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Nation's top general says U.S. troops in Niger were ambushed on way back to base

French armored vehicles head toward the Niger border in 2013. (Jerome Delay / Associated Press)
French armored vehicles head toward the Niger border in 2013. (Jerome Delay / Associated Press)

The nation’s top general outlined the investigation Monday into the ambush that killed four U.S. servicemen in the African country of Niger on Oct. 4, and provided new details on the attack.

Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged that aspects of the attack were still unclear as well as the perception that the Pentagon had not been forthcoming on the deadliest combat incident since President Trump took office.

His comments came the same day that the widow of an Army sergeant killed in the attack publicly said Trump had “made me cry even worse” in a condolence phone call when, she said, he didn't know her husband's name. 

“We owe the families as much information as we can find out about what happened, and we owe the American people an explanation of what their men and women were doing at this particular time," Dunford told reporters at the Pentagon.

Sketching out the timeline of the attack, Dunford said a dozen U.S. soldiers and 30 Nigerien troops embarked Oct. 3 on a “reconnaissance mission” to the village of Tongo Tongo, near the border with Mali.

“The assessment by our leaders on the ground at that time was that contact with the enemy was unlikely,” he said.

The next morning, the soldiers were returning to their base when they were hit with machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades. One hour after taking fire, the Americans radioed a request for air support.

A reconnaissance drone appeared “within minutes,” Dunford said. An hour later, French Mirage fighter jets and helicopter gunships arrived on the scene because the Pentagon does not have attack warplanes in the region.

During the firefight, two U.S. soldiers were wounded and evacuated by the French. Three U.S. soldiers were killed and were evacuated by a military contractor aircraft that night.

One other soldier, Sgt. La David Johnson, was still missing. His body wasn’t found until two days later.

“Now many of you have asked a number of questions, and many of them are fair questions, and we owe you more information,” Dunford said. “More importantly, we owe the families of the fallen more information, and that's what the investigation is designed to identify.”

Dunford said the questions included: Did the mission of U.S. forces change during the operation? Did U.S. forces have adequate intelligence, equipment and training?

Was a pre-mission assessment of the threat accurate? How did U.S. forces become separated during the engagement and how did they lose contact with Sgt. Johnson? And why did they take time to find and recover his body?

Dunford's briefing came after Myesha Johnson, the sergeant’s widow, made her first public comments during an interview on ABC's "Good Morning America."

“I don’t know how he got killed, where he got killed or anything,” she said. “I don’t know that part. They never told me, and that’s what I’ve been trying to find out since Day One.”

The pregnant mother of two children said Trump's subsequent call had upset her further: "I was very angry at the tone of his voice and how he couldn’t remember my husband’s name.”

Trump tweeted after the interview had aired: “I had a very respectful conversation with the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, and spoke his name from beginning, without hesitation!”

Tillerson makes unannounced stops in Kabul, Baghdad

 (European Pressphoto Agency)
(European Pressphoto Agency)

Under cloak of secrecy, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited two war-zone capitals Monday to reaffirm Washington's desire for stability in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Tillerson traveled first to Kabul, Afghanistan, and later to Baghdad, Iraq. The State Department had not announced either trip in advance, and his visit was bracketed in heavy security out of fear of possible attack.

In the Iraqi capital, where people still celebrated having driven Islamic State militants out of large parts of the country, Tillerson urged the central government and Kurdish-dominated areas to reconcile their differences. 

Kurdish militias played a key role in the war against Islamic State in northern Iraq and now seek an independent state, which Baghdad vehemently opposes.

"We are concerned and a bit sad," Tillerson said after meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi at a heavily fortified government facility late Monday.

"We have friends in Baghdad and friends in [the Kurdish capital] Irbil and we encourage all parties to enter into discussion," he said.

The Trump administration has sided with Abadi in opposing the Kurdish bid for independence and rejecting the Kurds' recent referendum in favor of the issue. The administration says it wants to see a "unified, democratic" Iraq.

Abadi may have dealt a setback to Tillerson, saying that the so-called Popular Mobilization fighters, which the U.S. considers undesirable proxies of Iran, are "part of our Iraqi institutions" who should be "encouraged."

"They will be the hope of country and the region," Abadi said.

Tillerson did not respond but had earlier called for Iranian-backed fighters to be expelled from Iraq.

