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Biden, Putin Trade Frank Talk As Alarm Rises Over Ukraine

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WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin spoke frankly for nearly an hour late Thursday amid growing alarm over Russia’s troop buildup near Ukraine, a crisis that has deepened as the Kremlin has stiffened its insistence on border security guarantees and test fired hypersonic missiles to underscore its demands.

Biden reaffirmed the U.S. threat of new sanctions against Russia in case of an escalation or invasion, to which Putin responded with a warning of his own that such a U.S. move could lead to a complete rupture of ties between the nations.

“It would be a colossal mistake that would entail grave consequences,” said Putin’s foreign affairs adviser Yuri Ushakov, who briefed reporters in Moscow after the Biden-Putin phone conversation. He added that Putin told Biden that Russia would act as the U.S. would if offensive weapons were deployed near American borders.

White House officials offered a far more muted post-call readout, suggesting the leaders agreed there are areas where the two sides can make meaningful progress but also differences that might be impossible to resolve.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that Biden “urged Russia to de-escalate tensions with Ukraine” and “made clear that the United States and its allies and partners will respond decisively if Russia further invades Ukraine.”

Putin requested the call, the second between the leaders this month, ahead of scheduled talks between senior U.S. and Russian officials Jan. 9 and 10 in Geneva. The Geneva talks will be followed by a meeting of the Russia-NATO Council on Jan. 12 and negotiations at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in Vienna on Jan. 13,

White House officials said Thursday’s call lasted 50 minutes, ending after midnight in Moscow.

Biden told Putin the two powers now face “two paths”: diplomacy or American deterrence through sanctions, according to a senior administration official. Biden said the route taken, according to the official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity, will “depend on Russia’s actions in the period ahead.”

Russia has made clear it wants a written commitment that Ukraine will never be allowed to join NATO and that the alliance’s military equipment will not be positioned in former Soviet states, demands that the Biden administration has rejected.

Biden told Putin that a diplomatic path remains open even as the Russians have moved an estimated 100,000 troops toward Ukraine and Kremlin officials have turned up the volume on their demands for new guarantees from the U.S. and NATO.

White House officials said Biden made clear that the U.S. stands ready to exact substantial economic pain through sanctions should Putin decide to take military action in Ukraine.

Putin reacted strongly.

Putin “noted that it would be a mistake that our ancestors would see as a grave error. A lot of mistakes have been made over the past 30 years, and we would better avoid more such mistakes in this situation,” Ushakov said.

Russia’s demands are to be discussed during the talks in Geneva, but it remains unclear what, if anything, Biden would be willing to offer Putin in exchange for defusing the crisis.

Draft security documents Moscow submitted demand that NATO deny membership to Ukraine and other former Soviet countries and roll back military deployments in Central and Eastern Europe.

The U.S. and its allies have refused to offer Russia the kind of guarantees on Ukraine that Putin wants, citing NATO’s principle that membership is open to any qualifying country. They agreed, however, to hold talks with Russia to discuss its concerns.

The security proposal by Moscow has raised the question of whether Putin is making unrealistic demands in the expectation of a Western rejection that would give him a pretext to invade.

Steven Pifer, who served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine in the Clinton administration, said the Biden administration could engage on some elements of Russia’s draft document if Moscow is serious about talks.

Meanwhile, key NATO members have made clear there is no appetite for expanding the alliance in the near future. The U.S. and allies could also be receptive to language in the Russians’ draft document calling for establishing new consultative mechanisms, such as the NATO-Russia Council and a hotline between NATO and Russia.

“The draft treaty’s proposed bar on any NATO military activity in Ukraine, eastern Europe, the Caucasus, or Central Asia is an overreach, but some measures to limit military exercises and activities on a reciprocal basis might be possible,” Pifer, who is now a senior fellow at Brookings Institution, wrote in an analysis for the Washington think tank.

Biden and Putin, who met in Geneva in June to discuss an array of tensions in the U.S.-Russia relationship, are not expected to take part in the January talks.

Last week, Russia test-fired Zircon hypersonic missiles, a move that Russian officials said was meant to help make Russia’s push for security guarantees “more convincing.” The test was the first time Zircon missiles were launched in a salvo, indicating the completion of tests before the new missile enters service with the Russian navy next year and arms its cruisers, frigates and submarines.

U.S. intelligence earlier this month determined that Russian planning was underway for a possible military offensive that could begin as soon as early 2022, but that Putin had yet to determine whether to move forward with it.

Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of Ukraine’s Security and Defense Council, said Thursday his country believes there is no immediate threat of a major Russian invasion.

