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March 27, 2017

Last Thursday, Denis Voronenkov, a former Russian lawmaker who had fled to Ukraine and become a strident critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was shot dead on a Kiev sidewalk in broad daylight. A few days earlier, Voronenkov had told The Washington Post that he and his wife knew they were in danger. "For our personal safety, we can't let them know where we are," he said. "The system has lost its mind. They say we are traitors in Russia."

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the attack an "act of state terrorism by Russia," a charge Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed as a "fabrication."

Voronenkov is one of a handful of Putin critics and Russian diplomats who have died suddenly and sometimes mysteriously in the past few months. "I have an impression — I hope it's only an impression — that the practice of killing political opponents has started spreading in Russia," Gennady Gudkov, a former Russian lawmaker and security services officer, told The Moscow Times.

Two days before Voronenkov's murder, Nikolai Gorokhov, a lawyer for the family of Sergei Magnitsky — himself killed in police custody after uncovering $230 million in Russian government fraud — fell from his apartment window. Russian authorities say Gorokhov, who survived the fall, was trying to hoist a bathtub up to his apartment when he fell; Bill Browder, a financier who had hired Magnitsky, alleges that somebody pushed Gorokhov. In another apparent near-miss, Putin critic Vladimir Kara-Murza narrowly survived what appears to be a second poison attack.

On Dec. 26, Oleg Erovinkin, a former top Russian intelligence official and the chief-of-staff to Igor Sechin, the president of state-owned oil firm Rosneft, was found dead in his car on the streets of Moscow; no official cause of death has been given. There has been speculation that Erovinkin was the main source of the dossier on President Trump and Russia compiled by former British MI6 agent Christopher Steele.

Stranger still, since November, at least six Russian diplomats have died, some from gunshot wounds and others of apparent natural causes. Among these is Andrey Karlov, 62, the Russian ambassador to Turkey who was shot in an Ankara art gallery, and Vitaly Churkin, 64, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations who died in New York City. The New York Chief Medical Examiner's office said in mid-March that it would "not publicly disclose the cause and manner of death of Ambassador Vitaly Churkin" due to diplomatic protocols.

The deaths and near-deaths may well be totally unconnected. But it's sure a lot of coincidences. Peter Weber

1:08 p.m. ET

Alabama's Senator-elect Doug Jones (D) made an appearance on CNN's State of the Union Sunday, talking with host Jake Tapper about his win at the polls this past week, his plans for his new role in Washington, and President Trump.

Jones broke with fellow Democrats who have said the president should resign because of sexual harassment accusations made against him. "Those allegations were made before the election, and so people had an opportunity to judge" last year, Jones said. "We need to move on and not get distracted by those issues."

Jones also indicated he won't be a strict party-line voter in the Senate given his may GOP constituents. "Now, don't expect me to vote solidly for Republicans or Democrats," he said. "I'm going to talk to people on both sides of the aisle, try to figure out what I think is in the best interest of my state and in the country."

Watch the full CNN interview below. Bonnie Kristian

12:33 p.m. ET

White House Director of Legislative Affairs Marc Short had a testy conversation with NBC's Chuck Todd on Meet the Press Sunday in which he maintained the Trump administration is not internally debating whether to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller from his probe into Russian election meddling efforts.

Todd raised the subject of emails the Trump transition team claims Mueller obtained unlawfully, but Short pleaded ignorance of the specifics of that situation. Instead, he argued the Russia investigation in general has been wasteful and unnecessary, which led to this rapid-fire exchange:

Todd: Ok, but is the president going to continue to cooperate?

Short: He is continuing to cooperate —

Todd: Or is he setting the stage —

Short: No, come on, Chuck.

Todd: For firing Bob Mueller?

Short: No, there's no conversation —

Todd: There's no way he's going to fire him?

Short: There's no conversation about that whatsoever in the White House, Chuck.

Todd: None whatsoever?

Short: You guys keep bringing that up. We have continued to cooperate in every single possible way with that investigation. [NBC]

Mueller's office denied accessing the emails unlawfully, stating it has always "secured either the account owner's consent or appropriate criminal process" when obtaining communications for the investigation. Watch an excerpt of the NBC interview below. Bonnie Kristian

12:03 p.m. ET

Britain's Prince Harry has interviewed former President Obama for a radio show set to air later this month. Though recorded in September, the first teaser clip of the conversation was shared by Kensington Palace social media accounts Sunday.

Clocking in under a minute, the short video sees Obama and the prince joking as they prepare to begin their interview. "Do I have to speak faster, because I'm a slow speaker?" Obama asks. "Do I need a British accent?" Harry assures him that won't be necessary, but warns against leaving Obama's trademark "long pauses between the answers." Watch the teaser below. Bonnie Kristian

11:01 a.m. ET
Pool/Getty Images

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is not the only federal agency reportedly prohibited by the Trump White House from using words and phrases including "vulnerable," "entitlement," "diversity," "transgender," "fetus," "evidence-based," and "science-based."

The Washington Post reported Saturday evening that other divisions in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have been given the same list of banned terms. Furthermore, staff at one agency were reportedly told to say "ObamaCare" instead of "Affordable Care Act," and ObamaCare "exchanges" instead of "marketplaces," while the State Department is calling sex education "sexual risk avoidance."

"People were surprised, people were not thrilled" about the directive, an unnamed HHS official told the Post. "We all kind of looked at each other and said, 'Oh, God.'" Bonnie Kristian

10:51 a.m. ET

California's Thomas Fire grew to be the second-largest wildfire in the state's recorded history by Sunday morning. The blaze has burned more than 267,000 acres and is expected to grow larger than the all-time biggest California fire as soon as Sunday night thanks to continued high winds in Southern California. The fire now poses a serious threat to hundreds of homes in Montecito, a coastal town on the outskirts of Santa Barbara.

"When the [sundowner winds] surface in that area and the fire starts running down slopes, you are not going to stop it," said Mark Brown, of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "And we are not going to stand in front of it and put firefighters in untenable situations."

See the fire's projected growth via the Los Angeles Times below. Bonnie Kristian

10:42 a.m. ET

President Trump defended congressional Republicans' final tax bill while speaking with reporters Saturday, accusing Democrats of criticizing the plan without knowing what it will do. "It's going to be one of the great Christmas gifts to middle-income people," Trump said. "The Democrats have their sound bite, the standard sound bite before they even know what the bill is all about."

Trump also praised the strength of the economy, which he said will "start to rock" at up to 6 percent annual growth thanks to the tax bill and "what we've done with regulation and other things." Watch an excerpt of the president's comments via his Twitter account below. Bonnie Kristian

8:49 a.m. ET

Saturday Night Live's President Trump (Alec Baldwin) is excited to trim the White House tree now that he has declared an end to hostilities in the "War on Christmas," and this year, the first family is decorating on a theme. Joined by the first lady, some of his children, and various administration staff, Trump adorns his "tree of shame" with ornaments featuring the faces of "all the haters and losers [he] destroyed this year."

The haters and losers are mostly former members of the Trump White House, but fired FBI Director James Comey and former Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore are on the tree, too. Elf on the Shelf Attorney General Jeff Sessions (Kate McKinnon) shows up on the mantel to help with the tree trimming and wish everyone a merry Christmas, because "everybody is gonna get away with everything!"

Watch the full sketch below. Bonnie Kristian

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