Saudis blame ‘fistfight’ for Jamal Khashoggi’s death

Photo by the Associated Press

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi died in a “fistfight” in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, the kingdom claimed early Saturday, finally admitting that the writer had been slain at its diplomatic post. Authorities said 18 Saudi suspects were in custody and intelligence officials had been fired.

The overnight announcements in Saudi state media came more than two weeks after Khashoggi, 59, entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul for paperwork required to marry his Turkish fiancée, and never came out. They also contradicted assertions in Turkish media leaks that Khashoggi was tortured, killed and dismembered inside the consulate, claims the kingdom had rejected as “baseless.”

But growing international pressure and comments by U.S. officials up to President Donald Trump forced the kingdom to acknowledge Khashoggi’s death.

While it fired officials close to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia stopped short of implicating the heir-apparent of the world’s largest oil exporter. King Salman, his father, appointed him to lead a committee that will restructure the kingdom’s intelligence services after Khashoggi’s slaying. No major decisions in Saudi Arabia are made outside of the ultraconservative kingdom’s ruling Al Saud family.

The kingdom also offered a far different version of events than those given by Turkish officials, who have said an “assassination squad” from the kingdom including an official from Prince Mohammed’s entourage and an “autopsy expert” flew in ahead of time and laid in wait for Khashoggi at the consulate. Beyond its statements attributed to anonymous officials, Saudi Arabia offered no evidence to support its claims.

Khashoggi, a prominent journalist and royal court insider for decades in Saudi Arabia, had written columns for The Washington Post critical of Prince Mohammed and the kingdom’s direction while living in self-imposed exile in the U.S.

“God have mercy on you my love Jamal, and may you rest in Paradise,” Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, tweeted following the Saudi announcements.

In a statement Friday night, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the U.S. will closely follow international investigations into Khashoggi’s death and will advocate for justice that is “timely, transparent and in accordance with all due process.”

Trump meanwhile called the Saudi announcement a “good first step,” but said what happened to Khashoggi was “unacceptable.”

The announcements came in a flurry of statements carried by the state-run Saudi Press Agency early Saturday morning.

“Preliminary investigations conducted by the Public Prosecution showed that the suspects had traveled to Istanbul to meet with the citizen Jamal Khashoggi as there were indications of the possibility of his returning back to the country,” the statement read. “Discussions took place with the citizen Jamal Khashoggi during his presence in the consulate of the kingdom in Istanbul by the suspects (that) did not go as required and developed in a negative way, leading to a fistfight. The brawl led to his death and their attempt to conceal and hide what happened.”

There’s been no indication Khashoggi had any immediate plans to return to the kingdom.

The Saudi statements did not identify the 18 Saudis being held by authorities and did not explain how so many people could have been involved in a fistfight. The statement also did not shed any light on what happened to Khashoggi’s body after his death.

“The kingdom expresses its deep regret at the painful developments that have taken place and stresses the commitment of the authorities in the kingdom to bring the facts to the public opinion, to hold all those involved accountable and bring them to justice,” the statement said.

The kingdom at the same time announced the firing of four top intelligence officials, including Maj. Gen. Ahmed bin Hassan Assiri, a one-time spokesman for the Saudi military’s campaign in Yemen who later became a confidant of Prince Mohammed.

Saud Qahtani, a powerful adviser to Prince Mohammed, also was fired. Qahtani had led Saudi efforts to isolate Qatar amid a boycott of the country by the kingdom and three other Arab nations as part of a political dispute.

On Twitter, where Qahtani had launched vitriolic attacks against those he saw as the kingdom’s enemies, he thanked the Saudi government for the “great opportunity they gave me to serve my country all those years.”

“I will remain a loyal servant to my country for all times,” he wrote.

Assiri had no immediate comment.

Earlier this week, the Turkish pro-government newspaper Yeni Safak, citing what it described as an audio recording of Khashoggi’s slaying, said a Saudi assassination squad seized the journalist after he entered the consulate, cutting off his fingers and later decapitating him. On Thursday, a leaked surveillance photo put Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, a member of Prince Mohammed’s entourage on trips to the U.S., France and Spain this year, at the consulate just ahead of Khashoggi’s arrival.

