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Donald Trump removes Steve Bannon from National Security Council

President Donald Trump has removed chief strategist Steve Bannon from the National Security Council, reversing an earlier, controversial decision to give Bannon access to the high-level meetings.

A new memorandum about the council’s composition was published Wednesday in the Federal Register. The memo no longer lists the chief strategist as a member of the Principals Committee, a group of high-ranking officials who meet to discuss pressing national security priorities.

Tom Bossert, the assistant to the president for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, also had his role downgraded as part of the changes.

A senior White House official said Wednesday that Bannon was initially placed on the national security council after Trump’s inauguration as a measure to ensure implementation of the president’s vision, including efforts to downsize and streamline operations at the NSC.

Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was at the helm of the NSC at the time, but the official says Bannon’s role on the committee had nothing to do with the troubles facing Flynn, who was later asked to resign for misleading the administration about his communication with Russian officials.

The senior White House official was not authorized to discuss changes that have not been formally announced and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The new memo also restores the director of national intelligence and the Joint Chiefs chairman to the principals committee.

Bannon’s addition to the NSC sparked concerns from Trump critics, who said it was inappropriate for the political adviser to play a role in national security matters.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

More than 500 attend Planned Parenthood annual luncheon in Tampa

Planned Parenthood has never been more under fire from congressional Republicans than in recent years.

Nevertheless, since the election of Donald Trump, the public is demonstrating they remain firmly behind the family planning organization.

According to a Quinnipiac survey conducted earlier this year to coincide with the 43rd anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, 62 percent of voters oppose cutting off federal funds to the organization, while only 31 percent support that action.

Females are leading the Trump resistance, starting with massively successful women’s marches on January 21. Lake Research Polling found 86 percent participating in anti-Trump events are female; 66 percent were over the age of 45 — with 72 percent of women saying they’d already took part in a protest against the Trump administration. Seventy-seven percent say that they were very likely to protest in the future.

All that served as a backdrop for the annual Planned Parenthood Choice luncheon at Tampa’s Jewish Community Center, where over 500 people (mostly females) packed the fundraising event Tuesday.

Keynote speaker was Dahlia Lithwick, a senior editor at Slate and the host of the podcast Amicus. For the past 18 years, Lithwick has covered the U.S. Supreme Court.

Senate Democrats say later this week they will filibuster the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, a fact that Lithia told the audience she wouldn’t have believed possible, even as recently as two weeks ago.

“It is in large part because folks like you are calling and calling and calling and making this an issue,” Lithwick said.

One of those Democrats voting against Gorsuch’s nomination is Florida Sen. Bill Nelson.

Barbara Zdravecky, the longtime CEO of Planed Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, said a Nelson aide contacted her last week before making the announcement.

“I think he sees this as an opportunity to separate himself and go more toward supporting the progressive arm of the Democratic Party because we are mobilizing, and we are engaged,” Zdravecky said. She added that Nelson took part at a Planned Parenthood event last month in Sarasota, with more than 700 people in attendance.

As has been often mentioned, Democrats lost hundreds of seats in state legislatures over the past eight years; Lithwick says that translates into hundreds of pro-life/anti-choice bills proposed around the country: 346 to be exact, including 46 just since January.

“It’s easy to get distracted and think the only thing that matters is what happens at the (Supreme) Court. I assure you, that is the thin edge of the wedge, and what is really important, is that in state after state, clinics are closing.” She said that there are currently 788 such health clinics in the country, from a total of 851.

Among the bills floating in the Florida Legislature that particularly concern Zdravecky includes a 20-week abortion ban and a proposal that holds abortion providers to a different legal standard for malpractice and emotional stress.

Tuesday’s event celebrating Planned Parenthood took place at a time in history where abortion rates are at the lowest in the U.S. since Roe v. Wade, as are teen pregnancy rates.

It wasn’t a female only event, as both Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren made brief speeches.

“I see a room full of powerful women and a few smart men who are here because we believe in something bigger than just ourselves,” Buckhorn said.

The mayor spoke about how proud he was about his wife, Dr. Catherine Lynch, the Associate Vice President of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the USF Morsani College of Medicine.

“In the current political climate has raised many questions not only about the immediate future of the court but of judicial independence and the separation of powers that serve as a critical defense in our society against the tyranny of the majority in order to protect the rights of the minority,” said Warren.

Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood officials are bracing for the next proposal from D.C. Republicans seeking to ban the group from receiving any federal funding.

Such a defunding provision was included in the recent American Health Care Act, the GOP plan to replace the Affordable Care Act, which divided House Republicans. It never came up for a vote last month.

