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Associated Press

Lawyers: airport shooting suspect ill but legally competent

Lawyers for the Alaska man charged in a Florida airport shooting rampage say he’s definitely mentally ill but is also competent to stand trial.

The attorneys say in court papers that 26-year-old Esteban Santiago of Anchorage, Alaska has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder. He’s accused in the Jan. 6 shooting that killed five and wounded six at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

Santiago’s lawyers say he is taking an anti-psychotic drug and is able to communicate clearly, understand legal issues and is cooperative with jail staff. They say he is not disoriented or delusional.

A hearing is set for Wednesday on Santiago’s mental condition. He previously told the FBI he acted under government mind control, then claimed inspiration by the Islamic State extremist group.

Trial is set Oct. 2.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Fueled by Donald Trump opponents, Rachel Maddow’s popularity rises

Rachel Maddow can trace the mood of her audience by looking at the ratings.

Her MSNBC show’s viewership sank like a stone in the weeks following Donald Trump‘s election, as depressed liberals avoided politics, and bottomed out over the holidays. Slowly, they re-emerged, becoming active and interested again. Maddow’s audience has grown to the point where February was her show’s most-watched month since its 2008 launch.

Maddow has emerged as the favorite cable news host for presidential resistors in the opening days of the Trump administration, just as Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity is one for supporters or Keith Olbermann was the go-to television host for liberals in George W. Bush‘s second term. Trump fascination has helped cable news programs across the political spectrum defy the traditional post-presidential election slump, few as dramatically as Maddow’s.

Her show’s average audience of 2.3 million in February doubled its viewership over February 2016, in the midst of the presidential primaries, the Nielsen company said.

“I’m grateful for it,” Maddow said one recent afternoon. “It is nice for me that it is happening at a time when I feel we are doing some of our best work.”

Those two things — ratings success and Maddow’s pride in the work — don’t always intersect.

“We’re making aggressive editorial decisions in terms of how far we’re willing to get off of everyone else’s news cycle,” she said, “but it’s paying off because the news cycle more often than not is catching up with us after we do something.”

Maddow has decided to cover the Trump administration like a silent movie, so the show could pay more attention to what is being done rather than what is being said. The central focus is on connect-the-dots reporting about Trump’s business interests and dealings with Russia.

Her show is a news cousin to HBO host John Oliver‘s “Last Week Tonight” in its willingness to dive into complex subjects that don’t seem television-friendly, and follow the stories down different alleys. Maddow sounds long-winded when it doesn’t work. When it does, it’s like an absorbing novel stuffed with characters.

“It’s not like I am a teacher who is trying to extend the attention span of the American news viewer,” said Maddow, a Rhodes scholar. “I have no goal of trying to privilege complexity. It just so happens that I tend to think in 17-minute bursts.”

Maddow said she and her staff try to break news, like reporting on a Department of Homeland Security report on Trump’s immigration policy, and she was aggressive in bringing the Flint, Michigan, water crisis to a national audience. More often than not, she sees her role as explaining how things work. The program spent considerable time last week on a New Yorker magazine piece about foreign investments by Trump’s real estate company.

She’s determined not to get lost in the noise, particularly since she believes Trump is skillful at distracting the media with a new story — even an unflattering one — when he doesn’t like the attention being paid to another.

“I pray for the day when the most important thing about the Trump administration is that the president said something inappropriate on Twitter,” she said. “There are bigger and more valuable stories to be chasing than that.”

When some news organizations were upset at being barred from an informal press briefing held by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer two weeks ago, Maddow understood why. But the story didn’t really interest her. Since she doesn’t trust much of what the administration says, Maddow wondered what these reporters were really missing by not being there.

“Her approach to reality and the president’s couldn’t be further apart,” said Jeff Cohen, an Ithaca University professor and liberal activist.

During busy news periods, “certain voices cut through,” said NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack. “And her work is so consistently strong. She doesn’t disappoint, and she’s got a work ethic that is consistently off the charts. … She is a very original and unique voice.”

While Maddow delivers opinion pieces instead of straight news, they are well-informed, he said. Lack doesn’t see Maddow as a voice of the resistance.

Neither does she.

