Washington, Nov 14 (AP/UNB) — Did someone say caravan?
One week after Election Day, President Donald Trump's daily drumbeat of warnings about a caravan of "bad thugs" and potential terrorists intent on invading the U.S. from Mexico has largely fallen silent.
The migrant caravans are still trudging along, the largest still about 1,000 miles from the southern border, but Trump — and many in the conservative media — have dramatically reduced the frequency and intensity of their dire warnings now that they no longer feel the same urgency to stir up GOP voters.
Trump and his media allies have largely moved on. They're more focused now on the possibility of electoral chicanery in recounts in Florida's Senate and governor's races.
Within the West Wing and in Trump's orbit of allies, there is a sense that the caravan was a useful midterm messaging tool, one that became the centerpiece of an eleventh-hour pre-election strategy modeled on the president's 2016 campaign pledges to crack down on illegal immigration, according to four White House officials and outside advisers not authorized to speak publicly about private conversations.
But once the election was over, the president's attention turned elsewhere, the officials and advisers said.
For weeks before the election, the caravan was a dominant news story. The largest caravan was believed to have formed in Honduras on Oct. 12 and first was featured in a "Fox & Friends" segment four days later, which prompted a tweet from the show's most famous fan.
As the midterms approached, Trump and his conservative allies flooded the zone with harsh rhetoric and hardline policy proposals, including sending troops to the border, revoking birthright citizenship and an ad featuring a Latino man convicted of killing two police officers that was widely condemned as racist.
But the caravan was Trump's favorite talking point. During his final blitz of campaign rallies, he hammered at the threat night after night and, without evidence, suggested that Democrats were supporting — and perhaps funding — the march of migrants.
"Democrats are inviting caravan after caravan of illegal aliens to pour into our country, overwhelming your schools, your hospitals, and your communities," Trump said in Fort Wayne, Indiana, on election eve. "If you want more caravans, if you want more crime, vote Democrat tomorrow. ... If you want strong borders and safe communities, no drugs, no caravans, vote Republican."
Trump ratcheted up his rhetoric on Twitter too. One tweet read: "We will NOT let these Caravans, which are also made up of some very bad thugs and gang members, into the U.S. Our Border is sacred, must come in legally. TURN AROUND!"
That tweet, on Oct. 31, was his last on the subject. Since the election, he's invoked the caravan only once. Asked about it during a news conference last Wednesday, Trump said "I'm not just talking about the caravans" when talking about militarizing the southern border and his proposed wall.
The thousands of Central American migrants in the largest caravan have been leapfrogging their way across western Mexico, despite the prospect of a hostile reception at the border. Most appeared intent on taking the Pacific coast route northward to the border city of Tijuana, which was still about 1,350 miles (2,200 kilometers) away.
On Friday, Trump signed a proclamation restricting asylum applications but did so with little fanfare and no press coverage before he departed for a trip to Paris. The White House did not respond to a request for comment on whether further action on immigration was imminent.
"Clearly, this was an election-eve stunt designed to whip up the base that really didn't have much foundation in fact and, clearly, when the election was over there was no need to keep beating those drums," said Mark Feldstein, journalism professor at the University of Maryland. He added that what the conservative media did with the story was "really toxic" and divided an already polarized country.
"The very fact that they dropped it so suddenly is just further confirmation of how bogus the story was in the first place," Feldstein said.
Fox News spent more than 33 hours discussing the caravan through Election Day, according to a study by Media Matters, a progressive media watchdog organization. On Nov. 7, the day after the election, Fox had no discussions centered on the caravan. On Nov. 8, the network spent four minutes and 57 seconds on discussions centered on the caravan, according to the study.
Some Republicans said the caravan's fade from the spotlight was a natural part of the election cycle.
"Every election, there are a series of issues that rise to artificial highs and then, once the votes are cast, settle back down to normal noise," said Ari Fleischer, former press secretary to President George W. Bush. "Both parties do it; this isn't some trumped up phony issue. The caravan will be back in the news once it gets closer to the border."
Trump had suggested sending up to 15,000 troops to the border; currently there are approximately 1,000 at the border itself and another 4,800 in staging areas nearby. The deployment is scheduled to end Dec. 15 but that could be changed, extended or shortened.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis plans to visit the border Wednesday. He was asked by a reporter Tuesday whether the military mission along the border of south Texas will change, now that the lead migrant caravan in Mexico is headed much farther west.
"Right now, the mission is exactly what it is," he said. "We'll have to see what the future holds. But right now that's the only mission I have."
