- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 15, 2017

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Latest on President Donald Trump (all times EST):

7:25 p.m.

President Donald Trump is calling on Venezuela to let jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez “out of prison immediately.”

The president tweeted the message along with a photo of himself, Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. Marco Rubio and Lilian Tintori, Lopez’s wife, in the Oval Office Wednesday evening.

The President and first lady Melania Trump are hosting Rubio and his wife for dinner at the White House.

Trump’s call for Lopez’s release follows the administration’s decision to slap sanctions on Venezuela’s vice president for his alleged role as a major international drug trafficker.

Lopez is serving a 14-year sentence for allegedly inciting violence against the government during a wave of anti-government unrest.


6:45 p.m.

The top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee are asking the attorney general and FBI director for a briefing on the resignation of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa and Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California sent a letter late Wednesday to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and FBI Director James Comey requesting a briefing the week of Feb. 27. Congress is out of session next week for the Presidents’ Day holiday.

The senators also requested copies of the transcripts of Flynn’s intercepted calls and the FBI report summarizing the intercepted calls referenced in the media.

Flynn resigned Monday night following reports he misled Vice President Mike Pence about contacts with a Russian diplomat.


5:05 p.m.

First lady Melania Trump has taken her Israeli counterpart to one of Washington’s hottest tourist attractions, the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Mrs. Trump and Sara Netanyahu, wife of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, were led on a tour by David Skorton, secretary of the Smithsonian, and Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s founding director.

Timed-entry passes to the museum, the newest on the National Mall, are snapped up almost as quickly as they become available.

During the outing, the first ladies stopped at an interactive video exhibit about the Greensboro, North Carolina, lunch counter where blacks staged sit-ins in the 1960s to protest the lack of civil rights.

They also visited a large waterfall display called the “Contemplative Court.”


4:15 p.m.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has expressed willingness to “resume a credible peace process” to resolve the conflict with Israel based on the two-state solution.

Abbas issued a statement late Wednesday hours after the press conference in Washington with President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Both Trump and Netanyahu were evasive about endorsing a two-state solution with the Palestinians. That would create an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel and has been the international community’s preferred solution for nearly two decades.

Abbas reiterated the Palestinian position claiming the West Bank along with east Jerusalem for parts of a future state.

He called on Netanyahu to cease building settlements in that territory. Trump asked Netanyahu to “hold off” with settlements at the press conference.


3:40 p.m.

Andrew Puzder says he is withdrawing as President Donald Trump’s nominee for labor secretary.

The fast food executive says in a statement provided to The Associated Press that he was “honored to have been considered by President Donald Trump to lead the Department of Labor and put America’s workers and businesses back on a path to sustainable prosperity.”

Puzder says “while I won’t be serving in the administration, I fully support the President and his highly qualified team.”

Puzder’s confirmation hearing was scheduled for Thursday. But some Republicans had raised concerns about his failure to pay taxes for five years on a former housekeeper who wasn’t authorized to work in the U.S.

Puzder is CEO of CKE Restaurants Inc.


2:45 p.m.

President Donald Trump plans to hold one of his signature rallies in Florida this weekend.

Trump is promoting the event with a tweet - inviting people to join him at Orlando-Melbourne International Airport for the event at 5 p.m. Saturday.

It’ll be Trump’s first rally since he took office - and his first since he took a “thank you tour” in December through states that he won in the election the month before. That swing ended Dec. 17 in Alabama.

Trump’s large and raucous rallies were a key part of his unconventional campaign.


12:35 p.m.

President Donald Trump says his ousted national security adviser, Michael Flynn, is a “wonderful man” who has been treated “very, very unfairly” by the media.

The White House says Trump fired Flynn late Monday following reports that Flynn had discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. before Trump was sworn into office.

Flynn and other administration officials originally denied the topic had been discussed. White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Tuesday that Flynn had lost the president’s trust.

But Trump says in a joint news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he thinks “it’s really a sad thing” that Flynn “was treated so badly.”

He’s also going after those who have leaked information to the press, describing it as a “criminal act.”


11:05 a.m.

President Donald Trump has told the heads of several of the largest U.S. retailers - including Target, Best Buy and Gap - that people will “love” his planned tax reforms.

The president has provided scant details about his tax overhaul, but he assured retail CEOs Wednesday that tax rates would be lowered and simplified in a “massive” plan that “will be submitted in the not too distant future.”

