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Associated Press

Donald Trump faces questions of interference in investigations

President Donald Trump is facing new questions about political interference in the investigations into Russian election meddling following reports that White House officials secretly funneled material to the chairman of the House intelligence committee.

Trying to fend off the growing criticism, Trump’s top lawyer invited lawmakers from both parties to view classified information at the White House. Thursday’s invitation came as The New York Times reported that two White House officials — including an aide whose job was recently saved by President Donald Trump — secretly helped House intelligence committee chairman Rep. Devin Nunes examine intelligence information there last week.

Nunes is leading one of three investigations into Russia’s attempt to influence the campaign and Trump associates’ possible involvement. The Senate intelligence committee, which has thus far taken a strikingly more measured and bipartisan approach to its own Russia probe, tried to keep its distance from the White House and asked that the documents uncovered by Trump aides be given to lawmakers via the appropriate agencies.

The cloud of investigation has hung over Trump’s White House since the day he took office. On Thursday, an attorney for Michael Flynn, Trump’s ex-national security adviser, said Flynn is in discussions with the congressional committees about speaking to them in exchange for immunity. The talks are preliminary, and no official offers have been made.

“General Flynn certainly has a story to tell, and he very much wants to tell it, should the circumstances permit,” Flynn’s attorney, Robert Kelner, said in a statement.

Other Trump associates have volunteered to speak with investigators, but have not publicly raised the issue of immunity.

Flynn, a member of the Trump campaign and transition, was fired as national security adviser after it was publicly disclosed that he misled the vice president about a conversation he had with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. Flynn’s ties to Russia have been scrutinized by the FBI and are under investigation by the House and Senate intelligence panels.

The House committee’s work has been deeply, and perhaps irreparably, undermined by Nunes’ apparent coordination with the White House. He told reporters last week that he had seen troubling information about the improper distribution of Trump associates’ intercepted communications, and he briefed the president on the material, all before informing Rep. Adam Schiff, the committee’s top Democrat.

Speaking on Capitol Hill Thursday, Schiff said he was “more than willing” to accept the White House offer to view new information. But he raised concerns that Trump officials may have used Nunes to “launder information to our committee to avoid the true source.”

“The White House has a lot of questions to answer,” he declared.

Instead, the White House continued to sidestep queries about its role in showing Nunes classified information that appears to have included transcripts of foreign officials discussing Trump’s transition to the presidency, according to current and former U.S. officials. Intelligence agencies routinely monitor the communications of foreign officials living in the U.S., though the identities of Americans swept up in that collection is supposed to be protected.

In Washington early last week, White House officials privately encouraged reporters to look into whether information about Trump associates had been improperly revealed in the intelligence gathering process. Days later, Nunes announced that he had evidence, via an unnamed source, showing that Trump and his aides’ communications had been collected through legal means but then “widely disseminated” throughout government agencies. He said the collections were not related to the Russia investigation.

Trump spokesman Sean Spicer said Thursday the material the White House wants the House and Senate intelligence leaders to view was discovered by the National Security Council through the course of regular business. He would not say whether it was the same material Nunes had already seen.

A congressional aide said Schiff did not receive the White House letter until after Spicer announced it from the White House briefing room.

Spicer had previously dismissed the notion that the White House had fed information to Nunes, saying the idea that the congressman would come and brief Trump on material the president’s team already had “doesn’t pass the smell test.” The White House quickly embraced Nunes’ revelations, saying they vindicated Trump’s explosive and unverified claim that President Barack Obama wiretapped his New York skyscraper.

Nunes has said the information he received did not support that allegation, which has also been disputed by Obama and top intelligence officials.

The Times reported that Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence at the White House National Security Council, and Michael Ellis, a White House lawyer who previously worked on the House intelligence committee, played roles in helping Nunes view the materials.

Cohen-Watnick is among about a dozen White House officials who would have access to the types of classified information Nunes says he viewed, according to current and former U.S. officials. He’s become a controversial figure in intelligence circles, but Trump decided to keep him on over the objections of the CIA and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, according to the officials. They spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly by name.

