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Trial Over Georgia's Restrictive Abortion Law To Begin

Mon, 10/24/2022 - 19:49

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A trial to determine whether Georgia can continue to ban abortion as early as six weeks into a pregnancy is set to begin in an Atlanta courtroom Monday.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney has scheduled two days of testimony in a lawsuit that seeks to strike down the law on multiple grounds, including that it violates the Georgia Constitution's right to privacy and liberty by "forcing pregnancy and childbirth upon countless Georgians."

The state attorney general's office responded in a court filing that Georgia's privacy protections do not extend to abortion because it affects another "human life."

Georgia's law bans most abortions once a "detectable human heartbeat" is present. Cardiac activity can be detected by ultrasound in cells within an embryo that will eventually become the heart as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. That means most abortions in Georgia are effectively banned at a point before many women know they are pregnant.

The doctors and advocacy groups that filed the lawsuit before McBurney in July also argue the law was invalid from the start because it violated the U.S. Constitution and U.S. Supreme Court precedent when it was enacted.

SEE MORE: Appeals Court Says Georgia Abortion Law Should Take Effect

Georgia's law was passed by state lawmakers and signed by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp in 2019 but it had been blocked from taking effect until the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, which had protected the right to an abortion for nearly 50 years. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals allowed Georgia to begin enforcing its abortion law just over three weeks after the high court's decision in June.

The law includes exceptions for rape and incest, as long as a police report is filed, and allows for later abortions when the woman’s life is at risk or a serious medical condition renders a fetus unviable.

The state has argued that the Roe decision itself was wrong and the Supreme Court ruling wiped it out of existence.

In August, McBurney rejected a request by the plaintiffs to immediately block the abortion law while the lawsuit was pending, though he stressed that decision did not touch on the merits of the case. Earlier this month, he denied a request by state officials to postpone the trial, which he will decide, not a jury.

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.

Leslie Jordan, Versatile Emmy-Winning Actor, Dies At 67

Mon, 10/24/2022 - 19:25

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Leslie Jordan, the Emmy-winning actor whose wry Southern drawl and versatility made him a comedy and drama standout on TV series including "Will & Grace" and "American Horror Story," has died. He was 67.

"The world is definitely a much darker place today without the love and light of Leslie Jordan. Not only was he a mega talent and joy to work with, but he provided an emotional sanctuary to the nation at one of its most difficult times," a representative for Jordan said in a statement Monday. "Knowing that he has left the world at the height of both his professional and personal life is the only solace one can have today."

The Tennessee native, who won an on outstanding guest actor Emmy in 2005 for "Will & Grace," appeared recently on the Mayim Bialik comedy "Call me Kat" and co-starred on the sitcom "The Cool Kids."

Jordan's other eclectic credits include "Fantasy Island," "The United States vs. Billie Holiday."

SEE MORE: Actor Robbie Coltrane, Harry Potter's Hagrid, Dies At 72

Jordan earned an unexpected new following in 2021 when he spent time during the pandemic lockdown near family in his hometown. He broke the sameness by posting daily videos of himself on Instagram and TikTok. 

Many of Jordan's videos included him asking "How ya'll doin?" and some included stories about Hollywood or his childhood growing up with identical twin sisters and their "mama," as he called her. Other times he did silly bits like complete an indoor obstacle course.

"Someone called from California and said, 'Oh, honey, you've gone viral.' And I said, 'No, no, I don't have Covid. I'm just in Tennessee," said Jordan. Celebrities including Michelle Pfeiffer, Jessica Alba and Anderson Cooper, along with brands such as Reebok and Lululemon, would post comments.

Soon he became fixated with the number of views and followers he had, because there wasn't much else going on.

"For a while there, it was like obsessive. And I thought, 'This is ridiculous. Stop, stop, stop.' You know, it almost became, 'If it doesn't happen on Instagram, it didn't happen.' And I thought, 'You're 65, first of all. You're not some teenage girl.'"

The spotlight led to new opportunities. Earlier this month he released a gospel album called "Company's Comin'" featuring Dolly Parton, Chris Stapleton, Brandi Carlile, Eddie Vedder and Tanya Tucker. He wrote a new book, "How Y'all Doing?: Misadventures and Mischief from a Life Well Lived."

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.

Ex-Cop J. Alexander Kueng Pleads Guilty In George Floyd Killing

Mon, 10/24/2022 - 19:05

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A former Minneapolis police officer pleaded guilty Monday to aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter in the killing of George Floyd just as jury selection was about to begin. Another former officer waived his right to a jury trial, setting up an uncommon process in which both sides agree to the evidence before the judge issues a verdict.

The plea deal for J. Alexander Kueng calls for 3 1/2 years in prison, with prosecutors agreeing to drop a count of aiding and abetting second-degree murder. Kueng is the second officer to plead guilty to the state charge, following Thomas Lane, who pleaded guilty earlier this year.

Their former colleague, Tou Thao, rejected a plea deal earlier this year, telling a judge it "would be lying" to accept any such deal. On Monday, he agreed to go forward with a proceeding called a trial by stipulated evidence on one count of aiding and abetting manslaughter. In doing so, he is waiving his rights to a trial by jury and to testify.

The two sides will work out agreed-upon evidence against Thao and prepare written closing arguments. They will submit those to Judge Peter Cahill by Nov. 17, with Cahill to decide whether he is guilty within 90 days. If convicted of the manslaughter count, Thao would likely get about four years in prison and the aiding and abetting murder charge would be dropped.

Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office prosecuted the case, said in a statement that he hopes Kueng's guilty plea can bring comfort to Floyd's family and "bring our communities closer to a new era of accountability and justice." He also said his office is looking forward to a swift resolution of Thao's case, and he thanked the witnesses who were prepared to testify at trial.

SEE MORE: Ex-Cop Lane Gets 3 Years In Plea Deal For Role In George Floyd's Death

All three were convicted in February on federal counts of willfully violating the civil rights of Floyd, who was Black. Lane was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in the federal case. Kueng was sentenced to three years and Thao was sentenced to 3 1/2, but for some Floyd family members and activists, the penalties were too small.

Floyd, 46, died May 25, 2020, after Officer Derek Chauvin, who is white, pinned him to the ground with a knee on Floyd's neck as he repeatedly said he couldn't breathe. The killing, captured on widely viewed bystander video, sparked protests in Minneapolis and around the globe as part of a reckoning over racial injustice.

Kueng and Lane helped to restrain Floyd, who was handcuffed. Kueng knelt on Floyd's back and Lane held down Floyd's legs. Thao kept bystanders from intervening during the 9 1/2-minute restraint.

As part of his plea agreement, Kueng admitted that he held Floyd's torso, that he knew from his experience and training that restraining a handcuffed person in a prone position created a substantial risk, and that the restraint of Floyd was unreasonable under the circumstances.

Kueng's plea called for him to serve his state and federal terms concurrently, just as Lane is doing.

Rachel Moran, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, said the stipulated bench trial for Thao is a "creative way" to resolve his case, noting that such trials are uncommon but sometimes happen.

"The stipulated bench trial allows him to maintain his innocence and to blame the court if he gets found guilty, rather than make any admissions himself," she said. "On the state's part, they also don't want to go to trial. They are exhausted, their witnesses are exhausted ... they potentially get what they want, which is just a conviction and concurrent prison time, which is all they were looking for."

She said the state was creative in leaving the murder charge on the table, so that if Thao is acquitted on the manslaughter charge, the state to still pursue the aiding and abetting murder charge.

SEE MORE: Derek Chauvin Sentenced To 22.5 Years For George Floyd's Murder

John Baker, a lawyer and assistant professor of criminal justice studies at St. Cloud State University, said stipulated bench trials are fairly common, particularly when there are concerns about getting an unbiased jury and when the case hinges more on a legal question rather than evidentiary issues.

Baker said Thao's attorney won't contest what happened and that the case will come down to whether Thao knew that Chauvin was committing a crime. "That lends itself more toward a court trial, with the judge making a decision," he said.

Chauvin was convicted of state murder and manslaughter charges last year and is currently serving 22 1/2 years in the state case. He also pleaded guilty to a federal charge of violating Floyd's civil rights and was sentenced to 21 years for that and for an unrelated case involving a 14-year-old boy. He is serving the sentences at the same time at the Federal Correctional Institution in Tucson, Arizona.

