Caracas, Jan 16 (AP/UNB) — Venezuela's opposition-controlled congress has declared President Nicolas Maduro "illegitimate," moving a step closer to implementing a plan to challenge the socialist leader by declaring a caretaker government and calling early elections.
A resolution adopted Tuesday accuses Maduro of "usurping" power and says his administration's acts will no longer carry legal authority. Another resolution seeks to pry the military's loyalty away from Maduro by offering protection to members of the armed forces who support any transitional government.
"This is a historic accord," said National Assembly President Juan Guaido, who in less than two weeks on the job has managed to revitalize the often out-maneuvered opposition.
However, though weakened by Venezuela's economic collapse, Maduro so far has retained the support of the generals and other government institutions, including the courts, which previously ruled actions by the National Assembly invalid.
In invoking an article of the constitution about the transfer of power, lawmakers promised to hold early elections if and when Maduro steps aside, immediately drawing support from foreign capitals.
In Washington, Sen. Marco Rubio, an influential voice on U.S. policy toward Latin America, said it was time for the Trump administration to recognize Guaido as interim president — a title that Guaido has not claimed so far.
Vice President Mike Pence called Guaido and said the U.S. strongly supports his decision to "declare the country's presidency vacant."
Tensions in the oil-rich nation have been rising since Maduro took the oath of office Jan. 10 to begin a second, six-year term that many foreign governments considered illegitimate because most popular opposition parties were banned from running in the May presidential election and leading opposition politicians were jailed or driven into exile.
Guaido said last week that he is ready to step into the presidency temporarily and call for new elections, but only if he sees support from the military and common Venezuelans in nationwide street demonstrations set for later this month.
The resolution adopted Tuesday laying out a roadmap for a political transition led by the National Assembly came amid a frenzy of legislative activity. Among other measures approved was the one aimed at weakening military support for the president.
Maduro has cultivated a stronghold within the military by appointing generals to powerful government posts as Venezuela collapsed into a historic economic and political crisis, creating steep challenges for the anti-Maduro politicians.
"It's not going to be simple after 20 years of repression," Guaido said about the military.
Diego Moya-Ocampos, a Venezuela analyst with the London-based consulting firm IHS Global Insight, said the military would be a key player behind the scenes to drive any regime change. The opposition is offering the armed forces incentives to break away rather than continue supporting Maduro, he said.
"They're laying the institutional grounds for both the military and the police in an eventual transition," Moya Ocampos said. "It gives them incentives to defect rather than to collaborate with the Maduro regime."
But so far there is little sign that support within the top ranks of the armed forces is fraying.
Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez said Tuesday that he was "worried" about attempts to subvert the constitution not by Maduro but his opponents.
"We must tell the Venezuelan people every day that the Bolivian Armed Forces deeply love the ideas of the commander Hugo Chavez," he said standing alongside Maduro, referring to the president's mentor and predecessor.
Maduro has largely ignored congress, arguing that it is outranked by a pro-government constitutional assembly. The pro-Maduro Supreme Court earlier ruled that acts of the opposition-dominated congress are invalid.
"Anyone who wants to mock the constitution and play politics, well, he'll have to face the constitution, the laws and the courts," Maduro said without mentioning Guaido. "The courts will put things in their place as always."
Congress also approved a resolution calling on dozens of foreign governments to freeze bank accounts controlled by Maduro's government to protect assets that legislators say belong to the Venezuelan people and which are being squandered through corruption and mismanagement.
Washington, Jan 15 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump on Monday denied he ever worked for Russia against U.S. interests, addressing an extraordinary question that has haunted his presidency and shows no sign of going away.
Speaking from the South Lawn, Trump issued a flat denial: "I never worked for Russia." He blasted former FBI and Justice Department officials and repeated his claim that the investigation into his ties to Moscow is a hoax.
Trump raised eyebrows over the weekend when he didn't directly answer the Russia question in an interview with Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, a personal friend.
He was asked about a New York Times report that law enforcement officials began investigating, in 2017, whether Trump had been working on behalf of Russia against U.S. interests.
Trump said the question was "insulting," but did not directly deny it.
Monday's clear denial demonstrated the unprecedented pressure Trump faces as the special counsel's Russia investigation shows possible signs of wrapping up. After two years in office, the president is still being questioned about whether he was compromised by Russian intelligence agencies and he is still struggling to answer clearly.