Cohen-Watnick and Nunes both served on the Trump transition team.

Stephen Slick, a former CIA and NSC official, said it would be “highly unusual and likely unprecedented” for a member of Congress to travel to the White House to view intelligence reports “without prior authorization.”

Nunes has repeatedly sidestepped questions about who provided him the intelligence reports, though he pointedly has not denied that his sources were in the White House. House Speaker Paul Ryan, in an interview with “CBS This Morning” that aired Thursday, said Nunes told him a “whistleblower-type person” provided the information.

A spokesman for Ryan later said the speaker was not aware of Nunes’ source and continues to have “full confidence” in the congressman’s ability to run the Russia investigation.

Legislative panel pushes for anti-abortion counseling services

A Florida House panel has advanced a bill that puts state money into the operation of anti-abortion counseling services.

The House Health and Human Services Committee pushed the bill (HB 969) to the full floor on Thursday.

The bill is meant to structure a 12-year-old pregnancy services program offering women free counseling and prenatal services from a pro-life perspective. The pregnancy center would also provide services including physician referrals, flu and tetanus vaccines and medical screenings.

State Rep. Lori Berman said the move would put women’s lives in danger, and that state money should not go to religious purposes. While religious content is not allowed in these pregnancy centers, some of the service providers that have been contracted in the program are part of evangelical Christian networks, like Heartbeat International.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Florida House passes bill to allow therapy animals in courts

Children testifying in court in abuse, abandonment and neglect cases would be allowed the help of therapy animals under a bill passed by the Florida House.

The bill passed unanimously Thursday and expands a law that already allows therapy animals for victims testifying in sexual offense cases.

A legislative analysis of the bill says that research has shown animals reduce stress in children and three Florida district courts that have allowed them have reported positive results.

A similar bill in the Senate is ready for a full chamber vote.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Death row inmate who killed Florida deputy to be resentenced

The Florida Supreme Court is ordering a new sentencing hearing for a death row inmate convicted of fatally shooting a Brevard County deputy during a traffic stop.

The ruling Thursday is because the jury that recommended death for Brandon Lee Bradley was not unanimous.

Deputy Barbara Pill pulled over Bradley in March 2012 shortly after a Melbourne motel owner reported he stole pillows, sheets and an air conditioner from a room.

A dashboard camera showed Pill told Bradley to get out of the car more than 20 times and he refused. She then reached into his car to try to turn off the ignition when Bradley fired eight shots, striking Pill five times.

Jurors voted 10-2 for the death penalty. Bradley will receive life without parole if a new jury doesn’t unanimously recommend death.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Florida House wants to conceal murder witnesses’ identities

The Florida House is poised to approve a bill that would conceal the identities of those who have witnessed a murder from public records.

House members prepared the bill for a final vote on Wednesday after the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Cynthia Stafford, said it would encourage murder witnesses to come forward and bring perpetrators to justice. If passed, the bill would keep witnesses’ personal information confidential for two years after the murder occurred.

The Florida First Amendment Foundation has scrutinized the effort, saying it would prevent the public from obtaining all the information in murder cases. While the information of a witness would be concealed in the discovery given to a suspect in the case, investigating agencies and prosecutors would still have access to it.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Florida may reinstate resign-to-run law for politicians

Florida could reinstate a law that forces politicians to resign from their elected positions if they wind up running for federal office.

A House panel on Wednesday voted for a sweeping election bill that would return the law to way it was before 2007. The Republican-controlled Legislature changed the law that year to help Gov. Charlie Crist.

Crist at the time was seen as a rising GOP star and viable candidate for vice president. He wound up switching parties and is now a Democratic congressman from St. Petersburg.

Rep. Matt Caldwell, a Fort Myers Republican and sponsor of the bill, said state and local politicians should not get a “free shot” if they run for federal office.

