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4 soldiers killed in ambush: Where is Niger and what are U.S. troops doing there?

Questions remain in the aftermath of an ambush attack on a group including U.S. Army soldiers in Niger that left four American service members dead on Oct. 4.

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Defense Department officials said Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, 35, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson, 39, Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright, 29 and Sgt. La David Johnson, 25, were killed in an attack during an advise-and-assist mission in southwestern Niger.

The circumstances that led to the attack remain under investigation.

The American military operation in Niger is one of about 20 in Africa and part of the U.S. Africa Command, according to NPR. The command is aimed at building military relations with African nations and other key players in the region. It began operations in 2007.

Here is what we know about Niger and U.S. military presence in the country:

Where is Niger?

Niger is a landlocked country in western Africa, bordered by Chad, Nigeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, Algeria and Libya.

The country became independent from France in 1960. Political instability and a series of military coups followed.

Is Niger generally safe for Americans?

The U.S. State Department in April issued a warning for Americans traveling in Niger to stay away from “locations frequented by Westerners” and to keep to hotels with armed Nigerien security officers because of the risk of terror attacks and kidnapping threats against Westerners.

“Niger’s southeastern border with Nigeria and east of Maradi are poorly controlled,” State Department officials said. “Boko Haram and several factions affiliated with ISIS have conducted cross-border attacks into Niger. The government of Niger has increased its security forces in the border areas, but the situation remains unstable and travel is not advised.”

What about for soldiers – is it generally safe?

Despite the threat of violence, officials said the Oct. 4 deaths were the first American service members to be killed in combat in Niger.

“I think clearly there's risk for our forces in Niger,” said Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, the director of the Joint Staff. “Any time we deploy full forces globally, we will look very hard at the enablers that need to be in place in order to provide security for them. And that ranges from the ability to pull them out if they are injured, to the ability to reinforce them at the point of a fight if they … need reinforcement. We look at all those things and evaluate on a continual basis.”

How big is the American military presence there?

Officials with the Defense Department said this month that about 1,000 troops in the region work with about 4,000 French service members. The U.S. military has had some presence in the country since 2012, according to CNN.

What are U.S. soldiers doing there?

Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said U.S. armed forces have been working for years with West African nations to combat the threat of terrorism.

The Army soldiers killed in the Oct. 4 attack were assisting with Nigerien security force counterterrorism operations about 125 miles north of Niamey, the country’s capitol city, according to thee Defense Department.

“We’re providing refueling support, intelligence support, surveillance support,” Defense Secretary James Mattis said. “But also we have troops on the ground. Their job is to help the people in the region learn how to defend themselves. We call it foreign internal defense training, and we actually do these kinds of missions by, with and through our allies.”

George W. Bush warns 'bigotry seems emboldened' in America: Read his full remarks

Former President George W. Bush warned Americans to be wary of growing trends toward nativism and isolationism on Thursday during a speech at the Bush Institute’s national forum.

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“Bigotry seems emboldened,” Bush said. “We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism – forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America. We see fading confidence in the value of free markets and international trade – forgetting that conflict, instability and poverty follow in the wake of protectionism.”

The speech was widely interpreted as a veiled message aimed at the politics of President Donald Trump, who has often touted an “America first” view of world politics. However, Trump was not named in the speech.

Read Bush’s full remarks from the forum, “Spirit of Liberty: At Home, in the World”:

Thank you all. Thank you. Ok, Padilla gracias. So, I painted Ramon. I wish you were still standing here. It’s a face only a mother could love – no, it’s a fabulous face. (Laughter.) I love you Ramon, thank you very much for being here.

And, Grace Jo thank you for your testimony. And, big Tim. I got to know Tim as a result of Presidential Leadership Scholars at the Bush Center along with the Clinton Foundation, with help from 41 and LBJ’s libraries.

I am thrilled that friends of ours from Afghanistan, China, North Korea, and Venezuela are here as well. These are people who have experienced the absence of freedom and they know what it’s like and they know there is a better alternative to tyranny.

Laura and I are thrilled that the Bush Center supporters are here. Bernie (Tom Bernstein), I want to thank you and your committee. I call him Bernie. (Laughter.)

It’s amazing to have Secretary Albright share the stage with Condi and Ambassador Haley. For those of you that kind of take things for granted, that’s a big deal. (Laughter and applause) Thank you.

We are gathered in the cause of liberty this is a unique moment. The great democracies face new and serious threats – yet seem to be losing confidence in their own calling and competence. Economic, political and national security challenges proliferate, and they are made worse by the tendency to turn inward. The health of the democratic spirit itself is at issue. And the renewal of that spirit is the urgent task at hand.

