Paradise, Nov 18 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump on Saturday acknowledged Californians suffering from twin tragedies, walking through the ashes of a mobile home and RV park in a small northern town all but destroyed by deadly wildfires and privately consoling people grieving after a mass shooting at a popular college bar outside Los Angeles.
"This has been a tough day when you look at all of the death from one place to the next," Trump said before flying back to Washington.
Trump's visits to areas of Northern and Southern California in the aftermath of unprecedented wildfires that have killed more than 70 people gave him what he sought in flying coast to coast and back in a single day — a grasp of the desolation in the heart of California's killer wildfires.
"We've never seen anything like this in California, we've never seen anything like this yet. It's like total devastation," Trump said as he stood amid the ruins of Paradise, burned to the ground by a wildfire the president called "this monster."
Before returning to Washington, Trump met briefly at an airport hangar with families and first responders touched by the shooting at the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks more than a week ago, which left 12 dead in what Trump called "a horrible, horrible event." Reporters and photographers were not allowed to accompany the president to the session, which Trump later described as emotional.
"What can you say other than it's so sad to see. These are great people. Great families, torn apart," he told reporters. "We just hugged them and we kissed them — and everybody. And it was very warm."
He added: "It was tragic and yet, in one way, it was a very beautiful moment."
Trump had made only one previous trip as president to California, a deeply Democratic and liberal state that he has blamed for a pair of overheated crises, illegal immigration and voter fraud. He also has been at odds with the state's Democratic-led government, but differences were generally put aside as Gov. Jerry Brown and Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom joined Trump in surveying the wildfire damage.
"We're going to have to work quickly," Trump said near the crumpled foundations of Paradise homes and twisted steel of melted cars. "Hopefully this is going to be the last of these because this was a really, really bad one."
In a nod to his belief — not shared by all forest scientists — that improved forest management practices will diminish future risks, Trump added: "I think everybody's seen the light and I don't think we'll have this again to this extent."
With that bold and perhaps unlikely prediction, Trump evoked his initial tweeted reaction to the fire, the worst in the state's history, in which he seemed to blame local officials and threatened to take away federal funding.
Hours later and hundreds of miles to the south, Trump found similar signs of devastation in the seaside conclave of Malibu, one of the areas of Southern California ravaged by wildfires that have killed at least three. Palm trees stood scorched and some homes were burned to the ground on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
At least 71 people have died across Northern California, and authorities are trying to locate more than 1,000 people, though not all are believed missing. More than 5,500 fire personnel were battling the blaze that covered 228 square miles (590 square kilometers) and was about 50 percent contained, officials said.
When asked in Paradise if seeing the historic devastation, which stretched for miles and left neighborhoods destroyed and fields scorched, altered his opinion on climate change, Trump answered, "No."
The president has long voiced skepticism about man's impact on the climate and has been reluctant to assign blame to a warming earth for the increase in the frequency and intensity of natural disasters.
Wearing a camouflage "USA" hat, Trump gazed solemnly at the devastation in Paradise. Several burned-out buses and cars were nearby. Trees were burned, their branches bare and twisted. Homes were totally gone; some foundations remained, as did a chimney and, in front of one house, a Mickey Mouse lawn ornament. The fire was reported to have moved through the area at 80 mph.
"It's going to work out well, but right now we want to take care of the people that are so badly hurt," Trump said while visiting what remained of the Skyway Villa Mobile Home and RV Park. He noted "there are areas you can't even get to them yet" and the sheer number of people unaccounted for.
"I think people have to see this really to understand it," Trump said.
The president later toured an operation center, met with response commanders and praised the work of firefighters, law enforcement and representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Trump took a helicopter tour en route to Chico before he toured Paradise. A full cover of haze and the smell of smoke greeted the president upon his arrival at Beale Air Force Base near Sacramento.
"They're out there fighting and they're fighting like hell," Trump said of the first responders.
He pledged that Washington would do its part by coming to the Golden State's aid and urged the House's Republican leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, a Trump ally and frequent White House visitor, to "come to the office" to help secure the needed funding.
