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Associated Press

Donald Trump removes Steve Bannon from National Security Council

President Donald Trump has removed chief strategist Steve Bannon from the National Security Council, reversing an earlier, controversial decision to give Bannon access to the high-level meetings.

A new memorandum about the council’s composition was published Wednesday in the Federal Register. The memo no longer lists the chief strategist as a member of the Principals Committee, a group of high-ranking officials who meet to discuss pressing national security priorities.

Tom Bossert, the assistant to the president for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, also had his role downgraded as part of the changes.

A senior White House official said Wednesday that Bannon was initially placed on the national security council after Trump’s inauguration as a measure to ensure implementation of the president’s vision, including efforts to downsize and streamline operations at the NSC.

Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was at the helm of the NSC at the time, but the official says Bannon’s role on the committee had nothing to do with the troubles facing Flynn, who was later asked to resign for misleading the administration about his communication with Russian officials.

The senior White House official was not authorized to discuss changes that have not been formally announced and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The new memo also restores the director of national intelligence and the Joint Chiefs chairman to the principals committee.

Bannon’s addition to the NSC sparked concerns from Trump critics, who said it was inappropriate for the political adviser to play a role in national security matters.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Report: Janet Reno’s ranch to be donated to Miami college

The South Florida home where the late U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno lived will be preserved and donated to Miami-Dade College.

The Miami Herald reports a final agreement is being ironed out to donate the ranch which sat on the edge of the Everglades where Reno’s mother built the rustic home in the 1940s.

It’s slated to become part of the environmental center at the college’s campus south of Miami.

Attorney Alan Greer, who’s representing the Reno family, says visiting the cottage is “like going back in time.” The college declined comment on the negotiation process.

Reno died in November at age 78. The Herald reports word about the likely donation leaked out when her surviving sibling hosted a party Saturday to say goodbye to the ranch.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

3rd Florida man guilty for burning cross in couple’s yard

A third Florida man has pleaded guilty to setting a wooden cross on fire in an interracial couple’s yard.

Federal prosecutors said in a statement Tuesday that 56-year-old William Dennis of Port Richey pleaded guilty to conspiring with others to threaten, intimidate and interfere with an interracial couple’s enjoyment of their housing rights. Two other men previously pleaded guilty.

Officials say the men were living in a largely white community in Pasco County when an African-American couple moved into a house on his street. On Halloween 2012, Sigler and two others decided to burn a cross in the couple’s yard to intimidate them.

One of the men was sentenced to more than three years in prison. Sentencings for Dennis and the other man are pending.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Lake Okeechobee water level drops below targeted range

Dry weather has caused the water level in Lake Okeechobee drop below the minimum range targeted for South Florida’s drinking water supply.

The Sun Sentinel reports that if the dry spring becomes a summer drought, water restrictions could follow.

On Monday, officials said the lake was at 12.46 feet (3.8 meters) above sea level, which is 2.66 feet (0.81 meters) lower than the same time last year. In order to balance water supply needs during dry months while avoiding flooding concerns during the storm season, the Army Corp of Engineers likes to keep the lake level between 12.5 to 15.5 feet (3.81 meters) year-round.

Florida Water Management officials say March was drier than usual, averaging under an inch of rainfall in the region stretching from Orlando to the Florida Keys.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

 

Proposal to drug test welfare applicants returns to Florida

A bill that would require Florida welfare applicants with prior drug-related convictions to submit to mandatory drug testing was advanced by a House panel on Tuesday over the objections of Democrats who view the move as unconstitutional.

The measure considered Tuesday would also require applicants suspected of being on drugs to pay for the drug test before they can receive cash assistance from the government.

Under the bill, applicants who pass the test are reimbursed for the cost. But those who don’t would lose benefits for a year, or they could reapply after six months if they complete a substance abuse program at their expense.

A similar 2011 law requiring drug screenings for all welfare benefit applicants was declared an unconstitutional search and seizure by a U.S. Supreme Court justice.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Reform school horrors relived as Florida prepares an apology

Several men painfully recalled being beaten and sexually abused at a north Florida reform school as the state begins the steps to formally apologize for the horrors they endured more than 50 years ago.

A Senate bill to recognize the abuse at the now-shuttered Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna was unanimously approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. House Speaker Richard Corcoran later met with men who were abused at the school during the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Researchers have determined nearly 100 people died at the school between 1900 and 1973. The school was shut down in 2011.

