Politics

Trump denies paying North Korea $2 million for Otto Warmbier's care

Xinhua/Lu Rui via Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- President Donald Trump denied that the U.S. paid North Korea $2 million for Otto Warmbier's care after reports emerged Thursday that the regime forced U.S. officials to sign a pledge to do so.

"No money was paid to North Korea for Otto Warmbier, not two Million Dollars, not anything else," the president tweeted.

“President Donald J. Trump is the greatest hostage negotiator that I know of in the history of the United States. 20 hostages, many in impossible circumstances, have been released in last two years. No money was paid.” Cheif Hostage Negotiator, USA!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 26, 2019

No money was paid to North Korea for Otto Warmbier, not two Million Dollars, not anything else. This is not the Obama Administration that paid 1.8 Billion Dollars for four hostages, or gave five terroist hostages plus, who soon went back to battle, for traitor Sgt. Bergdahl!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 26, 2019

Warmbier, an American college student detained by North Korea for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster, died six days after he was freed and handed over to U.S. officials in June 2017.

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NRA supporters still back Trump, even if he's bad for business

dsmoulton/iStock(WASHINGTON) -- President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence are scheduled Friday to speak to gun enthusiasts at the National Rifle Association, a group that made a multi-million-dollar investment in their campaign in 2016.

The president's speech in Indianapolis comes as the rhetoric around firearms has intensified after more recent mass shootings. But as Republicans and gun enthusiasts prepare to defend gun rights ahead of the 2020 election, some NRA members believe it shouldn't be all politics and are hoping the organization instead turns its focus to helping its own members.

There's one thing on which both gun enthusiasts and gun control activists agree: The NRA isn't the same organization it was decades ago.

The NRA spent $30.3 million to support Trump's campaign in 2016, according to Open Secrets, and doubled down on NRA-sponsored advertising in key states where the president claimed victory.

But in the past year alone, the NRA has faced staggering opposition. After the Feb. 14, 2018, massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, students and supporters were among those asking other companies to sever their ties with the NRA.

In the 2018 midterm elections, the NRA was outspent by gun control activists, as Democratic candidates fed up with mass shootings campaigned on the issue. Gun control advocates Lucy McBath in Georgia and Jason Crow in Colorado were among a group of Democrats who beat out Republicans.

For many voters, the debate over firearms likely will remain a key issue in 2020, with voters on both sides gearing up to back candidates on both sides of the issue. Ahead of the 2018 midterms, 60 percent of voters listed gun policy as "very important" among voting choices, according to the survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

In Greenfield, Indiana, Mark Highsmith said he believes firearms are woven into the fabric of the state. He owns a gun shop and told ABC News the NRA remains strong in parts of the country because it's the only organization on the front lines of gun advocacy.

"They're really the only lobbying group for the shooting public," Highsmith told ABC News. But, he added, "I think they need to try and rationalize how they spend their money and try to be more steadfast in the way they do business. I'd like to see them be more supportive of places like me -- how are they helping the average member."

Highsmith is in a unique position as a gun shop owner. While he personally supports Donald Trump, it hurts his business.

"When Trump got in, our business slowed quite a bit -- anytime you got a Democrat House and Senate, I really think it makes people alarmed," he said.

Some gun enthusiasts have labeled that decline in firearm sales the "Trump Slump." The president's 2016 campaign, heavily backed by the NRA, helped reassure gun owners, so they bought fewer firearms.

That said, the NRA and Trump don't always agree -- the president has called for raising the purchasing age to 21 from 18 despite fierce opposition from the group.

"The NRA is opposed to it," Trump said in February 2018, "and I'm a fan of the NRA. No bigger fan. I'm a big fan of the NRA. These are great people. Great patriots. They love our country, but that doesn't mean we have to agree on everything."

The NRA also disagreed with the Trump administration's ban on bump stocks following a mass shooting at a Las Vegas music festival in October 2017 that killed 58 people. That shooter used a bump stock, a device that allows a rifle automatic or semiautomatic firing capability.

Still, the president is expected to receive a warm response on Friday.

"I'm happy he's coming," Highsmith added, "and I'm happy he's a Second Amendment supporter."

As the president and vice president head to Indianapolis for the convention, gun control activists are planning to respond with force.

Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund launched a campaign investing $100,000 in ads, which will be seen in Indianapolis during this week's annual NRA convention.

"The NRA isn't really a gun rights group anymore -- it's a troubled business committed to enriching its executives and gun manufacturers," said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety.

Moms Demand Action will hold a counter-event this weekend as the NRA convention takes place.

"We will work against candidates who buy into the NRA's distorted vision of gun everywhere, all the time, for everybody," Stephanie Mannon Grabow, a volunteer with Moms Demand Action, told ABC News. "We know we can protect the Second Amendment and protect our communities. The NRA is coming here to put on a big show, but we know behind the curtain, they are struggling."

