Hiko, Sep 20 (AP/UNB) — About 75 people arrived early Friday at a gate at the once-secret Area 51 military base in Nevada — at the time appointed by an internet hoaxster to "storm" the facility to see space aliens — and at least two were detained by sheriff's deputies.
The "Storm Area 51" invitation spawned festivals in the tiny Nevada towns of Rachel and Hiko nearest the military site, and a more than two-hour drive from Las Vegas.
Lincoln County Sheriff Kerry Lee estimated late Thursday that about 1,500 people had gathered at the festival sites and said more than 150 people also made the rugged trip several additional miles on bone-rattling dirt roads to get within selfie distance of the gates.
An Associated Press photographer said it wasn't immediately clear if a woman who began ducking under a gate and a man who urinated nearby were arrested after the crowd gathered about 3 a.m. Friday.
Lee scheduled a media briefing later Friday morning.
Millions of people had responded to a June internet post calling for people to run into the remote U.S. Air Force test site that has long been the focus of UFO conspiracy theories.
"They can't stop all of us," the post joked. "Lets see them aliens."
The military responded with stern warnings that lethal force could be used if people entered the Nevada Test and Training Range, and local and state officials said arrests would be made if people tried.
"It's public land," the sheriff said. "They're allowed to go to the gate, as long as they don't cross the boundary."
A music group called Wily Savage erected a stage Thursday near the Little A'Le'Inn in Rachel and began playing after dark for several hundred campers who braved overnight temperatures about 45 degrees (7 Celsius).
Daniel Martinez, 31, a Pokemon collectible cards dealer from Pomona, California, was among the first to whirl and dance at the dusty makeshift festival grounds — warm beneath a wolf "spirit hood" and matching faux fur jacket.
"Here's a big open space for people to be," he said. "One person starts something and it infects everybody with positivity. Anything can happen if you give people a place to be."
The entertainment kicked off weekend events that also feature a gathering Friday and Saturday at the Alien Research Center souvenir store in Hiko.
Owner George Harris said it would focus on music, movies and talks about extraterrestrial lore.
Authorities reported no serious incidents related to festivals scheduled until Sunday. Hiko and Rachel are about a 45-minute drive apart on a state road dubbed the Extraterrestrial Highway, and a two-hour drive from Las Vegas.
Earlier, as Wily Savage band members helped erect the wooden frame for a stage, guitarist Alon Burton said he saw a chance to perform for people looking for a scene in which to be seen.
"It started as a joke, but it's not a joke for us," he said. "We know people will come out. We just don't know how many."
Michael Ian Borer, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas, sociologist who researches pop culture and paranormal activity, called the festivities sparked by the internet joke "a perfect blend of interest in aliens and the supernatural, government conspiracies, and the desire to know what we don't know."
The result, Borer said, was "hope and fear" for events that include the "Area 51 Basecamp" featuring music, speakers and movies in Hiko, and festivals in Rachel and Las Vegas competing for the name "Alienstock."
"People desire to be part of something, to be ahead of the curve," Borer said. "Area 51 is a place where normal, ordinary citizens can't go. When you tell people they can't do something, they just want to do it more."
Eric Holt, the Lincoln County emergency manager, said he believed authorities could handle 30,000 visitors at the two events. Still, neighbors braced for trouble after millions of people responded to the "Storm Area 51" Facebook post weeks ago.
"Those that know what to expect camping in the desert are going to have a good time," said Joerg Arnu, a Rachel resident who can see the festival grounds from his home.
Those who show up in shorts and flip-flops will find no protection against "critters, snakes and scorpions."
"It will get cold at night. They're not going to find what they're looking for, and they are going to get angry," Arnu said.
The Federal Aviation Administration closed nearby airspace, although Air Force jets could be heard in the sun-drenched skies, along with an occasional sonic boom.
New York, Sep 19 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump asked a federal judge Thursday to block an effort by New York prosecutors to obtain his tax returns.