As well as the apology, lawmakers are proposing memorials to be built in Tallahassee and in Marianna 60 miles (96.56 kilometers) west of the Capitol.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Miami-Dade outlines aggressive mosquito control plan

No disease-carrying mosquitoes have been found so far this year in the Miami area, but officials are prepared to launch aerial pesticide spraying to stamp out any reemergence of Zika, according to the head of mosquito control in the first U.S. county to report transmission of the virus linked to severe birth defects.

Miami-Dade County Mosquito Control Operations Manager Chalmers Vasquez also said Monday at a municipal workshop that aggressive code enforcement was essential to eliminating mosquito breeding sites because, despite millions of dollars spent on public outreach, residents and business owners often failed to drain standing water from their properties.

While active transmission zones were identified only in Miami and Miami Beach, about 460 Zika infections were reported by travelers and Miami-Dade residents outside those areas, Vasquez said.

“This was all over the county,” he said.

In four neighborhoods where local mosquitoes spread the virus, trucks continue to spray pesticides targeting mosquito larvae. The county shifted these preventative treatments — bacteria toxic only to mosquito larvae — from planes to trucks last summer because of public opposition to any aerial pesticide spraying, Vasquez said.

However, he credited dramatic drops in the numbers of Zika-carrying mosquitoes to aerial applications of naled, a pesticide used since the 1950s in the U.S. to kill adult mosquitoes.

Vasquez said he’d recommend aerial spraying if faced with another public health emergency.

“This is how we broke the cycle of transmission,” he said.

Mayor Carlos Gimenez pledged to continue aggressive mosquito control measures, noting that Brazil is struggling with an outbreak of yellow fever — another mosquito-borne virus.

“We don’t want any other diseases to make their way up here,” he said.

Miami-Dade County now screens mosquitoes for Zika, dengue fever and chikungunya as part of an enhanced surveillance network, Vasquez said. New pesticides also are being used, after testing showed mosquitoes were resistant to chemicals the county had been using.

Water collecting at construction sites and in the leaves of bromeliads remains a major concern. The county has been removing bromeliads from public property, said Paul Mauriello, deputy director of the Miami-Dade County Department of Solid Waste Management.

Zika mainly spreads by mosquito bites but also can spread through sex. People can be infected without showing symptoms, and the virus can remain in semen for months.

U.S. health officials still caution pregnant women to postpone travel to Miami-Dade County.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Florida could erase part of public school testing law

Florida could push ahead with a dramatic overhaul of school tests under a far-reaching bill now moving in the state Senate.

State senators crafted the proposal together amid arguments over how much testing should be allowed in the state’s public schools. The Senate Education Committee voted for the bill on Monday.

The measure (SB 926) would eliminate four end-of-year exams that are now required in civics, United States history, geometry and Algebra II. The legislation would allow school districts to use pencil and paper tests instead of requiring students to take tests online.

The bill also pushes back the date of when the state’s high-stakes test is given to the last three weeks of the school year. Florida’s main tests are now given anywhere from late February to early May.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Donald Trump steps up effort to dispute and distract on Russia

After weeks on the defensive, President Donald Trump has stepped up his efforts to dispute, downplay and distract from revelations stemming from the investigations into the Kremlin’s interference in last year’s election and possible Russian ties to his campaign associates.

The White House says the real story is not about Russia — it’s about how Obama administration officials allegedly leaked and mishandled classified material about Americans. Trump and his aides have accused former officials of inappropriately disclosing — or “unmasking” — the names of Trump associates whose conversations were picked up by U.S. intelligences agencies.

“Such amazing reporting on unmasking and the crooked scheme against us by @foxandfriends,” Trump tweeted Monday. ‘Spied on before nomination.’ The real story.”

The White House has not pointed to any hard evidence to support such allegations, and instead has relied on media reports from some of the same publications Trump derides as “fake news.”

The truth is buried somewhere in classified material that is illegal to disclose. Here’s a look at what the White House believes is the real story.

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THE FLYNN AFFAIR

Trump fired national security adviser Michael Flynn following news reports that Flynn misled the White House about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. But the White House says the problem is that Flynn’s conversations were in the news at all.

“The real story here is why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington?” Trump tweeted after firing Flynn in February.

The White House has called for investigations into the disclosure of multiple intercepted conversations that Flynn had with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak before the inauguration. The government routinely monitors the communications of foreign officials in the U.S. It’s illegal to publicly disclose such classified information.

