Former Trump adviser undercuts Trump impeachment defenses

Former Trump adviser undercuts Trump impeachment defenses
Former White House national security aide Fiona Hill, and David Holmes, a US diplomat in Ukraine, right, testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on Nov. 21, 2019, during a public impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump’s efforts to tie US aid for Ukraine to investigations of his political opponents. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Updated 22 November 2019

Former Trump adviser undercuts Trump impeachment defenses

Former Trump adviser undercuts Trump impeachment defenses

WASHINGTON: A former White House official said Thursday that President Donald Trump’s top European envoy was sent on a “domestic political errand” seeking investigations of Democrats, stunning testimony that dismantled a main line of the president’s defense in the impeachment inquiry.
In a riveting appearance on Capitol Hill, Fiona Hill also implored Republican lawmakers — and implicitly Trump himself — to stop peddling a “fictional narrative” at the center of the impeachment probe. She said baseless suggestions that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election bolster Russia as it seeks to sow political divisions in the United States.
Testimony from Hill and David Holmes, a State Department adviser in Kyiv, capped an intense week in the historic inquiry and reinforced the central complaint: that Trump used his leverage over Ukraine, a young Eastern European democracy facing Russian aggression, to pursue political investigations. His alleged actions set off alarms across the US national security and foreign policy apparatus.
Hill had a front row seat to some of Trump’s pursuits with Ukraine during her tenure at the White House. She testified in detail about her interactions with Gordon Sondland, saying she initially suspected the US ambassador to the European Union was overstating his authority to push Ukraine to launch investigations into Democrats. But she says she now understands he was acting on instructions Trump sent through his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani.
“He was being involved in a domestic political errand, and we were being involved in national security foreign policy,” she testified in a daylong encounter with lawmakers. “And those two things had just diverged.”
It was just one instance in which Hill, as well as Holmes, undercut the arguments being made by Republicans and the White House. Both told House investigators it was abundantly clear Giuliani was seeking political investigations of Democrats and Joe Biden in Ukraine, knocking down assertions from earlier witnesses who said they didn’t realize the purpose of the lawyer’s pursuits. Trump has also said he was simply focused on rooting out corruption in Ukraine.
Giuliani “was clearly pushing forward issues and ideas that would, you know, probably come back to haunt us and in fact,” Hill testified. “I think that’s where we are today.”
Hill also defended Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the Army officer who testified earlier and whom Trump’s allies tried to discredit. A previous witness said Hill raised concerns about Vindman, but she said those worries centered only on whether he had the “political antenna” for the situation at the White House.
The landmark House impeachment inquiry was sparked by a July 25 phone call, in which Trump asked Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for investigations into Biden and the Democratic National Committee. A still-anonymous whistleblower’s official government complaint about that call led the House to launch the current probe.
After two weeks of public testimony, many Democrats believe they have enough evidence to begin writing articles of impeachment. Working under the assumption that Trump will be impeached by the House, White House officials and a small group of GOP senators met Thursday to discuss the possibility of a two week Senate trial.
There still remain questions about whether there will be additional House testimony, either in public session or behind closed doors, including from high-profile officials such as former Trump national security adviser John Bolton.
In what was seen as a nudge to Bolton, her former boss, Hill said those with information have a “moral obligation to provide it.”
She recounted one vivid incident at the White House where Bolton told her he didn’t want to be involved in any “drug deal” that Sondland and Trump’s acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney were cooking up over the Ukrainian investigations Trump wanted. Hill said she conveyed similar concerns directly to Sondland.
“And I did say to him, ‘Ambassador Sondland, Gordon, I think this is all going to blow up,’” she said. “And here we are.”
Hill and Holmes both filled in gaps in previous testimony and poked holes in the accounts of other witnesses. They were particularly adamant that efforts by Trump and Giuliani to investigate the Burisma gas company were well-known by officials working on Ukraine to be the equivalent of probing the Bidens. That runs counter to earlier testimony from Sondland and Kurt Volker, the former Ukraine special envoy, who insisted they had no idea there was a connection.
Holmes, a late addition to the schedule, also undercut some of Sondland’s recollections about an extraordinary phone call between the ambassador and Trump on July 26, the day after the president’s call with Ukraine. Holmes was having lunch with Sondland in Kyiv and said he could overhear Trump ask about “investigations” during a “colorful” conversation.
After the phone call, Holmes said Sondland told him Trump didn’t care about Ukraine but rather about “big stuff,” meaning the “Biden investigation.” Sondland said he didn’t recall raising the Bidens.
During Thursday’s testimony, the president tweeted that while his own hearing is “great” he’s never been able to understand another person’s conversation that wasn’t on speaker. “Try it,” he suggested.
Republicans continued to mount a vigorous defense of Trump. And the top Republican on the panel was undeterred by Hill’s warnings about advancing “fictions” on Ukraine. GOP Rep. Devin Nunes of California said Russian interference in the 2016 election didn’t preclude Ukraine from also trying to swing the election to stop Trump’s presidency.
“That is the Democrats’ pitiful legacy,” Nunes. He called it all part of the same effort, from “the Russia hoax” to the “shoddy sequel” of the impeachment inquiry.
Hill, the British-born coal miner’s daughter who became a US citizen in 2002, left the White House before the July phone call that sparked the impeachment probe. She worked for both Republican and Democratic administrations and said she joined the Trump White House because she shared the president’s belief that relations with Russia needed to improve.
Still, she was adamant that Russia is gearing up to intervene again in the 2020 US election, declaring: “We are running out of time to stop them.”
She warned that political chaos in Washington plays into Moscow’s hands.
“This is exactly what the Russian government was hoping for,” Hill said. “They would pit one side of our electorate against the others.”


