Texas governor draws criticism for joke about shooting journalists | Reuters

By Jon Herskovitz
| AUSTIN, Texas

AUSTIN, Texas Texas Governor Greg Abbott joked about shooting journalists while visiting a gun range on Friday to sign a bill lowering the cost of a handgun license, drawing criticism from gun-safety and free-press advocates who called his remarks “dangerous.”

Abbott signed the bill at an indoor gun range in Austin, the state capital, then demonstrated his own shooting skills at an upstairs firing gallery before holding up his bullet-pocked target and quipping, “I’m gonna carry this around in case I see any reporters.”

A photo of the moment, published by the Texas Tribune, showed the grinning first-term Republican governor pointing to the center of the paper target, where three rounds had pierced the bull’s eye circle.

His comment drew sharp rebukes from Reporters Without Borders, headquartered in Paris, and the Washington-based Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Both said the incident was especially troubling as it came amid increasingly hostile rhetoric directed against the news media by Republican President Donald Trump and his supporters.

“This joke was dangerous and out of line. Because it’s never just a joke to some,” Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence said in a statement. “Words matter. In a state and country where dangerous people can still so easily buy guns without a background check, leaders of every political stripe should be careful not to green light violence on their behalf.”

The two groups also cited the misdemeanor assault charge filed on Wednesday against Republican Congressman-elect Greg Gianforte of Montana, accused of body-slamming a reporter who asked him about healthcare on the eve of his election.

“Politicians must condemn this dangerous rhetoric against reporters as it can quickly escalate to physical violence like we saw in Montana,” Reporters Without Borders said in a Tweet.

The group’s latest annual World Press Freedom Index of 180 countries ranks the United States at No. 43, one rung below the tiny West African nation of Burkino Faso.

“We’re really seeing just how much America deserves that ranking right now,” said Margaux Ewen, the organization’s U.S. advocacy director.

Abbott’s office did not respond to requests by Reuters for comment.

The bill he signed will cut fees for a first-time license to carry a handgun from $140 to $40, and lower the renewal fee from $70 to $40, starting in September. It also waives the fees for peace officers and members of the military.

“No law-abiding Texan should be priced out of the ability to exercise their Second Amendment rights,” Abbott said in signing the measure.

(Additional reporting and writing by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Dan Whitcomb, Lisa Shumaker and Michael Perry)

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Senate intelligence panel requests Trump campaign documents: Washington Post | Reuters

WASHINGTON The Senate Intelligence Committee, investigating Russian meddling in U.S. 2016 election, has asked President Donald Trump’s political organization to hand over all documents going back the campaign’s launch in June 2015, the Washington Post reported on Friday, citing two people briefed on the request.

The letter from the Senate panel seeking all documents, emails and telephone records arrived at Trump’s campaign committee last week and was addressed to its treasurer, the Post said.

This marked the first time the Trump campaign organization has been drawn into the bipartisan committee’s investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election, it said.

Dozens of former campaign staffers are expected to be contacted soon to ensure they are aware of the request, the Post said, citing the two people.

The letter was signed by Republican Senator Richard Burr, the committee’s chairman, and Senator Mark Warner, its top Democrat, according to the Post, which said representatives for Burr and Warner declined to comment.

The Senate panel’s investigation is among several in Congress into Russian interference in the election, and is separate from a probe into the matter being led by a special counsel appointed last week by the Justice Department, former Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Robert Mueller.

Trump’s campaign committee, based at Trump Tower in New York, is now led by Michael Glassner, a former deputy campaign manager, and John Pence, a nephew of Vice President Mike Pence, the Post said.

Glassner did not immediately respond to a request for comment and a White House representative had no immediate comment, the Post said.

Trump’s administration has been dogged by concerns about its ties to Russia and questions over whether Trump associates may have cooperated with Russians as they sought to meddle in last year’s election on Trump’s behalf.

U.S. intelligence agencies concluded in January that Moscow tried to sway the November vote in Trump’s favor. Russia has denied involvement, and Trump has denied any collusion between his campaign and Russia.

Controversy has engulfed Trump since he fired FBI Director James Comey on May 9 as Comey oversaw an investigation into possible collusion between his presidential campaign and Russia.

(Reporting by Eric Walsh; Editing by Bill Trott and Lisa Shumaker)

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White House agrees to detail ethics waivers | Reuters

By Pete Schroeder
| WASHINGTON

WASHINGTON The White House will comply with a request from the U.S. government’s ethics agency to provide information on which former lobbyists are working in the administration, an administration official said on Friday.

Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), said in a letter that the administration was not seeking to impede efforts by the Office of Government Ethics to obtain that information, despite earlier protests from Walter Shaub, the director of the Office of Government Ethics (OGE).

“OMB shares the belief that the executive branch must uphold the highest ethical standards in accordance with the law,” Mulvaney wrote. “Our concern was, and is, protecting the process related to the data call.”

Shaub, an appointee under President Barack Obama in the final year of five-year term, had requested in April copies of waivers the administration of President Donald Trump granted to former lobbyists now appointed to positions in the government. Those requests were sent to agencies across the administration, seeking waivers that would allow former lobbyists to work on issues they had been involved with as paid advocates.

But OMB requested a stay of that request, prompting a fierce response from Shaub. He called the request “highly unusual” and said his agency has the authority to take “corrective action proceedings” against agencies that refuse its requests.

In his Friday response, Mulvaney said the requested stay was not an attempt to stifle OGE efforts but rather to provide more time to “ensure sufficient consideration was given to legal questions.”

“OMB has never sought to impede OGE,” he wrote.

Mulvaney closed the letter by saying the OMB did not grant any lobbyist waivers itself.

Shortly after taking office in January, Trump signed an executive order barring lobbyists who joined the administration from working on issues related to their prior work. But the administration has the power to grant waivers to particular hires, exempting them from that restriction.

(Reporting by Pete Schroeder; Editing by Bill Trott)

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Major U.S. tech firms press Congress for internet surveillance reforms | Reuters

By Dustin Volz
| WASHINGTON

WASHINGTON Facebook, Amazon and more than two dozen other U.S. technology companies pressed Congress on Friday to make changes to a broad internet surveillance law, saying they were necessary to improve privacy protections and increase government transparency.

The request marks the first significant public effort by Silicon Valley to wade into what is expected to be a contentious debate later the year over the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, parts of which will expire on Dec. 31 unless Congress reauthorizes them.

Of particular concern to the technology industry and privacy advocates is Section 702, which allows U.S. intelligence agencies to vacuum up vast amounts of communications from foreigners but also incidentally collects some data belonging to Americans that can be searched by analysts without a warrant.

“We are writing to express our support for reforms to Section 702 that would maintain its utility to the U.S. intelligence community while increasing the program’s privacy protections and transparency,” the companies wrote in a letter to Representative Bob Goodlatte, the Republican chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee.

Section 702 is considered a vital tool by U.S. intelligence officials, estimated to be responsible for as much as a quarter of surveillance conducted by the U.S. National Security Agency.

But it has long been targeted by civil liberties advocates as too expansive and lacking in sufficient safeguards.

Disclosures by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in 2013 revealed the sweeping nature of 702 surveillance, causing embarrassment for some U.S. technology firms.

In their letter, the companies asked lawmakers to codify the recent termination of a type of NSA surveillance that collected American communications sent to or received from someone living overseas that mentioned a foreign intelligence target.

Lawmakers should also require judicial oversight of government queries of data collected under Section 702 that involved American communications and narrow the definition of “foreign intelligence information” to reduce the collection of data that belongs to foreigners not suspected of wrongdoing, the companies said.

The letter asks for more leeway in how companies are allowed to disclose the number of surveillance requests and more declassification of orders approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Legislation currently being drafted by a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House Judiciary Committee is expected to address all of the concerns raised in the technology companies’ letter.

Other signatories on the letter include Alphabet Inc’s Google, Cisco, Twitter, Uber [UBER.UL], Yahoo and Snap.

(Reporting by Dustin Volz; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

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Trump has been ‘complete disaster’ | Reuters

By Pete Schroeder
| WASHINGTON

WASHINGTON U.S. President Donald Trump’s time in office has been a “complete disaster” aside from foreign affairs, fellow Republican and former U.S. House Speaker John Boehner said at an energy conference.

The former Ohio congressman said he has been friends with Trump for 15 years but never thought he would occupy the White House.

And while he praised Trump’s aggressive steps to challenge the Islamic State militant group and other moves in international affairs, he was highly critical of the president’s other early efforts.

“Everything else he’s done has been a complete disaster,” Boehner said at the energy conference in Houston on Wednesday, according to the energy publication Rigzone. “He’s still learning how to be president.”

A spokesman for Boehner confirmed the comments. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Boehner’s remarks.

The former House speaker, who resigned from Congress in 2015, was also highly critical of efforts by the administration and his former Republican colleagues in Congress to advance sweeping healthcare and tax reform plans.