The legislation would also make changes to when cities could hold elections.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Florida ex-student seeking full refund, apology may delay Trump U settlement

President Donald Trump‘s $25 million settlement of a class-action lawsuit that alleged fraud at his now-defunct Trump University may be put on hold because a former student in Florida wants a full refund plus interest and an apology.

A federal judge in San Diego will decide Thursday whether to let Sherri Simpson opt out of the settlement and sue the president individually.

Simpson, a Fort Lauderdale bankruptcy and consumer rights attorney, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that she thinks Trump should acknowledge wrongdoing and apologize. Simpson and a partner paid $35,000 in 2010 to enroll in Trump University’s “Gold Elite” program, where they were supposed to be paired with a mentor who would teach them Trump’s secret real estate investment strategies.

Like other members of the lawsuit, Simpson said they got little for their money – the videos were 5 years old, the materials covered information that could be found free on the internet and her mentor didn’t return calls or emails. Under terms of the settlement, Trump admitted no wrongdoing and the students will get back 80 percent of their enrollment fees – about $28,000 for Simpson and her partner.

Simpson said that’s not enough, financially or morally. She doesn’t want U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel to scuttle the entire settlement – she just wants the right to sue Trump individually.

“I would like an admission that he was wrong, an admission that, ‘Oops, maybe I didn’t handle it as well as I should have, I didn’t set it up as well as I should have, that I didn’t maintain it or oversee it as well as I should have,'” said Simpson, who appeared in two anti-Trump ads made by political action committees last year.

Trump’s lead attorney Daniel M. Petrocelli didn’t immediately return a phone message or email. But attorneys representing both the former students and the president have told the judge they oppose Simpson’s request and want him to give final approval to the settlement. They say Simpson and the other former students were informed in writing that they had to opt out of the lawsuit by Nov. 16, 2015, if they wanted to pursue individual lawsuits. They say she filed a claim form on Feb. 1 to receive her share of the settlement, but then filed her objection three weeks ago.

“The 2015 notices were crystal clear,” wrote Rachel L. Jensen, an attorney for the students, in a court filing. “If Simpson had any questions or concerns, she could have brought it up with counsel for the class on any one of their many calls. She did not.”

Simpson argues that the written notice also said that if the students obtained money, they would be notified how to receive their share or “how to ask to be excluded from any settlement.”

Of the 3,730 members of the class, attorneys said only Simpson and a man who wants triple his money back have objected. Thirteen former students opted out before the 2015 deadline, but none have sued Trump individually.

Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond Law School professor who has been following the lawsuit, thinks the judge will approve the settlement but could let Simpson pursue her own lawsuit. If she does, it would raise the question of whether Simpson’s attorneys could depose a sitting president, and the case could be delayed until Trump leaves office.

The lawsuit became campaign fodder last year as supporters for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton said it showed Trump University was a scam and that Trump lied in its advertising. Trump told prospective students that he “hand-picked” the teachers and had helped devise the curriculum, which he said would be “Ivy League quality.”

But in a 2012 deposition, Trump told lawyers that he had no direct role in hiring teachers or designing courses. Trump University, which opened in 2005, changed its name to “The Trump Entrepreneur Initiative” in 2010 after New York officials said it was not an accredited school. It mostly ceased operations later that year.

During the campaign, Trump blasted Curiel’s rulings on the lawsuit and insinuated that the Indiana-born judge’s Mexican ancestry influenced his decisions.

Trump has proposed building a wall between Mexico and the United States as a curb to illegal immigration. Curiel was appointed to the bench in 2012 by President Barack Obama.

Trump vowed never to settle the case. But less than two weeks after the election, the settlement was announced.

Trump tweeted shortly after, “The ONLY bad thing about winning the Presidency is that I did not have the time to go through a long but winning trial on Trump U. Too bad!”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

 

Jared Kushner, taking new White House role, faces rare scrutiny

Jared Kushner has been a power player able to avoid much of the harsh scrutiny that comes with working in the White House. But this week he’s found that even the president’s son-in-law takes his turn in the spotlight.