Early-release London terrorist ‘wanted to kill the queen’

Early-release London terrorist ‘wanted to kill the queen’
Updated 3 min 8 sec ago

Early-release London terrorist ‘wanted to kill the queen’

Early-release London terrorist ‘wanted to kill the queen’
  • Sudesh Amman shot dead by police in February 2020 after stabbing 2 people
  • Prison officers found note in his cell in which he pledged allegiance to Daesh

LONDON: A terrorist who stabbed two people in south London last year had become increasingly violent and radicalized while in prison, where he is reported to have said he “wanted to kill the queen,” an inquest heard on Tuesday.

Sudesh Amman was shot dead by police in February 2020, 10 days after leaving prison on an early release.

Jurors at the central London inquest heard how Amman discussed becoming a suicide bomber and openly expressed his “extreme” views in prison.

After being released in January 2020, Amman, 20, was placed under constant armed surveillance, and there were concerns about his exit from prison.

He went on to injure a man and woman in a sudden knife attack in south London on Feb. 2 last year, before being shot dead by the team that was tracking his movements.

He was sentenced to 40 months in jail for preparing and engaging in acts of terrorism, but he was given an early release on Jan. 23, 2020, which sparked concerns.

The inquest at the Royal Courts of Justice was shown a prison report on Amman that detailed how he had “been shouting different things on the wings such as ‘this place is full of non-believers’ ... and ‘everyone here will come under the black flag (the symbol of Daesh)’.”

About a month before he was released on license, prison officers found a note in his cell in which Amman had pledged his allegiance to Daesh.

He also “appeared proud of being the youngest terrorist offender in Belmarsh (prison)” and “didn’t seem remorseful,” the inquest was told.

Leon Campbell, a probation officer, assessed that Amman was a high risk to the public, and that he could cause serious harm “due to his promoting of extremist ideas … and wanting to carry out a terrorist act.”

Jurors were told that a senior officer in London’s Metropolitan Police wrote to the governor of Belmarsh prison on Jan. 15, 2020, to request a delay to Amman’s release.

The request was rejected, with the officer reportedly being told that a delay to Amman’s release was impossible.


