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Alex Edelman/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- An aide to Speaker Paul Ryan Thursday refused to say exactly why he forced the House chaplain to resign last week but Democrats contend his dismissal is due to a prayer Father Patrick Conroy delivered last year as lawmakers prepared to begin consideration of tax reform – irking Republicans.

While a senior GOP leadership aide maintains that “there was not a specific prayer” that led to Ryan’s decision to request Conroy’s resignation, Democrats point to his prayer November 6, when he warned members to “be mindful” of economic disparities among social classes, and cautioned legislators not to pick “winners and losers under new tax laws.”

“As legislation on taxes continues to be debated this week and next, may all Members be mindful that the institutions and structures of our great Nation guarantee the opportunities that have allowed some to achieve great success, while others continue to struggle,” Conroy prayed in the House chamber. “May their efforts these days guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.”

A Democratic aide also further asserted that “some of the more conservative evangelical Republicans didn’t like that the Father had invited a Muslim person to give the opening prayer.”

A Ryan aide refused to comment on the specific reasons Ryan demanded Conroy’s resignation.

The story was first reported by Roll Call.

Conroy’s resignation letter, read on the House floor last week, states it was requested by Ryan.

“As you have requested, I hereby offer my resignation as the 60th Chaplain of the United States House of Representatives,” Conroy wrote April 15. “It has been an honor to serve the People’s House for these nearly seven years. After a mutual consideration, it is determined my final day will be 24 May 2018.”

A senior House GOP aide and a senior Pelosi aide say Leader Pelosi was consulted throughout the personnel decision.

“The speaker consulted with the minority leader, but the decision was his,” Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong said. “He remains grateful for Father Conroy’s service.”

A Pelosi aide says she “made it clear to the Speaker that she had only received positive comments about Father Conroy’s service from Members,” and “also made it clear to Speaker Ryan that she disagreed with this decision.”

Conroy, a Jesuit priest, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. He was appointed by former House Speaker John Boehner in 2011.

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Alex Wong/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- The Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday approved legislation aimed at protecting special counsel Robert Mueller from being fired without cause by President Donald Trump.

Even the measure's opponents issued stark warnings to the president that any move to dismiss the special counsel would be political suicide and might lead to impeachment.

Four Republicans joined with all of the Democrats on the panel - a 14-7 vote - to approve the measure that would allow a court to decide whether t a termination was valid and possibly reverse it.

“Because special counsel investigations only occur where there is a conflict of interest within the executive branch, special counsel investigations are usually matters of great national concern,” chairman Charles Grassley said, as he knowingly bucked GOP Senate leadership in bringing up the bill.

“Transparency and accountability are in the public interest,” Grassley said, adding, “While my constitutional concerns remain, I believe this bill should be considered by the full Senate.”

But Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell recently said in no uncertain terms that he will not bring the bill up for consideration by the full body.

Republicans repeatedly said they do not believe the president will fire Mueller, but the chamber’s most senior Republican, Utah’s Orrin Hatch, while voting against the bill for what he said was its unconstitutional structure, warned Trump, “Firing Mueller would cause a firestorm and bring the administration’s agenda to a halt and could even result in impeachment.”

All of this happened just after the president, in a phone interview on Fox News, called Mueller’s investigation a “witch hunt,” as he has done repeatedly, and warned, “What’s going on with people in the Justice Department that shouldn’t be there -- they have a witch hunt against the President of the United States going on – I've taken the position – and I don’t have to take this position and maybe I'll change – that I will not be involved with the Justice Department.”

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, a former Supreme Court clerk, while failing to secure enough votes for his own non-binding resolution that said that Mueller should be left alone to do his job, admonished his colleagues on passing a bill that he said violated the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches and was “fundamentally at odds with the Constitution.”

“Why are we doing this?” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a co-author of the protection bill, asked rhetorically, “Because nobody in this country is above the law...We’re not saying you can’t fire somebody, but we’re saying somebody is going to look over your shoulder.”

Graham then asserted something that runs directly counter to what the White House has maintained, perhaps foreshadowing a difficult battle ahead should the president decide to fire the special counsel, saying, “The president cannot personally fire Mr. Mueller.”

"It’s about ensuring that no one man or woman in our system is above the law," said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., who helped author the measure with Graham and Sens. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and Cory Booker, D-N.J.

Grassley, at the last minute, added new reporting requirements to the bipartisan measure, ensuring that Congress will - in the current and all future special counsel investigations - receive a report at the start and finish of any investigation, regardless of whether or not the probe recommends or seeks prosecutions.

And while the measure stands no hope in this current Senate, supporters said they hope an important message was sent to the White House today that any move to fire the special counsel would provoke a political backlash in Congress.

