Washington, Jan 25 (AP/UNB) — Roger Stone, a confidant of President Donald Trump, was arrested in the special counsel's Russia investigation in a pre-dawn raid at his Florida home on Friday and was charged with lying to Congress and obstructing the probe.
The seven-count indictment against Stone, a self-proclaimed "dirty trickster," is the first criminal case in months from special counsel Robert Mueller.
It provides the most detail to date about how Trump campaign associates in the summer of 2016 were actively seeking to politically benefit from the release of hacked material damaging to Hillary Clinton's campaign. It alleges that unnamed senior Trump campaign officials contacted Stone to ask when stolen emails relating to Clinton might be disclosed.
The indictment does not charge Stone with conspiring with WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy website that published the emails, or with the Russian officers Mueller says hacked them. Instead, it accuses him of witness tampering, obstruction and false statements about his interactions related to WikiLeaks' release. Some of those false statements were made to the House intelligence committee, according to the indictment.
CNN aired video of the raid at Stone's Fort Lauderdale home, showing FBI agents in body armor using large weapons and night-vision equipment, running up to the home and banging repeatedly on the door.
"FBI open the door!" one shouts. "FBI, warrant!" Stone could then be seen in the doorway in his sleepwear before he was led away. He is expected to appear in court later Friday.
Stone is the sixth Trump aide charged in Mueller's investigation into potential coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign and the 34th person overall. The investigation has laid bare multiple contacts between Trump associates and Russia during the campaign and transition period and efforts by several to conceal those communications.
Well-known for his political antics and hard ball tactics, Stone has reveled in being a Washington wheeler-dealer dating back to the Nixon administration. He has also pushed several conspiracy theories and was an early and vocal supporter of Trump's candidacy.
The case against Stone comes weeks after Trump's former national security adviser was castigated by a judge in open court and just hours before Paul Manafort, his ex-campaign chairman , was due in court on allegations that he had lied to Mueller's prosecutors.
Stone was one of Trump's earliest political advisers, encouraging both his presidential runs. He briefly served on Trump's 2016 campaign, but was pushed out amid infighting with then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. Stone continued communicating with Trump on occasion and stayed plugged into the circle of advisers — both formal and informal — who worked with and around Trump.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump's press secretary, told CNN Friday the charges brought against Stone "don't have anything to do with the president."
According to the indictment, many of those conversations involved WikiLeaks. The indictment lays out in detail Stone's conversations about stolen Democratic emails posted by the group in the weeks before Trump, a Republican, beat Clinton. Mueller's office has said those emails, belonging to Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, were hacked by Russian intelligence officers.
The document says that by June and July 2016, Stone had told senior Trump campaign officials that he had information indicating that WikiLeaks had obtained documents that could be damaging to Clinton's campaign.
After the July 22, 2016, WikiLeaks release of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee, the indictment says a senior Trump campaign "was directed" to contact Stone about additional releases and "what other damaging information" WikiLeaks had "regarding the Clinton campaign." The indictment does not name the official or say who directed the outreach to Stone.
Another Trump campaign official cited in the indictment is Steve Bannon, who later became Trump's chief strategist in the White House. Bannon, referred to as a "high-ranking Trump Campaign official," exchanged emails with Stone in October 2016 about WikiLeaks' plans for releasing hacked material. The indictment quotes from those emails, which had previously been made public by news outlets.
While the indictment provides some new insight into the Trump campaign, it deals largely with what prosecutors say were Stone's false statements about his conversations with conservative writer and conspiracy theorist, Jerome Corsi, and New York radio host, Randy Credico. Corsi is referred to as Person 1 in the indictment, and Credico as Person 2.
The indictment accuses Stone of carrying out a "prolonged effort" to keep Credico from contradicting his testimony before the House intelligence committee. During that effort, prosecutors note that Stone repeatedly told Credico to "do a 'Frank Pentangeli,'" a reference to a character in "The Godfather: Part II" who lies before a congressional committee.
Stone is also accused of threatening Credico. The indictment cites several messages, some of which have already been public, that Stone sent to Credico last year. On April 9, Stone called Credico a "rat" and a "stoolie" and accused him of backstabbing his friends. Stone also threatened to "take that dog away from you," a reference to Credico's dog, Bianca.
