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Jeff Sessions spoke with Russian envoy in 2016, Justice Dept says

Attorney General Jeff Sessions talked twice with Russia’s ambassador to the United States during the presidential campaign, the Justice Department confirmed, communications that spurred calls in Congress for him to recuse himself from an investigation into Russian interference in the U.S. election.

Sessions, an early supporter of President Donald Trump‘s candidacy and a policy adviser to the Republican, did not disclose those discussions at his Senate confirmation hearing in January when asked what he would do if “anyone affiliated” with the campaign had been in contact with officials of the Russian government.

Sessions replied that he had not had communications with the Russians.

In a statement late Wednesday, Sessions said, “I never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign. I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false.”

Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said Wednesday night that “there was absolutely nothing misleading about his answer.”

That statement did not satisfy Democrats, who even before Wednesday had sought his recusal from the ongoing federal investigation and had raised questions about whether he could properly oversee the probe.

Sessions said Thursday in a brief interview with NBC, “I have said that, when it’s appropriate, I will recuse myself.”

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders earlier called the disclosure of the talks with the ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, “the latest attack against the Trump administration by partisan Democrats.” She added that Sessions “met with the ambassador in an official capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is entirely consistent with his testimony.”

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi accused Sessions of “lying under oath” and demanded that he resign. Other Democrats called on him to step aside from the investigation.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, appearing Thursday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show, “I just think he needs to clarify what these meetings were.” The California Republican said it isn’t unusual for members of Congress to meet with ambassadors, but he added that if a question arose about the integrity of a federal investigation, “I think it’d be easier” for an attorney general to step away from the probe.

Sessions had more than 25 conversations with foreign ambassadors last year in his role as a U.S. senator and senior member of the Armed Services Committee, and had two separate interactions with Kislyak, the department confirmed.

One was a visit in September in his capacity as a senator, similar to meetings with envoys from Britain, China, Germany and other nations, the department said.

The other occurred in a group setting following a Heritage Foundation speech that Sessions gave during the summer, when several ambassadors — including the Russian ambassador — approached Sessions after the talk as he was leaving the stage.

Revelations of the contacts, first reported by The Washington Post, came amid a disclosure by three administration officials that White House lawyers have instructed aides to Trump to preserve materials that could be connected to Russian meddling in the American political process.

The officials who confirmed that staffers were instructed to comply with preservation-of-materials directions did so on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly disclose the memo from White House counsel Don McGahn.

On the Sessions revelation, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said: “If reports are accurate that Attorney General Sessions — a prominent surrogate for Donald Trump — met with Ambassador Kislyak during the campaign, and failed to disclose this fact during his confirmation, it is essential that he recuse himself from any role in the investigation of Trump campaign ties to the Russians.”

Asked by reporters Monday about the prospect of a recusal, Sessions had said, “I would recuse myself from anything that I should recuse myself on.”

At the confirmation hearing in January, Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota asked Sessions about allegations of contact between Russia and Trump aides during the 2016 election. He asked Sessions what he would do if there were evidence that anyone from the Trump campaign had been in touch with the Russian government during the campaign.

Sessions replied he was “unaware of those activities.”

Then he added: “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn’t have, did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.”

Flores, the Justice Department spokeswoman, said that response was not misleading.

“He was asked during the hearing about communications between Russia and the Trump campaign — not about meetings he took as a senator and a member of the Armed Services Committee,” she said in a statement.

Franken said in a statement he was troubled that the new attorney general’s response to his question was “at best, misleading.” He said he planned to press Sessions on his contact with Russia.

“It’s clearer than ever now that the attorney general cannot, in good faith, oversee an investigation at the Department of Justice and the FBI of the Trump-Russia connection, and he must recuse himself immediately,” Franken said.

Separately in January, Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Judiciary Committee Democrat, asked Sessions in a written questionnaire whether “he had been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after election day.”

Sessions replied simply, “No.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Judge threatens to jail DCF lawyer in Facebook Live hanging case

A judge threatened to jail a Florida Department of Children & Families lawyer, suggesting the agency’s attorneys lied about the welfare of foster children who may have witnessed a teen hang herself while broadcasting on Facebook.

Miami-Dade Judge Maria Sampedro-Iglesia said regional child welfare director Clarissa Cabreja could be arrested if she doesn’t appear at a March 8 hearing.

Spokeswoman Jessica K. Sims says the agency “fully intends to comply.”

