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In Sweden, a prosecutor on Friday dropped the investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Assange has always denied the allegations, which he calls a pretext for his ultimate extradition to the U.S. to face prosecution under the Espionage Act. Since 2012, Assange has taken refuge in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London. It’s not clear whether Assange will emerge any time soon. WikiLeaks tweeted Friday, “UK refuses to confirm or deny whether it has already received a US extradition warrant for Julian Assange. Focus now moves to UK.” Last month, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions confirmed that the U.S. has prepared a warrant for Assange, calling his arrest a “priority.”
In Washington, D.C., President Donald Trump assailed his critics Thursday over a series of scandals that have rocked his administration, calling an investigation into alleged ties between Russia and Trump associates a “witch hunt.” Speaking at a White House news conference alongside Colombia’s president, Trump said he respected the Justice Department’s decision to name a special counsel to the investigation, but denied he personally colluded with Russia.
President Donald Trump: “Well, I respect the move, but the entire thing has been a witch hunt. And there is no collusion between certainly myself and my campaign—but I can always speak for myself—and the Russians, zero.”
Asked if he urged former FBI Director James Comey to close or to back down on the FBI’s investigation into Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, the president responded flatly, “No.” The statement directly contradicts a memo Comey drafted after a February 14 Oval Office meeting, in which Trump reportedly asked Comey to end the investigation into Flynn’s ties to Russian officials. On Thursday, The New York Times published new details of Comey’s interactions with the president before Trump fired him on May 9. The Times reports Trump called Comey weeks before his inauguration, urging him to state publicly that Trump was not personally under investigation.
On Capitol Hill, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Thursday she’s worried the White House could try to influence newly appointed special counsel Robert Mueller as he investigates possible ties between Trump officials and Russia.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi: “I’m concerned that Director Mueller will still be subject to the supervision of the Trump-appointed leadership at the Justice Department. We must remain vigilant to protect the integrity of the Mueller investigation. A special prosecutor cannot take the place of a truly independent outside commission that is completely free from the Trump administration’s meddling.”
Mueller was appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, after Attorney General Jeff Sessions claimed to have recused himself from the Russia investigation.
On Thursday, Rod Rosenstein briefed senators in a closed-door meeting. Afterward, Democratic Senator Dick Durbin said Rosenstein revealed that he wrote a memo recommending the termination of FBI Director Comey after Trump had already decided to fire him.
Reporter: “Did the president plan to fire Comey before he wrote that memo?”
Sen. Dick Durbin: “He didn’t go into detail on that, other than to say on May 8th he learned that the president was going to terminate Comey.”
Rosenstein’s memo was dated May 9. Last week, President Trump contradicted his staff’s account of Comey’s ouster, telling NBC he had decided to fire Comey “regardless” of the Justice Department’s recommendations.
President Trump leaves for the Middle East today on the first overseas trip of his presidency. Trump’s first stop will be Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, where he’s expected to announce a $110 billion arms deal. The agreement was brokered by Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, and Reuters reports it could see as much as $300 billion in weapons sold to the Saudi monarchy over the next decade. The deal comes as the Pentagon continues to support a Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen, where years of fighting have decimated the country’s health, water, sewage and sanitation systems. The U.N. says around 19 million of Yemen’s 28 million people need some form of aid, with many of them at risk of famine.
In media news, former Fox News chair and CEO Roger Ailes, who molded the network into a vast right-wing media empire, died Thursday at the age of 77. Ailes resigned from Fox News last July after he was accused of sexual harassment by more than 20 women, including Fox News anchors Megyn Kelly, Andrea Tantaros and Gretchen Carlson. Fox ultimately paid out $45 million to settle the claims. Ailes began his career as a Republican Party operative as a consultant for President Richard Nixon. Over the decades, he advised other Republican presidents, including Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Donald Trump. Trump has called Ailes a friend and defended Ailes after the sexual harassment allegations.
Back in Washington, the FCC voted 2-1 Thursday, along party lines, to begin a process to replace net neutrality rules that were adopted in 2015 to keep the internet open and prevent corporate service providers from blocking access to websites, slowing down content or providing paid fast lanes for internet service. In response, Free Press President Craig Aaron warned the proposal would take away the rights of internet users, saying, “The federal courts rejected this kind of approach twice when the FCC tried it before.”
Meanwhile, an award-winning reporter is speaking out after he was attacked and forced to leave the Federal Communications Commission headquarters Thursday—all for trying to ask a question. John Donnelly of CQ Roll Call said he tried to ask FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly a question after a press conference had ended. But two FCC security guards reportedly pinned Donnelly against the wall until O’Rielly had passed. Donnelly said O’Rielly witnessed the incident and kept walking. Donnelly is chair of the National Press Club’s Press Freedom Team and president of the Military Reporters & Editors association. He issued a statement after the attack, saying, “I have been working as a reporter in this town for years and dealing with the top leaders in our government every day and in the hustle and bustle of press scrums. I’ve never been in a situation where simply asking a question was treated as a crime.”
