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Iraqi Forces Launch Operation to Take Mosul Airport From ISIS

23 February, by Qassim Abdul-Zahra / AP[ —]

(BAGHDAD) — Iraq’s special forces say they have begun an assault against the Islamic State group on a sprawling military base south of Mosul that’s adjacent to the city’s airport.

Two Iraqi special forces officers say their troops have reached the edge of the Ghazlani base on the city’s southern rim on Thursday morning and that clashes there are underway.

A federal police officer says his forces are also pushing toward the Mosul airport. All officers spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to reporters.

The advances come days after Iraqi forces officially launched the operation to push ISIS out of Mosul’s western half.

The operation to retake Iraq’s second largest city was officially launched in October and in January its eastern half was declared “fully liberated.”

 


New Jersey Congressman Leonard Lance Is the Latest GOP Lawmaker to Face a Boisterous Town Hall

23 February, by Charlotte Alter[ —]

Rep. Leonard Lance (R-NJ) faced angry protesters and frustrated constituents at a town hall meeting in his New Jersey district Wednesday, in one of many boisterous confrontations between citizens and their representatives this week.

Lance met with constituents at the Raritan Valley Community College in Branchburg, NJ Wednesday night during the Congressional recess. The turnout was so big that some constituents were sent to an overflow room and others stood outside, waving signs saying things like “Hold your britches Lance, you’re going to lose your seat.” When asked whether any of them were “paid protesters,” as some Republicans have alleged, at least one demonstrator laughed in this reporter’s face.

This week has been an eventful one for many members of Congress returning home to their districts. Constituents have confronted their representatives and Senators in Utah, Ohio, Florida, Virginia and Arkansas so far, and more confrontations are coming.

Constituents asked questions about health care reform, the environment, de-funding Planned Parenthood and President Trump’s alleged connections to Russia.

When confronted with questions about whether he would support investigations into the alleged connections between Trump and Russia, Lance said he would “do what is in the national interest based on what’s presented to me.” Several voices in the crowd shouted back, “which is what?”

When one constituent stood up and asked Lance to choose his country over his party, the crowd erupted in cheers and waving signs.

Ed Marceski, 61, came to his first-ever town hall meeting to confront Lance on whether he would protect government oversight regulations to prevent another financial crisis, and whether he would support the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. “This is a blue state, not a red state,” Marceski said. “He has to do what his constituents want, not what his party wants.”

For Jim Girvan, 64, his first foray into town-hall activism was motivated by a sense that he had “never felt that our country has been in such distress.”

Girvan, a retired government employee, scoffed at the idea that any of the protesters had been cajoled into showing up. “We are neither paid nor bussed,” he said. “That’s nonsense. It’s a way to discredit honest grassroots activism.”


North Korea Denies That It Was Behind the Killing of Kim Jong Un’s Half-Brother

23 February, by Associated Press[ —]

(KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia) — North Korea denied Thursday that its agents masterminded the assassination of the half brother of leader Kim Jong Un, saying a Malaysian investigation into the death of one of its nationals is full of “holes and contradictions.”

The North’s response came a day after Malaysian police said they were seeking two more North Koreans, including the second secretary of North Korea’s embassy in Kuala Lumpur, in connection with the Feb. 13 killing of Kim Jong Nam at a Malaysian airport.

Malaysia police have not directly pinpointed North Korea as being behind the death of Kim Jong Nam, but have already arrested a North Korean man working at a Malaysian company along with three other people. They are searching for several more North Koreans.

The Korean Jurists Committee, a legal body affiliated with North Korea’s rubber-stamp parliament, said in a statement Thursday that the Malaysian investigation lacks fairness and was influenced by the South Korean government, which blames Pyongyang for the death.

The North has not acknowledged that the dead man is Kim Jong Nam. Thursday’s statement described the man only as a North Korean citizen bearing a diplomatic passport.

It said that South Korea had “kicked up a fuss” and had plotted to have North Korea blamed for the killing.

“The biggest responsibility for his death rests with the government of Malaysia as the citizen of the DPRK died in its land,” the statement said. The DPRK refers to the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea, the country’s official name.

