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Jan. 15 2017 8:06 PM

Thousands Join Rallies Across the United States to Save Obamacare

Democrats joined forces on Sunday to get their voices heard far from Washington, D.C. and took part in dozens of rallies in cities across the country to protest against efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. At each of the rallies, speakers talked about specific men and women whose health and/or finances were saved by the ACA in an effort to build up opposition to the Republican repeal efforts. Beyond the message itself, the rallies are largely seen as a sign of how Democrats will try to build up their grassroots operations at a time when they will soon have little power left in Washington.

Thousands braved freezing temperatures in Michigan to hear Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has emerged as one of the strongest voices in favor of Obamacare. Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer was also there and labor unions also made their presence felt among people carrying signs that read “Save our Health Care.” "This is the wealthiest country in the history of the world. It is time we got our national priorities right," Sanders said.

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Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) stands on stage during the rally at Macomb Community College on January 15, 2017 in Warren, Michigan.

Rachel Woolf/Getty Images

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The choice of Warren, Mich. for one of the key rallies of the day was filled with symbolism. NPR explains:

It's no accident that Sanders and Schumer chose to hold their event in Warren. Surrounding Macomb County tells the story of Democrats' 2016 woes. It went narrowly for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, but last year Donald Trump carried Macomb County by more than 10 points over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Trump's raw vote total in the largely white, working-class county—about 48,000 votes—was more than four times his margin of victory in the once-reliably Democratic state.
Both Sanders and Schumer believe Democrats can recapture economy-focused working class voters, and holding a rally in Macomb County to defend a healthcare program is one way to show voters who supported Trump that the Democratic Party is attentive to their concerns.

In Boston, more than 6,000 people also went out despite the subfreezing temperatures to hear Sen. Elizabeth Warren deliver a spirited defense of the law, describing the rallies as the first of many to come. “We knew these fights were coming, and now the first one is here,” Warren told the crowd, “We will fight them every step of the way.”

In Utah, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley led a sing-along at the State Capitol while House minority leader Nancy Pelosi spoke at a rally in San Francisco.

On ABC News’ This Week, Sanders said Republicans shouldn’t be moving to repeal Obamacare if they have nothing else to take its place. "The vast majority of the American people agree with me and many others," he said. "You don't simply repeal the Affordable Care Act without a replacement."

Speaking on CNN, Sen. Rand Paul gave broad details about what could be in the Obamacare replacement package but pointedly did not say whether the almost half a million people in his state that have insurance under the current law would be able to keep it. “The replacement bill that we put together, our goal is to insure the most amount of people, give access to the most amount of people, at least the amount of cost,” he said. Paul noted that one of the key measures of the bill is “we’re going to legalize the sale of inexpensive insurance” and he hinted that states would no longer get expanded Medicaid. "That's the big question," Paul said. "And I don't think that's going to be in the replacement aspect."

Jan. 15 2017 6:49 PM

Facebook Launches Tool to Flag Fake News in Germany Ahead of Election

The world’s largest social network appears to be tacitly recognizing that it plays a critical role in helping to spread fake news stories ahead of contentious elections. In its first big test outside the United States, Facebook is rolling out a tool over the next few weeks that will allow users to flag fake news stories. "Last month we announced measures to tackle the challenge of fake news on Facebook," the company said in a statement. "We will put these updates in place in Germany in the coming weeks."

Facebook will be replicating a test it unveiled last month in the United States that makes it easy for users to flag suspected articles. Articles that are tagged as fake will be sent to Correctiv, a German non-profit investigative journalism organization, to confirm. If the group determines the story is fake, Facebook will then mark it as “disputed” with an explanation. That will automatically make it less likely for the story to appear in users’ news feeds and those who share the story will receive a warning message.

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The tool is likely to be unveiled in more countries in the future. “Our focus is on Germany right now but we’re certainly thinking through what countries will unveil next,” a company spokesman tells the Financial Times.

