By Denis Dyomkin and Suleiman Al-Khalidi MOSCOW/GENEVA (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin announced out of the blue on Monday that "the main part" of Russian armed forces in Syria would start to withdraw, telling his diplomats to step up the push for peace as U.N.-mediated talks resumed on ending the five-year-old war. Damascus rejected any suggestion of a rift with Moscow, saying President Bashar al-Assad had agreed on the "reduction" of Russian forces in a telephone call with Putin. Western diplomats speculated that Putin may be trying to press Assad into accepting a political settlement to the war, which has killed 250,000 people, although U.S. officials saw no sign yet of Russian forces preparing to pull out. The anti-Assad opposition expressed bafflement, with a spokesman saying, "Nobody knows what is in Putin's mind". Russia's military intervention in Syria in September helped to turn the tide of war in Assad's favor after months of gains in western Syria by rebel fighters, who were aided by foreign military supplies including U.S.-made anti-tank missiles. Putin made his surprise announcement, that came with no advance word to the United States, at a meeting with his defense and foreign ministers. Russian forces had largely fulfilled their objectives in Syria, Putin said. But he gave no deadline for the completion of the withdrawal and said forces would remain at a seaport and airbase in Syria's Latakia province. In Geneva, United Nations mediator Staffan de Mistura told the warring parties there was no "Plan B" other than a resumption of conflict if the first of three rounds of talks that aim to agree a "clear roadmap" for Syria failed to make progress. Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama spoke by phone on Monday about Syria, with the Kremlin saying the two leaders "called for an intensification of the process for a political settlement" to the conflict. The White House said Obama welcomed the reduction in violence since the beginning of the cessation of hostilities but "underscored that a political transition is required to end the violence in Syria.” A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Washington was encouraged by Putin’s announcement but that it was too early to say what it means, whether he will carry it out and what may have motivated it. Putin said at the Kremlin meeting that he was ordering the withdrawal from Tuesday of "the main part of our military contingent" from the country. "The effective work of our military created the conditions for the start of the peace process," he said. "I believe that the task put before the defense ministry and Russian armed forces has, on the whole, been fulfilled." With the participation of the Russian military, Syrian armed forces "have been able to achieve a fundamental turnaround in the fight against international terrorism", he added. 'COMPLETE COORDINATION' Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin had telephoned the Syrian president to inform him of the decision, but the two leaders had not discussed Assad's future, the biggest obstacle to reaching a peace agreement. The move was announced on the day U.N.-brokered talks involving the warring sides in Syria resumed in Geneva. In Damascus, the Syrian presidency said in a statement that Assad had agreed to the reduction in the Russian air force presence, and denied suggestions it reflected a difference between the two countries "The whole subject happened in complete coordination between the Russian and Syrian sides, and is a step that was carefully and accurately studied for some time," the statement said, adding that Moscow had promised to continue support for Syria in "confronting terrorism." Syria regards all rebel groups fighting Assad as terrorists. Rebels and opposition officials alike reacted skeptically. "I don't understand the Russian announcement, it's a surprise, like the way they entered the war. God protect us," said Fadi Ahmad, spokesman for the First Coastal Division, a Free Syria Army group fighting in the northwest. Opposition spokesman Salim al-Muslat demanded a total Russian withdrawal. "Nobody knows what is in Putin's mind, but the point is he has no right to be in be our country in the first place. Just go," he said. A European diplomat was also skeptical. "It has the potential to put a lot of pressure on Assad and the timing fits that," the diplomat said. "However, I say potentially because we've seen before with Russia that what's promised isn't always what happens." MOMENT OF TRUTH The Geneva talks are the first in more than two years and come amid a marked reduction in fighting after last month's "cessation of hostilities," sponsored by Washington and Moscow and accepted by Assad's government and many of his foes. Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, confirmed some forces would stay in Syria. "Our military presence will continue to be there, it will be directed mostly at making sure that the ceasefire, the cessation of hostilities, is maintained," he told reporters at the United Nations in New York. But he added, "Our diplomacy has received marching orders to intensify our efforts to achieve a political settlement in Syria." Speaking before Putin's announcement, de Mistura said Syria faced a moment of truth, as he opened talks to end a war which has displaced half the population, sent refugees streaming into Europe and turned Syria into a battlefield for foreign forces and jihadis. The limited truce, which excludes the powerful Islamic State and Nusra Front groups, is fragile. The warring sides have accused each other of multiple violations and they arrived in Geneva with what look like irreconcilable agendas. The Syrian opposition has said the talks must focus on setting up a transitional governing body with full executive power, and that Assad must leave power at the start of the transition. Damascus has said Assad's opponents are deluded if they think they will take power at the negotiating table. (Additional reporting by Phil Stewart, Arshad Mohammed, Eric Beech, Michelle Nichols, Tom Miles, Tom Perry, Stephanie Nebehay and Jack Stubbs; Writing by Dominic Evans, David Stamp and Peter Cooney; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Toni Reinhold)
- Yahoo News
David Cohen, who helped spearhead CIA modernization efforts, could be Biden's pick for the agency's post-Trump future
Cohen is reportedly being considered as one of President-elect Joe Biden’s candidates for CIA director amid pushback from human rights experts and progressives opposed to Michael Morell, Biden’s original top choice.