Turkish crime scene investigators this week searched the Saudi Consulate building in Istanbul and the nearby residence of the Saudi consul general, and came out carrying bags and boxes. On Friday, investigators questioned staff and explored whether his remains could have been dumped outside Istanbul after his suspected killing, Turkish media and a security official said.

Trump has said that the consequences for the Saudis “will have to be very severe” if they are found to have killed Khashoggi, but has insisted that more facts must be known before making any judgements. He dispatched U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo earlier this week to both Saudi Arabia and Turkey to speak to officials on the case.

The president has made close ties to the kingdom a priority since taking office. Trump made his first overseas trip as president to Saudi Arabia and has touted his arms sales to the kingdom. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, responsible for a coming peace proposal for Israel and the Palestinians, also has forged a close relationship with Prince Mohammed.

Trump’s previous warnings over the case drew an angry response Sunday from Saudi Arabia and its state-linked media, including a suggestion that Riyadh could wield its oil production as a weapon. The U.S. president wants King Salman and OPEC to boost production to drive down high oil prices, caused in part by the coming re-imposition of oil sanctions on Iran in November.

It’s unclear whether the Saudi announcement will be enough to staunch the criticism the kingdom faces from lawmakers in the U.S., its most-crucial ally. California Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, called Saudi Arabia’s claim that Khashoggi was “killed while brawling with a team of more than a dozen dispatched from Saudi Arabia is not credible.”

He was “fighting for his life with people sent to capture or kill him,” Schiff said.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who earlier this week said in a televised interview that Prince Mohammed “has got to go,” added: “To say that I am skeptical of the new Saudi narrative about Mr. Khashoggi is an understatement.”

Human rights groups like Amnesty International separately have been calling for a United Nations investigation into Khashoggi’s killing.

“All along we were concerned about a whitewash, or an investigation by the entity suspected of involvement itself,” Amnesty’s Rawya Rageh said Saturday. “The impartiality of a Saudi investigation would remain in question.”

From the Associated Press.

U.S. worried by foreign voter-influence

U.S. intelligence officials said they are concerned about “ongoing campaigns” by Russia, China, Iran and other countries to undermine confidence in the American democratic process.

In a joint statement the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Homeland Security Department, the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation say they’re worried about activities that “seek to influence voter perceptions and decision-making” in the 2018 and 2020 elections.

The agencies say the “ongoing campaigns” could take many forms. Examples include attempts to influence voters through social media, sponsoring content in English language media such as the Russian outlet RT (Russia Today), or “seeding disinformation through sympathetic spokespersons regarding political candidates and disseminating foreign propaganda.”

The joint statement follows recent reports throughout Texas accusing the Texas Democratic Party of sending voting applications with the citizenship box pre-checked to non-citizens, as reported by Fox News.

It also comes amid independent campaigns led by citizens in the United Kingdom and U.S. to expose private entities influencing elections like the Knights Templar International and their U.S.-based Knights Templar Order International group, which have been constantly reported on by the U.K.-based group IRBF.

Turkey questions Saudi Consulate staff in Khashoggi case

Photo by the Associated Press

Investigators on Friday questioned staff from the Saudi Consulate about the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and explored whether his remains could have been dumped outside Istanbul after his suspected killing, Turkish media and a security official said.

Turkey’s foreign minister said his country would share some “evidence” with the rest of the world but rejected a report that it already has shared with the U.S. an alleged audio recording of the slaying of the columnist for The Washington Post.

Saudi Arabia has rejected reports that Khashoggi was killed and dismembered inside the consulate as baseless, but it faces growing pressure to explain what happened to him after he entered the consulate Oct. 2 for paperwork required to marry his Turkish fiancée. He has not been seen since.

Turkish crime scene investigators this week searched the building and the nearby residence of the Saudi consul general and came out carrying bags and boxes. The 15 Turkish employees brought to give testimony included the consul general’s driver, technicians, accountants and telephone operators, according to state-run Anadolu Agency.

A journalist for the Associated Press saw a group of people leaving the consulate in a van. Later in the day, the same people were seen in video from a courthouse, where Turkish media said they had given testimony.

