Caracas, Dec 10 (AP/UNB) — Socialist President Nicolas Maduro further consolidated power in Venezuelan local elections Sunday, while accusing President Donald Trump of plotting to overthrow him.
The majority of nearly 2,500 council seats spread across the crisis-stricken country went to members of Maduro's United Socialist Party of Venezuela, election officials loyal to Maduro said.
After casting his ballot, Maduro spoke on state TV scoffing at Trump and other foreign leaders who have labeled him a dictator.
"An attempt is under way today coming straight from the White House to destroy our way of life in Venezuela and to overthrow our constitutional democracy," Maduro said.
The election came as an economic crisis rocks the once-wealthy oil country after two decades of socialist rule. Millions of Venezuelans have fled searching for a better life.
Maduro's government has banned the most popular opposition parties from elections, while leading figures in the movement are jailed or go into exile fearing for their safety.
Other anti-government leaders urged a boycott of the municipal elections, not wishing to legitimize what they consider a corrupt process.
The broader anti-government movement is focused on rallying international condemnation of Maduro on Jan. 10, the start of his second six-year term.
The United States, many European nations and most Latin American countries have rejected the May 20 election that Maduro won by a landslide as a sham.
Little more than 27 percent of some 20 million eligible voters cast ballots in Sunday's council races, said Tibisay Lucena, president of the National Electoral Council, praising the election as strengthening Venezuela's democracy.
Maduro said many opposition leaders are waiting for a U.S.-led invasion without giving details. Later asked about the supposed invasion plot, socialist party chief Diosdado Cabello said he is convinced the United States is eager to remove Maduro.
"There is no coup in the world where the U.S. has its arms crossed," he said.
Washington, Dec 9 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump said Saturday that chief of staff John Kelly will leave his job by year's end amid an expected West Wing reshuffling reflecting a focus on the 2020 re-election campaign and the challenge of governing with Democrats reclaiming control of the House.
Nick Ayers, Vice President Mike Pence's chief of staff, is Trump's top choice to replace Kelly, and the two have held discussions for months about the job, a White House official said. An announcement was expected in the coming days, the president told reporters as he left the White House for the Army-Navy football game in Philadelphia.
Kelly had been credited with imposing order on a chaotic West Wing after his arrival in June 2017 from his post as homeland security secretary. But his iron first also alienated some longtime Trump allies, and he grew increasingly isolated, with an increasingly diminished role.
Known through the West Wing as "the chief" or "the general," the retired Marine Corps four-star general was tapped by Trump via tweet in July 2017 from his perch atop the Homeland Security Department to try to normalize a White House riven by infighting and competing power bases.
"John Kelly will leaving — I don't know if I can say retiring — but he's a great guy," Trump said. "John Kelly will be leaving at the end of the year. We'll be announcing who will be taking John's place — it might be on an interim basis. I'll be announcing that over the next day or two, but John will be leaving at the end of the year. ... I appreciate his service very much."
Kelly had early successes, including ending an open-door Oval Office policy that that had been compared to New York's Grand Central Station and instituting a more rigorous policy process to try to prevent staffers from going directly to Trump.
But those efforts also miffed the president and some of his most influential outside allies, who had grown accustomed to unimpeded access. Kelly's handling of domestic violence accusations against the former White House staff secretary also caused consternation, especially among lower-level White House staffers, who believed Kelly had lied to them about when he found out about the allegations.
Lauding Kelly, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said the country was "better for his duty at the White House." He called Kelly "a force for order, clarity and good sense."
Trump and Ayers were working out terms under which Ayers would fill the role and the time commitment he would make, the White House official said. Trump wants his next chief of staff to agree to hold the job through the 2020 election. Ayers, who has young triplets, had long planned to leave the administration at the end of the year, but he has agreed to serve in an interim basis through the spring of 2019.
The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive personnel matters.
Word of Kelly's impending departure comes a day after Trump named his picks for attorney general and ambassador to the United Nations, and two senior aides shifted from the White House to Trump's campaign.
In any administration, the role of White House chief of staff is split between the responsibilities of supervising the White House and managing the man sitting in the Oval Office. Striking that balance in the turbulent times of Trump has bedeviled both Kelly and his predecessor, Reince Priebus.