"I am so ready. Let's get it on. Prepare to die (expletive)," Stone also wrote to Credico.
The indictment had been expected. Stone has said for months he was prepared to be charged, though he has denied any wrongdoing. A grand jury for months had heard from witnesses connected to Stone. And the intelligence committee last year voted to release a transcript of Stone's testimony to Mueller as a precursor to an indictment.
Attorney Grant Smith, who represents Stone, did not return a phone message seeking comment Friday.
Stone has publicly denigrated the Mueller investigation and echoed the president's descriptions of it as a witch hunt. But he has long attracted investigators' attention, especially in light of a 2016 tweet that appeared to presage knowledge that emails stolen from Podesta would soon be released. Stone has said he had no inside information about the contents of the emails in WikiLeaks' possession or the timing of when they'd be released.
Stone has said he learned from Credico that WikiLeaks had the emails and planned to disclose them. Stone has also spoken openly about his contacts with Corsi.
Credico hasn't been accused of any wrongdoing. Last year, Mueller's prosecutors offered a plea agreement to Corsi that would have required him to admit that he intentionally lied to investigators about a discussion with Stone about WikiLeaks. But he rejected the offer and denied that he lied.
In a tweet Friday, Podesta wrote that it was now "Roger's time in the barrel." That was a play on Stone's own words. Stone had tweeted cryptically before the Podesta emails were disclosed that it would soon be Podesta's "time in the barrel."
Beirut, Jan 25 (AP/UNB) — Members of the Islamic State group failed Thursday to break a siege imposed by US-backed fighters in the last area they control in Syria, leading to fierce fighting that inflicted casualties on both sides, Syrian opposition activists said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the DeirEzzor 24, an activist collective, said the fighting concentrated west of the eastern village of Baghouz near the Iraqi border that the extremists lost earlier this week.
US-backed Kurdish-led fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces have captured most of the area that was once controlled by IS on the east banks of the Euphrates River and the extremists now only control two villages. More than 20,000 civilians have fled the IS-held area and hundreds of militants surrendered since SDF began its offensive on Sept. 10.
The extremists are likely to lose the areas they control in Deir el-Zour in the coming few weeks as SDF fighters press their offensive under the cover of airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition.
Rami Abdurrahman, the Observatory's chief, said Thursday's fighting left 34 militants and 16 SDF fighters dead. He added that 21 IS gunmen were taken prisoners.
DeirEzzor 24 confirmed fighters from both sides were killed without giving a number.
Earlier on Thursday, a bomb exploded in the capital Damascus causing property damage but no casualties, Syrian state media reported.
Syrian TV said the explosive was placed inside a car in the Adawi neighborhood. The Russian Embassy is located several hundred meters (yards) away.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility.
The bombing came two days after an explosion at a busy intersection in the coastal city of Latakia that killed a civilian and wounded 14 others.
Last week, a bomb also exploded in Damascus without inflicting casualties.
The Syrian capital has been relatively safe since government forces captured last year all rebel-held neighborhoods and suburbs of Damascus.
Also on Thursday, In the northern town of Al-Bab, which is controlled by Turkey-backed opposition fighters, a motorcycle rigged with explosives blew up in the town's center. At least one person was killed and 11 wounded, according to the Observatory.
The opposition's Syrian Civil Defense, also known as White Helmets, said the blast killed three and wounded 12.
Washington, Jan 24 (AP/UNB) — A strong majority of Americans blame President Donald Trump for the record-long government shutdown and reject his primary rationale for a border wall, according to a new poll that shows the turmoil in Washington is dragging his approval rating to its lowest level in more than a year.
Overall, 34 percent of Americans approve of Trump's job performance in a survey conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. That's down from 42 percent a month earlier and nears the lowest mark of his two-year presidency. The president's approval among Republicans remains close to 80 percent, but his standing with independents is among its lowest points of his time in office.
"Trump is responsible for this," said poll respondent Lloyd Rabalais, a federal contractor from Slidell, Louisiana, who's not affiliated with either political party.
The 47-year-old has been furloughed for more than a month. He said he'd need to start drawing on his retirement savings next week to pay his bills if the shutdown continues.
"I do support a wall, but not the way he's handling it," Rabalais added. "Trump guaranteed everybody that Mexico would pay for the wall. Now he's holding American workers like me hostage."
