A new battle in Iraq gives Iran the upper hand – Washington Post

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For months, there have been warnings that the Islamic State’s eventual defeat in Iraq and Syria would only spark a number of far more complicated and arguably more dangerous conflicts. We may now be seeing the first of those conflicts erupt in northern Iraq, where two close U.S. allies have commenced combat over the future of the nation.

Adding to the dangerous mix is the alleged involvement of Iranian-backed militia in the fighting, which comes just days after President Trump singled out Tehran’s “destabilizing” activities across the Middle East as he announced his plans to decertify the nuclear agreement with Iran. Any rash decisions on Trump’s part could be a boon for exactly the Iranian activities he has denounced.

The dispute is centered around Kirkuk, an ethnically and religiously mixed city in the country’s north that straddles Iraq’s sectarian lines and sits next to major oil fields. The city had been under the control of Kurdish forces since 2014, when Iraq’s national army crumbled in retreat from the Islamic State. Early Monday, Iraqi forces pushed back. The Washington Post’s Loveday Morris and Mustafa Salim report that Baghdad-allied troops said they had seized a military base, an oil field and other key infrastructure from Kurdish forces.

Overnight, as those troops approached, there were widespread fears of considerable bloodshed: Kirkuk is home to sizable populations of Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen, and relations among the groups have long been uneasy. In the end, the skirmishes were smaller but still worrying — one video shared online showed a number of dead bodies wearing the uniforms of Kurdish peshmerga soldiers. “This is the result of disobedience of Masoud Barzani,” the Iraqi fighter who was filming said, referring to the leader of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Lowering of Kurdish flag, raising of Iraqi at Kirkuk’s provincial council building. CTS’s Asadi, Badr’s Amiri and PMU’s Mohandes look on pic.twitter.com/NlsaC12ssE

— Loveday Morris (@LovedayM) October 16, 2017

But there are concerns that the battles could be a prelude to greater violence if the two sides don’t de-escalate — a situation that would force the United States to make some awkward choices about whom it should back if push really comes to shove.

It’s startling how quickly things have deteriorated. Just a few months ago, the Defense Department said the level of cooperation between the Iraqi government and the Kurdish Regional Government was “unprecedented,” dubbing the peshmerga a “critical partner in counter-ISIS operations.”

Then came the independence referendum that Barzani held on Sept. 25, in which almost 93 percent of Iraqi Kurds voted to break away. The referendum did not have the backing of Baghdad, and most of the international community — including the United States, normally a staunch Kurdish ally — opposed the referendum on the grounds that it undermined Iraqi statehood. Iraq’s neighbors were furious about the vote, which seemed to embolden claims for statehood among their own Kurdish minorities. Iran in particular seemed incensed, given the close ties between Iraqi and Iranian Kurds.

But the dream of independence has long been held by Iraq’s Kurdish minority, who suffered terribly under the regime of Saddam Hussein. The gains in territory controlled by Kurdish forces after 2014 — in particular, Kirkuk, which has been described as a “Kurdish Jerusalem” — had made that dream seem more urgent and economically feasible.

The ease with which Iraq took back Kirkuk on Monday shows that the Kurds’ gamble did not pay off. Crucially, the weak resistance put up by Kurdish forces points to the political divisions within Kurdish society. Responding to reports that some soldiers had been ordered to withdraw, the Peshmerga General Command, aligned with Barzani and the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party, accused officials from the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party of aiding “the plot against the people of Kurdistan,” the BBC reports.

A number of observers also criticized Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi for being too quick to resort to force — and possibly at the behest of Iran, which is an ally of the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. “Manipulated by Suleimani’s war drum rhythms, Baghdad decided to cross line for short term gain,” tweeted analyst Nibras Kazimi, referring to Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani, the head of the notorious Quds Force of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard.


Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander Qasem Soleimani in Iraq’s Salahuddin province during anti-ISIS operations in 2015. (Reuters)

There are many ways in which Iran gains from the current situation. Not only does the conflict undermine Kurdish unity, it also bolsters the role of Iranian-aligned militias in Iraq and makes them look like guardians of national unity rather than sectarianism. It also puts the United States in an awkward position, running the risk of either undermining Abadi if it criticizes the Iraqi government too openly or supposedly betraying the Kurds and siding with Tehran if it does not.

Despite all the harsh words Trump had for Iran — the Revolutionary Guards in particular — on Friday, he has avoided taking an overt stance on the situation in Kirkuk. “We don’t like the fact that they’re clashing,” Trump said during a news conference Monday. “We never should have been there,” he added, referring to the 2003 U.S. invasion, “but we’re not taking sides.”

Such a cautious response isn’t typically Trumpian, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It is certainly in the American interest to de-escalate the situation. Doing so will require nudging Baghdad and Irbil towards negotiations as well as dealing with burgeoning inter-Kurdish rivalries. Some of this is already happening, it appears: Washington is considering halting its train-and-equip program for Iraqi forces if the offensive against Iraqi Kurds continues, according to Defense News.

But if Trump changes tack and decides to pick a side — as some high-profile names have said he should — he will put at risk at least one key relationship for the United States and play into Iranian hands. The “art of the deal” president may instead need to go for something that’s not his normal approach: a deal that leaves all sides satisfied.

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Canadian firm could dodge 300 percent tariff by building jets in Alabama – Washington Post

TOP: A Boeing 737 MAX at the 52nd Paris Air Show near Paris in June. ABOVE: Shareholders look at Bombardier’s CS300 aircraft in Mirabel, Quebec, in April last year. After Chicago-based Boeing asked the Commerce Department to look into allegations about Bombardier, the agency ruled against the Canadian jet-maker. (Pascal Rossignol/Reuters; Christinne Muschi)

Canadian jet-maker Bombardier announced Monday that it is selling a controlling stake in its 100- to 150-seat C-series jetliner to European manufacturer Airbus, just weeks after the Commerce Department moved to impose 300 percent tariffs on the plane. The companies also said they will expand the plane’s production to a new facility in Mobile, Ala., a move that could help it avoid the import duty.

Executives from Airbus and Bombardier touted the deal’s U.S. job-creation potential.

“This is a win-win for everybody,” Airbus chief executive Tom Enders said in a statement. “Not only will this partnership secure the C Series and its industrial operations in Canada, the U.K. and China, but we also bring new jobs to the U.S.”

The deal included no upfront cash payment, a possible reflection of the plane’s enormous production costs. When the deal closes, Airbus will own just over half of the C-series plane, Bombardier will own 31 percent and a Canadian state investment agency will own the remaining 19 percent.

The combination significantly complicates what had been a three-way trade dispute between the United States, Canada and Britain. With Airbus’s ownership of the C-series aircraft, the dispute now touches France, Germany and Spain, where Airbus has a significant presence.

The dispute started in May when Chicago-based aerospace manufacturer Boeing asked the Commerce Department to investigate allegations that Bombardier is selling the C-series plane in the United States at an unfairly-low price and doing so with the help of illegal government subsidies. Bombardier had earlier struck a deal to sell 75 C series CS100 jets to Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines.

In two separate rulings over the past few weeks, the Commerce Department ruled in Boeing’s favor on both counts, imposing a preliminary 300 percent tariff on Bombardier planes. The International Trade Commission, a quasi-judicial U.S. agency that has the final say in such disputes, is expected to issue a final decision on the matter in February.

Bombardier and Airbus started discussing a potential sale in August, three months after Boeing first filed its tariff petition with the Commerce Department, an Airbus executive said Monday.

