AP News in Brief 12-28-17

Brrr! After record snow, bitter cold ahead for northern US

ERIE, Pa. — Freezing temperatures and below-zero wind chills socked much of the northern United States on Wednesday, even setting a record in a Minnesota city so cold it’s called the Icebox of the Nation, and will stay put for days to come as snow-hardened Erie digs out from a record snowfall.

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Forecasters warned of hypothermia and frostbite from arctic air settling in over the central U.S. and spreading east.

The National Weather Service reported International Falls and Hibbing, Minnesota, set record low temperatures on Wednesday morning. International Falls, the self-proclaimed Icebox of the Nation, plunged to 37 degrees below zero, breaking the old record of 32 below set in 1924. Hibbing bottomed out at 28 below, breaking the old record of 27 below set in 1964.

Wind chill advisories or warnings were in effect for much of New England, northern Pennsylvania and New York. Those places and states in the northern Plains and Great Lakes were projected to see highs in the teens or single digits and lows below zero for the rest of the week and into the new year.

The National Weather Service said wind chills in many areas Thursday could make temperatures feel below zero.

As China smothers Xinjiang, even mild critics are silenced

BEIJING — Zhang Haitao was a rare voice in China, a member of the ethnic Han majority who for years had criticized the government on social media for its treatment of the minority Muslim Uighurs.

Zhang’s wife had long feared some sort of backlash despite her husband’s relative obscurity. He was a working-class electronics salesman, unknown even to most Uighur activists. So she worried that authorities might block his social media accounts, or maybe detain him. Instead he was arrested and prosecuted for subversion and espionage. His punishment: 19 years in prison.

“They wanted to make an example of him, to scare anyone who might question what they do in the name of security,” Zhang’s wife, Li Aijie, told The Associated Press earlier this week, one day after she arrived in the United States and asked for political asylum. “Even someone who knows nothing about law would know that his punishment made no sense.”

Elsewhere in China, Zhang would have been sentenced to no more than three years, said his lawyer, Li Dunyong, and may not have been prosecuted at all.

But Xinjiang, the tense northwestern region where most Uighurs live, has been enveloped in recent years in a vast dragnet of police surveillance , which authorities insist is needed to root out separatism and Islamic extremism. Zhang, who moved to Xinjiang from central Henan province more than a decade ago in search of work, wondered in his social media posts whether these policies were stoking resentment among Uighurs. He warned that China’s restrictions on the Uighurs’ religious practices risked sparking an insurgency.

S. Korean president calls sex slave deal with Japan flawed

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Thursday the country’s 2015 agreement with Japan to settle a decades-long impasse over Korean women forced into wartime sexual slavery was seriously flawed.

Moon’s statement in which he vows unspecified follow-up measures to meet the victims’ demands potentially throws the future of the deal in doubt, two years after both countries declared it as “final and irreversible.”

The statement came a day after a state-appointed panel concluded that Seoul’s previous conservative government failed to properly communicate with the victims before reaching the deal.

The panel also said parts of the deal were not made public, including Japanese demands that the South Korean government avoid using the term “sexual slavery” and provide a specific plan to remove a bronze statue representing sex slaves in front of its Seoul embassy. South Korea in response said it would formally refer to the victims as “victims of Japanese military comfort stations” but didn’t make any clear promise about the statue, according to the panel.

“It has been confirmed that the 2015 comfort women negotiation between South Korea had serious flaws, both in process and content,” Moon said in a statement read by his spokesman.

Trump’s Clinton tweets cut against Comey firing explanation

WASHINGTON — When President Donald Trump fired James Comey in May, he said he was acting on the recommendation of Justice Department leaders who had faulted the FBI director for releasing “derogatory information” about Hillary Clinton at the conclusion of the email server investigation months earlier.

Yet with each tweet about the Clinton probe, Trump seems to be further undermining his administration’s stated rationale for a termination that’s now central to special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.

The disconnect between Trump’s attacks on Comey’s handling of the email investigation and the criticism of Comey by his own Justice Department could muddy the explanation for exactly why Comey was fired, and may complicate efforts by the president’s legal team to present a coherent narrative as Mueller and his prosecutors examine whether the dismissal could support obstruction of justice allegations.

