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Kobe helicopter tried to climb to avoid clouds before crash

CALABASAS, Calif. — The pilot of the helicopter that crashed into a hillside outside Los Angeles, killing former NBA superstar Kobe Bryant and eight others, told air traffic controllers in his last radio message that he was climbing to avoid a cloud layer, an accident investigator said Monday.

The pilot had asked for and received special clearance to fly in heavy fog just minutes before Sunday’s crash and was flying at 1,400 feet when he went south and then west, said Jennifer Homendy of the National Transportation Safety Board, which went to the crash scene Monday to collect evidence.

The pilot then asked for air traffic controllers to provide “flight following” aide but was told the craft was too low, Homendy said.

About four minutes later, “the pilot advised they were climbing to avoid a cloud layer,” she said. “When ATC asked what the pilot planned to do, there was no reply. Radar data indicates the helicopter climbed to 2,300 feet and then began a left descending turn. Last radar contact was around 9:45 a.m. and is consistent with the accident location.

Coroner’s officials worked to recover victims’ remains Monday from the hillside outside Los Angeles where the helicopter crashed. Aviation experts say it may have been caused by the pilot becoming disoriented in the fog.

While the cause of the tragedy is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, some experts raised questions of whether the helicopter should have even been flying. The weather was so foggy that the Los Angeles Police Department and the county sheriff’s department had grounded their own choppers.

The Sikorsky S-76 went down Sunday morning, killing the retired athlete along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and everyone else aboard and scattering debris over an area the size of a football field.

Crews recovered three bodies on Sunday and resumed the effort on Monday amid an outpouring of grief and shock around the world over the loss of the basketball great who helped lead the Los Angeles Lakers to five NBA titles during his dazzling 20-year career.

The pilot was identified as Ara Zobayan. Several aviation experts said it is not uncommon for helicopter pilots to be given such permission, though some thought it unusual that it would be granted in airspace as busy as that over Los Angeles.

But Kurt Deetz, who flew for Bryant dozens of times in the same chopper that went down, said permission is often granted in the area.

“It happened all the time in the winter months in LA,” Deetz said. “You get fog.”

The helicopter left Santa Ana in Orange County, south of Los Angeles, shortly after 9 a.m., heading north and then west. Bryant was believed to be headed for his youth sports academy in nearby Thousand Oaks, which was holding a basketball tournament Sunday in which Bryant’s daughter, known as Gigi, was competing.

Air traffic controllers noted poor visibility around Burbank to the north and Van Nuys to the northwest. At one point, the controllers instructed the chopper to circle because of other planes in the area before proceeding.

The aircraft crashed in Calabasas, about 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, around 9:45 a.m. at about 1,400 feet, according to data from Flightradar24. When it struck the ground, it was flying at about 184 mph and descending at a rate of more than 4,000 feet per minute, the data showed.

Randy Waldman, a helicopter flight instructor who teaches at the nearby Van Nuys airport, said it’s likely the pilot got disoriented in the fog and the helicopter went into a fatal dive.

“It’s a common thing that happens in airplanes and helicopters with people flying with poor visibility,” Waldman said. “If you’re flying visually, if you get caught in a situation where you can’t see out the windshield, the life expectancy of the pilot and the aircraft is maybe 10, 15 seconds, and it happens all the time, and it’s really a shame.”

Waldman said it was the same thing that happened to John F. Kennedy Jr. when his plane dropped out of the sky near Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, in 1999.

“A lot of times somebody who’s doing it for a living is pressured to get their client to where they have to go,” Waldman said. “They take chances that maybe they shouldn’t take.”

Bryant had been known since his playing days for taking helicopters instead of braving the notoriously snarled Los Angeles traffic. “I’m not going into LA without the Mamba chopper,” he joked on Jimmy Kimmel Live in a 2018 interview, referring to his own nickname, Black Mamba.

David Hoeppner, an expert on helicopter design, said he won’t fly on helicopters.