Earlier in Kabul, Tillerson said the Trump administration was willing to engage "moderate" Taliban officials to reach a political solution to end America's longest war.  



John McCain vs. President Trump: Draft dodgers, bone spurs and Vietnam War

Sen. John McCain never mentioned President Trump in criticizing the Vietnam War-era draft system that allowed the wealthy and connected to avoid military service.

But the Arizona senator didn't have to as he blasted "bone spur" medical deferments, which Trump used to avoid service during the war.

"We drafted the lowest-income level of America, and the highest income level found a doctor that would say that they had a bone spur," McCain said in an interview Sunday on C-SPAN's "American History" program. "That is wrong. That is wrong. If we’re going to ask every American to serve, every American should serve."

Trump and McCain have never much bonded, ever since then-candidate Trump mocked the former fighter pilot, who was held in captivity for nearly five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, scoffing that he preferred "people who weren't captured." 

McCain, who tried and failed twice to become president, and is now battling brain cancer, has emerged as one of the president's most outspoken Republican critics.

Asked on Monday if he meant Trump was a draft-dodger, McCain explained he was criticizing the draft as "one of the great inequities of the Vietnam conflict."

"I don’t consider him so much a draft dodger as much as I feel that the system was so wrong that certain Americans could evade their responsibilities to serve the country, " he said during an appearance, alongside his daughter, Meghan, on "The View."

White House

Analysis: Kelly might not be like Trump, but he seems like many Trump voters

White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly. (Shawn Thew / European Pressphoto Agency)
White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly. (Shawn Thew / European Pressphoto Agency)

In the roughly three months since President Trump chose John F. Kelly as his second chief of staff, observers have puzzled over the retired Marine general’s occasional scowls and downcast gazes, wondering whether he and Trump, with such different styles and backgrounds, perhaps weren’t working well together.

Kelly, the military man trained to respect sharp lines of authority and tradition, uses terms like “information flow” to describe the discipline he tries to bring to a chaotic White House. Trump, the impulsive businessman and reality-show veteran, delights in flouting authority and upending norms of the presidency.

But Kelly’s extraordinary remarks on Thursday from the White House briefing room, in which he segued from defending Trump to speak of loss — both his own, of a son, and the country’s, of old civilities, all while attacking a Florida congresswoman — offered a glimpse of what the two men seem to share. Both hark back to an undefined time in America when some things were “sacred,” as Kelly put it, to a better moment that’s been lost.

Watch live: President Trump's joint statement with Singapore's prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong

Trump vows 'no change' to 401(k) rules in Republican tax bill

 (Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)
(Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)

President Trump on Monday vowed there would be “no change” to rules for 401(k) plans, seeking to douse speculation that the Republican tax overhaul bill being drafted by Congress would include new limits on retirement savings.

“This has always been a great and popular middle class tax break that works, and it stays!” Trump said on Twitter.

The outlines of the tax overhaul released by the White House and Republican leaders last month said that “[t]ax reform will aim to maintain or raise retirement plan participation of workers and the resources available for retirement.”

Lawmakers are drafting legislation based on the framework, which is centered around a large cut to the corporate tax rate, other breaks that would benefit the wealthy and mostly unspecified promises of helping reduce taxes for the middle class.

But there have been reports that Republicans in Congress are weighing new limits on the upfront tax break for 401(k) savings as a way of generating additional federal revenue to offset money lost by the rate cuts and other proposed changes.

The New York Times reported Friday that House Republicans were considering placing a cap of as low as $2,400 on the annual amount that workers can put into their 401(k) accounts to defer tax payments until they tap the savings in retirement.

The current limit is $18,000, and it rises to $24,000 a year for people over 50 years old to encourage them to save more for retirement.

Widow of Sgt. La David Johnson: Trump 'couldn't remember my husband's name'

In a phone call with the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, President Trump stumbled to remember her husband's name, according to Myeshia Johnson, who spoke to ABC's "Good Morning America" on Monday.

"It made me cry because I was very angry at the tone of his voice and how he said it," Johnson said. 

Sgt. Johnson was killed earlier this month along with three other soldiers during an ambush on a special forces patrol in Niger, an attack apparently carried out by militants affiliated with Islamic State.

