AP News in Brief at 6:04 p.m. EST

Barr swipes at Trump: Tweets make it 'impossible' to do job

WASHINGTON (AP) — Attorney General William Barr took a public swipe at President Donald Trump on Thursday, declaring the president’s tweets about Justice Department prosecutors and open cases "make it impossible for me to do my job."

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Barr made the comment during an interview with ABC News just days after his Justice Department overruled its own prosecutors — who had recommended in a court filing that Trump’s longtime ally and confidant Roger Stone be sentenced to 7 to 9 years in prison — and took the extraordinary step of lowering the amount of prison time it would seek. The department didn't offer an amended number.

Barr himself has been under fire for the reversal, and Thursday's comment served as a defence of his own integrity. He is a Trump loyalist who shares the president’s views on expansive executive powers.

The remarks, made so quickly after the decision to back away from the sentencing, suggested that Barr was aware the reversal had chipped away at the department's historic reputation for independence from political sway. But he stopped short of acknowledging wrongdoing by anyone.

There was no immediate response from the White House.

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Trump says he might keep others from listening in on calls

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump said Thursday that he might end the long-running practice of letting other administration officials listen in on presidential calls with foreign leaders. That's after Trump's impeachment was triggered by his July phone call with the president of Ukraine.

"I may end the practice entirely," Trump told Geraldo Rivera in a radio interview that aired Thursday. Records experts said that was a bad idea, for multiple reasons.

Trump also offered new insights into his feelings about being impeached, saying it made him think about the "dark" days when Richard Nixon resigned over the Watergate scandal before his own likely impeachment.

"Well, it's a terrible thing and, you know, I think of Nixon more than anybody else and what that dark period was in our country and the whole thing with the tapes and the horror show," Trump said. "It was dark and went on for a long time, and I watched it."

He said he often passes portraits of past presidents that hang in the White House.

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Virus cases surge after China revises way count is tallied

BEIJING (AP) — China reported a surge in deaths and infections from a new virus Thursday after changing the way the count is tallied, further clouding an epidemic that has stirred fear as it spread to more than two dozen countries.

The spike came after two days in which the number of new cases dropped and brought little clarity for those desperate to understand the trajectory of the outbreak.

"What we need is some consistency over time to give us an idea of what’s actually happening," said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University in the United States. "Is transmission happening or is it not?"

The answer has proved frustratingly elusive despite the official reports.

The death toll in China from the disease known as COVID-19 reached 1,367, up 254 from a day earlier, and the number of confirmed cases jumped to 59,804, up 15,152.

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Buttigieg's rocky record on race gets a closer look

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg is facing a more intense spotlight on his past leadership on issues of race and policing as he tries to translate his strong showing in Iowa and New Hampshire into support in more diverse states.

Buttigieg, who spent eight years as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has tripped up in recent days as he was grilled about his record, including the racial disparity in marijuana arrests in South Bend and decisions that led to him having no African American leaders in his administration during a crucial stretch of his tenure in a city where more than a quarter of residents are black.

The 38-year-old is trying to address those questions with a flurry of advertisements featuring black supporters and an appeal to minority voters who, like many in their party, are focused on which candidate is best positioned to beat President Donald Trump in November.

"Before anybody cares what’s in your plans, they want to know if you’re a serious contender, and I think up until we had the results we did here in Iowa and New Hampshire, it was difficult for us to prove," Buttigieg said Wednesday on PBS. "Now the process of proving it is underway."

Buttigieg, who was virtually unknown in national politics a year ago, essentially tied Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in Iowa and placed a close second in New Hampshire. But his strong showings in those opening contests hasn't scared off other more moderate candidates, in part because Buttigieg's ability to court nonwhite voters is unknown.

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Trump bringing back trusted aide Hope Hicks to White House

WASHINGTON (AP) — Hope Hicks, one of President Donald Trump's most trusted and longest-serving aides, is returning to the White House as the president works to surround himself with loyalists as his reelection campaign moves into high gear.

Hicks, a former White House communications director who was one of Trump's original 2016 campaign staffers, is expected to serve as counsellor to the president, working with presidential son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, according to a person familiar with the situation who spoke on condition of anonymity before the announcement had been made public. She left the White House in 2018 and moved to California to work as a top executive at the Fox Corporation, though she and Trump remained in touch.

Hicks's move comes just one week after Trump was acquitted by the Senate on impeachment charges. Since then, he's been on a tear to clear his administration of those he sees as insufficiently loyal, including ousting staffers at the national security council and state department and pulling the nomination of a top treasury department pick who had overseen cases involving Trump's former aides as U.S. Attorney. More departures are expected in the coming days, including at the shrinking foreign policy arm of the White House, where Trump's national security adviser has been pushing for months to cull staff.

At the same time, Trump has been working to surround himself with longtime aides he believes he can trust as he heads into what is expected to be a bruising general election campaign to remain in the White House.

In addition to Hicks, Trump recently brought back John McEntee, another longtime staffer who began on the 2016 campaign as an intern and rose to become one of Trump's closest staffers, with an office adjacent to the Oval Office. McEntee had served as Trump's personal aide until he was forced out of the White House in 2018 on the orders of former chief of staff John Kelly over issues with his security clearance.

