Debate night brawl: Bloomberg, Sanders attacked by rivals

By STEVE PEOPLES, ALEXANDRA JAFFE and MICHELLE L. PRICE Associated Press
LAS VEGAS (AP) — From the opening bell, Democrats savaged New York billionaire Mike Bloomberg and raised pointed questions about Bernie Sanders’ take-no-prisoners politics during a contentious debate Wednesday night that threatened to further muddy the party’s urgent quest to defeat President Donald Trump.
Bloomberg, the former New York mayor who was once a Republican, was forced to defend his record and past comments related to race, gender and his personal wealth in an occasionally rocky debate stage debut. Sanders, meanwhile, tried to beat back pointed questions about his embrace of democratic socialism and his health following a heart attack last year.
The ninth debate of this cycle featured the most aggressive sustained period of infighting in the Democrats’ yearlong search for a presidential nominee. The tension reflected growing anxiety among candidates and party leaders that the nomination fight could yield a candidate who will struggle to build a winning coalition in November to beat Trump.
The campaign is about to quickly intensify. Nevada votes on Saturday and South Carolina follows on February 29. More than a dozen states host Super Tuesday contests in less than two weeks with about one-third of the delegates needed to win the nomination at stake.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren was in a fight for survival and stood out with repeated attacks on Bloomberg. She sought to undermine him with core Democratic voters who are uncomfortable with his vast wealth, his offensive remarks about policing of minorities and demeaning comments about women, including those who worked at his company.
Warren labeled Bloomberg “a billionaire who calls people fat broads and horse-faced lesbians.”
She wasn’t alone.
Sanders lashed out at Bloomberg’s policing policies as New York City mayor that Sanders said targeted “African-American and Latinos in an outrageous way.”
And former Vice President Joe Biden charged that Bloomberg’s “stop-and-frisk” policy ended up “throwing 5 million black men up against the wall.”
Watching during his Western campaign swing, Trump joined the Bloomberg pile on. “Mini Mike Bloomberg’s debate performance tonight was perhaps the worst in the history of debates, and there have been some really bad ones,” Trump tweeted. “He was stumbling, bumbling and grossly incompetent. If this doesn’t knock him out of the race, nothing will. Not so easy to do what I did!”
After the debate, Warren told reporters: “I have no doubt that Michael Bloomberg is reaching in his pocket right now, and spending another hundred million dollars to try to erase every American’s memory about what happened on the debate stage.”
On a night that threatened to tarnish the shine of his carefully constructed TV-ad image, Bloomberg faltered when attacked on issues related to race and gender. But he was firm and unapologetic about his wealth and how he has used it to affect change important to Democrats. He took particular aim at Sanders and his self-description as a democratic socialist.
“I don’t think there’s any chance of the senator beating Donald Trump,” Bloomberg declared before noting Sanders’ rising wealth. “The best known socialist in the country happens to be a millionaire with three houses!”
Sanders defended owning multiple houses, noting he has one in Washington, where he works, and two in Vermont, the state he represents in the Senate.
While Bloomberg was the shiny new object Wednesday, the debate also marked a major test for Sanders, who is emerging as the front-runner in the Democrats’ nomination fight, whether his party’s establishment likes it or not. A growing group of donors, elected officials and political operatives fear that Sanders’ uncompromising progressive politics could be a disaster in the general election against Trump, yet they’ve struggled to coalesce behind a single moderate alternative.
Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, went after both Bloomberg and Sanders, warning that one threatened to “burn down” the Democratic Party and the other was trying to buy it.
He called them “the two most polarizing figures on this stage,” with little chance of defeating Trump or helping congressional Democrats in contests with Republicans.
Bloomberg and Sanders were prime targets, but the stakes were no less dire for the other four candidates on stage.
Longtime establishment favorite Biden, a two-term vice president, desperately needed to breathe new life into his flailing campaign, which entered the night at the bottom of a moderate muddle behind Buttigieg and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar. And after a bad finish last week in New Hampshire, Warren was fighting to resurrect her stalled White House bid.
A Warren campaign aide said on Twitter that her fiery first hour of debate was her best hour of fundraising “to date.”
The other leading progressive in the race, Sanders came under attack from Biden and Bloomberg for his embrace of democratic socialism.
Sanders, as he has repeatedly over the last year, defended the cost of his signature “Medicare for All” healthcare plan, which would eliminate the private insurance industry in favor of a government-backed healthcare system that would cover all Americans.
“When you asked Bernie how much it cost last time he said…’We’ll find out,'” Biden quipped. “It costs over $35 trillion, let’s get real.”
And ongoing animosity flared between Buttigieg and Klobuchar when the former Indiana mayor slammed the three-term Minnesota senator for failing to answer questions in a recent interview about Mexican policy and forgetting the name of the Mexican president.
Buttigieg noted that she’s on a committee that oversees trade issues in Mexico and she “was not able to speak to literally the first thing about the politics of the country.”
She shot back: “Are you trying to say I’m dumb? Are you mocking me here?”
Later in the night she lashed out at Buttigieg again: “I wish everyone else was as perfect as you, Pete.”
The debate closed with a question about the possibility that Democrats remain divided deep into the primary season with a final resolution coming during a contested national convention in July.
Asked if the candidate with the most delegates should be the nominee — even if he or she is short of a delegate majority, almost every candidate suggested that the convention process should “work its way out,” as Biden put it.
Sanders, who helped force changes to the nomination process this year and hopes to take a significant delegate lead in the coming weeks, was the only exception.
“The person who has the most votes should become the nominee,” he said.
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Peoples and Jaffe reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Kathleen Ronayne in Sacramento, California, contributed to this report.
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Catch up on the 2020 election campaign with AP experts on our weekly politics podcast, “Ground Game.”

