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Democrats Return to Iowa for Final Pitch to Voters

NORTH LIBERTY, Iowa — After weeks of fits and starts, the battle to win Monday’s Iowa caucuses reaches a crescendo this weekend as Democratic presidential candidates crisscross the state eager for a breakout moment that could shake up a race dominated so far by a persistent top tier of four contenders.

For the first time this week, the six candidates making the biggest play for Iowa were all in the state. Freed from President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial for the next several days, Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar quickly returned to Iowa eager to make up for lost time Saturday. Warren arrived late Friday and went straight to an impromptu event at a Des Moines bar to share a beer with dozens of cheering supporters.

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The senators joined Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Andrew Yang, who have had the state to themselves for much of the past month and have used that time to position themselves as above the Washington fray.

This weekend is the culmination of a year of intense campaigning in Iowa, where the leadoff caucuses will formally begin the process of selecting a Democratic nominee to take on Trump in the fall.

Many of the candidates were spending this final stretch working to boost turnout in the state’s biggest Democratic counties and population centers. They were trading the intimate town halls that have characterized much of the campaign for big, sometimes star-studded rallies. On Friday night, Sanders campaign held a rally with the indie band Bon Iver, and on Saturday, the band Vampire Weekend was to join the Vermont senator for a concert .

For all of them, their final pitch to caucusgoers comes down to the same argument: I’m the best candidate to take on Trump.

Biden has argued that the barrage of Republican attacks on him, including from Trump, who mocked Biden’s small crowd sizes during a presidential visit to the state Thursday, suggest that Trump’s team is most concerned about the former vice president winning the primary. Biden has twice unsuccessfully competed in the Iowa caucuses as a White House hopeful.

“I’m confident Americans, Republican voters, Democratic voters and independent voters want us to come together. I’m going to do whatever it takes to make progress in the areas that matter most,” he told a crowd in North Liberty.

But the public focus on unity and electability came amid a backdrop of renewed party infighting. The Democrats’ 2016 nominee, Hillary Clinton, again criticized Sanders for not doing enough to bring the party together after their bruising primary fight four years ago. On Friday night, at a rally Sanders didn’t attend, his supporters booed Clinton when she was mentioned by one of Sanders’ surrogates on stage.

Buttigieg used that skirmishing as a way to promote his call for generational change.

“I didn’t much enjoy as a Democrat living through the experience of 2016 and I want to make sure 2020 resembles 2016 as little as possible,” he told reporters after a rally in Waterloo.

Buttigieg went on to emphasize that the candidates “are much more aligned than you would think.”

On the stage at the event, however, the 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, directly called out Biden and Sanders. Buttigieg outlined what he called “a respectful difference of approach among people who share the same values, share the same goals.”

“The vice president is suggesting this is no time to take a risk on someone new. I’m suggesting this is no time to take a risk on trying to meet a fundamentally new challenge with a familiar playbook. It’s going to take something new,” he said.

Buttigieg criticized Sanders for “offering an approach that suggests it’s either revolution or it’s the status quo, and there’s nothing in between.”

Warren released new ads in Iowa that characterize the Massachusetts senator as the best candidate to unite the party and defeat Trump, while confronting head-on the concerns that a woman cannot win the presidency. Sanders emphasized his call for a revolution, arguing that he can galvanize the working class to take on Trump.

Tom Taiber, a 73-year-old from Waverly, said he isn’t worried about Democrats coming together to rally around the party’s eventual nominee, even if the primary becomes divisive.

“The family of Democrats, we’re going to have differences of opinion,” Taiber said. “But in the end, I think we’ll all come together.”

Taiber’s current plan is to start the night in Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s corner, but he may switch to Buttigieg if she’s not viable in his precinct.

The caucuses are the start of what’s sure to be a fierce month of campaigning across the four early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. but fundraising reports released on Friday underscore how important the results may be for some. Historically, struggling candidates have received a boost in fundraising after a strong showing in the caucuses that have helped them both gain and sustain momentum in the race.

Biden reported Friday he had just $9 million in reserves at the end of 2019, an underwhelming sum that lagged behind Warren, Sanders and Buttigieg. They reported having a minimum of about $5 million more than Biden in disclosures filed with the Federal Election Commission before Friday’s deadline.

The results of the caucuses will also offer Democrats their first sense of how the ideological dividing lines fall within the race. The primary has become a competition among the candidates to consolidate support in two ideological categories — moderate and progressive — with no obvious leader emerging on either side.

Sanders and Warren, who largely agree on key progressive priorities such as “Medicare for All” and eliminating student debt, have long fought for the progressive mantle. Sanders and his team have been predicting victory in the caucuses in recent weeks, but Warren has one of the biggest, most seasoned operations on the ground in Iowa and is hoping that will help her make up lost ground.

Buttigieg and Biden are competing as moderates, with Klobuchar also aiming to make inroads among progressives with a stronger-than-expected finish in Iowa.

With recent polls, however, showing all four top tier candidates jumbled at the top, Biden has tried to play down expectations in recent days. He told reporters Friday that while “I expect to do well” in Iowa, the state is “not as consequential … as it has been in years past.

“I feel very strongly that we have a great firewall in South Carolina,” he said, pointing to the fourth primary contest, nearly a month away.

___

Associated Press writers Julie Pace and Tom Beaumont in Waterloo, Iowa, and Bill Barrow in North Liberty, Iowa contributed to this report.

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U.S. States Join Global Push to Ban Animal-Tested Cosmetics

LAS VEGAS — A growing number of U.S. states are considering a ban on the sale or import of cosmetics that have been tested on animals, as advocates argue testing products such as lotions, shampoos and makeup on rabbits, mice and rats is cruel and outdated.

The cause has gained support from consumers and many cosmetics companies, but the biggest hurdle is China, which requires that cosmetics sold in its large, lucrative market undergo testing on animals.

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California, Nevada and Illinois all saw new laws take effect this year that ban the sale or import of animal-tested cosmetics.

The laws, which apply to tests performed after Jan. 1, aren’t expected to cause much disruption for the industry because many companies already use non-animal testing. Instead, they draw a line in the sand that puts pressure on the U.S. government to pass a nationwide ban and help end China’s requirement that most cosmetics sold in that nation of more than 1.4 billion people undergo testing on animals by Chinese regulators.

China’s policy applies to all imported cosmetics, including makeup, perfume and hair care products, along with some “special use” goods produced in China, such as hair dye, sunscreen and whitening products that make functional claims.

Animal-tested cosmetics already are banned in Europe, India and elsewhere. A ban in the United States, one of the world’s largest economies, would put further global pressure on China to end its policy and push Chinese cosmetics companies to rely on non-animal tests if they want to sell their products in the U.S.

“We’re not trying to create an island out here in Nevada,” said state Sen. Melanie Scheible, who sponsored Nevada’s law. “We are trying to join a group of other communities that have stood up and said, ‘We don’t support animal testing.’”

Animal-rights groups like Cruelty Free International and the Humane Society of the United States hope to get more states to pass bans this year.

Legislation has been introduced or will soon be made public in Hawaii, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Virginia, according to Cruelty Free International, and a national ban has been introduced in Congress since 2014, though the bipartisan measure has been slow to advance. The most recent version introduced in November marks the first time the country’s leading cosmetics trade group, the Personal Care Products Council, has become a vocal backer of the ban, support that should ease lawmaker concerns about business opposition.

The California, Nevada and Illinois laws create exemptions for any cosmetics that were tested on animals to comply with regulations of a foreign government — an exception that acknowledges the reality that most companies will see their products tested on animals if they sell in China.

China is a “big complicating factor,” said Monica Engebretson, who leads public affairs for Cruelty Free International in North America. “That’s put companies that want to enter that Chinese market in a real bind.”

Scheible said her aim in Nevada was not to punish those multinational corporations but to raise awareness and put pressure on other governments, like China, to act.

“A lot of people thought that we no longer tested on animals at all,” she said. “They thought that this was already a thing of the past.”

The bans in all three states require cosmetics sellers to use non-animal tests to prove their products are safe. Many international companies are already doing that after the European Union passed a series of similar bans on animal testing, culminating with a 2013 ban on the sale of animal-tested products.

Supporters note that science has advanced, allowing companies in most cases to use non-animal alternatives — such as human cell cultures or lab-grown human skin and eye tissue — to test whether a product or ingredient is safe.

For example, EpiDerm, a synthetic skin tissue made by Massachusetts-based MatTek Corp., is created from cells taken from skin donated during procedures such as breast reduction surgery, circumcision and tummy tuck procedures.

Products can be applied to synthetic tissue to determine whether they cause skin irritation, damage, sensitivity or other issues. That can be used in place of a testing a product on the back of a shaved rabbit, animal rights supporters say.

Some of the biggest names in personal care and beauty, including Avon, Unilever and Procter & Gamble, have used MatTek’s tissues for testing.

Carl Westmoreland, a safety scientist with Unilever, said the European Union ban drove more innovation in non-animal testing. Companies like Unilever, trade groups and advocates are among those working with Chinese regulators and scientists to push for new rules, helping to familiarize them with procedures and results from non-animal tests.

“They have been changing and are continuing to change,” he said, noting China in recent years has allowed some cosmetics produced within the country to avoid animal testing.

Francine Lamoriello, executive vice president for global strategies at the Personal Care Products Council said it’s a slow process, but Chinese regulators are working to accept non-animal tests.

“They’re having conferences. They really seem to be quite motivated to do as best as they can to accept and validate certain methods,” she said.

The Personal Care Products Council supports most of the state legislation but is pushing for a nationwide law instead of a patchwork of rules across the country.

Similar to the state laws, the proposed ban before Congress would exempt cosmetics required to undergo testing in China. It would allow those products to be sold in the U.S. as long as sellers relied on additional, non-animal tests to show they are safe.

California was first to pass the legislation in 2018, a move that’s part of the state’s pattern of wielding its status as the world’s fifth-largest economy to push change.

“That’s the beauty of doing things in California,” said Judie Mancuso with the group Social Compassion in Legislation who pressed for that state’s ban. “You set the stage, you set the standard, and others grab it and grow.”

___

Associated Press researcher Shanshan Wang in Beijing contributed to this report.

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Iraqi Blocs Choose New PM-Designate After Weeks of Jockeying

BAGHDAD — Former communications minister Mohammed Allawi was named prime minister-designate by rival Iraqi factions Saturday after weeks of political deadlock.

The choice comes as the country weathers troubled times, including ongoing anti-government protests and the constant threat of being ensnared by festering U.S.-Iran tensions.

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The selection of Allawi, 66, to replace outgoing Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi was the product of many back-room talks over months between rival parties.

In Tahrir Square, the epicenter of Iraq’s four-month anti-government protest movement, demonstrators rejected Allawi’s candidacy. Demonstrators, who have long said they would not accept a candidate chosen by the establishment, erected portraits of the new premier-designate crossed with an “X.” Some chanted “Allawi out!”

But many feared they would clash with the hundreds of followers of influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who recently reversed a decision to withdraw support from the protest movement. Officials and analysts said that move was to gain leverage on the street as a deadline to select a new premier drew near.

“The square doesn’t want him, but the problem is since Muqtada has sided with (the elites) the square cannot refuse him,” said civil activist Kamal Jaban. “Otherwise there will be bloodshed.”

Al-Sadr’s followers returned in the hundreds the Friday night, three witnesses said, bringing tents and supplies and re-occupying a strategic high-rise overlooking the square known as the Turkish Restaurant, as well as the Jumhuriya Bridge, which leads to the Green Zone.

Al-Sadr issued a statement saying Allawi’s selection was “the wish of the people,” and asked protesters to carry on with the anti-government demonstrations.

“The real rebellious Iraqi youth who want change and reform are alone tonight,” said Noor, an activist in Tahrir Square.

On Wednesday, President Barham Saleh gave parliamentary blocs until Feb. 1 to select a premier candidate, or said he would exercise his constitutional powers and choose one himself.

In a pre-recorded statement posted online, Allawi called on protesters to continue with their uprising against corruption and said he would quit if the blocs insist on imposing names of mi nisterial appointees.

“If it wasn’t for your sacrifices and courage there wouldn’t have been any change in the country,” he said addressing anti-government protesters. “I have faith in you and ask you to continue with the protests.”

Allawi was born in Baghdad and served as communications minister first in 2006 and again between 2010-2012. He resigned from his post after a dispute with former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Abdul-Mahdi called Allawi to congratulate him on the appointment, according to a statement from his office.

Parliament is expected to put his candidacy to a vote in the next session once a formal letter declaring Allawi as a nominee from the president is submitted, after which he has 30 days to formulate a government program and select a Cabinet of ministers.

According to the constitution, a replacement for Abdul-Mahdi should have been identified 15 days after his resignati on in early December under pressure from the protest movement. Instead, it has taken rival blocs nearly two months of jockeying to select Allawi as their consensus candidate.

Abdul-Mahdi’s rise to power was the product of a provisional alliance between parliament’s two main blocs — Sairoon, led by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and Fatah, which includes leaders associated with the paramilitary Popular Mobilization Units headed by Hadi al-Amiri.

In the May 2018 election, neither coalition won a commanding plurality, which would have enabled it to name the premier, as stipulated by the Iraqi constitution. To avoid political crisis, Sairoon and Fatah forged a precarious union with Abdul-Mahdi as their prime minister.