Trump long has struggled to convey empathy to victims of national disasters and tragedies. His first reaction to the fires came in a tweet last week that drew criticism as unnecessarily critical and tone-deaf given the devastation: "There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests."
After the negative reaction to that response, Trump shifted gears, expressing words of encouragement to first responders and those of sympathy for hit victims.
Nature and humans share blame for the wildfires, but fire scientists are divided as to whether forest management played a major role. Nature provides the dangerous winds that have whipped the fires, the state has been in a drought and human-caused climate change over the long haul is killing and drying the shrubs and trees that provide the fuel.
When Trump was asked during an interview set to air on "Fox News Sunday" whether climate change played a role in the number of serious fires, he said "maybe it contributes a little bit. The big problem we have is management."
In Northern California, Trump continued to show skepticism about the impact of climate change on wildfires. His grasp of forests was shaky at times, at one point invoking fire prevention efforts in Finland — it has a very different climate than California — as an example for the Golden State to follow.
Asked if he thought climate change played a role in the fires, Brown responded: "Yes. Yes. And we'll let science determine this over a longer period of time."
A reporter asked if climate change was discussed with the president, but Trump jumped in to say, "We didn't discuss it."
A reporter then said, "Well, you obviously disagree on this issue." Trump answered, in part: "Maybe not as different as people think. Is it happening? Things are changing. And I think most importantly we're doing things about. We're gonna make it better. We're going to make it a lot better. And it's gonna happen as quickly as it can possibly happen."
Brown and Newsom said they welcomed the president's visit, with the governor suggesting they set aside political differences since it "now is a time to pull together for the people of California." A fierce advocate of addressing climate change, the governor pointed to several causes and said they need to deal with them.
"If you really look at the facts, from a really open point of view, there are a lot of elements to be considered," Brown said. "The president came, he saw and I'm looking forward over the next months and beyond to really understand this threat of fire, the whole matter of drought and all the rest of it. It's not one thing, it's a lot of things and I think that if we just open our minds and look at things we'll get more stuff done."
Paradise, Nov 17 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump heads to Northern California on Saturday to see firsthand the grief and devastation from the deadliest U.S. wildfire in a century, as confusion continued over how many people remain unaccounted for.
Authorities confirmed a new death toll of 71 and say they are trying to locate 1,011 people even as they stressed that not all are believed missing.
California's outgoing and incoming governors, both Democrats and vocal critics of Trump, planned to join the president Saturday. Gov. Jerry Brown and Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom welcomed Trump's visit, declaring it's time "to pull together for the people of California."
The blaze that started Nov. 8 all but razed the town of Paradise, population 27,000, and heavily damaged the outlying communities of Magalia and Concow. It destroyed more than 9,800 homes and at its height displaced 52,000 people.
Details of Trump's itinerary had not been released late Friday.
This patch of California, a former Gold Rush region in the Sierra Nevada foothills, is to some extent Trump country, with Trump beating Hillary Clinton in Butte County by 4 percentage points in 2016.
But Trump has stirred resentment among survivors over comments he made two days after the disaster on Twitter, then reiterated on the eve of his visit.
In an interview taped Friday and scheduled for broadcast on "Fox News Sunday," Trump said he was surprised to see images of firefighters removing dried brush near a fire, adding, "This should have been all raked out."
Asked if he thought climate change contributed to the fires, he said: "Maybe it contributes a little bit. The big problem we have is management."
Those comments echoed his initial reaction to the fires Nov. 10 when he blamed the wildfires on poor forest management and threatened then to withhold federal payments. Trump subsequently approved a federal disaster declaration.
"If you insult people, then you go visit them, how do you think you're going to be accepted? You're not going to have a parade," Maggie Crowder of Magalia said this week outside an informal shelter at a Walmart store in Chico.
But Stacy Lazzarino, who voted for Trump, said it would be good for the president to see the devastation up close: "I think by maybe seeing it he's going to be like 'Oh, my goodness,' and it might start opening people's eyes."