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Japanese prime minister visiting White House ahead of G-20 summit

Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead(WASHINGTON) -- Golf, gold-plated gifts, steak dinners and red carpet invitations -- President Donald Trump may know the art of the deal, but Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe probably leads when it comes to the art of flattery.

On Friday, Abe and Trump will meet at the White House for high-stakes talks on the upcoming G-20 summit, as well as trade, China and North Korea.

But as with all meetings between Abe and Trump, there will be personal touches. This time, the two will celebrate first lady Melania Trump's birthday over dinner on Friday and play golf together on Saturday.

However, while Abe gets personal gestures from the president -- who calls him a "good friend" -- it's unclear, so far, what Japan has earned from the leaders' close personal relationship. Instead, the longtime U.S. ally is facing U.S. tariffs, was forced into trade talks and fears being iced out of North Korea negotiations.

"Abe has tried harder than any other world leader to ingratiate himself with Trump. But the question that the Japanese are asking is, 'Well, to what end? What has Japan achieved?'" said Shihoko Goto, a Japan expert at the Wilson Center.

Because of that, Japan also has worked to strengthen relationships elsewhere. Before visiting Washington, Abe stopped in Brussels for a summit with European Union leaders after Japan and the E.U. finalized the world's largest trade deal, which went into effect in February. Abe has also turned to old adversaries, such as China and Russia. He made his first visit to Beijing in October and is preparing for Chinese President Xi Jinping's first visit to Japan in June. It's the first visit by a Chinese leader in over a decade.

Still, Japan places great importance on its close relationship with the U.S., and the bond its prime minister has built with Trump. While Japanese officials said the focus of Friday's visit is to prepare for the G-20 summit Japan's hosting in June, it also gives Abe another chance to work on that bond -- and perhaps win something from it.

"Whatever happens, whatever the challenge may be, they always keep in touch with each other and that will contribute a lot to the betterment of the bilateral relationship," a Japanese official told ABC News. "Not only Prime Minister Abe, but also the Japanese people appreciate such a friendship between the two leaders."

Abe's effort to develop a close relationship with the president started right after his election. Two days after Trump's election, Abe was the first world leader to call to congratulate him. Trump has met with Abe and they have talked on the phone more than any other leader -- a total of 29 phone calls and 10 in-person meetings, according to the Japanese embassy in Washington.

Trump, who likes Abe’s charismatic style and negotiating skills, even invited Abe to be the first world leader to visit his private club Mar-a-Lago. The two joked with each other on the golf course and worked to respond to a missile test by North Korea's Kim Jong Un during an alfresco meal.

Despite lavish invitations and friendly phone calls, Abe does not have much to show for his efforts, experts have said. Trump pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership -- an important trade deal Abe championed -- slapped steel and aluminum tariffs on Japan, threatened tariffs on Japanese auto imports like Toyota and Nissan, and forced Abe to begin negotiations on a bilateral trade deal -- something Japan doesn't want.

"He has not convinced Trump of a lot of things he wishes the U.S. would do," said Mike Green, senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "But Abe goes into these meetings and floods the zone to keep the relationship tight."

On that last issue, Economy Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer met last week and then again on Thursday to discuss a potential agreement. Japan is the United States' fourth-largest export and import market, with over $75 billion in exports in 2017.

But after Trump pulled out of the TPP, the countries that entered the trade deal gained preferential access to Japan's agricultural markets, hitting U.S. farmers hard. The U.S. wants to change that, while Japan is hoping that the U.S. doesn't follow through on the threatened auto tariffs in addition to removing the levies on steel and aluminum.

The Japanese official told ABC News trade meetings have so far been "substantial" and "fruitful" but that results can't be prejudged. With talks ongoing, it's unclear how far into the details of negotiations Trump and Abe will go.

Friday's meetings also will be Abe's first chance to hear, in person, about Trump's summit in Vietnam with North Korea's Kim Jong Un. Trump and Abe spoke by phone shortly after talks between Trump and Kim broke off.

"If military tensions return, Japan could again be in Pyongyang’s firing line," said Sheila Smith, a senior fellow for Japan Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Perhaps just as worrying to the Japanese is being left behind. While Abe has expressed an openness to his own summit with Kim, the Japanese official told ABC News there's "no sign of direct negotiations" and "we don't see its appropriate timing."

"Abe is the only regional leader not in direct communication [with Kim], and that is worrisome," Smith told ABC News. "It will be particularly worrisome if negotiations start to make progress."

Still, if Abe is sweating about it, he hasn't shown Trump. Japan continues to say it is "100%" supportive of Trump's outreach to Kim -- even going so far as to nominate him for the Nobel Peace Prize, according to Trump.

When asked to confirm that nomination, Abe demurred.

"I'm not saying that's not the fact," he said. "The Nobel Committee stipulates that it will not disclose the names of nominators and the nominees for 50 years. Hence, I refrain from commenting."

