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Trump makes first visit to US troops in harm's way

AL-ASAD AIRBASE, Iraq — In an unannounced trip to Iraq on Wednesday, President Donald Trump staunchly defended his decision to withdraw U.S. forces from neighboring Syria despite a drumbeat of criticism from military officials and allies who don’t think the job fighting Islamic State militants there is over.

Trump, making his first presidential visit to troops in a troubled region, said it’s because the U.S. military had all but eliminated IS-controlled territory in both Iraq and Syria that he decided to withdraw 2,000 forces from Syria. He said the decision to leave Syria showed America’s renewed stature on the world stage and his quest to put “America first.”

“We’re no longer the suckers, folks,” Trump told U.S. servicemen and women at al-Asad Airbase in western Iraq, about 100 miles or 60 kilometers west of Baghdad. “We’re respected again as a nation.”

The decision to pull U.S. forces from Syria, however, stunned national security advisers and U.S. allies and prompted the resignations of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who was not on the trip, and the U.S. envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic extremist group. The militant group, also known as ISIS, has lost nearly all its territory in Iraq and Syria but is still seen as a threat.

Iraq declared IS defeated within its borders in December 2017, but Trump’s trip was shrouded in secrecy, which has been standard practice for presidents flying into conflict areas.

Air Force One, lights out and window shutters drawn, flew overnight from Washington, landing at an airbase west of Baghdad in darkness Wednesday evening. George W. Bush made four trips to Iraq as president and President Barack Obama made one.

During his three-plus hours on the ground, Trump did not meet with any Iraqi officials, but spoke on the phone with Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi.

The airbase where Trump spoke is about 155 miles from Hajin, a Syrian town near the Iraqi border where Kurdish fighters are still battling IS extremists. Trump has said IS militants have been eradicated, but the latest estimate is that IS still holds about 60 square miles of territory in that region of Syria, although fighters also fled the area and are in hiding in other pockets of the country.

Mattis was supposed to continue leading the Pentagon for several weeks, but Trump moved up his exit and announced that Patrick Shanahan, deputy defense secretary, would take the job on Jan. 1 and he was in “no rush” to nominate a new defense chief.

“Everybody and his uncle wants that position,” Trump told reporters traveling with him in Iraq. “And also, by the way, everybody and her aunt, just so I won’t be criticized.”

Trump, who speaks often about his support for the U.S. military, had faced criticism for not yet visiting U.S. troops stationed in harm’s way as he comes up on his two-year mark in office. He told The Associated Press in October that he “will do that at some point, but I don’t think it’s overly necessary.” He later began to signal that such a troop visit was in the offing.

Trump told reporters that he had planned to make the trip three or four weeks ago, but word of the trip started getting out and forced him to postpone it.

Food Network 

Jennifer Barney and Jordan Pilarski face the judges as they take the cake in The Food Network's Homecoming Special on Christmas Eve.

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Chippewa Falls native shines in Christmas Eve baking competition

Spoiler alert: If you’d rather not know how Stoddard baker Jennifer Barney fared in her second championship appearance on the Food Network until you watch the episode, quit reading now.

Last year, several readers griped that the Herald reported on Barney’s victory in the Holiday Baking Championship before they had been able to watch their DVR’d show. So, here’s the final warning: Stop now or don’t get frosty with us if we’re spilling the beans about the Chippewa Falls native’s appearance on the Christmas Eve Homecoming Special.

Food Network 

Jennifer Barney and Jordan Pilarski face the judges as they take the cake in The Food Network's Homecoming Special on Christmas Eve.

The 34-year-old Barney owns Meringue Bakery based in a commercial kitchen in her home but is close to setting up shop in downtown La Crosse, while teammate Jordan Pilarski is a pastry chef who won Season 3 of the Food Network’s Spring Baking Championship in 2017.

They went into the competition as individual past champions but were paired randomly as a team and became super bowl mixing champs when they won both heats of the special over four other returning champions. As victors, they will split the $10,000 top prize.

The first heat challenged the bakers to create eclairs that looked like strings of Christmas lights. Barney and Pilarski, a Hilton pastry chef who also judged The Food Network’s “Holiday Christmas Cookie Challenge,” schooled the competition on not only appearance but also flavor.

Barney had airbrushed the éclair “light bulbs” to give them a glowing appearance in a maneuver that judge Lorraine Pascale described as “absolute genius.” The team earned plaudits for taste and brilliance.

Upon being declared winners of that first heat, Barney and Pilarski exchanged what Barney described as “a big, sweaty hug” as they took the heat and stayed in the kitchen.