Malaysian police said Wednesday that the two women suspected of fatally poisoning Kim Jong Nam were trained to coat their hands with toxic chemicals and then wipe them on his face.

Police say the substance used remains unknown, but it was potent enough to kill Kim before he could make it to a hospital. Inspector-General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar told reporters that the women, one Vietnamese and the other Indonesian, knew they were handling poisonous materials and “were warned to take precautions.” The women have been arrested.

Surveillance video showed both keeping their hands away from their bodies after the attack, he said, then going to restrooms to wash. Those details are not clear in video obtained by media outlets.

But the North Korean Embassy in Kuala Lumpur has already ridiculed the police account and demanded the immediate release of the two “innocent women.”

An embassy statement asked how the women were able to survive if they also had the deadly toxins on their hands.

Malaysian police said the women washed their hands soon after poisoning Kim.

Khalid said the women had practiced the attack at two Kuala Lumpur malls. “We strongly believe it is a planned thing and that they have been trained,” he said.

Khalid couldn’t confirm whether North Korea’s government was behind Kim’s death but added, “What is clear is that those involved are North Koreans.”

The North Korean Embassy’s statement also questioned the fairness of the Malaysian investigation, which it said was based on lies and biased presumptions and has been tainted by South Korean influence.

At least one of the women has said she was tricked into attacking Kim Jong Nam, believing she was taking part in a comedy prank TV show.

The case has perplexed toxicologists, who question how the two women could have walked away unscathed after handling a powerful poison.

Kim had spent most of the past 15 years living in China and Southeast Asia. He is believed to have had at least three children with two women. No family members have come forward to claim the body.

South Korea’s spy agency believes North Korea was behind the killing, but has produced no evidence.

North Korea has a long history of ordering killings of people it views as threats to its regime. While Kim Jong Nam was not thought to be seeking influence, his position as eldest son of the family that has ruled North Korea since its founding could have made him appear to be a danger.

He was at the airport to fly to Macau, where he had a home.

__

Associated Press writer Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, contributed to this report.


The Conservative Grassroots Faces a Crisis at Its Annual Meetup

23 February, by Alex Altman[ —]

The annual Conservative Political Action Conference, which kicks off Thursday just outside Washington, should be a celebratory occasion for the conservative moment.

A new Republican President was just sworn in. GOP majorities in both houses of Congress are preparing to take up long-awaited reforms to tax and health care policy. A Supreme Court nominee with sparkling credentials was announced this month to rave reviews.

But as thousands of conservative activists converge for their yearly bacchanal on the banks of the Potomac, there are signs that conservatism itself in a state of crisis.

It starts with a President who treats the ideology as an inconvenience. “Don’t forget,” Donald Trump warned last year, as the ill-fated rebellion against his nomination gathered steam. “This is called the Republican Party, not the Conservative Party.” Once-doctrinaire colleagues on Capitol Hill have proven unwilling to defy him. After years of preaching fiscal restraint, few Republicans have balked at the red ink Trump’s domestic agenda would spill. Under Trump, misfits and renegades who once hung out at the party’s fringes have moved to key policymaking roles in the White House.

They are running the show at the CPAC as well. The event—part policy confab, part candidate cattle call, part trade show—has long since evolved from a sober gathering of dedicated conservatives to a raucous bonanza of hard-core activists and college kids hoping to get lucky at the booze-soaked after parties. And the migration of the party’s fringe from the margins to the mainstream is made plain by the agenda.

On the docket are discussions about political correctness, Trump’s “deplorables” and “snowflakes, safe spaces and trigger warnings.” Dog the Bounty Hunter will be the special guest at an event to gin up interest in drafting far-right sheriff David Clarke as a Wisconsin Senate candidate. (The flyer promises a free sample of “Clarke-Tosterone: For the treatment of Low-T RINOs and GOP Eunuchs.”) Another panel is titled: “If Heaven Has a Gate, a Wall, and Extreme Vetting, Why Can’t America?”

