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Washington plunges into Trump impeachment investigation

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump pressed the leader of Ukraine to "look into" Joe Biden, Trump's potential 2020 reelection rival, as well as the president's lingering grievances from the 2016 election, according to a rough transcript of a summer phone call that is now at the center of Democrats' impeachment probe.

Trump repeatedly prodded Volodymyr Zelenskiy, new president of the East European nation, to work with U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Rudy Giuliani, Trump's personal lawyer. At one point in the July conversation, Trump said, "I would like for you to do us a favor."

The president's request for such help from a foreign leader set the parameters for the major U.S. debate to come — just the fourth impeachment investigation of an American president in the nation's history. The initial response highlighted the deep divide between the two parties: Democrats said the call amounted to a "shakedown" of a foreign leader, while Trump - backed by the vast majority of Republicans - dismissed it as a "nothing call."

The call is one part of a whistleblower complaint about the president's activities that have roiled Washington and led Democrats to move ahead with an impeachment inquiry of the Republican president on the cusp of the 2020 campaign.

After being stymied by the administration, members of the House and Senate intelligence committees took their first look at the complaint late Wednesday. Republicans kept largely quiet, but several Democrats, including Intelligence committee chairman Adam Schiff, called the classified account "disturbing."

Some from both parties want it to be made public. Congress is also seeking an in-person interview with the whistleblower, who remains anonymous.

Trump spent Wednesday meeting with world leaders at the United Nations, a remarkable TV split screen even for the turbulence of the Trump era. Included on his schedule: a meeting with Zelenskiy.

In a light-hearted appearance before reporters, Zelenskiy said he didn't want to get involved in American elections, but added, "Nobody pushed me." Trump chimed in, "In other words, no pressure."

The next steps in the impeachment inquiry were quickly developing a day after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi launched the probe. A rush of lawmakers, notably moderate Democrats from districts where Trump remains popular, set aside political concerns and urged action.

One option Pelosi is considering, pressed by some lawmakers, is to focus the impeachment inquiry specifically on the Ukraine issues rather than the many others Congress has already been investigating.

"For me, that's what's important," said Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., among the new lawmakers in Congress with national security backgrounds. She said it's "just an egregious idea that the president of the United States can contact a foreign leader and influence him for dirt on a political opponent. ... That can't be normalized."

Pelosi announced the impeachment probe Tuesday after months of personal resistance to a process she has warned would be divisive for the country and risky for her party. But after viewing the transcript on Wednesday, Pelosi declared: "Congress must act."

Trump, who thrives on combat, has all but dared Democrats to move toward impeachment, confident that the specter of an investigation led by the opposition party will bolster rather than diminish his political support.

"It's a joke. Impeachment, for that?" Trump said during a news conference in New York. He revived the same language he has used for months to deride the now-finished special counsel investigation into election interference, declaring impeachment "a hoax" and the "single greatest witch hunt in American history."

Republicans largely stood by the president and dismissed the notion that the rough transcript revealed any wrongdoing by Trump.

"I think it was a perfectly appropriate phone call, it was a congratulatory phone call," said Rep. Liz Cheney, the No. 3 House Republican. "The Democrats continually make these huge claims and allegations about President Trump, and then you find out there's no there there."

The Trump administration also continued to raise questions about the whistleblower's motives. According to a Justice Department official, the intelligence community's inspector general said in letter to the acting director of national intelligence that the whistleblower could have "arguable political bias."

The memo released by the White House was not a verbatim transcript, but was instead based on the records of officials who listened to the call. The conversation took place on July 25, one day after special counsel Robert Mueller testified on Capitol Hill about his investigation into Russia's 2016 election interference.

In the 30-minute phone call with Zelenskiy, Trump encourages the Ukrainian leader to talk with Giuliani and Barr about Biden and his son Hunter, who served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company. Immediately after saying they would be in touch, Trump references Ukraine's economy, saying: "Your economy is going to get better and better I predict. You have a lot of assets. It's a great country."

