US, Russia seek understanding on next steps in Syria

Published: Friday, November 10, 2017 @ 4:07 AM
Updated: Friday, November 10, 2017 @ 4:06 AM

As the Islamic State group nears defeat, the United States and Russia are discussing next steps that could prevent the two military powers from inadvertently clashing in Syria and improve prospects for an end to the country's brutal civil war.

Fears about how the messy array of forces active in Syria may collide have grown as IS loses its last major stronghold and the focus shifts back to Syria's intractable conflict between President Bashar Assad's government and opposition groups. For the U.S. and ally Israel, a key concern is that foreign powers such as Iran will now dominate the country's future.

U.S. officials said an agreement under discussion in recent days would focus on three elements: "deconfliction" between the U.S. and Russian militaries, reducing violence in the civil war and reinvigorating U.N.-led peace talks. The officials weren't authorized to discuss the deliberations and requested anonymity.

Yet it was unclear whether the U.S. and Russia would ultimately reach any understanding.

"Why are you asking me? Ask the Americans," snapped Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov after a potential meeting Friday between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin was scrapped.

The United States had hoped that if the countries could show significant progress on a major global issue, it could serve as the basis for a meeting between Trump and Putin, who could then discuss and announce it during a summit in Vietnam.

In behind-the-scenes negotiations, the two sides tried to formulate some framework of a deal, two administration officials said. Though North Korea and the Ukraine were discussed, the focus was on a Syria agreement.

"We have been in contact with them, and the view has been if the two leaders are going to meet, is there something sufficiently substantive to talk about that would warrant a formal meeting?" Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Thursday in Beijing.

The Russians told reporters such a meeting was likely and that the time and place were being arranged. But talks stalled. Blaming scheduling conflicts, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that the meeting was off just minutes before Air Force One touched down in Vietnam.

Still, the leaders shook hands Friday on the sidelines of the summit, and Sanders said it was possible Trump and Putin could interact in an informal setting. Both Trump and Putin also plan to be in the Philippines later in the week, where it's possible they could cross paths again.

Russia and the U.S. have maintained a "deconfliction" hotline for years to avoid unintended collisions and even potential confrontations as they each operate in Syria's crowded skies. A heavy air campaign by Russia has been credited with shoring up the position of Assad, a close ally of Moscow.

With IS nearing defeat, the U.S. and Russia are losing their common enemy in Syria and will remain in a proxy battle in which Russia backs Assad and the U.S. lends at least rhetorical support to armed opposition groups fighting the government. That has increased the need for close communication between the two powers about where their forces are operating at any given time, officials said.

The agreement also seeks to build on progress in establishing "de-escalation zones" in Syria that have calmed some parts of the country. In July, when Trump held his first meeting with Putin in Germany, the U.S. and Russia announced a deal that included Jordan and established a cease-fire in southwest Syria. The United States has said that cease-fire has largely held and could be replicated elsewhere in the country.

A key U.S. concern, shared by close ally Israel, is the presence of Iranian-backed militias in Syria that have exploited the vacuum of power. The United States and Israel have been seeking ways to prevent forces loyal to Iran — Israel's archenemy — from establishing a permanent presence. One idea hinges on a "buffer zone" along Israel's border with Syria.

Yet U.S. and Russian interests diverge when it comes to Iran's role in Syria. Tehran, like Moscow, has been staunchly backing Assad, as it works to establish a corridor stretching from Iran through Iraq and Syria and into Lebanon.

A third element of the deal would reaffirm support for the United Nations effort being run out of Geneva to seek a political transition in Syria and resolve the civil war. The United States and Russia have been at odds for years over whether Assad could be allowed to remain in power in a future Syrian government.

The U.N. talks, which have come in fits and starts without yielding significant progress, aren't the only discussions about Syria's future. Russia, Turkey and Iran have been brokering their own process in Astana, Kazakhstan. The U.S. views those talks warily because of Iran's involvement, though they've led to local cease-fire deals that have reduced violence, too.

"We believe that the Geneva process is the right way to go," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Thursday. "Unfortunately, it is a long way off, but we're getting a little bit closer."