“We’ve been extremely fast compared to other programs at Airbus,” Enders said.

In its published reactions to Airbus and Bombardier’s combination, Boeing sought to cast the deal as a blatant attempt to circumvent U.S. trade law.

“This looks like a questionable deal between two heavily state-subsidized competitors to skirt the recent findings of the U.S. government,” a Boeing spokesman said in a statement Monday. “Our position remains that everyone should play by the same rules for free and fair trade to work.”

In a Monday evening call with reporters, executives from Airbus and Bombardier insisted the deal was motivated by strategic business considerations and not a desire to avoid the tariff. Still, they recognized the added benefit of potentially avoiding the import duty.

“It’s not intended to circumvent anything, but the fact is that when you produce an aircraft in the U.S. it’s not subject to any U.S. import tariff rules,” Bombardier President Alain Bellemare said.

Trade experts question whether using an Alabama production facility would necessarily allow Airbus to waive the tariffs on the C-series plane. Much of the work of producing the plane comes down to assembly, with the actual components stretched across a global supply chain.

“There is a legal question of how much of the parts and components and value-added needs to actually happen in the U.S. for tariffs to no longer apply,” said Chad Bown, a senior fellow with the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “You can’t just fly an airplane to Alabama and say it’s made in America.”

But the combination could also give Bombardier new political clout in the United States, possibly making the import tax politically difficult for the White House. Airbus already operates a 53-acre facility in Mobile where it has produced the A320 narrow-body commercial jetliner since 2015 — the company’s first U.S. production facility.

As part of the announcement Monday, Airbus said it will set up a second production center in Mobile, a move that could shift some of the plane’s future job creation potential from Quebec to the United States.

That could give the C-series another ally in Congress, where the tariff already faces resistance. In an October letter to the International Trade Commission, a bipartisan group of four U.S. senators and three House members said they oppose the border tax.

“This destroys the trade complaint and guarantees the success of the C-series aircraft in the U.S.,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with Teal Group.

Others said it is unlikely that Bombardier chose to embark on a combination purely because of the Commerce Department’s tariff decision.

“When a partner in a venture pays nothing to get on board, it means you were in trouble to begin with,” said Loren Thompson, an aerospace consultant whose think tank gets some funding from Boeing.

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US urges calm as Kirkuk crisis escalates – BBC News

Media playback is unsupported on your device

The US has called for “calm” after Iraqi government forces seized the northern city of Kirkuk and key installations from Kurdish control.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert urged all parties to “avoid further clashes”.

Iraqi soldiers moved into Kirkuk three weeks after the Kurdistan Region held a controversial independence referendum.

They are aiming to retake areas under Kurdish control since Islamic State militants swept through the region.

Residents of Kurdish-controlled areas, including Kirkuk, overwhelmingly backed secession from Iraq in a vote on 25 September.

While Kirkuk is outside Iraqi Kurdistan, Kurdish voters in the city were allowed to take part.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had denounced the vote as unconstitutional. But the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) insisted it was legitimate.

What’s the US stance in the developing crisis?

In a statement on Monday, Ms Nauert said Washington was “very concerned by reports of violence around Kirkuk”.

“We support the peaceful exercise of joint administration by the central and regional governments, consistent with the Iraqi constitution, in all disputed areas.”

Ms Nauert said the US was working with officials from all parties to “encourage dialogue”, warning that “there is still much work to be done to defeat Isis (Islamic State) in Iraq”.

Earlier, President Donald Trump said US officials were “not taking sides”.

“We don’t like the fact that they’re clashing,” he added.

Senator John McCain, who heads the Senate Armed Services Committee, warned the Iraqi government of “severe consequences” if US-supplied weaponry was misused in operations against Kurdish forces.

“The United States provided equipment and training to the government of Iraq to fight (Islamic State) and secure itself from external threats – not to attack elements of one of its own regional governments.” he said.

What about Baghdad and Kurdish officials?

Mr Abadi said in a statement on Monday that the operation in Kirkuk was necessary to “protect the unity of the country, which was in danger of partition” because of the referendum.

“We call upon all citizens to co-operate with our heroic armed forces, which are committed to our strict directives to protect civilians in the first place, and to impose security and order, and to protect state installations and institutions,” he added.

On Monday, the Iraqi military said its units had taken control of the K1 military base, the Baba Gurgur oil and gas field, and a state-owned oil company’s offices.

The government in Baghdad said Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers had withdrawn “without fighting”. However, clashes were reported to the south, and the sound of gunfire was caught by a BBC cameraman as a team filmed near a checkpoint.

By the afternoon, as thousands of people fled the city fearing impending clashes between the two sides, Iraqi military vehicles were rolling into the heart of Kirkuk. A picture shared on social media appeared to show Iraqi forces sitting in the governor’s office.

Forces pulled down the Kurdish flag which had been flying alongside the Iraqi national flag, according to Reuters.

Mr Abadi had ordered the flag to fly over all disputed territories.

The speed with which Iraqi forces reached the centre of the city has led the two main armed Kurdish parties to accuse each other of “betrayal”.

Media playback is unsupported on your device

The Peshmerga General Command, which is led by President Massoud Barzani of the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), accused officials from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of aiding “the plot against the people of Kurdistan”.

The PUK denied being part of ordering any withdrawal, saying dozens of their fighters had been killed and hurt, but noted “not even one KDP Peshmerga has been martyred as of yet in the fighting in Kirkuk”.

Meanwhile Turkey, which fears Kurdish independence in Iraq could lead to similar calls from its own Kurdish minority, praised Baghdad, saying it was “ready for any form of co-operation with the Iraqi government in order to end the PKK presence in Iraqi territory”.

The PKK – or Kurdistan Workers’ Party – is a Turkish-Kurdish rebel group which has been fighting for autonomy since the 1980s. It is considered a terrorist group by Turkey as well as by the EU and US.

Why is Kirkuk at the heart of this crisis?

Kirkuk is an oil-rich province claimed by both the Kurds and the central government. It is thought to have a Kurdish majority, but its provincial capital has large Arab and Turkmen populations.

Kurdish Peshmerga forces took control of much of the province in 2014, when Islamic State (IS) militants swept across northern Iraq and the Iraq army collapsed.

The Iraqi parliament asked Mr Abadi to deploy troops to Kirkuk and other disputed areas after the referendum result was announced, but he said last week that he would accept them being governed by a “joint administration” and that he did not want an armed confrontation.

On Sunday, his cabinet accused the KRG of deploying non-Peshmerga fighters in Kirkuk, including members of the PKK, which it said was tantamount to a “declaration of war”. But KRG officials denied this.

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The Latest: Iraqi forces seize oil fields in Kirkuk – Washington Post

KIRKUK, Iraq — The Latest on Iraq, where federal forces have moved into the disputed northern city of Kirkuk as Kurdish forces have pulled out (all times local):

8:10 p.m.

The Pentagon is declining to blame the Iraqi government for the violence in Kirkuk, and instead is urging the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdish authorities to negotiate their differences.

A Pentagon spokesman, Col. Rob Manning, says the confrontation underway in the Iraqi city is a “distractor” to the U.S. goal of destroying the Islamic State group, and that Iraqi security forces and Kurdish peshmerga troops should not be “going at each other.”

Iraqi government forces have moved into the disputed city of Kirkuk and seized oil fields and other infrastructure on Monday, following last month’s Kurdish independence vote.