Until Allawi’s selection, al-Sadr had rejected the candidates put forward largely by Fatah, officials and analysts said. Sairoon appears to have agreed to his candidacy following a tumultuous two weeks. The radical cleric held an anti-U.S. rally attended by tens of thousands and withdrew support for Iraq’s mass anti-government protest movement, only to reverse the decision later.

“Sairoon has approved and Fatah has approved,” a senior Iraqi official said.

If elected by parliament, Allawi will have to contend with navigating Iraq through brewing regional tensions between Tehran and Washington. Tensions skyrocketed after a U.S. drone strike near Baghdad’s airport killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and senior Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. The tumultuous event brought Iraq close to the brink of war and officials scrambling to contain the fallout.

The presence of U.S. troops on Iraqi soil has become the focus of Iraqi politics in the wake of the strike. Parliament passed a non-binding resolution for their ouster and Abdul-Mahdi had openly supported withdrawal.

Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation was precipitated by ongoing mass protests in Baghdad and southern Iraq. Protesters are calling for new executive leadership, snap elections and electoral reforms.

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GOP Accused of ‘Greatest Cover-Up Since Watergate’

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Friday accused the Republican Party of orchestrating the “greatest cover-up since Watergate” as the Senate prepared to debate and vote on whether to allow witnesses to testify in President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial.

The Senate is widely expected as early as Friday evening to oppose permitting witnesses, given swing vote Sen. Lamar Alexander’s (R-Tenn.) announcement late Thursday that he will vote no. Alexander’s decision sparked widespread anger and the trending Twitter hashtag #LamarAlexanderIsACoward.

Schumer said during a press conference Friday that if the Senate votes against allowing witnesses, “the president’s acquittal will be meaningless.”

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“This is about truth, and today the Senate will vote on whether witnesses and documents are allowed in this trial,” said Schumer. “The importance of this vote is self-evident.”

SCHUMER: “If my Republican colleagues refuse to even consider witnesses & documents in the trial, this country is headed towards the greatest coverup since Watergate … [Trump] will conclude he can do it again, & Congress can do nothing about it. He can try to cheat again.” pic.twitter.com/5vNB1tIQ9p

— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) January 31, 2020

The Senate at 1pm ET is scheduled to begin four hours of debate on whether to approve witnesses, followed by a vote. If the Republican-controlled chamber decides against allowing witnesses, it will be the first time in U.S. history the Senate has held an impeachment trial without witness testimony, according to PolitiFact.

A final vote on whether to acquit or remove Trump could come as early as Friday evening, but anonymous Republican senators and aides told Politico the trial could extend until next week if House Democratic impeachment managers push for more time to make closing arguments.

Just ahead of the Senate debate on witnesses, the New York Times reported that former national security adviser John Bolton—one of the potential witnesses in the trial—alleges in an unpublished book manuscript that Trump instructed him in May of 2019 to help with the “pressure campaign to extract damaging information on Democrats from Ukrainian officials.”

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) tweeted Thursday night that the Senate will be “disgraced” if it votes to acquit Trump without hearing witness testimony or considering documentary evidence that the White House has withheld from Congress.

“If the trial is rigged to keep hidden the most damning, most important, most relevant evidence, then it’s not a trial,” wrote Murphy. “Nor is it an acquittal. It’s a cover-up.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, wrote in a pair of tweets Friday morning that “history will judge us for what happens next.”

“Faith in our American institutions is at an all-time low,” said Warren. “The fact that GOP senators are covering up the president’s corruption with a sham impeachment trial without witnesses documents doesn’t help.”

Americans deserve to know that the President is using the power of his/her office to work in the nation’s interest, not his own personal interest. And they deserve a Senate with the political courage to stand up to a President that has abused his power & corrupted our government.

— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) January 31, 2020

Karen Hobert Flynn, president of government watchdog group Common Cause, warned in a letter (pdf) sent to every U.S. senator Thursday that ending the trial without witnesses “could undermine our democracy for generations.”

“This is much bigger than President Trump,” Hobert Flynn wrote. “Preventing witnesses, evidence, and transparency in President Trump’s impeachment trial potentially undermines the Constitution for generations.”

“Americans deserve nothing less than the full truth,” she added. “They deserve to see a fair trial, and they are watching closely to see if Senate Republicans fulfill their constitutional duty to serve as an impartial jury or blindly conduct a rigged trial.”

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‘Women to One Side, Men to the Other’

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Mirza had a sense of foreboding soon after she crossed into the U.S. with her two children and their father, David. A Border Patrol agent ordered the family from Honduras and the rest of their group to divide into two lines: “Women to one side, men to the other.”

Mirza held 19-month-old Lia and joined the women’s line. David took their 6-year-old son Sebastian and lined up with the men. An agent told them not to worry, everyone was going to the same place. A bus took them in two trips to a collection of tents and trailers where they would be processed.

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They arrived a few hours apart, held separately in a large waiting area. Mirza grew more anxious as she spotted David and Sebastian across the room. She motioned for Sebastian to bring her a bottle of water. “Papi says to take care of yourself,” he told her.

The family did not come together again. And within days, an international border stood between them.

David and Sebastian were sent to Mexico to wait before being allowed to make an asylum claim in a U.S. court. Mirza was fitted with an ankle bracelet, and she and Lia were sent to San Jose, California.

In separate Border Patrol interviews, both Mirza and David said, they told agents they had come as a family of four. But they were never recorded that way in Border Patrol records. David’s marital status was listed as “single” — he and Mirza had been together for 12 years, but they had never formally married — while Mirza’s was listed as “unknown.”

Border Patrol policy is clear: Whenever possible, parents, married or not, should be kept together with their children.

David said he pleaded with agents. “Please, find out for me in the system where my wife is. I came with my wife and you separated me from her.”

The agents weren’t moved. “You’re going to Juarez,” David said one agent told him. “Deal with it.”

Border Patrol has long been criticized for carelessness in migrant processing. But under the Trump administration, agents have vastly expanded powers to decide migrants’ fates.

In previous administrations, the government’s options for asylum-seekers were to detain them in the U.S. or release them — and Border Patrol wasn’t in charge of making that choice.

The Trump administration has replaced that system, which it derisively called “catch and release.” In September, then-Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan announced that “catch and release” had fully ended; Mirza and Lia were among the last Central American asylum-seekers to be allowed to stay in the U.S. without being detained by ICE.

The new strategy is what happened to David and Sebastian: Asylum-seekers are sent away from the U.S. as quickly as possible. Under a series of new programs, they can be sent to wait in Mexico, rapidly deported to their home country or sent to Guatemala to seek asylum there instead.

The results are what a lawsuit filed in December against the rapid-deportation programs calls “legal black holes,” where Border Patrol agents have almost complete discretion to decide who goes where.

Border Patrol agents “are not, in general, the right people to be making determinations in individual cases,” Scott Shuchart, a former official with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, told ProPublica. Letting agents determine who should be sent to what country “is an awful lot of power to be given to people who aren’t trained in how to use it.”

Outcomes can vary wildly even for migrants in similar situations. Parents arriving on different days have found themselves sent to different countries. One Mexican mother was rapidly deported, along with her children, while the father was detained in the U.S.

Customs and Border Protection, the agency that includes the Border Patrol, did not respond to requests to comment for this story. But a spokesperson did confirm some details of David and Mirza’s apprehension. The spokesperson also confirmed that their records contain no flags of suspected fraud or any other concerns; David and Mirza were simply never labeled part of the same family. (ProPublica is not publishing their family names to protect relatives still in Honduras.)

In a sense, David and Mirza’s family is luckier than some: They were ultimately allowed to stay and seek asylum in the U.S., a chance migrants who’ve entered more recently may never get. But the family’s well-being was threatened by their four-month split across an international border. Furthermore, the separation set off a chain of consequences that threaten their chances of ultimately winning asylum.

By the time El Paso, Texas-based lawyer Taylor Levy saw a Facebook message from a California attorney asking her to track down David and Sebastian, David’s family had been apart for six weeks. Photos of Sebastian back in Honduras show a chubby, smiling boy. But when Levy met with him, she was alarmed by his condition. He was “skin and bones,” Levy remembered. And “he wouldn’t make eye contact. He was almost catatonic.”

“I’ve worked with thousands of asylum-seeking families and hundreds of separated kids,” Levy said. “And he completely, completely just shocked me by how badly he was doing.”

On its face, the case of David and Mirza baffled Levy. The family crossed the border together and had fled the same violence and threats. But the more she thought about it, the clearer it became: Their predicament reflected the unaccountable, arbitrary system the Trump administration has created.

“This wasn’t just a mistake,” Levy said. “This was gross negligence.”

David had hoped to make a life with Mirza in Honduras.

“I never longed to come to the United States, God knows,” David told ProPublica. They had met as teenagers after David began taking farm jobs with Mirza’s family, and they courted on walks to church, respecting Mirza’s mother’s wishes that they not date until Mirza finished school.

In 2011, they moved in together. But then David faced threats from gang members. According to his sworn asylum declaration, which was confirmed by a relative to ProPublica, a male ex-classmate of Mirza’s who was involved in a local gang made sexual advances toward David that David repeatedly rejected.

David’s stalker’s first attack left a bullet lodged near his spine. The second riddled his leg with buckshot. David said he filed a police complaint, but nothing happened. (Honduras at the time had the highest homicide rate in the world, and 96% of murders went unsolved. The homicide rate has declined but is still among the world’s highest.)

The couple went into hiding while Mirza was pregnant with Sebastian. But threatening texts kept coming to Mirza’s phone. One especially chilling text sent shortly before they fled Honduras promised to kill the whole family, “from the largest hen to the smallest chick.”

When David’s sister and uncle were killed not far from where David and Mirza lived, the couple sought refuge in a smaller town. David did yard work, and Mirza became pregnant again and gave birth to Lia. But they were petrified. David’s grandmother reported a black van casing the neighborhood, and David watched a stranger on a motorcycle driving by their house.

In January 2019, they decided they had to leave Honduras. David called his aunt Marlen in San Jose, California, whom he hadn’t seen in a decade, asking her to take them in. “I’d like to get out of here,” Marlen recalled her nephew saying, “because if I stay, very shortly, they’re going to kill me.”

It took months to save 5,000 Honduran dollars for travel costs.

But as the couple planned their escape, the U.S. asylum system was changing.

For decades, the Border Patrol’s role in dealing with migrant families was to quickly pass them on to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, which handles detention. If a migrant expressed fear of returning to their home country, they were interviewed by an asylum officer who would decide if they had a credible case. Families passing the interview — as most did — would generally be released in the U.S. to await a hearing.

But the Trump administration was determined to deter border crossings. In January 2019, it used an obscure legal provision to force Central American migrants who sought asylum to wait in Mexico before getting hearings in the U.S. That program (which has since expanded to other Latin American migrants) is known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP. In the fall, the administration launched two more programs for Mexican and Central American families, giving cursory review to their asylum claims so that they could be deported within 10 days. Toward year’s end, the administration started sending some Honduran and Salvadoran migrants to Guatemala to seek asylum there, without offering them a chance to make a U.S. claim at all.

With each initiative, the U.S. quietly rolled out a pilot program in one region, then expanded it. Gradual expansion has allowed the government to keep these programs out of the public eye, but it hasn’t led it to exercise more care: There’s increasing evidence of haphazard planning and implementation.

Days before the Trump administration started sending Honduran and Salvadoran asylum-seekers to Guatemala, basic logistics were still unclear — such as where asylum-seekers would live. Even as the administration considers expanding rapid-deportation programs, the DHS’ Office of Inspector General has launched an investigation into whether migrants are being treated fairly.

Under MPP, the Mexican government decides how many migrants per day it will accept from the U.S., and U.S. officials decide who gets sent to Mexico. Regional Border Patrol and port offices are responsible for making those daily selections, and leave it up to agents.

Guidance has been minimal. A January 2019 memo to CBP employees suggested that agents not send back to Mexico unaccompanied children, people with serious health conditions and other “vulnerable populations.” But it stressed that border agents had full discretion. In practice, pregnant women — even those about to give birth — are routinely sent to Mexico to wait. According to advocates on both sides of the border and migrants themselves, officers in El Paso often classify LGBT migrants as “vulnerable” and let them stay. Officers in Brownsville, Texas, do not.

An internal DHS report from November 2019 revealed that the government hadn’t even developed standardized forms for MPP. In its response, DHS agreed to “reinforce” its existing guidance to clarify who qualified for the program. But it acknowledged that it had no standard procedures to determine selections, and it refused to commit to developing them.

Advocates argue it’s illegal to separate biological parents and children as a rule. “Any time you’re splitting up a family, the law requires you to have a compelling reason,” said Lee Gelernt, the ACLU lawyer leading the lawsuit which ended widespread family separations in June 2018. But rulings address only taking children away from parents entirely, not separations like David and Mirza’s, which split families but keep children with at least one parent.

The government’s processing guide instructs agents not to separate “family units with juveniles” — parents with children — but several current CBP employees told ProPublica that agents commonly ignore the guideline by separating men and women for transport and in detention facilities.

