San Juan, Aug 2 (AP/UNB) — Less than 24 hours before Gov. Ricardo Rosselló was expected to leave office, Puerto Ricans had no idea who would replace him as political chaos threatened to paralyze the island with a constitutional crisis.
Rosselló has promised to step down at 5 p.m. Friday in response to huge street protests by Puerto Ricans outraged at corruption, mismanagement and an obscenity-laced chat that was leaked in which the governor and 11 male allies made fun of women, gay people and victims of Hurricane Maria.
"It's frustrating. We're in limbo," said Jose Ramos, a taxi driver. "The island doesn't have a path forward."
As one of his last acts, Rosselló put forward veteran politician and lawyer Pedro Pierluisi to fill the vacant secretary of state post, next in line for the governorship under the U.S. territory's constitution.
Pierluisi is a former representative to the U.S. Congress seen by most ordinary Puerto Ricans as a conciliatory, relatively uncontroversial figure, unlikely to be met by continued street demonstrations.
"I offered to take a step forward for Puerto Rico at this moment given my love for my country," Pierluisi said. "My only loyalty as governor, if I have the support of legislators, is to the people of Puerto Rico.
The Puerto Rican House of Representatives is expected to vote on Pierluisi's confirmation Friday afternoon. If he is rejected, Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez automatically becomes governor as the next in the order of succession, even though she has said she would unwillingly accept the job.
Some lawmakers said a House vote for Pierluisi would count as confirmation and allow him to assume the governorship. Opponents said he requires Senate approval, too, and they would sue to stop him becoming governor without that.
"The situation could not be more complicated," said Sen. José Antonio Vargas Vidot, an independent. "This is absurd, what we're going through. We never thought something like this could happen."
Rep. Rafael Hernández, a leader among opposition legislators, said he believes a "yes" vote by the House for Pierluisi on Friday would mean Vázquez becomes governor at 5 p.m. and Pierluisi her secretary of state.
He said he would sue to stop any attempt to make Pierluisi governor, throwing the island into even more uncertainty.
"We would go to the courts early Saturday or Friday afternoon," he said. "Anything can happen."
Another obstacle for Pierluisi is Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, who has said he would not vote for Rosselló's nominee and wants to run for governor himself next year. Several legislators have said they prefer Rivera Schatz over Pierluisi, but the Senate leader is a powerful figure deeply associated with Puerto Rico's political and business elite and his elevation to the governorship could re-ignite popular outrage.
Rivera Schatz delivered a scathing attack on his critics Thursday afternoon and said the Senate would hold a hearing on Pierluisi on Monday.
"Let's give him the chance to defend himself," Rivera Schatz said. "I don't think I'm going to be convinced."
He criticized Pierluisi for being an attorney with the law firm that represents the federal control board overseeing the island government's finances, calling it "Puerto Rico's No. 1 enemy."
Rosselló's New Progressive Party holds majorities in both chambers of the legislature, meaning a united party could have easily named the next governor.
Many Puerto Rican legislators were predicting that Pierluisi did not have the votes to be confirmed.
But Rep. Gabriel Rodríguez Aguiló of the governing party said that an overwhelming number of constituents had called to ask for his confirmation.
"We ran out of paper," he said in reference to secretaries taking notes on the calls.
After jubilation at the success of their uprising against Rosselló, Puerto Rican protesters have been frustrated at the political infighting and paralysis that has followed.
Some lawmakers joined Rivera Schatz in complaining about Pierluisi's work for the law firm representing the control board, which was created by Congress to oversee Puerto Rico's finances before the territory, saddled with more than $70 billion in public debt, declared a form of bankruptcy. Pierluisi's brother-in-law also heads the board, which has clashed repeatedly with Rosselló and other elected officials over demands for austerity measures.
"That's a serious conflict of interest," Rep. José Enrique Meléndez told The Associated Press.
Sen. Eduardo Bhatia of the opposition Popular Democratic Party, accused Rivera Schatz of trying to maneuver himself into the top job.