A Turkish official told AP that investigators are looking into the possibility that Khashoggi’s remains may have been taken outside Istanbul. Speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing, the official said police have established that two vehicles belonging to the consulate left the building Oct. 2. One traveled to the Belgrade Forest on the city’s outskirts, while the other went to the city of Yalova, across the Sea of Marmara from Istanbul, the official said.

It was not immediately clear if police had already searched those locations.

Turkish officials have released few details about the investigation, but pro-government media have published surveillance video and other material suggesting Khashoggi, whose 60th birthday was Oct. 13, was killed by an assassination squad with ties to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The prominent journalist had written columns critical of the Saudi government while living in self-imposed exile in the U.S.

On Wednesday, the pro-government newspaper Yeni Safak, citing what it described as an audio recording of Khashoggi’s slaying, said the squad immediately accosted the journalist after he entered the consulate, cutting off his fingers and later decapitating him.

President Donald Trump said Thursday that it “certainly looks” as though Khashoggi is dead, and that the consequences for the Saudis “will have to be very severe” if they are found to have killed him.

Saudi Arabia has not responded to repeated requests for comment from the AP and other news agencies in recent days over Khashoggi’s disappearance.

Citing an anonymous senior Turkish official, ABC News reported Thursday that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo heard the alleged recording during meetings in Turkey this week and received a transcript of it. Pompeo dismissed that report, telling reporters on a plane to Mexico that he’s neither seen nor heard such a recording.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu also denied sharing any audio recordings with U.S. officials, saying “it’s out of the question” for Turkey to share material from the investigation with the U.S. or other countries at this stage.

“Of course, as a result of the investigation so far, Turkey does have some information and evidence,” he said. “We will share them with the world when they become fully clear because the whole world, understandably, wants to know what happened to Khashoggi and how it happened.”

Earlier this week, Trump said the U.S. has asked for the recording “if it exists.”

Turkey’s pro-government Sabah newspaper on Friday printed more surveillance camera photos showing members of the group of Saudis who arrived Oct. 2. A leaked surveillance photo published by the paper Thursday showed that a member of Prince Mohammed’s entourage during several trips abroad had walked into the Saudi Consulate, just before Khashoggi vanished. The man, identified by Turkish officials as Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, has been photographed in the background of Prince Mohammed’s trips to the United States, France and Spain this year.

Khashoggi’s disappearance has rattled Saudi Arabia’s relations with the West. Senior government officials from the U.S., France, Britain and the Netherlands have withdrawn from a high-profile investment conference to be held next week in Riyadh. Several top business executives have also cancelled their plans to attend, as has the head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde.

Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry said Prime Minister Imran Khan would attend the conference and meet with Saudi King Salman. Khan has been trying to secure bailout loans from IMF to avoid an economic meltdown and is also seeking loans from Riyadh.

From the Associated Press

Mega Millions jackpot hits $1B

Friday night’s Mega Millions jackpot estimated grand prize has hit a staggering $1 billion, continuing a trend of giant jackpots.

It is the second-largest lottery prize in U.S. history and joins five other top 10 drawings in the last three years.

President Trump supports pushing Kavanaugh into the Supreme Court

Photo by Gage Skidmore

President Donald Trump on Thursday night told Fox News he thinks Brett Kavanaugh is “an outstanding person”, adding “I don’t think you can delay it any longer.”

The remarks came during an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity ahead of a “Make America Great Again” rally in Las Vegas, Nevada, where Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., is up for re-election.

Christine Blasey Ford alleged that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in the 1980s, when Kavanaugh was 17 and she was 15.

Ahead of the rally, Trump added that Ford should be given an opportunity to “have her say and let’s see how it all works out.”

“But I don’t think you can delay it any longer. They’ve delayed it a week already,” President Trump continued.

“I say, let her say what she has to say. And let’s see how it all comes out. But they’ve delayed it a week. And they have to get on with it,” Trump said.

In the wide-ranging interview with Hannity, the president also briefly touched on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing Russia investigation, calling it a “witch hunt.”

“Well it has to come to an end. It’s so bad for our country. I call it the witch hunt. It is so bad for our country,” Trump said.

National industrial production rose a solid 0.4 percent in August

Photo from the Associated Press

U.S. industrial production rose by a healthy 0.4 percent in August, boosted by gains in the production of autos, oil and natural gas.

