Alex Jones Ordered to Pay Sandy Hook Parents $4 Million in Compensatory Damages

AUSTIN (AP)— A Texas jury on Thursday ordered conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to pay more than $4 million in compensatory damages to the parents of a 6-year-old boy who was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, marking the first time the Infowars host has been held financially liable for repeatedly claiming the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history was a hoax.

The Austin jury must still decide how much the Infowars host must pay in punitive damages to Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, whose son Jesse Lewis was among the 20 children and six educators who were killed in the 2012 attack in Newtown, Connecticut.

The parents had sought at least $150 million in compensation for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Jones’ attorney asked the jury to limit damages to $8 — one dollar for each of the compensation charges they are considering — and Jones himself said any award over $2 million “would sink us.”

It likely won’t be the last judgment against Jones — who was not in the courtroom — over his claims that the attack was staged in the interests of increasing gun controls. A Connecticut judge has ruled against him in a similar lawsuit brought by other victims’ families and an FBI agent who worked on the case.

Outside the courthouse Thursday, the plaintiffs’ attorney Mark Bankston insisted that the $4.11 million amount wasn’t a disappointment, noting it was only part of the damages Jones will have to pay.

The jury returns Friday to hear more evidence about Jones and his company’s finances.

“We aren’t done folks,” Bankston said. “We knew coming into this case it was necessary to shoot for the moon to get to understand we were serious and passionate. After tomorrow, he’s going to owe a lot more.”

The total amount awarded in this case could set a marker for the other lawsuits against Jones and underlines the financial threat he’s facing. It also raises new questions about the ability of Infowars — which has been banned from YouTube, Spotify and Twitter for hate speech — to continue operating, although the company’s finances remain unclear.

Jones, who has portrayed the lawsuit as an attack on his First Amendment rights, conceded during the trial that the attack was “100% real” and that he was wrong to have lied about it. But Heslin and Lewis told jurors that an apology wouldn’t suffice and called on them to make Jones pay for the years of suffering he has put them and other Sandy Hook families through.

The parents testified Tuesday about how they’ve endured a decade of trauma, inflicted first by the murder of their son and what followed: gun shots fired at a home, online and phone threats, and harassment on the street by strangers. They said the threats and harassment were all fueled by Jones and his conspiracy theory spread to his followers via his website Infowars.

A forensic psychiatrist testified that the parents suffer from “complex post-traumatic stress disorder” inflicted by ongoing trauma, similar to what might be experienced by a soldier at war or a child abuse victim.

At one point in her testimony, Lewis looked directly at Jones, who was sitting barely 10 feet away.

“It seems so incredible to me that we have to do this — that we have to implore you, to punish you — to get you to stop lying,” Lewis told Jones.

Jones was the only witness to testify in his defense. And he came under withering attack from the plaintiffs attorneys under cross-examination, as they reviewed Jones’ own video claims about Sandy Hook over the years, and accused him of lying and trying to hide evidence, including text messages and emails about the attack. It also included internal emails sent by an Infowars employee that said “this Sandy Hook stuff is killing us.”

At one point, Jones was told that his attorneys had mistakenly sent Bankston the last two years’ worth of texts from Jones’ cellphone. Bankston said in court Thursday that the U.S. House Jan. 6 committee investigating the 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol has requested the records and that he intends to comply.

And shortly after Jones declared “I don’t use email,” Jones was shown one that came from his address, and another one from an Infowars business officer telling Jones that the company had earned $800,000 gross in selling its products in a single day, which would amount to nearly $300 million in a year.

Jones’ media company Free Speech Systems, which is Infowars’ parent company, filed for bankruptcy during the two-week trial.


The Associated Press’s Jim Vertuno contributed to the contents of this report.

SHOCK POLL: 78 Percent of Democrats Say America is Headed in Wrong Direction and Biden is to Blame

WASHINGTON– Shocking poll numbers published Wednesday show that the vast majority of American voters — 85% — believe the U.S. is headed in the wrong direction and that President Joe Biden is to blame.

The bipartisan poll conducted by the Associated Press and the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago found that roughly 9 in 10 Republicans and about 78% of Democrats blame blame Biden for America’s current economic woes and 79% of those polled said they consider the economy to be in poor condition.

This latest poll coincides with Biden’s near historic low presidential poll numbers which have him polling at just a 39% approval rating.

“The nationwide poll was conducted June 23-27, 2022 using the AmeriSpeak® Panel, the probability-based panel of NORC at the University of Chicago. Online and telephone interviews using landlines and cell phones were conducted with 1,053 adults,” according to a post from AP-NORC. “The margin of sampling error is +/- 4.0 percentage points.”

