News briefs: Attorney General considers leaving administration

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Attorney General William Barr has told people close to him he's considering quitting his post after President Donald Trump wouldn't heed his warning to stop tweeting about Justice Department cases, an administration official told The Associated Press. 

The revelation came days after Barr took a public swipe at the president, saying in a television interview that Trump's tweets about Justice Department cases and staffers make it "impossible" for him to do his job. The next day, Trump ignored Barr's request and insisted that he has the "legal right" to intervene in criminal cases and sidestep the Justice Department's historical independence.

The administration official was not authorized to discuss Barr's private remarks and requested anonymity.

It's unclear how seriously Barr has considered resigning or whether he is instead trying to pressure Trump to back off his provocative tweets about the Justice Department. Barr's spokeswoman said late Tuesday that the attorney general "has no plans to resign."

Barr is one of the president's closest allies in the administration and has been a staunch defender of Trump's policy decisions. But considering resigning from his post suggests he sees the Justice Department's reputation as an institution that makes decisions on criminal cases independently, unmoved and unbound by political sway, as more important than his allegiance to the president.

Passengers begin leaving after ship's virus quarantine ends

YOKOHAMA, Japan (AP) — Hundreds of passengers began leaving the Diamond Princess cruise ship Wednesday after the end of a much-criticized, two-week quarantine that failed to stop the spread of a new virus among passengers and crew. 

Results were still pending for some passengers who've been tested for the coronavirusthat has infected tens of thousands of people in China and more than 540 on the ship.

The Japanese government has been questioned over its decision to keep people aboard the ship, which some experts have called a perfect virus incubator. The Diamond Princess is the site of the most infections outside of China, where the illness named COVID-19 emerged late last year. As of Tuesday, 542 cases have been identified among the original 3,711 people on the ship. 

Many foreign governments say they won't let in passengers from the ship until they have another quarantine period, so it was striking to see passengers disembark, get into taxis and disappear into Yokohama.

Japanese soldiers helped escort some passengers, including an elderly man in a wheelchair who wore a mask and held a cane. Some passengers got on buses to be transported to train stations. Some people still in their ship cabins waved farewell from their balconies to those who'd already departed. 

5 questions for next Democratic debate, Mike Bloomberg's 1st

LAS VEGAS (AP) — There's a new kid in town for the ninth Democratic debate, Mike Bloomberg, the self-funding billionaire presidential candidate. Five questions ahead of the faceoff Wednesday night in Las Vegas:

HOW DOES BLOOMBERG STACK UP? 

No candidate has the potential to upend the race for the Democratic presidential nomination more than Bloomberg, the former New York mayor and billionaire owner of a financial data and news empire.

He has spent more than $400 million on advertising and has risen in national polling as a result. That has allowed him a place on the debate stage in Las Vegas, after the Democratic National Committee dropped an additional requirement of reaching a certain number of donors. Since Bloomberg accepts no donations, polls were the only way he could qualify.

He has demonstrated the power of essentially an unlimited budget, but he will have to directly engage with five other contenders who have been debating one another for months, holding town halls and answering voters' questions.

UN balks as Yemen rebels try to control the flow of aid

Yemen's Houthi rebels have blocked half of the United Nations' aid delivery programs in the war-torn country — a strong-arm tactic to force the agency to give them greater control over the massive humanitarian campaign, along with a cut of billions of dollars in foreign assistance, according to aid officials and internal documents obtained by The Associated Press.

The rebel group has made granting access to areas under their control contingent on a flurry of conditions that aid agencies reject, in part because it would give the Houthis greater sway over who receives aid, documents and interviews show.

The Houthis' obstruction has hindered several programs that feed the near-starving population and help those displaced by the nearly 6-year civil war, a senior U.N. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the situation. 

"Over 2 million beneficiaries ... are directly affected," the official said. 

The Houthis have been pushing back against U.N. efforts to tighten monitoring of some $370 million a year that its agencies already give to government institutions controlled mostly by the rebel group, documents show. That money is supposed to pay salaries and other administration costs, but more than a third of the money spent last year wasn't audited, according to an internal document leaked to the AP.

Sanders hopes early strength will prove he can beat Trump

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Terry Reece has long been skeptical that voters would back Bernie Sanders, a 78-year-old self-described democratic socialist who is just months removed from a heart attack. Then the Vermont senator essentially tied for first place in the Democratic Party's Iowa caucuses and won its New Hampshire primary.

That forced Reece to rethink his assumptions about who can win the nomination. After months of leaning toward former Vice President Joe Biden, Reece filled out a preference card for Sanders during early voting this week in the Nevada caucuses.

"I think that people are kind of wanting to turn the pages and get more radical, or switch from the status quo," said Reece, a 62-year-old African American who owns a small media company in Las Vegas.

That's exactly the sentiment Sanders is counting on to carry him to victory in the battle to take on President Donald Trump. Since the early days of Sanders' second presidential campaign, he and his supporters have sought to allay concerns that he's a fringe candidate whose call for political revolution would doom the party to another humiliating defeat. The strong showing in Iowa and New Hampshire gives him fresh evidence to make that case.

"The reason that we are going to win here in Nevada, with your help, the reason that we are going to win the Democratic nomination, with your help, the reason we are going to beat Trump is we have an agenda that speaks to the needs of working families, not the billionaire class," Sanders told a crowd at the University of Nevada Las Vegas on Tuesday.