Head of group for exiled Belarusians found hanged in Ukraine

Head of group for exiled Belarusians found hanged in Ukraine
Updated 58 min 48 sec ago

Head of group for exiled Belarusians found hanged in Ukraine

Head of group for exiled Belarusians found hanged in Ukraine
  • Vitaly Shishov, leader of the Kyiv-based Belarusian House in Ukraine, was found hanged in a park not far from his home, police said
  • A probe has been launched, with police investigating whether it was a suicide or a murder made to look like suicide

KYIV, Ukraine: A Belarusian activist who ran a group in Ukraine helping Belarusians fleeing persecution was found dead in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, local police said Tuesday.
Vitaly Shishov, leader of the Kyiv-based Belarusian House in Ukraine, was found hanged in one of the city’s parks not far from his home, police said in a statement.
A probe has been launched, with police investigating whether it was a suicide or a murder made to look like suicide, head of Ukraine’s National Police Igor Klymenko told reporters on Tuesday.
The Belarusian House in Ukraine reported Monday that Shishov had gone missing during a morning run. The Belarusian human rights center Viasna cited Shishov’s friends as saying that he has recently been followed by strangers during his runs.
The Belarusian House in Ukraine helps Belarusians fleeing persecution with their legal status in Ukraine, accommodation and employment.
In Belarus in recent weeks, authorities have ramped up the pressure against non-governmental organizations and independent media, conducting more than 200 raids of offices and apartments of activists and journalists in July alone, and detaining dozens of people.
Authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko has vowed to continue what he called a “mopping-up operation” against civil society activists whom he has denounced as “bandits and foreign agents.”
Lukashenko faced months of protests triggered by his being awarded a sixth term in an August 2020 vote that the opposition and the West saw as rigged. He responded to demonstrations with a massive crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested and thousands beaten by police.
Belarus’ authoritarian government has at times gone to extremes in its crackdown on dissent, including recently diverting a plane to the capital of Minsk and arresting a dissident aboard.
The Belarusian House in Ukraine said in a statement Tuesday that Shishov was forced to move to Ukraine in the fall of 2020, when antigovernment protests and crackdown on demonstrators in Belarus were in full swing.
In Ukraine, he was under surveillance, and “both local sources and our people in Belarus” have alerted the group to the possibility of “various provocations, including kidnapping and liquidation.”
“There is no doubt that this was a planned operation by security operatives to liquidate a Belarusian, dangerous for the regime. We will continue to fight for the truth about Vitaly’s death,” the group said.
Yury Shchuchko from the Belarusian House in Ukraine told The Associated Press that Shishov was found with marks of beating on his face. “Nothing was stolen, he was in regular clothes people put on to work out, and he only had his phone with him,” Shchuchko said.
He also said that Shishov has previously noticed surveillance during his runs and that strangers would approach him and try to start a conversation.
“We have been warned to be more careful, because a network of Belarus KGB agents is operating here and everything is possible,” Shchuchko said. “Vitaly asked me to take care of his loved ones, he had a weird feeling.”
Klymenko of the National Police told reporters on Tuesday that there were indeed injuries discovered on Shishov’s body — scratched skin on his nose, a cut on his lip and an injury on his left knee. He wouldn’t say, however, whether these resulted from violence. Klymenko added that police haven’t received any complaints about surveillance from Shishov.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko’s main challenger in the August 2020 election who left for Lithuania under pressure from the authorities, expressed condolences to Shishov’s family on Tuesday.
“Belarusians can’t be safe even abroad, as long as there are those who are trying to inflict revenge on them,” Tsikhnaouskaya said in an online statement.
“Vitaly Shishov was helping Belarusians and was found hanged ... It happened on another country’s soil. Just like the hostage-taking took place on another country’s plane. Just like the attempt to forcefully bring a disloyal athlete back to Belarus from another country’s territory,” she said.
Earlier this week, Belarus Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya accused the country’s officials of hustling her to the airport and trying to put her on a plane back to Belarus after she publicly criticized the management of her team at the Tokyo Games. Tsimanouskaya refused to board the plane and instead will seek refuge in Europe.
In an interview Tuesday, she told the AP she feared she wouldn’t be safe in Belarus.
European officials on Tuesday urged Ukraine to conduct a thorough investigation into the death of the activist.
“We are deeply shocked by the news of the death of the Belarusian activist Vitaly Shishov,” Austria’s Foreign Ministry said on Twitter. “Our thoughts are with his loved ones. Austria calls for a thorough and transparent investigation into the circumstances leading to his death.”
Marta Hurtado, a spokeswoman for the UN human rights office, told reporters in Geneva that the office hoped the authorities in Ukraine would conduct “a thorough, impartial and effective investigation on what happened and see if it was just a suicide, if it was a regular criminal murder, or if there is a relation with his activism.”


