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A few days after counsel Robert Mueller announced an indictment against several Russians for meddling in the 2016 election, President Donald Trump latched into Mueller’s finding that Russians organized and promoted anti-Trump rallies after the election.

Trump attacked the media for covering the rallies and appeared to suggest that cable news networks may have known the rallies were organized by foreigners posing as Americans on social media.

Trump’s tweet came after conservative news outlets pointed out on Monday that the cable news networks covered a Nov. 12 of an anti-Trump rally. The conservative site NewsBusters first highlighted this, and the Daily Caller then picked it up.

Mueller’s indictment found that Russians promoted both a pro-Trump rally and an anti-Trump protest on the same day in November as part of the effort to sow discord in the U.S. elections process.

 

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Campaigning to keep his job, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin said Tuesday he had no intention of quitting despite blistering findings of travel abuses connected to his 11-day trip to Europe. He issued an extraordinary warning to VA staff rebelling against him: Get back in line or get out.

Speaking after a Tuesday meeting at the White House, Shulkin told The Associated Press that White House chief of staff John Kelly affirmed he still had the trust of President Donald Trump. Reports have swirled in recent days of White House officials looking to oust Shulkin for not hewing more closely to the Trump agenda as well as VA press officials refusing to serve him.

Shulkin, a former VA undersecretary of health in the Obama administration, denied he was straying off course. A VA inspector general report last week found that Shulkin had improperly accepted Wimbledon tennis tickets and his staff lied that he was getting an award in order to justify his wife accompanying him at taxpayer expense on an 11-day European trip in July that mixed business and sightseeing.

“There is no doubt I am the secretary,” he said.

Indicating that changes may be in store at the VA, Shulkin added: “Anyone that is not able to get on board with that is not going to be able to remain at VA.”

Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at a briefing Tuesday that she had no reason to believe Shulkin’s job was in danger. “If somebody no longer has the confidence of the president you guys will know,” she said.

Their statements come as several major veterans organizations have rallied behind Shulkin, citing concerns over his Europe travel but declaring him the best person to lead the VA at a time of major change. The department is seeking to expand private care options for veterans at government expense, a Trump campaign priority that has raised some concerns among veterans groups of undue “privatization.”

“While we were disappointed to learn of the recent issue with the secretary’s travel, we believe that the current controversy surrounding Shulkin is part of a larger effort to remove him and install others who would take steps to privatize the services provided to our nation’s heroes by the VA,” said American Legion National Commander Denise H. Rohan in a statement.

Addressing the travel controversy, Shulkin said he should have paid closer attention to travel policies rather than rely on staff who he said insisted that his wife would be able to fly commercial airfare for the 11-day trip to Denmark and Britain in July without any problems. The VA inspector general determined that Shulkin’s top aide, Vivieca Wright Simpson, actually had doctored emails to falsely represent that Shulkin was being honored in Denmark to justify the free travel. Wright Simpson retired from her post last Friday in the wake of the IG report.

At least one lawmaker, Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., has called on Shulkin to resign over the improprieties; other lawmakers have suggested he should do more to explain himself and acknowledge fault.

On Tuesday, Shulkin stressed he regretted that the incident had become a distraction to Trump’s agenda and said he would pay more attention to VA’s travel policies in the future.

“I am extraordinarily busy,” Shulkin said. “I wished I asked more questions.” Pledging to put aside the “distractions,” he said he would continue pushing forward with bipartisan legislation in Congress and had called a VA leadership department meeting on Tuesday to reiterate that people who “hijack” the VA agenda won’t be tolerated.

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Jared Kushner, son-in-law and senior adviser to President Donald Trump, has pushed back on chief of staff John Kelly’s effort to rein in the use of interim security clearance and argued that he needs to keep his interim access to classified material, the New York Times reported Tuesday night, citing White House officials and others briefed on the situation.

Following the firing of Rob Porter and revelations that he was able to use an interim security clearance despite allegations of domestic abuse, Kelly has set out to reform the security clearance process in the White House. He issued a memo last week declaring that anyone who has been operating with an interim security clearance since June will see that access revoked until they obtain a full clearance, and that the White House will continue to assess who can keep a security clearance.

Kushner has come under increased scrutiny since Porter’s ouster because he has reportedly been working on an interim clearance for more than a year and has filed several updates to his lists of foreign contacts and financial assets.

Kushner told colleagues that he does not want to give up his interim clearance and insisted that he must maintain his access, according to the New York Times. Kushner also feels personally targeted by Kelly’s memo, officials told the Times. However, others familiar with Kushner’s thinking denied to the New York Times that he feels singled out by Kelly or that he has resisted Kelly’s efforts.