Florida Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Florida Democrat and family friend who was listening in on the call, has been fighting with Trump over what was said and whether it was insensitive. Johnson's account backs that of Wilson, whom Trump accused of fabricating the story.

Rather than leave the matter alone, Trump responded to the interview on Twitter, saying he had a "very respectful" conversation with Johnson. Contradicting her, he added, "and spoke his name from beginning, without hesitation!" 

The controversy threatens to overshadow an afternoon White House ceremony in which Trump will award the Medal of Honor to Retired Army Captain Gary Michael "Mike" Rose, a Vietnam War medic.

Immigrant abortion case heads back to court

 (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

The ACLU asked a federal appeals court Sunday night to reenter the case of a 17-year-old pregnant immigrant in detention whose request for an abortion has been blocked by federal officials.

The woman, identified in court as Jane Doe to protect her privacy, has been held in a federal detention center in south Texas since crossing the border illegally in September.

She is 15 weeks pregnant and has been seeking an abortion for several weeks. She got approval from a Texas state judge, which the state's law requires for minors who don't have a parent's permission for the procedure.

But under policies adopted by the Trump administration, federal officials have tried to block any pregnant minors held in immigrant detention from getting abortions. E. Scott Lloyd, the head of the federal refugee agency that oversees detention centers for minors, is a long-time antiabortion activist, and he has refused to allow Doe to leave the detention center to go to an abortion clinic.


Tillerson makes unexpected trip to Afghanistan

Mosque bombings in Afghanistan last week (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Mosque bombings in Afghanistan last week (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made a surprise trip to Kabul, Afghanistan, on Monday and pledged to engage "moderate" Taliban officials to build peace in the country.

Tillerson said the site of America's longest war was key to denying terrorists refuge and that the Trump administration was committed to forging a democratic, unified Afghanistan through a regional approach.

The U.S. will continue to fight the Taliban, he said, but will also reach out to "moderate voices among the Taliban, voices that do not want to continue to fight forever."

Tillerson met at the Bagram Air Field with  Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah and other officials.

On Tuesday, Tillerson is scheduled to continue his tour of the region, arriving in Islamabad, Pakistan, where the government is being told it must destroy safe havens for militants or risk losing U.S. aid.

"Pakistan needs to, I think, take a clear-eyed view of the situation that they are confronted with in terms of the number of terrorist organizations that find safe haven inside of Pakistan," Tillerson said. 

The stop in Kabul had not been announced. Reporters traveling with Tillerson were not told where they were going until the last minute.

Bowe Bergdahl faces life in prison during sentencing hearing on desertion charges

 (Andrew Craft / Associated Press)
(Andrew Craft / Associated Press)

Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is set to appear Monday before a military judge who will determine his punishment for endangering comrades by walking off his post in Afghanistan. Before delivering his sentence, the judge will have to resolve a last-minute defense argument that new comments by President Trump have tainted the case.

Bergdahl faces up to life in prison after pleading guilty last week to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. Prosecutors made no deal to cap his punishment, so the judge has wide leeway to decide his sentence after a hearing expected to take several days.

The judge, Army Col. Jeffery R. Nance, is expected to weigh factors including Bergdahl's willingness to admit guilt, his five years of captivity in the hands of the Taliban and its allies, and the serious wounds that several service members suffered while searching for him.

Prosecutors are expected to put on evidence or testimony about soldiers and a Navy SEAL who were seriously wounded by gunfire during these search missions, including an Army National Guard sergeant who was shot in the head, suffering a traumatic brain injury that put him in a wheelchair, unable to speak.

McCain issues veiled criticism of Trump's Vietnam War deferment

Sen. John McCain has issued a veiled criticism of President Trump's medical deferments that kept him from serving in the Vietnam War.

In an interview with C-SPAN last week, McCain lamented that the military "drafted the lowest income level of America and the highest income level found a doctor that would say they had a bone spur."

One of Trump's five draft deferments came as a result of a physician's letter stating he suffered from bone spurs in his feet. Trump's presidential campaign described the issue as a temporary problem.

McCain spent six years as a prisoner of war after his plane was shot down over North Vietnam in 1967.

Trump derided McCain's service in 2015, stating his fellow Republican wasn't a "war hero" and adding "I like people who weren't captured."

McCain's spokeswoman didn't immediately return a request for comment Monday.