The drop in approval comes as Trump begins the third year of his presidency under the weight of the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, an international trade war that's straining the global economy and new revelations about his push for a real estate deal in Russia during his 2016 campaign.
Compared with earlier presidents, Trump's approval rating has been relatively stable over the course of his presidency, ranging from the mid-30s to the mid-40s.
By contrast, President Barack Obama never fell below 40 percent in polling by Gallup. Still, five presidents since Gallup began measuring presidential approval have had their rating fall into the 20s at least once, including Harry S. Truman, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. Trump has never fallen into that range of historic lows, but he's also the only president never to have reached 50 percent in Gallup's polling.
The new AP-NORC poll shows most Americans see the shutdown as a major problem, and they blame Trump far more than congressional Democrats for the mess that has ensnared the lives of roughly 800,000 government workers who are going without pay.
Sixty percent of Americans say Trump bears a great deal of responsibility for the shutdown. About a third place the same amount of blame on congressional Democrats (31 percent) or Republicans (36 percent).
Sixty-five percent of Americans, including 86 percent of Democrats, 69 percent of independents and 33 percent of Republicans, call the shutdown a major problem.
Trump may be popular overall with Republicans, but a sizable share holds him responsible for the current situation. Almost 3 in 10 Republicans think Trump bears a great deal of responsibility, while 73 percent of his party says he's at least partly responsible.
"The large part of the responsibility belongs to the president because he made the decision," said poll respondent Sandra Olson, of Northwood, Iowa. The 76-year-old registered Republican said she voted for Trump once and likely will again.
"We have never in my lifetime seen a president who has been so maligned and attacked and vilified," Olson said.
Trump's demand for a $5.7 billion border wall is also unpopular.
Overall, 49 percent of Americans oppose the plan to build a massive wall along the Mexican border; 36 percent of the nation is in favor. Opinions fall largely along ideological lines, with 8 in 10 Democrats opposing the wall and nearly 8 in 10 Republicans supporting it.
About 7 in 10 supporters of the wall prefer to extend the shutdown than to reach a deal without funding it, while a nearly identical number on the other side would rather the shutdown continue than provide that funding.
The poll shows significant skepticism of the president's argument that a wall would significantly reduce crime, stem the flow of illegal drugs or help the U.S. economy. The poll was conducted the week after Trump used such factors to justify his demand for the wall during a primetime address from the Oval Office.
In the nationally televised speech, he highlighted the case of one immigrant in the country illegally accused of beheading and dismembering an American citizen.
About 6 in 10 Americans do say the wall would at least slightly decrease the number of people entering the U.S. illegally, though only 3 in 10 think the number would significantly decrease. Yet just 35 percent of Americans believe the wall would make the country safer, while a majority of Americans — 57 percent— believe it would make no difference to safety in the U.S. Only 21 percent believe the wall would significantly reduce the availability of illegal drugs in the nation, though 28 percent say access to illegal drugs would be slightly reduced; 49 percent say the wall would have no effect.
On the economy, about as many Americans say the border wall would do more to help — almost 3 in 10 — as say it would do more to hurt; 43 percent say the wall would not make much difference to the U.S. economy.
Poll respondent Kelley Thorson, of St. Robert, Missouri, who backed Trump in the 2016 election, says she supports the wall but largely disagrees with the president's rationale.
"I can't say it would make us safer," the 57-year-old said. "Criminals are going to get here no matter what."
While partisan opinions of Trump have remained relatively constant throughout his presidency, the poll shows that disapproval has grown particularly among independents who do not lean toward either party.
Just 28 percent of independents say they approve, compared with 71 percent who disapprove. In December, 37 percent of independents approved of Trump's job performance, while 58 percent disapproved.
Women also are more likely to disapprove today compared with a month ago — 71 percent to 58 percent. And 76 percent of college graduates disapprove today, compared with 65 percent who disapproved in December.
The president isn't doing anything well right now, said poll respondent J. Edwin Hixson, a 71-year-old retired truck driver from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, who didn't vote for Trump or Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.
"This isn't a reality show. We're in serious trouble," he said.
Caracas, Jan 24 (AP/UNB) — Venezuela's crisis quickly escalated Wednesday as an opposition leader backed by the Trump administration declared himself interim president in a direct challenge to embattled socialist Nicolas Maduro, who retaliated by breaking off relations with the United States, his biggest trade partner.
