Top Pentagon official in Afghanistan amid push for peace
By ROBERT BURNS
AP National Security Writer
Monday, February 11
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Pentagon’s top official made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan on Monday to meet with U.S. commanders and Afghan leaders amid a push for peace with the Taliban.
Pat Shanahan, the recently installed acting secretary of defense, said he has no orders to reduce the U.S. troop presence, although officials say that is at the top of the Taliban’s list of demands in exploratory peace negotiations.
Shanahan said he is encouraged that President Donald Trump’s administration is exploring all possibilities for ending a 17-year war, the longest in American history.
But he stressed that peace terms are for the Afghans to decide. Thus far the Taliban have refused to negotiate with the government of President Ashraf Ghani, calling it illegitimate. Washington is trying to break that impasse.
“The Afghans have to decide what Afghanistan looks like. It’s not about the U.S., it’s about Afghanistan,” Shanahan told reporters traveling with him from Washington.
Later, Shanahan flew to a military base ringed by snow-capped hills where he met Afghan army commandos, who are regarded as the most capable element of the Afghan military. He told reporters the U.S.-trained commandos are increasingly on the offensive against the Taliban.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the administration’s special envoy for Afghan peace talks, said Friday that although talks are in an early stage, he hopes a deal can be made by July. That is when Afghanistan is scheduled to hold a presidential election.
Shanahan, a former Boeing executive who had never been in Afghanistan until Monday, was scheduled to meet with Ghani and other top government officials.
Shanahan took over as acting secretary of defense on Jan. 1 after Jim Mattis submitted his resignation in December. Shanahan had been Mattis’ No. 2.
Shanahan’s views on the Afghan war are not widely known. He said he would use this week’s visit to inform his thinking and to report back to Trump.
In testimony before Congress last week, Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. Central Command, offered a largely optimistic view of Afghanistan, saying the current maneuvering between U.S. and Taliban negotiators is “our first real opportunity for peace and reconciliation since the war began.”
Votel noted that the Taliban are still capable of inflicting significant casualties on Afghan government forces. Just last week the insurgents killed some two dozen Afghan troops in an attack on an army base in northern Kunduz province.
In addition to battling the Taliban, U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan are focused on an Islamic State affiliate known as ISIS-Khorasan, comprised of foreign fighters largely from Pakistan. “Left unchecked,” Votel said in his report to Congress, ISIS-Khorasan “will continue to grow as a threat to our homeland.”
In his remarks to reporters during his flight to Kabul, Shanahan said that although the Islamic State presence in Syria “has been decimated,” local Syrian security forces are needed to ensure stability. He said IS still has a global presence.
“If something hasn’t been completely eradicated, there is a risk of it returning,” he said.
Trump has taken an ambivalent approach to Afghanistan, saying his instinct upon entering office in 2017 was to withdraw. Yet he chose instead to add about 3,500 troops in 2017-2018 to bolster the U.S. effort to train and advise Afghan forces. After Mattis resigned in December, Trump insisted that he had been unhappy with how Mattis handled Afghanistan. Since then, the administration has said it achieved a tentative “framework” for fuller peace negotiations with the Taliban.
“We do not know whether we will achieve an agreement,” Trump said in his State of the Union address to Congress last week, “but we do know that after two decades of war, the hour has come to at least try for peace.”
Ghani says Afghan government must be included in peace talks
Monday, February 11
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghan President Ashraf Ghani says the Taliban are welcome to set up a political office in the capital but that his government must be included in any peace talks.
In a speech Monday, he rejected the idea of an interim government, which has been embraced by the Taliban and some opposition figures, vowing that elections will he held as planned later this year.
Ghani has appeared increasingly sidelined as the United States hold talks with the Taliban aimed at ending the 17-year war. A gathering last week in Moscow brought together the Taliban and a number of prominent Afghan figures but included no government representatives
Ghani says Afghanistan should hold a loya jirga, or a grand traditional gathering of Afghan political and tribal leaders, to plot a course to peace.
Where the investigations related to President Trump stand
By The Associated Press
Monday, February 11
A look at where the investigations related to President Donald Trump stand and what may lie ahead for him:
WHAT’S THIS ALL ABOUT?
