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Sessions spoke with Russian ambassador twice, despite denials: reports

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions had contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign despite earlier denials, according to news reports Wednesday night. Before his confirmation, Sessions told senators he had no conversations with anyone in the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after Trump’s November victory.

The Washington Post said Sessions, then a senator and foreign-policy adviser to Trump’s campaign, spoke twice with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, with one of those conversations coming in September, at the peak of Russia’s cyber-campaign to influence the U.S. election, according to Justice Department officials.

The Wall Street Journal separately reported that federal investigators have examined possible contacts between Sessions and Russian officials, though the status of the investigations was unclear. The Journal reported Sessions spokeswoman Sarah Flores acknowledged he had spoken to Kislyak during the Republican National Convention last summer as well as a “short and informal” conversation in September.

“Last year, the senator had over 25 conversations with foreign ambassadors as a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, including the British, Korean, Japanese, Polish, Indian, Chinese, Canadian, Australian, German and Russian ambassadors,” Flores said in a statement.

Flores denied Sessions had misled senators. While the contacts may have contradicted Sessions’ testimony, experts said perjury charges would be unlikely unless it could be proven Sessions had spoken to the Russian ambassador about the election while acting as a campaign adviser, as opposed to his role as a senator.

Sessions issued a statement late Wednesday, saying: “I never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign. I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false.”

Disclosure of the Russian contacts are likely to fuel louder calls by Democrats and some Republican lawmakers that Sessions should recuse himself in favor of a special counsel to investigate Russia’s attempts to meddle in the election.

Separately, the New York Times reported Wednesday night that members of the Obama administration left information about Russia’s efforts to undermine the election around the government — for example, asking and answering specific questions during intelligence briefings knowing they would be archived as part of the official record — in an attempt to leave a trail for future investigators that could not be erased.

The Times report also said British and Dutch intelligence provided information about clandestine meetings between Russian officials and members of the Trump campaign.




Oscars make history with most black winners ever

Mahershala Ali and Viola Davis just capped a landmark year for diversity in the awards race.

Both performers took their first Oscar trophies in the supporting categories Sunday, marking the first time since the 2007 ceremony that more than one black actor has won a competitive Academy Award on the same night; Mahershala Ali triumphed for his work in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, while Davis nabbed her first Oscar for her co-starring turn as Rose Maxson in Denzel Washington’s August Wilson adaptation Fences — a role that won her a Tony Award in 2010.

As if the win weren’t special enough for Ali, who also welcomed his first child this week, he is now in a distinguished class of award winners alongside his role model, Washington, who he says is “on par with the very best.”

“And he looks like you too, you know, in that, wow, there’s somebody who could be an uncle of mine. Those are things that play in your mind as you move forward,” Ali, 43, told reporters backstage after his win. “Also what I love about Denzel is not that he’s a great black actor — he’s a great actor. I’ve never looked at myself as a black actor. I’m an actor who happens to be African American. But I just want an opportunity to respond to material and bring whatever I bring to it in some unique fashion.”

Washington — who this year lost in the best actor category to Manchester by the Sea‘s Casey Affleck — previously made Oscars history in 2002, when he and Halle Berry became the first black performers to win both of the Academy’s lead acting awards on the same evening. Since then, the Academy has awarded more than one actor of color on the same night three times; in 2005 (Jamie Foxx for best actor, Morgan Freeman for best supporting actor), 2007 (Forest Whitaker for best actor, Jennifer Hudson for best supporting actress), and 2017.

O.J.: Made in America producer Ezra Edelman became the night’s second black winner, sharing the Best Documentary Oscar with Caroline Waterlow.

Moonlight director Barry Jenkins also won for the screenplay he co-wrote with Tarell Alvin McCraney, whose play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the movie is based upon. That made them the night’s fourth and fifth black winners of the night. (Jenkins was also nominated for his direction; La La Land‘s Damien Chazelle took home that honor. And while Moonlight did win Best Picture, none of the producers are black.)

On Oscar nominations morning, Davis became the first black actress to score three acting nominations. In landing her second nomination, Hidden Figures‘ Octavia Spencer — Davis’ fellow competitor among this year’s best supporting actress set — became the first black actress in history to receive a follow-up nomination after winning an Academy Award.

Ali and Davis won their Oscars amid the Academy’s increasing attempts to evolve its voting ranks following the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, as AMPAS President Cheryl Boone Isaacs spearheaded a campaign to diversify the organization’s membership in January 2016. As part of the ongoing initiative, the Academy invited a record number of new participants, extending offers to 683 film industry professionals from 59 countries. Forty-six percent of invitees were female, while 41 percent were people of color.

“People ask me all the time, ‘What kind of stories do you want to tell, Viola?’ And I say, exhume those bodies. Exhume those stories. The stories of the people who dreamed big and never saw those dreams to fruition. People who fell in love and lost,” Davis said during her acceptance speech. “I became an artist, and thank god I did, because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life. So here’s to August Wilson, who exhumed and exalted the ordinary people.”

Outside the acting races, four of the Academy’s 2017 nominees for best picture revolved around characters of color; Garth Davis’ Lion, Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, and Washington’s Fences.