According to Border Patrol sources, the mistake in David and Mirza’s case likely occurred when Border Patrol agents failed to note their family status on intake forms. Agents should have reflected David and Mirza’s accounts on the forms and checked their children’s birth certificates to confirm parentage.

David’s account echoed complaints Levy had heard while working at Annunciation House, El Paso’s largest migrant shelter. She said she’s spoken to “thousands of people just released from Border Patrol custody. And over and over again, we hear the same things — that (agents) don’t listen to them.”

Mirza’s lawyer Shouan Zhoobin Riahi, a pro bono attorney with the Bay Area nonprofit SIREN, said his clients so commonly tell him they’ve been threatened or accused of lying that he doesn’t even bother to file court complaints. Neither David nor Mirza filed a formal complaint with the Border Patrol.

When David and Mirza came to the U.S. last summer, apprehensions of Central American families were at a peak. That week, 21,678 parents and children were taken in by Border Patrol. The agency faced a capacity crisis. Inattention to paperwork was common, according to multiple officials and attorneys for migrants.

Yet the paperwork mattered more than ever. Under the old system, the Border Patrol would transfer asylum-seekers to ICE, giving them a “second chance” to catch mistakes, said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, a researcher with the American Immigration Council. Initial asylum interviews offered a third chance: Asylum officers had the power to unite families who’d been carelessly separated.

Under the new dispersal strategy — which has continued to expand even after intake numbers dropped — migrants only come into contact with one government agency: the Border Patrol.

The day after David and Sebastian were sent to Juarez, Mirza and Lia were shuffled onto a bus out of the Border Patrol facility and dropped at an El Paso shelter. A volunteer asked Mirza for a U.S. contact. She named David’s aunt Marlen, whom she had never met.

The volunteer arranged for a bus ticket and Mirza carried Lia onto an intercity bus. She couldn’t understand the bus announcements in English. When they arrived in San Jose, she worried that she’d exited at the wrong stop. Marlen was late, stopping at a store to buy a car seat for Lia. By the time she arrived, Mirza sat on a bench sobbing.

Mirza had been told to call a government hotline to learn about the status of her asylum case, but the hotline didn’t give her information. She realized she needed help. She walked into the offices of SIREN, which offered legal services, and spilled out her story to pro bono attorney Riahi.

Riahi sensed that Mirza could win asylum. The federal court that set precedent for San Francisco’s immigration judges and asylum officers had defined asylum eligibility broadly, and Mirza’s case, which would be considered there, fit well within a long-standing precedent. Meanwhile, David’s case had been assigned to a judge in Texas who rejected almost all asylum claims.

David was likely to be deported unless Riahi could get him included in Mirza’s claim.

The challenge was compounded by yet another government mistake. No official had ever filed Mirza’s case with an immigration court. This allowed Mirza to apply for asylum proactively with an asylum officer, like migrants who enter the U.S. on visas — with slightly better chances than she would have before an immigration judge. But it meant Riahi couldn’t simply ask a judge to combine David’s case with Mirza’s, because the cases were on different legal tracks.

The best hope was that David could be included as a dependent on Mirza’s application. They’d have to be officially married first. So Riahi set about arranging a cross-border wedding.

Riahi, overburdened with pro bono clients, didn’t have time to go to Juarez. So he sent Levy a Facebook message. He didn’t know the veteran Texas lawyer, although he had seen Levy’s posts about problems with the MPP program.

Levy was hesitant to take on another request from a far-flung lawyer. Riahi “was really, really worried and he really cared,” she told ProPublica. “To be honest, it gets kind of exhausting, because everyone’s really worried and everyone really cares.” She decided to at least meet David and Sebastian in Juarez.

David and Sebastian’s world had become claustrophobically small. Leaving the shelter could mean getting mugged or kidnapped. With the exception of their first court hearing in El Paso — for which they’d traversed Juarez in the dead of night to reach the international bridge by 4:30 a.m. — they’d barely ventured out.

Sebastian had contracted a throat infection just before their first court date, and it worsened when the two spent another night in the CBP hielera (the holding cells called “iceboxes” because they’re kept so cold) before returning to Juarez. But the weight loss continued even after he recovered, leading David to suspect the boy was acutely depressed. For nearly three weeks, he rejected solid food. “It was just juice, juice, juice,” David said.

Speaking to Mirza on David’s clandestine cellphone (purchased against shelter policies) didn’t help. Sebastian lashed out at her: David and Mirza both recall him saying, “You’re a bad person, Mami. You left us here in Mexico.” Sometimes, he was so angry that he would not talk to her at all.

When Levy took on his case, David felt lucky. According to one analysis, 96% of migrants waiting in Mexico for their U.S. cases have no legal representation. But Levy warned him that if he remained on his judge’s docket, deportation was almost certain.

The only clear way to get removed from the MPP program was to persuade an asylum officer that David would be persecuted in Mexico — a very high bar he had already tried and failed to meet. Levy realized this family couldn’t rely on the process to bring them together. David and Mirza — and Levy and Riahi — would have to fight for it.

Riahi had originally planned to bring Mirza to the U.S. side of the border in New Mexico, bring David to the Mexican side and have them stand in their respective countries while a pastor offered the vows. But they couldn’t get a New Mexican marriage certificate unless both spouses appeared at the county office — an impossibility for David.

Instead, Riahi and Levy planned a sort of caper: they’d turn David’s next U.S. court hearing in El Paso, on Aug. 21, into a secret wedding.

Mirza flew to El Paso, carrying a wedding dress that she’d bought at Ross with lace sleeves and a layered skirt, her ankle monitor a telling accessory.

Levy took a single picture of the bride — cameras aren’t allowed in immigration courtrooms, and they didn’t want to push their luck — then entered the courtroom with Mirza and a Texas municipal judge to sign the marriage certificate.

When Sebastian saw his mother, he cried out, “Mami, Mami.” He fell asleep in her lap while the immigration judge conducted a brief scheduling hearing.

Afterward, Levy requested five minutes to confer with her clients in a side room, where the municipal judge hurriedly performed the ceremony. Then David told Sebastian, “Your Mami has to go now.” “No, I’m going with her,” Sebastian cried.

For two days afterward — through another unsuccessful plea with an asylum officer to get them out of Mexico, another hielera stay and another return to Juarez — the child was inconsolable.

With the marriage now official, Mirza could file her asylum application and include David as her husband.

But in the few weeks it took to submit the application, the Trump administration imposed another twist. Attorney General William Barr issued a ruling contradicting the federal court precedent Riahi had planned to rely on in Mirza’s asylum case.

Until a federal judge rules on Barr’s edict, asylum officers now have two competing precedents — and Riahi fully expected they’d defer to the new Barr ruling. Mirza’s case had gone from an easy win to a likely protracted legal fight.

Meanwhile, David and Sebastian were still stuck in Juarez. Under the shelter’s rules, after two court hearings they had to find another place to stay, so David found a cramped apartment he and Sebastian could share with four other Honduran parents and sons. He couldn’t work regularly because he couldn’t abandon Sebastian. They relied on Mirza’s earnings cleaning houses or loans from relatives to pay rent.

After money ran low, David and Sebastian squeezed into an even smaller apartment: one room crammed with 10 other people, a few bunk beds and a fridge. (When four of them left Juarez to cross with smugglers into the US, David and Sebastian gained a little space, but their share of rent rose to the equivalent of $100 US a month.) The apartment had only six plates and six spoons, so everyone ate in shifts. Playing “outside” meant playing ball in a hallway littered with rubble and broken glass.

Sebastian was beginning to put on weight and gain energy, but he was still shy around other children. When spoken to, he would either stay silent or cry. In mid-September, Levy brought in a counselor to assess Sebastian.

“While he was able to brighten his affect at times, particularly when recalling his mom and younger sibling, (Sebastian) still feels uncertain when asked about his mom,” the evaluation said. “He disclosed, ‘My mom left me and I don’t know why.’”

Mirza, too, was distraught. She joked that while Sebastian lost weight in Mexico, she was gaining it in the U.S. She cried often and slept little. Marlen took her to a psychiatrist, who diagnosed her with depression.

In El Paso, Levy prepared a court motion to move David’s court case to San Francisco, which would force the government to let him stay in the U.S. She gathered up the Honduran birth certificates; the wedding certificate; Sebastian’s psychological evaluation; a copy of Mirza’s antidepressant prescription.

The night before a hearing on the motion, Levy appealed directly to Border Patrol lawyers. “To the best of our knowledge, the family unit crossed the border together and were erroneously separated by Border Patrol agents,” she wrote in an email. “Please act expeditiously to remedy this erroneous separation.”

Two days later, after yet another court delay, Levy got an unexpected message from the Border Patrol. “The father and child are at El Paso Station 1, and are being converted out of MPP at this time.” They had beensaved from returning to Mexico. But no further explanation was provided.

“I don’t know if it’s because of anything that we necessarily did,” Riahi told ProPublica. “Taylor kind of moved mountains out there in El Paso, but ultimately CBP decided to do it.”

David and Sebastian didn’t fit into any of the categories outlined in the vague CBP policy about who should be sent back to Mexico and who should not. Discretion simply happened to work in their favor this time.

But for families caught in the new programs — which don’t include appearances before an immigration judge — the Border Patrol’s initial determination and any errors that come with it are, as far as anyone can tell, permanent. “If a Honduran parent is separated from their child in error and then sent to Guatemala,” Levy asked, “how is anyone supposed to access that parent?”

After a five-day wait in a hielera, David and Sebastian were finally released in El Paso on Oct. 7. They stayed at the Annunciation House shelter for a week, waiting for their next court hearing there.

But when Levy, David and Sebastian arrived in court, they faced yet another mix-up: The government had already transferred the case to San Francisco — without bothering to notify either Levy or the judge.

The next morning, David and Sebastian finally boarded an airplane — their first — to reunite with Mirza and Lia at last.

Moving David’s case to San Francisco essentially froze his asylum timeline, making it impossible for him to get a work permit. His first hearing in front of a San Francisco judge is set for early March.

The family had to move out of Marlen’s house; the garage Marlen had furnished as their bedroom wasn’t big enough to contain Lia’s boundless energy, and Marlen’s husband and teenage daughter had lost patience with the visitors. Mirza now worries how long they can afford their own apartment.

Some things have improved. With each passing month, Sebastian gets more comfortable in first grade — he’s made friends who help him with his homework now — and Lia gets more rambunctious.

But it’s far from clear that the family will be able to stay in the U.S. Their cases are still on two separate tracks.

Mirza’s asylum application remains in limbo. A December interview date was rescheduled, then postponed indefinitely. The attorney general’s ruling makes it more likely her claim will be denied. Their lawyers are prepared to appeal both cases if they lose, but appeals take years.

Mirza is certain they’ll be killed if they return to Honduras, but they intend to leave if ordered to do so. As Mirza told ProPublica, “We have to follow the law.”

However uncertain the future, the family remains together. That was what they celebrated that afternoon in October, when David and Sebastian arrived at Marlen’s home from the airport, with David holding their release orders and Sebastian carrying a toy light saber he’d had to sneak past TSA.

As the boy approached Marlen’s door, Mirza stood in the doorway. He paused for a second, then ran to her. Lia sprinted into David’s arms.

They posed for family pictures, and more than once, they had to look for Sebastian, who wandered off on his own.

Once he was safely deposited on Mirza’s lap, though, he wouldn’t let go.

The post ‘Women to One Side, Men to the Other’ appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

NFL’s Saints Accused of Helping Shape Clergy Sex Abuse List

NEW ORLEANS — The New Orleans Saints say they only did “minimal” public relations work on the area’s Roman Catholic sexual abuse crisis, but attorneys suing the church allege hundreds of confidential Saints emails show the team’s involvement went much further, helping to shape a list of credibly accused clergy that appears to be undercounted.

New court papers filed this week by lawyers for about two dozen men making sexual abuse claims against the Archdiocese of New Orleans gave the most detailed description yet of the emails that have rocked the NFL team and remain shielded from the public.

“This goes beyond public relations,” the attorneys wrote, accusing the Saints of issuing misleading statements saying their work for the archdiocese involved only “messaging” and handling media inquiries as part of the 2018 release of the clergy names.

Instead, they wrote, “The Saints appear to have had a hand in determining which names should or should not have been included on the pedophile list.”

“In order to fulfill this role … the Saints must have known the specific allegations of sexual abuse against a priest … and made a judgment call about whether those allegations by a particular victim against a named priest were, in its opinion, legitimate enough to warrant being included,” the attorneys wrote. They added, “It cannot now be disputed that the Saints had actual involvement in the creation of the pedophile list.”

That list, the Saints’ role in it and how accurate it was have become key questions in a controversy that has swirled around the team since news of the emails broke last week.

Victims’ advocates have long argued that the New Orleans Archdiocese’s list of 57 credibly accused clergy, since expanded by six more names, minimizes the problem. An Associated Press analysis of the list suggests it underestimated the actual number of publicly accused clergy members in the region by at least 20.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys alleged in earlier court papers that Saints executives joined in the archdiocese’s “pattern and practice of concealing its crimes,” and one email from late 2018 referred to Saints Senior Vice President of Communications Greg Bensel joining unnamed “third parties” in a discussion about “removing priests from the pedophile list.” It was not clear which other Saints officials may have been involved.