White House aides say Trump has developed confidence in Ayers, in part by watching the effectiveness of Pence's largely independent political operation. Ayers also earned the backing of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, the president's daughter and son-in-law and senior advisers, for taking on the new role, White House officials said.
The Georgia native's meteoric rise in GOP politics included a successful stint at the Republican Governors Association, time as campaign manager for former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty's failed White House bid and consultant work for dozens of high-profile Republicans, including Pence.
Ayers, 36, would be the youngest chief of staff since 34-year-old Hamilton Jordan served under Jimmy Carter. Kelly is 68.
Trump had discussed replacing Kelly on multiple occasions, including following the negative publicity surrounding Kelly's handling of domestic violence accusations against then-White House staff secretary Rob Porter. Some lower-level White House staffers believed Kelly had lied to them about when he knew of the allegations and when he made clear to Porter that he'd have to leave.
Trump had often tossed around potential replacements, but sensitive to charges that his administration has been marked by record turnover, he said in July that he would keep Kelly in the job through 2020.
But inside the White House, it was viewed largely as an attempt to clamp down on speculation about Kelly's fate during the midterm elections, rather than a true vote of confidence.
Kelly, too, made no secret of the trials of his job, and often joked about how working for Trump was harder than anything he'd done before, including on the battlefield. In private, Kelly, whom friends said took the job out of a sense of duty to his country, cast himself as safeguarding the public from an impulsive and mercurial president. Reports of those conversations infuriated the president, who is especially sensitive of attacks on his competence and perceptions he is being managed.
At an event celebrating the 15th anniversary of the Department of Homeland Security, Kelly joked that he missed everyone in the department "every day," offering a deadpan eye roll and smile that drew laughs and applause.
"At six months, the last thing I wanted to do was walk away from one of the great honors of my life, being the secretary of Homeland Security, but I did something wrong and God punished me, I guess," he joked.
Kelly, who had threatened to quit on several occasions, told friends he would be happy if he lasted until his one-year anniversary: July 28.
Rio De Janeiro, Dec 8 (AP/UNB) — At least 12 people, including two children, were killed Friday when police engaged in a shootout with bank robbers, according to authorities in northeastern Brazil.
The two attempted heists in the state of Ceara began around 2:30 a.m. in the downtown area of the city of Milagres, police said in a statement.
News portal G1 reported that the robbers blocked off a road into the downtown and took hostages as they began entering two banks on the same street. When police responded, a firefight ensued, leading to several deaths.
Lielson Macedo Landim, the mayor of Milagres, told G1 the hostages were executed by the criminal group and not killed by police fire. Macedo Landim said that two children, between 10 and 13 years old, were among the dead hostages.
His account could not be immediately verified, as police did not respond to numerous email and phone requests for more information about the shootout or how the hostages died.
Two suspects were apprehended, and several fled, according to the police statement. Authorities also seized three vehicles, several firearms and explosives.
Andre Costa, secretary of public security in Ceara, said that six of the dead were the attackers. Authorities have yet to release identities of the dead.
To search for the remaining would-be robbers, the city announced on its Facebook page that it was suspending public services and urged residents to remain in their homes.
Latin America's largest nation routinely is the world leader in total annual homicides. Ceara is one of the country's most violent states.
Washington, Dec 8 (AP/UNB) — Former FBI Director James Comey spoke to House investigators behind closed doors for almost seven hours Friday, begrudgingly answering questions about the Justice Department's decisions during the 2016 presidential election.
Comey, who appeared under subpoena, announced after the meeting that he would return for more questioning Dec. 17. Appearing annoyed, he said "we're talking about Hillary Clinton's emails, for heaven's sake, so I'm not sure we needed to do this at all."
A transcript of the interview, expected to be released shortly, "will bore you," Comey said.
Two GOP-led committees brought Comey in as they sought to wrap up a yearlong investigation into the department's decisions in 2016. Republicans argue that department officials were biased against Donald Trump as they started an investigation into his campaign's ties to Russia and cleared Democrat Hillary Clinton in the probe into her email use. Comey was in charge of both investigations.
