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Former President Barack Obama spoke on the phone Thursday with French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron, hinting at his support just days ahead of French presidential voting Sunday.

“President Obama spoke on the phone to Emmanuel Macron this morning,” Obama spokesperson Kevin Lewis said in a statement Thursday. “President Obama appreciated the opportunity to hear from Mr. Macron about his campaign and the important upcoming presidential election in France, a country that President Obama remains deeply committed to as a close ally of the United States, and as a leader on behalf of liberal values in Europe and around the world.”

“An endorsement was not the purpose of the call, as President Obama is not making any formal endorsement in advance of the run-off election on Sunday,” Lewis added, though the clarification did not stop speculation that the call was Obama’s way of signaling favor for the candidate.

Macron, a centrist option among the four most prominent candidates on the ballot Sunday, started his own movement, En Marche!, in an attempt to hold elected office for the first time. He was an investment banker and, eventually, economic minister in François Hollande’s Socialist government before resigning in 2016 to run for office.

Emmanuel Macron warmly thanked Barack Obama for his friendly call,” En Marche! said in its own statement, Reuters reported.

If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote on Sunday, there will be a run-off election between the two top vote-getters on May 7.

On Sunday, Macron will face off against the anti-immigrant far-right Marine Le Pen, scandal-ridden center-right François Fillon and protectionist far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon, whose viral support among young people has earned him comparisons to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

This post has been updated.

Conservative rocker and National Rifle Association board member Ted Nugent on Thursday promised that President Donald Trump will “yank the status quo noose from our collective necks” by supporting hunting.

“I’m radical. Who doesn’t know that? I not only kill my families’ food with sharp sticks, I dare to celebrate and promote it everywhere I go in this otherwise world of sappy political correctness,” Nugent wrote in a post on Deer & Deer Hunting that only got more vehement from there.

Nugent visited the White House for dinner with Trump on Wednesday night at the invitation of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), accompanied by his wife Shemane Nugent, as well as Trump supporter and musician Kid Rock and his fiancée Audrey Berry.

In the post, Nugent referred to himself in the third person as “Deer & Deer Hunting’s most popular blogger,” “a genuine take-no-crap representative of our beloved deerhunting lifestyle” and “The WhackMaster.” He described Shemane Nugent as his “lovely Queen of the Forest wife.”

Nugent wrote that he was “aglow with truth, logic and commonsense oozing from every pore” at the prospect of dining with Trump, and promised that “the prognosis for hunter’s rights has never been better.”

“Yanking the status quo noose from our collective necks may very well be the coolest thing Americans have ever done this side of meeting the Red Coats at the Old North Bridge in Concord and blowing their brains out when they dared to come take our guns,” he wrote, but noted: “We didn’t actually confirm that I will be organizing annual deerhunts at Camp David.”

MIAMI (AP) — The last orca has been born in captivity at a SeaWorld park in San Antonio just over a year after the theme park decided to stop breeding orcas following animal rights protests and declining ticket sales.

The Orlando-based company said the orca — the last in a generation of whales bred in confinement — was born Wednesday afternoon. SeaWorld did not immediately name the calf because the park’s veterinarians had not yet determined whether it was male or female.

The mother, 25-year-old Takara, was already pregnant when SeaWorld announced in March 2016 that it had stopped breeding its orcas. The gestation period for orcas is about 18 months.

Earlier, SeaWorld’s chief zoological officer, Chris Dold, told The Associated Press he expected the birth to be bittersweet, the last such event at any of the parks. But hours after the birth Wednesday afternoon, Dold said, SeaWorld staff only felt like celebrating.

SeaWorld said mother and calf both appear healthy.

“These are extraordinary moments,” he said by phone while traveling to the U.S. from Abu Dhabi, where SeaWorld is developing its first new park without orcas.

SeaWorld decided to stop breeding orcas and phase out its world-famous killer whale performances by 2019, after public opinion turned against keeping orcas, dolphins and other animals in captivity for entertainment. The backlash intensified after the 2013 release of “Blackfish,” a documentary critical of SeaWorld’s orca care. It focused on the orca Tilikum, which killed trainer Dawn Brancheau in Orlando in 2010, dragging her into the pool before shocked visitors after a “Dine with Shamu” show.