"This attitude of (Rivera Schatz) taking the island hostage is very dangerous," Bhatia tweeted. "'It's him or no one' is in keeping with what has been a life silencing and destroying democracy."
Puerto Rico's 3.2 million people are U.S. citizens who can't vote for president and don't have a voting representative in Congress. While politicians are members of the Democratic or Republican parties, the island's main political dividing line is between Rosselló's statehood-favoring party and the Popular Democratic Party, which favors a looser association with the federal government. Both parties' memberships contain a mix of Democrats and Republicans.
More than a dozen officials have resigned in the wake of the chat that drove Rosselló from office, including former Secretary of State Luis Rivera Marín.
Pierluisi, who took a leave of absence from the law firm, said in a statement Wednesday that much work remains to be done to recover the trust of federal authorities, Congress and the people of Puerto Rico as it also struggles to recover from Hurricane Maria.
Pierluisi represented Puerto Rico in Congress from 2009 to 2017 and then ran against Rosselló in the 2016 primaries and lost. He also previously served as justice secretary under Rosselló's father, Pedro Rosselló, when he was governor.
Junction City, Aug 2 (AP/UNB) — A regional gas pipeline ruptured early Thursday in Kentucky, causing a massive explosion that killed one person, hospitalized five others, destroyed railroad tracks and forced the evacuation of a nearby mobile home park, authorities said.
Some homes were consumed by the blaze when firefighters extinguished the flames hours later, Lincoln County Emergency Management Director Don Gilliam said.
"The part of the area that has been compromised, there's just nothing left," Gilliam said when asked whether residents might return to their trailer homes. "The residences that are still standing or damaged will be accessible. There doesn't really look like there's any in-between back there. They're either destroyed or they're still standing."
Kentucky State Police spokesman Robert Purdy said at least five homes were completely destroyed and structures within 500 yards (457 meters) had damage. He said a handful of people who were missing after the blast have now been accounted for.
The 30-inch (76-centimeter) wide pipeline moves natural gas under such high pressure that the flames reached about 300 feet (91 meters) in the air and could be seen throughout the county, he said.
The explosion around 1 a.m. was so huge that it showed up on radar, according to a tweet from WKYT-TV meteorologist Chris Bailey. It took hours for firefighters to douse the flames, with trucks repeatedly refilling their tanks and returning to the scene.
Purdy said the fire burned so hot that it left the landscape barren, burning trees and grass and leaving only red dirt, rocks and gravel.
Nearby residents said they were awakened by the initial blast.
Naomi Hayes told The Associated Press that she lives within a mile of the scene and felt her home shake, then saw light outside the window.
"It was so bright that it was like daylight outside, just with an orange tint," she said.
"When we went out the door, we could see the flames. They were so high and so bright ... and the noise was insane," she said about the burning fire. "It was a roar, like a monster roar. We had to yell to talk to each other. That's how deafening it was."
Another nearby resident, Sue Routin, told WLEX-TV that the blast shook her home too.
"It woke us up and it was just a big roar and it was fire going up into the sky as far as you could see," she said. "Our windows were shaking really bad, and our doors and the ground, you could hear the ground just moving and tumbling and rolling. And then we got to feeling the heat from the fire, so we got in our vehicle and took off to get away from it."
Purdy said the woman who died was taken to the medical examiner's office in Frankfort to determine her cause of death. Purdy said it appears she may have left her home due to the fire and was overtaken by the heat. Lincoln County Coroner Farris Marcum identified the woman as Lisa Denise Derringer, 58, of Stanford.
Emergency managers said the rupture involved the Texas Eastern Transmission pipeline, which is owned and operated by Enbridge. The pipeline stretches several thousand miles from the Mexican border in Texas to New York City. A statement from the company based in Calgary, Canada, said "Enbridge is aware of and is responding to a rupture on the Texas Eastern system in Lincoln County."
Enbridge spokesman Jim McGuffey said two other nearby gas lines don't appear to be affected but will be inspected. He said there's no indication of what might have caused the explosion.