"Given President Trump’s statement just this morning that he may interfere with the special counsel’s investigation, it’s become even more of an imperative that Leader McConnell put this bill on the Senate floor for a vote immediately," said Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer.

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MARPAC Public Affairs(NEW YORK) -- A recent series of drug busts off the coasts of Mexico, Central and South America has yielded big results - part of what authorities say is on track to be a record-setting year for drug seizures.

U.S. Coast Guard and the Royal Canadian Navy cutters intercepted a total of 12 tons of cocaine and one ton of marijuana, which officials from both countries showed off to reporters in Fort Lauderdale Wednesday.

The value of those drugs on the street: $390 million dollars.

"This year we were already on pace to equal what we interdicted last year, and what we interdicted last year was a record and what we interdicted the year before that was a record," Cmdr. Jonathan Carter of the U.S. Coast Guard said.

The interdictions took place off in international waters off the coasts of Mexico, Central and South America with the help of Canadian forces.

"These drugs are coming to our streets and these drugs also create instability for our regional partners south of the border," Carter said, according to ABC News affiliate WPLG.

The smugglers used semi-submersibles – specifically designed to evade law enforcement - built low to rise just six inches above the water line.

Seventeen of drug smuggling boats were stopped and 11 drug smugglers were detained.

According to the 2017 National Drug Assessment put out by the Drug Enforcement Administration, cocaine deaths have been on the rise since 2014. The cause is an increase in cocaine production in Columbia, which is the primary supplier for the United States.

About 92% of all cocaine the DEA seized in the United States in 2016 was of Colombian origin with the other six percent being of Peruvian origin.

After a dip in deaths since 2006, 2014 saw an uptick and law enforcement officials say that trend continues.

In Florida in 2015 for example, cocaine overdoses were the second-biggest cause of drug-related deaths.

The DEA says that distribution along the southwest border remains the key method that drugs – but specifically cocaine – get into the country.

The majority of drug seizures featured in the 2017 report occurred near San Diego.

Over the weekend, Customs and Border Patrol Agents seized almost $650,000 dollars worth of cocaine on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The bust on the Juarez-Lincoln International bridge near Laredo, Texas, yielded 83 pounds of alleged cocaine that was concealed in 33 packages that had a street value of $638,520 according to CBP.

Drugs enter the United States by planes, trains and automobiles. In December 2016 the Puerto Rican Police department and Homeland Security officials seized 37 pounds of cocaine at Luis Munoz Marin International Airport. The individual arrested was attempting to go from Puerto Rico to New York.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the United States ranks third in countries who use the most cocaine behind Albania and Scotland.

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Win McNamee/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- A military contractor that just last year was accused of having cheated the Pentagon out of more than $50 million is still actively working on at least one government contract, according to a new report from the office of Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., the top Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis, appearing at a Senate committee hearing Thursday, said that an ongoing investigation into the contractor, New Century Consulting (NCC), will likely result in criminal charges but could not explain why the Pentagon has not terminated the NCC contract or barred the company from doing work for the government.

“I would like somebody to respond to me, why in the world we are still doing business with these crooks?” McCaskill asked Mattis during Thursday’s Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

NCC, a British company, is currently the subcontractor on a project run by Raytheon, a major U.S. defense contractor. Neither NCC nor Raytheon responded to requests for comment.

NCC came under fire last year after a McCaskill report charged that, as a subcontractor on a project in Afghanistan between 2008 and 2013, it had billed the government for $51 million in improper expenses.

Top NCC officials expensed Porsches, a Bentley and an Aston Martin, according to McCaskill's report, which was based on an audit by the Defense Contract Audit Agency (DCAA). The NCC officials also inflated their salaries and billed roughly $200,000 for salaries for their spouses, according to the audit.

The contract was for a program called Legacy which was, in part, supposed to help beef up the intelligence capacity of Afghan security forces.

McCaskill’s report also concludes that NCC, the subcontractor, originally developed and pitched the contract and steered it towards a specific contractor, then known as Jorge Scientific Corporation. Jorge came under its own scrutiny when some of its employees were caught on cellphone video in 2012 staggeringly drunk and high on narcotics.

NCC is under investigation by the Army’s Criminal Investigative Command, which Mattis noted as the reason he could not comment in detail on the case.

But despite the very public revelations of allegedly misspent taxpayer funds in August 2017 and the fact that it is currently under investigation, NCC has continued to work on at least one DOD contract, as a subcontractor under Raytheon, a major U.S. defense contractor.

During the hearing, McCaskill noted that the military is not legally required to wait until an investigation is complete before it suspends or debars a company from doing business with the U.S. government, but that it has not elected to do so in this case.

“I am not going to shut up about this until somebody is held accountable for people driving Bentleys,” McCaskill said.

