France’s Le Pen hits nerve over WWII roundup of Jews

PARIS (AFP) — Far-right French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has stirred up deep emotions just two weeks ahead of the election by saying that today’s France is not responsible for the rounding up of Jews during World War II.

Le Pen said Sunday that “I don’t think France is responsible for the Vel d’Hiv,” referring to the roundup and deportation of more than 13,000 Jews from a Paris cycling track ordered by Nazi officers in 1942.

For many — notably Le Pen’s chief rival for the presidency Emmanuel Macron — the remarks were an instant reminder of her anti-Semitic, Holocaust-revisionist father, while also pricking France’s fraught conscience over its wartime role.

The National Front (FN) leader “crossed a red line”, the Le Monde daily said in an editorial, while Jewish groups blasted the comments as an “insult to France (which has faced up to) its history without a selective memory.”

Israel also slammed Le Pen, with the foreign ministry saying “the declaration is contrary to the historical truth”.

French presidential candidate for the "En Marche" movement Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech during a meeting in Saint-Priest-Taurion, France, on February 25, 2017. (AFP Photo/Pascal Lachenaud)

Macron said Monday: “It’s the true face of the French far right, the face that I am fighting. If anyone still doubted it, Marine Le Pen is indeed the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen.”

The candidate’s father, now 88, who has described the Nazi gas chambers as a “detail” of history, has multiple convictions for inciting racial hatred and denying crimes against humanity.

After Le Pen took over leadership of the FN from her father in 2011, she worked to erase his anti-Semitic stamp in order to broaden the party’s appeal.

This file photo taken on September 28, 2016 shows French far-right National Front party founder and former leader Jean-Marie Le Pen delivering a speech during a press conference in Mormant, near Paris. (AFP Photo/Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt)

Sunday’s remarks “jeopardize years of efforts to soften her party’s image,” Le Monde wrote.

The party has steadily gained in strength, with Le Pen winning some 18 percent of the vote in the 2012 presidential election and the FN scoring 25 percent in the 2014 EU elections.

In this year’s presidential race, the centrist Macron and 48-year-old Le Pen are running neck-and-neck ahead of a first-round vote on April 23, each with around 23 percent.

In the runoff set for May 7, Macron, 39, would win handily if the election were held today.

The crimes of Vichy

Historian Laurent Joly said that in the French national psyche, the Vel d’Hiv deportation symbolizes the crimes of the wartime Vichy government.

“It was the most tragic consequence of the criminal policy of Vichy, of the collaboration with Germany,” Joly told AFP, noting that the operation was carried out by the French with no German officers present.

In 1995, more than 50 years after the fact, then president Jacques Chirac deemed that “the time had come to clearly recognize the fault of the collaborating French state, and no (subsequent leader) should contest it,” Le Monde said.

FILE - This Oct. 24, 1940 file photo shows German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, right, shaking hands with Head of State of Vichy France Marshall Philippe Petain, in occupied France. Behind center is Paul Schmidt, an interpreter, and right is German Minister of Foreign Affairs Joachim Von Ribbentrop. (AP Photo, File)

Le Pen’s comments went against a “national consensus on how to understand one of the most painful episodes of French history,” it added.

FN secretary-general Nicolas Bay on Monday rejected claims that Le Pen’s remarks could be associated with her father’s negationism.

She does not dispute “what was shocking and atrocious during this period, she is only saying that France was not to blame,” Bay said.

The FN’s position is the same as that of wartime leader-in-exile Charles de Gaulle, “which is that France was in London. France was not Vichy,” Bay said on French radio.

French resistance fighters held by Vichy regime militias during World War II. (Photo credit: CC-BY-SA German Federal Archive Wikimedia Commons)

De Gaulle, then the leader of the Free French forces, lived in London during World War II while the Vichy regime collaborated with Nazi Germany.

Self-flagellation

“We have to get out of the repentance business, the self-flagellation, as if we were ashamed of our French history,” Bay said. “It’s not against the rules.”

Nicolas Lebourg, a historian who specializes in the far right, said that with her comments Sunday, Le Pen “wanted to add fuel to the fire” after a debate that failed to move the needle for her campaign last week.