The White House said Tuesday that Kushner’s work will not be impacted by Kelly’s changes to the security clearance process but did not acknowledge whether Kushner’s interim clearance would be revoked.

“Mr. Kushner’s work that he has done will not be impacted and he’s going to continue to do the work that he’s done over the last year,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters during the daily briefing.

Kelly echoed Sanders in a statement to the New York Times.

“As I told Jared days ago, I have full confidence in his ability to continue performing his duties in his foreign policy portfolio including overseeing our Israeli-Palestinian peace effort and serving as an integral part of our relationship with Mexico,” Kelly said in the statement.

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NEW DELHI (AP) — Donald Trump Jr. said Wednesday any talk that his family is profiting from his father’s presidency is “nonsense” as he embarked on a highly publicized visit to India to promote real estate deals that bear his family’s name.

The eldest son of President Donald Trump is in India to meet the promoters and buyers of Trump brand luxury homes in the country, raising ethical concerns about using the name of the American president to promote business ventures internationally.

But Trump Jr. told Indian television channel CNBC-TV18 that his family is instead missing out on business opportunities because his father pledged to conduct no new foreign business while he was in office.

Trump Jr., who along with his brother Eric now runs the Trump Organization, said when critics talk about them “profiteering from the presidency and all this nonsense” they forget about “the opportunity cost of the deals that we were not able to do.”

“It’s sort of a shame. Because we put on all these impositions on ourselves and essentially got no credit for actually doing that … for doing the right thing,” he added.

For at least a week before Trump Jr. arrived in India on Tuesday, several major Indian newspapers carried glossy, front-page advertisements with the statement, “Trump has arrived. Have you?”

The ads promised that buyers who order apartments in a new Trump-brand luxury real estate development in a suburb of the Indian capital by Thursday will get “a conversation and dinner” with Trump Jr. a day later.

He is expected to visit and promote business in all the Trump-brand projects across four Indian cities. Media access to his events in the country has been limited and only news organizations chosen by his team have had access to him.

The Trump Organization has licensing agreements with all its Indian business partners. They build the properties and acquire the Trump name in exchange for a fee. With five projects in India, the country is the brand’s largest market outside the United States. A luxury complex is already open in the central city of Pune, with other developments in varying stages of construction in the coastal cities of Mumbai and Kolkata, and two in Gurgaon.

All the projects were signed before President Trump took office, but promoting even existing business has raised ethics concerns.

“The president should be putting the public’s interest before his business interests. That can’t happen if his son is flying around the world trying to trade on the fact that his father is sitting in the Oval Office,” said Scott H. Amey, general counsel for the non-partisan Project on Government Oversight in Washington.

Amey added that several foreign deals touted by the president’s two adult sons have “stretched the definition of what ventures were previously in the works.”

Trump Jr. has made several visits to India over the years and has repeatedly talked of great business opportunities in the country.

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Vice President Mike Pence was all set to hold a history-making meeting with North Korean officials during the Winter Olympics in South Korea, but Kim Jong Un’s government canceled at the last minute, the Trump administration said Tuesday.

A potential meeting between Pence and the North Koreans had been the most highly anticipated moment of the vice president’s visit to Pyeongchang, South Korea, where he led the U.S delegation to the opening ceremonies. Ahead of Pence’s visit, Trump officials had insisted they’d requested no meeting with North Korea, but notably left open the possibility one could occur.

There was no indication that a meeting had indeed been planned — and then canceled on short notice — until Tuesday, more than a week after Pence returned to the United States. The State Department said that Pence had been “ready to take this opportunity” but would have used it to insist Pyongyang abandon its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

“At the last minute, DPRK officials decided not to go forward with the meeting,” said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, using an acronym for the North’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “We regret their failure to seize this opportunity.”

That seemed to contradict North Korea’s own claim that it had no interest in meeting with Pence while he was in Pyeongchang.

“We have no intention to meet with the U.S. side during the stay in South Korea,” a Foreign Ministry official was quoted as saying by the North’s official news agency on Feb. 8, the day Pence arrived in South Korea. “We are not going to use such a sports festival as the Winter Olympics as a political lever. There is no need to do so.”

A Trump administration official said the U.S. had expected the meeting to occur Feb. 10, the last day of Pence’s three-day visit to the Olympic Games. The administration did not say exactly how much notice it received from North Korea that the meeting had been called off, nor where the meeting would have taken place or under what conditions.