“People want to draft me as an activist all the time, ascribe that role to me,” she said. “I’m not. The reason I know I’m not is that I stopped doing that in order to be the person who explained the news and delivered the news instead. It’s a very clear line to me.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Five special elections for House may send message about 2018 mid-term contests

The postelection dominoes of President Donald Trump‘s administration picks and a California Democratic appointment have created five openings in the House, and that means five special elections in the coming months.

It will take some Democratic upsets for this trial heat for 2018 to dent GOP control of the House, where Republicans have a 237-193 edge.

Republicans are defending four GOP-leaning seats. Democrats are protecting territory in a liberal California district. Republicans say that puts pressure on Democrats to prove they can capitalize on widespread opposition to Trump. Democrats counter that it’s merely a free opportunity to pick up a seat, maybe two, ahead of next year’s midterm elections.

A look at the five congressional contests:

GEORGIA’S 6th CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT

This wealthy district spanning many of Atlanta’s northern suburbs has elected former Speaker Newt Gingrich, Sen. Johnny Isakson and current Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, all Republicans. But Democrats believe they have a shot, based on Trump’s underperformance and the early fundraising success of a 30-year-old former congressional staffer, Jon Ossoff.

Price won 68 percent of the vote in November, while Trump only edged Democrat Hillary Clinton, 48-47 percent.

Ossoff is trying to thread the needle, condemning Trump and highlighting the oversight role of Congress, yet styling himself as a business-friendly centrist. “I believe voters are tired of the partisanship and ready for something fresh,” he says, convinced he can win GOP-leaning moderates.

Television airwaves in this expensive market already are filled with Ossoff ads criticizing Trump and also a Republican super PAC ad criticizing the upstart Democrat, a clear sign Republicans aren’t taking any chances.

Ossoff’s path depends on advancing to a June 20 runoff from an April 18 “jungle primary” that will have more than a dozen candidates from both parties on the same ballot. In the likely event that no one captures a majority in April, the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, move on. Republicans says Ossoff, even if he advances, won’t stand up against one of several Republican candidates who are well-regarded in the district.

___

MONTANA’S AT-LARGE CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT

Republican multimillionaire Greg Gionforte will try again to win over Montana voters after losing the 2016 governor’s race. This time, he’s talking up Trump.

“This election will be a referendum on Donald Trump and this administration,” Gianforte said after last week’s GOP nominating convention. Gianforte won 46 percent of the vote in November against Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, double digits behind Trump’s 57 percent.

Gionforte will face musician and political newcomer Rob Quist, also chosen by a state party convention. Quist, a Democrat, already is the target of attack ads from the Congressional Leadership Fund, the same Republican super PAC that has been going after Ossoff in Georgia.

The winner of a May 25 special election will succeed Ryan Zinke, who now leads Trump’s Interior Department. Zinke won re-election with 56 percent of the vote before being tapped for the Cabinet post.

Montanans lean conservative, but they are willing to elect Democrats. Bullock, now in his second term, succeeded two-term Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, and Jon Tester is in his second Senate term. Still, Montana’s single House seat has been in GOP hands since 1997.

Gionforte can self-finance his campaign, having made a fortune when Oracle paid $1.8 billion to acquire the technology firm he started. Quist has backing from Schweitzer, who remains popular in the state.

____

KANSAS’ 4th CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT

This reliably Republican district anchored by Wichita has an April 11 special election to pick a successor to Mike Pompeo, now Trump’s CIA director. In a party nominating convention, Republicans tapped state Treasurer Ron Estes, who twice won huge margins statewide and held local office in Wichita for years before that.

Democrats, also in a convention, chose Wichita attorney Jim Thompson. Democrats took Thompson’s long odds over the former state treasurer whom Estes defeated in 2010. Republicans have held the seat since their 1994 sweep.

___

SOUTH CAROLINA’s 5th CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT

The seat opened up when Trump tapped tea party lawmaker Mick Mulvaney to head the Office of Management and Budget.

Candidates for May 2 party primaries can officially qualify only after March 13, but several Republicans are in. Among them: state legislative leader Tommy Pope and former state Republican Party Chairman Chad Connelly, who spent the last several years coordinating the national GOP’s outreach to evangelicals. So far, two Democrats are in the race: Archie Parnell, a Goldman Sachs senior adviser, and Alexis Frank, an Army veteran who is now a student.

