Washington, Dec 31 (AP/UNB) — Three confidantes of President Donald Trump, including his departing chief of staff, are indicating that the president's signature campaign pledge to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border would not be fulfilled as advertised.
Trump sparked fervent chants of "Build that wall!" at rallies before and after his election and more recently cited a lack of funding for a border wall as the reason for partially shutting down the government. At times the president has also waved off the idea that the wall could be any kind of barrier.
However, White House chief of staff John Kelly told the Los Angeles Times in an interview published Sunday that Trump abandoned the notion of "a solid concrete wall early on in the administration."
"To be honest, it's not a wall," Kelly said, adding that the mix of technological enhancements and "steel slat" barriers the president now wants along the border resulted from conversations with law enforcement professionals.
Along the same lines, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway called discussion of the apparent contradiction "a silly semantic argument."
"There may be a wall in some places, there may be steel slats, there may be technological enhancements," Conway told "Fox News Sunday." ''But only saying 'wall or no wall' is being very disingenuous and turning a complete blind eye to what is a crisis at the border."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who is close to the president, emerged from a Sunday lunch at the White House to tell reporters that "the wall has become a metaphor for border security" and referred to "a physical barrier along the border."
Graham said Trump was "open-minded" about a broader immigration agreement, saying the budget impasse presented an opportunity to address issues beyond the border wall. But a previous attempt to reach a compromise that addressed the status of "Dreamers" — young immigrants brought to the U.S. as children— broke down last year as a result of escalating White House demands.
Graham said he hoped to end the shutdown by offering Democrats incentives to get them to vote for wall funding and told CNN before his lunch with Trump that "there will never be a deal without wall funding."
Graham proposed to help two groups of immigrants get approval to continue living in the U.S: about 700,000 young "Dreamers" brought into the U.S. illegally as children and about 400,000 people receiving temporary protected status because they are from countries struggling with natural disasters or armed conflicts. He also said the compromise should include changes in federal law to discourage people from trying to enter the U.S. illegally.
"Democrats have a chance here to work with me and others, including the president, to bring legal status to people who have very uncertain lives," Graham said.
The partial government shutdown began Dec. 22 after Trump bowed to conservative demands that he fight to make good on his vow and secure funding for the wall before Republicans lose control of the House on Wednesday. Democrats have remained committed to blocking the president's priority, and with neither side engaging in substantive negotiation, the effect of the partial shutdown was set to spread and to extend into the new year.
In August 2015 during his presidential campaign, Trump made his expectations for the border explicitly clear, as he parried criticism from rival Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor.
"Jeb Bush just talked about my border proposal to build a 'fence,'" he tweeted. "It's not a fence, Jeb, it's a WALL, and there's a BIG difference!"
Trump suggested as much again in a tweet on Sunday: "President and Mrs. Obama built/has a ten foot Wall around their D.C. mansion/compound. I agree, totally necessary for their safety and security. The U.S. needs the same thing, slightly larger version!"
Aside from what constitutes a wall, neither side appeared ready to budge off its negotiating position. The two sides have had little direct contact during the stalemate, and Trump did not ask Republicans, who hold a monopoly on power in Washington until Thursday, to keep Congress in session.
Talks have been at a stalemate for more than a week, after Democrats said the White House offered to accept $2.5 billion for border security. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer told Vice President Mike Pence that it wasn't acceptable, nor was it guaranteed that Trump, under intense pressure from his conservative base to fulfill his signature campaign promise, would settle for that amount.
Conway claimed Sunday that "the president has already compromised" by dropping his request for the wall from $25 billion, and she called on Democrats to return to the negotiating table.
"It is with them," she said, explaining why Trump was not reaching out to Democrats.
Democrats maintain that they have already presented the White House with three options to end the shutdown, none of which fund the wall, and insist that it's Trump's move.
"At this point, it's clear the White House doesn't know what they want when it comes to border security," said Justin Goodman, Schumer's spokesman. "While one White House official says they're willing to compromise, another says the president is holding firm at no less than $5 billion for the wall. Meanwhile, the president tweets blaming everyone but himself for a shutdown he called for more than 25 times."