In a matter of days, Kushner, a senior Trump adviser, drew headlines for leaving Washington for a ski vacation while a signature campaign promise fell apart. The White House then confirmed he had volunteered to be interviewed before the Senate intelligence committee about meetings with Russian officials. At the same time, the White House announced he’ll helm a new task force that some in the West Wing have suggested carries little real influence.

Kushner became the fourth Trump associate to get entangled in the Russia probe. North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, the chairman of the intelligence committee, said Tuesday that Kushner would likely be under oath and would submit to a “private interview” about arranging meetings with the Russian ambassador and other officials.

The news came as the White House announced Kushner would lead a new White House Office of American Innovation, a task force billed as a powerful assignment for Kushner. But the task force’s true power in the White House remained unclear, according to a half-dozen West Wing officials and Kushner associates who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The official White House line is that the group would have sweeping authority to modernize government, acting as strategic consultants who can draw from experiences in the private sector — and sometimes receive input from the president himself — to fulfill campaign promises like battling opioid addiction and transforming health care for veterans. White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Monday that it would “apply the president’s ahead-of-schedule-and-under-budget mentality” to the government.

But others inside and outside the White House cast doubt on the task force’s significance and reach, suggesting it was a lower priority for the administration and pointing out that similar measures have been tried by previous presidents with middling success. The assignment revived lingering questions about whether Kushner had opted to focus his time on a project that would put him at some distance from some Trump’s more conservative and controversial policy overhauls.

The announcement came just days after Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, were photographed on the ski slopes of Aspen, Colorado, as the GOP health care deal began to unravel amid protests from conservative Republicans that it did not go far enough in replacing President Barack Obama‘s Affordable Care Act. Kushner rushed back to Washington on Friday but it was too late to save the bill, which was scuttled hours later by House Speaker Paul Ryan.

Two people close to Kushner vehemently denied the president was upset at his son-in-law for being absent, saying Trump had given the trip his blessing. And a senior White House official insisted the timing of the task force announcement was planned weeks in advance.

Kushner, who has been at his father-in-law’s right hand since the campaign, has long been viewed as a first-among-equals among the disparate power centers competing for the president’s ear. Kushner, who routinely avoids interviews, draws power from his ability to access Trump at all hours, including the White House residence often off-limits to staffers.

His portfolio is robust: He has been deeply involved with presidential staffing and has played the role of shadow diplomat, advising on relations with the Middle East, Canada and Mexico. Though Kushner and Ivanka Trump have been spotted with some frequency on the Washington social circuit, the president’s son-in-law is routinely in the office early and leaves late, other than on Fridays when he observes the Sabbath.

While those close to Trump flatly state that Kushner, by virtue of marriage, is untouchable, this is a rare moment when he has been the center of the sort of political storm that has routinely swept up the likes of White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, chief of staff Reince Priebus and senior counselor Kellyanne Conway. It points to a White House whose power matrix is constantly in flux.

Kushner has been closely allied with senior counselor Dina Powell and National Economic Council director Gary Cohn, the former Goldman Sachs executive and a registered Democrat. That group has, at times, been at odds with conservatives led by Bannon, who to this point has been the driving force behind the White House’s policy shop.

When Kushner officially joined the administration in January as a senior adviser, it was suggested that the real estate heir would draw upon the private sector to streamline and modernize government. His task force has been meeting since shortly after the inauguration and started talking to CEOs from various sectors about ways to make changes to entrenched federal programs.

“Jared is a visionary with an endless appetite for strategic, inventive solutions that will improve quality of life for all Americans,” said Hope Hicks, Trump’s longtime spokeswoman.

A list supplied by the White House of some of those who have met with Kushner reads like a who’s who of the American business world, including Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Tim Cook of Apple and Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase. Kushner usually does more listening than talking in the meetings, largely avoiding ideological arguments while asking questions about efficiency and best practices, according to a person who has attended a gathering but is not authorized to discuss private conversations.