“And she succeeded,” said Lebourg, a professor at the University of Perpignan.

“The remarks were both intentional and ill-conceived at the same time,” he said. “They lacked finesse.”

Joly surmised that Le Pen could have been looking both to “reassure the classic far right (and) to woo somewhat old-fashioned Gaullists”.

Prominent right-wing politician Jean-Francois Cope went further, saying the remarks were “prepared, calculated and deliberate, not an uncontrolled slip”.

Bruno Jeanbart, of the OpinionWay polling institute, said Le Pen had taken a “risk” because the remarks could associate her with her father, even though they “were not ambiguous”.

“Most French people think… they should not have to apologize for the Vichy government.”

He said that when Macron traveled to Algeria in February and called France’s 150-year colonization of the country a crime against humanity, the reaction “was pretty strong”.

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Jordan, Egypt have ‘special’ relationship with Israel, says Jordanian king

Jordan and Egypt have a “special” relationship with Israel, said Jordan’s King Abdullah II, as the only two Arab nations to have signed a peace treaty with the Jewish state.

In an interview with the Washington Post ahead of his meeting with US President Donald Trump on Wednesday, the monarch spoke about the raging civil war in Syria, Russia’s role in the region, Iran’s influence and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israeli settlement activities in the West Bank, said Abdullah II, create “animosity and difficulty” and “give ammunition to the Iranians, to [Islamic State leader Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi and ISIS,” an acronym for the Islamic State.

Trump, with backing from Arab leaders, must push for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he indicated.

President Donald Trump and Jordan's King Abdullah II shake hands during a news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, April 5, 2017. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

“Egypt and Jordan have a special relationship with Israel, and so if we don’t move forward, it puts more pressure on the Jordanians and the Egyptians,” he said, adding that he is “in contact” with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“[The point of] my visit here — and the American administration agrees with me — is that we have got to put this all together. If there are settlements, how does this affect the peace process? I think the major challenge that we have is: Are we for a two-state solution? I don’t see any alternative but the two-state solution.”

The Jordanian king said Iran’s growing influence in the region, in Iraq and Syria in particular, presented an opportunity to “bring[ing] Israel and the Arabs closer together.”

“Because of the Iranian regime’s potential threat to the region, Israel wants to have a relationship with the Arabs. But the problem that is [standing] between the Arabs and the Israelis is the Palestinians. The whole point of our peace initiative is for us to be the guarantors of Israel’s security. If we can solve the Palestinian problem, then this is a new era of stability in our area, where Israelis are truly a part of the neighborhood,” he said.

Trump, indicated Abdullah II, “wants to engage and make a deal for Israelis and Palestinians. I was really struck by the commitment he had in bringing the Israelis and Palestinians together.”

The meeting between the US president and the Jordanian king came less than a day before Trump ordered US strikes on an airbase in Syria in response to a suspected chemical attack by Syrian military forces on civilians in rebel-held territory that killed over 80 people, including dozens of children.

The guided-missile destroyer USS Porter conducts strike operations against Syria while in the Mediterranean Sea, April 7, 2017. (US Navy/Ford Williams)

At their joint press conference, Trump said the use of chemical agents was intolerable but stopped short of indicating that a US response was coming.

The strike infuriated Russia, a staunch ally of the Assad regime, and Iran, which is heavily invested in the war.

In his interview, Abdullah II said the international community had a “moral obligation to fight this horrendous tragedy that is befalling civilians in Syria,” but that the US and other nations should engage with Russia to help solve regional issues.

“I’ll tell you why that works: From the Russian point of view, they play what I describe as a three-dimensional chess game. To them, Crimea is important, Syria is important, Ukraine, and we see them in Libya. The Americans and Europeans must deal with the Russians on all these issues simultaneously,” he said.

Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq among top 5 global executioners, says Amnesty

Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq were among the top five executioners in the world in 2016, according to a new report by Amnesty International.

China still outpaces the rest of the world combined, but Iran comes in at number two, followed by Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan, with the latter four accounting for 87 percent of the executions that took place in 2016.