“Senator, hundred percent with you on this,” Mattis said. Noting that the contract that landed NCC in hot water originated before his tenure, he added, “I wish I’d been here in the job in 2012.”

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Alex Edelman/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt insisted he has "nothing to hide" and shifted blame for some of the agency's spending decisions to staffers during six hours of grilling on Capitol Hill Thursday.

Asked how the White House viewed Pruitt's performance, one administration official told ABC News that he still "has no support in the building except from the president."

Some Republicans defended Pruitt, saying that Democratic critics were trying to shoot the messenger and that he was a victim of "Washington politics" while Pruitt himself said some of the accusations of ethical misconduct were just untrue.

Pruitt faced an array of questions about his decisions to roll back environmental policies since taking over the agency, whether he granted controversial raises to two of his aides and the cost of his security detail and travel.

Pruitt had addressed some of the allegations and ongoing investigations in a Fox News interview that aired earlier this month but Thursday was the first time he was questioned about reports that he retaliated against EPA employees that expressed concerns about his spending at the agency as well as claims from an EPA whistleblower, described in a letter from Democrats, that his security detail exaggerated threats against him to justify increased spending and first-class seating on flights.

Pruitt appeared before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee Thursday morning and then before a House Appropriations subcommittee in the afternoon.

Here are some highlights from the two hearings.

Pruitt defends natural gas pitch on pricey Morocco visit

A member of the House Appropriations subcommittee raised questions about one of Pruitt’s trips abroad, a recent visit to Morocco during which Pruitt promoted U.S. natural gas exports – typically within the Energy Department’s purview.

“I can’t for the life of me imagine why an EPA administrator would be over there promoting energy sales,” Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said.

Pruitt defended the trip as a preliminary meeting for the U.S.-Morocco Free Trade Agreement where “there was a lot of reference to LNG” – shorthand for liquefied natural gas – “only because the ambassador asked me to share that with individuals while I was in country.”

It wasn’t immediately clear which ambassador Pruitt was referring to.

ABC News has previously reported that Pruitt recorded only one meeting on the first day of the costly trip to the Saharan country.

An initial agenda for the trip reviewed by ABC News included four redacted pages.

Pruitt, congresswoman spar over alleged death threats, security costs

The afternoon hearing began much in the same way as the Energy and Commerce subcommittee’s morning hearing ended, with Democratic ranking member Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., holding Pruitt’s feet to the fire about security and travel expenditures.

As Pruitt read aloud threats made against him – referring to a document he says was provided to him by the EPA’s inspector general – in an effort to justify higher security costs – McCollum pushed back, telling Pruitt that “we all receive death threats on our Facebook page.”

McCollum revealed that the committee reached out to the EPA’s inspector general ahead of the hearing and said the inspector general, Arthur Elkins, “disputed” some of Pruitt’s claims.

Pruitt insisted the document was from the inspector general, and McCollum asked that the document be submitted for the hearing’s official record.

When ABC News reached out to the inspector general’s office, a spokesperson confirmed Rep. McCollum’s assertion that Elkins disputed Pruitt’s claim.

“The memo that [Pruitt] read from was not from Inspector General Elkins,” a spokesperson for the inspector general said, adding, “It was an internal memo from Assistant IG for Investigations Patrick Sullivan. It was leaked without authorization. It will be released in the near future as part of an OIG FOIA response.”

Democrats pound Pruitt, Republicans on ethics issues as first hearing comes to a close

After nearly four hours of questioning, the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing ended the way it began, with exasperated Democratic lawmakers peppering Pruitt with questions about reports of unethical behavior and lavish spending – and criticizing Republicans on the panel for refraining from doing so.

Asked whether he has any remorse for what Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., called “excessive spending,” Pruitt said he’s already made changes, citing his decision to fly in coach after reports emerged that Pruitt flew in first class.

“This is not a dodge question day… I don’t really find you forthcoming,” Eshoo added.

Vermont Democrat Peter Welch again questioned Pruitt about the purchase of a $43,000 soundproof phone booth, pointing to the two secure spaces already within the EPA to communicate sensitive information.

Pruitt reiterated that his staff coordinated the purchase of the secure phone booth, adding that the two other secure spaces are “not that close to my office.”

With regard to his chain of command and delegating the phone booth purchase to staff, Pruitt conceded that “in this instance, the process failed.”

In the waning moments of the hearing, Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., expressed disappointment in her Republican colleagues for letting Pruitt “off the hook” by avoiding questions about his conduct.

“It’s embarrassing that most of the Republicans refuse to take this committee’s oversight responsibility seriously,” Castor said.

Pruitt: Career EPA officials coordinated $43,000 phone booth without my knowledge

Pruitt shifted blame onto “career EPA officials” for erecting a private phone booth in the administrator’s office that cost more than $43,000.

