Dogs Pose with Santa for Christmas Photos

In the United States, Christmas cards with family photos are popular. But more than ever many of those photos include a four-legged member of the family, the pet dog. For the past several years, a gourmet dog bakery and boutique in Arlington, Virginia has hired a professional pet photographer to take dog photos with Santa Claus. VOA’s Deborah Block takes us there to see the cute pups.

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Flynn Argues Against Prison Time in Russia Probe 

Lawyers for Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, asked a judge Tuesday to spare him prison time, saying he had devoted his career to his country and taken responsibility for an “uncharacteristic error in judgment.” 

 

The arguments to the judge echoed those of special counsel Robert Mueller’s office, which last week said that Flynn’s cooperation — including 19 meetings with investigators — was so extensive that he was entitled to avoid prison when he is sentenced next week. 

 

Flynn, who pleaded guilty of lying to the FBI about conversations during the presidential transition period with the then-Russian ambassador to the United States, will become the first White House official punished in the special counsel’s probe into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia during the 2016 presidential election. 

 

In court papers Tuesday, he requested probation and community service for his false statements.  

The filing came as lawyers for former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort said they were still deciding whether to dispute allegations that he lied to investigators and breached his plea agreement. A judge gave Manafort until Jan. 7 to respond to prosecutors’ claims that he misled them about his interactions with an associate who they say has ties to Russian intelligence and with Trump administration officials. 

 

The defendants, their fortunes sliding in opposite directions, represent starkly different paths in Mueller’s investigation — a model cooperator on one end and, prosecutors say, a dishonest and resistant witness on the other. Even as prosecutors recommend no prison time for Flynn, they’ve left open the possibility they may seek additional charges against Manafort, who is already facing years in prison. 

Threats to Trump

 

Given both men’s extensive conversations with prosecutors, and their involvement in key episodes under scrutiny, the pair could pose a threat to Trump, who in addition to Mueller’s investigation is entangled in a separate probe by prosecutors in New York into hush-money payments paid during the campaign to two women who say they had affairs with the president. 

 

Since his guilty plea a year ago, Flynn has stayed largely out of the public eye and refrained from discussing the Russia investigation despite encouragement from his supporters to take an aggressive stance. 

 

Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general, spent three decades in the military, including five years in combat. In a public statement after his plea, Flynn has said he cooperated with prosecutors because it was in “the best interests of my family and our country.” 

 

In Manafort’s case, prosecutors have accused him of repeatedly lying to them even after he agreed to cooperate. They say Manafort lied about his interactions with a longtime associate they say has ties to Russian intelligence, his contacts with Trump administration officials and other matters under investigation by the Justice Department. 

 

Manafort pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges in Washington in September and faces sentencing in a separate case in Virginia, where he was convicted of eight felony counts related to his efforts to hide from the Internal Revenue Service millions of dollars he received for Ukrainian political consulting.

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Trump Not Concerned About Impeachment, Defends Payments to Women

President Donald Trump said on Tuesday he was not concerned that he could be impeached and that hush payments made ahead of the 2016 election by his former personal attorney Michael Cohen to two women did not violate campaign finance laws.

“It’s hard to impeach somebody who hasn’t done anything wrong and who’s created the greatest economy in the history of our country,” Trump told Reuters in an Oval Office interview.

“I’m not concerned, no. I think that the people would revolt if that happened,” he said.

Federal prosecutors in New York said last week that Trump directed Cohen to make six-figure payments to two women so they would not discuss their alleged affairs with the candidate ahead of the 2016 presidential election.

They said the payments violated laws that stipulate that campaign contributions, defined as things of value given to a campaign to influence an election, must be disclosed, and limited to $2,700 per person.

Democrats said such a campaign law violation would be an impeachable offense, although senior party leaders in Congress have questioned whether it is a serious enough crime to warrant politically charged impeachment proceedings.

Impeachment requires a simple majority to pass the House of Representatives, where Democrats will take control in January. But removal of the president from office further requires a two-thirds majority in the Senate, where Trump’s fellow Republicans hold sway.

Cohen is scheduled to be sentenced on Wednesday in New York for his role in the payments to the two women — adult film actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal.

Trump has denied having affairs with them.

Earlier this year, Trump acknowledged repaying Cohen for $130,000 paid to Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford.

He  previously disputed knowing anything about the payments.