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Trump's story about veteran's comeback was not quite true

NEW YORK (AP) — Tony Rankins, a formerly homeless, drug-addicted Army veteran, got a standing ovation at the State of the Union after President Donald Trump described how he turned his life around thanks to a construction job at a company using the administration's "Opportunity Zone" tax breaks targeting poor neighbourhoods.

But that's not completely true.

Rankins, who indeed moved out of his car and into an apartment since landing a job refurbishing a Nashville hotel two years ago, doesn't work at a site taking advantage of the breaks and never has done so. In fact, he started that job four months before the Treasury Department published its final list of neighbourhoods eligible for the breaks. And the hotel where he worked couldn't benefit even now because it's an area that didn't make the cut.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Rankins said he always considered the job that launched him on his new life two years ago to be in an Opportunity Zone and was honoured to be invited by the White House to the State of the Union, with a prime seat in the balcony next to Ivanka Trump.

"After struggling with drug addiction, Tony lost his job, his house and his family. He was homeless. But then Tony found a construction company that invests in Opportunity Zones," the president said in his Feb. 4 speech. "He is now a top tradesman, drug-free, reunited with his family."

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Holding-cell stats raise questions about Trump asylum policy

SAN DIEGO (AP) — Many U.S. holding cells along the Mexican border were less than half-full, even empty, during an unprecedented surge of asylum-seeking families from Central America, newly unsealed court documents show, raising questions about the Trump administration's claims that it had to make people wait in Mexico because it didn't have the means to accommodate them.

Holding cells were no more than half-full at 18 of 24 border crossings on a majority of days between July 2018 and June 2019, according to the analysis of government data. Cells in the Texas cities of Laredo and Brownsville were no more than half-full on nearly nine out of 10 days during the 12-month period. Cells at some smaller crossings were often empty.

Legal advocates for migrants say the figures show that Trump administration officials were making up excuses to keep people from entering the U.S. to apply for asylum.

Customs and Border Protection, in its defence, has long maintained that the number of migrants it can take in at any one time is governed not just by the amount of holding-cell space but by available manpower. And during the surge, the staff was stretched especially thin dealing with priorities deemed more important, such as fighting drug trafficking and inspecting truck cargo.

Also, holding-cell figures do not tell the whole story, a senior official said in the unsealed documents. Some cells are less than full because some migrants must be isolated from others for safety reasons. For example, someone arrested for a crime would be held in a cell alone, as would a family with lice, or migrants with tattoos denoting gang membership.

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Weinstein lawyer: Prosecutors have a 'tale,' not a case

NEW YORK (AP) — Harvey Weinstein’s lawyer told jurors Thursday that prosecutors in the rape case against him were acting like moviemakers, conjuring up a world "where women had no free will."

"In the alternative universe that prosecutors have created for you, Harvey Weinstein is a monster," lawyer Donna Rotunno said in her closing argument. But, she said, he's an innocent man relying on jurors not to be swayed by a "sinister tale."

Rotunno argued that prosecutors had to come up with a damning story about the once-powerful movie producer because they don’t have the evidence to prove the charges.

"The irony is that they are the producers and they are writing the script," Rotunno said, urging the jury to not buy into "the story they spun where women had no free will."

"In their universe, women are not responsible for the parties they attend, the men they flirt with, the choices they make to further their own careers, the hotel room invitations, the plane tickets they accept, the jobs they ask for help to obtain," or the messages they send, Rotunno said.

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UN says 140,000 displaced in 3 days amid Syrian offensive

BEIRUT (AP) — Over 140,000 Syrians have been displaced in the last three days alone by violence in the country's northwest, bringing the total of those uprooted in a Syrian government offensive against the last opposition stronghold to over 800,000, the United Nations said Thursday.

The U.N. said at least 60% of the more than 800,000 displaced since Dec. 1 are children. The humanitarian crisis in the already overcrowded opposition-held enclave is compounded by freezing weather conditions, and existing severe needs.

The government offensive, backed by Russia, has intensified and expanded to include southern and eastern Idlib province as well as southern and western Aleppo, an area home to an estimated 4 million people. Most have already been displaced from other parts of Syria because of the ongoing conflict.

The humanitarian situation for people in northwest Syria is "at the most critical points," the U.N. said, adding that the massive scale of human displacement over such a short period of time has increased needs exponentially.

David Swanson, U.N. regional spokesperson for the crisis in Syria, said more resources, including funding, are immediately needed to save lives and alleviate suffering, predicting the 800,000 figure will rise in the coming days as the government offensive continues.

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Cole starts Yankees tenure with questions about Astros

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — On the day of his first formal workout with the New York Yankees, Gerrit Cole talked about what he did and did not know about the Houston Astros.

Houston was disciplined by Major League Baseball for breaking rules by using a video camera to steal signs during its run to the 2017 title and again during the 2018 season, the first after Cole was acquired from Pittsburgh.

New York lost to Houston in the AL Championship Series in both 2017 and against last year. Cole is ready to discuss the Astros if his new teammates inquire.

"I'll just give them an honest answer, which is I had no idea of any of it going on and I didn't see any of it," Cole said. "So, I really don't think I have much to apologize for."

Yankees manager Aaron Boone doesn't think it's necessary to talk with Cole about the lingering issue.

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