Trump defends congratulating Putin despite criticism

President Donald Trump defended his decision on Wednesday to congratulate Russian President Vladimir Putin on his reelection, despite the fact that his national security aides cautioned him against it.

“I called President Putin of Russia to congratulate him on his election victory (in past, Obama called him also),” Trump tweeted. “The Fake News Media is crazed because they wanted me to excoriate him. They are wrong! Getting along with Russia (and others) is a good thing, not a bad thing.”

He added: “They can help solve problems with North Korea, Syria, Ukraine, ISIS, Iran and even the coming Arms Race. Bush tried to get along, but didn’t have the “smarts.” Obama and Clinton tried, but didn’t have the energy or chemistry (remember RESET). PEACE THROUGH STRENGTH!”

Trump’s relationship with Putin has long loomed over his presidency due to his broad denial that Russia’s 2016 election meddling benefited his candidacy and the current special counsel probe into whether members of his campaign team colluded with the Russian effort.

Trump has also maintained that he believes keeping close relations with Russia is worthwhile.

But the President has largely failed to press Putin on many of those issues, even as his administration has sought to impose sanctions against Russia. Trump mentioned election meddling in his first meeting with Putin last year, but White House officials said Tuesday that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election and accusations that Russia used a nerve agent to poison a former Russian spy in the United Kingdom did not come up during the Tuesday call.

Hours after Trump’s call with Putin, The Washington Post reported that the President’s briefing materials on the call included a warning not to congratulate the Russian autocrat for his recent election victory. Trump did it anyway, though, and later told reporters that he called Putin to congratulate him.

“I had a call with President Putin and congratulated him on the victory, his electoral victory,” Trump said in the Oval Office on Tuesday. “The call had to do also with the fact that we will probably get together in the not too distant future so that we can discuss arms, we can discuss the arms race.”

Trump, however, was infuriated that the warning from his national security advisers quickly leaked, a source familiar with the President’s thinking told CNN. The President asked allies and outside advisers on Tuesday night who they thought leaked the damaging information, noting that only a small group of staffers have access to those materials and would have known what guidance was included for the Putin call, the source said.

A senior White House official later told CNN that leaking the briefing papers “is a fireable offense and likely illegal.”

Trump’s decision to congratulate Putin was immediately controversial, despite the fact that President Barack Obama did the same in 2012.

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, quickly rebuked the President for congratulating the autocrat.

“An American President does not lead the free world by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections,” McCain said.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders declined to respond to McCain’s criticism, but also failed to say whether the election in Russia was free and fair.

“We don’t get to dictate how other countries operate. Putin has been elected in their country and it not something we can dictate to them how they operate,” Sanders said.

Trump told reporters on Tuesday that his call with Putin was “very good” and said that the two could meet very soon.

Sanders later told reporters after the call that there are “no specific plans made at this time” for a possible meeting between Trump and Putin.

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Sessions tells prosecutors death penalty on the table in drug cases

Attorney General Jeff Sessions sent federal prosecutors a reminder Wednesday that they have the power to seek America’s most serious punishment for certain drug crimes: the death penalty.

“Congress has passed several statutes that provide the Department with the ability to seek capital punishment for certain drug-related crimes,” Sessions said in a statement. “I strongly encourage federal prosecutors to use these statutes, when appropriate, to aid in our continuing fight against drug trafficking and the destruction it causes in our nation.”

Sessions’ blunt message comes as the Trump administration touts efforts to fight the nation’s opioid epidemic and drug-related crimes.

On Monday in New Hampshire, President Donald Trump said, “if we don’t get tough on the drug dealers, we are wasting our time.”

Trump went on to say the punishment would be used against the “big pushers, the ones who are really killing people,” but seeking the death penalty for those dealing drugs when no one is killed could set up legal challenges.

“The Supreme Court has consistently refused to sanction the use of the death penalty in crimes other than homicide. That makes another signature Trump policy headed for legal trouble,” said Ames Grawert, senior counsel in the Justice Program at the Brennan Center.

