Washington, Feb 6 (AP/UNB) — Facing a divided Congress for the first time, President Donald Trump warned emboldened Democrats in his State of the Union speech Tuesday that "ridiculous partisan investigations" could derail economic progress.
Trump peppered his speech with calls for bipartisanship, urging Washington to govern "not as two parties, but as one nation." But his message clashed with the rancorous atmosphere he has helped cultivate in the nation's capital, as well as the desire of most Democrats to block his path during his next two years in office.
The president's remarks previewed how he planned to defend himself as Democrats launch a flurry of investigations into his administration and personal finances.
"If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation," he declared.
Trump's speech to lawmakers and the nation comes at a critical moment in his presidency. He pushed his party into a lengthy government shutdown over border security, only to cave to Democrats. With another shutdown deadline looming, the president has few options for getting Congress to fund a border wall, and he risks further alienating his party if he tries to circumvent lawmakers by declaring a national emergency instead.
Trump made no mention of an emergency declaration his remarks. And though he offered a lengthy defense of his call for a border wall, he delivered no ultimatums about what it would take for him to sign legislation to keep the government open.
"I am asking you to defend our very dangerous southern border out of love and devotion to our fellow citizens and to our country," he said.
In his speech, Trump also planned to announce details of a second meeting with North Korea's Kim Jong Un, outlining a summit on Feb. 27 and 28 in Vietnam, according to his prepared remarks. Trump has been teasing the meeting in recent weeks. The two met last summer in Singapore, though that meeting only led to a vaguely worded commitment by the North to denuclearize.
As he stood before lawmakers, the president was surrounded by symbols of his emboldened political opposition. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was praised by Democrats for her hard-line negotiating during the shutdown, sat behind Trump as he spoke. Many House Democratic women wore white, the color favored by early 20th-century suffragettes. And several senators running for president were also in the audience, including Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey.
Another Democratic star, Stacey Abrams, will deliver the party's response to Trump. Abrams narrowly lost her bid in November to become America's first black female governor, and party leaders are aggressively recruiting her to run for U.S. Senate from Georgia.
In excerpts released ahead of Abrams' remarks, she calls the shutdown a political stunt that "defied every tenet of fairness and abandoned not just our people, but our values."
Trump's address amounted to an opening argument for his re-election campaign. Polls show he has work to do, with his approval rating falling to just 34 percent after the shutdown, according to a recent survey conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
One bright spot for the president has been the economy, which has added jobs for 100 straight months. He said the U.S. has "the hottest economy anywhere in the world."
Washington, Feb 6 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump said Tuesday that he will hold a two-day summit with North Korea leader Kim Jong Un Feb. 27-28 in Vietnam to continue his efforts to persuade Kim to give up his nuclear weapons.
Trump has said his outreach to Kim and their first meeting last June in Singapore opened a path to peace. But there is not yet a concrete plan for how denuclearization could be implemented.
Denuclearizing North Korea is something that has eluded the U.S. for more than two decades, since it was first learned that North Korea was close to acquiring the means for nuclear weapons.
"As part of a bold new diplomacy, we continue our historic push for peace on the Korean Peninsula," Trump said in his State of the Union address.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told Congress last week that U.S. intelligence officials do not believe Kim will eliminate his nuclear weapons or the capacity to build more because he believes they are key to the survival of the regime. Satellite video taken since the June summit has indicated North Korea is continuing to produce nuclear materials at its weapons factories.
Last year, North Korea released American detainees, suspended nuclear and long-range missile tests and dismantled a nuclear test site and parts of a rocket launch facility without the presence of outside experts.
It has repeatedly demanded that the United States reciprocate with measures such as sanctions relief, but Washington has called for North Korea to take steps such as providing a detailed account of its nuclear and missile facilities that would be inspected and dismantled under a potential deal.
At the second Trump-Kim summit, some experts say North Korea is likely to seek to trade the destruction of its main Yongbyon nuclear complex for a U.S. promise to formally declare the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, open a liaison office in Pyongyang and allow the North to resume some lucrative economic projects with South Korea.
"Our hostages have come home, nuclear testing has stopped, and there has not been a missile launch in 15 months," Trump said. "If I had not been elected President of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea.
"Much work remains to be done, but my relationship with Kim Jong Un is a good one," he said in announcing their second meeting.
