March 20, 2017

President Trump on Monday dismissed widespread reports of Russia's meddling in the presidential election as "FAKE NEWS." In a series of tweets, Trump alleged Democrats "made up and pushed the Russian story," seemingly referring to the FBI- and CIA-backed reports that Russia interfered in the election to dash Hillary Clinton's chances, thus helping Trump.

Trump claimed Democrats fabricated the story "as an excuse for running a terrible campaign":

Trump then noted former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper's remark earlier this month that a paper compiled by the DNI, NSA, FBI, and CIA included "no evidence" of Trump associates' collusion with Russia. Clapper said neither he nor the agencies had uncovered any "evidence of such collusion."

Top House Intelligence Committee Democrat Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.) later said he was "surprised" by Clapper's comment because he did not think that claim could be made "categorically." "I would characterize it this way: At the outset of the investigation, there was circumstantial evidence of collusion," Schiff said. "There was direct evidence, I think, of deception."

Later Monday, FBI Director James Comey and NSA chief Mike Rogers will testify before Congress about possible connections between Trump's campaign and Russia. Becca Stanek

9:47 a.m. ET

Shortly after President Trump viciously attacked Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski on Twitter on Thursday morning, Brzezinski tweeted out this picture of a Cheerios box:

No caption was necessary, as the "little hands" line on the Cheerios box was clearly directed at Trump, who has long defended the size of his hands. So sensitive is Trump about his hands that he even took a moment at a Republican presidential debate to reassure everyone "there's no problem" with his hands, despite Sen. Marco Rubio's (R-Fla.) previous jab about his "small hands."

Brzezinski's subtle quip about Trump's hands paled in comparison to the deeply personal insults the president very publicly leveled against the co-host earlier that morning on Twitter. Trump called Brzezinski "low I.Q. Crazy Mika" and her fiancé and co-host, Joe Scarborough, "Psycho Joe."

Trump claimed that Brezezinski and Scarborough had "insisted" on joining him at his Florida resort Mar-a-Lago for "three nights in a row around New Year's Eve." "She was bleeding badly from a face-lift," Trump tweeted about Brzezinski. "I said no!" Becca Stanek

9:28 a.m. ET

President Trump on Thursday morning went on a bizarre Twitter rant about the co-hosts of MSNBC's Morning Joe. After noting he's "heard poorly rated" Morning Joe has been speaking "badly of me," Trump claimed that co-hosts Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough not long ago tried to spend time with him at his Florida resort. He then leveled some viciously personal insults:

About half an hour earlier, White House Social Media Director Dan Scavino Jr. had also tweeted about the pair, calling Brzezinski "#DumbAsARockMika." Becca Stanek

8:11 a.m. ET
KNS/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. military chiefs have prepared new options for how President Trump might respond to the North Korean threat, including "a military response," CNN reports. "What we have to do is prepare all options because the president has made clear to us that he will not accept a nuclear power in North Korea and a threat that can target the United States and target the American population," said National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster on Wednesday.

North Korea is "very much at the top of" Trump's mind, CIA Director Mike Pompeo said. Last week, Trump added that the North Korean regime "is causing tremendous problems and is something that has to be dealt with, and probably dealt with rapidly."

A primary concern is North Korea's increasing ability to hide missile and nuclear test preparations from the United States' satellites. Some experts, including U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, warn that North Korea's advances might be more rapid and sophisticated than previously predicted, and that the nation could even achieve the ability to deliver a nuclear weapon to the territorial U.S. before the estimated three-to-five-year timeframe.

"All options" are on the table in the case of another test, CNN reports. "Administration officials say war with North Korea in our lifetimes is not impossible," Axios writes. Jeva Lange

7:56 a.m. ET

Last week, through a series of decrees, Saudi King Salman promoted his favorite son, Mohammed bin Salman, to crown prince, demoting his nephew Mohammed bin Nayef, 57, who had been interior minister and counterterrorism czar as well as crown prince, and removing him from the royal line of succession. Now, Nayef has been confined to his palace in Jidda, as a precautionary measure to protect Mohammed bin Salman, 31, from internal challenge, The New York Times reports, citing four current and former U.S. officials and Saudis close to the royal family.