Sydney’s ticket out of COVID-19 lockdown? Six million vaccine jabs

Sydney’s ticket out of COVID-19 lockdown? Six million vaccine jabs
Updated 03 August 2021

Sydney’s ticket out of COVID-19 lockdown? Six million vaccine jabs

Sydney’s ticket out of COVID-19 lockdown? Six million vaccine jabs
  • A lifting of restrictions in the country’s most populous city and its surrounds in New South Wales state would be a boost for Prime Minister Scott Morrison

CANBERRA: Australian authorities said they could ease a COVID-19 lockdown that demands Sydney’s five million people stay home until the end of August if half the population is vaccinated, even as new infections linger near a 16-month high.
A lifting of restrictions in the country’s most populous city and its surrounds in New South Wales state would be a boost for Prime Minister Scott Morrison, under intense pressure for his government’s handling of the vaccine rollout, with the threat of a second economic recession in as many years looming.
New South Wales, which accounts for a third of all activity in Australia’s A$2 trillion ($1.47 trillion) economy, has struggled to contain a surge of cases of the highly infectious Delta variant in Sydney despite the lockdown, currently due to be lifted on Aug. 29.
While the state on Tuesday reported another 199 locally acquired COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours — near a 16-month high of 239 infections recorded in one day last week — Premier Gladys Berejiklian said curbs could be eased if six million people in New South Wales are vaccinated by the time the lockdown is due to end.
“Six million jabs is roughly half the population with at least one or two doses,” Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney. “That gives us additional options as to what life looks like on 29 August.”
Berejiklian didn’t say exactly how many in New South Wales were fully vaccinated as of Tuesday, but said the state is on course to meet its vaccination target. She cautioned the number of people in the community while infectious would also need to come down.
Although Australia has largely kept its COVID-19 numbers relatively low, with just over 34,500 cases and 925 deaths, its national vaccination rollout has hit several roadblocks due to changing medical advice on AstraZeneca doses over blood clot concerns and supply constraints for Pfizer inoculation.
The target in New South Wales comes just days after national premier Morrison promised lockdowns would be “less likely” once the country inoculates 70 percent of its population above 16 years of age — a long way from the current 19 percent level. Morrison expects to hit the 70 percent mark by the end of the year.
On Tuesday Morrison rejected the idea of offering people financial incentives to boost vaccination rates.
“If do have hesitancy about vaccine, I am not going to pay them off,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra.
The PM also released the modeling behind the national strategy which showed Australia would need to vaccinate seven in 10 people to control the spread of the virus without economically damaging lockdowns.
The modelling, by the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, also called for younger Australians to be the next focus of the vaccine campaign.
Once vulnerable Australians were inoculated, “uptake by young adults (aged 16 and over) will strongly influence the impact of vaccination on overall transmission,” notes published alongside the modelling said.
The lockdown of Sydney is expected to see the Australian economy shrink in the current quarter, and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has warned the length of the stay-at-home orders will determine whether a recession can be avoided.
Despite the ongoing threat to the economy, the Reserve Bank of Australia on Tuesday said it would stick with its plan to taper bond buying from September, contravening marketing expectations.
Meanwhile, Queensland state said on Tuesday it has reported 16 new COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours, the highest daily number of new cases in a year.


