News briefs: The impeachment defense

Trump lawyers argue Democrats just want to overturn election

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump's lawyers plunged into his impeachment trial defense Saturday by accusing Democrats of striving to overturn the 2016 election, arguing that investigations of Trump's dealings with Ukraine have not been a fact-finding mission but a politically motivated effort to drive him from the White House.

"They're here to perpetrate the most massive interference in an election in American history," White House counsel Pat Cipollone told senators. "And we can't allow that to happen."

The Trump legal team's arguments in the rare Saturday session were aimed at rebutting allegations that the president abused his power when he asked Ukraine to investigate political rival Joe Biden and then obstructed Congress as it tried to investigate. The lawyers are mounting a wide-ranging, aggressive defense asserting an expansive view of presidential powers and portraying Trump as besieged by political opponents determined to ensure he won't be reelected this November.

"They're asking you to tear up all the ballots across this country on your own initiative, take that decision away from the American people," Cipollone said.

Though Trump is the one on trial, the defense team made clear that it intends to paint the impeachment case as a mere continuation of the investigations that have shadowed the president since before he took office — including one into allegations of Russian election interference on his behalf. Trump attorney Jay Sekulow suggested Democrats were investigating the president over Ukraine simply because they couldn't bring him down for Russia.

In recording Trump asks how long Ukraine can resist Russians

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump inquired how long Ukraine would be able to resist Russian aggression without U.S. assistance during a 2018 meeting with donors that included the indicted associates of his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani.

"How long would they last in a fight with Russia?" Trump is heard asking in the audio portion of a video recording, moments before he calls for the firing of U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. She was removed a year later after a campaign to discredit her by Giuliani and others, an action that is part of Democrats' case arguing for the removal of the president in his Senate impeachment trial.

A video recording of the entire 80-minute dinner at the Trump Hotel in Washington was obtained Saturday by The Associated Press. Excerpts were first published Friday by ABC News. People can be seen in only some portions of the recording.

The recording contradicts the president's statements that he did not know the Giuliani associates Lev Parnas or Igor Fruman, key figures in the investigation who were indicted last year on campaign finance charges. The recording came to light as Democrats continued to press for witnesses and other evidence to be considered during the impeachment trial.

On the recording, a voice that appears to be Parnas' can be heard saying, "The biggest problem there, I think where we need to start is we got to get rid of the ambassador." He later can be heard telling Trump: "She's basically walking around telling everybody, 'Wait, he's gonna get impeached. Just wait.'"

Virus death toll in China rises as US prepares evacuation

BEIJING (AP) — A new viral illness being watched with a wary eye around the globe accelerated its spread in China on Sunday with 56 deaths so far, while the U.S. Consulate in the city at the epicenter announced it will evacuate its personnel and some private citizens aboard a charter flight. 

China's health minister said the country was entering a "crucial stage" as "it seems like the ability of the virus to spread is getting stronger." 

Ma Xiaowei declined to estimate how long it would take to bring the situation under control, but said travel restrictions and other strict measures should bring results "at the lowest cost and fastest speed." 

President Xi Jinping on Saturday called the outbreak a grave situation and said the government was stepping up efforts to restrict travel and public gatherings while rushing medical staff and supplies to the city at the center of the crisis, Wuhan, which remains on lockdown with no flights, trains or buses in or out. 

The epidemic has revived memories of the SARS outbreak that originated in China and killed nearly 800 as it spread around the world in 2002 and 2003. Its spread has come amid China's busiest travel period of the year, when millions crisscross the country or head abroad for the Lunar New Year holiday.

Democratic race in Iowa heats up as caucus approaches

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Democratic presidential candidates have roared back into Iowa touting fresh endorsements, critiquing their rivals and predicting victories in the caucuses that will soon launch the process of deciding who will challenge President Donald Trump.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren said Saturday she was "delighted" to pick up a coveted endorsement from The Des Moines Register. The state's largest newspaper called the Massachusetts Democrat "the best leader for these times" and said she "is not the radical some perceive her to be." But Warren's progressive rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, predicted victory in Iowa and campaigned alongside Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., one of the most prominent leaders on the left.

