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Under fire over reports that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt took several first class flights using taxpayer money, the agency defended the flights on Tuesday by claiming that Pruitt had a “blanket waiver” to fly first class for security reasons, only to walk back that claim the next day.

Several reports this week revealed that Pruitt flew first class on flights from Washington, D.C. to Boston and Washington, D.C. to New York, as well as on an Emirates flight from Milan, Italy, to Washington, D.C. Pruitt said on Tuesday that he felt he had to fly first class due to the “level of threat” he faces on planes. EPA Spokesman Jahan Wilcox also said Tuesday that Pruitt had a “blanket waiver” to do so.

However, when Politico pointed out that rules prohibit blanket waivers, Wilcox changed his statement and said that the EPA submits waivers each time Pruitt needs one.

“As such, for every trip Administrator Pruitt submits a waiver to fly in either first or business class,” Wilcox said in a statement to Politico.

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MOSCOW (AP) — After a week of swirling controversy, Russia acknowledged on Thursday that five of its citizens may have been killed by a U.S. strike in Syria, the first time Russians have died at U.S. hands in Syria.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova emphasized that the five victims weren’t Russian servicemen.

“According to preliminary information, five people, presumably Russian citizens, may have been killed in combat, the circumstances of which are being clarified,” Zakharova said in a briefing. “Some others have been injured, and it’s still necessary to check whether they are citizens of Russia or other nations.”

Until Thursday, both Russian and U.S. officials said they had no information on Russian casualties in the Feb. 7 clash, which came when pro-Syrian government forces attacked positions of the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters in the oil-rich eastern province of Deir el-Zour and faced a ferocious U.S. counterattack.

Zakharova wouldn’t describe how the Russians died, saying the circumstances of the clash are still being clarified, but her statement amounted to official recognition that the victims were part of the force that advanced on positions of the U.S.-backed fighters.

It marks the first time Russian and U.S. combatants have become directly engaged in combat in Syria — a scenario Moscow and Washington have anxiously sought to avoid.

On the chaotic Syrian battlefield, Russian forces are supporting the Syrian government in the fight against opposition groups, some of which are backed by the United States, and elements of both sides are fighting the last remnants of the Islamic State group in Syria.

The U.S. military has said it maintained contact with the Russian military in Syria before, during and after the Feb. 7 clash. The Russian Defense Ministry insisted its troops weren’t involved in the incident, saying 25 Syrian volunteers were wounded in the U.S. strike.

But Russian news media and social networks swirled with reports of the combat, describing how U.S. aircraft decimated Russian private military contractors who sought to take control over an oil factory near Khusham. Some reports put Russian losses at 200 or more, and a growing chorus of politicians, commentators and bloggers slammed the Kremlin for failing to acknowledge the casualties.

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, has said that some Russian citizens could be in Syria but the Kremlin doesn’t have any information about them. Pressed by reporters in Thursday’s conference call whether Putin ordered information about Russian casualties kept from the public, Peskov denied that.

Along with the Russian military, which has waged a military campaign in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government since September 2015, thousands of Russians have also reportedly fought there as private contractors. The private fighters allow the Kremlin to keep the official death toll from its campaign in Syria low, helping to avoid negative publicity about Russia’s involvement in Syria as Putin runs for re-election in the country’s March 18 presidential vote.

The push for oil assets appears to have been the top mission for Russian private contractors in Syria.

The U.S.-backed Kurdish-led forces have been vying with Russian-backed Syrian troops reinforced by Iranian-supported militias for control of the oil-rich Deir el-Zour province. It was unclear why pro-government forces acted so brazenly on Feb. 7 despite facing the obvious risk of a punishing U.S. counterstrike.

Observers noted the Russian military might have lacked information about the private contractors’ move on oil facilities because of poor coordination between them.

In the Feb. 7 clash, the U.S. military said a battalion-sized formation backed by tanks and artillery attacked the U.S.-backed fighters and the U.S. responded by unleashing a broad range of air power. For more than three hours, American F-15E attack jets, B-52 strategic bombers, AC-130 gunships, Apache attack helicopters and Reaper drones fired on the attacking force, killing about 100 attackers and destroying an unspecified number of artillery guns and battle tanks, said Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, commander of U.S. air forces in the Middle East.

Some said the offensive was launched because of a rumored relocation of some of the fighters from the area to the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northwestern Syria, which is facing a Turkish offensive.

Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli said Thursday he asked U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis for the United States to end its support for Syrian Kurdish fighters and remove them from a U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, that is fighting the Islamic State group in Syria.

Canikli said in comments televised live from Brussels that he told Mattis that U.S. support for the Syrian Kurdish militia, known as YPG, has helped Kurdish rebels in Turkey “to grow and strengthen,” posing an increasingly “existential” threat to Turkey.

Canikli said he presented documents to Mattis proving “organic” links between the YPG and Kurdish rebels in Turkey.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is due in Ankara later on Thursday to discuss growing tensions between the two NATO allies.

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The Internal Revenue Service and the Justice Department have issued subpoenas for people who have lent money to or assembled investors for real estate projects linked to Jared Kushner’s family in what appears to be a tax-related inquiry, Bloomberg reported Thursday.

The report, based on an unnamed source familiar with the matter, says the subpoenas were issued within the last year, but appear to be unrelated to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe or the other inquiries into Kushner family business dealings that have become publicly known.

Charles J. Harder, an attorney representing Kushner Cos., issued a statement to Bloomberg denying that the company was under a tax investigation or that it had been contacted by the relevant tax authorities.

“Kushner Cos. is not under investigation for any tax issues. It has had no contact with anyone at the IRS or Justice Department Tax Division,” Harder’s statement said. “It has received no subpoenas or audit requests about its taxes. It is not in tax court on any audits. If there is an investigation about others’ taxes, it has nothing to do with Kushner Cos. or its businesses.”

The Justice Department and IRS declined to comment for the Bloomberg story.

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During an interview with Fox News just hours after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida that left 17 people dead, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) on Wednesday warned his colleagues to not “jump to conclusions” on gun control policy before the facts of the attack are known.

He said it was not the appropriate time to start talking about policy surrounding the shooting, likely referencing statements from his Democratic colleague Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), who said on the Senate floor Wednesday afternoon the attack was “a consequence of our inaction.”

“People don’t know how this happened, who this person is, what motivated them, how did they get ahold of the weapon to carry out this attack,” Rubio said. “I think it’s important to know all of that before you jump to conclusions that there’s a law we could have passed that could have prevented it and there may be, but shouldn’t we at least know the facts?”

“We can always have that debate,” he continued. “But if you’re going to have the debate about this particular incident, you should at least know the facts before you run out and prescribe some law you claim could have prevented it.”

The shooting in Rubio’s home state at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Wednesday was the deadliest school shooting since the attack at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut five years ago.

President Donald Trump, who is set to speak on the shooting at 11 a.m. EST Thursday, tweeted Thursday morning, suggesting there were “many signs” that the alleged shooter was “mentally disturbed” and said people already “knew he was a big problem.”

“Must always report such instances to authorities, again and again!” he said.

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President Donald Trump will speak at 11 a.m. EST Thursday to address the school shooting in Parkland, Florida Wednesday that left 17 people dead, according to the White House.

Trump expressed his condolences to the victims’ families via Twitter Wednesday afternoon. He followed up with another tweet Thursday morning saying there were “many signs” that the alleged shooter “mentally disturbed” and calling on “neighbors and classmates” to report “such instances to authorities.”

Watch live below:

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After Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday sent a letter to Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley (R-IA) criticizing the senator’s criminal justice legislation, Grassley tore into the attorney general in a tweet and several interviews.

Grassley followed up in interviews with Politico and Bloomberg News explaining his ire toward Sessions. Grassley told Bloomberg News that he was especially angry with Sessions’ letter considering how much support he gave Sessions through his nomination process and the Russia investigation.

“I think it’s legitimate to be incensed and I resent it, because of what I’ve done for him. He had a tough nomination, a tough hearing in my committee,” Grassley told Bloomberg News.

“They wanted to call him back every other day for additional hearings about his Russian connection, and I shut them off of that until we had the normal oversight hearing in October I believe it was, see? And the President was going to fire him, and I backed him, you know? So why wouldn’t I be irritated?” he added.

In his letter to Grassley, Sessions claimed that the criminal justice bill Grassley worked on with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) would “reduce sentences for a highly dangerous cohort of criminals.” The bill is expected to pass the Judiciary Committee Thursday, but faces tough odds after that.