Trump's attorneys filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in New York against the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., who recently subpoenaed the president's accounting firm for eight years of Trump's state and federal returns.
The lawsuit was not immediately made public. But Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow told The Associated Press the lawsuit is intended "to address the significant constitutional issues at stake in this case."
A message was left with Vance seeking comment. Trump's accounting firm declined to comment.
The lawsuit opens a new legal front in Trump's long-running fight to prevent his tax returns from becoming public. It comes as the Republican president already is fighting efforts by Democratic-led congressional committees to obtain his tax returns and other records that could provide a window into his finances.
Trump and three of his children filed a lawsuit in April seeking to block two House committees from getting records that his longtime lender, Deutsche Bank, has said includes tax returns. And in July, the president sued to block the application of a new state law in New York that could allow a House committee to obtain his state tax returns.
Vance also has subpoenaed the Trump Organization for records related to payments that former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen helped arrange to a porn actress who claimed she had an affair with Trump. The Democratic district attorney is also pursuing a mortgage fraud case against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
Washington, Sep 18 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump on Wednesday named Robert O'Brien, his chief hostage negotiator and an established figure in Republican policy circles, as his new national security adviser.
O'Brien, the fourth person in two years to hold the job, becomes the administration's point person on national security amid rising tensions with Iran following the weekend attack on Saudi oil installations and fresh uncertainty in Afghanistan after the halt in peace talks with the Taliban.
The announcement of O'Brien's selection comes a week after Trump ousted John Bolton from the post, citing policy disagreements . O'Brien, who made headlines in July when he was dispatched to Sweden to monitor the assault trial of American rapper A$AP Rocky, was among five candidates Trump said Tuesday were under consideration.
"I am pleased to announce that I will name Robert C. O'Brien, currently serving as the very successful Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs at the State Department, as our new National Security Advisor," Trump tweeted. "I have worked long & hard with Robert. He will do a great job!"
Trump abruptly forced out Bolton on Sept. 10, after he and his hawkish national security adviser found themselves in strong disagreement over the administration's approach to Iran, Afghanistan and a host of other global challenges. The sudden exit marked the latest departure of a prominent voice of dissent from Trump's inner circle as the president has grown more comfortable following his gut instinct over the studious guidance offered by his advisers.
As the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs at the State Department, O'Brien worked closely with the families of American hostages and advised administration officials on hostage issues. He helped secure the release in February of American citizen Danny Burch, who was freed after 18 months in captivity.
He has also worked on the case of missing U.S. journalist Austin Tice, who was captured in Syria in 2012. O'Brien has said he is confident Tice is still alive though it's unclear who is holding him.
The White House sent O'Brien to Sweden to monitor the case of A$AP Rocky, who was charged with assault. The rapper, whose real name is Rakim Mayers, was permitted to return to Los Angeles to await the verdict of a Swedish court that found him guilty in a street brawl.
Last month, the wife of a Princeton University graduate student detained in Iran told reporters that she would like to see the same level of personal attention from the government as A$AP Rocky received.
O'Brien previously helped lead the department's public-private partnership for justice reform in Afghanistan during the Bush and Obama administrations.
He began to emerge as a front-runner to replace Bolton last week when it became clear that an early favorite, Iran envoy Brian Hook, would face opposition from hawks who think he has not been tough enough on Iran, according to Republicans familiar with the matter.
Another short-listed candidate, North Korea envoy, Stephen Biegun, was taken out of the mix when Pompeo suggested he might be better placed as Deputy Secretary of State to replace John Sullivan, who is widely expected to be nominated to be the next U.S. ambassador to Russia, officials said.
From 2008 through 2011, O'Brien was a presidentially appointed member of a government committee that advises on issues related to the trafficking of antiquities and other cultural items. In 2005, President George W. Bush nominated O'Brien to be U.S. Representative to the U.N. General Assembly, where he worked with Bolton. O'Brien was confirmed by the Senate.