Firefighters returning to a command center in the neighboring city of Chico after a 24-hour shift Friday were reluctant to weigh in on Trump's visit, but some shared their thoughts.
Nick Shawkey, a CalFire captain from rural Northern California, said Trump's visit was the mark of a good leader. But to imply the state was to blame for mismanaging the forests was based on a misunderstanding because much of the forest land in California is controlled by the U.S. Forest Service, he said.
"The thing he's tweeting about is his property," Shawkey said.
Paul Briones, a firefighter from Bakersfield, predicted Trump's visit would be a huge boost to the community, showing "that this on a national level is a priority."
More than 5,500 fire personnel were battling the blaze that covered 228 square miles (590 square kilometers) and was 50 percent contained officials said.
Firefighters were racing against time with a red flag warning issued for Saturday night into Sunday, including winds up to 50 mph and low humidity. Rain was forecast for mid-week, which could help firefighters but also complicate the challenging search for remains.
"It's a disheartening situation," Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea told a news conference Friday. "As much as I wish we could get through this before the rains come, I don't know if that's possible."
The number of people unaccounted for grew to more than 1,000 on Friday. But Honea acknowledged the list was "dynamic" and could easily contain duplicate names and unreliable spellings of names.
The roster probably includes some who fled the blaze and do not realize they've been reported missing, he said.
"We are still receiving calls. We're still reviewing emails," Honea said. "This is a massive undertaking. We have hundreds and hundreds of people working on this."
Families searching for loved ones have scoured shelters and social media and say they understand the chaos of the situation, But the wait for information is agonizing.
For one family, good news arrived by telephone.
Monica Whipple said Friday she was boarding a plane back to North Carolina from Northern California when she got a call two days ago that her mother, Donna Price, had been found alive. Price had been presumed missing but was tracked down at a shelter.
"It was so crazy, I started crying in front of everybody," Whipple said. "She's doing OK."
For too many others, the wait to learn a loved one's fate has ended with bad news.
Sol Bechtold searched for his 75-year-old mother, Caddy, posting flyers of her on bulletin boards and searching for her in shelters.
On Thursday, Bechtold went to the Butte County Sheriff to provide DNA samples. As he was driving back to his home in Pleasanton, California, he got a call from an officer with the coroner's unit of the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office and was told his mother's remains were found in her home in the community of Magalia. The home had burned down to its concrete foundation.
"It's hard to realize your mother is gone," Bechtold said.
Family members remembered her personality, her wonderful heart and great smile, he said. She raised four children.
"It's been a pretty emotional 24 hours. Lots of tears," he said.
San Diego, Nov 17 (AP/UNB) — As thousands of migrants in a caravan of Central American asylum-seekers converge on the doorstep of the United States, what they won't find are armed American soldiers standing guard.
Instead they will see cranes installing towering panels of metal bars and troops wrapping concertina wire around barriers while military helicopters fly overhead, carrying border patrol agents to and from locations along the U.S.-Mexico border.
That's because U.S. military troops are prohibited from carrying out law enforcement duties.
What's more, the bulk of the troops are in Texas — hundreds of miles away from the caravan that started arriving this week in Tijuana on Mexico's border with California after walking and hitching rides for the past month.
Still, for many migrants the barriers and barbed wire were an imposing show of force.
Angel Ulloa stood on Tijuana's beach where a wall of metal bars more than 20 feet high cut across the sand and plunged into the Pacific. He watched as crews on the U.S. side placed coils of barbed wire on top.
A border patrol agent wearing camouflage and armed with an assault rifle — part of a tactical unit deployed when there is a heightened threat — walked in the sand below where the men worked. A small border patrol boat hovered offshore.
"It's too much security to confront humble people who just want to work," said Ulloa, a 23-year-old electrician from Choloma, Honduras, who joined the caravan to try to make his first trip to the U.S.
Now, he and his two friends were rethinking their plans. They tried to apply for a job at a Wal-Mart in Tijuana but were told they need a Mexican work permit. So they were considering seeking asylum in Mexico but were unsure of giving up their dream of earning dollars.