“I did not have access to secure communications, I gave directions to my staff to address that,” Pruitt said, adding that staffers had “made expenditures that I did not approve.”

The EPA spent more than $43,000 to install a "secure phone booth" in Pruitt's office last year, according to agency documents obtained by American Oversight, a watchdog group founded by former Obama administration officials.

Pruitt confirmed that the phone booth was not certified as a SCIF – a facility used for secure communications to discuss classified information. The EPA already two SCIFs elsewhere in its headquarters, according to the GAO report.

Earlier this month, the Government Accountability Office found that the EPA violated federal law by failing to notify Congress before spending more than $5,000 on the phone booth.

In a letter to the GAO, the EPA also argued that spending on the booth did not need to comply with the appropriations law because it was not an “aesthetic improvement,” but an expense to facilitate agency business. A decision by EPA’s general counsel disagreed with that finding, saying that it was a functional improvement and not just aesthetic.

Pruitt said the EPA is investigating that matter internally.

Pruitt seeks to clarify big raises for aides

Pruitt told the committee that he gave a top aide permission to give at least two EPA employees big raises, deviating from how he characterized authorization for these raises in the past.

A report from the EPA’s internal watchdog found that it was Pruitt’s chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, who signed off on raises for 30-year-old senior legal counsel Sarah Greenwalt and 26-year-old scheduling director Millian Hupp under a little-known provision of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Thursday, Pruitt confirmed that he delegated that authority to Jackson.

In an interview that aired on Fox News earlier this month, Pruitt said he didn't know anything about the raises and that he has taken action to reverse the decision.

ABC News previously reported that two sources confirmed Pruitt pushed for the raises of two staffers but has not confirmed the amounts paid to these employees.

Protesters interrupt hearing

A small number of protesters wielding signs in the hearing room gallery disrupted the hearing.

Environmental subcommittee chairman Rep. John Shimkus stopped a line of hearing to address the protesters, warning them to remain quiet or get kicked out.

Protesters quieted when Capitol Police officers approached the gallery.

Members’ support of Pruitt falls along party lines

The Energy and Commerce Committee's ranking member, Rep. Frank Pallone, D.N.J., called Pruitt’s conduct in office “an embarrassment” when referring to reports that Pruitt has acted in retaliation against EPA officials who disagreed with his agenda or questioned the legitimacy of threats against the administrator.

In response to Rep. Pallone’s line of questioning, Pruitt said he did not recall taking retaliatory action against aides.

But the committee’s vice chairman, Rep. Joe Barton. R-Texas, defended Pruitt, saying that he's a victim of "Washington politics," and Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., scolded his Democratic colleagues for "grandstanding" and engaging in “McCarthyism” by attacking Pruitt over news reports.

In the second hearing of the day a Republican from West Virginia, Rep. Evan Jenkins, said that the EPA's decisions under Pruitt and President Donald Trump have brought his state "back to life."

"When you don't like the message, you shoot the messenger," Jenkins said.

Administrator Pruitt in his opening statement: “I have nothing to hide”

Administrator Pruitt addressed the slew of media reports directed at his conduct as agency chief in opening remarks to the committee.

“I recognize there have been very troubling media reports over the last few weeks,” Pruitt said, deviating from the prepared remarks released by the Committee on Wednesday. “I promise you that I, more than anyone, want to address the questions surrounding these reports.”

Pruitt called the media reports an attack on the administration and an effort to derail the agency’s agenda.

“A lie doesn’t become truth just because it’s on the front page of the newspaper,” Pruitt said.

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Mark Wilson/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Hours after a free-wheeling and often meandering phone interview in which he angrily railed against various 'fake news' media outlets, President Donald Trump played host to several children of members of the press corps as part of the White House's 'Take Your Child To Work Day' festivities.

"Honestly, the children ask me better questions, if you want to know the truth," Trump joked to the group of kids in the Rose Garden Thursday afternoon. "Your parents are being very nice right now, I can't believe it! Because they don't want to embarrass themselves in front of you."

The more than two dozen children clamored for Trump to sign their White House access passes before he eventually invited the group along with several reporters into the Oval Office.

When a reporter asked whether the president had any comment on Dr. Ronny Jackson, who announced his withdrawal as the nominee for Veterans' Affairs secretary earlier in the morning, Trump gave a short answer.

"He's a great man, and he got treated very, very unfairly. He got treated really unfairly," Trump said. "And he's a hell of a man."

It's not the first time the president has entertained a reporters' question during a 'Take Your Child to Work Day' event. Last year an ABC News reporter asked the president how he planned to pay for the GOP's planned massive tax cut as the president greeted children in the Rose Garden, to which the president replied, "The growth is going to pay for it."