Kueng is Black, Lane is white and Thao is Hmong American. They were convicted of federal charges in February after a trial that focused on their training and the culture of the police department. All three were convicted of depriving Floyd of his right to medical care and Thao and Kueng were also convicted of failing to intervene to stop Chauvin during the killing.

After their federal sentences, there was a question as to whether Kueng and Thao would proceed to trial, with legal experts saying it was likely they'd seek a plea deal with the state that would not exceed the federal sentence and allow them to serve both sentences at the same time.

State sentencing guidelines for a person with no criminal record, like Kueng, call for a range from about 3 1/2 years to four years and nine months in prison for second-degree unintentional manslaughter. The presumptive sentence is four years.

If Kueng had been convicted of aiding and abetting second-degree murder, he would have faced a presumptive 12 1/2 years in prison.

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.

Police: 3 People Killed In Shooting At St. Louis High School

Mon, 10/24/2022 - 17:47

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A gunman broke into a St. Louis high school Monday morning, fatally shooting a woman and a teenage girl and injuring six others before police killed him in an exchange of gunfire.

The shooting just after 9 a.m. at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School forced students to barricade doors and huddle in classroom corners, jump from windows and run out of the building to seek safety. One terrorized girl said she was eye-to-eye with the shooter before his gun apparently jammed and she was able to run out.

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Speaking at a news conference, Police Commissioner Michael Sack said the shooter was about 20 years old but did not provide a name for him or his victims. He declined to say if the woman killed was a teacher.

Sack said security officials initially became alarmed when the man tried to get into the locked school building. He declined to say how the man eventually got inside, armed with what he described as a long gun.

St. Louis Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams said seven security guards were in the school at the time, each at an entry point of the locked building.

Officers worked to get students out of the three-story brick building, then “ran to that gunfire, located that shooter and engaged that shooter in an exchange of gunfire," killing him, Sack said.

Sack said some of the six people hospitalized suffered gunshot wounds, while others were struck by shrapnel. He did not provide any information on their conditions.

One student, 16-year-old Taniya Gholston, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch she was in a room when the shooter entered.

SEE MORE: A Look At Some Of The Deadliest U.S. School Shootings

“All I heard was two shots and he came in there with a gun,” Gholston said. “And I was trying to run and I couldn't run. Me and him made eye contact but I made it out because his gun got jammed. But we saw blood on the floor.”

Ninth-grader Nylah Jones told the Post-Dispatch she was in math class when the shooter fired into the room from the hallway. The shooter was unable to get into the room and banged on the door as students piled into a corner, she said.

“Our children shouldn’t have to experience this,” a shaken St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones said at the news conference. “They shouldn’t have to go through active shooter drills in case something happens. And unfortunately that happened today.”

Sack said the shooting happened at 9:10 a.m. Crime tape was placed around the school and some parents arrived to pick up kids and check on their safety. The school district, in a tweet, said students could be picked up at another school building or a nearby grocery store.

Central Visual and Performing Arts High School is a magnet school specializing in visual art, musical art and performing art with about 400 students. The district website says the school's “educational program is designed to create a nurturing environment where students receive a quality academic and artistic education that prepares them to compete successfully at the post-secondary level or perform competently in the world of work.”

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.

Justice Thomas Temporarily Blocks Graham Testimony In Georgia

Mon, 10/24/2022 - 17:27

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Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas on Monday temporarily blocked Sen. Lindsey Graham's testimony to a special grand jury investigating whether then-President Donald Trump and others illegally tried to influence the 2020 election in the state.

SEE MORE: Sen. Graham Asks Supreme Court To Intervene In Georgia Testimony

Thomas' order is intended to prevent Fani Willis, Fulton County district attorney, from compelling Graham to testify while the Supreme Court weighs the senator's request for a lengthier halt to the proceedings.

Willis has a deadline of Thursday to tell the high court why Graham should have to answer the grand jury's questions. Lower courts have ruled that his testimony can take place.

Thomas acted on his own, as the justice who handles emergency appeals from Georgia.

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.

The Mighty Mississippi River Is Drying Out

Mon, 10/24/2022 - 17:18

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America's largest river is in trouble. Up and down the mighty Mississippi, water levels are dropping. What used to be the bottom of the river is now massive sand dunes.  

"We're seeing a lot less precipitation and that's what were going to see with climate change," American Rivers President and CEO Tom Kiernan said.

The water levels are dropping to record lows. Near Memphis, it's more than 10 feet below where it should be.  

The megadrought gripping the U.S. is expanding. Now 59% of the country is in some level of drought.

It's getting worse, mostly in the Great Plains and Midwest. It's increasing there by 60,000 square miles, which is roughly the size of Georgia, and it covers almost all of the Mississippi River's tributaries.  

"We have many rivers throughout the country and some in the Southwest in particular that are running very low if not completely dry," Kiernan continued.

Like the Platte River, which runs through Nebraska and empties into the Mississippi. It dropped down to just 2 feet deep last week.

South of St. Louis, the water has disappeared. Tourists can now walk out to Tower Rock, which usually requires a boat ride. 

In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the retreating waters revealed the remnants of a ferry boat that sank in 1915. 

SEE MORE: Why Is The U.S. West Experiencing A Megadrought?

Near the mouth of the river, just south of New Orleans, the water flow out into the Gulf of Mexico is so slow that saltwater is flowing backward into the river, forcing the Army Corp of Engineers to build an underwater levee to stop the salty water from contaminating drinking water supplies.

The low levels are devastating the agricultural industry. 

"The lack of water is impacting the whole transportation network in the Midwest dramatically," Agriculture Transportation Coalition Executive Director Peter Friedmann said.

Barges struggling to stay afloat in the low water levels are carrying much less cargo. But many don't have the option; they need to wait for the water to get deeper. And that's hurting Midwest farmers trying to get soybeans, corn and grains to international markets.

"If we cannot deliver affordably, dependably to the foreign customer, that foreign customer is going to find that product somewhere else in the world," Friedmann continued.

And there are limited options to move the product. Each barge container is the equivalent of 134 semi-trucks.

"You're talking thousands — tens of thousands — of trucks that would be necessary to carry that same cargo," Friedmann said. "And there are not that many trucks and truck drivers."

That's why the Army Corps of Engineers is working around the clock, dredging new channels to keep the barges floating, even if they are only partially full — just like the rivers. 

"We're going to have to learn to adapt to changing climate," Friedmann said. 

And the continuing drop in river levels.  

Ethnic Group Says Myanmar Air Strike Kills 60 People At Celebration

Mon, 10/24/2022 - 17:11

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Air strikes by Myanmar’s military killed more than 60 people, including singers and musicians, attending an anniversary celebration of the Kachin ethnic minority’s main political organization, members of the group and a rescue worker said Monday.

The reported attack comes three days before Southeast Asian foreign ministers are to hold a special meeting in Indonesia to discuss widening violence in Myanmar.

SEE MORE: U.N.: Over 1 Million People Displaced In Myanmar Amid Violence

The number of casualties at Sunday night’s celebration by the Kachin Independence Organization in the northern state of Kachin appeared to be the most in a single air attack since the military seized power in February last year from the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.

It was impossible to independently confirm details of the incident, though media sympathetic to the Kachin posted videos showing what was said to be the attack's aftermath, with splintered and flattened wooden structures. There was no immediate comment from the military or government media.

The United Nations' office in Myanmar said in a statement that it was “deeply concerned and saddened” by reports of the air strikes.

“What would appear to be excessive and disproportionate use of force by security forces against unarmed civilians is unacceptable and those responsible must be held to account,” it said.

SEE MORE: 2021: U.N. Calls For Myanmar Military To Stop Violence Against Protesters

Myanmar has been wracked for decades by rebellions by ethnic minorities seeking autonomy, but anti-government resistance increased markedly nationwide with the formation of an armed pro-democracy movement opposing last year’s military takeover.

The Kachin are one of the stronger ethnic rebel groups and are capable of manufacturing some of their own armaments. They also have a loose alliance with the armed militias of the pro-democracy forces that were formed in central Myanmar last year to fight army rule.

Sunday’s celebration of the 62nd anniversary of the founding of the Kachin Independence Organization, which included a concert, was held at a base also used for military training by the Kachin Independence Army, the KIO’s armed wing. It is located near Aung Bar Lay village in Hpakant township, a remote mountainous area 600 miles north of Myanmar’s biggest city, Yangon.

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Hpakant is the center of the world’s biggest and most lucrative jade mining industry, from which both the government and the rebels derive revenue.