“We are watching very closely when it will appear again, because it will appear again,” Zdravecky warned.

 

Bob Buckhorn looks forward (and back) in 2017 State of the City address

With less than two years before being term-limited, Bob Buckhorn fought off the temptation to wallow on his accomplishments as Tampa mayor, versus what’s left to come, during his State of the City address.

Speaking Tuesday morning for exactly half an hour at Kiley Park (after a 23-minute pregame show featuring a performance by the Tampa City Choir, as well as an appearance by City Councilman Guido Maniscalco), the speech was vintage Buckhorn — down to the passages adapted from his stump speech about how the city has come clawing back furiously from the depths of the Great Depression of the late aughts to flourish under his regime.

“Together we brought this city back from rock bottom,” he intoned. “Together we rose up from the ashes of an economic apocalypse.”

There were plenty of statistics thrown into the mix to illustrate how the city has progressed since he defeated Rose Ferlita in a runoff election for mayor just over six years ago: employment up 24 percent; over $11 billion in construction projects; $24 million invested in computing infrastructure and upgrades to the city’s technology dept.

And there was more. More than a million square feet of new commercial development in Ybor City; More than 6,000 residential units in downtown, nearly 300 hotel rooms, and 800,000 new square feet of commercial space in the Westshore business district.

More than 92 miles of new bike lanes, 45 miles of new sidewalks, 400 acres of new green space, including 10 new parks and over 9,000 new trees planted.

The lure to spend more time looking backward than forwards is something Buckhorn will increasingly be called to stave off over the next 24 months.

At a news conference last month announcing he would not run for governor, the mayor bristled slightly when a reporter asked him to look back at his achievements, joking he still had plenty of fuel left in his tank.

Buckhorn did use the speech to introduce a new program called Autism Friendly Tampa, in association with USF’s CARD program (Center for Autism and Related Disabilities) to make Tampa one of America’s most inclusive cities.

“One in every 68 individuals are diagnosed with Autism,” he said. “And each one of those impacted have their own unique challenges. A seemingly simple trip to the pool or downtown event can be complicated. Finding a summer program could be impossible. As Mayor, I am committed to making our public spaces, city facilities, parks, and programs more friendly for those touched by Autism and related disabilities.”

He also talked about the future, and how autonomous vehicles will be a part of that equation. The Tampa Hillsborough Expressway is working on a “Connected Vehicle” projects on the Selmon Expressway that would allow cars to talk to each other and the infrastructure.

“This technology will improve pedestrian safety, address traffic congestion, improve transportation operations and prevent wrong-way crashes, and Tampa — our Tampa — is the test bed,” he said.

City government is much leaner over the past decade since the wheels came off both Florida and America’s economy; Buckhorn noted how much less property revenue is coming into the city, due in part to that state’s three percent cap on property tax hikes.

In 2007, the city generated over $166.2 million in property tax revenue. That’s more than $12 million than the $153 million the fiscal year 2017 budget submitted to the City Council.

Buckhorn said the city won’t get back to 2007 levels until the fiscal year 2019.

Buckhorn also took shots at the Rick Scott and Richard Corcoran led state government, and Donald Trump‘s federal government, saying their policies are more of a burden for cities like Tampa.

“Sources of revenue that are reduced or eliminated, partnerships eviscerated, and programs decimated are potentially looming, all of which have potentially have an impact on our bottom line,” Buckhorn said.

“This is a different city than it was six years ago,” he said in conclusion. “And its last chapter has yet to be written … We have work to do, because our future begins today.”

No doubt, Buckhorn was also talking about his own tenure.

Donald Trump steps up effort to dispute and distract on Russia

After weeks on the defensive, President Donald Trump has stepped up his efforts to dispute, downplay and distract from revelations stemming from the investigations into the Kremlin’s interference in last year’s election and possible Russian ties to his campaign associates.

The White House says the real story is not about Russia — it’s about how Obama administration officials allegedly leaked and mishandled classified material about Americans. Trump and his aides have accused former officials of inappropriately disclosing — or “unmasking” — the names of Trump associates whose conversations were picked up by U.S. intelligences agencies.

“Such amazing reporting on unmasking and the crooked scheme against us by @foxandfriends,” Trump tweeted Monday. ‘Spied on before nomination.’ The real story.”

The White House has not pointed to any hard evidence to support such allegations, and instead has relied on media reports from some of the same publications Trump derides as “fake news.”

The truth is buried somewhere in classified material that is illegal to disclose. Here’s a look at what the White House believes is the real story.

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THE FLYNN AFFAIR

Trump fired national security adviser Michael Flynn following news reports that Flynn misled the White House about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. But the White House says the problem is that Flynn’s conversations were in the news at all.

