuals — regardless of group membership — that appears to be intended to intimidate or coerce the civilian population or influence the policy of the government by intimidation or coercion. We would encourage you to keep in mind that membership in groups which espouse domestic extremist ideology is not illegal in and of itself — no matter how offensive their views might be to the majority of society.”

Rousseau, a Boy Scout and high school journalist before he founded Patriot Front, has much the same profile as the accused gunman in El Paso, Patrick Crusius: both grew up in middle-class suburbs of Dallas — Crusius in Allen, Rousseau 35 miles away in Grapevine; both were seen as unremarkable teenagers before being inculcated in their racist ideology online; both talk of a desire to reclaim America for “true” or “pure” patriots; both regard immigrants as a poisonous and present danger.

In the days after the rampage in El Paso, Rousseau told his members in the secret chats that such acts of wholesale violence were not for him. While fascist causes like Patriot Front’s could survive the blowback from such killings, he said, real success for the group would come from spreading its ideology and increasing its numbers. Of the alleged El Paso shooter, Rousseau wrote in a chat, “He’d have made more progress toward his goals by swallowing the first round in his magazine instead.”

In the months of chats obtained by ProPublica, Rousseau is by turns amateur philosopher and historian, as well as the group’s sole spokesman and its online policeman. He warns members that they will be kicked out if they don’t stay busy — pasting up flyers and conducting banner drops, joining street actions and posting regularly in the chat forums. He has put together a security guide to help Patriot Front members stay anonymous. He waxes admiringly about certain far-right groups in Europe, and he sees them as a model for how to become more serious political players in the years ahead. He has the secret chats routinely deleted, and he tells members to avoid ever writing or saying anything that might later be of interest to a prosecutor.

“It should be known,” he wrote to members recently, “that political dissidents are subject to unjust scrutiny.”

Pete Simi, a professor at Chapman University in California and an expert on white supremacists in the U.S., said Rousseau’s stewardship of Patriot Front is deeply familiar.

“It is very common for the leadership of these groups to disqualify violence, while doing things that are encouraging violence,” Simi said. “It is part of their strategy to avoid liability, while simultaneously promoting hate. When they say they are not violent, this is a lie. They are promoting violence by their goals.”

“Thomas’ Biggest Fear Is Someone Doing Something Crazy”

To gain an understanding of Patriot Front — its origins and ambitions, both the careful talk and the criminal behavior of its members — ProPublica examined hundreds of online postings, interviewed a person who infiltrated the group, obtained police records, reviewed its leader’s public statements online and in a variety of far-right podcasts, collected video material recorded both by the group and members of the public, and traveled to the homes of its founder and two of the members who had recently been arrested.

The person who infiltrated Patriot Front in recent years — posting in the group’s chats and accompanying it in its propaganda actions — sketched out a portrait of its members, which appear to be exclusively male:

They come from seven or eight regional “networks,” and the vast majority of them are recruited online; the typical member is around 25 years old and can be from blue-collar backgrounds or be working as “white-collar tech geeks”; many of them are gamers; few have wives or girlfriends; they can look like “the nerdy boys that sit next to you in high school,” but they clearly sympathize with “right-wing terrorism.”

The person who infiltrated Patriot Front said he applied for membership on the group’s website — the one with the mission statement written by Rousseau. American democracy was dead. The government had been taken over by Jews and other “elites.” Land claimed by descendants of the country’s original white settlers had been surrendered to immigrants of color. The dream was of a white ethnostate, in which all that was good and true and pioneering about the America of long ago could be restored.

The person who gained entrance to the group said Rousseau was one of three Patriot Front members who interviewed him on the telephone when he applied. He was asked to explain his political evolution, to say which political figures he hated and admired most, to state the circumstances in which the use of violence would be OK and to articulate the greatest threat to America. He was told Mussolini’s “The Doctrine of Fascism” would be required reading.

The chats reviewed by ProPublica show Rousseau spends lots of time online pressing members to take part in targeting streets, parks and colleges with the group’s propaganda. He and others delight in seeing their actions reflected in the SPLC’s nationwide map recording acts of hate and in the media. Last spring, the group tried to stage protests in front of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s offices in multiple cities, including New York.

“One minute of action is better than 10,000 books on ideology,” Rousseau told his members.

Rousseau, still a teen when he founded Patriot Front, makes clear in the secret chats reviewed by ProPublica that he is in charge, though he’s happy to go without a formal title.

“The title commander gives me bad flashbacks,” he wrote in a chat once. “If I absolutely had to have a title, it would probably be general director. But my name works just fine for now.”

The chats show some members regard Rousseau as a disciplined and effective spokesman for the group, and they appear to heed his repeated scoldings about preserving their anonymity.

“The enemy cannot attack you if they do not know who you are,” Rousseau wrote.

Using the pseudonym Samuel, a member from New York expanded on the idea in response.

“I would say the biggest accomplishment of masking up is obfuscating our total numbers,” he wrote. “We can make them feel as if there are thousands of us when it’s only a few hundred, and we could be anyone and no one. Next time they are at the CVS and see a white kid with a neat haircut, it could be us. Fear of the unknown is the greatest fear of all.”

Rousseau, when he isn’t criticizing members who violate the ban on talking about guns or violence, can often be found policing the group’s ideological thinking. Nazism, however popular among members, can’t now be the goal, Rousseau said.

“This is not Germany, this is not the 1930s,” he chastised. “Get a grip on the fact that we’re activists, not re-enactors trying to scratch some self-indulgent itch for a political fantasy.”

Rousseau conducts his online leadership from the home he shares with his divorced father in Grapevine, a largely white, solidly middle-class city between Dallas and Fort Worth. ProPublica went to see Rousseau there this summer, and we found the shades drawn in every window and a rusting boat filled with fallen leaves on the property.

Rousseau came to the door, but he closed it quickly and would not talk. The following day, the red sports car in the driveway had been reparked, making it hard to see the lone license plate on its rear end.

Interviews with people in and around Grapevine — those who went to school with Rousseau, those who participated in the Boy Scouts with him, a man who dated his mother — produced a unanimous sense of surprise that he’d started an organization committed to an all-white America.

He’d mixed easily with the diverse array of students at his high school, and while he was against gay marriage, he was regarded more as a nice, conservative boy than a threat. He wore his hair long, in braids or a bun, and was obsessed with working out and the state of his physique.

At the student newspaper, he wasn’t regarded as an impressive writer, but he won a national award for editorial cartooning. Classmates saw him as a lazy student and a bit of a loner, but he had a knack for argument and a stubborn streak about never being wrong. The school had its share of racial incidents, but he was never involved and wasn’t seen as condoning them.

When Donald Trump was elected president, some senior boys at the school made a show of chanting, “Build a wall.” Rousseau, for his part, was certainly an ardent Trump supporter — he wore a Make America Great Again hat and carried a Trump lunchbox. But his enthusiasm wasn’t seen as menacing.

