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    President Donald Trump said Tuesday he knows the identity of the author known as “Anonymous,” the senior administration official who wrote an inside-the-White House account that painted the president as inept and dangerous. Trump’s claim comes as speculation has grown inside Washington about the identity of the official who penned the book “A Warning” as well as an eviscerating 2018 essay in The New York Times about the president’s “misguided impulses” “I know who it is,” Trump told reporters. “I can’t tell you that. ..We won’t get into it.” In the book, published by the Hachette Book Group in November, the writer claims senior administration officials considered resigning as a group in 2018 in a “midnight self-massacre,” but ultimately decided such an act would do more harm than good. Ahead of the book’s publication, the Justice Department sent a letter to Hachette and the writer’s literary agency, raising questions over whether any confidentiality agreement had been violated and asking for information that could help reveal the author’s identity. Hachette responded by saying it would provide no additional information beyond calling the author a “current or former senior official.” Trump has pointed to the book to make the case that some in his administration, including Obama holdovers, are working to undermine his agenda. White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham has dismissed the author as a “coward” and the content of the person’s writings as “nothing but lies.” Trump did not say what if any steps he plans to take against the writer. “People know it’s a fraud,” Trump added. __ This has been corrected to show that the essay was in 2018, not last year.
  • President Donald Trump has gone on a clemency blitz, commuting what he called a “ridiculous” 14-year prison sentence for former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and pardoning former New York Police Department commissioner Bernie Kerik, among a long list of others. Others who got a break from Trump include financier Michael Milken, who served two years in prison in the early 1990s after pleading guilty to violating U.S. securities laws, and Edward DeBartolo Jr., the former San Francisco 49ers owner convicted in a gambling fraud scandal after building one of the most successful NFL teams in history. In all, Trump took clemency actions related to 11 people, his latest interventions in the justice system as he is under growing fire for weighing in on the cases of former aides. Trump made clear that he saw similarities between efforts to investigate his own conduct and those who took down Blagojevich, a Democrat who appeared on Trump’s reality TV show, “Celebrity Apprentice.' “It was a prosecution by the same people — Comey, Fitzpatrick, the same group,' Trump said. He was referring to Patrick Fitzgerald, the former U.S. attorney who prosecuted Blagojevich and now represents former FBI Director James Comey, whom Trump fired from the agency in May 2017. The clemency actions come as an emboldened Trump continues to test the limits of his office now that impeachment is over. The actions drew alarm from Democratic Rep. Bill Pascrell, Jr. of New Jersey, who accused Trump of using his unfettered pardon power “to shield unrepentant felons, racists and corrupt scoundrels” Blagojevich was convicted on charges of political corruption, including seeking to sell an appointment to Barack Obama's old Senate seat and trying to shake down a children's hospital. But Trump said the former governor had been subjected to a “ridiculous sentence' that didn't fit his crimes. “That was a tremendously powerful, ridiculous sentence, in my opinion and in the opinion of many others,' Trump told reporters. Trump also pardoned Kerik, who served just over three years for tax fraud and lying to the White House while being interviewed to serve as homeland security secretary. Trump's White House lauded Kerik for having “courageously led the New York Police Department’s heroic response to the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001” and said that, “Since his conviction, he has focused on improving the lives of others, including as a passionate advocate for criminal justice and prisoner reentry reform.' And it hailed Milken for having “democratized corporate finance by providing women and minorities access to capital that would have been unavailable to them otherwise.' Trump said he had yet to think about pardoning his longtime confidant Roger Stone, who is scheduled to be sentenced Thursday, or granting clemency to several former aides who have ended up in legal jeopardy, including his former campaign manager Paul Manafort and disgraced former national security adviser Mike Flynn. “Somebody has to stick up for the people,” Trump said. As for Stone, in particular, he added: You're going to see what happens. I think he’s treated unfairly.” As for Tuesday's actions, Pascrell said “the pardoning of these disgraced figures should be treated as another national scandal by a lawless executive.” He was referring specifically to the actions involving Blagojevich and Milken. And he predicted that, following Trump's acquittal by the Republican-controlled Senate, 'outrageous abuses like these will accelerate and worsen.” Many of the pardons announced Tuesday were advocated by well-heeled friends of the president, including Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate; the president's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani; Tom Barrack, the chairman of Trump's inaugural committee; and Fox News personality Maria Bartiromo. Milken's advocates, for example, included all of the above. But Trump also commuted the sentences of several people more typical of the flood of requests that presidents receive. They include Crystal Munoz, who has spent the last 12 years in prison after being convicted on marijuana charges. Her case was championed by the Texas A&M Criminal Defense Clinic, the Clemency for All Non-Violent Drug Offenders Foundation, as well as Alice Marie Johnson, whose life sentence Trump commuted in 2018 and whose story his campaign featured in a recent Super Bowl ad. Blagojevich's case had been championed by his wife, Patti, who went on a media blitz in 2018. Appearing on Trump favorite Fox News, she encouraged him to step in, praising the president and likening the investigation of her husband to special prosecutor Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election — a probe Trump has long characterized as a “witch hunt.” When Trump publicly broached the idea in May 2018 of intervening to free Blagojevich, he played down the former governor’s crimes. He said Blagojevich was convicted for 'being stupid, saying things that every other politician, you know, that many other politicians say.' Earlier Tuesday, the White House held a surprise press conference with a slew of football greats to announce that Trump had pardoned DeBartolo Jr., who was involved in one of the biggest owners’ scandals in the sport’s history. In 1998, DeBartolo pleaded guilty to failing to report a felony when he paid $400,000 to former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards in exchange for a riverboat gambling license. Ohio Pastor Darrell Scott, who had advocated for DeBartolo Jr.'s pardon, said that when he first brought DeBartolo Jr.'s case to the White House, the administration was consumed with other matters, including the Mueller investigation. Now that impeachment is over, he said, he expects Trump to moved forward with additional pardons. “We finally get to breathe for the first time before something else comes,' he said. “I think they're trying to play catch up.