More than 60 people were killed and about 100 were injured in Sunday’s attack on the first day of a three-day celebration of the KIO's founding, a spokesperson for the Kachin Artists Association told The Associated Press by phone.

He said military aircraft dropped four bombs on the celebration at about 8 p.m., according to members of his group who were there. Between 300 and 500 people were in attendance and a Kachin singer and keyboard player were among the dead, said the spokesperson, who asked not to be identified because he feared punishment by the authorities.

Those killed also included Kachin officers and soldiers, musicians and jade mining business owners and other civilians, he said. They also included at least 10 Kachin military and business VIPs sitting in front of the stage, and cooks working backstage, he added.

The Kachin News Group, a media outlet sympathetic to the KIO, reported the same number of casualties and said government security forces blocked the wounded from being treated at hospitals in nearby towns.

Col. Naw Bu, a spokesperson for the Kachin Independence Army, said by phone that KIA soldiers, musicians, businesspeople and villagers were among the dead, but he could not confirm a casualty number due to communications problems. He said the deaths were a loss for all Kachin people, and its group would fly the Kachin flag at half-staff.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a non-governmental organization that tracks killings and arrests, said Friday that 2,377 civilians have died in crackdowns by the security forces since the army took power. Its figure, however, does not always include people killed in military actions in the countryside.

“We fear this attack is part of a pattern of unlawful aerial attacks by the military which has killed and injured civilians in areas controlled by armed groups,” Amnesty International’s deputy regional director, Hana Young, said in a statement.

“The military has shown ruthless disregard for civilian lives in its escalating campaign against opponents. It is difficult to believe the military did not know of a significant civilian presence at the site of this attack. The military must immediately grant access to medics and humanitarian assistance to those affected by these air strikes and other civilians in need," Young said.

Cambodia, the current chair of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations, said Sunday that the group’s foreign ministers will hold a special meeting in Indonesia this week to consider the peace process for Myanmar. Myanmar’s generals have all but shunned the group’s previous efforts.

“As officials and leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations prepare to host high-level meetings in the coming weeks, this attack highlights the need to overhaul the approach to the crisis in Myanmar," Amnesty International said. "ASEAN has to step up and formulate a more robust course of action so that military leaders end this escalating repression.”

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.

Michigan Teen Pleads Guilty To Fatal School Shooting

Mon, 10/24/2022 - 15:05

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A teenager pleaded guilty Monday to terrorism and first-degree murder in a Michigan school shooting that killed four students and put an extraordinary focus on the boy's home life and the alleged role of his parents in the tragedy.

Ethan Crumbley pleaded guilty to all 24 charges, nearly a year after the attack at Oxford High School in southeastern Michigan. In the gallery, some relatives of the victims were weeping as assistant prosecutor Marc Keast described the crimes.

“Yes,” he replied, looking down and nodding in affirmation, when asked if he “knowingly, willfully and deliberately” chose to shoot other students.

The prosecutor's office said no deals were made ahead of Monday's plea. A first-degree murder conviction typically brings an automatic life prison sentence in Michigan, but teenagers are entitled to a hearing at which their lawyer can argue for a shorter term and an opportunity for parole.

The teenager withdrew his intent to pursue an insanity defense, and repeatedly acknowledged that he understands the potential penalties. Deborah McKelvy, his court-appointed guardian, told Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Kwame Rowe that she had met with him Thursday at the county jail, and believes he fully understands the consequences.

SEE MORE: Prosecutor Criticizes School Over Run-Up To Mass Shooting

The now 16-year-old had no discipline issues at the school, roughly 30 miles north of Detroit, but his behavior earlier on the day of the mass shooting raised flags.

A teacher had discovered a drawing with a gun pointing at the words: “The thoughts won’t stop. Help me.” There was an image of a bullet with the message: “Blood everywhere.”

James and Jennifer Crumbley declined to take their son home on Nov. 30 but were told to get him into counseling within 48 hours, according to investigators.

Ethan had brought a 9 mm Sig Sauer handgun and 50 rounds of ammunition to school in his backpack that day. He went into a bathroom, pulled out the weapon and then shot the students in a hallway. Within minutes, deputies rushed in and he surrendered without resistance.

A day earlier, a teacher had seen Ethan searching for ammunition on his phone. The school contacted Jennifer Crumbley, who told her son in a text message: “Lol. I’m not mad at you. You have to learn not to get caught,” the prosecutor’s office said.

SEE MORE: WXYZ: Crumbley Parents Back In Court As Witness Testimony Begins

Separately, the elder Crumbleys are facing involuntary manslaughter charges. They are accused of making a gun accessible to Ethan and ignoring his need for mental health treatment. Parents have rarely been charged in school shootings, though the guns used commonly come from the home of a parent or close relative.

Prosecutors earlier this year disclosed that Ethan had hallucinations about demons and was fascinated by guns and Nazi propaganda.

"Put simply, they created an environment in which their son’s violent tendencies flourished. They were aware their son was troubled, and then they bought him a gun,” prosecutors said in a court filing.

The Crumbleys said they were unaware of Ethan's plan to commit a school shooting. They also dispute that the gun was easy to grab at home.

Madisyn Baldwin, Tate Myre, Hana St. Juliana and Justin Shilling were killed, while six students and a teacher were wounded. In addition to the counts of first-degree murder and terrorism causing death, Ethan admitted guilt to seven counts of assault with intent to murder and 12 counts of possessing a firearm in the commission of a felony.

The judge set Feb. 9 for the start of hearings to determine if he'll be sentenced to life without parole or get a shorter sentence due to his age, and a chance at release. His lawyers will be able to argue a variety of mitigating circumstances, including family life and mental health. Prosecutors didn’t signal in court if they will argue for a no-parole sentence.

Detroit attorney Ven Johnson, who represents families of several of the victims in a civil suit against the Oxford school district and the Crumbley family, said Monday’s plea “is one small step forward on a long path towards obtaining full justice for our clients.”

“We will continue to fight until the truth is revealed about what went wrong leading up to this tragedy, and who, including Crumbley’s parents and multiple Oxford Community Schools employees, could have and should have prevented it,” Johnson said.

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.

North And South Korea Exchange Warning Shots Along Disputed Boundary

Mon, 10/24/2022 - 13:45

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North and South Korea exchanged warning shots Monday along their disputed western sea boundary — a scene of past bloodshed and naval battles — in a development that raises worry of possible clashes after North Korea’s recent barrage of weapons tests.

South Korea’s navy broadcast warnings and fired warning shots to repel a North Korean merchant ship that violated the sea boundary at 3:42 a.m., the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement.

North Korea’s military said its coastal defense units responded by firing 10 rounds of artillery warning shots toward its territorial waters, where “naval enemy movement was detected.” It accused a South Korean naval ship of intruding into North Korean waters on the pretext of cracking down on an unidentified ship.

There were no reports of fighting, but the sea boundary off the Korean Peninsula’s west coast is a source of long-running animosities. The American-led U.N. command drew a boundary at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, but North Korea insists upon a boundary that encroaches deeply into waters controlled by the South. Among the deadly events that have happened in the area are the North’s shelling of a South Korean island and its alleged torpedoing of a South Korean navy ship, both in 2010. The two attacks killed 50 South Koreans.

SEE MORE: North Korea Confirms Simulated Use Of Nukes To 'Wipe Out' Enemies

Analyst Cheong Seong-Chang at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea said North Korea had likely intentionally plotted its ship incursion because it would be “unimaginable” for a North Korean merchant ship to cross the boundary that early in a day without the permission of the North’s military.

Cheong said North Korea is increasingly emboldened by its recent missile tests in which North Korea said it simulated the use of tactical nuclear weapons to attack South Korean and U.S. targets. He noted Pyongyang would also know Washington’s strained relationships with Russia and China make it more difficult for the U.S. to draw cooperation from the two regional powers on the North Korean issue.

“The South Korean military needs to make thorough preparations to prevent fresh skirmishes from happening on the West Sea and prevent them from causing the worst case scenario like the North Korean military's artillery bombardments” on a South Korean border island, Cheong said.

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the North Korean artillery firings Monday breached a 2018 inter-Korean accord on reducing military animosities and undermines stability on the Korean Peninsula. It said the North Korean shells didn’t land in South Korean waters but South Korea is boosting its military readiness.