For the past two weeks, ever since Maduro took the oath for a second six-year term in the face of widespread international condemnation, the newly invigorated opposition had been preparing for nationwide demonstrations Wednesday coinciding with the anniversary marking the end of Venezuela's last military dictatorship in 1958.
While Maduro has shown no signs of leaving, his main rival, National Assembly President Juan Guaido, upped the ante by declaring himself interim president before masses of anti-government demonstrators — the only way, he said, to rescue Venezuela from "dictatorship." Outside the capital, seven demonstrators were killed amid disturbances during protests that rocked several cities.
In a seemingly coordinated action, the U.S. led a chorus of Western hemisphere nations, including Canada, Brazil, Argentina and Colombia, that immediately recognized Guaido, with President Donald Trump calling on Maduro to resign and promising to use the "full weight" of the U.S. economic and diplomatic power to push for the restoration of Venezuela's democracy.
"The people of Venezuela have courageously spoken out against Maduro and his regime and demanded freedom and the rule of law," Trump said in a statement.
The stunning move, which to some harkened back to dark episodes of heavy-handed U.S. interventions in Latin America during the Cold War, drew a strong rebuke from Maduro. He responded by swiftly cutting off diplomatic relations with the United States, the biggest importer of the OPEC nation's oil, giving American diplomats 72 hours to leave the country.
"Before the people and nations of the world, and as constitutional president. .... I've decided to break diplomatic and political relations with the imperialist U.S. government," Maduro thundered while holding up a decree banning the diplomats before a crowd of red-shirted supporters gathered at the presidential palace.
"Don't trust the gringos," he said, rattling off a long list of U.S.-backed military coups — Guatemala, Chile, Brazil — in decades past. "They don't have friends or loyalties. They only have interests, guts and the ambition to take Venezuela's oil, gas and gold."
Not to be undone, Guaido issued his own statement, urging foreign embassies to disavow Maduro's orders and keep their diplomats in the country. A few hours later, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States would abide by Guaido's directive and ignore Maduro's order to withdraw its diplomats.
The 35-year-old Guaido, a virtually unknown lawmaker at the start of the year, has reignited the hopes of Venezuela's often beleaguered opposition by taking a rebellious tack amid a crushing economic crisis that has forced millions to flee or go hungry.
Raising his right hand in unison with tens of thousands of supporters, the fresh-faced leader of the opposition-controlled congress took a symbolic oath to assume executive powers he says are his right under two articles of Venezuela constitution to take over as interim president and form a transitional government until he calls new elections.
"Today, January 23, 2019, I swear to formally assume the powers of the national executive as president in charge of Venezuela," he told the cheering crowd as he stood behind a lectern emblazoned with Venezuela's national coat of arms.
"We know that this will have consequences," he shouted, moments before quickly slipping away to an unknown location amid speculation he would soon be arrested.
The price of oil slipped for the third time in four days Wednesday, an indication that international energy markets are not overly concerned yet that the situation in Venezuela — America's third top oil supplier and owner of Houston-based Citgo — will disrupt global crude supplies.
The assault on Maduro's rule came after large crowds gathered in Caracas waving flags and chanting "Get out Maduro!" in what was the largest demonstration since a wave of unrest that left more than 120 dead in 2017.
While the protests in the capital were mostly peaceful there were no signs that security forces heeded Guaido's call to join the anti-Maduro movement and go light on demonstrators.
Hours after most demonstrators went home, violence broke out in Altamira, an upscale zone of Caracas and an opposition stronghold, when National Guardsmen descended on hundreds of youths, some of them with their faces covered, lingering around a plaza. Popping tear gas canisters sent hundreds running and hordes of protesters riding two and three on motorcycles fleeing in panic.
Blocks away, a small group knocked a pair of guardsman riding tandem off their motorcycle, pelting them with coconuts as they sped down a wide avenue. Some in the group struck the two guardsmen with their hands while others ran off with their gear and set their motorcycle on fire.
Elsewhere, four demonstrators were killed by gunfire in the western city of Barinas as security forces were dispersing a crowd. Three others were killed amid unrest in the border city of San Cristobal.