Professional troll Milo Yiannopoulos was given a prime speaking slot to discuss free speech, despite—or perhaps because of—his track record of making offensive remarks about women, Muslims, blacks, transgender people and Jews. His invitation was rescinded after an online video surfaced in which he appeared to make approving comments about pedophilia.

Yiannopoulos ia a favorite of the alt right movement, which disdains conservatism. It says something that he was deemed a top draw at a conference convened to venerate it. And the controversy is only deepening the party schisms. In far-right circles, the release of the tape was blamed on mainstream Republicans trying to stop the alt right’s ascendancy.

That effort will be on display at CPAC too. On Thursday morning, the executive director of the American Conservative Union, the group that puts on the conference, will give a speech called “The Alt Right Ain’t Right at All.” Another speaker’s address—”Conservatism is About Ideas, Not Identity”—suggests a rebuke to the alt right as well.

Conservatism is a big tent, and CPAC often reveals its tensions. In recent years, the young libertarian crowd has clashed with the Bush-era neoconservatives. Debates sprang up over the inclusion of GOProud, a group of gay Republicans. The event, catering to a self-selecting group of activists, has always provided a distorted picture of the party’s true state. And the familiar factions of the conservative movement—the social conservatives and fiscal reformers and foreign-policy hawks—will all be represented as usual.

But the agenda reflects the rise of the GOP’s populist fringe. Trump, who will address the conference Friday morning, has always been a CPAC favorite: his early speeches there, beginning in 2011, served as the ur-text of his campaign platform. Back then he was just one of the conference’s far-right celebrities, with a quasi-ironic following that matched his national profile. Now he is the President, and the party is remaking itself in his image.


Google Celebrates the Discovery of Seven Earth-Sized Planets With This Stellar Doodle

23 February, by Feliz Solomon[ —]

NASA has just announced the discovery of seven previously unknown earth-size planets orbiting a single dwarf star, which scientists believe could be the best place to look for life, and the Google team could hardly contain its excitement.

Thursday’s animated Doodle shows earth peering through a telescope to find its seven friendly neighbors, just 235 trillion miles away.

Scientists said the newly discovered solar system, Trappist-1, is significant because three of its seven planets orbit in the “habitable zone”; their proximity to the system’s star suggests the right conditions for holding liquid water. The other four could also potentially be hospitable to living organisms.

Researchers don’t yet know whether any of the planets are habitable, but they believe it’s promising.

“This discovery could be a significant piece in the puzzle of finding habitable environments, places that are conducive to life,” NASA administrator Thomas Zurbuchen said in a statement. “Answering the question ‘are we alone’ is a top science priority and finding so many planets like these for the first time in the habitable zone is a remarkable step forward toward that goal.”


Celebrities Respond to Trump Revoking Protections for Transgender Students

23 February, by Oliver Gettell / Entertainment Weekly[ —]

Actors, music artists, comedians, authors, and other celebrities are speaking out on social media about their opposition to the Trump administration’s decision to revoke federal protections for transgender students that allowed them to use bathrooms and locker rooms matching their gender identities.

In the wake of the announcement Wednesday, Ellen DeGeneres tweeted, “This isn’t about politics. It’s about human rights, and it’s not okay.”

Brie Larson called the Trump administration’s decision “disgusting” and “unacceptable,” asserting that transgender people deserve “nothing less than protection and equality.”

Fellow actress Ellen Page tweeted, “We need to protect trans youth and stand up against this cruelty that hurts our kids.” She also urged people to support the suicide prevention hotline Trans Lifeline.

Lance Bass didn’t mince words writing, “What an a‑‑‑‑‑‑!”

And Jackie Evancho, who sang at Trump’s inauguration, asked Trump to meet with her and her transgender sister to discuss trans rights.

Read more responses below.

This article originally appeared on Ew.com


Emails Show New EPA Chief Scott Pruitt’s Close Ties to the Fossil Fuel Industry

23 February, by Michael Biesecker and Jason Dearen / AP[ —]

(WASHINGTON) — While serving as Oklahoma’s attorney general, new Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt coordinated closely with fossil-fuel companies and special interest groups working to undermine federal efforts to curb planet-warming carbon emissions, newly released emails show.

