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By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

BEIRUT — Syrian President Bashar Assad made a surprise visit to Moscow for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Russian and Syrian press reported Wednesday, as Russian jets continued to pound opposition strongholds in the war-ravaged Middle Eastern nation.

The meeting, which took place late Tuesday, according to media accounts, was only announced early Wednesday as part of an apparent effort to maintain some hours of secrecy.

It was Assad’s first publicly announced trip outside Syria since the armed rebellion against his rule erupted in 2011.

Moscow has long been a chief ally of Assad and last month significantly escalated its aid, launching an intensive aerial bombing campaign in Syria against antigovernment insurgents — including some groups that reportedly receive clandestine support from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

Moscow says its warplanes are solely targeting “terrorists” in Syria, including various al-Qaida-linked extremists who have come to dominate the armed opposition.

Washington has condemned the Russian aerial offensive in Syria as counterproductive and “doomed to failure,” in the words of President Barack Obama.

In Moscow, Russian news agencies reported, presidents Assad and Putin discussed the military situation in Syria and both agreed that a political solution is urgently needed to end the Syrian conflict.

“Naturally, the talks focused on fighting terrorist extremist groups, carrying on with the Russian operation, and support for the Syrian army’s offensive,” the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told journalists in Moscow on Wednesday, according to Russia’s RT news service.

On Russian television, Putin lauded Syria’s role.

“The Syrian people practically by themselves have been fending off and fighting against terrorism for several years,” Putin said.

Images on Russian TV showed Assad speaking with Putin in a formal gathering that included several other high-level Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

U.S. officials maintain that Assad has been a “magnet” for terrorism and must leave office before any permanent political resolution can be reached.

Officials in Moscow and Damascus say the Russian campaign has been a major boost for the Syrian military. Pro-government forces in Syria suffered significant territorial losses earlier this year to various opposition groups, including Islamic State, the breakaway al-Qaida faction that is being targeted by a separate, U.S.-led air bombardment campaign.

The Syrian Army, backed by Russian airstrikes, has in recent weeks launched ground assaults in key strategic areas of western Syria, including in coastal Latakia, where Russia has refurbished an air base as a platform for its Syrian campaign. Russia is coordinating its attacks with Damascus, which says it requested Moscow’s military aid.

With Russian air support, Syria says its forces have also been pushing back “terrorists” outside Damascus, the capital; in Homs, Hama and Idlib provinces to the north; and in the vicinity of the northern city of Aleppo, which has long been divided between government and opposition control.

Assisting Syrian ground troops are hundreds of military advisers from Iran, another key backer of Assad, and thousands of militiamen from Hezbollah, the Lebanese-based group allied with Iran.

Russian officials have said the air operation in Syria would last several months, but have not set forth a precise date for its conclusion. Russia says it has no intention of sending ground forces to Syria.

Since Moscow’s air onslaught began Sept. 30, Russian and Syrian officials say, Russian aircraft and guided missiles have hit scores of “terrorist” targets, including ammo dumps, bomb-making factories, underground bunkers, gun emplacements, headquarter compounds and armed vehicles.

U.S. officials have voiced concern that Russian attacks are striking “moderate” rebel factions, including some backed by the United States and its allies. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and other U.S. partners have provided substantial military aid to what they call “moderate” rebel groups and have denied arming “terrorist” fighters in Syria.

The Russian air campaign appears to have injected new urgency into long-stalled initiatives to craft a political solution to the Syrian war, which has cost more than 200,000 lives, left much of the country in ruins and forced more than 4 million into exile. A wave of refugees from Syria and elsewhere into Europe has triggered a crisis in some European nations and resulted in calls from U.S. allies to ramp up efforts for peace talks.

U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry said this week that he planned to meet with Russian and regional leaders in a bid to “work through real and tangible options that could perhaps reignite a political process and bring about a political solution in Syria.”

The Obama administration has long insisted that Assad must step down as part of any political accord in Syria. But Washington has lately modified its stance and said that Assad could remain for an unspecified but limited period as part of a negotiated transition government in Syria. No formal Syrian peace talks have been scheduled.

Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, October 20, 2015. REUTERS/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

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Former President Donald Trump, left, and former White House counsel Pat Cipollone

On Wednesday evening the House Select Committee investigating the Trump coup plot issued a subpoena to former White House counsel Pat Cipollone, following blockbuster testimony from former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson, who said the lawyer had warned of potential criminal activity by former President Donald Trump and his aides.

The committee summons to Cipollone followed long negotiations over his possible appearance and increasing pressure on him to come forward as Hutchinson did. Committee members expect the former counsel’s testimony to advance their investigation, owing to his knowledge of the former president's actions before, during and after the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

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Mark Meadows

Donald Trump’s White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows wanted a presidential pardon. He had facilitated key stages of Trump’s attempted 2020 coup, linking the insurrectionists to the highest reaches of the White House and Congress.