The move comes as German political leaders, and even the country’s intelligence agency, have warned about the proliferation of fake news ahead of the election expected for September. The head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency said in an interview with the New York Times in December that there was “growing evidence for attempts to influence the federal election next year.” More recently, a story made the rounds claiming that Germany’s oldest church was set on fire. It was so popular and spread so quickly on Facebook that police were forced to clarify that it was all false. Politicians have warned that the problem has gotten so bad that Facebook could be fined, along with any other company that disseminates hate messages or fake news.

BuzzFeed recently analyzed the news content that was popular on Facebook last year and describes a proliferation of false and misleading pieces about German Chancellor Angela Merkel:

Echoing what was seen during the US election, many of these sites mix legitimate partisan political content with false and conspiratorial information, especially about refugees and Islam, in order to inspire passion and increase social engagement. Large right-wing pages in the US are also increasingly sharing anti-Merkel content, helping it gain wider distribution on Facebook.

Jan. 15 2017 3:24 PM

China Pushes Back Against Trump: Taiwan Policy Is “Non-Negotiable”

The Chinese government sent a clear message to President-elect Donald Trump this weekend: the “One China” policy is not up for debate. In fact, Beijing went as far as to say that not challenging China on the status of Taiwan as a renegade province “is the political foundation” of bilateral relations with the United States. A spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry issued the statement in response to Trump telling the Wall Street Journal that “everything is under negotiation including ‘One China’.”  

“The 'One China' principle is the political foundation of Sino-US relations and it is non-negotiable. We urge the relevant side in the US to recognize the high sensitivity of the Taiwan issue and abide by the pledges by successive US administrations from both parties,” spokesman Lu Kang said. In the brief statement, the spokesman also summarized the “facts recognized by the international community” on the issue: “There is but one China in the world, and Taiwan is an inalienable part of China. The government of the People's Republic of China is the only legitimate government representing China.”

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The state-run Global Times published an unsigned piece under the headline, “Inexperienced, complacent Trump stuns public.” The tabloid known for its sensationalistic headlines had earlier in the week harshly criticized Trump’s pick for secretary of state Rex Tillerson, saying his views risked a “large-scale war” with China.

The interview with the Journal was only the latest example of how Trump has locked horns with China even before taking office. First there was accepting the congratulatory phone call from Taiwan’s president, which broke with more than three decades of diplomatic protocol. At the time, Beijing seemed to try to downplay the move, characterizing Trump as the victim of a “little trick pulled off by Taiwan.” But the president-elect then publicly criticized China on several issues, including currency manipulation and North Korea.

Analysts in China are apparently eager to see Trump’s words as a simple negotiation tactic to get some concessions from Beijing, rather than an effort to upend decades of foreign policy. “Trump has been very smart. He is using the Taiwan issue as a bargaining chip with China,” one analyst tells the South China Morning Post. “Trump has a relatively simple agenda. He cares only about the domestic economy. His issue is to create jobs. He believes that sorting out the trade ­issues with China can help him to create jobs inside the US.”

Incoming White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus essentially acknowledged Trump was using Taiwan as a bargaining chip, telling ABC’s This Week that “there are no plans to change the ‘One China’ policy” but the issue will be “on the table if China doesn’t also come to the table and work with us on trade, work with us on the South China Sea.”

Other experts say that Trump’s tough will likely die down once he “contends with the complexity of intertwined economies and the reality of China’s military expansion,” notes the Washington Post.

Jan. 15 2017 1:46 PM

GOP Congressman, Overwhelmed by Constituents Concerned About ACA Repeal, Sneaks Out of Event Early

On Saturday, Republican Rep. Mike Coffman held an event for his constituents at a public library in Aurora, Colorado. At least 150 constituents showed up, most of them hoping to ask Coffman about his recent vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act and his plans for a replacement. But only about 70 people got to meet with Coffman: Despite booking a large room with ample space, Coffman allowed in only four constituents at once for five minutes at a time. When the crowd grew restless, police put up crime scene tape and Coffman snuck out the back door—six minutes before the event was scheduled to end.