“He seemed Republican, but he didn’t seem crazy, said one fellow student.

To someone who was with him in Boy Scouts, Rousseau seemed serious about the organization, and he was elected patrol leader. At the same time, Rousseau could be difficult with adults, developing what the person called an “authoritarian defiance.”

“I’m saddened,” the person said of Rousseau’s embrace of white supremacy.

Simi, the professor at Chapman University, said enough research exists on modern-day white supremacists to develop a profile: young men, isolated and angry in some way despite their relatively privileged upbringing in middle class or affluent circumstances, and vulnerable to invitations to join up with others with similar grievances.

In years past, Simi said, groups like Patriot Front used to recruit potential new members by waiting outside schools for the last children to leave, the loners wandering off long after the final bell. Now such groups don’t have to work so hard to find targets. They have the internet, Simi said.

“It is a central aspect of these groups to take the frustration and anger and combine it with the special feeling and insights of being part of a group,” he said.

Rousseau, then just 18, was in Charlottesville in 2017, marching in the “Unite the Right” rally as a member of Vanguard America. The Anti-Defamation League calls Vanguard America a neo-Nazi group formed in 2016 that, like Patriot Front after it, was chiefly engaged in spreading propaganda. James Fields, the white supremacist convicted of murdering a young protester at the Charlottesville event, was photographed there carrying a Vanguard America shield, though he was not a member of the group.

Vanguard America splintered after the debacle in Virginia. Some wanted to abandon efforts to disguise their Nazi leanings and simply be brazen in their public look and violent aims. Rousseau took a different tack, and he started Patriot Front as an ostensibly more strategic, savvy, careful alternative. It would embrace more homegrown symbols — the flag, the bald eagle and patriotic language. Such shifts might attract a wider membership.

“I did go to Charlottesville. Some bad activism there,” Rousseau wrote in one of the secret chats. “I’ve done my part to learn from my mistakes.”

While Rousseau publicly and in the chats reviewed by ProPublica disavows violence, some Patriot Front members have shown support for a white supremacist group that embraces it: the Rise Above Movement. Eight RAM members have been arrested on charges related to violence in Charlottesville and in California.

“Gotta love RAM,” a Tennessee member said in the chats. “I hope they see us as 100 percent allies.”

In the chat logs, a Patriot Front member from Texas provides a list of addresses for 11 people in prison or under house arrest, referring to them as “POWs.” The list includes four members of RAM, numerous men arrested for violence in Charlottesville including Fields, and an imprisoned white supremacist in California. The Texan urged Patriot Front members to write to the prisoners and provided links to send some prisoners money directly. He also listed a donation link for a fund tied to Augustus Sol Invictus, a lawyer known for defending white supremacists.

Later in the chats, a member from New York shared a link to a white supremacist online fundraiser, saying proceeds would be given to a legal fund for RAM. He then chimed in that nearly $2,000 had been donated. “When they crack down we double down and become stronger,” he said. “Hail Victory!”

Observers of white hate groups credit Rousseau as a talented in-fighter, and they portray his breakaway from Vanguard America as a shrewd coup.

According to the person who infiltrated Patriot Front, Rousseau worries greatly about his members making the worst strategic mistake: carrying out an act of terrible violence. It would end his group, he has said.

“Thomas’ biggest fear is someone doing something crazy,” said the person who infiltrated Patriot Front.

“We Are Regular People”

Jakub Zak was in bed in the Chicago suburb of Vernon Hills when police, accompanied by his father, shook him awake. The police had been told that Zak, 19, was a member of Patriot Front, and that he might have a stash of illegal guns.

“He appeared nervous and tried to cover a few items on his bed as he put on his blue jeans,” police records say.

The police, though, had a clear view of what couldn’t be hidden: a gun safe meant for rifles, as well as magazines of ammunition on the bedroom floor.

Zak asked his father to make the police leave. His father would not.

“I advised Jakub that we would like for him to be cooperative, and explained to him cooperation goes a long way,” one detective wrote in a formal report, dated April 2018. “I explained to him the decision is for him to make, and he should think what is best for him.”

Zak spoke with his father and then offered the code for the safe. If there were guns in the house, the police wrote, Zak’s father wanted them out.

The police found a loaded 9 mm pistol and then, in a second safe, four more guns, including three high-powered semiautomatic rifles. The police records show Zak’s only concern was whether he could get his case for carrying the guns back after their confiscation.

It is unclear when or how Zak joined Patriot Front. The initial tip sent to law enforcement identified him as a member, one who often posted in the secret chats under the pseudonym “Hussar.” Postings under that name — portions of which were first published by Unicorn Riot, the activist group — suggest Zak was a frequent participant in the group’s propaganda efforts in the streets.

Online, Zak posted a mix of Patriot Front slogans and images — “America: Revolution is tradition”; “Deport them all.” But there was also much more explicitly violent material: a young black man lying prone on the street and about to be stomped; a Glock pistol.

Zak, who had no prior criminal record, ultimately pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor gun possession charge and was sentenced to probation. Whether local police referred his case, and his affiliation with Patriot Front, to any other law enforcement agency is unclear.

But the basic facts of Zak’s case amount to one of the hard-to-identify, hard-to-quantify, hard-to-assess threats in the U.S. today: an enthusiastically racist young man exposed to a steady diet of like-minded white supremacists, who doesn’t find it terribly hard to get his hands on dangerous weapons. Crusius, the accused El Paso killer, had no prior record; he lived with his grandparents; his mother is reported to have anonymously called law enforcement, worried once her son had bought a gun, even if it was legal; the parents of a classmate of Crusius’ told a local news organization in Dallas that their son had been encouraged by Crusius to join him in a white supremacist group.

In a brief interview at their home in Vernon Hills, Zak’s parents would not let him be interviewed.

“There is nothing to talk about,” his mother said, claiming he was not a member of any white hate group. “He is going through rough times, and he is in a better place now. I don’t want to start anything. He is getting his life together and planning [for] the future.”

“We are regular people,” his father added.

Concerns about how effectively federal authorities have been in thwarting the threat of white supremacists extends back years, covering both Democratic and Republican administrations. In recent months, though, there has been a series of arrests suggesting that federal and local authorities are being more aggressive.

In a recent report, the Department of Homeland Security took care to restate the balance law enforcement has to strike.

“The Department must take care, while addressing the scourge of violence, to avoid stigmatizing populations, infringing on constitutional rights, or attempting to police what Americans should think,” the report said.

Last February, a Patriot Front member, Joffre Cross, was arrested on gun charges in Houston. At a probable cause hearing, authorities said they got on to Cross through phone records belonging to a white supremacist in Texas who was convicted on assault charges this year.