Trump has complained for months about the FBI’s decision not to pursue criminal charges against Clinton, his Democratic opponent in the 2016 presidential election, for her use of a personal email server. He has suggested the criminal investigation was rigged in her favor, claiming in one October tweet that Comey “totally protected” her. He recently seized on the revelation of politically charged text messages from an FBI agent who worked on that probe to again deride the investigation. And in a Saturday tweet that appeared to suggest Clinton should have been prosecuted, Trump caustically referred to “33,000 illegally deleted emails.”

Yet those attacks are increasingly hard to square with a Justice Department memo that the White House held up as justification for firing Comey. That document, authored by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, cited an unusual July 2016 news conference in which Comey described Clinton and her aides as “extremely careless” as well as Comey’s notification to Congress, days before the election, that the investigation was being revisited because of the sudden discovery of additional emails.

Ex-Miss Americas to help find new leaders

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Trashed by emails sent by pageant officials, former Miss Americas will help choose the new leaders of the Miss America Organization.

The group told The Associated Press Wednesday night that it is enlisting the help of former Miss Americas and state directors to recommend the next generation of leaders for the pageant.

In emails that were published last week by the Huffington Post, pageant officials ridiculed the appearance, intellect and sex lives of former Miss Americas. The emails included one that used a vulgar term for female genitalia to refer to past Miss America winners, one that wished that a particular former Miss America had died and others that speculated about how many sex partners former Miss America Mallory Hagan has had.

The ensuing uproar led to the group’s executive director, Sam Haskell; its president, Josh Randle; board chairwoman Lynn Weidner, and one other board member to resign.

Dan Meyers, the group’s interim board chairman, said former Miss Americas and state directors will recommend members for a search committee that will determine the organization’s leadership structure, and choose individuals to fill those roles.

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Thousands of Puerto Rico police owed overtime call in sick

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Thousands of police officers are calling in sick every day in Puerto Rico, partly to press demands for unpaid overtime pay for hurricane recovery efforts as concerns grow over people’s safety in a U.S. territory struggling to restore power.

The increase in absences recently prompted Puerto Rico Police Chief Michelle Hernandez to recommend that U.S. National Guard soldiers help fill the temporary vacancies.

“We have had an inordinate amount of absences that we haven’t seen in years prior,” she told The Associated Press, adding that while there has been a drop in major crimes this year, she is concerned that trend could reverse.

However, the administration of Gov. Ricardo Rossello on Wednesday rejected the idea of using the National Guard.

Normally, an average of 550 police officers are absent every day across Puerto Rico, which has one of the largest police departments under U.S. jurisdiction with more than 13,000 officers overall. But recently, more than 2,700 officers on average have been absent daily.

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Venezuelans abroad panhandle with their useless cash

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Jorge Gutierrez leaps onto a packed bus in Colombia’s capital, proudly announcing that he comes bearing gifts from neighboring Venezuela.

He holds up a thick wad of bolivars— the nearly worthless currency of his crisis-wracked homeland — and then asks for a small donation in exchange for each 100-bolivar note.

“Do you know what I can buy with this?” he says as the bus rumbles down a street in Bogota. “Absolutely nothing, gentlemen.”

This creative stunt has become a common scene in Colombia as a record number of Venezuelans pour across the border in search of a better life, many of them having to scratch out livelihoods on the street.

An estimated 550,000 Venezuelans have migrated to Colombia, crossing a spottily policed 1,242-mile border. Of those, some 200,000 have come in just in the last six months, threatening to overwhelm Colombia’s limited resources.

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FEMA sells disaster trailers cheaply despite victim demand

FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — The federal government typically spends up to $150,000 apiece — not counting utilities, maintenance or labor — on the trailers it leases to disaster victims, then auctions them at cut-rate prices after 18 months of use or the first sign of minor damage, The Associated Press has learned.

Officials have continued the practice even amid a temporary housing shortage in Texas, where almost 8,000 applicants are still awaiting federal support nearly four months after Hurricane Harvey landed in the Gulf Coast.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency briefly halted trailer sales following Harvey but resumed them in November, online records show. Since then, at least 115 units manufactured this year have been sold for pennies on the dollar, and many of the online auctions have listed such things as dirty mattresses, missing furniture, pet odors or loose trim as the lone damage.

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“I don’t care what shape it’s in, it beats sleeping on a dirt floor,” said Christy Combs, who moved with her husband, four children and five dogs into a tent after their rented apartment in Aransas Pass, Texas, was left uninhabitable by floodwater.

FEMA has no written policy or regulation requiring disposal of used trailers, but an official confirmed to AP that it’s a longstanding internal policy and that seldom are the housing units given to another family in need after the initial 18-month stint.