Special counsel Robert Mueller is looking into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia and whether the president obstructed the investigation. Trump also plays a central role in a separate case in New York, where prosecutors have implicated him in a crime. They say Trump directed his personal lawyer Michael Cohen to make illegal hush-money payments to two women as a way to quash potential sex scandals during the campaign. New York prosecutors also are looking into Trump’s inaugural fund.
WHAT DO I NEED TO KNOW RIGHT NOW?
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved William Barr’s nomination for attorney general along party lines Thursday. Republicans praised his credentials and Democrats questioned how transparent he’ll be once Mueller’s Russia investigation concludes.
The vote now heads to the full Senate, where Barr is expected to be confirmed as soon as next week.
Barr would succeed Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was pushed out by Trump last year over the president’s anger that Sessions had stepped aside from overseeing the Russia investigation. As the country’s chief law enforcement officer, Barr would oversee the remaining work in Mueller’s investigation into potential coordination between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign.
SO … DID THE TRUMP CAMPAIGN COLLUDE WITH RUSSIA?
There is no smoking gun when it comes to the question of Russia collusion. But the evidence so far shows that a broad range of Trump associates had Russia-related contacts during the 2016 presidential campaign and transition period, and several lied about the communication.
There is evidence that some people in Trump’s orbit were discussing a possible email dump from WikiLeaks before it occurred. American intelligence agencies and Mueller have said Russia was the source of hacked material released by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks during the campaign that was damaging to Democrat Hillary Clinton’s presidential effort.
OTHER QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
—WHAT ABOUT OBSTRUCTION OF JUSTICE? That is another unresolved question that Mueller is pursuing. Investigators have examined key episodes such as Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey and Trump’s fury over Sessions’ recusal.
—WHAT DOES TRUMP HAVE TO SAY ABOUT ALL THIS? Trump has repeatedly slammed the Mueller investigation as a “witch hunt” and insisted there was “NO COLLUSION” with Russia. He also says his former lawyer Cohen lied to get a lighter sentence in New York.
—WHEN WILL IT ALL WRAP UP? It’s unclear. Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker says the probe is “close to being completed,” the first official sign that Mueller’s investigation may be wrapping up. But he gave no specific timetable.
For more in-depth information, follow AP coverage at https://apnews.com/TrumpInvestigations
Budget talks resuming amid pessimism over border differences
By JONATHAN LEMIRE and ALAN FRAM
Monday, February 11
WASHINGTON (AP) — Budget negotiators will meet Monday to revive talks over border security issues that are central to legislation to prevent key parts of the government from shutting down on Saturday, but an air of pessimism remains after talks broke down over the weekend.
They collapsed over Democratic demands to limit the number of migrants authorities can detain, and the two sides remained separated over how much to spend on President Donald Trump’s promised border wall. A Friday midnight deadline is looming to prevent a second partial government shutdown.
Key negotiators plan to meet on Monday, Democratic and GOP aides say, but for now the mood is not hopeful.
Rising to the fore on Sunday was a related dispute over curbing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, the federal agency that Republicans see as an emblem of tough immigration policies and Democrats accuse of often going too far.
Trump blamed Democrats in the migrant detention dispute, tweeting, “The Democrats do not want us to detain, or send back, criminal aliens! This is a brand new demand. Crazy!”
The fight over ICE detentions goes to the core of each party’s view on immigration. Republicans favor rigid enforcement of immigration laws and have little interest in easing them if Democrats refuse to fund the Mexican border wall. Democrats despise the proposed wall and, in return for border security funds, want to curb what they see as unnecessarily harsh enforcement by ICE.
People involved in the talks say Democrats have proposed limiting the number of immigrants here illegally who are caught inside the U.S. — not at the border — that the agency can detain. Republicans say they don’t want that cap to apply to immigrants caught committing crimes, but Democrats do.
Democrats say they proposed their cap to force ICE to concentrate its internal enforcement efforts on dangerous immigrants, not those who lack legal authority to be in the country but are productive and otherwise pose no threat. Democrats have proposed reducing the current number of beds ICE uses to detain immigrants here illegally from 40,520 to 35,520.