Amnesty International reported 1,032 state-sponsored executions worldwide in 2016, excluding China, where the true number is unknown because the government considers it a state secret. The group said it believes China executed thousands, but it didn’t offer a more precise estimate due to a lack of accurate information.

The human rights group Dui Hua estimates about 2,000 executions took place in China last year, down from a 6,500 a decade ago, said the group’s executive director, John Kamm. The tally was based on research into lower-level court cases and contacts with government officials and Chinese and Western legal scholars, Kamm said.

Iran carried out at least 567 executions, 33 of them public, according to Amnesty which said the killings accounted for 66 percent of all executions in the Mideast and North Africa. A majority of them were for drug-related offenses, according to the report.

At least eight women and two minors were among those executed by Iran in 2016, according to official sources, with Amnesty noting it was possible there were at least five more executions of children under 18 years of age. At least 78 juvenile offenders were on Iran’s death row by the end of 2016.

Riyadh executed at least 154 people in 2016, followed by Baghdad with 88 and Pakistan with 87.

Judicial executions in Libya, Yemen and Syria could not be confirmed because these countries were currently at war.

A graph showing world executions in 2016, according to data compiled by Amnesty International. (Amnesty International)

Amnesty said its figure for worldwide executions excluding China represents a 37 percent drop from 2015. The United States recorded 20 executions, its fewest in 25 years, in part because of court rulings and shortages of chemicals used in lethal injections.

China has faced longstanding pressure from the international community to curb its use of the death penalty, which reached a frenzy in 1983 with 24,000 executions after provincial courts were given powers to mete out capital punishment, according to Dui Hua.

The nation also has faced criticism for harvesting organs from executed inmates, including for sale to patients from overseas. China banned the practice in 2015 but Bequelin said it’s impossible to know whether organ harvesting for profit has ceased because the legal system operates within a “black box” with little transparency.

“China is trying to have it both ways, both getting credit and allaying international pressure over the death penalty in the county, while maintain and enforcing an elaborate system of secrecy,” Bequelin said.

Oversight of death sentence cases was returned to China’s highest court, the Supreme People’s Court, in 2007. Since that time, the government has narrowed which crimes can bring capital punishment but still lists more than three dozen eligible offenses, including treason, separatism, spying, arson, murder, rape, robbery and human trafficking.

Chinese legal scholar Hong Daode contended that 90 percent of executions last year were for homicide cases.

“There has been a long tradition in China that the one that has taken people’s lives should pay with his own life,” said Hong, a professor of criminal law at China University of Political Science and Law.

However, Susan Trevaskes of Australia’s Griffith University, concluded in a recent study that close to half of all death sentences were handed down for drug crimes.

Efforts to reform how such cases are handled by the courts have been frustrated by the government’s attitude that all drug crimes constitute a threat to society, according to Trevaskes, author of the 2012 book “The Death Penalty in Contemporary China.”

That’s despite the fact that many perpetrators are low-level “mules” — typically poor, rural residents hired by traffickers to transport their illicit contraband but who reap minimal profit from the work, Trevaskes said.

Whatever the breakdown, Dui Hua’s Kamm said the number of executions in China remains a national embarrassment.

“Pushing for the Chinese government to release the number is perhaps the most effective way to drive it down,” he said.

Hawaii asks full court to hear Trump travel ban appeal

HONOLULU — Attorneys representing Hawaii in the state’s challenge to US President Donald Trump’s revised travel ban for citizens of six Muslim-majority countries are asking that the full panel of a federal appeals court hear the case.

The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear the case May 15.

Hawaii’s request filed Tuesday notes that the full 15-judge panel of another federal appeals court will hear a similar case challenging the travel ban.

Appeals are typically heard first by a three-judge panel before they are possibly examined by the full panel.

Hawaii argues the case involves a “question of exceptional importance.”

The Trump administration is appealing a Hawaii federal judge’s ruling blocking the government from suspending new visas for people from six Muslim-majority countries and halting the US refugee program.

Report: FBI sought to monitor Trump adviser last summer

WASHINGTON — The FBI obtained a secret court order last summer to monitor the communications of Carter Page, an adviser to then-candidate Donald Trump, because the government had reason to believe Page was acting as a Russian agent, The Washington Post reported Tuesday.