“Other than H&R; Block, I think people are going to love it,” the president said.

But during the public portion of the meeting, Trump provided no insight as to whether he still intends to levy a border tax on imports. Trump has threatened a border tax in order to protect U.S. factory jobs, but retailers have warned that it could cause higher prices for consumers.


10:40 a.m.

President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump plan to host Sen. Marco Rubio and his wife for dinner Wednesday.

The White House said Rubio and his wife Jeanette are expected to join the Trumps at 6:30 p.m.

The Florida senator was one of the large field of Republicans Trump beat out on his way to the White House. Trump famously dubbed him “little Marco” during the primary battle.

Trump hosted another 2016 candidate Tuesday. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and his wife Mary Pat came to the White House for lunch.


9 a.m.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has called a meeting of Democratic senators to discuss President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser and published reports about contacts between Trump’s campaign and Moscow.

Another leading Democrat, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, is pressing the Democrats’ case for an independent investigation. He and other Democrats say that’s the best way to answer questions about the Trump administration’s ties to Russia.

Republican leaders continue to refuse to consider that option and say three congressional investigations underway are enough.

Durbin tells MSNBC that it’s a “graveyard” for investigations when congressional intelligence committees get involved because their work is largely done outside of public view.


8 a.m.

President Donald Trump appears to be faulting the Obama administration for being “too soft” on Russia, pointing to Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine on President Barack Obama’s watch.

He tweeted, “Crimea was TAKEN by Russia during the Obama Administration. Was Obama too soft on Russia?”

In that and a series of other morning tweets Wednesday, Trump appeared to be trying to distance himself from any appearance of close ties with Russia following published reports that U.S. agencies had intercepted phone calls last year between Russian intelligence officials and his 2016 campaign team.

Trump denounced “this Russian connection non-sense” as “merely an attempt to cover-up the many mistakes made in Hillary Clinton’s losing campaign.”

Trump’s remarks come on the heels of the resignation of his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, after it was revealed that he’d reportedly discussed sanctions with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. before Trump was sworn in.


6:45 a.m.

President Donald Trump is renewing his attack on the “fake news media” amid the widening controversy surrounding the ouster of his national security adviser and talk of congressional investigations of purported Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election last year.

Trump posted a pre-dawn message on his verified Twitter account Wednesday complaining, “The fake news media is going crazy with their conspiracy theories and blind hatred.” He said, “This Russian connection non-sense is merely an attempt to cover-up the many mistakes made in Hillary Clinton’s losing campaign.”

He added in the post that “@MSNBC & @CNN are unwatchable. @foxandfriends is great!”

The latest tweet follows a pattern of social media messages that Trump has sent, chastising news organizations both during his campaign for the White House and in the more than three weeks since his inauguration.


6:30 a.m.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is likening President Donald Trump to Andrew Jackson, saying he’s what the American people wanted when they elected him.

The Kentucky Republican tells MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that voters “wanted a different kind of president.” He adds that “I like what he’s doing,” particularly his emphasis on lessening government regulation of business.

McConnell also said he considers Neil Gorsuch, the man Trump picked to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, to be “the single best circuit court judge in the nation.”

He did disagree with Trump, who has asserted that millions of illegal votes in the election caused him to lose the popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton. “There is voter fraud in the country,” McConnell said. “But there is no evidence that there was significant enough vote fraud to affect the outcome of the election.”

“I’m more interested in what he’s doing than what he’s tweeting,” McConnell said.


3:15 a.m.

Just six days into his presidency, Donald Trump was informed his national security adviser had misled his vice president about contacts with Russia. Trump kept his No. 2 in the dark and waited nearly three weeks before ousting the aide, Michael Flynn, citing a slow but steady erosion of trust, White House officials said.

Flynn was interviewed by the FBI about his telephone conversations with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., a sign his ties to Russia had caught the attention of law enforcement officials.

But in the White House’s retelling of Flynn’s stunning downfall, his error was not that he discussed U.S. sanctions with the Russian before the inauguration - a potential violation of a rarely enforced law - but the fact that he denied it for weeks, apparently misleading Vice President Mike Pence and other senior Trump aides about the nature of the conversations. White House officials said they conducted a thorough review of Flynn’s interactions, including transcripts of calls secretly recorded by U.S. intelligence officials, but found nothing illegal.

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