Democrats have said the investigations by the House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform committees are merely a way to distract from and undermine special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe. Mueller took over the department's investigation when he was appointed in May 2017.
After the questioning was underway, some Republicans signaled they were unhappy with Comey's level of cooperation. California Rep. Darrell Issa said Comey had two lawyers in the room, his personal lawyer and a lawyer from the Justice Department. He said the department lawyer repeatedly instructed Comey not to answer "a great many questions that are clearly items at the core of our investigation."
"He answered the questions he had to answer," said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois. But he added that he was left with the impression that "we got nowhere today."
Florida Rep. Ted Deutsch said the Republican majority "wishes to only ask questions still about Hillary Clinton's emails, all to distract from the big news today, which is what's happening in court."
As the interview with Comey ended, Mueller revealed new details about his Russia investigation in court on Friday in the cases of Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and former personal lawyer Michael Cohen.
It was unclear if Comey is returning the week after next because Republicans felt he was being uncooperative, or if it was an issue with timing. While such closed-door interviews often extend late into the night, lawmakers said Friday that the interview would end in the afternoon because of scheduling issues.
Just as the meeting ended, President Trump tweeted that "it is being reported that Leakin' James Comey was told by Department of Justice attorneys not to answer the most important questions. Total bias and corruption at the highest levels of previous Administration. Force him to answer the questions under oath!"
While it was uncertain if Comey spoke under oath Friday, lying to Congress is a crime under any circumstance.
Over the past year, Republicans on the two committees have called in a series of officials and suggested after the closed-door meetings that there is evidence of bias at the Justice Department. The investigation's most public day was a 10-hour hearing in which former FBI special agent Peter Strzok defended anti-Trump texts he sent to a colleague as he helped lead both investigations. Strzok fought with Republican lawmakers in a riveting hearing that featured Strzok reading aloud from his sometimes-lewd texts, and Democrats and Republicans openly yelling at each other.
New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the top Democrat on the Judiciary panel, vowed to end the investigation when Democrats take the House majority in January.
"This is a waste of time to start with," Nadler said. "The entire purpose of this investigation is to cast aspersions on the real investigation, which is Mueller. There is no evidence whatsoever of bias at the FBI or any of this other nonsense."
Nadler and the top Democrat on the Oversight panel, Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, said in a statement after the meeting that Comey's testimony yielded few new details.
"As the special counsel's investigation appears to be closing in on the president and his associates, our Republican colleagues seem intent on spending their final days in power attempting to provide cover to President Trump and attempting to re-litigate the Department of Justice's decision not to prosecute Secretary Clinton," the Democrats said.
Comey, who has testified publicly on Capitol Hill about both the Clinton and Russia investigations, appeared for the interview after unsuccessfully fighting the subpoena in court. It was the first time he answered lawmakers' questions since an explosive June 2017 hearing in which he asserted that Trump fired him to interfere with his FBI investigation of alleged Russia ties to the Trump campaign.
His lawyers said he would prefer to testify publicly and said the committees were prone to selectively reveal information for political purposes.
"Don't do it in a dark corner and don't do it in a way where all you do is leak information," said Comey's attorney, David Kelley.
Under the deal struck with the Judiciary Committee, Comey was to be free to speak about Friday's questioning and a transcript was to be released soon afterward.
A report released this June from the Justice Department's internal watchdog said Comey was "insubordinate" in his handling of the Clinton email investigation in the final months of the 2016 campaign. But it also found there was no evidence that Comey's or the department's final conclusions were motivated by political bias toward either candidate.
The report said the former FBI director, who announced in July 2016 that Clinton had been "extremely careless" with classified material but would not be charged with any crime, repeatedly departed from normal Justice Department protocol. Yet it did not second-guess his conclusion that Clinton should not have been prosecuted, despite assertions by Trump and his supporters that anyone less politically connected would have been charged.
Washington, Dec 8 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump's former lawyer, Michael Cohen, was in touch as far back as 2015 with a Russian who offered "political synergy" with the Trump election campaign and proposed a meeting between the candidate and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the special counsel said Friday.