Coffman recently co-authored a Denver Post op-ed urging the full and immediate repeal of the ACA. About 419,000 Coloradans have gained health care coverage since the enactment of the law, and many of them stand to lose their insurance if it is repealed. Yet Coffman has not proposed a clear replacement for the law, an issue constituents hoped to ask him about on Saturday. “I am potentially going to lose my health insurance,” Berthie Ruoff told NBC 9 while she waited to meet with her representative. “I've had a preexisting condition. I've had breast cancer. What's going to happen to me? My spouse who had health insurance passed away. What do I do? You know, what am I supposed to do?”

Jan. 15 2017 10:40 AM

Trump Team Considers Kicking Press Corps Out of White House

When President-elect Donald Trump’s team moves into the White House it could kick the press out of the building. Esquire was first to report on the possibility, saying some in the administration don't want reporters to be so close. Incoming White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus tried to tone down the issue, characterizing it as much ado about nothing.

The plan reportedly under consideration involves kicking the media out of the White House press room, where reporters have worked for decades, into either the White House Conference Center or to the Old Executive Office Building, which is next door to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

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Sean Spicer, Trump's press secretary acknowledged that "there has been some discussion about how to do it” but insisted "there has been no decision.” He said the discussions were a question of inclusion rather than exclusion. "A question is: Is a room that has forty-nine seats adequate? When we had that press conference the other day, we had thousands of requests, and we capped it at four hundred,” Spicer said. “Is there an opportunity to potentially allow more members of the media to be part of this? That's something we're discussing.”

Priebus downplayed the discussions even more, noting on ABC’s This Week that “some of the folks in the press are uptight about this and I understand.” The incoming White House chief of staff said the only thing that has been discussed is whether to move the press conferences in order “to fit four times the amount of people in the press conference, allowing more press, more coverage from all over the country.”

Yet unnamed officials who talk to Esquire say any potential move has more to do with the contentious relationship Trump has with the press, which has led some in the administration to see the reporters as more than just mere observers. "They are the opposition party," a senior official told Esquire. "I want 'em out of the building. We are taking back the press room."

Jan. 14 2017 6:44 PM

Former Agent Who Wrote Trump-Russia Memos Frustrated by Lack of FBI Action

The former British intelligence agent who compiled the salacious dossier detailing close links between Donald Trump and the Kremlin became very frustrated by the FBI’s failure to act on the information he had given the bureau. The former agent, who has been identified as Christopher Steele, “came to believe there was a cover-up, that a cabal within the Bureau blocked a thorough inquiry into Mr Trump, focusing instead on the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails,” reports the Independent, citing unnamed “security sources.” Steele, a former MI6 agent, was so worried about what he found out when he was doing opposition research that he decided British and American intelligence officials should have the information.

Steele, and a colleague in Washington, former Wall Street Journal reporter Glenn Simpson, were so flabbergasted by the FBI’s failure to do anything that they both continued looking into the allegations without getting paid.

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Even as the former intelligence agent and the former reporter sent more and more documents to the FBI, there was little progress in any investigation. The two came to believe there was a particular problem in the New York office, which “appeared to be on a crusade against Mrs Clinton,” notes the Independent.

These revelations about Steele’s feelings toward the Bureau came a day after Democrats also expressed their deep frustration with the FBI in general, and its director, James Comey, in particular. A closed-door meeting on Friday between intelligence chiefs and lawmakers reportedly turned into a confrontation, in which Democrats demanded to know why Comey repeatedly talked about the investigation into Clinton’s emails but always refused to say anything public about any possible probe into Trump’s ties with Russia.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz specifically asked Comey why he never called her directly to tell her that the Democratic National Committee was hacked. The FBI only reached out to a tech contractor and was in touch with him for months before anyone in the organization’s leadership was informed. Rep. Nancy Pelosi was reportedly so frustrated with Comey’s answers that she chastised him for being “condescending to members.”

“A great many members are concerned with whether the director has employed a double standard,” Rep. Adam Schiff of California said after the meeting.