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Biden's presidential bid prompts candidate push for donations

NoDerog/iStock(WASHINGTON) -- Democratic presidential candidates are ramping up fundraising efforts following former Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential campaign announcement.

In the hours after Biden’s campaign released a video announcing his 2020 bid, several candidates sent emails to motivate recipients to give to their campaigns.

Sen. Kamala Harris and Rep. Eric Swalwell welcomed Biden to the wide Democratic field.

“As of this morning, my friend Joe Biden is now running for president. And you know what I say to that? The more, the merrier,” said Harris.

“Now it’s a party,” tweeted Swalwell. “Welcome to the race, @JoeBiden.”

Sen. Cory Booker and Beto O’rourke’s emails had a more tepid tone.

“Team -- there is no doubt his decision could shake up the race,” Booker said.

“We aren’t starting with the same level of name recognition as Joe Biden,” read O’Rourke’s campaign email. “But we can win by making sure every voter is heard and no one is left behind or taken for granted.”

For candidates still working to secure a spot on the debate stage, fundraising is vital. According to Democratic National Committee rules, there are two ways candidates qualify for the debates. Candidates must receive donations from 65,000 people across 20 states with 200 unique donors in each state or they must reach 1 percent in three state or national polls.

In an email to voters, Julián Castro acknowledged that he isn’t a frontrunner in this field of Democratic candidates and said he needs “less than 8,000 donors” to qualify for primary debates.

“I didn’t grow up a frontrunner,” said Castro. “And I know this country wasn’t built by frontrunners either. It was built by families like yours and mine who toiled to achieve opportunity.”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand told recipients that without more donors, she wouldn’t make the debate.

“If you want me on that stage, we need to add 500 donors before Friday at midnight, and I’m counting on you to be one of them,” said Gillibrand.

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'I spy': CIA is officially on Instagram

Ruskpp/iStock(WASHINGTON) -- The Central Intelligence Agency expanded its social media portfolio by officially joining Instagram.

"Joining Instagram is another way we’re sharing CIA’s stories and recruiting talented Americans to serve here," CIA press secretary Timothy Barrett said. "Through the account, we’ll give a peek into Agency life, but we can’t promise any selfies from secret locations. We’re looking to spark the curiosity of Instagram’s users about the many ways CIA’s global mission has us going where others cannot go and doing what others cannot do."

The agency's first post captioned, "I spy with my little eye..." challenges its followers to try and spot the items on the messy desk that are symbolic to the CIA. For example, the clock is set to 8:46 a.m., which is the time the first tower was hit on 9/11, and the star on the desk is a replica of those given to families of fallen officers.

There's also a replica of Director Gina Haspel’s first badge with the badge number 09-19-47, which is the CIA’s birthday.

Last week, Haspel teased CIA's debut on the popular social media site during a Q&A at Auburn University in an effort to make the agency more transparent.

This isn't the CIA's first time dabbling into social media. The agency is particularly active on Twitter and currently has 2.6 million followers.

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Joe Biden announces 2020 run for president

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- In a video released Thursday morning, former Vice President Joe Biden formally announced he's running for president in 2020 -- ending months-long speculation about his intentions.

Biden becomes the 20th Democrat to enter the 2020 race, and enters as a high-profile candidate, with decades of experience.

He will hold his first event as a candidate in Pittsburgh on Monday.

Following his formal announcement, Biden's first television interview will take place on ABC's The View on Friday.

Biden opened his announcement video quoting from the Declaration of Independence.

"We haven't always lived up to these ideals. [Thomas] Jefferson himself didn't. But we've never before walked away from them," Biden says in the video.

Biden contrasts Jefferson's hometown, Charlottesville, with the deadly clash between white nationalists and counterprotesters that occurred there in August 2017. He quotes President Donald Trump in the video, referring to the president's "very fine people on both sides" quote in the wake of the death of Heather Heyer.

The core values of this nation… our standing in the world… our very democracy...everything that has made America -- America --is at stake. That’s why today I’m announcing my candidacy for President of the United States. #Joe2020 https://t.co/jzaQbyTEz3

— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) April 25, 2019

In Biden's first fundraising email, sent just after the announcement, he writes, "If we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation. I cannot stand by and watch that happen."

He and his wife Dr. Jill Biden will also sit down with Robin Roberts, co-anchor of ABC’s Good Morning America, ahead of his Pittsburgh event. The interview will air on GMA Tuesday.

Dr. Biden tweeted about the announcement, saying she was "excited and proud" her husband was running for president.

It’s official! Excited and proud that @JoeBiden is running for President #Joe2020 #TeamJoe https://t.co/eN0RcJkpIT

— Dr. Jill Biden (@DrBiden) April 25, 2019

Throughout the 2018 midterms, Joe Biden cast the upcoming elections as a "battle for the soul of America."

Biden's campaign will focus on three major pillars -- rebuilding the middle class, "the backbone of this country; demonstrating respected leadership on the world stage; and making democracy more inclusive, by fixing campaign finance, voting rights and gerrymandering.

