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.

John Kerry has arrived in Somalia, first U.S. SecState ever to visit the country (AP, CNN)
In the News
  • TX Muhammad contest shooting
  • Joint Chiefs: Obama to nominate Gen Dunford
  • Syria’s Aleppo: “Circle of hell”
  • Obama talks “opportunity gaps”
  • GOP 2016 field grows
  • Clinton Foundation on defense
  • Benghazi: Clinton will testify – 1 time
  • Kerry slams South Sudan’s leaders
  • Iran bill: On the brink
  • Hotel booking scams: Pols inquire
TX Muhammad Cartoon Contest Shooting
 ISIS says it was responsible for the attack on a Prophet Muhammad cartoon contest in Texas. It said that “two soldiers of the caliphate” carried out the attack. ISIS’s al-Bayan Radio news bulletin said the exhibition “was portraying negative pictures of the Prophet Muhammad.”
• Since 2006, the FBI had been investigating Elton Simpson – one of the men suspected in the Texas shootings outside a contest featuring cartoons of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad (AP, WaPo, BBC, Daily Mail, CNN, me)
• Agents recorded the young man from Phoenix talking about fighting nonbelievers for Allah. About plans to travel to South Africa and link up with “brothers” in Somalia. About using school as a cover story for traveling overseas. Simpson was arrested in 2010, one day before authorities say he planned to leave for South Africa
• But despite more than 1,500 hours of recorded conversations, the govt prosecuted him on only one minor charge – lying to a federal agent. Years spent prosecuting Simpson for terrorism ties resulted in three years of probation and $600 in fines and court fees
• Then, on Sunday, two men whom authorities identified as Simpson and Nadir Soofi opened fire in a Dallas suburb on an unarmed security officer stationed outside the contest. The deliberately provocative contest had been expected to draw outrage from the Muslim community because any physical depiction of Prophet Muhammad is considered blasphemous
• Simpson and Noori were wearing body armor and one shot the security officer in the leg. Garland police spox Joe Harn said Monday that a Garland police officer subdued the two gunmen but that after his initial shots, SWAT officers nearby also fired at the two men. Harn said police don’t know who fired the lethal shots (something funny there – someone knows)
• Simpson, described as quiet and devout, had been on the radar of law enforcement because of his social media presence, but authorities didn’t have an indication that he was planning an attack, said one federal official
• A convert to Islam, Simpson first attracted the FBI’s attention in 2006 because of his ties to a former U.S. Navy sailor who was ultimately convicted of terrorism-related charges. The FBI asked one of its informants, Dabla Deng, to befriend Simpson and over the next few years, Deng would tape his conversations – more than 1,500 hours of conversations
• “It’s time. I’m telling you, man, we can make it to the battlefield,” Simpson is recorded as saying on 29 May 2009. “It’s time to roll.” “You got to fight back you can’t be just sitting down … smiling at each other…”
• In court, prosecutors presented only 17 minutes and 31 seconds during Simpson’s trial. (weird – why so little) “I have to say that I felt like these charges were completely trumped up, that they were just trying to cover up what had been a very long and expensive investigation,” Simpson’s attorney, Kristine Sitton, said
• Less was known about Soofi, who appeared never to have been prosecuted in federal court. He attended the University of Utah as a pre-med student, but left without having earned a degree
• Monday, federal agents spent hours at a Phoenix apartment complex where the men apparently lived. A neighbor said said one of them was quiet but the second man was more open and would greet others at the mailboxes. Both men were seen feeding stray cats, he said
• Minutes before the shooting, someone posted a message from a Twitter account linked to Simpson: “May Allah accept us mujahideen.” “#texasattack.” The Twitter account features an image of Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. born imam who became an influential propagandist with al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen. Awlaki was killed in a U.S. drone strike n Yemen in 2011
Obama to Nominate Gen Dunford: Joint Chiefs
• President Obama will nominate Marine Gen Joseph Dunford Jr as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, choosing a widely respected, combat-hardened commander who led the Afghanistan war coalition during a key transitional period during 2013-2014, U.S. officials said Monday (AP, me)
• The move cuts short Dunford’s service as the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, a job he began last October. But the rapid promotion is one of several that have marked Dunford’s fast-tracked military career, which saw him leap from a one-star general to four stars in about three years
• Officials also said Obama is tapping Gen Paul Selva, a top Air Force officer and pilot, to serve as vice chairman. Selva, who has clocked more than 3,100 hours piloting transport and refueling aircraft, is currently the head of U.S. Transportation Command at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois
• Obama plans to make the announcement at the WH today. Dunford is expected to be easily confirmed by the U.S. Senate and would succeed Army Gen Martin Dempsey, who will have served four years as chairman. Dunford began his career as an infantry officer and has commanded at all levels. He served nearly two years in Iraq
• His selection signals that even as the U.S. puts more focus on Asia and looks ahead to high-tech cyber and space threats, the admin still believes a strong ground force commander is needed to work through the ongoing conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and across the Middle East and Africa