Asked about U.S. Sen. John McCain’s statement that the Iraqi government faces severe consequences for what he called its misuse of U.S. military equipment to attack Kurdish forces, Manning said he could not comment beyond saying Washington wants both sides to engage in dialogue. He said U.S. commanders in Iraq are trying to help mediate.

___

6:30 p.m.

Turkey says it supports the operation conducted by the Iraq government forces which moved in to the disputed city of Kirkuk and seized oil fields and other infrastructure following last month’s Kurdish independence vote.

Speaking to reporters at the end of a Cabinet meeting Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag however, described the operation as “too late” in coming.

“There is an attack against Iraq’s territorial integrity, against its sovereignty rights, its political unity and constitution,” Bozdag said. “We think this step designed to expel this attack is a very important one.”

Earlier, Bozdag announced Turkey was closing its airspace to flights to and from the Iraqi Kurdish region.

___

6 p.m.

Turkey has announced that it is closing its airspace to flights to and from Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region.

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag told reporters following a weekly Cabinet meeting Monday that the government has also decided to start procedures to hand over the control of a border gate into the Kurdish region to the Iraqi central government in Baghdad.

The announcement came amid escalating tensions between Baghdad and the Kurdish region following last month’s non-binding referendum for independence.

On Monday, Iraqi federal forces moved in to the disputed city of Kirkuk and seized oil fields and other infrastructure amid soaring tensions, forcing Kurdish forces to withdraw.

Turkey, which has a large Kurdish population and is fighting a Kurdish insurgency on its territory, strongly opposes Kurdish moves toward independence.

Turkey last month suspended flights to Iraqi Kurdish cities.

___

3 p.m.

The U.S.-led coalition battling the Islamic State group says it believes the exchange of fire between Iraqi and Kurdish forces in and around Kirkuk was a “misunderstanding.”

A coalition statement says it is monitoring federal and Kurdish military vehicles and believes they are “coordinated movements, not attacks.”

It said it was aware of reports of a “limited exchange of fire during predawn hours of darkness,” but “we believe the engagement this morning was a misunderstanding and not deliberate as two elements attempted to link up under limited visibility conditions.”

The U.S. has armed, trained and provided vital air support to both federal and Kurdish forces as part of the war against IS. It has urged both sides to remain focused on the extremists.

Baghdad and the Kurdish region have long been at odds over the fate of Kirkuk, a dispute that has grown more bitter since the Kurds voted for independence last month in a non-binding referendum.

Maj. Gen. Robert White, commander of coalition ground forces, says: “We continue to advocate dialogue between Iraqi and Kurdish authorities. All parties must remain focused on the defeat of our common enemy,” the Islamic State group.

___

2:30 p.m.

A spokesman for Iraq’s state-sanctioned militias says they have “achieved all our goals” in retaking areas from Kurdish forces in and around the disputed northern city of Kirkuk.

Ahmed al-Assadi says federal forces came under fire from “some rebels” after launching the operation early Monday and returned fire.

He says federal forces have been deployed in the area of the K-1 military base, the Kirkuk airport and a number of oil fields and installations. But he says the state-backed militias, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, have not entered the city center.

Associated Press reporters earlier saw militiamen at posts in western Kirkuk.

Kurdish forces seized control of Kirkuk in the summer of 2014, when Islamic State militants swept across northern Iraq and the country’s armed forces crumbled. The Kurds claim Kirkuk, even though it is outside their autonomous region.

The central government has long demanded the Kurds withdraw, and appears to have decided to act in the wake of last month’s Kurdish vote for independence, which was rejected as unconstitutional by Baghdad.

___

2:15 p.m.

Iraq’s military says it has seized two major oil fields outside the disputed city of Kirkuk from Kurdish forces.

The military said in a statement Monday that federal forces are now in control of the North Oil Company and Baba Gurgur fields.

Iraqi forces advanced on Kirkuk overnight Monday, clashing with Kurdish forces on the outskirts. The city is outside the Kurdish autonomous region but claimed by the Kurds and the central government.

The Kurds and the central government have long been divided over the sharing of revenues from the oil fields outside Kirkuk.

___

1:15 p.m.

State-sanctioned Iraqi militias have taken up positions inside the disputed northern city of Kirkuk after federal forces clashed with Kurdish forces outside the city.

The mostly Shiite Arab militias, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, are viewed with deep suspicion by the city’s Kurdish community. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had previously vowed they would remain outside the city.

An Associated Press reporter on Monday saw the militiamen at posts in Turkmen areas on the western side of the city that had been abandoned by Kurdish forces.

Kurdish forcers were falling back from their positions around Kirkuk as federal forces advanced on the city. Kurdish commanders say they have sustained casualties in the clashes, without providing specific figures.

Sporadic gunfire can be heard inside Kirkuk. Police at a checkpoint to the north said Kurdish families are leaving to Irbil, in the nearby autonomous Kurdish region, fearing attacks by the PMF.

___

1:10 p.m.

The European Union is launching a civilian mission in Iraq to help the conflict-ravaged country revamp its security sector to better tackle terrorism, corruption and political instability.

EU foreign ministers said in a statement on Monday that the mission will have a budget of 14 million euros ($16.5 million) and is set to deploy to Baghdad at the end of the year for 12 months.

The team, expected to number up to 35 personnel, will advise and assist the Iraqi authorities in carrying out their national security strategy.

The EU announcement came as Iraqi forces entered territory held by Kurds to end a political dispute over areas seized by Kurdish militias three years ago to defend the oil city of Kirkuk against the Islamic State group.

___

1 p.m.

Iraqi Kurdish forces have abandoned their positions outside Kirkuk’s airport and civilians are fleeing in large numbers as federal forces close in on the disputed city following an overnight attack from the south.

An Associated Press reporter saw the positions abandoned and the civilians fleeing on Monday. Federal forces had earlier seized an industrial area and a power plant to the south of the city.

The fighting comes amid soaring tensions after the Kurds voted for independence last month in a non-binding referendum rejected as unconstitutional by Baghdad.

Both the Kurdish forces and the federal forces have been armed and trained by the United States, and both are allies against the Islamic State group.

___

12:15 p.m.

Iraq’s military command is ordering Kirkuk’s local police and security forces to report to their posts in the city as usual after federal forces seized nearby areas in clashes with Kurdish fighters.

The statement from the armed forces command Monday says the federal government wants local police to stay in the city to maintain order. The military says it wants to protect the city with “the people of Kirkuk.”

Federal forces have not yet entered the city. Residents have reported sporadic rocket and mortar fire.

Kurdish forces known as peshmerga took control of Kirkuk in the summer of 2014, when the Islamic State group swept across northern Iraq and the country’s armed forces crumbled.

Iraq has since demanded that the city, which is outside the Kurds’ autonomous region, be handed back to federal control. Tensions have escalated since the Kurds voted for independence in a non-binding referendum last month.

___

11:15 a.m.

Iraq’s Kurds have vowed to fight back against any attempt by federal forces to seize the airport in the disputed city of Kirkuk, after clashes erupted overnight.

Maj. Gen. Ayoub Yusuf Said told The Associated Press: “We are not withdrawing from here, we are fortifying our positions at the airport and we intend to fight here.”

He says his forces have been battling since early Monday and have suffered casualties, without providing a specific figure.

The Kurdish forces, known as peshmerga, were digging in at the edge of the international airport after withdrawing from their positions outside the city following an attack by Iraqi troops.