Washington, Nov 14 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump is weighing an administration-wide shakeup as he looks to prepare his White House for divided government, but it is unclear who is going and who is staying.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was thought to be out as soon as this week, according to two people with knowledge of the issue, but she is now likely to remain in the post for a longer period because there is no obvious successor in place.
Trump has soured on Nielsen and White House chief of staff John Kelly, in part over frustration that his administration is not doing more to address what he has called a crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, according to the people. But the scope of the contemplated changes is far broader, as Trump gears up for a wave of Democratic oversight requests and to devote more effort to his own re-election campaign.
According to people familiar with the situation, Trump is also discussing replacing Kelly with Vice President Mike Pence's chief of staff, Nick Ayers. Kelly, a retired Marine general, has been credited with bringing order and process to a chaotic West Wing, but he has fallen out of favor with the president as well as presidential daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner.
Ayers, a seasoned campaign operative, would restore a political-mindset to the role, but he faces stiff opposition from some corners of the West Wing, with some aides lobbying Trump directly against the move.
Other changes are afoot, as Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke are being discussed for replacement. And in an extraordinary move Tuesday, first lady Melania Trump's office called publicly for the firing of Trump's deputy national security adviser, Mira Ricardel.
For all of the talk of churn, Trump often expresses frustration with aides and then does not take action. Talk of Kelly's exit has percolated for months and he remains in place.
Nielsen had hoped to complete one year in the job and leave in December, but it appeared unlikely she would last that long, said two sources. Both people who had knowledge of the debate spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Curbing illegal immigration is Trump's signature issue — and one he returns to as a way to rally his most loyal supporters.
But anyone who takes over at Homeland Security is likely to run up against the same problems that Nielsen faced. The administration has already tried to clamp down at the border but those efforts have been largely thwarted or watered down due to legal challenges.
Trump also told allies that he never fully trusted Nielsen, whom he associated with President George W. Bush, a longtime foe. And he told those close to him that he felt, at times, that her loyalty was more toward her longtime mentor — Kelly — than to the president.
Zinke, who faces several ethics investigations, said in interview with The Associated Press on Monday that he has spoken in recent days with Trump, Pence and Kelly about probes into his leadership and they remain supportive. He denied any wrongdoing.
Ross addressed turnover rumors at a Yahoo! Finance summit Tuesday, saying he was in the post to give back to the country and support Trump.
"I worked very hard to get President Trump elected," he said. "Now I'd like to work equally hard to have him succeed and be re-elected."
Questions about Nielsen's job security are not new. Earlier this year, she pushed back on a New York Times report that she drafted a resignation letter but did not submit it, after Trump scolded her at a Cabinet meeting.
Nielsen has led the sprawling post-9/11 federal agency since December. She had been chief of staff to Kelly when he was Trump's first Homeland Security secretary. A DHS spokesman would not comment on whether she was leaving.
"The secretary is honored to lead the men and women of DHS and is committed to implementing the president's security-focused agenda to protect Americans from all threats and will continue to do so," spokesman Tyler Houlton said.
Nielsen advocated for strong cybersecurity defense, and often said she believed the next terror major attack would occur online — not by planes or bombs. She was tasked with helping states secure elections following interference by Russians during the 2016 election.
She pushed Trump's immigration policies, including funding for his border wall and defended the administration's practice of separating children from parents, telling a Senate committee that removing children from parents facing criminal charges happens "in the United States every day." But she was also instrumental in stopping the separations.
Just last week, the administration announced that migrants would be denied asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border if they crossed illegally, creating regulations that circumvent immigration laws stating anyone can claim asylum no matter how they arrive to the country. The decision would affect about 70,000 people annually and was immediately challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Nielsen also moved to abandon longstanding regulations that dictate how long children are allowed to be held in immigration detention, and requested bed space from the U.S. military for some 12,000 people in an effort to detain all families who cross the border. Right now there is space for about 3,000 families and they are at capacity.
She got into heated discussions with Trump and White House aides several times over immigration policy, as she sought to explain the complicated legal challenges behind immigration law and pushed for a more diplomatic approach.
It's unclear who would replace her. The job requires Senate confirmation and there is no deputy secretary. Under Secretary for Management Claire Grady would be the acting head if Nielsen left.
Washington, Nov 14 (AP/UNB) — A retired four-star general is President Donald Trump's pick to be U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, filling a key diplomatic vacancy at a time when U.S.-Saudi relations are being tested by the slaying of a journalist critical of the Saudi royal family.