“Our experts say that the Russian Federation just physically can’t mount a big invasion of our territory,” Danilov said. “There is a time period needed for preparations.”

The U.S. military has flown surveillance flights in Ukrainian airspace this week, including a flight Thursday by an Air Force E-8C JSTARS aircraft, according to Chuck Pritchard, a spokesman for U.S. European Command. That plane is equipped to provide intelligence on ground forces.

Russia has denied any intention of launching an invasion and, in turn, has accused Ukraine of hatching plans to try to reclaim control of territories held by Moscow-backed rebels by force. Ukraine has rejected the claim.

At the same time, Putin has warned that Moscow will have to take “adequate military-technical measures” if the West continues its “aggressive” course “on the threshold of our home.”

Last month, Putin voiced concern that NATO could potentially use the Ukrainian territory for the deployment of missiles that would be capable of reaching Moscow in just five minutes and said that Zircon would give Russia a comparable capability.

As Biden prepared for the talks with Putin, the administration also sought to highlight its commitment to Ukraine and drive home that Washington is committed to the “principle of nothing about you without you” in shaping policy that affects European allies. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke on Wednesday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Past military incursions by Putin loom large.

In 2014, Russian troops marched into the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea and seized the territory from Ukraine. Russia’s annexation of Crimea was one of the darker moments for President Barack Obama on the international stage.

The U.S.-Russia relationship was badly damaged near the end of President George W. Bush’s administration after Russia’s 2008 invasion of its neighbor Georgia after Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili ordered his troops into the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

Biden, who is spending the week in his home state of Delaware, spoke to Putin from his home near Wilmington. The White House distributed a photo of the president speaking to the Russian leader from a desk lined with family photos.

Article: wsvn.com

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AP Sources: Biden to Pick Zients As His Next Chief of Staff

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WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden is expected to name Jeff Zients, who ran the administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic at the start of Biden’s term, as his next chief of staff, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Biden’s current top aide, Ron Klain, is preparing to leave the job in the coming weeks.

Since serving as COVID-19 response coordinator, Zients has returned to the White House in a low-profile position to work on staffing matters for the remainder of Biden’s first term.

The two people familiar with the matter were not authorized to publicly discuss Biden’s plans before an official announcement and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Washington Post first reported on Zients’ expected appointment. The White House did not respond to requests for comment.

The change at the highest levels of senior staff comes as Biden passes his two-year mark in office and pivots to a defensive stance against a House Republican majority hungry to investigate his administration’s actions and his family. The White House remains mired in controversy over discoveries of classified documents at Biden’s home in Wilmington, Delaware, and at his former institute in Washington, with the latest tranche of found records disclosed Saturday evening.

Biden, 80, is also preparing to launch his reelection campaign in the coming weeks, bolstered by a string of legislative accomplishments in the first two years of his presidency when Democrats controlled both chambers of Capitol Hill. He is confronting a Republican presidential field that is far from formed but for now is led by former President Donald Trump, whom Biden defeated in 2020.

The president’s main sphere of advisers, in addition to Zients, on politics and legislation will continue to include presidential counselor Steve Ricchetti, senior advisers Mike Donilon and Anita Dunn, legislative affairs director Louisa Terrell, and Jen O’Malley Dillon and Bruce Reed, who are deputy chiefs of staff.

Klain will remain in Biden’s political orbit, according to a person familiar with his plans — not unlike the role played by Cedric Richmond, who was the president’s first director of the White House Office of Public Engagement and now is a senior adviser at the Democratic National Committee.

The outgoing chief of staff was also known to be friendly with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. But some liberal critics of Zients swiftly went on the attack against the appointment even before it was official, highlighting in particular his private-sector ties.

Jeff Hauser, the founder and director of the Revolving Door Project, a progressive group that advocates for liberal appointees in government, said Sunday that the selection of Zients as the top White House aide did not jibe with Biden’s “Scranton Joe” political image.

“Unfortunately, Zients is a veteran of private equity, rapacious health care providers, and Big Tech, which sets up a fundamental question that could determine Biden’s political future: Will a Zients-led executive branch pursue the unpopular misconduct of people like Jeffrey Zients?” Hauser said. “It would be against Zients’ character to pursue corporate lawbreaking, but it is also the only way Biden can retain the mantle of populist against the likes of (Florida Gov. Ron) DeSantis and Trump.”

“Ron Klain has been an open ear and even-handed engager of actors across the Democratic Party,” said Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “Whomever the next Chief of Staff is, that will be the continued hope and expectation. There will likely be an early relationship and trust building stage.”

