President Barack Obama on Thursday ordered the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats, accusing them of spying, and slapped new sanctions on Russian agencies he accused of meddling in November’s U.S. election. Obama also ordered the closure of two Russian-owned estates—one on Long Island, the other in Maryland—that the White House says were used to gather intelligence. The sanctions came as the Obama administration made public a 13-page document produced by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security outlining the government’s charges of how Russian hackers penetrated U.S. institutions in a bid to undermine the campaign of Hillary Clinton. Russia responded angrily to the sanctions, saying initially it would expel 35 U.S. diplomats in return. This is Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
Sergey Lavrov: “We cannot leave such steps unanswered. Reciprocity is a law of diplomacy and international affairs, therefore the Russian Foreign Ministry, together with our colleagues from other agencies, proposed to the president of the Russian Federation to declare 31 staff members of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and four diplomats from the U.S. Consulate General in St. Petersburg persona non grata.”
Following those comments, however, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would hold off on expelling diplomats for now and will wait to see if U.S. attitudes toward Russia change after Donald Trump’s inauguration in January. The sanctions drew widespread bipartisan support among members of Congress. During a trip to Lithuania on Thursday, South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said they didn’t go far enough.
Sen. Lindsey Graham: “I think the sanctions need to go beyond what it is today. They need to name Putin as an individual, and his inner circle, because nothing happens in Russia without his knowledge or approval.”
President-elect Donald Trump on Thursday continued to downplay charges of Russian meddling in November’s election. Trump said in a short statement that he would meet with top intelligence advisers next week for a briefing on Russia, but said the country should move on to “bigger and better things.” The statement echoed comments Trump made on Wednesday during an impromptu press conference at his Mar-a-Lago estate. At Trump’s side was former boxing promoter and convicted killer Don King, who waved a bundle of national flags as Trump took questions.
Reporter: “What do you think, generally, about sanctions against Russia?”
President-elect Donald Trump: “I think we ought to get on with our lives. I think that computers have complicated lives very greatly. The whole, you know, age of computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what’s going on. We have speed, we have a lot of other things, but I’m not sure we have the kind of security that we need. But I have not spoken with the senators, and I certainly will be over a period of time.”
Trump spoke to reporters for several minutes during two impromptu appearances on Wednesday.
In Syria, a ceasefire appears to be holding, after the Russian, Iranian and Turkish-brokered truce came into effect at midnight. There were reports of fighting in the early morning hours, before guns and mortars fell silent. Russian President Vladimir Putin touted the agreement as a major turning point in the nearly 6-year-old civil war.
President Vladimir Putin: “Three documents have been signed. The first document is between the Syrian government and the armed opposition on a ceasefire on the territory of Syrian Arab Republic. The second document is a complex of measures to control the ceasefire. And the third document is a statement of readiness to start peace talks on Syrian reconciliation.”
The U.S. did not participate in crafting the agreement. It’s still not clear how many of the dozens of Syrian opposition groups agreed to the deal. The ceasefire does not include ISIS or the organization formerly known as the al-Nusra Front. Turkey’s military said Russian and Turkish warplanes bombed ISIS positions near al-Bab on Friday, killing 38 fighters.
In Turkey, a parliamentary commission has approved draft constitutional amendments that would abolish the office of the prime minister and give President Recep Tayyip Erdogan more powers. The changes are supported by Erdogan’s ruling party and are expected to be approved by lawmakers. It’s the latest effort by Erdogan to consolidate his rule since Turkish officers launched an unsuccessful coup attempt last July. Erdogan has since jailed scores of journalists and pursued a brutal government crackdown aimed at Kurdish militants. Amnesty International estimates a half-million people have been displaced by the conflict in Turkey’s southeast.
In India, at least nine miners are dead and two dozen more feared trapped under mud after a massive landslide at an open-pit coal mine in the country’s east. Rescuers said their efforts to reach the miners were delayed for hours due to bad weather and poor visibility. India is the world’s third-largest producer of coal and is on track to overtake the U.S. in coal consumption by 2030.
In Charleston, South Carolina, convicted mass murderer Dylann Roof told a judge Wednesday he won’t call witnesses or give evidence in his own defense when a jury returns next week to determine if he’ll receive the death penalty. Roof is acting as his own counsel after he fired his legal team. He was convicted earlier this month on 33 counts of federal hate crimes for murdering nine black worshipers, including Pastor Clementa Pinckney, at the historic Emanuel AME Church in June 2015.
Meanwhile, a Charleston court has scheduled a March 1 retrial of Michael Slager, a white former North Charleston police officer who’s accused of murdering a black man during a traffic stop. Earlier this month, a judge declared a mistrial after a single juror refused to convict Slager of murder, even though video clearly shows him shooting 50-year-old Walter Scott in the back. Last year, Slager and Dylann Roof were held in adjacent cells in Charleston’s jail.
In Missouri, a law set to take effect with the new year will allow felony charges to be brought against children who get into fistfights on school buses or on school property. Under the statute, students caught fighting could face third-degree assault charges and up to four years in prison, regardless of their age or grade level. Critics say Missouri’s new law will worsen the state’s school-to-prison pipeline and will disproportionately affect African Americans. Last year, a study by UCLA’s Center for Civil Rights Remedies found black elementary school children in Missouri are suspended at higher rates than in any other state.
In Arkansas, prosecutors seeking evidence against a Bentonville man charged with murder have obtained a warrant to receive data from his Amazon Echo—a voice-activated device that is always listening and often recording. James Andrew Bates says he’s innocent of the murder of Victor Collins, who was found strangled in Bates’s hot tub. Prosecutors hope to search audio recordings on Bates’s Amazon Echo for clues. Lawyers for Amazon.com have refused to comply with the warrant, and technology experts say it’s unlikely the device was recording at the time of the murder. But the case has drawn national attention and alarmed civil liberties groups. Bates’s lawyer, Kimberly Weber, told USA Today, “I have a problem that a Christmas gift that is supposed to better your life can be used against you. It’s almost like a police state.”
In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte said this week he was prepared to throw corrupt officials out of a helicopter—a practice he said he’s personally done before.
President Rodrigo Duterte: “If you are corrupt, I will fetch you to Manila using a helicopter, and I will throw you out. I have done this before; why would I not do it again?”
It’s the latest claim by the Philippines president to have personally committed murder. Earlier this month, Duterte said that, while mayor of Davao City, he patrolled city streets on a motorcycle looking for opportunities to kill. As president, Duterte has launched a brutal so-called war on drugs that has seen thousands of people killed by police and vigilantes since the summer.
And in Mexico, lawmakers are weighing whether to legalize medical marijuana, in a move that could have big implications for a drug war that’s killed more than 100,000 Mexicans over the last decade. On December 13, Mexico’s Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill that would allow the cultivation of marijuana for medical use and scientific study. The lower house of Mexico’s Congress will now consider the measure. The debate comes in the wake of November’s U.S. election, which saw voters in Massachusetts, Maine, Nevada and California join Washington and Colorado in allowing the use of recreational pot. This is Mexican Senator Roberto Gil Zuarth.
Sen. Roberto Gil Zuarth: “Mexico needs to move forward, and soon. We need to resolve this debate. It doesn’t make any sense for us to continue with all these deaths while in the United States the use of marijuana is legal, especially because the trafficking of marijuana to the United States market represents approximately 40 percent of criminal gangs’ income. It’s a lot of money, and this money is used to finance other kinds of illicit activities.”