Stephen Biegun, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's special representative for North Korea, is hopeful, but acknowledges that many issues make it especially complicated for the two countries to "embark on a diplomatic initiative of this magnitude." Biegun was in Pyongyang on Tuesday.
The Vietnamese city where the two leaders will meet was not announced. The country, however, is keen to project itself on the world stage. It is a single-party communist state that boasts of tight political control and a tough security apparatus similar to Singapore's.
Where Singapore leans West, generally appreciative of U.S. influence in Asia, Vietnam leans East. Even with its edgy relationship with China, it has a long fraternal history with Asia's communist states. This is friendly ground for Kim and closer than Singapore.
On a related issue, the State Department said this week that the U.S. and South Korea have reached a tentative agreement on sharing the costs of keeping 28,500 American troops in South Korea, but no final deal has been signed to replace the existing agreement, which expired at the end of 2018. South Korea pays more than $800 million a year, but Trump has demanded that Seoul pay 50 percent more.
News that a tentative agreement has been reached offers relief to those who worried Trump would use the lack of a deal as a reason to pull U.S. troops out of South Korea as part of negotiations with Kim. North Korea has claimed that the presence of American troops in the South is proof that the U.S. has hostile intentions in the region.
Trump said after his first meeting with Kim in June that while he'd like to bring troops home, "that's not part of the equation right now."
Caracas, Feb 5 (AP/UNB) — More than a dozen European Union countries endorsed Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country's interim president Monday, piling the pressure on embattled President Nicolas Maduro to resign and clear the way for a new presidential election.
Maduro stood defiant, rejecting a U.S offer of humanitarian aid that has shifted attention to Venezuela's western border with Colombia, where opponents were gearing up to try to bring emergency food and medicine into the country.
"We are not beggars," Maduro said in a speech to troops broadcast on Venezuelan state TV.
Spain, Germany, France and Britain delivered diplomatic blows to Maduro's rule by publicly supporting Guaido after a Sunday deadline for Maduro to call a presidential election passed without action. Sweden, Denmark, Austria, the Netherlands, Lithuania, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, the Czech Republic, Luxembourg, Poland and Portugal also lined up behind Guaido, who last month declared himself interim president with the support of the United States and many Latin American nations.
In Canada's capital, foreign ministers from the Lima Group of 13 Western Hemisphere countries that took the lead in recognizing Guaido as Venezuela's rightful leader discussed additional steps to pressure Maduro.
Before the closed-door meeting got under way, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned a "dictatorship willing to use force and fear" to maintain its power. He also announced $53 million in humanitarian aid to support the Venezuelan people.
"We know that the people of Venezuela are facing tremendous hardship and they need our help, as do the countries that have taken in those fleeing violence," Trudeau said.
The coalition called upon Venezuela's military to allow badly needed food and medicine across the border and show their loyalty to Guaido. They also urged the United Nationa and the international community to step up with humanitarian assistance.
Maduro showed no signs of caving in and lashed out at the EU, accusing it of taking orders from the Trump administration, who he has repeatedly accused of trying to carry out a coup to get its hands on Venezuela's oil reserves, the world's largest.
But he stopped short of breaking off diplomatic relations with the 16 European countries that recognized his rival Monday, unlike his swift move to cut off ties with the U.S. after it threw its support behind Guaido last month. A growing list of 38 countries has now recognized Guaido, including non-EU European nations Kosovo, Iceland and Albania.
Long-time backers Russia and China are among at least nine nations that have declared their support for Maduro.
Maduro was especially harsh on fellow socialist and Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, saying he would have "blood on his hands" if Maduro is toppled.
"They gave us an ultimatum, as if Venezuela was being governed from Madrid," said Maduro, who was addressing troops Monday on the 27th anniversary of the failed military uprising that thrust his political mentor, the late Hugo Chavez, onto the national stage.
Amid the rising pressure, Maduro has shown signs he's willing to negotiate.
In an interview that aired Monday with Italy's Sky TG24 he said that he had written Pope Francis asking for help in fostering dialogue with the opposition.
The Vatican didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on Maduro's appeal. Recently, while in Central America, Francis called for a "just and peaceful" solution to the crisis in Venezuela. But he didn't say if the Holy See would recognize Guaido and said he had no business interfering in the crisis.