White House Refuses To Guarantee People Won’t Lose Health Insurance From Repeal

White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to assure Americans on Sunday that anyone currently covered under the Affordable Care Act would not lose their coverage under President Donald Trump’s health care plan. Sanders repeatedly dodged the question on ABC’s “This Week,” saying Trump had promised to repeal Obamacare and replace it “with something that’s better.”

Host George Stephanopoulos pressed Sanders on why, if Trump was so intent on replacing the law with something better, the White House couldn’t guarantee that everyone currently with insurance wouldn’t lose it. Sanders said it was “a goal” to make sure people didn’t lose coverage, but she stopped short of saying people would be able to keep their current insurance, or would even be offered similar plans.

“We cannot survive under the current system,” Sanders said. “We have to make a massive overhaul to the health care system in America, because it is simply just not sustainable, and everybody agrees with that.”

“There is nobody that argues that we’re on a track that we can maintain,” she continued. “So we’re looking at every possible way to do exactly that: repeal a terrible, failed system and replace with something better.”

When Stephanopoulos pressed again whether that meant Trump wouldn’t sign a replacement bill that would cause people to lose coverage, Sanders said she wouldn’t “speak specifically for the president on that topic.”

“What I can say is he’s made it a high priority and a No. 1 focus that we make sure that people that have insurance continue their insurance, particularly those in the highest need,” she said.

A consulting firm told governors Saturday that the Republican plan to replace Obamacare could lead to millions losing their health coverage, with many people covered under the Medicaid expansion suddenly unable to afford health insurance.

When he was running for president, Trump told “60 Minutes” in 2015 that everyone would win from his health care replacement.

“I am going to take care of everybody,” Trump said. “I don’t care if it costs me votes or not. Everybody’s going to be taken care of much better than they’re taken care of now.”

More recently, in January, Trump vowed “insurance for everybody,” but congressional Republicans have taken to guaranteeing “access” to health care, rather than health care itself, meaning if individuals have the money to pay for insurance, they can get it.

According to the presentation given to governors on Saturday, the effect of the GOP replacement bill would be huge insurance enrollment losses and greater budget pressure on states to make up the loss in federal money for programs like the Medicaid expansion.





Muhammad Ali’s Son Detained By Immigration Officials At Florida Airport

Muhammad Ali Jr., the son of the late legendary boxer Muhammad Ali, was reportedly detained and questioned about his religion at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport earlier this month, reports USA Today.

Muhammad Ali Jr., 44, and his mother, Khalilah Camacho-Ali, the second wife of Muhammad Ali, were arriving at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Feb. 7 after returning from speaking at a Black History Month event in Montego Bay, Jamaica. They were pulled aside while going through customs because of their Arabic-sounding names, according to family friend and lawyer Chris Mancini.

Immigration officials let Camacho-Ali go after she showed them a photo of herself with her ex-husband, but her son did not have such a photo and wasn’t as lucky. Mancini said officials held and questioned Ali Jr. for nearly two hours, repeatedly asking him, “Where did you get your name from?” and “Are you Muslim?”

When Ali Jr. responded that yes, he is a Muslim, the officers kept questioning him about his religion and where he was born. Ali Jr. was born in Philadelphia in 1972 and holds a U.S. passport.

Chris Mancini, a lawyer for the Ali family, says that Ali’s detainment by immigration officials was directly connected to President Donald Trump’s controversial travel ban. “To the Ali family, it’s crystal clear that this is directly linked to Mr. Trump’s efforts to ban Muslims from the United States,” Mancini told USA Today.



John McCain: Attacking The Free Press Is ‘How Dictators Get Started’

Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) gave a staunch defense of the free press Saturday, noting that attacks on the media are “how dictators get started.” Speaking on NBC’s “Meet The Press,” to be aired Sunday, McCain took a swipe at President Donald Trump’s volleys against the Fourth Estate, particularly a Friday tweet in which the press was called the “enemy of the American people.”

The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes@NBCNews@ABC@CBS@CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!


“We need a free press,” said the 2008 Republican presidential candidate. “We must have it. It’s vital.” 

“If you want to preserve ― I’m very serious now ― if you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversarial press,” he added.

McCain said that without a free press, “we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time.”

“That’s how dictators get started,” he added, noting that attacks on journalists questioning those in power are a tactic used by autocratic governments.

“When you look at history, the first thing that dictators do is shut down the press,” he said. “I’m not saying that President Trump is trying to be a dictator. I’m just saying we need to learn the lessons of history.”

“A fundamental part of that new world order was a free press,” he added. “I hate the press; I hate you especially,” McCain quipped. “But the fact is we need you.”

Trump has ratcheted up his assaults against media organizations in recent weeks, culminating in a belligerent press conference Thursday in which he excoriated the members of the press as “fake news.”

McCain, in Germany for the Munich Security conference, has unleashed a series of thinly veiled attacks on the White House.

In a speech before the conference, he slammed a “hardening resentment” toward “immigrants, and refugees, and minority groups, especially Muslims” and asked world leaders not to give up on America despite the country’s current politics.

During a question-and-answer, the senator said the resignation of Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, showed the administration was “in disarray.




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