Since World War II, America has encouraged and benefited from the global advance of free markets, from the strength of democratic alliances, and from the advance of free societies. At one level, this has been a raw calculation of interest. The 20th century featured some of the worst horrors of history because dictators committed them. Free nations are less likely to threaten and fight each other.

And free trade helped make America into a global economic power.

For more than 70 years, the presidents of both parties believed that American security and prosperity were directly tied to the success of freedom in the world. And they knew that the success depended, in large part, on U.S. leadership. This mission came naturally, because it expressed the DNA of American idealism.

We know, deep down, that repression is not the wave of the future. We know that the desire for freedom is not confined to, or owned by, any culture; it is the inborn hope of our humanity. We know that free governments are the only way to ensure that the strong are just and the weak are valued. And we know that when we lose sight of our ideals, it is not democracy that has failed. It is the failure of those charged with preserving and protecting democracy.

This is not to underestimate the historical obstacles to the development of democratic institutions and a democratic culture. Such problems nearly destroyed our country – and that should encourage a spirit of humility and a patience with others. Freedom is not merely a political menu option, or a foreign policy fad; it should be the defining commitment of our country, and the hope of the world.

That appeal is proved not just by the content of people’s hopes, but a noteworthy hypocrisy: No democracy pretends to be a tyranny. Most tyrannies pretend they are democracies. Democracy remains the definition of political legitimacy. That has not changed, and that will not change.

Yet for years, challenges have been gathering to the principles we hold dear. And, we must take them seriously. Some of these problems are external and obvious. Here in New York City, you know the threat of terrorism all too well. It is being fought even now on distant frontiers and in the hidden world of intelligence and surveillance. There is the frightening, evolving threat of nuclear proliferation and outlaw regimes. And there is an aggressive challenge by Russia and China to the norms and rules of the global order – proposed revisions that always seem to involve less respect for the rights of free nations and less freedom for the individual.

These matters would be difficult under any circumstances. They are further complicated by a trend in western countries away from global engagement and democratic confidence. Parts of Europe have developed an identity crisis. We have seen insolvency, economic stagnation, youth unemployment, anger about immigration, resurgent ethno-nationalism, and deep questions about the meaning and durability of the European Union.

America is not immune from these trends. In recent decades, public confidence in our institutions has declined. Our governing class has often been paralyzed in the face of obvious and pressing needs. The American dream of upward mobility seems out of reach for some who feel left behind in a changing economy. Discontent deepened and sharpened partisan conflicts. Bigotry seems emboldened. Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication.

There are some signs that the intensity of support for democracy itself has waned, especially among the young, who never experienced the galvanizing moral clarity of the Cold War, or never focused on the ruin of entire nations by socialist central planning. Some have called this “democratic deconsolidation.” Really, it seems to be a combination of weariness, frayed tempers, and forgetfulness.

We have seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. At times, it can seem like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together. Argument turns too easily into animosity. Disagreement escalates into dehumanization. Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions – forgetting the image of God we should see in each other.

We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism – forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America. We see a fading confidence in the value of free markets and international trade – forgetting that conflict, instability, and poverty follow in the wake of protectionism.

We have seen the return of isolationist sentiments – forgetting that American security is directly threatened by the chaos and despair of distant places, where threats such as terrorism, infectious disease, criminal gangs and drug trafficking tend to emerge.

In all these ways, we need to recall and recover our own identity. Americans have a great advantage: To renew our country, we only need to remember our values.

This is part of the reason we meet here today. How do we begin to encourage a new, 21st century American consensus on behalf of democratic freedom and free markets? That’s the question I posed to scholars at the Bush Institute. That is what Pete Wehner and Tom Melia, who are with us today, have answered with “The Spirit of Liberty: At Home, In The World,” a Call to Action paper.

The recommendations come in broad categories. Here they are: First, America must harden its own defenses. Our country must show resolve and resilience in the face of external attacks on our democracy. And that begins with confronting a new era of cyber threats.

America is experiencing the sustained attempt by a hostile power to feed and exploit our country’s divisions. According to our intelligence services, the Russian government has made a project of turning Americans against each other. This effort is broad, systematic and stealthy, it’s conducted across a range of social media platforms. Ultimately, this assault won’t succeed. But foreign aggressions – including cyber-attacks, disinformation and financial influence – should not be downplayed or tolerated. This is a clear case where the strength of our democracy begins at home. We must secure our electoral infrastructure and protect our electoral system from subversion.

The second category of recommendations concerns the projection of American leadership – maintaining America’s role in sustaining and defending an international order rooted in freedom and free markets. 

