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Pressure on Trump builds after Russia allegations (copy) (copy)

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Tuesday came under growing pressure to respond to allegations that Russia offered bounties for killing American troops in Afghanistan, with Democrats demanding answers and accusing Trump of bowing to Russian President Vladimir Putin at the risk of U.S. soldiers’ lives.

Frustrated House Democrats returning from a briefing at the White House said they learned nothing new about American intelligence assessments that suggested Russia was making overtures to militants as the U.S. and the Taliban held talks to end the conflict in Afghanistan. Senate Republicans who attended a separate briefing largely defended the president, arguing along with the White House that the intelligence was unverified.

The intelligence assessments were first reported by The New York Times, then confirmed to The Associated Press by American intelligence officials and others with knowledge of the matter.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Tuesday that Trump had been briefed on the intelligence, a day after saying he hadn’t because it had not been verified. McEnany added that there were still reservations within the intelligence community on the veracity of the allegations.

“Make no mistake. This president will always protect American troops,” she said.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and a small group of other House Democrats met with White House officials as Trump downplayed the allegations. The Democrats questioned why Trump wouldn’t have been briefed sooner and pushed White House officials to have the president make a strong statement about the matter.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, one of the Democrats who attended the briefing, said it was “inexplicable” why Trump won’t say publicly that he is working to get to the bottom of the issue and why he won’t call out Putin. He said Trump’s defense that he hadn’t been briefed was inexcusable.

“Many of us do not understand his affinity for that autocratic ruler who means our nation ill,” Schiff said.

Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J., a freshman and former Navy helicopter pilot and Russia policy officer, said White House chief of staff Mark Meadows briefed the group. She said the Democrats told the White House briefers that the president should make a statement.

“These are very concerning allegations and if they’re true, Russia is going to face repercussions,” Sherrill said. “We really pushed that strongly in the meeting.”

She wouldn’t say how the White House officials reacted or say if the briefers told the Democrats that in fact Trump had been briefed.

Trump and his aides set a high bar for briefing a president since it is rare for intelligence to be confirmed without a shadow of doubt before it is presented to senior government decision-makers.

McEnany declined to say why a different standard of confidence in the intelligence might apply to briefing lawmakers than for bringing information to the president.

Some House Republicans who were briefed by the White House on Monday also said they left with questions.

Texas Rep. Mac Thornberry, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said the panel would “leave no stone unturned” in seeking further information. Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming insisted there would be “ramifications” for any targeting of Americans.

But Senate Republicans seemed less concerned and questioned the media reports. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he didn’t think Trump should be “subjected to every rumor.”

“Conclusions, apparently, were not reached,” McConnell said.

The White House was working to schedule a briefing for Wednesday with McConnell, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the top Republicans and Democrats on the two intelligence committees according to a person familiar with the talks. The person declined to be identified because the so-called “Gang of 8” briefing will be classified. That group receives the most sensitive information in regular meetings with administration officials.

A separate group of Senate Republicans briefed in the White House Situation Room on Tuesday appeared mostly satisfied with the answers they received. Senate Armed Services Chairman Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma said he was “convinced” Trump hadn’t known about the intelligence. Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said Trump “can’t be made aware of every piece of unverified intelligence.”

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Marco Rubio said he believed the U.S. was prepared “to do everything possible to protect our men or women stationed abroad, from a variety of threats.”

Some Republican senators did express frustration.

Nebraska Republican Ben Sasse, a member of the intelligence panel, said Monday evening that Congress should focus on finding out who knew what, and when, “and did the commander in chief know? And if not, how the hell not?”

While Russian meddling in Afghanistan isn’t new, officials said Russian operatives became more aggressive in their desire to contract with the Taliban and members of the Haqqani Network, a militant group aligned with the Taliban in Afghanistan and designated a foreign terrorist organization in 2012.

The intelligence community has been investigating an April 2019 attack on an American convoy that killed three U.S. Marines after a car rigged with explosives detonated near their armored vehicles as they traveled back to Bagram Airfield, the largest U.S. military installation in Afghanistan, officials told the AP.

Three other U.S. service members were wounded in the attack, along with an Afghan contractor. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.

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Sauk County drug court graduate: The program is just amazing

Kirk Knight would be the first person to say he isn’t someone to trust to finish things.

“I had all these grand schemes and I’d start something, and then I didn’t think I was worthy of reaping the rewards,” Knight said. “So then I’d quit everything.”

He was especially doubtful, even as he petitioned to be included, of his success in the Sauk County Adult Treatment Court Program.

“When I first got accepted into the program, I knew I was just prolonging the inevitable,” Knight said. “I knew that I was going to mess it up, like everything else, and I was going to go back to prison.”