Nor was it immediately clear whether North Korea scheduled the meeting before the vice president arrived in South Korea or after he had already arrived. The day before landing in Pyeonchang, Pence told reporters that “we haven’t requested a meeting with North Korea.”

“But if I have any contact with them — in any context — over the next two days, my message will be the same as it was here today: North Korea needs to once and for all abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions,” Pence said.

A potential high-level interaction between the U.S. and North Korea, which would have broken years of estrangement between the two countries, loomed prominently over the Winter Games, where North Korea made a last-minute move to send its athletes to compete on a combined team with South Korea, the host of the games.

Since taking office, the Trump administration has been working to increase economic pressure on the North to abandon its nuclear programs while also threatening military action, insisting at the same time that a diplomatic solution would be preferable for all sides. Yet for months the Trump administration had offered inconsistent messages about what conditions would be needed for a tete-a-tete — such as whether North Korea would have to agree that its nuclear program was on the table before the United States would be willing to sit down.

Pence’s office, acknowledging the scrapped meeting on Tuesday, said North Korea had “dangled a meeting” in hopes that doing so would entice the vice president to ease up on the North. Pence’s office suggested that North Korea later bailed because it became clear he would hold firm on the U.S. stance if a meeting did occur.

Pence’s chief of staff, Nick Ayers, said that the planned meeting — first reported by The Washington Post — would have included an “uncompromising message” delivered by Pence about the “maximum pressure campaign” the Trump administration is waging to try to deter North Korea from proceeding with its nuclear program.

“Perhaps that’s why they walked away from a meeting, or perhaps they were never sincere about sitting down,” Ayers said.

Pyongyang sent its nominal head of state, Kim Yong Nam, the highest-level visitor to the South from the North in recent memory. It also sent Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong. Ostensibly, Pence would have met with one or both of those significant North Korean figures.

Pence’s guest for the Olympic Opening Ceremonies was Fred Warmbier, the father of Otto Warmbier, the U.S. student who died in 2017 shortly after he was released from North Korean detention. Pence also announced in the run-up to his visit that the Trump administration was preparing to unveil a particularly tough round of sanctions punishing the North for its nuclear weapons program.

Pence’s trip came after President Donald Trump days earlier hosted a group of North Korean defectors in the Oval Office, including Ji Seong-ho, whom the president had referenced in his State of the Union address. The White House cast that meeting as part of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign to counter the North Korean nuclear program. The plan centers around rallying the international community to further isolate North Korea both diplomatically and economically.

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Associated Press writer Zeke Miller and AP Pyongyang bureau chief Eric Talmadge, on assignment in Pyeongchang, contributed to this report.

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Students who survived the Florida school shooting prepared to flood the Capitol Wednesday pushing to ban the assault-style rifle used to kill 17 people, vowing to make changes in the November election if they can’t persuade lawmakers to change laws before their legislative session ends.

About 100 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students arrived at a Tallahassee high school to extended applause late Tuesday after a 400-mile (640-kilometer) trip on three buses. They told the 500 students and parents waiting for them that they are fighting to protect all students.

“We’re what’s making the change. We’re going to talk to these politicians tomorrow. We’re going to talk to them the day after that. We’re going to keep talking, we’re going to keep pushing until something is done because people are dying and this can’t happen anymore,” said Alfonso Calderon, a 16-year-old junior. “You guys are what we’re trying to protect.”

Despite their enthusiasm and determination, the students and their supporters aren’t likely to get what they really want: a ban on AR-15s and similar semi-automatic rifles. Republican lawmakers are talking more seriously about some restrictions, but not a total ban.

Instead, they’re discussing treating assault-style rifles like the one suspected gunman Nikolas Cruz is accused of using in the Valentine’s Day attack more like handguns than long guns. That could mean raising the minimum age to purchase the weapon to 21, creating a waiting period and making it more difficult for people who exhibit signs of mental illness from buying the weapon even without a diagnosis.

Democrats attempted to get a bill to ban assault rifles and large-capacity magazines heard on the House floor on Tuesday. Republicans, who dominate the chamber, easily dismissed it. Students who were at the Capitol ahead of their classmates who arrived late Tuesday found Republicans steered the conversation away from gun restrictions.

Rachel Catania, 15, a sophomore at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland said she got a lot of non-answers from the politicians she spoke with Tuesday.

“I know it’s going to be hard, but I know we can do it,” she said. “We’re not going to be the school that got shot, we’re going to be the school that got shot and made something happen. A change is going to happen.”