"We're still checking things out," he said.
On Friday, people walking through one of the world's busiest border crossings into Mexico passed by a pair of Marines on a 20-foot lift installing razor wire above a turnstile.
Nearby Army Sgt. Eric Zeigler stood guard with another soldier. Both were military police officers assigned to protecting the Marines as they work.
The 24-year-old soldier from Pittsburgh spent nine months in Afghanistan. ""It's very different over there, obviously. It's a lot more dangerous," Zeigler said.
He said he was surprised when got his deployment orders sending him to the U.S.-Mexico border.
"But I'm happy to go where I'm needed" he added as a man walked by carrying shopping bags headed to Tijuana.
The U.S. military has deployed 5,800 active-duty troops to the U.S.-Mexico border.
So far, more are not expected, despite President Donald Trump's initial assessment that 10,000 to 15,000 were needed to secure the border against what he has called an "invasion" of migrants. Most in the caravan of several thousand are families, including hundreds of children.
Another 2,100 National Guard troops are have also been deployed since April as part of a separate mission. Like the military troops, they are not allowed to detain illegal crossers. Instead, they have been monitoring cameras and helping to erect barriers.
Of the 5,800 soldiers and Marines, more than 2,800 are in Texas, while about 1,500 are in Arizona and another 1,300 are in California. All U.S. military branches, except the Coast Guard, are barred from performing law enforcement duties.
That means there will be no visible show of armed troops, said Army Maj. Scott McCullough, adding that the mission is to provide support to Customs and Border Protection.
"Soldiers putting up wire on the border and barriers at the ports of entry will be the most visible," he said.
Marines and soldiers share the same duties in California and Arizona. These include erecting tents, setting up showers and arranging meals for troops working on the border, and assigning military police to protect them.
There are no tents or camps being set up to house migrants, McCullough said. Medics are on hand to treat troops and border patrol agents — not migrants — for cuts, bruises and any other problems.
Combat engineers — whose duties on the battlefield include setting up tactical obstacles to prevent the enemy from moving freely — are using their expertise to string wire on border walls and erect temporary fencing, McCullough said.
Construction engineers have been assigned to weld together barriers and move shipping containers to act as walls.
In Laredo, Texas, about 100 soldiers have been installing three layers of razor wire along the Rio Grande, working on the banks during the day and on the bridges at night to minimize the disruption to cross-border traffic.
The current mission is scheduled to end Dec. 15 for now. It's unclear how much it will cost and military leaders have refused to provide an estimate.
Critics have questioned the wisdom of using the military on the border where there is no discernible security threat. Since the Nov. 6 elections, Trump has said little about the matter and no border threat has materialized.
Some border communities fear the barricades will scare off Mexican shoppers. The city council in Nogales, Arizona, slashed a proposed bonus for all employees in half over concerns about how the military's presence would affect its sales tax revenue after the military closed off two lanes at its border crossing.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis defended the deployment during a visit to the Texas border this week, asserting that in some ways it provides good training for war.
Suyapa Reyes, 35, said she was puzzled as to why she would be seen as a threat. Reyes, her mother, 12-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son left Honduras with the caravan on Oct. 13, fleeing violence and poverty in her hometown of Olanchito de Oro.
She does not want to return after coming such a long way but if she cannot get asylum and the border looks too dangerous to cross, she said she'll have no other choice.
"I'm not going to risk my life or safety nor that of my children," she said.
Washington, Nov 17 (AP/UNB) — WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will not willingly travel to the United States to face charges filed under seal against him, one of his lawyers said Friday, foreshadowing a possible fight over extradition for a central figure in the U.S. special counsel's Russia-Trump investigation.
Assange, who has taken cover in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he has been granted asylum, has speculated publicly for years that the Justice Department had brought secret criminal charges against him for revealing highly sensitive government information on his website.
That hypothesis appeared closer to reality after prosecutors, in an errant court filing in an unrelated case, inadvertently revealed the existence of sealed charges. The filing, discovered Thursday night, said the charges and arrest warrant "would need to remain sealed until Assange is arrested in connection with the charges in the criminal complaint and can therefore no longer evade or avoid arrest and extradition in this matter."