Trump has slammed Cohen for cooperating with prosecutors, alleging that the lawyer is telling lies about him in a bid to get a lighter prison term. He has called for Cohen to get a long sentence and said on Tuesday his ex-lawyer should have known the campaign finance laws.

“Michael Cohen is a lawyer. I assume he would know what he’s doing,” Trump said when asked if he had discussed campaign finance laws with Cohen.

“Number one, it wasn’t a campaign contribution. If it were, it’s only civil, and even if it’s only civil, there was no violation based on what we did. OK?”

Asked about prosecutors’ assertions that a number of people who had worked for him met or had business dealings with Russians before and during his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump said: “The stuff you’re talking about is peanut stuff.”

He then sought to turn the subject to his 2016 Democratic opponent.

“I haven’t heard this, but I can only tell you this: Hillary Clinton — her husband got money, she got money, she paid money, why doesn’t somebody talk about that?” Trump said.

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US Adds Pakistan to Blacklist for Religious Freedom Violations

The United States said Tuesday it has added Pakistan to its blacklist of countries that violate religious freedom, ramping up pressure over its treatment of minorities.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he had designated Pakistan among “countries of particular concern” in a congressionally mandated annual report, meaning the U.S. government is obliged to exert pressure to end freedom violations.

Pompeo a year earlier had placed Pakistan on a special watch list – a step short of the designation – in what had been seen as a U.S. tactic to press Islamabad into reforms.

Human rights advocates have long voiced worry about the treatment of minorities in Pakistan, including Shiites, Ahmadis and Christians.

But the timing of the full designation may be jarring as it comes after Pakistan moved to resolve its most high-profile case, with the Supreme Court in October releasing Asia Bibi – a Christian woman on death row for eight years for blasphemy.

The government recently charged a hardline cleric, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, with terrorism and sedition after he led violent protests against Bibi’s acquittal.

“In far too many places across the globe, individuals continue to face harassment, arrests or even death for simply living their lives in accordance with their beliefs,” Pompeo said in a statement.

“The United States will not stand by as spectators in the face of such oppression,” he said.

Nine countries remained for another year on the list of Countries of Particular Concern – China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

The United States removed one country from the list – Uzbekistan– but kept it on the watch list.

Pompeo also put on the watch list Russia, adding another item of contention to the relationship between the two powers.

Russia has increasingly drawn concern in the United States over its treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the heterodox Christian group known for proselytization.

Also on the watch list was the Comoros, the Indian Ocean archipelago that is almost exclusively Sunni Muslim.

 

 

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US Agency: Arctic Posts 2nd Warmest Year on Record in 2018

The Arctic had its second-hottest year on record in 2018, part of a warming trend that may be dramatically changing earth’s weather patterns, according to a report released on Tuesday by the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

“Arctic air temperatures for the past five years have exceeded all previous records since 1900,” according to the annual NOAA study, the 2018 Arctic Report Card, which said the year was second only to 2016 in overall warmth in the region.

It marks the latest in a series of warnings about climate change from U.S. government bodies, even as President Donald Trump has voiced skepticism about the phenomenon and has pushed a pro-fossil fuels agenda.

The study said the Arctic warming continues at about double the rate of the rest of the planet, and that the trend appears to be altering the shape and strength of the jet stream air current that influences weather in the Northern Hemisphere.

“Growing atmospheric warmth in the Arctic results in a sluggish and unusually wavy jet-stream that coincided with abnormal weather events,” it said, noting that the changing patterns have often brought unusually frigid temperatures to areas south of the Arctic Circle.

Some examples are “a swarm of severe winter storms in the eastern United States in 2018, and the extreme cold outbreak in Europe in March 2018 known as ‘the Beast from the East.'”

Environmentalists have long warned of rapid warming in the Arctic, saying it threatens imperiled species like polar bears, and is a harbinger of the broader impacts of climate change on the planet.

Scientists have warned that the region could suffer trillions of dollars worth of climate change-related damage to infrastructure in the coming decades.

But the melting of Arctic ice has piqued the interests of polar nations like the United States, Canada and Russia by opening new shipping routes and expanding access to a region believed to be rich in petroleum and minerals.

The United States and Russia have both expressed an interest in boosting Arctic drilling, and Russia has bolstered its military presence in the north.

The NOAA report comes weeks after more than a dozen U.S. government agencies released a study concluding that climate change is driven by human consumption of fossil fuels and will cost the U.S. economy hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the century.