• The UN Security Council will discuss barrel bombs and the use of chlorine in Syria this month. The Council will also discuss Yemen, small arms, protection of journalists in areas of conflict. Smuggled migrants in the Mediterranean will be taken up in May (TRNS)
Syria’s Aleppo: “Circle of Hell”
• Civilians in Syria’s second city of Aleppo are suffering unthinkable atrocities, Amnesty International says. A new report alleges that govt forces and many rebel groups are committing war crimes on a daily basis. A resident described Aleppo as a “circle of hell.” “The streets are filled with blood.” (BBC, me)
• The govt has reportedly stepped up its bombardment of Aleppo in recent weeks in response to a rebel offensive. Amnesty’s report says that from Jan 2014 to March 2015 govt aircraft launched continual attacks using barrel bombs – oil barrels, fuel tanks or gas cylinders packed with explosives, fuel and metal fragments – in Aleppo
• Their targets included at least 14 public markets, 12 transportations hubs, 23 mosques, 17 hospitals and medical centers and three schools. “I saw children without heads, body parts everywhere. It was how I imagine hell to be,” a local factory worker said. Amnesty said evidence suggested the air campaign had deliberately targeted civilians – a war crime
• Armed opposition groups in Aleppo were also accused of committing war crimes by using imprecise weapons such as mortars and improvised rockets fitted with gas canisters called “hell cannons” in attacks that killed at least 600 civilians in 2014. The report documents torture, arbitrary detention and abduction by civilians – by both govt security personnel and rebels
• Amnesty said the widespread atrocities had made life for civilians in Aleppo “increasingly unbearable,” with many forced to eke out an existence underground. “Today, the international community has turned its back on Aleppo’s civilians in a cold-hearted display of indifference to an escalating human tragedy,” said Philip Luther, director of Amnesty’s Middle East Program
• At a UN briefing on Monday, a spox said there’s a dire humanitarian situation in Yemen and that SecGen Ban Ki-moon says that cluster bombs – reportedly used by the Saudi-led coalition – should not be used. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has been ratified by South Sudan. The U.S. and Somalia are the only two countries not to have ratified (TRNS)
Obama Talks “Opportunity Gaps”
• In New York Monday, President Obama urged Americans to take responsibility for the “persistent opportunity gaps” that make it difficult for young black men to succeed. “Those opportunity gaps begin early, often at birth, and they compound over time, becoming harder and harder to bridge,” Obama told supporters of his signature mentoring program for young men
• “We ask police to go into communities where there is no hope,” Obama said. “Eventually something happens because of the tensions between society and these communities; the police are just on the front lines of that.” “If we’re just looking at it as policing, we’re looking at it too narrowly.”
• Obama made the remarks at a New York kickoff for the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, a non-profit group aimed at providing financial support for the mentoring initiative he began last year in an effort to provide minority youth the kind of encouragement and guidance they need to overcome their disadvantages
• “This will remain a mission for me, and for Michelle, not just for the rest of my presidency but for the rest of my life,” Obama said. According to a WH fact sheet, businesses affiliated with the alliance have already committed $80 million to promote its work
• “Politicians talk about poverty and inequality, and then gut policies that alleviate poverty or reverse inequality,” Obama said. “There are consequence to inaction. There are consequences to indifference.” (Politico, me)
• New NYT/CBS poll shows that 61% of Americans now say race relations in this country are generally bad – up sharply from 44% after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson in August. Looking ahead, 44% of Americans think race relations are worsening, up from 36% in December (NYT)
GOP 2016 Field Grows
• A wave of Republican presidential candidates sweeps in this week. Long-shot Carly Fiorina announced her bid for the GOP nomination Monday morning and former Gov Mike Huckabee (R-AR) is set to announce his own today from Hope, AR. Dr Ben Carson announced his bid Sunday night. They join Sens Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul in the race (NYT, TRNS, me)
• Former chief exec of Hewlett-Packard, Fiorina is the second woman to make a run for the WH this cycle, following Democrat Hillary Clinton. Fiorina promises to be a more compassionate version of Mitt Romney. Of Clinton, she’s said that if she “were to face a female nominee, there are a whole set of things she won’t be able to talk about.”
• Retired neurosurgeon Carson told hundreds of supporters in Detroit Monday, “I can name a lot of people who’ve been in politics all their lives who you probably wouldn’t want to polish your shoes.” What Carson lacks in political experience he makes up for in brainpower and a rags to riches success story
• Popular with evangelical Christians, Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses in 2008 and remains one of the party’s stronger campaigners. GOP strategists suggest that he could peel votes away from candidates like Cruz and Gov Scott Walker (R-WI), and that another strong showing in Iowa wouldn’t be surprising
• The spotlight on all three new candidates, who languish in the polls, will be diminished by the fact that their announcements are clumped together. With fund-raising a challenge for lesser-known candidates, prognosticators think that strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire are their best bets at breaking away from the pack