  • Comedians are making their return to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner after last year's hiatus. Kenan Thompson of “Saturday Night Live” and Hasan Minhaj of Netflix’s “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj” will headline this year’s dinner, which takes place April 25. Presidents and first ladies have traditionally attended the dinner, which serves as a celebration of the First Amendment as well as a fundraiser for college scholarships. Reporting awards are given out as well. But President Donald Trump has skipped the dinner throughout his presidency and instead has elected to hold campaign rallies. Just four days before last year's dinner, the White House announced that administration officials would be joining Trump in boycotting the dinner. The White House declined to comment about whether the president would attend this year. Last year’s dinner featured Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Chernow after some dinner attendees and commentators complained that a sharply anti-Trump performance by comedian Michelle Wolf in 2018 was too pointed and unfairly targeted then-White House press secretary Sarah Sanders. Thompson will serve as this year’s host. Minhaj will be the featured entertainer. “Kenan and Hasan are two of the most engaged and engaging entertainers in America. I’m thrilled they’ll help us celebrate the role of a free press in our democracy,” said Jonathan Karl, Chief White House correspondent for ABC News and president of the White House Correspondents’ Association. Thompson is currently in his 17th season on “Saturday Night Live' where he has set a record for the most celebrity impressions performed on the show. In 2018, he received an Emmy Award for Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics and a nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series. Minhaj won a Peabody award in 2019 for his humorous examination of issues of domestic and global import. He was the entertainer at the 2017 correspondents' dinner when he was a senior correspondent on “The Daily Show.
  • Karen Pence has no shortage of projects. The wife of Vice President Mike Pence promotes the healing power of art therapy and help for military spouses. She's into honeybees and supports sister cities. She's a watercolorist who designs the family's annual Christmas card and teaches art at a religious elementary school. Now, she's beginning to campaign on her own to help win a second term for President Donald Trump and her husband. And with first lady Melania Trump largely avoiding the political scene, the campaign sees Mrs. Pence as an asset in one of the areas where they most need help — with suburban woman. “I just feel like I want to do my part,” Mrs. Pence told The Associated Press in an interview shortly before she took a solo trip home to Indianapolis to add the Trump-Pence ticket to the ballot for the state's Republican presidential primary in May. Mike Pence is a former Indiana governor. “This is so exciting for me,” she told supporters at the Indiana Statehouse. 'Under the leadership of President Trump and Vice President Pence — I have to put his name in there, too — we are getting things done.' Her pitch includes highlighting economic gains under Trump, including historically low unemployment, along with tax cuts, the creation of “opportunity zones” to lure investment to low-income neighborhoods across the U.S., deregulation and trade policy. Mrs. Pence told AP she sees her role as “telling the story. Promises made, promises kept.” Over the past several months, she's told that story at a “Latinos for Trump” event in Las Vegas and a “Women for Trump' gathering in St. Paul, Minnesota. Trump narrowly lost Nevada and Minnesota in 2016. The day after the Indiana stop, she flew to New Hampshire to help rev up Trump supporters before the president arrived a few days later for a campaign rally on the eve of the state's first-in-the-nation presidential primary. 'Whatever you're doing, we need you to do more, and whatever you're giving, we need you to give more,' she told the crowd at a Nashua hotel. “We need four more years of President Donald Trump.” Karen Pence is no stranger to the campaign trail. Mike Pence represented Indiana in the U.S. House for six terms before he was elected governor and later joined Trump's ticket. But the 63-year-old mother of three did little campaigning for Trump after he brought Mike Pence onto the ticket. An evangelical Christian, she was said to have been turned off by Trump's past personal behavior, including hearing him talk on a years-old audiotape that surfaced before the November 2016 election about grabbing women by their private parts. Aides say Mrs. Pence supports Trump, and that claims suggesting otherwise are false. Mike Pence, meanwhile, is seen as harboring ambitions to succeed Trump as the GOP presidential nominee in 2024, and having his wife, who is also one of his closest advisers, publicly advocate for him could aid in such efforts. It could help boost her profile, too. “The only time that she gets much attention nationally is in reference to her husband and their relationship,” said Tammy Vigil, a Boston University communications professor who studies women as political communicators. “She could definitely improve her image by being active and going on her own.' Mrs. Pence drew some criticism last year after she resumed teaching art part-time at a Christian school that bars lesbian and gay students and teachers. She had taught at the Northern Virginia school when Mike Pence was a member of Congress. Her husband pushed back against