The Saints, whose devoutly Catholic owner Gayle Benson is close friends with the local archbishop, have disputed as “outrageous” any suggestion that the team helped cover up crimes. They have accused plaintiffs’ attorneys of mischaracterizing what is in the emails.

Even as the team’s attorneys went to court to keep the 276 documents from being released to the public, they said in a court filing this week, “Neither the Saints nor any of their personnel have anything to hide.” The team says it does not object to the emails becoming public later if they are admitted into evidence in the case.

In a lengthy statement Wednesday, the Saints said Bensel, the team spokesman, advised the archdiocese to be “direct, open and fully transparent” when it released its list to the media and to make sure all law enforcement agencies were alerted.

“Never did the Saints organization offer advice to conceal information,” the team’s statement said. “In fact, we advised that as new information relative to credible evidence about other clergy came to light, then those names should be released and given to the proper authorities.”

In its own statement Thursday, the New Orleans Archdiocese disputed the plaintiffs’ attorneys on the Saints’ role, saying it was “limited to guidance in releasing information to media” and not advising on the content of the accused clergy list.

The National Football League has not responded to repeated queries from the AP about whether such PR work by the team was appropriate or violated league conduct policies.

But victims’ advocates say the Saints have at least created the appearance of impropriety.

“It’s inappropriate for a football team to involve itself in a sex abuse scandal,” said Kevin Bourgeois, who is both a local volunteer leader of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests and a Saints season ticket holder.

“Their response was that they told the archbishop to be straightforward and open,” said Bourgeois, who wore a black Saints jersey at a news conference this week outside the team’s suburban practice facility. “And we believe that that’s completely not true.”

The AP, which first reported on the Saints email controversy last week, filed a motion with the court this month supporting the release of the documents as a matter of public interest.

Both the Saints and the archdiocese have opposed the AP’s involvement, and a court hearing was set Friday on whether the news organization may be heard. After that, another hearing will be scheduled to consider whether the Saints emails given to plaintiffs’ attorneys may be released to the public.

The litigation has brought fresh attention to the process by which the New Orleans archdiocese came to produce its list of 57 names of clergy it deemed “credibly accused” of sexually abusing minors — the first roster of its kind to be released in heavily Catholic Louisiana.

The list was published in November 2018 as the archdiocese was reeling from a scandal in which a longtime deacon and schoolteacher, George F. Brignac, continued serving as a lay minister in the church decades after he was accused of sexually abusing children. An Orleans Parish grand jury indicted Brignac last year on claims he raped an altar boy beginning the late 1970s.

An AP investigation identified 20 clergy members who had been accused in lawsuits or charged by law enforcement with child sexual abuse who are missing from the New Orleans archdiocese list — including two who were charged and convicted of crimes.

The AP analysis included a review of bankruptcy documents, lawsuits, settlement information, grand jury reports, media accounts and a database of accused priests tracked by the group BishopAccountability.org.

Meanwhile, a new lawsuit accuses local church leaders of refusing to disclose the names of 17 people accused of abusing children at a church-run home called Madonna Manor in suburban Jefferson Parish. The names were omitted from the list even though the archdiocese has paid millions of dollars to settle claims of sexual abuse at the home, the lawsuit says.

When the credibly accused list was released in late 2018, Archbishop Gregory Aymond expressed confidence in its accuracy and said it implicated 2 percent of local clergy following a review of 2,432 files dating to 1950.

That percentage would be significantly lower than the representation of abusive priests seen in jurisdictions around the country, said Terry McKiernan, founder of BishopAccountability.org, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit group that tracks clergy sexual abuse cases.

The church’s own numbers, published by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, put the national average around 6 percent, while some advocacy groups contend it’s as high as 10 percent.

McKiernan said it would be “objectionable” for Bensel to hold the dual role of directing damage control and weighing in on the contents of the credibly accused list.

“One would hope that the church is not viewing this as a PR matter anymore but a matter for truth and justice,” McKiernan said. “If you have someone helping you spin not only the problem but the supposedly accurate list that describes the problem, you have a lot of work to do.”

___

Associated Press writers Claudia Lauer in Philadelphia, Meghan Hoyer in Washington and Kevin McGill in Metairie, Louisiana, contributed to this report. Contact AP’s investigative team at Investigative@ap.org.

The post NFL’s Saints Accused of Helping Shape Clergy Sex Abuse List appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

Writer Who Accuses Trump of Raping Her Seeks His DNA

NEW YORK — Lawyers for a woman who accuses President Donald Trump of raping her in the 1990s are asking for a DNA sample, seeking to determine whether his genetic material is on a dress she says she wore during the encounter.

Advice columnist E. Jean Carroll’s lawyers served notice to a Trump attorney Thursday for Trump to submit a sample on March 2 in Washington for “analysis and comparison against unidentified male DNA present on the dress.”

Carroll filed a defamation suit against Trump in November after the president denied her allegation, saying he didn’t know and had never even met her. Her lawyer, Roberta Kaplan, then had the black wool coat-style dress tested. A lab report with the legal notice says DNA found in skin cells on the outer surface of the sleeves was a mix of at least four people, at least one of them male.

Several other people were tested and eliminated as possible contributors to the mix, according to the lab report, which was obtained by The Associated Press. Their names are redacted, but the report indicates they were involved in a photo shoot where she wore the dress last year, the only time Carroll says she has donned the dress since the alleged assault.

“Unidentified male DNA on the dress could prove that Donald Trump not only knows who I am, but also that he violently assaulted me in a dressing room at Bergdorf Goodman and then defamed me by lying about it and impugning my character,” Carroll said in a statement Thursday.

The White House and Trump’s lawyer have not responded to a request for comment.

While the notice is a demand, such demands sometimes spur court fights requiring a judge to weigh in on whether they will be enforced.

Carroll accused Trump last summer of raping her in a dressing room in Bergdorf Goodman, a Manhattan luxury department store, in the mid-1990s.

In a New York magazine piece in June and a book published the next month, Carroll said she and Trump met by chance, chatted and went to the lingerie department for Trump to pick out a gift for an unidentified woman. She said joking banter about trying on a bodysuit ended in a dressing room, where she said Trump pinned her against the wall by her arms, reached under the dress, pulled down her tights and raped her as she tried to fight him off, eventually escaping.

“The Donna Karan coatdress still hangs on the back of my closet door, unworn and unlaundered since that evening,” she wrote. She donned it for a photo accompanying the magazine piece.

She had kept the dress because it was a favorite and she hoped she could someday feel comfortable wearing it again, her legal team says.

Trump said in June that Carroll was “totally lying” and he had “never met this person in my life.” While a 1987 photo shows them and their then-spouses at a social event, Trump dismissed it as a moment when he was “standing with my coat on in a line.”

“She is trying to sell a new book — that should indicate her motivation,” he said in one of various statements on the matter, adding that the book “should be sold in the fiction section.”

Carroll sued Trump in November, saying he smeared her and hurt her career as a longtime Elle magazine advice columnist by calling her a liar. She is seeking unspecified damages and a retraction of Trump’s statements.

Her lawyer, Kaplan, said the DNA sample request was “standard operating procedure” given the unidentified male DNA on the garment.

“As a result, we’ve requested a simple saliva sample from Mr. Trump to test his DNA, and there really is no valid basis for him to object,” she said.

Trump’s lawyer has tried to get the case thrown out. A Manhattan judge declined to do so earlier this month, saying the attorney hadn’t properly backed up his arguments that the case didn’t belong in a New York court.

The Associated Press typically does not name people who say they have been sexually assaulted, unless they come forward publicly.

Carroll said she didn’t do so for decades because she feared legal retribution from Trump and damage to her reputation, among other reasons. But when the #MeToo movement spurred reader requests for advice about sexual assault, she said, she decided she had to disclose her own account.

Trump, a Republican, isn’t the first president to face the prospect of a DNA test related to a woman’s dress.

Former President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, underwent such a test during an independent counsel investigation into whether he had a sexual relationship with onetime White House intern Monica Lewinsky and then lied in denying it under oath.

After Clinton’s DNA was found on the dress, he acknowledged an “inappropriate intimate relationship” with Lewinsky.

Clinton was impeached by the House in December 1998 and later acquitted by the Senate.

The post Writer Who Accuses Trump of Raping Her Seeks His DNA appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

U.N. Agency Declares Global Emergency Over Virus From China

GENEVA — The World Health Organization declared the outbreak sparked by a new virus in China that has spread to more than a dozen countries as a global emergency Thursday after the number of cases spiked more than tenfold in a week.

The U.N. health agency defines an international emergency as an “extraordinary event” that constitutes a risk to other countries and requires a coordinated international response.

China first informed WHO about cases of the new virus in late December. To date, China has reported more than 7,800 cases including 170 deaths. Eighteen other countries have since reported cases, as scientists race to understand how exactly the virus is spreading and how severe it is.

Experts say there is significant evidence the virus is spreading among people in China and have noted with concern instances in other countries — including the United States, France, Japan, Germany, Canada, South Korea and Vietnam — where there have also been isolated cases of human-to-human transmission.

Speaking to reporters in Geneva, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus noted the worrisome spread of the virus between people outside China.

“The main reason for this declaration is not because of what is happening in China but because of what is happening in other countries,” he said. “Our greatest concern is the potential for this virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems which are ill-prepared to deal with it.”

“This declaration is not a vote of non-confidence in China,” he said. “On the contrary, WHO continues to have the confidence in China’s capacity to control the outbreak.”

A declaration of a global emergency typically brings greater money and resources, but may also prompt nervous governments to restrict travel and trade to affected countries. The announcement also imposes more disease reporting requirements on countries.

In the wake of numerous airlines canceling flights to China and businesses including Starbucks and McDonald’s temporarily closing hundreds of shops, Tedros said WHO was not recommending limiting travel or trade to China.

“There is no reason for measures that unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade,” he said. He added that Chinese President Xi Jinping had committed to help stop the spread of the virus beyond its borders.

“During my discussion with the president and other officials, they’re willing to support countries with weaker health systems with whatever is possible,” Tedros said.

On Thursday, France confirmed that a doctor who was in contact with a patient with the new virus later became infected himself. The doctor is now being treated in an isolated room at a Paris hospital. Outbreak specialists worry that the spread of new viruses from patients to health workers can signal the virus is becoming adapted to human transmission.

China raised the death toll to 170 on Thursday and more countries reported infections, including some spread locally, as foreign evacuees from China’s worst-hit region returned home to medical tests and even isolation.

Russia announced it was closing its 2,600-mile border with China, joining Mongolia and North Korea in barring crossings to guard against a new viral outbreak. It had been de facto closed because of the Lunar New Year holiday, but Russian authorities said the closure would be extended until March 1.

Meanwhile, the United States and South Korea confirmed their first cases of person-to-person spread of the virus. The man in the U.S. is married to a 60-year-old Chicago woman who got sick from the virus after she returned from a trip to Wuhan, the Chinese city that is the epicenter of the outbreak.

The case in South Korea was a 56-year-old man who had contact with a patient who was diagnosed with the new virus earlier.

Although scientists expect to see limited transmission of the virus between people with close contact, like within families, the instances of spread to people who may have had less exposure to the virus in Japan and Germany is worrying.

In Japan, a man in his 60s caught the virus after working as a bus driver for two tour groups from Wuhan. In Germany, a man in his 30s was sickened after a Chinese colleague from Shanghai, whose parents had recently visited from Wuhan, came to his office for a business meeting. Four other workers at the same factory later became infected. The woman had shown no symptoms of the virus until her flight back to China.

“That’s the kind of transmission chain that we don’t want to see,” said Marion Koopmans, an infectious diseases specialist at Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands and a member of WHO’s emergency committee.

Koopmans said more information was needed about how the virus was spread in these instances and whether it meant the virus was more infectious than previously thought or if there was something unusual in those circumstances.

Mark Harris, a professor of virology at Leeds University, said it appears that the spread of the virus among people is probably easier than initially presumed.

“If transmission between humans was difficult, then the numbers would have plateaued,” he said. Harris said the limited amount of virus spread beyond China suggested the outbreak could still be contained, but that if people are spreading the disease before they show symptoms — as some Chinese politicians and researchers have suggested — that could compromise control efforts.

The new virus has now infected more people in China than were sickened there during the 2002-2003 outbreak of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, a cousin of the new virus. Both are from the coronavirus family, which also includes those that can cause the common cold.

The latest figures for mainland China show an increase of 38 deaths and 1,737 cases for a total of 7,736 confirmed cases. Of the new deaths, 37 were in Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, and one was in the southwestern province of Sichuan. Outside China, there are 82 infections in 18 countries, according to WHO.

China extended its Lunar New Year holiday to Sunday to try to keep people home, but the wave of returning travelers could potentially cause the virus to spread further.

China has been largely praised for a swift and effective response to the outbreak, although questions have been raised about the police suppression of what were early on considered mere rumors — a reflection of the one-party Communist state’s determination to maintain a monopoly on information in spite of smart phones and social media.

That stands in stark contrast to the initial response to SARS, when medical reports were hidden as state secrets. The delayed response was blamed for allowing the disease to spread worldwide, killing around 800 people.

Dr. Jeremy Farrar, director of Britain’s Wellcome Trust, welcomed WHO’s emergency declaration.