Meanwhile, intelligence agencies around the world are reportedly looking into what are really multiple reports alleging Trump’s close ties to the Kremlin, according to two Israeli intelligence officers who spoke to BuzzFeed. And the salacious dossier, which was published by BuzzFeed earlier this week, is apparently not the only one making the rounds. “There have been various reports about Trump’s ties to Russia,” one of the Israeli intelligence officers said. “The dossier is one of them, but there are others, they make other allegations. Some are more specific, and some are less. You can trust me that many intelligence agencies are trying to evaluate the extent to which Trump might have ties, or a weakness of some type, to Russia.”

Jan. 14 2017 11:15 AM

Trump Slams Civil Rights Icon John Lewis as “All Talk … No Action”

Mere days before the nation celebrates Martin Luther King Day, President-elect Donald Trump harshly criticized a lawmaker who marched alongside the civil rights leader. After Rep. John Lewis said he didn’t see Trump “as a legitimate president,” the soon-to-be commander in chief hit back, calling the lawmaker “sad!” and saying he should be worrying about his district instead.

“Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results. All talk, talk, talk - no action or results. Sad!” Trump wrote in two tweets early Saturday morning.

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Trump hit out at Lewis a day after the congressman told NBC News’ Meet the Press that “it’s going to be very difficult” to forge a relationship with Trump because “I don’t see this president-elect as a legitimate president.” When asked to explain why, Lewis cited reports of Russia’s election-season hacking. "I think the Russians participated in helping this man get elected. And they helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton," Lewis said in the interview set to air Sunday.

Lewis said that his feelings about Trump were so strong that he is not planning to attend the inauguration, which will be “the first one that I miss since I’ve been in Congress.”

The criticism of Trump comes from a very powerful place considering there are are few lawmakers who are as revered as Lewis, a key civil rights leader who was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the early 1960s and was a driving force behind the 1963 March on Washington. Lewis was so badly beaten during the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” Selma to Montgomery march that his skull was fractured.

The Georgia congressman, who has been representing his Atlanta district since 1987, has been one of the most vocal opponents to Trump and testified this week against Sen. Jeff Sessions, who was nominated to be attorney general.

The Washington Post explains Lewis’ words are a reminder of how long the president-elect questioned President Obama’s legitimacy:

While Lewis didn't cite allegations of bigotry and racism made against Trump, the whole thing can't help but hearken back to Trump's own questioning of the legitimacy of his predecessor, Barack Obama. For years, Trump raised questions about whether Obama was born in the United States and thus could serve legitimately as president. Obama eventually produced a birth certificate in 2012, but Trump only acknowledged Obama was born in the United States a few months ago.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus were particularly incensed by Trump's long-running questioning of the legitimacy of the first black president, saying it amounted to bigotry and a racial dog-whistle. After Trump finally admitted Obama was born in the United States in September 2016, members of the CBC held a press conference to denounce Trump.

Jan. 14 2017 9:53 AM

Trump Says He May Scrap Russia Sanctions and "One China" Policy

Just in case the foreign policy establishment wasn’t rattled enough at the prospect of the next commander-in-chief, President-elect Donald Trump made clear he is willing to get rid of recently imposed sanctions against Moscow and do away with a cornerstone of decades of U.S. foreign policy. The Russia sanctions will stay as they are “at least for a period of time,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal in an interview. But things could change if Moscow starts working alongside Washington in other priorities, such as combating terrorism. “If you get along and if Russia is really helping us, why would anybody have sanctions if somebody's doing some really great things?” Trump said.

Trump spoke to the Journal for an hour on the same day as President Obama extended sanctions against Russia, along with those against Iran, Cuba, Libya, Zimbabwe, and Venezuela. The United States imposed sanctions against Russia in 2014 over the annexation of Crimea. More recently, Obama’s administration imposed sanctions, including expelling 35 Russian diplomats, in retaliation for alleged cyberattacks during the presidential election campaign.

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Moscow has said it wants Washington to lift the sanctions, even as it dismissed their importance. “Of course we'd like to see them gone but you know sanctions are not that effective,” Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told NBC. “Sanctions hit the interests of the country that is under sanction but at the same time it hits the interest of the country that introduce the sanctions.”

Trump also told the Journal he’s ready to meet with Putin after he takes office. "I understand that they would like to meet, and that's absolutely fine with me," he said.