Newman released from hospital; Chastain to race Las Vegas

By JENNA FRYER AP Auto Racing Writer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Ryan Newman was released from a Florida hospital Wednesday, about 42 hours after his frightening crash on the final lap of the Daytona 500.
Roush Fenway Racing released a photo of Newman leaving a Daytona Beach hospital holding the hands of his two young daughters. The announcement came just a few hours after the team said he was fully alert and walking around the hospital.
The 42-year-old Indiana native was taken by ambulance directly from the track in serious condition following the crash Monday night. Doctors said two hours after the accident that Newman’s injuries were not life-threatening, but no details have been released.
His release from the hospital was rapid. Roush Fenway said earlier Wednesday that Newman “continues to show great improvement.” The team added that “true to his jovial nature, he has also been joking around with staff, friends and family while playing with his two daughters” and included a photo of Newman standing in a hospital gown, smiling with his arms around the girls.
Two hours later, he was leaving the hospital in jeans, a T-shirt and socks, holding hands with his girls. The team released a third photo of Newman and his daughters with the staff that treated him following his crash.
“First and foremost, our focus remains with Ryan and his family as he continues to recover,” Roush Fenway president Steve Newmark said. “We also want to express our sincere gratitude to all of those who have offered support and taken the time to send their thoughts and prayers to Ryan, his family and everyone at Roush Fenway Racing.”
“The NASCAR community has long prided itself on being a close-knit family. That is never more evident than during these types of moments.”
Added team principal owner John W. Henry: “All of us at Fenway Sports Group are thankful for the wonderful news about Ryan’s progress, and his release from the hospital today. Ryan is one tough hombre and we wish him a full recovery. We look forward to seeing Ryan and his family at the track again soon.”
Roush Fenway said Ross Chastain will pilot the No. 6 Ford beginning this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and that a timetable for Newman’s return has yet to be determined.
Chastain is running for the Xfinity Series championship this year for Kaulig Racing, but drove in the Daytona 500 last weekend for Spire Motorsports in a car fielded by Chip Ganassi.
“We want to express our appreciation to everyone at Chip Ganassi Racing as well as Kaulig Racing for allowing Ross to fill in for Ryan in the No. 6 on such short notice,” Newmark said.
Chastain, an eighth-generation watermelon farmer, is gradually trying to move into NASCAR’s top Cup Series. He’s got 72 career Cup starts for small teams but has been waiting for a break in competitive equipment.
Chastain has won three times in the Truck Series and twice in the Xfinity Series, including a win at Las Vegas in 2018.
“No one could ever take the place of Ryan Newman on the track, and I can’t wait to have him back,” Chastain tweeted. “As we continue to pray for a full and speedy recovery, I’ll do my best to make him and everyone at Roush Fenway Racing proud.”
Newman was injured when he crashed while leading NASCAR’s biggest race. Contact from Ryan Blaney sent Newman spinning into the wall and his Ford went airborne, where it was then hit by Corey LaJoie in the driver side door.
The car landed on its roof, slid across Daytona International Speedway and came to a rest upside down and on fire, with gasoline pouring out of the vehicle. It took a safety team nearly 20 minutes to remove Newman from the car and he was taken directly to the hospital.
Blaney and LaJoie have stepped back from racing to process their roles in the accident. LaJoie climbed from his own burning car and dropped to his knees on the track, learning only after he was checked at the care center that Newman was injured.
Blaney seemed distraught as he paced beside his car following his second-place finish to Denny Hamlin. Fellow driver Bubba Wallace, one of Blaney’s best friends, said he spent time with Blaney on Tuesday and advised him to stay off social media for a few days.
“He’s holding up, of course devastated and bummed about the situation,” Wallace posted on Twitter. “Had to sit there and explain to him could’ve happened to him or any of us in the field. IT’S RACING. Just unfortunate to be on either end of it.”
Wallace also praised Blaney’s atttempt to push Newman to the win in a move of brand alliance for Ford. When Blaney tried to lock onto Newman’s bumper to give him a shove the cars didn’t align properly and Newman was instead hooked into a spin.
“I know Ford should be proud to have him under their banner because he was so content on pushing his Ford teammate to win the biggest race of the year,” Wallace wrote. “Which makes it worse (because) a simple selfless gesture went south in the blink of an eye.”
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Toxic Superfund cleanups decline to more than 30-year low