The General Staff of the North’s Korean People’s Army accused South Korea of provoking animosities near their land border as well as with its own artillery tests and propaganda loudspeaker broadcasts. South Korea has already confirmed it performed artillery firings last week as part of its regular military exercises, but denied that it resumed the loudspeaker broadcasts that both Koreas halted under the 2018 agreement.

“The KPA General Staff once again sends a grave warning to the enemies who made even naval intrusion in the wake of such provocations as the recent artillery firing and loudspeaker broadcasting on the ground front,” the North’s statement said.

SEE MORE: North Korea Says It Will Never Give Up Nukes To Counter U.S.

North Korea has said its recent weapons tests involving nuclear-capable missiles and artillery shells were a response to joint South Korean-U.S. military drills that it views as an invasion rehearsal.

Some observers say North Korea could extend its spate of testing, conduct its first nuclear test in five years or launch other provocations near the western sea border or elsewhere as South Korean and U.S. militaries continue their combined military exercises.

“Pyongyang’s politics of blaming external threats and projecting confidence in military capabilities can motivate greater risk taking,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul. “North Korean probing of South Korean perimeter defenses could lead to a serious exchange of fire and unintended escalation.”

The South Korean military is currently conducting its annual field exercises, which involve U.S. troops this year. As part of the drills, the South Korean and U.S. militaries began large-scale, four-day firing exercises off the peninsula’s west coast on Monday. The drills would mobilize South Korean destroyers and fighter jets and U.S. helicopters and aircraft, the South Korean navy said in a statement.

Washington and Seoul had scaled back or canceled their regular drills in recent years to support their now-dormant nuclear diplomacy with North Korea or guard against the COVID-19 pandemic. But the allies have been reviving or expanding those trainings since the May inauguration of conservative South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, who vows a tougher stance on North Korean provocation.

Next week, South Korea and the United States are to hold joint air force drills involving some 240 warplanes, including F-35 fighters operated by both nations. The drills are aimed at inspecting the two countries’ joint operation capabilities and improving combat readiness, according to the South Korean military.

Some experts say the North Korean tests also suggest its leader Kim Jong-un has no intentions of resuming stalled nuclear diplomacy with Washington anytime soon as he would want to focus on further modernizing his nuclear arsenal to boost his leverage in future negotiations with the United States.

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.

Test Scores Show Historic COVID Setbacks For Kids Across U.S.

Mon, 10/24/2022 - 12:40

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The COVID-19 pandemic spared no state or region as it caused historic learning setbacks for America's children, erasing decades of academic progress and widening racial disparities, according to results of a national test that provide the sharpest look yet at the scale of the crisis.

Across the country, math scores saw their largest decreases ever. Reading scores dropped to 1992 levels. Nearly 4 in 10 eighth graders failed to grasp basic math concepts. Not a single state saw a notable improvement in their average test scores, with some simply treading water at best.

Those are the findings from the National Assessment of Educational Progress — known as the "nation's report card" — which tested hundreds of thousands of fourth and eighth graders across the country this year. It was the first time the test had been given since 2019, and it's seen as the first nationally representative study of the pandemic's impact on learning.

"It is a serious wakeup call for us all," Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, a branch of the Education Department, said in an interview. "In NAEP, when we experience a 1- or 2-point decline, we're talking about it as a significant impact on a student's achievement. In math, we experienced an 8-point decline — historic for this assessment."

Researchers usually think of a 10-point gain or drop as equivalent to roughly a year of learning.

It's no surprise that children are behind. The pandemic upended every facet of life and left millions learning from home for months or more. The results released Monday reveal the depth of those setbacks, and the size of the challenge facing schools as they help students catch up.

SEE MORE: COVID Is Causing Learning Lag For Students Across The U.S.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said it's a sign that schools need to redouble their efforts, using billions of dollars that Congress gave schools to help students recover.

"Let me be very clear: these results are not acceptable," Cardona said.

The NAEP test is typically given every two years. It was taken between January and March by a sample of students in every state, along with 26 of the nation's largest school districts. Scores had been stalling even before the pandemic, but the new results show decreases on a scale not seen before.

In both math and reading, students scored lower than those tested in 2019. But while reading scores dipped, math scores plummeted by the largest margins in the history of the NAEP test, which began in 1969.

Math scores were worst among eighth graders, with 38% earning scores deemed "below basic" — a cutoff that measures, for example, whether students can find the third angle of a triangle if they're given the other two. That's worse than 2019, when 31% of eighth graders scored below that level.

No part of the country was exempt. Every region saw test scores slide, and every state saw declines in at least one subject.

Several major districts saw test scores fall by more than 10 points. Cleveland saw the largest single drop, falling 16 points in fourth-grade reading, along with a 15-point decline in fourth-grade math. Baltimore and Tennessee's Shelby County also saw precipitous declines.

"This is more confirmation that the pandemic hit us really hard," said Eric Gordon, chief executive for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. To help students recover, the school system has beefed up summer school and added after-school tutoring.

"I'm not concerned that they can't or won't recover," Gordon said. "I'm concerned that the country won't stay focused on getting kids caught up."

The results show a reversal of progress on math scores, which had made big gains since the 1990s. Reading, by contrast, had changed little in recent decades, so even this year's relatively small decreases put the averages back to where they were in 1992.

Most concerning, however, are the gaps between students.

Confirming what many had feared, racial inequities appear to have widened during the pandemic. In fourth grade, Black and Hispanic students saw bigger decreases than White students, widening gaps that have persisted for decades.

Inequities were also reflected in a growing gap between higher and lower performing students. In math and reading, scores fell most sharply among the lowest performing students, creating a widening chasm between struggling students and the rest of their peers.

Surveys done as part of this year's test illustrate the divide.

When schools shifted to remote learning, higher performing students were far more likely to have reliable access to quiet spaces, computers and help from their teachers, the survey found.

SEE MORE: Election '22: What Matters: Education

The results make clear that schools must address the "long-standing and systemic shortcomings of our education system," said Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of Los Angeles schools and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets the policies for the test.

"While the pandemic was a blow to schools and communities, we cannot use it as an excuse," he said. "We have to stay committed to high standards and expectations and help every child succeed."

Other recent studies have found that students who spent longer periods learning online suffered greater setbacks. But the NAEP results show no clear connection. Areas that returned to the classroom quickly still saw significant declines, and cities — which were more likely to stay remote longer — actually saw milder decreases than suburban districts, according to the results.

Los Angeles can claim one of the few bright spots in the results. The nation's second-largest school district saw eighth-grade reading scores increase by 9 points, the only significant uptick in any district. For other districts, it was a feat just to hold even, as achieved by Dallas and Florida's Hillsborough County.

Testing critics caution against putting too much stock in exams like NAEP, but there's no doubt that the skills it aims to measure are critical. Students who take longer to master reading are more likely to drop out and end up in the criminal justice system, research has found. And eighth grade is seen as a pivotal time to develop skills for math, science and technology careers.

For Carr, the results raise new questions about what will happen to students who appear to be far behind in attaining those skills.

"We want our students to be prepared globally for STEM careers, science and technology and engineering," she said. "This puts all of that at risk. We have to do a reset. This is a very serious issue, and it's not going to go away on its own."

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.

Astros Sweep Yankees To Advance To World Series Again

Mon, 10/24/2022 - 12:18

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In recent years, it's almost become an October ritual: Astros top Yankees. Astros take pennant.

Yordan Alvarez and Alex Bregman delivered big hits and Houston advanced to the World Series again, finishing a four-game sweep in the AL Championship Series with a 6-5 victory Sunday night aided by another defensive gaffe from New York.

Taking advantage of a costly error by second baseman Gleyber Torres to produce the go-ahead rally in the seventh inning, the Astros won their second consecutive pennant and fourth in six years.

Rookie shortstop Jeremy Peña hit a three-run homer off ailing Yankees starter Nestor Cortes to help the AL West champions overcome an early 3-0 deficit. Peña was picked as the ALCS MVP.

SEE MORE: Harper's HR Powers Phillies Past Padres, Into World Series

“It's surreal. You dream about this stuff when you're a kid,” he said. “We're a step away from the ultimate goal.”

Perfect in the playoffs, Houston opens the World Series at home Friday night against Bryce Harper and the wild-card Philadelphia Phillies, who beat San Diego to close out the best-of-seven NLCS in five games.

It was the first time both pennants were decided on the same day since 1992.

After losing to Atlanta in last year's World Series, Houston is 7-0 this postseason, earning the fifth pennant in franchise history and another chance at its second championship.

