An Alabama ethics panel has found probable cause that Governor Robert Bentley violated one count of ethics law and three counts of campaign finance law. The Alabama Ethics Commission on Wednesday referred the charges to state prosecutors. The district attorney can now seek possible charges against the governor, who, for the last year, has been embroiled in a scandal that alleges he used state resources to have an affair with a former political adviser. Bentley is also accused of accepting campaign contributions outside of the allotted fundraising timeframes. Bentley has continued to claim no wrongdoing. Jim Zeigler, the state auditor, filed the complaint against Bentley in March 2016. The Alabama House Judiciary Committee is also considering a path to impeach the governor.
—President Trump said the chemical attack in Syria that has been blamed on the Assad regime “crosses many, many lines,” as he criticized his predecessor’s decision not to take military action after drawing a “red line in the sand.” More here
—Steve Bannon, the White House chief strategist, has been removed from the National Security Council as part of a larger shakeup of the organization. More here
—Advertisers flee Fox’s O’Reilly Factor following allegations the show’s host has been repeatedly accused of sexual harassment. More here
—We’re tracking the news stories of the day below. All updates are in Eastern Daylight Time (GMT -4).
Ethics Panel Finds Probable Cause to Charge Alabama Governor
Judge Denies DOJ Request for Pause in Baltimore Consent-Decree Case
A federal judge denied Wednesday the Justice Department request for a 90-day pause in the Baltimore consent decree case, just one day ahead of its scheduled hearing. As The Baltimore Sun reports, U.S. District Court Judge James K. Baker said the Justice Department’s “untimely” request for a pause to review and assess its proposed police reform consent decree with Baltimore would “unduly burden and inconvenience the Court, the other parties, and, most importantly, the public.” The DOJ request was met with opposition by Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh and Kevin Davis, the city’s police commissioner. The consent decree, which laid out a plan to address constitutional violations within the Baltimore Police Department, was one of the many attempts at police reform in the final days of President Obama’s administration. In a memo released Thursday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions voiced concern for “officer safety, office morale, and public respect” and urged against too much federal oversight over non-federal law enforcement agencies. As my colleague David Graham noted, Sessions has long been skeptical of police-reform efforts, and his attempts to withdraw the consent decree could “provide a test for whether courts will allow the Justice Department to pull back, and of whether localities plagued by police problems will be willing to let go of reform.”
Trump and Jordan's King Abdullah Vow to Fight ISIS, Address Syria
President Trump welcomed Jordanian King Abdullah to the White House Wednesday, where the two leaders vowed to work together to address the conflict in Syria and defeating the Islamic State. Trump praised Jordan’s “vital role” in the Syrian refugee crisis—for which the country is estimated to have taken in more than 600,000 people (about 10 percent of its population)—and announced the U.S. will contribute “additional funds” for humanitarian assistance so Jordan can continue to host refugees until it is safe for them to return home, adding repatriation is “a goal of any responsible refugee policy.” Abdullah reaffirmed his country’s support for the ongoing fight against ISIS and terrorism, which he said has “no borders, no nationality, no religion,” and called for both countries to pursue a political solution to the seven-year Syrian civil war and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When asked about the administration’s stance on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad following Tuesday’s deadly chemical attack in Idlib province, Trump did not offer specifics, noting instead he is “flexible and proud of his flexibility.”
'What Happened Yesterday Was Unacceptable to Me,' Trump Says of Syrian Chemical Attack
President Trump said the chemical attack in Syria that has been blamed on the Assad regime “crosses many, many lines,” as he criticized his predecessor’s decision not to take military action after drawing a “red line in the sand.” When asked what specific action he’d take, Trump, who met with Jordan’s King Abdullah, said: “It's very, very possible, and, I will tell you, it's already happened, that my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much. And if you look back over the last few weeks, there have been other attacks using gas. You're now talking about a whole different level.” The Trump administration hasn’t yet outlined what steps it might take against Assad. As recently as last week, Nikki Haley, Trump’s envoy to the UN, said: “Our priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out.” As I wrote this morning, Russia, Assad’s main backer, says yesterday’s chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun was caused by the destruction by Syrian military aircraft of a rebel facility that produced chemical weapons. Rebels, and officials from the U.S. and the U.K. all say Assad’s forces carried out the attack. Trump’s remarks about the attack follow those of Haley’s, who said today: “When the UN consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action.”
Citing No Evidence, Trump Tells The New York Times He Thinks Susan Rice Committed a Crime
President Trump told The New York Times he thinks Susan Rice, President Obama’s national-security adviser, committed a crime when she requested the identities of American citizens in raw intelligence reports. He did not offer any evidence for his claim. At issue is the practice of “incidental collection,” which involves Americans caught up in surveillance of a foreign target. Their names are redacted, but can legally be revealed at the request of certain senior officials. Here’s the relevant part from the Times story on Trump’s claim: “When asked if Ms. Rice, who has denied leaking the names of Trump associates under surveillance by United States intelligence agencies, had committed a crime, the president said, ‘Do I think? Yes, I think.’” Speaking on MSNBC yesterday, Rice denied she acted improperly. “The allegation is that somehow the Obama administration officials utilized intelligence for political purposes. That’s absolutely false.”