By ELLEN KNICKMEYER Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration completed the fewest cleanups of toxic Superfund sites last year than any administration since the program’s first years in the 1980s, figures released by the Environmental Protection Agency indicated Wednesday.
The federal government wrapped up cleanups at six Superfund sites around the country in the 2019 budget year, the fewest since three in 1986, EPA online records showed.
The Superfund program was born out of the 1970’s disaster at Love Canal in New York, where industrial contaminants poisoned groundwater, spurred complaints of health problems and prompted presidential emergency declarations. Congress started the Superfund program in 1980, with the mission of tackling the country’s worst contaminated sites to remove the threat to surrounding residents and the environment.
President Donald Trump campaigned on pledges to cut environmental protections he saw as unfriendly to business. In office, Trump has presided over rollbacks and proposed rollbacks of a series of protections for air, water, wildlife and other environmental and public health concerns, as well as sharp declines in many categories of enforcement against polluters.
The EPA posted the 2019 figures on its website earlier this month. The tally also shows one cleanup completed so far this budget year.
“Cleaning up Superfund Sites has been and remains a top priority of this Administration,” EPA spokeswoman Corry Schiermeyer said in response to questions from The Associated Press. “Many of the sites currently on the NPL (National Priorities List) are very large, complex and technically challenging and often require numerous construction projects to complete that are frequently phased in over many years.”
Superfund cleanups completed fell into the single digits just once before in the past 20 years, in 2014.
The AP reported in January that the administration also has built up the biggest backlog of unfunded toxic Superfund cleanup projects in at least 15 years, nearly triple the number that were stalled for lack of money in the Obama era.
The administration called Superfund cleanups part of the core mission of the EPA. But Trump’s budget proposal for next year calls for slashing money for the Superfund program by $113 million. As in previous years, the White House asked Congress to cut the EPA budget by more than 20%.
Congress largely has ignored Trump’s calls for EPA cuts, keeping the agency’s money roughly stable.
Elizabeth Southerland, a former EPA official who now is part of a network of hundreds of former EPA staffers often critical of Trump rollbacks, said the administration was failing to brief Congress on how much it really needs for the program. She called it “heartbreaking” for the people at risk around the sites.
“Communities are being forced to live for years longer than necessary waiting for cleanup to be completed,” Southerland said.
Under Trump, the EPA pointed to a different measure in declaring it was making progress on Superfund cleanups: the number of cleaned up sites officially deleted from the roster of more than 1,300 Superfund projects.
But deletions from the list typically reflect cleanup work done over decades and often completed on the ground years ago, meaning Trump frequently was taking credit for work done under President Barack Obama and other predecessors. The EPA said it deleted all or part of 27 sites from the list last year.