Amid the showdown, all eyes were on the military, the traditional arbiter of political disputes in Venezuela — and to whom Guaido has been targeting his message.
Maduro, who lacks the military pedigree of his mentor and predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez, has sought to shore up support from the armed forces by doling out key posts to top generals, including heading the PDVSA oil monopoly that is the source of virtually all of Venezuela's export earnings. He has also been playing commander in chief, appearing last week at a military command meeting wearing camouflage fatigues and receiving the blessing of the defense minister, Gen. Vladimir Padrino Lopez, who said his troops were prepared to die for Maduro.
But beyond the public displays of loyalty from the top brass, a number of cracks have started to appear.
On Monday, Venezuelans awoke to news that a few dozen national guardsmen had taken captive a loyalist officer and seized a stockpile of assault rifles in a pre-dawn raid. The government quickly quelled the uprising, but residents in a nearby slum took to the streets to show their support for the mutineers by burning cars and throwing stones at security forces, who fired back with tear gas.
Disturbances continued into Tuesday, with small pockets of unrest in a few working-class neighborhoods where the government has traditionally enjoyed strong support.
Retired Maj. Gen. Cliver Alcala, a one-time aide to Chavez and now in exile, said the opposition's newfound momentum has reverberated with the military's lower ranks, many of whom are suffering the same hardships as regular Venezuelan families.
"I am absolutely certain that right now, especially younger troops are asking themselves whether Maduro is their commander in chief or a usurper," Alcala said.
Though intimidation has worked for the government in the past, it may not this time, said Dimitris Pantoulas, a Caracas-based political analyst. Discontent now appears to be more widespread and the ranks of security forces and government-allied groups have been thinned by the mass exodus of mostly young Venezuelans, he said.
"The government is resorting to its old tricks, but the people no longer believe them," Pantoulas said.
Sebring, Jan 24 (AP/UNB) — A former prison guard trainee who recently moved to Florida from Indiana killed five people during a standoff at a small town bank before surrendering to a SWAT team that stormed the building, police said.
Investigators said Zephen Xaver, 21, called police from inside the SunTrust Bank branch Wednesday to report that he had opened fire. He barricaded himself inside and when negotiations failed, the SWAT team burst in, capturing Xaver and discovering the bodies, police said. Investigators did not offer a possible motive, and a police spokesman said he did not know if the attack began as a robbery. The victims were not immediately identified.
Late Wednesday, police investigators still swarmed the bank, which sits between a hotel and a hair salon located in a business district of U.S. 27. The four-lane highway passes through farming communities and small towns as it connects South Florida and central Florida. Sebring, with 10,000 residents, is known internationally for its annual 12 Hours of Sebring endurance auto race that draws world-class drivers.
"Today's been a tragic day in our community," Sebring Police Chief Karl Hoglund said during a news conference. "We've suffered significant loss at the hands of a senseless criminal doing a senseless crime."
He said more information would be released at a Thursday morning press conference.
Florida Department of Corrections records show that Xaver was hired as a trainee prison guard at Avon Park Correctional Institution on Nov. 2 and resigned Jan. 9. No disciplinary issues were reported. Public records and neighbors said Xaver had arrived in Sebring last fall with his mother, living in a non-descript pre-fabricated home about 4 miles (6.5 kilometers) from the bank. No one answered the door Wednesday night after police finished searching the home. Public records and neighbors say he and his mother moved to Sebring in the fall from Plymouth, Indiana, a town south of Notre Dame University.
John Larose, who lives next door, said Xaver kept to himself, but he could hear him playing and yelling at video games in the middle of the night.
Xaver briefly was an online student of Salt Lake City-based Stevens-Henager College. A spokeswoman for the college, Sherrie Martin, confirmed that Xaver was enrolled from September 2018 until December, when he withdrew.
Gov. Ron DeSantis was in the region for an infrastructure tour and traveled to Sebring after the shooting. He said the Florida Department of Law Enforcement would assist Sebring police and the Highlands County sheriff's office.
"Obviously, this is an individual who needs to face very swift and exacting justice," DeSantis said of the suspect.
SunTrust Chairman and CEO Bill Rogers released a statement saying the bank was "working with officials and dedicating ourselves to fully addressing the needs of all the individuals and families involved."
The bank's "entire team mourns this terrible loss," he said.