TRNS News Notes is brought to you by Victoria Jones. Victoria Jones is the Chief White House correspondent and global analyst of the Washington DC based Talk Radio News Service, where her insight and analysis are made available to over 400 news talk radio stations around the country and internationally.

In the News

  • Iran talks: Obama plays hardball
  • Iran: Respect or pressure?
  • Sen Menendez indicted: Corruption
  • Allegations: The good bits
  • Religious freedom bill: Arkansas fix
  • Indiana scrambles to fix law
  • Lois Lerner: No criminal charges
  • Schumer/Durbin: Power feud
  • Journos insist: Plane video “genuine”
  • 11 Atlanta educators convicted: Cheating
Iran Talks: Obama Plays Hardball
• At around 6 am Swiss local time today, State Dept spox Marie Harf tweeted that the Iran nuclear talks had broken up after an all-night session and would resume in a few hours. SecState John Kerry will stay an extra day today. “We continue to make progress but have not reached a political understanding,” Harf said (NYT, AP, TRNS, me)

• With only hours to go Tuesday night before the end-of-the-month deadline that had been set by the WH, SecState John Kerry and Energy Sec Ernest Moniz stepped into a large tent erected in a luxury hotel in Lausanne and dialed into a video conference with President Obama

• There was no way to meet the deadline, Kerry said from the tent, which was designed to defeat eavesdropping (Iran or Israel?). The Iranians, he said, perhaps sensing that the deadline meant a lot in DC and little in Tehran, were intransigent

• Obama, according to two people familiar with the discussion, told Kerry and Moniz to ignore the deadline, make it clear that the president was ready to walk away and leave all sanctions on Iran in place, and see if that would change the dynamic. It’s not clear if the last-minute change in tactics will succeed. Kerry has kept his plane warmed up

• Former Rep Michele Bachmann (R-MN) posted on Facebook: “With his Iran deal, Barack Obama is for the 300 million souls of the U.S. what Andreas Lubitz was for the 150 souls on the German Wings flight – a deranged pilot flying his entire nation into the rocks. After the fact, among the smoldering remains of American cities, the shocked survivors will ask, why did he do it?” (tasteful)
Iran: Respect or Pressure?
• At issue in Wednesday night’s session between Kerry and Iranian FM Javad Zarif, officials said, were the pace at which sanctions would be lifted and restrictions on Iran’s ability to develop new, advanced centrifuges, which are over 20 times more powerful than its current models

• “Our friends need to decide whether they want to be with Iran based on respect or whether they want to continue based on pressure,” Zarif said, heading toward the meetings. “They have tested the other one; it is high time to test this one.”

• The Obama admin has an eye to selling the agreement to a skeptical Congress. But winning the battle with Congress, critics said, will depend more on what concrete agreements are reached, and what issues are put off for further talks with the Iranians, than on whether a preliminary accord is settled over the next week or two

• Obama’s decision Tuesday night to ignore the deadline he had set for himself was intended to persuade the Iranian leadership, watching these session from Tehran, to think twice about the hard-nosed brinkmanship Iranian negotiators had exhibited in previous rounds of talks

• The talks have been snarled by disagreements over what sort of research should be permitted on advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium; the pace of the lifting of sanctions, especially those imposed by the UN; and other issues. Another matter has been whether a preliminary deal should lay out specific limits – U.S. insists, or be more general – Iran prefers
• President Obama on Wednesday issued an executive order that would give Treasury the authority to impose sanctions on individuals or entities behind cyberattacks and cyberespionage against the U.S. (Hill)
Sen Menendez Indicted: Corruption
• A defiant Sen Bob Menendez (D-NJ) declared that he’s “not going anywhere” after he was charged with accepting nearly $1 million in gifts and campaign contributions from a longtime friend in exchange for a stream of political favors (AP, NYT, WSJ, CNN, Reuters, TRNS, me)

• Menendez is expected to appear in federal court in Newark today in response to charges that he used the power of his Senate seat to benefit Dr Salomon Melgen, a wealthy Florida eye doctor who prosecutors say provided the senator with luxury vacations, airline travel, golf trips and tens of thousands of dollars in contributions to a legal defense fund

• The indictment will require prosecutors to prove that a close and longtime friendship between the men was used for criminal purposes and is likely to revive the legal debate about the constitutional protections afforded to members of Congress for acts they take in office, which Menendez has already signaled as a possible line of defense

• Menendez said he would temporarily step down from his role as top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but appeared more defiant than ever at a hastily-called presser that felt more like a political rally, with enthusiastic supporters cheering him on

• “I’m outraged that prosecutors at the DoJ were tricked into starting this investigation three years ago with false allegations by those who have a political motive to silence me. But I will not be silenced. … This is not how my career is going to end,” Menendez told reporters. He took no questions

Allegations: Good Bits
• Visas for “foreign girlfriends”: Prosecutors say on multiple occasions, Menendez used his office to obtain visas for Dr Melgen’s girlfriends. A Brazilian lawyer, actress and model. A Dominican model girlfriend and her sister. A Ukrainian model girlfriend, who later joined Melgen and Menendez for dinner at Azul, a restaurant at the Mandarin Hotel (AP, Hill, TPM, me)

• Travel: Menendez is accused of accepting seven round-trip flights, including to a luxury hotel in Paris – $5,000 for 3 nights – and the Casa de Campo resort in the Dominican Republic. “Ocean-side, marina, three golf courses, 13 tennis courts, 3 polo playing fields, equestrian facilities, a 245 acre-shooting facility, a spa, beaches, restaurants and a hotel.”

• In 2013, one day after Melgen and Menendez golfed together, Menendez told his chief counsel to contact U.S. Customs and Border Protection to ask the agency to stop donating shipping container monitoring and surveillance equipment to the Dominican Republic. Melgen had a contract to provide exclusive cargo screening in Dominican ports – the CBP plan would have hurt his financial interests

• Indictment says Menendez advocated for Melgen in a Medicare billing dispute for several years – allegedly overbilling by $8.9 million. Menendez spoke to CMS officials and Sen Harry Reid’s (D-NV) office after receiving donations of $300,000 to Majority PAC earmarked for New Jersey – this one is quite detailed
• Gunmen raided Garissa University College in Kenya before dawn today, firing indiscriminately and taking hostages. At least two people were killed and 30 people were hospitalized from the attack, the Kenyan Red Cross said. The Somali-based Al Shabaab militant group has claimed responsibility (CNN)

Religious Freedom Bill: Arkansas Fix

• Facing a backlash from businesses and gay rights advocates, Arkansas Gov Asa Hutchinson (R) on Wednesday called on state lawmakers to either recall or amend legislation billed as a religious freedom measure so that it mirrored a federal law approved in 1993. Critics say the bill could allow discrimination against gays and lesbians (NYT, TRNS, me)

• “What is important from an Arkansas standpoint is one, we get the right balance,” Hutchinson said, “and secondly, we make sure we communicate we’re not going to be a state that fails to recognize the diversity of our workplace, our economy and our future.”

• By late Wednesday, the State Senate voted 26 to 6 to approve a bill closely mirroring the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as the governor had requested. The bill will go to the House for a vote that’s expected today

• Several businesses and tech companies, including the state’s largest employer, Walmart, as well as the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, the Arkansas Municipal League and other civic groups have spoken out against the legislation. Former Arkansas first lady and potential 2016er Hillary Clinton on Wednesday urged Hutchinson to veto the measure

• Mike Pence for Congress 2000 website: “Congress should oppose any effort to recognize homosexual’s
[sic] as a ‘discreet and insular minority’ entitled to the protection of anti-discrimination laws similar to those extended to women and ethnic minorities.” (Vox)
Indiana Scrambles to Fix Law

• In Indianapolis on Wednesday, lawmakers were weighing language they intend to add to the state’s religious freedom law as part of what Gov Mike Pence (R) has described as “a clarification” and also “a fix” to clarify that the law doesn’t give businesses the right to deny services to anyone, including gay men and lesbians (NYT, Politico, me)