AP FACT CHECK: Dems’ debate flubs; Trump untruths at rally

By CALVIN WOODWARD and HOPE YEN Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — The latest Democratic presidential debate was a raucous one, ripe for exaggerations and distortions as Mike Bloomberg made his debut on the debate stage and rivals went after him and each other. President Donald Trump weighed in on the feisty performance at a rally where he mischaracterized what some Democrats want to do with health care.
A look at how some of their claims Wednesday night stack up with the facts:
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MIKE BLOOMBERG, on the stop-and-frisk policing policy when he was New York mayor: “What happened, however, was it got out of control and when we discovered — I discovered — that we were doing many, many, too many stop and frisks, we cut 95% of them out.”
THE FACTS: That’s a distortion of how stop and frisk declined. That happened because of a court order, not because Bloomberg learned that it was being overused.
In Bloomberg’s first 10 years in office, the number of stop-and-frisk actions increased nearly 600% from when he took office in 2002, reaching a peak of nearly 686,000 stops in 2011. That declined to about 192,000 documented stops in 2013, his final year as mayor.
Bloomberg achieved his claim of a 95% cut by cherry-picking the quarterly high point of 203,500 stops in the first quarter of 2012 and comparing that with the 12,485 stops in the last quarter of 2013.
The former mayor defended the practice even after leaving office at the end of 2013 and only apologized for it a few weeks before declaring his candidacy for presidency.
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TRUMP, on Bernie Sanders’ “Medicare for all” plan: “Think of this: 180 million Americans are going to lose health care coverage under this plan. But if you don’t mind, I’m not going to criticize it tonight. Let them keep going and I’ll start talking about it about two weeks out from the election.” — Arizona rally.
THE FACTS: That’s a thorough misrepresentation of the Sanders plan as well as similar plans by Democrats in Congress. People wouldn’t “lose” coverage. Under Sanders, they would be covered by a new and universal government plan that replaces private and job-based insurance. Democrats who stop short of proposing to replace private and job-based insurance would offer an option for people to take a Medicare-like plan, also toward the goal of ensuring universal coverage.
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BLOOMBERG, citing his philanthropy’s work with the Sierra Club: “Already we’ve closed 304 out of the 530 coal fire plants in the United States, and we’ve closed 80 out of the 200 or 300 that are in Europe.”
THE FACTS: He’s wrongly taking credit for driving the U.S. coal industry to its knees.
The U.S. coal industry’s plunge is largely due to market forces, above all drops in prices of natural gas and renewable energy that have made costlier coal-fired power plants much less competitive for electric utilities. Bloomberg has indeed contributed huge sums to efforts to close coal plants and fight climate change, but against the backdrop of an industry besieged on other fronts.
U.S. coal production peaked in 2008, but since then has fallen steadily. That’s due largely to a boom in oil and gas production from U.S. shale, begun under the Obama administration, that made natural gas far more abundant and cheaper, and falling prices for wind and solar energy, partly because of improving technology in the renewable sector.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration reaffirmed in a report in December the extent to which the market has turned away from coal.
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ELIZABETH WARREN: Buttigieg’s health care plan is “a thin version of a plan.”
PETE BUTTIGIEG: His own proposal “is the plan that solves the problem.”
THE FACTS: Warren, a Massachusetts senator, is quick to dismiss a plan that would cover virtually all U.S. citizens and legal residents.
An analysis of health care overhaul plans by the Urban Institute and the Commonwealth Fund found that an approach like the one advocated by Buttigieg, a former South Bend, Indiana, mayor, would reduce the number of uninsured people from 32 million to below 7 million, mainly people without legal permission to be in the country.
The proposal from Buttigieg features a new government-sponsored “public option” plan that even people with employer-sponsored coverage could join voluntarily.
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Associated Press writers Jonathan Lemire, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Ellen Knickmeyer and Amanda Seitz contributed to this report.
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EDITOR’S NOTE — A look at the veracity of claims by political figures.
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Find AP Fact Checks at http://apne.ws/2kbx8bd
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Weinstein jurors focus on Sciorra as deliberations continue

NEW YORK (AP) — Jury deliberations in Harvey Weinstein’s rape trial are set to continue for a third day on Thursday.
So far, jurors have been focusing a lot of attention on actress Annabella Sciorra’s allegation that the once-heralded Hollywood mogul raped her in the mid-1990s.
Sciorra’s allegation is too old to be charged on its own because of the statute of limitations, but it’s a key component of the most serious charges that jurors are weighing in the closely watched #MeToo case.
Weinstein, 67, is charged with five counts stemming from the allegations of Sciorra and two other women — an aspiring actress who says he raped her in March 2013 and a former film and TV production assistant, Mimi Haleyi, who says he forcibly performed oral sex on her in March 2006.
Weinstein has maintained that any sexual contact was consensual.
Sciorra’s account is the basis for two counts of predatory sexual assault, a charge that carries a maximum penalty of life in prison. To convict Weinstein of that charge, jurors must agree on two things: that Weinstein raped Sciorra and that he committed one of the other charged offenses.
On Tuesday, signaling their interest in Sciorra, jurors sent a note seeking clarity on why Weinstein wasn’t charged with other crimes stemming from her allegation, only to be told by the judge that they “must not speculate as to any other charges that are not before you.”
The panel of seven men and five women finished Wednesday’s round of deliberations by revisiting actress Rosie Perez’s testimony about what she says Sciorra told her soon after the alleged rape.
Perez said her friend Sciorra had told her at some point in 1993, her voice shaking on the phone, that something had happened to her: “I think it was rape.” Perez testified that months later, on a phone call from London, Sciorra said Weinstein was harassing her and she was scared.
“I said, ‘He’s the one that raped you,'” and they both began crying, Perez testified.
“Please go to the police,” Perez said she told Sciorra.
She said Sciorra responded: “I can’t — he’d destroy me.”
When jurors return Thursday, they’ll see emails that Weinstein sent about Sciorra, including ones to the private Israeli spy agency he allegedly enlisted to dig up dirt on would-be accusers as reporters closed in on him in 2017.
The Associated Press has a policy of not publishing the names of people who allege sexual assault without their consent. It is withholding the name of the rape accuser because it isn’t clear whether she wishes to be identified publicly.

Amid coronavirus fears, a second wave of flu hits US kids

By MIKE STOBBE AP Medical Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — A second wave of flu is hitting the U.S., turning this into one of the nastiest seasons for children in a decade.
The number of child deaths and the hospitalization rate for youngsters are the highest seen at this point in any season since the severe flu outbreak of 2009-10, health officials said Friday. And the wave is expected to keep going for weeks.
Experts say it is potentially a bad time for an extended flu season, given concerns about the new coronavirus out of China, which can cause symptoms that can be difficult to distinguish from flu without testing.
If coronavirus were to begin spreading in the U.S., there could be confusion about whether people are getting sick with it or the flu, said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious-diseases expert at Vanderbilt University.
This flu season got off to its earliest start in 15 years, with surges of flu-like illnesses seen in parts of the South as early as October. Most cases were caused by a type of flu that usually causes substantial infections only in the spring, at the tail end of the flu season.
That wave peaked in late December and dropped steadily for weeks afterward.
But a second surge began in late January. Last week saw another rise in the percentage of doctor’s office visits that were due to flu-like illness, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We have not yet peaked for influenza. We are still on our way up,” Dr. David Weber, a University of North Carolina infectious-diseases specialist, said of the patient traffic in Chapel Hill.
Overall, the CDC estimated that 26 million Americans have gotten sick with flu this past fall and winter, with about 250,000 flu-related hospitalizations and around 14,000 deaths.
The viruses behind both waves can be hard on children and young adults. But they aren’t considered as dangerous to retirement-age people — good news, since most flu deaths and hospitalizations each winter occur in the elderly.
In fact, the overall death and hospitalization rates this season are not high “because we haven’t seen the elderly as involved in this flu season,” said the CDC’s Lynnette Brammer.
But 92 flu-related deaths have already been reported in children, a higher total at this point of the year than in any season in the past decade. And the hospitalization rates also are far higher than what’s been seen at this point.
The CDC said the reason is that two strains of the flu that are tough on children are spreading in the same season.
The health agency is expected to release an estimate next week of how effective the flu vaccine has been.
So far, only 15 U.S. cases of the coronavirus have been confirmed, and no deaths. All but two of the cases were in people who had traveled to Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the international outbreak. The remaining two were spread from travelers to their spouses.
Schaffner said that for the time being, it is easy to determine a likely coronavirus case by asking about a patient’s travel history.
It’s possible that concern about the coronavirus has led some people with flu symptoms to go to the doctor for testing this year, whereas they might have just stayed home in other years, Brammer said. But there is nothing in CDC data that shows that’s been happening, she added.
Still, it’s OK if it does happen, said the CDC’s Dr. Nancy Messonnier.
“People being a little worried and seeking care doesn’t especially worry me, because that’s the point. We’re looking for broader spread within the community,” she said.
To that end, health officials will be using five public health labs that usually test for flu to start checking also for coronavirus. The labs are in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Seattle. When a specimen tests negative for flu, it will then be tested for coronavirus, Messonnier said.