Trump, who has been rolling back Obama-era environmental and climate protections to maximize production of domestic fossil fuels, said of the update to the National Climate Assessment: “I don’t believe it.”

Trump last year announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Paris Deal agreed by nearly 200 nations to combat climate change, arguing the accord would kill jobs and provide little tangible environmental benefit.

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Google CEO to Tell Lawmakers Tech Giant Operates ‘Without Political Bias’

Google CEO Sundar Pichai is expected to tell members of the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday he runs the U.S. technology giant without political preference.

“I lead this company without political bias and work to ensure that our products continue to operate that way. To do otherwise would go against our core principles and our business interests,” according to remarks prepared for the hearing.

Republican committee members are expected to question Pichai about allegations Google is biased against conservative voices.

President Donald Trump is among those who have accused the company of censoring conservative content, tweeting in August Google is “RIGGED” and that “Republican/Conservative & Fair Media is shut out.”

Pichai’s testimony comes after he angered committee members in September by declining an invitation to testify about manipulation of online services by foreign governments to influence U.S. elections.

The CEO may also be questioned about the company’s planned “Dragonfly” project, a censored search engine for China.

An international group of 60 human rights and media groups submitted a letter Tuesday to Pichai, calling on him to abandon the project, warning that personal data would not be safe from Chinese authorities.

Reporters Without Borders, a signatory to the letter, said China ranked 176 out of 180 countries in its Freedom of the Press Index.

Google shut down its search engine in China in 2010 after China insisted on censoring search results.

Click to read Pichai’s remarks in their entirety.

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US Sanctions Three N. Korean Officials for Suspected Rights Abuses

The United States on Monday sanctioned three North Korean officials, including a top aide to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, citing “ongoing and serious human rights abuses and censorship,” the U.S. Treasury Department said.

The sanctions “shine a spotlight on North Korea’s reprehensible treatment of those in North Korea, and serve as a reminder of North Korea’s brutal treatment of U.S. citizen Otto Warmbier,” the department said in a statement.

Warmbier was an American student who died in June 2017 after 17 months of detention in North Korea, which contributed to already tense exchanges between Pyongyang and Washington, primarily over North Korea’s nuclear development program.

It was not clear whether the decision to sanction the three men was related to U.S.-North Korean nuclear diplomacy, which has made little obvious progress since U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim met in Singapore in June.

The Treasury identified the three as Ryong Hae Choe, an aide close to Kim who heads the Workers’ Party of Korea Organization and Guidance Department; State Security Minister Kyong Thaek Jong; and the director of North Korea’s Propaganda and Agitation Department, Kwang Ho Pak.

The sanctions freeze any assets the officials may have under U.S. jurisdiction and generally prohibits them from engaging in any transactions with anyone in the United States.

In the lead up to the Trump-Kim summit, North Korea released three American prisoners, although talks between the two countries have since stalled. Last month, North Korea said it would deport another detained U.S. citizen.

Talks that had been planned for Nov. 8 between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and senior North Korean official Kim Yong Chol and that aimed to pave the way for a second summit were canceled with 24 hours’ notice.

At the time, the U.S. State Department said the meeting had been postponed, but gave no reason, raising concerns that talks aimed at persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear arms could break down. The State Department said the talks would be rescheduled “when our respective schedules permit.”

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US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait Have not Endorsed a Key Study on Global Warming

As the U.N. global climate conference in Katowice, Poland entered its second week Sunday, the non-governmental environmental organization Greenpeace demanded urgent action from world leaders to tackle climate change.

Greenpeace activists projected a message onto the roof of the “Spodek” arena where the COP24 is being held, saying “No Hope Without Climate Action: and “Politicians Talk, Leaders Act.”

Disappointing many of the scientists and delegates at the conference, the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait refused to endorse a landmark study on global warming which was to be the benchmark for future action in curbing the global warming.

The four nations wanted only to “note” but not “welcome” the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that was released in October, in keeping with the views of the Trump administration. With no consensus on including the report, the idea was dropped.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who has announced he is pulling the United States out of the Paris climate agreement, tweeted Saturday that “people do not want to pay large sums of money … in order to maybe protect the environment.” 

The IPCC’ report said that drastic actions would be needed to achieve the Paris accord’s most ambitious target of keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. The report warned that the world was far from that target and heading more towards an increase of 3 degrees Celsius.

On Monday, the environmental ministers arrive at COP24 and many delegates hope that they will make every effort to include the IPCC report in the conference agenda.

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