Hundreds of armed Kurdish residents were taking up positions inside the city anticipating an attack.

Tensions between Iraq’s Kurds and the central government have soared since the Kurds voted for independence last month in a non-binding referendum rejected by Baghdad and much of the international community.

___

10 a.m.

Iraq’s Interior Ministry says federal forces have captured a power plant and a police station south of Kirkuk after what Kurdish officials described as a major assault aimed at driving Kurdish forces from the disputed city.

Monday’s brief statement from the Interior Ministry, on “Operation Impose Security on Kirkuk,” provided no details on the fighting or casualties, saying only that federal forces had taken control of industrial areas near the city.

Kurdish officials say federal forces launched a major assault south of the city that caused “lots of casualties,” without providing exact figures. It was not immediately possible to independently confirm their claims.

Tensions around Kirkuk, a multi-ethnic city claimed by the Kurdish autonomous region and the central government, have soared since the Kurds voted for independence last month in a referendum condemned as unconstitutional by Baghdad.

Both the federal forces and the Kurdish forces are close U.S. allies that have been armed and trained as part of the ongoing fight against the Islamic State group.

___

9:45 a.m.

The U.S.-led coalition is urging Iraqi and Kurdish forces to “avoid escalatory actions” after federal forces launched an assault south of the disputed northern city of Kirkuk, sparking clashes with the Kurds.

U.S. Army Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesman, tweeted that the coalition is “closely monitoring sit. near Kirkuk; urge all sides to avoid escalatory actions. Finish the fight vs. #ISIS, biggest threat to all.”

The U.S.-led coalition has armed and trained federal and Kurdish forces in the battle against the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, which is still ongoing despite the retaking of the northern city of Mosul earlier this year.

Iraqi forces launched a major operation south of Kirkuk late Sunday and have captured industrial areas near the city. Kurdish officials say their forces have sustained casualties.

Tensions have been soaring since the Kurds voted for independence last month in a non-binding referendum rejected by the central government as well as the United States.

9:15 a.m.

An Iraqi Kurdish commander says federal forces have seized an oil and gas company and other industrial areas south of Kirkuk in fighting with Kurdish forces that caused “lots of casualties.”

Brig. Gen. Bahzad Ahmed, a spokesman for Kurdish forces, said Monday the Iraqi troops have “burnt lots of houses and killed many people” in Toz Khormato and Daquq, south of the disputed city. He said Kurdish forces, known as peshmerga, have “destroyed one or two of their tanks.”

His claims could not be independently verified.

Kurdish officials say federal forces launched an assault south of Kirkuk late Sunday, aiming to capture a military base and surrounding oil wells.

The multi-ethnic city has been at the heart of a long-running dispute between the Kurds and the federal government that escalated following last month’s non-binding Kurdish vote for independence.

The U.S. has armed and trained Iraqi and Kurdish forces, both of which are at war with the Islamic State group.

___

8:30 a.m.

Iraqi Kurdish officials say federal forces and state-backed militias have launched a “major, multi-pronged” attack aimed at retaking the disputed northern city of Kirkuk.

The Kurdistan Region Security Council says in a statement Monday that Kurdish forces known as peshmerga have destroyed at least five U.S.-supplied Humvees being used by the state-sanctioned militias following the “unprovoked attack” south of the city.

Tensions have soared since the Kurds held a non-binding referendum last month in which they voted for independence from Iraq. The central government, along with neighboring Turkey and Iran, rejected the vote.

The United States has supplied and trained Iraqi federal forces and the peshmerga, both of which are fighting the Islamic State group. The U.S. also opposed the referendum.

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Trump’s dumbfounding, expansive press conference with Mitch McConnell, annotated – Washington Post

During a news conference on Oct. 16, President Trump said he has an “outstanding” relationship with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and defended his handling of the situation in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico. (Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

President Trump took part in an extensive Q&A with reporters Monday in which he falsely accused his predecessors of not calling the families of fallen soldiers, suggested Puerto Rico shouldn’t need food and water distributed by the military, and said he might re-think his drug czar nominee after a blockbuster Washington Post/”60 Minutes” report on the opioid epidemic.

It was Trump’s most extensive back-and-forth with reporters in months, and it was a lot to take in. Below is the full blow-by-blow, with our annotations. To see an annotation, click on the yellow, highlighted text.

THE PRESIDENT:  Thank you very much. I just want to say that we just spent Quite a bit of time inside with the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has been a friend of mine for a long time, long before my world of politics, early into his world of politics, I think. But we’ve been friends for a long time. We are probably now, despite what we read, we’re probably now — I think, at least as far as I’m concerned — closer than ever before. And the relationship is very good.

We’re fighting for the same thing. We’re fighting for lower taxes, big tax cuts, the biggest tax cuts in the history of our nation. We’re fighting for tax reform, as part of that. We are getting close to healthcare. We’ll come up in the early- to mid-part of next year. We’re going to have a vote; I think we already have the votes. We feel confident we have the votes. We pretty much know what the plan is.

I believe Republicans and Democrats are, as we speak, working together very hard, right now — working together to do an intermediate plan, a short-term plan, because Obamacare is a disaster. The rates have gone up. The premiums have gone up. The deductibles have gone through the roof. I mean, it’s terrible. If you look at the deductibles, unless you really have a problem, you’re not going to be able to use them.

So we have been working together long and hard. We think we’re in good shape for the budget, we hope. And we hope to be in good shape with, again, the largest tax cuts ever passed in this country. It’s going to spur business. You look at other countries, what they’ve done — and we’re competing with other countries. When China is at 15 percent, when I hear that Ireland is going to be reducing their cooperate rates down to 8 percent from 12. But you have other countries also reducing. We can’t be at 35 percent and think we’re going to remain competitive in terms of companies and in terms of jobs. So we worked on that.

I was very honored to see a man that I’ve had a lot of respect for, James Lee Witt, of the Clinton administration — the head of FEMA. He gave us an A-plus; I just see — it just came out. And I’ve always had respect for him. He gave us — he’s the FEMA director of the Clinton administration — gave us an A-plus for how we responded to the hurricane aftermath — all of the hurricanes. And that includes Puerto Rico.

So I just want to thank Mr. Witt, wherever you may be now, wherever you may be listening. I just want to say, I really much appreciate it. Because that took it out of politics — out of the world of politics, in that he was with the Clinton administration and I’m sure remains loyal to the Clinton administration. I hope he does.

So just to finish off, my relationship with this gentleman is outstanding, has been outstanding. We are working very hard to get the tax cuts. We will continue to work hard to get the healthcare completed. I’m going to be surprising some people with an economic development bill later on, but I haven’t even told Mitch because I want to focus on tax cuts and some other things right now.

One of the unspoken elements that we discussed at lunch — and it just is not talked about — yes, we got a great justice, Justice Gorsuch, into the United States Supreme Court. He is going to be outstanding, hopefully for many, many years. But something that people aren’t talking about is how many judges we’ve had approved, whether it be the court of appeals, circuit judges, whether it be district judges. We have — tremendous — right now under review; the Democrats are holding them up beyond anything — beyond comprehension, they’re holding them up.

I mean, frankly, they have terrible, terrible policy — terrible policy — and perhaps they’re not even good politicians, but they are good at obstruction. So I looked at some of these numbers, between the judges — and I want to say that we will set records in terms of the number of judges.