the critics by saying that “attacking Christian education” was offensive. The Trump campaign calls Mrs. Pence a “tremendous asset.” “She knows how to appeal to key conservative and suburban voters, relates closely to the Midwestern voting bloc that Republicans need to win the race, and is eager to explain why the president and vice president deserve reelection,” said campaign spokesman Jon Thompson. Mrs. Pence is also deeply involved in another campaign, one to help educate military spouses about resources to help them cope with lengthy deployments, frequent moves or other issues specific to their experiences. She and Leah Esper, the wife of Defense Secretary Mark Esper, have begun monthly visits to military bases to meet with spouses. Their first stop was North Carolina's Camp Lejeune in January. “I think for them to see both of us, it was really special,” Karen Pence told AP in her second-floor office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House grounds. She has personal experience with military spouse issues. Her son, Michael, is a Marine Corps pilot. His wife, Sarah, accompanied Mike and Karen Pence on a recent trip to Israel and Rome. Karen Pence is carrying out her myriad responsibilities with a slightly updated image. Below-the-shoulder locks have replaced the tight bob and bangs she sported at the dawn of the administration. She's noticeably thinner, too, with credit going to an exercise regimen that includes using weights and pulleys, along with apps to aid calorie counting. She hasn't cut anything out of her diet. “I just have cut back,” she said. So exactly how many pounds did Karen Pence drop from her 5-foot-2 frame? She said only that it took her six months to a year to shed it. “I would say that I've kept 10 off,' she added. 'Let's put it that way.” ___ Associated Press writer Tom Davies in Indianapolis contributed to this report. ___ Follow Darlene Superville on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/dsupervilleap
  • Russian pranksters claim they called U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders pretending to be climate activist Greta Thunberg and offered Thunberg's support to his campaign. Vladimir Kuznetsov and Alexey Stolyarov, who have fooled many high-profile victims around the world, posted a recording of the phone call on YouTube on Thursday. The call itself took place in early December, but the duo decided to release it more than two months later because of Sanders' success in Iowa and New Hampshire, Kuznetsov told The Associated Press in a Skype interview. A representative for the campaign didn't comment Friday on the authenticity of the call. Federal law enforcement officials were alerted in November that several Democrats had received calls from someone believed to be outside the U.S. who was claiming to represent the teenage Thunberg and was trying to set up calls or in-person meetings with members of Congress, a U.S. official told The Associated Press. Some of the congressional offices reported the incidents to the FBI and the Capitol Police, the official said. The person was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity. In the recording, an unnamed female pretends to be Greta, and Stolyarov plays her father, Svante. They offer to lend support to the campaign of a man who identifies himself as Sanders, and the man welcomes it. The 78-year-old Sanders suggests that “Greta” make a statement in his support and that they do an event together when she next comes to the U.S. “I would be really appreciative,” he says. “Greta' then proposes to record a rap song in support of Sanders together with “singer Billie Eilish and rapper Kanye West.' Sanders says that would be “terrific” and tries to end the conversation, but the duo says “Greta” is about to visit Russia and needs advice on how to behave there. The Vermont senator tells her to be careful to not be used for PR purposes. “I think what you don’t want to do is simply walk in there and get used,” he says. “Russia and (President Vladimir) Putin has been very bad, as far as I know, on climate change. They have a lot of oil, oil is important for their economy, they make a lot of money on oil,” Sanders explains. After that, “Greta' tells Sanders that he was recruited by the KGB in 1988 when he visited Russia and has since been a “sleeper agent.' “Now it’s time to wake up and fulfill your mission, become president of the United States, build communism in the United States and work for Russia!” she says, after which Sanders appears to hang up the phone. Kuznetsov told the AP that the call was one of many in the comedy duo's new project dubbed “Stars Save the Earth,” in which they call high-ranking politicians and celebrities pretending to be Thunberg. “Many laugh at Bernie Sanders (and say) that he is a KGB agent and wants to build communism in the U.S. Since he calls himself a democratic socialist, we decided to play up this topic — the topic of Sanders being a recruited Russian agent,” Kuznetsov said. Stolyarov added that Thunberg's name “opens doors to everyone.' “Everyone, from presidents to street cleaners, are ready to talk to Greta Thunberg,' he told the AP in a Skype interview. Stolyarov insisted the pranksters didn't want to influence the presidential race in the U.S. in any way. In previous years, the two have been accused of having ties to the Kremlin -- a notion they have repeatedly denied. Kuznetsov said they didn't expect any repercussions for the prank. “It's not illegal, and we're well known in the U.S.,” he said. ___ Associated Press writer Michael Balsamo in Washington contributed to this report.