Page is among the Trump associates under scrutiny as the FBI and congressional committees investigate whether his presidential campaign had ties to Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election. Trump has denied any wrongdoing, but the investigations could shadow his presidency for months or even years.

The Post, citing unnamed law enforcement and other US officials, said the government surveillance application laid out the basis for believing that Page had knowingly engaged in intelligence activities on Russia’s behalf. The newspaper said the application includes contacts Page had with a Russian intelligence operative in 2013.

Those contacts are detailed in a 2015 court filing involving a case against three men charged in connection with a Cold War-style Russian spying ring. According to the filing, Page provided one of the men documents about the energy industry. He was not charged as part of that case.

An FBI spokesman did not immediately return a call seeking comment from The Associated Press.

Page, who has denied having improper ties to Russia, told the AP Tuesday he was “happy” that the court order had been revealed and blamed the Obama administration for trying to “suppress dissidents who did not fully support their failed foreign policy.”

“It will be interesting to see what comes out when the unjustified basis for those FISA requests are more fully disclosed over time,” said Page, using an acronym to refer to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

The FISA court and its orders are highly secretive. Judges grant permission for surveillance if they agree there’s probable cause that the target is an agent of a foreign power. Though the standard is a high bar to meet, applications are hardly ever denied.

The Post reported that a 90-day warrant was issued for Page and has been renewed more than once by the FISA court.

Page was a little known investment banker when Trump announced him as a member of his foreign policy advisory team early last year. Trump aides insist the president has no relationship with Page and did not have any dealings with him during the campaign.

Page’s relationship with Russia began to draw scrutiny during the campaign after he visited Moscow in July 2016 for a speech at the New Economic School. While Page said he was traveling in a personal capacity, the school cited his role in the Trump campaign in advertising the speech.

Page was sharply critical of the US in his remarks, saying Washington has a “hypocritical focus on ideas such as democratization, inequality, corruption and regime change.”

Days later, Page talked with Russia’s ambassador to the US at an event on the sidelines of the Republican National Convention. Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke with the Russian envoy at the same event, a conversation he failed to reveal when asked about contacts with the Russians during his Senate confirmation hearings.

The campaign began distancing itself from Page after his trip to Russia, saying he was only an informal adviser. By the fall, he appeared to have cut ties to the Republican campaign.

It’s unclear how Page got connected with the Trump campaign. One campaign official said Page was recruited by Sam Clovis, an Iowa Republican operative who ran the Trump campaign’s policy shop and is now a senior adviser at the Agriculture Department. Those who served on the campaign’s foreign policy advisory committee also said they had limited contact with Page.

But in a letter Page sent to the Senate intelligence committee last month, he cast himself as a regular presence in Trump Tower, where the campaign was headquartered.

“I have frequently dined in Trump Grill, had lunch in Trump Café, had coffee meetings in the Starbucks at Trump Tower, attended events and spent many hours in campaign headquarters on the fifth floor last year,” Page wrote. He also noted that his office building in New York “is literally connected to the Trump Tower building by an atrium.”

Page, a former Merrill Lynch investment banker who worked out of its Moscow office for three years, now runs Global Energy Capital, a firm focused on energy sectors in emerging markets. According to the company’s website, he has advised on transactions for Gazprom and RAO UES, a pair of Russian entities.

Eric Trump ‘sure’ Ivanka helped push for Syria missile strike

US President Donald Trump’s son Eric Trump said he is “sure” his sister Ivanka Trump helped push their father to launch a missile strike on Syria in response to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons.

Speaking with the British daily The Telegraph in an interview published on Tuesday, Eric Trump said that his sister used her “influence” with her father to push for the missile strike.

“Ivanka is a mother of three kids and she has influence. I’m sure she said: ‘Listen, this is horrible stuff,’” he said, adding that she was “heartbroken and outraged” by the chemical weapons attack.

Following a chemical weapons attack last week in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun, in which at least at least 86 people were killed, including 27 children, the US navy launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Syrian regime’s Shayrat Airfield, from which the Trump administration said the deadly attack was launched.