- Yahoo News
Rep. Ilhan Omar proposed the legislation in April but concerns about an impending wave of evictions has continued to grow.
- Yahoo News 360
Media reports suggest President Trump is eyeing another bid for the White House in four years. Will Trump 2024 become a reality?
Iran plans to install hundreds more advanced uranium-enriching centrifuges at an underground plant in breach of its deal with major powers, a U.N. nuclear watchdog report showed on Friday, a move that will raise pressure on U.S. President-elect Joe Biden. The confidential International Atomic Energy Agency report obtained by Reuters said Iran plans to install three more cascades, or clusters, of advanced IR-2m centrifuges in the underground plant at Natanz, which was apparently built to withstand aerial bombardment.
- Associated Press
The Army Corps of Engineers reversed course on an Obama-era proposal to charge for water drawn from reservoirs the Corps manages, North Dakota’s attorney general said Friday. Attorneys general from a dozen Western and Plains states sent a letter last year to the Trump administration asking that the proposal be withdrawn. Republican North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem headed the effort, which was backed by attorneys general from Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
- The Week
President-elect Joe Biden said when it comes to the Department of Justice, he is "not going to be telling them what they have to do and don't have to do."Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris were interviewed by CNN's Jake Tapper on Thursday, and the discussion turned to reports that President Trump is contemplating preemptively pardoning his adult children, son-in-law Jared Kushner, and personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. Biden said this "concerns me in terms of what kind of precedent it sets and how the rest of the world looks [at] us as a nation of laws and justice."Biden promised that he is "not going to be saying, 'Go prosecute A, B, or C,' I'm not going to be telling them. That's not the role, it's not my Justice Department, it's the people's Justice Department. So the persons or person I pick to run that department are going to be people who are going to have the independent capacity to decide who gets prosecuted, who doesn't."Harris, who once served as California's attorney general, added that the administration will assume that "any decision coming out of the Justice Department ... should be based on the law, it should not be influence by politics, period."More stories from theweek.com What Trump is doing isn't politics. It's something much worse. 5 absurdly funny cartoons about Trump's desperate fraud claims The Donald goes down to Georgia
The "ambitious" target for 2030 would see the UK move faster than any major economy, the PM says.
Russia protested on Friday after Latvia charged several journalists from the Rossiya Segodnya news agency with violating European Union sanctions. The journalists were charged because of their association with Dmitry Kiselyov, who heads Rossiya Segodnya, said Sputnik Latvia, a subsidiary of Rossiya Segodnya. The Kremlin media mogul was sanctioned by the EU for his role in Russia's seizure of the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.
- Associated Press
The Tennessee Supreme Court on Thursday indefinitely postponed the execution of death row inmate Byron Black. Black was convicted by a Nashville court of murdering his girlfriend Angela Clay and her daughters Latoya, 9, and Lakesha, 6, at their home in 1988. Black’s lead attorney, Kelley Henry, filed the petition for a second delay last month after contracting COVID-19 during a visit to a federal prisoner she is representing in Texas.