Trump ignores AG Barr’s request to stop tweeting about DOJ

By MICHAEL BALSAMO, COLLEEN LONG and ZEKE MILLER Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump on Friday ignored his attorney general’s public request to stop tweeting about the Justice Department, saying he had the legal right to ask the agency to intervene in a criminal case but so far has “chosen not to.”
Trump’s Friday morning tweet came just hours after Attorney General William Barr said in a striking interview with ABC News that the president’s tweets were making it “impossible for me to do my job,” especially following the department’s bungled handling of the sentencing recommendation for Trump ally and confidant Roger Stone.
Trump, in his tweet, left open the possibility that he would ask Barr for something in a criminal matter in the future.
Barr has already appointed a U.S. attorney who is conducting a criminal investigation into the origins of the FBI’s probe of the 2016 election that morphed into special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of possible Trump-Russia cooperation.
The Justice Department is also reviewing the handling of the federal investigation into Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, a person familiar with the matter told The Associated Press on Friday. Flynn has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI during its probe of ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. The U.S. attorney in St. Louis, Jeff Jensen, is working with Brandon Van Grack, a member of Mueller’s team, to review the Flynn case, a Justice Department official said.
As president, Trump technically has the right to compel the Justice Department to investigate as an executive branch agency. But historically, when it comes to decisions on criminal investigations and prosecutions, Justice has functioned as an independent agency, unmoved and unbound by political sway. And that reputation is important to Barr, as he made clear in the interview.
“I’m happy to say that, in fact, the president has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case,” Barr told ABC. “However, to have public statements and tweets made about the department, about our people … about cases pending in the department, and about judges before whom we have cases, make it impossible for me to do my job and to assure the courts and the prosecutors in the department that we’re doing our work with integrity.”
The attorney general had repeatedly shared the same sentiment in private conversations in recent weeks, telling Trump he was frustrated with the president’s public comments and tweets about Justice Department cases, a person familiar with the matter told the AP. The person was granted anonymity to discuss the private conversations.
Barr was directly asked in the TV interview whether he believed Trump had the authority to direct him to open an investigation.
“Terrorism or fraud by a bank or something like that where he’s concerned about something, he can certainly say I think someone should look into that. That’s perfectly appropriate,” Barr said. “If he were to say, you know, go investigate somebody because — and you sense it’s because they’re a political opponent, then an attorney general shouldn’t carry that out, wouldn’t carry that out.”
Trump has publicly and privately raged about payback in the form of investigations against his perceived enemies, including former FBI Director James Comey and former FBI Director Andrew McCabe — who prosecutors said Friday they would not charge with lying about leaking — and he’s also pressed for investigations into political rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter, especially following Trump’s impeachment acquittal over a phone call where he asked Ukraine’s leaders to investigate the Bidens.
Trump has tweeted scores of times that Comey should be charged with crimes. He was particularly incensed that no charges were filed over the former FBI director’s handling of memos about his interactions with Trump, according to a White House official and Republican close to the White House not authorized to speak publicly about private discussions.
The president angrily denounced the decision not to charge Comey to aides and berated Barr over it, according to the officials. Aides expected the decision not to charge McCabe could produce a similar angry reaction.
Trump has also repeatedly complained about FBI Director Christopher Wray in recent months, saying that Wray has not done enough to rid the bureau of people who are disloyal to him.
An administration official acknowledged there has been some tension between Trump and Barr in recent weeks, but Trump still has confidence in Barr and believes he is a far better attorney general than Jeff Sessions, who drew Trump’s ire after removing himself from the Russia investigation because of his previous work with the Trump campaign.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal deliberations and private conversations, said Trump also knows it would be risky to remove Barr ahead of the 2020 election and that it is highly unlikely he could find a suitable replacement before then.
Officials in the attorney general’s office gave the White House a readout of the interview after it was taped but before it aired on ABC’s website. After the interview Thursday evening, the White House offered a tempered response that Trump “wasn’t bothered by the comments at all.”
But the president on Friday quoted one of Barr’s comments in the interview: “The president has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case.” A.G. Barr — and then Trump added in his tweet — “This doesn’t mean that I do not have, as President, the legal right to do so, I do, but I have so far chosen not to!”
Earlier this week, the Justice Department overruled its own prosecutors — who had recommended in a court filing that Trump’s longtime ally and confidant Roger Stone be sentenced to 7 to 9 years in prison — and took the extraordinary step of lowering the amount of prison time it would seek. The department didn’t offer an amended number. The entire trial team of prosecutors quit the case after the amended filing, and one quit the DOJ altogether.
Barr faced intense criticism over the decision because it came just hours after Trump tweeted his displeasure about the recommendation.
Stone was convicted in November of tampering with a witness and obstructing the House investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to tip the 2016 election. He’s scheduled to be sentenced by a federal judge next week.
It was highly unusual for a member of the Cabinet to publicly criticize the president — especially a Trump loyalist who shares the president’s views on expansive executive powers. Barr’s Thursday’s comment served as a defense of his own integrity — an effort to salvage his reputation and that of the Department of Justice by publicly rebuking the president he’s close to.
Yet Barr stopped short of alleging wrongdoing by anyone.
House Democrats frustrated over the Senate’s acquittal of Trump want answers from Barr about what they see as his efforts to politicize federal law enforcement. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler said this week that Barr will testify before the panel March 31 and that lawmakers will ask him about his involvement in the Stone case.
The Justice Department insisted the decision to undo the sentencing recommendation was made Monday night — before Trump blasted the recommendation on Twitter as “very horrible and unfair”— and prosecutors had not spoken to the White House about it.
Barr joined a roster of high-level aides who have publicly criticized Trump, though the rest left their jobs first. Former National Security Adviser John Bolton is to publish a book next month detailing his time in the White House including criticism of Trump actions such as his decision to withhold military assistance while seeking a political favor from Ukraine. And former Chief of Staff John Kelly, who has largely kept a low profile since leaving the White House, has grown more open about his unflattering assessments of the president.
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Associated Press writers Jonathan Lemire, Deb Riechmann, Lisa Mascaro and Eric Tucker contributed to this report.

Evidence in trash can links dead neighbor to missing SC girl

By JEFFREY COLLINS Associated Press
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Investigators found a man dead inside his South Carolina home shortly after finding an item from a missing 6-year-old girl who lived in his neighborhood inside his trash can, authorities said.
Three days after Faye Marie Swetlik’s mother frantically called 911 to report her daughter’s disappearance from their front yard in Cayce, the girl’s body was found Thursday. Her death is being investigated as a homicide, although details about how she died have not been released.
The girl’s body was found in the woods, and police think it was put there after investigators found the evidence inside the trash can, Cayce Public Safety Sgt. Evan Antley said at a Friday news conference.
Antley didn’t directly link the death of 30-year-old Coty Scott Taylor, whose body was found at his home, to the girl’s killing. But Antley said the item found in Taylor’s trash Thursday was something listed on the missing person flyer created after she disappeared. He did not specify exactly what it was.
“Our evidence and our investigation does link these two together, I can confirm he was a neighbor. He was not a relative. He was not a friend. He was merely a neighbor,” Antley said.
Both bodies were found Thursday after the item was found by investigators who followed around a trash truck and sifted through the garbage as it made a special trip in the neighborhood, Antley said.
After finding the item, investigators were quickly organizing a methodical search of nearby woods that had been searched before when Cayce Public Safety Director Byron Snellgrove found Faye’s body, Antley said. Less than three hours later, Snellgrove’s voice trembled as he publicly announced her death.
Investigators found Taylor’s body inside his home shortly after they found the girl’s body, Antley said. He refused to characterize how Taylor might have died.
Autopsies on both Taylor and the girl are scheduled for Saturday and their causes of death will not be released until the coroner can review the results.
In a 911 call released Friday, Faye’s mother said her daughter was in the front yard after getting off the school bus and then just suddenly disappeared. She said she searched for her before calling police.
“I checked all the houses in my neighborhood and anybody that actually answered is out looking for her too,” the girl’s mother said after carefully describing what her daughter was wearing through tears in the 911 call.
More than 250 officers searched for the girl over three days. They knocked on every door in the neighborhood and Taylor spoke to police in his home before the evidence was discovered, Antley said.
Investigators sealed off the entrance to the neighborhood for a while, questioning everyone going in and out, said Antley, who thanked them for their patience.
“We went in there and turned their lives upside down. We made them late for work, we searched their homes and we invaded their privacy,” Antley said. “But we did it for a reason and we had a goal.”
The girl’s disappearance shocked Cayce, a town of about 13,000 people just west of Columbia. Several prayer vigils were held while she was missing and after her body was found.
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Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP

Prosecutor: Weinstein saw victims as ‘complete disposables’