“This virus has spread at unprecedented scale and speed, with cases passing between people in multiple countries across the world,” he said in a statement. “It is also a stark reminder of how vulnerable we are to epidemics of infectious diseases known and unknown.”

___

Cheng reported from London. Associated Press writers Ken Moritsugu in Beijing, Elaine Ganley in Paris, Frank Jordans in Berlin, Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo and Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.

The post U.N. Agency Declares Global Emergency Over Virus From China appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

Trump Takes Axe to Medicaid

This article originally appeared on Common Dreams.

The Trump administration on Thursday unveiled a plan allowing states to convert federal Medicaid funding into block grants, a longstanding conservative goal that critics warn could have deadly consequences for millions of vulnerable people who rely on the healthcare program as a major source of income.

Seema Verma, head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), announced the so-called “Healthy Adult Opportunity” initiative in a statement claiming the policy will “improve health outcomes and care” for low-income people.

Progressive advocacy groups warned the plan could do precisely the opposite by giving states a green light to cut Medicaid spending and divert federal funding to other state programs, potentially leaving millions without essential healthcare coverage.

“People, poor disabled people in particular, are going to die,” tweeted Alice Wong, director of the Disability Visibility Project. “Not an exaggeration.”

Urging the public to look beyond the plan’s benign label, Public Citizen healthcare policy advocate Eagan Kemp said President Donald Trump’s “nefarious program is just a Medicaid block grant by another name, and the only opportunity it will provide is to miss out on needed care or go broke trying to get it.”

“Trump’s plan will ensure that many working families who are currently covered by Medicaid will face cuts to their services, wait lists for needed care, and the risk of medical debt and bankruptcy from trying to pay for illness,” Kemp said in a statement. “These further attempts to cut health care are just more evidence that Americans need Medicare for All now to protect their access to care once and for all.”

Today, Trump released his plan to ruthlessly cut Medicaid.

Let's be clear: Americans will die. https://t.co/iEik7mJBEV

— Public Citizen (@Public_Citizen) January 30, 2020

The proposal, which is likely to face legal challenges, invites states to apply for a waiver to receive a lump-sum payment from the federal government for Medicaid instead of open-ended matching funds. Right-wing supporters of block-granting Medicaid claim it would give states more “flexibility,” but critics warn the move could limit states’ ability to increase healthcare spending in response to public need.

“Any state taking this offer is engaging in fiscal malpractice,” Eliot Fishman, senior director of health policy with advocacy group Families USA, said in a statement. “Furthermore, the administration is acting lawlessly. None of the statute regarding Medicaid match rates can be waived administratively.”

“We are better than this, and we—the American people—must hold the Trump administration and Republican members of Congress accountable,” said Fishman.

Congressional Democrats joined healthcare advocacy groups in condemning the plan.

“Trump wants to destroy Medicaid while claiming to save it,” tweeted Rep. Bill Pascrell, Jr. (D-N.J.). “This fiendish scheme is an Orwellian fable conjured up by the most shameless pack of liars to ever occupy our government. Never forget Republicans’ goal is to steal healthcare from as many Americans as they can.”

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the Senate Health Committee, said in a statement that “even after people across the country spoke out and pressed Congress to reject President Trump’s plan to gut Medicaid with his Trumpcare bill, he’s still charging forward with harmful policies that will hurt the many families who rely on Medicaid.”

 

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Could This Be the End of American Exceptionalism?

More Americans are dissatisfied with democracy than at any point since records began in 1995, according to a new study published Wednesday, and the number of citizens with a positive view of the U.S. system of government dipped for the first time below 50%.

To observers like journalist Rania Khalek, the reason for such a shift in global attitudes was clear.

“Our systems aren’t actually democratic,” said Khalek. “We live in a miserable oligarchy, no wonder people are unhappy.”

“Dissatisfaction with democracy within developed countries is at its highest level in almost 25 years”

That’s bc our systems aren’t actually democratic. We live in a miserable oligarchy, no wonder people are unhappy https://t.co/gb06pA1qen

— Rania Khalek (@RaniaKhalek) January 29, 2020

A majority of people around the world—57.5%—are dissatisfied with democracy, the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Future of Democracy study (pdf) found.

“If confidence in democracy has been slipping, it is because democratic institutions have been seen failing to address some of the major crises of our era, from economic crashes to the threat of global warming,” said study lead author Dr Roberto Foa.

According to the study, Americans’ dissatisfaction with democracy has been on the rise since the financial crisis of 2008:

The U.S. has seen a “dramatic and unexpected” decline in satisfaction, according to researchers. In 1995, more than three-quarters of US citizens were satisfied with American democracy, a figure that plateaued for the next decade. The first big knock came with the 2008 financial crisis, and deterioration has continued year-on-year ever since. Now, less than half of US citizens are content with their democracy.

“Such levels of democratic dissatisfaction would not be unusual elsewhere,” said Foa. “But for the United States it may mark an end of exceptionalism, and a profound shift in America’s view of itself.”

More broadly, Foa said, the dissatisfaction should be seen in the context of rational actors replying in a logical fashion to the questions posed by researchers. If the systems fail, they don’t deserve the people’s faith.

“Our findings suggest that citizens are rational in their view of political institutions,” said Foa, “and update their assessment in response to what they observe.”

The post Could This Be the End of American Exceptionalism? appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

Document Offers Tantalizing Preview of a Sanders Administration

While former Vice President Joe Biden still leads the Democratic field nationally, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has pulled ahead in Iowa and New Hampshire, and Politico reports that he’s now receiving the kinds of political attacks typically associated with “front-runner status.” It’s a label the Vermont senator appears willing to embrace, as a new document reveals his campaign is already preparing dozens of executive orders if he’s elected president.

According to Jeff Stein and Sean Sullivan of The Washington Post, Sanders is considering a raft of bold, palliative measures that include “unilaterally allowing the United States to import prescription drugs from Canada; directing the Justice Department to legalize marijuana; and declaring climate change a national emergency while banning the exportation of crude oil. Other options cited in the document include canceling federal contracts for firms paying less than $15 an hour and reversing federal rules blocking U.S. funding to organizations that provide abortion counseling.”

The 2020 hopeful has already pledged to repeal President Donald Trump’s “racist” immigration policy on his first day in office. Per the Post, this could include immediately halting construction of the border wall, removing the current administration’s limit on refugees and reinstating the Obama-era legal status of Dreamers — undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.

“The unilateral actions considered by Sanders’ campaign are likely to be fiercely opposed by conservatives and even moderate liberals, and Sanders could face criticism for moving to take more power away from the legislative branch amid ever-expanding executive authority,” Stein and Sullivan note. “Many Democrats and some Republicans have criticized Trump for the numerous executive orders he signed in the early part of his presidency.”

Unlike Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Sanders has expressed reticence about nuking the filibuster for ambitious legislation like a Green New Deal and Medicare for All, signaling his preference for budget reconciliation — a means by which select spending bills are passed with a simple 50-vote majority in the Senate. The sweep of the orders currently under consideration suggests he’s willing to exercise the raw power of the executive office as well.

Read more at The Washington Post.

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What Happens If Iowa and Nevada’s 2020 Caucuses Are Disrupted?

In 2012, the Iowa Republican Party named Mitt Romney (now Utah’s senator) as the winner of its presidential caucuses. But 16 days later, long after Romney rode a wave of momentum into New Hampshire, the Iowa GOP said that then-Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum had actually won after votes that weren’t turned in on caucus night were counted.

In 2016, Democrat Hillary Clinton and Independent-turned-Democrat Bernie Sanders virtually tied in the delegates they had won to the next stage of Iowa’s process. At 2:30 A.M. the next day, the Iowa Democratic Party said that Clinton had won 699.57 state delegate equivalents, while Sanders won 695.49 delegates. Her spokesman declared victory and she got the headlines.

With 2020’s Iowa caucuses days away on February 3 and a tight Democratic field, the question if some version of history will repeat itself is not conjectural. But today’s scenarios mostly concern a disruption of the caucus process in Iowa in cyberspace: from either sabotaging the voting technology or disinformation about the reported outcome. The same threats would also face Nevada, 2020’s third contest and also a state party-run presidential caucus.

National media like National Public Radio and the Associated Press have worried that Iowa’s use of a smartphone app by 1,600-plus precinct chairs to report local results is a cybersecurity risk. The Washington Post has worried about disinformation because the Iowa Democratic Party will release two potentially conflicting figures—raw vote counts and delegates awarded. (Nevada is also using a precinct-reporting app and will release these same figures.)

The response to these threats has been predictable. Officials at the Iowa Democratic Party, the Nevada State Democratic Party, Democratic National Committee and even the federal Department of Homeland Security (whose election security team has worked with both states) all said that many steps have been taken to avert threats that could disrupt the process. The state parties also further said that they have ramped up efforts to combat disinformation.

“Iowa Democrats have worked in partnership with the DNC and national cybersecurity experts to develop systems and safeguards to efficiently and securely report results on caucus night while actively monitoring and combating disinformation,” Troy Price, Iowa Democratic Party chair, said by email. “We take our responsibility to protect the integrity of the democratic process and secure Iowans’ votes very seriously.”

“From the beginning, NV Dems [the Nevada State Democratic Party] has been committed to making our First in the West Caucus the most accessible, expansive and transparent caucus yet,” Shelby Wiltz, Nevada State Democratic Party Caucus director, said by email. “We developed a reporting application [smartphone app] in order to streamline the process and provide our volunteers with additional support to run their caucuses as efficiently as possible.”

However, if something were to go badly wrong with compiling results in Iowa or Nevada—something of a scale that exceeds the random confusion that comes with using any new voting tool—it is unlikely that the two states’ backup systems could quickly verify the results in the wee hours after the caucuses end; certainly not before some candidate claims victory and boards a post-midnight plane to the next state.

That assessment comes from examining publicly available partydocuments about potential caucus recounts. Both states are using similar technology, procedures and press statements. The documents, especially a Nevada 2020 Caucus Recount Manual, suggest that it could be a week or more before the party could examine their paper records to see if they matched the app-filed electronic results. The initial delays come from assembling all the paper records.

“If something fails, then what?” asked David Jefferson, a computer scientist who has analyzed voting systems since the 1990s and a board member of Verified Voting, an advocacy group. “The question is not as easily answered by saying, ‘There are paper backups, so don’t worry.’”

“If there are failures, what is the backup plan?” he continued. “What is the process if there are electronic failures of some kind? What happens if something written down on paper doesn’t match the electronic versions? Then what do they do?”

Party-Run Contests

Presidential caucuses are unlike most elections in America. They are party-run town meetings in more than a thousand local precincts spread across their state. Democrats will only have a few caucuses in 2020, but the two that come early are pivotal. Iowa is 2020’s first contest. Nevada is the third.

Caucus voting is also different. The caucuses will have two rounds of voting, where any candidate who gets less than a viability threshold (usually 15 percent) is disqualified. Voters rank their choices, and if their first choice is not viable, their next viable candidate will get their vote. This process requires the caucus chairs to do some math. After the voting, each caucus divides a preset number of delegates to the winners. The allocations are based not on how many people show up locally, but by geography to balance urban, suburban and rural representation.

All of this complexity is why the Iowa and Nevada state parties wanted to develop an app for precinct chairs to use: first for the caucus math and then to transmit the results of their rounds of voting and delegate allocations. (In Nevada, the caucus chairs will also receive the results of early voting before their caucus begins; Iowa does not have an early voting option.)

Using the app as a calculator is not controversial—although it is likely to lead to some degree of user confusion due to unfamiliarity. That assessment comes from Iowa academics who note that most caucus chairs are over 60 years old and would rather call in their results. But security experts consider receiving and sending data via Wi-Fi or cell phones as risky. Also, because caucuses aren’t government-run elections like primaries, there are few legal penalties for meddling.

There are a few other differences between Iowa and Nevada in the approaches and technology each has chosen. The only time Iowa will expose voting data to online threats is at the end of the night when precinct chairs use the app to file results.

In Nevada, there are more digital systems in use. That state party will link early voting sites to an online voter registration system. (Iowa will print precinct voter lists.) Nevada also will offer four days of early voting, where participants will use party-owned tablets, which is online voting. Nevada also will send the early voting results to each precinct chair’s app, so that all of the early votes and live attendee votes are applied at the local level. In other words, Nevada’s digital system is more complex than Iowa’s system—and perhaps more inclusive.

Both state parties also have backup plans that were approved by the DNC’s technology team and by the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee. The states must have paper record backups of all the voting. Thus, every caucus voter will fill out presidential preference cards. The caucus chairs also will fill out summary sheets that document the precinct’s two rounds of voting and resulting delegate allocations. And, if a precinct chair can’t use an app—for any reason—they can telephone in the results to party headquarters.

In general, coverage of these 2020 plans has focused on the cybersecurity and disinformation threats. Those reports, in turn, have prompted top party officials to take second looks at their mostly undisclosed precautions and publicly seek to project confidence.

“The Rules Committee has been following the news stories and has inquired about the facts,” said James Roosevelt Jr., Rules and Bylaws Committee co-chair. “And while it is not something that comes to us for approval, we have not learned anything that would lead us to intervene.”