The bill would give judges more room to reduce prison sentences for nonviolent drug crimes, but the legislation also bolsters punishment for other crimes, such as for those involved in crimes related to the trafficking of opioids.

Grassley complained that Sessions was acting like a senator, not an attorney general by sending the letter.

“It’s Senator Sessions talking, not a person whose job it is to execute law, and quite frankly I’m very incensed,” he told Politico.

Grassley told Politico that if Sessions wanted to undermine the legislation, he “should have done what people suggested to him before: resign from attorney general and run for the Senate in Alabama again.”

He told Bloomberg News that he pitched his bill to the White House, with limited success, but that he feels unsupported by Sessions and President Donald Trump.

“I’ve got people in the White House sympathetic to it but feel corralled by Sessions and a president that hasn’t dug into it,” Grassley said.

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After the Veterans Affairs inspector general found that VA Secretary David Shulkin and his chief of staff misled ethics officials about a trip to Europe of the summer, Shulkin told USA Today on Wednesday afternoon that he regrets the mistakes made in the process for approving the trip.

The inspector general found that chief of staff Vivieca Wright Simpson doctored an email to make it seem like Shulkin was receiving an award from the Danish government during a trip in July in order to obtain government funding for his wife’s plane ticket, which cost more than $4,300. The investigation also found that Shulkin improperly accepted Wimbledon tickets from someone he met a few times at officials events.

Shulkin told USA Today that he did not intentionally mislead government officials about the trip and tried to shift blame to his staff.

“We act with the highest ethical character,” he said. “I relied upon my staff to do this, and in retrospect, I wish that I had asked more questions.”

He said that he mailed a check to the government to reimburse taxpayers for his wife’s $4,312 airfare and that he will reimburse his acquaintance for the Wimbledon tickets.

Shulkin was previously scheduled to appear before the House Veterans Affairs Committee on Thursday morning, and he will likely face questions about the trip.

The VA secretary is just the latest cabinet to face scrutiny for his expensive air travel. This week, EPA Secretary Scott Pruitt was forced to defend an expensive first class ticket.

 

 

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Hours after President Donald Trump offered his condolences to the families of the victims of the shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida Wednesday, he tweeted saying there were “many signs” that the shooter was mentally disturbed and tasked “neighbors and classmates” with reporting “such instances to authorities.”

Just hours before the President offered his condolences to the victims.

“My prayers and condolences to the families of the victims of the terrible Florida shooting. No child, teacher or anyone else should ever feel unsafe in an American school,” he tweeted, adding that he is working with the governor and local law enforcement on the “terrible” attack.

With 17 people dead, the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School has been labeled the deadliest school shooting since the attack at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut five years ago. There have been 18 school shootings so far in 2018, eight of which have resulted in injury or death.

Police identified the suspect in Florida as 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, a former student at the high school who police say has a “very, very disturbing” online presence.

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More than 100 White House staffers, including Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, were working on interim security clearances as of November of last year, according to reports from CNN and NBC News.

It’s not clear how many of those aides received a full security clearance in the few months since the information on interim security clearances was generated.

Since it was revealed last week that Rob Porter continued in his position as staff secretary on a temporary security clearance, even as the background check process turned up accusations of domestic violence, security clearances in the White House have come under greater scrutiny. House Oversight Committee Chair Trey Gowdy (R-SC) said Wednesday that his committee would investigate the process used to assess whether Porter should have obtained a security clearance.

Of the scores of White House staffers operating without full security clearances in November, about two dozen started working in the administration in January 2017, according to CNN. Those without a full security clearance include a special assistant to the president for national security affairs and the National Security Council’s senior director for international cybersecurity, per CNN.

According to NBC News, 47 of the aides without full security clearances in November report director to President Donald Trump.

Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner had temporary clearance to access top secret information and information classified as “top secret, sensitive compartmented information,” which means it comes from sensitive intelligence sources, according to NBC News.

White House Counsel Don McGahn, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah obtained permanent security clearances to access top secret information but were still operating on temporary clearances for the “top secret, sensitive compartmented information” as of November, according to NBC News.

Several staffers continued to work on interim security clearances even as some of Trump’s top aides have received their full security clearance. Counselor Kellyanne Conway, chief economic adviser Gary Cohn, Communications Director Hope Hicks, and policy adviser Stephen Miller all received a full security clearances by November, according to CNN.

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