The president-elect’s conciliatory stance toward Moscow comes as officials on the transition team confirmed that Gen. Michael Flynn, who has been tapped as national security adviser, spoke to the Russian ambassador by phone on the same day as Obama announced the latest sanctions. The transition team had initially denied the phone call had taken place on Dec. 29, as reported by the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, saying it had actually been on Dec. 28, the day before the latest sanctions.

In the Journal interview, Trump said that continuing with the decades-long One China policy, which declares that Taiwan is a part of China, was not certain. “Everything is under negotiation including ‘One China’,” Trump said. He once again defended receiving the congratulatory call from Taiwan’s president, essentially calling the whole controversy ridiculous and adding that “it would have been very rude not to accept the phone call.”

Although during the campaign Trump had said he would label China a currency manipulator, he made clear in the interview he is in no rush to do that on day one of his presidency. “I would talk to them first,” Trump was quoted as saying. “Certainly they are manipulators. But I’m not looking to do that.”

Despite the tough words, Trump was sure to show the Journal reporters a holiday greeting card he received from China’s President Xi Jinping. “I have a beautiful card from the chairman,” he said.

Jan. 13 2017 6:06 PM

Is It Normal That Trump’s NSA Pick Michael Flynn Called the Russian Ambassador?

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Is This Normal? is a new Slate series that will attempt to determine which controversial Trump World behaviors are outrageously unprecedented, which are outrageous but within the realm of what others have gotten away with, and which shouldn't be considered outrageous at all.

The Issue

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David Ignatius of the Washington Post reported in a column on Thursday that Michael Flynn, Donald Trump’s choice for National Security Advisor, held several phone conversations with Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak on Dec. 29, the day the Obama administration announced retaliatory measures for Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, including new sanctions and the expulsion of 35 diplomats. The Obama administration says it is aware of the conversations.

We don’t know what Flynn and Kislyak talked about, but in the context of this week’s news, the meeting has been taken as evidence of suspicious collusion between the incoming administration and the Russian government, and a possible violation of the Logan Act, which prohibits U.S. citizens from unauthorized negotiations with foreign governments about disputes involving the United States government. Flynn, after all, is not yet an authorized government official, yet he made the calls anyway.

Is this normal?

The precedent

By custom, officials awaiting Senate confirmation for cabinet-level positions don’t engage in these types of meetings, so this would be a different story if it were Rex Tillerson or James Mattis making these calls. The position of national security advisor does not require Senate confirmation.

In a 2008 article on President-elect Obama’s reluctance to meet personally with foreign leaders during the transition, the New York Times noted that “the Obama team is scrambling to arrange for surrogates to meet with visiting foreign officials.” During Ronald Reagan’s transition, Vice President-elect George H.W. Bush, a former CIA director, was delegated with taking most of the calls from foreign ambassadors.

“Foreign governments are always interested in feeling out the incoming administration and it’s certainly not uncommon for representatives of the president-elect to have discussions with representatives of foreign powers just as an informational exercise to allow each side to get to know each other,” says David Clinton, chair of the political science department at Baylor University and co-author of Presidential Transitions and American Foreign Policy. “Such exchanges are part of modern day transitions.”

Peter Feaver, a National Security Council staffer in Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations who is now a professor at Duke, says this type of meeting “would be done quietly, it would be done without giving away any policy positions, binding the administration in any way or undercutting the current administration.”

The last point’s critical. The expectation is that the incoming administration won’t get in the way of the president who is still in office. A 1986 bipartisan commission on presidential transitions and foreign policy co-authored by a number of former cabinet officials recommended that “Pre-inaugural meetings between representatives of the incoming administration and foreign diplomats or leaders should be sharply limited” Above all, it concluded, “Nothing should give the impression that the president-elect has any authority to act before the inauguration or interfere with ongoing actions by the incumbent administration.”

Of course, the implication of Ignatius’s column is that Flynn’s was more than just a casual chat. The conversation came shortly before Putin decided not to retaliate against Obama’s new sanctions and was praised by Trump for it.