But the media coverage hasn’t focused on what would happen next if something significantly interrupted, disrupted or corrupted any part of the caucus process. Nor have statements by top party officials addressed that scenario, as party officials at state and national levels are all making the same points to express confidence in their new procedures and digital tools.

However, if one parses the timelines laid out in state party documents concerning any possible recount, it appears that it could be many days before the final results would be publicly released should some large-scale disruption occur.

Iowa has not released any document explaining how it will handle recounts. But Nevada has, and its process would not look at the voter intent on the individual presidential preference cards, its recount manual said. It also would not look at falsified registrations or bad behavior by participants. Both happened in the past. It would only manually compare the results on the precinct summary sheet to what the caucus chair app reported or the chair called in. Campaigns, which would have to pay for the recount upfront, can send their representatives to observe. But reporters and the public are excluded, the documents said.

Nevada’s recount process starts by giving precinct chairs two days to turn in all of their paper voting records. It envisions finishing 13 days after the state’s February 22 caucus.

Iowa and Nevada Risks Differ

These details suggest different potential snafus in these two high-profile caucus states.

Iowa has fewer cybersecurity risks because their system has fewer online elements. But because the state party will release two sets of numbers—raw vote totals and delegates awarded—there is a prospect of some disinformation if the popular vote winner does not emerge as the winner of the most delegates to the process’s next stage. In other words, the likelihood of disinformation seems more likely than a voting system meltdown, especially if people do not understand the delegate allocations are akin to a state version of the federal Electoral College.

To be sure, Iowa and national party officials are well aware of this scenario.

“Fundamentally, if people want to cast doubts on the results, they can always find ways to say, ‘This is not what democracy looks like,’” said Roosevelt, the Rules Committee co-chair. “In fact, this is what democracy looks like in a diverse country. There are urban areas. There are academic areas. There are rural areas. And different numbers of people will caucus in those areas. But they will be aggregated for a congressional district total. So it is what democracy looks like.”

On the other hand, Nevada’s state party is asking more from its digital tools and from its caucus chairs and volunteers that will run their caucuses. While they, like the Iowa party, have partnered with the same security experts in government (DHS) and academia (Harvard’s Defending Digital Democracy Project) that government officials have been working with to prepare for 2020’s elections, Nevada’s 2020 caucuses will rely on several online-based elements—vote total transmissions, voter registration and online voting for early voters.

For months, the Nevada party’s statements have been upbeat and emphasized their expectations of success. They have released documents with timelines and details if a recount is necessary. But compared to the Iowa Democratic Party, Nevada is placing a bigger bet that their digital tools will deliver.

“Throughout this entire process, protecting the voices of Nevada Democrats has been our number one priority,” said Shelby Wiltz, caucus director. “We continue to work with a team of security experts with varying backgrounds to combat disinformation and to ensure the integrity of our process.”

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.

The post What Happens If Iowa and Nevada’s 2020 Caucuses Are Disrupted? appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

Health Experts: Human-to-Human Spread of New Virus Worrying

BEIJING — World health officials expressed “great concern” Wednesday that a dangerous new virus is starting to spread between people outside of China, a troubling development as China and the world frantically work to contain the outbreak. For a second day, the number of infections grew dramatically.

The new virus has now infected more people in China than were sickened there during the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak. On Wednesday, the number of cases jumped to 5,974, surpassing the 5,327 people diagnosed with SARS.

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The death toll, which stood at 132 Wednesday, is still less than half the number who died in China from SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome. Scientists say there are many questions to be answered about the new virus, including just how easily it spreads and how severe it is.

The World Health Organization’s emergencies chief told reporters on Wednesday that China was taking “extraordinary measures in the face of an extraordinary challenge” posed by the outbreak.

Dr. Michael Ryan spoke at a news conference after returning from a trip to Beijing to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping and other senior government leaders. He said the epidemic remains centered in the city of Wuhan and in Hubei province but that “information is being updated and is changing by the hour.”

Ryan said the few cases of human-to-human spread of the virus outside China — in Japan, Germany, Canada and Vietnam — were of “great concern”and were part of the reason the U.N. health agency’s director-general was reconvening a committee of experts Thursday. It will assess whether the outbreak should be declared a global emergency.

To date, about 99% of the nearly 6,000 cases are in China. Ryan estimated the death rate of the new virus at 2%, but said the figure was very preliminary. With fluctuating numbers of cases and deaths, scientists are only able to produce a rough estimate of the fatality rate and it’s likely many milder cases of the virus are being missed.

In comparison, the SARS virus killed about 10% of people who caught it.

The new virus is from the coronavirus family, which includes those that can cause the common cold as well as more serious illnesses such as SARS and MERS.

Ryan noted there were several aspects of the new virus outbreak that are extremely worrying, citing the recent rapid spike in cases in China. He said that while scientists believe the outbreak was sparked by an animal virus, it’s unclear if there are other factors driving the epidemic.

“Without understanding that, it’s very hard to put into context the current transmission dynamics,” he said.

Meanwhile, countries began evacuating their citizens from the Chinese city hardest-hit by the virus. Chartered planes carrying about 200 evacuees each arrived in Japan and the United States as other countries planned similar evacuations from the city of Wuhan, which authorities have shut down to try to contain the virus.

The first cases in the Middle East were confirmed Wednesday, a family of four from Wuhan that was visiting the United Arab Emirates. Airlines around the world announced they were cutting flights to China, and Hong Kong was suspending rail travel to and from the mainland at midnight.

The number of cases in China rose 1,459 from the previous day, a smaller increase than the 1,771 new cases reported Tuesday. Australia, Finland and Singapore were among those reporting new cases, as the number outside China topped 70. The vast majority are people who came from Wuhan.

The U.S. plane arrived in California after a refueling stop in Alaska. All 201 passengers, who included diplomats from the U.S. Consulate in Wuhan, passed health screenings in China and Anchorage, and were to undergo three days of monitoring at a Southern California military base to ensure they show no signs of the illness.

“The whole plane erupted into cheers when the crew welcomed them back to the United States,” Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, told reporters in Anchorage.

Four passengers on the evacuation flight to Japan had coughs and fevers, and two were diagnosed with pneumonia. It wasn’t clear whether they were infected with the new virus, which first appeared in Wuhan in December. Its symptoms, including cough and fever and in severe cases pneumonia, are similar to many other illnesses.

Takeo Aoyama, an employee at Nippon Steel Corp.’s subsidiary in Wuhan, told reporters he was relieved to return home.

“We were feeling increasingly uneasy as the situation developed so rapidly and we were still in the city,” Aoyama said, his voice muffled by a white surgical mask.

Australia, New Zealand and Britain were among the latest countries to announce they are planning evacuations.

British health secretary Matt Hancock tweeted that “anyone who returns from Wuhan will be safely isolated for 14 days, with all necessary medical attention.” The measures are a step up from those during the devastating 2014-16 Ebola outbreak, when returning travelers from West Africa were asked to monitor themselves for symptoms.

Mark Woolhouse, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, said the steps are justified to prevent the introduction of the virus and its spread.

“There’s always a balance between the draconian measures of public health and what people might want to do, and obviously it’s regrettable if people who turn out not to have the virus are quarantined unnecessarily,” he said.

The outbreak has affected international sporting events. The International Hockey Federation postponed Pro League games in China, and soccer, basketball and boxing qualifiers for the Tokyo Olympics in February have been moved outside of the country.

In China’s Hubei province, 17 cities including Wuhan have been locked down, trapping more than 50 million people in the most far-reaching disease control measures ever imposed.

WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, commended China’s response. The low number of infections outside China “is due in no small part to the extraordinary steps the government has taken to prevent the export of cases,” he said. “They’re doing that at the expense of their economy and other factors.”

During the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic, China was slammed for hiding that outbreak for months, allowing it to spread unchecked before reporting it to the WHO. Even after inviting international experts to investigate the epidemic, SARS patients were moved from hospitals and driven around in ambulances to conceal the true extent of the virus’ spread.

The source of the new virus and the full extent of its spread are still unknown. However, the World Health Organization said most cases reported to date “have been milder, with around 20% of those infected experiencing severe illness.”

Scientists expect many crucial questions about the virus’ behavior will be answered in the coming weeks as the outbreak evolves and it becomes clearer how people are infected.

Although the Chinese health minister and others have suggested that the virus is spreading before people get symptoms, data to confirm that has not yet been shared widely beyond China.

“It’s still unclear whether that takes place,” said Malik Peiris, chair in virology at the University of Hong Kong.

“The fortunate thing about SARS, if there was anything fortunate, was that transmission did not take place before symptoms,” he said. If it turns out that the new coronavirus can indeed be spread by people who don’t show any symptoms, “a pandemic is a scenario that we have to consider.”

___

Associated Press writers Maria Cheng and Jill Lawless in London; Mark Thiessen in Anchorage, Alaska; Amy Taxin in Riverside, California; and Christina Larson in Washington contributed to this report.

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Trump Trial: Pointed Questioning With Bolton Book at the Center

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial shifted swiftly to pointed, back-and-forth questioning Wednesday as Republicans strained to contain the fallout over John Bolton’s forthcoming book, which threatens their hopes of ending the trial with a quick acquittal.

The day started simply enough. Three Republican senators asked Trump’s legal team: If there was more than one motive for Trump’s conduct in Ukraine, as he pushed for political investigations of Joe Biden, should the Senate still consider the Biden pressure an abuse of power?

White House lawyer Pat Philbin responded there’s nothing wrong with the president acting on a personal as well as national interest. He declared the charge against Trump “absurd.”

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Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer sparked lively debate asking whether the Senate could really render a fair verdict without calling Bolton or acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney to testify.

“There’s no way to have a fair trial without witnesses,” responded Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democrat leading the prosecution for the House.

“Don’t wait for the book. Don’t wait ’til March 17, when it is in black and white to find out the answer to your question,” Schiff told the Senate.

That publication date is now in doubt. The White House on Wednesday released a letter to Bolton’s attorney objecting to “significant amounts of classified information” in the manuscript, including at the top secret level. Bolton and his attorney have insisted that the book does not contain any classified information.

The White House action could delay the book’s publication if Bolton, who resigned last September — Trump says he was fired — is forced to revise his draft.

Wednesday’s questions ping-ponged in a spirited hours-long debate, a last gasp at closing arguments from the House prosecutors and Trump’s defense ahead of critical voting this week.

Fielding the written questions, Chief Justice John Roberts asked them of Trump’s accusers and defenders.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell privately told senators he doesn’t yet have the votes to brush back Democratic demands for witnesses now that revelations from Bolton have roiled the trial.

Republican ideas for dealing with Bolton and his book were fizzling almost as soon as they arose — among them, a witness “swap” with Democrats or issuing a subpoena for Bolton’s manuscript.

GOP senators are sternly warned by party leaders that calling Bolton as a witness could entangle the trial in lengthy legal battles and delay Trump’s expected acquittal.

Philbin made exactly that case in his response to Democrats’ first question: “This institution will effectively be paralyzed for months on end,” he said.

Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Main tried to give fresh momentum to a one-for-one witness deal saying it’s “very important that there be fairness, that each side be able to select a witness or two.” But Democrats dismissed those offers, especially as Republicans want to draw Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, deeper into the proceedings.

“It’s irrelevant. It’s a distraction,” said Schumer.

Bolton writes in a forthcoming book that Trump told him he wanted to withhold military aid from Ukraine until it helped with investigations into Democratic rival Joe Biden. That assertion, if true, would undercut a key defense argument and go to the heart of one of the two articles of impeachment against the president.

“I think Bolton probably has something to offer us,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. She met privately Wednesday with McConnell.

Trump disagreed in a tweet Wednesday in which he complained that Bolton, after he left the White House, “goes out and IMMEDIATELY writes a nasty & untrue book. All Classified National Security.”

The uncertainty about witnesses arises days before crucial votes on the issue. In a Senate split 53-47 in favor of Republicans, at least four GOP senators must join all Democrats to reach the 51 votes required to call witnesses, decide whom to call or do nearly anything else in the trial.

Collins, Murkowski and Utah Sen. Mitt Romney signaled an interest in calling Bolton or other witnesses and questions and answers at times appeared directed directly at them.

One Democrat, the centrist Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, said he wouldn’t have a problem hearing from Hunter Biden, who was on the board of a Ukrainian gas company, but doubted it will happen.

Most Republican senators don’t want to call Bolton and most Democrats would rather avoid dragging the Bidens further into the impeachment proceedings. The Bidens were a focus of defense arguments though no evidence of wrongdoing has emerged.

One person watching from the sidelines Wednesday was Lev Parnas, the indicted associate of Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who arrived at the Capitol saying, “I want to testify.” Parnas, who has turned over evidence for the proceedings, cannot enter the Senate with his court-ordered electronic-tracking device.

Protesters swarmed the Capitol complex throughout the day, many demanding a fair trial.

The two days set aside for questions, Wednesday and Thursday, also allow each side more time to win over any undecided senators pondering the witness issue. In the meantime, all will have the opportunity to grill both the House Democrats prosecuting the case and the Republican president’s defense team.

Trump faces charges from Democrats that he abused his power like no other president, jeopardizing Ukraine and U.S.-Ukraine relations by using the military aid as leverage while the vulnerable ally battled Russia. The second article of impeachment says Trump then obstructed the House probe in a way that threatened the nation’s three-branch system of checks and balances.