The rapidly growing district includes the suburbs on the southern edge of Charlotte, North Carolina, and the college town Rock Hill, a profile that had South Carolina Democrats quietly hopeful they could threaten Mulvaney in November. But he won easy re-election.

___

CALIFORNIA’s 34th CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT

This Los Angeles County district is the most lopsided of the special-election contests. Clinton swamped Trump here. The opening came when Gov. Jerry Brown elevated Rep. Xavier Beccera to state attorney general, replacing Kamala Harris, who ascended to the U.S. Senate. The district’s liberal leanings likely mean two Democrats — out of 19 who qualified — will advance from an April 4 jungle primary to a June 6 general election.

Donald Trump looking to Sarah Huckabee Sanders in tough moments

Faced with aggressive on-air questioning about the president’s wiretapping claims, Sarah Huckabee Sanders didn’t flinch, she went folksy.

Speaking to George Stephanopoulos on “Good Morning America,” she pulled out a version of an old line from President Lyndon Johnson: “If the president walked across the Potomac, the media would be reporting that he could not swim.”

The 34-year-old spokeswoman for President Donald Trump was schooled in hardscrabble politics — and down-home rhetoric — from a young age by her father, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Her way with a zinger — and her unshakable loyalty to an often unpredictable boss — are big reasons why the deputy press secretary is a rising star in Trump’s orbit.

In recent weeks, Sanders has taken on a notably more prominent role in selling Trump’s agenda, including on television and at White House press briefings. As White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s public profile has fluctuated in recent weeks amid criticism of his performance, Sanders has increasingly become a chief defender of Trump in some of his toughest moments.

Sanders’ rise has fueled speculation that she’s becoming the president’s favored articulator, a notion she disputes. “It’s hard for any one person to maintain a schedule of being the singular face all day every day,” she said. She argued that more than one press aide spoke for President Barack Obama.

“When Eric Schultz went on TV did anybody say Josh Earnest is getting fired?” Sanders asked. “Was that story ever written?”

Spicer echoed that message: “My goal is to use other key folks in the administration and the White House to do the shows.”

Indeed, speaking on behalf of this president is a challenging and consuming job.

Trump often presents his own thoughts directly on Twitter in the early hours of the morning and is known to closely follow his surrogates on television, assessing their performances. He has been happy with Sanders’ advocacy, said Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to the president.

“She understands America. She understands the president. And she understands how to connect the two,” said Conway, who noted that Sanders had appeared on television throughout the campaign as well. “The president has a great deal of trust in Sarah.”

On some days recently Sanders has been the administration’s messenger of choice, even when news outlets aren’t thrilled. Last Sunday, NBC’s Chuck Todd said on-air that “Meet the Press” had sought a “senior administration official or a Cabinet secretary,” but that the “White House offered a deputy press secretary. And so we declined.”

Sanders credits her larger-than-life dad with helping her learn how to deliver a message. Huckabee, a frequent political commentator, has long been famed for his pithy rhetoric. The two speak most mornings before 6 a.m.

“I’ll call and say, ‘What do you think if I say this?’ He’ll say, ‘That’s really good. You might try to say it a little bit more like X,'” she said.

On advocating for the unconventional Trump, Sanders admits that even in the press office, they don’t always get a heads up before Trump tweets. But she says part of Trump’s appeal is that he “directly communicates with the American people on a regular basis.”

Arkansas-raised, Sanders moved her young family to Washington to be part of the administration. She is married to a Republican consultant and they have three young children. She joined the Trump campaign not long after her father’s second presidential bid — which she managed — fizzled out in the 2016 Iowa caucuses. She said she was drawn to Trump’s message of economic populism and his outsider attitude.

“One of the big things my dad was running on was changing Washington, breaking that cycle,” Sanders said. “I felt like the outsider component was important and I thought he had the ability to actually win and defeat Hillary.”

She also said she was drawn to the Trump family’s close involvement in the campaign, “having kind of been in the same scenario for my dad’s campaign.”

Being part of an effort to defeat Hillary Clinton had extra significance for Sanders, whose father entered the Arkansas governor’s mansion just a few years after Bill Clinton exited and who shared advisers and friends in the state. Sanders said at times it was difficult to be aggressive, but she “so disagreed” with Hillary Clinton’s policies, that she kept on.