“Part of it is the way they certify and design these things,” said Hoeppner, a retired engineering professor at the University of Utah. “But the other part is helicopter pilots often fly in conditions where they shouldn’t be flying.”

On Sunday, firefighters hiked in with medical equipment and hoses, and medical personnel rappelled to the site from a helicopter. About 20 investigators were on the site early Monday. The Los Angeles County medical examiner, Dr. Jonathan Lucas, said it could take at least a couple of days to to recover the remains.

Among those killed in the crash were John Altobelli, 56, longtime head coach of Southern California’s Orange Coast College baseball team; his wife, Keri; and daughter, Alyssa, who played on the same basketball team as Bryant’s daughter; and Christina Mauser, a girls’ basketball coach at a Southern California elementary school.

Al Key/DRC  

Denton was shrouded in dense fog Monday morning, as seen looking south from Sherman Drive near the Natatorium. The fog eventually lifted before noon and sunny skies warmed temperatures into the mid-60s. Tuesday will see about a 70% chance of showers and thunderstorms with highs near 60, according to the National Weather Service. The rain will clear out heading into Wednesday, with highs in the low 50s.

GOP defends Trump as Bolton book adds pressure for witnesses

WASHINGTON — Senators faced mounting pressure Monday to summon John Bolton to testify at President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial even as Trump’s lawyers brushed past extraordinary new allegations from Trump’s former national security adviser and focused instead on corruption in Ukraine and historical arguments for acquittal.

Outside the Senate chamber, Republicans grappled with claims in a forthcoming book from Bolton that Trump had wanted to withhold military aid from Ukraine until it committed to helping with investigations into Democratic rival Joe Biden. That assertion could undercut a key defense argument — that Trump never tied the suspension of security aid to political investigations.

The revelation clouded White House hopes for a swift end to the impeachment trial, fueling Democratic demands for witnesses and possibly pushing more Republican lawmakers to agree. It also distracted from hours of arguments from Trump’s lawyers, who declared anew that no witness has testified to direct knowledge that Trump’s delivery of aid was contingent on investigations into Democrats.

Bolton appeared poised to say exactly that if called on by the Senate to appear.

“We deal with transcript evidence, we deal with publicly available information,” attorney Jay Sekulow said. “We do not deal with speculation.”

Trump is charged with abusing his presidential power by asking Ukraine’s leader to help investigate Biden at the same Trump was ordering that millions of dollars in aid be withheld. A second charge accuses Trump of obstructing Congress in its probe.

Trump’s legal team on Monday launched a wide-ranging attack on the entire impeachment process. They said there was no basis to remove him from office, defended his actions as appropriate and assailed Biden, who is campaigning for the Democratic nomination to oppose Trump in November.

The lawyers focused particular attention on Biden and his son Hunter, who served on the board of a Ukraine gas company at the same time his father was vice president. They argued that Trump had legitimate reasons to be suspicious of the younger Biden’s business dealings and concerned about corruption in Ukraine and that, in any event, he ultimately released the aid without Ukraine committing to investigations the president wanted.

Democrats say Trump did so only after a whistleblower submitted a complaint about the situation.

Ken Starr, whose independent counsel investigation into President Bill Clinton resulted in his impeachment — Clinton was acquitted by the Senate — bemoaned what he said was an “age of impeachment.”

Impeachment, he said, requires both an actual crime and a “genuine national consensus” that the president must go. Neither exists here, Starr said.

“It’s filled with acrimony and it divides the country like nothing else,” Starr said of impeachment. “Those of us who lived through the Clinton impeachment understand that in a deep and personal way.”

Even as defense lawyers laid out their case as planned, it was clear that Bolton’s book had scrambled the debate over whether to seek witnesses. Bolton writes that Trump told him he wanted to withhold security aid from Ukraine until it helped him with investigations. Trump’s legal team has insisted otherwise, and Trump tweeted Monday that he never told Bolton such a thing.

Republican senators face a pivotal moment. Pressure is mounting for at least four to buck GOP leaders and form a bipartisan majority to force the issue. Republicans hold a 53-47 majority.