The U.S.-Russia deal may also seek to expand the mandate of a joint "monitoring center" established this year in Amman, Jordan, to watch for cease-fire violations and other developments on the ground. It has focused on southwest Syria, where the cease-fire is in place, but could be used to monitor broader stretches of the country.

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Associated Press writer Jonathan Lemire in Danang, Vietnam, contributed to this report.

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Reach Josh Lederman on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joshledermanAP and Matthew Lee at http://twitter.com/APDiploWriter

Trump physical results: 6 things to know

Published: Tuesday, January 16, 2018 @ 5:16 PM

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 16:  U.S. President Donald Trump speaks as he stops by a Conversations with the Women of America panel at the South Court Auditorium of Eisenhower Executive Office Building January 18, 2018 in Washington, DC. The three-part panel features ÒAmerican women from various backgrounds and experiences who will speak with high-level women within the Trump Administration, about what has been accomplished to date to advance women at home, and in the workplace.Ó  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Alex Wong/Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 16: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks as he stops by a Conversations with the Women of America panel at the South Court Auditorium of Eisenhower Executive Office Building January 18, 2018 in Washington, DC. The three-part panel features ÒAmerican women from various backgrounds and experiences who will speak with high-level women within the Trump Administration, about what has been accomplished to date to advance women at home, and in the workplace.Ó (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump is in excellent health and likely to finish his term in office without any medical issues, a presidential doctor said Tuesday at a news conference, four days after the president underwent a physical exam.

>> Read more trending news

“The president's overall health is excellent," White House physician Dr. Ronny Jackson said Tuesday.

Here are six things to know about the results of the president’s physical:

Jackson: ‘He had great findings across the board’

Trump is in “very, very good health,” Jackson said Tuesday. 

“(I have) no concerns for his heart health,” the presidential physician said. “There are many good things that came from his exam, I think he had great findings across the board. “

>> White House physician releases official report

Jackson said Trump’s good health is likely to last through “the remainder of this tern, and even for the remainder of another term, if he’s elected.” He said he based his assessment on the president’s cardiac results.

“He falls into a category that portends years of event-free living,” Jackson said. “He has incredibly good genes, and that’s just the way God made him.”

Cognitive screening showed no issues

Jackson said he conducted a cognitive screening on Trump at the president’s request, although he felt the test was unnecessary.

“I’ve spent almost every day in the president’s presence,” said Jackson, whose office is near Trump’s. “I’ve got to know him pretty well and I had absolutely no concerns about his cognitive ability or neurological functions.”

He said that in all his conversations with Trump, the president has been “very articulate.”

“I’ve never known him to repeat himself around me,” Jackson said. “He says what he wants to say and speaks his mind.”

Infamous slurred speech incident might have been caused by medication

A December incident in which the president sounded as though he was slurring his speech while announcing a policy shift in Israel was probably due to a medication, Jackson said.

>> Related: Trump’s slurred speech: Is it loose-fitting dentures, dry mouth or something else?

“We evaluated him, we checked everything out and everything was normal,” Jackson said, adding that the incident was likely caused because the president needed water.

He said prior to the Dec. 7 incident, he gave Trump Sudafed, which might have “inadvertently dried up his secretions.”

Why Did President Trump Slur His Words in a Recent Speech?

Trump working to lose 10-15 pounds

At 6-foot-3 and 239 pounds, the president has a body mass index of 29.9, just under the number that would designate him as obese, according to information released Tuesday.

“The president, he and I talked and... I think a reasonable goal over the next year or so is (to lose) 10 or 15 pounds,” Jackson said, adding that a nutritionist would be meeting with White House chefs in the coming weeks and that Trump would be put on an exercise routine.

“He’s more enthusiastic about the diet,” Jackson said.

Jackson not concerned about Trump’s stress levels

Despite concerns from the public and reports that have painted a chaotic White House, Jackson said that he has no concerns about the president’s stress levels.

“I talk to him sometimes about stress just because I think it’s my job as his physician to bring it up on occasion,” he said. “I’ve never seen the president stressed out too much. ... He has a unique ability to push the reset button and he just gets up and he starts a new day. (I think it’s) made him healthier from a stress standpoint.”

Jackson did not test Trump’s hearing

Jackson said he didn’t have enough time to test Trump’s hearing, although he planned to conduct such a test in future physicals.