Cross, 33, fits what experts see as another familiar profile for potentially violent white supremacists: a former Army soldier whose association with white supremacists dates back to his active-duty days. Disaffected former soldiers are a prime recruiting target for white hate groups, prized for their gun and bomb training and their possible access to weapons. Cross, while on active duty, was convicted on drug charges and imprisoned for five years. As part of the investigation, the authorities developed information that he was eager to secure weapons for white supremacist groups.

Cross, who has pleaded not guilty, was charged with felony weapons possession after police found guns and body armor in his home.

“If you don’t know me,” Cross once posted on Instagram, “consider this your trigger warning.” Cross and his attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

Cross is a regular participant on the Russian social media platform VK, whose terms of service about extremist content are not strictly enforced. His posts are rife with Nazi videos, Holocaust denial material and white supremacists beating protesters.

One post reads: “Help more bees; plant more trees; save the seas; shoot refugees.”

In the Patriot Front chats, Cross continued to post even after his arrest.

“We have to build a foundation that can weather any storm, anything they throw at us,” he wrote last April. “We just have to keep pushing.”

“In the Aggregate They Are Disturbing”

It was the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend 2019 when 20 or so masked members of Patriot Front made their way onto a corner of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. They set off flares and smoke devices, delivered a short speech using a megaphone and fled. The police report said it lasted all of three minutes.

Blakely Lord, a high school English teacher, managed to capture the incident on video. In brief, she called the episode “profoundly disturbing.”

“I chose to film because you feel helpless,” Lord said. “I’m a dumpy middle-aged English teacher. I’m not going to get out my sword and face them down.”

She added, “I do think it’s a narrative people need to be thinking about: these little incidents may seem unimportant, but in the aggregate they are disturbing.”

Such disturbances — masked flash mobs, defacing property, distributing propaganda — are the day-to-day work of Patriot Front. Screaming outside an anarchist book fair in Texas. Plastering stickers across multiple store fronts on a busy block in Denver. Parading with flares at night in a public park in Boston. Posting an “America First” sticker at a gay pride center in Vermont. All in the last year.

Members give one another tips about where to place posters and stickers legally, and they urge one another to wear gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints. But in practice, Patriot Front members frequently target storefronts or places of worship, which is vandalism. Additionally, many colleges and universities, another favorite target for postering, prohibit flyers from nonstudent groups. White supremacists see campuses as a strategic location for flyering: a place to recruit potential members while attracting press coverage to amplify their propaganda.

In Columbus, Georgia, three months ago, two Patriot Front members posted flyers on and around a local synagogue, Temple Israel. “Reclaim America,” read one. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of victory,” read another. And the address of Patriot Front’s website was printed at the bottom of the flyers. The temple’s leadership became aware of Patriot Front’s history and said it was clear the synagogue and its members were targeted because of their faith.

“To me, the sinister aspect is this particular group disguises themselves as patriots, Tiffany Broda, the temple’s president, told the Ledger-Enquirer last July. “Yet they are a hate group, a nationally recognized hate group. And though we don’t want to give them publicity, we think that it’s important to bring this out of the shadows.”

“Jews have been a part of Columbus almost since the founding of our city, which is almost 200 years ago,” Rabbi Beth Schwartz added. “We will remain vigilant as a congregation, vigilant as a Jewish community. We don’t hide our heads in fear.”

Patriot Front members make clear in their chats that such actions — almost always recorded by one of the masked members — have multiple aims: to frighten, to provide material for their own propaganda efforts on social media, and to recruit. The drive to recruit might help explain why college campuses are Patriot Front’s most common targets.

Late last month, Patriot Front launched what it claimed were coordinated actions to distribute flyers and stickers and posters at more than 100 campuses across the country. The group posted on Twitter what it said was evidence of success at 90 schools.

Michael Loadenthal, a visiting professor of sociology at Miami University in Ohio, said Patriot Front had recently been targeting the school.

“Fascists having a public presence is organizing; this is recruitment,” Loadenthal said, adding that the simple idea that “white supremacists are individually radicalized people in their basement at home is wrong.”

“They are a network,” he said. “No particular node is dangerous until they are.”

Simi, the professor in California, said Patriot Front had hit the campus of Chapman University three times in a single month recently. The school, he said, had set up a permanent conference dealing with the nation’s southern border, and Patriot Front had singled out posted materials related to the conference to be defaced or covered up.

“People on the campus get intimidated,” Simi said.

He said the school had to add security cameras and police protection.

“This is part of their strategy,” Simi said of Patriot Front. “These are things they want to happen.”

Thalia Beaty and Lucas Waldron contributed to this report.

The post The White Supremacist Group Hiding in Plain Sight appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

Pentagon Issues Threat to Syrian Government

Pentagon officials asserted Thursday U.S. military authority over Syrian oil fields because U.S. forces are acting under the goal of “protecting Americans from terrorist activity” and would be within their rights to shoot a representative of the Syrian government who attempted to retake control over that country’s national resource.

The comments came from Pentagon spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman and Navy Rear Admiral William D. Byrne Jr. during a press briefing in which the two men were asked repeatedly about the legal basis the U.S. is claiming to control Syrian oil fields.

The briefing came less than two weeks after Defense Secretary Mark Esper said, “That’s our mission, to secure the oil fields” in the Deir ez-Zor area of eastern Syria. President Donald Trump’s comments before and after that remark — “We’re going to be protecting [the oil], and we’ll be deciding what we’re going to do with it in the future,” and “The oil… can help us, because we should be able to take some”— were seized on by critics who claimed Trump was suggesting violating international law by plundering another country’s resources and openly saying the U.S. was pursuing war for oil.

Hoffman, in his comments Thursday, gave a different message—that “the revenue from this is not going to the U.S. This is going to the SDF,” referring to the Kurdish-led and U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces, who are battling ISIS. Byrne claimed that the U.S. has been waging the oil field control mission alongside SDF and that the goal was to prevent ISIS from obtaining the oil revenue.

But, as one reporter pointed out, ISIS fighters “have no armor. They have no aircraft.”

“Do they have the capability to actually seize the oil fields?” the reporter asked. “And isn’t this really about Russia and Syria seizing those oil fields?”

Hoffman replied that the goal was “to prevent a resurgence” of ISIS which would be facilitated if the terrorist group had access to the oil revenue.

When the Pentagon officials were pressed on whether “U.S. troops have the… authorization to shoot if a representative of the Syrian government comes to the.. oil fields and says, ‘I am here to take property of these oil fields,'” Byrne said, “our commanders always retain the right and the obligation of self-defense when faced with a hostile act or demonstrated hostile intent.”

The officials were reminded by a reporter that “the government of Syria is still, based on international law… [the] recognized legitimate government.” Hoffman said, “Everyone in the region knows where American forces are. We’re very clear with anyone in the region in working to deconflict where our forces are. If anyone—we work to ensure that… no one approaches or has—shows hostile intent to our forces, and if they do, our commanders maintain the right of self-defense.”