• Carly Fiorina announced her bid for the GOP nomination Monday. The former CEO of Hewlett-Packard forgot to register  never mind – check it out   🙁 🙁 🙁 🙁 🙁 🙁

Clinton Foundation on Defense

• State Dept spox Jeff Rathke said Monday that State has no evidence that any actions taken by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton when she was SecState were influenced by donations to the Clinton Foundation or former President Bill Clinton’s speaking fees (AP, NBC News, Hill, me)

• State’s comment comes as Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign grapples with criticism that foreign entities traded donations to the family charity for favors at State. Hundreds of paid speeches given by Bill Clinton, which can command as much as $500,000 or more per appearance, have also come under attack from Republican opponents

• Bill Clinton said, “There’s been a very deliberate attempt to take the foundation down.” He said 90% of donors give $100 or less. But over half of the donors giving $5 million or more are foreign, including foreign govts. Under pressure, the foundation recently announced it will only take money from six Western countries

• “It’s an acknowledgement that we’re going to come as close as we can during her presidential campaign to following the rules we followed when she became SecState,” Bill Clinton said. “I don’t think that I did anything that was against the interest of the United States.”

• “Bill Clinton is saying what Hillary Clinton said on many occasions: just trust us, just trust us. And unfortunately trust is earned through transparency, and I think they have not been particularly transparent on a whole host of things,” said Republican Carly Fiorina, who announced her presidential candidacy on Monday

• Bill Clinton said he won’t step away from the speaking circuit: “I got to pay our bills,” he said in an interview with NBC News. “And I also give a lot to the
[Clinton] Foundation every year.”

Benghazi: Clinton Will Testify – 1 Time

• Former SecState Hillary Clinton is willing to testify once before the House select committee on Benghazi, but her lawyer says she won’t meet the panel’s demand to come before it twice. “Respectfully, there is no basis, logic or precedent for such an unusual request,” David Kendall said Monday in a letter to chair Rep Trey Gowdy (R-SC) (Hill, Politico, TRNS, me)
• Kendall said Gowdy “can be assured that the State Dept has a complete set” of the more than 30,000 emails that “were in Sec Clinton’s possession related or potentially related to her work as SecState.” He noted that 300 messages relevant to the 2012 attacks have been given to the committee (who decides relevance, though?)
• Kendall said Clinton is ready to “stay as long as necessary to answer the committee’s questions, but will not prolong the committee’s efforts further by appearing on two separate occasions when one will suffice.” Kendall said Clinton has already testified for “more than five hours” before the House and Senate panels that have investigated Benghazi
• He said Clinton “believes that the members of the committee are able to decide how much they will focus on the tragic deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, including what can be done to keep those who serve our country safe – and how much they will focus on how she emailed.” (bit snarky)
• Jamal Ware, a panel spox, said the committee would take Kendall’s letter “into consideration” and that Gowdy would “issue a statement of behalf of the committee regarding the path forward.” “The committee has consistently shown it is interested in getting the facts and doing so in a deliberate and diligent manner.” (very, very deliberate…)

• President Obama made an appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman Monday. The comedian praised Obama’s performance at the WH Correspondents Dinner last month. “I’m a pretty funny guy,” Obama said. “You have guys writing that stuff?” Letterman asked. “No,” Obama deadpanned. “I came up with it all myself.” (AP)