“The real story here is why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington?” Trump tweeted after firing Flynn in February.

The White House has called for investigations into the disclosure of multiple intercepted conversations that Flynn had with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak before the inauguration. The government routinely monitors the communications of foreign officials in the U.S. It’s illegal to publicly disclose such classified information.

Officially, the White House said Flynn was forced to resign because he had given inaccurate descriptions of the discussions to Vice President Mike Pence and others in the White House. But Trump has continued to defend Flynn, suggesting he was only fired because information about his contacts came out in the media.

“Michael Flynn, Gen. Flynn is a wonderful man,” Trump said. “I think he’s been treated very, very unfairly by the media.”

___

THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION

White House officials say some Obama holdovers are part of a so-called deep state out to tear Trump down.

Last week, the White House latched onto a month-old television interview from an Obama administration official who said she encouraged congressional aides to gather as much information on Russia as possible before the inauguration.

Evelyn Farkas, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense, said she feared that information “would disappear” after President Barack Obama left office. She was no longer in government at the time, having left the Pentagon about a year before the election.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer called Farkas’ comments “devastating” and said they “raised serious concerns on whether or not there was an organized and widespread effort by the Obama administration to use and leak highly sensitive intelligence information for political purposes.”

On Monday, Spicer suggested there should be more interest in a Bloomberg report in which anonymous U.S. officials said that Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, asked for the identities of people related to Trump’s campaign and transition dozens of times.

Spicer remarked that he was “somewhat intrigued by the lack of interest” in the Rice revelations. But he added: “I do think that it’s interesting, the level, or lack thereof, of interest in this subject.”

As national security adviser, Rice would have regularly received intelligence reports and been able to request the identities of Americans whose communications were intercepted.

___

THE HILL WEIGHS IN

The White House has embraced a top Republican’s assertion that information about Trump associates were improperly spread around the government in the final days of the Obama administration. It appears the White House played a role in helping House intelligence committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., acquire some of that information.

Nunes announced last week that he had seen intelligence reports showing that Trump aides’ communications were picked up through routine surveillance. But he said their identities may have been improperly revealed. The California congressman later said he viewed the reports at the White House.

The White House contends that Nunes’ information — which has not been made public — validates Trump’s explosive claim that his predecessor wiretapped his New York skyscraper. Nunes has disputed that but still says he found the reports “troubling.”

The White House’s apparent involvement in helping Nunes access the information has overshadowed what Trump officials contend are real concerns about how much information about Americans is disseminated in intelligence reports. Trump has asked the House and Senate intelligence committees to include the matter in their Russia investigations.

___

CAMPAIGN MODE

Trump won the election, but thinks it’s his vanquished opponent whose ties to Russia should be investigated.

Some of the White House’s allegations against Clinton stem from her four years as secretary of state, a role that gave her ample reasons to have frequent contacts with Russia.

To deflect questions about Trump’s friendly rhetoric toward Russia, the White House points to the fact that Clinton was a central figure in the Obama administration’s attempt to “reset” relations with Moscow — an effort that crumbled after Vladimir Putin took back the presidency.

“When you compare the two sides in terms of who’s actually engaging with Russia, trying to strengthen them, trying to act with them, trying to interact with them, it is night and day between our actions and her actions,” Spicer said.

Rex Tillerson, Trump’s secretary of state, has deep ties to Russia from his time running ExxonMobil and cutting oil deals with Moscow.

The White House has also tried to link Clinton to Russia’s purchase of a controlling stake in a mining company with operations in the U.S., arguing that she was responsible for “selling off one-fifth of our country’s uranium.”

The Clinton-led State Department was among nine U.S. government agencies that had to approve the purchase of Uranium One. According to Politifact, some investors in the company had relationships with former President Bill Clinton and donated to the Clinton Foundation. However, the fact checking site says most of those donations occurred well before Clinton became secretary of state and was in position to have a say in the agreement.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Judiciary panel votes 11-9 in favor of Neil Gorsuch

The Latest on the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court (all times local):

2:35 p.m.

A divided Senate panel is backing Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch.

The Judiciary Committee voted 11-9 along party lines on Monday to favorably recommend Gorsuch to the full Senate. A confirmation vote is expected on Friday, but not before a partisan showdown over President Donald Trump‘s choice.

Democrats have secured the 41 votes to block Gorsuch with a filibuster after Delaware Sen. Chris Coons said he would vote against the nominee. The opposition will prevent Republicans from reaching the 60 votes they need to move Gorsuch over procedural hurdles to a final Senate vote.