Hoffman later said that the oil field mission couldnt be separated from the fight to defeat ISIS. Operations in “Syria are done under the commander-in-chief’s authorities to—with regards to protecting Americans from terrorist activity.”

Pressed again by a reporter about the “legal basis for… the United States military to take and control the natural resources inside the boundaries of another country,” Hoffman responded, “the legal basis for this comes under the commander-in-chief’s authority for us to be conducting counter-terrorism efforts against D-ISIS. And I —I get your point when you’re trying to decouple the ISIS issue from the Syria issue, but it is not a decoupled issue.”

Later Hoffman was asked by a reporter if “President Trump [has] legal authority to take over these oil fields or is the United States stealing the oil?”

Hoffman repeated his stance that the operations were a part of the effort to defeat terrorists and stopping “ISIS from obtaining the oil fields is an effort to prevent them from obtaining revenue so that they can fund their terrorist operations globally.”

The Pentagon official also appeared to push back against the notion that the mission to control the oil fields is new. “Just to be clear, we’ve been in this area with the same mission of preventing ISIS from getting those oil fields for the last four years. This is not a new mission. Everybody seems to be—believe that that has changed. That is not —that is not the case.”

U.S. forces may also stay with that effort for years to come, Hoffman suggested.

“We’re committed to [the defeat of ISIS], and we’re committed to staying in the region,” he said. “We’re committed to, in this particular case, having troops in Syria in a way that helps us continue the D-ISIS mission as long as we believe it’s necessary.”

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Bannon Says Stone Was Trump Campaign Link to WikiLeaks

WASHINGTON — Donald Trump’s campaign viewed Roger Stone as an “access point” to WikiLeaks and tried to use him to get advanced word about hacked emails damaging to Hillary Clinton that the anti-secrecy group released during the 2016 presidential race, a former top presidential adviser testified Friday.

In reluctant testimony, former campaign CEO Steve Bannon told a federal court that Stone, on trial for lying to Congress and witness tampering, had boasted about his ties to WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange, alerting them to pending new batches of damaging emails.

“The campaign had no official access to WikiLeaks or to Julian Assange,” Bannon told the court. “But Roger would be considered if we needed an access point.”

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It was the first time that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign acknowledged in court that they had actively sought material from WikiLeaks, which released material that U.S. intelligence agencies determined had been hacked by the Russian government in order to damage Clinton.

The White House had no immediate comment.

Stone, a colorful political operative and Trump ally, is charged with witness tampering and lying to Congress about his attempts to contacts WikiLeaks about the damaging material during the 2016 presidential campaign.

While Stone repeatedly “implied that he had a connection with WikiLeaks,” he never stated it directly, Bannon said.

The campaign took Stone’s boasts seriously enough to follow up, asking why expected information about Clinton wasn’t revealed when Assange held a press conference in October 2016.

Bannon, who testified in response to a subpoena, did not say anything about Trump and said Stone had not been sent by anyone on the campaign to talk to Assange.

Earlier this week, a former FBI agent testified about a flurry of phone calls between Stone and then-candidate Trump — including three calls on July 14, 2016 — the day that a massive hack of the Democratic National Committee’s servers was reported. But the agent said she did not know what was discussed on those calls.

As he left the courthouse, Bannon griped about being subpoenaed by prosecutors and Congress in addition to being interviewed several times by special counsel Robert Mueller’s team as it investigated Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

“I was forced and compelled to come here today,” he said as he climbed into a waiting SUV outside the courthouse.

Bannon’s testimony came after comedian and radio talk show Randy Creidco told jurors that Stone pressured him into backing up lies he told Congress, threatening to take away his dog at one point. Credico said Stone pressed him to “go along” with a false account of the operative’s contacts with WikiLeaks during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.

“He wanted me to go along with this narrative,” Credico said in his second day of testimony.

Stone called a Credico a “rat” and a “stoolie” in a threatening April 2018 email. Credico also testified that Stone used repeated references from the movie “The Godfather Part II” to intimidate him into either backing up Stone’s testimony to Congress or refusing to testify.

“My lawyers are dying to rip you to shreds. I’m going to take that dog away from you,” he said in the email, which Credico read aloud in court. And while Credico testified he considered the threat “hyperbole,” he also said that Stone “plays hardball” and “I did not want to rile the guy.”

The radio host told the court he’s had his dog Bianca, a small breed known as a coton de tulear, since 2006. “I have no wife, no kids, I’ve been around the dog for 12 years,” he said.

Credico has occasionally provoked laughter in court and warnings from the judge.

Thursday’s testimony detailed the acrimonious collapse of the relationship between the liberal Credico and Stone, a longtime conservative operative who revered Richard Nixon so much that he has the disgraced former president’s face tattooed on his back.

Credico and Stone met in 2002 through the campaign of a third-party candidate for New York governor. Despite their political differences, Stone was a regular guest on Credico’s radio show.

“He’s good on radio,” Credico said of Stone. “He’s a good guest to have on.”

Stone, a longtime Trump confidant and conservative operative who has a tattoo of former president Richard Nixon’s face on his back, is accused of telling Congress that Credico was the source of his inside information about WikiLeaks. But Credico said he and Stone never discussed WikiLeaks before late August 2016, making it impossible that he was the “trusted intermediary” that Stone had been referring to for months.

Credico did manage to contact Assange through mutual acquaintance Margaret Kunstler, and hosted Assange on his radio show on Aug. 25, 2016. He says Stone, who had already claimed in interviews to have a back-channel link to Assange, immediately started asking Credico to put him in touch with Assange.

Prosecutors have said Stone lied about his efforts to learn more about the WikiLeaks releases because the truth about his efforts would “look bad” for Trump.

In an often-testy cross examination, defense attorney Robert Buschel tried to paint Stone as the victim of a con job by Credico, saying that the radio host repeatedly lied to Stone to exaggerate his connection and influence with Assange.

They went through the pair’s text exchanges before Credico’s September 2016 trip to London. Credico wrote to Stone that a meeting with Assange, who was sheltering from prosecution in the Ecuadoran embassy, was “on the agenda.” In reality, there was no meeting planned and the closest Credico got to Assange was delivering a letter from his radio station’s administration to the embassy offering Assange a show on their channel.

Credico said Stone was pestering him with requests and that he led Stone to believe he was working on making contact with Assange “just to satisfy him and get him off my back.”

Stone’s trial is scheduled to resume on Tuesday.

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Trump Launches Outreach Effort to Black Americans for 2020

ATLANTA — During the 2016 campaign, candidate Donald Trump stood in front of largely white crowds and asked black voters to consider, “What the hell do you have to lose?”

Four years later, the president has a new message for black voters: Look what I’ve delivered.

Trump and his campaign launched a new “Black Voices for Trump” outreach initiative in Atlanta on Friday dedicated to “recruiting and activating Black Americans in support of President Trump,” according to the campaign. Much of that effort will focus on highlighting ways that African Americans have benefited from the Trump economy, according to advisers.