David Graham wrote:
Rice’s repeated statements she could and would not reveal classified information point to the central ambiguity in this story. Over time, a very loose image has emerged of what might have been collected or might not have. But that image is severely constrained by the fact that most of the relevant information is classified, and Nunes himself has been accused of improperly revealing classified information. The low-information landscape has made for a fertile partisan battle, but makes it challenging to understand what really happened and who is telling the truth.
It is not clear, for example, whether Trump officials’ communications were incidentally collected through conversations with surveillance targets, or were simply mentioned in conversations that were collected. There’s also no reliable information on how many times, and when, Rice requested unmasking of Trump officials, nor of whether other officials also requested unmasking.
Steve Bannon No Longer Has a Role on the National Security Council
Steve Bannon, the White House chief strategist, has been removed from the National Security Council as part of a larger shakeup of the organization. The Atlantic’s Rosie Gray notes:
sr WH official tells me Bannon was only on NSC to keep an eye on Flynn & "de-operationalize NSC from Rice" & that he never went to a meeting— Rosie Gray (@RosieGray) April 5, 2017
Earlier this year, Bannon, an assistant to the president, and Reince Preibus, the White House chief of staff, were designated as regular participants in the NSC’s principals committee, which considers national-security issues. The move was controversial, but was defended by the White House. Under the new memorandum, the White House chief of staff will continue to attend the meetings.
This is a developing story and we’ll update it as we learn more. Rosie’s story is here.
North Korea Test-Fires Ballistic Missile Ahead of U.S.–China Summit
North Korea launched a ballistic missile Wednesday off the coast of the Korean peninsula, South Korea’s military said. The launch, marking the latest of several such tests the North has carried out in recent months, comes one day ahead of a summit between President Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, during which the two leaders are expected to discuss North Korea’s nuclear program. The move was met with condemnation by South Korea, Japan, and China. The U.S. State Department, in response, said: “North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile. The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.” The terse response comes weeks after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ruled out conducting talks with the North until it renounces its nuclear weapons program, adding military options were also “on the table.”
At Least 11 Advertisers Flee Fox's O'Reilly Factor Amid Sexual-Harassment Allegations
At least 11 companies, including BMW, T. Rowe Price, and GlaxoSmithKline, have pulled advertising from Fox’s The O’Reilly Factor following allegations first reported last Saturday by The New York Times that the network and Bill O’Reilly paid about $13 million to settle claims by five women who accused the Fox News star of sexual harassment. A Fox News spokesman told the Times yesterday: “We value our partners and are working with them to address their current concerns about The O’Reilly Factor. At this time, the ad buys of those clients have been re-expressed into other FNC programs.” Here’s more from the paper:
The erosion of advertising support, along with pressure from advocacy groups, heightened the sense of uncertainty at Fox News, which for months has been trying to move beyond the sexual harassment scandal that led to the dismissal of [founding chairman Roger] Ailes. It also raised questions about how long 21st Century Fox will stand behind Mr. O’Reilly. … If more advertisers leave the program, Fox News and 21st Century Fox may have to respond.
The network itself appears not to have covered the allegations on air.
Russia Says Rebels Are Responsible for Syrian Chemical Attack
The Russian Foreign Ministry says yesterday’s chemical attack in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province was caused by the destruction by Syrian military aircraft of a rebel facility that produced chemical weapons. A spokesman for the ministry said the type of agent and symptoms seen yesterday in Khan Sheikhoun are similar to those witnessed during a chemical attack in Aleppo last year; that attack was attributed to Syrian rebels. The government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom Russia supports in the more than six-year-long civil war, denied using chemical weapons despite assertions to the contrary by rebels, and officials from the U.S. and the U.K. The death toll from yesterday’s attack has climbed to 72, including 20 children, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The claims and counterclaims coincide with an international conference in Brussels on humanitarian aid for Syria, where the conflict has killed hundreds of thousands of people and created more than 5 million refugees. This isn’t the first time the Assad regime has been accused of using chemical weapons in the conflict. Despite international condemnation of such action, Assad is still firmly in charge of Syria, backed by his allies in Russia and Iran. The U.S. and its allies support a coalition of rebel groups, which are engaged in a cease-fire with Assad’s forces, but that truce doesn’t include ISIS or al-Qaeda-linked groups in Syria. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an al-Qaeda-affiliated group, controls large parts of Idlib province.
Our continuing coverage of this story: