Daily briefing

10 things you need to know today: October 24, 2017

Army widow confirms disputed account of Trump's condolence call, Tillerson makes surprise visits to Iraq and Afghanistan, and more


Army widow confirms congresswoman's account of call with Trump

Myeshia Johnson, the widow of one of four U.S. soldiers killed in Niger early this month, said Monday that President Trump told her that her husband, Army Sgt. La David Johnson, "knew what he signed up for, but it hurts anyway." She told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos that Trump "couldn't remember my husband's name," and that his remarks made her "cry even worse." Trump tweeted: "I had a very respectful conversation with the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, and spoke his name from beginning, without hesitation!" The White House has accused Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), who heard much of Trump's call on speakerphone, of twisting Trump's words in her public criticism of him, although Ms. Johnson said Wilson's account was "100 percent correct."


Tillerson makes surprise visits to Iraq and Afghanistan

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with the leaders of Afghanistan and Iraq in surprise visits to both countries on Monday. The trips — Tillerson's first to either nation as secretary of state — came as he works on forging a stronger alliance against Iran and implementing the Trump administration's strategy for fighting a resurgent Taliban. Tillerson called on Pakistan to crack down on terrorists hiding within its borders. He also said the Taliban could find a place in Afghanistan's government if they would lay down their arms. "There's a place for them in the government if they are ready to come, renouncing terrorism, renouncing violence, and being committed to a stable prosperous Afghanistan," Tillerson told reporters traveling with him.


Soldiers delayed call for help in Niger attack, general says

The American soldiers ambushed in Niger this month might have waited an hour to call for help from nearby French forces because they "thought they could handle the situation," Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon on Monday. He added that investigators were still looking into what happened in the attack, which left four Americans dead and two others wounded. Four Nigerien soldiers also were killed, and six were wounded. The unit, which included about a dozen members of an Army Special Forces unit and 30 Nigerien soldiers, was on a routine reconnaissance mission — Americans are under strict orders to avoid missions likely to involve contact with the enemy — when they were attacked by 50 Islamic State-affiliated militants.


China leader elevated to status of Mao Zedong in communist party constitution

China's Communist Party wrote President Xi Jinping's name into the party constitution on Tuesday, formally elevating him to a status shared only by party icons Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. The unanimous vote came at the end of the week-long Party Congress that occurs every five years, effectively marking the start of Xi's second five-year term. The inclusion of "Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in a New Era" in the document suggests Xi is on a path to rule for a long time. It "confirms Xi Jinping's aspiration to be the Mao Zedong of the 21st Century — that means a top leader with no constraints on tenure or retirement age," said political expert Willy Wo-Lap Lam of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.


Judge weighs Trump comments before testimony in Bergdahl sentencing hearing

The judge who will determine Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's sentence for desertion and endangering his comrades was scheduled to start hearing testimony on Monday, but instead heard arguments about the defense's claim that President Trump's criticism of Bergdahl prevented him from being treated fairly. The judge, Army Col. Jeffery R. Nance, said he didn't have "any doubt whatsoever" that he could be impartial in the sentencing hearing, but he sternly questioned prosecutors about whether the comments by Trump, who called Bergdahl a "dirty, rotten traitor" on the campaign trail, could erode the public's perception of the fairness of the military justice system. The hearing on Bergdahl's punishment is scheduled to resume Wednesday.


Trump likely to skip DMZ during South Korea visit

President Trump probably will not go to the heavily fortified demilitarized zone between North and South Korea during his Asia trip next month, a senior White House official said Monday. A symbolic visit has not been ruled out, but scheduling conflicts in a packed itinerary make it unlikely. The last three U.S. presidents visited the DMZ during South Korea trips, but the Trump administration sees no point. "We don't think it sends any message either way," the official told CNN. Tensions have risen in recent months, with North Korea conducting a series of missile and nuclear tests in defiance of international calls to curb its weapons programs. Trump has warned the isolated communist regime would face "fire and fury" if it continued to threaten the U.S. and its allies.


Sessions says federal agencies broadening efforts against MS-13 gang

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Monday that the Trump administration is stepping up its efforts to crush the violent, El Salvador-based MS-13 gang. Sessions said he was authorizing federal interagency task forces to go after gang leaders with law enforcement resources normally used to catch drug traffickers and money launderers. "They all have one mission: to go after criminal gangs and drug traffickers at the highest levels," Sessions told the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference. "Just like we took Al Capone off the streets with our tax laws, we will use whatever laws we have to get MS-13 off the streets."


Trump rejects limiting before-tax 401(k) deductions to pay for tax cuts

President Trump on Monday rejected the possibility of raising money to pay for Republican tax cuts by reducing the pre-tax contributions Americans can make to their 401(k)s. "There will be NO change to your 401(k)," Trump tweeted. "This has always been a great and popular middle class tax break that works, and it stays!" Trump's position on the matter removes one option as Republicans rush to push through the legislation by the end of the year. Republicans are looking for ways to help pay for more than $1 trillion in corporate and individual tax cuts, including eliminating the federal deduction for state and local taxes. That possibility is facing opposition from House Republicans in high-tax states.


Tampa authorities vow to catch killer after 3 fatal shootings

Tampa authorities met with residents of the Seminole Heights neighborhood where three people have been fatally shot within a one-mile radius in the last 10 days, raising fears of a serial killer. "This is your community and we are not going to let evil win this race," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. Investigators believe the killings are related, although they are still searching for a motive and suspect. Earlier Monday, police started monitoring school bus stops in the area. All three victims — Anthony Naiboa, 20, Benjamin Mitchell, 22, and Monica Hoffa, 32 — were killed at or near public bus stops. The victims didn't know each other. "Someone is terrorizing the neighborhood," said Tampa's interim police chief, Brian Dugan.


Poll: 1 in 4 service members has seen signs of white nationalism in the ranks

A Military Times poll released Monday found that nearly one in four participating U.S. service members said they have witnessed examples of white nationalism in the ranks, and they viewed this as a greater national security threat than Syria and Iraq. The poll was conducted a month after white supremacists held a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where deadly violence broke out against counter-protesters. Thirty percent of the survey's respondents said white nationalists pose a significant threat to the U.S., more than Syria (27 percent), Pakistan (25 percent), Afghanistan (22 percent), and Iraq (17 percent). The voluntary survey was conducted online between Sept. 7 and 25, with 1,131 active-duty service members responding and a margin of error of about ±3 percent.


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