He said Republicans should never have tried to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act, even after the House narrowly passed an overhaul measure. The Senate is considering its own version of the package.

And he dismissed tax reform efforts, which form a cornerstone of the Republican policy agenda, as “just a bunch of happy talk.”

While Boehner’s successor, Speaker Paul Ryan, tries to include a border adjustment tax, a tax on imports, as a key piece of any tax code overhaul, Boehner declared it “deader than a doornail” amid opposition from fellow Republicans and the White House.

Boehner also supported efforts to “get to the bottom” of any potential interactions between Trump associates and the Russian government. However, he described any calls to impeach Trump as the purview of “the crazy left-wing Democratic colleagues of mine.”

Democratic Representative Al Green has formally introduced articles of impeachment for Trump, but such an effort has not been embraced by most Democratic lawmakers as the investigation continues.

(Reporting by Pete Schroeder; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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Trump travel ban fight heads toward Supreme Court showdown | Reuters

By Lawrence Hurley
| WASHINGTON

WASHINGTON The fate of President Donald Trump’s order to ban travelers from six predominantly Muslim nations, blocked by federal courts, may soon be in the hands of the conservative-majority Supreme Court, where his appointee Neil Gorsuch could help settle the matter.

After the Richmond-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declined on Thursday to lift a Maryland federal judge’s injunction halting the temporary ban ordered by Trump on March 6, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the administration would appeal to the Supreme Court.

A second regional federal appeals court heard arguments on May 15 in Seattle in the administration’s appeal of a decision by a federal judge in Hawaii also to block the ban. A ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is pending.

The Justice Department has not made clear when the administration would make its formal appeal or whether it would wait for the 9th Circuit ruling before appealing.

If they take it up, the justices would be called upon to decide whether courts should always defer to the president over allowing certain people to enter the country, especially when national security is the stated reason for an action as in this case. They also would have to decide if Trump’s order violated the U.S. Constitution’s bar against the government favoring one religion over another, as the ban’s challengers assert.

Gorsuch’s April confirmation by the Republican-led Senate over Democratic opposition restored the court’s 5-4 majority, which means that if all the conservative justices side with the administration the ban would be restored regardless of how the four liberal justices vote.

During his Senate confirmation hearing, Gorsuch was questioned about Trump’s criticism of judges who ruled against the ban. Gorsuch avoided commenting on the legal issue, saying only that he would not be “rubber stamp” for any president.

While the justices could decide in the coming weeks whether to hear the case, they likely would not hold oral arguments until late in the year, with a ruling sometime after that. A final resolution may not come until perhaps a year after Trump issued the executive order.

The justices are not required to hear any case, but this one meets important criteria cited by experts, including that it would be the federal government filing the appeal and that it involves a nationwide injunction.

The administration could file an emergency application seeking to put the order into effect while the litigation on its legality continues. At least five justices must agree for any such request to be granted.

While the court could split 5-4 along ideological lines, it also is possible some conservative justices could join the liberals in overturning the travel ban, libertarian law professor Ilya Somin of George Mason University said.

“Conservatives in other contexts often take a hard line against any kind of government discrimination (based) on race or religion or the like, even if the motivation may be benign. Also conservatives have concerns about government infringements on religion,” Somin said.

The 4th Circuit said the ban’s challengers, including refugee groups, in the case argued by the American Civil Liberties Union were likely to succeed on their claim that the order violated the Constitution’s prohibition on the government favoring or disfavoring any religion. In the 10-3 ruling, three Republican-appointed judges dissented.

The Republican president’s March 6 order, replacing an earlier Jan. 27 one also blocked by the courts, called for barring people from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen for 90 days while the government implements stricter visa screening. It also called for suspending all refugee admissions for 120 days.

KENNEDY’S REASONING

The travel ban’s challengers may take some comfort from the appeals court ruling’s reliance on a concurring opinion in a 2015 Supreme Court immigration case by Justice Anthony Kennedy, a conservative who sometimes sides with the court’s liberals in big cases.

In the 2015 case, Kennedy wrote that in the immigration context, the government’s actions can be questioned if there is evidence of bad faith.

“As with any opinion by Justice Kennedy, I think the million-dollar question is just what he meant in his concurrence, and this may be a perfect case to find out,” University of Texas School of Law professor Stephen Vladeck said.