The Miami Herald reports the order follows a back-and-forth between the agency and the judge, who requested information about foster children living in the home Jan. 22 when 14-year-old Naika Venant died. She wanted to make sure they received proper counseling.

In her Tuesday order, the judge said the court “is very concerned about the welfare and safety” of the children living in the Miami Gardens foster home.

Judge: Casey Anthony may have accidentally killed daughter

The judge who presided over Casey Anthony‘s murder trial says the Florida mother may have killed her 2-year-old daughter by accident.

Anthony may have been trying to quiet the child, Caylee, with chloroform and accidentally used too much, former Circuit Judge Belvin Perry Jr. said Wednesday in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel.

“There was a possibility that she may have utilized that to keep the baby quiet … and just used too much of it, and the baby died,” he said.

Perry said it’s a theory and if jurors in Anthony’s 2011 trial had come to that conclusion, they might have convicted her of second-degree murder or manslaughter.

But Perry, who retired and joined a private law firm in 2014, stressed that was just one of several theories about what may have happened to Caylee.

“As I’ve expressed, the only person that really knows what happened was Casey,” he said.

Anthony, now 30, was acquitted in a trial that was broadcast live on television and garnered worldwide attention.

Perry didn’t fault the verdict but said evidence showed Anthony had gone online to research how to use chloroform as a sedative.

The child’s remains were found five months after she was reported missing and authorities were unable to determine a cause of death.

During Anthony’s trial, defense attorney Jose Baez told jurors the toddler accidentally drowned in the family pool and someone else hid the body. Prosecutors said Anthony used chloroform and then suffocated the child by putting duct tape over her mouth.

Judge to weigh freeing Orlando shooter’s widow before trial

A California judge will decide Wednesday whether to free the widow of the gunman who killed dozens of people at a Florida nightclub or keep her behind bars until she faces trial on charges of aiding his attack.

Noor Salman, 31, also has been charged with lying to investigators after the shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando where her husband Omar Mateen killed 49 people and wounded 53 others. She has pleaded not guilty.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Donna Ryu had ordered a psychiatric evaluation for Salman before making a decision. After the June 12 attack, moved from Orlando to her mother’s suburban San Francisco home, where she was arrested in January.

Prosecutors have argued against her release, saying she is a danger to the public. They accused her of accompanying Mateen on scouting trips to the bar. Mateen pledged allegiance to several terror organizations during the attack before police shot and killed him.

Salman initially said she didn’t know anything about the attack but later told investigators Mateen abused steroids, was “pumped up” on the night of the attack and said “this is the one day” as he walked out the door, federal prosecutor Sara Sweeney has said in court.

Sweeney also said the couple ran up $25,000 in credit card debt and spent $5,000 in cash in the days before the shooting. Among the purchases was an $8,000 diamond ring for Salman. In addition, they made Salman the death beneficiary of his bank account, prosecutors said.

Salman’s attorney, Charles Swift, didn’t return a call seeking comment Tuesday.

He said outside court earlier this month that Salman made those statements without a lawyer present during an 18-hour interrogation immediately after the attack.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Analysis: Donald Trump’s pivot pleases GOP, but will it last?

Donald Trump finally gave Republicans what they’ve spent months begging him to deliver: a pivot to presidential.

The question now is how long it lasts. Days, weeks, months — or simply until the next tweet?

Just a little more than a month into his presidency, Trump clearly wanted to use his first speech to Congress to reset a chaotic start to his administration.

Gone was the dark tone that marked his inaugural address, replaced by optimism and pleas for bipartisan support. Standing before lawmakers, Supreme Court justices and military leaders, the famously unrestrained politician was softer, sober and verged on diplomatic.

“I am here tonight to deliver a message of unity and strength, and it is a message deeply delivered from my heart,” he said, in the opening of his hour-long speech.

But while his prime-time address to Congress and the nation wrapped his nationalistic politics in prose that was more presidential, it is unlikely to overcome the deep divisions created by his first few weeks in office.

For a candidate who sold himself as a master dealmaker, Trump has shown little inclination to get deeply involved with the kind of nitty gritty negotiating that defines the legislative process.

That’s left the Capitol reeling.

Republicans have united control for the first time in decades but no agreement over the specifics of long-promised plans to repeal “Obamacare” and revamp the tax code. The federal civil service is in not-so-subtle revolt. And weeks of protests and raucous town halls are putting fresh political pressure on lawmakers from both parties to resist his agenda.