Over the next few weeks, Biden will take that message on the road to early voting states, including Iowa, South Carolina, Nevada, California and New Hampshire, before returning to Pennslyvania for a final kickoff event on May 18 in Philadelphia, with remarks focusing on "Unifying America," according to Biden's campaign website.

In a field that boasts a number of vocal progressive candidates, Biden's bipartisan approach may make it difficult for him to gain support with the liberal wing of the party.

"Middle-Class Joe" isn’t backing away from his bipartisan roots.

"Vice President Biden believes to his core that you can disagree politically on a lot and still work together on issues of common cause, especially issues as essential as the fight against cancer," Biden spokesperson Bill Russo told ABC News earlier this year.

One of the first challenges to Biden's candidacy will be answering tough questions on allegations from some women who have said that the former vice president made them feel uncomfortable in past interactions by touching them without their permission.

On Wednesday, his Democratic rival, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, signaled that Biden "is going to have to directly answer to voters" on the allegations.

This will be Biden's third run for president. He previously ran in 1988 and 2008, before serving as vice president to Barack Obama.

Biden will likely campaign on his connection to the former president, though a source familiar with Obama's thinking tells ABC News that its unlikely "he will throw his support behind a specific candidate this early in the primary process."

But Obama did have praise for his former running mate after his announcement.

“President Obama has long said that selecting Joe Biden as his running mate in 2008 was one of the best decisions he ever made. He relied on the Vice President’s knowledge, insight, and judgment throughout both campaigns and the entire presidency. The two forged a special bond over the last 10 years and remain close today," Katie Hill, a spokesperson for Obama, told ABC News in a statement.

Biden was one of the youngest people ever elected to the Senate, when he won his race in 1972 at 29 years old.

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Trump officially puts military in charge of federal background checks

Adventure_Photo/iStock(WASHINGTON) -- President Donald Trump signed an executive order late Wednesday officially making the U.S. military responsible for virtually all security background checks for millions of federal workers, the latest step by the administration to tackle a daunting backlog of security clearance cases.

The order calls for the National Background Investigations Bureau, currently under the civilian Office of Personnel Management, to be absorbed by the Department of Defense under a reorganized, and renamed, Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency.

Though Congress mandated in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act that a majority of the investigative bureau's caseload be transferred to the Defense Department in phases, Wednesday’s order lifts the entire bureau -- and the 95 percent of all federal background checks it processes -- and places it all under military authority.

A senior administration official told ABC News the bigger move would be more efficient and effective than “bifurcat[ing]” the background check system between two departments.

In June 2018 the Trump administration identified the security clearance process as one of many targets for drastic government reform.

“The Administration recognizes that background investigations are critical to enabling national security missions and ensuring public trust in the workforce across the Government,” a White House report said at the time.

The report noted that the “background investigation inventory” – the cases to be processed – had risen to three-quarters of a million and that the average Top Secret background investigation takes four times as long as it should.

In congressional testimony in March 2018 National Background Investigations Bureau Director Charles Phalen partially blamed much of the then-ballooning backlog on the 2014 cancellation of a federal contract that stripped the bureau of more than half its investigative force and "increased demand" by the bureau's government customers.

“This is an unsustainable way to do business,” the White House report said.

The report argued the military is better positioned to handle the massive caseload and already conducts security clearance evaluations for several agencies.

On Wednesday Phalen told a security conference the backlog has since been reduced by 32 percent, to just under 500,000 cases.

“The numbers are still not where they need to be, but we’ve moved that needle significantly,” Phalen told a security conference, according to a Defense One report. “We’ve improved wait times 50 percent to 60 percent in many categories, but have some outliers that skew the average.”

The large-scale transfer to the military is happening in the background of a security clearance controversy in the White House, where a whistleblower alleges more than two dozen officials, reportedly including Jared Kushner, received high-level clearances over the objections of career security specialists.

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Trump re-election campaign has spent more than $8 million in legal fees since he took office

John Moore/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Since President Donald Trump took office in 2017, his re-election campaign has spent more than $8 million in legal fees, according to ABC News' analysis of campaign finance records through last month, with record-breaking quarterly expenditures doled out in the last three months of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Between January and March 2019 alone the Trump campaign spent nearly $1.7 million on legal expenses – more than $1.2 million of which went to former White House Counsel Donald McGahn's firm, Jones Day, which has represented Trump and the Trump campaign since his first presidential campaign in 2015.

Even after McGahn left for the White House gig in 2017, McGahn’s firm remained as the biggest recipient of the Trump campaign's legal expenses, earning more than $5.6 million.

Payments to Jones Day, however, are expected to drop moving forward as the Trump campaign recently hired a new in-house legal team for its 2020 reelection bid, as first reported by Politico and confirmed by ABC News.