Trump's promise on tax cuts: 'NO change to your 401(k)'

(Evan Vucci / Associated Press) None
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

President Trump pledged Monday morning via Twitter that there would be no changes to the 401(k) retirement savings plans as Republicans in Congress pursue an overhaul of the tax code. 

Actual text of a tax overhaul bill hasn’t been written, much less become public. Members of Congress haven’t reached consensus on what cuts to make or where to make them. Trump signaled that tweaks are still being made.

On Sunday, Trump raised expectations about the timetable for completing tax reform, indicating that he expects the as-yet unwritten overhaul of the tax code on his desk by Thanksgiving.

"I want to get it by the end of the year, but I’d be very disappointed if it took that long," he said on Fox's “Sunday Morning Futures With Maria Bartiromo.” He said lawmakers should forgo their Thanksgiving break if they can’t send him a measure by then.

The tax plan Republican leaders and the White House have laid out calls for reducing tax rates on corporations from 35% to 20%, and consolidating individual tax rates to 12%, 25%, 35% and possibly one higher bracket for the wealthy. Income brackets for those rates have yet to be set.


EPA cancels appearance of scientists at Rhode Island event

The Environmental Protection Agency has canceled the appearance of three scientists at an event on Monday in Rhode Island where they had been scheduled to discuss a report that deals in part with climate change.

EPA spokesman John Konkus confirmed Sunday that agency scientists would not be speaking at the event in Providence, according to the New York Times. Konkus did not provide an explanation.

The event is designed to draw attention to the health of Narragansett Bay, which forms New England's largest estuary. 

A spokesman for Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said the event will go on as planned and the report that EPA scientists helped work on will be released.

In a statement to the Associated Press on Sunday, Reed said that "muzzling EPA scientists won't do anything to address climate change."


Four female senators tell their #MeToo stories

Four female U.S. senators shared stories of sexual harassment Sunday on NBC's “Meet the Press.”

Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) told stories of crude comments by colleagues or co-workers trying to touch them.

The interviews came on the heels of a social media outcry that sprung up following allegations of sexual harassment by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Actress Alyssa Milano requested on Twitter that women tell their stories of sexual harassment or assault with the hashtag #MeToo, and variations have taken hold in countries around the world.

"The first women who started the "me, too" campaign were incredibly brave," Warren said. "And they inspired the next wave. And in turn, they inspired the next wave and the next wave and the next wave. That's how we make real change."

CongressWhite House

McConnell says he'll bring the bipartisan Affordable Care Act fix up for a vote if Trump backs it

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he's waiting to hear if President Trump will support a proposed bipartisan healthcare fix before bringing the measure up for a vote.

The plan to fix parts of the Affordable Care Act and stabilize health insurance markets is backed by 12 Republican and 48 Democratic senators. It would reinstate federal payments to insurers that Trump cut off this month, offering millions of Americans some relief from rising premiums and shaky insurance markets. It would also give states some new flexibility to offer cheaper, less generous health plans.

"If there is a need for some kind of interim step here to stabilize the market, we need a bill the president will actually sign," McConnell (R-Ky.) said on CNN's "State of the Union." "And I'm not certain yet what the president is looking for here, but I'll be happy to bring a bill to the floor if I know President Trump would sign it."

Trump has given conflicting signals on whether he will support the compromise worked out by Senate Health Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee, and the committee’s senior Democrat, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington.

On NBC's "Meet the Press," Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the plan, with the support of 60 senators, should be brought up immediately.  "We should pass it and pass it now," Schumer said.

TrumpWhite House

Trump tweets he'll authorize release of JFK assassination files

President Trump tweeted Saturday morning that pending more information, he plans to allow the release of classified files related to the November 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Several media outlets had reported in recent days that White House officials expected the president to block the release of thousands of classified files as security agencies voiced concerns that sensitive documents could be included if the full trove of more than 3,000 files is released.

The tweet didn't specify whether the president intends to allow all, or just some, of the information to become public, and he stipulates that the decision is "subject to the receipt of further information."

The White House clarified later in the day with an unattributed statement that "the President believes that these documents should be made available in the interests of full transparency unless agencies provide a compelling and clear national security or law enforcement justification otherwise."

In an effort to stamp down conspiracy theories, Congress passed the JFK Assassination Records Collection Act in 1992 to hold the files from public release for 25 years. Trump has until Oct. 26 to block the files' release, otherwise they are scheduled to be made public by the National Archives.