White House aides expressed regret over the weekend that the president did not more clearly and forcefully deny being a Russian agent on Saturday when asked by the usually friendly Fox News host, according to three White House aides and Republicans close to the White House. The three spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss private conversations.
When Pirro asked if he had ever worked for Russia, Trump said it was "the most insulting thing I've ever been asked."
"I think it's the most insulting article I've ever had written, and if you read the article you'll see that they found absolutely nothing," he said.
Trump went on to assert that no president has taken a harder stance against Russia than he has.
"If you ask the folks in Russia, I've been tougher on Russia than anybody else, any other ... probably any other president, period, but certainly the last three or four presidents," he said.
On Monday, Trump also defended his decision to fire FBI Director James Comey, a move that has drawn Mueller's scrutiny. Trump called the Russia probe "a whole big fat hoax."
Special counsel Robert Mueller is looking into Russian election interference and whether Trump's campaign coordinated with the Russians. He also is investigating possible obstruction of justice by Trump.
Washington, Jan 15 (AP/UNB) — With the government mired in shutdown week four, President Donald Trump rejected a short-term legislative fix and dug in for more combat Monday, declaring he would "never ever back down."
Trump rejected a suggestion to reopen the government for several weeks while negotiations would continue with Democrats over his demands for $5.7 billion for a long, impregnable wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. The president also edged further away from the idea of trying to declare a national emergency to circumvent Congress.
"I'm not looking to call a national emergency," Trump said. "This is so simple we shouldn't have to."
No cracks were apparent in the president's deadlock with lawmakers after a weekend with no negotiations at all. His rejection of the short-term option proposed by Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham removed one path forward, and little else was in sight. Congressional Republicans were watching Trump for a signal for how to move next, and Democrats have not budged from their refusal to fund the wall and their demand that he reopen government before border talks resume.
The White House has been considering reaching out to rank-and-file Democrats rather than dealing with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to try and chip away at Democratic opposition to the wall. A White House official said plans were in the works to call freshman representatives, especially those who initially did not support Pelosi's bid for the speakership.
It was uncertain whether any Democrats would respond to the invitation.
Separately, around a dozen senators from both parties met Monday to discuss ways out of the shutdown gridlock. Participants included Graham and Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Tim Kaine, D-Va.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was aware of the group's effort but added, "I wouldn't go so far as to say he's blessed it." The odds of the group producing an actual solution without Trump's approval seemed slim. In the past, centrists of both parties banding together have seldom resolved major partisan disputes.
Lawmakers returned to Capitol Hill late Monday "discouraged," as GOP Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota put it, as all signals pointed to a protracted fight.
Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, the GOP chairman of the Appropriations Committee, compared the shutdown saga to the play "Waiting for Godot."
"And Godot never shows up," Shelby said. "We could be protracted here for a long time. There's nobody on the horse coming to rescue us ... that I know about."
Meanwhile, the impact of the 24-day partial government closure was intensifying around the country. Some 800,000 federal workers missed paychecks Friday, deepening anxieties about mortgage payments and unpaid bills, and about half of them were off the job, cutting off some services. Travelers at the Atlanta airport, the nation's busiest, dealt with waits of more than an hour Monday as no-shows by security screeners soared.
Trump spent the weekend in the White House reaching out to aides and lawmakers and tweeting aggressively about Democratic foes as he tried to make the case that the wall was needed on both security and humanitarian grounds. He stressed that argument repeatedly during a speech at a farming convention in New Orleans on Monday, insisting there was "no substitute" for a wall or a barrier along the southern border.
Trump has continued to insist he has the power to sign an emergency declaration to deal with what he says is a crisis of drug smuggling and trafficking of women and children at the border. But he now appears to be in no rush to make such a declaration.
Instead, he is focused on pushing Democrats to return to the negotiating table — though he walked out of the most recent talks last week — and seized on the fact that a group of House and Senate Democrats were on a retreat in Puerto Rico. Democrats, he argued, were partying on a beach rather than negotiating — though Pelosi and Schumer were not on the trip.
White House officials cautioned that an emergency order remains on the table. Many inside and outside the White House hold that it may be the best option to end the budget standoff, reopening the government while allowing Trump to tell his base supporters he didn't cave on the wall.
