Recipe for traffic mess: presidential visit + huge tree lighting

Christmas tree in Rockefeller CenterOh, what a night.

Everybody knows that driving in Manhattan is a form of insanity, but getting behind the wheel Wednesday night was a recipe for disaster -- and massive gridlock.

President Obama came to Midtown about the same time that hundreds of people were gathering at Rockefeller Center for the annual lighting of the 30,000 bulbs on the mammoth Christmas tree -- and as thousands of New Yorkers were trying to get home from work.

If that wasn’t enough, teen heartthrob Justin Bieber and octogenarian-hipster Tony Bennett were among the pre-taped headliners for the tree lighting ceremony. In other words --aaaaahhhhhhhhhhh!

The president went to not one, not two, but three fundraisers in Manhattan, collecting  donations in the East Village, on the Upper East Side and in Midtown. The streets along the president's path were lined with uniformed New York Police Department officers and shut down by blue barricades when he was nearby.

Those blue barricades also lined the area near Rockefeller Center to direct the crowds. But the barriers didn't stop tourists who don’t know how to cross a New York street — look both ways and run — from walking in front of some cars and infuriating local drivers.

Mostly drivers just gritted their teeth.

"When Obama is in town, you get ready to get stuck in traffic," Ray Morales, 57, of the Bronx told the New York Daily News. "It's a nightmare."

Even before he came to town, Obama was criticized from the usual quarters for his timing. The conservative New York Post editorialized that “with just a little less arrogance, and a little more consideration, on the part of the president and his political team, the whole mess could have been avoided.” Donald Trump, appearing on Fox Business Network, said it was “very inconsiderate” of the president to come during the Christmas-tree lighting.

Of course, New York is traditionally a Democratic town, and Obama won here by a wide margin. What are New Yorkers going to do -- not vote for him next time around because they arrived home four hours late one night?

As for the traffic, leave it to an intrepid Daily News reporter to hire a yellow cab to see how fast a savvy city driver could navigate through the gridlock. The answer: Mohamed Mohamed drove 34 blocks, from fundraiser to Christmas tree, in 20 minutes, a sort of pre-Christmas miracle.

But it wasn't easy.

The reporter hailed Mohamed's taxi at 5:03 p.m. on 84th Street just east of Fifth Avenue -- as a $10,000-a-head reception with Obama kicked off nearby.

The driver was told to get as close to the tree lighting as possible.

Here’s part of the Daily News' account:

"What is this?" Mohamed asked when he couldn't turn west onto 85th Street from Madison Ave. because it was shut down by cops for the Obama event.

"Let's go!" a cop shouted at him as the cab paused. Mohamed turned off Madison Ave. east onto 86th St. instead, then tried again to head downtown only to encounter one of the dreaded frozen zones.

"Park Ave. is closed?" he asked, shaking his head. "Unbelievable."

But Lexington Avenue was a go. "This traffic is moving," he said, zipping along to 63rd St., where he swung a right and headed east.

A traffic cop waved him onto Fifth Avenue, where dozens more cops kept pedestrians behind barricades and traffic moving along.

"Yippee," Mohamed said.

In only a short while, he pulled up right in front of the iconic statue of Atlas holding the globe at Rockefeller Center.


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Photo: The lighting of Rockefeller Center's Christmas tree Wednesday contributed to some ugly traffic in New York. Credit: Stan Honda / AFP / Getty Images

Rhode Island governor uses term 'holiday tree'; outrage ensues

Christmas lights

Christmas tree? Or holiday tree? It's looking more and more like "getting into the holiday spirit" this year will require you to choose your category -- and then defend your position.

Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee is the latest to wade into this thorny debate. A news release posted online this week by the governor's office made absolutely no mention of "Christmas" as it invited "all Rhode Islanders" to come see the 17-foot Colorado blue spruce donated for the annual "holiday tree lighting" ceremony being held in the State House next week.

Critics immediately pounced, leading Chafee to issue a follow-up statement: "Recently, some controversy has arisen regarding the holiday tree in the State House Rotunda -- a tree that stands mere feet from the Royal Charter that, more than three centuries ago, granted 'a full liberty in religious concernments' and 'the free exercise and enjoyment of all their civil and religious rights' to the inhabitants of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations."

The statement, quoted by the Providence Journal, continues: "Use of the term 'holiday tree' is a continuation of past practice, and does not represent a change of course on my part."

Chafee, an Independent, urged critics to volunteer to help Rhode Island's needy.