U.S. President Joe Biden holds a formal news conference in the East Room of the White House, in Washington, D.C., U.S., January 19, 2022. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Giuliani: Bolton a ‘Backstabber’ Over New Trump Tell All

WASHINGTON — Rudy Giuliani came out swinging Wednesday against former National Security Adviser John Bolton’s new tell all book.

During an appearance on Fox News, Giuliani, who serves as President Donald Trump’s personal attorney, called Bolton a “backstabber” and said he’s not quite sure “what happened” to him.

“I don’t care if he says what he saw or he doesn’t,” Giuliani said on Fox News’ “America’s Newsroom” of Bolton’s new book, “The Room Where It Happened.”

“If they want to publish what he says about me, I’m sure that’s not classified,” said Giuliani. “I’m happy to have him do it and I’m happy to respond to it because he’s a backstabber.”

Addressing Bolton’s claims that Giuliani and Trump “mishandled” foreign affairs, Giuliani said Bolton never came to him to address his concerns.

“He never came to me and gave me those concerns,” Giuliani said. “If he was concerned about that, if the man were a man rather than a backstabber, he would’ve talked to me…He’s selling out to sell a book. I don’t know what happened to him.”

The Trump administration has filed suit to block Bolton’s book, which is scheduled for release on June 23, on claims that it contains classified information.

In its filing, the Justice Department argues that Bolton “regularly came into possession of some of the most sensitive classified information that exists in the U.S. government,” as part of his day to day duties. Officials said Bolton’s manuscript, which contains over 500 pages, was “rife with classified information, which he proposed to release to the world” and contained “significant quantities of classified information that it asked Defendant to remove.”

“The United States is not seeking to censor any legitimate aspect of Defendant’s manuscript; it merely seeks an order requiring Defendant to complete the prepublication review process and to take all steps necessary to ensure that only a manuscript that has been officially authorized through that process — and is thus free of classified information — is disseminated publicly,” the suit argues.

In a statement Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union called the lawsuit “doomed to fail.”

Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU’s speech, technology and privacy project, said the Supreme Court rejected a half-century ago the Nixon administration’s efforts to block the release of the Pentagon Papers, and said it has been since established that prior restraints on publication are unconstitutional.

“As usual, the government’s threats have nothing to do with safeguarding national security, and everything to do with avoiding scandal and embarrassment,” Wizner said.

Calls for statement to John Bolton’s spokesperson was met with “no comment.”

WASHINGTON, DC – President Donald Trump, left, flanked by then national security advisor John Bolton, right, speaks to the media as he meets with senior military leadership in the Cabinet Room of the White House on April 9, 2018 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

‘OVERFLOWING WITH BODIES’: New York hospitals struggle to keep up as Coronavirus battle rages on

NEW YORK (AP) — It has become a grim ritual outside New York City’s hospitals: workers in protective gear loading the bodies of coronavirus victims into refrigerated trailers.

A surge in deaths in the epicenter of the crisis in the U.S. has overwhelmed the city’s permanent morgues and filled storage spaces in many hospitals to capacity. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is sending 85 refrigerated trucks to serve as temporary morgues, the city said.

It’s been that way for days at Brooklyn Hospital Center, where a worker Tuesday wheeled out a gurney carrying a body covered in white plastic, a forklift operator carefully raised a body into the trailer and undertakers came to claim the remains of yet another of the city’s nearly 1,000 Coronavirus dead.

The hospital said in a statement that the “unprecedented crisis calls for extraordinary measures” and that extra storage is needed “to accommodate the tragic spike in deaths, placing a strain on the entire system of care — from hospitals to funeral homes.”

“Grieving families cannot quickly make arrangements, and their loved ones who have passed are remaining in hospitals longer, thus the need for this accommodation,” the hospital in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood said.

The city’s medical examiner’s office has also started operating a makeshift morgue, as it did after the Sept. 11 attacks, to provide emergency capacity as the city’s permanent facilities fill up.

The city’s coronavirus death toll more than doubled in the past four days, surging from 450 on Friday to 932 as of Tuesday morning.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the virus can cause severe symptoms like pneumonia and can be fatal.

The city and FEMA have delivered refrigerated trucks to various hospitals, while the Office of Chief Medical Examiner has been guiding them on how to properly move and store bodies, officials said.

“To see the scenes of trailers out there and what they’re doing with those trailers — they’re freezers, and nobody can even believe it,” President Donald Trump said Tuesday.