‘Indiscriminate’ Afghan fighting hurting civilians the most, says UN

‘Indiscriminate’ Afghan fighting hurting civilians the most, says UN
Updated 03 August 2021

‘Indiscriminate’ Afghan fighting hurting civilians the most, says UN

‘Indiscriminate’ Afghan fighting hurting civilians the most, says UN
  • In Herat, another city under siege, hundreds of residents chanted from their rooftops after government forces repulsed the latest Taliban assault

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan: Afghan forces battled the Taliban for control of a key provincial capital Tuesday, as the United Nations warned “indiscriminate” gunfire and air strikes were hurting civilians the most.
Officials said insurgents had seized more than a dozen local radio and TV stations in Lashkar Gah — capital of Helmand province and the scene of days of fierce fighting — leaving only one pro-Taliban channel broadcasting Islamic programming.
In Herat, another city under siege, hundreds of residents chanted from their rooftops after government forces repulsed the latest Taliban assault.
The hard-line Islamist group has seized control of much of rural Afghanistan since foreign forces began the last stage of their withdrawal in early May, but are meeting resistance as they try to take provincial capitals.
That urban fighting, however, is taking its toll on civilians.
“Taliban ground offensive & ANA air strikes causing most harm,” the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) tweeted Tuesday, referring to the Afghan national army.
“Deep concerns about indiscriminate shooting & damage to/occupation of health facilities & civilian homes.”
“Fighting was intense this morning,” said Sefatullah, director of Sukon radio in Helmand’s capital, whose station was captured by the Taliban.
“We stopped broadcasting two days ago because the Taliban captured the building of our station.”
Afghan officials said Tuesday that 11 radio and four television stations in the city had been seized by the Taliban.
“Terrorists do not want the media to publish the facts and expose their injustices,” the Ministry of Information and Culture said.
The loss of Lashkar Gah would be a massive strategic and psychological blow for the government, which has pledged to defend cities at all costs after losing much of the rural countryside to the Taliban over the summer.
In Herat, Afghan officials said government forces had managed to push back the insurgents from several areas of the city — including near the airport, which is vital for resupplies.
“Afghan security forces plus resistance forces launched a big operation in west of the city,” Jailani Farhad, spokesman for Herat’s governor, said.


COVID-19 returns to China’s Wuhan as global Delta variant woes mount

COVID-19 returns to China’s Wuhan as global Delta variant woes mount
Updated 03 August 2021

COVID-19 returns to China’s Wuhan as global Delta variant woes mount

COVID-19 returns to China’s Wuhan as global Delta variant woes mount
  • A resurgent virus has returned with a vengeance, buoyed by stalling vaccination rates and deadly new mutations

BEIJING: Authorities in China’s Wuhan said Tuesday they would test the city’s entire population for COVID-19, as the virus returned to the place where it first emerged and the highly contagious Delta variant drove tightening lockdowns worldwide.
A resurgent virus has returned with a vengeance, buoyed by stalling vaccination rates and deadly new mutations even in places which had long touted their successes in overcoming the worst of the pandemic.
China brought domestic cases down to virtually zero after the coronavirus first emerged in Wuhan, allowing the economy to rebound and life to return largely to normal.
But a fresh outbreak has thrown that record into jeopardy, as the fast-spreading Delta variant reaches dozens of cities after infections among airport cleaners in Nanjing sparked a chain of cases that have been reported across the country.
In Wuhan — where the virus first emerged in December 2019 and which faced a grueling lockdown in the early months of the pandemic — authorities said they were launching a mass-testing program for all 11 million residents.
And across China, authorities have confined the residents of entire cities to their homes, cut domestic transport links and rolled out mass testing in recent days as the country battles its largest coronavirus outbreak in months.
Millions are also still under movement restrictions in Australia, where troops Monday hit the streets of the country’s largest city of Sydney and surrounding areas, which are entering the sixth week of a lockdown set to run until the end of August.
Authorities have been struggling to stop the spread of the highly infectious Delta variant in the city — and to ensure that residents follow containment rules — with more than 3,600 cases recorded since mid-June.
With about 15 percent of Australia’s 25 million people fully vaccinated, authorities are still relying on lockdowns to slow the spread of the virus.