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Analysis: In China, Trump opts against confrontation

BEIJING — President Donald Trump pulled his punches.

On the home turf of the rising superpower he once declared was "raping" the United States on trade, Trump on Thursday abandoned his often-pugnacious posture.

He opted instead for public flattery and deference and chose to denounce past U.S. presidents for the economic imbalance. And while he urged China to do more to pressure North Korea to abandon its burgeoning nuclear weapons program, the vibe was more conciliatory than confrontational.

Trump, who made China's growing economic might a bogeymen during his presidential campaign, appeared set to deliver a face-to-face scolding of President Xi Jinping following an announcement of new business deals between U.S. and Chinese companies.

Standing just a few feet away from the Chinese president, Trump declared that the two nations "must immediately address the unfair trade practices" that drive the trade deficit, along with barriers to market access, forced technology transfers and intellectual property theft.

"But I don't blame China," Trump said to audible gasps from some of the business leaders and journalists from both countries in The Great Hall of the People.

"After all, who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens?" he asked, to cheers from some of the Chinese contingent. "I give China great credit."

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said later that Trump's comment had been "a little bit tongue-in-cheek" but that it nonetheless carried "a lot of truth."

Either way, it was a far cry from Trump's inflammatory campaign rhetoric on China. Night after night at rallies across the country, he portrayed himself as a hard-nosed negotiator who would hold other countries accountable for disadvantaging American workers.

"We can't continue to allow China to rape our country and that's what they're doing," he said in Indiana in May 2016. "It's the greatest theft in the history of the world."

While Trump made clear that he wanted a more equitable trade relationship, he made no mention of previous campaign threats to label China a currency manipulator, impose double-digit tariffs or authorize draconian trade measures.

Trump took a similarly softer tack on rising tensions with North Korea, whose nuclear capability he has labeled "a threat to civilization."

Before arriving in Beijing, Trump had delivered a stern message to Xi, using an address in South Korea to call on China, North Korea's biggest trade partner, to do more to confront and isolate the renegade nation.

But Trump took a gentler tone here, thanking Xi for his efforts and saying he'd been encouraged by his conversations.

"China can fix this problem easily. And quickly. And I am calling on China and your great president to hopefully work on it very hard," he said.

Tillerson said that while the U.S. and China agreed on the objective in North Korea, the leaders' private talks explored questions over "tactics and the timing and how far to go with pressure."

While China is increasingly disenchanted with North Korea's nuclear weapons development, it remains wary of using its full economic leverage over its traditional ally. China fears triggering a collapse of the North's totalitarian regime that could cause an influx of refugees into northeastern China and culminate in a U.S.-allied unified Korea on its border.

Trump's softer approach can be read as a good strategy to coax more cooperation from the Chinese — or the absence of a coherent strategy.

"One of Trump's most successful campaign arguments was that China was taking our jobs and eating our lunch," said Andrew Nathan, political science professor at Columbia University. "But we're seeing that Trump doesn't really have a strategy when dealing with China."

Dennis Wilder, formerly the CIA's deputy assistant director for East Asia and the Pacific, said it could be a smart approach.

"I'm certain the president was far more candid and direct in private on trade and Korea. Establishing the personal ties has been important in U.S.-China relations ever since Mao (Zedong) and (Richard) Nixon," he said, referring to the landmark 1972 meeting in China that paved the way for normalization of relations between Washington and Beijing.

Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Trump's apparent strategy "is to flatter Xi and praise the Chinese people, hoping to build enough good will to produce positive outcomes down the road."

She was skeptical it would work, saying China would comply more fully with U.N. sanctions on North Korea, but is unlikely to cut crude oil supplies. Glaser was even less optimistic that China would address U.S. concerns on "predatory" trade practices. She predicted more U.S. cases against China at the World Trade Organization in the coming months, and revision of rules for national security screening of foreign investment by China and other nations in the U.S.

New 'Star Wars' trilogy in development

NEW YORK — The Walt Disney Co. announced Thursday that Rian Johnson will craft a new trilogy for the "Star Wars" universe, greatly expanding the director's command over the ever-expanding space saga created by George Lucas.

The announcement, made by Disney chief Bob Iger on a call with investment analysts, constituted the most ambitious new foray into the "Star Wars" galaxy, moving well beyond the original film framework imagined by Lucas. Disney also announced a live-action "Star Wars" series that will debut on its streaming service, which is set to launch in 2019.

The new films will be separate from the Skywalker saga. "Johnson will introduce new characters from a corner of the galaxy that Star Wars lore has never before explored," Disney said in a statement.

That Johnson will preside over a new "Star Wars" trilogy altogether confirms his status as the franchise's new chief guardian. It's a considerable amount of trust to be placed in the 43-year-old director of 2012's "Looper," even before audiences see his first "Star Wars" installment — "Star Wars: The Last Jedi," which is set for release in December. J.J. Abrams, who kick-started the dormant franchise with "The Force Awakens," is set to return for the untitled Episode IX — the third film in the current trilogy.

"He's a creative force, and watching him craft 'The Last Jedi' from start to finish was one of the great joys of my career," Lucasfilm's Kathleen Kennedy said of Johnson. "Rian will do amazing things with the blank canvas of this new trilogy."

Johnson will write and direct the first film in the trilogy, working with his producing partner Ram Bergman.

"We had the time of our lives collaborating with Lucasfilm and Disney on 'The Last Jedi,'" Johnson and Bergman said in a joint statement. "'Star Wars' is the greatest modern mythology and we feel very lucky to have contributed to it. We can't wait to continue with this new series of films."

Iger also revealed that Disney is also planning series for its streaming service based on the 2011 Pixar film "Monsters Inc." and the Disney Channel movie franchise "High School Musical." Iger said he expects the service to be priced "substantially below" Netflix's $10-a-month subscription price.

Syria deal in the works ahead of likely Trump-Putin meeting

WASHINGTON — The United States and Russia are nearing an agreement on Syria for how they hope to resolve the Arab country's civil war once the Islamic State group is defeated, officials said Thursday.

If clinched, the deal could be announced by President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin after a meeting in Vietnam today, four U.S. officials said. The United States has been reluctant to hold a formal meeting between the leaders unless they have a substantive agreement to announce.

The potential understanding comes as an array of forces are near a final defeat of IS, the extremist group that once controlled vast stretches of both Iraq and Syria. Fighting the group is no longer top priority, shifting the focus back to Syria's intractable conflict between President Bashar Assad's government and rebels — and to concerns that foreign powers such as Iran will now dominate the country's future.

The U.S.-Russian agreement being discussed would focus on three elements, officials said: "deconfliction" between the U.S. and Russian militaries, reducing violence in the civil war and reinvigorating U.N.-led peace talks. The officials weren't authorized to discuss the deliberations and requested anonymity.

The U.S. and Russian militaries have maintained a "deconfliction" hotline for years to avoid unintended collisions and even potential confrontations as they each operate in Syria's crowded skies. A heavy air campaign by Russia has been credited with shoring up the position of Assad, a close ally of Moscow.

With IS nearing defeat, the U.S. and Russia are losing their common enemy in Syria and will remain in a proxy battle in which Russia backs Assad and the U.S. lends at least rhetorical support to armed opposition groups fighting the government. That has increased the need for close communication between the two powers about where their forces are operating at any given time, officials said.

The agreement also seeks to build on progress in establishing "de-escalation zones" in Syria that have calmed some parts of the country. In July, when Trump held his first meeting with Putin in Germany, the U.S. and Russia announced a deal that included Jordan and established a cease-fire in southwest Syria. The United States has said that cease-fire has largely held and could be replicated elsewhere in the country.

A key U.S. concern, shared by close ally Israel, is the presence of Iranian-backed militias in Syria that have exploited the vacuum of power. The United States and Israel have been seeking ways to prevent forces loyal to Iran — Israel's archenemy — from establishing a permanent presence. One idea hinges on a "buffer zone" along Israel's border with Syria.

A third element of the deal would reaffirm support for the United Nations effort being run out of Geneva to seek a political transition in Syria and resolve the civil war. The United States and Russia have been at odds for years over whether Assad could be allowed to remain in power in a future Syrian government.

The U.N. talks, which have come in fits and starts without yielding significant progress, aren't the only discussions about Syria's future. Russia, Turkey and Iran have been brokering their own process in Astana, Kazakhstan. The U.S. views those talks warily because of Iran's involvement, though they've led to local cease-fire deals that have reduced violence, too.

