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Pressure on Trump builds after Russia allegations

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Tuesday came under growing pressure to respond to allegations that Russia offered bounties for killing American troops in Afghanistan, with Democrats demanding answers and accusing Trump of bowing to Russian President Vladimir Putin at the risk of U.S. soldiers' lives.

Frustrated House Democrats returning from a briefing at the White House said they learned nothing new about American intelligence assessments that suggested Russia was making overtures to militants as the U.S. and the Taliban held talks to end the conflict in Afghanistan. Senate Republicans who attended a separate briefing largely defended the president, arguing along with the White House that the intelligence was unverified.

The intelligence assessments were first reported by The New York Times, then confirmed to The Associated Press by American intelligence officials and others with knowledge of the matter.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Tuesday that Trump had been briefed on the intelligence, a day after saying he hadn't because it had not been verified. McEnany added that there were still reservations within the intelligence community on the veracity of the allegations.

“Make no mistake. This president will always protect American troops,” she said.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and a small group of other House Democrats met with White House officials as Trump downplayed the allegations. The Democrats questioned why Trump wouldn't have been briefed sooner and pushed White House officials to have the president make a strong statement about the matter.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, one of the Democrats who attended the briefing, said it was “inexplicable” why Trump won’t say publicly that he is working to get to the bottom of the issue and why he won’t call out Putin. He said Trump’s defense that he hadn't been briefed was inexcusable.

“Many of us do not understand his affinity for that autocratic ruler who means our nation ill,” Schiff said.

Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J., a freshman and former Navy helicopter pilot and Russia policy officer, said White House chief of staff Mark Meadows briefed the group. She said the Democrats told the White House briefers that the president should make a statement.

“These are very concerning allegations and if they’re true, Russia is going to face repercussions,” Sherrill said. "We really pushed that strongly in the meeting.”

She wouldn’t say how the White House officials reacted or say if the briefers told the Democrats that in fact Trump had been briefed.

Trump and his aides set a high bar for briefing a president since it is rare for intelligence to be confirmed without a shadow of doubt before it is presented to senior government decision-makers.

McEnany declined to say why a different standard of confidence in the intelligence might apply to briefing lawmakers than for bringing information to the president.

Some House Republicans who were briefed by the White House on Monday also said they left with questions.

Texas Rep. Mac Thornberry, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said the panel would "leave no stone unturned” in seeking further information. Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming insisted there would be “ramifications” for any targeting of Americans.

But Senate Republicans seemed less concerned and questioned the media reports. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he didn't think Trump should be “subjected to every rumor.”

“Conclusions, apparently, were not reached," McConnell said.

The White House was working to schedule a briefing for Wednesday with McConnell, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the top Republicans and Democrats on the two intelligence committees according to a person familiar with the talks. The person declined to be identified because the so-called “Gang of 8” briefing will be classified. That group receives the most sensitive information in regular meetings with administration officials.

A separate group of Senate Republicans briefed in the White House Situation Room on Tuesday appeared mostly satisfied with the answers they received. Senate Armed Services Chairman Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma said he was “convinced” Trump hadn't known about the intelligence. Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said Trump “can’t be made aware of every piece of unverified intelligence.”

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Marco Rubio said he believed the U.S. was prepared "to do everything possible to protect our men or women stationed abroad, from a variety of threats."

Some Republican senators did express frustration.

Nebraska Republican Ben Sasse, a member of the intelligence panel, said Monday evening that Congress should focus on finding out who knew what, and when, “and did the commander in chief know? And if not, how the hell not?”

While Russian meddling in Afghanistan isn’t new, officials said Russian operatives became more aggressive in their desire to contract with the Taliban and members of the Haqqani Network, a militant group aligned with the Taliban in Afghanistan and designated a foreign terrorist organization in 2012.

The intelligence community has been investigating an April 2019 attack on an American convoy that killed three U.S. Marines after a car rigged with explosives detonated near their armored vehicles as they traveled back to Bagram Airfield, the largest U.S. military installation in Afghanistan, officials told the AP.

Three other U.S. service members were wounded in the attack, along with an Afghan contractor. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.

South Dakota tightens cell rules
South Dakota distracted driving law gets tougher on texting

NORTH SIOUX CITY -- Several Union County residents said Tuesday they frequently see drivers around them texting while driving, including one who said family members do it, so they favor a tougher law going into effect.

"It is terrible that people would do that, it is clueless. It is common sense, a 2-year-old would know that," said Irene Harrington, of North Sioux City.

On Wednesday, law enforcement personnel in South Dakota for the first time can immediately pull motorists over and write a ticket upon seeing a person texting while driving.

In recent years, South Dakota police and deputies could not pull people over for texting while driving, as the person first had to be breaking some other traffic law. After the 2020 legislation that was signed into law, now doing several functions on a mobile device while driving moves from a secondary to a primary offense, giving officers more latitude to enforce laws designed to reduce distracted driving and save lives.