Tilikum, which sired 14 calves over nearly 25 years in Orlando, died of bacterial pneumonia in January.

The newborn calf was sired by Kyuquot (pronounced ky YOO kit) at the San Antonio park by natural means. It brings SeaWorld’s orca population in the U.S. to 23. All the orcas are expected to remain on display and available for researchers for years to come in Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio.

SeaWorld has said it will introduce new “natural orca encounters” in place of theatrical shows. This summer, the San Diego park will unveil a new, educational attraction in a revamped pool, and new orca attractions eventually will follow in San Antonio and Orlando.

Dold said veterinarians at the San Antonio park told him the calf was born normally — tail first — after about an hour and a half of smooth labor. Both orcas were swimming calmly and trainers were watching for the calf to begin nursing.

“Mom generally will rest but she can’t rest too much …. mom’s not holding onto the calf, but it’s riding in her slipstream, and that’s how it gets around,” Dold said. “Our expectation is that all of this will go smoothly, but we take none of that for granted.”

Birth control and “social management” will prevent future orca pregnancies, said spokeswoman Suzanne Pelisson Beasley. SeaWorld has not collected a wild orca in nearly 40 years, and most of its orcas were born in captivity.

Researchers have said they worry that SeaWorld’s decision to stop breeding orcas will slowly reduce their ability to study orca health, growth and behavior, limiting them in coming years to collecting data from a small pod of aging whales.

Heather Hill, a St. Mary’s University comparative psychologist who plans to monitor the sleeping habits of Takara and the calf over the coming year, said it was frustrating to see research opportunities at SeaWorld undermined by public opinion amid federal cuts to science funding.

“This will be one of the first times we’ll be able to see not just a mother with a newborn calf but also a newborn calf with siblings,” Hill said.

In a statement, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Executive Vice President Tracy Reiman said the mother and her calf should be retired to a seaside sanctuary.

“Throughout her life, Takara the orca has been artificially inseminated many times, separated from her mother and two of her children, and shuffled from theme park to theme park at SeaWorld’s whim,” PETA’s statement said.

This is Takara’s fifth calf. Two of her other offspring remain at the San Antonio park, one lives at SeaWorld Orlando and another has been loaned to a park in Tenerife, Spain. SeaWorld has no current plans to separate Takara and the newborn in the future, or to move any of its other orcas, Dold said.

Dold said in March that SeaWorld remains committed to orca research and conservation, calling the last orca birth in captivity “a solemn reminder of how things can change and how things can be lost.”

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

SPARTA, N.J. (AP) — A man who wore a bunny costume and repeatedly blew an air horn inside a New Jersey police station has pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct.

Kevin Hemmerich (HEM’-er-ik) entered the plea Thursday and was fined $500. The judge also ordered a police officer charged with striking Hemmerich in Hopatcong (hoh-PAHT’-kahng) last November to stand trial July 6.

Hopatcong police Officer Nicholas Maresca Jr. has pleaded not guilty to charges of simple assault and harassment. More than 50 officers went to court to support him.

Kevin Hemmerich and his brother entered the Hopatcong Police Department lobby to turn himself in for an outstanding warrant. He was dressed in a bunny costume and repeatedly blew the air horn.

Maresca is seen striking Hemmerich on video taken by his brother .

___

Online: http://bit.ly/2pHjGLc

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

After federal prosecutors on Tuesday denied allegations they improperly turned a staffer into an informant to build a corruption case against former Rep. Aaron Schock (R-IL), the congressman asked a judge to dismiss that case, arguing in part that prosecutors violated the Constitution’s separation of powers provisions.

Schock was indicted by a federal grand jury last year on multiple counts, including improper use of campaign and government funds and falsifying documents. He had resigned from Congress in 2015 after news stories on his fancy, “Downton Abbey”-inspired office decor invited scrutiny of his finances and jet-setting lifestyle.

His lawyers now are trying to get those corruption charges tossed out in part by arguing that federal prosecutors were out of line in interpreting U.S. House rules for their own ends.