Sanders entered politics young, helping with her father’s campaigns as a child and then working her way up the ranks until she had the top job in 2016. In 2007, she moved to Iowa to run her father’s operation in the leadoff caucus state, where he was the surprise winner. She has also served in the Education Department under President George W. Bush and worked on a number of Senate and presidential campaigns.

Mike Huckabee said his daughter was always a natural.

“When most kids at 7 or 8 are jumping rope, she’s sitting at the kitchen table listening to Dick Morris doing cross tabs on statewide polls,” said Huckabee, referring to the adviser-turned-adversary to President Bill Clinton.

Those Arkansas ties continue to hold strong. Sanders has consulted with friends from the state about her new role, including Mack McLarty, the former Clinton chief of staff, who she said counseled her to appreciate the “historic opportunity” to work in the White House.

Her rising profile has come with ups and downs. Sanders says she is turning off social media alerts because she has been flooded with criticism. For now, she has not been treated to a portrayal on “Saturday Night Live” — like Spicer and Conway. But her dad says that if that comes next, she should roll with it.

“One of the great honors of life is to be parodied,” Huckabee said. “It’s kind of an indication that you’ve arrived at a place of real power.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Family of Florida man held captive abroad seeks Trump’s help

The family of a Coral Springs man taken hostage overseas a decade ago on Thursday asked President Donald Trump’s help to find and bring home their father.

Former FBI agent Robert Levinson disappeared from the Iranian island of Kish in 2007 while trying to cultivate an informant for the CIA. Now, his family is calling on Trump to finish what two prior presidential administrations did not.

“We have gone through this for 10 years and every time we have been disappointed over and over and over again,” said Levinson’s youngest son Doug, now 23. “We believe that President Trump has the ability to get this done.”

The family’s remarks came on the 10th anniversary of Levinson’s disappearance. As part of the anniversary Thursday, the State Department, FBI and White House renewed a pledge to do all they can to retrieve him.

If still alive, Levinson has been held captive longer than any other American, including Terry Anderson, a then-journalist for The Associated Press who was held for more than six years in Beirut in the 1980s.

A United Nations report from last year concluded Iranian authorities detained Levinson at his hotel on March 9, 2007, and have held him ever since. Iran denies involvement.

The family received proof Levinson was alive in a 2010 hostage video. Additional evidence came in 2011, when they received pictures of Levinson wearing an orange jumpsuit — mimicking a Guantanamo Bay detainee — looking gaunt and wearing a thick beard.

Trump said during his campaign in 2015 he would bring Levinson and three other Americans back to the country.

Last year under the Obama administration three Americans were freed in a prisoner swap with Iran. Levinson wasn’t among them.

On Thursday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer at a news conference said, “The Levinson family has suffered far too long and we will not rest until this case is resolved.”

The family said the words were reassuring, but they hope it will translate into a meeting with the president either this week or next.

“We would love to meet with President Trump to discuss this and talk about what steps he would take,” Doug Levinson said. “He is a deal-maker. He is the one who can bring our dad home.”

Levinson served the U.S. Department of Justice for nearly 30 years, as an FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration agent. Following his retirement, he worked as a private investigator.

The FBI is offering a $5 million reward for information leading to Levinson’s safe return. Thursday’s FBI statement said the agency has a dedicated team pursuing leads and working “tirelessly” to find and return Levinson.

FBI Director James Comey called on the Iranian government to provide assistance in locating Levinson.

Rep. Ted Deutch and Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio, all of Florida, reiterated that message in a resolution they introduced Thursday raising awareness about Levinson’s disappearance.

“I urge this administration to do everything they can to pressure the Iranians and to locate and return Bob to his family and community,” said Deutch, a Democrat.

Friday is Levinson’s 69th birthday. Before he disappeared a decade ago, his family planned a vacation to Disney World for his 59th birthday.

Levinson’s second oldest daughter and her son, then 5 months old, painted a picture frame with Mickey Mouse ears to give her father.

Stephanie Curry, 38, hoped to fill it with a picture of the family, including Levinson, her mother Christine and all seven children.

She has not gotten that chance yet, but Curry and rest of the Levinson family haven’t given up hope.