In this Feb. 1, 2017 file photo, President Donald Trump and his daughter Ivanka Trump walk to board Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington. (AP/Evan Vucci, File)

“Ivanka is by his side in Washington. She is not involved in everything. I think she comes and goes with issues she deeply cares about but when you get to a certain level of power a lot of times, and you see this in business too, a lot of times people will say yes just because you happen to be the boss,” he said of Ivanka and the president.

Eric Trump, who along with his brother Donald Jr. now runs the Trump Organization in place of their father, said that the fact that Ivanka is the US president’s daughter allows her a degree of influence on Trump’s thinking that many non-family members don’t have.

“I think the beautiful thing about family is you play on a little bit of a different dynamic and once in a while you can pull them aside and say: ‘No disrespect but you might want to think about this or maybe you crossed the line here,’” he said.

“I think it gives you a sounding board who is a little bit more unconventional than the 37 people that might happen to be standing round a table at that one time who just want to appease.”

Eric, who acknowledged he is not involved in any government decisions, said his father had been opposed to acting in Syria before the chemical attack.

“My father will act in times like that. And by the way, he was anti doing anything with Syria two years ago. Then a leader gasses their own people, women and children. At some point America is the global leader and the world’s superpower has to come forward and act and they did with a lot of support of our allies and I think that’s a great thing.”

This frame grab from video provided on Tuesday April 4, 2017 shows a Syrian doctor treating a boy following a suspected chemical attack, in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, northern Idlib province, Syria. (Qasioun News Agency, via AP)

“I stay out of politics and I stay out of the administration but you can tell he was deeply affected by those images of the children,” Eric Trump said, adding that “it was horrible. These guys are savages and I’m glad he responded the way he responded.”

Ivanka Trump, who converted to Judaism after marrying Jared Kushner, officially became a White House employee last month, following questions over her role as an informal adviser were raised by ethics experts.

Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner arrive for a joint press conference by US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the East Room of the White House on February 15, 2017 in Washington, DC. (AFP/Mandel Ngan)

Like Kushner, who also serves as an adviser to the US president, reports have credited Ivanka with having a large influence over her father’s decision-making.

In his interview with the The Telegraph, Eric Trump also said nepotism was a “beautiful thing” and said it was only logical the president would appoint family members to manage his business and to key White House positions.

“You trust the people who are closest to you. Who is he going to trust most to run a company? He is going to trust somebody who he trusts implicitly,” he said.

“He knows I care about the family. He knows I care about the brand. He knows I deeply care about the properties, our amazing teams. And he knows I’m going to do everything I can humanly possible to take care of that.”

“Is that nepotism? Absolutely. Is that also a beautiful thing? Absolutely. Family business is a beautiful thing. The same applies for Ivanka. Ivanka is by his side in Washington,” he added.

Putin warns of chemical weapons ‘provocations’ to frame Assad

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday warned of future chemical weapons “provocations” in Syria to frame President Bashar Assad, just as Washington’s top diplomat arrived for talks in Moscow.

“We have information from various sources that such provocations — I cannot call them otherwise — are being prepared in other regions of Syria, including in the southern outskirts of Damascus, where they are again planning to throw some kind of substance and accuse Syrian official authorities of using it,” Putin said at a televised press conference.

He said Russia was set to appeal to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and “call on the international community to thoroughly investigate such incidents.”

Putin insisted that reports over the suspected chemical attack in Syria that killed dozens of people in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun last week was reminiscent of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, justified by the alleged existence of weapons of mass destruction.

“This ended with the country’s destruction, with the growth of the terrorist threat and the appearance of the Islamic State on the international stage, no more, no less,” he said.

Russia’s defence ministry also said it had information that rebel fighters were bringing “poisonous substances” to the areas around the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhun and Eastern Ghuta, among other places.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (C) walks upon his arrival at the Vnukovo II Government airport in Moscow on April 11, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / Alexander NEMENOV)

“The goal of these actions is to create yet another reason to accuse the Syrian government of using chemical weapons and provoke new strikes by the United States,” it said in a statement.