“John Bolton’s relevance to our decision has become increasingly clear,” GOP Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah told reporters. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said she has always wanted “the opportunity for witnesses” and the report about Bolton’s book “strengthens the case.”

At a private GOP lunch, Romney made the case for calling Bolton, according to a person unauthorized to discuss the meeting and granted anonymity.

Other Republicans, including Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, said if Trump’s former national security adviser is called they will demand reciprocity to hear from at least one of their witnesses. Some Republicans want to call the Bidens.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appeared unmoved by news of the Bolton book. His message at the lunch, said Indiana GOP Sen. Mike Braun, was, “Take a deep breath, and let’s take one step at a time.”

Once the president’s team wraps its arguments no later than Tuesday, senators have 16 hours for questions to both sides. By late in the week, they are expected to hold a vote on whether or not to hear from any witnesses.

While Democrats say Bolton’s revelations are reminiscent of the Watergate drip of new information, Republicans are counting on concerns subsiding by the time senators are asked to vote. They are being told that if there is agreement to summon Bolton, the White House will resist, claiming executive privilege. That would launch a weeks-long court battle that could drag out the impeachment trial, a scenario some GOP senators would rather avoid.

Trump and his lawyers have argued repeatedly that Democrats are using impeachment to try to undo the results of the last presidential election and drive Trump from office.

Trump tweeted for viewers to tune in to the “hoax,” advertising the trial’s start time.

Some in the White House had hoped the legal team would steer away from the Bidens but acknowledged the Bolton revelations contributed to the decision to stay focused on the family. They worry about squandering what good will they have earned with the Senate, where Biden served for decades.

Democrats, meanwhile, say Trump’s refusal to allow administration officials to testify only reinforces that the White House is hiding evidence. The White House has had Bolton’s manuscript for about a month, according to a letter from Bolton’s attorney.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said: “We’re all staring a White House cover-up in the face.”

Rep. Adam Schiff, who leads the House prosecution team, called Bolton’s account a test for the senators sitting as jurors.

“I don’t know how you can explain that you wanted a search for the truth in this trial and say you don’t want to hear from a witness who had a direct conversation about the central allegation in the articles of impeachment,” Schiff said on CNN.

Bolton’s account was first reported by The New York Times and was confirmed to The Associated Press by a person familiar with the manuscript on the condition of anonymity. The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir is to be released March 17.

Trump denied Bolton’s claims in tweets Monday.

“I NEVER told John Bolton that the aid to Ukraine was tied to investigations into Democrats, including the Bidens,” Trump said. “If John Bolton said this, it was only to sell a book.”

Joe Biden, campaigning in Iowa, said he sees no reason for testimony by him or his son.

“I have nothing to defend. This is all a game, even if they bring me up,” he told reporters. “What is there to defend? This is all — the reason he’s being impeached is because he tried to get a government to smear me and they wouldn’t. Come on.”

Trump said people could look at transcripts of his call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to see there was no pressure for investigations to get the aid. In that call, Trump asked Zelenskiy to “do us a favor” with the investigations as he was withholding nearly $400 million in military aid to the U.S. ally at war with Russia.

Trump falsely claimed Monday that the Democrat-controlled House “never even asked John Bolton to testify.” Democrats did ask Bolton to testify, but he didn’t show up for his deposition. They later declined to subpoena Bolton, as they had others, because he threatened to sue, which could have led to a prolonged court battle.

Eventual acquittal is likely in a Senate where a two-thirds majority vote would be needed for conviction

Democrats argued their side of the impeachment case for three days last week, warning that Trump will persist in abusing his power and endangering American democracy unless Congress intervenes to remove him before the 2020 election.

Cornyn calls impeachment case ‘insane.’ Democrats call him a biased juror. Will it matter to voters?

WASHINGTON — Some jurors slouch. Some take notes. Those lucky enough to have desks in the back row are apt to stand and stretch as the hours pile up in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.

TV viewers can’t see it, but U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, is most apt to listen with hands folded and brow furrowed, suggesting the sort of intense concentration that befits an appellate court justice, which he used to be.