Republican senators lobbed questions that furthered Trump’s team legal argument that the House presented a shoddy case and that the president’s actions are well within his rights and do not rise to impeachable offense.

Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz wanted to know, Does it matter if there was a quid pro quo?

Trump’s celebrity attorney Alan Dershowitz argued that every president believes his interest and the public interest combine, and such quid pro quo’s made in one’s political interest are not necessarily corrupt.

“It cannot be impeachable if it’s a mixed motive that combines personal interest and the public interest,” Dershowitz told them.

Schiff’s response mentioned one particular senator: He asked his audience to imagine what would have happened if then-President Barack Obama asked the Russians to dig up dirt on then-candidate Romney, the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee?

“All quid pro quos are fine?” Schiff asked. The next president, he said, “can ask for an investigation of you.”

Far from trying to overturn the 2016 election as Trump’s team argues, impeachment is needed to protect the 2020 election, Schiff argued.

The president’s legal team tried to lock up its case Tuesday. Trump attorney Jay Sekulow addressed the Bolton controversy head-on in closing arguments by dismissing the former national security adviser’s manuscript as “inadmissible.”

Democrats say Trump’s refusal to allow administration officials to testify only reinforces that the White House is hiding evidence. The White House has had Bolton’s manuscript for about a month, but its release caught senators off guard.

___

Associated Press writers Alan Fram, Mary Clare Jalonick, Andrew Taylor, Matthew Daly, Laurie Kellman and Padmananda Rama contributed to this report.

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Brexit Deal Cleared by EU Parliament; U.K. Set to Leave Friday

BRUSSELS — The European Union grudgingly let go of the United Kingdom with a final vote Wednesday at the EU’s parliament that ended the Brexit divorce battle and set the scene for tough trade negotiations in the year ahead.

In an emotion-charged session at the session in Brussels, lawmakers from all 28 EU countries expressed their love and sadness, some, notably from Britain’s Brexit Party, their joy.

Some even cried and many held hands during a mournful rendition of the Auld Lang Syne farewell song that contrasted sharply with hard-headed exhortations that Britain won’t find it easy in the talks that will follow the country’s official departure on Friday.

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“We will always love you and we will never be far,” said EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

Britain will leave the EU after 47 years of membership. It is the first country to leave the EU and for many in Europe its official departure at 11 p.m. London time on Friday, Jan. 31 is a moment of enormous sadness and reduces the number in the bloc to 27.

With just two days to go until Brexit day, the legislature overwhelmingly approved Britain’s departure terms from the EU — 621 to 49 in favor of the Brexit deal that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson negotiated with the other 27 EU leaders in the fall of last year. The deal’s passage follows last week’s backing by the U.K.’s Parliament.

The parliament’s chief Brexit official, Guy Verhofstadt, said that “this vote is not an adieu,” adding that it is “only an au revoir.”

Though the deal on Britain’s divorce terms has been cleared, there are still huge uncertainties around the future. After Britain’s departure on Friday, a transition will begin during which the U.K. will remain within the EU’s economic arrangements until the end of the year though it won’t have a say in policy as it will not be a member of the EU anymore.

“That’s it. It’s all over,” said Nigel Farage, who has campaigned for Brexit for two decades. On departing the scene, the man who arguably did more than anyone else in the country’s decision to vote for Brexit in the June 2016 referendum, waved Britain’s Union Flag.

EU countries are preparing for the possibility that talks on a new trade deal with Britain could collapse by year’s end, and no-deal contingency planning for a chaotic end to the so-called transition period is necessary.

Britain is seeking to thrash out a comprehensive trade deal within 11 months.

That timetable is viewed as ambitious by many observers of trade discussions, which can often drag on for years.

“We will not yield to any pressure nor any haste,” French President Emmanuel Macron said. “The priority is to define, in the short, medium and long term the interests of the European Union and to preserve them.”

The EU has said such a timespan is far too short and fears remain that a chaotic exit, averted this week, might still happen at the end of the year if the transition ends without any agreement in place.

Von der Leyen did not let any fuzzy feeling of the historic moment impede her vision on a trade deal with a powerful nation that is pushing more America’s standards of unbridled free enterprise than the EU’s principle of cradle-to-grave social protection.

She said the precondition to granting the UK an advantageous entry into its single market of almost half a billion consumers is that “European and British businesses continue to compete on a level playing field.”

“We will certainly not expose our companies to unfair competition. And it’s very clear the trade-off is simple. The more united the United Kingdom does commit to uphold our standards for social protection and worker’s rights, our guarantees for the environment and other standards and rules ensuring fair competition, the closer and better the access to the single market.”

Sticking to EU standards however is anathema to the Brexiteers who wanted to be free from any constraints imposed by Brussels.

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Leaked Report Shows United Nations Suffered Hack

GENEVA — Sophisticated hackers infiltrated U.N. offices in Geneva and Vienna last year in an apparent espionage operation, and their identity and the extent of the data they obtained is unknown.

An internal confidential document from the United Nations, leaked to The New Humanitarian and seen by The Associated Press, says dozens of servers were compromised including at the U.N. human rights office, which collects sensitive data and has often been a lightning rod of criticism from autocratic governments for exposing rights abuses.

Asked about the report, one U.N. official told the AP that the hack appeared “sophisticated” and that the extent of the damage remained unclear, especially in terms of personal, secret or compromising information that may have been stolen. The official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity to speak freely about the episode, said systems have since been reinforced.

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The skill level was so high it is possible a state-backed actor might have been behind it, the official said.

“It’s as if someone were walking in the sand, and swept up their tracks with a broom afterward,” the official said. “There’s not even a trace of a clean-up.”

The leaked Sept. 20 report says logs that would have betrayed the hackers’ activities inside the U.N. networks — what was accessed and what may have been siphoned out — were “cleared.” It also shows that among accounts known to have been accessed were those of domain administrators — who by default have master access to all user accounts in their purview.

“Sadly … still counting our casualties,” the report says.

Jake Williams, CEO of the cybersecurity firm Rendition Infosec and a former U.S. government hacker, said the fact that the hackers cleared the network logs indicates they were not top flight. The most skilled hackers — including U.S., Russian and Chinese agents — can cover their tracks by editing those logs instead of clearing them.

“The intrusion definitely looks like espionage,” said Williams, noting that the active directory component — where all users’ permissions are managed — from three different domains were compromised: those of United Nations offices in Geneva and Vienna and of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

“This, coupled with the relatively small number of infected machines, is highly suggestive of espionage,” he said after viewing the report. “The attackers have a goal in mind and are deploying malware to machines that they believe serve some purpose for them.”

Any number of intelligence agencies from around the globe are likely interested in infiltrating the U.N., Williams said.

The hack was not severe at the U.N. human rights office, said its spokesman, Rupert Colville.

“We face daily attempts to get into our computer systems,” Colville said. “This time, they managed, but it did not get very far. Nothing confidential was compromised.”

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the attack “resulted in a compromise of core infrastructure components” and was “determined to be serious.” The earliest detected activity related to the intrusion occurred in July and it was detected in August, he said in response to emailed questions.

He said the world body does not have enough information to determine who might have been behind the incursion, but added “the methods and tools used in the attack indicate a high level of resource, capability and determination.

“The damage related to this specific attack has been contained, and additional mitigation measures implemented,” Dujarric wrote. “Nevertheless the threat of future attacks continues, and the United Nations Secretariat detects and responds to multiple attacks of various level of sophistication on a daily basis.”

The internal document from the U.N. Office of Information and Technology said 42 servers were “compromised” and another 25 were deemed “suspicious,” nearly all at the sprawling Geneva and Vienna offices. Three of the “compromised” servers belonged to Human Rights agency, which is located across town from the main U.N. office in Geneva, and two were used by the U.N. Economic Commission for Europe.

The report says a flaw in Microsoft’s SharePoint software was exploited by the hackers to infiltrate the networks but that the type of malware used was not known, nor had technicians identified the command and control servers on the internet used to exfiltrate information. Nor was it known what mechanism was used by the hackers to maintain their presence on the infiltrated networks.

Security researcher Matt Suiche, a French entrepreneur based in Dubai who founded the cybersecurity firm Comae Technologies, reviewed the report and said it appeared entry was gained through an anti-corruption tracker at the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime.

The report mentions a range of IP addresses in Romania that may have been used to stage the infiltration, and Williams said one is reported to have some neighbors with a history of hosting malware.

Technicians at the United Nations office in Geneva, the world body’s European hub, on at least two occasions worked through weekends in recent months to isolate the local U.N. data center from the internet, rewrite passwords and ensure the systems were clean. Twenty machines had to be rebuilt, the report says.

The hack comes amid rising concerns about computer or mobile phone vulnerabilities, both for large organizations like governments and the U.N. as well as for individuals and businesses.

Last week, U.N. human rights experts asked the U.S. government to investigate a suspected Saudi hack that may have siphoned data from the personal smartphone of Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder and owner of The Washington Post, in 2018. On Tuesday, The New York Times’s bureau chief in Beirut, Ben Hubbard, said technology researchers suspected an attempted intrusion into his phone around the same time.

The United Nations, and its human rights office, is particularly sensitive, and could be a tempting target. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, and her predecessors have called out, denounced and criticized alleged war crimes, crimes against humanity and less severe rights violations and abuses in places as diverse as Syria and Saudi Arabia.

Dozens of independent human rights experts who work with the U.N. human rights office have greater leeway — and fewer political and financial ties to the governments that fund the United Nations and make up its membership — to denounce alleged rights abuses.

Ian Richards, president of the Staff Council at the United Nations, expressed concern about the safety of U.N. networks.

“There’s a lot of our data that could have been hacked, and we don’t know what that data could be,” said Richards, whose group advocates for the welfare of employees of the world body.

Potentially affected, for example, are staff in the office of the special envoy for Syria carrying out sensitive investigations and human rights staffers interviewing witnesses.

“How much should U.N. staff trust the information infrastructure the U.N. is providing them?” Richards asked. “Or should they start putting their information elsewhere?”

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Bajak, an AP technology writer, reported from Boston.

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Trump: New Trade Deal With Canada, Mexico to Boost U.S. Growth

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Wednesday signed into law a major rewrite of the rules of trade with Canada and Mexico that he said replaces the “nightmare” of a Clinton-era agreement and will keep jobs, wealth and growth in America.

Trump made renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement a priority during his 2016 campaign, although trade experts say the impact of the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement will be modest.

“This is a cutting-edge, state-of-the-art agreement that protects, defends, and serves the great people of our country,” Trump said in an outdoor signing ceremony at the White House, where the invitation list included more than 70 Republican members of Congress but no Democratic legislators. “Together we are building a glorious future that is raised, grown, built and made right here in the glorious U.S.A.”

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Canada and Mexico already represent the top two export markets for U.S. goods. But the new pact, along with the signing of a “phase one” agreement with China, dials down trade tensions that contributed to slowing economic growth globally.

The leaders of the U.S., Canada and Mexico signed the deal in late 2018. Legislation implementing it received overwhelming, bipartisan support in Congress after several months of behind-the-scenes negotiations between Democratic lawmakers and the Trump administration.

Trump made a point of praising Republican legislators for their work in passing the deal but did not mention the role of Democrats, who said that even if they weren’t invited to the signing ceremony, their influence was being felt.

“What the president will be signing is quite different from what the president sent us,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “We were able to make vast improvements. If we weren’t, we would not have been able to pass the bill.”

Rep. Richard Neal, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said it only passed Congress because of how the Democrats forced changes in Trump’s original proposal. “They voted for it for one reason, is because of how we shaped and altered the president’s proposal,” said Neal, D-Mass.

NAFTA, which took effect in 1994 under President Bill Clinton, tore down trade barriers between the three North American countries and commerce between them surged. But Trump and other critics said NAFTA encouraged factories to leave the United States and relocate south of the border to take advantage of low-wage Mexican labor.

Trump threatened to leave NAFTA if he couldn’t get a better deal, creating uncertainty over regional trade.

His trade negotiator, Robert Lighthizer, pressed for a revamped pact designed to bring factory jobs back to the United States. The new agreement, for example, requires automakers to get 75% of their production content (up from 62.5% in NAFTA) from within North America to qualify for the pact’s duty-free benefits. That means more auto content would have to come from North America, not imported more cheaply from China and elsewhere.

At least 40% of vehicles would also have to originate in places where workers earn at least $16 an hour. That would benefit the United States and Canada — not Mexico, where auto assembly workers are paid a fraction of that amount.

The independent U.S. International Trade Commission last year calculated that the U.S.-Mexico-Canada deal would add 0.35%, or $68 billion, to economic growth and generate 176,000 jobs over six years — not much of a change for a $22 trillion economy with 152 million nonfarm jobs.

“It’s a blip,” said Syracuse University economist Mary Lovely, who studies trade. “The main thing is what it isn’t: It isn’t a continuation of uncertainty, and it isn’t a major disruption” to business.

Critics include environmental groups concerned that the agreement does not address global warming. Some conservatives say the agreement will make cars and other products more expensive for consumers.