And if you read the Wall Street Journal, I have to give them a little bit of a — a person, a writer, I won’t mention names — but you can see who has really been a really fair person — wrote an article or wrote an editorial, in a sense, saying how well we’re doing with judges and appointments. I think it’s one of the big unsung things of this administration, in addition to the fact that we have had a lot of legislation passed on the VA and lots of other things.

But the judge story is an untold story. Nobody wants to talk about it. But when you think about it, Mitch and I were saying, that has consequences 40 years out, depending on the age of the judge, but 40 years out. So numerous have been approved. Many, many are in the pipeline. The level of quality is extraordinary.

And I just wanted to say that we’re working very closely on that also, and getting really great reviews from those people and, in many cases, some scholars that have been studying it. There has never been anything like what we’ve been able to do together with judges.

So with that, I’d like to have Mitch say a few words, and if you want to do a little question-and-answer, we can do that also.

Thank you very much. Thank you.

LEADER MCCONNELL:  Well, thank you very much, Mr. President. I want to underscore what the President said. We have the same agenda. We’ve been friends and acquaintances for a long time. We talk frequently. We don’t give you a readout every time we have a conversation. But frequently we talk on the weekends about the issues that are before us.

Obviously passing a budget, which enables tax reform and tax reduction comes next, then a supplemental to take adequate care of those who have been harmed by the natural disasters we’ve been afflicted with lately. And, of course, the Senate’s unique role — it seems to be a lot of people forget — we’re in the personnel business. There are 1,200 of the President’s nominations subject to confirmation in the Senate. The House is not in the personnel business. We are.

The single-most significant thing this President has done to change America is the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. But it’s not just the Supreme Court. There are a lot of vacancies at both the circuit court and district court level, as the President has indicated, of young, conservative — and when we say conservative about a judge, what we’re talking about here are, the kind of the people the President is appointing to the courts believe that the role of a judge is to try to rule based upon what the law says, not what they hoped the outcome would be.

Justice Scalia used to say, if the judge is not occasionally unhappy with the conclusion he reached, he’s not a very good judge. Or as Justice Gorsuch put it down in my state a couple of weeks ago, judges don’t wear red, they don’t wear blue — they wear black.

And those are the kind of people the President is sending up to the Senate to be confirmed. Many of them, as he pointed out, are younger and will be on the bench for a long time, and have a great deal to do with what kind of country we’re going to have far into the future.

Legislatively, obviously the top priority is tax reduction. And I think what the President and I would both like to say to you today, contrary to what some of you may have reported:  We are together totally on this agenda to move America forward.

THE PRESIDENT:  John.

Q:     Mr. President, in terms of the timetable for tax reform, the Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, has said he wants to get it done by the end of this year. He would make the House stay through the Christmas break in order to get it done. The Senate Majority Leader has said we’ll get it done this Congress. Would you be okay if tax reform were not passed until next year as opposed to this year?

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, I would like to see it be done this year, John. I would like very much to see it be done this year. So we won’t go a step further. If we get it done, that’s a great achievement.

But don’t forget it took years for the Reagan administration to get taxes done. I’ve been here for nine months, a little more than nine months. I can say the same thing for healthcare. If you look at Obama — first of all, if you look at Clinton, they weren’t able to get it done. If you look at other administrations, they weren’t able to get it done. President Obama, after a long period of time, was able to finally push it through, but pushed through something that’s now failed — really failing badly. But again, we’re meeting — Democrat, Republican are meeting right now, and right now they’re working on something very special.

But I have to tell you, I really believe that we have a very good chance, and I think Mitch feels the same way, of getting the taxes done, hopefully fairly long before the end of the year. That’s what we’d like to see.

Go ahead.

LEADER MCCONNELL:  Let me just add to what the President said. The goal is to get it done this calendar year. But it is important to remember that Obama signed Obamacare in March of year two. Obama signed Dodd-Frank in July of year two. We’re going to get this job done, and the goal is to get it done by the end of the year.

THE PRESIDENT:  And just to finish up for Mitch — and we’re nine months, right?  So we could have a long way to go, but that’s okay.

Yes.

Q:     Thank you very much. Do you both have confidence in Representative Tom Marino to be your drug czar?  And on healthcare, in your recent (inaudible), you said, “The only problem I have with Mitch McConnell is that after hearing repeal and replace for seven years, he failed. That should never have happened.”  Do you still (inaudible)?

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, let’s go to the second part of your question, with Mitch. Again, we’ve been doing healthcare for, really, seven months, and probably six months, if you think about it, because we started in probably a total of six months. Others were 2.5 years, and much more than that. Others were eight years, and they didn’t get it passed. This man is going to get it done, and I think get it done long before anybody else, and I think it’s going to be a great healthcare.

As far as Tom Marino, so he was a very early supporter of mine — the great state of Pennsylvania. He’s a great guy. I did see the report. We’re going to look into the report and we’re going to take it very seriously. Because we’re going to have a major announcement, probably next week, on the drug crisis and on the opioid massive problem. And I want to get that absolutely right. This country — and, frankly, the world — has a drug problem. The world has a drug problem. But we have it, and we’re going to do something about it.

So I’m going to have a major announcement on that problem next week. We’re going to be looking into Tom.

Q:     Thank you, Mr. President. Trey Yingst with One America News Network. I’d like to ask you:  Do you support the plan by people who previously served in your administration, such as the Steve Bannon, to primary Republican candidates in the 2018 elections who do not support your agenda?

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, I have a very good relationship, as you know, with Steve Bannon. Steve has been a friend of mine for a long time. I like Steve a lot. Steve is doing what Steve thinks is the right thing. Some of the people that he may be looking at, I’m going to see if we talk him out of that, because, frankly, they’re great people.

What Mitch will tell you is that maybe, with the exception of a few — and that is a very small few — I have a fantastic relationship with the people in the Senate, and with the people in Congress. I mean, I have a — with our House of Representatives. I have a great relationship with political people. If you read the papers, you think — I’m like on one island and they’re like on the other. Well, it’s not the way it is.

We have a fantastic relationship. I’m friends with most of them, I can say. And I don’t think anybody could have much of a higher percentage. But I’m friends with most of them. I like and respect most of them, and I think they like and respect me.

Just so you understand, the Republican Party is very, very unified. When we get things approved, we have to go through hell because we have no Democrat support, we have nobody. We don’t have a vote from the Democrats. As an example:  massive tax cuts — we may not get any Democrat votes. Now, we also may get three of four, but we may get no — for massive tax cuts. We’re the highest-taxed country in the world, and yet we may get no Democrat support. And that’s because they’re obstructionists and they just basically want us to do badly, but that’s not going to happen.

Yes, go ahead.

Q:     On the opioid crisis, I listened to you on the campaign trail talk about that repeatedly. You said you watched the “60 Minutes” report last night. Number one, do you want to reverse the law that Congressman Marino helped pass that DEA whistleblowers say has contributed to the expansion of the opioid crisis?

THE PRESIDENT:   We’re going to look at that very closely.

Q:     And does his sponsorship of that law in any way undermine your confidence in him as drug czar?

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, he’s a good man. I have not spoken to him, but I will speak to him and I’ll make that determination. And if I think it’s one percent negative to doing what we want to do, I will make a change, yes.

Q:     Mr. McConnell —

Q:     Mr. President —

THE PRESIDENT:  One second. Yes.

Q:     What about declaring a written national emergency for this crisis?  You’ve talked about it but you haven’t put that piece of paper together.