Those critics include state Rep. Joseph Trillo, a Republican, who said Chafee shouldn't bother putting up a tree if he's not going to call it a "Christmas tree," reported the Providence Journal.

"If you are going to put it in the middle of the rotunda in the Capitol and you are going to decorate that tree with lights and ornaments and everything else, call it what it is and don’t be afraid of it," he said Tuesday. "Stop trying to be so politically correct."

The newspaper noted that Trillo co-sponsored a nonbinding resolution -- approved by the House  this year -- saying that the state's policy is to call the tree a Christmas tree, not a holiday tree.

The White House, meanwhile, continues to slap away at an annoying email -- on the same topic -- that continues to make the rounds. The missive claims that the Obamas are in the politically correct "holiday tree" camp. Only the email is false.

The White House has repeatedly stated that all the trees being erected and decorated there will be called Christmas trees, including the 9-foot balsam fir delivered Friday morning for First Lady Michelle Obama's inspection.

This is one debate that not's going away any time soon, as evidenced by this sampling of comments left on the Providence Journal's website:

-- "No! He's wrong. The secularization of our culture forced upon the public is an abridgement of the 1st Amendment. It was created as a Christmas tree on the national holiday of Christmas."

-- "This is the most ridiculous argument ever. All you Christians who are offended, show me where in the Bible it talks about a pine tree having anything to do with Christ's birth?"

-- "Here's an idea, everyone call it whatever you want to call it....You want it to be a Christmas tree? Call it a Christmas tree then. Nobody is going to stop you. Why are you so concerned if someone else wants to call it a holiday tree? Get a life people."


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Photo: This kid probably doesn't care whether it's a Christmas tree or a holiday tree. He just wants to know what Santa is bringing him. Credit: Los Angeles Times

Obama criticized on Twitter for Thanksgiving remarks omitting God

President Obama devoted his weekly radio address to thanking U.S. service members and volunteers at shelters and soup kitchens. But it's whom he didn't thank that caused a stir on Twitter: God.

"We're especially grateful for the Americans who defend our country overseas," Obama said in his Thanksgiving Day address. "To all the service members eating Thanksgiving dinner far from your families, the American people are thinking of you today."

According to the White House, Obama personally called 10 service members in Iraq and Afghanistan on Thursday to say happy Thanksgiving. On Wednesday, the president, the first lady and their daughters, Malia and Sasha, did their bit of volunteering, stopping by Washington's Capital Area Foodbank to help fill care packages.

But Thursday morning, Republicans and others tweeted their discontent with the reported omission of God from Obama's address.

Comments included "So sad!" and "God help us!" Republicans Abroad retweeted the Fox News headline: "Obama Leaves God Out of Thanksgiving Address."

"To give thanks for luck is to deny God much less omit!" tweeted "PastorJeffBrown," whose Twitter account lists him as a rural Oklahoma husband, father and Baptist pastor.


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Idaho man charged with trying to assassinate President Obama


An Idaho man has been charged with trying to assassinate President Obama or his staff by allegedly using a high-powered rifle to fire two bullets at the White House, sending one bullet into a window -- where it was halted by security glass.

Oscar Ramiro Ortega-Hernandez, 21, of Idaho Falls was arrested Wednesday in Pennsylvania after a multi-agency manhunt and made his first court appearance just minutes ago in a Pittsburgh federal courtroom. He will remain in federal custody while he is transported back to Washington.

If convicted of "knowingly" trying to "kill the President of the United States," he faces up to life in prison.

Ortega sat quietly as the hearing began, his hands free but his feet shackled. Ortega said only, “Yes, ma’am” when he was asked if he understood that he would be going back to Washington to face the charges, according to the Associated Press.

Authorities have said that the suspect is obsessed with President Obama, believed he was "the devil" and needed "to be taken care of" when he allegedly took aim at the presidential mansion, cracking one of the windows outside the Obamas' living quarters, according to media reports.

But the man's mother has said there's no way her son is capable of such an act, and that if he did commit it, he had to have been under the influence of someone else.

The president was never in any danger in connection with the incident, officials have said. He and the first lady were in California on Friday when the shots were fired, although it's unclear whether daughters Sasha and Malia were home at the time.

Authorities believe that Ortega allegedly positioned his car near the White House about 9:30 p.m. Friday and opened fire.

Officials had responded to the sound of gunfire that night but were apparently unaware that the White House was the target, according to media reports; as part of that investigation, they found Ortega-Hernandez's car and an assault rifle inside.

It was not until Tuesday, however, that authorities found that a bullet had struck a window of the Yellow Oval Room, which is in the middle of the family's living quarters, and that another one had struck the exterior of the home.