“The wide-ranging Indictment against Mr. Schock repeatedly trespasses on land the Constitution reserves for Congress,” Schock’s lawyers wrote in a Thursday filing supporting the motion to dismiss the indictment. “The Indictment repeatedly relies on House rules or standards that were not designed to be the basis for criminal charges and are themselves ambiguous.”

Schock’s attorneys argued that the government violated the Constitution’s Rulemaking Clause, Speech or Debate Clause and Due Process Clause. They specifically argued that House rulemaking, specifically rules on how members spend money, is protected under the Speech or Debate Clause, which shields members of Congress’ legislative work from the executive branch.

Read Schock’s filing below:

This motion to dismiss the indictment came after Schock’s lawyers submitted a filing last month alleging that federal investigators improperly directed a former office manager for the congressman to record phone conversations and take documents from his office. Schock’s lawyers requested access to additional documents so that they could definitively determine whether federal investigators broke any rules or laws.

Prosecutors denied any wrongdoing in a filing submitted late on Tuesday, however. They argued that they followed rules governing the use of informants in the case of the staffer, who they say was given specific instructions on what an informant was not permitted to record, such as conversations with a lawyer present. Prosecutors also wrote that the FBI and the deputy assistant attorney general both signed off on the informant recording conversations with Schock and other staffers.

“From the beginning of the investigation that led to his indictment, Defendant Schock has engaged in an increasingly aggressive search for some governmental misconduct claim, initially to forestall the indictment, and now to avoid the trial on the merits,” the government’s attorneys wrote. “In these motions, Defendant Schock futilely attempts to manufacture claims of governmental misconduct during the course of the investigation.”

While the government’s attorneys asserted in the filing that they did not break any laws in using Schock’s staffer as an informant, they wrote that they did not use records obtained by that staffer for the indictment and will not use them at the July 11 trial. They also argue that they have already handed over the documents to which Schock “is entitled under the law and much more.”

Read the government’s filing below:

Within hours of reports that the members of the the House GOP’s far-right and centrist wings had reached a deal that could bring a failed Obamacare repeal bill to life, expectations for quick and certain revival are already being lowered elsewhere on Capitol Hill.

A senior GOP aide told TPM via email that the question is whether the compromise proposal “can get 216 votes in the House and the answer isn’t clear at this time.”

“There is no legislative text and therefore no agreement to do a whip count on,” the aide said, adding that a full-conference phone call scheduled for Saturday where the deal reportedly would be discussed  “was noticed last week and is routine before we come back in session.”

House Freedom Caucus chair Mark Meadows (R-NC) and Tuesday Group co-chair, Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-NJ) are pushing an amendment to the repeal legislation, the American Health Care Act, which would allow for some limited waivers for states to opt out of certain Obamacare insurer mandates, the Huffington Post reported late Wednesday. According to a white paper outlining the proposal surfaced by Politico, the waivers would be available for states if they could prove their programs would “reduce premium costs, increase the number of persons with healthcare coverage, or advance another benefit to the public interest in the state, including the guarantee of coverage for persons with pre-existing medical conditions.”

Not all of Obamacare’s insurer mandates would be available for waivers, but states could opt out of its Essential Health Benefits requirement, according to the white paper, and its community ratings standards based on health status, but only if the state participated in a high-risk pool. The latter change would likely allow insurers to price sick people out of affording insurance. In theory, high-risk pools could then cover those individuals, but only if funded well above the funding levels currently provided in the legislation, health care experts have estimated. Otherwise, states would likely operate high-risk pools resembling those common in the pre-ACA days, when waiting periods, high deductibles, enrollment caps, exclusion of certain coverage areas and other obstacles were imposed to keep costs low.

It appears that the pressure to advance a quick deal on a heath care overhaul is coming from the White House, based on the reporting of the Washington Post’s Robert Costa.

Likewise, Politico reported that a White House official said that they are “close” to shoring up the votes needed to pass the bill, but “people don’t want to commit without seeing the text.”

A White House aide said he had no updates to share when asked by TPM about the administration’s involvement in this latest round of discussions.