Some of the EU countries backing Guaido are part of a newly formed "International Contact Group" of eight European and four Latin American nations. It aims to facilitate dialogue and is due to hold its first meeting in Uruguay on Thursday.
Portugal's Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva said the group wants to end Venezuela's political stalemate through the ballot box, preventing a civil war or an "illegitimate foreign intervention."
Venezuela's opposition has rejected any offers of dialogue that don't include Maduro's exit as a starting point.
Meanwhile, the opposition was moving ahead with a risky strategy to bring in humanitarian aid from Colombia , hoping to break the all-important military's loyalty to Maduro.
"Soldiers of the fatherland: We need the humanitarian aid to come, for your mother, your sister and all your family," Guaido said at a news conference at the National Assembly to thank the European governments for their support.
"Otherwise we are sentenced to death," he said.
While U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton said last week that boxes of USAID branded baby formula and supplies for malnourished children are being readied to deploy to Venezuela, it's not clear how they can safely enter.
The International Committee of the Red Cross is among the groups who have warned about the dangers of deploying aid without the consent of the Maduro government, which has repeatedly rejected the offers.
Maduro denies the existence of a humanitarian crisis, calling it a fabrication by Venezuela's enemies to sow instability and justify a military intervention.
But David Lipton, the No. 2 at the International Monetary Fund, called Venezuela's economic crisis — marked by widespread food shortages, protracted hyperinflation and the loss of human capital through emigration — an "unprecedented economic storm" that will required generous, broad-based international support to overcome.
"We have seen versions of each," Lipton said on Twitter, "but rarely a combination as severe at this."
Beirut, Feb 5 (AP/UNB) — The United States on Monday called on other nations to repatriate and prosecute their citizens who traveled to Syria to fight with the Islamic State group and who are now being held by Washington's local partners.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces say they have detained more than 900 foreign fighters during their U.S.-backed campaign against IS in northeastern Syria, where they are currently battling to drive the extremists from their last tiny pocket of territory.
The question of what to do with the detained foreigners has grown increasingly thorny since U.S. President Donald Trump's surprise announcement in December that he intends to withdraw all American forces from the country.
"The United States calls upon other nations to repatriate and prosecute their citizens detained by the SDF and commends the continued efforts of the SDF to return these foreign terrorist fighters to their countries of origin," U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Robert Palladino said in a statement.
The statement came as the SDF announced the capture earlier this month of three alleged IS fighters, from Germany, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. In addition to the hundreds of militants, the SDF are also holding more than 4,000 family members of IS fighters.
Very few countries have expressed readiness to repatriate their citizens, posing a dilemma for the Kurdish-led forces, particularly after the US said it plans to withdraw.
Last week, France's Interior Minister Christophe Castaner told French media that a handful of French jihadis had already returned home and more would follow soon after the departure of American troops. Britain refuses to take back citizens who joined IS and has reportedly stripped them of their citizenship. Other European countries have remained largely silent about the fate of men and women whom many see as a security threat.
Palladino commended the SDF's efforts and said the force has "demonstrated a clear commitment to detain these individuals securely and humanely."
IS has lost virtually all the territory it once held in Syria and neighboring Iraq, but Palladino said it remains "a significant terrorist threat," adding that "collective action is imperative to address this shared international security challenge."
A Defense Department Inspector General report released Monday said IS "remains a potent force of battle-hardened and well-disciplined fighters that could likely resurge in Syria absent continued counterterrorism pressure." It said the militants are still able to coordinate offensives "as well as operate as a decentralized insurgency."
The campaign against the extremists is currently focused on a small, remote patch of land in eastern Syria, where thousands of civilians remain holed up with the militants. The battles have slowed in recent days to allow civilians to flee from the nearly 1.5 square mile (4 square kilometer) area.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which closely tracks the conflict, said more than 36,000 people, including many foreigners and over 3,000 fighters, have trickled out of the small area in recent weeks. Most were evacuated to displaced people camps but many were also taken for interrogation and questioning.
Syrian opposition activists said Monday that the SDF killed six children and three women who were trying to flee.
An SDF spokesman did not immediately respond to request for comment on the shooting.
The Observatory said the incident occurred Saturday night, adding that the gunfire came from SDF positions. It said the civilians had paid money to smugglers to take them out of the area controlled by the extremists.