Officially, the White House said Flynn was forced to resign because he had given inaccurate descriptions of the discussions to Vice President Mike Pence and others in the White House. But Trump has continued to defend Flynn, suggesting he was only fired because information about his contacts came out in the media.

“Michael Flynn, Gen. Flynn is a wonderful man,” Trump said. “I think he’s been treated very, very unfairly by the media.”

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THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION

White House officials say some Obama holdovers are part of a so-called deep state out to tear Trump down.

Last week, the White House latched onto a month-old television interview from an Obama administration official who said she encouraged congressional aides to gather as much information on Russia as possible before the inauguration.

Evelyn Farkas, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense, said she feared that information “would disappear” after President Barack Obama left office. She was no longer in government at the time, having left the Pentagon about a year before the election.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer called Farkas’ comments “devastating” and said they “raised serious concerns on whether or not there was an organized and widespread effort by the Obama administration to use and leak highly sensitive intelligence information for political purposes.”

On Monday, Spicer suggested there should be more interest in a Bloomberg report in which anonymous U.S. officials said that Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, asked for the identities of people related to Trump’s campaign and transition dozens of times.

Spicer remarked that he was “somewhat intrigued by the lack of interest” in the Rice revelations. But he added: “I do think that it’s interesting, the level, or lack thereof, of interest in this subject.”

As national security adviser, Rice would have regularly received intelligence reports and been able to request the identities of Americans whose communications were intercepted.

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THE HILL WEIGHS IN

The White House has embraced a top Republican’s assertion that information about Trump associates were improperly spread around the government in the final days of the Obama administration. It appears the White House played a role in helping House intelligence committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., acquire some of that information.

Nunes announced last week that he had seen intelligence reports showing that Trump aides’ communications were picked up through routine surveillance. But he said their identities may have been improperly revealed. The California congressman later said he viewed the reports at the White House.

The White House contends that Nunes’ information — which has not been made public — validates Trump’s explosive claim that his predecessor wiretapped his New York skyscraper. Nunes has disputed that but still says he found the reports “troubling.”

The White House’s apparent involvement in helping Nunes access the information has overshadowed what Trump officials contend are real concerns about how much information about Americans is disseminated in intelligence reports. Trump has asked the House and Senate intelligence committees to include the matter in their Russia investigations.

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CAMPAIGN MODE

Trump won the election, but thinks it’s his vanquished opponent whose ties to Russia should be investigated.

Some of the White House’s allegations against Clinton stem from her four years as secretary of state, a role that gave her ample reasons to have frequent contacts with Russia.

To deflect questions about Trump’s friendly rhetoric toward Russia, the White House points to the fact that Clinton was a central figure in the Obama administration’s attempt to “reset” relations with Moscow — an effort that crumbled after Vladimir Putin took back the presidency.

“When you compare the two sides in terms of who’s actually engaging with Russia, trying to strengthen them, trying to act with them, trying to interact with them, it is night and day between our actions and her actions,” Spicer said.

Rex Tillerson, Trump’s secretary of state, has deep ties to Russia from his time running ExxonMobil and cutting oil deals with Moscow.

The White House has also tried to link Clinton to Russia’s purchase of a controlling stake in a mining company with operations in the U.S., arguing that she was responsible for “selling off one-fifth of our country’s uranium.”

The Clinton-led State Department was among nine U.S. government agencies that had to approve the purchase of Uranium One. According to Politifact, some investors in the company had relationships with former President Bill Clinton and donated to the Clinton Foundation. However, the fact checking site says most of those donations occurred well before Clinton became secretary of state and was in position to have a say in the agreement.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Woman charged in Sandy Hook parent threat arrested

The woman accused of sending death threats to a man whose 6-year-old son was killed in the 2012 mass shooting at a school in Newtown, Connecticut, has been arrested after failing to show up in court.

Jail records show 57-year-old Lucy Richards was arrested on Saturday in Hillsborough County in the Tampa Bay area.

A judge issued an arrest warrant March 29 after Richards failed to show up in federal court in Fort Lauderdale for a change-of-plea hearing and sentencing.

She was set to plead guilty to a charge of interstate transmission of a threat to injure for threatening Lenny Pozner, the father of Noah Pozner who died in the shooting at the Sandy Hook school. Prosecutors said she told them she believed the shooting was a hoax.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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