The Trump campaign has helped pay legal bills for a number of current and former Trump associates caught up in various investigations and lawsuits, including the president's son Donald Trump Jr. and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

For a time, the Trump campaign also paid portions of Michael Cohen's legal fees, as ABC News has previously reported, before the relationship between the president and his former longtime personal attorney went south late last year, thus dissolving their joint defense agreement.

Another notable legal expense went to Belkin Burden Wenig & Goldman which was paid $76,415 in the first three months of 2019. The firm was paid just $55,668 throughout 2018.

Belkin Burden Wenig & Goldman is the same firm that represented the Trump Organization in In 2016, in the Trump University lawsuit, which resulted in the organization being ordered to pay a $25 million settlement to attendees of the now-defunct real estate seminar.

The Trump campaign was not available for comment.

To put the Trump campaign's more than $8 million in legal expenditures into perspective, former President Barack Obama's re-election campaign, over the same period of time, spent only about $2.7 million in legal fees, according to campaign finance reports.

Former President George W. Bush's re-campaign, for its part, spent only about $260,000 in legal fees in the first two years of his presidency, records show.

It's hard to compare how much in legal fees were paid by the re-election campaign of former President Bill Clinton, who was buried in various investigations during the course of his presidency, because of the changes in the way campaign expenditure are reported to the FEC as well as the timeline and the nature of the legal battles Clinton was involved in. But for a general comparison, Clinton told NBC's Craig Melvin in June last year that he "left the White House $16 million in debt" because of attorney fees incurred by scandal investigations and the impeachment proceedings.

In addition to the $8 million spent by the Trump campaign, other political sources have chipped in to share the campaign’s burden.

The Republican National Committee, for example, has helped pay legal bills for various Trump's associates, including at least about $200,000 for Trump Jr. and more than $589,000 for former White House Communications Director Hope Hicks.

A separate legal defense fund, dubbed the Patriot Legal Expense Fund Trust, reported raising more than $853,000 from top Trump donors – including $500,000 from Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his wife and $150,000 from New York waste management executive and Mar-a-Lago member Anthony Lomangino.

The Patriot Legal Expense Fund Trust, which assists current and former campaign and administration volunteers and staffers caught up in the special counsel’s investigation –excluding Trump’s relatives-- shelled out a total of about $457,000 in legal bills through December, according to disclosure reports.

The identities of those supported by the fund remain under wraps.

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Trump White House blocks senior aide from testifying on immigration policy

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- The White House has declined an invitation from the Democratic chairman of the House Oversight Committee for senior aide Stephen Miller to testify before the committee on the administration’s immigration policies, including a plan to bus migrants to "sanctuary cities."

“In accordance with long-standing precedent, we respectfully decline the invitation to make Mr. Miller available for testimony before the committee,” White House counsel Pat Cipollone wrote in a letter obtained by ABC News.

“The precedent for members of the White House staff to decline invitations to testify before congressional committees has been consistently adhered to by administrations of both political parties and is based on clearly established constitutional doctrines.”

The White House cites a Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel opinion which states that the president’s immediate advisers are immune from the congressional testimony process. The letter potentially provides a roadmap for how the White House plans to respond to requests for senior aides testifying before Congress.

The chairmen of the House Oversight, Judiciary and Homeland Security Committees sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security on Thursday requesting documents related to Trump and Miller removing senior staffers at the agency.

“We are deeply concerned that the firing and forced resignation of these officials puts the security of the American people at risk,” the chairmen wrote, referring to former DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, Secret Service Director Randolph Alles, former DHS Undersecretary for Management Claire Grady and former Acting Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“We are also concerned that the President may have removed DHS officials because they refused his demands to violate federal immigration law and judicial orders. "

The chairmen also say they are concerned that Miller is in charge of handling the administration's immigration policy.

Cummings requested that Miller come before the committee to explain the administrations’ handling of the border crisis and recent reports about a plan to transfer immigrants detained at the southern border onto the streets of “sanctuary cities” – a plan President Donald Trump confirmed.

“I am offering you an opportunity to make your case to the Committee and the American people about why you—and presumably President Trump—believe it is good policy for the Trump Administration to take the actions it has, including intentionally separating immigrant children from their parents at the border to deter them from coming to the United States, transferring asylum seekers to sanctuary cities as a form of illegal retribution against your political adversaries, and firing top Administration officials who refuse orders to violate the law,” Cummings wrote in a letter to Miller last week.

Anticipating that the White House would decline the invitation, Cummings referenced other senior White House aides who had testified, including former White House counsels and President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff.

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Navy developing new UFO reporting guidelines amid rise of unauthorized aircraft sightings

oorka/iStock(WASHINGTON) -- As the increase of sightings of unidentified aircraft rise, the U.S Navy is currently in the process of developing guidelines in reporting such encounters.

Commonly referred to as "UFOs" these unauthorized aircraft have caused concerns leading the Navy to take further precautions for safety and security reasons.

