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10 things you need to know today: March 3, 2017

Sessions recuses himself from Russia investigation, Pence reportedly used AOL email for Indiana state business, and more


Sessions recuses himself from campaign investigations

Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday recused himself from any investigation into possible Russian meddling in last year's presidential election. His decision came a day after The Washington Post reported that Sessions, then a senator, met twice with Russia's ambassador during the campaign season. During his confirmation hearing, Sessions said he had no contact with Russian officials in the run-up to the election. Sessions' office said his statement was not misleading, because he met with the ambassador as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, not as a Trump surrogate. Several leading Republicans had called on Sessions to recuse himself as investigators look into contact between Trump aides and Russian officials. Democrats stepped up calls for Sessions to resign, saying he lied to Congress. Trump said Sessions was "an honest man" targeted in "a total witch hunt."


As Indiana governor, Pence used private AOL account for state business

As governor of Indiana, Vice President Mike Pence frequently used a private AOL email account to conduct public business, including corresponding with top advisers about homeland security matters, the Indianapolis Star reported Thursday. The office of Gov. Eric Holcomb (R) released about 30 pages of emails in response to a public records request, but declined to release other emails considered too sensitive to share. The account was hacked last summer. A scammer emailed Pence's contacts saying the governor and his wife were attacked in the Philippines and needed money. Pence, a strong critic of Hillary Clinton's use of a private server as secretary of state, said he was complying with state law on preserving official email. Pence's spokesman said it was "absurd" to compare Pence's email handling to Clinton's, noting he didn't handle classified information.


Senate confirms Rick Perry and Ben Carson

The Senate on Thursday confirmed former Texas governor Rick Perry as energy secretary, and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Both men ran against President Trump in the primaries, and at times seemed unlikely additions to Trump's Cabinet. Perry said during his 2012 presidential run that he would dismantle the Energy Department, a vow he reversed after his nomination. Carson had said he lacked the government and management experience to run a federal department, but after talking with Trump agreed to take the job. Environmentalists and some leading Democrats opposed Perry's confirmation, but both he and Carson proved less controversial than several other Trump nominees. Both were sworn in later in the day.


Trump vows major defense spending increase

President Trump promised "one of the largest" defense spending increases in U.S. history, speaking aboard a next-generation Naval aircraft carrier in Virginia on Thursday. Trump vowed to give American forces "the finest equipment in the world" to make sure no nation can challenge U.S. military might. "Hopefully it's power we don't have to use," he said, "but if we do, they're in big, big trouble." The White House released Trump's draft budget plan earlier this week, calling for raising the Pentagon's budget by $54 billion or 10 percent over the more than half trillion dollars the U.S. now spends annually on defense, more than the next seven countries combined.


Syrian government forces retake Palmyra from ISIS

Syria's military announced Thursday that it had recaptured the ancient city of Palmyra from the Islamic State, with the help of Russian air power. The victory marked the second time Syrian forces had driven ISIS out of Palmyra in a year. The city, 150 miles northeast of Damascus, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and was long one of Syria's leading tourist attractions. ISIS militants have pilfered or destroyed many of the city's antiquities.


EPA reverses Obama administration call for data on methane emissions

The Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday that it was withdrawing the Obama administration's request that oil and gas well operators provide information on their equipment and methane emissions. The Obama administration only started the effort to gather more information about methane, which is blamed for a quarter of global warming, two days before Trump's election. The EPA said it received a letter from attorneys general of several conservative and oil-producing states saying the request imposed "burdensome climate rules on existing sites, the cost and expense of which will be enormous." EPA administrator Scott Pruitt said reversing the request "will reduce burdens on businesses" while the EPA considers whether it needs more information from the industry. The White House is proposing deep cuts to the EPA budget that would reduce its staff by one-fifth.


CNN says Yemen raid yielded valuable intel, countering NBC report

CNN reported Thursday that the U.S. is using information obtained in a Yemen raid to "locate and monitor hundreds" of al Qaeda contacts, contradicting an NBC report that said a day earlier that the material seized had yet to yield any actionable intelligence. Officials told CNN that the raid, which resulted in the death of Navy SEAL William "Ryan" Owens, obtained information "pertaining to the location of safe havens, explosives manufacturing, training, and targets," and has given investigators leads to actively pursue. President Trump has repeatedly defended the raid as a success, saying in his speech to Congress on Tuesday night that Defense Secretary James Mattis called the operation "a highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future."


EU Parliament strips immunity from Marine Le Pen

The European Parliament on Thursday lifted the parliamentary immunity for Marine Le Pen, the leader of France's far-right National Front, over tweets she posted in 2015 showing killings by Islamic State militants. French prosecutors have accused Le Pen, now a leading candidate for the French presidency, of "dissemination of violent images," a crime punishable with up to three years in prison. Le Pen shrugged off the setback. Le Pen, a deputy in the European Parliament, has said she posted the pictures in protest after a journalist compared her to ISIS. She said she was being targeted in a "politicized investigation." The first round of the French presidential vote is April 23.


Snap shares rise by 44 percent on first day of trading

Snap stock soared in its first day of trading on Thursday, gaining 44 percent over its initial public offering price of $17 a share, which was already higher than expected. The stock closed at $24.48 after rising as high as $26.05 during the day. Snap, the parent company of popular messaging app Snapchat, is the biggest tech company to go public since Facebook in 2012, and the biggest tech IPO globally since Alibaba in 2014. The closing price put Snap's value near $35 billion, although one analyst said the buzz drove up the price and made the stock "significantly overvalued."


More Trump aides reportedly met with Russian envoy

Reports surfaced Thursday identifying several more people who were involved in President Trump's campaign who had contact with Russia's U.S. ambassador, Sergey Kislyak. One of the Trump aides was his son-in-law Jared Kushner, who, along with ousted adviser Michael Flynn, met Kislyak in December for what a senior administration official described as an "introductory meeting" and "kind of inconsequential hello." Another campaign national security adviser, J.D. Gordon, also disclosed Thursday that he and fellow Trump advisers Carter Page and Walid Phares had talked to Kislyak in July, during the Republican National Convention. Gordon said he expressed the desire to improve U.S.-Russia relations in the meeting. Page, who has called reports of Trump campaign contacts with Russia "fake news," said he did not deny the meeting happened.


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