The blast also damaged railroad tracks, forcing 31 trains to back up overnight, authorities said. Crews were working to repairs the tracks. Purdy said the track should reopen later in the day.
Some 75 people in the Indian Camp trailer park in the Moreland community were evacuated to the New Hope Baptist Church in Stanford. Authorities urged people gathering for the multistate 127 Yard Sale to stay away as crews worked to contain the damage.
Gilliam said affected residents could access their homes by Thursday evening. Representatives from Enbridge, the Red Cross and other groups gathered with residents to offer assistance.
Emergency management officials were beginning an assessment Thursday evening and would continue Friday, Gilliam said.
Purdy said several agencies are investigating to determine what caused the explosion.
The National Transportation Safety Board said it was sending three investigators to the site.
Cincinnati, Aug 2 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump used a revved-up rally Thursday in Cincinnati to tear into the Democrats he has been elevating as his new political foils, attacking four liberal congresswomen of color and their party's urban leaders, while also training fire on those he could be facing in 2020.
But the president mostly avoided the racial controversy that has dominated recent weeks as he basked in front of the raucous crowd for nearly 90 minutes, unleashing broadside after broadside on his political foes. Trump, who had faced widespread criticism for not doing more to stop the chants of "Send her back" about Somali-born Rep. Ilhan Omar at a rally last month, seemed to want to avoid further furor, saying he would prefer his supporters avoid the chant. He largely stuck to a greatest hits performance.
While he did not mention Omar or her three colleagues by name in the opening moments of his Ohio gathering, the target of his attacks was unmistakable.
"The Democrat party is now being led by four left-wing extremists who reject everything that we hold dear," Trump said of Omar and her fellow House Democrats Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts.
But the fleeting mention did not lead to further chants. Nor did an extended attack on Democratic leaders of urban areas, which Trump has laced into in recent days as part of his incendiary broadsides against Rep. Elijah Cummings and the majority-black city of Baltimore.
"No one has paid a higher price for the far-left destructive agenda than Americans living in our nation's inner cities," Trump said, drawing cheers from the mostly white crowd in the packed arena on the banks of the Ohio River. "We send billions and billions and billions for years and years and it's stolen money, and it's wasted money."
The rally was the first for Trump since the "Send her back" chant at a North Carolina rally was denounced by Democrats and unnerved Republicans fearful of a presidential campaign fought on racial lines.
In the early moments of Thursday's rally, Trump declared, "I don't want to be controversial." He mostly stuck to it.
With the eyes of the political world shifting from two days of Democratic debates to see if Trump would stoke racial anger, the president largely delivered his standard stump speech. But Trump, the most avid cable news viewer in the history of the office, could not resist delivering his review of the Detroit debates.
"That's was long, long television," Trump said. "The Democrats spent more time attacking Barack Obama than they did attacking me, practically."
He mocked some of the leading Democratic contenders, reviving his nickname of "Sleepy" for Joe Biden, teasing Elizabeth Warren for claiming some Native American heritage and lashing the Democrats for their health care and immigration proposals.
"The Democrats have never been so far outside the mainstream," Trump claimed.
Hours earlier, Trump announced that China had not kept up its end of trade negotiations, prompting him to increase tariffs 10 percent on $300 billion worth of new goods. Trump at the rally expressed confidence that a deal would get settled but said, "Until such time there is a deal we'll be taxing the hell out of China."
The rally was also Trump's first since special counsel Robert Mueller testified before Congress, the apparent final chapter of the Russia probe that has shadowed the White House for more than two years. But Trump only mentioned it once, mocking Mueller's at-times halting appearance by sarcastically saying the investigator seemed "sharp as a tack."
Though boisterous at the beginning, the crowd began to thin as Trump crossed the hour mark and stayed disciplined in touting the strong economy and his administration's accomplishments. The president's remarks were also interrupted twice by protesters.
Speaking to reporters before leaving for Cincinnati, Trump said he didn't know whether his would revive the "Send her back" chant anyway or what his response would be if they did — adding that, regardless, he "loves" his political supporters.