"We believe that the Geneva process is the right way to go," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Thursday. "Unfortunately, it is a long way off, but we're getting a little bit closer."

The U.S.-Russia deal may also seek to expand the mandate of a joint "monitoring center" established this year in Amman, Jordan, to watch for cease-fire violations and other developments on the ground. It has focused on southwest Syria, where the cease-fire is in place, but could be used to monitor broader stretches of the country.

Although Moscow has sought a formal meeting between Trump and Putin while both are in Vietnam this week, the U.S. hasn't committed to such a meeting. Washington's concern is that it would not serve U.S. interests unless there's progress between the countries to announce — on Syria or something else. Putin's aides have said a meeting will likely occur today and that the time, place and format are being worked out between the governments.

"We have been in contact with them, and the view has been if the two leaders are going to meet, is there something sufficiently substantive to talk about that would warrant a formal meeting?" Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Thursday in Beijing.

Church shooting victims face many obstacles in court

CHICAGO — Texas church shooting victims and their families could have a hard time successfully suing the government over the Air Force's failure to submit the gunman's criminal history to the FBI — a step that would have blocked him from legally buying weapons.

Relatives of the more than two dozen churchgoers killed in Sunday's attack would face major obstacles, including protections written into law to shield the military from certain legal action. An easier route might be to seek help from Congress, which could pass a law acknowledging the Air Force's mistake and offering compensation.

A look at some of the key issues involved:

Whom to sue

There are just two plausible targets for a lawsuit, legal experts say: gunman Devin Patrick Kelley's estate and the Air Force. Suing for Kelley's assets would be an easy legal win. But it is likely to result in payments of no more than a few hundred dollars to each of the families whose loved ones were killed or wounded.

Targeting the Air Force means taking on the U.S. government. The United States, not the Air Force, would be named in any lawsuit as the defendant. Lawyers from the Department of Justice would represent the government.

At issue would be Kelly's purchase of the Ruger AR-15 used in the attack. The Air Force did not report his 2012 court-martial for abusing his wife and her child to a federal database used for background checks on gun purchasers. Had that conviction been entered into the database, as required by Pentagon rules, Kelley's legal purchase of any gun would have been denied.

Kelley, who worked in logistics at the Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico starting in 2010, was given 12 months of confinement followed by a bad-conduct discharge in 2014.

Cause and effect

The question at the core of any civil case would be: Did the clerical failure by the Air Force cause the deaths in Texas?

Proving such a direct link wouldn't be easy, said Tony Romanucci, a leading personal injury attorney based in Chicago.

"In a regular negligence case, you only have to prove some act was 'a' cause of an injury," he explained. But according to federal statutes that lay out the ground rules for suing the government, "you have to show it is 'the' cause of the injury. ... That is a much, much higher standard."

Government attorneys would have to concede the Air Force error made it easier for Kelley to buy guns. But they would almost certainly argue in court that, by any meaningful definition of cause and effect, Kelley caused the deaths and bears sole responsibility for the killings.

Laws at play

The 1946 Federal Tort Claims Act opened the way for Americans to sue the government. But it and other statutes also leave an important role to laws of the states where the negligence allegedly occurred. A lawsuit filed in federal court in Texas against the U.S., for instance, would use the legal criteria for negligence adopted by Texas.

Federal laws do provide partial shields from legal action to the U.S. government, including the military. For instance, plaintiffs cannot sue the government on the basis that a government policy caused injuries. They must show that a specific wrongful act or negligence by an agency or by a government employee caused the injury — not that the overall policy did.

Federal employees cannot be sued individually. And the military cannot be sued for strategic decisions or commands that lead to soldiers' deaths.

Chances of success

If a lawsuit is filed, the government could chose to seek a settlement before the case gets to trial. But federal authorities have typically dug in to fight litigation for fear that giving in too easily would invite a flood of similar litigation.

One risk of going to trial would be that sympathetic jurors end up awarding plaintiffs far more in damages than they might have been willing to settle for earlier.

"You can't think of a more sympathetic group of individuals — children and worshippers on a Sunday gunned down," Romanuccis said. "What they will get ... you are looking at (a potential award of) tens and ten of millions of dollars."

