AP News in Brief at 9:04 p.m. EST


In early GOP win on health care repeal, Congress OKs budget

WASHINGTON (AP) — Ascendant Republicans drove a budget through Congress on Friday that gives them an early but critical victory in their crusade to scrap President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul.

The vote trains the spotlight on whether they and Donald Trump can deliver on repeated pledges to not just erase that statute but replace it.

Demonstrating the GOP’s willingness to plunge into a defining but risky battle, the House used a near party-line 227-198 roll call to approve a measure that prevents Senate Democrats from derailing a future bill, thus far unwritten, annulling and reshaping Obama’s landmark 2010 law. The budget, which won Senate approval early Thursday, does not need the president’s signature.

“The ‘Unaffordable’ Care Act will soon be history!” Trump tweeted Friday in a dig at the statute’s name, the Affordable Care Act. Trump takes the presidential oath next Friday.

The real work looms in coming months as the new administration and congressional Republicans write legislation to erase much of the health care law and replace it with a GOP version. Republicans have internal divisions over what that would look like, though past GOP proposals have cut much of the existing law’s federal spending and eased coverage requirements while relying more on tax benefits and letting states make decisions.

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Top Trump aide in frequent contact with Russia’s ambassador

WASHINGTON (AP) — President-elect Donald Trump’s national security adviser and Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. have been in frequent contact in recent weeks, including on the day the Obama administration hit Moscow with sanctions in retaliation for election-related hacking, a senior official said Friday.

Trump spokesman Sean Spicer acknowledged contacts between Michael Flynn and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, but said a phone conversation occurred on Dec. 28, one day before the sanctions were levied. Spicer said the men did not discuss sanctions. He did not specifically deny additional contacts the following day.

It’s not unusual for incoming administrations to have discussions with foreign governments before taking office. But repeated contacts just as President Barack Obama imposed sanctions would raise questions about whether Trump’s team discussed — or even helped shape — Russia’s response to the penalties.

Russian President Vladimir Putin unexpectedly did not retaliate against the U.S. for the move, a decision Trump quickly praised.

More broadly, Flynn’s contact with the Russian ambassador suggests the incoming administration has already begun to lay the groundwork for its promised, new closer relationship with Moscow. That effort appears to be moving ahead, even as many in Washington, including Republicans, have expressed outrage over intelligence officials’ assessment that Putin launched a hacking operation aimed at meddling in the U.S. election to benefit Trump.

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British ex-spy behind Trump dossier seen as a cool operator

LONDON (AP) — Christopher Steele, the one-time British spy who has compiled an explosive dossier on President-elect Donald Trump, is a well-regarded operative who wouldn’t make up stories to satisfy his clients, according to diplomatic and intelligence experts who know him.

Steele, 52, worked for MI6, Britain’s overseas intelligence agency, and served in Moscow in the early 1990s. After leaving the agency, he and a partner started Orbis Business Intelligence Ltd. in 2009. The firm provides strategic advice, gathers intelligence and conducts cross-border investigations, according to its website.

“I know him as a very competent, professional operator who left the secret service and is now operating his own private company,” Andrew Wood, Britain’s ambassador to Russia from 1995 to 2000, told the BBC on Friday. “I do not think he would make things up. I don’t think he would, necessarily, always draw correct judgment, but that’s not the same thing.”

In a tweet Friday, Trump described the “phony allegations” as having been compiled by his political opponents and a “failed spy afraid of being sued.” He did not mention Steele by name.

In Moscow, a spokesman for President Vladimir Putin said the reported author of a dossier claiming that Russia has compromising material on Trump “is not known to the Kremlin.” Spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Friday also reiterated the Kremlin’s view that the allegations are false.

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Trump’s team of rivals: Discordant notes in the amen chorus

WASHINGTON (AP) — You can’t really call them “yes men.” Maybe we’re meeting Donald Trump’s “yes, but” men.

Some of the incoming president’s most important Cabinet choices are at odds with him on matters that were dear to his heart as a campaigner and central to his promises to supporters.

Trump says he doesn’t mind the disconnect. He wants his Cabinet members to be themselves, “say what you want to say,” he told reporters Friday in New York. “I may be right, they may be right.”

But despite that breezy dismissal, the differences laid bare in a week of confirmation hearings raise questions about whether Trump will roll over his Cabinet on immigration, Russia, national security and more, bend to his top advisers’ stated convictions or watch them backtrack from pronouncements that may be helping them win Senate approval.

It’s a team of rivals, with this twist: The mercurial Trump can be a rival to himself.

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Report says Chicago police violated civil rights for years

CHICAGO (AP) — The Justice Department on Friday laid bare years of civil rights violations by Chicago police, blasting the nation’s second-largest department for using excessive force that included shooting at people who did not pose a threat and using stun guns on others only because they refused to follow commands.

The report was issued after a yearlong investigation sparked by the 2014 death of a black teenager who was shot 16 times by a white officer. The federal investigation looked broadly at policing and concluded that officers were not sufficiently trained or supported and that many who were accused of misconduct were rarely investigated or disciplined.

The findings come just a week before a change in administration that could reorder priorities at the Justice Department. Under President Barack Obama, the government has conducted 25 civil rights investigations of police departments, including those in Cleveland, Baltimore and Seattle. President-elect Donald Trump’s position on the federal review process is unclear. His nominee for attorney general has expressed reservations about the system, especially the reliance on courts to bring about changes.

Asked about the investigation’s future, outgoing Attorney General Loretta Lynch said talks between Chicago and the government would go on regardless “of who is at the top of the Justice Department.”

