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February 20, 2018

A member of Louisiana's Tangipahoa Parish School Board said Tuesday that he is "saddened by the misplaced reaction" to a disturbing meme he posted on Facebook. The image featured a noose and the text "if we want to make America great again, we will have to make evil people fear punishment again," The Advocate reports.

The post, which Mike Whitlow shared after the Florida school shooting, provoked a statement from local councilman Louis Joseph, who said: "I am extremely offended by his post as we all know the history and meaning of the hangman's noose, especially as it pertains to African-Americans. As a member of the school board, what message are you sending to the students, employees, and parents of our school system, let alone people that may be considering moving into our parish?"

The meme appears to have originated in October 2017 on a page called Weapons Vault, a pro-gun and Second Amendment Facebook group, New Orleans' WWL-TV reports. "Yesterday, I came across an article on Facebook that advocated for such stiffer sentences for violence offenses and simply shared the article on my personal Facebook page," Whitlow said. "The article had no racial or discriminatory tones whatsoever."

He deleted the noose meme, adding: "I apologize to anyone who was offended by a post I recently shared." Jeva Lange

February 12, 2018
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The latest member of President Trump's Cabinet to draw scrutiny over his travel is Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, who somehow managed to spend $1,641 for a first-class ticket to travel the 200 miles between Washington, D.C., and New York City, The Washington Post reports. In the same week, in June of last year, Pruitt also spent $36,068 to travel from Cincinnati to New York on a military jet, in order to catch a round-trip flight to Rome that cost him $7,003.

The flight to Rome, which can often be found for a few hundred dollars, cost Pruitt "several times what was paid for other officials who went," The Washington Post reports, and the EPA documents "do not explain the discrepancy."

In total, Pruitt and his aides spent some $90,000 in taxpayer dollars on travel during just a few weeks in early June, documents show. Pruitt often justifies flying first or business class, and the EPA rarely releases his schedule, because of unspecified "security concerns." Pruitt additionally has a 24/7 security detail, the cost of which has not been revealed publicly.

Trump's former health secretary, Tom Price, ultimately resigned after racking up $500,000 in charter flights. The Treasury Department inspector general found that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin's seven flights on military planes were all legally approved but suggested that the $811,798 cost to taxpayers was poorly justified. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's travels also flagged attention after he chartered an oil executive's private plane, costing taxpayers more than $12,000.

EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman confirmed to the Post that Pruitt's travel was all approved. "He's trying to further positive environmental outcomes and achieve tangible environmental results," she said. Jeva Lange

January 30, 2018
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President Trump has allegedly considered heading off Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into possible collusion between his 2016 campaign and Russia by having Attorney General Jeff Sessions interrupt the probe by prosecuting Mueller and his team, NBC News reports. "Here's how it would work: 'We're sorry, Mr. Mueller, you won't be able to run the federal grand jury today because [you have] to go testify to another federal grand jury,'" explained a Trump adviser.

Although rumors have long swirled that Trump is considering firing Mueller — and even attempted to do so last year — White House insiders say Trump has since "been convinced that firing Mueller would not only create a firestorm, it would play right into Mueller's hands because it would give Mueller the moral high ground."

Trump's lawyers publicly say Mueller is close to wrapping up the investigation, and that the president, who himself is reportedly under investigation for possible obstruction of justice, will be cleared. "The sooner it's worked out, the better it is for the country," Trump told The New York Times in December. Jeva Lange

January 29, 2018
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The United States is home to more fluent Spanish speakers than Spain, but the Trump administration's nominee for the ambassador to Chile apparently doesn't know much beyond como se dice, Bloomberg Politics reports. Businessman Andrew Gellert, the president of the food-importing Gellert Global Group, is a longtime friend of Jared Kushner's father and has a shared interest in the family's troubled tower at 666 Fifth Ave. Yet aside from exporting nuts and dried fruits from Chile, Gellert's nomination is a bit of a head-scratcher: "He has no diplomatic experience and speaks only basic Spanish," Bloomberg Politics writes.

Ambassadorships are often rewarded to campaign donors and other members of the president's personal social circle, and many do not fluently speak the language of the country they represent, though they win points when they do. Gellert's nomination is particularly striking, though, because of the low visibility of Latinos in the Trump administration. The president's Cabinet has been criticized for being the first without any Latinos since 1989.