The latest claims came as US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson touched down in Russia to confront the Kremlin over its support for Assad on the first visit by a senior member of Trump’s administration.

Putin said Russia and Syria were being portrayed as a “common enemy” in a bid to bring together the United States and its Western allies after many leaders criticized Trump ahead of his election.

“We are ready to tolerate this, but we hope that this will nonetheless lead to some kind of positive cooperation trend,” he said.

Moscow has sought to deflect blame from its long-time ally Assad over the alleged chemical attack and says Syrian jets struck a rebel arms depot where “toxic substances” were being put inside bombs.

Following on from the Tillerson visit, Moscow has announced Lavrov will host three-way talks with his counterparts from Syria and Iran later this week.

Tillerson in Moscow: Pushing on Syria where Obama failed

MOSCOW (AP) — The Trump administration veered toward deeper conflict with Russia Tuesday as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrived in Moscow, gambling that an unpredictable new president armed with the willingness to threaten military action gives the US much-needed leverage to end Syria’s carnage.

Yet there were no guarantees Tillerson’s arguments would prove any more successful than the Obama administration’s failed effort to peel Russia away from its Syrian ally. Tillerson’s mission, coming days after 59 Tomahawk missiles struck a Syrian air base, also carries serious risks: If Russia brushes off the warnings, President Donald Trump could be forced into another show of force in Syria or see his credibility wane.

“I hope that what the Russian government concludes is that they have aligned themselves with an unreliable partner in Bashar al-Assad,” Tillerson said before flying to the Russian capital, referring to Syria’s embattled leader.

“The reign of the Assad family is coming to an end,” he confidently predicted.

But Tillerson’s claim is one President Barack Obama, too, argued for years, only to see Assad outlast his own term in office. And the Trump administration’s nascent Syria policy seems to be increasingly centering on the same tactic Obama unsuccessfully employed: persuading Russia, Assad’s staunchest ally, to abandon him.

The parallels haven’t gone unnoticed by Russian President Vladimir Putin as US officials have accused his military of knowing about Assad’s recent chemical weapons attack ahead of time and trying to help cover it up. Calling for a UN investigation, Putin held to his claim that it was actually Assad opponents who introduced chemical weapons into Syria’s harrowing civil war.

“We have seen it all already,” Putin said. Jabbing at US credibility, the Russian leader reminded reporters about unfounded US claims of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, used to justify America’s 2003 invasion.

The escalating dispute over last week’s events in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun has thrust Washington and Moscow into a level of tension rarely seen since the end of the Cold War. The animosity is especially striking given widespread speculation that Trump, who lavishly praised Putin during his campaign, would pursue rapprochement with Moscow.

Even on Syria, the positions appeared to be hardening. Only a week ago, top Trump officials had spoken off deprioritizing past US efforts to remove Assad from office and accepting the “reality” that 18 months of Russian military intervention had secured him in power. Since last Thursday’s cruise missile strike, Tillerson and other US officials appear to have reverted to the past administration’s rhetoric of insisting that Assad is on the way out, without outlining any strategy for making that happen.

The Trump administration’s change of heart, apparently spurred in part by the president’s emotional response to the images of chemical weapons victims, also is serving another purpose: defanging the perception of coziness between Trump and Moscow. As the FBI and multiple congressional committees investigate potential collusion between Russia and Trump’s campaign, the president can point to his hard-line stance on Assad as fresh evidence he’s willing to stand up to Putin.

Asked about Putin possibly skipping a meeting with Tillerson, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said, “There is a bit of irony that for all of these talks that have been perpetuated about back channels and direct links, that now it’s they won’t meet with you.” At a minimum, Tillerson will meet Wednesday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and the two are expected to take questions from reporters.

As Tillerson landed in Moscow, senior White House officials briefed reporters on declassified US intelligence they said disproved Russia’s claim that rebels were responsible for the chemical weapons. In an accompanying four-page memo, the US accused Russia of a disinformation campaign and aiding Syria in covering up the gruesome attack, which killed more than 80 people.

“Russia’s allegations fit with a pattern of deflecting blame from the regime and attempting to undermine the credibility of its opponents,” the report read.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon, “It is very clear who planned this attack, who authorized this attack and who orchestrated this attack.”