After canceling a vacation to his private Florida club, Trump spent the weekend at the White House. He has remained out of the public eye since returning early Thursday from a 29-hour trip to visit U.S. troops in Iraq, instead taking to Twitter to attack Democrats. He also moved to defend himself from criticism that he couldn't deliver on the wall while the GOP controlled both the House and Senate.
"For those that naively ask why didn't the Republicans get approval to build the Wall over the last year, it is because IN THE SENATE WE NEED 10 DEMOCRAT VOTES, and they will gives us "NONE" for Border Security!," he tweeted. "Now we have to do it the hard way, with a Shutdown."
Democrats have vowed to pass legislation restoring the government as soon as they take control of the House on Thursday, but that won't accomplish anything unless Trump and the Republican-controlled Senate go along with it.
The shutdown has forced hundreds of thousands of federal workers and contractors to stay home or work without pay.
Washington, Dec 31 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump has ordered a slowdown to the withdrawal of U.S. forces in Syria, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said Sunday.
"I think we're in a pause situation," the South Carolina Republican said outside the White House after lunch with the president.
Trump announced earlier this month that he was ordering the withdrawal of all the roughly 2,000 troops from war-torn Syria, with aides expecting it to take place swiftly. The president had declared victory over the Islamic State group in Syria, though pockets of fighting remain.
Graham had been an outspoken critic of Trump's decision, which had drawn bipartisan criticism. The announcement also had shocked lawmakers and American allies, including Kurds who have fought alongside the U.S. against the Islamic State group and face an expected assault by Turkey.
"I think we're slowing things down in a smart way," Graham said, adding that Trump was very aware of the plight of the Kurds.
Critics had contended that the U.S. withdrawal would embolden Iran and Russia, which have supported the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
National security adviser John Bolton was expected to travel to Israel and Turkey next weekend to discuss the president's plans with the American allies.
During his appearance on CNN's "State of the Union," Graham previewed his arguments to Trump for reconsidering the Syria pullout.
"I'm going to ask him to sit down with his generals and reconsider how to do this. Slow this down. Make sure that we get it right. Make sure ISIS never comes back. Don't turn Syria over to the Iranians. That's a nightmare for Israel," Graham said.
"And, at the end of the day, if we leave the Kurds and abandon them and they get slaughtered, who's going to help you in the future?" he said. "I want to fight the war in the enemy's backyard, not ours. That's why we need a forward-deployed force in Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan for a while to come."
Yalambojoch, Dec 31 (AP/UNB) — White flowers and flickering candles sat atop a low table inside the simple wooden home in remote, rural Guatemala. Nearby was a small pair of rubber boots, sized to fit an 8-year-old.
Taped to the wall were three photos, alternately smiling and serious, bearing a simple epitaph for the boy whose memory the makeshift altar honored: "Felipe Gomez Alonzo. Died Dec. 24 2018 in New Mexico, United States."
On Christmas Eve, Felipe became the second Guatemalan child this month to die while in U.S. custody near the Mexican border. The deaths prompted widespread criticism of President Donald Trump, who has sought to deflect responsibility toward Democrats even as his Homeland Security secretary vowed additional health screenings for detained migrant children.
In the boy's village of Yalambojoch, in western Guatemala, the political fallout in the United States seemed a world away and there was only deep sadness over his death. Relatives said they had no idea that such a tragedy could occur. Nor had they heard about U.S. policies that led to thousands of migrant children being separated from their parents earlier this year.
"We don't have a television. We don't have a radio," Catarina Gomez, Felipe's sister, said Saturday. "We didn't know what had happened before."
The hamlet, set on a plain and surrounded by spectacular, pine-covered mountains, is a place of crushing poverty and lack of opportunity, home to a single small school, dirt roads that become impassible during the rainy season and rudimentary homes without insulation, proper flooring, water or electricity.
The community is populated by families who fled to Mexico during the bloodiest years of Guatemala's 1960-1996 civil war but returned after the signing of peace accords. There are no jobs, and people live off meager subsistence farming and local commerce. Residents say the Guatemalan government has turned a blind eye to their plight, a complaint that can be heard in other impoverished villages in the country.