  • Facebook has decided to let political campaigns pay online influencers to spread their messages, a practice that had sidestepped many of the social network's rules governing political ads. Friday's policy reversal highlights difficulties tech companies and regulators have in keeping up with the changing nature of paid political messages. The change comes days after Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg exploited a loophole to run humorous messages promoting his campaign on the accounts of popular Instagram personalities followed by millions of younger people. The Bloomberg posts weren’t much more than self-deprecating humor used to sell the candidate’s old guy appeal, using a tactic that until now was largely used to sell skin care products or clothing-subscription services. But the lack of oversight and clear rules around influencer marketing, not to mention their effectiveness in reaching younger audiences, makes them ripe for misuse. Bloomberg's effort skirted many of the rules that tech companies have imposed on political ads to safeguard U.S. elections from malicious foreign and domestic interference and misinformation. Online political ads have been controversial, especially after it was revealed Russia used them in an attempt to influence the 2016 presidential election. In response, Facebook has rolled out a number of rules to prevent a repeat of that, though it has declined to fact-check political ads and refuses to ban even blatently false messages from politicians. Before the explosion of social media, it was clearer what's an ad and what isn't — and thus what's subject to disclosures and other rules. With social media, a campaign can pay celebrities and other influential users to spread a message on their behalf, without ever buying an ad and be subject to its rules. “This is a new kind of activity that simply didn’t exist when the rules for internet political communications were last updated,” said Commissioner Ellen L. Weintraub of the Federal Election Commission. Friday's policy change involves what Facebook calls “branded content” — sponsored items posted by ordinary users who are typically paid by companies or organizations. Advertisers pay the influential users directly to post about their brand. Facebook doesn't make money directly from such posts and doesn't consider them advertising. As a result, branded content wasn't governed by Facebook's advertising policies, which require candidates and campaigns to verify their identity with a U.S. ID or mailing address and disclose how much they spent running each ad. Until Friday, Facebook tried to deter campaigns from using such branded content by barring them from using a tool designed to help advertisers run such posts on Facebook and Instagram, which is owned by Facebook. The rule change now allows campaigns in the U.S. to use this tool, provided they've been authorized by Facebook to run political ads and disclose who paid for the sponsored posts. Campaigns that avoid using the tool, as Bloomberg had, risk having their accounts suspended. “After hearing from multiple campaigns, we agree that there’s a place for branded content in political discussion on our platforms,” Facebook said in an exclusive statement to The Associated Press. “We’re allowing U.S.-based political candidates to work with creators to run this content.” Politicians still won’t be required to disclose how much they paid the influencers to run the posts. And the posts won't appear in Facebook's ad library, which publicly catalogs political ads and allows other campaigns, journalists and watchdog groups to view the type of messages politicians are pushing in the election. Facebook's new rules won't apply to someone merely creating or sharing a post about a politician without getting paid. Facebook said it is asking the influencer accounts that posted the Bloomberg memes to retroactively use the tool meant for such posts. After this happens, the posts will be labeled as a “paid partnership” with Bloomberg. Google says it doesn't allow political messages using its main tools for connecting with influencers, but campaigns can make individual arrangements with YouTube influencers. These videos would be covered under general disclosure rules, but would not be added to Google's political advertising database. The Bloomberg campaign had taken the unconventional step of paying social media influencers — individuals with huge followings — to post Bloomberg memes using their Instagram accounts. Different versions of the sponsored posts from the Bloomberg campaign ran on more than a dozen influential Instagram accounts, each of which have millions of followers. The Bloomberg campaign's memes showed the 78-year-old candidate, in a tongue-in-cheek awkward fashion, chatting with popular social media influencers with names like “Tank Sinatra,' asking them to help him raise his profile among younger folk. “Can you post a meme that lets everyone know I’m the cool candidate?” Bloomberg wrote in one of the exchanges posted by an Instagram account with nearly 15 million followers. The candidate then sent a photo of him wearing baggy chino shorts, an orange polo and a zip-up vest. The reply: “Ooof that will cost like a billion dollars.” The billionaire candidate responded by asking where to send the money. With the sponsored posts, Bloomberg’s campaign said it was reaching those who might not be normally interested in the day-to-day of politics. 'You want to engage people at every platform and you want them to feel like they're not just getting a canned generic statement,” campaign spokeswoman Sabrina Singh said of the campaign's strategy. The Bloomberg campaign declined to say how much it paid for the sponsored posts, or if it had more in the works. ___ Seitz reported from Chicago. AP Technology Writer Rachel Lerman in San Francisco contributed to this report.