The White House was spearheading previous negotiations around a potential compromise on the bill, which faltered before Easter recess.

UPDATE 1:37 p.m.: Princess Anne Police Chief Tim Bozman announced Thursday that the hate crime and second-degree arson charges against D’Asia Perry and Joy Shuford were dismissed after their case was called in Maryland District Court. Bozman said the dismissal was a joint decision made by the police department and Somerset County State’s Attorney’s Office, and said the other charges will be scheduled for trial “at a later date.”

Original story below:

Like most states, Maryland’s hate crime statutes target criminal conduct based on race, color, religious beliefs, gender, sexual orientation, disability and national origin. A local police officer recently took it upon himself to add another category to that list of protected classes: Trump voters.

D’Asia Perry and Joy Shuford, 19-year-old friends, were charged Tuesday with a slew of crimes including second-degree arson, trespassing, and committing a hate crime for setting fire to a large Donald Trump billboard displayed near a family sporting goods store.

In the charging documents, Princess Anne Police Sgt. Robert Smith laid out his justification for the hate crime charge: “The intentional burning of these political signs, along with the beliefs, religious views and race of this political affiliation, directly coincides with the victim.”

Smith’s explanation suggests that those who share the sporting goods store owner Robert Wink’s “political affiliation” as a Trump-voting Republican all have the same “beliefs, religious views and race.” Wink is white, and Perry and Shuford are black.

“It almost seems like the officers were trying to make a political point by charging the defendants with that statute versus actually applying the law,” Steven Silverman, a Baltimore attorney who has worked on hate crimes cases, told TPM. “It’s an absurd hypothesis and a total misapplication of the statute.”

The Princess Anne Police Department declined to release its police report on the incident, but the charging documents spell out the events that led to the early Friday morning blaze outside of Wink’s Sporting Goods.

Emergency personnel arrived at the scene and found a sign advertising Glock pistols, a large Trump billboard, a Trump yard sign and a sign advertising failed U.S. Senate candidate Kathy Szeliga all ablaze, as was the surrounding vegetation, according to the charging documents. The fire department estimated a total of $800 in damage, according to the Baltimore Sun.

Surveillance footage helped the police locate Perry’s silver Volkswagen beetle on the nearby campus of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, a historically black college where she is a student. Perry told police she didn’t know the other woman, who she referred to as “April,” and “just gave her a ride,” according to the charging documents.

The next day, Shuford, a former UMES student, turned herself in to Princess Anne police. She told Sgt. Smith that she and Perry were friends, and saw the sign on their way back from a trip to the Food Lion grocery store, according to the charging documents. They “joked about ripping it down,” Shuford told police, and she held a lighter to it after the screws holding it in place made pulling it from its post too difficult.

She told police the safety function kept the lighter from working, and that “when they left the area the sign had not caught fire.”

Both women, who were released on a $20,000 unsecured bond, now face up to 33 years in prison and/or more than $40,000 in fines, according to court documents obtained by Delmarva Now.

Silverman, the Baltimore hate crimes attorney, predicted that the hate crime charge was certain to be thrown out as the case proceeds.

“In Maryland, the police file charges generally at their discretion and then there’s a vetting process either by the state’s attorney or by a judge,” he explained. “I would expect that as that process continues, the hate crime charge would either be dismissed voluntarily by the state’s attorney’s office or certainly be dismissed by a judge.”

“It’s just kind of thrown out there from left field,” Silverman continued, saying he didn’t know what the officer who charged the case was thinking.

He noted that Princess Anne was located in a “very rural,” Republican county in the traditionally blue state. The town is home to only 3,325 people, according to the 2015 Census estimate, and Somerset County voted for Trump over Clinton 57.7 percent to 39.7 percent. Maryland overall voted for Clinton 60.5 percent to Trump’s 35.3 percent.

Wink’s sign has caused controversy before, even in this conservative pocket of the state.

It was previously set on fire in October 2016, and has been vandalized on multiple occasions and stolen twice.

Jamie Wink, the store owner’s son, told the Baltimore Sun that other visitors stop to pose for selfies with the sign and that it has helped drive business to the store, which sells firearms and hunting supplies.

“It’s been a pretty good attention-getter,” he said.

Read the charging documents below:

After announcing that he would not seek another term in Congress in 2018, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) said Thursday that he may not even finish his current term, according to a report.

KSL Newsradio posted on its Facebook page Thursday that Chaffetz had told host Doug Wright, via text message, “I will continue to weigh the options, but I might depart early.”

“My future plans are not yet finalized, but I haven’t ruled out the possibility of leaving early. In the meantime, I still have a job to do, and I have no plans to take my foot off the gas,” he said separately in a statement to the Deseret News.

In an interview with Politico Thursday afternoon, Chaffetz discussed his plans after leaving the House. “I’d be thrilled to have a television relationship,” he said. “But there’s a number of things I’d like to do.”

The House Oversight Committee chairman’s announcement Wednesday that he would not seek re-election shocked the political world, given Chaffetz’s prominence in Congress and in his home state.

Some have speculated that he will run for the Utah governorship in 2020; Chaffetz himself entertained that possibility in a 2016 interview with the Deseret News.

In his statement Wednesday, the congressman said “I may run again for public office, but not in 2018.”

“For those that would speculate otherwise, let me be clear that I have no ulterior motives,” he continued. “I am healthy. I am confident I would continue to be re-elected by large margins. I have the full support of Speaker Ryan to continue as Chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. That said, I have made a personal decision to return to the private sector.”

This post has been updated.

Former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly is set to receive a payout of tens of millions of dollars from the network following his ouster, according to a report published Thursday by CNN.

An unnamed source personally involved in exit negotiations told CNN that O’Reilly will receive “a staggering amount” upon leaving Fox News. The network announced O’Reilly’s departure Wednesday amid allegations of sexual harassment that resulted in dozens of advertisers dropping his show.

CNN cited two unnamed “well-placed” sources who said O’Reilly’s new contract, which he signed shortly before his ouster, extended through the next presidential election and was worth around $25 million annually.

Both sources said that O’Reilly will receive a payout, per the report, but one also said that O’Reilly will not be paid the entire amount of his contract.

The Financial Times reported Thursday afternoon that O’Reilly will receive a payout of $25 million, citing an unnamed source with knowledge of the four-year contract.

An unnamed source aware of the contract’s terms told the Financial Times that it provides for the former host to “receive a maximum of one year’s salary.”

The New York Times reported on Wednesday, citing an unnamed source, that the new contract allowed Fox News to dismiss O’Reilly if it became aware of any new allegations against him.

The network’s parent company, 21st Century Fox, and O’Reilly’s representatives would not acknowledge any parachute, according to CNN, which noted that both are bound by a confidentiality agreement.

 

North Korea has engaged in some creative saber-rattling, warning of a “super-mighty preemptive strike” against the United States and South Korea, according to a Reuters report published Thursday.

“In the case of our super-mighty preemptive strike being launched, it will completely and immediately wipe out not only U.S. imperialists’ invasion forces in South Korea and its surrounding areas but the U.S. mainland and reduce them to ashes,” the country’s ruling party said in its official newspaper, according to Reuters.

The comment came after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Wednesday that he was “reviewing all of the status of North Korea, both in terms of state sponsorship of terrorism as well as all the other ways in which we can bring pressure to bear on the regime in Pyongyang to reengage.”

Tillerson was responding to a reporter’s question about the possibility of North Korea being restored to the United States’ list of state sponsors of terrorism, from which the country was removed by the Bush administration in an attempt to salvage a nuclear weapons deal. The deal fell apart after former President Obama took office.

Vice President Mike Pence said Wednesday in Japan, aboard the USS Ronald Reagan, that “we will defeat any attack and meet any use of conventional or nuclear weapons with an overwhelming and effective American response.” He added: “All options are on the table. History will attest the soldier does not bear the sword in vain.”

Two days earlier, Pence took part in some unscheduled mean-mugging at North Korea, stepping outside of the South Korean Freedom House to look across the demilitarized zone.

“I thought it was important that we went outside,” he said, according to the Washington Post. “I thought it was important that people on the other side of the DMZ see our resolve in my face.”

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