The stakes are high not only in terms of policy but politics: If the GOP is unable to make good on years of election promises, they could enter the midterm elections in a far weaker position than expected.

Trump, meanwhile, faces record low approval ratings — just 44 percent of Americans approve of his job performance, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey.

He’s nearing the end of big achievements he can enact by executive order, forcing him to rely on Congress to turn the bold promises of his campaign into actual achievements

Trump needed to use his prime-time address to show he could steady his flailing White House and focus on the difficult work required to pass his legislative agenda.

Still, he arrived at the Capitol in a blaze of accusations, enraging his opponents before he even entered the building.

In the 24 hours before his address, he blamed former President Barack Obama for town hall protests and security leaks, called House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi “incompetent” and said his generals, not the commander in chief, were responsible for a military raid in Yemen that killed a Navy SEAL.

In his speech, he called on Washington to “work past the differences of party.”

The candidate who won the White House by taking a hard-line stance on immigration, seemed to express openness to a bipartisan immigration bill.

The president whose administration spent much of its first weeks in office battling with the media, intelligence community, federal judiciary and even Hollywood celebrities asked for an end to “trivial fights.”

And after questioning the authenticity of a wave of bomb threats against Jewish community centers, he condemned the flood of anti-Semitic attacks and other racially motivated crimes.

For House GOP leaders, Trump came tantalizingly close to backing their plan to overhaul the tax code by imposing a new tax on imports while exempting exports. He appeared to lend support to the House Republican leaders’ plan for Obamacare, by embracing “tax credits” and health savings accounts.

But on other issues, Trump offered barely a blueprint for his initiatives.

He repeated his campaign pledge to make a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure, adding no new details to a proposal that’s sure to face fierce resistance from budget hawks. Big promises to make childcare more affordable, ensure paid family leave, invest in women’s health and a major education bill were mentioned merely in passing.

There was no discussion of how his administration would fund any of the new — and expensive — programs, putting him in direct conflict with a Republican Party that’s long focused on cutting the deficit.

On foreign policy, he promised a massive expansion in military spending, even as he made no mention of Iraq or Afghanistan, where American troops are still stationed. And he avoided commenting on U.S.-Russia relations, an area where he’s sparked major controversy even within his own party, making only a nebulous reference to an America “willing to find new friends.”

“We will look back on tonight as when this new chapter of American greatness began,” Trump said at the conclusion of his speech. “I am asking all citizens to embrace this renewal of the American spirit. I am asking all members of Congress to join me in dreaming big and bold and daring things for our country.”

As they burst into cheers, Republicans quietly wondered which Trump would show up in the morning.

Airports, legal volunteers prepare for new Donald Trump travel ban

Airport officials and civil rights lawyers around the country are getting ready for President Donald Trump‘s new travel ban — mindful of the chaos that accompanied his initial executive order but hopeful the forthcoming version will be rolled out in a more orderly way.

The new order was expected as soon as Wednesday. A draft suggested it would target people from the same seven predominantly Muslim countries but would exempt travelers who already have visas to come to the U.S.

Since last month’s ban, which courts have put on hold, a section of the international arrivals area at Dulles International Airport outside the nation’s capital has been transformed into a virtual law firm, with legal volunteers ready to greet travelers from affected countries and ask if they saw anyone being detained.

Similar efforts are underway at other airports, including Seattle-Tacoma International, where officials have drawn up plans for crowd control after thousands crammed the baggage claim area to protest the original ban.

“The plan is to be as ready as possible,” said Lindsay Nash, an immigration law professor at Cardozo School of Law in New York who has been helping prepare emergency petitions on behalf of those who might be detained.

Trump’s initial action, issued Jan. 27, temporarily barred citizens of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and Libya from coming to the U.S. and halted acceptance of all refugees. The president said his administration would review vetting procedures amid concerns about terrorism in those seven nations.

Protesters flooded U.S. airports that weekend, seeking to free travelers detained by customs officials amid confusion about who could enter the country, including U.S. permanent residents known as green-card holders.

Attorneys also challenged the order in court, including officials from Washington state. That lawsuit, which Minnesota joined, resulted in a federal judge temporarily blocking the government from enforcing the travel ban, a decision unanimously upheld by a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Many civil rights lawyers and activists have said they don’t believe a new order would cure all the constitutional problems of the original, including the claim that it was motivated by anti-Muslim discrimination.