12:22 p.m.: This article was updated with a comment from the White House. It was originally published at 6:14 a.m.

TrumpWhite House

State Department says ambassador did not deny U.S. military request for personnel involved in Niger attack

 (U.S. Army via AP)
(U.S. Army via AP)

The U.S. ambassador in Niger did not deny support for a U.S. Special Forces unit that lost four soldiers in a deadly ambush on the border between Mali and Niger on Oct. 4, the State Department said Friday.

The Times reported Thursday that the ambassador had resisisted U.S. military requests for more drones or other surveillance aircraft and additional military medical support in Niger during the weeks and months leading up to the attack.

"Did the ambassador in Niger deny support or protection for military personnel involved in the attack? No," a State Department spokesman said in a statement. 

The U.S. Special Forces unit was part of a broader mission run by U.S. Africa Command to train Nigerien units to counter Islamic State and Al Qaeda-linked groups trying to gain a foothold in the region. The attack is currently being investigated by the U.S. military and the FBI. 

"As required by the president, the embassy and U.S. AFRICOM continuously engage to address security threats to all U.S. government personnel and operations," the spokesman said. "This close cooperation ensures activities are coordinated, effective and sustainable. The president directs that disagreements, which are rare, are quickly referred to the secretary of Defense and secretary of State for immediate resolution," the official said.

Paul Ryan says tax overhaul will include a bracket aimed at the wealthy

 (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan said Friday that the Republican tax overhaul will include a fourth bracket for the wealthiest Americans to ensure that high earners don’t benefit more than the middle class.

The bracket would be “designed to make sure we don’t have a big drop in income tax rates for high-income people,” Ryan (R-Wis.), told “CBS This Morning.” Ryan didn’t say what the tax rate or income level would be for the fourth bracket in the Republican plan.

The outline of the tax plan released last month by the White House and top congressional Republicans called for reducing the current seven individual tax brackets to three, with the top rate declining to 35% from 39.6%.

In 2017, the top bracket applied to income of more than $418,400 for individuals and $470,700 for couples filing jointly.

As Trump looms, Virginia governor's race tests whether an establishment Republican can succeed

Vice President Mike Pence campaigns in Abingdon, Va., with Republican gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie. (Andre Teague / Associated Press)
Vice President Mike Pence campaigns in Abingdon, Va., with Republican gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie. (Andre Teague / Associated Press)

A decade before Donald Trump upended national politics, Ed Gillespie was among the establishment Republicans counseling his party’s candidates to tread gently on the issue of immigration or risk ruination by alienating Latinos.

Now he is Virginia’s Republican nominee for governor, sounding remarkably like Trump as he speaks from a hay bale-laden stage at the Washington County Fairgrounds in southwest Virginia. The president won 75% of the vote in this part of the state, and Gillespie is trying to prove that an establishment Republican still can succeed under the shadow of Trump.

“Do we need to have sanctuary cities here in Virginia?” Gillespie asked the crowd, raising an issue he has highlighted in ads that feature heavily tattooed Latinos and threats of menacing gangs.

“No, we don’t!” the crowd shouted back, and he added firmly: “No, we don’t.”


Video of Frederica Wilson's 2015 FBI speech shows John Kelly got it wrong

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, in criticizing Florida Rep. Frederica Wilson, misrepresented a 2015 speech she made at the opening of a new FBI building, an exclusive South Florida Sun Sentinel video of her speech shows.

Kelly made the comments at the White House on Thursday while discussing President Trump’s conversations with the families of four U.S. soldiers killed in an ambush in Niger earlier this month.

Kelly chastized Wilson for listening in on the conversation between Trump and the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson. Wilson was in a car with the widow and Johnson’s mother going to the airport for the arrival of Johnson’s body, and the call was placed on speakerphone.

Kelly then continued his criticism of Wilson, mentioning the 2015 dedication of an FBI building in Miramar, Fla., where he said she focused her speech on asserting that she “got the money” for the building, a sum, he said, of $20 million.

Wilson said Kelly’s comment was a fabrication, that she wasn’t even a member of Congress when the funding for the building was approved. A Sun Sentinel video of the event supports Wilson’s version of events.

Wilson did take credit for securing approval just days before the dedication of naming the building in honor of two slain FBI agents.

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