  • A government watchdog is launching a nationwide probe into how marketers may be getting seniors’ personal Medicare information aided by apparent misuse of a government system, officials said Friday. The audit will be formally announced next week said Tesia Williams, a spokeswoman for the Health and Human Services inspector general's office. It follows a narrower probe which found that an electronic system for pharmacies to verify Medicare coverage was being used for potentially inappropriate searchers seemingly tied to marketing. It raised red flags about possible fraud. The watchdog agency's decision comes amid a wave of relentlessly efficient telemarketing scams targeting Medicare recipients and involving everything from back braces to DNA cheek swabs. For years, seniors have been admonished not to give out their Medicare information to people they don't know. But a report on the inspector general's initial probe,also released Friday, details how sensitive details can still get to marketers. It can happen even when a Medicare beneficiary thinks he or she is dealing with a trustworthy entity such as a pharmacy or doctor's office. Key personal details gleaned from Medicare's files can then be cross-referenced with databases of individual phone numbers, allowing marketers to home in with their calls. The initial audit focused on 30 pharmacies and other service providers that were frequently pinging a Medicare system created for drugstores. The electronic system is intended to be used for verifying a senior's eligibility at the sales counter. It can validate coverage and personal details on millions of individuals. Analyzing records that covered 2013-15, investigators discovered that most of the audited pharmacies, along with a software company and a drug compounding service also scrutinized, weren't necessarily filling prescriptions. Instead, they appeared to have been tapping into the system for potentially inappropriate marketing. Medicare stipulates that the electronic queries — termed “E1 transactions”— are supposed to be used to bill for prescriptions. But investigators found that some pharmacies submitted tens of thousands of queries that could not be matched to prescriptions. In one case, a pharmacy submitted 181,963 such queries but only 41 could be linked to prescriptions. The report found that on average 98% of the electronic queries from 25 service providers in the initial audit “were not associated with a prescription.” The inspector general's office did not identify the pharmacies and service providers. Pharmacies are able to access coverage data on Medicare recipients by using a special provider number from the government. But investigators found that four of the pharmacies they audited allowed marketing companies to use their provider numbers to ping Medicare. “This practice of granting telemarketers access to E1 transactions, or using E1 transactions for marketing purposes puts the privacy of the beneficiaries' (personal information) at risk,” the report said. Some pharmacies also used seniors' information to contact doctors treating those beneficiaries to see if they would write prescriptions. Citing an example, the report said, “The doctor often informed (one) provider that the beneficiary did not need the medication.” The inspector general's office said it is investigating several health care providers for alleged fraud involving E1 transactions. Inappropriate use of Medicare's eligibility system is probably just one of many paths through which telemarketers and other sales outfits can get sensitive personal information about beneficiaries, investigators said. A group representing independent drugstores expressed support for the investigation. “It's about time,” said Douglas Hoey, CEO of the National Community Pharmacists Association. “We welcome the effort to clean up this misbehavior.” Hoey said some local pharmacists have complained of what appear to be sophisticated schemes to poach customers who take high-cost drugs. The watchdog agency began looking into the matter after the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or CMS, asked for an audit of a mail order pharmacy's use of Medicare's eligibility verification system. In a formal response to the report, CMS Administrator Seema Verma said CMS retooled its verification system last year so it automatically kicks out queries that aren't coming from a pharmacy. More than a quarter-million such requests have been rejected, she wrote. Medicare is committed to ensuring that the system is used appropriately, Verma added. The agency can revoke access for pharmacies that misuse the privilege and is exploring other enforcement options. The inspector general's office acknowledged Medicare's countermeasures but said it wants to see how effective they've been. Health care fraud is a pervasive problem that costs taxpayers tens of billions of dollars a year. Its true extent is unknown, and some cases involve gray areas of complex payment policies. In recent years, Medicare has gotten more sophisticated, adapting techniques used by financial companies to try to head off fraud. Law enforcement coordination has grown, with strike forces of federal prosecutors and agents, along with state counterparts, specializing in health care investigations. Officials gave no timetable for completing the audit.
  • Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh drew bipartisan criticism Thursday for saying the country won't elect Pete Buttigieg president because he's been “kissing his husband' on stage after debates. Limbaugh's comments came eight days after President Donald Trump awarded him the nation's top civilian honor during the State of the Union address. Trump said Limbaugh inspires millions of people daily and thanked him for “decades of tireless devotion to our country.' Limbaugh, a staunch Trump ally who recently announced he has advanced lung cancer, made the remarks on his nationally syndicated radio show. Buttigieg has finished in the top two in Democrats' first two presidential contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. “They're saying, ‘OK, how's this going to look?'' Limbaugh said Wednesday, imagining Democrats' thinking. “Thirty-seven-year-old gay guy kissing his husband on stage, next to Mr. Man, Donald Trump.'' Buttigieg didn't directly address Limbaugh's remarks. But at a town hall in Las Vegas Thursday night, he said, “I’m proud of my marriage I’m proud of my husband.” Limbaugh's remarks were the latest tendentious turn in a career in which he's won an adoring audience among millions of conservative listeners, but condemnation from others for comments considered racist, sexist and offensive. Buttigieg, 38, is the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and has been married