The federal government’s recommendations follow an especially bloody year on Chicago streets. The city logged 762 homicides in 2016, the highest tally in 20 years and more than the combined total of the two largest U.S. cities — New York and Los Angeles.

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Woman stolen at birth learns true identity; ‘Momma’ charged

WALTERBORO, S.C. (AP) — Stolen from a hospital just hours after she was born, an 18-year-old woman finally learned her true identity and was reunited Friday with her birth family, by video chat. The woman she thought was her mother was charged with her kidnapping.

Thanks to DNA analysis, the 18-year-old now knows her birth name: Kamiyah Mobley.

She’s in good health but understandably overwhelmed, Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams said.

Gloria Williams, 51, was arrested at her home in Walterboro, South Carolina, early Friday on charges of kidnapping and interference with custody.

Mobley — who was raised under her given name, Alexis Manigo — was allowed to spend a few emotional moments with Williams on Friday. She cried “Momma” through the caged window of a security door after Williams waived extradition to Florida, according to WXJT-TV, which posted a video online (http://bit.ly/2j9vRO5).

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Critics attacked, history revised as China nationalism rises

BEIJING (AP) — Writer Lu Yong had merely wanted to show support for a professor who had taken flak online for criticizing Mao Zedong, the founder of the communist state who died more than four decades ago.

Yet minutes after raising a sign to defend Deng Xiangchao’s right to free speech, Lu found himself surrounded by a group of Mao supporters who grappled at his face. Other companions were punched and kicked.

Video taken hours later showed the Mao loyalists parading through the campus of eastern China’s Jinan University with large banners while chanting “Down with Deng Xiangchao, down with traitors.” Within days, Deng was forced to retire and stripped of his Communist Party titles. State media justified his dismissal.

Across China, a retrograde strain of populist nationalism is gaining strength as the ruling Communist Party intensifies its control over history and ideology. Those who question the party’s interpretations find their careers and reputations threatened, while their persecutors receive tacit and sometimes outright support from the authorities.

“They are shutting down speech that’s not aligned with the party,” said Feng Chongyi, a China scholar at Sydney’s University of Technology. “Populism and the manipulation of working class anger, combined with nationalism and xenophobia are the classic signs of Chinese totalitarianism.”

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Takata agrees to guilty plea, will pay $1B for hiding defect

DETROIT (AP) — Takata Corp. has agreed to plead guilty to a single criminal charge and will pay $1 billion in fines and restitution for a years-long scheme to conceal a deadly defect in its automotive air bag inflators.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit announced the deal Friday, hours after it unsealed a six-count grand jury indictment against three former Takata executives who are accused of carrying out the scheme by falsifying and altering test reports that showed the inflators could rupture.

Takata inflators can explode with too much force, spewing shrapnel into drivers and passengers. At least 11 people have been killed in the U.S. and 16 worldwide because of the defect. More than 180 have been injured. The problem touched off the largest automotive recall in U.S. history covering 42 million vehicles and 69 million inflators. It will take years for the recalls to be completed.

“The risk that they allowed to happen is really reprehensible,” said Barbara McQuade, the U.S. Attorney in Detroit, whose office worked on the two-year investigation.

Under the deal, Takata will pay a $25 million criminal fine, $125 million to individuals injured by the air bags and $850 million to automakers that purchased the inflators.

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US policy change on Cuban migrants leaves many stranded

PANAMA CITY (AP) — It took three months for Gabriel Marin and his wife, Yansiel, to make it from their home in eastern Cuba to this migrant shelter in Panama’s capital. The goal was the United States and now the door that spurred their odyssey has slammed shut.

Hundreds of people like Marin were stranded in transit in South and Central America on Thursday when President Barack Obama ended the so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy that since 1995 has created a path to legal residency for thousands of Cubans who touched U.S. soil.

Marin and his wife were among 53 Cuban migrants at the Caritas shelter in Panama’s capital when the decision was announced. Most had arrived in recent weeks after slogging a similar route that involved a flight from Cuba to Guyana followed by traversing the jungles of Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia and finally a grueling hike across the Darien Gap into Panama.

“This has left us frozen, in total limbo, and sad because it wasn’t worth risking everything, our lives,” Marin, a 24-year-old cook wearing a Venezuelan soccer jersey said Thursday shortly after the news broke. Police in Peru near the Brazilian border had stolen $200 from them and now they were stuck.

“We can just wait and see what Trump can do,” Marin said, holding out hope that President-elect Donald Trump could reverse the change as part of a desire to dismantle the recent detente between the U.S. and Cuba. “I have a bunch of cousins waiting for me in the United States.”

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Surge in traffic deaths outpaces increase in travel

WASHINGTON (AP) — Traffic deaths surged about 8 percent in the first nine months of last year, continuing an alarming upward spiral that may be partially explained by more Americans on the roads due to the economic recovery, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates released Friday.

The sharp increase comes as drivers are putting more miles on the road than ever, the government said. But the rise in deaths is outpacing the increase in travel. Vehicle miles traveled in the first nine months of 2016 rose about 3 percent.

There were 27,875 deaths in the first three quarters of last year, compared to 25,808 deaths in the same period in 2015.

Experts believe the increased travel is mostly a result of an improved economy and low gas prices. But NHTSA’s data experts said increased travel and a better economy alone can’t explain the rise in deaths.

“We still have to figure out what is underlying those lives lost,” NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said. “If it was simple, we would already know that.”

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