At some hospitals, like Lenox Hill in Manhattan, the trailers are being parked on city streets, along sidewalks and in front of apartments. Cars and buses passed by as bodies were loaded Tuesday outside Brooklyn Hospital Center.

Cellphone videos posted on social media over the weekend drew attention to hospitals using trailers to store bodies. An image from one video of the activity outside Brooklyn Hospital Center appeared on the front page of Tuesday’s New York Post.

“It’s hard to believe this, but this is for real,” said the man shooting the video, his voice quaking. “Lord have mercy, help us Lord, this is for real.”

—–

Associated Press writers Robert Bumstead and Michael Sisak contributed to the contents of this report.

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Colonel testifies he raised concerns about Ukraine, Trump

WASHINGTON (AP) —Defying White House orders, an Army officer serving with President Donald Trump’s National Security Council testified to impeachment investigators Tuesday that he twice raised concerns over Trump’s push to have Ukraine investigate Democrats and Joe Biden.

Alexander Vindman, a lieutenant colonel who served in Iraq and later as a diplomat, told House investigators behind closed doors that he listened to Trump’s July 25 call with new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and reported his concerns to the NSC’s lead counsel, according to his prepared testimony.

His arrival in military blue, with medals, created a striking image as he entered the Capitol and made his way to the secure briefing room.

“I was concerned by the call,” Vindman said, according to his testimony obtained by The Associated Press. “I did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen, and I was worried about the implications for the U.S. government’s support of Ukraine.”

Vindman, a 20-year military officer, was the first official who listened in on the phone call to testify as the impeachment inquiry reaches deeper into the Trump administration and Democrats prepare for the next, public phase of the probe. He was also the first current White House official to appear before the impeachment panels. With the administration directing staff not to appear, he was issued a subpoena to testify.

The inquiry is looking into Trump’s call, in which he asked Zelenskiy for a “favor” — to investigate Democrats — that the Democrats say was a quid pro quo for military aid and could be an impeachable offense.

Trump took to Twitter Tuesday to denounce the probe as a “sham,” adding: “Why are people that I never even heard of testifying about the call. Just READ THE CALL TRANSCRIPT AND THE IMPEACHMENT HOAX IS OVER!”

Vindman, who arrived in the United States as a 3-year-old from the former Soviet Union, wrote that it was his “sacred duty” to defend the United States.

Some Trump allies, looking for ways to discredit Vindman, questioned the colonel’s loyalties because he was born in the region. But the line of attack was rejected by some Republicans, including Rep. Liz Cheney, who said it was “shameful” to criticize his patriotism.

His appearance came a day after Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the House will vote on a resolution to affirm the impeachment investigation, set rules for public hearings and outline the potential process for writing articles of impeachment against Trump.

The 8-page resolution released Tuesday calls for open hearings and requires the House intelligence committee to submit a report outlining its findings and recommendations. The Judiciary Committee would review the evidence and potentially report articles of impeachment.

House Rules Committee Chairman James McGovern of Massachusetts said the resolution will “provide a clear path forward” as the House begins a public phase of the impeachment inquiry.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he and other GOP lawmakers will review the House language to see if it passes a “smell test” of fairness to Trump.

The House is expected to vote on the resolution on Thursday.

Vindman said that in spring of this year he became aware of “outside influencers” promoting what he called a “false narrative of Ukraine” that undermined U.S. efforts. Ukraine, in trying to become a vibrant democracy integrated with the West, is a bulwark against overt Russian aggression, he said in his opening statement.

Other officials have testified that Ukraine policy was increasingly being handled by the president’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, and others in the administration outside regular policy-making channels. One diplomat testified it was “highly irregular.”

Vindman testified that he first reported his concerns after an earlier meeting July 10 in which U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland stressed the importance of having Ukraine investigate the 2016 election as well as Burisma, a company linked to the family of Biden, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate.

Vindman says he told Sondland that “his statements were inappropriate, that the request to investigate Biden and his son had nothing to do with national security, and that such investigations were not something the NSC was going to get involved in or push.”

That differs from the account of Sondland, a wealthy businessman who donated $1 million to Trump inauguration and testified before the impeachment investigators that no one from the NSC “ever expressed any concerns.” He also testified that he did not realize any connection between Biden and Burisma. Sondland was dubbed one of “the three amigos,” along with Energy Secretary Rick Perry and special envoy Kurt Volker, working on Ukraine outside normal channels.

For the call between Trump and Zelenskiy, Vindman said he listened in the Situation Room with colleagues from the NSC and Vice President Mike Pence’s office and was concerned. He said he again reported his concerns to the NSC’s lead counsel.