to his husband, Chasten, since 2018. Buttigieg was a U.S. Navy intelligence officer in Afghanistan, is a Harvard graduate and was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University in England. Limbaugh said he envisioned Democrats concluding that “despite all the great wokeness and despite all the great ground that's been covered, that America's still not ready to elect a gay guy kissing his husband on the debate stage president.' Former Vice President Joe Biden, who is challenging Buttigieg for the Democratic presidential nomination, assailed Limbaugh on ABC's “The View.' “I mean, my God,” said Biden, who called it “part of the depravity of this administration.” He added, “Pete and I are competitors, but this guy has honor, he has courage, he is smart as hell.' Trump, asked if Americans would vote for a gay man to be president, responded, “I think so.” Still, Trump added: “I think there would be some that wouldn’t. I wouldn’t be among that group, to be honest with you.' Trump spoke during an interview with Geraldo Rivera on Cleveland's Newsradio WTAM. Some Capitol Hill Republicans said they disagreed with Limbaugh's remark, while others demurred. “I'm just going to leave all that alone,” said conservative Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., who said she'd not heard the comment. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, facing reelection this fall, also declined to comment. “It’s a miscalculation as to where the country is at,' Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a strong Trump supporter, told The Associated Press about Limbaugh's words. 'I think the country is not going to disqualify somebody because of their sexual orientation.” Asked if Limbaugh should retain the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which Trump bestowed last week during his State of the Union address, Graham said, “Well, my God. Free speech still exists.“ Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said of Limbaugh, “He may disagree, as I do, with their policy positions, but the question is what their qualifications are, not other issues.” Portman announced his support for gay marriage in 2013 as he revealed that his son Will is gay. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a moderate who is retiring in January, initially said he wasn't familiar with Limbaugh's remarks and declined to comment. His spokesman later emailed an Alexander statement that said: 'There may be reasons not to vote for Mayor Buttigieg, but that’s not one of them. This is a tolerant country.” A Buttigieg campaign spokesman declined to comment. But the candidate has addressed criticism over his sexuality before. During a Des Moines, Iowa, rally in 2019, an audience member asked what he should tell his friends who say America isn't ready for a gay president. Buttigieg replied, “Tell your friends I said 'hi.'” The former mayor has also framed his sexuality in religious terms. 'If me being gay was a choice, it was a choice that was made far, far above my pay grade,' Buttigieg said. “If you've got a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my creator.” According to government websites, the Presidential Medal of Freedom is for “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” Past winners have included Mother Teresa, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Frank Sinatra. Under Trump, the award's recipients have included golfer Tiger Woods, supply side economist Arthur Laffer and Edwin Meese III, who was a top aide to President Ronald Reagan. The 69-year-old Limbaugh also said some Democrats may believe they should “get a gay guy kissing his husband on stage, ram it down Trump's throat and beat him in the general election. Really? Having fun envisioning that.” ___ Catch up on the 2020 election campaign with AP experts on our weekly politics podcast, “Ground Game.”
  • When Pete Buttigieg launched his first statewide television ad in South Carolina two months ago, its opening lines may have sounded familiar to a churchgoer. The ad opens with footage from a speech by the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor in which Buttigieg says that if he’s elected president, Americans wouldn’t have to ask themselves, “Whatever happened to, ‘I was hungry and you fed me? I was a stranger and you welcomed me?’” Buttigieg is hardly the first Democrat to invoke the biblical verses of Matthew 25 in which Jesus Christ reminds his followers that their true measure comes from how they treat “the least of these my brethren.” Former President Barack Obama quoted from that biblical passage in 2008, while addressing popular megachurch pastor Rick Warren’s congregation during his first White House bid, and a political action committee that helped Obama’s campaign that year was dubbed the Matthew 25 Network. But in this year’s Democratic primary, where several candidates have routinely discussed faith as they try to connect with religious voters, Buttigieg isn’t the only contender to invoke the Gospel of Matthew’s central value of helping those in need. As conservative evangelicals continue to make up a critical part of President Donald Trump’s base, the message of Matthew 25 -- which calls for feeding the hungry and giving a stranger safe harbor -- allows Democrats to make a strong contrast between the spirit of their policymaking and that of Trump’s. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, for one, has invoked Matthew 25’s verses about “the least of these” more than a half-dozen times in public forums since her campaign started, including last week at a New Hampshire town hall when she urged a more compassionate immigration policy. She has emphasized the passage since her political career began, also citing it during her 2012 Senate campaign. Matthew 25’s “universal theme” resonates beyond the Christian faith, said Derrick Harkins, the veteran pastor who now serves as the Democratic National Committee’s national director of interfaith outreach. Harkins likened the New Testament passage to the Jewish value of tikkun olam, or positive acts to heal the world, which Bernie Sanders’ Jewish outreach director has cited in talking about the non-observant Jewish senator’s interpretation of his faith identity. “It gives traction to one’s religious identity. It gives a tactile, real contrast - not only what do I believe, but what do I do in light of that belief?” Harkins said in an interview. Part of the strength of Matthew 25, Harkins said, is that “even if you’re not a Biblical scholar, you can speak with authenticity around those themes if they’re important to you.” And even those with differences of opinion around other aspects of religious identity, he added, can agree that “it makes sense to care for people who are hurting.” Darren Dochuk, an associate professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, connected the Democratic engagement with Matthew 25’s message to a broader effort “to carry the mantle of a potentially, if not large but animated, progressive Christian left.” “There’s also a certain sense of urgency to answer back and to win over as broad a constituency as possible, even cut into what is a pretty solid bloc of Christians -- certainly evangelical Christians, that’s going to stick with Trump,” Dochuk said. Eric Sapp, a longtime faith adviser to Democratic candidates who now leads the data firm Public Democracy, said that talking about the values conveyed by Matthew 25 is “a very simple way to convey a deep truth and faith positioning.” “It can be exceptionally effective when used that way, and used as a way to unify, to show I’m connecting with you, not this is why you’re wrong,” said Sapp. Even so, at times Democrats have used the biblical passage to draw a sharp line between their perspective and Trump’s. Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, who has described himself as “a Matthew 25 Catholic,” used that moniker in 2018 to respond to a report of migrant children dying in U.S. custody. “I was taught that if someone is a stranger, you welcome them into your home,” Perez tweeted, calling the report “infuriating.” Another prominent Democrat and former presidential candidate, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, candidly discussed his own response to Matthew 25 in an interview last year with Jim Wallis, an influential religious progressive who has described that passage as a conversion text that connected him to Christianity. Booker told Wallis that when he dug into the verse for the first time, “I realized I don't live like that” and felt inspired to match more of his actions to the selfless message of the text. Despite the primacy of Matthew 25 for some Democrats running this year, it's hardly the only biblical verse that the party's candidates have publicly elevated in discussing their faith. Booker quoted Galatians 6:7, which states “whatever a man sows, this he will also reap,” in an August speech about gun violence, and alluded to Micah 6:8 at a CNN town hall last year where he vowed to defend LGBTQ rights while maintaining his faith. The exhortation in Micah 6 to “walk humbly” with God also featured in the inaugural address of former President Jimmy Carter, a devout Baptist. Former President Bill Clinton, for his part, cited Galatians 6:9 in his first inaugural address — the same verse that Hillary Clinton cited in her concession speech after losing the 2016 election. The passage in question warns believers against getting “weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”
  • The week President Donald Trump was acquitted in his impeachment trial was Fox News Channel's best in the ratings since the weeks he was elected and inaugurated. The Nielsen company said Fox News averaged 4.27 million viewers in prime time last week, better than any network except for ABC, which televised the Academy Awards, and CBS. It was the fifth most-watched week ever for Fox's prime-time schedule, and highest since election week 2016, Nielsen said. The only other times Fox topped that mark came during two weeks in March 2003, during the Iraq War, and the August week in 2015 when the network showed the year's first Republican debate — the first one Trump participated in. Measuring the entire day instead of just the evening hours, it was Fox's best week since January 2017, when Trump took office. Fox News is Trump's favorite network, although he's grumbled when there are some things on the air that aren't to his liking, and the destination of choice for his supporters, too. Besides his impeachment acquittal last week, Trump delivered a State of the Union address highly regarded by his fans, and the Iowa caucus turned into a dysfunctional mess for Democrats. Led by Sean Hannity's average of 4.9 million viewers, it was the most-watched week ever for all three of Fox's prime-time opinion shows, Nielsen said. 'Tucker Carlson Tonight” averaged 4.7 million viewers, and “The Ingraham Angle” had 4.1 million viewers. Of the 40 most-watched programs on cable television last week, 39 were on Fox News — with one lonely Rachel Maddow show on MSNBC the exception. ABC topped the broadcasters in prime time with an average of 7.7 million viewers, despite the lowest-rated Oscars broadcast of all time. CBS averaged 4.8 million viewers, NBC had 4.1 million, Fox broadcasting had 3.2 million, Univision had 1.4 million, ION Television had 1.3 million, Telemundo had 1 million and the CW had 640,000. After Fox News, the most popular cable networks in prime time were MSNBC with 1.59 million viewers, HGTV with 1.21 million, TLC with 1.16 million and CNN with 1.13 million. ABC's “World News Tonight” led the evening news ratings race with an average of 9.2 million viewers. NBC's “Nightly News” was second with 8.3 million and the “CBS Evening News” had 6.1 million. For the week of Feb. 3-9, the most popular shows, their networks and viewerships: 1. “The Oscars,” ABC, 23.57 million. 2. “Live From the Red Carpet” (7:30 to 8 p.m. Eastern), ABC, 11.91 million. 3. “State of the Union,” Fox News, 11.68 million. 4. “State of the Union Analysis' (10:25 to 10:32 p.m. Eastern), Fox News, 11.67 million. 5. “Live From the Red Carpet” (7 to 7:30 p.m.), ABC, 9.33 million. 6. “State of the Union Preview,” Fox News, 9.3 million. 7. “Young Sheldon,” CBS, 8.99 million. 8. “Chicago Med,” NBC, 8.67 million. 9. “Chicago Fire,” NBC, 8.19 million. 10. “Democratic Presidential Debate,” ABC, 7.87 million. 11. “State of the Union Democratic Response,” Fox News, 7.65 million. 12. “The Masked Singer,” Fox, 7.46 million. 13. “State of the Union Analysis” (10:44 to 11 p.m.), Fox News, 7.21 million. 14. “Chicago PD,” NBC, 7.15 million. 15. “America's Got Talent Champions,” NBC, 6.74 million. 16. “Hawaii Five-0,” CBS, 6.69 million. 17. “Bull,” CBS, 6.48 million. 18. “911: Lone Star,” Fox, 6.39 million. 19. “Mom,” CBS, 6.34 million. 20. “The Neighborhood,” CBS, 6.23 million

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  • The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office is asking for the community's help finding a missing 10-year-old. JSO says Sam Booker was last seen walking out from his classroom at Long Branch Elementary on Franklin Street around 1:00 PM Tuesday. Due to the circumstances involved, police say they want to make sure he's safe.  Booker is described as being 4'6'' tall, 60 pounds, with brown eyes and black hair. Police say he was wearing a red hoodie, blue jeans, and red and white shoes.  If you've seen him or know where he is, you're urged to call the sheriff's office at (904) 630-0500.