Kerry Slams South Sudan’s Leaders
• Speaking in neighboring Kenya Monday, SecState John Kerry condemned South Sudan’s warring president and opposition leader as “disgraceful” for squandering the promise of the world’s youngest country and pledged $5 million to create a court or other institution that might one day hold perpetrators of the nation’s violence accountable (AP, me)
• “With each day, the ranks of the hungry and the malnourished grow,” an impassioned and even angry Kerry said. He demanded that President Salva Kiir and former VP Riek Machar “silence the guns” and agree to establish a transitional govt, while lamenting that neither has “chosen to make the compromises needed for peace.”
• And in an implicit threat, Kerry said the U.S. was committing new funds to “create a credible, impartial and effective justice mechanism, such as a hybrid court, in order to hold perpetrators of violence to account.” He called on govts around the world to donate money
• Tens of thousands have been killed in a power struggle that has raged since Dec 2013. More than 2 million have been uprooted from their homes. South Sudan broke away from Sudan in 2011 following decades of armed struggle. But almost immediately, the impoverished, landlocked country was beset by interethnic and political rivalries
• Those broke out into full-scale civil conflict 17 months ago when Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, accused Machar, an ethnic Nuer, of trying to overthrow the govt. Machar denied the accusation, accusing the govt of rooting out political opponents. The violence quickly spread
Iran Bill: On the Brink
• Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) is seeking an agreement to allow votes on several controversial amendments backed by conservatives to a bill granting Congress the power to review a nuclear deal with Iran that supporters of the bill say would kill it (Hill, AP, Politico, Roll Call, me)
• To buy more time, McConnell pushed off a planned Monday night vote on a separate labor bill to consult with other Republicans. The full conference is expected to talk about the Iran bill at their lunch today
• McConnell was blindsided late last week when Sens Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) set up a series of votes on controversial amendments to the bill, including one that would require Iran to recognize Israel’s right to exist and one that would require President Obama to certify that Iran wasn’t sponsoring acts of terror against America or its citizens
• Sen Ben Cardin (D-MD) slammed the amendments: “One of three things would happen: The bill doesn’t make it to the finish line. It derails negotiations and the U.S. is blamed for the failure of the negotiations with the consequence. Or, it makes negotiations virtually impossible to get the strongest possible deal.” (that’s the plan)
• As drafted, the bill would block Obama from waiving congressional sanctions for at least 30 days while lawmakers weigh in on any final deal the U.S. and five other nations reach with Iran. The WH backs the measure in its current form. It would take a separate piece of legislation for Congress to block implementation of any deal – Obama could still veto it

• Wow pic: Rihanna really made an entrance at the Met Gala Monday night – she swooped in wearing a fur-trimmed yellow cape with floral swirls of gold and a train so long it required three wranglers. Came with a little pink minidress underneath – and a sparkling tiara. Designer: Beijing-based Guo Pei (AP)

Hotel Booking Scams: Pols Inquire
• Hotel booking scams are on the rise partly because 1 in 3 vacations is set up online, with many hotel and airline reservations punched in on those tiny, hard-to-read smartphone screens (LAT, TRNS, me)
• Now a hotel trade group is asking Congress and the U.S. attorney general’s office to take action on the problem, which may be bilking 2.5 million travelers each year. “If you book the room online, you may not find out there is a problem until you show up at the front desk,” said Maryam Cope, VP for govt affairs at the American Hotel and Lodging Assn
• On behalf of the hotel trade group, five members of Congress have written to the Justice Dept asking that it review the matter in conjunction with the Federal Trade Commission, and assist the hotel assn to spread the word about the scams
• In the most common scam, travelers will book on an online site that resembles a legitimate booking site, only to find out later that the site was bogus, Cope said. Bogus sites may resemble legitimate hotel sites, even adopting the logos and emblems of major hotel chains, she said. It may be hard to tell the difference on a smartphone screen
• In some cases, the bogus website will take a commission but will fail to include special requests, such as a room with an extra cot or disabled guest access. In other cases, the bogus website will simply take a guest’s deposit and make no reservation at all. Cope estimates that the scams are costing U.S. travelers more than $220 million a year
• Britain’s newest princess is nameless no longer. Kensington Palace announced Monday that the second child of Prince William and the former Kate Middleton will be known as Her Royal Highness Princess Charlotte of Cambridge – middle names Elizabeth Diana. She’s fourth in line for the throne

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Victoria Jones – Editor

TRNS’ Ellen Ratner, Nicholas Salazar and Washington Desk contributed to this report

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