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“The support we’re getting from the African American community has been overwhelming,” Trump told the crowd, which included supporters wearing red “BLACK LIVES MAGA” hats.

He predicted victory in 2020, and said, “We’re going to do it with a groundswell of support from hardworking African American patriots.”

That prediction is met with skepticism from critics, however, given Trump’s consistently dismal approval rating with black voters, who overwhelmingly disapprove of the job he’s doing.

Trump has spent much of the last four years engaged in racially charged attacks, going after minority members of Congress, claiming “no human being” would want to live in rat “infested,” majority-minority Baltimore and claiming that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the deadly Charlottesville protest against white supremacists.

Shortly after landing in Georgia on Friday, Trump retweeted a call from one black supporter for submissions for a “#MAGACHALLENGE” competition featuring Trump-friendly rap songs. Trump said he would be announcing the winners and inviting them to the White House to meet with him and perform.

“I think black Americans are not the audience for these outreach efforts,” said Theodore Johnson, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice who is an expert in race and politics. While Trump might be able to maintain the low level of black support he received in 2016, or perhaps expand it by one or two points, he sees little evidence the president can change many minds.

“I think this is not going to move the needle at all,” Johnson said.

Before launching the new effort, Trump met with supporters at a fundraiser that was expected to raise about $3.5 million for a joint committee benefiting the Republican National Committee, the Trump campaign and the campaign of Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga. Nearby, a small group of protesters chanted, “Lock him up!”

Scores of protesters also gathered outside the convention center where Trump was speaking, chanting, “Impeach and remove.”

Carl Dix, of the group Refuse Fascism, said he thought the launch was aimed at trying to send a message to Trump’s white supporters that he’s “not a racist. ‘I’ve got black friends.'”

In 2016, 6% of black voters supported Trump, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of people who participated in its polls and were confirmed to have voted. There is no indication his support is growing. Polling shows that African Americans continue to be overwhelmingly negative in their assessments of the president’s performance, with his approval hovering around 1 in 10 over the course of his presidency, according to Gallup.

Yet Trump’s campaign dismissed the numbers, insisting the campaign has seen favorable movement and arguing the president can increase his margins with black voters by bringing new people into the fold.

“The polls have never been favorable for Trump, and the only poll that matters is on Election Day,” said senior campaign adviser Katrina Pierson.

The campaign has launched similar coalitions for women, Latinos and veterans.

Darrell Scott, a black Ohio pastor and a longtime supporter of the president who is co-chair of the new coalition and spoke at Friday’s event, said that in 2015 and 2016, supporters trying to sell Trump to black voters could only point forward to share things they anticipated from Trump.

“Now that it’s 2020, we’re able to point backwards and to some very definitive accomplishments that the president has done,” Scott said. “He delivered on promises he didn’t even make.”

The campaign and White House point to a list of achievements, including passage of bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation, which Trump signed into law last year, along with his ongoing support for opportunity zones in urban areas and new investments in historically black colleges.

“I don’t know anyone who’s done that kind of work outside of the president on attacking those big issues or trying to stop drugs from coming into the neighborhood and, at the same time, giving people second chances,” said Ja’Ron Smith, deputy assistant to the president and one of the White House’s few minority high-ranked officials.

Advisers also point to a series of economic gains, including the fact that black unemployment hit a record low last year, with fewer blacks living in poverty. But Trump and his campaign also have a tendency to exaggerate the gains, giving Trump credit for trends that were years in the making, seizing on momentary upticks, cherry-picking favorable statistics and ignoring more troubling ones, such as black home ownership and net worth.

Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Karen Bass, D-Calif., said Thursday that contrary to Trump’s claims, in the three years of his presidency, African Americans have lost a lot.

“He has never had support from African Americans, but what we know about the president is that he will lie and say that he has,” said Bass, who noted that Trump rarely appears before black audiences.

“He has to identify a handful of African Americans and take them with him wherever he goes,” she said.

If he were any other Republican incumbent who inherited declining unemployment numbers and was able to sustain them, Trump would have a legitimate case to make to black voters, said Republican strategist Shermichael Singleton. But “because of some of his racial pronouncements … I think a significant percentage of African Americans are completely turned off.”

A September AP-NORC poll found that only roughly 3 in 10 Americans say the things Trump has done as president have been good for African Americans. And just 4% of African Americans said they think Trump’s actions have had a positive impact on African Americans in general, while 81% said they think they’ve been bad.

Yet even if he can’t win over black voters, some suspect that’s not the point. As long as the campaign can keep on-the-fence voters from casting their ballots for the eventual Democratic nominee, the campaign will be helping Trump inch closer to a second victory.

Some analysts have pointed to a precipitous drop in black turnout in 2016 as one of the reasons Trump beat his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, who was far less popular — especially among black men —than former President Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 60% of non-Hispanic blacks voted in 2016, versus about 67% in 2012. And that drop was seen in cities with significant African American populations in critical swing states that helped Trump eke out a victory.

“I do think the main objective is to discourage turnout,” said Johnson. “I absolutely think this is about creating doubt in black voters’ minds about the Democratic nominee” so people feel like “there’s almost no one worth voting for.”

And he said that fears were growing it might work.

“There is a pretty tangible fear among black Americans that Trump is going to win again because black turnout won’t be enough to mute the white turnout,” he said. “There’s a sense that in 2020 he’s going to win again.”

___

Haines reported from Philadelphia and Colvin from Washington. Associated Press writer Hannah Fingerhut in Washington contributed to this report.

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Bolton Has ‘Relevant’ Information in Impeachment Probe

WASHINGTON — The Latest on President Donald Trump and the House impeachment inquiry (all times local):

3:15 p.m.

Former national security adviser John Bolton has information about “many relevant meetings and conversations” related to Ukraine that House impeachment investigators have not yet heard testimony about.

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That’s according to a letter that Bolton’s attorney, Charles Cooper, sent Friday to the House that suggests Bolton would appear in the probe only if a court orders him to do so.

In the letter, Cooper says there’s a tall barrier to forcing Bolton and his former deputy, Charles Kupperman, to testify because any testimony that they would give would implicate sensitive matters of national security and foreign affairs. Kupperman has sued to request a judge’s guidance on whether he can be forced to appear.

The letter says both Bolton and Kupperman are prepared to appear if a federal judge resolved the dispute in Congress’s favor.

__

2:10 p.m.

Two national security officials who testified before House impeachment investigators say there was no evidence to suggest Ukraine meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Both Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and Fiona Hill, whose transcripts were released Friday, said there was no basis for the suggestion.

Hill was the senior director for Europe and Russia at the National Security Council. She described the idea as “fiction” that Ukrainians were looking “to mess with our Democratic systems.”

She said that other national security officials had tried to explain to President Donald Trump that it wasn’t plausible.

She called it a debunked theory and said officials were disheartened to see the president suggest it to Ukraine’s new president when they spoke.