"I don't know that you can stop people," Trump told reporters. "If they do the chant, we'll have to see what happens."
The chant in North Carolina followed racist tweets Trump sent against Omar and three other first-term lawmakers of color, instructing them to get out of the U.S. "right now" and saying if the lawmakers "hate our country," they can "go back" to their "broken and crime-infested" countries.
Two weeks ago, Trump wavered in his response to the divisive cries, letting the chant roll at the rally, expressing disapproval about it the next day and later retreating from those concerns.
Since then, Trump has pushed ahead with his attacks of Cummings and Baltimore. Heightening the drama, Trump's Ohio rally took place against a backdrop of simmering racial tension in the host city of Cincinnati.
A variety of opinions about the chant dotted the crowd before the rally.
Robyn McGrail, 64, and her husband were celebrating their 44th wedding anniversary by attending their third Trump rally. She said that if the crowd did begin the chant, "I'll probably be cheering. If they don't like America, they should leave. We love our country."
Cynthia Wells, 63, a Cincinnati nurse, said she would follow Trump's lead.
"We listen to him and we won't do it," Wells said. "I don't think it will happen. If it does, we won't participate because he's against that. That's not what his message is."
Hours before the president's rally, Omar posted a photo of herself and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in Africa, writing, "They said 'send her back' but Speaker Pelosi didn't just make arrangements to send me back, she went back with me."
Trump captured Ohio by nearly 9 percentage points in 2016, and he fared somewhat better among midterm voters in Ohio than among voters in Rust Belt neighbors Michigan and Wisconsin. About half of Ohio voters, 49%, expressed approval of Trump's job as president, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of the electorate in 2018. Forty-four percent of voters in Michigan, and 43% of voters in Wisconsin, approved of Trump.
Several protests took place around the Trump rally, including one at the nearby National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. It focuses on the slavery era and current struggles against injustice around the world.
Detroit, Aug 1 (AP/UNB) — The ideological divisions gripping the Democratic Party intensified on Wednesday as presidential candidates waged an acrimonious battle over health care, immigration and race.
Biden, who found himself the target of criticism from nearly half the candidates on the debate stage, was forced to defend his decades-old political record on multiple fronts as other White House hopefuls sought to tear him down. One of his chief rivals, California Sen. Kamala Harris, charged that Biden's past work with segregationists in the Senate could have prevented Barack Obama from becoming the nation's first black president, and stopped her and fellow presidential candidate Cory Booker, both of whom are black, from becoming senators.
"Had those segregationists had their way, I would not be a member of the United States Senate, Cory Booker would not be a member of the United States Senate, and Barack Obama would not have been in a position to nominate" Biden to become vice president.
When pressed, Biden repeatedly leaned on his relationship with Obama.
"We're talking about things that occurred a long, long time ago," Biden said. He added: "Everybody's talking about how terrible I am on these issues. Barack Obama knew who I was."
Biden and Harris also had a spirited exchange over health care, with Harris saying Biden's plan was too timid and the former vice president saying that the senator's plan was vague and far too expensive. But it was the discussion of race that marked an escalating rift in the Democratic primary just two weeks after President Donald Trump issued racist calls for four female congresswomen of color to leave the country, even though all of them are American citizens. Over the weekend, Trump again took aim at a prominent congressman of color, charging that "no human being would want to live" in his "rat-infested" Baltimore district, which has a large black community.
This is an internal fight many Democrats do not want, fearing that it could alienate some white voters they would like to reclaim from Trump in 2020. For Biden's struggling competitors, however, they see no better way to undermine his candidacy than raising questions about his commitment to black voters.
While Biden took many hits on the stage, there were multiple opponents aiming for Harris as well. Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard tore into Harris' record as a prosecutor and attorney general in California.
Biden, who leads virtually all early polls, is considered the leading moderate onstage. In addition to Harris, Booker and Gabbard, his more progressive opponents include New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, former Obama administration housing chief Julián Castro, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and entrepreneur Andrew Yang.