The students on the seven-hour bus ride checked their phones, watching videos and reading comments on social media about the shooting, some of which accused them of being liberal pawns.

As the grieving Florida students demanded action on guns, President Donald Trump on Tuesday directed the Justice Department to move to ban devices like the rapid-fire bump stocks used in last year’s Las Vegas massacre. It was a small sign of movement on the gun violence issue that has long tied Washington in knots.

“We must do more to protect our children,” said Trump, a strong and vocal supporter of gun rights. He added that his administration was working hard to respond to the Florida rampage.

The students planned to hold a rally Wednesday to put more pressure on the Legislature.

“I really think they are going to hear us out,” said Chris Grady, a high school senior aboard the bus.

The Feb. 14 attack initially appeared to overcome the resistance of some in the state’s political leadership, which has rebuffed gun restrictions since Republicans took control of both the governor’s office and the Legislature in 1999. However, many members of the party still have strong resistance to any gun-control measures.

The Parkland students also plan to meet Wednesday with top legislative leaders, including House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron.

Florida has a reputation for expanding gun rights. Negron sponsored a 2011 bill that Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed into law that banned cities and counties from regulating gun and ammunition sales.

Scott organized three committees to look at school safety, mental health and gun safety issues that met Tuesday and vowed to make changes to better protect students. While Scott told reporters several times that “everything is on the table,” he did not answer whether his proposal would include any bans on any type of weapons.

Instead, Scott said he is interested in making it harder for people who are temporarily committed to obtain a gun. He also pledged to increase spending on school safety programs and on mental health treatment.

Authorities said Cruz, 19, had a string of run-ins with school authorities that ended with his expulsion. Police were repeatedly called to his house throughout his childhood. His lawyers said there were many warning signs that he was mentally unstable and potentially violent. Yet he legally purchased a semi-automatic rifle.

Stoneman Douglas senior Diego Pfeiffer was realistic about what change would happen before the Legislature goes home March 9, but said anything is a good first step.

“The best case scenario is we move a step forward and that’s all we’re asking here. We’re asking to help save student lives,” he said. “Whether it’s funding or mental health or gun safety or any of that sort of stuff — I am pro any of that.”

But he also said if change doesn’t come in the Legislature, he noted he’s now 18 and he has the power of his vote.

“You’re our senators and you’re our representatives for now. If you don’t help us make a change soon, you will be left in the dust,” he said. “I’m happily going to vote for anybody who’s going to be on our side, the side of children’s lives. How can you say no to that?”

Lush reported from St. Petersburg, Florida. Associated Press writers Gary Fineout in Tallahassee and Sadie Gurman in Washington contributed to this report.

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When Trump administration’s senior HHS staff unveiled a draft rule this week that would expand the sale of cheap, skimpy, short-term health plans, they described it as a “lifeline” for the currently uninsured, and insisted the rule change won’t destabilize Obamacare’s individual market.

The department’s move is just the latest in a lengthy series of administrative actions that have destabilized and chipped away at the Affordable Care Act, including repealing of the individual mandate, cutting the length of open enrollment in half and slashing funding for outreach and assistance, making it easier for states to cull their Medicaid enrollees, and cutting off CSR subsidies that offset the cost of insuring low-income individuals.

While Obamacare’s individual mandate was still in place, those who chose a cheap, short-term, non-ACA plan still had to pay the tax penalty. With that barrier removed next year, the introduction of the skimpy plans could upend the health care marketplace.

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Jon Cordova, the principal deputy assistant secretary for administration at the Department of Health and Human Services, has been placed on leave in the wake of revelations about conspiratorial and racist posts he shared on social media, CNN reported Tuesday.

“Mr. Cordova is currently on administrative leave while we look into this issue further,” an unnamed agency spokesperson told CNN.

Cordova was suspended after CNN’s KFile team asked HHS about the posts, the network reported.

Cordova’s bio on the HHS website notes that he joined the administration in February 2017, shortly after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, and that his current duties include “providing direct support to the Assistant Secretary for Administration for HHS and overseeing the day-to-day operations of the Office of Human Relations, Office of the Chief Information Officer, Office of Security and Strategic Information, Equal Employment Opportunity Compliance and Operations Office and the Program Support Center.” 

Among the posts flagged by CNN: a story Cordova shared on Facebook in July 2016 falsely alleging that Khizr Khan was a “Muslim Brotherhood agent” and “a Muslim plant working with the Hillary Clinton campaign.” In March of that year, he shared a false story alleging Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), then competing with Donald Trump for the Republican nomination for President, “frequented prostitutes,” in CNN’s words, among other claims. 

