Trump makes first visit to US troops in harm’s way
AL-ASAD AIRBASE, Iraq (AP) — In an unannounced trip to Iraq on Wednesday, President Donald Trump staunchly defended his decision to withdraw U.S. forces from neighboring Syria despite a drumbeat of criticism from military officials and allies who don’t think the job fighting Islamic State militants there is over.
Trump, making his first presidential visit to troops in a troubled region, said it’s because the U.S. military had all but eliminated IS-controlled territory in both Iraq and Syria that he decided to withdraw 2,000 forces from Syria. He said the decision to leave Syria showed America’s renewed stature on the world stage and his quest to put “America first.”
“We’re no longer the suckers, folks,” Trump told U.S. servicemen and women at al-Asad Airbase in western Iraq, about 100 miles or 60 kilometers west of Baghdad. “We’re respected again as a nation.”
The decision to pull U.S. forces from Syria, however, stunned national security advisers and U.S. allies and prompted the resignations of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who was not on the trip, and the U.S. envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic extremist group. The militant group, also known as ISIS, has lost nearly all its territory in Iraq and Syria but is still seen as a threat.
Iraq declared IS defeated within its borders in December 2017, but Trump’s trip was shrouded in secrecy, which has been standard practice for presidents flying into conflict areas.
Asian stocks post gains following Wall Street’s rebound
SINGAPORE (AP) — An incredible day on Wall Street, which saw major indexes finishing at least 5 percent higher, spurred early gains in Asia on Thursday as some traders returned from a Christmas break.
KEEPING SCORE: Japan’s Nikkei 225 index rebounded 3.4 percent to 19,986.32. It tumbled more than 5 percent on Tuesday before recovering slightly a day later. South Korea’s Kospi added 0.3 percent to 2,034.19 and the Shanghai Composite index was up 0.7 percent at 2,514.45. Markets in Hong Kong and Australia, which reopened after Christmas, climbed too. The Hang Seng index was 0.7 percent higher at 25,819.22. Australia’s S&P-ASX 200 rallied 1.5 percent to 5,575.60.
WALL STREET: On Wednesday, U.S. markets snapped a four-day losing streak and clocked their best day in more than 10 years. Investors were reassured by an official signal that President Donald Trump, who has heavily criticized the Fed on Twitter, will not try to oust Chairman Jerome Powell. The broad S&P 500 index soared 5 percent to 2,467.70. The Dow Jones Industrial Average added over 1,000 points – its biggest point gain in a day – or 5 percent to 22,878.45. The Nasdaq composite picked up 5.8 percent to 6,554.36. The Russel 2000 index of smaller-company stocks rose 5 percent to 1,329.81.
HOLIDAY SALES: Trading was buoyed by a data showing that growth of U.S. holiday sales was at six-year high. Retail sales gained 5.1 percent between Nov. 1 and Dec. 24 as compared to a year ago, Mastercard SpendingPulse reported. It tracked spending online and in stores across all payment types, including cash and cheque. All in all, shoppers spent more than $850 billion this year, it added.
ANALYST’S TAKE: “Wall Street’s strong rebound on Wednesday inspires gains across to Asia even as the market ponders about the sustainability of this change with the light volume that accompanied,” Jingyi Pan of IG said in a market commentary.
Trump signals no end to shutdown: ‘You have to have a wall’
WASHINGTON (AP) — A shutdown affecting parts of the federal government appeared no closer to resolution Wednesday, with President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats locked in a hardening standoff over border wall money that threatens to carry over into January.
Trump vowed to hold the line, telling reporters during a visit to Iraq that he’ll do “whatever it takes” to get money for border security. He declined to say how much he would accept in a deal to end the shutdown, stressing the need for border security.
“You have to have a wall, you have to have protection,” he said.
The shutdown started Saturday when funding lapsed for nine Cabinet-level departments and dozens of agencies. Roughly 420,000 workers were deemed essential and are working unpaid, while an additional 380,000 have been furloughed.
While the White House was talking to congressional Democrats — and staff talks continued on Capitol Hill — negotiations dragged Wednesday, dimming hopes for a swift breakthrough.
Deaths of 2 children raise doubts about US border agency
HOUSTON (AP) — The deaths of two migrant children in just over two weeks raised strong new doubts Wednesday about the ability of U.S. border authorities to care for the thousands of minors arriving as part of a surge of families trying to enter the country.
An 8-year-old boy identified by Guatemalan officials as Felipe Gomez Alonzo died in U.S. custody at a New Mexico hospital on Christmas Eve after suffering a cough, vomiting and fever, authorities said. The cause is under investigation, as is the death Dec. 8 of another Guatemalan child, 7-year-old Jakelin Caal.
“There is a real failure here that we all need to reckon with,” said incoming Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat elected last month to represent El Paso in Congress. “We need to know how many other Jakelins and Felipes there have been.”
The U.S. government’s system for detaining migrants crossing the border is severely overtaxed. Authorities would not say how many children U.S. Customs and Border Protection is now holding. But the country is seeing a sharp rise in families with children.
In the wake of the two deaths, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen asked the Coast Guard to study CBP’s medical programs and announced that all children who enter the agency’s custody will be given “more thorough” assessments.
American man first to solo across Antarctica unaided
An Oregon man became the first person to traverse Antarctica alone without any assistance on Wednesday, trekking across the polar continent in an epic 54-day journey that was previously deemed impossible.