More than 7,500 pages were released under court order Tuesday evening after an Oklahoma judge ruled that Pruitt had been illegally withholding his correspondence, which is public record under state law, for the last two years.

Pruitt’s office was forced to release the emails after he was sued by the Center for Media and Democracy, a left-leaning advocacy group. Other emails are still being held back pending further review by the judge.

The Republican-dominated Senate voted on Friday to confirm President Donald Trump’s pick to lead EPA. Democrats had sought to delay the vote on Pruitt’s confirmation until the requested emails were released, but Republican leaders used their slim majority to push Pruitt through.

The emails show Pruitt and his staff coordinating their legal strategy with oil and gas industry executives and conservative advocacy groups funded by those profiting from fossil fuels, including the billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch. While serving as Oklahoma’s elected state lawyer for the last six years, Pruitt sued federal agencies more than a dozen times to challenge stricter environmental regulations.

Among the emails is a series of 2013 exchanges between Pruitt’s staff and Richard Moskowitz, general counsel for the Washington-based American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers. The lawyer detailed the industry’s plan to seek waivers from the federal rules boosting the use of renewable fuels and asked Pruitt to make a specific legal argument under air pollution regulations known as the National Ambient Air Quality Standards. The email was copied to Thomas Bates, then Pruitt’s first assistant attorney general.

“We think it would be most effective for Oklahoma to file a separate waiver petition that emphasizes ‘severe environmental harm,’ as this argument is more credible coming from a state with primary responsibility for achieving and maintaining attainment with the NAAQS,” Moskowitz wrote.

Moskowitz’s email was then forwarded to Pruitt’s deputy solicitor general, P. Clayton Eubanks, who replied that he knew little about the federal Renewable Fuel Standard and asked for further instructions about what the trade group wanted them to do.

“I think it is safe to say that AG Pruitt has an interest in the issue,” Eubanks wrote. “Hopefully I haven’t missed the boat too much on these questions but I want to make sure I fully understand what Oklahoma’s role will be.”

Now working at EPA, Pruitt did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Environmentalists cited Pruitt’s close ties to the fossil fuel industry in opposing his nomination. Like Trump, Pruitt has questioned the validity of scientific studies showing the Earth is warming and that carbon emissions from human activity are the primary cause. As attorney general, Pruitt’s office joined a GOP-led multi-state lawsuit seeking to overturn President Barack Obama’s plan to limit emissions from coal-fired power plants.

During his confirmation hearing last month, Senate Democrats pressed Pruitt on political donations he had raised from energy companies such as Exxon Mobil and Devon Energy, including “dark money” funneled to groups not required to disclose their donors.

Pruitt’s staff was also in close contact with the American Legislative Exchange Council and Americans for Prosperity to coordinate opposition to new EPA regulations. Oil industry giant Exxon Mobil is a major donor to ALEC, while AFP is closely linked to Koch Industries, which owns petroleum pipelines.

In another exchange of emails from 2013, executives from Devon, an Oklahoma City-based oil and gas company, asked Pruitt to send an official state response to new regulations on hydraulic fracturing proposed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The company provided a draft letter for Pruitt’s signature, addressed to the White House office that reviews regulations.

“Our goal is to have input to (the office) with a goal of its directing BLM to completely do away with the present thrust,” wrote William Whitsitt, an executive vice president at Devon. Brent Rockwood, another Devon executive, chimed in with suggested edits and additions for Pruitt’s filing.

“Thank you for your guidance and assistance in getting this letter out,” Eubanks, the deputy solicitor general, later emailed Rockwood.

Melissa McLawhorn Houston, Pruitt’s chief of staff, emailed a Devon executive in November 2013 asking whether it would be possible for her to take her sons to a posh restaurant at the top of the company’s 50-story headquarters building. She wrote that they were “dressed like tourists” and had no plans to eat.

Allen Wright, Devon’s vice president for government affairs, quickly responded by having his assistant arrange a personal escort for Houston, who later followed up by inviting the executive out to lunch.