Trump announced Tuesday that he is nominating John Abizaid, the longest-serving commander of the U.S. Central Command, to lead the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh. It's a post that has been empty since former ambassador Joseph Westphal left in January 2017.
If confirmed by the Senate, Abizaid would become ambassador as the Trump administration is weighing the U.S. response to the killing of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
Turkish officials claim Khashoggi was killed by a 15-member assassination squad sent from Riyadh on orders from the highest levels of the Saudi government.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has revoked the visas of the Saudis implicated in the killing. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has said additional measures will be taken.
Abizaid, who retired in 2007, served in wars in Grenada, the Persian Gulf, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. Following the war in Iraq, Abizaid assumed control of CENTCOM, which overseas military operations in 20 nations stretching from northeast Africa to the Middle East to Central and South Asia.
Abizaid, of Nevada, currently works as a private consultant and is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Previously, he was the distinguished chair of the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He also served in various senior positions on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Fort Lauderdale, Nov 14 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump sought to intervene in Florida's legally mandated vote recount Tuesday, calling on the state's Democratic senator to admit defeat and again implying without evidence that officials in two pivotal counties are trying to steal the election.
"When will Bill Nelson concede in Florida?" Trump said in a morning tweet. "The characters running Broward and Palm Beach voting will not be able to 'find' enough votes, too much spotlight on them now!"
There have been bumps as Florida undergoes recounts for both the governor and Senate races. Palm Beach County said it won't finish its recount by the Thursday deadline. In oft-criticized Broward County, additional sheriff's deputies were sent to guard ballots and voting machines, a compromise aimed at alleviating concerns. Those counties are both Democratic strongholds.
Still, the state elections department and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which are run by Republican appointees, have said they have seen no evidence of voter fraud. A Broward County judge challenged anyone who has evidence of fraud to file a report.
Meanwhile, a flurry of legal action continued. Nelson and a Democratic campaign committee filed two more lawsuits on Tuesday, including one that asks a federal judge to set aside looming deadlines for a machine recount as well as a hand recount, if it is ordered.
Presidents have historically sought to rise above the heated partisan drama surrounding election irregularities. Former President Barack Obama wasn't so publicly involved when a recount and legal process in the 2008 election delayed a Democrat taking a Minnesota Senate seat until July 2009. Former President Bill Clinton struck a lower tone during the 2000 presidential recount, which also centered on Florida.
But this year, the Florida recount was personal for Trump. He aggressively campaigned in the state in the waning days of the election and put his finger on the scales of the Republican gubernatorial primary this summer by endorsing former Rep. Ron DeSantis. After Election Day, Trump's aides pointed to the GOP's seeming success in the state as a validation that the president's path to re-election remained clear — a narrative that has grown hazier as the outcomes have become less certain.
White House spokeswoman Mercedes Schlapp said Tuesday the president "obviously has his opinion" on the recount.
"It's been incredibly frustrating to watch," she said.
U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Trump is attempting to bully Florida election officials out of doing their jobs. Schumer and Nelson, both Democrats, spoke with reporters Tuesday in Washington.
"It's just plain wrong. It's un-American." Schumer said. "If he really wants an honest and fair election, President Trump will stop bullying, harassing and lying about the vote in Florida, and let the election proceed without the heavy hand of the president tipping the scale of justice."
Schumer said election officials should have all the time they need to count every vote, rather than Sunday's deadline. Nelson and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee filed two lawsuits aimed at that goal. One lawsuit questions rules used by the state for hand recounts, while a second asks a federal judge to give counties more time to complete both a machine and a hand recount. Right now counties are doing a machine recount.
Marc Elias, a campaign attorney for Nelson, contended there was no legal need for the existing deadlines since the Senate winner would not be sworn in until January.
Still, there's not much choice but for Florida to go through the process. State law requires a machine recount in races where the margin is less than 0.5 percentage points. In the Senate race, Republican Rick Scott's lead over Nelson was 0.14 percentage points. In the governor's contest, unofficial results showed Republican former Rep. Ron DeSantis ahead of Democratic Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum by 0.41 percentage points.
Once the recount is complete, if the differences in any of the races are 0.25 percentage points or less, a hand recount will be ordered, meaning it could take even longer to complete the review of the Senate race if the difference remains narrow.
The recount process has drawn a sharp focus on several county election officials, especially Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes.