A senior official at the Foreign Ministry told the Times that the accounts of Nayef being confined to his palace are "baseless and false," but the Times' sources say the restrictions are not only real, but also extend to other family members:

The restrictions have also been imposed on Mohammed bin Nayef's daughters, according to a former American official who maintains ties to Saudi royals. A married daughter was told that her husband and their child could leave their home while she had to stay, the former official said. One Saudi close to the royal family said the new restrictions had been imposed almost immediately after Mohammed bin Salman's promotion. After the announcement, Mohammed bin Nayef returned to his palace in Jidda to find that his trusted guards had been replaced by guards loyal to Mohammed bin Salman, according to the Saudi and a former American official. Since then, he has been prevented from leaving the palace. [The New York Times]

To demonstrate that the changing of the line of succession is going smoothly, Saudi state media has been replaying this video of Mohammed bin Salman kissing the ring of Nayef, who wishes him well:

The palace arrest suggests that not everyone in the royal family agrees with King Salman's changes, and that the new crown prince believes public appearances might foment unrest. "It's an indication that [Mohammed bin Salman] does not want any opposition," a senior U.S. official tells the Times. "He doesn't want any rear-guard action within the family. He wants a straight elevation without any dissent — not that [Mohammed bin Nayaf] was plotting anything anyway." Peter Weber

7:27 a.m. ET

Iraq announced the collapse of the Islamic State within its borders on Thursday after Iraqi troops recaptured the grand mosque of Mosul, Reuters reports.

The 850-year-old Grand al-Nuri Mosque is the symbolic heart of ISIS's de facto capital, where leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi declared the caliphate three years ago to the day, on June 29, 2014. ISIS blew up the mosque last week as forces closed in following an eight-month U.S.-backed siege on Mosul.

Iraqi military spokesman Brigadier General Yahya Rasool told state TV "[ISIS's] fictitious state has fallen" and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi "issued instructions to bring the battle to its conclusion." Baghdadi is thought to have fled Mosul and gone into hiding on the Syrian border, The Guardian reports. Jeva Lange

7:06 a.m. ET
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

After months being blocked by the courts, and 72 hours after the U.S. Supreme Court partially lifted those judicial stays, what remains of President Trump's travel ban on refugees and visitors from six majority-Muslim countries will go into effect at 8 p.m. EDT on Thursday, according to a State Department cable sent out Wednesday and subsequently obtained by The Associated Press. On Monday, the Supreme Court agreed to review Trump's travel ban and the injunctions against it, ruling that in the meantime the ban could go into effect, but only for would-be visitors who don't have "bona fide relationships" within the U.S. The ruling affects new visas for people from Iran, Libya, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen.

Wednesday's cable lays out what the Trump administration considers "bone fide" family and business relationships. For family, that means only "close" family — parents, spouses, children, siblings, or sons- or daughters-in-law already living in the U.S., but not grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, siblings-in-law, or cousins, AP says. Legitimate business relationships must be "formal, documented, and formed in the ordinary course rather than for the purpose of evading" the ban, though journalists, students, workers, or lecturers with valid employment contracts or invitations are exempt.

People who already have valid visas won't be affected, and consular officials will have some discretion with certain other categories of applicants, such as adopted children, infants, and certain people with business in the United States. The rules will presumably stay in effect until the Supreme Court issues its decision, no earlier that this fall. Peter Weber

6:00 a.m. ET

On Thursday, police in Melbourne, Australia, announced criminal sex abuse charges against Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican finance chief and a top adviser to Pope Francis, saying he will face trial for unspecified multiple "historical sexual assault offenses," suggesting he is being accused of sexual abuse many years ago. At the Vatican, Pell said he would take an immediate leave from his position as the top Vatican official, but not step down, and return to Australia to fight the allegations. "I repeat that I am innocent of these charges, they are false," he said, and he is looking forward to answering them in court after months of "relentless character assassination."

Victoria state Police Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton said Pell has been ordered to appear at Melbourne Magistrates Court on July 18, that none of the multiple allegations against him have yet been tested in court, and that "Cardinal Pell, like any other defendant, has a right to due process." Pell, 76, was archbishop of Melbourne and then Sydney before Pope Francis put him in charge of reforming the Vatican's finances in 2014. He is the highest-ranking Catholic official to be accused of sexual abuse in the church's slowly unfolding sexual abuse scandal. Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said it was with regret that the Holy See learned of the charges, and said the financial reforms would continue during Pell's absence.

Earlier this year, a high-level Australian state commission found that 7 percent of Catholic priests in the country were accused of sexually abusing minors between 1950 and 2010. Pell, who has faced accusations of mishandling clerical sex abuse when he was an archbishop, testified twice in person and once over video, citing age and illness. The accusations that he himself sexually abused anyone are more recent; Victoria detectives interviewed him at the Vatican last year. Peter Weber

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