“You are so sweet!” Houston responded to Wright. “Thank you again so much for your help on this! Very sweet and you’ll be making 2 little boys very happy!”

In an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday, Houston insisted she wasn’t asking for a favor, but rather was just emailing a longtime acquaintance out of concern her family might not be appropriately dressed. She said they ended up not going and that her sons have still not made it to the top of Devon Tower.

Asked about a separate email confirming an appointment for her at the building a few days later, Houston said she had no specific recollection of what that visit was about.

“I’ve been to Devon several times,” Houston said, adding that she likes the gelato sold in the lobby.

___

Associated Press reporter Jason Dearen reported from Gainesville, Florida. AP writers Ted Bridis, Seth Borenstein and Matthew Daly in Washington, Sean Murphy in Oklahoma City, Ellen Knickmeyer in San Francisco, Tammy Webber in Chicago, John Flesher in Traverse City, Michigan, Matthew Brown in Billings, Montana, and Kelly P. Kissel in Little Rock, Arkansas, contributed to this story.


Tillerson and Kelly Visit Mexico In the Wake of Anti-U.S. Protests and a Canceled Summit

23 February, by Josh Lederman / AP[ —]

(MEXICO CITY) — President Donald Trump dispatched his top diplomat and homeland security chief to Mexico on Wednesday on a fence-mending mission complicated by the actual fence he wants to build on the southern border. Mexico’s government signaled it was in no mood to be lectured by the new U.S. administration.

Ties between the countries have plunged since Trump took office a month ago, punctuated by Trump’s insistence that Mexico pay for a border wall and other demands on illegal immigration and trade. During their brief visit, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly will face a Mexican government anxiously rethinking its relationship with its bigger, richer and more powerful neighbor.

Tillerson arrived in Mexico City late Wednesday, while Mexico was still reeling from the Trump administration’s announcement a day earlier of a deportation crackdown that envisions sending people to Mexico who cross the border illegally — even if they’re not Mexican citizens.

Kelly, whose department is in charge of implementing Trump’s immigration crackdown, was arriving separately after a visit to Guatemala. The two plan to meet with President Enrique Pena Nieto and with Mexico’s top defense, finance and diplomatic officials.

Yet Tillerson’s counterpart in Mexico, Luis Videgaray, insisted that his country would not “accept unilateral decisions imposed by one government on another.”

“We don’t have to, and it is not in the interest of Mexico,” Videgaray said. He hinted that Mexico might seek to challenge Trump’s move at the United Nations or in other international bodies.

Still, senior Trump administration officials sought to play down the disagreements between the countries, describing close cooperation between the two countries on economic prosperity, law enforcement, drug trafficking and trade. Reporters were given an official briefing ahead of the trip on condition that officials weren’t quoted by name.

At the White House, press secretary Sean Spicer said the U.S.-Mexican relationship is “phenomenal.”

“I think there’s an unbelievable and robust dialogue between the two nations,” Spicer said.

On Tuesday, the U.S. changed immigration enforcement policies that could subject millions of people living in the U.S. illegally — including many Mexicans— to deportation. Whereas President Barack Obama focused on deporting immigrants convicted of serious crimes, new memos signed by Kelly prioritize deportation for anyone convicted of a crime or charged with any offense. That includes crossing the border illegally.

The memos also call for sending some people who enter the U.S. illegally back to Mexico, even if they’re from Central America or elsewhere and only used Mexico as a transit point. Detention center capacity will expand; planning for Trump’s much touted wall will begin.

Trump was in office barely a week when Pena Nieto canceled a planned visit to the U.S. The American leader had suggested their meeting would be ill-advised if Mexico wasn’t willing to pay for the wall, expected to cost billions of dollars. Mexico remained unwilling. A meeting between the two presidents hasn’t been rescheduled.

The visit by Tillerson and Kelly forms part of a Trump administration trend: top Cabinet and other officials seeking to calm nervous nations that their U.S. partnerships are secure in the new era of “America First.” Vice President Mike Pence and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis have previously filled the role, facing foreign leaders who’ve struggled to reconcile their rhetoric of reassurance with the declarations of disruption from Trump and some of his senior envoys.