Trump has said he singled out the seven countries because they had already been deemed a security concern by the Obama administration.

In his first address to Congress Tuesday night, Trump said his administration “is taking strong measures to protect our nation from radical Islamic terrorism” and is working on improved vetting procedures.

“And we will shortly take new steps to keep our nation safe — and to keep out those who would do us harm,” Trump said.

Last week, analysts at the Homeland Security Department’s intelligence arm found insufficient evidence that citizens of the seven Muslim-majority countries pose a terror threat to the United States.

“It’s not enough to just tweak an order and not change the nature of why it was issued in the first place,” said Rula Aoun, director of the Arab-American Civil Rights League in Dearborn, Michigan, which sued over the initial ban and is prepared to do the same with the rewrite if necessary.

In New York, American Civil Liberties Union attorney Lee Gelernt said the organization was ready to go to court if the administration tries to immediately enforce its new order.

“The primary focus is being able to respond immediately to any request by the government to lift any of the injunctions, before the courts have had a chance to examine the new order,” he said.

Activists and airport officials alike said they hoped it would be phased in to give travelers fair warning, which might preclude any detentions from arriving flights.

“We are prepared and willing,” said Rebecca Sharpless, who runs the immigration clinic at the University of Miami School of Law. “But it’s unlikely to cause the same kind of chaos of last time.”

At Dulles, Sea-Tac, Minneapolis-St. Paul and other airports, legal volunteers have greeted arriving travelers in shifts every day since the initial ban, wearing name tags or posting signs in different languages to identify themselves.

The legal-services nonprofit OneJustice was ready to send email alerts to 3,000 volunteers in California if needed, deploying them to San Francisco and Los Angeles airports for people affected by any new order, chief executive Julia Wilson said.

In Chicago, travelers have been signing up for an assistance program started by the local Council on American-Islamic Relations office to ensure swift legal help if they’re detained.

Groups urged those arriving at 17 other airports, including Miami, Atlanta and San Diego, to register with Airport Lawyer, a secure website and free mobile app that alerts volunteer lawyers to ensure travelers make it through customs without trouble.

Asti Gallina, a third-year student at the University of Washington Law School, volunteered at Sea-Tac for the first time Tuesday. It was quiet, she said.

“An essential part of the American narrative is the ability to come to America,” Gallina said. “Any infringement of that is something that needs to be resisted.”

Republished with the permission of The Associated Press.

Kellyanne Conway kneels on Oval Office couch, sparks debate

Photos of White House adviser Kellyanne Conway kneeling on an Oval Office couch with her shoes on have sparked an online debate about decorum in the executive mansion.

Conway is seen perched on her knees on the couch with her feet behind her in photos taken Monday while President Donald Trump met with leaders of historically black colleges and universities.

Some Twitter users were quick to highlight the photos as evidence of a lack of respect for the office from Conway and the Trump administration. Other users have countered with numerous photos of former President Barack Obama resting his feet on the office’s famed Resolute desk at various times during his eight years in office.

Conway has yet to weigh in on the criticism.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Oscar winning ‘Moonlight’ shines on Miami’s Liberty City

Oscar-winning film “Moonlight” presents a view of Miami that never shows up in a tourism video. Far from the sun and glamour of South Beach or the artists and hipsters of Wynwood, it shows predominantly black communities, truly known by few outside the people who live there.

And it’s recognizably their Miami, made beautiful and suddenly more hopeful than it might have seemed before.

“The best thing about this movie is they actually went into the projects and shot it, and they let kids from around Liberty City be in it,” said Kamal Ani-Bello, a freshman at Miami Northwestern Senior High School who had a role as an extra in the film. “Usually people make ‘hoods on movie sets, but this actually shows the real thing – and that’s why it won best picture.”

“Moonlight” won the Academy Award Sunday night for best picture, best supporting actor and best adapted screenplay. It was nominated in five additional categories. It follows the life of a young black man as he grows up in a poverty-stricken neighborhood while coming to terms with his own homosexuality.

Director Barry Jenkins “came from the same grounds I came from, from the same city,” said Larry Anderson, a Miami Northwestern junior who also had a role as an extra. Jenkins graduated from the same high school and had roots in a public housing project nicknamed “Pork & Beans” familiar to many students.

“Knowing that he came from the same – not just Miami, but Liberty City, same Pork & Beans, Miami Northwestern and the same programs that I’ve been part of, it tells me I can achieve in the same way as him,” Anderson said.