He also was an adviser on the Republican presidential campaigns of former Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
Earlier in his career, O'Brien was a senior legal officer for the U.N. Security Council commission that decided claims against Iraq that arose from the Gulf War. He was a major in the U.S. Army Reserve.
O'Brien has a law degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and co-founded a law firm in Los Angeles focused on litigation and international arbitration issues. O'Brien is the author of "While America Slept," a collection of essays on U.S. national security and foreign policy billed as a "wake-up call to the American people."
The book warned that the world had become more dangerous "under President Obama's lead-from-behind foreign policy."
Washington, Sep 18 (AP/UNB) — She's done a lot with the place.
Like anyone who has ever spruced up their home, Melania Trump will have a few new touches to showcase Friday when guests visit the White House for only the second state dinner of the Trump presidency.
There's refreshed wall fabric in the Red Room, repurposed draperies in the Green Room and restored furniture in the Blue Room. And those are just some of the home improvement projects the first lady has overseen to keep the well-trod public rooms at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. looking their museum-quality best.
Some of the projects were long overdue.
Sunlight streaming into the Red Room had left some of the wall fabric "so faded it was almost pink," said Stewart McLaurin, president of the White House Historical Association, which helps finance upkeep of some rooms in the 132-room mansion. First lady Jacqueline Kennedy founded the private, nonprofit organization in 1961.
"Those rooms should always look their very best and it was just very faded and really, really needed to be done," McLaurin said.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his wife, Jenny, and guests for Friday's three-course state dinner in their honor should have an opportunity to check out the spiffed-up public rooms.
In her role as caretaker, the first lady — whoever she is — meets regularly with the chief usher, the head curator and other White House staff to figure out what improvements should top the to-do list.
Mrs. Trump, who keeps a relatively low profile as first lady, has put her interest in history to use overseeing the restoration projects.
"Our family is grateful to live in this true symbol of our nation's history, but we are even more honored to play a part in restoring and enhancing our country's sacred landmark," she said at a May reception.
The first lady designed a new rug for the Diplomatic Reception Room, the main entrance off the South Lawn, after foot traffic wore a path across the old one, McLaurin said. The replacement has a border showing the flowers of the 50 states, a touch added by the first lady.
The White House also refreshed draperies in the Green Room by switching material from the backside to the front, eliminating the need — and cost — of replacing the curtains entirely, McLaurin said. Only the fringe had to be replaced.
Last year, Mrs. Trump returned to the Blue Room several restored pieces from a historic 53-piece furniture set known as the Bellangé suite.
Decor upgrades are a bit more complicated at the White House than for typical homeowners.
Renovation ideas are shared with the Kennedy-created Committee for the Preservation of the White House, which provides advice on preserving the public rooms on the Ground and State floors.
The committee requests funding from the historical association, whose board typically authorizes spending $1 million to $1.5 million on such projects each year.
The White House serves several purposes: It's an office for the president and his staff, a home for his family and a living museum. Approximately half a million tourists visit every year, apart from dignitaries and others who attend receptions and other events.
"The White House does get a lot of wear and tear," McLaurin said.
The Bellange suite furnishings were brought to the White House in 1817 by President James Monroe, formerly the U.S. ambassador to France.
But in 1860, nearly all the pieces were sold at an auction.
One hundred years later, Jacqueline Kennedy arrived and was appalled to discover the White House was furnished with reproductions from a New York department store, McLaurin said. She created the historical association, the advisory committee and a curator to help the White House collect and exhibit only the best, McLaurin said.
The White House has managed to reacquire 10 pieces from the original suite, made in Paris by Pierre-Antoine Bellangé. The rest of the collection is "lost to history," McLaurin said.
The Bellangé restoration project began during Michelle Obama's time as first lady and was completed last year, costing the historical association more than $450,000 since 2013.
The wood, brass and lighting inside an elevator that takes the president to and from the private living quarters has also been refinished.
Next up? New upholstery on chairs and benches in the high-traffic Diplomatic Reception Room.