He wrote, “I realized that if Ukraine pursued an investigation into the Bidens and Burisma, it would likely be interpreted as a partisan play which would undoubtedly result in Ukraine losing the bipartisan support it has thus far maintained. This would all undermine U.S. national security.”

Vindman served in various military and diplomatic posts before joining the NSC. He was the director for European affairs and a Ukraine expert under Fiona Hill, a former official who testified earlier in the impeachment probe. Hill worked for former national security adviser John Bolton.

Vindman attended Zelenskiy’s inauguration with a delegation led by Energy Secretary Perry, and he and Hill were both part of a Ukraine briefing with Sondland that others have testified irritated Bolton at the White House.

He said he is not the whistleblower, the still unnamed government official who filed the initial complaint over Trump’s conversation with the Ukraine president that sparked the House impeachment inquiry. He said he does not know who the whistleblower is.

“I am a patriot, and it is my sacred duty and honor to advance and defend OUR country, irrespective of party or politics,” wrote Vindman, who was wounded in Iraq and awarded a Purple Heart.

“For over twenty years as an active duty United States military officer and diplomat, I have served this country in a nonpartisan manner, and have done so with the utmost respect and professionalism for both Republican and Democratic administrations,” he wrote.

Thursday’s expected formal House vote would be the first on the impeachment inquiry and aims to nullify complaints from Trump and his allies that the process is illegitimate and unfair.

Democrats insist they aren’t yielding to Republican pressure. Pelosi dismissed the Republican argument that impeachment can’t begin without formal approval from the House and brushed off their complaints about the closed-door process.

“I do not care. I do not care. This is a false thing with them,” Pelosi said. “Understand, it has nothing to do with them. It has to do with how we proceed.”

Pelosi’s announcement Monday came just hours after a former White House national security official defied a House subpoena for closed-door testimony, escalating the standoff between Congress and the White House over who will testify.

Charles Kupperman, who was a deputy to Bolton, failed to show up for the scheduled deposition after filing a lawsuit asking a federal court in Washington to rule on whether he was legally required to appear.

___

Associated Press writers Zeke Miller, Padmananda Rama, Matthew Daly, Eric Tucker and Alan Fram contributed to this report.

 

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FALLOUT CONTINUES: Ohio gun reform urged; calls in Texas for Trump to stay away

DAYTON, Ohio (AP) — Ohio’s Republican governor bucked his party to call for expanded gun laws Tuesday and some Democrats in Texas told President Donald Trump to stay away as both states reeled from a pair of shootings that killed 31 .

A racist screed remained the focus of police investigating the massacre at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, as further details trickled out on the shooter at a popular nightlife strip in Dayton, Ohio, who was described as fascinated with mass murder.

PUSH FOR LEGISLATION IN OHIO

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine urged the GOP-led state Legislature to pass laws requiring background checks for nearly all gun sales and allowing courts to restrict firearms access for people perceived as threats.

Persuading the Legislature to pass such proposals could be an uphill battle. It has given little consideration this session to those and other gun-safety measures already introduced by Democrats and DeWine’s Republican predecessor, John Kasich, also unsuccessfully pushed for a so-called red flag law on restricting firearms for people considered threats.

“We can come together to do these things to save lives,” DeWine said.

EX: OHIO SHOOTER SHARED DARK THOUGHTS

An ex-girlfriend of the Ohio gunman, 24-year-old Connor Betts, said he suffered from bipolar disorder, joked about his dark thoughts and exhibited a fascination with mass shootings.

The woman, Adelia Johnson, said in an online essay that Betts showed her a video of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting on their first date.

She said Betts expressed “uncontrollable urges” that she called “red flags,” which eventually led her to call things off in May.

EL PASO DEMOCRATS SHUN TRUMP VISIT

President Donald Trump was planning visits to both cities Wednesday, an announcement that stirred some resistance in El Paso.

Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar of El Paso made clear that the president was not welcome in her hometown as it mourned. Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, who was an El Paso congressman for six years, also said Trump should stay away.

Escobar said Tuesday that victims’ families were already using the city’s newly opened resource center where various government and mental health services have set up booths.

“We’ve got to make sure that folks have access to mental health care. There’s going to be a lot of trauma in our community, a lot of children saw things that no human being should see,” Escobar said.

GUN CONTROL AND IMMIGRATION

On Monday, Trump made a vague expression of openness to new gun laws , suggesting a bill to expand gun background checks could be combined with his long-sought effort to toughen the nation’s immigration system but gave no rationale for the pairing.