But the Trump team is hardly the first seeking to improve how the government operates. The Reagan administration tasked the Grace Commission in 1982 with uncovering wasteful spending and practices, while the Clinton administration sought its own reinvention of government in 1993 with what was initially called the National Performance Review. Previous commissions have not produced overwhelming results in changing the stubborn bureaucracy, casting some doubt on what Kushner’s team can accomplish.

Philip Joyce, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, said the domestic spending cuts in Trump’s budget blueprint suggest that this new committee would most likely focus more on shrinking the government than improving its performance.

Even then, any change would be unlikely to deliver significant budget savings compared to reforming entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.

“It’s not the main thing we ought to be focusing on,” Joyce said. “It’s at the margins of the big issues facing the country, certainly in terms of the budget.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Watchdog to examine cost, security of Donald Trump’s Florida trips

A government watchdog will examine the taxpayer-funded travel costs when President Donald Trump travels to the Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida and the security procedures surrounding those trips, several congressional Democrats announced Tuesday.

The lawmakers requested the inquiry by the Government Accountability Office after reports that Trump, accompanied by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, openly discussed North Korea’s launch of a ballistic missile while at the resort. They also raised concerns about the cost to taxpayers.

In a March 24 letter to the lawmakers, GAO said it will examine how the president’s communications and classified information are secured when he’s traveling, including whether a secure space exists at Mar-a-Lago.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump and other Republicans sharply criticized Democrat Hillary Clinton for compromising national security by using a private email server. Democrats have seized on Trump’s Feb. 11 visit to Mar-a-Lago with Abe as an example of what they say is Trump’s own carelessness with sensitive information.

In a letter sent to GAO last month seeking the review, the lawmakers said Trump reportedly communicated with staff about North Korea’s launch by cellphone while sitting with Abe in the middle of a public dining room. Trump, his staff and Abe also may have reviewed potentially sensitive national material in apparent violation of protocols, according to the Democrats.

“In addition to making sensitive phone calls in the dining room, aides reportedly used the camera lights on their cellphones to help President Trump and Prime Minister Abe view the documents – all while surrounded by Mar-a-Lago club members and wait staff,” the Democrats wrote in their letter to GAO.

“By conducting discussions in this manner, the president enabled private citizens without security clearances to potentially overhear sensitive or classified national security information,” they said.

GAO also will examine what measures, if any, the Secret Service and Defense Department have to ensure that charges for travel-related expenses incurred with providing protecting for trips to Mar-a-Lago are fair and reasonable. The Air Force operates the presidential aircraft, commonly known as Air Force One.

The Democrats, citing press reports, said each of Trump’s weekend trips to his Florida estate costs about $3 million. Noting that Trump is accompanied by members of his staff, military aides and Secret Service agents, the lawmakers said it’s not clear “how many of these individuals incur travel and room expenses using taxpayer dollars and if they are being charged fair and appropriate rates.”

They have also asked GAO to determine if Trump is making good on a promise to voluntarily donate to the U.S. Treasury all profits his hotels earn from payments made by foreign governments. Donating the money would avoid the appearance of self-dealing, according to the lawmakers.

Florida considering slavery memorial at state Capitol

Florida may construct a memorial on state Capitol grounds reminding visitors that slavery was once allowed in the nation’s third-largest state.

A House panel Tuesday approved the bill sponsored by Rep. Kionne McGhee. McGhee, a Miami Democrat, says it’s important to remind people of the contributions of those enslaved against their will in Florida.

The bill also says the memorial would recognize the injustice, cruelty and inhumanity of slavery. Florida does not currently have any slavery memorials.

State legislators last year authorized the creation of a Holocaust memorial at the state Capitol.

McGhee’s bill does not say exactly when the memorial will be built but instructs state officials to work with the state’s historical commission regarding the design and exact placement.

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