Zients, vice chairman of Biden’s transition operation after his November 2020 election, brings significant managerial expertise in government and the private sector. He was the director of the National Economic Council during the Obama administration and acting director of the Office of Management and Budget.

The longtime management consultant developed a Mr. Fix It reputation, tapped to lead the Obama administration’s effort to repair HealthCare.gov after the bungled initial rollout of the site in fall 2013. Zients served as top executive at the Advisory Board Co., a Washington consulting firm.

Former President Barack Obama also enlisted Zients in 2009 to eliminate the backlog in applicants for the Cash for Clunkers program, which offered rebates to drivers who swapped old cars for fuel-efficient vehicles. Zients later took on a similar challenge to smooth sign-ups for an updated version of the GI Bill.

Another coming perk for White House aides: Zients, who was an initial investor in Call Your Mother, a bagel shop in Washington, had a penchant for hosting “Bagel Wednesdays” for staff. (Zients divested his shares before joining the White House in 2021).

Zients and his deputy on the White House’s pandemic response team, Natalie Quillian, left the Biden administration last April before returning quietly in the fall of 2022. As they left, Biden thanked him for “stunning” and “consequential” progress battling the pandemic.

“When Jeff took this job, less than 1% of Americans were fully vaccinated; fewer than half our schools were open; and unlike much of the developed world, America lacked any at-home COVID tests,” Biden said when the White House announced Zients’ departure last year. “Today, almost 80% of adults are fully vaccinated; over 100 million are boosted; virtually every school is open; and hundreds of millions of at-home tests are distributed every month.”

Source Here: wsvn.com

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‘Avatar’ Marks 6 Straight Weeks at No. 1, Crosses $2 Billion

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NEW YORK (AP) — James Cameron’s “Avatar: The Way of Water” led ticket sales in movie theaters for the sixth straight weekend, making it the first film to have such a sustained reign atop the box office since 2009’s “Avatar.”

The Walt Disney Co.’s “The Way of Water” added $19.7 million in U.S. and Canadian theaters over the weekend, according to studio estimates Sunday. Its global total has now surpassed $2 billion, putting it sixth all-time and just ahead of “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” Domestically, “The Way of Water” is up to $598 million. Continued robust international sales ($56.3 million for the weekend) has helped push the “Avatar” sequel to $2.024 billion worldwide.

A year ago, “Spider-Man: No Way Home” also topped the box office for six weekends, but did it over the course of seven weeks. You have to go back to Cameron’s original “Avatar” to find a movie that stayed No. 1 for such a long span. (“Avatar” ultimately topped out at seven weeks.) Before that, the only film in the past 25 years to manage the feat was another Cameron film; “Titanic” (1997) went undefeated for 15 weeks.

“The Way of Water” has now reached a target that Cameron himself set for the very expensive sequel. Ahead of its release, Cameron said becoming “the third or fourth highest-grossing film in history” was “your break even.”

The box-office domination for “The Way of Water” has been aided, in part, by a dearth of formidable challengers. The only new wide release from a major studio on the weekend was the thriller “Missing,” from Sony’s Screen Gems and Stage 6 Films. A low-budget sequel to 2018’s “Searching,” starring Storm Reid as a teenager seeking her missing mother, “Missing” plays out across computer screens. The film, budgeted at $7 million, debuted with $9.3 million.

January is typically a slow period in theaters, but a handful of strong-performing holdovers have helped prop up sales.

Though it didn’t open hugely in December, Universal Pictures’ “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” has had long legs as one of the only family options in theaters over the last month. In its fifth week, it came in second place with $11.5 million domestically and $17.8 million overseas. The “Puss in Boots” sequel has grossed $297.5 million globally.

The creepy doll horror hit “M3GAN,” also from Universal, has likewise continued to pull in moviegoers. It notched $9.8 million in its third week, bringing its domestic haul to $73.3 million.

And while the popularity of horror titles in theaters is nothing new, Sony Pictures’ “A Man Called Otto,” starring Tom Hanks, has flourished in a marketplace that’s been trying for adult-oriented dramas. The film, a remake of the Swedish film “A Man Called Ove,” about a retired man whose suicide plans are continually foiled by his neighbors, made $9 million in its second week of wide release. It’s taken in $35.3 million domestically through Sunday.

Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Comscore. Final domestic figures will be released Monday.

1. “Avatar: The Way of Water,” $19.7 million.

2. “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” $11.5 million.

3. “M3GAN,” $9.8 million

4. “Missing,” $9.3 million.