The DeirEzzor 24, an activist collective, said the incident occurred near Tanak oil field, which is close to the front line between IS and the SDF, blaming the Kurdish-led force for the shooting.
Los Angeles, Feb 3 (AP/UNB) — The second in a string of powerful storms battered California on Saturday, shutting key highways after water and mud rushed into lanes from bare hillsides in wildfire burn areas where thousands of residents were under evacuation orders.
Flash flood warnings were issued for huge swaths of Southern California and forecasters said the system brought more than 4 inches (10 centimeters) of rain at lower elevations and several feet of snow in the mountains, where whiteout conditions closed roads.
A wind gust in Santa Barbara County topped 80 mph (128 kph) as the storm moved south and at one point dropped more than a half-inch (1.27 centimeters) of rain in five minutes. Trees and power lines were down across the region.
In Malibu, where the Woolsey fire last year destroyed homes and burned hillsides bare, officials closed Pacific Coast Highway and many other roadways after mud carried trees and rocks into lanes. Residents whose homes survived the flames barricaded their properties with sandbags to protect their properties from floodwaters.
Carol Cavella was evacuated during the November fire and again Saturday when the creek behind her house threatened to overflow and inundate her backyard.
The 86-year-old put her cat in the car and drove to a coffee shop on higher ground, her son-in-law, Warren Bowman said.
"She does not scare easily, but she got a little scared watching that water rise," Bowman said. He was trying to convince her to come to his house in Los Angeles but she said she'd rather wait to see if the waters recede and she can return home.
The California Department of Transportation said Saturday night in a tweet that the southbound lanes of U.S. 101, a vital route between Los Angeles and points north and west, have been reopened, while the northbound lanes of the highway remain closed from State Route 150 to Milpas.
Earlier Saturday, in the Montecito area of Santa Barbara County, several miles of U.S 101 were closed because of flooding.
Elsewhere in the county, evacuations were ordered or recommended for neighborhoods near the Thomas, Whittier and Sherpa fire scars.
"This is a dangerous situation," the National Weather Service said, warning that the high rates of rain could send boulders sluicing down denuded hillsides along with the mud and debris.
It has only been a little over a year since a downpour on the huge Thomas Fire burn scar unleashed a massive debris flow that destroyed or damaged hundreds of homes in the seaside community of Montecito. The disaster killed 21 people, and two others have never been found.
Rescue crews scrambled Saturday to pluck motorists from cars caught in rising waters, said Mike Eliason, a spokesman for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. He urged drivers who come upon flooded intersections to find alternate routes.
"Turn around. Driving through is going to be a costly error in judgment," he said. "It's just not worth it."
Multiple accidents were reported on slick highways, including a crash on Interstate 5 that killed a volunteer member of a sheriff's search and rescue team, and injured several others.
The team from Ventura County was on its way to a training exercise when members stopped to help at the scene of a single-vehicle rollover crash.
A minivan carrying a family was traveling too fast for the wet conditions, lost control and plowed into members of the team, Los Angeles County fire Capt. Tony Imbrenda said. Nine people were transported to hospitals, including three members of the team. The victim, Jeff Dye, was a volunteer with the Fillmore Mountain Search and Rescue Team, the sheriff's department said.
"This is a very unfortunate situation that could've been avoided," Imbrenda said, warning motorists to slow down in the rain.
In the Holy Jim fire area southeast of Los Angeles, where an August blaze scoured tens of thousands of acres in the Cleveland National Forest, volunteers using heavy equipment removed debris and deepened a creek bed to help prevent flooding.
The National Park Service warned visitors to Yosemite National Park of possible road closures and advised drivers to bring tire chains in the event of snow or icy conditions.
Winter storm warnings were in place for the Sierra Nevada along with avalanche warnings on the Nevada side of the range. The Sierra is already loaded with snow from a series of storms in January. The weather service said areas could see accumulations of up to 10 feet (3 meters) over the next few days.
The weather service lifted flash-flood watches for areas burned by the Mendocino Complex, Camp and Carr wildfires in Northern California. About an inch (2.5 centimeters) of rain was recorded in the San Francisco Bay Area before the storm moved south early Saturday.
A weaker storm soaked much of the state on Thursday Two cold weather systems will follow on Sunday and Monday, bringing additional widespread showers and snow, forecasters said.