• With the NCAA Final Four tournament in Indianapolis this weekend, Indiana lawmakers were racing to draft new language, then hurry the revised measure through both chambers of the state legislature for Pence’s signature before week’s end

• Still, Democrats, who hold the minority, have said they intend to push for a repeal, and it remained uncertain whether all Republicans would support what some conservatives in the state view as a watered-down measure (notable difference between Hutchinson’s pragmatic approach and Pence’s defiant, defensive one)

• Yelp reviewers are slamming one Indiana business, Walkerton’s Memories Pizza, after the proprietors on Tuesday said they would choose not to serve their pies at any same-sex weddings. “I don’t think that’s targeting gays. I don’t think it’s discrimination. It’s supposed to help people that have a religious belief,” owner Crystal O’Connor said of the bill (targeting gays rather a lot)

• Memories Pizza forgot to buy their domain name – so someone bought it instead – aaaand the results are what you’d expect. On a more serious note, Memories Pizza has suspended operations after what it says are threats (Daily Kos, Hill, me)
Lois Lerner: No Criminal Charges
•The Justice Dept will not seek criminal charges against former IRS official Lois Lerner, the central figure in a scandal that erupted over whether the tax agency improperly targeted conservative political groups, Ronald Machen, the former U.S. Attorney for DC, told House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) in a letter this week (Politico, me)

• Machen said he wouldn’t bring a criminal case to a grand jury over Lerner’s refusal to testify before the House Oversight and Govt Reform Committee in March 2014. The House approved a criminal contempt resolution against Lerner in May 2014, and Machen’s office has been reviewing the issue since then

• Lerner cited her Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate herself during congressional testimony, although then Oversight chair Rep Darrell Issa (R-CA) said she had waived that right by giving an opening statement at a hearing 10 months earlier where she asserted her innocence. Republican heads are exploding…

• Issa wanted her charged by the DoJ with criminal contempt of Congress for failing to answer questions about her role in the scandal. However, Machen said DoJ lawyers determined that Lerner “did not waive her Fifth Amendment right by making an opening statement on May 22, 2013, because she made only a general claim of innocence.”

• Lerner was pleased “and looks forward to moving on with her life,” her lawyer, William Taylor III, said in a statement. “It is unfortunate that the majority party in the House put politics before a citizen’s constitutional rights,” Taylor said
• California Gov Jerry Brown (D) is ordering the state’s first mandatory water use restrictions in an effort to cut consumption by 25%. Brown’s executive order restricts watering grass lawns, cemeteries, golf courses and grass in street medians. It’s the latest effort to cope with the state’s historic drought, now in its fourth year (Hill, TRNS, me)
Schumer/Durbin: Power Feud
• Aides to Sens Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) are offering competing accounts of whether they made a power-sharing agreement, putting the Democratic leaders at odds just days after Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid’s (NV) retirement announcement triggered a reshuffling of senior party roles (Politico, WaPo, Hill, me)

• Tuesday, Durbin’s office said Schumer, who is poised to succeed Reid as leader, agreed last week to support the Illinois senator staying on as Democratic whip after Reid steps down in 2016, but Schumer’s office denied any such deal. Schumer and Durbin were house mates for nearly 20 years on Capitol Hill

• “When Sen Durbin took Sen Schumer aside and told him that he would not run for leader, the two senators agreed to support one another,” Durbin spox Ben Marter told Politico. “Schumer as leader and Durbin as whip. And they shook hands on it.”

• But Schumer’s staff denies a deal was struck, with spox Matt House telling the paper, “That never happened and they know it.” “It was a handshake. That’s what a deal is,” Marter shot back. The two sides offered differing accounts of a meeting between Schumer and Durbin that came on the sidelines of the nightlong vote-a-rama late last week