Snipes has drawn criticism from Trump and other high-profile Republicans as her county's election returns showed a narrowing lead for Scott during the ballot-counting in the days after Election Day, and even former Gov. Jeb Bush — who appointed her in 2003 — said she should be removed. Asked about those criticisms Tuesday, she hinted that she may not run for re-election in 2020.
"It is time to move on," she said, later adding, "I'll check with my family and they'll tell me what I'm doing."
Speaking to about 200 supporters in Orlando church Tuesday night, Gillum said claims without evidence by Trump, Scott and Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio that electoral fraud was taking place were sowing seeds that could undermine confidence in the democratic process.
"Disenfranchisement shows up with the president of the United States, the sitting governor of the state of Florida, the junior senator of the United States from the state of Florida when they take to Twitter, and Facebook and ... accuse the supervisor of elections, or an entire county for that matter, of fraud, of stuffing the ballot box, of doing everything they could do manipulate the outcome of the election without a shred of evidence. That is called disenfranchisement," Gillum said.
Meanwhile, in Palm Beach, Elections Supervisor Susan Bucher said the county's 11-year-old tallying machines aren't fast enough to complete the recount by Thursday. The county is doing the Senate race first and will then do the governor's race. If the deadline is not met in a race, the results it reported Saturday will stand.
Malibu, Nov 14 (AP/UNB) — Southern California's huge wildfire roared to life again Tuesday in a mountain wilderness area. But in a sign of significant progress against the blaze, more neighborhoods were reopened to thousands of residents who fled last week.
A massive plume rose suddenly at midmorning in the Santa Monica Mountains near the community of Lake Sherwood, prompting authorities to send numerous aircraft to drop fire retardant and water on the blaze.
Forecasters had warned of ongoing fire danger because of persistent Santa Ana winds, the withering, dry gusts that sweep out of the interior toward the coast, pushing back moist ocean breezes.
But except for an apartment building that burned overnight in coastal Malibu, there was little sign of fire activity elsewhere in the vast fire zone west of Los Angeles.
Officials tempered optimism with caution, saying there were hotspots and pockets of unburned vegetation.
"We are not out of the woods yet. We still have some incredibly tough conditions ahead of us," Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen said.
The death toll from the Woolsey fire stood at two — a pair of adults found last week in a car overtaken by flames. They have not been identified.
The number of homes and other structures destroyed had reached 435. Damage assessments were continuing, with crews having to gain access to canyon areas on foot.
"That number is going to rise significantly," Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said.
Residents who stayed behind in coastal communities that were cut off by road closures were getting supplies by boat. Gas, food, baby wipes and horse pellets were among the items brought ashore in the Paradise Cove area of Malibu.
"It's pretty cool. It's really amazing that people out there know that we're kind of stranded here in Malibu," Cherie Millford Smart said.
Large boats arrived from Redondo Beach, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) to the south. Supplies were unloaded onto smaller boats, jet skis and even surf boards. Some residents donned wetsuits and swam ashore with cases of water and beer.
Miley Cyrus and Liam Hemsworth lost their Malibu home in the wildfire and are donating $500,000 to The Malibu Foundation through Cyrus' charity, The Happy Hippie Foundation.
A statement from the couple says they "are very grateful to be safe along with their animals."
The fire has grown to nearly 152 square miles (393 square kilometers), but containment also increased to 40 percent.
The fire has burned more than 80 percent of National Parks Service land in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
Authorities lifted evacuations Tuesday in several neighborhoods, and other areas have been repopulated since the weekend. Tens of thousands of people remained under evacuation orders, down from a high of as many as 250,000.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell urged patience by residents being turned back at roadblocks.
The area has not seen such a firestorm since the Old Topanga fire of 1993. The firestorm has left an array of hazards, including trees ready to fall, downed power lines, toxins, water main and gas leaks, and other destroyed infrastructure.
"We want to get you home but more important we want you to be safe," McDonnell said.'
Forecasts called for the Santa Ana winds to lighten Wednesday and Thursday. A forecast of possible rain next week would help firefighters but also raised the prospect of potential mud flows, Osby said.
At least 42 people were confirmed dead in a wildfire that obliterated the Northern California town of Paradise , making it the deadliest wildfire in recorded state history. The search for bodies continued.
The cause of the Southern California fires remained under investigation.
Southern California Edison said last week that it reported to the California Public Utilities Commission "out of an abundance of caution" that there was an outage on an electrical circuit near where the fire started Thursday but there was no indication its equipment was involved in the fire reported two minutes after the outage.
Downed power lines and blown transformers have been blamed for several of the deadly fires that have burned in recent years.