- The Week
President Trump reportedly needs no encouragement to start praising the dangerous, baseless QAnon conspiracy theory.The most pressing matter for federal Republicans right now is the upcoming Senate runoffs in Georgia, which will determine control of the body. But in a meeting with advisers and top Senate Republicans about that matter, Trump totally derailed the conversation by bringing up QAnon, people familiar with the discussion tell The Washington Post.Trump is reportedly not thrilled with Georgia and that fact that it flipped for President-elect Joe Biden, and is publicly upset with Republican leaders in the state who haven't somehow overturned the election for him. So even though Republican advisers say Trump's help is "key to convincing his die-hard supporters to vote for Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue" in the January runoff election, the president isn't thrilled about doing so, the Post reports. "Advisers say he has been frustrated at how some GOP senators have criticized him," leading Trump to appear "disinterested" when discussing Senate campaign plans, the Post continues.That was clear in a recent meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Sen. Todd C. Young (R-Ind.), and other aides. As they discussed Georgia's Senate races, Trump brought up the QAnon-supporting soon-to-be congressmember Marjorie Taylor Greene. Trump mispronounced the name of the group as "Q-an-uhn," and then said supporters of the theory that purports Democrats are a cannibalistic, pedophilic cabal "basically believe in good government," people familiar tell the Post. Everyone reportedly went silent until White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows mentioned he had "never heard it described that way," the Post reports.Trump has been asked to denounce QAnon several times, but usually gives the theory his tacit approval instead.More stories from theweek.com What Trump is doing isn't politics. It's something much worse. 5 absurdly funny cartoons about Trump's desperate fraud claims The Donald goes down to Georgia
- The Telegraph
Michel Barnier is accustomed to being universally praised on his regular tours of the EU's capitals to preach the gospel against Brexit. On Tuesday, he was in the unfamiliar position of coming under friendly fire for the first time in three years as the EU's chief negotiator. It was an uncomfortable moment for Mr Barnier, who was headquartered at the Hotel Conrad in Westminster and is enmeshed in intensive Brexit negotiations with his UK counterpart David Frost. Expectation had been building that a trade agreement with Britain was close and a damaging no deal avoided. A fitting legacy for a politician who had dedicated decades of service to the EU was in Mr Barnier's grasp. He was far from the poisonous briefings in Brussels that were going on behind his back – but bad news travels fast. The chief negotiator was going soft on Britain, EU diplomats in the Belgian capital sniped. He risked giving too much away.
- The Daily Beast
While Kyle Rittenhouse awaits trial for killing two people at a Kenosha, Wisconsin, Black Lives Matter protest this summer, his lawyers are in prosecutors’ crosshairs.From the start of the high-profile case, Rittenhouse’s lawyers have attracted nearly as much attention as he has. Now, the 17-year-old’s main lawyer, John Pierce, is off the case, after prosecutors argued that fundraisers for Rittenhouse could act as a “slush fund” for the embattled attorney. Another prominent attorney who has associated himself with Rittenhouse, Lin Wood, also appears to have pivoted away from the case in order to focus his efforts on overturning President Donald Trump’s 2020 election loss.Rittenhouse was charged with reckless homicide after he fatally shot two people and wounded a third person at the August protest. He has pleaded not guilty and says he acted in self-defense.The Lawyer Raising Money for Kyle Rittenhouse Nearly Sank His Own Law FirmPierce and Wood emerged as Rittenhouse champions shortly after his arrest. Earlier this year, the pair had banded together to launch the “FightBack” foundation, an organization with a nebulous set of missions, many of them apparently litigating right-wing grievances with the media. Some of the foundation’s funds were redirected to Pierce’s own law firm.FightBack’s launch came at a fortunate moment for Pierce. The law firm he leads has been sued by at least four payday lenders and one legal services company this year, all of them alleging unpaid bills, The Daily Beast previously reported. In April, another lender accused the firm of owing them $65 million. The debts, plus an unspecified rehab stint for Pierce earlier this year, aligned with a recent exodus of more than 60 lawyers from Pierce’s firm.Pierce and Wood advertised the FightBack foundation as a way for Rittenhouse’s fans—of which there are many on the right—to donate money to his defense. But in a Thursday court appearance, prosecutors argued that the money stream could act as a “slush fund” to pay off Pierce’s debts.Pierce had no income and monthly expenses of $49,481, prosecutors alleged in a motion. He was also approximately $1.2 million in debt and was being sued for allegedly violating the rental agreement on his $1.3 million home.