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10 things you need to know today: March 17, 2017

Harold Maass
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1.

Senators dismiss wiretap claims, but Trump stands by them

Senate Intelligence Committee leaders said in a joint statement Thursday that there were "no indications that Trump Tower was the subject of surveillance by any element of the United States government either before or after Election Day 2016." House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) also confirmed — "at least so far with respect to our intelligence community — that no such tap existed." White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, however, said Trump "stands by" the allegation, which Trump made in a tweet nearly two weeks ago without offering any evidence. Spicer pointed to a claim by a Fox News commentator, former judge Andrew Napolitano, that Obama used British intelligence and security agency GCHQ instead of U.S. intelligence agencies, a charge GCHQ called "utterly ridiculous."

2.

Tillerson says military action against North Korea 'on the table'

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Friday that military action against North Korea was "on the table" if the country's isolated communist government elevates "the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe requires action." Tillerson made the remarks in the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea during his first trip to Asia as the top U.S. diplomat. Sanctions and diplomacy have failed to curb the threat of North Korea's nuclear weapon and missile programs, but previous administrations avoided talk of military action because the South Korean capital of Seoul, with more than 20 million people, is just 30 miles south of the DMZ, within range of North Korean artillery. Tillerson said, "We do not want things to get to a military conflict," but Washington's "strategic patience" policy is over.

3.

Republicans vow big changes to Trump budget

President Trump's budget proposal came under intense criticism in Congress on Thursday, with even some of his closest allies saying it has no hope of being passed. Defense hawks said Trump's $54 billion hike in military spending wasn't enough, while Democrats and some Republicans said that paying for the extra defense spending by sharply cutting the budgets of other agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the State Department, would cause extensive harm. "While we have a responsibility to reduce our federal deficit, I am disappointed that many of the reductions and eliminations proposed in the president's skinny budget are draconian, careless, and counterproductive," said Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), a member and former chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

4.

Flynn earned $68,000 from 'Russia-related entities'

Michael Flynn, President Trump's former national security adviser, was paid nearly $68,000 from "Russia-related entities" in 2015, according to documents released Thursday by Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee. Most of the money came from Russia's state-run broadcaster RT for a December 2015 speech Flynn made in Moscow. U.S. intelligence agencies consider RT to be a Kremlin propaganda tool. Flynn last year acknowledged making the speech, but said he was paid by his speakers bureau, not Russia. Flynn received $11,250 from the U.S. subsidiary of a Russian cybersecurity firm, Kaspersky Lab, and another $11,250 from Russian charter cargo airline Volga-Dnepr Airlines. Flynn recently registered retroactively as a foreign agent for work he did to benefit a company linked to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

5.

Trump and Merkel to discuss NATO, Russia, in first face-to-face meeting

President Trump hosts German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the White House on Friday in the first face-to-face meeting between the West's two most powerful leaders. Trump, who harshly criticized Merkel for letting hundreds of thousands of refugees into Germany, has signaled that he will ask Merkel to back his call for North Atlantic Treaty Organization members to pitch in more for their common defense. Merkel, a close ally of former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, is expected to focus on NATO funding and relations with Russia. "The president will be very interested in hearing the chancellor's views on her experience interacting with Putin," a senior administration official said.

6.

Letter bomb injures one at IMF Paris office

A letter bomb exploded at the International Monetary Fund's offices in Paris on Thursday, slightly injuring one person. French authorities said they were investigating the incident as a possible terrorist attack. The blast occurred one day after German authorities found a package bomb they believed had been sent by a Greek terrorist group to the Berlin office of Germany's finance minister, Wolfgang Schauble. The French letter bomb appeared also to have been sent from Greece.

7.

Florida governor replaces anti-death-penalty prosecutor

Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) on Thursday removed prosecutor Aramis Ayala from the trial of accused cop killer Markeith Loyd after she said she would no longer seek the death penalty in first-degree murder cases. Loyd, who was wanted for the murder of his pregnant girlfriend, is accused of fatally shooting Orlando police Lt. Debra Clayton when she tried to catch him. Ayala said she made her decision because capital punishment doesn't deter crime or protect citizens. Scott said he was using his executive authority to replace Ayala with State Attorney Brad King because Ayala would not "fight for justice." "These families deserve a state attorney who will aggressively prosecute Markeith Loyd to the fullest extent of the law," he said, "and justice must be served."

8.

Student arrested for French school shooting

French police arrested a 16-year-old student for allegedly opening fire at a school in southeastern France on Thursday. At least two students were injured, as was the principal when he tried to intervene. Witnesses said the attacker entered a classroom carrying a long gun, several pistols, and a small grenade, looking for specific people. Prosecutor Fabienne Atzori said there was no reason to believe that the attack had anything to do with terrorism. "The motivation of the student appears linked to bad relations with other students in this high school in which it appears he had some difficulty integrating," she said. Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said the attack, which occurred in the town of Grasse, appeared to be "a crazy act by a fragile young man fascinated by firearms."

9.

Mount Etna eruption injures 10

At least 10 people were injured when Sicily's Mount Etna volcano erupted on Thursday, sending molten rocks raining down on tourists, journalists, and a scientist. About 35 tourists and a BBC camera crew went to the area to observe the volcano erupting, but were caught by surprise when flowing magma hit snow and caused an explosion. BBC video of the incident shows an explosion of steam and hot rocks, and people rushing to get away. "The material thrown into the air fell back down, striking the heads and bodies of people who were closest," said Umberto Marino, president of the Italian Alpine Club chapter in Catania, after he took some of the injured to safety.

10.

First day of NCAA tournament light on upsets

The No. 12 seeds managed to pull off just one upset as the NCAA men's basketball tournament kicked off in earnest on Thursday, as Middle Tennessee State beat No. 5 seed Minnesota 81-72 to move into the second round. Another No. 12, Princeton, nearly advanced, but lost to Notre Dame 60-58 after having a shot at an upset in its final possession. UNC-Wilmington came close, too, but squandered a 15-point lead and lost 76-71 to Virginia. The fourth No. 12 seed, Nevada, lost to Iowa State, 84-73. Two No. 1 seeds, North Carolina and Kansas, take their turns on Friday trying to avoid being the first regional top seeds to be upset by a No. 16 seed since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. "I'll tell you what," said North Carolina coach Roy Williams, whose Tar Heels face No. 16 Texas Southern. "Every coach of the No. 1 always worries like the dickens about it the night before. It's something you always think about."

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