• Reid, Durbin and Sen Patty Murray (WA), the No. 4 Democrat, all publicly supported Schumer’s bid to become the next leader. Durbin has long been the whip, but Murray hasn’t ruled out whether she would seek that position in leadership elections shortly after the 2016 elections
• Update: Reid waded into the dispute on Wednesday. “At this time they should just sit down. It’s a couple years away – just relax.” Schumer and Durbin spoke by phone, then Schumer’s spox said, “That’s not what happened but, regardless, Sen Schumer considers Sen Durbin a close personal friend.” (Politico, me)
Journos Insist Plane Video “Genuine”
• French magazine Paris Match and German daily Bild said the authenticity of a mobile phone video clip is “unquestionable” and that it had been retrieved from the wreckage of last Tuesday’s crash by “a source close to the inquiry. The phone had not survived, but the memory card on which it was stored had, the two publications insisted (Telegraph, Paris Match, Bild, me)

• French authorities initially firmly denied the existence of the clip, which allegedly relays in a”few seconds” scenes of chaos and passengers screaming “My God” in several languages. But they’re now calling on anyone in possession of such a film to “hand it over to investigators.”

• The footage appeared to have been taken by a passenger strapped into his seat near the back of the plane, but no individuals could be identified, Bild said. Paris Match said, “The screams of passengers reveal that they were perfectly conscious of what was about to befall them.”

• Bild reports today that co-pilot Andreas Lubitz reportedly lied to doctors, telling them he was on sick leave rather than still flying planes (Reuters, Bild)
• Paris Match said, “One can also hear metallic blows, at least three times, suggesting the pilot tried to break down the cockpit door with a heavy object. Towards the end after a stronger tremor, the screams intensify. Then nothing,” it wrote

• Frederic Helbert, the Paris Match journalist who wrote the article and claims to have seen the video, said he couldn’t hand over the video to French investigators as he had only viewed it but it wasn’t in his possession. “It doesn’t belong to me.” He asserted that it was genuine

• “It’s overwhelming and gives you the shakes. It’s one I and several others have seen dozens of times. This video doesn’t allow you to identify people. It’s the sound which is terrible, the human dimension of the people’s panic, distress and screams in the plane.” No independent witnesses have seen the video to verify its authenticity

• Helbert said, “From day one, the first night, the investigators knew this was an affair that involved the pilots. The black box recorder was decrypted the first night, there were no problems. German investigators entered Lubitz’s apartment on the first night and found a mountain of medication. We maintain this too.”

• The Iraqi govt has declared a “magnificent victory” over ISIS militants in the city of Tikrit. Troops are still fighting to clear the last remaining ISIS holdout in the city, but PM al-Abadi was filmed raising an Iraqi flag there. The army says Tikrit’s recapture is a key stage before it tries to retake Mosul (BBC, me)
11 Atlanta Educators Convicted: Cheating Scandal
• Eleven former Atlanta public school educators were convicted Wednesday of racketeering for their role in a wide-ranging conspiracy to inflate scores on students’ standardized tests, accused of being motivated by pressure to meet federal and local standards to receive bonuses or keep their jobs in the Atlanta Public Schools district (AP, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Hill, me)

• A state investigation in 2011 found that educators gave answers to students or changed answers on tests after they were turned in. Evidence of cheating was found in 44 schools with nearly 180 educators involved, and investigators found teachers who tried to report it faced retaliation

• Superintendent Beverly Hall never went to trial, successfully arguing she was too sick to mount a defense. She died last month of breast cancer. Hall insisted she was innocent. But the educators said she was among those pressuring them to inflate students’ scores to show gains in achievement – needed to meet federal benchmarks tied to extra funding

• Bob Rubin, the defense attorney for former elementary school principal Dana Evans, said he was angry the judge decided to take the former educators into custody immediately. “I am shocked that he felt it necessary to do that,” Rubin said. “I felt it to be unnecessary and vindictive.”

• Prosecutors said the 12 accused former educators were looking out for themselves, seeking bonuses for higher test scores. Defense attorneys said their clients were caught up in an overly broad prosecution that overreached in charging them with violent racketeering laws most often used for organized crime (sounds pretty organized)

• China is building “a Great Wall of Sand” through an unparalleled program of land reclamation in the South China Sea, raising concerns about the possibility of military confrontation in the disputed waters, according to Adm Harry Harris Jr, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet (WaPo)

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Victoria Jones – Editor

TRNS’ William McDonald and Nicholas Salazar contributed to this report

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