AP News in Brief 01-01-19

  • President Donald Trump makes a statement in the Oval Office on Dec. 21 on the possible government shutdown before signing criminal just reform legislation. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

  • An illustration of the New Horizons spacecraft NASA launched in 2006. It’s about the size of a baby grand piano. (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI via AP)

NASA spacecraft hurtles toward tiny, icy world beyond Pluto

LAUREL, Md. — The NASA spacecraft that yielded the first close-up views of Pluto hurtled toward a New Year’s Day rendezvous with a tiny, icy world a billion miles farther out, in what would make it the most distant cosmic body ever explored by humankind.

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New Horizons was on course to fly past the mysterious, ancient object nicknamed Ultima Thule at 12:33 a.m. this morning. The close encounter comes 3½ years after the spacecraft swung past Pluto.

This time, the drama was set to unfold more than 4 billion miles from Earth, so far away that it will be 10 hours before flight controllers at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel find out whether the probe survived the flyby.

A few black-and-white pictures of Ultima Thule might be available following that official confirmation, but the highly anticipated close-ups won’t be ready until Wednesday or Thursday, in color, it is hoped.

“Today is the day we explore worlds farther than ever in history!! EVER,” tweeted the project’s lead scientist, Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute.

Mattis’ final words from Pentagon: ‘Hold fast’ with allies

WASHINGTON — Jim Mattis ended one of history’s more turbulent tenures as defense secretary on Monday by re-emphasizing a key difference with President Donald Trump and encouraging Pentagon employees, civilian and military, to “hold fast” in safeguarding the nation.

Mattis, who submitted his resignation on Dec. 20 and was, in effect, fired by Trump three days later, spent the day in his third-floor Pentagon office preparing to hand off his duties at midnight to Deputy Secretary Patrick Shanahan. Shanahan, a former Boeing executive, will be acting defense secretary until someone is nominated for the post.

In a written farewell message, Mattis urged all employees to “keep the faith in our country and hold fast, alongside our allies, aligned against our foes.” Mattis sees allies, including NATO, Japan and South Korea, as central to U.S. foreign and security policy, a point on which he differed from Trump, who denigrated allies as unworthy freeloaders.

In 711 days as defense secretary, Mattis wrestled with a series of surprise, sometimes sudden and often confusing, decisions by Trump, including a July 2017 presidential tweet saying he would ban transgender people from serving in the military. Mattis also disagreed with Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. He counted as a victory his persuading Trump to abandon, at least temporarily, his stated instinct to withdraw from Afghanistan. Earlier this month, Trump reversed himself and ordered a partial withdrawal, overriding Mattis’ objections.

Mattis also was set back by Trump’s tweet Dec. 8 announcing he had picked the Army chief of staff, Gen. Mark Milley, to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This not only left the current chairman, Gen. Joseph Dunford, in a lame duck status until his scheduled retirement next fall, but it also marked an unusual rejection of advice from his own secretary of defense. Mattis had recommended Air Force Gen. David Goldfein for the job.

House Democrats unveil measure to re-open government

WASHINGTON — House Democrats unveiled a package of bills Monday that would re-open the federal government without approving funding for President Donald Trump’s border wall with Mexico, establishing an early confrontation that will test the new power dynamic in Washington.

The House is preparing to vote as soon as the new Congress convenes Thursday, as one of the first acts after Democrats take control, according to an aide who was not authorized to discuss the plan and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Democrats under Nancy Pelosi are all but certain to swiftly approve the two bills, making good on their pledge to try to quickly resolve the partial government shutdown that’s now in its second week. What’s unclear is whether the Republican-led Senate, under Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will consider either measure — or if Trump would sign them into law.

“It would be the height of irresponsibility and political cynicism for Senate Republicans to now reject the same legislation they have already supported,” Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement late Monday.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The package does not include the $5 billion Trump wants for the wall on the southern border.

Timetable of Trump’s pullout from Syria being questioned

WASHINGTON — Amid questions about the pace of his exit from Syria, President Donald Trump complained Monday that he’s getting “bad press” for his decision to pull American troops out of the country and insisted he was simply making good on his campaign promise against U.S. involvement in “never ending wars.”

Trump abruptly announced in mid-December that he was withdrawing 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria. The decision was roundly criticized by his national security advisers and Democratic and Republican lawmakers, several of whom asked him to reconsider. It prompted Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to step down, and the U.S. envoy to the coalition fighting Islamic State militants resigned in protest.

Trump fought back against the criticism.

“I am the only person in America who could say that, ‘I’m bringing our great troops back home, with victory,’ and get BAD press,” Trump tweeted Monday. “It is Fake News and Pundits who have FAILED for years that are doing the complaining. If I stayed in Endless Wars forever, they would still be unhappy!”

Critics not only warn of a resurgence of IS, but worry that the American exit is a betrayal of U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in Syria and leaves them vulnerable to an attack from Turkish forces. Turkey considers the U.S.-backed Kurdish People’s Protection Units, which now controls nearly 30 percent of Syria, a terrorist group linked to an insurgency within its own borders.

From wire sources

AP Investigation: Food aid stolen as Yemen starves

TAIZ, Yemen — Day after day Nabil al-Hakimi, a humanitarian official in Taiz, one of Yemen’s largest cities, went to work feeling he had a “mountain” on his shoulders. Billions of dollars in food and other foreign aid was coming into his war-ravaged homeland, but millions of Yemenis were still living a step away from famine.

Reports of organizational disarray and out-and-out thievery streamed in to him this spring and summer from around Taiz — 5,000 sacks of rice doled out without record of where they’d gone … 705 food baskets looted from a welfare agency’s warehouses … 110 sacks of grain pillaged from trucks trying to make their way through the craggy northern highlands overlooking the city.

Food donations, it was clear, were being snatched from the starving.

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Documents reviewed by The Associated Press and interviews with al-Hakimi and other officials and aid workers show that thousands of families in Taiz are not getting international food aid intended for them — often because it has been seized by armed units that are allied with the Saudi-led, American-backed military coalition fighting in Yemen.

“The army that should protect the aid is looting the aid,” al-Hakimi told the AP.