By MICHAEL R. SISAK and TOM HAYS Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — Harvey Weinstein considered himself such a big shot in Hollywood that he thought he could get away with treating aspiring actresses like “complete disposables,” a prosecutor told a jury in closing arguments Friday at his New York City rape trial.
“The universe is run by me, and they don’t get to complain when they get stepped on, spit on, demoralized and, yes, raped and abused by me — the king,” Assistant District Attorney Joan Illuzzi-Orbon said, mimicking Weinstein.
Using a TV monitor next to the jury box, the prosecutors displayed photos of “Sopranos” actress Annabella Sciorra and five other accusers who also testified. Illuzzi told jurors that aside from the more successful Sciorra, the others were “complete disposables. They were never going to be in his world.”
Illuzzi also showed a side-by-side comparison of Sciorra’s testimony about confronting Weinstein in the mid-1990s after he allegedly raped her, and similar testimony by his rape accuser about how the mogul reacted when she told him she had a boyfriend in 2013.
“His eyes went black and I thought he was going to hit me right there,” Sciorra testified. With the click of a button, the rape accuser’s testimony popped up: “His eyes changed and he was not there. They were very black and he ripped me up.”
At times, Weinstein sat back in his chair staring ahead at a screen in front of the defense table that mirrored what was being shown to the seven men and five women on the jury.
After sitting through the three-hour summation, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. shot reporters a thumbs up. Meanwhile, Weinstein’s lawyers said the film producer was confident heading into the long weekend before the start of deliberations Tuesday.
“The evidence is all on our side,” Weinstein’s lawyer Donna Rotunno said.
Illuzzi’s closing comes a day after Rotunno offered an epic, hourslong defense closing argument, painting the prosecution’s case as a “sinister tale” absent proof needed to convict Weinstein.
Prosecutors created an “alternate universe” that “strips adult women of common sense, autonomy and responsibility,” Rotunno argued.
“Regret does not exist in this world, only regret renamed as rape,” she said.
Illuzzi pushed back Friday as she described Mimi Haleyi’s allegations that Weinstein pushed her into his child’s bedroom, held her down on the bed and forcibly performed oral sex on her in his Soho apartment in 2006.
“When an adult goes to another adult’s home, should they expect that they have to engage in sex?” the prosecutor asked. “By going to Harvey Weinstein’s home, did she deserve what she got?”
“There are no blurred lines here,” she added. “This is a crime and a wanton disregard of other people.”
Weinstein, 67, is charged with raping a woman in a Manhattan hotel room in 2013 and forcibly performing oral sex on Haleyi in 2006. The Associated Press has a policy of not publishing the names of people who allege sexual assault without their consent; it is withholding the name of the rape accuser because it isn’t clear if she wishes to be identified publicly.
Other accusers including Sciorra testified as part of a prosecution effort to show he used the same tactics to victimize many women over the years.
In response to defense claims that Haleyi and the rape accuser were opportunists who had consensual sex with Weinstein because they thought it would help their careers, prosecutors are seeking to focus the jury’s attention on harrowing accounts alleging rapes, forced oral sex, groping, masturbation, lewd propositions and casting-couch experiences.
Some women testified that Weinstein ignored pleas of “no, no, no” as he assaulted them. The woman Weinstein is charged with raping said he would turn violent when he couldn’t get his way and that “if he heard the word no, it was like a trigger for him.”
Another woman recalled Weinstein sneering, “You’ll never make it in this business; this is how this industry works,” when she laughed off his advances.
The prosecution’s task has been complicated because the women he is charged with raping kept in contact with Weinstein after the alleged encounters. But Illuzzi said part of his scheme was to keep in contact with them so he could point to those encounters as evidence nothing happened, essentially “preparing for a moment just like this.”
Case in point, she said: In October 2017, Weinstein replied to an email from a publicist giving him a heads up that Sciorra was about to go public in a Ronan Farrow story by writing: “Annabella did cop land.”
Instructing his publicist on how to respond to the article, Weinstein wrote: “this was consensual or deny it.”
“I submit to you that was a confession,” Illuzzi told jurors over the defense’s denied objection.
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On Twitter, follow Michael Sisak at twitter.com/mikesisak and Tom Hays at twitter.com/aptomhays. For more coverage of Harvey Weinstein’s trial visit apnews.com/HarveyWeinstein.

Michael Avenatti is convicted of trying to extort Nike

By LARRY NEUMEISTER Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — Michael Avenatti, the combative lawyer who gained fame by representing a porn star in lawsuits involving President Donald Trump, was convicted Friday of trying to extort sportswear giant Nike.
The verdict was returned Friday by a federal jury in Manhattan following a three-week trial in which prosecutors said Avenatti threatened to use his media access to hurt Nike’s reputation and stock price unless the company paid him up to $25 million.
The convictions for attempted extortion and honest services fraud carry a combined potential penalty of 42 years in prison.
Avenatti glared at the jurors as the verdict was being announced but said nothing.
Afterward, he shook hands with his lawyers and told them “great job,” before he was led back to the cell where he has been held since a judge found he had violated his bail conditions.
His lawyer, Scott Srebnick, declined to comment but said he would appeal the conviction. A judge set sentencing for June.
Avenatti, 48, became a cable news fixture in 2018 and 2019 as journalists courted him for information about porn star Stormy Daniels and her claims of a Trump tryst before he became president, and a payoff to remain silent about it. At his peak of notoriety, Avenatti used Twitter and TV appearances to relentlessly criticize Trump and even considered running for president himself.
But Avenatti’s fall was swift. He was arrested as he was about to meet Nike lawyers last March to press his demands for millions of dollars to conduct an internal probe of the Beaverton, Oregon-based apparel maker.
Avenatti maintained he was taking the aggressive position at the urging of his client, Gary Franklin, who ran a youth basketball league in Los Angeles and was angry that Nike ended a decadelong sponsorship that provided $72,000 annually and free gear. He sought $1.5 million for Franklin, as well.
Franklin testified that two Nike executives forced him to pay money to the mother of an elite high school basketball player and to pass along payments to the handlers of other players while doctoring paperwork to hide the purpose of the funds.
Avenatti did not testify, but his lawyers said he was following the wishes of Franklin and an entertainment executive who advised him to be aggressive to force Nike to fire corrupt executives and fix its culture.
Besides the extortion trial, Avenatti also faces an April trial in New York on charges that he defrauded Daniels of book proceeds and a May trial in Los Angeles on charges that he defrauded clients and others of millions of dollars.
He remains held without bail. Federal prosecutors in Los Angeles succeeded last month in getting him locked up after saying he violated his $300,000 bail by moving money around illegally after his arrest.