"There have been a number of reports of unauthorized and/or unidentified aircraft entering various military-controlled ranges and designated airspace in recent years," said Joseph Gradisher, spokesperson for Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Information Warfare in a statement from the Navy.

"For safety and security concerns, the Navy and the USAF take these reports very seriously and investigate each and every report."

At this time, the Navy is drafting a more advanced procedure in which any can be reported and properly handled by aviation safety.

"As part of this effort, the Navy is updating and formalizing the process by which reports of any such suspected incursions can be made to the cognizant authorities," Gradisher said.

While the process of reporting efficiently is in the drafting phases, due to the request for information made by members of Congress and staffers, the Navy has prepared briefings by senior officials and aviators who report risk at this time.

"In response to requests for information from Congressional members and staff, Navy officials have provided a series of briefings by senior Naval Intelligence officials as well as aviators who reported hazards to aviation safety."

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Franklin Graham attacks Pete Buttigieg for being gay, says he should repent

Scott Olson/Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- Conservative Evangelical leader Franklin Graham is blasting South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg for being gay and is calling on the presidential hopeful to repent for his “sin.”

In a series of tweets to his 1.9 million followers on Wednesday, Graham said, “Mayor Buttigieg says he’s a gay Christian. As a Christian, I believe the Bible which defines homosexuality as a sin, something to be repentant of, not something to be flaunted, praised or politicized. The Bible says marriage is between a man & a woman – not two men, not two women.”

Graham, the 66-year-old son of the late Billy Graham, began his attack by referring to Buttigieg’s comments at a CNN town hall on Monday, where the mayor said “God does not have a political party” while answering a question on uniting conservative, moderate and liberal Christians behind his 2020 campaign.

 “Part of God’s love is experienced, according to my faith tradition, is in the way that we support one another and, in particular, support the least among us,” Buttigieg said. “It can be challenging to be a person of faith who’s also part of the LGBTQ community and yet, to me, the core of faith is regard for one another.”

Graham responded by tweeting “[Pete Buttigieg] is right – God doesn’t have a political party. But God does have commandments, laws & standards He gives us to live by.”

Mayor Buttigieg, an Episcopalian, has not shied away from discussing his faith during the early run of this presidential race.

Most recently, Buttigieg quarreled with Vice President Mike Pence over the “hypocrisy” of supporting President Donald Trump while boasting his Christian values.

“When you have somebody seeming to want to impose his religion on others as the vice president has, and at the same time teaming up with the presidency that seems to have no regard for, at least, what I would consider to be Christian values, I do think that hypocrisy needs to be called out," Buttigieg said on Good Morning America earlier this month.

Pence responded by saying that they had a “great working relationship” during his time as governor of Indiana and criticized the mayor’s description of his religious beliefs.

“He knows better, he knows me” the vice president said.

In response to Graham’s tweet, celebrities and LGBT organizations slammed the attack on the 37-year-old mayor.

"Franklin Graham is a sad, out of touch extremist who has spent the last several years selling his soul for parts in order to excuse Donald Trump's worst behavior," Chris Sgro, Senior Director of Communications for the Human Rights Campaign, told ABC News.

Ross Murray, Senior Director at the GLAAD Media Institute and Deacon in the Evangelical Lutheran Church, says Graham needs to “stop the attacks on LGBTQ Christians and allies like Buttigieg, and focus on the Gospel's call to protect those most marginalized.”

“Franklin Graham's relentless attacks on Christians who are a part of the LGBTQ community, while excusing the very un-Christian actions of President Donald Trump, demonstrates that he has been seduced by worldly power and fallen prey to sin,” Murray said in a statement to ABC News.

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Watchdog groups sue federal agency over NRA’s alleged campaign coordination 'scheme'

dsmoulton/iStock(WASHINGTON) -- A pair of legal groups sued the Federal Election Commission on Wednesday, seeking to compel the agency to enforce the law amid what they allege is mounting evidence that the National Rifle Association has engaged in “an elaborate scheme … to unlawfully coordinate with candidates it supports for federal office,” including with the 2016 presidential campaign of Donald Trump.

The Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan campaign finance watchdog, filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Giffords Law Center, a gun-control advocacy group led by former Democratic lawmaker from Arizona Gabby Giffords. The lawsuit accuses the NRA of “using a network of shell corporations” to circumvent contribution limits and coordinate approximately $35 million in advertisement spending with the campaigns of at least seven Republican candidates over the last three election cycles, “thereby making millions of dollars of illegal, unreported, and excessive in-kind contributions.”

But while the NRA deliberately circumvented FEC rules that prohibit vendor coordination between campaigns and outside groups, the complaint alleges, the federal agency responsible for oversight of election spending -- whose members frequently deadlock on matters along partisan lines -- has not taken any enforcement action.

“The FEC is supposed to be the nation’s election watchdog, but in this case, it didn’t bite, bark, or even whimper,” said Adam Skaggs, chief counsel for the Giffords Law Center, in a statement. “Instead, it turned a blind eye … In a desperate attempt to hold onto power and influence, NRA executives have flagrantly ignored our campaign finance laws and undermined the integrity of our election system. The FEC must bring illegal campaign conduct into the light of day.”