Vindman, an Army officer also assigned to the NSC, said he was unaware of any “authoritative basis” for the theory.

__

1:45 p.m.

A national security official told House impeachment investigators the transcript of the July 25 call between President Donald Trump and Ukraine’s leader at the center of the probe was edited to remove a reference to the energy company with ties to Joe Biden’s son.

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman said it seemed that President Volodymyr Zelenskiy had been prepped for the call with Trump. He said that Zelenskiy specifically referenced looking into the situation with Burisma, the company linked to Hunter Biden.

But Vindman said the rough transcript was edited to read: “the company.”

Vindman also said the editing process for the rough transcript of the call went through a different, more secure system. And he had a difficult time logging into the system and had to get a hard copy and make edits on paper.

__

1:40 p.m.

House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy has appointed one of President Donald Trump’s strongest defenders to the House intelligence committee days before the panel begins public impeachment hearings against him.

McCarthy announced Friday that Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan is joining the committee and another member, Arkansas Rep. Rick Crawford, is “temporarily stepping aside.” Crawford will rejoin the panel after impeachment, McCarthy said.

Jordan is the top Republican on the House Oversight and Reform Committee and has been the top GOP spokesman as the intelligence, Oversight and Foreign Affairs committees have led closed-door depositions with impeachment witnesses. Only the House intelligence panel is holding the public hearings, a move that shut Jordan out of the process.

McCarthy said Jordan “has been on the front lines in the fight for fairness and truth.”

__

1:20 p.m.

A national security official called in to testify before House committees on the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump says a diplomat specifically mentioned that the Ukrainians would have to investigate the Bidens.

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman says in testimony that there was “no ambiguity.”

He says the conversation happened during a White House meeting with Ambassador Gordon Sondland, Ukrainian officials and others.

Transcript of Vindman’s testimony was released Friday.

Vindman is an Army officer assigned to the National Security Council.

___

12:35 p.m.

House Democrats have released two new transcripts as they wrap up closed-door depositions in the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump.

Impeachment investigators released the testimony of Fiona Hill, a former White House Russia adviser, and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, an Army officer assigned to the National Security Council. Both testified about their concerns as Trump pushed Ukraine for investigations of Democrats.

Vindman listened in to the July 25 call where Trump personally appealed to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for the investigations of political rival Joe Biden and his family and also Ukraine’s role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

A whistleblower’s complaint about that call triggered the impeachment probe.

___

10 a.m.

President Donald Trump says he’s considering releasing the transcript of an April call he had with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. He says that, if House investigators want to see a summary of the April 21 call, he has “no problem” giving it to them.

That call came three months before the July 25 call that sparked the impeachment inquiry into his efforts to push Zelenskiy to investigate his political rivals.

Trump on Friday also dismissed the significance of the impeachment inquiry testimony that has been released so far as he left the White House for a trip to Georgia.

He says, “No one seems to have any first-hand knowledge” and claims that, “Every one of those people canceled themselves out.”

He’s also criticizing Democrats in the House for planning public hearings, even though the White House pushed for them to happen.

___

1:05 a.m.

There were three words President Donald Trump wanted to hear from the Ukraine president: Investigations, Biden, Clinton.

That’s according to the transcript, released Thursday, of an impeachment inquiry interview with career State Department official George Kent.

Kent told investigators that that was his understanding of what Trump wanted Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to say in order to unlock U.S. military aid, as relayed to the official by others, including those in direct contact with the president.

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House Impeachment Inquiry Becomes Teachable Moment Across U.S.

BEAR CREEK, N.C. — The 10th graders in Aedrin Albright’s civics class at a rural North Carolina high school had done their homework, and now it was time to decide: Should President Donald Trump be impeached?

The students dragged their chairs across the room, those who opposed removing Trump from office on one side, those in favor on the other. Undecided students were in the middle.

“Your job is to try to persuade your classmates in here to come to your side, to your understanding,” Albright told the teenagers at Chatham Central High School.

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The House impeachment inquiry into Trump’s dealings with Ukraine has become a teachable moment in classrooms around the country as educators incorporate the events often hundreds of miles away in Washington into their lesson plans.

They are using the debate in Congress to teach students about the Constitution and presidential power, provide history lessons about earlier impeachment cases and hold mock votes that mirror the divisions in American politics.

In Albright’s first class on impeachment in October, students read articles and then drew posters explaining the process without getting into the politics. That changed on Tuesday, when the students took sides, coincidentally as House Democrats were releasing transcripts of closed-door testimony in the impeachment probe.

Like many members of Congress who will decide the Republican president’s fate, most of the students in Albright’s class had already made up their minds and wouldn’t be swayed.

The tally at the start of class Tuesday: 15 against impeachment, three for and 10 undecided. The six precincts in Bear Creek, where the school is located, voted almost 55 percent for Trump in the 2016 presidential election, while Chatham County went for Democrat Hillary Clinton. Both candidates were represented in campaign signs hanging in the classroom.

“The Democrats have just been slamming Trump and trying to find every little thing, ever since he got into office,” student Bryce Hammer said. “Just to try and get a reason just to kick him out and impeach him.”

Arguing for impeachment, Makizah Cotton said Congress needs to keep a close watch on Trump. “I’m not saying he’s a monarch or anything,” she said. “But they (the founding fathers) knew one day maybe a monarch would happen. And they don’t want that. So, I think that we shouldn’t let anything go. And that’s with any president.”

Emma Preston was undecided. “How many months does he have until the next election? Not that many,” she said. “So, if we’re just going to sit here and have this argument until the next election, it’s a waste of time. There shouldn’t be an impeachment process going on when there’s about to be a reelection.”

Albright said she has included impeachment in her lesson plans for all the 18 years that she’s taught civics.

For teachers who don’t regularly include impeachment in their curriculum, The Choices Program at Brown University and the Penn Graduate School of Education are among those organizations that provide online lesson plans.

Teaching impeachment while Congress is investigating charges against the sitting president is a unique opportunity for teachers and students, said Sigal Ben-Porath, education professor at Penn.

“Make time for it, even if it’s not on your lesson plan,” she said.

Ground your students in constitutional and procedural facts and then “get the students speaking,” she said. “The best way for people to learn from such events is to be active. They have to be talking, saying their views, discussing their views, arguing their views.”

That includes understanding what is happening and why.

On the day in September when the House said it would begin a formal impeachment inquiry, teacher Mark Westpfhal at the Capitol Hill Gifted and Talented School in St. Paul, Minnesota, switched gears and put together a three-day “mini-unit” impeachment for his seventh grade American studies class.

He required his students to differentiate between what they believe and what they know. The school is located in “an extremely liberal region,” he said, and most of his students support Trump’s impeachment and removal from office. They were “quick to argue that he has done so many illegal things, but when I asked them to describe the things he has done and how those things violated the law, they slowed down a little,” said Westpfhal, who frequently brings current events into his lesson plans. “We discussed how emotion and partisanship can dictate our views.”

