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AP News in Brief at 11:04 p.m. EST

March 01, 2018 - 8:04 PM

Trump adrift: Tumult in West Wing amid exits, investigation

WASHINGTON (AP) — Rattled by two weeks of muddled messages, departures and spitting matches between the president and his own top officials, Donald Trump is facing a shrinking circle of trusted advisers and a staff that's grim about any prospect of a reset.

Even by the standards of Trump's often chaotic administration, the announcement of communications director Hope Hicks' imminent exit spread new levels of anxiety across the West Wing and cracked open disputes that had been building since the White House's botched handling of domestic violence allegations against a senior aide late last month.

One of Trump's most loyal and longest-serving aides, Hicks often served as human buffer between the unpredictable president and the business of government. One official on Thursday compared the instability caused by her departure to that of a chief of staff leaving the administration — though that prospect, too, remained a possibility given the questions that have arisen about John Kelly's competence.

Hicks' departure comes as special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation appears to be circling the Oval Office, with prosecutors questioning Trump associates about both his business dealings before he became president and his actions in office, according to people with knowledge of the interviews. Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, has also been weakened after being stripped of his high-level security clearance amid revelations about potential conflicts of interest.

The biggest unknown is how the mercurial Trump will respond to Hicks' departure and Kushner's more limited access, according to some of the 16 White House officials, congressional aides and outside advisers interviewed by The Associated Press, most of whom insisted on anonymity in order to disclose private conversations and meetings. Besides Kushner and his wife, presidential daughter Ivanka Trump, most remaining White House staffers were not part of Trump's close-knit 2016 campaign. One person who speaks to Trump regularly said the president has become increasingly wistful about the camaraderie of that campaign.

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Mourners to say goodbye to Billy Graham, 'America's Pastor'

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Mourners are gathering to pay their respects to the Rev. Billy Graham at a funeral that marks the culmination of more than a week of tributes to "America's Pastor."

The service, scheduled to start at noon Friday, is to include performances by musicians who shared the stage with Graham at his crusades. The Rev. Franklin Graham will deliver the main funeral address for his father after personal messages from Billy Graham's three daughters and younger son. President Donald Trump is expected to attend, but isn't scheduled to speak.

The funeral planning began a decade ago with Billy Graham himself, and grew into his family's desire to capture the feeling of the crusades that made the world's best-known Protestant preacher of his era.

"His fingerprints are on this service for sure," family spokesman Mark DeMoss said in a phone interview. "The Graham family has long considered that his funeral eventually would really be his last crusade."

Graham, who died last week at age 99, brought a message of salvation to millions during visits and live broadcasts to scores of countries. While the invitation-only crowd Friday on the grounds of his Charlotte library is limited to 2,000 or so, internet livestreams are allowing many more to watch.

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Delta subjected to retribution in Georgia for crossing NRA

ATLANTA (AP) — As companies across America take a stand on guns after the Florida school massacre, Delta Air Lines withstood swift political retribution in its home state of Georgia for cutting ties with the National Rifle Association.

Ignoring warnings that the state's business-friendly image could be tarnished, Republicans in the state legislature voted Thursday to kill a tax break that would have saved Delta millions of dollars in sales tax on jet fuel. The proposal wasn't controversial until Delta announced last weekend it would no longer offer discounted fares to NRA members.

"I hope they are better at flying airplanes than timing P.R. announcements," Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, a Republican, said after his chamber gave final approval to a larger tax-cut bill that was stripped of the jet fuel tax exemption.

The Feb. 14 slayings of 17 students and educators in Parkland, Florida, by a gunman armed with an AR-15 assault-style rifle has prompted retailers including Walmart, Kroger and Dick's Sporting Goods to tighten their gun sales policies. Meanwhile, Delta and other companies including MetLife and Hertz have ended business ties with the NRA.

Delta's decision triggered a showdown with pro-gun lawmakers in Georgia, where the Atlanta-based airline is one of the largest employers with 33,000 employees statewide. Republican Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the state Senate's presiding officer, vowed Monday to stop any tax break that would benefit Delta.

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10 Things to Know for Friday

Your daily look at late-breaking news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Friday:

1. TRUMP SEEKS HIGHER TRADE BARRIERS

The president declares the U.S. will impose steep tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, escalating tensions with China and other trading partners.

2. PUTIN: 'IT'S NOT A BLUFF, TRUST ME'

The Russian leader boasts about developing a new array of nuclear weapons. The White House responds, saying U.S. defence capabilities "are and will remain second to none."

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Trade war? Trump orders big tariffs on steel, aluminum

WASHINGTON (AP) — Ordering combative action on foreign trade, President Donald Trump declared Thursday the U.S. will impose steep tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, escalating tensions with China and other trading partners and raising the prospect of higher prices for American consumers and companies.

With "trade war" talk in the air, stocks closed sharply lower on Wall Street.

Trump said firm action was crucial to protect U.S. industry from unfair competition and to bolster national security. However, his announcement came only after an intense internal White House debate. It brought harsh criticism from some Republicans and roiled financial markets with concerns about economic ramifications.

Overseas, Trump's words brought a stinging rebuke from the president of the European Commission. Though the president generally focuses on China in his trade complaining, it was the EU's Jean-Claude Juncker who denounced his plan as "a blatant intervention to protect U.S. domestic industry."

Juncker said the EU would take retaliatory action if Trump followed through.

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Congress stalls on guns as Trump's stance scrambles debate

WASHINGTON (AP) — Action on gun legislation skidded to a halt Thursday in Congress — not for a lack of bipartisan proposals, but because President Donald Trump's stunning shift on gun policy left some in his party confused, irritated and scrambling to figure out what to do next.