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Robert Mueller subpoenas Steve Bannon in Russia probe

Published: Tuesday, January 16, 2018 @ 11:57 AM

Who is Steven Bannon

Special counsel Robert Mueller has subpoenaed President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, to testify before a grand jury as part of the ongoing investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and its possible ties to the Trump campaign, The New York Times reported Tuesday.

>> Read more trending news

>> Related: Steve Bannon to testify before House Intel Committee in Russia probe

Steve Bannon to testify before House Intel Committee in Russia probe

Published: Friday, January 12, 2018 @ 11:19 AM

Who is Steven Bannon

Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, will testify before the House Intelligence Committee next week in its probe of alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, according to multiple reports.

>> Read more trending news

An unidentified source told Reuters on Thursday that the interview will take place Tuesday behind closed doors. It will focus on Bannon’s time as Trump’s campaign chief and not on his time in the White House, according to Reuters.

In preparation for the interview, Bannon hired Washington attorney Bill Burck to represent him, NBC News reported Friday. Burck was previously hired to represent former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and White House counsel Donald McGhan in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and its possible ties to the Trump campaign, according to Law360.

Burck is representing Bannon only before the committee and not in Mueller’s probe, NBC News reported.

Trump named Bannon, the former chairman of the conservative news website Breitbart News, as his campaign chief in August 2016. After his inauguration, Trump appointed Bannon to fill the newly created position of White House chief strategist.

He left the Trump administration in August 2017, almost exactly one year after joining Trump’s presidential campaign.

>> Related: Steve Bannon out as White House strategist

Days before his exit, Bannon faced scrutiny for an interview he did with the liberal magazine The American Prospect, contradicting the president's warnings to North Korea of "fire and fury" in response to threats. Tension between the pair intensified last week after Bannon was quoted in journalist Michael Wolff’s controversial tell-all book “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.”

>> Related: 10 stunning claims about Trump White House from 'Fire and Fury'

Bannon told Wolff he thought a meeting set up by the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and others in June 2016 was “treasonous” and “unpatriotic.” Trump slammed Bannon in a statement after the comments were made public, saying, “When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind.”

Bannon later apologized for the comments.

>> Related: Report: Bannon apologizes for comments about Trump family in new book

Bannon announced Tuesday that he would be leaving Breitbart News for the second time in two years.

>> Related: Report: Steve Bannon stepping down as executive chairman at Breitbart News

"You have not heard the last from me," he wrote in a Twitter post announcing his departure.

Federal judge temporarily blocks Trump administration's plan to end DACA

Published: Wednesday, January 10, 2018 @ 5:55 AM

Trump Denies Making Deal on DACA with Democrats

A federal judge in California dealt a blow to the Trump administration’s attempt to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – also known as DACA – on Tuesday by temporarily blocking their ability to do so.

In his ruling, Judge William Alsup said DACA must stay in place until litigation over the program is complete. He also said that the Department of Homeland Security’s “decision to rescind DACA was based on a flawed legal premise.”

The judge’s ruling will allow recipients who didn’t renew by last year’s deadline to submit renewal applications, but no new applications will be allowed to be submitted.

>> Read more trending news 

“Dreamers’ lives were thrown into chaos when the Trump administration tried to terminate the DACA program without obeying the law,” said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, according to The Hill. “Today’s ruling is a huge step in the right direction.”

“America is and has been home to Dreamers who courageously came forward, applied for DACA and did everything the federal government asked of them,” Becerra continued. “They followed DACA’s rules, they succeeded in school, at work and in business, and they have contributed in building a better America. We will fight at every turn for their rights and opportunities so they may continue to contribute to America.”

The Trump administration announced in September that it was ending the program; however, earlier on Tuesday, during a meeting with Republicans and Democrats to discuss immigration issues, Trump appeared willing to negotiate a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants – a move that stunned both Democrats and Republicans.

“My head is spinning with all the things that were said by the president and others in that room in the course of an hour and a half,” Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said, according to The New York Times.

During the meeting, Trump also appeared to support Democratic Sen. Diane Feinstein’s call for a clean DACA bill, which would push off dealing with issues like border security until later.

In a tweet Tuesday evening, though, he did seem to harden his resolve on the border wall, saying that a southern border wall must be part of any “DACA approval.”