At another point in the conversation, Trump asked Zelenskiy for a favor: his help looking into a cybersecurity firm that investigated the 2016 hack of the Democratic National Committee and determined it was carried out by Russia. Trump has falsely suggested Crowdstrike was owned by a Ukrainian.

In the days before the call, Trump ordered advisers to freeze $400 million in military aid for Ukraine — prompting speculation that he was holding out the money as leverage for information on the Bidens. Trump has denied that charge and the aid package does not come up in the conversation with Zelenskiy.

Trump has sought to implicate Biden and his son in the kind of corruption that has long plagued Ukraine. Hunter Biden served on the gas company's board at the same time his father was leading the Obama administration's diplomatic dealings with Kyiv. Though the timing raised concerns among anti-corruption advocates, there has been no evidence of wrongdoing by either the former vice president or his son.

Biden said it was "tragedy" that Trump was willing to "put personal politics above his sacred oath." He singled out Trump's attempts to pull Barr and the Justice Department into efforts to investigate Biden, calling it "a direct attack on the core independence of that department, an independence essential to the rule of law."

While the possibility of impeachment has hung over Trump for many months, the likelihood of a probe had faded after special counsel Robert Mueller's Trump-Russia investigation ended without a clear directive for lawmakers.

Since then, the House committees have revisited aspects of the Mueller probe while also launching new inquiries into Trump's businesses and various administration scandals that all seemed likely to drag on for months.

Details of Trump's dealings with Ukraine prompted Democrats to quickly shift course. By the time Pelosi announced the probe, two-thirds of House Democrats had announced moving toward impeachment probes.

The burden will probably now shift to Democrats to make the case to a scandal-weary public. In a highly polarized Congress, an impeachment inquiry could simply showcase how clearly two sides can disagree when shown the same evidence rather than approach consensus.

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Associated Press writers Michael Balsamo, Laurie Kellman, Andrew Taylor, Eric Tucker and Zeke Miller in Washington and Jonathan Lemire and Deb Riechmann in New York contributed to this report.


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Marshall Health treats, learns through Cabell County HIV cluster

HUNTINGTON — Cabell County’s ongoing HIV cluster, at 80 confirmed cases as of Monday, is more than just a learning experience for Marshall Health, the medical practice arm of Marshall University’s Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine.

It has become a daily teaching moment in public health for young medical students, residents and even seasoned faculty, but the school isn’t simply observing events as they unfold.

Marshall’s Department of Internal Medicine is helping shoulder the county’s burden in treating HIV cases as they’re discovered, and untangling the tricky nuances of now treating the disease in a primarily transient and drug-addicted population.

“Our job is to do our very best to decrease the barriers to care,” said Dr. Kara Willenburg, chief of infectious diseases at the School of Medicine.

Treating HIV is nothing new for the medical school, having done so since HIV first appeared in the 1980s. HIV cases, normally uncommon, have never appeared as much at one time as in the current cluster — one of the largest, if not the largest, HIV events in state history.

It’s a matter of public health, but their mission as a medical school and health care provider is the same, Willenburg said: to connect everyone diagnosed with HIV to care, and to keep them consistently treated and medicated long term.

Most of Cabell County’s HIV diagnoses are made at the Cabell-Huntington Health Department or Cabell Huntington Hospital — both close partners of Marshall Health. At diagnosis, individuals are given an appointment for treatment, typically the next day, and connected to other public health services like the West Virginia Ryan White resources and the health department’s harm reduction program.

Treatment starts as soon as possible: a daily pill regimen that has, over years of development, become much more tolerable to take than in the early years of managing HIV, Willenburg said, except for some intestinal side effects in the first month. Once established in consistent treatment and medication, HIV patients are typically only seen twice a year for checkups and blood draws.

But keeping appointments, or living a stable life at all, is itself a change for the population that comprises Cabell County’s HIV cluster — predominantly intravenous drug users, of whom half are homeless and/or transient.

Treating them requires patience, Willenburg said, the willingness to give patients as many chances as possible to turn to treatment, and to be prepared to do so when they are ready.

That means being flexible and forgiving with patients. Where their clinic formerly had a “three strikes” policy of stopping treatment after too many missed appointments, that rule has since been changed.

“We don’t operate on that policy anymore,” Willenburg said. “If they no-show, we do our best to reorganize them. If their medication was lost or stolen, we can help them and connect them with the harm reduction program (at the health department).”

The population most affected by the cluster is often skeptical of medical professionals, meaning building a positive relationship with them as individuals makes it more likely they will return for the full treatment, Willenburg said.

Marshall Health recently added its own food pantry for patients, and can hand-hold them through the process of applying for Medicaid or getting a government-issued photo ID.

“It’s hard to take your medicine if you don’t have food to eat or a place to sleep,” Willenburg added.

These modern nuances in treating public health issues, both from the medical and social sides, is a valuable real-life learning experience for the Marshall students and residents involved, Willenburg said. These young learners are rotated into various roles within Marshall’s clinic and the health department to observe and lend a hand however it’s needed.

“We try to get them involved as much as we can because this is such a good learning experience,” Willenburg said.

Cabell County’s HIV totals are updated by the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources at oeps.wv.gov/hiv-aids.


Lori Wolfe/The Herald-Dispatch Valerie Dickson, of Barboursville, displays a piece of baklava that will be sold at the St. George Greek Orthodox Church Greek Festival this weekend.


Lori Wolfe/The Herald-Dispatch  

U.S. Attorney Mike Stuart holds a news conference Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019, in Huntington.


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Cabell health department to explore e-cig response, possible regulation

HUNTINGTON — The Cabell-Huntington Health Department will begin exploring options it can take to curtail underage vaping, which could include local regulation within the county.

The department’s governing Board of Health voted Wednesday to review three routes to take within their capacity to act: adopt a resolution condemning underage vaping as a public health emergency; explore what actions against vaping are in the works at the state level; and the feasibility and legality of regulating vaping within the county — specifically raising the age to purchase vape products to 21.

The vote Wednesday was only to explore available options, and no binding actions were taken.

The department will meet with legal counsel to determine what regulatory options are within their control, said Dr. Michael Kilkenny, the health department’s physician director, adding he supports raising the buying age to 21.

Another avenue would require checking what options are already in the works at the state level, as there was discussion among the board about not wanting to plow ahead as a county skewed against any current state efforts. The state, it was also noted, would have a much larger capacity and resource base to enforce any regulation.

A bill that would have raised the legal age to purchase any nicotine product to 21 cleared the West Virginia Senate during this year’s legislative session, but died in the House of Delegates with the end of the term.

The move locally comes against the backdrop of national momentum opposing electronic cigarettes, sparked recently by the Trump administration’s proposal to ban flavored e-cigarettes nationwide, and news of around a dozen vaping-related deaths in the United States. Scores of other public health entities, including the U.S. Surgeon General and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have long warned about the startling rise of vaping among youth.

While a ban on flavored e-cigarettes was not outright discussed by the health department Wednesday, it was mentioned as a reason for widespread use among the youth — their primary concern in addressing vape usage, Kilkenny said.

The department has faced moderate backlash on its stance against vaping — notably when it banned vaping indoors as with cigarettes in 2014 — and the board spoke in expectation this newest measure could see similar opposition. Kilkenny said the public’s opinion will be considered, but that it ultimately comes down to reducing use among youth.

“I don’t think anyone is going to argue that protecting children from an addictive substance isn’t in the public’s best interest,” Kilkenny said.

A study by the National Institutes of Health found that 37% of high school seniors use e-cigarettes, 32% of 10th-graders and 17.6% of eighth-graders.