A spokesperson for the FEC declined to comment on the litigation.

Federal Election Commission rules prohibit super PACs from making coordinated expenditures with campaigns, meaning that the Trump campaign should not be "materially involved" in the production and placement of ads purchased by the super PAC arm of the NRA, and vendors shared by the NRA and the Trump campaign cannot share information in support of each other.

But as first reported by the nonprofit journalism outlet The Trace in December, throughout the 2016 election cycle, the NRA launched an aggressive $25 million pro-Trump ad blitz using multiple vendors linked to a political consulting firm called OnMessage, while the Trump campaign placed its ads using multiple vendors linked to a firm called National Media. The two firms were disguised as separate entities, according to the complaint, which cites public records reviewed by ABC News, but in fact vendors were "functionally indistinguishable.”

"[T]hey are led by the same people and located at the same address,” the complaint said, “and no internal separation or firewall exists between the staff who work for each entity.”

A spokesperson for the NRA did not respond to ABC News’ requests for comment, while a spokesperson for the Trump campaign declined to comment. Sen. Sheldeon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., opened a probe into this matter earlier this year, demanding documents from the NRA, the Trump campaign and the relevant vendors. A spokesperson for Sen. Whitehouse told ABC News last week that none of them have responded to those requests, either.

According to Trevor Potter, who cofounded the Campaign Legal Center after serving as commissioner and chairman of the FEC, the alleged coordination provided those candidates with a “significant” advantage.

“If they know what you’re going to do and when you’re going to do it, that spending is much more valuable to candidates,” Potter told ABC News. “They can build their plans around your spending. They can match messages. They don’t have to spend where you’re spending. It’s as if the candidates had that much more money in their pockets during their races.”

Critics of the FEC have described the agency as one crippled by partisanship. The commission was designed to consist of six members -- no more than three from each party -- and four of them must agree to launch an investigation, a system that prioritized compromise. But the commission is currently comprised of only four members -- two Republicans, one Democrat, one Independent -- and the executive branch has not appointed new commissioners, so the agency frequently deadlocks on issues and, critics say, has been slow to launch investigations.

According to Ann Ravel, a Democratic former commissioner who left the agency in February of 2017, the FEC has been failing to enforce campaign finance laws for several years.

“The F.E.C. was betraying the American public and jeopardizing our democracy,” she wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times. “It pains me to report that the agency remains dysfunctional, more so than ever, as I prepare to depart at the end of this month as my term nears its end. This is deeply worrisome, because the F.E.C.’s mission is to ensure fairness in elections.”

Others, like campaign finance lawyer Caleb Burns of the Washington, D.C. law firm Wiley Rein, see the partisan divide as a crucial safeguard "to avoid political abuse by one party of the other" when regulating "political activity that is highly protected by the First Amendment’s freedoms of speech and association."

In addition to the Trump campaign, the complaint alleges that the NRA has shown a years-long pattern of coordinating with several other congressional campaigns in a similar operation since at least 2014, including the campaigns of Sens. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., Tom Cotton, R-Ark., Cory Gardner, R-Colo., Ron Johnson, R-Wis., and Josh Hawley, R-Mo., and Matt Rosendale, who ran unsuccessfully against Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana in 2018.

Spokespersons for Sens. Tillis, Cotton and Gardner did not immediately respond to ABC News’ requests for comment. Messages left at the offices of Sens. Johnson and Hawley, as well as Mr. Rosendale, now the commissioner of Securities and Insurance in the Office of the Montana State Auditor, were not immediately returned.

And with the 2020 election cycle already underway, the continued deadlock at the FEC has watchdogs worried that the election system is still ripe for exploitation.

“As long as the commission has not ruled on this behavior, there’s a risk that it will be happening or is happening now,” Potter told ABC News. “The country has a deadline. The legal system should have one, too.”

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.


Pentagon watchdog clears acting defense secretary of favoring Boeing

Ivan Cholakov/iStock(WASHINGTON) -- The Defense Department's internal watchdog has cleared acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan of favoring his former employer, Boeing, while serving at the Pentagon.

The Pentagon's inspector general found that reports of ethics violations were not substantiated, clearing the way for Shanahan for a possible nomination to the top Pentagon job.

The inspector general opened the investigation last month after receiving a complaint that Shanahan "allegedly took actions to promote his former employer, Boeing, and disparage its competitors, allegedly in violation of ethics rules."

During the investigation, more than 30 witnesses were interviewed, including many senior defense officials and Shanahan, according to the inspector general. More than 5,600 pages of unclassified documents and approximately 1,700 pages of classified documents relevant to the allegations were also reviewed.