But this one was different from all the others, he said, as the structure helped him make the decision to put all of his effort toward shaking the drugs that no longer provided comfort to him. They were a vice that was no longer effective, he said

“I personally believe the program is just amazing,” Knight said. “There’s nothing else like it; it saves lives. If you want to change and you have the ability to be in a program, this is what you want to be in.”

Knight felt he had a lot to make up to the people of Baraboo, his hometown, when he began the program in January 2019. Some currently still addicted to drugs had their first experience with him, others were affected by the crimes he committed to ensure he could maintain his habit.

A kind family took him in and showed him stability. The structured program, with its constant need for accountability and required community service, provided a place for 40-year-old Knight to thrive, something he didn’t have before. That’s why he believes in the program; it worked when others didn’t. And he said he’s “probably” been in every treatment program available, so he knows its effectiveness.

“I was making amends,” Knight said. “I came out guns blazing. I dedicated my life to being a man of integrity.”

Knight said his life “changed completely” when he decided drugs could no longer be a part of his life. Eliminating drugs included ending associations with the people he knew as a result of his drug use. Knight said it was good to embrace those who wanted to see him change for the better and shed the burden of acquaintances who he said were only friends because he had substances to offer.

One of the positive influences was Amanda Hanson, Sauk County Justice, Diversion, and Support case coordinator, who he counts as a reason for his graduation.

“It’s heartwarming and just amazing to see them grow,” Hanson said of program participants. “I’ve seen a lot of these individuals when they were in the criminal justice system, so seeing them on the site and actually succeeding and being healthy is amazing. These two have done a miraculous job.”

Kirk Knight and his co-graduate mark 18 total program graduates since the program began in 2016. Participants undergo the program in five phases, with the fourth being the point when restrictions are eased within the structured system, Hanson said. Those who take part are generally people who have experienced the court system more than once. Hanson said there are about four or five each year and noted that graduates can take up to 24 months to complete the program, giving them time to adjust in the beginning.

“Each individual comes with their own story and their own complications with their lives,” Hanson said. “It takes time to work through those things and for some people, it takes a long time to work through.”

Knight said what led him to heroin 22 years ago was a feeling of being useless and much self-loathing. He had been on probation or under parole restrictions since 1997 for drugs and other non-violent offenses, like dealing drugs. In 2017, he switched to methamphetamines and cocaine use. For roughly a year after that, Knight “had a clean stretch of time,” but relapsed and felt he should be honest so he informed his parole officer, he said.

The Sauk County Adult Treatment Program was an alternative to his revocation and return to prison. Knight wrote a letter explaining why it would be a better option for him. He didn’t think he would be standing at the front of the Sauk County Board Room roughly 15 months later, accepting a certificate and determined never to use drugs again.

For Knight, using illegal drugs now is relatively unimaginable. He removed the negative influence and he said relapsing is unlikely because there is no longer an enticement to return to his old life. It doesn’t offer him anything he wants anymore, Knight said.

“I look back at the zombie that I was and there’s absolutely nothing appealing about that; nothing,” Knight said. “I can’t think of one positive from that entire span.”

Sauk County Circuit Court Judge Michael Screnock conducted the graduation ceremony Friday at the West Square Building. From behind a black face mask, Screnock noted how important the steps Knight took were to his success and that the program is not an easy one. Graduates need to be “willing to do hard work” and “put in the time and effort to assist themselves in overcoming addiction,” Screnock said, adding that graduates will continue to have some type of struggle to stay away from drugs in the future.

The program has had three graduates convicted of a new crime after graduation, according to statistics provided by Hanson. There was one graduate convicted 24 months after graduation, a rate of 5.6%. The program had two graduates convicted 36 months after graduation, a 11.1% recidivism rate. The national average of rearrest for treatment court graduates is 27.5% within two years of graduation.

Screnock expressed faith in their future and said Knight was especially noteworthy because of his time in prison.

“We have two individuals that I can, with great surety and certainty say, ‘I’m proud of them,’” Screnock said. “When I look at both of them and where they were, and who they were, when they started our program, and the struggles they went through and the steps they took while they were in court; they should be proud of the work they’ve done.”

Now Knight’s primary focus is starting a family. He currently works two jobs, one in Baraboo and the other in Sauk City, while studying at the University of Wisconsin Platteville Baraboo Sauk County to obtain an associates degree in business. He plans to go on to get a bachelor’s degree in hotel management while joining an upstart company as a manager.

“This program helps you become a better person,” Knight said. “Life is good once you start living.”

GALLERY: Participants graduate from Marquette County drug court