THE PRESIDENT:  We are going to be doing that next week. By the way, you know that’s a big step. By the way, people have no understanding of what you just said. That is a very, very big statement. It’s a very important step. And to get to that step, a lot of work has to be done and it’s time-consuming work. We’re going to be doing in next week, okay?

Q:     Did you have a chance, during your lunch today, to discuss the comments that Steve Bannon made this weekend?  And what do you make of those comments, declaring war on the Republican Party, declaring war on you?

LEADER MCCONNELL:  Look, you know, the goal here is to win elections in November. Back in 2010 and 2012, we nominated several candidates — Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock. They’re not in the Senate. And the reason for that was that they were not able to appeal to a broader electorate in the general election.

My goal as the leader of the Republican Party in the Senate is to keep us in the majority. The way you do that is not complicated. You have to have nominate people who can actually win, because winners make policy and losers go home. We changed the business model in 2014; we nominated people who could win everywhere. We took the majority in the Senate. We had one skirmish in 2016; we kept the majority in the Senate. So our operating approach will be to support our incumbents and, in open seats, to seek to help nominate people who can actually win in November. That’s my approach and that’s the way you keep a governing majority.

Q:     Mr. President, earlier today you criticized drug companies and also insurance companies, saying that drug companies were charging prices that are too high —

THE PRESIDENT:  Yes.

Q:     — and insurance companies were taking government money —

THE PRESIDENT:  Exactly right.

Q:     What specifically would you like to see both of those types of companies do?

THE PRESIDENT:  So the insurance companies have made a fortune with Obamacare — an absolute fortune. As you know, what I did with the cuts at the end, which were all going — you know, you’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars a month going right into the pockets of the insurance companies. And I’m very happy with what I did.

And because of that, people are talking now. Democrats are talking to the Republicans for a short-term taking care of, what we will call, healthcare so that people can have good healthcare without a big spike. You would have had massive spikes — you already have. I mean, every year the massive spikes to Obamacare have been ridiculous.

As far as — and I didn’t speak to Mitch about this today, but a priority of mine — and you know that this is coming up — will be the cost of prescription drugs. We are going to get the costs way down, way down, and those drugs companies — so you have the insurance companies, in the one case; in the other case — actually, with regard to both, you have the drug companies.

They contribute massive amounts of money to political people — I don’t know, Mitch, maybe even to you. But I have to tell you, they contribute massive amounts of money. Me, I’m not interested in their money. I don’t need their money. I will tell you, you have prescription drugs — you go to England, you go to various places, Canada — you go to many, many countries, and the same exact pill from the same company, the same box, same everything, is a tiny fraction of what it costs in the United States.

We are going to get drug prices — prescription drug prices way down because the world has taken advantage of us. The world has taken advantage of us when that happens, so that’s going to be very important.

Q:     Thank you. On healthcare, there are about 6 million people that get subsidies to help pay for Obamacare — about 70 percent, by one study of a couple of states that you won in November —

THE PRESIDENT:  Yeah.

Q:     Now that you’ve cut off these payments, are you going to ensure that those people will still get help from the federal government to pay —

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, that’s what we’re looking to do, Joe. We want to get it down so that people can have affordable healthcare. Look, you look at some states — 116 percent up. In Alaska, over 200 percent up. In other states, 50 percent, 70 percent up, and those are some of the states that are doing better. Obamacare is a wreck, it’s a mess, it’s destroying lives. We want to get it in those states — the states that I did so well in — but also in states that I didn’t win.

I want to get healthcare that’s much more affordable and much better healthcare, and that’s what we’re doing.

Yes.

Q:     Let me ask you about tax reform.

THE PRESIDENT:  Go ahead — tax reform.

Q:     Yes, tax reform. You had said the other day that there were some adjustments being made.

THE PRESIDENT:  Yeah.

Q:     Gary Cohn said today that there would be some things that are negotiable. What exactly, in your eyes, is negotiable?  And then, for the Leader, you said that the top priority is tax reduction — you did not say tax reform — in 2017, Leader McConnell. So can you commit specifically to tax reform in 2017?  For the both of you.

THE PRESIDENT:  So we are doing minor adjustments. We want to make sure that the middle class is the biggest beneficiary of the tax cuts and tax reform. And that’s, I’m sure, what Mitch meant also, because people get it confused.

We are doing massive tax cuts. We’re also doing simplification and reform. Simplification, where, literally, if we can do it on page; now, in some cases, it may be two pages. But we’re doing major simplification. We’re bringing the categories down from — if you include zero, because there are zero — we’re bringing it from eight to four. That’s a big, big simplification, just that alone.

But we are doing the massive cuts. And I will say this: Wherever I’ve been, this has been so popular with the people. Now we have to get a couple of additional people to raise their hands.

Mitch.

LEADER MCCONNELL:  Yeah, I agree with the President, it’s about both reduction and reform. It’s been 30 years since this kind of effort was undertaken successfully, and we’re going to succeed this time. The bills, the details of them, will be written by the Ways and Means and Finance Committees after we approve the budget. And obviously, the budget opens the path to tax reform. But it’s a both — it’s about both — about both reform and reduction.

Q:     Why haven’t we heard anything from you so far about the Soldiers that were killed in Niger?  And what do you have to say about that?

THE PRESIDENT:  I’ve written them personal letters. They’ve been sent, or they’re going out tonight, but they were written during the weekend. I will, at some point during the period of time, call the parents and the families — because I have done that, traditionally. I felt very, very badly about that. I always feel badly. It’s the toughest — the toughest calls I have to make are the calls where this happens, soldiers are killed. It’s a very difficult thing. Now, it gets to a point where, you know, you make four or five of them in one day — it’s a very, very tough day. For me, that’s by far the toughest.

So, the traditional way — if you look at President Obama and other Presidents, most of them didn’t make calls, a lot of them didn’t make calls. I like to call when it’s appropriate, when I think I’m able to do it. They have made the ultimate sacrifice.

So, generally, I would say that I like to call. I’m going to be calling them. I want a little time to pass. I’m going to be calling them. I have — as you know, since I’ve been President, I have.

But in addition, I actually wrote letters individually to the soldiers we’re talking about, and they’re going to be going out either today or tomorrow.

Yes.

Q:     General Kelly said just last week that you believe that Cuba could stop the attacks against Americans. Do you believe them, that Cuba is — do you believe Cuba is responsible?

THE PRESIDENT:  I think Cuba knew about it, sure. I do believe Cuba is responsible. I do believe that. And it’s a very unusual attack, as you know, but I do believe Cuba is responsible, yes.

Q:     Roy Moore, down in Alabama, has said that he believes homosexuality should be illegal and that Muslims should be barred from serving in the U.S. Congress. What makes you comfortable with someone with those beliefs serving in the U.S. Senate?  And the same question to you, Mr. Leader.

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, I’m going to be meeting with Roy sometime next week, and we’re going to talk to him about a lot of different things. But I’ll be meeting with him.

He ran a very strong race. The people of Alabama, who I like very much and they like me very much, but they like Roy. And we’ll be talking to him, and I can report to you then. Okay?

Go ahead.

Q:     Mr. President, this is a question for you and for Leader McConnell following up on your comments on the budget. One of the issues outstanding right now is what the Senate Judiciary Committee will (inaudible) of blue slips. I’m wondering what your position is, Mr. President, and what your position is, Leader McConnell. Because, you know, (inaudible) that right now gives Democrats leverage over the appointments.