Congressional option

Given the complexities involved in suing a governmental body, it is possible, perhaps even likely, that U.S. district and appellate courts will rule that the Air Force is not liable and dismiss any lawsuits outright, explained Gregory Sisk, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis.

But, he added, that does not mean compensation by the government is out of the question.

It is within the powers of Congress to pass a new law tailored specifically to the Texas shooting, one that could acknowledge the Air Force's mistake and offer a compensation package.

Though relatively rare, Sisk said, moving the matter from the courts to Congress is an option lawmakers have taken in cases when there's public sympathy for victims of some government action or inaction, such as people who claimed U.S. nuclear tests decades ago made them ill.

Report: 5 women accuse Louis C.K. of sexual misconduct

NEW YORK — Comedian Louis C.K. has been accused of sexual misconduct toward several women, including masturbating in front of them to their horror and embarrassment, according to a report in The New York Times.

Comedians Dana Min Goodman, Abby Schachner, Julia Wolov, Rebecca Corry allege the Emmy-winning star of FX's "Louie" either pleasured himself in front of them, asked to do it or did so over the phone. A fifth woman detailed her allegations against C.K. to the paper but was not identified.

A lawyer for C.K. did not immediately respond to comment from The Associated Press, but a representative for the comedian said Thursday that C.K. would issue a written statement in the coming days.

Another publicist told the Times the comedian would not respond to their reporting. Schachner, who said she heard C.K. masturbating on the phone in 2003, declined comment to The AP and representatives for the other three named women did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

Corry alleges the comedian, while she was working on TV pilot in 2005, asked "if we could go to my dressing room so he could masturbate in front of me." She declined "and he told me he had issues." The show's executive producers, Courteney Cox and David Arquette, confirmed Corry's account to the Times. Cindy Guagenti, Arquette's representative, told The AP her client had nothing more to add.

In anticipation of the report, the New York premiere of Louis C.K.'s new film "I Love You, Daddy" was canceled on Thursday night and C.K.'s scheduled Friday appearance on "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert" also has been scrapped. The small distribution company handling the release of "I Love You Daddy" said it is reviewing the situation and giving careful consideration to the timing and release of the film.

HBO announced Thursday that C.K. would no longer be participating in "Night of Too Many Stars: America Unites for Autism Programs," set to air on the cable channel November 18. HBO also said it will remove C.K.'s past projects from its video on demand services.

C.K. is among the latest Hollywood figures to be accused of misconduct in a wave that began when dozens of sexual harassment allegations were reported last month against film mogul Harvey Weinstein.

C.K. is known for his candid, warts-and-all personal humor, which often includes talk of bodily fluids and sex.

His comedy writing and production tentacles spread throughout TV and film. He's credited as a creator of the Zach Galifianakis show "Baskets," in its third season on FX, and of Adlon's "Better Things," now in its second season on FX. He is also developing another series for FX called "The Cops" in which he's set to star opposite Albert Brooks. C.K. is an executive producer of comedian Tig Notaro's Amazon series, "One Mississippi." He starred in a Netflix special earlier this year that was nominated for two Emmy Awards.

FX said in a statement Thursday it was "obviously very troubled by the allegations."

"The network has received no allegations of misconduct by Louis C.K. related to any of our 5 shows produced together over the past 8 years," the statement said, adding, "the matter is currently under review."

C.K. also appeared on several episodes of "Parks and Recreation" in 2012 and creator Mike Schur apologized Thursday for including him. On Twitter, Schur admitted to hearing rumors but still using the comedian. "I'm sorry," he wrote.

The allegations about C.K.'s behavior are the latest in Hollywood's growing sexual harassment scandal, which prompted Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey to announce Thursday the establishment of a task force to handle any resulting criminal complaints.

The industry group Women in Film also announced Thursday that it plans to launch a "help line" and panel of pro-bono legal professionals to provide counseling, referrals and legal advice to harassment victims. The free service is expected to be available beginning Dec. 1.

In other fallout Thursday, "Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner was accused of sexual harassment by a former writer on the show. Kater Gordon told the website The Information in an article published Thursday that Weiner said she "owed it to him to let him see me naked" when they were working together one night. Weiner denied the allegations in a statement released by his publicist, saying, "He does not remember saying this comment nor does it reflect a comment he would say to any colleague."