Once inside the Oval Office, the president played tour guide for the kids and complimented their reporter parents for not using the occasion to press him to answer further questions on various news of day topics.

"Do you know they say this is the most important office anywhere in the world, right?" Trump said. "And your parents are behaving very nicely for a change."

Earlier, press secretary Sarah Sanders held an off-camera mock White House press briefing with the kids seated in their parents' assigned chairs where they asked multiple questions.

After fielding questions on subjects like fired FBI director James Comey and Jackson, Sanders quipped, "I thought I was doing some easy stuff, your parents must have made some plants!"

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ABC News (WASHINGTON) -- Conservative social media personalities "Diamond and Silk" repeatedly told the House Judiciary Committee under oath on Thursday “we have never been paid by the Trump campaign."

Trump campaign filings with the Federal Election Commission show that the campaign paid them 1,274.94 for "field consulting."

In an intense exchange with Democrat Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, the sisters, whose real names are Lynnette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson, adamantly claimed they were never paid by the Trump campaign.

When Democrat Rep. Hakeem Jeffries followed up by informing them of the FEC filing, they said it was inaccurate – arguing the Trump campaign reimbursed them for a flight from New York to Ohio for a campaign event and that they had never provided field consulting services.

House Republicans called the sisters to the "Filtering Practices of Social Media Platforms" hearing amid claims that social networks, like Facebook, have censored conservative content and favored more liberal content.

Diamond and Silk accuse Facebook of suppressing their content because of their support for President Trump. Their claim picked up traction in April when the social network notified them that their content was “unsafe.”

Facebook says the action was an "enforcement error" and the pair, and many of their 1.5 million followers, cried foul.

"It's not fair for these Giant Techs like Facebook and YouTube get to pull the rug from underneath our platform and our feet and put their foot on our neck to silence our voices," they wrote in a prepared statement for the committee.

"It's not fair for them to put a strong hold on our finances."

The pair pointed to reports from their followers of having trouble finding their video posts and pages, where the sisters routinely host chats about politics and their support for President Trump.

ABC News looked at data from Crowdtangle, a social media analytics platform owned by Facebook, which shows that total interactions on Diamond and Silk’s Facebook page were relatively steady with no significant decline during the first three months of 2018 the time they claim Facebook was censoring them.

How much the pair has made through their online brands is unclear, but they have been openly supported by the president.

At a December 2015 campaign rally in North Carolina, Trump held a campaign rally in their home state and offered words of support.

“I hope you’ve monetized this,” he said, referring to their online videos.

Thursday's hearing displayed stark divides down party lines. Democrats cried foul – one congressman, Rep. Ted Lieu, deemed it "stupid and ridiculous."

Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Anthony Devlin/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- A British toddler on the brink of death has become a rallying point for U.S. conservatives.

Alfie Evans, who is 23 months old, suffers from a neurodegenerative disease that has ravaged his brain. Since December 2016, he’s been hospitalized in a neonatal intensive care unit in Liverpool.

This week, over the objections of Alfie’s parents, doctors at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital removed life support. For now, the boy has continued to breathe on his own, but his parents and their many supporters worry the decision will end his life.

The case has attracted the attention of the Roman Catholic Church and the Italian government, which granted the boy citizenship and put together a flight plan in place to transport him quickly to a Vatican hospital for palliative care.

But Alfie’s doctors believe there’s no hope of recovery. A British judge, asked to rule on the case, agreed, refusing a last ditch plan to relocate him.

Pope Francis, who met last week with the boy’s father, tweeted Monday: “Moved by the prayers and immense solidarity shown little Alfie Evans, I renew my appeal that the suffering of his parents may be heard and that their desire to seek new forms of treatment may be granted.”

Here in the U.S., American conservatives have joined a growing movement that calls itself Alfie’s Army, and the group’s Facebook page has attracted more than 380,000 followers.

Conservative journals in the U.S. have linked Alfie’s case to the debate here over abortion.

The American Spectator denounced the U.K. government’s stance as “brutal and ruthless.”

The National Review warned that this is what happens “when our culture of death embraces the idea that human life, most especially the lives of suffering children, has no intrinsic value.”

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has used the case to argue against the perils of “socialized medicine.”

“It is a sad irony,” Cruz tweeted, “that while the people of the UK are busy celebrating a royal birth, its government is brushing off a commoner’s right to life.”

Former Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh goes so far as to connect Alfie’s right to life with the gun control debate here in the U.S.

“Why does an American need an AR-15? To make sure what’s happening to #AlfieEvans never happens here. That’s why,” he tweeted.

Passions about this case run so strong that the hospital staff in Liverpool has endured a “barrage” of abuse, according to hospital administrators. Alder Hey is now urging nurses to hide their uniforms when coming and going to work for their own protection.