Felipe's sister, Catarina, said that in recent years "everyone started heading for the United States," so much so that a local project to boost education financed with Swedish help was abandoned because there were practically no more young people to take the classes.
It was extreme poverty and lack of opportunity that drove Felipe's father, Agustin Gomez, to decide that he and the boy would set off for the United States. Others from the community had been able to cross the U.S. border with children, and he figured they would have the same luck. Felipe was chosen because he was the oldest son. It didn't occur to anyone that the journey could be dangerous.
"I didn't think of that, because several families had already left and they made it," the boy's mother, Catarina Alonzo said, speaking in the indigenous Chuj language as her stepdaughter translated into Spanish.
Felipe was healthy when they left, according to the family. The last time he spoke with his mother was a day before they were taken into detention by border agents. Felipe told her he was well, that he had eaten chicken, that the next time they talked would be by phone from the United States.
Instead, the call that came Christmas Day was from her husband, who said Felipe had died the day before.
The two had been apprehended a week earlier, on Dec. 18, near the Paso del Norte bridge connecting El Paso, Texas, to Juarez, Mexico, according to border officials. Father and son were held at the bridge's processing center and then the Border Patrol station in El Paso before being transferred on Dec. 23 to a facility in Alamogordo, New Mexico, about 90 miles (145 kilometers) away.
After an agent noticed Felipe coughing, father and son were taken to an Alamogordo hospital, where Felipe was found to have a 103-degree fever (39.4 degrees Celsius), officials have said.
Felipe was held for observation for 90 minutes, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, before being released with prescriptions for amoxicillin and ibuprofen.
But the boy fell sick hours later and was admitted to the hospital on Christmas Eve. He died just before midnight.
New Mexico authorities said late Thursday that an autopsy showed Felipe had the flu, but more tests need to be done before a cause of death can be determined.
The other Guatemalan child, 7-year-old Jakelin Caal, died Dec. 8 in El Paso. She showed signs of sepsis, a potentially fatal condition brought on by infection, according to officials.
On Saturday, Trump claimed that Felipe and Jakelin were "very sick" before they reached the border, though both young migrants passed initial health screenings by Border Patrol.
Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said last week that prior to this month, no child had died in the agency's custody in more than a decade.
On Sunday he called for a "multifaceted solution" on immigration, including not only better border security and new immigration laws but more aid to the Central American countries the migrants are fleeing from.
Referring to the U.S. pledge earlier this month of $5.8 billion in development aid for Central America, McAleenan called it "a tremendous step forward."
"There are green shoots of progress both on security and the economic front in Central America. We need to foster that and help improve the opportunities to stay at home," he said on ABC's "This Week."
Outside the Gomez family home in Yalambojoch, women gathered wearing lavender skirts in the intricate patterns typical of indigenous garb in Guatemala. Colorful tapestries hung on a clothesline above the muddy yard.
Taped to the door were a pair of Felipe's artworks. One was a rendering of a blue balloon with a green string; in the other, a white horse jumped over a fence against a yellow sun and tangerine sky.
Among the villagers grieving Felipe's death was his 7-year-old best friend, Kevin. Two days before Felipe and his dad left, the two boys quarreled.
"They were crying because they had fought," said Felipe's sister, Catarina.
By the time Kevin came back to look for his friend, he had left for the United States. Kevin now knows that Felipe has died, the family said.
Trying to fight back tears, Catarina Alonzo said her son promised before leaving that when he was grown, he would work to send money home. Felipe also wanted to buy her a cellphone so she could see pictures of him from afar.
Now she hopes for only two things: That Felipe's body is returned as soon as possible for burial, and that her husband can remain in the United States to work off debt and support their other kids.
The Guatemalan Consulate in Phoenix has said that Agustin Gomez was released on a humanitarian license allowing him to remain in the United States for now. Felipe's body is expected to be sent back to Guatemala around mid-January.
Dhaka, Dec 30 (AP/UNB) -President Donald Trump sought to deflect blame for the deaths of two Guatemalan children in U.S. custody by claiming they were "very sick" when they arrived, even though immigration authorities have said both children passed initial health checks.