The president wasn’t wasting any time highlighting the deal in battleground states that will determine who wins this year’s presidential election. He will travel Thursday to Michigan, where some of the state’s auto workers should benefit from a deal that encourages more manufacturing in the United States.

Trump wants to talk up a deal that about 4 in 5 Americans have heard little or nothing about. Indeed, while a third of the public approves of the deal and only 5% disapprove, a solid majority, 61%, have not formed an opinion, according to a recent poll conducted by Monmouth University.

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Associated Press writer Andrew Taylor and Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.

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Syrian Troops Capture Key Town in Rebel-Held Idlib Province

DAMASCUS, Syria — Syrian government forces captured one of the largest and most strategic rebel-held towns in the country’s northwest, the Syrian military and opposition activists said Wednesday, part of a Russian-backed military assault that has displaced hundreds of thousands of people fleeing to safer areas.

The town of Maaret al-Numan in Idlib province, which had been in rebel hands since 2012, sits on the highway linking Damascus with Aleppo and is considered critical to President Bashar Assad’s forces. The town is now largely empty as a result of intense bombardment in recent weeks.

Its capture is the latest in a series of military triumphs for Assad. His forces have retaken control of most of the country from rebel fighters, largely because of blanket air support from Russia, which helped turn the tide in the nearly nine-year civil war.

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Syria’s nearly nine-year conflict has left more than 400,000 people dead and displaced half of Syria’s population, including more than 5 million who are refugees, mostly in neighboring countries.

An exception to the Syrian government’s success in retaking territory from rebel groups has been Idlib province in the northwestern corner of the country near the Turkish border, which is held by opposition fighters and is dominated by al-Qaida-linked militants. The province is home to some 3 million people, many of them internally displaced.

Syrian government forces have been on the offensive for more than a month in Idlib province, the last rebel stronghold in the country. But in recent days, the government captured more than a dozen villages in the area as the insurgents’ defenses began to crumble.

“Our armed forces continued operations in southern parts of Idlib with the aim of putting an end to crimes committed by terrorist groups,” said army spokesman Brig. Gen. Ali Mayhoub. He listed more than a dozen villages and towns captured, including Maaret al-Numan.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, said insurgents withdrew from the town late Tuesday. Syrian troops had left a road west of the town opened apparently to give a chance for insurgents to pull out and to avoid street battles inside the town.

Syrian state news agency SANA reported that a Syrian reporter working for Russia Today was wounded Wednesday near Maaret al-Numan, saying the woman and her team were subjected to fire by insurgents. SANA said the reporter was in stable condition without giving details about her injury.

But the push appears to have angered Turkey, which backs the opposition and has for years coordinated with Russia, a main backer of Assad, during the conflict. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed frustration with Moscow over its failure to halt Syrian government attacks in Idlib.

Erdogan said Russia is not loyal to agreements reached with Turkey over the situation in Idlib, including a cease-fire that collapsed earlier this month. He said he is in contact with the Russians to tell them to stop the bombing “in Idlib or our patience will run out.”

Amid intense airstrikes and heavy bombardment, trucks loaded with displaced people from areas surrounding Maaret al-Numan, including Jabal al-Zawiya, headed toward areas near the Turkish border, already bursting with internally displaced people.

“Only God knows where our destination will be, where we will find a house. We do not know anything, maybe we will sleep in the car,” said one woman who was among those fleeing with her family Tuesday. She declined to give her name, fearing for her safety.

The Syrian Response Coordination Group, a relief group active in northwestern Syria, reported that until the end of December more than 216,000 people fled their homes in Idlib. In a new release, the group said 167,000 fled since the beginning of January, bringing the total number to more than 383,000 people.

Farther north, government forces began an offensive on the western suburbs of Aleppo in an attempt to push insurgents away from Syria’s largest city. Around noon Wednesday, Syrian troops captured a major suburb west of Aleppo, according to state media.

Maaret al-Numan sits on the highway linking Damascus with Aleppo, once Syria’s main commercial hub. With the town’s fall, government forces are now closer to retaking the critical north-south highway.

In August, Syrian troops captured another town along the highway, Khan Sheikhoun. Now that Syrian troops are in control of Maaret al-Numan, their next target is likely to be Saraqeb, which would become the last major town on the M5 highway that remains outside government control.

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Mroue reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser contributed to this report from Ankara, Turkey.

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Pro-Israel Group Behind Latest Attack Ads on Sanders

A right-wing AIPAC-affiliated group is airing ads targeting Sen. Bernie Sanders in Iowa in an attempt to stop the increasing success of his presidential campaign days before the state’s voters caucus to kick off the 2020 Democratic primary.

The Democratic Majority for Israel, a group tied to AIPAC, sponsored the ad.

“This is dishonest, disgusting, and discrediting,” said Sanders surrogate James Zogby, founder of the Arab-American Institute.

This is dishonest, disgusting, & discrediting of ⁦@DemMaj4Israel⁩. They want to attack ⁦@BernieSanders⁩ cuz he’s balanced on Israel/Palestine, but can’t cuz Dems don’t support their view. So they use “too old, heart attack, socialist” canards. https://t.co/e6N6wvr9hT

— James J. Zogby (@jjz1600) January 29, 2020

The Democratic Majority for Israel was created in January 2019 as an arm of AIPAC to address the Democratic Party’s move toward supporting Palestinian rights, said progressive Jewish advocacy group IfNotNow’s founder Emily Mayer.

“AIPAC created the Democratic Majority for Israel because they know they’re losing ground in the Democratic Party,” said Mayer. “The vast majority of Democrats agree that our country should not give a blank check to Israel if the Israeli government continues the violence of the occupation and to deny Palestinians basic freedom and dignity.”

In the commercial, which begins airing across Iowa Wednesday, a number of Iowans express their hesitance at supporting the Vermont senator’s bid for a number of reasons, including a heart attack Sanders suffered in October.

“The ad raises serious questions about his electability in their own words,” the Democratic Majority for Israel’s leader, pollster Mark Mellman, told Politico. “Health is one of the things that people raised. But in general people say they like Bernie Sanders, they respect him but they say he can’t win.”

As progressive magazine Current Affairs pointed out, centering the argument against a candidate on the candidate’s likeability and well-respected status isn’t a recipe for success.

“It’s funny that even ATTACK ADS against Bernie include people saying ‘I like Bernie, I think he has great ideas,'” the magazine tweeted. “If your opponents say this about you, you are winning.”

By focusing on Sanders’ electability, the Democratic Majority for Israel commercial conspicuously avoids hitting the senator on the merits of the group’s main message. That’s because the Democratic electorate has largely stepped away from rigid support of Israel and more toward support for Palestinian rights, Mayer said in a statement Tuesday evening.

“The ads don’t focus on any of the AIPAC-front group’s foreign policy positions because they know they are increasingly out-of-touch with Democratic voters, so they have to hide behind tired talking points about electability instead,” said Mayer.

Researcher Andrew Perez blasted the attack on Sanders as dishonest and unacceptable on the merits.

“A consultant for health insurers and pharmaceutical interests using a front group named ‘Democratic Majority for Israel’ to attack the first potential Jewish presidential nominee is phenomenally low and should be universally condemned,” said Perez.

Sanders himself hit back against the ad blitz and reports that the Democratic establishment is targeting his campaign in a video posted online Tuesday night.

“It’s no secret that we’re taking on the political establishment and the big money interests, who are now running attack ads against us in Iowa,” Sanders said in a tweet. “But we have the people, and our grassroots movement will prevail.”

It’s no secret that we’re taking on the political establishment and the big money interests, who are now running attack ads against us in Iowa. But we have the people, and our grassroots movement will prevail. pic.twitter.com/77Zxpvn8RB

— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) January 29, 2020

As Common Dreams reported on Monday, the Democratic Majority for Israel is one of a number of groups trying to stop the Sanders campaign.

Sanders surrogate filmmaker Michael Moore warned the senator’s supporters that the road was going to get difficult.

“The knives are out,” said Moore.

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GOP Doesn’t Have Votes Yet to Block Bolton, McConnell Concedes

WASHINGTON — Republican leaders do not yet have the votes to block Democrats from summoning John Bolton or other witnesses at President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell conceded to fellow GOP senators late Tuesday. It could be a major hurdle for Trump’s hopes to end the trial with a quick acquittal.

McConnell gave the news to senators, according to a Republican familiar with a closed-door meeting of GOP senators and granted anonymity to discuss it.

McConnell convened the meeting shortly after Trump’s legal team made its closing arguments in the trial.

Democrats are demanding several witnesses, especially Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser who writes in a forthcoming book that Trump told him he wanted to withhold military aid from Ukraine until it helped with investigations into Democratic rival Joe Biden. That’s the crux of one major article of impeachment against the president.

There are still several days before any potential witness vote would be taken. A decision to call more witnesses would require 51 votes to pass. With a 53-47 majority, Republicans can only afford to lose three.

The news came as Trump’s legal team argued forcefully against the relevance of testimony from Bolton and concluded their defense as the Senate braced for debate on witnesses.

While scoffing at Bolton’s manuscript, Trump and the Republicans have strongly resisted summoning Bolton to testify in person about what he saw and heard as Trump’s top national security adviser.

Senate Republicans spent two days behind closed doors discussing ideas to satisfy those who want to hear more testimony without prolonging the proceedings — or jeopardizing the president’s expected acquittal.

Those lost steam, and Democrats showed no interest.

Chuck Schumer, the Senate’s top Democrat, called a proposal for senators to be shown the manuscript in private, keeping Bolton out of public testimony, “absurd.”

“We’re not bargaining with them. We want four witnesses, and four sets of documents, then the truth will come out,” Schumer said.

Senators are being warned that if they agree to call Bolton to testify or try to access his book manuscript, the White House will block him, beginning a weeks-long court battle over executive privilege and national security. That had seemed to leave the few senators, including Sen. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who have expressed a desire to hear new testimony without strong backing.

Also, other Republicans including Sen. Pat Toomey want reciprocity — bring in Bolton or another Democratic witness in exchange for one from the GOP side. Some Republicans want to hear from Biden and his son, who was on the board of a Ukrainian gas company when his father was vice president.

A day after the defense team largely brushed past Bolton, attorney Jay Sekulow addressed the controversy head-on by dismissing his manuscript — said to contradict a key defense argument about Trump’s dealings with Ukraine — as “inadmissible.”

“It is not a game of leaks and unsourced manuscripts,” Sekulow said.

The argument built on a separate one Monday night from Trump attorney Alan Dershowitz, who said that nothing in the manuscript — even if true — rises to the level of an impeachable offense. Sekulow also sought to undermine the credibility of Bolton’s book by noting that Attorney General William Barr has disputed comments attributed to him by Bolton.

The legal team also delved into areas that Democrats see as outside the scope of impeachment, chastising former FBI Director James Comey and seizing on surveillance errors the FBI has acknowledged making in its Russian election interference probe.

Trump’s attorneys argued that the Founding Fathers took care to make sure that impeachment was narrowly defined, with offenses clearly enumerated.

“The bar for impeachment cannot be set this low,” Sekulow said. “Danger. Danger. Danger. These articles must be rejected. The Constitution requires it. Justice demands it.”

Before consideration of witnesses, the case now moves toward written questions, with senators on both sides getting 16 hours to pose queries. By late in the week, they are expected to hold a vote on whether or not to hear from any witnesses.

“I don’t know that the manuscript would make any difference in the outcome of the trial,” said Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of GOP leadership. And some Republicans said they simply don’t trust Bolton’s word. Rand Paul of Kentucky called Bolton “disgruntled”’ and seeking to make money off his time at the White house.

John Kelly, Trump’s former White House chief of staff, told an audience in Sarasota, Florida, that he believes Bolton.

White House officials privately acknowledge that they are essentially powerless to block the book’s publication, but could sue after the fact if they believe it violated the confidentiality agreement Bolton signed against disclosing classified information.

Trump is charged with abusing his presidential power by asking Ukraine’s leader to help investigate Biden at the same time his administration was withholding hundreds of millions of dollars in security aid. A second charge accuses Trump of obstructing Congress in its probe.

Trump and his lawyers have argued repeatedly that Democrats are using impeachment to try to undo the results of the last presidential election and drive Trump from office.

On Tuesday, as he was resting his case, Cipollone played video clips from House Democrats during the presidential impeachment of Bill Clinton — including several who are now managers of the Trump impeachment trial — in an attempt to depict them as hypocritical for sounding the alarm then about the partisan dangers of impeachment.

“What they are asking you do is to throw out a successful president on the eve of an election, with no basis, and in violation of the Constitution,” Cipollone said. “Why not trust the American people with this decision? Why tear up their ballots?”

Democrats, meanwhile, say Trump’s refusal to allow administration officials to testify only reinforces that the White House is hiding evidence. The White House has had Bolton’s manuscript for about a month, according to a letter from Bolton’s attorney.

No matter the vote on witness, acquittal still seems likely given that Republicans hold a 53-47 majority in the Senate and conviction would require a two-thirds majority.

According to data compiled by C-SPAN, the House managers used just under 22 of their 24 hours over three days, while the White House team used almost 12 hours, or half their time.

___

Associated Press writers Alan Fram, Mary Clare Jalonick, Andrew Taylor, Matthew Daly, Laurie Kellman and Padmananda Rama contributed to this report.

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