White House chief of staff John Kelly to leave at year’s end

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Saturday that chief of staff John Kelly will leave his job by year’s end amid an expected West Wing reshuffling reflecting a focus on the 2020 re-election campaign and the challenge of governing with Democrats reclaiming control of the House.

Nick Ayers, Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, is Trump’s top choice to replace Kelly, and the two have held discussions for months about the job, a White House official said. An announcement was expected in the coming days, the president told reporters as he left the White House for the Army-Navy football game in Philadelphia.

Kelly had been credited with imposing order on a chaotic West Wing after his arrival in June 2017 from his post as homeland security secretary. But his iron first also alienated some longtime Trump allies, and he grew increasingly isolated, with an increasingly diminished role.

Known through the West Wing as “the chief” or “the general,” the retired Marine Corps four-star general was tapped by Trump via tweet in July 2017 from his perch atop the Homeland Security Department to try to normalize a White House riven by infighting and competing power bases.

“John Kelly will leaving — I don’t know if I can say retiring — but he’s a great guy,” Trump said. “John Kelly will be leaving at the end of the year. We’ll be announcing who will be taking John’s place — it might be on an interim basis. I’ll be announcing that over the next day or two, but John will be leaving at the end of the year. ... I appreciate his service very much.”

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Comey: Russia investigation initially looked at 4 Americans

WASHINGTON — The FBI’s counterintelligence investigation into potential ties between the Trump campaign and Russia initially focused on four Americans and whether they were connected to Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, former FBI Director James Comey told lawmakers during hours of closed-door questioning.

Comey did not identify the Americans but said President Donald Trump, then the Republican candidate, was not among them.

He also told the House Judiciary Committee that, contrary to Trump’s claims, he was “not friends in any social sense” with special counsel Robert Mueller, who is now leading the Russia investigation. Trump has repeatedly portrayed the men as exceptionally close as part of a long-running effort to undermine the investigation and paint the lead figures in the probe as united against him.

“I admire the heck out of the man, but I don’t know his phone number, I’ve never been to his house, I don’t know his children’s names,” said Comey, who added that he had “never hugged or kissed the man” despite the president’s insistence otherwise.

“A relief to my wife,” he deadpanned.

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Rioting engulfs Paris as anger grows over high French taxes

PARIS — The rumble of armored police trucks and the hiss of tear gas filled central Paris on Saturday, as French riot police fought to contain thousands of yellow-vested protesters venting their anger against the government in a movement that has grown more violent by the week.

A ring of steel surrounded the president’s Elysee Palace — a key destination for the protesters — as police stationed trucks and reinforced metal barriers throughout the neighborhood.

Stores along the elegant Champs-Elysees Avenue and the posh Avenue Montaigne boarded up their windows as if bracing for a hurricane but the storm struck anyway Saturday, this time at the height of the holiday shopping season. Protesters ripped off the plywood protecting the windows and threw flares and other projectiles. French riot police repeatedly repelled them with tear gas and water cannon.

Saturday’s yellow vest crowd was overwhelmingly male, a mix of those bringing their financial grievances to Paris — the center of France’s government, economy and culture — along with groups of experienced vandals who tore steadily through some of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods, smashing and burning.

Police and protesters also clashed in other French cities, notably Marseille, Toulouse and Bordeaux, and in neighboring Belgium. Some protesters took aim at the French border with Italy, creating a huge traffic backup near the town of Ventimiglia.

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Oklahoma’s Murray edges Alabama’s Tagovailoa for Heisman

NEW YORK — Kyler Murray replaced a Heisman Trophy winner by becoming a Heisman Trophy winner.

The Oklahoma quarterback won college football’s most prestigious individual award Saturday night, edging Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and setting up a College Football Playoff matchup of Heisman winner versus runner-up.

The fourth-ranked Sooners play the top-ranked Crimson Tide in the Orange Bowl semifinal Dec. 29 in the seventh bowl matchup of Heisman winner and runner-up, and first since second-place finisher Vince Young and Texas beat Reggie Bush and Southern California in the 2006 Rose Bowl.

This season, Murray stepped into the starting job at Oklahoma held by last year’s Heisman winner and first overall NFL draft pick, Baker Mayfield. Oklahoma is the first school with have Heisman-winning quarterbacks in consecutive seasons and the fifth overall with winners in back-to-back years.

“This is crazy,” Murray said in his acceptance speech. “This is an honor, something that I’ll never forget. Something that I’ll always cherish for the rest of my life.”

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China: Canada’s detention of Huawei exec ‘vile in nature’

BEIJING — China summoned the Canadian ambassador to protest the detention of a top executive of leading Chinese tech giant Huawei, calling it “unreasonable, unconscionable, and vile in nature” and warning of “grave consequences” if she is not released.

A report by the official Xinhua News Agency carried on the Foreign Ministry’s website said that Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng called in Ambassador John McCallum on Saturday over the holding of Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou, who is reportedly suspected of trying to evade U.S. trade curbs on Iran.