“This creates a potential conflict of interest for attorney Pierce,” the motion read, as reported by The Chicago Tribune. “Given his own substantial personal debts, his involvement with an unregulated and opaque ‘slush fund’ provides ample opportunity for self-dealing and fraud. The more that the Foundation raises in donations, the more he may personally benefit. Money that should be held in trust for the defendant may instead be used to repay attorney Pierce’s numerous creditors.”Pierce denied those allegations in an email to The Daily Beast. “The allegations you reference are ludicrous,” he wrote. “All of the funds are controlled by Kyle’s mother Wendy. In addition, I have no affiliation whatsoever with that foundation.” (In fact, Pierce was affiliated with FightBack until September, when he stepped down the day after a Daily Beast report revealing its contributions to his law firm.)Prosecutors also claimed Pierce had broken rules about attorney conduct, accusing him of potentially influencing future jurors with complaints about the district attorney overseeing the case. On Twitter, Pierce stoked ire against District Attorney Michael Graveley, claiming he was “in active (and weirdly familiar) texting communication with main BLM activist for six weeks prior to, during and after the riots.”This Gun Coffee Brand Was MAGA Royalty. Then It Turned on Kyle Rittenhouse. Pierce and another Rittenhouse defense attorney, Andrew Calderon, announced Thursday that they would withdraw from the case, shortly after prosecutors filed motions to disqualify them.Pierce told The Daily Beast that the withdrawal “was always the plan.”“Now that we have successfully gotten Kyle bailed out and have built an amazing criminal defense team in Wisconsin,” he said, “I am turning my attention to the massive tasks of preparing Kyle’s defamation and other civil claims as well as orchestrating our new fundraising efforts to ensure we have the resources to get through trial.”Those fundraising efforts might be in flux, however, as the FightBack foundation turns its attention from Rittenhouse and toward overturning Trump’s 2020 loss.“For the foreseeable future, FightBack will be focusing on exposing fraud in the November 3 election,” Wood tweeted last week. (He is currently involved in long-shot lawsuits challenging the election results, and peddled false voter fraud theories in a press conference this week.) “Going forward, anyone who wishes to make donations for Kyle should contact his criminal defense attorney, John Pierce.”Neither Wood nor Pierce answered questions on Friday about Pierce’s relationship with fundraising now that he is no longer Rittenhouse’s attorney.Wood’s tweet also signaled that he was pulling away from Rittenhouse’s case. “Lin has withdrawn from representing Kyle,” Pierce confirmed to The Daily Beast.Because Wood, who mostly handles defamation cases, was never officially Rittenhouse’s criminal attorney, his exact relationship with Rittenhouse’s legal team is unclear.“I am not and have never been a criminal lawyer for Kyle. I am a civil trial lawyer,” Wood told The Daily Beast. He added that Pierce was no longer associated with FightBack, which prosecutors had argued was a potential Pierce slush fund.“John Pierce is not affiliated with my foundation,” Wood said. “I understand Mark Richards is the criminal lawyer for Kyle in Wisconsin.”Richards, a Racine, Wisconsin, defense attorney confirmed that neither of the other two lawyers was representing Rittenhouse in the homicide case.“I am representing Kyle in th criminal matter atty’s pierce & wood are not,” he wrote The Daily Beast in an email. “We are very thankful for all the support from both individuals, the foundation & the prople who have donated.” [sic]Read more at The Daily Beast.Get our top stories in your inbox every day. Sign up now!Daily Beast Membership: Beast Inside goes deeper on the stories that matter to you. Learn more.