Our security and prosperity are only found in wise, sustained, global engagement: In the cultivation of new markets for American goods. In the confrontation of security challenges before they fully materialize and arrive on our shores. In the fostering of global health and development as alternatives to suffering and resentment. In the attraction of talent, energy and enterprise from all over the world. In serving as a shining hope for refugees and a voice for dissidents, human rights defenders, and the oppressed.

We should not be blind to the economic and social dislocations caused by globalization. People are hurting. They are angry. And, they are frustrated. We must hear them and help them. But we can’t wish globalization away, any more than we could wish away the agricultural revolution or the industrial revolution. One strength of free societies is their ability to adapt to economic and social disruptions.

And that should be our goal: to prepare American workers for new opportunities, to care in practical, empowering ways for those who may feel left behind. The first step should be to enact policies that encourage robust economic growth by unlocking the potential of the private sector, and for unleashing the creativity and compassion of this country.

A third focus of this document is strengthening democratic citizenship. And here we must put particular emphasis on the values and views of the young.

Our identity as a nation – unlike many other nations – is not determined by geography or ethnicity, by soil or blood. Being an American involves the embrace of high ideals and civic responsibility. We become the heirs of Thomas Jefferson by accepting the ideal of human dignity found in the Declaration of Independence. We become the heirs of James Madison by understanding the genius and values of the U.S. Constitution. We become the heirs of Martin Luther King, Jr., by recognizing one another not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

This means that people of every race, religion, and ethnicity can be fully and equally American. It means that bigotry or white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed. (Applause.)

And it means that the very identity of our nation depends on the passing of civic ideals to the next generation.

We need a renewed emphasis on civic learning in schools. And our young people need positive role models. Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry, and compromises the moral education of children. The only way to pass along civic values is to first live up to them.

Finally, the Call to Action calls on the major institutions of our democracy, public and private, to consciously and urgently attend to the problem of declining trust.

For example, our democracy needs a media that is transparent, accurate and fair. Our democracy needs religious institutions that demonstrate integrity and champion civil discourse. Our democracy needs institutions of higher learning that are examples of truth and free expression.

In short, it is time for American institutions to step up and provide cultural and moral leadership for this nation.

Ten years ago, I attended a Conference on Democracy and Security in Prague. The goal was to put human rights and human freedom at the center of our relationships with repressive governments. The Prague Charter, signed by champions of liberty Vaclav Havel, Natan Sharansky, Jose Maria Aznar, called for the isolation and ostracism of regimes that suppress peaceful opponents by threats or violence.

Little did we know that, a decade later, a crisis of confidence would be developing within the core democracies, making the message of freedom more inhibited and wavering. Little did we know that repressive governments would be undertaking a major effort to encourage division in western societies and to undermine the legitimacy of elections.

Repressive rivals, along with skeptics here at home, misunderstand something important. It is the great advantage of free societies that we creatively adapt to challenges, without the direction of some central authority. Self-correction is the secret strength of freedom. We are a nation with a history of resilience and a genius for renewal.

Right now, one of our worst national problems is a deficit of confidence. But the cause of freedom justifies all our faith and effort. It still inspires men and women in the darkest corners of the world, and it will inspire a rising generation. The American spirit does not say, “We shall manage,” or “We shall make the best of it.” It says, “We shall overcome.” And that is exactly what we will do, with the help of God and one another.

Thank you.

Family says Trump told fallen soldier's widow that husband 'knew what he signed up for'

A congresswoman and the family of a U.S. Army soldier killed earlier this month in an ambush in Niger said President Donald Trump told the soldier’s widow that her husband “knew what he signed up for” before his death, an account the president staunchly denied.

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“I didn’t say what that congresswoman said – didn’t say it at all,” Trump told reporters on Wednesday.

U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Florida, and the family of Army Sgt. La David Johnson told multiple news outlets that Trump told La David Johnson’s widow, Myeshia Johnson, that “he knew what he signed up for ... but when it happens, it hurts anyway.”

Judge blocks third version of Trump's travel ban

A federal judge in Hawaii on Tuesday blocked a third version of President Donald Trump's travel ban.

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The ban was scheduled to go into effect at midnight and targeted eight nations, six of which have populations that are majority Muslim.

The state of Hawaii, the Muslim Association of Hawaii and others sought a temporary restraining order to stop the travel ban from going into effect, Politico reported.

Hillary Clinton defends NFL players kneeling for the national anthem

While on tour promoting her book “What Happened,” Hillary Clinton defended NFL players who kneel during the national anthem, arguing that they’re neither protesting the anthem nor the flag and calling their display “reverent.”