Jenkins’ wrote the screenplay for “Moonlight” with Tarell Alvin McCraney, who wrote the play on which the film is based. McCraney grew up in the same neighborhoods as Jenkins and attended the New World School of the Arts.

“This goes out to all those black and brown boys and girls and non-gender-conforming who don’t see themselves,” McCraney said during the ceremony.

Natalie Baldie, artistic director of the Performing and Visual Arts Center at Miami Northwestern, said she hopes the movie and its awards give students another perspective about getting out of Liberty City or going to college.

“It’s giving them hope to get through and something to look forward to,” Baldie said, sitting with Ani-Bello, Anderson and senior Amanda Ali, who also was an extra in the film. “We’re used to seeing something about violence or rap music or athletes going to the NFL and things of that nature.”

The film’s theme of self-acceptance is one students and the community overall particularly need to hear, she added.

Ali said she hadn’t been entirely aware of how “grown-up” the movie would be, “but that’s good because it shows the truth.”

The success of “Moonlight” also resonated Monday at Norland Middle School in Miami Gardens, where part of the film is set. Two young actors featured prominently in the film, Alex Hibbert and Jaden Piner, are Norland students, and about a dozen others were extras in the film.

Parents called and emailed Principal Ronald Redmon throughout the day to express pride in a program showing the talent coming Miami, he said.

“Today everyone beamed with pride. Parents were dropping off their kids with their horns blowing,” Redmon said.

Graham Winick, the city of Miami Beach’s film coordinator and a past president of Film Florida, called the success of “Moonlight” a cultural high-water mark for Miami and Florida, comparable to hosting an international art fair like Art Basel Miami Beach or preserving the area’s signature Art Deco architecture. He pointed out that the film was made for just a fraction of the marketing budget for some of the films it was up against.

“That movie was $1.5 million in the can, and it looked amazing,” Winick said. “It didn’t have movie stars, but it still hit a nerve and got a release. People believed in it.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

George W. Bush on Donald Trump and Russia: ‘We all need answers’

Former President George W. Bush said Monday “we all need answers” on the extent of contact between President Donald Trump‘s team and the Russian government, and didn’t rule out the idea that a special prosecutor could be necessary to lead an investigation.

The Republican also defended the media’s role in keeping world leaders in check, noting that “power can be addictive,” and warned against immigration policies that could alienate Muslims.

“I am for an immigration policy that’s welcoming and upholds the law,” Bush told NBC’s “Today” show.

Bush’s comments came after a prominent Republican in Congress, Rep. Darrell Issa of California, called for a special prosecutor to investigate whether Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election and was in touch with Trump’s top advisers during the campaign.

Bush said he would trust Senate Intelligence panel Chairman Richard Burr to decide if a special prosecutor is necessary.

But, Bush added, “I think we all need answers … I’m not sure the right avenue to take. I am sure, though, that that question needs to be answered.”

The former president, who is promoting a book of his paintings of wounded veterans, also took issue with Trump’s characterization of the media as an “enemy of the people.” Bush said the U.S. won’t be able to convince authoritarian governments, including Russia, to open up their governments to media scrutiny if U.S. leaders try to discredit their own press.

“We need an independent media to hold people like me to account,” Bush said. “Power can be very addictive, and it can be corrosive. And it’s important for the media to call to account people who abuse their power, whether it be here or elsewhere.”

On the issue of immigration and Trump’s recent attempt to ban travelers from seven Muslim-majority nations, Bush warned that if the U.S. freezes out other countries and turns inward, that would only make it more difficult to fight the Islamic State group and other foreign extremists.

“I think it’s very hard to fight the war on terrorism if we’re in retreat,” he said.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Marco Rubio says holding a town hall wouldn’t be productive

Sen. Marco Rubio said he has not held an open forum with constituents because the room would be packed by “liberal activists” and wouldn’t be productive.

Rubio told CBS4-Miami interviewer Jim DeFede on Sunday that liberal groups would organize hundreds of protestors, show up early and take all the seats. They would then ask all the questions, many of them about his opposition to the Affordable Care Act. He said they would boo no matter what answer he gave in hopes that would be shown on television.

The Republican senator said their goal would be to make it seem like he lacks support even though he won re-election in November.

He said he would hold a town hall if he thought the conversation would be productive, but he doesn’t.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

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