A Chinese official's tweet of an image of an Australian soldier that sparked a furious reaction from Canberra was amplified across social media by unusual accounts, of which half were likely fake, an Israeli cybersecurity firm and Australian experts said. The digitally altered image of an Australian soldier holding a bloodied knife to the throat of an Afghan child was tweeted by China's foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian on Monday. Twitter declined Australia's request to remove the tweet.
- Associated Press
Lebanon's Hezbollah said Friday it is suing a former Christian lawmaker and a website affiliated with a Christian political party for defamation, after they accused the Shiite militant group of being responsible for the devastating explosion at Beirut's port this summer. Hezbollah’s legal representative Ibrahim Mussawi said the accusations, leveled by Fares Souaid and the website of the right-wing Lebanese Forces party, were misleading. Mussawi, also a Hezbollah lawmaker, told a press conference outside the courts house that blaming the group threatens to disrupt social peace in Lebanon, at a time when the United States is exerting maximum pressure on his party and its allies.
- USA TODAY
Five executions are scheduled before Joe Biden, who opposes capital punishment, takes office. Ninety current and former law officials want a halt.
- The Week
There appears to be growing support among Senate Republicans for a bipartisan coronavirus relief bill introduced earlier this week, reports The Washington Post.The $908 billion package — championed by moderate Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), Susan Collins (D-Maine), and Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) — is in between what Democratic leadership is pushing for and what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has suggested. The moderates suggested an unemployment boost and money for state governments, but no stimulus checks.While McConnell on Thursday continued to resist the bipartisan bill, pushing instead for his version, which the White House has endorsed, other Republican senators got on board with the package. Sens. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), John Cornyn (R-Tex.), and Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) signaled they were open to the bipartisan bill.Democratic leaders said they believed the $908 billion package should be the basis for negotiations. Several Republicans echoed that, saying it wasn't exactly what they wanted but it made for a good starting point.McConnell didn't comment directly on the bipartisan proposal, but instead urged lawmakers to pull the trigger on his version, which he called "a serious and highly targeted relief proposal including elements which we know the president is ready and willing to sign into law."More stories from theweek.com What Trump is doing isn't politics. It's something much worse. 5 absurdly funny cartoons about Trump's desperate fraud claims The Donald goes down to Georgia
Philippine police on Friday threatened to cane people who violate social distancing protocols as the Southeast Asian nation fights the spread of the coronavirus during the festive season. The Philippines celebrates one of the world's longest Christmas seasons, starting as early as September, and crowds have started to flock to sprawling malls and shopping centres despite the pandemic. Police general Cesar Binag, commander of the coronavirus task force, told a news conference that police and soldiers would patrol in public areas in the capital Manila, the hotspot of COVID-19 cases, carrying 1 meter rattan sticks to measure distancing.
- Yahoo News Video
As a pair of critical Senate runoff races approach on Jan. 5, Georgia Republican leaders find themselves in a conundrum, trying to balance indulging President Trump’s baseless claims of voter fraud with supporting state GOP election officials. Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, a Republican, is frustrated with the misinformation about the election process in his state. “I’m actually embarrassed at the amount of misinformation that continues to show up on Twitter feeds and Facebook posts and blogs that takes literally 10 seconds to debunk,” Duncan told Yahoo News. “Anybody could debunk it, but because they’ve let themselves get to a point where they’re more worried about flipping an election result than they are following the truth, that’s how we’ve gotten here.”
- Associated Press
A Hong Kong pro-democracy activist and former lawmaker who is visiting Denmark said Thursday he is going into exile and will soon move to Britain. “I hereby announce that I will go into exile and will withdraw my membership in the Democratic Party of Hong Kong to leave Hong Kong,” Ted Hui said in a statement to The Associated Press. It was not clear when he would travel to Britain which, in response to a crackdown on opposition in Hong Kong, has extended residency rights for up to 3 million Hong Kongers eligible for British National Overseas passports, allowing them to live and work there for five years.
- Business Insider
Attorney for Jared Kushner and a Trump fundraiser investigated by DOJ in alleged bribery-for-pardon scheme
The New York Times reported that a lawyer for President Trump's son-in-law was investigated by the Justice Department this summer.