Putin’s government has been incensed by the Trump administration’s public accusations, and even more so by US military intervention in Syria. The retaliatory strikes, which Obama declined to approve after blaming Assad for an even deadlier chemical weapons attack in 2013, hit an air base where Russian troops were also present, although none are believed to have been killed.

Meeting allies earlier Tuesday in Italy, Tillerson delivered an ultimatum to Russia: Side either with the US and its dozens of coalition partners or face the isolation of a partnership with Assad, Iran and Hezbollah. That may hardly be punishment for the Kremlin, which dismissed many of Obama’s similar warnings about Russia being sucked into a quagmire in Syria with no way out while tarnishing its international reputation.

Trump may not have much to offer Russia currently. Even if Moscow cooperates, the allegations of election meddling have weakened the US leader’s hand to deliver on any significant carrot, such as a loosening of the US and European economic sanctions stemming from Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

And wielding the stick of potential military action is risky. Trump’s cruise missile order restored the believability of Washington using its military might in Syria.

But if Moscow ignores Trump’s entreaties or if Assad uses chemical weapons again, bad options await Trump. He can order more military action, with the danger of an escalating America involvement in a war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people. Or he can hold back and risk losing face like Obama.

Putin seems undeterred. Hours after Tillerson’s warning, his office announced Russia would host Syria and Iran’s foreign ministers for a three-way meeting Friday, the day after Tillerson departs.

A narrow win for US Republicans in first post-Trump election

CHICAGO – Republicans held on to a US congressional seat on Tuesday, although by a smaller margin than expected, in their first electoral test since Donald Trump won the presidency.

The special election in a House district in the Midwestern state of Kansas was to replace Mike Pompeo, who became Trump’s CIA director.

Republican Ron Estes won 53 to 45 percent against Democrat challenger James Thompson.

That was a surprisingly narrow eight-point margin of victory, considering Trump had won the district during the presidential race by 27 points, and it has been in Republican hands for more than two decades.

The special election was considered a bellwether of how Republicans might fare in next year’s midterm elections, with anti-Trump sentiment high among many voters.

It and another close congressional race in Republican territory in the state of Georgia next week could portend tough election battles for the president’s party in 2018.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin, quickly congratulated Estes on Tuesday evening.

“Kansans are fortunate to have this committed public servant representing them in Congress,” Ryan said in a statement.

The Kansas race had unexpectedly tightened in its final days, worrying the Republican establishment.

The Republicans infused the Estes campaign with additional funds, produced automated phone calls recorded by Trump, and sent in Republican US Senator Ted Cruz on Monday to campaign on Estes’s behalf.

“Our enemy right now is complacency,” Cruz said at a rally. “The eyes of the whole country are on Kansas.”

Democrat Thompson had insisted that the race was less about Trump, and more about the policies of Kansas’s unpopular Republican governor.

Governor Sam Brownback has clashed with lawmakers in his own party over issues such as tax cuts that have caused a $1 billion budget shortfall and the expansion of the state’s health insurance program for the poor.

Tax cuts and health care are likely to be issues that incumbent Republicans in the House and Senate will also have to address during next year’s midterms.

Rex Tillerson (White Freemason): Russia either irresponsible or incompetent in failing to rid Assad of WMDs

LUCCA, Italy (AP) — US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued an ultimatum to Russia on Tuesday: Side with the US and likeminded countries on Syria, or embrace Iran, militant group Hezbollah and embattled Syrian leader Bashar Assad.

Tillerson, who landed in Moscow on Tuesday afternoon following urgent meetings in Italy with top diplomats, said it was unclear whether Russia had failed to take seriously its obligation to rid Syria of chemical weapons, or had merely been incompetent. But he said the distinction “doesn’t much matter to the dead.”

“Russia has failed to uphold the agreements that have been entered into under multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions,” Tillerson said. “These agreements stipulated Russia as the guarantor of a Syria free of chemical weapons.”