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Spencer Platt/Getty Images (NEW YORK) -- Judge Kimba Wood appointed an independent referee to determine which materials seized in the FBI’s raid of President Donald Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen properties are subject to the attorney-client privilege.

The judge expressed confidence in the integrity of federal prosecutors but said “a special master makes sense,” and named Barbara Jones, a former federal judge and former federal prosecutor now in private practice, to the post.

“She has all the points of view you’d want,” Wood said of Jones.

Jones was not among the recommendations for a special master provided by either the government or Cohen’s legal team, but Stephen Ryan, an attorney for Cohen, called Jones a “wonderful” choice.

She was appointed to the federal bench by President Bill Clinton in 1995 and served 16 years in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. She was the judge who oversaw the accounting fraud trial of former WorldCom chief Bernie Ebbers.

Prior to her nomination she was an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York, where she prosecuted mobsters. In her private work, she presided over the arbitration of Ray Rice, the NFL running back who was suspended after a video emerged of a physical altercation with his wife. She ultimately overturned Rice’s indefinite suspension.

As special master, Jones will decide what records seized from Cohen’s property April 9 may contain communications covered by the attorney-client privilege and would therefore be off limits to prosecutors. She may, during the course of her review, also weed out personal material like medical records or family photos that may not be relevant to the criminal investigation.

The judge made clear that Jones' primary role is to sort out privilege.

“Counsel will focus first on the privilege issue,” Judge Wood said. “That’s what brought us here.”

The government will simultaneously give copies of the seized documents to Cohen’s lawyers and to Jones, and Cohen’s lawyers will give documents relevant to Trump to Trump’s lawyers.

Michael Cohen was in court but remained silent.

In a phone interview with Fox & Friends ahead of Cohen’s appearance in federal court in New York, President Trump distanced himself from Cohen’s legal woes, saying his longtime attorney and confidant handles only a “tiny, tiny little fraction” of his legal work.

“I don't know his business, but this doesn't have to do with me,” Trump said of Cohen. “Michael is a businessman. He has got a business. He also practices law. I would say probably the big thing is his business, and they're looking something having to do with his business. I have nothing to do with his business, I can tell you.”

In a letter to Judge Kimba Wood filed Thursday morning, prosecutors suggested Trump may have undermined his own argument with his comments to the cable network.

“President Trump reportedly said on cable television this morning that Cohen performs ‘a tiny, tiny little fraction’ of his overall legal work,” wrote U.S. Attorney Robert Khuzami. “These statements … suggest that the seized materials are unlikely to contain voluminous privileged documents, further supporting the importance of efficiency here.”

Lead prosecutor Tom McKay also seemed to reference President Trump’s comments on “Fox & Friends" in court, noting the “limited nature of Cohen’s representation” expressed by some of his clients.

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ABC News(WASHINGTON) -- President Donald Trump lambasted his Justice Department Thursday in an interview on Fox News, expressing frustration at the ongoing special counsel probe and suggesting that he may intervene in his Justice Department at some point.

“They have a witch hunt against the President of the United States going on, I have taken the position, and I don't have to take this position and maybe I'll change, that I will not be involved with the Justice Department,” the president said during an interview with Fox and Friends.

I'm very disappointed in my Justice Department but because of the fact that it's going under, and I think you'll understand this, I have decided that I won't be involved. I may change my mind at some point because what's going on is a disgrace

Saying he was "very disappointed in my Justice Department," Trump left the door open to changing his mind.

“I have decided I won't be involved. I may change my mind at some point because what is going on is a disgrace. It is an absolute disgrace,” Trump said. “And by the way, the only collusion is with Democrats and Russians.”

It was unclear what Trump meant by getting "involved" and whether that included intervening somehow in special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.

“Our Justice Department, which I try and stay away from, but at some point, I won't,” the president later added, arguing that there are a number of matters involving Democrats that are worthy of further inquiry.

When asked why he didn't just sit down with Mueller, he suggested that the special counsel's team is too heavily Democratic and may already be biased against him.

"I can, but the problem, it is such, if you take a look they're so conflicted. The people that are doing the investigation, you have 13 people that are Democrats," Trump said.

Even as he blasted corruption at the FBI, something he traced specifically to the former leadership of James Comey, the president said he holds the nation’s law enforcement agents in high regard.

“By the way, you take a poll at the FBI. I love the FBI. The FBI loves me but the top people in the FBI, headed by Comey were crooked,” Trump said.

The president, asked to rate his job performance, gave himself an A and touted what he said are record accomplishments for a president in his first year of office despite having a "cloud over my head" with the ongoing Russia probe. He specifically lauded success in messaging the probe as "a fix" and a "witch hunt."

