Nation and World briefs for July 11

Facing calls for resignation, Acosta defends Epstein deal

WASHINGTON — Trying to tamp down calls for his resignation, Labor Secretary Alex Acosta on Wednesday defended his handling of a sex-trafficking case involving now-jailed financier Jeffrey Epstein, insisting he got the toughest deal he could at the time.

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In a nearly hour-long news conference, Acosta retraced the steps that federal prosecutors took in the case when he was U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida a decade ago, insisting that “in our heart we were trying to do the right thing for these victims.” He said prosecutors were working to avoid a more lenient arrangement that would have allowed Epstein to “walk free.”

“We believe that we proceeded appropriately,” he said, a contention challenged by critics who say Epstein’s penalty was egregiously light.

The episode reignited this week when federal prosecutors in New York brought a new round of child sex-trafficking charges against the wealthy hedge fund manager. And on Wednesday, a new accuser stepped forward to say Epstein raped her in his New York mansion when she was 15.

Jennifer Araoz, now 32, told “Today” she never went to police because she feared retribution from the well-connected Epstein. She now has filed court papers seeking information from Epstein in preparation for suing him.

At UN body, 22 nations urge China to end Xinjiang detentions

GENEVA — Human Rights Watch says 22 Western countries have issued a statement urging China to end mass arbitrary detentions and other violations against Uighurs and other Muslims in the Xinjiang region.

The advocacy group hailed the “important” statement at the U.N.-backed Human Rights Council, which amounts to a symbolic step toward greater expression of concern about China’s policies in Xinjiang.

The signatories issued the statement as a “letter” at the council, and stopped short of seeking a council resolution — a testament to the challenges of building support against increasingly influential China.

Rights groups and the United States estimate up to 1 million Muslims may be arbitrarily detained in Xinjiang.

China denies widespread abuse in the detention centers and calls them training schools aimed to combat extremism and provide employable skills.

Flooding swamps New Orleans; possible hurricane coming next

NEW ORLEANS — A storm swamped New Orleans streets and paralyzed traffic Wednesday as concerns grew that even worse weather was on the way: a possible hurricane that could strike the Gulf Coast and raise the Mississippi River to the brim of the city’s protective levees.

The storm was associated with an atmospheric disturbance in the Gulf that forecasters said was on track to strengthen into a hurricane by the weekend. The National Hurricane Center expected the system to become a tropical depression by Thursday morning, a tropical storm by Thursday night and a hurricane on Friday.

Lines of thunderstorms ranged far out into the Gulf and battered New Orleans, where as much as 8 inches (18 centimeters) of rain fell over a three-hour period, officials said.

Mississippi and Texas were also at risk of torrential rains.

In New Orleans, streets turned into small, swift rivers that overturned garbage cans and picked up pieces of floating wood. Water was up to the doors of many cars. Other vehicles were abandoned. Kayakers paddled their way down some streets.

Fans celebrate World Cup champs, rally for equal pay

NEW YORK — Adoring fans packed New York City’s Canyon of Heroes on Wednesday amid a blizzard of confetti to praise the World Cup-winning U.S. women’s national soccer team as leaders on the field and advocates for pay equity off it.

Crowds chanted “USA! USA!” and workers sounded air horns from a construction site as the hourlong parade moved up a stretch of lower Broadway that has long hosted so-called ticker tape parades for world leaders, veterans and hometown sports stars.

Co-captain Megan Rapinoe and her teammates shared a float with Mayor Bill de Blasio and U.S. Soccer Federation President Carlos Cordeiro. Rapinoe struck her now-famous victory pose, took a swig of Champagne and handed the bottle to a fan. Goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher held the World Cup trophy aloft.

Aly Hoover, 12, of Glen Ridge, New Jersey, stood at the sidelines with a poster of the face of Alex Morgan, another team star. “I just want to be like them,” she said.

Garret Prather brought his newborn son “to celebrate how the American women made us proud on and off the field.”

Powell’s message to Congress: Rate cut is likely coming soon

WASHINGTON — Pointing to a weaker global economy, rising trade tensions and chronically low inflation, Chairman Jerome Powell signaled Wednesday that the Federal Reserve is likely to cut interest rates late this month for the first time in a decade.

Delivering the central bank’s semiannual report to Congress, Powell said that since Fed officials met last month, “uncertainties around trade tensions and concerns about the strength of the global economy continue to weigh on the U.S. economic outlook.” In addition, inflation has dipped further below the Fed’s annual target level.

The chairman’s remarks led investors to send stock prices up, bond yields down and the value of the U.S. dollar lower on expectations of lower interest rates. The S&P 500 index briefly traded over 3,000 for the first time.

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Testifying to the House Financial Services Committee, Powell was asked, as he has been before, what he would do if President Donald Trump tried to fire or demote him. Powell offered the same terse reply he’s given in the past when asked about Trump’s attacks on his leadership and the president’s insistence that he has authority to remove the chairman: Powell said he intends to serve out his full four-year term, which ends in early 2022.

The president has repeatedly accused Powell and the Fed of keeping credit too tight for too long and of thereby holding back the economy and the stock market. Most experts dispute Trump’s assertion that he has authority to either fire Powell or demote him from the chairman’s post, and his attacks have raised alarms that he’s undermining the Fed’s long-recognized independence from political pressure.

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