Mrs. Trump also renovated a bowling alley in the White House residence that dates to the Nixon administration and was last renovated in 1994 under President Bill Clinton. The Bowling Proprietors' Association of America paid for the renovation.
During the Obama years, the red carpet in the Cross Hall, or hallway, on the State Floor was replaced.
Mrs. Obama also oversaw projects with an eye on leaving her family's mark on the White House, as is the case with every president and first lady. She replaced the rug, draperies and high-back chairs around the table in the State Dining Room.
Mrs. Obama also updated the Old Family Dining Room, a smaller room adjacent to the State Dining Room, by swapping its sunny yellow walls and drapery and light-toned rug for gray walls, contrasting red draperies and a rug with a contemporary design.
Four works of American abstract art also were added to the Old Family Dining Room, including a work that made Alma Thomas the first African-American female artist featured in the White House collection.
Washington, Sep 18 (AP/UNB) — In less than three years, President Donald Trump has named more former lobbyists to Cabinet-level posts than his most recent predecessors did in eight, putting a substantial amount of oversight in the hands of people with ties to the industries they're regulating.
The Cabinet choices are another sign that Trump's populist pledge to "drain the swamp" is a catchy campaign slogan but not a serious attempt to change the way Washington works. Instead of staring down "the unholy alliance of lobbyists and donors and special interests" as Trump recently declared, the influence industry has flourished during his administration.
The amount spent in 2019 on lobbying the U.S. government is on pace to match or exceed last year's total of $3.4 billion, the most since 2010, according to the political money website Open Secrets. Trump also has pulled in hefty contributions from industries with business before his administration, and his hotel near the White House has been a magnet for lobbyists and foreign interests since he was elected.
"An administration staffed by former industry lobbyists will almost certainly favor industry over the general public, because that's the outlook they're bringing to the job," said Lee Drutman, a senior fellow in the political reform program at the think tank New America and author of the book "The Business of America is Lobbying."
Former lobbyists run the Defense and Interior departments, Environmental Protection Agency and office of the U.S. Trade Representative. The acting Labor secretary, Pat Pizzella, is a former lobbyist and Trump's pick to run the department, Eugene Scalia, also is an ex-lobbyist. Scalia's confirmation hearing before a GOP-controlled Senate committee is scheduled for Thursday and Democrats are expected to grill him on his long record of opposing federal regulations .
A seventh ex-lobbyist, Dan Coats, resigned as Trump's intelligence chief in August.
President Barack Obama had five former lobbyists in his Cabinet during two terms in office and President George W. Bush had three, also during eight years in the White House, according to lobbying and foreign agent disclosure records. The review was limited to the Trump, Obama and Bush administrations because prior to 1995 there was no central database of federal lobbying registrations and the law was hazy about who was supposed to register.
Shortly after taking office, Trump signed an executive order that revoked an Obama directive prohibiting lobbyists from being appointed to a post at a federal agency they'd lobbied within the last two years. While this "cooling off" period was cast aside, Trump's order continued to bar for two years lobbyists-turned-government-employees from participating in particular matters that they'd lobbied on during the two preceding years.
"Without the cooling off period, these Cabinet heads appear to be serving their former employers' and clients' special interests," said Virginia Canter, chief ethics counsel of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Trump's Cabinet includes the heads of the 15 executive departments and seven other senior-level posts, such as EPA administrator and director of national intelligence. Obama's Cabinet had the same number of members and Bush's Cabinet had two fewer.
Scalia, the Labor Department nominee, has spent much of his career as a partner in the Washington office of the Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher firm, where he ran up a string of victories in court cases on behalf of business interests challenging labor and financial regulations. Scalia, the son of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, served for a year as the Labor Department's top lawyer during the George W. Bush administration.