Determined to confirm him despite Democratic objections, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has signaled he will likely change Senate rules later this week to reduce the threshold from 60 to a simple majority to get Gorsuch confirmed.

___

1:25 p.m.

Senate Democrats now have enough votes to try to block Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch with a filibuster, setting up a showdown with Republicans who plan to confirm him anyway.

The crucial 41st vote came from Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware who announced his decision Monday as the Senate Judiciary Committee met to vote on Gorsuch’s nomination.

Coons said that he had decided to oppose President Donald Trump’s nominee over concerns that include his vague answers in his hearing.

Coons’ opposition will prevent Republicans from reaching the 60 votes they need to move Gorsuch over procedural hurdles to a final Senate vote. Determined to confirm him despite Democratic objections, they will likely change Senate rules later this week to reduce the threshold from 60 to a simple majority.

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11:45 a.m.

Senator Michael Bennet says he will not join Democratic efforts to block a full-Senate vote on the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

The Colorado Democrat has been under pressure to support Gorsuch in part because the nominee is also from Colorado. Bennet doesn’t say whether he will ultimately vote in favor of Gorsuch. But he says he will not try to block a vote.

If Democrats successfully block a vote on Gorsuch, Senate Republicans are threatening to change Senate rules to enable them to confirm a Supreme Court nominee with a simple majority of 51 votes.

Under current rules, the need 60 votes to end debate.

Bennet says, “Changing the Senate rules now will only further politicize the Supreme Court.”

___

11:35 a.m.

Senator Lindsay Graham says flatly that Republicans will change the Senate’s rules if Democrats use a filibuster to block the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

Under current rules, Supreme Court nominees need at least 60 votes to end debate and hold a vote on their confirmation. So far, 40 Democrats have publicly said they will try to block Gorsuch’s nomination.

That’s just one shy of the number needed to stop the nomination under current Senate rules.

The South Carolina Republican says his GOP colleagues will change the rules to enable them to confirm a Supreme Court nominee with a simple majority of 51 votes.

Graham says: “The Senate’s traditions are going to change over this man. This says more about the Senate than it does Judge Gorsuch.”

___

11:15 a.m.

Senators Mark Warner and Patrick Leahy say they will vote against the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

The two Democrats are the 39th and 40th senators to say they will try to block Gorsuch’s nomination. That’s just one shy of the number needed to stop the nomination under current Senate rules. The nomination needs 60 votes to succeed.

However, Senate Republicans are threatening to change Senate rules to enable them to confirm a Supreme Court nominee with a simple majority of 51 votes.

All 52 Republicans are expected to support the Gorsuch.

___

10:45 a.m.

Senator Dianne Feinstein says she will vote against the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

The California Democrat cited two cases in which, she says, Gorsuch inserted his own view of what the law should be. In one case Gorsuch sided with a trucking company over a fired trucker who refused to drive a disabled truck in subzero weather. In the other case, Gorsuch sided with a school district that denied services to a student with autism.

Feinstein also says she is troubled that Gorsuch refused to say whether he supports the outcome of Brown v. Board of Education, the court decision that ended racial segregation in public schools.

Feinstein is the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is voting Monday on Gorsuch’s nomination.

___

10:25 a.m.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley says Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch is a mainstream judge who will be independent from the president. The Iowa Republican is accusing Democrats of “moving the goal posts” in their assessment of Gorsuch.

Grassley opened a committee meeting on Gorsuch’s nomination by making the case in favor of President Donald Trump’s nominee for the high court. Republicans on the committee are expected to send Gorsuch’s nomination to the full Senate after a lengthy series of speeches.

Most Democrats are expected to oppose the nomination.

___

3:30 a.m.

A Senate panel is opening a weeklong partisan showdown over President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee with Democrats steadily amassing the votes to block Neil Gorsuch and force Republicans to unilaterally change long-standing rules to confirm him.

The Republican-led Judiciary Committee meets Monday and is expected to back Gorsuch and send his nomination to the full Senate, most likely on a near-party line vote. Intent on getting Trump’s pick on the high court, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is likely to change Senate rules so that Gorsuch can be confirmed with a simple majority in the 100-seat chamber, instead of the 60-voter threshold.

So far, 36 Democrats and one independent have announced they will vote to block the nomination on a procedural cloture vote — a parliamentary step to advance a legislative issue — and oppose the choice. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who faces a tough re-election in a state Trump won handily, announced his opposition on Sunday.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Congress seen as not likely to pass tax overhaul quickly

After their humiliating loss on health care, Republicans in Congress could use a quick victory on a big issue. It won’t be an overhaul of the tax code.