Off the Senate floor, too, he projects even-handedness and a reasonable air: He’s open to hearing from witnesses, he says, and he’ll weigh the evidence before making up his mind.

In fact, like nearly every senator on both sides, he has made up his mind and will not be moved.

But if you want the more caustic version, you’d need to catch Cornyn on conservative talk radio. Or check your inbox for a campaign email blast like this one he sent as House impeachment managers delivered their case:

“I’ll listen to the Dems’ insane argument for President Trump’s removal ... . But I’ll be a force for truth. For facts,” Cornyn wrote supporters. “I will FIGHT to make sure that their radical argument for removal goes NOWHERE. I will fight [for] our president’s exoneration.”

John Cornyn

He’s hardly the only Republican using impeachment to drum up donations. Democrats jockeying for a shot at Texas’ senior senator as he seeks a fourth six-year term have likewise kept up a stream of impeachment-themed attacks.

The stakes for Trump and the republic can’t be overstated. The politics of the fight are fairly predictable.

Targeted Republicans like Cornyn won’t dare show any daylight between themselves and the embattled president, and Democrats will try to exact a price for that loyalty.

“Pretty sure an impartial juror doesn’t say things like ‘I will fight to make sure their radical argument goes nowhere,’” one of those challengers, M.J. Hegar, noted in an appeal to Democrats.

By keeping a relatively low profile, Cornyn avoids needlessly antagonizing the millions of newcomers to Texas who weren’t constituents the last time he was on the ballot.

“He understands what he needs to do. Obviously he’s not going to vote to convict Trump,” said Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, chairman of the University of North Texas political science department. At the same time, he added, Cornyn and other Republicans “don’t want to give the appearance that they are not taking this seriously because most Americans support a fair process and ... appearances still matter.”

Cornyn avoids defending the pressure tactics the president used against Ukraine in the bid to secure a corruption probe against former Vice President Joe Biden. He’s not shy about taking up the cause in other ways. He’s especially comfortable attacking the fairness of the process and accusing Democrats of bloodlust to depose Trump.

Still, he’s less outspoken and acerbic than some of his colleagues. He gave up his post as GOP whip just over a year ago, forced out of the No. 2 leadership post by party-imposed term limits.

‘Fealty for Trump’

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, for instance, has made a beeline to the TV cameras during breaks in the trial. Cruz, R-Texas, aides blast out real-time rebuttals and nightly recaps, under the logo “Cruz impeachment war room.” He launched an impeachment-focused podcast.

Ted Cruz

“What we have seen from Republican senators across the board is a fealty to Trump, and that they are afraid to cross him in any way, because the most important thing to them right now is their base,” said Jessica Taylor, the Senate editor at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “Trying to get your base out is the most important thing.”

She noted that Cornyn can’t project even-handedness indefinitely. “Ultimately he’s going to have to take a vote. It’s going to be on the record,” she said.

Chris Wilson, Cruz’s pollster in 2018, sees little impact from the impeachment trial on Cornyn’s prospects, absent a bombshell that hasn’t yet surfaced.

“What we’ve seen so far in national data suggests that nothing much has changed as a result of the trial. Republicans are still strongly with the president and Democrats are strongly against,” Wilson said. “That would suggest that Cornyn is in about the same situation he was before the trial started, a favorite for reelection.”

The Cook Political Report rates the race as solid Republican, though analysts are keeping an eye on Hegar and others to see if they can break through, as former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, did later in 2018 against Cruz.

O’Rourke held Cruz below 51%, putting a scare into Texas Republicans, who haven’t lost a statewide election since 1994.

“There’s obviously no reason for a senator from Texas, running statewide, to take any chances crossing Donald Trump. ... It’s Donald Trump’s party right now,” said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.

At the same time, he doesn’t see the issue doing Democrats much good.

“Nobody needs to go out and beat the bushes among Democrats to say that Donald Trump’s a bad president. … It’d be hard for Democratic attitudes to get any more intensely negative about Trump,” he said.