Tillerson, the former Exxon Mobil CEO, and Kelly, a retired Marine general, have taken a more diplomatic tack toward Mexico than Trump, even as they both assume key roles in executing policy that has stirred widespread resentment in America’s southern neighbor.

Anti-Trump protests have erupted. Earlier this month, some 20,000 people marched through Mexico’s capital demanding respect from the U.S. While Pena Nieto has struggled with plummeting approval ratings, his opposition to Trump has rallied many Mexicans around him.

Beyond the wall, Tillerson is likely to face questions about Trump’s pledge to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Eighty percent of Mexico’s exports are to the U.S. The Trump administration also has floated the idea of a border tax on Mexican products.

A trio of Democratic senators visited Mexico in advance of Tillerson and Kelly’s trip. Putting the blame on Trump, Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s top Democrat, said he was confident the relationship could withstand “140-character broadsides or unrealistic demands” — referring to the president’s frequent Twitter missives.

___

Associated Press writers Vivian Salama in Washington and Mark Stevenson in Mexico City contributed to this report.


Protecting Trump Tower Has Cost New York City $24 Million From Election to Inauguration

23 February, by Gina Cherelus / Reuters[ —]

(NEW YORK) — It cost New York City about $24 million to provide security at Trump Tower, President Donald Trump’s skyscraper home in Manhattan, from Election Day to Inauguration Day, or $308,000 per day, New York’s police commissioner said on Wednesday.

The revelation prompted renewed calls for Congress to reimburse the city for the cost of protecting Trump’s private residence on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, where his wife and their son continue to reside.

“We are seeking full federal reimbursement for all costs incurred related to security for President Trump and his family at Trump Tower,” Freddi Goldstein, a spokeswoman for Mayor Bill de Blasio, wrote in an email to Reuters.

New York City Police Commissioner James O’Neill said in a statement that the Police Department now has a dual role in protecting the first family while also serving and protecting residents in the city.

“Trump Tower itself now presents a target to those who wish to commit acts of terror against our country, further straining our limited counterterrorism resources,” O’Neill said.

Trump’s spokespeople could not be reached immediately for comment.

De Blasio asked the U.S. government in December for up to $35 million to cover security costs for protecting Trump in his home atop the 58-story skyscraper, which is located on Fifth Avenue near Central Park, an area popular with tourists.

At $24 million, the final cost was less than that. Trump spent most of his time from Election Day on Nov. 8 until his inauguration on Jan. 20 at his penthouse apartment in Trump Tower.

In addition to the police protection, the Fire Department incurred $1.7 million in costs during the time period Trump was in New York, according to O’Neill.

On days when first lady Melania Trump and the couple’s son, Barron, are the only ones in the city, security going forward will cost between $127,000 and $145,000 per day, less than when the president is in residence, O’Neill said.

When Trump is in town, the cost of police protection will go back up to $308,000 on average per day, O’Neill said. It will cost about another $4.5 million per year for the New York City Fire Department to protect the building, he said.

“We anticipate these costs will increase significantly whenever the president is in New York City,” he said.

Trump has not been back to Manhattan since his inauguration.

New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney said in a statement on Wednesday that the city’s taxpayers should not be forced to pay for a “national security obligation” and that “Congress must provide city taxpayers a full reimbursement.”


Behind the Cinematography of the Oscar-Nominated Movie Moonlight

23 February, by Paul Moakley[ —]

This weekend at the Oscars, cinematographer James Laxton is up for his first Academy Award for his work on the drama Moonlight. The film and its visuals developed from a deep collaboration with his college friend, screenwriter and director Barry Jenkins, that date back to when they met 17 years ago at Florida State University. Since that time the duo developed a very personal aesthetic their work inspired by fine art photography and indie cinema.

Laxton, who says he first started talking about this movie with Jenkins years ago, breaks down the anatomy of the film’s pivotal scenes and reveals the who inspired the distinct look of Moonlight.

Go behind the scenes with James Laxton here.











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