In Thursday’s ruling, 4th Circuit Chief Judge Roger Gregory wrote that the plaintiffs had shown there was “ample evidence” of bad faith, which gave the green light to probe whether there were reasons for the order other than the administration’s stated national security rationale.

The administration has argued the temporary travel ban was needed to guard against terrorist attacks. Gregory wrote that the order uses “vague words of national security, but in context drips with religious intolerance, animus, and discrimination.” Trump during the presidential campaign called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Andrew Chung in New York; Editing by Will Dunham)

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U.S. lawmakers reintroduce bill to end restrictions on Cuba travel | Reuters

HAVANA/WASHINGTON A bipartisan group of U.S. senators reintroduced legislation on Thursday to repeal all restrictions on travel to Cuba, this time attracting far more co-sponsors in a sign of growing support for U.S.-Cuban detente even as its future looks uncertain.

The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act was introduced in 2015 by eight Republican and Democratic co-sponsors but never made it to the floor. The latest measure attracted 55 co-sponsors.

While efforts to ease the decades-old U.S. embargo against Cuba have been gathering strength and 55 votes would be a majority in the 100-member Senate, that number falls short of the 60 needed to advance the legislation. There was no indication the chamber’s Republican leaders would allow the measure to come up for a vote.

Republican President Donald Trump threatened during his 2016 election campaign to reverse a normalization of ties with the Communist-run, Caribbean island initiated in 2014 by Democratic President Barack Obama. Trump’s administration is reviewing U.S. policy toward the country’s former Cold War foe.

Obama eased trade and travel restrictions, fueling a boom in American visits to Cuba, although tourism was still not officially allowed.

On Wednesday, more than 40 U.S. travel companies and organizations urged Trump not to roll back expanded U.S. travel to Cuba.

“It is Americans who are penalized by our travel ban, not the Cuban government,” said U.S. Republican Senator Jeff Flake, who with Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy led the group that co-sponsored the bill.

Flake added that lifting the ban would give Americans more freedom but also benefit the Cuban people.

“This is certain to have positive benefits for the island’s burgeoning entrepreneurial and private sector.”

The number of U.S. visitors rose 74 percent last year, boosting business for Cuban hotels, BnBs, restaurants and taxis but also U.S. cruise operators and airlines that entered the market over the past year.

“We applaud Senators Flake and Leahy for their leadership in supporting the American and Cuban people by eliminating archaic, outdated policy,” said James Williams, president of the Washington-based Engage Cuba group.

There is still strong congressional opposition to any ending of Cuba’s isolation, led by anti-Castro Cuban-American lawmakers including Republican Senator Marco Rubio and Democratic Senator Robert Menendez.

They say the United States should not make travel to Cuba easier before the Havana government moves toward democracy.

(Reporting by Sarah Marsh in Havana and Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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U.S. visas issued to citizens of Trump travel ban nations continue to decline | Reuters

By Yeganeh Torbati
| WASHINGTON

WASHINGTON The United States issued about 50 percent fewer visitor visas in April to citizens of seven countries covered by President Donald Trump’s temporary travel bans than it did in an average month last year, according to a Reuters analysis of preliminary government data released on Thursday.

The total number of U.S. non-immigrant visas issued to people from all countries was about 15 percent lower in April compared with the 2016 monthly average.

The April data shows the continuation of a trend identified in data for the month of March, which the State Department released last month. That data showed that citizens of the seven Muslim-majority countries under the bans – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – received about 40 percent fewer visitor visas in March than in an average month last year. [nL1N1HZ2PJ]

Trump’s travel bans have been blocked by the courts.

Citizens of the seven countries received about 2,800 non-immigrant visas in April 2017, compared with about 5,700 on average per month during the 2016 fiscal year and more than 6,000 on average per month in 2015 and 2014. Data from previous years is only available in aggregate by fiscal year, rather than month-by-month. (tmsnrt.rs/2p8EFbm)

The State Department released the data to comply with a directive from Trump asking it to publish monthly breakdowns of the number of visas issued around the world.

The agency did not release data on the number of visa applications, so it is unclear whether the lower number of visas is because of a higher rate of rejections or other factors, such as fewer applicants or slower processing times.

“Visa demand is cyclical, not uniform throughout the year, and affected by various factors at the local and international level,” said William Cocks, a spokesman for the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs.

EXECUTIVE ORDERS

Trump, who has said the travel bans were intended to make Americans safer from attacks, signed an executive order on Jan. 27 barring people from the seven countries from entering the United States for 90 days.