Meanwhile, his Homeland Security chief visited Border Patrol agents and medical officials at the southern border amid promises of more thorough health screenings for migrant children.
The president, whose administration has faced widespread criticism over the deaths, pointed on Twitter at Democrats "and their pathetic immigration policies that allow people to make the long trek thinking they can enter our country illegally."
He also alleged that both children "were very sick before they were given over to Border Patrol."
The two tweets were his first comments on the Dec. 8 death of 7-year-old Jakelin Caal and the death on Christmas Eve of 8-year-old Felipe Gomez Alonzo.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection has issued detailed statements about both children's deaths.
An initial screening of Jakelin "revealed no evidence of health issues," CBP said on Dec. 14. It wasn't until several hours later that Jakelin's father, Nery Caal, told agents that she was "sick and vomiting," CBP said. Attorneys for the Caal family have also denied claims that Nery "hadn't given her water in days," as Trump wrote.
And CBP said Tuesday that agents logged 23 welfare checks of Felipe and his father in the first several days the two were was detained. Felipe's father, Agustin Gomez, told a Guatemalan official that the boy first showed signs of illness Monday morning, the day he died.
Despite Trump's claim that Democrats were responsible for "pathetic" immigration policies, at least one of the laws his administration has blamed — legislation that prevents the immediate deportation of unaccompanied children from Central American countries — was signed in 2008 by former President George W. Bush, a Republican.
Democrats criticized the president in turn. "You slander Jakelin's memory and re-traumatize her family by spreading lies about why she died," said U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, of Texas.
The president's comments came Saturday afternoon, the same day Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was in Yuma, Arizona, to meet with medical staff at the border. Nielsen said in a statement that "the system is clearly overwhelmed and we must work together to address this humanitarian crisis." She called on Congress to "act with urgency."
Her office said she was briefed in El Paso, Texas, on Friday on "recently instituted secondary medical screenings and the more thorough initial health screenings of migrants."
El Paso Mayor Dee Margo said he met with Nielsen and told CNN on Saturday that he agreed with her that the immigration policy is "broken."
"El Paso is dealing with the symptoms as a result of the lack of fortitude in Washington, on both sides of the aisle, to deal with our immigration policy," the Republican said.
Felipe and Agustin Gomez were apprehended by border agents Dec. 18 near the Paso del Norte bridge connecting El Paso to Juarez, Mexico, according to border officials. The two were detained at the bridge's processing center and then the Border Patrol station in El Paso, until being taken at about 1 a.m. Sunday to a facility in Alamogordo, New Mexico, about 90 miles (145 kilometers) away.
After an agent noticed Felipe coughing, father and son were taken to an Alamogordo hospital, where Felipe was diagnosed with a common cold and found to have a fever of 103 degrees Fahrenheit (39.4 degrees Celsius), officials have said.
Felipe was held for observation for 90 minutes, according to CBP, before being released with prescriptions for amoxicillin and ibuprofen.
But the boy fell sick hours later Monday and was re-admitted to the hospital. He died just before midnight.
New Mexico authorities said late Thursday that an autopsy showed Felipe had the flu, but more tests need to be done before a cause of death can be determined.
CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said this week that prior to this month, no child had died in their custody in more than a decade.
Trump threatened via Twitter the previous day to cut off aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras in Central America's so-called Northern Triangle region. He has made similar threats in the past without following through.
The government of El Salvador is pushing back against Trump's assertion it doesn't do enough to stem migration north to the United States. The Central American nation says it has made strides in economic and social improvements to try to tamp down the root causes of the phenomenon.
A statement released Saturday said that the Salvadoran government has pushed a media campaign urging its citizens not to risk their lives making the dangerous journey, and especially not to expose children. It says migration from the country has fallen significantly this year.
Washington, Dec 29 (AP/UNB) — The Supreme Court began its term with the tumultuous confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, followed by a studied avoidance of drama on the high court bench — especially anything that would divide the five conservatives and four liberals.
The justices have been unusually solicitous of each other in the courtroom since Kavanaugh's confirmation, and several have voiced concern that the public perceives the court as merely a political institution. Chief Justice John Roberts seems determined to lead the one Washington institution that stays above the political fray. Even Roberts' rebuke of President Donald Trump, after the president criticized a federal judge, was in defense of an independent, apolitical judiciary.