LEADER MCCONNELL:  I can give you my position. The blue slip, for those of you who are not familiar with it, is a custom determined by the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee. And Senator Grassley can give you his view of how he views this. I’ll give you my view.

My view is that a blue slip on a circuit judge is simply a notification of how you’re going to vote. To conclude otherwise would have left us in the following position at the beginning of this Senate. Forty-eight Democratic senators would have been able to blackball 62 percent of the circuit judge nominees. That’s simply not a tenable place to land in a Senate that now deals with judges with a simple majority.

So my own personal view is that a blue slip on a circuit judge should simply be a notification of how you intend to vote.

THE PRESIDENT:  We could talk blue slips, but my attitude is I just want really capable people going to the courts.

Peter.

Q:     Mr. President, in 2012 you tweeted that “Obama’s complaints about Republicans stopping his agenda are BS,” in your words, “since he had full control for two years.”  You wrote, “He can never take responsibility.”  But today, you’ve said about some of the challenges right now in Congress and in Washington, “I’m not going to blame myself, I’ll be honest. They’re not getting the job done.”  So what’s different then than now?

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, let me just explain what’s different. We have nominations pending right now, and we have 182 approved — if you look at this:  the number that he had approved was 65 percent and 70 percent, and we have 39 percent. They’re holding up every single nomination.

Q:     How about the agenda broadly?

THE PRESIDENT:  Schumer and the group are holding up every single nomination. They are obstructing. They’re doing — I’m telling you, they’re not good politicians, but they’re very good at obstruction.

They are holding up every single nomination, and I will tell you, Peter, it’s not right. It’s really not right. They’ll bring them right out to the end at last minute. What they’re doing is unfair.

So you look at even Bush, you look at Obama, you look at Clinton, and you look at Bush original, you have 389 versus 182 — these are approvals. You look at Clinton, 357 versus 182. You look at President Obama, 364 versus 182. These are nominations approved, and what they’re doing to us — we have unbelievable people, and they’re waiting to be approved. They’ve been waiting for a long period of time.

Now, I do believe that Mitch is going to start pushing them very hard, and he can do that, and he wants to do that. He also wants to get the judicial nominations through, and he wants to get them through fast, too.

Go ahead, John. Go ahead, John.

Q:     Can I just follow on that, if I could, please?  You seemed to have a budding spirit of cooperation with the Senate Minority Leader and the House Minority Leader when it came to the budget, when it came to this idea of finding a fix for DACA. But every proposal that you have floated since then, they have very critically rejected. So where is this relationship?

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, I hope to have a relationship. If we don’t, we don’t. I mean, we have races coming up, as you know, in a year from now. I think we’re going to probably do very well. I can say this:  If we get taxes approved, we’re going to do unbelievably well.

Many of the senators are running in states that I won by massive amounts — 20, over 20 percent, sometimes 30 percent; I guess in one or two cases, by over 40 percent over the Democrat.

Q:     But do you think you can work with them?

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, we’re going to let you know that. I would like to give you that answer in about seven years from now, is that okay?  Meaning, one plus seven.

John, I hope to be able to because I like the concept of bipartisan. But right now, they are doing nothing but obstructing. And really, if you think about it, they’re against major tax cuts that’s going to make our country stronger and more competitive. That’s a hard thing to win an election on, and I believe that some Democrats will be voting for us when it comes to the tax cuts.

Q:     With this economic development bill that you mentioned, can you give us any of the details of what your plans are?

THE PRESIDENT:  I’m going to be proposing an economic development bill in the not-too-distant future. I want to get tax cuts, obviously, done first; maybe even healthcare. But I think somewhere in between or shortly thereafter I’m going to be developing an economic development bill that will put us so far ahead of other countries you will not even believe it. That will be very important.

Q:     Thank you, Mr. President. Last week, your administration made two major announcements on rolling back the Iran Deal and getting rid of the cost-sharing reductions as part of Obamacare. And a lot of criticism has been leveled at your administration saying that, really, all you’re doing is —

THE PRESIDENT:  And a lot of praise.

Q:     Fair enough, sir. Rolling back — a lot of what you’re doing is simply rolling back everything your predecessor accomplished. Is there a single policy of your predecessor that you specifically do not want to touch, sir?

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, we’re very opposite in terms of incentives and incentives for jobs and other things. And if you look at what’s happened, we just hit a new high today again in the stock market. We’ve picked up, Mitch, as of this moment, $5.2 trillion in stock market value. We have the lowest unemployment rate in — I believe it’s almost 17 years. We’re doing well.

We’re going to be doing immigration work that’s going to be outstanding, and we’re going to have people coming into our country based hopefully on a merit system, not just coming in randomly. But they’re going to be coming in based on a merit system where they can help us. Because I have companies moving into this country — you saw what happened with the automobile industry last week with five major plants. We have companies pouring back into this country for the first time in anybody’s memory. We are actually going to be, fairly soon, at a point where we’re going to need workers. Our country is going to do so well. But the tax cuts are going to be a major, major part of it.

Q:     Sir, is there a policy you’d want to keep in place though?  Is there a single policy you’d keep in place?

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, not too many, I must say. It’s the opposite side of the spectrum.

Peter. Go ahead, Peter.

Q:     Earlier, you said that President Obama never called the families of fallen soldiers. How can you make that claim?

THE PRESIDENT:  I don’t know if he did. No, no, no, I was told that he didn’t often. And a lot of Presidents don’t; they write letters. I do —

Q:     (Inaudible.)

THE PRESIDENT:  Excuse me, Peter. I do a combination of both. Sometimes — it’s a very difficult thing to do, but I do a combination of both. President Obama I think probably did sometimes, and maybe sometimes he didn’t. I don’t know. That’s what I was told. All I can do — all I can do is ask my generals. Other Presidents did not call. They’d write letters. And some Presidents didn’t do anything. But I like the combination of — I like, when I can, the combination of a call and also a letter.

One at a time. Go ahead.

Q:     Thank you. If it would help you — if it would help Special Counsel Robert Mueller get to the end of the Russia investigation, would you —

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, I’d like to see it end. Look, the whole Russian thing was an excuse —

Q:     Would you (inaudible).

THE PRESIDENT:  Excuse me. Excuse me. The whole Russia thing was an excuse for the Democrats losing the election, and it turns out to be just one excuse. I mean, today Hillary blamed Nigel Farage. That one came out of nowhere. So that was just an excuse for the Democrats losing an election that, frankly, they have a big advantage in the Electoral College. They should always be able to win in the Electoral College, but they were unable to do it.

So there has been absolutely no collusion. It’s been stated that they have no collusion. They ought to get to the end of it because I think the American public is sick of it.

Go ahead. Go ahead.

Q:     Mr. President, Ronica Cleary with Fox 5.

THE PRESIDENT:  Yes.

Q:     Do you believe that your comments in any way affected Bowe Bergdahl’s ability to receive a fair trial?  And can you respond to his attorney’s claims that —

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, I can’t comment on Bowe Bergdahl because he’s — as you know, they’re — I guess he’s doing something today, as we know. And he’s also — they’re setting up sentencing, so I’m not going to comment on him. But I think people have heard my comments in the past.

Go ahead. Go ahead.

Q:     Will you extend the deadline for DACA recipients if Congress can’t pass the bill by March?

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, they should be able to do something. But we need very stronger border security, and we do want the wall.

Go ahead.