A person familiar with the matter, speaking on condition of anonymity because the case had not been made public, confirmed that charges had been filed under seal. The exact charges Assange faces and when they might be unsealed remained uncertain Friday.
Any charges against him could help illuminate whether Russia coordinated with the Trump campaign to sway the 2016 presidential election. They also would suggest that, after years of internal Justice Department wrangling, prosecutors have decided to take a more aggressive tack against WikiLeaks.
A criminal case also holds the potential to expose the practices of a radical transparency activist who has been under U.S. government scrutiny for years and at the center of some of the most explosive disclosures of stolen information in the last decade.
Those include thousands of military and State Department cables from Army Pvt. Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, secret CIA hacking tools, and most recently and notoriously, Democratic emails that were published in the weeks before the 2016 presidential election and that U.S. intelligence officials say had been hacked by Russia.
Federal special counsel Robert Mueller, who has already charged 12 Russian military intelligence officers with hacking, has been investigating whether any Trump associates had advance knowledge of the stolen emails.
Assange could be an important link for Mueller as he looks to establish exactly how WikiLeaks came to receive the emails, and why its release of the communications — on the same day a highly damaging video of Trump from a decade earlier surfaced publicly — appeared timed to boost his campaign.
Assange, 47, has resided in the Ecuadorian Embassy under a grant of asylum for more than six years to avoid being extradited to Sweden, where he was accused of sex crimes, or to the United States, whose government he has repeatedly humbled with mass disclosures of classified information.
The Australian was once a welcome guest at the embassy, which takes up part of the ground floor of a stucco-fronted apartment in London's posh Knightsbridge neighborhood. But his relationship with his hosts has soured over the years amid reports of espionage, erratic behavior and diplomatic unease.
Barry Pollack, a Washington lawyer for Assange, said he expected Ecuador to "comply with its obligations" to preserve asylum for him, though he acknowledged a concern that the county could revoke his asylum, expel him from the embassy and extradite him to the U.S.
"The burden should not shift to Mr. Assange to have to defend against criminal charges when what he has been accused of doing is what journalists do every day," Pollack said. "They publish truthful information because the public has a right to know and consider that information and understand what its government and institutions are doing."
The charges came to light in an unrelated court filing from a federal prosecutor in Virginia, who was attempting to keep sealed a separate case involving a man accused of coercing a minor for sex.
The three-page filing contained two references to Assange, including one sentence that said "due to the sophistication of the defendant and the publicity surrounding the case, no other procedure is likely to keep confidential the fact that Assange has been charged."
It was not immediately clear why Assange's name was included in the document. Joshua Stueve, a spokesman for the Justice Department's Eastern District of Virginia said, "The court filing was made in error. That was not the intended name for this filing."
The filing was discovered by Seamus Hughes, a terrorism expert at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, who posted it on Twitter hours after The Wall Street Journal reported that the Justice Department was preparing to prosecute Assange.
The case at issue concerns a defendant named Seitu Sulayman Kokayi, a 29-year-old teacher who has since been indicted in Virginia on charges of enticing a 15-year-old girl to commit sex acts and to produce child pornography. There doesn't appear to be any connection between Assange and Kokayi.
The since-unsealed document, a motion filed in late August asking to keep Kokayi's case secret, mentions Assange in two boilerplate sections, suggesting a copy-and-paste error or that his name was inadvertently left in a template used for the common filings.
The filing suggests prosecutors have reason to believe they will be able to arrest and extradite Assange.
Ecuadorian officials say they have cut off his high-speed internet access and will restore it only if he agrees to stop interfering in the affairs of Ecuador's partners, such as the U.S. and Spain. He is allowed to use the embassy's WiFi, though it is unclear if he doing so. Officials have also imposed a series of other restrictions on Assange's activities and visitors, and ordered him to clean after his cat.