Huawei is the biggest global supplier of network gear for phone and internet companies and has been the target of deepening U.S. security concerns over its ties to the Chinese government. The U.S. has pressured European countries and other allies to limit use of its technology, warning they could be opening themselves up to surveillance and theft of information.

Le told McCallum that Meng’s detention at the request of the United States while transferring flights in Vancouver was a “severe violation” of her “legitimate rights and interests.”

“Such a move ignores the law and is unreasonable, unconscionable, and vile in nature,” Le said in the statement.

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Swath of South faces wintry mess: Snow, sleet, freezing rain

RICHMOND, Va. — A storm spreading snow, sleet and freezing rain took aim at millions of people across a wide swath of the South, raising the threat of immobilizing snowfalls, icy roads and possible power outages.

Governors and local officials in several states declared emergencies ahead of the storm, freeing up funds and manpower to help mitigate its effect.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said Saturday that residents in the some parts of the state should be ready for a lengthy fight with the storm, which was beginning to dump sleet and snow across its western mountain areas Saturday night.

“We’re preparing for days of impact, not hours,” Cooper said, urging caution. “This weekend isn’t the time to head out to see the winter wonderland. Stay safe where you are. Getting out on dangerous roads could put your life at risk.”

Officials have warned residents to prepare emergency kits and staff off roads in impacted areas.

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Analysis: Legal clouds over Trump grow with new disclosures

WASHINGTON — The more that special counsel Robert Mueller and federal prosecutors reveal, the darker grow the legal clouds over President Donald Trump.

Trump’s own Justice Department has now implicated him in a crime, accusing him of directing illegal hush-money payments to women during his 2016 presidential campaign. Mueller keeps finding new instances of Trump associates lying about their contacts with Russia during an election the Kremlin worked to sway in the Republican’s favor.

The president hasn’t been charged with any crimes. He may never be. Whether a president can be prosecuted while in office remains a matter of legal dispute.

But Trump also hasn’t been cleared of wrongdoing. Each new legal filing underscores that the president is a central figure in investigations that already have brought down several people who worked closely with him and remain a threat to others in Trump’s orbit.

Even if the president is never charged with illegal activity, the months of investigations and legal wrangling have cast a pall over his administration and exposed the culture of lying that has surrounded Trump, both in and out of office.

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Can a sitting president be indicted while in office?

WASHINGTON — For the first time, prosecutors have tied President Donald Trump to a federal crime, accusing him of directing illegal hush-money payments to women during his presidential campaign in 2016.

The Justice Department stopped short of accusing Trump of directly committing a crime. Instead, they said in a court filing Friday night that Trump told his former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, to make illegal payments to buy the silence of two women — porn actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal — who claimed to have had affairs with Trump and threatened his White House bid. Trump has denied having an affair.

Cohen has pleaded guilty to several charges, including campaign finance violations, and is awaiting sentencing.

Although Trump hasn’t been charged with any crimes, the question of whether a president can even be prosecuted while in office is a matter of legal dispute.

Here’s a look at that long-running legal ambiguity and a few of the main issues at play:

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Concert stampede in Italy leaves 6 dead, over 50 hurt

CORINALDO, Italy — Teenagers panicked before a rap concert at a jammed Italian disco, setting off a stampede that killed five of them and a mother who had brought her daughter to the event, authorities and survivors said. Fifty-three people were reported injured, including 13 in very serious condition.

Several survivors said panic spread through the late-night crowd after someone unleashed an irritant spray. Investigators said they were checking those reports.

Video on state TV RaiNews24 showed scores of teenagers rushing out a door and surging toward a low wall near an exit at the Blue Lantern disco in the central Italian town of Corinaldo, near Ancona on the Adriatic coast. The barrier then gives way and a cascade of teenagers tumble over it, falling on top of each other.

The bodies of the trampled victims were all found near a low wall, Ancona Firefighters Cmdr. Dino Poggiali told Sky TG24 News. State radio said most of the dead had their skulls crushed in the melee.

The victims — three girls and two boys — ranged in age from 14 to 16 and the mother who was killed was 39, said Col. Cristian Carrozza, commander of the Ancona province Carabinieri paramilitary police.

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FBI: Man charged in kidnapping, death of North Carolina teen

LUMBERTON, N.C. — Police have arrested and charged a man with killing a 13-year-old girl who was kidnapped last month from a North Carolina mobile home park.

The FBI said early Saturday that Michael Ray McLellan has been charged in connection with the kidnapping and murder of Hania Noelia Aguilar. The announcement comes the same day that a memorial service for Aguilar is set to take place at a local high school.

The 34-year-old McLellan faces first-degree murder, rape and eight other felony charges. He’d been released from prison in June and was still on parole from a 2017 felony breaking and entering conviction, according to the News & Observer of Raleigh.

He was previously convicted in 2007 of assault with a deadly weapon and was released on parole in 2016, the newspaper reported.

He is being held without bond in the Robeson County Detention Center. He will appear in court at the Robeson County Courthouse on Monday.

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