Overhauling the tax code could prove harder to accomplish than repealing and replacing Barack Obama‘s health law. Congressional Republicans are divided on significant issues, especially a new tax on imports embraced by House Speaker Paul Ryan. And the White House is sending contradicting signals on the new tax, adding to the uncertainty.

House Republicans also can’t decide whether to move on from health care. Ryan canceled a scheduled vote on a House GOP plan after it became obvious that Republicans didn’t have the votes. He said he will continue to work on the issue but one of his top lieutenants on health care, Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, says he is now “100 percent” focused on a tax overhaul.

Ryan says Congress can work on both at the same time. It won’t be easy. Here’s why:

___

REPUBLICAN DIVIDE

House and Senate Republicans largely agree on the broad outlines of a tax overhaul. They want to lower tax rates for individuals and corporations, and make up the lost revenue by scaling back tax breaks.

But they are sharply divided on a key tenet of the House Republican plan.

The new “border adjustment tax” would be applied to profits from goods and services consumed in the U.S., whether they are domestically produced or imported. Exports would be exempt.

House GOP leaders say the tax is key to lowering the top corporate income tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent.

But good luck finding a single Republican senator who will publicly support the tax. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, is the latest in a long line of Republican senators to come out against the tax.

___

ABSENT DEMOCRATS

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, says he wants to work with Democrats to overhaul the tax code.

“A bipartisan bill would allow us to put in place more lasting reforms and give the overall effort additional credibility,” Hatch said.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said it is bad policy to pass major legislation without bipartisan support.

“Without some meaningful buy-in, you guarantee a food fight,” McConnell wrote in his memoir last year. “You guarantee instability and strife.”

But in the House, Republicans haven’t reached out to Democrats in any meaningful way.

___

WHERE’S THE WHITE HOUSE?

“Obviously we’re driving the train on this,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said.

But President Donald Trump‘s administration has been all over the map on tax reform. Trump at one point said the House border tax is too complicated, then said it’s in the mix.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told a Senate panel that “there would be no absolute tax cut for the upper class” in Trump’s tax plan.

However, the plan Trump unveiled during his presidential campaign would provide big tax breaks to high-income households.

Since taking office, Trump has promised “massive” tax cuts for the middle class.

A former Treasury official under President Barack Obama says the White House needs to stake out clear goals on tax overhaul to guide the debate in Congress.

“I think it’s important for the administration to signal early the general shape” of what they would like to accomplish so that there are fewer proposals vying for attention, said Michael Mundaca, a former assistant Treasury secretary now at Ernst & Young.

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TAX CHANGE IS DIFFICULT

There is a reason it’s been 31 years since the last time Congress rewrote the tax code. Since then, the number of exemptions, deductions and credits has mushroomed. Taxpayers enjoyed $1.6 trillion in tax breaks in 2016 — more than the federal government collected in individual income taxes.

That huge number could provide plenty of tax breaks that lawmakers can scale back so they can lower tax rates significantly. There is just one problem — all of the biggest tax breaks are very popular and have powerful constituencies.

Nearly 34 million families claimed the mortgage interest deduction in 2016. That same year more than 43 million families took advantage of a deduction of state and local taxes.

The House Republicans’ tax plan would retain the mortgage deduction and eliminate the deduction for state and local taxes.

___

HEALTH CARE

Both Trump and Republicans in Congress made big campaign promises to repeal and replace Obama’s health law, so the issue won’t go away.

However, several players say negotiations on a way forward are non-existent. In the meantime, Trump is stoking animosity among a key voting bloc by criticizing them on Twitter.

Two factions in the House GOP had members oppose the health plan: the hard-right Freedom Caucus and the moderate Tuesday Group.

Ryan has suggested that they get together to sort out their differences, but it’s not happening, according to one key lawmaker.

“We are not currently negotiating with the Freedom Caucus. There was never a meeting scheduled with the Freedom Caucus. We will never meet with the Freedom Caucus,” said Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., a member of the Tuesday Group.

Trump tweeted: “The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don’t get on the team, & fast. We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!”

To quote a favorite saying of the president, Not nice.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

TRUMP TAJ MAHAL

Sale of ex-Trump Taj Mahal casino to Hard Rock is finalized

It’s official: Atlantic City‘s former Trump Taj Mahal casino now belongs to Hard Rock International.

The sale of the shuttered casino opened in 1990 by President Donald Trump was finalized Friday.

The Florida-based Hard Rock, which manages gambling and resort operations for the Seminole Indian tribe, bought the casino March 1 from billionaire investor Carl Icahn.