Nothing new

During one break in the House managers’ three-day argument, Cornyn downplayed the presentation.

“We haven’t heard anything new,” he told reporters. “What we ought to be presented is evidence by witnesses that have personal knowledge.”

Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, standing nearby, chimed in: “Hear, hear!”

And U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, chided him on Twitter: “You voted nine times against getting more information.”

Cornyn has insisted that he’s open to talking about calling new witnesses after opening arguments. But he also maintains that if House Democrats weren’t so impatient about impeaching Trump last month, they could have taken more time and allowed subpoena fights to play out in court.

Senate Republicans unanimously shot down Democrats’ efforts at the outset of the trial to compel testimony from key witnesses: former national security adviser John Bolton and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and others Trump barred from cooperating.

Democrats taunted that Cornyn, among others, wants it both ways — denigrating the case against Trump as old news while refusing to allow further investigation.

Manny Garcia, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, called Cornyn a “henchman for Mitch McConnell,” backing up the Senate majority leader on trial procedure.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll published Friday found that 66% of respondents nationwide want the Senate to call new witnesses, while 27% would be content to see a verdict without more testimony.

“If exercising their constitutional duty as U.S. senators is so boring to these Republicans, why pass up the chance to learn new information from documents or witnesses with first-hand knowledge of Trump’s conduct?” asked the Democrats’ Senate campaign arm, citing Cornyn’s comments.

Cornyn strongly defends his stance.

“You’ll see Chuck Schumer and others saying that there’s a cover-up because additional witnesses weren’t called, which is pure baloney,” he said Friday on the Mark Davis radio show. “The American people, because they’ve been able to see this on television in an entirely transparent sort of way, will have the confidence that everything that could’ve been presented was presented.”

Local schools begin Holocaust Remembrance Week

Monday marked an anniversary 75 years in the making, as well as the first block in a new tradition for Texans.

Seventy-five years after the liberation of Auschwitz, Texans in public and charter schools began the first Holocaust Remembrance Week.

In June, Gov. Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 1828 into law, creating the annual week. Four months later, Abbott officially named this week as the inaugural Holocaust Remembrance Week for Texas students, said Erika Lowery, secondary social studies coordinator for Denton ISD.

Educators have since received few specifics on what that actually means. Statutorily, the law is less than 200 words long. It declares that Abbott must designate dates for the week, and it requires instruction to include materials developed and approved by the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission.

Beyond that, perhaps the most specific instruction is for educators to provide “age-appropriate” lessons.

Taylor Poston, a spokeswoman for Krum ISD, said the district doesn’t have anything special planned for this year’s Holocaust Remembrance Week. Despite that, sixth graders read a historical fiction book in an English class about Holocaust survivors and discussed it in context in social studies classes.

Additionally, the students took a December field trip to the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum.

“Students have expressed that this experience will be one they will never forget, as they cannot understand how one human could treat another in such a way,” Poston said via email Friday.

Lowery said Denton ISD is handling the first remembrance week similarly.

She said administrators are largely letting each campus handle this week as they see fit. Before long, she’ll collect feedback from campuses about how they marked the week. That should help officials form curriculum for subsequent years, she said Monday afternoon.

Lowery said the district’s biggest emphasis is on making lessons age-appropriate: What a high school student can handle from Holocaust education is different than what a middle school student can.

As it stood before SB 1828 was signed, many students encountered discussions of human rights abuses beginning in sixth grade. The Holocaust is not mentioned by name in state curriculum standards until high school.

The Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission has several resources available specifically for the week, including a vocabulary list, suggested books and a seven-page list of terms to use cautiously.

“By design, the Nazis manipulated and abused language and imagery to implement the destruction of a people,” the commission wrote of the Red Flag Terms. “In that context, learning about the Holocaust demands sensitivity to the power of conventional tools of communication.”

Among the terms are the “banality of evil,” the use of “hell” to describe concentration camps and the description of Holocaust memories as a “scar,” which implies survivors’ wounds have healed.