However, some GOP lawmakers —as well as White House aides— have counseled against it, concerned that an emergency declaration would immediately be challenged in court. Others have raised concerns about re-routing money from other projects, including money Congress approved for disaster aid. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have also warned that acting under an emergency order would set a troubling precedent for executive power.
For now, Trump apparently sees value in his extended fight to fulfill a key campaign pledge, knowing that his supporters — whom he'll need to turn out in 2020 to win re-election — don't want to see him back down.
Trump was taking a wide range of advice on both sides of the issue, including from his new chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, senior aide and son-in-law Jared Kushner, and Rep. Mark Meadows, as well as outside political advisers.
In the House, Democrats look to keep the pressure on Trump by holding votes this week on two bills: one that would reopen the government until Feb. 1, and a second that would reopen it until Feb. 28.
Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said the bills offer "additional options" to end the shutdown and would give lawmakers time for negotiations on border security and immigration.
A key question is how long Trump is willing to hold out in hopes of extracting concessions from Democrats.
Recent polling finds a slight majority of Americans opposed to building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border — and few see the situation at the border as a crisis — but views are predictably divided by partisanship.
Polls also show that Americans are more likely to fault Trump for the shutdown. A large majority of Democrats put responsibility on Trump, while a slightly smaller majority of Republicans blame Democrats. A modest share of Republicans either hold Trump responsible or say both sides are at fault.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll published Jan. 13 found that 54 percent of Americans oppose a wall along the border, while 42 percent express support for it. Fully 87 percent of Republicans favor the wall, compared with about as many Democrats (84 percent) who are opposed.
Washington, Jan 15 (AP/UNB)— The scent of burgers, fries and victory wafted through the stately White House on Monday as President Donald Trump saluted college football's Clemson Tigers for winning the national championship.
Trump, a fast food lover, said he even paid for their meal himself because of the partial government shutdown. He did not disclose the tab.
"We ordered American fast food, paid for by me. Lots of hamburgers, lots of pizza," Trump said after returning to the White House from a trip to New Orleans. "We have some very large people that like eating, so I think we're going to have a little fun."
Spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said much of the staff in the White House residence has been furloughed because of the shutdown, "so the president is personally paying for the event to be catered with some of everyone's favorite fast foods."
An impressive — and highly unusual — White House smorgasbord greeted the players. Silver trays held stacks of wrapped burgers from Wendy's. Also on offer were boxed burgers from McDonald's, including Big Macs.
White House cups bearing the presidential seal held the fries.
Pizzas, some topped with olives and tomatoes, also were on the menu. Silver bowls held the condiments, and stacks of white plates sat nearby. Several young men were spotted eating multiple burgers at the standup tables dotting the East Room.
The Clemson team's visit is its second since Trump took office. The Tigers last visited in June 2017 after their championship run the previous season.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has nominated this season's undefeated Tigers as the best college team ever. Trump called them a "great team, an unbelievable team."
Trump has routinely sparred with professional athletes during his two years in office. College football has managed to avoid such political controversies, with last year's champion Alabama also visiting the White House.
Washington, Jan 14 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump warned Sunday that if Turkey attacks U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in Syria, the United States will "devastate Turkey economically."
Trump's decision to pull American troops out of Syria has left the United States' Kurdish allies vulnerable to an attack from Turkey. Ankara views the Kurdish forces as terrorists aligned with insurgents inside Turkey.
In a tweet, Trump also warned the Kurdish forces not to "provoke Turkey."
The U.S. withdrawal has begun with shipments of military equipment, U.S. defense officials said. But in coming weeks, the contingent of about 2,000 troops is expected to depart even as the White House says it will keep pressure on the IS network.
Once the troops are gone, the U.S. will have ended three years of organizing, arming, advising and providing air cover for Syrian, Kurdish and Arab fighters in an open-ended campaign devised by the Obama administration to deal the militants, also known as ISIS, a lasting defeat.
"Starting the long overdue pullout from Syria while hitting the little remaining ISIS territorial caliphate hard, and from many directions," Trump tweeted. "Will attack again from existing nearby base if it reforms. Will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds."
Trump's decision to leave Syria, which he initially said would be rapid but later slowed down, shocked U.S. allies and angered the Kurds in Syria. It also prompted the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and drew criticism in Congress. Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, called the decision a "betrayal of our Kurdish partners."