Icahn is a close friend and adviser to the president. He acquired the Taj Mahal last year from bankruptcy court after Trump was no longer involved with it, aside from a 10 percent ownership stake in its parent company in return for the use of his name.

Icahn closed it in October after a devastating strike by union workers seeking the restoration of health insurance and pension benefits that the casino’s owner before Icahn, Trump Entertainment Resorts, got a bankruptcy court judge to eliminate in 2014.

Hard Rock plans a press conference Wednesday to unveil its plans for the casino, which it wants to reopen next spring. The purchase price has not been revealed, but CEO Jim Allen has said the purchase and extensive renovations will together cost about $300 million.

It is likely to feature plenty of guitars, big and small, inside and out. The guitar has become the symbol of the Hard Rock chain, and the company says it owns the world’s largest collection of rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia.

Hard Rock has long toyed with the idea of opening a casino resort in Atlantic City. In 2011, the company proposed — and soon abandoned — a music-themed casino resort at the southern end of the Boardwalk that was to feature items from the state’s rock ‘n’ roll history.

Hard Rock also still plans to seek permission to open a casino at the Meadowlands Racetrack in East Rutherford if voters eventually amend the state constitution to allow casino gambling beyond Atlantic City. A referendum to allow it last year was crushed at the polls.

White House says real story is about leaking, not Russia

On the defensive, the White House is throwing counter punches to deflect attention from three investigations into the Kremlin’s interference in last year’s election and possible Russian ties to President Donald Trump or his associates.

The White House says the real story is not about Russia, but about how Obama administration officials allegedly leaked and mishandled classified material about Americans. Reaching back to campaign mode, Trump aides also contend that Hillary Clinton had more extensive ties to Moscow than Trump.

Arguing the White House’s case Friday, Trump spokesman Sean Spicer said: “There is a concern that people misused, mishandled, misdirected classified information — leaked it out, spread it out, violated civil liberties.”

The White House has not pointed to any hard evidence to support its allegations, and instead has relied on media reports from some of the same publications Trump derides as “fake news.” The truth is buried somewhere in classified material that is illegal to disclose.

__

THE FLYNN AFFAIR

Trump fired national security adviser Michael Flynn following news reports that Flynn misled the White House about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. But the White House says the problem is that Flynn’s conversations were in the news at all.

“The real story here is why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington?” Trump tweeted after firing Flynn in February.

The White House has called for investigations into the disclosure of multiple intercepted conversations that Flynn had with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak before the inauguration. The government routinely monitors the communications of foreign officials in the U.S. It’s illegal to publicly disclose such classified information.

Officially, the White House said Flynn was forced to resign because he’d give inaccurate descriptions of the discussions to Vice President Mike Pence and others in the White House. But Trump has continued to defend Flynn, suggesting he was only fired because information about his contacts came out in the media.

“Michael Flynn, Gen. Flynn is a wonderful man,” Trump said. “I think he’s been treated very, very unfairly by the media.”

___

THE DEEP STATE?

White House officials say some Obama holdovers are part of a so-called deep state out to tear Trump down.

This week, the White House latched onto a month-old television interview from an Obama administration official who said she encouraged congressional aides to gather as much information on Russia as possible before the inauguration.

Evelyn Farkas, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense, said she feared that information “would disappear” after President Barack Obama left office.

Spicer called Farkas’ comments “devastating” and said they “raised serious concerns on whether or not there was an organized and widespread effort by the Obama administration to use and leak highly sensitive intelligence information for political purposes.”

Farkas was no longer in government when she urged officials to collect intelligence on “the staff, the Trump staff, dealing with Russians.” She left the Pentagon in 2015, just over a year before the election. She says she was offering advice to associates and did not pass on actual information.

Obama administration officials have acknowledged that there were efforts to preserve information that could be related to the Russian investigations, as was first reported in The New York Times. Former Obama officials contend that intelligence was disseminated to pockets of the government where officials had clearance to see classified reports, not publicly leaked.

Still, Farkas herself connected the concerns among government officials about the Trump campaign’s possible ties to Russia to the information winding up in the press.

“That’s why you have the leaking,” Farkas said in the March 2 interview on MSNBC. “People are worried.”

___

THE HILL WEIGHS IN

The White House has embraced a top Republican’s assertion that information about Trump associates were improperly spread around the government in the final days of the Obama administration. It appears the White House played a role in helping House intelligence committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., acquire some of that information.

Nunes announced last week that he had seen intelligence reports showing that Trump aides’ communications were picked up through routine surveillance. But he said their identities may have been improperly revealed. The California congressman later said he viewed the reports at the White House.