Studies have repeatedly shown that immigrants have a lower level of criminality than those born in the U.S., both shooting suspects were citizens, and federal officials are investigating anti-immigrant bias as a potential motive in the Texas massacre.

In both El Paso and Dayton, a young white male was identified as the lone suspect. The suspect in the Texas shooting, 21-year-old Patrick Crusius, was booked on murder charges. Betts was killed as police quickly swooped in to end his ambush.

 


Associated Press writers Julie Carr Smyth, Kantele Franko, Cedar Attanasio, Astrid Galvan, Morgan Lee, Paul J. Weber, Zeke Miller and Jonathan Lemire contributed to the contents of this report.

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REPORT: Iran ups uranium production as US tensions mount

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran will surpass the uranium-stockpile limit set by its nuclear deal in the next 10 days, an official said Monday, raising pressure on Europeans trying to save the accord a year after the U.S. withdrawal lit the fuse for the heightened tensions now between Tehran and Washington.

The announcement by Iran’s nuclear agency marked yet another deadline set by Tehran. President Hassan Rouhani already has warned Europe that a new deal needs to be in place by July 7 or the Islamic Republic would increase its enrichment of uranium.

Atomic energy spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi suggested that Iran’s enrichment could reach up to 20%, just a step away from weapons-grade levels.

It appears as if Iran has begun its own maximum pressure campaign on the world after facing one from President Donald Trump’s administration that deeply cut into its sale of crude oil abroad and sent its economy into freefall. Europe has so far been unable to offer Iran a way around the U.S. sanctions.

The development follows apparent attacks last week in the Strait of Hormuz on oil tankers, assaults that Washington has blamed on Iran. While Iran has denied being involved, it laid mines in the 1980s targeting oil tankers around the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a fifth of the world’s crude oil passes.

“If this condition continues, there will be no deal” anymore, Kamalvandi said. He accused the Europeans of “killing time” as the clock runs down.

Rouhani, greeting France’s new ambassador to Tehran on Monday, similarly warned that time was running out on the deal.

“The current situation is very critical and France and the other parties to the (deal) still have a very limited opportunity to play their historic role for saving the deal,” Rouhani said, according to his website.

The announcement appeared timed to strike just as European foreign ministers met in Luxembourg. Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s top diplomat, declined to specifically address the Iranian announcement.

“At the moment, as of today, Iran is still technically compliant and we strongly hope, encourage and expect that Iran continues to comply,” Mogherini told journalists. She insisted she would await the next report on the issue from the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Under terms of the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, Iran can keep a stockpile of no more than 300 kilograms (660 pounds) of low-enriched uranium. Kamalvandi said that given Iran’s recent decision to quadruple its production of low-enriched uranium, it would pass the 300-kilogram limit on Thursday, June 27.

The Vienna-based IAEA said last month that Iran remained within its stockpile limits and declined to comment on Iran’s announcement. Kamalvandi said Iran would continue to allow the U.N. to inspect its nuclear facilities for the time being.

He also raised the specter of increasing its enrichment levels, saying Iran needs 5% enriched uranium for its nuclear power plant in southern Iranian port of Bushehr and 20% enriched fuel for its Tehran research reactor.

The nuclear deal limits Iran to enriching uranium only to 3.67%, enough for power plants and other peaceful purposes.

But after America pulled out of the nuclear accord and escalated sanctions, Rouhani set a July 7 deadline for Europe to come up with better terms for the deal or Tehran would boost enrichment further. So far, a European mechanism called INSTEX to protect trade with Iran has yet to take off.

The danger, nuclear nonproliferation experts warn, is that at 20% enrichment, only a fraction of atoms need to be removed to enrich up to weapons-grade levels of 90%. Iran maintains its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, but the 2015 deal grew out of Western concerns about the program.

Under the accord, Iran agreed to limit its uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. Since Trump took office, the U.S. has steadily stripped away at the accord, and he pulled America out of the deal in May 2018.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the international community should reinstate sanctions if Iran follows through on its threats, adding: “In any case, Israel will not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons.”

Tensions have risen in the region since last month. The U.S. rushed an aircraft carrier strike group and other military assets to the Middle East in response to what it said were threats from Iran.

Meanwhile, a series of mysterious attacks have targeted oil tankers, and the U.S. blames Iranian-laid limpet mines. Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen also have launched a series of drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia.

Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, which the U.S. suspects in the attacks, answers only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and operates outside of the traditional military’s control.

Gen. Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, the chief of the general staff of Iran’s armed forces, denied Tehran was involved in the tanker attacks, saying Monday the country only would respond in “an open, strong and severe way” if needed.

But he also reiterated Iran’s traditional stance on the Strait of Hormuz.

