WASHINGTON — Despite Trump administration efforts to discourage people from signing up, the number of people enrolling for Affordable Care Act coverage nearly hit last year’s level, the government revealed Thursday.

The 8.8 million people who enrolled in the 36 states that use the federal government’s healthcare.gov system significantly exceeded most forecasts.

The Trump administration stopped most outreach and other efforts this year aimed at getting people to sign up. The president also repeatedly said publicly that Obamacare was “dead.”

Open enrollment continues in states that run their own health care marketplaces. The figures from the federal government indicate that when those states wrap up for the year, the number of people covered by Obamacare will be nearly the same as in 2017.

—Tribune Washington Bureau


Pence pays surprise visit to Afghanistan to meet US troops

WASHINGTON — U.S. Vice President Mike Pence paid an unannounced visit to Afghanistan, a nation where the Trump administration has stepped up involvement in what’s become America’s longest war.

Pence told the troops that “victory is closer than ever before,” adding that U.S. armed forces will remain in Afghanistan until the threat to the homeland is eliminated. Before the rally at Bagram Airfield, the vice president met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the country’s chief executive Abdullah Abdullah in Kabul.

The vice president, whose role carries with it the ability to cast tie-breaking votes in the Senate, held his departure from Washington until final passage by Congress of a Republican tax bill that represents the Trump administration’s biggest legislative accomplishment. His vote wasn’t needed, but Pence played a prominent role in praising Trump’s legislative victory at a White House ceremony on Wednesday.

Pence, whose son is a Marine, had planned to be in Egypt and Israel this week but postponed that visit until mid-January after delays to the tax vote. His decision to go forward with the Afghanistan visit allows him to address U.S. service members before the Christmas holiday as well as to meet with Afghan leaders. Pence stays in regular communication with Ghani.

Speaking to reporters, Pence said that Ghani plans to have parliamentary elections next year and a presidential vote in 2019.

—Bloomberg News


Fight for Charles Manson’s remains has turned into a ‘circus,’ Kern County attorney says

LOS ANGELES — Even in death, Charles Manson is proving to be troublesome for authorities.

A month after Manson died in a Bakersfield hospital, at least five people have stepped forward to claim his remains.

With so many parties vying for the body, the Kern County Counsel filed paperwork in Los Angeles County Superior Court this week asking the court to keep it abreast of any future claims. The coroner doesn’t want to release the remains to the wrong person and end up getting sued by someone else, the county’s attorney said.

“We have the following problem we’re trying to cope with here: The Department of Corrections asked the Kern County coroner to receive the body because we have refrigeration and they don’t,” said Bryan Walters, a deputy attorney in the county counsel’s office. “When we received it, we thought no one would claim the body. We assumed it would be an easy matter to take care of.”

But this is Charles Manson, the mastermind of the gory rampage that claimed the life of pregnant actress Sharon Tate and six others during two August nights in Los Angeles in 1969. The problematic prisoner with a swastika carved into his forehead generated a cult following during four decades of imprisonment.

People from Florida, Wisconsin, Illinois and California all say they have a right to the remains, according to a court filing. One of the people vying for Manson’s body claims to be his grandson, while another claims to be a pen pal of the killer.

Further complicating matters is the issue of court jurisdiction.

—Los Angeles Times


Groom in high-profile border wedding turns out to be a drug smuggler

SAN DIEGO — When Brian Houston wed his Mexican fiancee in a surprise ceremony during a rare opening of the steel gate on the U.S.-Mexico border fence last month, he said it was because he could not cross into Tijuana.

Now we know why.

Houston, a U.S. citizen, is awaiting sentencing in San Diego federal court on a drug smuggling conviction — a fact that the Border Patrol says it did not know when it ran a background check on him clearing him to participate in the cross-border event at Border Field State Park.

Houston was arrested in February as he crossed through the San Ysidro Port of Entry. Found hidden in his Volkswagen Jetta were 43 pounds of heroin, 47 pounds of methamphetamine and 43 pounds of cocaine, according to the complaint.

“The agents are upset, feel like they were taken advantage of, feel like they were duped,” said Joshua Wilson, vice president and spokesman for the National Border Patrol Council Local 1613. “Turns out we provided armed security for a cartel wedding.”

The incident could put future “Door of Hope” events in jeopardy. The event is closely monitored and choreographed, with a handful of vetted families on the U.S. side allowed to embrace and greet family members on the Mexican side in three-minute reunions under the watchful eye of Border Patrol agents. The encounters are held on a small strip of land owned by the Department of Homeland Security known as Friendship Park.

The enormous border gate has opened with fanfare like this six times since 2013.

The event is organized by the Border Angels nonprofit group, run by executive director Enrique Morones. He gives questionnaires to interested families who cannot cross the border legally for whatever reason, and the forms are then provided to the Border Patrol for approval.

“Border Angels has never done any background checks, as the Border Patrol advised us they will do all background checks and advise us which families have been cleared,” Morones said in a statement Wednesday.

—The San Diego Union-Tribune


Cuban leader Raul Castro will stay in power past February

MIAMI — The Cuban government announced Thursday that it will postpone a historic presidential election in 2018.

Cuban leader Raul Castro will remain in power at least until April 19, the new date in which a new legislature and the president of the Councils of State and Ministers will be elected.

Castro had announced that he would retire at the end of his two terms on Feb. 24, the original date of the election of the new National Assembly.

But Cuba watchers had speculated that he would stay in his post longer.

According to the announcement published in the official Communist Party newspaper Granma on Thursday, the decision is due to the impact of Hurricane Irma, which hit the island in September and also caused the postponement of municipal elections.

But analysts and Cuban dissidents recently told the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald that an economy in recession, the hardening of U.S. sanctions and the diplomatic crisis stemming from health attacks on U.S. diplomats in Havana set the stage for Castro’s extended term.

The delay in the transfer of power opens up more questions about who could be Castro’s successor. Cuban First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel has been widely viewed as a possible successor to Castro.

There was no mention of Diaz-Canel’s role in the official announcement. While he is the most visible candidate to succeed Raul Castro, he could be seen by some sectors of the Communist Party as someone without the necessary experience to occupy the position.

—El Nuevo Herald


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