His financial disclosure report lists 49 clients who paid him $5,000 or more for legal services, including e-cigarette giant Juul Labs, Facebook, Walmart and Bank of America. Disclosure records show Scalia was registered in 2010 and 2011 to lobby for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Pizzella has been the acting secretary since Alexander Acosta resigned the post in July amid renewed criticism of how, as a federal prosecutor, he handled a 2008 secret plea deal with wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Pizzella lobbied for clients that ranged from Microsoft Corp. to the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. He also worked on several accounts with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, although Pizzella was never accused of any misconduct or wrongdoing.
Obama chose Pizzella for a GOP seat on the Federal Labor Relations Authority and he was an assistant Labor secretary during the George W. Bush administration.
Two Trump Cabinet officials, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler, have been accused by congressional Democrats and public interest groups of failing to honor their ethics pledges.
Both Bernhardt and Wheeler, backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have played leading roles in the administration's rollback of environmental regulations. They also both worked at the agency they now lead during prior administrations.
Interior's inspector general launched an investigation of Bernhardt earlier this year after receiving seven separate ethics allegations against him. A complaint filed by the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center alleged that shortly after joining the department in August 2017 Bernhardt became involved in matters that were the focus of his lobbying for California's Westlands Water District that lasted until mid-November 2016.
Westlands has federal contracts to provide irrigation water to 700 family-owned farms in the fertile San Joaquin Valley. The complaint said Bernhardt had "lobbied on discrete provisions of a law directing Interior to maximize water supplies to his clients, and to minimize Endangered Species Act protections in that region."
Then, after joining Interior, Bernhardt breached his ethics pledge by directing government officials under him "to advance the particular matters he had previously lobbied on," according to the complaint.
"It is very hard to tell where Bernhardt's lobbying career ended and where his public service begins," said Brendan Fischer, director of the Campaign Legal Center's federal reform program.
An Interior spokesman said in a statement, "Secretary Bernhardt is and always has been committed to upholding his ethical responsibilities, and he has fully complied with those obligations."
Thomas Birmingham, Westlands' general manager, said the agency is actually disadvantaged with Bernhardt as secretary because he's not been able to engage with him as he did past Interior secretaries, like Ken Salazar and Sally Jewell.
"I don't know what Mr. Bernhardt has done or has not done at Interior," Birmingham said.
Wheeler worked as a lobbyist for eight years and his more than 20 different clients included coal magnate Bob Murray, who pushed hard on the Trump administration to grant a series of breaks for the sagging domestic coal industry.
"I think he's doing a great job," Betsy Monseu, CEO of the American Coal Council, said of Wheeler. "We're pleased to see the regulatory reform agenda moving forward."
But Canter's organization, known as CREW, urged the EPA inspector general earlier this year to investigate whether Wheeler broke his ethics pledge. Among the allegations, CREW said Wheeler had participated in the easing of standards for storing coal ash in 2018 even though he had lobbied on those regulations the year before for Murray Energy.
The inspector general's office declined to say if it had open an investigation, directing a reporter to file a Freedom of Information Act request.
An EPA statement called CREW's complaint "baseless and just flat out false." It said Wheeler works closely with career EPA ethics officials and abides by all ethics requirements.
The Pentagon's top official, Mark Esper, spent seven years lobbying for defense industry juggernaut Raytheon, a company that stands to gain handsomely from Trump's push to boost military spending by billions of dollars. The company closed out 2018 by hitting a record $27.1 billion in net sales, up nearly seven percent from the $25.3 billion the year before.
Esper, who was secretary of the Army when Trump chose him to be defense secretary, faced opposition from only a handful of Democrats and he was confirmed in July by a 90-8 margin.
As Army secretary, Esper hasn't participated in Raytheon-related matters under the terms of an ethics agreement that runs through this November. After that, Esper told Pentagon ethics officials that he will continue to avoid Raytheon issues unless his participation as defense secretary is determined to be essential.
Robert Lighthizer, the U.S. Trade Representative, lobbied primarily for steel companies between 1999 and 2003. Beginning in 2004, he represented just one company, U.S. Steel, which paid his firm, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, $3.2 million over a seven-year period.