But ultimately, Meadows failed to deliver what Trump most wanted, which was convincing others in government to overturn the 2020 election. And then his subordinates, White House security staff, thwarted Trump’s plan to march with a mob into the Capitol.

Meadows’ role has become clearer with each January 6 hearing. Earlier hearings traced how his attempted Justice Department takeover failed. The fake Electoral College slates that Meadows had pushed were not accepted by Congress. The calls by Trump to state officials that he had orchestrated to “find votes” did not work. Nor could Meadows convince Vice-President Mike Pence to ignore the official Electoral College results and count pro-Trump forgeries.

And as January 6 approached and the insurrection began, new and riveting details emerged about Meadow’s pivotal role at the eye of this storm, according to testimony on Tuesday by his top White House aide, Cassidy Hutchinson.

Meadows had been repeatedly told that threats of violence were real. Yet he repeatedly ignored calls from the Secret Service, Capitol police, White House lawyers and military chiefs to protect the Capitol, Hutchinson told the committee under oath. And then Meadows, or, at least White House staff under him, failed Trump a final time – although in a surprising way.

After Trump told supporters at a January 6 rally that he would walk with them to the Capitol, Meadows’ staff, which oversaw Trump’s transportation, refused to drive him there. Trump was furious. He grabbed at the limousine’s steering wheel. He assaulted the Secret Service deputy, who was in the car, and had told Trump that it was not safe to go, Hutchinson testified.

“He said, ‘I’m the f-ing president. Take me up to the Capitol now,’” she said, describing what was told to her a short while later by those in the limousine. And Trump blamed Meadows.

“Later in the day, it had been relayed to me via Mark that the president wasn’t happy that Bobby [Engel, the driver] didn’t pull it off for him, and that Mark didn’t work hard enough to get the movement on the books [Trump’s schedule].”

Hutchinson’s testimony was the latest revelations to emerge from hearings that have traced in great detail how Trump and his allies plotted and intended to overturn the election. Her eye-witness account provided an unprecedented view of a raging president.

Hutchinson’s testimony was compared to John Dean, the star witness of the Watergate hearings a half-century ago that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon for his aides’ efforts to spy on and smear Democrats during the 1972 presidential campaign.

“She IS the John Dean of the hearings,” tweeted the Brooking Institution’s Norman Eisen, who has written legal analyses on prosecuting Trump. “Trump fighting with his security, throwing plates at the wall, but above all the WH knowing that violence was coming on 1/6. The plates & the fighting are not crimes, but they will color the prosecution devastatingly.”

Meadows’ presence has hovered over the coup plot and insurrection. Though he has refused to testify before the January 6 committee, his pivotal role increasingly has come into view.

Under oath, Hutchinson described links between Meadows and communication channels to the armed mob that had assembled. She was backstage at the Trump’s midday January 6 rally and described Trump’s anger that the crowd was not big enough. The Secret Service told him that many people were armed and did not want to go through security and give up their weapons.

Trump, she recounted, said “something to the effect of, ‘I don’t f-ing care that they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me. Take the mags [metal detectors] away. Let the people in. They can march to the Capitol from here.

As the day progressed and the Capitol was breached, Hutchison described the scene at the White House from her cubicle outside the Oval Office. She repeatedly went into Meadows’ office, where he had isolated himself. When Secret Service officials urged her to get Meadows to urge Trump to tell his supporters to stand down and leave, he sat listless.

“He [Meadows] needs to snap out of it,” she said that she told others who pressed her to get Meadows to act. Later, she heard Meadows repeatedly tell other White House officials that Trump “doesn’t think they [insurrectionists] are doing anything wrong.” Trump said Pence deserved to be hung as a traitor, she said.

Immediately after January 6, Hutchinson said that Trump’s cabinet discussed invoking the 25th Amendment to remove a sitting president but did not do so. She also said that Meadows sought a pardon for his January 6-related actions.

Today, Meadows is championing many of the same election falsehoods that he pushed for Trump as a senior partner at the Conservative Partnership Institute (CPI), a right-wing think tank whose 2021 annual report boasts of “changing the way conservatives fight.”

His colleagues include Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who pushed for Trump to use every means to overturn the election and leads CPI’s “election integrity network,” and other Republicans who have been attacking elections as illegitimate where their candidates lose.

Hutchinson’s testimony may impede Meadows’ future political role, as it exposes him to possible criminal prosecution. But the election-denying movement that he nurtured has not gone away. CPI said it is targeting elections in national battleground states for 2022’s midterms, including Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

Trump did not give Meadows a pardon. But in July 2021, Trump’s “Save America” PAC gave CPI $1 million.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, The American Prospect, and many others.

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