Curry said she still has plans to give the decade-old picture frame to her father, complete with a family photo.

The frame reads, “It’s my 59th birthday and I went to Disney World,” Curry said. “Maybe I can cross out the 5 and put a 6 on it,” she said.

In the meantime, she has a message for her father.

“If by any chance, Dad, you’re able to hear this message, please know with all of our hearts that we are doing everything that we can to bring you home to us,” Curry said. “We will never give up hope.”

ACLU launches nationwide training on protest, resistance

The American Civil Liberties Union staged a nationwide training event Saturday to make sure people are aware of their rights as protesters and urge organized, public resistance by those opposed to policies of President Donald Trump.

Organizers said the event at a sports arena on the University of Miami campus was livestreamed to locations in all 50 states. ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said 200,000 people had signed up to attend one of an estimated 2,000 local events.

The event, staged in town hall style, was aimed at capitalizing on numerous demonstrations since Trump’s election in November and to make sure people know their rights to protest, Romero said. He said priority issues are immigration, the First Amendment free speech and religious freedom rights, civil and reproductive rights and rights of gay, lesbian and transgender people.

“We will bring all the lawsuits necessary to defend these rights,” Romero said. “We’ll do the work in the courts. You do the work in the streets. People are motivated. They want to be engaged.”

The ACLU also launched a new grassroots online organizing platform called PeoplePower.org. It’s billed as a way for people considering a local protest or rally to connect and coordinate with others around the country with similar intentions, and to provide details of ACLU initiatives.

Another plan is creation of “freedom cities” around the country that would encourage local officials to pass laws resisting Trump policies such as stepped-up deportations of people living in the country illegally, said Faiz Shakir, ACLU national political director.

Other parts of Saturday’s event detailed the rules for demonstrations on streets, sidewalks and in public parks, and the rights people have when arrested such as the right to remain silent. ACLU attorney Lee Rowland said large demonstrations generally require a local permit, but government can’t typically shut down protesters in public places without good reason.

“The government can’t censor you just because it disagrees with your opinion,” Rowland said.

Also speaking at the event was Padma Lakshmi, an Indian-born cookbook author, actress, model and television host. She said she emigrated to the U.S. at age four and said the nation appears to be retreating from its welcoming ways.

“Lately I’ve started to feel like an outsider,” she said. “What makes America great is our culture of inclusion. We must not tolerate the intolerance.”

Donald Trump’s labor nominee likely to be asked about Florida case

Labor secretary nominee Alexander Acosta is expected to face questions at his Senate confirmation hearing about an unusual plea deal he oversaw for a billionaire sex offender while U.S. attorney in Miami.

Acosta has won confirmation for federal posts three times previously, but he has never faced scrutiny on Capitol Hill for his time as U.S. attorney.

Critics, including attorneys for some underage victims of financier Jeffrey Epstein, say the plea agreement was a “sweetheart deal” made possible only by Epstein’s wealth, connections and high-powered lawyers. Acosta has defended his decisions as the best outcome given evidence available at the time.

“Some may feel that the prosecution should have been tougher. Evidence that has come to light since 2007 may encourage that view,” Acosta wrote in a March 2011 letter to media outlets after leaving the U.S. attorney’s office. “Had these additional statements and evidence been known, the outcome may have been different. But they were not known to us at the time.”

Senate aides from both parties expect Democrats to raise the case during Acosta’s confirmation hearing Wednesday as an example of him not speaking up for less-powerful people. The aides spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly.

Sen. Patty Murray, the leading Democrat on the committee, said in a statement she met with Acosta on Thursday and is concerned about whether he would “stand up to political pressure” and advocate for workers as labor secretary. Unlike Trump’s original choice for labor secretary, Andrew Puzder, Acosta is expected to win confirmation.

The Florida International University law school dean was nominated after Puzder, a fast-food executive, withdrew over his hiring of an undocumented immigrant housekeeper and other issues.

Acosta, 48, has previously won Senate confirmation as Miami U.S. attorney, head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division and the National Labor Relations Board.

He declined comment when asked about the Epstein case this week.

Epstein, now 64, pleaded guilty in 2008 to Florida charges of soliciting prostitution and was sentenced to 18 months in prison, of which he served 13 months. Epstein was also required to register as a sex offender and pay millions of dollars in restitution to as many as 40 victims who were between the ages of 13 and 17 when the crimes occurred.