Screen grab from The Food Network 

The indentation in the middle layer of the cake was Jennifer Barney's brainstorm to appear as a snow globe. Judge Duff Goldman marveled at the technique and said the snowman in the niche was so endearing that he'd like to squeeze its little nose.

The main challenge was to incorporate silver or gold in their cake designs, and the pair chose silver, with one of the main ingredients being balsamic.

Barney, a graduate of the internationally acclaimed Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, and Pilarski warmed to the challenge, with Barney saying of her forte that metallics are “huge in wedding cakes in so many ways.”

Each took a taste of the 25-year-old balsamic, prompting Barney to exclaim, “Oooh, slap your mamma!”

Their three-level chocolate cake, with a cherry cream filling, featured a bow on top, with peeks at a dark gray on an inner layer of frosting where Barney had cut squares through the silver fondant on the outside.

Courtesy of The Food Network 

Jennifer Barney and Jordan Pilarski created a cake that one judge described as reminiscent of a Christmas card.

One of Barney’s brainstorms really took the cake for the judges, though, as they raved about her plan to give a layer the look of a snow globe, which she created by carving out part of the cake. She put a snowman in the opening and, although the judges didn’t realize it was supposed to be a snow globe, judge Duff Goldman marveled at the niche.

Goldman, aka the Ace of Cakes, said he never and seen such a presentation. Of the snowman, he said, “I’d like to squeeze his little nose.”

The cake “makes me smile,” said judge Pascale, and judge Nancy Fuller likened its appearance to that of a delicate Christmas card.

One of Barney’s trademarks is incorporating her Wisconsin heritage, which she accomplished in a most subtle fashion. As she described the cake’s cherry and balsamic compote, she used a decidedly Badger State inflection on the “compote.”

Screen grab from The Food Network 

The top of the cake featured not only a delicate bow and snowflake, but also designs Jennifer Barney created by cutting through fondit to reveal a darker shade of silver underneath.

Judge Goldman picked up on that hint as his eyes lit up and he remarked, with a fairly decent Wisconsin inflection — for a fella from back East — “Oh, compote, don’tcha know?”

In true Wisconsin fashion, Barney seemed to be more grateful for her second chance at glory than her rivals in the competition.

Before the competition, she said she and Pilarksi had received a gift from The Food Network and intended to return it with a good presentation. She also indicated during the show that it was a privilege.

One can excuse her and Pilarski then, as two-time champs, for proclaiming themselves the “dream team” as the credits ran.

Wall Street notches best day in 10 years in holiday rebound

Wall Street notched its best day in 10 years as stocks rallied back Wednesday, giving some post-Christmas hope to a market that has otherwise been battered this December.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average jumped more than 1,000 points — its biggest point-gain ever — rising nearly 5 percent as investors returned from a holiday break. The benchmark S&P 500 index also gained 5 percent and the technology heavy Nasdaq rose 5.8 percent.

But even with the rally, the market remains on track for its worst December since 1931, during the depths of the Great Depression, and to finish 2018 with its steepest losses in a decade.

Technology companies, health care stocks, banks drove much of the broad rally. Retailers also were big gainers, as traders cheered a healthy holiday shopping season marked by robust consumer spending. Amazon had its biggest gain in more than a year.

But what really might have pushed stocks over the top was a signal from Washington D.C. that President Donald Trump would not try to oust the chairman of the Federal Reserve.

On Monday, Trump tweeted another critical volley about the central bank’s policy, rattling markets over the possibility the White House might interfere with the traditionally independent Federal Reserve. But in an interview with The Wall Street Journal published Wednesday, a White House economic adviser said that Fed chairman Jerome Powell is in no danger of being fired.

Energy stocks also rebounded as the price of U.S. crude oil notched its biggest one-day gain in more than two years.

All told, the S&P 500 index rose 116.60 points, or 5 percent, to 2,467.70. The Dow soared 1,086.25 points, or 5 percent, to 22,878.45. The tech-heavy Nasdaq gained 361.44 points, or 5.8 percent, to 6,554.36. The Russell 2000 index of smaller-company stocks picked up 62.89 points, or 5 percent, 1,329.81.

Trading volume was lighter than usual following the Christmas holiday. Markets in Europe, Hong Kong and Australia were closed.

“The real question is do we have follow-through for the rest of this week,” said Sam Stovall, chief investment strategist for CFRA.

Wednesday’s gains pulled the S&P 500 back from the brink of what Wall Street calls a bear market — a 20 percent tumble from an index’s peak. A further stumble would have marked the end to the longest bull market for stocks in modern history after nearly 10 years. The index is now down 15.8 percent since its all-time high September 20.