Union County Sheriff Dan Limoges, who has been sheriff for 30 years, said texting while driving remains a problem, and he supports the new law.

"It is pretty ugly when (drivers) drift over in the lane, or to the shoulder," Limoges said.

The new law also expands banned phone uses to include taking photos, using the internet, posting to social media, reading emails and using phone apps.

Jesse Brothers Sioux City Journal 

Keith Vollstedt of North Sioux City talks about South Dakota's new law prohibiting texting and driving, Tuesday at Casey's General Store in North Sioux City, S.D. 

The law makes it a Class 2 misdemeanor to use a cellphone while driving, except in an emergency or to use a GPS app or to read or enter a phone number. Drivers who talk on the phone will need to either use a hands-free mode or hold the phone up to their ear. The offense carries a $122 fine.

According to the South Dakota Department of Public Safety, there were 827 crashes last year where distracted driving with cellphones and other electronic devices was a contributing factor.

Keith Vollstedt, of Dakota Dunes, is a general surgeon who handles some trauma cases. He said when the injuries come from a wreck, he'll wonder if they were from distracted driving, such as using a mobile device.

Vollstedt said there is an urge to read a text message while driving, but replying is a road too far, although he added his adult children do that.

"It is just a temptation to text a reply. It takes your eyes off the road," said Vollstedt, who joined Harrington in knowing the law starts Wednesday.

In Iowa, the first law aiming to address texting while driving came in 2010. Iowa moved texting while driving to a primary offense in 2017, three years before South Dakota.

Limoges said county deputies will give tickets in line with the new law, when "it is a clear cut violation." He said it is "going to be a challenge" to enforce the law, as some people may fight the tickets, so Limoges said deputies using dashcams to take video of the misdeeds might be beneficial.

Harrington doubts she'll ever feel the need to send a text message on her phone: "I leave my phone in the purse on the (vehicle) floor."

Hellen Buchholz, of North Sioux City, is another supporter of the new law. Buchholz said if while driving her phone beeps in with a message, she will have a passenger in the car, such as a granddaughter, read it out loud to her.

"There are too many people who die," Buchholz said.

"I see a lot of people texting. I think of it as more of a younger (person) thing."

Data: Blacks more likely to face force by Iowa state police

IOWA CITY -- Black residents in Iowa are far more likely than whites to face the use of force from officers working for state police agencies, newly released internal statistics show.

Blacks make up about 4% of Iowa’s 3.2 million residents. But they accounted for 24% of those who had force used against them by officers with the Iowa Department of Public Safety, which includes the Iowa State Patrol and Division of Criminal Investigation, in 2018 and 2019.

Blacks accounted for a similar percentage of those who were visibly injured or complained of being injured during those interactions, statistics show.

The Associated Press obtained the department's annual use of force reports for 2018 and 2019 through the Iowa open records law. Across the state and nation, Black Lives Matter protesters have been calling for an end to racial injustice and police brutality and demanding more oversight of officers.

In response to pressure, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a law this month giving the attorney general more authority to investigate deaths caused by police and requiring officers to undergo routine de-escalation and racial bias training.

The Iowa Department of Public Safety's sworn officers have long been overwhelmingly white and disproportionate when compared with the state's population.

An outside assessment report released in 2015 showed that 98% of 615 officers were Caucasians but found no concerns about biased policing, saying few had complained of racial profiling.

Department officials didn't respond to a message seeking comment.

The department requires officers to file detailed reports when they use force. In 2018, the reports began tracking the gender, race and ethnicity of subjects.

In the first two years of tracking, whites were 72% of the 385 people subjected to force and a smaller share, 68%, of the 91 who were visibly injured or complained of injuries, the reports show. Whites make up about 90% of the state population.

The 2019 annual report, which was approved in February, offered additional details on the disparities. It shows that 3 in 10 times a state police officer pointed a handgun, rifle or shotgun at someone in 2019, the subject in question was Black.

Blacks accounted for 1 in 4 subjects who had a Taser device pointed at them, and 7 in 20 who faced a discharge from one of those weapons. Three in 10 people subjected to a “weaponless control technique” from a state officer — which includes taking someone to the ground, striking them or pushing them — were Black.

The reports offer no explanation for the disparities or express any concern about them. Instead, the 2019 report said that injuries were low for subjects of all races and praised officers for “sound judgment,” noting they didn't discharge a firearm once that year.

The report found “a significant increase in subject resistance," saying more people were fleeing from officers in vehicles and on foot. That trend resulted in guns being drawn by officers more often, it said.

Officers violated policy in less than 1% of incidents and “frequently use a minimal and appropriate level of force," the report concluded.

The report said the department's training priorities for this year would include more effective deployment of Tasers and routine firearms and defensive tactics drills.

7 new Iowa measures set to go into effect

The measures address law enforcement constraints, absentee ballots, gun rights, abortion and other topics. Some become law July 1; others just need a signature from Gov. Kim Reynolds.