According to court documents, Epstein paid underage girls for sex, sexual massages and similar acts at a Palm Beach mansion he then owned as well as properties in New York, the U.S. Virgin Islands and New Mexico. Prosecutors say he had a team of employees to identify girls as potential targets.

After an investigation by local police, Palm Beach prosecutors decided to charge Epstein with aggravated assault, which would have meant no jail time, no requirement that he register as a sex offender and no guaranteed restitution for victims.

Unhappy local investigators went to Acosta’s office, which opened a federal probe and eventually drafted a proposed 53-page indictment that could have resulted in a sentence of 10 years to life in prison for Epstein, if convicted. With that as leverage, a deal was worked out for Epstein to plead guilty to state prostitution solicitation charges and the federal indictment was shelved.

It didn’t stop there. Epstein’s lawyers worked out an unusual and secret “non-prosecution agreement” to guarantee neither Epstein nor his employees would ever face federal charges.

Well-known Miami defense lawyer Joel DeFabio, who has represented numerous defendants in sex cases, said he had never heard of such an agreement before Epstein’s came to light. DeFabio said he has had clients with far less egregious sex charges — and far less wealth — who were sentenced to 10 or 15 years behind bars. DeFabio tried to use the Epstein case to argue for more lenient sentences.

“There still has been no clear explanation as to why Epstein received such preferential treatment,” DeFabio said. “This thing just stinks. The elite take care of their own.”

The non-prosecution agreement became public in a related civil case, leading two Epstein victims — identified only as Jane Does No. 1 and 2, to file a victims’ rights lawsuit claiming they were improperly left in the dark about the deal. The lawsuit, which is still pending, seeks to reopen the case to expose the details and possibly nullify the agreement.

Other victims have come forward, including one woman who claimed as a teenager that Epstein flew her around the world for sexual escapades, including encounters with Britain’s Prince Andrew. Buckingham Palace has vehemently denied those claims.

The Justice Department’s position in the victims’ rights lawsuit is that since no federal indictment was ever filed, the victims were not entitled to notification about the non-prosecution agreement. Settlement talks last fall went nowhere.

“There will not be a settlement. That case will eventually get to trial,” said Bradley Edwards, attorney for the two Jane Doe victims.

In his 2011 letter, Acosta defended his decisions as the best possible outcome.

“Our judgment in this case, based on the evidence that was known at the time, was that it was better to have a billionaire serve time in jail, register as a sex offender and pay his victims restitution than risk a trial with a reduced likelihood of success,” Acosta wrote. “I supported that judgment then, and based on the state of the law as it then stood and the evidence known at the time, I would support that judgment again.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Melania Trump begins to embrace new role as first lady

Melania Trump‘s invitation for high-powered women to join her at the White House was about more than the lunch they would eat, or the stated purpose of honoring International Women’s Day.

It marked a “coming out,” almost two months into President Donald Trump‘s term, for a first lady described by her husband as a “very private person.” She had spent a couple of weeks hunkered down at the family’s midtown Manhattan penthouse while Trump got down to work in Washington. Now, the former model is taking her first steps into her very public new role

Mrs. Trump strode into the State Dining Room for her first solo White House event after an announcer intoned, “Ladies and gentlemen, the first lady of the United States, Melania Trump,” and was greeted by the all-female group of about 50 people, including ambassadors, Cabinet members, at least one U.S. senator and stepdaughter Ivanka Trump.

Mrs. Trump asked guests for suggestions on how best to empower women and girls worldwide, possibly foreshadowing women’s empowerment as an issue she would pursue as first lady. Trump said recently that his wife, who turns 47 next month, feels strongly about “women’s difficulties.”

“I will work alongside you in ensuring that the gender of one’s birth does not determine one’s treatment in society,” she told guests, according to a tweet by a White House official.

The White House allowed a small pool of journalists to watch as guests and the first lady arrived for Wednesday’s lunch, but they were ushered out as Mrs. Trump began to speak. The White House press office promised to distribute text of her prepared remarks after the event, but a transcript has not been released.