For teachers who want to steer clear of the controversy and politics of impeachment, “focusing on the history just feels really safe,” said Emma Humphries, chief education officer at iCivics, a nonprofit that provides educational online games and lesson plans to promote civics education. “It’s also critical for students understanding what impeachment is,” she said.

Those discussions could include the impeachment cases against Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.

Still, she’s a “huge advocate” for discussing controversial issues in class.

“If it gets out of hand, if the kids are getting disrespectful, you have to, need to, shut it down,” she said. The next day, she said, the teacher can talk about what happened and set ground rules.

She stressed the importance of communication between the teacher and parents and administrators.

But what if students ask teachers about their political views? Do they disclose them?

“It’s a pedagogical choice, not an absolute right or wrong,” said Paula McAvoy, co-author of “The Political Classroom” and assistant professor of social studies education at NC State University. “Sometimes, sharing your view is helpful to students, and sometimes sharing your view kills the discussion.”

Albright chooses not to share her views, although some enterprising students were able to find out that she’s registered as a Republican. Westpfhal doesn’t discuss his views, either, although his students have searched him on Google to discover his political past, including connections to Democratic and Republican politicians and city leaders.

“I don’t think it’s my job as a teacher to influence them politically,” Albright said. “I think it’s my job to teach them the two sides, or the three sides or the four sides. So, it’s not my job to say, ‘Yes, he should be impeached.'”

When students ask her what she thinks, she asks them what they think.

For the debate, Albright chose the philosophical chairs format, in which students choose and argue their sides, citing pro- and anti-impeachment articles that they read. They could switch sides during the discussion, and the undecideds were encouraged to choose one.

The debate began calmly and respectfully but then got animated. Albright shushed the anti-impeachment students and reminded them to be civil. The pro-impeachment student who was speaking hadn’t yielded the floor.

Before the class ended, the anti-impeachment side had attracted three more students, while one student had joined her pro-impeachment classmates. Six students remained undecided.

Overall, the discussion went well, Albright said. She was especially pleased that students cited source material.

“I have hope,” she said. “These kids give me hope, every day.”

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Trump Pushes Back on Reports U.S. Will Remove China Tariffs

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Friday dismissed a Chinese official’s assertion that his administration has agreed to roll back some of the higher tariffs it’s imposed on Chinese goods.

The Chinese official had said Thursday that the two sides had agreed to a phased cancellation of their tariff hikes as part of an emerging agreement.

Trump’s pushback suggested that negotiations haven’t progressed as far as hoped as the world’s two biggest economies struggle to negotiate an end to their trade war, which has hurt both economies.

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“They’d like to have a rollback,” Trump told reporters at the White House, referring to the Chinese. “I haven’t agreed to anything.”

The two sides have been working on an initial “Phase 1” deal that was announced Oct. 12 but that still isn’t final.

Financial markets in the U.S. and globally rallied Thursday at the prospect of an agreement to wind down the U.S.-China trade fight, but then fell Friday on Trump’s comments. The Dow Jones industrial average dropped 48 points, or 0.2%, in midday trading.

Trump repeated his claims that China wants a deal more than the United States and that he is happy taking in tariff revenue. The president says the tariffs are paid by China, but studies conducted since the tariffs were imposed find that Americans businesses and consumers are paying them.

“Frankly, they want to make a deal a lot more than I do,” Trump said. “I’m very happy right now. We’re taking in billions of dollars.”

A private sector source with knowledge of the talks said Thursday that the United States has agreed to suspend the duties Trump threatened to impose December 15th on about $160 billion of Chinese imports as part of the agreement. But there is dissension in the White House about whether and by how much to roll back 15% duties on another $112 billion of goods imposed Sept. 1.

The trade war stems from the Trump administration’s complaints that China is seeking to unfairly boost its high tech industries by stealing U.S. technology or forcing American companies to share it as a condition of doing business there. Most business groups and China trade experts agree that China has violated trade rules and have largely supported the administration’s tougher line.

Still, the tariffs have hurt both countries’ economies. China’s growth slowed to an annual rate of 6% last month, a healthy pace for more advanced economies but China’s slowest in three decades.

In the United States, businesses are dealing with the tariffs’ higher costs and are uncertain about their international supply chains. They have responded by cutting their investment spending in new plants and equipment. That’s helped lower U.S. economic growth to 1.9% at an annual rate in the July-September quarter from 3.1% in the first three months of this year.

A report released Wednesday by a trade group opposed to the duties found that Americans paid $7.1 billion in tariffs in September, a record high for a single month.

Once a “phase 1” deal is reached, the two sides will still need to decide where the two leaders — Trump and China’s Xi Jinping — will sign the pact. Trump said Friday that they could hold a summit in Iowa or elsewhere in U.S. “farm country.”

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AP Writer Aamer Madhani contributed to this report.

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Brazilian Ex-President Is Released From Prison

CURITIBA, Brazil — Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva walked out of a Curitiba prison Friday, less than a day after the Supreme Court ruled that a person can be imprisoned only after all the appeals have been exhausted.

Hundreds of supporters were gathered outside the federal police building in southern city of Curitiba, hoping to catch a glimpse of the popular, 74-year-old politician who is appealing his conviction of corruption and money laundering in connection with the purchase of a beachfront apartment in Sao Paulo state.

A stage was set up for him to address the crowd.

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Da Silva, who is universally known as Lula, tweeted “Lula Free” with a video of himself working out and lifting weights in a gym inside the prison, where he has been detained since April 2018. Still, he could find himself back in prison if his appeals don’t go his way.

It is not yet clear what political role Da Silva will seek to occupy now that he is free. The former leader of the leftist Workers’ Party, better known in Brazil by its Portuguese acronym PT, remains a popular figure on the left, whose politicians and voters have ceaselessly called for his release.

Political analysts believe Da Silva could rally the opposition, which has been demoralized by the corruption scandals, impeachment of Da Silva’s hand-picked successor, Da Silva’s imprisonment and, more recently, a clobbering in the 2018 general elections.

Aside from his promise to root out corruption and curb violence, far-right President Jair Bolsonaro ran a strong campaign on anti-Workers Party sentiment. He won the election with 55% of the vote and was sworn in on Jan. 1.

Da Silva, who governed from 2003 to 2010, had been favored to win the 2018 presidential election, but his conviction eventually prohibited him from running.

The former president has said that when free, he would travel around the country rallying opposition. Political analysts say he might not immediately enter into frontal opposition with Bolsonaro, seeking instead to influence the next presidential election in 2022.

“The thing that makes Lula most dangerous to Bolsonaro is that Lula understands the long game,” said James Bosworth, founder of Hxagon, a political risk analysis firm, stressing that the politician had run four times before being first elected in 2003.