The team's 2017 title was tainted by a cheating scandal.

“A lot has been said but there’s not a lot to say anymore, man. We keep coming here. We keep facing the best of the best and we keep winning,” pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. said.

SEE MORE: 2020: Houston Astros Fire GM And Manager For Sign-Stealing

"When everything happened a few years ago, we knew the one thing that we could do is we could win and we could win and win a lot. I understand people are still not going to like us. They’re going to boo us, but at some point you have to respect what we’re doing.”

New York remained without a World Series appearance for 13 years as Aaron Judge's sensational season ended with a whimper. After setting an AL record with 62 home runs, the star slugger can become a free agent next month.

“I could sit here and make excuses about if a ball falls this way, a ball drops that way or a pitch is made here and there. But what it comes down to is they just played better than us," Judge said.

With the playoffs expanded to 12 teams this year, the Phillies became the first club in baseball history to finish third in the standings and reach the World Series. Philadelphia was 87-75 during the regular season — Justin Verlander and the Astros went 106-56 under manager Dusty Baker, seven games better than any other American League team.

“These are the greatest guys that I've ever been around!” Baker said during the postgame celebration on the field. "They come to play every day, all day.”

After racing to a 61-23 record in early July, AL East champion New York was no match for the Astros in October — again.

Houston went 9-2 against the Yankees overall this year and has eliminated them from the playoffs four times in the past eight seasons, including in the ALCS in 2017 and 2019.

In fact, New York has lost in its last five trips to the AL Championship Series and hasn’t claimed a pennant since winning its record 27th World Series championship in 2009.

No. 28 has proved most elusive.

“This is as bad as it gets,” manager Aaron Boone said.

"It's an awful day. An awful ending."

- Aaron Boone pic.twitter.com/0QdF6M3lT6

— Yankees Videos (@snyyankees) October 24, 2022

Back in the leadoff spot, Harrison Bader had three hits and scored three times for New York. He connected off winning pitcher Hector Neris for his fifth home run of the playoffs, giving the Yankees a 5-4 lead in the sixth.

They couldn’t hold it when they absolutely had to.

Peña hit what should have been an inning-ending double-play ball to Torres in the seventh. But his flip to second base went wide of shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa as the crowd of 46,545 groaned, and the Astros had two runners on.

Alvarez singled home the tying run on the next delivery from losing pitcher Jonathan Loáisiga, and Bregman put Houston ahead with an RBI single off Clay Holmes.

It was the sixth error of this postseason for the Yankees, who also gave the Astros a pivotal gift in Game 3. Chas McCormick hit an early two-run homer off New York ace Gerrit Cole after Bader, a Gold Glove outfielder, dropped a two-out fly when he nearly collided with Judge in right-center.

Bryan Abreu, Rafael Montero and Ryan Pressly shut the door with perfect relief.

Pressly retired Judge on a comebacker for his third save of the series and fourth this postseason, sending the Astros rushing out of the dugout for ecstatic hugs and handshakes on the infield.

Moments later, a throng of orange-clad Houston fans chanted "Sweep! Sweep!" behind the team's third base dugout in a mostly empty Yankee Stadium.

Astros players and coaches then headed inside their clubhouse for a booze-filled party, dancing to loud rap music and drinking beer out of Peña's MVP trophy.

“They beat us in every facet,” Cole said.

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.

France Inaugurates Memorial To 'Hero Dogs'

Mon, 10/24/2022 - 01:29

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It is recognition some might say is long overdue: France is paying tribute to its civilian and military "hero dogs."

A memorial sculpture depicting a World War I soldier huddling with his dog was unveiled this week in Suippes.

The northeastern town saw major battles during World War I, and it's now home to Europe's largest military kennel.

The French army's canine infantry regiment of 650 personnel attended the ceremony, along with 550 dogs wearing their medals.

Two dogs were singled out in the ceremony.

Leuk was killed in a 2019 battle with extremists in Mali.

And in 2015, Diesel was killed during the search for suspects in the Paris terror attacks.

SEE MORE: Dog-Friendly Work Policies Popular Among Employees After Pandemic

Johann (full name not given for security reasons), an adjutant in the regiment, says the recognition is important because the dogs carry out missions like humans, so it's fair to give them a medal for the various range of actions they accomplish.

France first began training dogs for active duty during World War I from 1914 to 1918. 

The dogs searched for wounded soldiers, warned guards, and carried messages, food and ammunition to the front lines.

Audrey, another regiment member, says the dogs are used for detection because of their sense of smell, their sight and their physical abilities. 

She says they use lots of Malinois and German shepherds; dogs who can run and who are resistant to the heat and cold.

The dogs are tested to see if they're enthusiastic about biting, are willing to play, and aren't startled in stressful situations. 

Some are selected as puppies, but most are about 18 months old.

When they can no longer work, they are retired, and their handlers help choose families for them.

It's a well-deserved rest after years of courageous work.

Forced Change

Mon, 10/24/2022 - 01:00

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This is an in-depth look at 4 stories of people who left New Orleans because of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and never returned. This 14-year epic investigates why they left, why they didn't return and how they are still deeply affected close to 15 years after the greatest natural disaster in American history changed their lives forever.

SEE MORE: Natural Disasters Are Getting Worse, But So Is FEMA Aid For Survivors

Harper's HR Powers Phillies Past Padres, Into World Series

Mon, 10/24/2022 - 00:32

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Bryce Harper broke up the Phillies postseason party on the mound and directed his team to where the true revelry was about to begin for the National League champs.

"C'mon, let's go inside! Let's go!" he ordered.

With that, Harper in his backward cap walked toward the dugout and raised his arms in jubilation to the soundtrack of Phillies fans screaming "MV3! MV3!" The Phillies soon scrambled inside for the boozy bash that awaited in the clubhouse.

Harper made the scene possible because he rose to the moment Philly demanded of him from the time he signed the richest free-agent deal in baseball history. Harper has made the monumental feat of hitting a baseball look so easy in the postseason and with the NL pennant at stake, he delivered with easily the defining moment of his four-year Philadelphia career.

Harper slugged his fifth homer of the postseason, a two-run blast in the eighth inning that turned Citizens Bank Park into a madhouse, and the $330 million slugger powered the Phillies past the San Diego Padres 4-3 on Sunday and into the World Series for the first time since 2009.

SEE MORE: Why The Organ At Baseball Games?

One swing. One opposite-field shot. One game-winning home run that about seemed destined from the moment he came to the plate in the eighth inning with the Phillies and their fans beckoning Bryce to deliver in the clutch just one more time.

"I hit the ball, and I just looked at my dugout and kind of it's for all of them," Harper said. "It's for this whole team. It's for this whole organization."

Rhys Hoskins also hit a two-run homer in Game 5 of the NL Championship Series to spark Philadelphia's improbable run to the pennant and a shot at its first World Series championship since 2008.

Harper, Hoskins & Crew are coming for a most improbable World Series championship.

Houston held a 3-0 lead over the New York Yankees in the ALCS. Game 4 is Sunday night in New York. The World Series will begin Friday night at the home of the AL champion.

Harper was named NLCS MVP, and he as parked the trophy on a dais, he made it clear he wanted so much more.

"I don't really care about this but MLB is making me do it," Harper said.

Philadelphia trailed 3-2 when J.T. Realmuto began the eighth with a single off reliever Robert Suarez. Harper then lined a 2-2, 98 mph sinker the opposite way, into the left-field seats as another sellout crowd of 45,485 shook the stadium.

Harper hoped the homer set the stage for other highlights on deck in the next couple of weeks.

"We've got four more," Harper told the fans during an on-field celebration, and they roared again.

The lefty-swinging Harper connected off a righty — the Padres had left-handed closer Josh Hader warming in the bullpen, but didn't bring him in.

"It's a thought at this point, but that wasn't what we were thinking," Padres manager Bob Melvin said. "We were trying to get to four-out position for Hader, and we had a lot of confidence in Suarez."

SEE MORE: Padres Obtain Juan Soto From Nationals In Blockbuster Deal

The Phillies felt the same way about Harper.

"Pure chaos, right? I don't think anybody was surprised," Hoskins said. "This guy has a knack for coming up in the biggest moments. It's just what he's done his whole career, and we've seen it plenty of times."

Remember, too: When Harper's thumb was broken by a pitch from San Diego's Blake Snell in late June, there were some concerns that he might not return this season.