In 2008, the court decided that imposing the death penalty on someone who raped, but did not kill, a child was unconstitutional. But the justices left open which other “non-homicide” offenses against the state, if any, may be punished by death.

Under current federal law, prosecutors have the ability to seek capital punishment for certain drug-related crimes, including dealing in extremely large quantities of drugs under what is known as the “Kingpin Statute” — however, it has never been used to seek the death penalty before, according to a Justice official.

Sessions has recently sought to make clear he sees a direct link between drug dealing and violence.

“Drug trafficking is an inherently violent and deadly business: if you want to collect a drug debt, you collect it with the barrel of a gun,” Sessions said Monday. “As surely as night follows day, violence and death follow drug trafficking, and murder is often a tool of drug traffickers.”

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Trump keeps up aggressive attacks on Mueller

President Donald Trump called out special counsel Robert Mueller in a series of typo-ridden tweets Wednesday morning, continuing his recent aggressive attacks on the Russia probe.

“‘Special Council is told to find crimes, wether crimes exist or not. I was opposed the the selection of Mueller to be Special Council, I still am opposed to it. I think President Trump was right when he said there never should have been a Special Council appointed because (…) there was no probable cause for believing that there was any crime, collusion or otherwise, or obstruction of justice!’ So stated by Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz,” Trump said in a series of tweets.

Trump later deleted and corrected some, though not all, of the typos in his first tweet.

Dershowitz, a lawyer and professor emeritus at Harvard Law School, referred CNN to his op-ed published by The Hill Wednesday morning, which had similar though not identical comments to those Trump tweeted.

“I stand by what I wrote in The Hill this morning. Please check and quote it. It lays out my point accurately,” Dershowitz said.

In his Hill op-ed, Dershowitz argues that a special counsel should not have been appointed.

“There was no evidence of any crime committed by the Trump administration. But there was plenty of evidence that Russian operatives had tried to interfere with the 2016 presidential election, and perhaps other elections, in the hope of destabilizing democracy,” he writes.

He continued: “The vice of a special counsel is that he is supposed to find crimes, and if he comes up empty-handed, after spending lots of taxpayer money, then he is deemed a failure. If he can’t charge the designated target — in this case, the President — he must at least charge some of those close to the target, even if it is for crimes unrelated to the special counsel’s core mandate. By indicting these low-hanging fruits, he shows that he is trying.”

Trump has ratcheted up his criticism of Mueller’s investigation in recent days. Last week, Trump tweeted that the Mueller probe “should never have been started and there was no crime.” He has also questioned the political impartiality of the investigation.

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Here’s what we know about Austin bombing suspect

The man police believe was behind a series of bombings that terrified Austin, Texas, for 19 days is dead, police said.

Authorities have called the suspect a “serial bomber” who was skilled and capable of making sophisticated devices.

Here’s what we know about the man accused of the deadly explosions:

He was 24 years old

Police have not released the suspect’s name and only described him as a 24-year-old white man.

It’s unclear whether he lived in the Austin area.

His motive is still unknown

Police said the suspect is responsible for the bombings in Austin, but they are still investigating why he carried them out.

How did police find him?

In the past 24 to 36 hours, authorities received information that led them to a person of interest, who later became a suspect.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler confirmed that police obtained surveillance images showing the suspect at a FedEx store in Austin.

They later identified his car and spotted it Wednesday night at a hotel in Round Rock, Texas, a few miles north of Austin.

As officers waited for tactical units to arrive on the scene, the man began to drive away and later stopped on the side of the road.

It was then that SWAT officers approached the vehicle and the man detonated a bomb inside his car, Austin Police Chief Brian Manley said.

The suspect died inside the vehicle.

Did he act alone?

It’s unclear if he had any accomplices. It appears that he was alone when he drove away from the hotel in Round Rock and when he detonated a device in his car.

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