5. “A Man Called Otto,” $9 million.

6. “Plane,” $5.3 million.

7. “House Party,” $1.8 million.

8. “That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime The Movie,” $1.5 million.

9. “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” $1.4 million.

10. “The Whale,” $1.3 million.

Source: wsvn.com

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Fans, Celebs Gather at Graceland to Mourn Lisa Marie Presley

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Lisa Marie Presley, a singer, songwriter and the daughter of Elvis Presley, was remembered during a funeral service Sunday as a loving mother and an “old soul” who endured tragedy but persevered as a dedicated protector of her father’s legacy as a rock ‘n’ roll pioneer and pop icon.

More than a thousand people gathered on the front lawn of Graceland on a gray, chilly Memphis morning to mourn the death and remember the life of Lisa Marie Presley, who died Jan, 12 after she was taken to a hospital in California.

Some mourners held flowers as they waited for the service to begin under the tall trees on the lawn of Graceland, the home in Memphis where Lisa Marie lived as a child with her father. The mansion, which Lisa Marie Presley owned, has been turned into a museum and tourist attraction that hundreds of thousands of fans visit each year to celebrate the life and music of Elvis, who died in 1977 at age 42.

The property in south Memphis was a place of sadness and somber memories on Sunday. The service began with the singing of “Amazing Grace” by Jason Clark & The Tennessee Mass Choir.

“We would like to express our heartfelt gratitude for the love, compassion and support you have shown our family during this difficult time,” said a message from the Presley family written on the program for the service. “We will always be grateful.”

Among those who spoke during the service were Lisa Marie’s mother, actor Priscilla Presley; Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York; Jerry Schilling, a close friend of Elvis; and former Memphis Mayor A C Wharton, who called Lisa Marie’s parents Memphis’ royal couple and a “conduit to the throne, the keeper of the flame.”

In a soft voice, Priscilla Presley read a poem from one of Lisa Marie’s three daughters, Harper Vivienne Ann Lockwood, entitled “The Old Soul,” in which she calls her mother “an icon, a role model, a superhero to many people all over the world.”

“In 1968, she entered our world, born tired, fragile, yet strong. She was delicate, but was filled with life,” Priscilla Presley read. “She always knew she wouldn’t be here too long. Childhood passes by, with a glimpse of her green eye. She then grew a family of her own.”

After reading the poem, Priscilla Presley said: “Our heart is broken. Lisa, we all love you.”

Music punctuated the service. Billy Corgan, lead singer of The Smashing Pumpkins, played acoustic guitar and sang “To Sheila;” Alanis Morissette sang “Rest;” Axl Rose, of Guns N’ Roses, played piano and sang “November Rain;” and The Blackwood Brothers Quartet performed two songs.

After the service, mourners walked through Graceland’s Meditation Garden, where she was laid to rest in an above-ground grave next to her son Benjamin Keough, who died in 2020, and alongside her grandparents and great grandmother.

Wreaths and bouquets of red, white, yellow and pink flowers lined the walk up to the gravesite and the tomb itself. Fans, some teary-eyed, walked slowly by the tomb, pausing to pay their respects.

Jordan Clark, 25, traveled from Mobile, Alabama, to attend the service. She called the ceremony special and heartwarming. Clark said Lisa Marie “went through a lot” in her life and equated the service to the time when Elvis died, when “people came from all over.”

“She was born into the public, born into fame. That’s hard for some people,” Clark said. “She handled it like a champ. I think.”

Lisa Marie was 9 when her father died. She was staying at Graceland at the time and would recall him kissing her goodnight hours before he died. When she next saw him, the following day, he was lying face down in the bathroom.

After her father died, she became the sole heir of the Elvis Presley Trust, which — along with Elvis Presley Enterprises — managed Graceland and other assets until she sold her majority interest in 2005. She retained ownership of the mansion itself, the 13 acres around it and items inside the home.

A representative from Elvis Presley Enterprises has told The Associated Press that the mansion is in a trust that will go to the benefit of her children. Along with Harper, she is survived by two other daughters — Riley Keough and Finley Aaron Love Lockwood.

Riley Keough, an actor, did not speak at the service. Her husband, Ben Smith-Petersen, read a statement in which she remembers Lisa Marie taking her for ice cream, bringing her tea sets from Cracker Barrel, and leaving notes in her lunchbox.

“Thank you for giving me strength, my heart, my empathy, my courage, my sense of humor, my manners, my temper, my wildness, my tenacity,” Riley Keough said in the statement. “I’m a product of your heart.”

Source Here: wsvn.com

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