“If we decide to block the Strait of Hormuz, we will to do it in a way that even a drop of oil won’t pass the strait,” Bagheri added.

Kamalvandi spoke to Iranian journalists at the country’s Arak heavy water nuclear reactor. Such reactors produce plutonium that can be used in nuclear weapons. Iran, under the nuclear deal, had reconfigured the facility to address Western concerns on that issue.

However, Kamalvandi said the country could rebuild the facility to make it produce plutonium. He made a point to give an interview to Iranian state television, standing next to the open pit where the reactor would be in the facility.

As the camera panned down to what would be the reactor’s core, Kamalvandi stressed that piping could be replaced and the reactor could be built to make plutonium. Hard-liners opposed to the nuclear deal had constantly accused the agency of filling the entire pit with concrete.

“They had previously photoshoped a picture of this place having been filled up with concrete,” Kamalvandi said.

He added: “The message that we tried to get across to Europeans today was that not much time is left for them.”

___

Associated Press writers Nasser Karimi, Raf Casert and Frank Jordans contributed to the contents of this report.

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REPORT: Schiff threatens to subpoena FBI for info on Russia probes

WASHINGTON (AP) — The House Intelligence Committee chairman is threatening to subpoena FBI Director Christopher Wray for information related to the bureau’s counterintelligence investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said Wednesday that he has unsuccessfully sought more information about that investigation and any links to Donald Trump’s winning campaign, including whether that probe is still active. The investigation was first disclosed by then-FBI Director James Comey at a committee hearing in March 2017, and Schiff said he has received few answers about it since Comey was fired by Trump two months later.

While special counsel Robert Mueller did examine Russian interference and possible ties to the Trump campaign, Schiff wants to know whether the FBI is still conducting any related counterintelligence investigations. Such inquiries can take years and extend far beyond a criminal investigation.

“We are determined to get answers, and we are running out of patience,” Schiff said after a hearing on the counterintelligence implications of Mueller’s report. “If necessary, we’ll subpoena the director and require him to come in and provide those answers under oath.”

At the hearing, one of several that House Democrats are holding to shed more light on the Mueller report, former FBI officials told lawmakers that Russian meddling bore some of the textbook tricks of the trade of Kremlin spycraft, including the volume and breadth of contacts with Trump associates.

The two witnesses, Robert Anderson and Stephanie Douglas, highlighted aspects of the Mueller report they said showed Russian efforts to screen and test Trump campaign associates, to establish back channels of communications and to spread their contacts around in hopes of maximizing their chances of getting what they wanted.

“It is an absolute classic tradecraft of Russia and Russian intelligence services. They’ll never have one point of failure,” said Anderson, a former FBI executive assistant director who used to supervise counterintelligence investigations. “If they’re looking to try to obtain or pass information or potentially even influence information, they’ll make sure that they have numerous aspects or points to where they can try to get that done.”

Mueller did not find a criminal conspiracy between the campaign and Russia, but he did detail a series of interactions and outreach that have alarmed Democrats and accelerated calls from some in the party for impeachment proceedings and renewed investigations.

Schiff noted that Mueller detailed more than 100 contacts between Russia and associates of the president.

Among the interactions was a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower during which the president’s oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., expected to receive dirt on his father’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, discussed Obama administration sanctions against Russia with the then-Russian ambassador in the weeks leading up to the president’s inauguration in January 2017.

“It immediately put the existing administration in a horribly conflicting position, and they didn’t know about the backchannel in advance of the inauguration,” said Douglas, a former FBI executive assistant director. “It also probably assured the Russians that they were going to get a more favorable treatment” by the incoming Trump administration.

She highlighted how Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, shared polling data during the campaign with Konstantin Kilimnik, a business associate accused of having ties to Russian intelligence. Manafort also told Kilimnik he was willing to provide “private briefings” about the Trump campaign to Oleg Deripaska, a Russian billionaire with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I thought that that was very interesting, that they are tasking him and building upon that,” Douglas said. “And if he would have stayed with the campaign, I am sure they would have continued to task him.”

Also Wednesday, Trump Jr. spoke with the Senate Intelligence Committee for about three hours to clarify an interview with the committee’s staff in 2017. Senators wanted to talk to him again about the Trump Tower meeting and a Trump real estate project in Moscow.

The president’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, told a House committee in February that he had briefed Trump Jr. approximately 10 times about a plan to build a Trump Tower in Moscow before the 2016 election. But Trump Jr. had told Congress he was only “peripherally aware” of the real estate proposal.