Republicans squirmed over Trump's call for stricter gun laws after the assault on a Florida high school, while Democrats seized on the opening to reach beyond a modest measure gaining traction in Congress. They unveiled a more ambitious priority list, with expanded background checks and even a politically risky ban on assault weapons.

Without a clear path forward for any legislation, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell shelved the gun debate, for now, saying the Senate would turn next week to other measures. McConnell had been preparing to push ahead with an incremental proposal from Sens. John Cornyn and Chris Murphy, but even that measure faced some GOP opposition.

"I'm hoping there's a way forward," he told reporters.

Congress is under pressure to act after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting last month that left 17 dead. Lawmakers had been making incremental progress on a bill to boost participation in the existing federal background check bill.

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Parents, officials scramble for US school security upgrades

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — In Kentucky, parents have pooled money to pay an armed officer to begin patrolling schools. A mayor outside Cleveland, Ohio, is urging a security levy to pay for guards. And a town in New Jersey has begun assigning off-duty police to stand vigil inside all its school buildings.

In the jittery aftermath of the shooting in Parkland, Florida, novel efforts to ramp up school security are flying fast as districts across the United States respond to heightened fears as well as threats and rumours of violence that have only seemed to multiply since the latest tragedy.

American schools have been stepping up investment in security for years, and many districts have offered assurances about procedures already in place since the Feb. 14 shooting that left 17 dead. But some parents are saying it's just not enough.

In Monroe Township, New Jersey, 400 people crowded a meeting last week on school security, some rattled by rumours about an unsubstantiated threat online. The school system already has unarmed guards, but the mayor and police chief agreed to immediately assign armed, off-duty police officers to patrol each of the town's eight schools. It's expected to cost the town $200,000 for the first two months.

"As wonderful as our security team is, unarmed, you're not going to fight an assault rifle," Monroe parent Chrissy Skurbe said. "If somebody wants to get in with a gun, they're going to get in. You need somebody there to be able to react."

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Putin's nuke boasts are unlikely to change balance of power

WASHINGTON (AP) — Russia's claim to have developed new strategic weapons impervious to Western defences seems unlikely to change the balance of global power.

Russian nuclear missiles already have the ability to annihilate the U.S., and U.S. defence strategy is based mainly on the deterrent threat of massive nuclear retaliation, not on an impenetrable shield against Russian missiles.

Some analysts said President Vladimir Putin's statements about the new weapons may speed up what they see as an emerging arms race with the United States. Just last month the United States cast Russia as the main reason it needs to develop two new nuclear weapons: a lower-yield warhead for a submarine-launched ballistic missile and a sea-launched nuclear cruise missile.

The Trump administration has vowed to expand U.S. nuclear strength, while criticizing Russia's buildup. Putin's remarks seem unlikely to change that equation or divert the Trump administration from its path toward modernizing the full U.S. nuclear arsenal at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars while also expanding missile defences.

Putin, in a state-of-the-nation speech Thursday in Moscow just days before he is expected to win another six-year presidential term, said his new weapons include a nuclear-powered cruise missile, a nuclear-powered underwater drone that could be armed with a nuclear warhead, and a hypersonic missile that has no equivalent in the world.

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US steps up lethal aide to Ukraine: 210 anti-tank missiles

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration told Congress on Thursday that it plans to sell Ukraine 210 anti-tank missiles to help it defend its territory from Russia, in a major escalation of U.S. lethal assistance to Ukraine's military.

The long-awaited move, which lawmakers of both parties have been urging for years, deepens America's involvement in the military conflict and may further strain relations with Moscow. It came the same day that Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his country has developed new nuclear weapons he claims can't be intercepted by an enemy.

The $47 billion sale includes the 210 American-made Javelin missiles along with 37 command launch units. In anticipation of the sale, the United States has already started training Ukraine's forces on how to use them. The missiles will come from existing U.S. Army stockpiles, probably those that are already stationed in Europe, speeding up the process for transferring them to Ukraine's military.

Ukraine has long sought to boost its defences against Russian-backed separatists armed with tanks that have rolled through eastern Ukraine during violence that has killed more than 10,000 since 2014. Previously, the U.S. has provided Ukraine with support equipment and training, and has let private companies sell some small arms like rifles.

The White House initially approved a plan to sell the missiles to Ukraine in December, but no weapons have been delivered because the administration hadn't completed the formal process. Following the administration's written notification to Congress on Thursday, lawmakers now have a 30-day window to block the sale if they disapprove. But the top Republican and Democrat on the foreign relations panels in the House and Senate have informally given the green light, so the sale is expected to go through without any significant hurdles.

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AP source: Ex-FBI No. 2 to be criticized in watchdog report

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department's inspector general is expected to criticize former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe as part of its investigation into the bureau's handling of the Hillary Clinton email probe, a person familiar with the matter said Thursday night.

McCabe, a frequent target of President Donald Trump's ire, left his position in January as the FBI's No. 2 official and is scheduled to retire later this month after more than 20 years with the bureau. He served for several months as acting director following Trump's firing last May of FBI Director James Comey.

The person, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a forthcoming inspector general report, said the criticism of McCabe was expected to be in connection with a media disclosure and a question of whether proper procedures were followed in the release of information.

Spokespeople for the Justice Department, the FBI and the inspector general declined to comment Thursday evening. McCabe did not return a phone message seeking comment.

The inspector general's report, initiated more than a year ago, is due out within weeks. The FBI finds itself repeatedly under attack from Trump and other Republicans, who have criticized the organization as politically tainted and antagonistic toward the administration.

News from © The Associated Press, 2018
The Associated Press

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