In Washington, D.C., newly published video shows Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan looking on as members of his security detail assaulted a group of peaceful protesters outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence. Tuesday’s violence left nine anti-Erdogan protesters hospitalized. It’s not clear if Erdogan gave the order for the attack. Among those assaulted were American Diplomatic Security officers assigned to protect Erdogan’s delegation. Police briefly detained the assailants but released them after learning they held diplomatic immunity. The assault came shortly after Erdogan was welcomed to the White House by President Trump. During the meeting, Trump did not mention Turkey’s deteriorating human rights situation, which has seen nearly 50,000 people and 150 journalists arrested since a failed coup last summer.
In Syria, U.S. warplanes bombed a convoy of pro-government militia members Thursday, in what appears to be the Trump administration’s third attack on President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. The Pentagon says it ordered airstrikes after the convoy came too close to a zone where the U.S. and British troops are training Syrian rebels. The assault drew fire from some lawmakers, including California Democratic Congressmember Ted Lieu, who tweeted, “If true, this is FRICKIN ILLEGAL. Trump does not have Congressional authorization to attack Syria, a country that has not attacked US.”
In Brazil, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and other cities Thursday, demanding the resignation of President Michel Temer over a corruption scandal.
Alexandre Carvalho: “We want Temer out. And not just him, we want everyone who is corrupt out, as well, because this Congress is a group of thugs. It is not worth it just to make Temer go to then have Congress put up another person in his place.”
There are growing calls for Temer’s impeachment, after the newspaper O Globo reported the president was secretly recorded approving hush-money payoffs for a powerful politician jailed on corruption charges. Temer on Thursday refused to step down, even as Brazil’s Supreme Court released the audiotape and said it was investigating him for bribery of a potential witness.
President Michel Temer: “At no moment did I authorize anyone to be paid so that they’d remain quiet. I did not buy the silence of anyone, for a very simple reason: exactly and precisely because I am not afraid of any testimony.”
Temer said he should remain in office to help end Brazil’s recession—the longest in its history. The claim came as Brazil’s stock market halted trading early Thursday after plunging by more than 10 percent on news of the corruption scandal.
In Venezuela, National Guard troops used tear gas and water cannons Thursday as antigovernment protesters marched on the Interior Ministry in the capital Caracas. Across town, medical workers evacuated three newborns and one pregnant woman in labor from a maternity hospital besieged by opposition protesters. It was the latest violence that’s seen 53 people killed in protests since opponents of President Nicolás Maduro took to the streets demanding an early election. In Washington, President Trump said the U.S. could intervene in Venezuela’s political crisis.
President Donald Trump: “We will be working with Colombia and other countries on the Venezuela problem. It is a very, very horrible problem. And from a humanitarian standpoint, it is like nothing we’ve seen in quite a long time.”
On Thursday, the Trump administration announced sanctions against eight members of Venezuela’s Supreme Court, after they ruled in January that opposition party members were in contempt of the constitution and removed them from power. President Maduro has accused the U.S. of supporting an attempt by opposition parties to mount a coup.
In Greece, the Parliament on Thursday narrowly approved a fresh round of austerity measures demanded by the nation’s creditors in exchange for a bailout. The deal was backed by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, whose Syriza party campaigned on an anti-austerity platform.
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras: “We feel that we are on the final step. Nobody is denying, nobody doubts, that this agreement has difficulties; however, it does open a path in front of us.”
Outside the Parliament, anti-austerity anger boiled over into protest. Police fired tear gas to beat back a crowd of more than 10,000 people demanding a new government.
Antonis Stamatopoulos: “There is no other solution but revolution. They have taken everything from us, and these pseudo-leftists are finishing us off. The only thing we can do is resist and revolt.”
Mary Athanasiou: “The government must resign immediately! The people demand their resignation.”
The latest round of austerity will see taxes rise and pensions slashed further. Eurozone finance ministers will decide on Monday whether to disburse another $8 billion in bailout funds.
In Fresno, California, police are investigating the murder of 34-year-old Imer Alvarado as a possible hate crime. Alvarado was found dead of multiple gunshot wounds several blocks from the Fresno gay bar The Alibi early Wednesday morning. Police described Alvarado as a transgender woman, though friends describe Alvarado as a gay man. Alvarado’s killing is the 11th reported murder of a transgender or gender nonconforming person in the U.S. so far this year.
And U.S. Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning on Thursday tweeted the first photo of her new look as a free woman—after serving seven years in men’s-only Army prisons. The photo shows Manning wearing a black top, lipstick and mascara, with the caption, “Okay, so here I am everyone!” and the hashtag #HelloWorld. While in custody, Manning spent years battling the Pentagon for the right to transition to a woman, winning the right to hormone therapy treatment in early 2015. Although President Obama in January commuted her 35-year prison sentence, Manning is the longest-held whistleblower in U.S. history.