Ex-Gov. Blagojevich returns to Chicago, maintains innocence

CHICAGO (AP) — Rod Blagojevich returned home to Chicago early Wednesday, shaking hands and signing autographs after President Donald Trump cut short the 14-year prison sentence handed to the former Illinois governor for political corruption.

Blagojevich landed at O'Hare airport hours after walking out of a Colorado prison where he served eight years, promising to work for judicial and criminal justice reform while maintaining his innocence.

"I didn't do the things they said I did and they lied on me," Blagojevich, a one-time contestant on Trump's reality TV show "Celebrity Apprentice," told WGN-TV as he walked through the airport greeting travelers who welcomed him home.

Blagojevich, 63, hails from a state with a long history of pay-to-play schemes. He was convicted in 2011 of crimes that included seeking to sell an appointment to Barack Obama's old Senate seat and trying to shake down a children's hospital.

Trump, who announced clemency for 11 people on Tuesday, called the Blagojevich's punishment excessive.

China turns to internet for food supplies amid virus fears

BEIJING (AP) — Wang Feng, house-bound by China's virus outbreak, counts on the parka-clad delivery drivers of e-commerce giant JD.com to keep her kitchen stocked. 

Demand for online food vendors has surged since China's government told the public to stay home as part of the most sweeping anti-disease controls ever imposed. 

On Tuesday, Wang's phone buzzed with a text message that a delivery had arrived. The retiree bundled up against the winter cold, put on a face mask and emerged from her apartment complex to collect walnut milk and other goods from shelves on the sidewalk — an anti-virus measure to limit contact with drivers who normally go door to door. 

"They work really hard, and it's dangerous," said Wang. "Without their services, we would not be able to survive at all." 

JD.com Inc. and rivals including Pinduoduo, Missfresh Inc. and Alibaba Group's Hema are scrambling to fill a boom in orders while trying to protect their employees. 

Syria's Aleppo airport resumes flights for 1st time in years

ALEPPO, Syria (AP) — A Syrian commercial flight landed at Aleppo airport on Wednesday from Damascus, marking the resumption of internal flights between Syria's two largest cities for the first time since 2012. 

The flight carrying Syrian officials and journalists was a symbolic message from President Bashar Assad's government, days after its forces consolidated control over the northwestern province of Aleppo and seized the last segments of the strategic M5 highway linking Aleppo to Damascus. The motorway between Syria's two biggest cities was being repaired and was scheduled to reopen in coming days, for the first time in eight years. 

Backed by heavy Russian air strikes, government forces have been on the offensive for weeks to recapture the Aleppo countryside and parts of neighboring Idlib province in northwestern Syria, the last rebel-held areas in the country. 

The advances have sent hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians fleeing towards the border with Turkey in one of the biggest single displacements of the war, now in its eighth year. Escaping the bombs, many of them left with their belongings piled up on vehicles and are now staying in tents, in open fields and under trees in freezing temperatures near the Turkish border. The U.N. has put the number of those displaced since Dec. 1 at more than 900,000 civilians — more than half of them women and children. 

The military campaign has also killed hundreds of civilians and disrupted aid distribution, with the bitter winter compounding the suffering. 

Bong happy 'Parasite' succeeded despite disparity it showed

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Oscar-winning "Parasite" director Bong Joon-ho said Wednesday the film's "biggest pleasure and the most significant meaning" to him is that it succeeded even though the audiences might feel uncomfortable with his explicit description of bitter wealth disparity in modern society. 

Bong's dark comic thriller about two families on the opposite ends of South Korea's social spectrum is a history-making film. It won best picture at this month's 92nd Academy Awards ceremony, becoming the first non-English-language film to get the top honor. Bong and his film clinched three other Oscars. 

Bong told reporters that the movie's story has not only "funny, comic" elements but also "bitter, painful natures" of the disparity between the haves and have-nots in modern society.

"I didn't want to avoid such a part even a little bit," Bong told a nationally televised news conference. "Audiences might hate that or feel uncomfortable to watch it ... but I thought the only option I can have for this movie is depicting the world we live as frankly as possible, though that might be risky commercially."

Noting that "Parasite" was already commercially successful in North America, France, Vietnam, Japan, the United Kingdom and his native South Korea even before his Oscar triumph, Bong said, "Regardless of the (Oscar) wins, the biggest pleasure and the most significant meaning was the fact that many audiences around the world of our times respond to the movie."

In the spirit of Whitney: Houston Hologram tour set to begin

BURBANK, Calif. (AP) — Whitney Houston is about to appear on the concert stage again. 

Eight years after her death, a holographic Houston will embark on a European tour that starts in England on Feb. 25 and runs through early April, with U.S. dates expected to follow. 

"Now is just the right time," said Pat Houston, the singer's sister-in-law, former manager and the executor of her estate, which is producing the show in collaboration with BASE Hologram. "In the spirit of Whitney, I know we're doing all the right things right now." 

Last week, a few dozen members of the media were given a dress-rehearsal preview in Burbank, California of most of "An Evening With Whitney: The Whitney Houston Hologram Tour," which features a Houston projected onto a nearly invisible scrim on a stage with real dancers and a live backing band. 

The concert set includes most of her biggest hits — "How Will I Know," "Saving All My Love For You," "I Will Always Love You," along with some unexpected rarities, including a cover of Steve Winwood's "Higher Love" that Houston first recorded three decades ago.

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