Instead, the star who signed a 13-year contract to play in Philadelphia delivered — in this season, in this game.

"I think we always believed," Harper said.

Even after Harper's homer put them ahead, it wasn't an easy ending for the Phillies.

Reliever David Robertson was pulled after a pair of one-out walks in the ninth. Ranger Suárez made his first relief appearance of the season and retired Trent Grisham on a bunt and got Austin Nola — brother of Phils ace Aaron Nola — on a routine fly to finish it for a huge save.

Then it was time to party. The Phillie Phanatic swayed a National League champions flag as the postseason banger "Dancing On My Own" blared throughout the stadium. Alec Bohm and Nick Castellanos stripped off their shirts and danced in the clubhouse. Cigars were let. Cheap beer was sprayed. The alcohol puddles on the carpet rivaled the ones caused by the rain on a sloppy, gusty Game 5.

Philly, get ready.

This sixth-seeded Phillies — yes, that is a thing this season — feel they're just getting started.

Harper, who turned 30 last week, is batting 439 (18 for 41) with six doubles, five homers, 11 RBIs and 10 runs scored over 11 postseason games. He has hit in 10 straight and has reached base in 11 straight.

And the feared designated hitter can keep those streaks alive when he plays in his first World Series.

"To a certain degree, it's getting overlooked because of who he is and the star that he is," Phillies manager Rob Thomson said. "He's a guy that's a big star that's delivered. Can't say enough about that."

Philadelphia finished third in the NL East at 87-75, a full 14 games behind the 101-win Braves this season, and were the last club in the majors to make the 12-team playoff field. After a 2-0 sweep of NL Central champion St. Louis in MLB's newly created wild-card round, the Phillies needed only four games to knock out Atlanta, the defending World Series champs.

Now they'll try to become the first team that finished in third place to win a World Series.

The Padres took a 3-2 lead in a sloppy seventh inning as rain pounded Citizens Bank Park and turned portions of the infield, notably around third base, into a mud pit.

But it was Phillies reliever Seranthony Dominguez's slippery grip that cost the Phillies.

Starter Zack Wheeler was fantastic again and struck out eight over six innings. He was lifted with a 2-1 lead after Jake Cronenworth hit a leadoff single in the seventh and tipped his cap as he walked off the mound to a standing ovation.

Dominguez couldn't find his feel with the ball as the rain picked up, puddles formed near third base and the infield dirt turned to mush. He threw one wild pitch and Josh Bell lined a tying RBI double to right that made it 2-1. Dominguez recovered to strike out the next two batters with pinch-runner Jose Azocar on second base.

Azocar moved to third on a wild pitch and scooted home for the 3-2 lead on Dominguez's third wild pitch of the inning. The righty reliever threw only three wild pitches in 51 innings all season -- then uncorked three in the seventh.

Hoskins, Harper, Wheeler have left a trail of indelible moment at Citizens Bank as they improved to 5-0 at home, where they will play World Series Games 3, 4 and 5.

Game 5 of the NLCS was no exception.

The Phillies caught a break when in the third after Kyle Schwarber was called out a two-out stolen-base attempt. Schwarber never budged off the base, adamant that second baseman Cronenworth never tagged him. Phillies fans howled in delight as the replay on the big screen showed repeatedly that Cronenworth whiffed on the tag attempt. The call was overturned on replay, and the Phillies had new life.

Hoskins, who came hitting a quite memorable .171, smashed one into the left field seats off starter Yu Darvish as the crowd went wild. He hopped down the line as he mouthed some words to his teammates in the dugout and twirled his bat -- not unlike the steadily-spinning rally towels -- as he gave them a 2-0 lead.

Wheeler gave up Soto's solo homer in the inning that made it 2-1. Padres pitcher Joe Musgrove snapped a Polaroid photo of Soto in the dugout.

Try as they might, the Padres weren't ready for their close up.

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.

In Real Life: Tomorrow’s Wave

Mon, 10/24/2022 - 00:30

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New technology, wave science, and a passion for surfing is helping people catch waves far away from any ocean. This episode of "In Real Life" shows how the sport is evolving and thriving in unexpected places, from a wave park in central Texas to river surfing in Ohio. 

SEE MORE: How Climate Change Is Impacting Surfing

Cheney: Jan. 6 Committee Won't Let Trump's Testimony Become 'A Circus'

Sun, 10/23/2022 - 23:46

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The top Republican on the Jan. 6 committee said Sunday that the panel would not allow former President Donald Trump to turn his potentially live televised testimony into a “circus.”

“This isn’t going to be his first debate against Joe Biden and the circus and the food fight that that became. This is far too serious a set of issues,” said Rep. Liz Cheney.

The committee took the extraordinary step of subpoenaing the former president on Friday, ordering him to turn over documents by Nov. 4 and to appear for questioning by Nov. 14. Cheney, the committee’s vice chair, said the deposition could take several days.

“The committee treats this matter with great seriousness, and we are going to proceed, in terms of the questioning of the former president under oath. It may take multiple days and it will be done with a level of rigor and discipline and seriousness that it deserves,” said Cheney. 

SEE MORE: Jan. 6 Panel Issues Subpoena To Trump, Demanding He Testify

It’s unclear if Trump will comply with the subpoena. The committee is required to finish its work by the end of the year, and Trump’s lawyers could seek to run out the clock by tying up proceedings in court.

David A. Warrington, a partner at the legal firm representing Trump, responded to the subpoena in a statement Friday, saying, “as with any similar matter, we will review and analyze it, and will respond as appropriate to this unprecedented action.”

Cheney said she expects Trump will fulfill his legal obligations but warned that the committee is prepared to handle any stalling.

“We have many alternatives that we will consider if the former president decides that he is not going to comply with his legal obligation. A legal obligation every American citizen has to comply with a subpoena,” said Cheney.

On Friday, Trump’s former advisor Steve Bannon was sentenced to four months in prison for refusing to testify and provide documents to the committee.

House speaker Nancy Pelosi was also asked Sunday whether she thinks Trump will testify.

“I don’t think he’s man enough to show up,” Pelosi responded.

Boris Johnson Drops Out Of Race To Be Next U.K. Prime Minister

Sun, 10/23/2022 - 21:35

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Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced Sunday he will not run to lead the Conservative Party, ending a short-lived, high-profile attempt to return to the prime minister's job he was ousted from little more than three months ago.

His withdrawal leaves former Treasury chief Rishi Sunak the strong favorite to become Britain's next prime minister — the third this year — at a time of political turmoil and severe economic challenges. He could win the contest as soon as Monday.

Johnson, who was ousted in July amid ethics scandals, had been widely expected to run to replace Liz Truss, who quit last week after her tax-cutting economic package caused turmoil in financial markets, was rapidly abandoned and and obliterated her authority inside the governing party.

Johnson spent the weekend trying to gain support from fellow Conservative lawmakers after flying back from a Caribbean vacation and held talks with the two other contenders, Sunak and House of Commons Leader Penny Mordaunt.

Late Sunday he said he had amassed the backing of 102 colleagues, more than the threshold of 100 needed to make a ballot of lawmakers on Monday.

SEE MORE: Boris Johnson Returns To U.K. Amidst Rumors He Will Run For PM

But he was far behind Sunak in support, and said he had concluded that "you can't govern effectively unless you have a united party in Parliament."

The prospect of a return by Johnson had thrown the already divided Conservative Party into further turmoil. He led the party to a thumping election victory in 2019, but his premiership was clouded by scandals over money and ethics that eventually became too much for the party to bear.

In his Sunday statement, Johnson insisted he was "well placed to deliver a Conservative victory" in the next national election, due by 2024. And he said that he likely would have won a ballot of Conservative Party members against either of his rivals.

"But in the course of the last days I have sadly come to the conclusion that this would simply not be the right thing to do," he said. "Therefore I am afraid the best thing is that I do not allow my nomination to go forward and commit my support to whoever succeeds."

But he hinted he might be back, saying: "I believe I have much to offer but I am afraid that this is simply not the right time."

After Truss quit on Thursday, the Conservative Party hastily ordered a contest that aims to finalize nominations Monday and install a new prime minister — its third this year — within a week.

The clear favorite now is Sunak, who has support from more than 140 lawmakers, according to unofficial tallies. Mordaunt is backed by fewer than 30.

If both make the ballot, the 357 Conservative lawmakers will hold an indicative vote on Monday to show their preference before the choice goes to the 172,000 party members around the country. If Mordaunt does not reach 100 nominations, Sunak will win by acclamation.