In August 2015, Cordova shared a photograph of an African American man holding a photoshopped protest sign that read “No mother should have to fear for her son’s life every time he robs a store,” the report said. In a two-year-old tweet, according to a CNN screenshot, he shared a meme comparing MoveOn.org and Black Lives Matter protesters to Nazi Brown Shirts.

Read CNN’s full report here.

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There are some vague signs, inklings really, that today’s guilty plea by former Skadden Arps lawyer Alex van der Zwaan, the London-based Dutch son-in-law of Ukrainian-Russian billionaire German Khan, could be more significant than first appears. Emphasis on “could.”

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HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Urged on by President Donald Trump, Republicans vowed Tuesday to fight Pennsylvania’s new court-imposed map of congressional districts, as dozens of candidates assessed their chances under newly formed districts and the odds that a federal court could block them.

Republican members of Congress and Pennsylvania Republican lawmakers planned to sue in federal court as early as Wednesday in a bid to block a map expected to improve Democrats’ chances at erasing the GOP’s U.S. House majority.

The new map substantially overhauls a GOP-drawn congressional map that has helped produce a predominantly Republican delegation and was widely viewed as among the nation’s most gerrymandered.

With control of the U.S. House on the line in November, Trump urged Republicans to challenge the new map of Pennsylvania’s 18 congressional districts all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary.

“Your Original was correct! Don’t let the Dems take elections away from you so that they can raise taxes & waste money!” Trump tweeted.

The Democratic-majority state Supreme Court met its deadline Monday to issue the new boundaries after it threw out a 6-year-old GOP-drawn map as unconstitutionally gerrymandered. The Republican-controlled Legislature and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf did not produce a consensus replacement map in the three weeks allotted by the court.

Democrats cheered the new map, while Republicans blasted it and it left dozens of candidates reconsidering their future.

Chief among them is Republican Rep. Ryan Costello, whose suburban Philadelphia district was narrowly won by Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016. Costello is in more dire straits now that the court added the heavily Democratic city of Reading to his district and ironed out geographic contortions that were designed to capture more Republican voters.

On Tuesday, Costello could not yet say if he will run in his district if the court-ordered congressional map survives a federal court challenge.

But Costello lashed out at the state Supreme Court, saying the justices’ map was politically motivated, their map-making process was politically corrupt and that state lawmakers should consider impeaching them.

“I’m all riled up,” Costello said.

Pennsylvania’s state House Republican majority leader, Dave Reed, now lives in the same district as U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, a fellow Republican, rather than the district of the man he had hoped to succeed, retiring Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster. Reed said he did not know what he would do.

Joe Peters, a former top state drug prosecutor and Scranton police officer, had been running to succeed a fellow Republican, U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, who is campaigning for U.S. Senate.

Peters now finds his rural northeastern Pennsylvania home in the same district as Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Marino. That prompted Peters to start thinking about moving into one of two nearby districts without a Republican incumbent while trying to gauge whether a federal lawsuit could undo the new districts.

“It’s a combination of a game of chicken and a game of chess,” Peters said.

The map removes the heart of one district from Philadelphia, where a crowd of candidates had assembled to replace the retiring Democratic Rep. Bob Brady, and moves it to suburban Montgomery County. That leaves many of those candidates in the same districts as Democratic Reps. Dwight Evans and Brendan Boyle.

The new map also renders the March 13 special election in southwestern Pennsylvania virtually meaningless: the court’s map puts each candidate’s home in a district with a Pittsburgh-area incumbent. Neither candidate — Democrat Conor Lamb and Republican Rick Saccone — responded to messages about their plans beyond the special election.

The state court ruled last month that Republicans who redrew district boundaries in 2011 unconstitutionally put partisan interests above neutral line-drawing criteria.

Independent analysts said the court-ordered map should improve Democratic prospects while still favoring Republicans as a whole. An analysis conducted through PlanScore.org concluded the court’s redrawn map eliminates “much of the partisan skew” favoring Republicans on the old Republican-drawn map, although not all of it.

The new map is to be in effect for the May 15 primary. The first day for candidates to start circulating petitions is next Tuesday, but petitions weren’t available yet and neither was complete information about which municipalities and precincts were in each new district.

Republicans will argue in federal court that legislatures and governors, not courts, have the constitutional responsibility to draw congressional maps. But constitutional law professors say they appear to face an uphill battle since federal courts are normally reluctant to undo a state court decision.

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