Separately, the Trump administration recently granted mining leases in a Minnesota wilderness area to a Chilean billionaire, Andrónico Luksic, a move that had previously been blocked by the Obama administration. Luksic is notably the owner of Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump's $15,000-a-month rental home in Washington, D.C., The Wall Street Journal reports. Jeva Lange

January 26, 2018
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Russian agents managed to get fake Facebook events in front of the eyes of almost 340,000 users during the 2016 election, with 62,500 users going as far as to confirm their plans to attend. The numbers reflect Russian trolls' startling ability to physically mobilize Americans through social media, a development that former FBI agent Clinton Watts told The Washington Post was "unprecedented."

The Russian operatives "just did it persistently, and they did it well," Watts said.

Facebook previously admitted that an estimated 126 million people saw free posts made by Russian operatives, and another 10 million saw ads paid for by the St. Petersburg "troll farm" known as the Internet Research Agency. It isn't clear how many people actually showed up for any of the 129 events pushed by Russian agents, and Facebook won't confirm a full list of events.

Despite the lack of transparency, Facebook has previously disclosed that Russian-controlled accounts were behind two dueling rallies at the same place and time in Houston, "Stop Islamization of Texas" and "Save Islamic Knowledge," which serve as an example of "how Russians hoped to turn divisions into open conflict," The Washington Post writes.

"This was … about measuring individual motivations to translate online signals into real-world behaviors," said Columbia University journalism research director Jonathan Albright. Read more about Russian agents' efforts to physically motivate Americans during the election at The Washington Post. Jeva Lange

January 24, 2018
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President Trump's former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, spoke with FBI investigators in the White House two days after his swearing-in in 2017, although Trump himself did not learn of the interview until two days later, NBC News reports. "No one knew that any of this was happening," said one senior White House official.

The Jan. 24, 2017, meeting between Flynn and the FBI is now at the heart of the ongoing investigation into Russia's hand in the 2016 election and a possible obstruction of justice case against the sitting president. In December, Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in the Jan. 24 interview.

Then-Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe's office and one of Flynn's schedulers had spoken on Jan. 24 to arrange for the interview later that same day. "The scheduler didn't ask the reason for the meeting, and the FBI didn't volunteer it," NBC News writes based on a conversation with a person familiar with the timeline. Flynn, as such, did not loop in a lawyer for the National Security Council, as would be normal, nor his own personal lawyer, meeting instead with the investigators alone.

The White House senior staff first learned the interview had taken place on Jan. 26, an entire two days later. Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates revealed Flynn's conversation with the FBI when she warned White House counsel Don McGahn that the national security adviser had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about the nature of his conversations with former Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, potentially making him vulnerable to blackmail. Yates has since testified that McGahn asked her about how well Flynn did in his interview with the FBI agents, and Yates told him she could not comment.

McGahn subsequently briefed Trump, then-White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, and then-White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. Flynn was fired 18 days later, on Feb. 13. Read the full story of Flynn's private meeting with the FBI at NBC News. Jeva Lange

January 17, 2018
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The team working with Special Counsel Robert Mueller to investigate Russia's influence over the 2016 election is reportedly inspecting "suspicious" transactions involving Russian diplomatic personnel, BuzzFeed News writes. Among the transactions flagged by the Russian embassy's bank and reported, as is legally required, to the U.S. Treasury's financial crimes unit is a payment of $120,000 to then-Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak just days after the presidential election and an attempt to withdraw $150,000 from the embassy's account less than a week after President Trump's inauguration.

In particular, Kislyak's payout raised eyebrows because it was marked as "payroll," although it didn't fit into his normal pay routine. Likewise, in the spring of 2014 some 30 checks to embassy employees totaling about $370,000 raised suspicions because "bank officials noted that the employees had not received similar payments in the past, and that the transactions surrounded the date of a critical referendum on whether parts of Crimea should secede from Ukraine and join Russia," BuzzFeed News writes.

Just because payments are flagged as suspicious, though, doesn't mean they are necessarily illegal. As people in the intelligence and diplomatic communities told BuzzFeed News, "there could be justifiable uses for the money, such as travel, bonuses, or pension payouts." That is now up to the Treasury Department, Senate Intelligence Committee, and Mueller to review and decide. Read more about the suspicious financial activity, including a small Washington, D.C., contractor who received some $320,000 from the Russian embassy, at BuzzFeed News. Jeva Lange

December 15, 2017

President Trump left open an awful lot of room for speculation Friday when he refused to talk about a potential pardon for his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Earlier this month, Flynn pleaded guilty to making "willfully" false statements to the FBI about his contact with former Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

"I don't want to talk about pardons with Michael Flynn yet, we'll see what happens, let's see," Trump told reporters. "I can say this, when you look at what's going on with the FBI and the Justice Department, people are very, very angry."

There was one particular word that stuck out to listeners:

Watch Trump's comments below. Jeva Lange

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