Joe Biden, meanwhile, appeared for the first time alongside Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, who is the latest in a growing list of local politicians backing the former vice president's candidacy. And Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, sought to position himself a Washington outsider above the partisan fray.

But as the candidates set out to make their best case to voters, the volatility of the race was evident. Several candidates began their day in Washington, sitting as jurors in Trump's impeachment trial. They will have to return to Capitol Hill early next week as the trial continues, sidelining them from campaigning during a critical period.

More fundamentally, there's no clear front-runner despite the fact that many candidates have now spent more than a year courting Iowans. A New York Times/Siena College poll released Saturday showed Sanders with a slight — but not commanding — edge in Iowa. But several polls show Biden, Buttigieg and Warren remain among the front-runners.

General: US committed to Syria fight; Missions up against IS

GREEN VILLAGE MILITARY OUTPOST (AP) — U.S. troops at military outposts ín eastern Syria asked variations of the same question to their top commander Saturday: What is our future here? What are the goals we need to think about?

Gen. Frank McKenzie, the U.S Middle East commander, knows the future is not certain. But at least for today, he said, "this is an area where we made a commitment. I think we're going to be here for a while."

In an unannounced tour of five military bases in Syria stretching from the northeastern part of the country to the Middle Euphrates River Valley, McKenzie offered reassurances that the U.S. remains committed to its mission in Syria. And he said that operations against Islamic State militants are on the rise again, after the U.S. cut back due to the increased tensions with Iran and the need to concentrate on increasing security.

But these are uncertain times. And America's mission to train and partner with Syrian Democratic Forces in the fight against the Islamic State group has been tested.

Just last year President Donald Trump ordered U.S. troops to withdraw from Syria - part of his vow to bring forces home and halt the endless wars. Over time, his military commanders, members of Congress and other leaders convinced Trump to keep a scaled-back force in Syria to protect an expanse of Kurdish-controlled oil fields and facilities from falling into IS hands.

Philippine volcano alert lowered, thousands return home

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine authorities on Sunday lowered the alert level at Taal Volcano, two weeks after it began spewing ash, steam and rocks, a move that will allow many of the more than 376,000 displaced villagers to return home.

A popular tourist destination just south of Manila because of its picturesque setting in the middle of a lake, Taal erupted on Jan. 12. It caused no known deaths but delivered an early crisis this year for one of the world's most disaster-prone nations.

"Taal volcano's condition in the two weeks ... has generally declined into less frequent volcanic earthquake activity, decelerated ground deformation ... and weak steam and gas emissions at the main crater," the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology said.

The government's agency lowered the alert level from 4 to 3, which means there's a "decreased tendency toward a hazardous eruption." The highest level-5 alert indicates a major and much more dangerous eruption.

The agency also reduced to half the danger zone where residents have to be evacuated, from the 14-kilometer (8.7-mile) radius around the volcano. Taal had last erupted 43 years ago. 

Turkish teams hunt for quake survivors as death toll hits 35

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Working against the clock in freezing temperatures, Turkish rescue teams pulled more survivors from collapsed buildings Sunday, days after a powerful magnitude 6.8 earthquake hit the country's east.

Authorities said the death toll rose to at least 35 people.

Turkish television showed Ayse Yildiz, 35, and her 2-year-old daughter Yusra being dragged out of the rubble of a collapsed apartment building in the city of Elazig. They had been trapped for 28 hours after the earthquake struck on Friday night.

The magnitude 6.8 quake also injured over 1,600 people but 45 survivors have been pulled alive from the rubble so far, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told a news conference Sunday in Istanbul.