Stocks fell sharply Monday after Trump lashed out at the central bank. Administration officials had spent the weekend trying to assure financial markets that Fed chairman Jerome Powell’s job was safe. On Tuesday, Trump reiterated his view that the Federal Reserve is raising interest rates too fast, but called the independent agency’s rate hikes a “form of safety” for an economy doing well.

On Wednesday, Kevin Hassett, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, weighed in, saying Powell is in no danger of being fired, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The lackluster finish to 2018 comes as most economists expect growth to slow in 2019, though not by enough to slide into a full-blown recession. Many economic barometers still look encouraging. Unemployment is at 3.7 percent, the lowest since 1969. Inflation is tame. Pay growth has picked up. Consumers boosted their spending this holiday season.

Even so, traders have been jittery this autumn over signs that the global economy is slowing, the escalating U.S. trade dispute with China and another interest rate increase by the Fed. Many investors are growing worried that corporate profits — which drive stock market gains — are poised to weaken.

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State utility regulators asked to weigh penalties in Sun Prairie explosion

MADISON — For the first time under a new law, state utility regulators have been asked to consider imposing penalties on the drilling company involved in last summer’s fatal Sun Prairie natural gas explosion.

A panel charged with policing utility notification laws last week sent the Public Service Commission a case based on a complaint filed by USIC Locating Services, the company that was hired to mark the locations of underground pipes prior to the explosion, which killed a firefighter and injured others.

USIC claims drilling company VC Tech violated state law when owner Valentin Cociuba failed to notify the state utility call center, known as Diggers Hotline, before starting work on July 10.

Under state law, the commission can issue a fine of $25,000 per violation. VC Tech could face up to $500,000 in fines if the commission finds multiple violations.

The complaint was forwarded to the PSC on Dec. 17, one day before police closed their investigation with no criminal charges. All the companies involved are named as defendants in pending civil lawsuits.

The explosion happened after VC Tech struck an underground gas line while boring a hole for fiber-optic communications cable being installed for Verizon.

According to a police report, USIC did not finish marking gas lines when a subcontractor dropped out of the project. Bear Communications, the primary contractor, then told VC Tech to complete the job believing the marking was complete.

Sun Prairie police determined the incident was the result of miscommunication between utility contractors and subcontractors and the evidence did not support criminal charges.

USIC’s complaint, filed Oct. 30 with Diggers Hotline, alleges VC Tech illegally “piggybacked” on the previous excavator’s work order and failed to notify the call center before beginning work.

State law says excavators must update the hotline if work is interrupted for more than 10 days.

USIC’s attorney claims the company’s operations were disrupted by the explosion and subsequent criminal investigation.

A letter from VC Tech’s attorney denies the company did anything wrong or that USIC has been harmed and called the complaint “specious and submitted in bad faith.”

VC Tech was one of several drilling contractors hired by Bear on the project, which required excavators to start and stop work on short notice, according to the company’s response.

Neither attorney immediately responded Wednesday to calls from the State Journal.

On Oct. 17, authorities unsealed a search warrant filed in July that said a Wisconsin-based worker for USIC failed to correctly mark a gas line in the street where it was actually located and instead marked a spot about 25 feet away on a sidewalk where there was no gas line.

The warrant sought evidence to support a possible charge of second-degree reckless homicide.

The same day police closed the case with no criminal charges, Abigail Barr, the widow of Sun Prairie Volunteer Fire Department Capt. Cory Barr, who was killed by the explosion, filed a wrongful death case in civil court against VC Tech, Bear Communications, USIC Locating Services and WEC Energy Group, known as WE Energies.

Volunteer firefighters Ryan Welch and Greg Pavlik also filed lawsuits against the four companies for personal injury.

This is the first case forwarded to the PSC by Diggers Hotline, the nonprofit company in charge of providing utilities information about upcoming excavations.

Anyone who plans to dig in Wisconsin is required by law to contact Diggers Hotline at least three working days before breaking ground. Hotline operators then notify utility companies with nearby lines, and those companies are responsible for having the locations marked.

A law passed earlier this year established an enforcement panel to handle complaints regarding natural gas and other hazardous materials. The panel, formed in July and comprising appointees from various industry groups and local government, met Dec. 12 to consider USIC’s complaint.

Diggers Hotline does not identify panel members.

According to meeting minutes, the panel found probable cause that a violation occurred and voted 4-2, with some members abstaining, to forward the case to the PSC for possible enforcement.

Diggers Hotline spokesman Chad Krueger said this is the first complaint the panel has sent to the PSC. The previous six were resolved by requiring additional training for the violator.

According to the minutes, panel members were “concerned about USIC using the panel’s decision as a piece of evidence in future investigations” and urged the PSC to look at “all parties and angles in this incident.”