The White House contends that Nunes’ information — which has not been made public — validates Trump’s explosive claim that his predecessor wiretapped his New York skyscraper. Nunes has disputed that but still says he found the reports “troubling.”

The White House’s apparent involvement in helping Nunes access the information has overshadowed what Trump officials contend are real concerns about how much information about Americans is disseminated in intelligence reports. Trump has asked the House and Senate intelligence committees to include the matter in their Russia investigations.

___

CAMPAIGN MODE

Trump won the election, but thinks it’s his vanquished opponent whose ties to Russia should be investigated.

Some of the White House’s allegations against Clinton stem from her four years as secretary of state, a role that gave her ample reasons to have frequent contacts with Russia.

To deflect questions about Trump’s friendly rhetoric toward Russia, the White House points to the fact that Clinton was a central figure in the Obama administration’s attempt to “reset” relations with Moscow — an effort that crumbled after Vladimir Putin took back the presidency.

“When you compare the two sides in terms of who’s actually engaging with Russia, trying to strengthen them, trying to act with them, trying to interact with them, it is night and day between our actions and her actions,” Spicer said.

Rex Tillerson, Trump’s secretary of state, has deep ties to Russia from his time running ExxonMobil and cutting oil deals with Moscow.

The White House has also tried to link Clinton to Russia’s purchase of a controlling stake in a mining company with operations in the U.S., arguing that she was responsible for “selling off one-fifth of our country’s uranium.”

The Clinton-led State Department was among nine U.S. government agencies that had to approve the purchase of Uranium One. According to Politifact, some investors in the company had relationships with former President Bill Clinton and donated to the Clinton Foundation. However, the fact checking site says most of those donations occurred well before Clinton became secretary of state and was in position to have a say in the agreement.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Donald Trump, big and brash like his hometown, now avoids NYC

For decades, Donald Trump‘s identity was interwoven with his hometown of New York City: big, brash and dedicated to making money.

Manhattan was the imposing backdrop as Trump transformed himself from local real-estate developer to celebrity businessman — skyscrapers and gossip pages featured his name — and during last year’s presidential campaign he’d fly thousands of miles to sleep in his own bed at Trump Tower.

But since his inauguration more than two months ago, Trump has not set foot within the city limits.

The Republican president received only 18 percent of the vote in the decidedly liberal city. Frequent protests now clog Fifth Avenue outside Trump Tower. A date for a return trip has yet to be scheduled.

Though Trump is expected to travel to New York in the coming weeks, he is unlikely to receive a hero’s welcome. One of his sons says that while the president will enjoy making trips to his hometown, his relationship with the city has changed.

“When he was in New York, his No. 1 thing was work. This was where work was,” said Eric Trump in an interview. “He was home. He took the elevator to his office. At the end of the day, he went back up. He did it every day of his life.”

“Now his focus isn’t work, but being president, so his attention is elsewhere.”

Trump was last in New York Jan. 19, the day before he took office, when he left Trump Tower, his home of 30-plus years, and flew to Washington. His wife, Melania, and their 10-year-old son, Barron, who attends a private Manhattan school, have remained behind, as have Trump’s two adult sons who are now tasked with running their father’s sprawling business interests.

During the presidential transition, speculation swirled that Trump, a famed homebody and creature of habit, would return to Manhattan frequently. But while the president has repeatedly left Washington on weekends, he heads south instead, to his palatial Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida.

Mar-a-Lago closes for the season later this spring. Trump has given no indication he will keep it open — he didn’t last year during the campaign — and he is expected to head north for weekend trips, either to his Manhattan high-rise or his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey. Allies say New Yorkers should be excited about his presence even if they may disagree with his politics.

“As someone who loves history, I am excited to go to the Martin Van Buren House in Kinderhook, New York, and New Yorkers should be thrilled to have this president’s house right here in New York City,” said Joe Borelli, a co-chair of Trump’s campaign in New York state. “He’s a quintessential New Yorker. This is going to remain his home.”

But Borelli is just one of just three Republicans on the 51-person New York City Council, pointing to the lopsided political divide in the nation’s largest city. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 6-to-1 margin and Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, has denounced many of Trump’s views as “‘un-American.”

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that the mayor believes the president is significantly out of step with the values of New York City,” said Erik Phillips, de Blasio’s spokesman. “That said, the mayor’s attitude also is that he wants the president to feel and see the potential impacts on his hometown of some of these budget cuts he’s talked about.”

Another of de Blasio’s concerns: the cost of safeguarding the president in the 58-story skyscraper on one of Manhattan’s busiest streets.