Colin O’Brady, of Portland, finished the bone-chilling, 930-mile (1,500-kilometer) journey as friends, family and fans tracked the endurance athlete’s progress in real time online.
“I did it!” a tearful O’Brady said on a call to his family gathered in Portland for the holidays, according to his wife, Jenna Besaw.
“It was an emotional call,” she said. “He seemed overwhelmed by love and gratitude, and he really wanted to say ‘Thank you’ to all of us.”
O’Brady was sleeping near the finish line in Antarctica late Wednesday and could not immediately be reached for comment.
AP Exclusive: Migrant teen tent city staying open into 2019
The Trump administration said Wednesday it will keep open through early 2019 a tent city in Texas that now holds more than 2,000 migrant teenagers, and also will increase the number of beds at another temporary detention center for children in Florida.
The Tornillo facility opened in June in an isolated corner of the Texas desert with capacity for up to 360 children. It eventually grew into a highly guarded detention camp where, on Christmas, some 2,300 largely Central American boys and girls between the ages of 13 and 17 slept in more than 150 canvas tents.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spokesman Mark Weber said Tornillo, which originally was slated to close Dec. 31, has stopped receiving new referrals of migrant youth.
Tornillo will now shut down after the new year, Weber said, but he did not give an exact date or more precise time frame for when it might close for good.
The agency is working with its network of shelters including Tornillo to release the children “to suitable sponsors as safely and quickly as possible,” he said.
Bad headlines for Trump also means ratings slump for Hannity
NEW YORK (AP) — The drumbeat of bad news for President Donald Trump hasn’t been good for his most prominent backer in the media.
While Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity will end 2018 as cable news’ most popular personality for the second year in a row, he’s been slumping in the ratings since the midterm elections and ominous stories related to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of the president.
His show averaged 2.76 million viewers since the election through Dec. 17, down 19 percent compared to the previous month, the Nielsen company said. Among the 25-to-54-year-old demo most coveted by advertisers, he’s down 30 percent. Competitors Rachel Maddow on MSNBC and Chris Cuomo on CNN are up in each measurement.
Maddow has been beating Hannity outright in December, a turnaround from October. During that month, when Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation drama dominated the news, Hannity’s audience routinely exceeded Maddow’s by about a million people each night, Nielsen said.
“I think it’s a reflection of the mood of his audience,” said Mark Lukasiewicz, dean of Hofstra University’s communications school and a longtime NBC executive. “They can’t be happy with what is coming out of Washington every day.”
Israeli official confirms Syria airstrikes as Russia objects
JERUSALEM (AP) — An Israeli security official on Wednesday confirmed responsibility for overnight airstrikes in Syria, saying the air force had hit a series of targets involved in Iranian arms transfers to the Hezbollah militant group.
Russia had criticized the airstrike, saying it endangered civilian flights. The comments highlighted the increasingly tense relations between Israel and Russia, which have grown strained since the September downing of a Russian plane by Syrian forces responding to another Israeli raid.
The Israeli official said the air force had attacked several Iranian targets in three main locations late Tuesday and early Wednesday. He said the targets were primarily storage and logistics facilities used by archenemy Iran to ship weapons to Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Lebanese group that fought Israel in a 2006 war.
He said Israel also destroyed a Syrian anti-aircraft battery that fired at the Israeli planes, and claimed that Iranian forces are operating less than 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the Israeli border, contrary to Russian assurances.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity under standard Israeli security protocols. The military has not commented on the incident.
Indonesia widens exclusion zone around island volcano
JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Indonesia has widened the no-go zone around an island volcano that triggered a tsunami on the weekend, killing at least 430 people in Sumatra and Java.
The country’s volcanology agency said Thursday that the Anak Krakatau volcano’s alert status had been raised to the second highest level and the exclusion zone more than doubled to a 5-kilometer (3-mile) radius.
The eruption on Saturday evening caused part of the island in the Sunda Strait to collapse into the sea, apparently generating tsunami waves of more than 2 meters (6 1/2 feet).
The government has warned Sunda Strait communities to stay a kilometer (less than a mile) away from the coastline because of the risk of another tsunami.
Final goodbye: Roll call of some who died in 2018
In a year filled with heightened political vitriol, two deaths brought the nation together to remember men who represented a seemingly bygone era of U.S. politics.
George H.W. Bush was a president, vice president, congressman, CIA director and Navy pilot during World War II, where he flew 58 missions and was shot down over the Pacific. As a politician, he had his fair share of critics and was voted out of office after one term as president. But the Republican reinvented himself in the years after his time in the White House, becoming a fundraiser for disaster relief and forming an unlikely friendship with the man who ousted him from office, former President Bill Clinton.
John McCain was a political giant in his own right. He served as a senator for more than 30 years, ran for president twice and spent five years as a prisoner of war after being shot down during the Vietnam War. In captivity, McCain endured torture and even turned down a chance to be released early, denying the North Vietnamese military a propaganda victory.
Bush died in in November at age 94, just months after the death of his wife, former first lady Barbara Bush, who died in April. McCain died in August at the age of 81 after a battle with brain cancer.
Their deaths prompted an outpouring of public mourning from across the political spectrum that was at odds with a recent political climate that has been defined by intense partisanship, coarse insults and divisive rhetoric.
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