"The Office of Inspector General took these allegations seriously, and our 43-page report of investigation, which we released today, describes our conclusions and the facts on which they are based," said Glenn Fine, the Principal Deputy Inspector General Performing the Duties of the Inspector General. "The evidence showed that Acting Secretary Shanahan fully complied with his ethical obligations and ethical agreements with regard to Boeing and its competitors."

Shanahan worked for Boeing for 31 years, last serving as senior vice president of supply chain operations. When he transitioned to the Pentagon as then-Defense Secretary James Mattis' deputy in 2017, Shanahan said he divested his financial interests related to Boeing and signed an ethics agreement barring him for participating in Boeing-related activities -- as is typical for government officials transitioning from the private sector.

He's been serving in the "acting" capacity since Mattis departed the Department of Defense over policy differences related to the war against the Islamic State in Syria at the end of last year.

At the time the inspector general announced its investigation, a Pentagon spokesperson said in a statement that Shanahan had "at all times remained committed to upholding his ethics agreement filed with the DOD."

"This agreement ensures any matters pertaining to Boeing are handled by appropriate officials within the Pentagon to eliminate any perceived or actual conflict of interest issue(s) with Boeing," the statement added.

The complaint that launched the investigation was filed to the inspector general in March by the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), which in its complaint cited news reports that Shanahan had privately promoted Boeing in discussions about government contracts, disparaging defense industry competitors like Lockheed Martin.

Shanahan has been rumored as a top contender to replace Mattis as the next defense secretary. He would need to be formally nominated by President Donald Trump and confirmed by the Senate.

The full inspector general report is available online here.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.


Trump greets Biden with sarcastic 'welcome' to the race on Twitter

Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks(WASHINGTON) -- President Donald Trump gave a sarcastic welcome Thursday morning to one of his potential Democratic opponents in the 2020 race for the White House, the latest candidate to enter the field, former Vice President Joe Biden.

"Welcome to the race Sleepy Joe. I only hope you have the intelligence, long in doubt, to wage a successful primary campaign," Trump tweeted, repeating a nickname he's tagged Biden with and questioning his intelligence and political aptitude. "But if you make it, I will see you at the Starting Gate!"

Welcome to the race Sleepy Joe. I only hope you have the intelligence, long in doubt, to wage a successful primary campaign. It will be nasty - you will be dealing with people who truly have some very sick & demented ideas. But if you make it, I will see you at the Starting Gate!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 25, 2019

Biden and Trump have had a tumultuous public relationship. Trump was a primary focus of Biden's announcement video, which drilled down on the president for his comments in August 2017 after white nationalists and neo-Nazis rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia.

"He said there were 'very fine people on both sides.' Very fine people on both sides?" Biden said in the video. "With those words, the President of the United States assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate, and those with the courage to stand against it. And in that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had seen in my life time."

In his tweet, Trump also tossed an insult at the rest of the 19 Democrats in the primary contest to be the party's nominee, saying Biden would be dealing with "people who truly have some very sick & demented ideas."

The president has made a habit of tweeting about his possible opponents with a false welcome to the race, including Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and others.

It was unclear who the president was talking about or what ideas he was referring to. The Democratic primary race has covered a wide array of issues thus far, including a call from Warren for the House to initiate impeachment proceedings against the president in the aftermath of special counsel Robert Mueller's report.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.


Deutsche Bank has begun turning over documents in New York AG’s Trump probe

code6d/iStock(WASHINGTON) -- German banking giant Deutsche Bank has begun turning over financial records related to its business with President Donald Trump, in response to a subpoena from the New York attorney general’s office, a source familiar with the matter told ABC News on Wednesday.

As one of the Trump Organization’s most reliable lenders in recent years, Deutsche has come under scrutiny from several investigative bodies examining the president’s personal finances.

The New York attorney general’s office subpoenaed Deutsche Bank in March for records related to Trump's unsuccessful NFL bid and several other Trump Organization projects -- including Trump International Hotels in Chicago, Washington and Florida -- another source familiar with the matter told ABC News at the time.

Earlier this month, the House Intelligence and Financial Services committees jointly subpoenaed Deutsche Bank as part of their ongoing investigation into President Donald Trump’s financial dealings and concerns about foreign influence over the Trump Organization.

In December 2017, special counsel Robert Mueller issued a subpoena to the German bank, though the nature of Mueller’s request was not clear.

The New York attorney general’s investigation is based, in part, on the testimony of Trump’s one-time personal attorney, Michael Cohen, who claimed that Trump had -- in the past -- defrauded insurance companies by misrepresenting the value of his assets.

In court documents filed Monday as part of a lawsuit against House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s chairman, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., attorneys for Trump and the Trump Organization called Cohen’s testimony a "political stunt" and "one of the worst examples of the House Democrats’ zeal to attack President Trump under the guise of investigations."

The bank has previously said it was cooperating with ongoing inquiries as appropriate.

Both the New York attorney general’s office and Deutsche Bank declined to comment. CNN first reported Deutsche Bank’s cooperation in the probe.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.


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