As he left the interview, Trump Jr. said he was happy to clarify his answers, but “I don’t think I changed any of what I said because there was nothing to change.”

The two ex-FBI officials who testified Wednesday retired from the bureau before it opened its investigation into the Trump campaign in summer 2016. By inviting them instead of agents involved in the investigation, Democrats are giving center stage to longtime career officials devoid of the political baggage that accompanies some of the Republican president’s more outspoken critics.

Even so, the partisan divisions surfaced again. Schiff said most Americans consider the Trump campaign’s embrace of Russian aid “to constitute plain evidence of collusion.” The committee’s top Republican, Rep. Devin Nunes of California, described allegations of collusion to be a “hoax” and suggested Democrats should apologize.

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Associated Press writers Laurie Kellman, Eric Tucker, Mary Clare Jalonick and Lisa Mascaro contributed to the contents of this report.

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‘NOTHING WILL REMAIN’: Catastrophic fire engulfs Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral

PARIS (AP) — A catastrophic fire engulfed the upper reaches of Paris’ soaring Notre Dame Cathedral as it was undergoing renovations Monday, threatening one of the greatest architectural treasures of the Western world as tourists and Parisians looked on aghast from the streets below. France’s Interior Ministry said firefighters might not be able to save the structure.

The blaze collapsed the cathedral’s spire and spread to one of its landmark rectangular towers. A spokesman said the entire wooden frame of the cathedral would likely come down, and that the vault of the edifice could be threatened too.

“Everything is burning, nothing will remain from the frame,” Notre Dame spokesman Andre Finot told French media. The 12th-century cathedral is home to incalculable works of art and is one of the world’s most famous tourist attractions, immortalized by Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

The cause of the blaze was not known, but French media quoted the Paris fire brigade as saying the fire is “potentially linked” to a 6 million-euro ($6.8 million) renovation project on the church’s spire and its 250 tons of lead. Prosecutors opened an investigation as Paris police said there were no reported deaths. Some 400 firefighters were battling the blaze well into the night.

Flames shot out of the roof behind the nave of the cathedral, among the most visited landmarks in the world. Hundreds of people lined up bridges around the island that houses the cathedral, watching in shock as acrid smoke rose in plumes.

The fire came less than a week before Easter amid Holy Week commemorations. As the cathedral continued to burn, Parisians gathered to pray and sing hymns outside the church of Saint Julien Les Pauvres across the river from Notre Dame, as the flames lit the sky behind them.

French President Emmanuel Macron was treating the fire as a national emergency, rushing to the scene and straight into meetings at the Paris police headquarters nearby. Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit invited priests across France to ring church bells in a call for prayers for the beloved Paris cathedral.

Deputy mayor Emmanuel Gregoire said emergency services were trying to salvage the famed art pieces stored in the cathedral.

Built in the 12th and 13th centuries, Notre Dame is the most famous of the Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages as well as one of the most beloved structures in the world. Situated on the Ile de la Cite, an island in the Seine river, the cathedral’s architecture is famous for, among other things, its many gargoyles and its iconic flying buttresses.

Among the most celebrated artworks inside are its three stained-glass rose windows, placed high up on the west, north and south faces of the cathedral. Its priceless treasures also include a Catholic relic, the crown of thorns, which is only occasionally displayed, including on Fridays during Lent.

French historian Camille Pascal told BFM broadcast channel the blaze marked “the destruction of invaluable heritage.”

“It’s been 800 years that the Cathedral watches over Paris”, Pascal said. “Happy and unfortunate events for centuries have been marked by the bells of Notre Dame.”

He added: “We can be only horrified by what we see.”

Associated Press reporters at the scene saw massive plumes of yellow brown smoke filling the air above the Cathedral and ash falling on the island that houses Notre Dame and marks the center of Paris. As the spire fell, the sky lit up orange.

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo is in despair at the “terrible fire.” Hidalgo said in a Twitter message that Paris firefighters are still trying to limit the fire and urged Paris citizens to respect the security perimeter that has been set around the cathedral.

Hidalgo said Paris authorities are in touch with the Paris diocese.

Reactions from around the world came swiftly including from the Vatican, which released a statement expressing shock and sadness for the “terrible fire that has devastated the Cathedral of Notre Dame, symbol of Christianity in France and in the world.”

In Washington, Trump tweeted: “So horrible to watch the massive fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris” and suggested first responders use “flying water tankers” to put it out.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, said he was praying “to ask the intercession of Notre Dame, our Lady, for the Cathedral at the heart of Paris, and of civilization, now in flames! God preserve this splendid house of prayer, and protect those battling the blaze.”