As overnight temperatures dropped to -5 degrees Celsius (23 degrees Fahrenheit), emergency teams set up more than 9,500 tents for displaced residents and distributed 17,000 hot meals.

'Sesame Street' comforts children displaced by Syrian war

NEW YORK (AP) — "Sesame Street" in the past year has tackled everything from foster care to substance abuse. Now its latest effort is trying to help children suffering as a result of the Syrian civil war.

Sesame Workshop — the nonprofit, educational organization behind "Sesame Street" — has launched a new, locally produced Arabic TV program for the hundreds of thousands of children dealing with displacement in Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon.

"The thing that became very apparent in our work on the ground is how critical the need was for the children of this region and children who have been affected by traumatic events to have the social and emotional skills they need," said Sherrie Westin, president of Social Impact & Philanthropy at Sesame Workshop.

Called "Ahlan Simsim," which means "Welcome Sesame" in Arabic, the show will feature Elmo, Cookie Monster and Grover, as well as two brand new Muppets — the boy monster Jad, who had to leave his home, and Basma, a purple girl monster who befriends the young stranger. An adorable goat named Ma'zooza adds comic relief. 

Each 26-minute show will explore emotions experienced by all kids but particularly relevant to those dealing with trauma and will offer coping skills for feelings like anger, fear, frustration, nervousness and loneliness. In one episode, Basma shares her toys with Jad, since he left his behind. Some of the strategies include belly breathing and expression through art. 

Border Patrol allows replanting after bulldozing garden

SAN DIEGO (AP) — The Border Patrol, reacting to a breach it discovered in a steel-pole border wall believed to be used by smugglers, gave activists no warning this month when it bulldozed the U.S. side of a cross-border garden on an iconic bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

On Saturday, after a public apology for "the unintentional destruction," the agency allowed the activists in a highly restricted area to plant sticky monkey-flowers, seaside daisies and other native species in Friendship Park, which was inaugurated by first lady Pat Nixon in 1971 as a symbol of bilateral bonds. The half-acre plaza separating San Diego and Tijuana has hosted cross-border yoga classes, festivals and religious services.

The garden's rebirth is the latest twist in a sometimes-adversarial, sometimes-conciliatory relationship between security-minded border agents and activists who consider the park a special place to exercise rights to free expression.

"It's hard to reconcile because we have two different agendas, but we're both in the same place, so we're trying our best," said Daniel Watman, a Spanish teacher who spearheads the garden for the volunteer group, Friends of Friendship Park.

During an art festival in 2005, David Smith Jr., known as "The Human Cannonball," flashed his passport, lowered himself into a barrel and was shot over the wall on the nearby beach, landing on a net with U.S. Border Patrol agents nearby. In 2017, professional swimmers crossed the border from the U.S. in the Pacific Ocean and landed on the same beach, where a Mexican official greeted them with stamped passports and schoolchildren cheered.

Simmons doc, sans Oprah, receives huge ovation at Sundance

PARK CITY, Utah (AP) — Without Oprah or Apple, the Russell Simmons documentary "On the Record" went ahead with its premiere Saturday at the Sundance Film Festival, where the women who came forward with sexual assault allegations against the hip-hop mogul received one of the festival's most roaring receptions. 

The lead-up to Sundance was especially rocky for "On the Record." Oprah Winfrey, an executive producer, on Jan. 10 withdrew from the film because she felt it needed more reporting. Her exit, which stunned the directors, Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, also meant "On the Record" no longer had a distributor in Apple TV Plus. 

Ahead of the film's premiere, Ziering thanked Sundance "for standing strong and never blinking." 

"On the Record" is centered on the story of Drew Dixon, a former music executive for Def Jam Recordings, the record label co-founded by Simmons. It chronicles her decision to come forward and go on the record in a 2017 New York Times article, along with numerous other women, in accusing Simmons of harassment and rape. 

Simmons has denied any wrongdoing. The filmmakers said he declined to be interviewed for the film. 

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