SEE MORE: U.K.'s Liz Truss Quits After Turmoil Obliterated Her Authority

Sunak, 42, was runner-up after Truss in this summer's Tory leadership race to replace Johnson. On Sunday, he confirmed he was running again in the latest leadership contest.

"There will be integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level of the government I lead and I will work day in and day out to get the job done," Sunak said in a statement.

Johnson's exit came only hours after allies insisted he would run. Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg told the BBC on Sunday that he spoke with Johnson and "clearly he's going to stand" after flying back to London Saturday from a vacation in the Dominican Republic.

But Northern Ireland minister Steve Baker, a former backer of Johnson and an influential politician within the Conservative Party, warned a Johnson comeback would be a "guaranteed disaster." Baker noted that Johnson still faces an investigation into whether he lied to Parliament while in office about breaking his government's own coronavirus restrictions during parties at Downing Street.

If found guilty, Johnson could be suspended as a lawmaker.

"This isn't the time for Boris and his style," Baker told Sky News on Sunday. "What we can't do is have him as prime minister in circumstances where he's bound to implode, taking down the whole government ... and we just can't do that again."

Truss quit Thursday after a turbulent 45 days, conceding that she could not deliver on her botched tax-cutting economic package, which she was forced to abandon after it sparked fury within her party and weeks of turmoil in financial markets.

Sunak, who was Treasury chief from 2020 until this summer, steered Britain's slumping economy through the coronavirus pandemic. He quit in July in protest at Johnson's leadership.

In the summer contest to replace Johnson, Sunak called promises by Truss and other rivals to immediately slash taxes reckless "fairy tales" and argued that soaring inflation must be controlled first.

Tory voters backed Truss over Sunak, but he was proved right when Truss' unfunded tax-cutting package triggered chaos in the markets in September. Now the task of stabilizing Britain's wobbling economy is likely to fall to him.

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.

Russia's Defense Chief Warns Of 'Dirty Bomb' Provocation

Sun, 10/23/2022 - 20:18

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Russia's defense chief alleged Sunday that Ukraine was preparing a "provocation" involving a radioactive device, a stark claim that was strongly rejected by U.S., British and Ukrainian officials amid soaring tensions as Moscow struggles to stem Ukrainian advances in the south.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made the allegations in phone calls with his counterparts from the United States, Britain, France and Turkey.

Russia's defense ministry said Shoigu voiced concern about "possible Ukrainian provocations involving a 'dirty bomb,'" a device that uses explosives to scatter radioactive waste. It doesn't have the devastating effect of a nuclear explosion, but could expose broad areas to radioactive contamination.

Russian authorities repeatedly have made allegations that Ukraine could detonate a dirty bomb in a false flag attack and blame it on Moscow. Ukrainian authorities, in turn, have accused the Kremlin of hatching such a plan.

British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace strongly rejected Shoigu's claim and warned Moscow against using it as a pretext for escalation.

The British Ministry of Defense noted that Shoigu, in a call with Wallace, "alleged that Ukraine was planning actions facilitated by Western countries, including the U.K., to escalate the conflict in Ukraine."

"The Defense Secretary refuted these claims and cautioned that such allegations should not be used as a pretext for greater escalation," the ministry said.

SEE MORE: Russian-Installed Authorities Order Evacuation Of Kherson

The U.S. also rejected Shoigu's "transparently false allegations," White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement. "The world would see through any attempt to use this allegation as a pretext for escalation."

In a televised address Sunday evening, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy suggested that Moscow itself was setting the stage for deploying a radioactive device on Ukrainian soil.

"If Russia calls and says that Ukraine is allegedly preparing something, it means only one thing: that Russia has already prepared all of it," Zelenskyy said.

The mention of the dirty bomb threat in Shoigu's calls seemed to indicate the threat of such an attack has risen to an unprecedented level.

The French Ministry of the Armed Forces said Shoigu told his counterpart, Sebastien Lecornu, that the situation in Ukraine was rapidly worsening and "trending towards uncontrollable escalation."

"It appears that there is a shared feeling that the tensions have approached the level that could raise the real threat for all," said Fyodor Lukyanov, the Kremlin-connected head of the Council for Foreign and Defense policies, a Moscow-based group of top foreign affairs experts.

The rising tensions come as Russian authorities reported building defensive positions in occupied areas of Ukraine and border regions of Russia, reflecting fears that Ukrainian forces may attack along new sections of the 620-mile front line of the war, which enters its ninth month on Monday.

In recent weeks, Ukraine has focused its counteroffensive mostly on the Kherson region. Their relentless artillery strikes cut the main crossings across the Dnieper River, which bisects the southern region, leaving Russian troops on the west bank short of supplies and vulnerable to encirclement.

Kirill Stremousov, the deputy head of the Russian-installed regional administration in Kherson, said Sunday in a radio interview that Russian defensive lines "have been reinforced and the situation has remained stable" since local officials strongly encouraged all residents of the region's capital and nearby areas Saturday to evacuate by ferry to the river's east bank.

The region is one of four that Russian President Vladimir Putin illegally annexed last month and put under Russian martial law on Thursday. Kherson city has been in Russian hands since the early days of the war, but Ukraine's forces have made advances toward reclaiming it.

About 20,000 Kherson residents have moved to places on the east bank of the Dnieper River, the Kremlin-backed regional administration reported. The Ukrainian military said Sunday that Russia's military also withdrew its officers from areas on the west bank, leaving newly mobilized, inexperienced forces.

SEE MORE: Russia May Use These Iranian Missiles To Turn Out Lights In Ukraine

The Ukrainian claim could not be independently verified.

As Ukraine presses south after liberating the Kharkiv region in the north last month, authorities in the western Russian provinces bordering northeastern Ukraine appeared jittery.

The governor of Russia's Kursk region, Roman Starovoit, said Sunday that two defensive lines have been built and a third one would be finished by Nov. 5.

Defensive lines were also established in the Belgorod region, Gov. Vyacheslav Gladkov said.

More defensive positions were being built in the Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine, said Yevgeny Prigozhin, a millionaire Russian businessman who owns the Wagner Group, a mercenary military company that has played a prominent role in the war.

Prigozhin said his company was constructing a "Wagner line" in the Luhansk region, another of the Ukrainian provinces Putin illegally annexed last month. Prigozhin posted images last week showing a section of newly built defenses and trench systems southeast of the town of Kreminna.

The British Defense Ministry said Sunday "the project suggests Russia is making a significant effort to prepare defenses in depth behind the current front line, likely to deter any rapid Ukrainian counteroffensives."

Russia's forces captured Luhansk several months ago. Pro-Moscow separatists declared independent republics in the region and neighboring Donetsk eight years ago, and Putin made controlling all of both provinces a goal at the war's outset.

The Institute for the Study of War, a think tank in Washington, said Sunday that Russia's latest strategy of targeting power plants appeared aimed at diminishing Ukrainians' will to fight and forcing the government in Kyiv to devote more resources to protecting civilians and energy infrastructure.

It said the effort was unlikely to damage Ukrainian morale but would have significant economic impacts.

President Zelenskyy said Sunday that utilities workers were well on their way to restoring electricity supplies cut off by large-scale Russian missile strikes Saturday, but acknowledged that it would take longer to provide heating.

Nine regions across Ukraine, from Odesa in the southwest to Kharkiv in the northeast, saw more attacks targeting energy and other critical infrastructure over the past day, the Ukrainian army's general staff said. It reported a total of 25 Russian airstrikes and more than 100 missile and artillery strikes around Ukraine.

In response, Zelenskyy appealed to mayors and other local leaders to ensure that Ukrainians heed official calls to conserve energy. "Now is definitely not the time for bright storefronts and signs," he said.

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.

China's Xi Jinping Expands Powers, Promotes Allies

Sun, 10/23/2022 - 20:18

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President Xi Jinping, China's most powerful leader in decades, increased his dominance Sunday when he was named to another term as head of the ruling Communist Party in a break with tradition and promoted allies who support his vision of tighter control over society and the struggling economy.

Xi, who took power in 2012, was awarded a third five-year term as general secretary, discarding a custom under which his predecessor left after 10 years. The 69-year-old leader is expected by some to try to stay in power for life.