The Federal Reserve said Friday that industrial production, which includes output at factories, mines and utilities, has climbed 4.9 percent over the past 12 months. Industrial production appears on track for its strongest annual growth since 2010, when it jumped 5.5 percent as the economy began to recover from the Great Recession.

Factory production increased 0.2 percent last month, lifted by a 4 percent rise in the making of vehicles and parts. Automakers assembled vehicles at their strongest pace since April.

Still, factory production has slowed over the past two months as trade conflicts have created uncertainty for the sector. The Trump administration is seeking to revamp the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada, has imposed tariffs on imported steel and aluminum and has slapped tariffs on goods from China.

The recent slowdown in factory output might stem from an 8 percent increase since April in the value of the U.S. dollar against foreign currencies, said Michael Pearce, senior U.S. economist at Capital Economics, an economic research firm. A higher-valued dollar makes U.S. exports less affordable overseas.

“The more modest 0.2 percent gain in manufacturing output provides further evidence that the appreciation of the dollar over the past six months is now beginning to weigh more heavily on output in the factory sector,” Pearce said.

Mining output posted a 0.7 percent monthly gain in August. A sharp increase in the production of oil and natural gas has caused mining output to soar 14.1 percent over the past 12 months. Increased oil and natural gas production can support factories that make pipelines, machinery and other equipment.

Production at utilizes advanced 1.2 percent in August, powered by a surge in electricity usage during the hot month.

Other reports suggest that manufacturing is healthy, despite signs that its job growth is slowing. U.S. factories grew at a faster pace in August as American industry continues to show robust health.

The Institute for Supply Management said its manufacturing index jumped rose to 61.3 in August from 58.1 in July. Anything over 50 points toward expansion and economic growth. The manufacturing index has pointed toward growth for the past two years.

Still, job growth at U.S. factories has decelerated in recent months. Manufacturers added just 36,000 factory workers for the three months that ended in August, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s down from three-month gains of as many as 90,000 earlier this year.

From the Associated Press.

For homebuyers, mortgages are safer but tougher to come by

Keri Weishaar lives in a spacious, four-bedroom house near Tampa, Florida, thanks to the easy financing that prevailed during last decade’s housing boom.

“It was basically nothing to get into this house,” said Weishaar, 48, who bought the house in the spring of 2003 after obtaining a no-money down, adjustable-rate mortgage.

Then again, Weishaar and her husband are fortunate to still have their home. That same mortgage eventually morphed into a financial albatross and, for a time, the house in the suburb of Tarpon Springs was on a countdown to foreclosure.

As home values plummeted after the housing bubble burst in 2007, many borrowers with exotic types of loans were stuck, unable to refinance as lenders began to tighten their lending criteria. That set the stage for cascading mortgage defaults that eventually took down Lehman Brothers, Wall Street’s fourth-biggest investment bank at the time, 10 years ago this week. Lehman and other financial institutions were big buyers of securities backed by some of these dicey mortgages.

Today, getting a mortgage is tougher—and less risky. For one thing, no-money down mortgages and their ilk, which enabled many borrowers to initially lower the costs of buying a home but often saddled borrowers with far higher balances or steep monthly payment increases, have vanished.

Banks also remain a bit gun-shy after racking up billions in losses stemming from mortgages gone bad. That means homebuyers, especially those with less-than-stellar credit, face more hurdles qualifying for a mortgage than they did in the housing boom years. But the loans are safer, more transparent and actually take into account whether a borrower can afford to keep up with payments.

“The banks have certainly loosened underwriting criteria for low-risk borrowers; they haven’t loosened underwriting criteria for low-credit score borrowers,” said Aaron Terrazas, senior economist at Zillow. “The types of lending that we saw leading up to that crash in 2008, for the most part, we’re not seeing nowadays.”

When interest rates began to plummet at the start of the 2000s, lenders rushed in to make nontraditional loans that could be sold for hefty profits to Wall Street banks, as well as government-sponsored mortgage buyers Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.

These riskiest of these loans required little proof that the borrower could afford to pay them back and an initial period of low payments and interest rates. Some let borrowers defer interest payments. Ultimately, these loans overwhelmed many borrowers’ ability to keep up with payments.