Conversations that actively contradict the current administration’s foreign policy are problematic, but not unprecedented. The most famous example of this took place before an election, when Richard Nixon’s team reportedly urged South Vietnamese officials to scuttle peace talks organized by the Johnson administration, promising them a better deal under the new administration. And in 1980, the Washington Post reported that Jimmy Carter’s ambassador to El Salvador criticized President-elect Ronald Reagan’s advisors for undermining him by promising a shift in U.S. policy toward the country, then sliding into civil war.

As for the Logan Act, which prohibits private U.S. citizens from engaging in unauthorized freelance diplomacy, Flynn probably doesn’t have to worry about going to jail for his phone call to Kislyak. No one has ever been convicted under the 18th century law and only one person has ever been charged. If anyone were ever convicted, they’d have a decent case to make that the law violates the first amendment.

But Peter Spiro, a professor at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law and co-author of the international law blog Opinio Juris, says that doesn’t mean its meaningless. The Logan Act “really represented a pretty hard norm in the conduct of foreign relations,” he says. “You didn’t go around talking with foreign officials unless you had authority to do so, and that authority came from the president.”

But, he notes, that norm has been fading in recent years. For instance, in the last major instance where the threat of the Logan Act was discussed publicly, when Sen. Tom Cotton and others wrote to the government of Iran in 2015 promising to cancel the Obama administration’s nuclear deal—a fairly blatant attempt to undermine the administration’s foreign policy—there were no legal or political consequences.

The law had been unenforceable in practice for a long time now, but, says Spiro, it is “now also dead in spirit.”

The verdict

Meetings between the president-elect’s team and foreign officials are Normal. Negotiations that undermine a sitting president’s foreign policy are not unprecedented, but remain highly controversial and Not Normal.

Jan. 13 2017 4:54 PM

Today In Conservative Media: Other Media

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A daily roundup of the biggest stories in right-wing media.

As this busy week of news winds down, conservative media remains focused on other media organizations. On Fox News, Sean Hannity called BuzzFeed a “propaganda arm of the Democratic party” and said, “The liberal, alt-left media is in meltdown mode because Donald Trump put them on notice that he's not going to take their BS anymore.” After Rep. Paul Ryan’s Thursday night CNN town hall, a conservative activist told SiriusXM radio show Breitbart News Daily that Paul Ryan should have considered not participating “in light of what happened this last week and the hit job that CNN did on President-elect Trump.” The Daily Caller ran a post titled “Neil Cavuto Spent A Whole Segment Verbally Spanking CNN — ‘Payback’s A B***h,’” which rehashed the Fox News host’s three-minute spiel about CNN. Cavuto opened by asking, "How's all that going down, CNN? How does it feel to be dismissed, or even worse, ignored?" and went on to show clips of President Obama saying things like, "Look, if I watched Fox News, I wouldn't vote for me either."

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Up-and-coming conservative commentator Tomi Lahren dedicated part of her Blaze show on Thursday night to media organizations, including Buzzfeed, which she called a “trash blog site who can’t control their tears during Obama’s farewell,” and said CNN wasn’t much better. In the segment, which circulated widely on Facebook on Friday, Lahren said if the media can’t report news “honestly and fairly” then they should “get the hell out of the business.”

Conservative media also focused on TV glitches that happened on C-SPAN and MSNBC. Both were chalked up to simple technical difficulties. A post on Hannity’s website titled “WATCH: Hilarious Glitch In MSNBC Feed Repeats Word 'Russia' Over And Over Again” noted: The “ironic thing is that it was difficult to tell the difference between the glitch and MSNBC's actual programming.”

In other news:

Support for Trump’s cabinet nominees swelled on Friday, with several outlets focusing on the Democrats inability to tank any of them. The Daily Caller outlined attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions policy positions, and said that “democratic disorder” during his confirmation hearing showed how Democrats are “ill-equipped to stop Trump.” On Laura Ingraham’s radio show, Newt Gingrich said that the Democrats “cannot take out [Secretary of Defense nominee] Gen. Mattis or Tillerson” so will have to focus on Michael Flynn, Trump’s pick for national security advisor.

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