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That’s what black athletes kneeling was all about,” she said in response to a question about how to resist the Trump White House. “That’s not against our anthem or our flag. Actually, kneeling is a reverent position. It was to demonstrate in a peaceful way against racism and injustice in our criminal system.”

Former NFL star Colin Kaepernick sought to protest racial injustice in the United States last season, beginning by sitting on the bench for the national anthem. After speaking with former NFL player and Green Beret Nate Boyer, he decided to simultaneously protest and show respect by kneeling for the song instead.

“We sorta came to a middle ground where he would take a knee alongside his teammates,” Boyer said after their meeting. “Soldiers take a knee in front of a fallen brother’s grave, you know, to show respect. When we’re on a patrol, you know, and we go into a security halt, we take a knee, and we pull security.”

President Donald Trump recently began attacking players who kneel during the anthem, calling them “sons of (expletive)” and imploring team owners to fire players who participate in the protest.

Taliban hostage rescued after 5 years in captivity didn't believe Trump was president

A Canadian man who had been held in Afghanistan for five years by Taliban-tied kidnappers revealed that he thought his kidnapper was joking when he said Donald Trump was president of the United States.

Joshua Boyle said one of his captors told him Trump was president just before he was forced to film a “proof-of-life” video, according to the Toronto Star.

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“It didn’t enter my mind that he was being serious,” Boyle said.

The Boyle family, including Joshua, his American-born wife, Caitlan Coleman, and their three young children, who were all born in captivity, were rescued by Pakistani forces after U.S. intelligence informed them of the of the family’s location.

The family was in the trunk of a car being transferred to another location when their kidnappers engaged in a shootout with Pakistani forces. Some of their kidnappers died in the fight while others fled, but the entire family made it to safety.

University of Florida to host white supremacist event, expects $500,000 in security costs

The University of Florida plans on spending $500,000 to “enhance security on campus” and in Gainesville, Florida, for white nationalist Richard Spencer’s speaking event Thursday.

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The money will include costs not only for the University of Florida Police Department, but also for the Gainesville Police Department, Alachua County Sheriff’s Office, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Florida Highway Patrol and other agencies providing first responders, the university said.

Spencer was to be a featured speaker at the August rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, at which one person died, but authorities stopped the event from taking place after protests and counterprotests turned violent.

The university will recoup $10,564 from Spencer’s National Police Institute for the two-hour rental of the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. However, it cannot pass along the balance of these costs -- enough to pay the annual tuitions of about 75 undergraduate students, according to university estimates -- to him under a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court free-speech ruling.

UF plans to remain open during the event, but access to campus buildings will be tightly restricted, and its faculty has been asked to be understanding of students who are fearful to be on campus that day.

University president Kent Fuchs has condemned Spencer’s message multiple times and has urged faculty and students not to attend the event, which is scheduled to run from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m.

“UF has been clear and consistent in its denunciation of all hate speech and racism, and in particular the racist speech and white nationalist values of Mr. Spencer,” Fuchs wrote Oct. 10. “I personally find the doctrine of white supremacy abhorrent and denounce all forms of racism and hate.”

Following the white nationalist Charlottesville rally in August, Spencer and the National Policy Institute requested to rent a facility at UF on Sept. 12. The university originally denied the request citing violence from Charlottesville and threats toward UF. After Spencer’s group spoke of suing under free speech laws, the university switched positions to allow Spencer to rent the space, which often used by visiting speakers. He was not invited or sponsored by UF or any of its organizations.

In the days leading up the event, UF organizations and Gainesville businesses have denounced Spencer’s message.

UF Hillel, a nonprofit organization for Jewish students, will provide a safe space guarded by security on Thursday and hold a “Solidarity Shabbat” on Friday with other UF organizations “to show unity and strength.”

Alligator Brewing Co., located in Tall Paul’s Brew House just east of campus in downtown Gainesville, announced on Oct. 12 that everyone 21 and older who brought in two tickets for Spencer’s event would receive a free draft beer. However, plans for free beer fell through when NPI decided to distribute its own tickets instead of using the Phillips Center’s box office, the university said. NPI posted on its Facebook page that it will post updates of ticket information on the page and Spencer’s Twitter account.

A Facebook group called “No Nazis at UF” created a Facebook event announcement to protest Spencer, which has more than 460 people marked as going to the event and more than 870 marked as interested in attending.

“We must stand together in the fight against white supremacy and fascism, and defend the most marginalized of our communities,” the group wrote.

The group started an online petition on change.org to UF administration showing its displeasure with the university allowing Spencer to speak. It had recorded more than 3,300 signatures as of Monday morning.