Q:     My question is about the fires in Northern California. They feel like they’ve been left out from —

THE PRESIDENT:  No, they haven’t. In fact, I spoke to Governor Brown. We had a great conversation. We have FEMA there. And as you know, James Lee Witt gave us an A-plus, and I think if he didn’t include the fires, he would include the fires also. We have FEMA there. We have military there. We have first responders there. It’s a tragic situation. But we’re working very closely with the representatives from California, and we’re doing a good job.

Go ahead, back. Yes, go ahead, back.

Q:     Mr. President, in the wake of an avalanche of allegations made against Harvey Weinstein, your campaign is being subpoenaed for any documents relating to sexual harassment allegations made against you. Do you have a response to that?

THE PRESIDENT:  All I can say is it’s totally fake news. It’s just fake. It’s fake. It’s made-up stuff, and it’s disgraceful what happens. But that’s happens in the world of politics.

Jon.

Q:     Mr. President, on the wall, are you going to insist that you must have wall funding before you can sign something for the DREAMers or for spending for the rest of the year?

THE PRESIDENT:  Our country needs a wall. Mexico, you see what’s happening there. You see what just happened yesterday with one of their big political leaders. Mexico is not doing particularly well when it comes to the kind of thing that we have great interest in. Drugs are pouring across our border. We’re stopping it, but we need a wall to really stop it. We need a wall in this country. You know it. I know it. Everybody knows it. We have to have a wall, so that’s going to be part of it.

Q:     (Inaudible.)

THE PRESIDENT:  The Puerto Rico situation is so — because as you know —

Q:     Do you maintain that the federal response has been outstanding?

THE PRESIDENT:  Oh, I think — well, that’s according to the Clinton administration’s head of FEMA, it’s been outstanding.

Puerto Rico is very tough because of the fact it’s an island. But it’s also tough because, as you know, it was in very poor shape before the hurricanes ever hit. Their electrical grid was destroyed before the hurricanes got there. It was in very bad shape, was not working, was in bankruptcy, owed $9 billion. And then on top of that, the hurricane came.

Now, you’re going to have to build a whole new electrical plant system. We’re not talking about generators. We moved — Puerto Rico now has more generators, I believe, than any place in the world. There are generators all over the place. The fact is, their electrical system was in horrible shape before and even worse shape after.

So we are working right now — as you know, relief funds were just approved and are in the process of being approved by Congress. And that includes Texas, by the way. That includes Florida. And it also includes Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, et cetera. But it was in really bad shape before. We have done — I will say this, we have done —

Q:     (Inaudible) — Mr. President, people don’t have drinking water.

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, we’ve delivered tremendous amounts of water. Then what you have to do is you have to have distribution of the water by the people on the island. So we have massive amounts of water. We have massive amounts of food. But they have to distribute the food, and they have to do this. They have to distribute the food to the people on the island.

So what we’ve done is we now actually having military distributing food — something that really they shouldn’t have to be doing.

But if you look at the governor, who is a good man, by the way, but if you look at the governor of Puerto Rico, he himself has said we’ve done an outstanding job. And most people have said we’ve done an outstanding job. But Puerto Rico is a very tough one.

Yes, go ahead.

Q:     (Inaudible) support for the 20-week abortion ban bill. How important is this bill to you?  And what are you doing to work with Leader McConnell (inaudible) gets through the Senate?

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, I’ll let Mitch. You want to talk about that, Mitch?

LEADER MCCONNELL:  Was the question about the 20-week —

Q:     (Inaudible.)

LEADER MCCONNELL:  Yeah, well, it’s supported by virtually all of my members, and we expect to have a vote on it at some point.

THE PRESIDENT:  Go ahead.

Q:     Thank you, Mr. President. Previous Presidents who have traveled to South Korea have gone to the demilitarized zone. There are those who believe this would be the worst time to do that because it would be viewed as provocative. How do you view what you’re trying to accomplish in South Korea?  Do you intend to go to the DMZ?

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, I’ll be going, as you know, to South Korea, to China, to Japan, to Vietnam for the summit. We have a big economic summit there. I may be going to the Philippines also. We’ve been invited to the Philippines, so I may be going to the Philippines. And I look forward to all of them. We haven’t set the details as of this moment.

Q:     Are you afraid of provoking North Korea by going to the DMZ?

THE PRESIDENT:  We’ll take a look at that. I didn’t hear in terms of provoking, but we will certainly take a look at that.

Q:     Thank you, sir. A quick follow-up on an earlier question. You discussed the special counsel and the investigation currently. Are you considering firing Robert Mueller?

THE PRESIDENT:  No, not at all.

Q:     One Qquick follow-up on Iraq, sir. On Iraq, the Kurdish forces and Iraqi forces last night were clashing in northern Iraq. Are you concerned about a larger conflict in the region while U.S. forces are still advising on the ground?

THE PRESIDENT:  We don’t like the fact that they’re clashing. We’re not taking sides, but we don’t like the fact that they’re clashing.

Q:     Do you support the Kurdish referendum for independence?

THE PRESIDENT:  Let me tell you, we’ve had for many years a very good relationship with the Kurds, as you know. And we’ve also been on the side of Iraq, even though we should have never been in there in the first place. We should never have been there. But we’re not taking sides in that battle.

John.

Q:     Mr. President, in an interview earlier today, Hillary Clinton said that she did not believe that players taking a knee in the NFL was about disrespecting the flag — at complete odds with the way that you have referred to this. You fired back in a tweet saying that you hope that she runs again in 2020. Why —

THE PRESIDENT:  Oh, I hope Hillary runs. Is she going to run?  I hope. Hillary, please run again.

Go ahead.

Q:     So she’s at odds with you over whether or not this is disrespecting the flag. Is she right or is she wrong?

THE PRESIDENT:  I think she’s wrong. Look, when they take a knee — there’s plenty of time to do knees and there’s plenty of time to do lots of other things. But when you take a knee —

Q:     She says taking a knee is reference to —

THE PRESIDENT:  But when you take a knee — well, that’s why she lost the election. Honestly, it’s that thinking — that is the reason she lost the election.

When you go down and take a knee or any other way, you’re sitting essentially for our great national anthem, you’re disrespecting our flag and you’re disrespecting our country. And the NFL should have suspended some of these players for one game. Not fire them — suspended them for one game. And then if they did it again, it could have been two games and three games and then for the season. You wouldn’t have people disrespecting our country right now.

And if Hillary Clinton actually made the statement that, in a form, sitting down during the playing of our great national anthem is not disrespectful, then I fully understand why she didn’t win. I mean look, there are a lot of reasons that she didn’t win, including the fact that she was not good at what she did. But I will tell you that is something that I had just heard about, and I think that her statement in itself is very disrespectful to our country.

Thank you very much.

Q:     Sir, what about police-involving shootings?  Sir, what about police-involved shootings as it relates to the NFL?  That is what the players are saying is the crux of why they’re taking the knee, sir. The police-involved shooting issue, what would you do about that?

THE PRESIDENT:  It is very disrespectful to our country when they take a knee during our national anthem. It is very —

Q:     (Inaudible.)

THE PRESIDENT:  Just hear it. Hear it. It is very disrespectful to our country when they take a knee during the national anthem, number one. Number two, the people of our country are very angry at the NFL. All you have to do is look at their ratings and look at their stadiums. You see empty seats where you never saw them before. A lot of people are very angry at it. It is highly disrespectful. They shouldn’t do it.

Thank you very much, everybody. Thank you.

Q:     Mr. President, is healthcare now Trumpcare?

THE PRESIDENT:  I don’t think so.

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