Court filings from prosecutors in New York and special counsel Robert Mueller's office lay out previously undisclosed contacts between Trump associates and Russian intermediaries and suggest the Kremlin aimed early on to influence Trump and his campaign by playing to both his political aspirations and his personal business interests.
The filings, in cases involving Cohen and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, cap a dramatic week of revelations in Mueller's ongoing investigation into potential coordination between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.
They make clear how witnesses previously close to Trump — Cohen once declared he'd "take a bullet" for the president — have since provided damaging information about him in efforts to come clean to the government and in some cases get lighter prison sentences. One witness, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, provided so much information to prosecutors that Mueller this week said he shouldn't serve any prison time.
The interviews with prosecutors have yielded intimate information about episodes under close examination, including possible Russian collusion and hush money payments during the campaign to a porn star and Playboy model who say they had sex with Trump a decade earlier.
In one of the filings, Mueller details how Cohen spoke to a Russian who "claimed to be a 'trusted person' in the Russian Federation who could offer the campaign 'political synergy' and 'synergy on a government level.'" The person repeatedly dangled a meeting between Trump and Putin, saying such a meeting could have a "phenomenal" impact "not only in political but in a business dimension as well."
That was a reference to a proposed Moscow real estate deal that prosecutors say could have netted Trump's business hundreds of millions of dollars. Cohen admitted last week to lying to Congress by saying discussions about a Trump Tower in Moscow ended in January 2016 when in fact they stretched into that June, well into the U.S. campaign.
Cohen told prosecutors he never followed up, though the offer bore echoes of a proposal presented by Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos, who raised the idea to other advisers of leveraging his connections to set up a Putin encounter.
In an additional filing Friday evening, prosecutors said Manafort lied to them about his contacts with a Russian associate and Trump administration officials, including in 2018.
The court papers say that Manafort initially told prosecutors he didn't have any contact with anyone while they were in the Trump administration. But prosecutors say they recovered "electronic documents" showing his contacts with multiple administration officials. The officials are not identified in the court filings.
Manafort, who has pleaded guilty to several counts, violated his plea agreement by then telling "multiple discernible lies" to prosecutors, they said.
Prosecutors in Cohen's case said that even though he cooperated in their investigation into the hush money payments to women he nonetheless deserved to spend time in prison.
"Cohen did provide information to law enforcement, including information that assisted the Special Counsel's Office," they said. "But Cohen's description of those efforts is overstated in some respects and incomplete in others."
Cohen, dubbed Trump's "legal fixer" in the past, also described his work in conjunction with Trump in orchestrating hush money payments to two women —adult actress Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal— who said they had sex with Trump.
Prosecutors in New York, where Cohen pleaded guilty in August in connection with those payments, said the lawyer "acted in coordination and at the direction" of Trump, suggesting they had implicated him in Cohen's crime.
Despite such specific allegations of Trump's actions, the president quickly tweeted after news of the filings: "Totally clears the President. Thank you!"
In addition, the filings reveal that Cohen told prosecutors he and Trump discussed a potential meeting with Putin on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in 2015, shortly after Trump announced his candidacy for president.
In a footnote, special counsel Robert Mueller's team writes that Cohen conferred with Trump "about contacting the Russia government before reaching out to gauge Russia's interest in such a meeting," though it never took place.
In meetings with Mueller's team, Cohen "provided information about his own contacts with Russian interests during the campaign and discussions with others in the course of making those contacts," the court documents said.
Cohen provided prosecutors with a "detailed account" of his involvement, along with the involvement of others, in efforts during the 2016 presidential campaign to complete a deal to build a Trump Tower Moscow, the documents said. He also provided information about attempts by Russian nationals to reach Trump's campaign, they said.
However, in the crimes to which he pleaded guilty in August, he was motivated "by personal greed and repeatedly used his power and influence for deceptive ends."
Prosecutors said the court's Probation Department estimated that federal sentencing guidelines call for Cohen to serve at least four years in prison. They said that "reflects Cohen's extensive, deliberate and serious criminal conduct."
Prosecutors say Cohen "already enjoyed a privileged life," and that "his desire for even greater wealth and influence precipitated an extensive course of criminal conduct."