Carlos Poveda, Assange's lawyer in Ecuador, said he suspects Ecuador has been maneuvering to kick Assange out of the embassy through the stricter new living requirements it recently imposed.
He said possible U.S. charges, however, are proof his client remains under threat, and he called on Ecuador's government to uphold Assange's asylum protections. He said Ecuador would be responsible if anything happened to Assange.
With shrinking options — an Ecuadorian lawsuit seeking to reverse the restrictions was recently turned down — WikiLeaks announced in September that former spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson, an Icelandic journalist who has long served as one of Assange's lieutenants, would take over as editor-in-chief.
In a brief interview in Reykjavik, Iceland, Hrafnsson called the U.S. news "a very black day for journalism."
Washington, Nov 17 (AP/UNB) — U.S. intelligence officials have concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. official said Friday. The Saudi government has denied the claim.
The conclusion will bolster efforts in Congress to further punish the close U.S. ally for the killing. The Trump administration this week sanctioned 17 Saudi officials for their alleged role in the killing, but lawmakers have called on the administration to curtail arms sales to Saudi Arabia or take other harsher punitive measures.
The U.S. official familiar with the intelligence agencies' conclusion was unauthorized to speak publicly about it and spoke on condition of anonymity. It was first reported by The Washington Post.
Saudi Arabia's top diplomat has said the crown prince had "absolutely" nothing to do with the killing.
Khashoggi, a Saudi who lived in the United States, was a columnist for the Post and often criticized the royal family. He was killed Oct. 2 at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Turkish and Saudi authorities say he was killed inside the consulate by a team from the kingdom after he went there to get marriage documents.
This week, U.S. intelligence officials briefed members of the Senate and House intelligence committees and the Treasury Department announced economic sanctions on 17 Saudi officials suspected of being responsible for or complicit in the killing.
Among those targeted for sanctions were Mohammed al-Otaibi, the diplomat in charge of the consulate, and Maher Mutreb, who was part of the crown prince's entourage on trips abroad.
The sanctions freeze any assets the 17 may have in the U.S. and prohibit any Americans from doing business with them.
Also this week, the top prosecutor in Saudi Arabia announced he will seek the death penalty against five men suspected in the killing. The prosecutor's announcement sought to quiet the global outcry over Khashoggi's death and distance the killers and their operation from the kingdom's leadership, primarily the crown prince.
President Donald Trump has called the killing a botched operation that was carried out very poorly and has said "the cover-up was one of the worst cover-ups in the history of cover-ups."
But he has resisted calls to cut off arms sales to the kingdom and has been reluctant to antagonize the Saudi rulers. Trump considers the Saudis vital allies in his Mideast agenda.
The Post, citing unnamed sources, also reported that U.S. intelligence agencies reviewed a phone call that the prince's brother, Khalid bin Salman, had with Khashoggi. The newspaper said the prince's brother, who is the current Saudi ambassador to the United States, told Khashoggi he would be safe in going to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul to retrieve the documents he needed to get married.
The newspaper said it was not known whether the ambassador knew Khashoggi would be killed. But it said he made the call at the direction the crown prince, and the call was intercepted by U.S. intelligence.
Fatimah Baeshen, a spokesperson for the Saudi embassy in Washington, said that claim was false.
She said in a statement issued to The Associated Press that the ambassador met Khashoggi in person once in late September 2017. After that, they communicated via text messages, she said. The last text message the ambassador sent to Khashoggi was on Oct. 26, 2017, she said.
Baeshen said the ambassador did not discuss with Khashoggi "anything related to going to Turkey."
"Ambassador Prince Khalid bin Salman has never had any phone conversations with him," she said.
"You are welcome to check the phone records and cell phone content to corroborate this — in which case, you would have to request it from Turkish authorities," Baeshen said, adding that Saudi prosecutors have checked the phone records numerous times to no avail.
The ambassador himself tweeted: "The last contact I had with Mr. Khashoggi was via text on Oct. 26, 2017. I never talked to him by phone and certainly never suggested he go to Turkey for any reason. I ask the U.S. government to release any information regarding this claim."