The party also named a seven-member Standing Committee, its inner circle of power, dominated by Xi allies after Premier Li Keqiang, the No. 2 leader and an advocate of market-style reform and private enterprise, was dropped from the leadership Saturday. That was despite Li being a year younger than the party's informal retirement age of 68.

"Power will be even more concentrated in the hands of Xi Jinping," said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a Chinese politics expert at Hong Kong Baptist University. The new appointees are "all loyal to Xi," he said. "There is no counterweight or checks and balances in the system at all."

On Saturday, Xi's predecessor, 79-year-old Hu Jintao, abruptly left a meeting of the party Central Committee with an aide holding his arm. That prompted questions about whether Xi was flexing his powers by expelling other leaders. The official Xinhua News Agency later reported Hu was in poor health and needed to rest.

Xi and other Standing Committee members — none of them women — appeared for the first time as a group before reporters in the Great Hall of the People, the seat of China's ceremonial legislature in central Beijing.

SEE MORE: China's Xi Calls For Military Growth As Party Congress Opens

The No. 2 leader was Li Qiang, the Shanghai party secretary. That puts Li Qiang, who is no relation to Li Keqiang, in line to become premier, the top economic official. Zhao Leji, already a member, was promoted to No. 3, likely to head the legislature. Those posts are to be assigned when the legislature meets next year.

Leadership changes were announced as the party wrapped up a twice-a-decade congress that was closely watched for initiatives to reverse an economic slump or changes in a severe "zero-COVID" strategy that has shut down cities and disrupted business. Officials disappointed investors and the Chinese public by announcing no changes.

The lineup appeared to reflect what some commentators called "Maximum Xi," valuing loyalty over ability. Some new leaders lack national-level experience as vice premier or Cabinet minister that typically is seen as a requirement for the post.

Li Qiang's promotion served as apparent confirmation, as it puts him in line to be premier with no background in national government. Li Qiang is seen as close to Xi after they worked together in Zhejiang province in the southeast in the early 2000s.

Li Keqiang was sidelined over the past decade by Xi, who put himself in charge of policymaking bodies. Li Keqiang was excluded Saturday from the list of the party's new 205-member Central Committee, from which the Standing Committee is picked.

Another departure from the Standing Committee was Wang Yang, a reform advocate suggested by some as a possible premier. Wang, 67, is below retirement age.

Other new Standing Committee members include Cai Qi, the Beijing party secretary, and Ding Xuexiang, a career party functionary who is regarded as Xi's "alter ego" or chief of staff. Wang Huning, a former law school dean who is chief of ideology, stayed on the committee. The No. 7 member is Li Xi, the party secretary of Guangdong province in the southeast, the center of China's export-oriented manufacturing industry.

The Central Committee has 11 women, or 5% of the total. Its 24-member Politburo, which has had only four female members since the 1990s, has none following the departure of Vice Premier Sun Chunlan.

Party plans call for creating a prosperous society by mid-century and restoring China to its historic role as a political, economic and cultural leader.

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Those ambitions face challenges from security-related curbs on access to Western technology, an aging workforce, and tensions with Washington, Europe and Asian neighbors over trade, security, human rights and territorial disputes.

Xi has called for the "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation" and a revival of the party's "original mission" as social, economic and culture leader in a throwback to what he sees as a golden age after it took power in 1949.

During the congress, Xi called for faster military development, "self-reliance and strength" in technology and defense of China's interests abroad, which raises the likelihood of further conflict.

The party has tightened control over entrepreneurs who generate jobs and wealth, prompting warnings that rolling back market-oriented reforms will weigh on economic growth that sank to 2.2% in the first half of this year — less than half the official 5.5% target.

"Clearly, it's a return to a much more state-controlled type of economy," said Cabestan. "This means, for private business, they will be on an even shorter leash, with party committees everywhere."

Under a revived 1950s propaganda slogan, "common prosperity," Xi is pressing entrepreneurs to help narrow China's wealth gap by raising wages and paying for rural job creation and other initiatives.

Xi, in a report to the congress last week, called for "regulating the mechanism of wealth accumulation," suggesting entrepreneurs might face still more political pressure, but gave no details.

"I would worry if I were a very wealthy individual in China," said economist Alicia Garcia Herrero of Natixis.

In his report, Xi stressed the importance of national security and control over China's supplies of food, energy and industrial goods. He gave no indication of possible changes in policies that prompted then-President Donald Trump to launch a tariff war with Beijing in 2018 over its technology ambitions.

The party is trying to nurture Chinese creators of renewable energy, electric car, computer chip, aerospace and other technologies. Its trading partners complain Beijing improperly subsidizes and shields its suppliers from competition.

Trump's successor, Joe Biden, has kept punitive tariff hikes on Chinese goods and this month increased restrictions on China's access to U.S. chip technology.

SEE MORE: Pres. Biden Signs $280B CHIPS Act In Bid To Boost U.S. Over China

The party has tightened control over private sector leaders, including e-commerce giant Alibaba Group. Under political pressure, they are diverting billions of dollars into chip development and other party initiatives. Their share prices on foreign exchanges have plunged due to uncertainty about their future.

The party will "step up its industrial policy" to close the "wide gap" between what Chinese tech suppliers can make and what is needed by smartphone, computer and other manufacturers, said Garcia Herrero and Gary Ng of Natixis in a report.

Abroad, Chinese efforts to assert leadership will lead to "more tension and difficulty," because "countries are not just going to follow the Chinese model," said Steve Tsang, director of the University of London's China Institute.

With potential dissenters forced out, "there is nobody in Beijing who can advise Xi Jinping that this is not the way to go," Tsang said.

Xi gave no indication Beijing will change its "zero-COVID" strategy despite public frustration with repeated city closures that has boiled over into protests in Shanghai and other areas.

Xi's priorities of security and self-sufficiency will "drag on China's productivity growth," said Julian Evans-Pritchard, Sheana Yue and Mark Williams of Capital Economics in a report. "His determination to stay in power makes a course correction unlikely."

The central bank governor, Yi Gang, and bank regulator, Guo Shuqing, also were missing from Saturday's Central Committee list, indicating they will retire next year, as expected.

Xi suspended retirement rules to keep Gen. Zhang Youxia, 72, on the Central Committee. That allows Zhang, a veteran of China's 1979 war with Vietnam, to stay as Xi's deputy chairman on the commission that controls the party's military wing, the People's Liberation Army.

The party elite agreed in the 1990s to limit the general secretary to two five-year terms in hopes of avoiding a repeat of power struggles in previous decades. That leader also becomes chairman of the military commission and takes the ceremonial title of president.

Xi has led an anti-corruption crackdown that snared thousands of officials, including a retired Standing Committee member and deputy Cabinet ministers. That broke up party factions and weakened potential challengers.

Xi is on track to become the first leader in a generation to pick his own successor but has yet to indicate possible candidates. Hu Jintao and his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, both were picked in the 1980s by then-supreme leader Deng Xiaoping.

Ahead of the congress, banners criticizing Xi and "zero COVID" were hung above a major Beijing thoroughfare in a rare protest. Photos of the event were deleted from social media. The popular WeChat messaging app shut down accounts that forwarded them.

Xi's government also faces criticism over mass detentions and other abuses against mostly Muslim ethnic groups and the jailing of government critics.

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.

'Ticket To Paradise' Highlights Lack Of Rom-Com Theatrical Releases

Sun, 10/23/2022 - 18:42

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Julia Roberts and George Clooney have reunited on screen this weekend for the new romantic comedy, "Ticket to Paradise". 

They play grumpy exes who join forces to sabotage their daughter's sudden engagement in Bali. 

If a rom-com in theaters feels like a rare occurrence these days, that's because it is. 

Major theatrical releases this year have been quite limited, from "Marry Me" and "The Lost City", to more recently, "Bros" and now "Ticket to Paradise." 

SEE MORE: 'The Banshees of Inisherin' Review: Colin Farrell Just Wants A Friend

The Head of Content at The Ringer, Sean Fennessey, said just this week on the popular movie podcast, The Big Picture, that "Ticket to Paradise" "sticks out like a sore thumb … because they don't make anything like this anymore." Fennessey added that "it's an unusual artifact of our modern time." 

Clooney himself told The Hollywood Reporter it was "brave" of the studio to support releasing the movie only in theaters. 

Alissa Wilkinson, Critic and Senior Culture Reporter at Vox, joined Newsy's Lindsay Tuchman to explore where all the romantic comedies have gone, and whether she'd recommend seeing "Ticket to Paradise."

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