On Monday, No Nazis at UF’s organizers held a news conference on campus with protest signs in tow. They marched to Fuchs’ office but were denied access.

Larry Flynt offering up to $10M for information leading to Trump's impeachment

Hustler founder Larry Flynt is looking for information that will lead to President Donald Trump's impeachment – and he's willing to pay for it.

According to The Associated Press, the 74-year-old pornography publisher placed a full-page ad in Sunday's Washington Post to "announce a cash offer of up to $10 million" for the information. See the ad here.

"I do not expect any of Trump's billionaire cronies to rat him out, but I am confident that there are many people in the know for whom $10 million is a lot of money," the ad reads. "And just because you pay for information doesn't mean it's not good. Make no mistake, I fully intend to pay this entire sum."

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The ad continues: "Sure, I could use that $10 million to buy luxuries or further my businesses, but what good would that do me in a world devastated by the most powerful moron in history? I feel it is my patriotic duty, and the duty of all Americans, to dump Trump before it's too late."

This isn't the first time Flynt has offered money to derail Trump. The AP reported that Flynt offered $1 million during the 2016 presidential campaign for video or audio of Trump "behaving in an illegal or sexually demeaning manner."

Read more here.

President Trump says you'll be hearing 'Merry Christmas' a lot more this year

Declaring victory on the “war on Christmas” at Friday’s Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., President Trump said he’ll be saying “Merry Christmas” during his first holiday season as president.

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“We’re getting near that beautiful Christmas season that people don’t talk about anymore. They don’t use the word ‘Christmas’ because it’s not politically correct,” he said, explaining that politically correct culture has made it difficult to celebrate the holiday. “You go to department stores, and they’ll say ‘Happy New Year,’ or they’ll say other things, and it’ll be red -- they’ll have it painted -- but they don’t say -- Well, guess what? We’re saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again.”

The crowd at the Christian public policy conference went wild, cheering on the president as he went on to call for tax reform, calling the possibility a “Christmas gift.”

President Trump has frequently used the “war on Christmas” to fire up the evangelical Christian wing of his base, saying on the campaign trail that political correctness prohibits people from proudly celebrating Christian holidays such as Christmas.

“So, when I started 18 months ago, I told my first crowd in Wisconsin that we are going to come back here someday, and we are going to say Merry Christmas again,” he said at the time. “Merry Christmas. So, Merry Christmas everyone.”

Iran nuclear deal: What to know about Trump's aggressive new strategy

UPDATE 1:30 p.m. ET:

President Donald Trump said Friday during a news conference that Iran is not living up to the “spirit” of the nuclear deal signed in 2015.

Trump criticized the deal, calling it “one of the worst” and most “one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.”  

>> Full transcript: Read President Trump’s remarks about the Iran nuclear deal 

The president’s new strategy will include tougher sanctions that will aim to deny the Iranian regime all paths to nuclear weapons.

>> Here is President Trump’s new strategy on Iran

ORIGINAL REPORT:

President Donald Trump is expected to announce an aggressive new strategy toward Iran on Friday, disavowing the 2015 nuclear accord that was negotiated by his predecessor, Barack Obama. But Trump will stop short -- at least for now -- of scrapping the agreement or even rewriting it.

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"It is time for the entire world to join us in demanding that Iran’s government end its pursuit of death and destruction,” Trump said in a statement released early Friday.

Here are some things to know about Trump’s actions on the accord, which was signed by the United States, Iran, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and the European Union.

  • In his remarks, scheduled for 12:45 p.m. Friday, Trump will declare his intention not to certify Iran’s compliance with the deal. But the move does not amount to tearing up the deal, which was a promise he made during his run for the presidency in 2016.

  • Trump will send the agreement to Congress, which will have 60 days to determine a policy. 

  • If Congress imposes new punitive economic sanctions on Iran, the nuclear deal likely would fall through. However, Trump wants legislators to adopt new measures to keep it in place and define parameters by which the United States would impose new sanctions in the event Iran violates its agreements.

  • Some of the violations could be defined as continued ballistic launches by Iran, refusal to extend its constraints on the production of nuclear fuel, or if U.S. intelligence agencies conclude that Iran could produce a nuclear weapon in a year or less.

  • Two times, Trump reluctantly certified the deal, but told his top advisers that he would no longer do it. To do so, he asserted, would make it appear that the president was breaking his campaign process.

  • Iran has rejected reopening the accord or negotiating a new one. 

In his statement Friday, Trump said his decision was the “culmination of nine months of deliberation” with Congress and U.S. allies on how to best protect American security.

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