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Associated Press writers Elaine Ganley and Sylvie Corbet contributed to the contents of this report.

notredame

WITCH HUNT: Records show Mueller targeted Cohen early on

NEW YORK (AP) — Hundreds of pages of court records made public Tuesday revealed that special counsel Robert Mueller quickly zeroed in on Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former personal attorney and fixer, in the early stages of his Russia probe.

The heavily blacked-out records, released by a judge at the request of news organizations, show that Mueller was investigating Cohen by July 2017 — much earlier than previously known.

That was two months after Mueller was appointed to investigate Moscow’s election interference and practically a year before an FBI raid on Cohen’s home and office.

The full scope of Mueller’s interest in Cohen is not clear from the documents, which include search warrant applications and other records. More extensive files from the special counsel investigation remain under seal in Washington.

But the documents made public Tuesday show that Mueller’s investigators early on began looking into possible misrepresentations Cohen made to banks to shore up his financially troubled taxi business.

They were also initially interested in money that was flowing into Cohen’s bank accounts from consulting contracts he signed after Trump got elected. Prosecutors were looking into whether Cohen failed to register as a foreign agent.

Some of the payments he received were from companies with strong foreign ties, including a Korean aerospace company, a bank in Kazakhstan and an investment firm affiliated with a Russian billionaire.

By February 2018, though, the records show Mueller had handed off portions of his investigation to federal prosecutors in Manhattan. And by the spring of 2018, those prosecutors had expanded their investigation to include payments Cohen made to buy the silence of porn star Stormy Daniels and a Playboy centerfold, both of whom claimed to have had affairs with Trump.

The newly released documents indicate authorities continue to probe campaign violations connected to those hush money payments. Nearly 20 pages related to the matter were blacked out at the direction of a judge who said he wanted to protect an ongoing investigation by New York prosecutors.

Where that investigation is headed is unclear. But prosecutors have said Trump himself directed Cohen to arrange the hush money. The president has denied any wrongdoing.

Cohen ultimately pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations over those payments. He also pleaded guilty to tax evasion, making false statements to banks and lying to Congress about Trump’s plans to build a skyscraper in Moscow. He was not charged with failing to register as a foreign agent.

He is scheduled to begin serving a three-year prison sentence in May.

Lanny Davis, an attorney for Cohen, said Tuesday that the release of the search warrants “furthers his interest in continuing to cooperate and providing information and the truth about Donald Trump and the Trump Organization to law enforcement and Congress.”

The FBI raided Cohen’s Manhattan home and office last April — the first public sign of a criminal investigation that has proved an embarrassment for Trump.

The newly released records show that several months earlier, in July 2017, Mueller’s office got a judge to grant him authority to read 18 months’ worth of Cohen’s emails.

In their investigation, Mueller’s prosecutors also obtained Cohen’s telephone records and went so far as to use a high-tech tool known as a Stingray or Triggerfish to pinpoint the location of his cellphones.

FBI agents also scoured Cohen’s hotel room and safe deposit box and seized more than 4 million electronic and paper files, more than a dozen mobile devices and iPads, 20 external hard drives, flash drives and laptops.

Both Cohen and Trump cried foul at the time over the raids, with Cohen’s attorney calling them “completely inappropriate and unnecessary” and the president taking to Twitter to declare that “Attorney-client privilege is dead!”

A court-ordered review ultimately found only a fraction of the seized material to be privileged.

Tuesday’s release of documents came nearly six weeks after U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley III partially granted a request by several media organizations, including The Associated Press, that the search warrant be made public because of the high public interest in the case.

But he ordered certain material withheld, acknowledging prosecutors’ concerns that a wholesale release of the documents “would jeopardize an ongoing investigation and prejudice the privacy rights of uncharged third parties.”

“The unsealed records provide significant insight into the investigations of Michael Cohen and serve as an important safeguard for public accountability,” AP’s director of media relations, Lauren Easton, said Tuesday.

David E. McCraw, vice president and deputy general counsel for The New York Times, which initiated the request for the documents, said he is hopeful Pauley will approve the release of additional materials in May after the government updates the judge on its investigation.

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Jim Mustian and Larry Neumeister of the Associated Press contributed to the contents of this report.

 

Former Trump Lawyer Michael Cohen Attends His Sentencing Hearing
NEW YORK, NY – DECEMBER 12: Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former personal attorney and fixer, exits federal court after his sentencing hearing, December 12, 2018 in New York City. Cohen was sentenced to 3 years in prison after pleading guilty in August to several charges, including multiple counts of tax evasion, a campaign finance violation and lying to Congress. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)