That discovery sent the search for Ortega into overdrive, ending with his uneventful arrest on Wednesday.

The man's mother, Maria Hernandez, says it's too soon to jump to conclusions about her son. "They don't know if it was him driving the car and if it was him [who fired the gun]," she told the Idaho Falls Post Register. "He is just a person of interest. They don't know if it was him." (Viewing the article requires a paid subscription.)


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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Photo: Oscar Romero Ortega-Hernandez Credit: Reuters

Man arrested in White House shooting has 'interest' in Obama


A man arrested in connection with a shooting incident near the White House -- which could be the source of a bullet that hit a White House window -- might have been targeting President Obama.

The president was never in any danger. He and the first lady were actually in California on Friday when the incident occurred.

But the shooting unleashed a multi-agency manhunt involving the Secret Service, the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, FBI, U.S. Park Police, the Washington Metropolitan Police Department and others to track down Oscar Ramiro Ortega-Hernandez, 21, shown above. Officials suspect the shooting may be the source of two bullets discovered Tuesday outside the White House, one of which hit a window.

Ortega-Hernandez was arrested Wednesday by Pennsylvania state troopers at an Indiana, Pa., hotel shortly after noon, local time, according to a statement released to the media.

Sources with the Secret Service told CNN that interviews with those who know Ortega-Hernandez concluded that he has a "direction of interest toward the president and the White House" -- a description that stops short of a direct threat.

Details are still emerging, but here's the known timeline so far:

On Friday morning, Ortega-Hernandez caught the attention of authorities as he was reportedly "circling" the area. They made contact with him, but he was later sent on his way.

That night, law enforcement officials investigated a spattering of gunfire heard on Constitution Avenue, about 700 yards south of the White House. While investigating that incident, they found a car containing items that led them to Ortega-Hernandez. During the course of the query, authorities recovered an assault rifle.

Fast forward to Tuesday, when authorities discovered two bullets outside the White House, including one that struck historic exterior glass in a window above the Truman Balcony on the South Portico. (So far, authorities have not said what kind of bullets were found outside the White House.)

It all raises questions about whether the bullets found on Tuesday were actually fired Friday night, whether the two incidents are in any way related. Moreover: Does Ortega-Hernandez have anything to do with any of this, and, if so, was he targeting the president?


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Photo: Oscar Ramiro Ortega-Hernandez. Credit: Reuters

Was gunman trying to shoot President Obama?

Ballistic glass may have halted a bullet from piercing a White House window, but Tuesday's discovery of the resulting damage raises unsettling questions about whether a gunman was aiming to harm President Obama.

The president was never in any danger, reports our sister blog, Politics Now, because he and the first lady were in California at the time, attending the Carrier Classic basketball game in Coronado. And the bullet could have been an errant one fired Friday in a shooting near the Washington Monument.

The Secret Service, which has the job of protecting the president, is investigating the incident and did not return phone calls seeking details by the time this story was posted. But this much is known:

A bullet hit a window of the White House but was stopped by the ballistic glass. That bullet and an additional round of ammunition were found Tuesday morning outside the building. Photos taken Wednesday, like the one above, show authorities examining windows on the South Portico of the White House, which faces the Washington Monument.

The Tuesday discovery of the bullets followed reports of gunfire near the Washington Monument on Friday night. Witnesses reportedly heard shots and saw vehicles in the area. An assault rifle was  recovered as part of that investigation, according to the Associated Press.

Authorities have previously said that the White House did not appear to have been targeted in the Friday incident.

An arrest warrant has been issued in that earlier shooting for a man identified as Oscar Ramiro Ortega-Hernandez, 21. He's believed to be living in the Washington area, has ties to Idaho and has an arrest record in three states, U.S. Park Police spokesman Sgt. David Schlosser said.

In the wake of that Friday night shooting, authorities found an abandoned car containing items that led law enforcement officials to Ortega-Hernandez.

Arlington, Va., Police Lt. Joe Kantor said Ortega-Hernandez was stopped Friday morning after a report of someone "circling the area," but authorities had no reason to detain him at that time. They say Ortega-Hernandez sports several tattoos, including one with the word "Israel" on the left side of his neck.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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Photo: Law enforcement personnel investigate where a bullet hit a window on the south side of the White House. Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images


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Rene Lynch has been an editor and writer in Metro, Sports, Business, Calendar and Food. @ReneLynch

As an editor and reporter, Michael Muskal has covered local, national, economic and foreign issues at three newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. @latimesmuskal

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