The New York Police Department estimated that it cost their agency about $24 million to protect Trump Tower when the president-elect stayed there between Election Day and the inauguration 73 days later. That works out to about $328,000 per day; when it’s just Melania and Barron Trump in the building, the cost to the NYPD drops to about $127,000 to $146,000 per day. The police department is seeking federal reimbursement. Secret Service expenses also balloon while Trump is in town.

Eric Trump said his father is mindful of the impact of his presence in New York, particularly on traffic. But when asked this week if Trump is concerned about criticism of the cost of his trips, White House press secretary Sean Spicer responded, “No, he feels great.”

Many who worked with — or against — Trump in New York have expressed surprise he’s stayed away so far.

Trump was born in Queens but didn’t want to stay there, pushing his family’s development firm into the glitzy and cutthroat Manhattan market. He rehabilitated dilapidated city landmarks — like Central Park’s ice skating rink and a 42nd Street hotel — and gained a reputation as a publicity-hungry celebrity in a town that celebrated success. He’d frequently call into the city’s tabloids, sometimes adopting an alias to act as his own spokesman.

“For all his braggadocio, he was kind of a likable guy if you didn’t pay any attention to the truth,” said George Rush, longtime gossip columnist at the New York Daily News.

“He’d love to say, ‘This is off the record but you can use it,'” said Rush, who recalled Trump’s tireless efforts to make himself part of the city’s celebrity firmament.

“You couldn’t turn the corner without running into his name — and needing to put on sunglasses because of the sun’s glare off the bronze,” Rush recalled. “But he’s always someone who needed to be loved and he’s not loved here now. He’s become sort of the prodigal son of New York.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Roger Stone: I’ll beat suit even if jury thinks I’m a devil

Republican strategist Roger Stone said Thursday that jurors may think he’s “the devil” but he still expects to beat a defamation lawsuit accusing him of circulating a mailer calling a political candidate a sexual predator.

The civil trial in New York was set to start Thursday but was postponed until at least August.

Stone, a longtime Donald Trump adviser who cut his teeth in politics playing tricks on opponents of President Richard Nixon, said he looks forward to testifying — and he also hopes to testify before congressional committees investigating alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

He said he wants to testify before the House Intelligence Committee because ranking Democrat Adam Schiff, of California, “maligned” him by accusing him of predicting the hacking of Hillary Clinton campaign manager John Podesta‘s email account.

“He slimed me in public, and I’d like to have an opportunity to defend myself in public,” Stone said.

The defamation suit accuses Stone and two others of sending a flyer to 150,000 New York households during the state’s 2010 election that called the Libertarian Party candidate for governor, Warren Redlich, a “sick twisted pervert.”

Stone predicted Thursday that he would prevail in the end because Redlich has “presented no evidence but a wild conspiracy theory.” He acknowledged, however, that a jury drawn from heavily Democratic Manhattan could present a challenge.

“We would obviously attempt to get a balanced jury but it’s Manhattan,” he said. “The pool is 80 percent Democratic. And I recognize that to some Democrats I’m the devil. That’s just the way it goes.”

Stone did not appear for trial Wednesday, when it was initially scheduled to start. His lawyer, Benjamin Burge, told the judge Stone was busy complying with a notice from the U.S. Senate intelligence committee asking him to preserve any documents that might be related to its investigation into alleged Russian interference in the presidential election.

When both sides appeared Thursday, the judge postponed the trial to give lawyers more time to go over exhibits and prepare their cases.

Stone has said he communicated with Guccifer 2.0, the shadowy hacker credited with breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s email servers. But he has denied that he worked with Russian officials to influence the presidential election.

He said Thursday that complying with the Senate Intelligence Committee’s notice is time-consuming because he has “multiple email addresses and boxes” but he wants to cooperate with both the Senate and House intelligence committees.

Redlich’s lawsuit claims that Stone and his accomplices were responsible for the defamatory flyer. The mailing, which included Redlich’s photo and the header “Sexual Predator Alert,” said: “This man constitutes a public danger.” And it warned: “If you see this man in your neighborhood, CALL THE POLICE!”

It purported to come from an organization called People for a Safer New York.

At the time, Stone was advising two other candidates for governor: Kristin Davis, a former madam of a prostitution ring, and the Republican nominee, Carl Paladino. Redlich also is suing Paladino and his former campaign manager, Michael Caputo.

Redlich, who is representing himself at the trial, and is seeking unspecified damages, charged Wednesday that Stone’s failure to appear was part of a defense strategy to prolong what should be a speedy trial.

But Redlich agreed Thursday to postpone the trial, saying the delay would give him more time to prepare.

Stone, 64, got his start in politics working for Nixon, where he developed a reputation as someone who specialized in campaign trickery and spreading dirt on opponents.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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