But within that limit, they’ve also proposed limiting to 16,500 the number for immigrants here illegally caught within the U.S., including criminals. Republicans want no caps on the number of immigrants who’ve committed crimes who can be held by ICE.
Trump used the dispute to cast Democrats as soft on criminals.
“I don’t think the Dems on the Border Committee are being allowed by their leaders to make a deal. They are offering very little money for the desperately needed Border Wall & now, out of the blue, want a cap on convicted violent felons to be held in detention!” Trump tweeted Sunday.
Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, in appearances on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and “Fox News Sunday,” said “you absolutely cannot” eliminate the possibility of another shutdown if a deal is not reached over the wall and other border matters. The White House had asked for $5.7 billion, a figure rejected by the Democratic-controlled House, and the mood among bargainers has soured, according to people familiar with the negotiations not authorized to speak publicly about private talks.
“You cannot take a shutdown off the table, and you cannot take $5.7 (billion) off the table,” Mulvaney told NBC, “but if you end up someplace in the middle, yeah, then what you probably see is the president say, ‘Yeah, OK, and I’ll go find the money someplace else.’”
A congressional deal seemed to stall even after Mulvaney convened a bipartisan group of lawmakers at Camp David, the presidential retreat in northern Maryland. While the two sides appeared close to clinching a deal late last week, significant gaps remain and momentum appears to have slowed. Though congressional Democratic aides asserted that the dispute had caused the talks to break off, it was initially unclear how damaging the rift was. Both sides are eager to resolve the long-running battle and avert a fresh closure of dozens of federal agencies that would begin next weekend if Congress doesn’t act by Friday.
“I think talks are stalled right now,” Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said on “Fox News Sunday.” ”I’m not confident we’re going to get there.”
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who appeared on the same program, agreed: “We are not to the point where we can announce a deal.”
But Mulvaney did signal that the White House would prefer not to have a repeat of the last shutdown, which stretched more than a month, left more than 800,000 government workers without paychecks, forced a postponement of the State of the Union address and sent Trump’s poll numbers tumbling. As support in his own party began to splinter, Trump surrendered after the shutdown hit 35 days without getting money for the wall.
The president’s supporters have suggested that Trump could use executive powers to divert money from the federal budget for wall construction, though it was unclear if he would face challenges in Congress or the courts. One provision of the law lets the Defense Department provide support for counterdrug activities.
But declaring a national emergency remained an option, Mulvaney said, even though many in the administration have cooled on the prospect. A number of powerful Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have also warned against the move, believing it usurps power from Congress and could set a precedent for a future Democratic president to declare an emergency for a liberal political cause.
As most budget disputes go, differences over hundreds of millions of dollars are usually imperceptible and easily solved. But this battle more than most is driven by political symbolism — whether Trump will be able to claim he delivered on his long-running pledge to “build the wall” or newly empowered congressional Democrats’ ability to thwart him.
Predictably each side blamed the other for the stall in negotiations.
“We were, you know, progressing well,” Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” ”I thought we were tracking pretty good over the last week. And it just seems over the last 24 hours or so the goalposts have been moving from the Democrats.”
House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., countered by saying on the same show, “The numbers are all over the place.”
“I think the big problem here is this has become pretty much an ego negotiation,” Yarmuth added. “And this really isn’t over substance.”
Associated Press writers Hope Yen, Andrew Taylor and Lisa Mascaro in Washington and Julie Walker in New York contributed to this report.
Follow Lemire on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JonLemire and Fram at http://twitter.com/asfram
Trump tries to turn border debate his way with El Paso rally
By ZEKE MILLER
Monday, February 11
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump is trying to turn the debate over a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border back to his political advantage as his signature pledge to American voters threatens to become a model of unfulfilled promises.
Trump will hold his first campaign rally since November’s midterm elections in El Paso, Texas, on Monday as he faces a defining week for his push on the wall — and for his presidency and his 2020 prospects. Weakened by the disastrous government shutdown and facing a fresh deadline Friday, Trump is trying to convince people that that he’ll continue to push to build his long-promised wall, even though there’s no way it would be anywhere near complete by the time voters have to decide whether to give him another term.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers were negotiating ahead of Friday’s deadline, but on Sunday people familiar with the talks said the mood among the bargainers had grown sour. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private talks.
Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said during news show appearances Sunday that another shutdown remained on the table, although he also said Trump probably would be willing to compromise over how much of the $5.7 billion for wall construction he’s demanded would be allocated. “Someplace in the middle,” Mulvaney said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Even Trump’s full demand is a fraction of the money he needs to complete the barrier he wants. His vision for the wall already has been substantially scaled down since the 2016 campaign, when it was to be built of concrete and span the length of the border and be paid for by Mexico. Now, he’s looking to build “steel slats” along much of the 1,900-mile stretch, relying on natural barriers for the rest. The amount of federal funding he’s seeking would pay for fewer than 200 miles of new barrier.
The president, who feared a backlash from his most loyal supporters last year if he didn’t use the last gasp of unified Republican control in Washington to fight for the wall, isn’t expected to provoke another standoff with Congress. West Wing aides have acknowledged there is insufficient support among Republicans to sustain another shutdown fight.
Still, Trump has publicly dismissed the work of congressional negotiators as a “waste of time” and on Sunday said he thinks Democrats want a shutdown to turn attention from the economy and other positive news for his administration. Trump also continued to threaten to flex his executive powers by trying to unilaterally tap into existing federal dollars to build the wall through a declaration of a national emergency or another presidential action.
Any independent moves would face almost immediate legal challenges that even Trump’s aides fear will be successful. Still, they reckon it will show Trump as determined to fight for the wall, and figure that voters will blame the courts and Congress rather the president.
For some supporters, that’s not enough. California-based conservative leader Mark Meckler, who helped found the tea party movement, said Trump’s base voters are done waiting for him to deliver on the wall. He warned that the president risks alienating his strongest supporters unless he “goes to war” with Democrats.
“A political crusade is not enough,” Meckler said. “Politicians say stuff. He’s either doing it or he’s not doing it.”
The border debate has also proven to be a drag on the president’s support among Republican lawmakers, many of whom don’t share the president’s zeal for the wall. Last month Trump was forced to surrender the shutdown fight after senators in his party broke ranks amid the increasingly painful impacts of the stoppage. It coincided with mounting intraparty disagreements over the president’s policies for Afghanistan and Syria that led to a striking rebuke of them earlier this month led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
For all of that, though, Trump advisers on the campaign and inside the White House insist, that fulfilled or not, the promise of a wall is a winning issue for Trump. The president has already sought to rewrite the “Build the Wall” chants that were a staple of his 2016 campaign to “Finish the Wall,” and will use his rally in Texas to go in-depth on the issue, aides said.
Highlighting their differing view of the electorate, Democrats are likewise adamant that Trump’s struggles for the wall are a political boon to them, believing their 2018 midterm election gains in the House proved that voters want to block Trump’s agenda.
An AP-NORC poll conducted during last month’s shutdown found that more Americans opposed than favored building a wall along the Mexican border, 49 percent to 36 percent. Eight in 10 Democrats opposed building the wall and only about 1 in 10 were in favor. Nearly 8 in 10 Republicans favored the wall, while only about 1 in 10 were opposed.
A Trump campaign adviser said the Trump team sees the El Paso rally as less about winning over voters ahead of the 2020 election and more an opportunity to reshape the debate around the wall. The campaign views the rally, which is to take place just a few hundred yards from El Paso’s border fence, as an opportunity for Trump to make the case that border barriers work, said the adviser, who was not authorized to discuss campaign strategy by name and requested anonymity.
Trump has repeatedly exaggerated the impact of El Paso’s fencing on the city’s crime rate, as well as statistics about crime committed by people who have entered the U.S. illegally.
El Paso is home to one potential Democratic challenger to Trump, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who unsuccessfully challenged Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018 and maintains an army of small-dollar donors and a large social media following. The campaign adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal thinking, insisted the venue had nothing to do with O’Rourke.
But there was nothing subtle about O’Rourke’s response: He’ll be joining a march though his hometown to protest a border wall at the same time as Trump’s rally.
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin and Catherine Lucey contributed to this report.