The next few weeks will test whether the calm can last.
When they gather in private on Jan. 4 to consider new cases for arguments in April and into next term, the justices will confront a raft of high-profile appeals.
Abortion restrictions, workplace discrimination against LGBT people and partisan gerrymandering are on the agenda. Close behind are appeals from the Trump administration seeking to have the court allow it to end an Obama-era program that shields young immigrants from deportation and to put in place restrictive rules for transgender troops.
There already are signs that the conservative justices, apart from Roberts, are willing to take on controversial cases that are likely to produce the ideological and partisan divisions that their colleagues seem eager to avoid.
In recent weeks, three conservative justices accused the court of ducking its job of deciding important cases, especially when lower courts have disagreed on the outcome. Their criticism, written by Justice Clarence Thomas and joined by Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch, came after a recent decision to avoid a case involving funding for Planned Parenthood.
Then, on the Friday before Christmas, the court divided 5-4 in refusing to allow the Trump administration to enforce new restrictions on asylum seekers. Roberts joined the four liberals. The three conservatives who were displeased by the Planned Parenthood case outcome again noted their disagreement, this time joined by Kavanaugh.
The two votes can't be used to draw any firm conclusions about what may be happening behind closed doors at the court, as the cases arrived in different circumstances. In the Planned Parenthood case, the justices were considering whether to grant full review, a process that takes only four votes. The asylum case was an emergency appeal from the administration. At least five of the nine justices would have had to vote in the administration's favor.
But Lawrence Solum, a professor of constitutional law at Georgetown University's law school, said Roberts seems to have two reasons to limit the court's involvement in hot-button cases: his preference for taking small steps in the law and his concern for the court's reputation.
"It's clear that 5-4 decisions will be perceived by many, many lawyers, many politicians and large numbers of the public at large as ideological decisions," Solum said. "So given Roberts' desire to preserve the legitimacy of the court, he could be highly motivated to avoid decisions like that in the next immediate period in the history of the court. Whether that's one year, or two years or five years, who knows?"
The court arrived at this point after an unusual chain of events that began with the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016. Senate Republicans refused to act on President Barack Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland, allowing Trump to put Gorsuch on the court in 2017. To this day, Democrats say the seat was stolen from them.
Then, over the summer, Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement meant that Trump would also get to replace the court's swing vote with a more reliable conservative. Kavanaugh's track record as an appellate judge suggested he was that man, but his confirmation was nearly derailed by allegations of sexual assault, which Kavanaugh denied.
The accusations against Kavanaugh turned the confirmation process into a national spectacle that culminated in a hearing with Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, who accused him of assault when they were in high school. Republicans said the allegation was unproven and confirmed Kavanaugh in a rare Saturday session. Spotlighting how emotional the debate had become, a crowd of demonstrators gathered at the Supreme Court building after the Kavanaugh vote, with some climbing the stone statues that line the steps.
One result of the Kavanaugh turmoil has been the most serious discussion in decades of limiting the court's powers, including possibly increasing the number of justices, Solum said. "It suggests that the legitimacy of the court is at issue now in perhaps a way it hasn't been until recently."
Roberts is not only the chief justice, but he has essentially taken Kennedy's place as the swing vote — the conservative justice nearest the court's center. The Supreme Court will go only as far as Roberts is willing in either direction.
He can try to keep the court entirely out of some cases, though that requires him to be able to persuade at least one other conservative justice to go along. That's what happened in the Planned Parenthood case, when Kavanaugh voted to deny review. "The difficult confirmation battle may lead to a bit of caution," said John McGinnis, a Northwestern University law school professor.
When the justices do plunge into controversy, Roberts will be able "to write or insist that decisions be narrowly drawn," McGinnis said.
Roberts has been chief justice for more than 13 years, but he is only 63 and could lead the court for an additional two decades or more. That allows Roberts, who began his legal career as a lawyer in the Reagan administration, to take a long view, McGinnis said, and await a time when political tensions and concerns about the court's reputation subside.