“Lula is an old school union and political organizers who is going to take his time placing PT and other allies into positions to take advantage of Bolsonaro’s weaknesses in the coming years,” he said.

The former union leader is widely referred to as a “political animal.” He presided over a period of rapid economic growth fueled by a commodities boom that expanded the country’s middle class. His huge Bolsa Familia welfare program helped lift millions from poverty, and he left office with an approval rating above 80%. His impassioned oratory can just as easily elicit laughter or tears from those among his supporters.

For Claudio Couto, a professor in political science at the Fundacao Getulio Vargas university in Sao Paulo, Da Silva’s release will have profound consequences on both sides of Brazil’s political spectrum.

On the one hand, it will serve Bolsonaro’s anti-PT and anti-Lula rhetoric, Couta said. “On the other hand, it ends the PT’s ‘Free Lula’ rhetoric, and forces the party to take on another agenda.”

Left-leaning supporters hailed the release of their standard-bearer, but want more and are now advocating for his name to be cleared.

While he is out of jail, the former leader remains entangled in several court cases.

Aside from the beachfront apartment, he was also sentenced by a lower court judge in a case regarding alleged ownership of a farmhouse in Atibaia, outside Sao Paulo.

He has denied any wrongdoing in both cases and accuses Car Wash prosecutors and then-judge Sergio Moro, now Justice Minister, of political persecution.

In a separate Supreme Court debate, justices will decide whether Moro was biased when he delivered his rulings. In the meantime, his conviction regarding the apartment continues to bar Da Silva from running for office.

Protests in major Brazilian cities have been scheduled for this weekend, aimed at showing support for Moro and his crusade to decrease crime and endemic corruption.

With Da Silva’s release, attacks on the Supreme Court’s ruling will doubtless feature loudly.

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Associated Press writer Mauricio Savarese in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.

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Bloomberg Opens Door to a 2020 Democratic Presidential Bid

WASHINGTON — Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York City, is opening the door to a 2020 Democratic presidential campaign, warning that the current field of candidates is ill equipped to defeat President Donald Trump.

Bloomberg, who initially ruled out a 2020 run, has not made a final decision on whether to jump into the race. If he were to launch a campaign, it could dramatically reshape the Democratic contest less than three months before primary voting begins.

The 77-year-old has spent the past few weeks talking with prominent Democrats about the state of the 2020 field, expressing concerns about the steadiness of former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign and the rise of liberal Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, according to people with knowledge of those discussions. In recent days, he took steps to keep his options open, including moving to get on the primary ballot in Alabama ahead of the state’s Friday filing deadline.

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In a statement on Thursday, Bloomberg adviser Howard Wolfson said the former mayor believes Trump “represents an unprecedented threat to our nation” and must be defeated.

“But Mike is increasingly concerned that the current field of candidates is not well positioned to do that,” Wolfson said.

Bloomberg’s moves come as the Democratic race enters a crucial phase. Biden’s front-runner status has been vigorously challenged by Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who are flush with cash from small-dollar donors. But both are viewed by some Democrats as too liberal to win in a general election faceoff with Trump.

Despite a historically large field, some Democrats anxious about defeating Trump have been looking for other options. Former Attorney General Eric Holder and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick have quietly had conversations with supporters urging them to consider a run, but neither appears likely to get in the race.

Bloomberg, a Republican-turned-independent who registered as a Democrat last year, has flirted with a presidential run before but ultimately backed down, including in 2016. He endorsed Hillary Clinton in that race and, in a speech at the Democratic Party convention, pummeled Trump as a con who has oversold his business successes.

Bloomberg plunged his efforts and his money into gun control advocacy and climate change initiatives. He again looked seriously at a presidential bid earlier this year, traveling to early voting states and conducting extensive polling, but decided not to run in part because of Biden’s perceived strength.

Biden did not address Bloomberg’s potential candidacy at a fundraiser Thursday night in Boston.

With immense personal wealth, Bloomberg could quickly build out a robust campaign operation across the country. Still, his advisers acknowledge that his late entry to the race could make competing in states like Iowa and New Hampshire, which have been blanketed by candidates for nearly a year, difficult. Instead, they previewed a strategy that would focus more heavily on the March 3 “Super Tuesday” contests, including in delegate-rich California.

Some Democrats were skeptical there would be a groundswell of interest in the former New York mayor.

“There are smart and influential people in the Democratic Party who think a candidate like Bloomberg is needed,” said Jennifer Palmieri, who advised Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “But there is zero evidence that rank-and-file voters in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire feel the same.”

Still, others credited Bloomberg with taking on “some of America’s biggest challenges” and finding success.

“While this is not an endorsement, Michael Bloomberg is a friend and I admire his track record as a successful business leader and Mayor who finds practical solutions to some of America’s biggest challenges, from creating good jobs to addressing the opioid crisis and fighting for common-sense gun safety,” said Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, a Democrat.

Bloomberg reached out to several prominent Democrats on Thursday, including Raimondo. One Democrat Bloomberg hasn’t spoken to as he’s reconsidered his run is former President Barack Obama.

Bloomberg would pose an immediate ideological challenge to Biden, who is running as a moderate and hopes to appeal to independents and Republicans who have soured on Trump. But the billionaire media mogul with deep Wall Street ties could also energize supporters of Warren and Sanders, who have railed against income inequality and have vowed to ratchet up taxes on the wealthiest Americans.

“He’s a literal billionaire entering the race to keep the progressives from winning,” said Rebecca Katz, a New York-based liberal Democratic strategist. “He is the foil.”

Warren on Thursday tweeted: “Welcome to the race, @MikeBloomberg!” and linked to her campaign website, saying he would find there “policy plans that will make a huge difference for working people and which are very popular.”

Bloomberg would face other challenges as well, particularly scrutiny of his three terms as mayor. He has defended the New York Police Department’s use of the controversial stop-and-frisk policy that has been criticized as targeting African Americans and Hispanics. Black voters in particular are one of the most powerful constituencies in Democratic politics.

Bloomberg will have to move quickly in the coming days and weeks to get on the ballot in many of the primary states, including Alabama. New Hampshire’s filing deadline is Nov. 15.

In Arkansas, another Super Tuesday state, a Democratic Party spokesman said a person representing a “mystery candidate” reached out Thursday afternoon asking about the requirements to join the ballot. Reed Brewer, communications director for the Arkansas Democrats, said he walked the individual through the process — which simply requires filing documentation with both the state party and secretary of state, as well as paying a $2,500 fee — and was assured that the fee would be “no problem” for the mystery candidate.

There is no filing requirement for a candidate to run in the Iowa caucuses, which are a series of Democratic Party meetings, not state-run elections. It means a candidate can enter the race for the Feb. 3 leadoff contest at any time.

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Associated Press writers Jill Colvin in Washington; Alexandra Jaffe and Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa; Michelle R. Smith in Providence, Rhode Island, and Nicholas Riccardi in Denver contributed to this report.

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