"We have a phony deal going on and it is a cloud over my head, and I've been able to escape that cloud, because the message now, everyone knows it's a fix, okay? It's a witch-hunt. And they know that, and I've been able to message it," Trump said. "I'd give myself an A ."

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Mark Wilson/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- The Senate has confirmed Mike Pompeo as the 70th secretary of state by a 57-42 vote.

Six Democrats and one Independent voted to confirm Pompeo: Heitkamp, Donnelly, Manchin, McCaskill, Jones, Nelson, and King (I).

Every Republican supported his confirmation, with the exception of Sen. John McCain who is still in Arizona battling brain cancer and was not present for the vote.

Pompeo faced unprecedented opposition to his becoming the nation's top diplomat – many Democrats who just last year voted to confirm him as CIA director publicly opposed him as the next secretary of state.

Last year, Pompeo had little trouble clinching the confirmation to be the director of the CIA. He was confirmed by the full Senate in a 66-32 vote at the time.

It is very unusual for a secretary of state nominee to face such opposition.

Past secretaries of state, including Condoleezza Rice, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton have breezed through their respective confirmations.

“I realize my Democratic friends in many cases feel like that in supporting Pompeo, it's a proxy for support of the Trump administration policies, which many of them abhor. I understand that" Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee said last week on the Senate floor.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted on Monday along party lines to send Pompeo's nomination to the Senate floor with a favorable report.

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FOX via -- Prosecutors have seized on comments made by President Donald Trump on Fox News on Thursday morning that could undermine his argument that records seized in the FBI’s recent raids of his personal lawyer Michael Cohen’s properties should be subject to attorney-client privilege.

In a phone interview with Fox & Friends ahead of Cohen’s appearance in federal court in New York, Trump distanced himself from Cohen’s legal woes, saying his longtime attorney and confidant handles only a “tiny, tiny little fraction” of his legal work.

“I don't know his business, but this doesn't have to do with me,” Trump said of Cohen. “Michael is a businessman. He has got a business. He also practices law. I would say probably the big thing is his business, and they're looking something having to do with his business. I have nothing to do with his business, I can tell you.”

It didn’t take long for federal prosecutors to take note. In a letter to Judge Kimba Wood filed to the court on Thursday morning, prosecutors suggested Trump may have damaged his own argument with his comments to the cable network.

“President Trump reportedly said on cable television this morning that Cohen performs ‘a tiny, tiny little fraction’ of his overall legal work,” wrote U.S. Attorney Robert Khuzami. “These statements … suggest that the seized materials are unlikely to contain voluminous privileged documents, further supporting the importance of efficiency here.”

Cohen has requested that a “special master” be appointed to review the seized material to weed out any potentially privileged material. President Trump’s attorneys have argued that he should get the first look at any documents that might contained privileged communications with Cohen before prosecutors are permitted to review the seized materials.

“These critical decisions concerning a sacred privilege are not for a team of prosecutors to make,” Trump attorney Joanna Hendon wrote in a court filing last week.

Federal prosecutors, meanwhile, have argued that appointing an outside referee would needlessly delay the investigation. They have said an internal team, separate from the investigators, is capable of reviewing the seized material without prejudice.

In Thursday’s letter, prosecutors indicated they’re willing to withdraw their objections to a “special master” and proposed a compromise position that would give the special master a first look for potentially privileged materials “and then hear from both sides before making a final determination.”

Judge Wood has signaled that the dispute will play out in public view on Thursday.

“Counsel should be prepared to address the process to be undertaken by a Special Master, should one be appointed, to review claims of privilege,” Judge Wood wrote in her order summoning the parties to court.

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Win McNamee/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- President Donald Trump offered new insights into his administration's preparations for a summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un as he defended his bellicose approach and "bigger button" tweet, saying only a "weak" leader would get the U.S. into nuclear war.

The details came just hours before South Korean President Moon Jae-in is set to meet Kim for a historic one-on-one meeting, but with Trump again casting doubt on his own summit next month or in early June.

"It could be that I walk out quickly –- with respect, but it could be. It could be that maybe the meeting doesn’t even take place. Who knows?" Trump told Fox News's "Fox and Friends."

The two sides have narrowed down possible locations to five, according to Trump, with three or four dates in the running. One senior U.S. official previously told ABC News that Trump had ruled out China and that it was highly unlikely Kim would agree to meet in the U.S. or Trump to meet in North Korea.

Possible venues include Europe – like Switzerland, where Kim went to university, and Sweden, the U.S.'s protecting power in North Korea -- South Asia, and the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, where Moon and Kim are set to meet Friday.

Trump also revealed more about the secret visit by then-CIA director Mike Pompeo – just confirmed as secretary of state – made to Pyongyang. Pompeo was not scheduled to meet with Kim, Trump said, but the North Koreans arranged it after he arrived.