Syria’s stockpiling and continued use of chemical weapons show that “Russia failed in its responsibility to deliver on this 2013 commitment,” he went. “It is unclear whether Russia failed to take this obligation seriously or Russia has been incompetent, but this distinction doesn’t much matter to the dead. We cannot let this happen again.”

“We want to relieve the suffering of the Syrian people. Russia can be a part of that future and play an important role,” Tillerson added in remarks to reporters. “Or Russia can maintain its alliance with this group, which we believe is not going to serve Russia’s interests longer term.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) meets with Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran on November 23, 2015 (AFP/Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin)

Since the US launched airstrikes against Assad’s forces in retaliation for a chemical attack on civilians last week, Trump administration officials have offered mixed messages about whether Washington believes Assad definitely must surrender power — and when. Tillerson said it was clear the US saw no role for Assad in Syria’s future, given that he had lost legitimacy.

“It is clear to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end,” he said. “But the question of how that ends and the transition itself could be very important in our view to the durability, the stability inside of a unified Syria,” which he said he “hopes” Assad will not be a part of.

“That’s why we are not presupposing how that occurs,” Tillerson added.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault also told reporters that the G7 ministers agreed that “no future in Syria is possible with Bashar Assad,” Ayrault told reporters.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault arrives for a meeting of Foreign Affairs Ministers from the Group of 7 industrialized countries on April 10, 2017 in Lucca, Italy. (AFP Photo/Vincenzo Pinto)

He said the message for Russia was: “That’s enough now. There must be an end to hypocrisy and a very clear return to the political process.”

“This is not an aggressive stance towards Russia, rather a hand out-held, with clear intentions,” Ayrault said.

Tillerson also said the cease-fire talks that Russia and Iran have helped broker in the Kazakh capital, Astana, could generate momentum toward broader talks about a political transition — if the Astana talks succeed in creating a durable cease-fire. The resulting political talks would take place under the auspices of the United Nations process in Geneva.

“To date, Astana has not achieved much progress,” Tillerson said.

Tillerson spoke after a meeting of the “likeminded” countries was hastily arranged on the sidelines of the summit of the Group of Seven industrialized economies in Italy, days after the US for the first time launched airstrikes against Assad’s forces.

A key focus since the chemical attack has been on increasing pressure on Russia, Assad’s strongest ally, which has used its own military to keep Assad in power. The US and others have said that Russia bears responsibility for the deaths of civilians at the hands of Assad given Moscow’s role in guaranteeing the 2013 deal in which Assad was supposed to have given up his chemical weapons arsenal.

The US raised the stakes significantly on Monday when a senior US official said Washington has made a preliminary conclusion that Russia knew in advance of Syria’s chemical weapons attack. Yet the US has no proof of Moscow’s involvement, said the official, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on intelligence matters and demanded anonymity.

That accusation will hang over Tillerson’s visit to Moscow, where he plans to meet with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and possibly with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin declined to say whether Putin would meet with Tillerson, in line with its usual practice of not announcing such meetings ahead of time.

This file photo taken on August 30, 2011 shows Russia's then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin speaking with then ExxonMobil President and CEO Rex Tillerson during the signing of a Rosneft-ExxonMobil strategic partnership agreement in Sochi. (AFP PHOTO/RIA NOVOSTI/ALEXEY DRUZHININ)

The United States has sought to minimize expectations for the trip or the likelihood that the US will leave with any concessions from Russia regarding its support for Assad. Instead, the US is hoping to use the visit — the first by a Trump Cabinet official to Russia — to convey its expectations to Moscow and then allow the Russians a period of time to respond.

Though intended to punish Assad for a chemical weapons attack, the US strikes last week served to refocus the world’s attention on the bloody war in Syria, now in its seventh year. Diplomats gathered in Italy as US officials in Washington floated the possibility of new sanctions on the Syrian and Russian military, plus the threat of additional US military action if Assad’s government continues attacking civilians.

At Tuesday’s meeting in the walled Tuscan city of Lucca, the G-7 countries were joined by diplomats from Muslim-majority nations including Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. The inclusion of those countries is important because the U.S. strategy for Syria involves enlisting help from Mideast nations to ensure security and stability in Syria after the Islamic State group is vanquished.