After the order was blocked by federal courts, the Trump administration replaced it with a revised, narrower ban which dropped Iraq from the list. Courts have also halted parts of the second order.

On Thursday, a U.S. appeals court refused to reinstate the travel ban, calling it discriminatory and setting the stage for a showdown in the Supreme Court. [nL1N1IR1FY]

Although visitor visas were down across the board for the seven targeted countries compared with last years’ averages, Iraqis in April received 349 immigrant visas, which are typically given to those with jobs or family members in the United States, compared with 305 in an average month in 2016.

Syrians also received more immigrant visas in April – 268 versus an average of 219 per month last year. All other countries targeted by one of Trump’s bans received fewer immigrant visas in April than in an average month last year.

(Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Sue Horton and Lisa Shumaker)

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Hillary Clinton returns to her alma mater Wellesley for speech | Reuters

BOSTON Former U.S. secretary of state and failed 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton returns to her alma mater, Wellesley College, on Friday to address its graduating class.

Clinton, a Democrat who suffered a stunning November loss to Republican Donald Trump, has made a series of public appearances over the past two months, speaking publicly on issues including U.S. policy in Syria and the election outcome.

She told a New York conference earlier this month that she would have won if it had not been for the interference of Russian hackers and the announcement just days before the election by then FBI Director James Comey that the bureau had reopened its probe into her use of a private e-mail server.

Clinton has had a long public career since graduating in 1969 from Wellesley, an all-women’s college located in Boston’s suburbs. She was first lady during her husband Bill Clinton’s two terms in the White House and was later elected to the U.S. Senate representing New York state. She made an unsuccessful presidential run in 2008 before serving as the country’s top diplomat during President Barack Obama’s first term.

Clinton has openly criticized Trump, the businessman-turned-politician, for some of his foreign policy views as well as his use of Twitter to publicly lash out at his real and perceived opponents.

But Clinton, 69, has said she has no plans to run for further office, telling the New York group on May 2, “I’m back to being an activist citizen – and part of the resistance.”

(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Frances Kerry)

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Before the White House, Kennedy was a high-school prankster | Reuters

BOSTON Years before he captained the torpedo boat PT-109, ran for office or set the United States on a path to put a man on the moon, President John F. Kennedy was a troublesome teen whose hijinks nearly got him kicked out of his prestigious boarding school.

The scion of a wealthy Boston family, Kennedy spent his mid-teens at Connecticut’s elite Choate Rosemary Hall, where he excelled at history and literature – but infuriated the school’s headmaster by organizing pranks as a member of an unofficial school club known as “The Muckers.”

Those details of the early life of the 35th president, whose term was cut short by an assassin’s bullet in Dallas in 1963, emerge in a new exhibit at Boston’s John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, timed to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth on May 29, 1917.

Pages from a high school scrapbook, diligently filled out by the man who would go on to become the first Roman Catholic president, show he loved ancient history, music and football, as well as “beefing,” slang for complaining or arguing. Despite his later fame as an orator, he never got higher than the middling grade of C+ in public speaking, according to the school.

“Got shot at today for calling an old farmer a bad name,” reads an entry written by a 17-year-old Kennedy on Oct. 19, 1934. “Almost got hit.”

The scrapbook pages are among 40 Kennedy relics never before publicly exhibited, with notes extending to his years at Harvard University and the London School of Economics, before his World War Two service aboard torpedo boats and well before his first successful run for Congress in 1947.

Kennedy went on the serve in the Senate before being elected president in 1960, at the start of one of the most tumultuous decades in U.S. history.

“That’s why I so love this scrapbook, because it is so revealing about who he was at the time,” said Stacey Bredhoff, the museum’s curator.

Kennedy and his prankster friends went head-to-head with Choate’s headmaster, George St. John, in his years at the school. The “Muckers” club took its name from a speech in which St. John excoriated pranksters, using the label applied to Irish immigrants whose only work was shoveling up horse manure.

The group took the idea and ran with it, commissioning gold shovel pins and hatching a plot to pile horse manure in the school gymnasium.

“George St. John got wind of it and even though the prank never was actualized, it was enough that they would even consider such a thing, so he threatened to expel them all,” but eventually relented, said Judy Donald, the school’s archivist.

The details of the group’s successful pranks may be lost to time. But Donald said an oft-told tale that a young Kennedy blew up a school toilet with a powerful firecracker known as a cherry bomb is not true – while that incident did occur, it was the work of another student a decade later.

“St. John was understandably angry,” Donald said. “But JFK was not responsible for that one.”

(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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