"We have incredible pictures of the two talking and meeting, which I'd love to release if we can. I'll do that actually. It's not a bad idea," Trump said.

Hours later, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders tweeted two photos of the men shaking hands.

Pompeo also met with his North Korean "counterparts," Trump added, presumably in intelligence agencies. But his encounter with Kim lasted more than an hour, Trump said, and "they got along."

On Wednesday, Trump was criticized for his warm words for the strongman -- accused of starvation, torture, and brutal repression -- calling him "very open" and "very honorable."

Trump reiterated his approval Thursday, commending North Korea because, "They’ve given up denuclearization, testing, research – we’re going to close different sites."

But it's unclear if North Korea has really agreed to those things – or whether they've done so in good faith. The country announced on April 21 that it will stop nuclear tests and launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles and close its nuclear test site Punggye-ri, where it had conducted its six nuclear tests, including its largest last September that purportedly was a hydrogen bomb.

Whether that was a sign of them giving in, as Trump argued, is debatable. On state-run Korean Central News Agency, Kim was quoted as saying, "Under the proven condition of complete nuclear weapons, we no longer need any nuclear tests, mid-range and intercontinental ballistic rocket tests, and that the nuclear test site in the northern area has also completed its mission."

In other words, the North had already achieved its goal of nuclear weapons, so it no longer needed testing or this facility. It also has yet to publicly say it has agreed to denuclearization – what Trump defined as "they get rid of their nukes."

Instead, the world has heard through intermediaries that North Korea has "expressed its commitment to denuclearization," as South Korea's Moon put it last week, or that it is North Korea's "consistent stand to be committed to denuclearization on the peninsula," as official Chinese news service Xinhua reported in March.

Either way, those are not the same thing as getting "rid of their nukes."

But Trump doubled down on Fox, saying, "We haven't even really that much asked him [to give things up] because we would've asked him, but they gave it up before I even asked."

The president attributed that success to his own combative rhetoric.

"It was very, very nasty, you know, with 'Little Rocket Man' and with the buttons and my button's bigger," Trump said. "Everybody said this guy is going to get us into nuclear war."

But it would be a "weak" leader that would get the U.S. into a nuclear war, he argued, and instead talks are moving forward.

"Now they're saying, 'Wow, it looks like that will be taken care of.' I think we're doing very well. Let's see what happens," he said.

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ABC News(WASHINGTON) -- President Donald Trump kicked off a raucous interview Thursday morning with a candid admission that he's been too busy handling his daily duties as commander in chief to purchase a special birthday present for first lady Melania Trump.

"Well I better not get into that because I may get into trouble," Trump told the hosts of Fox and Friends when asked what he bought for the first lady, who turned 48 years old Thursday. "Maybe I didn't get her so much."

"You know, I'm very busy to be running out looking for presents, OK?" Trump reasoned. "I got her a beautiful card and some beautiful flowers."

Prior to that admission, the president noted that he in part chose to do the phone interview because of the special day.

"I picked a very, very special day because it's Melania's birthday so I said, let's do it on Melania's birthday," Trump said. "So happy birthday to Melania."

Trump also congratulated the first lady for her work in planning the administration's first state visit for French President Emmanuel Macron, including Tuesday evening's lavish state dinner in the White House.

Later in the morning, a video posted on the first lady's Twitter account included a montage of her involvement in the various events during the two-day visit by President Macron and his wife Brigitte Macron.

The first lady's office told ABC News following the Trump interview that Mrs. Trump plans to celebrate her birthday "with her family."

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Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- President Donald Trump's embattled nominee to lead the Veterans Affairs Department, Dr. Ronny Jackson, is withdrawing his name from consideration.

"While I will forever be grateful for the trust and confidence President Trump has placed in me by giving me this opportunity, I am regretfully withdrawing my nomination to be Secretary for the Department of Veterans Affairs," Jackson said in a statement issued by the White House this morning.

Jackson's nomination has been dogged in recent days by allegations that he improperly dispensed medications and that he wrecked a government vehicle after drinking at a Secret Service farewell party.

Jackson is the presidential physician, having served in the role since President George W. Bush's administration.

"It has been my distinct honor and privilege to work at the White House and serve three Presidents," Jackson said. "Going into this process, I expected tough questions about how to best care for our veterans, but I did not expect to have to dignify baseless and anonymous attacks on my character and integrity."

Jackson, 50, goes on to rebut the allegations that have been leveled against him as "false and fabricated."

"The allegations against me are completely false and fabricated. If they had any merit, I would not have been selected, promoted and entrusted to serve in such a sensitive and important role as physician to three presidents over the past 12 years," he said.

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