  • President Donald Trump has announced he commuted the sentence for former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. He made the announcement at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland to a group of reporters. Blagojevich had been sentenced to 14-years in prison after being found guilty of trying to sell the U.S. Senate seat left vacant when Barack Obama became president, CNBC reported. Blagojevich tried to trade money and favors for the position. Trump told the reporters that the disgraced governor “served eight years in jail. It’s a long time to go,” CNN reported. Trump also tied Blagojevich’s prosecution to former FBI Director James Comey who is a friend of Patrick Fitzgerald, the US attorney in Illinois who prosecuted Blagojevich, a Democrat. “It was a prosecution by the same people -- Comey, Fitzpatrick -- the same group,” the president said, according to CNN. Trump identified Fitzgerald as Fizpatrick when he spoke to reporters. Trump had said that he was toying with the idea of using the clemency powers for Blagojevich in August and before, but conservatives in Congress fired back. Blagojevich appeared on Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice” television show in 2010, CNN reported. Despite the connection, Trump said he didn’t know him well, but saw Blagojevich’s wife asking for clemency on television. Blagojevich had been serving the sentence since 2013, CNBC reported. Trump also pardoned former NYPD Commissioner Bernard Kerik, he announced to reporters. Kerik, who was NYPD commissioner during 9/11, pleaded guilty to tax fraud and lying to investigators, both federal charges. He was sentenced to four years behind bars in 2009, CBS News reported. Trump also pardoned billionaire Edward DeBartolo Jr., the former owner of the San Francisco 49ers. DeBartolo pleaded guilty to corruption-related charges in 1998, CBS News reported. Trump also pardoned Michael Milken, CNBC reported. The news organization called Milken “former junk bond king who became a face of the insider trading financial scandals of the 1980s.” Milken was sentenced to 10 years in prison and was fined $600 million, but the time behind bars was cut to two years after he cooperated with federal investigators, CNBC reported. Milken had pleaded guilty to violating U.S. securities laws, The Associated Press reported. The presidential orders came days before adviser Roger Stone is expected to be sentenced on his conviction of seven charges of obstruction, lying to Congress and witness tampering, CNN reported. He has asked for a new trial. When asked if he would consider pardoning Stone, Trump responded, “I haven’t given it any thought,” The New York Times reported.
  • The Boy Scouts of America said Tuesday that it has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection as the organization faces numerous sexual abuse lawsuits. In an early morning news release, the organization said it hoped to “equitably compensate victims who were harmed during their time in scouting and continue carrying out its mission for years to come.” 'Tragically, there have been times when individuals took advantage of the BSA’s programs to harm children,' the news release said. 'The BSA firmly believes that a proposed Victims Compensation Trust structure is the best means of compensating victims in a way that is equitable and protects their identities.' During the process, the organization’s programs, meetings, activities, service projects and other events will continue “for many years to come,” the release said. “The BSA fully intends to maintain its commitments to its members, families, volunteer leaders, employees, retirees, donors and alumni to the fullest extent permitted by bankruptcy laws,” the organization added. In a letter to participants’ families, the organization also clarified that local councils have not filed for bankruptcy and “are legally separate, distinct and financially independent.” It also stressed that Boy Scouts of America has ramped up background checks and “developed some of the strongest expert-informed youth protection policies found in any youth-serving organization.” Read more here.
  • Officials are looking for a mountain lion that attacked a 6-year-old girl at a park in Cupertino, California, multiple news outlets are reporting. According to the Sacramento Bee, the incident happened Sunday morning as a group of visitors walked in Rancho San Antonio County Park and Open Space Preserve. The animal “came out of the bushes and ... grabbed a hold of the girl,” Ranger Brad Pennington told KGO-TV. An adult who was with the group punched the mountain lion, striking its ribs, the outlets reported. The girl suffered minor puncture wounds, officials said. Authorities have closed the park until they find the animal, the outlets reported. Read more here or here.
  • A woman in her 80’s died in a three car crash on A1A and L’Atrium in Ponte Vedra Beach on Monday night. According to Florida Highway Patrol, a vehicle headed north on A1A collided with a car that was making a left turn from A1A to L’Atrium Drive. A third car sustained minor damage from flying debris.  82-year-old Sarita May of Ponte Vedra Beach, who was a passenger in one of the cars, died. The driver, 74-year-old David Sparrow, sustained critical injuries.  The other drivers involved had minor injuries.  FHP says charges are pending additional investigation. 

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