In recent weeks, Mrs. Trump helped plan their first big White House social event, an annual, black-tie dinner for the nation’s governors. She followed up with a trip the next day to Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate in Virginia, where she was hosted by the governors’ spouses.

The first lady has made other quiet appearances, watching her husband sign legislation and executive orders, and accompanying him to the Capitol for a speech to Congress.

She took her counterparts from Japan and Israel on cultural outings and quickly learned the burden of new scrutiny and protocol when she was criticized for not being at the White House to greet the Japanese prime minister’s wife. Instead, Mrs. Trump met the president and Shinzo Abe and his wife, Akie, at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland for an Air Force One flight to Florida. Trump treated Abe to a weekend at Trump’s estate in Palm Beach, Florida. Melania Trump then took Akie Abe to tour a nearby Japanese garden.

“We see her physical presence,” said Jean Harris, professor of political science and women’s studies at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.

All first ladies go through an adjustment period as they figure out how to handle one of the most unforgiving roles in American political life. Unlike many of Mrs. Trump’s predecessors, who were politically experienced through marriage to governors or members of Congress, she is married to a lifelong businessman who never held elective office until he became president.

Complicating her White House launch is the couple’s decision for the first lady to continue living at Trump Tower until their 10-year-old son, Barron, finishes the school year. She’s not expected to live full time at the White House for at least several more months, leaving Trump largely on his own and without a traditional source of moral support.

Mrs. Trump has also been slow to staff the East Wing of the White House, where the first lady’s office is based. She so far has named only a social secretary and a chief of staff. The president has said he doesn’t want to fill hundreds of government vacancies because they are “unnecessary,” which could include the East Wing.

And the slow pace of building her staff could be complicating operations.

It’s customary for the White House Visitors Office to close temporarily during a change in administration since political appointees do the work. But this year’s shutdown lasted longer than usual, frustrating members of Congress who are responsible for distributing White House public tour tickets to constituents. Tours resumed earlier this week after a more than six-week pause.

Speculation about whether the Trumps would continue the annual Easter Egg Roll on the South Lawn had been mounting until they announced this week that it will be held on April 17.

The first lady’s popularity has risen 16 percentage points since the Jan. 20 inauguration, according to recent polling by CNN, climbing to 52 percent, from 36 percent.

Kate Andersen Brower, author of “First Women,” said the public sees Mrs. Trump as a calming force and as someone who has embraced being a mother.

“She’s really the polar opposite of him,” she said, noting that the first lady barely tweets, unlike her husband’s daily Twitter habit. Mrs. Trump also hadn’t been seen in public for several weeks after the inauguration, whereas the president appears on camera most days of the week.

“I think most people find it endearing that she doesn’t crave the spotlight in a way that he clearly does,” Brower said.

Harris said the public is giving Mrs. Trump “a little bit of a honeymoon period” but predicted the mood will change if she doesn’t move to the White House.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Engineers give Florida a “C” grade for infrastructure

Florida’s infrastructure is getting a grade of “C” by civil engineers, but that’s still better than the grade of “D+” given to the nation overall.

An American Society of Civil Engineers report card released Thursday says investing in infrastructure must be a top priority in Florida given its growing population.

The report card looked at all the state’s infrastructure, from transportation to water to energy.

Florida’s best score was on bridges, for which it received a “B.” The report card says only 1.7 percent of Florida’s bridges are structurally deficient.

Florida’s worst scores were for coastal areas because of beach erosion and schools. The report card faulted Florida schools for not keeping pace with a growing student population, as well as its aging school buildings.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Former Florida lawmaker charged with misusing campaign funds

Former Florida lawmaker Dwayne Taylor has been charged with wire fraud in an indictment that alleges he misused campaign funds.

The nine-count indictment made public on Thursday accuses Taylor of withdrawing money from his campaign fund and depositing that same amount in his personal bank accounts.

The federal indictment in Orlando says Taylor used the campaign money for personal expenses and then submitted false campaign expenditure reports to the state of Florida.

Federal prosecutors are seeking a return of the $62,000 they say Taylor obtained.

Taylor, a Democrat, represented a Daytona Beach House district from 2008 until last year when he made an unsuccessful run for U.S. Congress.

Court records showed no attorney for 49-year-old Taylor.

No one answered the phone at a number listed for Taylor in public records.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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