That’s what happened with Weishaar’s mortgage. The loan was scheduled to adjust to a higher rate after three years, but she was able to refinance it with another adjustable-rate mortgage. The next time it reset, however, was late 2007, as the housing downturn accelerated. Her husband had lost his job and she was making less money. The couple’s loan jumped from a 6.2 percent interest rate to 11 percent, jacking up the monthly payment from $2,101 to $3,417.

The easy financing, which had enabled the couple to buy their $346,800 house, backfired.

“We bought probably about $120,000 more home than we should have,” Weishaar said.

After missing a few payments, the lender agreed to modify the loan. The interest rate dropped to 6.2 percent and the couple’s missed payments and fees were tacked onto their unpaid principal.

The Weishaars rode out the turbulent economy and housing market in the years after the financial crisis and were able to refinance again in late 2014 into a 3.5 percent, 20-year fixed-rate loan. Now their payment is around $1,500, without taxes and insurance.

“I only have 15 years left on my house now and I’m in a good place,” said Weishaar, now director of sales for an IT consulting company. “The next house I buy will be paid for in cash.”

The private market for mortgage-backed securities, which helped fuel so much easy lending during the housing boom, is now a sliver of what it was back then.

Mortgage-backed securities issued by private firms now represent about 4.5 percent of the market, according to data from Inside Mortgage Finance and the Urban Institute. In 2006, the peak of the housing boom, it was nearly 60 percent.

Government-sponsored enterprises such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac now account for about 95.5 percent of the market.

Legislation aimed at averting another financial crisis set out certain guidelines that lenders must follow if they want to make their home loans eligible to be guaranteed by the government. The biggest change is a rule requiring lenders to establish the borrower’s ability to repay the loan.

In the case of a five-year adjustable-rate mortgage, that means ensuring the borrower can afford to pay the loan should it reset to a higher interest rate.

The law, known as Dodd-Frank, also nixed the types of risky loans offered during the housing bubble, among other changes.

“For the average consumer, the biggest thing that has changed is it’s a lot clearer at the closing table what kind of loan you’re getting and what you can expect to pay over the life of the loan, and that’s a very good thing,” said Jesse Van Tol, CEO of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, which advocates for fairness in housing, banking and business.

The guidelines may offer lenders a clear path on how to gauge qualified buyers, but in many cases banks have overlaid stricter qualifying requirements, like higher credit scores.

That’s one reason the average FICO score on home purchase loans has drifted about 21 points higher over the past decade, according to data from the Urban Institute. The trend is more pronounced in metropolitan areas with high home prices. Consider that in San Francisco, the average FICO score for borrowers is around 774. In the Riverside-San Bernardino metropolitan area east of Los Angeles, FICOs average 717.

The average FICO score in America was 700 last year. A score of 740-799 is considered “very good.”

“The pendulum has swung too far in the other direction,” Van Tol said. “When you look at a Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac-backed loan with an average credit score in the high 700s, homeownership at a 50-year low, and a lot of people boxed out of the mortgage market, certainly credit is too tight. Too few people have the opportunity to become homeowners today.”

Buyers are seeing some relief from nonbank lenders such as Quicken Loans, United Wholesale Mortgage and Carrington Mortgage, which are growing players in the residential lending market.

The share of loans issued by nonbank lenders and backed by the government has been climbing since 2013. The median FICO scores for loans issued by nonbank lenders and sold to Fannie Mae and the other government mortgage buyers are lower than those of loans from banks, according to the Urban Institute.

Unlike many homebuyers enticed by the frenzy of easy lending during the housing boom, Christian Ray resisted pushing the limits of what he could afford when he became a homeowner last month.

A logistics manager for a beverage company, Ray bought a two-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath townhome in Tampa for $158,000, even though his lender qualified him for a $240,000 mortgage.

“I’m not going to be married to the house,” said Ray, 23. “I literally would just come home, pay the bills and just stay here and barely feed myself.”

Ray also opted for just about the most unexotic, vanilla home loan around: A 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage at 5 percent interest. And he put up a 10 percent down payment.

“I’m not going to take 30 years to pay it,” Ray said.

From the Associated Press.