The evening opened with a spirited exchange over the future of health care. Biden charged that Harris' plan would cost taxpayers $3 trillion even after two terms in office and would force middle-class taxes to go up, not down. He said that would put Democrats at a disadvantage against Trump.
"You can't beat President Trump with double talk on this plan," he said.
Harris slapped back that Biden was inaccurate.
"The cost of doing nothing is far too expensive," Harris said. She added: "Your plan does not cover everyone in America."
There were also tense exchanges on immigration that pitted the 76-year-old Biden against a younger slate of more diverse candidates. There were no candidates of color onstage in the first wave Tuesday night. On Wednesday night, there were four.
Biden was flanked by Harris on one side and Booker on the other. As Biden greeted Harris onstage moments before the opening statements, he quipped, "Go easy on me, kid."
Biden suggested that some of his rivals favor immigration laws that are far too forgiving. Castro, for example, would decriminalize illegal border crossings.
"People should have to get in line. That's the problem," Biden charged.
Castro shot back: "It looks like one of us has learned the lessons of the past and one has not."
While the first primary votes won't come for six more months, there is a sense of urgency for the lower-tier candidates to break out. More than half the field could be blocked from the next round of debates altogether — and possibly pushed out of the race — if they fail to reach new polling and fundraising thresholds implemented by the Democratic National Committee.
The dire stakes have forced many Democrats to turn against one another in recent weeks. But they also blasted the impact of the Trump administration on American life.
Biden said Trump was tearing at the "fabric of America" and highlighted the value of diversity in his opening statement.
"Mr. President, this is America," Biden said of the diverse slate of candidates on stage.
Harris also referenced Trump's divisive presidency.
"This becomes a moment we must fight for the best of who we are," Harris said. "We are better than this."
Washington, Aug 1 (AP/UNB) — The Trump administration on Wednesday extended waivers allowing foreign firms to work at Iranian nuclear facilities without U.S. penalties even as it hit Iran's foreign minister with sanctions.
In a notice sent to Congress, the State Department said it had extended for 90 days waivers that permit European, Russian and Chinese companies to conduct civilian-nuclear cooperation at several Iranian sites. The waivers, which were due to expire on Thursday, had been the subject of heated internal debate with Iran hawks opposed to their extension but others arguing that more time was needed to allow companies to wind down their operations.
The waivers are the last remaining elements that the U.S. still recognizes from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal from which President Donald Trump withdrew last year.
At the same time, the administration announced that it had imposed financial sanctions on Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as part of its escalating campaign of pressure against the Islamic Republic. The highly unusual action of penalizing the top diplomat of another nation comes a month after Trump signed an executive order placing sanctions on Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Those sanctions are largely symbolic as U.S. officials said Zarif's travels to New York for official U.N. business will not be inhibited, in accordance with America's international obligations, and the fact that he has little financial interest in American jurisdictions.
In response to that announcement, Zarif tweeted, "It has no effect on me or my family, as I have no property or interests outside of Iran."
Shortly after the Zarif sanctions were announced, the administration notified Congress that it had decided to renew the civilian-nuclear cooperation waivers in the national security interest of the country. Ending the waivers would have been the next logical step in the maximum pressure campaign against Iran and it was favored by Trump's allies in Congress. But it would have also escalated tensions with Iran and some European allies as fears of conflict in the Persian Gulf grow.
In its notification to Congress, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press, the State Department said that extending the waivers would "continue to serve both our Iran strategy and broader non-proliferation goals by constraining Tehran's nuclear capabilities for as long as possible while we work toward a new deal that addresses the totality of Iran's malign behavior."
Yet, deal critics, including Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, said the waivers should be revoked because they give Iran access to technology that could be used for weapons. In particular, they targeted a waiver that allows conversion work at the once-secret Fordow site. The other facilities are the Bushehr nuclear power station, the Arak heavy water plant and the Tehran Research Reactor.
Deal supporters said the waivers give international experts a valuable window into Iran's atomic program that might otherwise not exist. They also say some of the work, particularly on nuclear isotopes that can be used in medicine at the Tehran reactor, is humanitarian in nature.