Tillerson walks back comments on preconditions for North Korea talks

Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images(WASHIGNTON) -- Days after creating confusion over the Trump administration's North Korea policy, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson walked back his comments that the U.S. was ready to meet Kim Jong Un's regime for talks "without precondition," telling the United Nations Security Council Friday that there must first be "a sustained cessation of North Korea's threatening behavior... before talks can begin."

"North Korea must earn its way back to the table," Tillerson said. "The pressure campaign must and will continue until denuclearization is achieved. We will in the meantime keep our channels of communication open."

Questions about just where the U.S. stands on talks highlight what have been sharp differences voiced by Tillerson and President Trump on North Korea --and come amid reports the White House wants him out. Tillerson's comments today come after the White House and State Department had been vociferously denying any change in policy.

Tillerson was addressing a special Security Council meeting on the North Korean threat called by the chair country Japan after the North Korea fired its third intercontinental ballistic missile on November 28 -- a missile capable of reaching the entire continental United States, it said.

The North Korean ambassador to the U.N. sat mere feet away while Tillerson spoke.

The latest questions on what the administration's policy is began when Tillerson told a Washington audience Tuesday that demanding North Korea give up its nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities before engaging in talks was "not realistic... They have too much invested in it."

"The President is very realistic about that as well," he added.

That's at odds with previously-stated Trump administration policy that had demanded that North Korea agree to give up its nuclear and ballistic weapons before the U.S. would agree to talks.

As Tillerson himself told reporters on August 1, "A condition of those talks is there is no future where North Korea holds nuclear weapons or the ability to deliver those nuclear weapons to anyone in the region much less to the homeland."

President Trump has been even more vocal, railing against negotiations with North Korea for months.

"Presidents and their administrations have been talking to North Korea for 25 years, agreements made and massive amounts of money paid," he tweeted on Oct. 7. "[It] hasn't worked, agreements violated before the ink was dry, makings fools of U.S. negotiators. Sorry, but only one thing will work!"

Trump even tweeted at Tillerson that he was "wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man," a derogatory nickname the president uses for the North Korean leader. "Save your energy Rex," he added.

It is unclear if Tillerson has been trying to signal a shift this week -- or perhaps misspoke or went too far on Tuesday.

The White House has denied any change, with spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders saying in a statement Tuesday, "The president's views on North Korea have not changed."

Nauert said repeatedly Wednesday that the policy has not changed -- and even contradicted what Tillerson said Tuesday about denuclearization. When asked whether it was no longer a precondition, she said, "If they’re not willing to denuclearize? No. That remains our goal. Our overall goal is denuclearization."

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Trump doesn't rule out Flynn pardon

Win McNamee / Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- President Trump is not ruling out a pardon for his disgraced former National Security Adviser and retired general Michael Flynn.

ABC News' Jonathan Karl asked the president on Friday morning if he'd consider a pardon for Flynn. Trump left the door open, and said "we'll see what happens."

“I don't want to talk about pardons for Michael Flynn yet. Let's see. I can say this, when you look at what's gone on with the FBI and with the Justice Department, people are very, very angry.”

When asked whether he knew Flynn lied to the FBI when he fired him, Trump said: “You know the answer.”

Earlier this month, pleaded guilty to one count of lying to the FBI about his back-channel negotiations with the Russian ambassador – talks that occurred before Trump took office.

Trump made the comments just before boarding Marine One headed for Quantico, where he is expected to deliver remarks at the FBI National Academy — a training program for law enforcement officers from other agencies.

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Trumps, Pences release their official Christmas portraits

ABC News(WASHINGTON) -- With ten days left until Christmas, the Trumps and Pences released on Thursday their official Christmas portraits -- their first such photos since taking office.

First lady Melania Trump tweeted the photo, in which she and President Donald Trump are standing in the Cross Hall of the White House, surrounded by Christmas trees covered in fake snow.

"Merry Christmas from President Donald J. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump," reads Mrs. Trump's tweet.

And less than two hours later, second lady Karen Pence tweeted the Pences' portrait, photographed at the Vice President's Residence at the Naval Observatory, in which they're surrounded by an ornament-laden Christmas tree with wrapped gifts at its base, and a mantle decorated with a garland.

"Our official Christmas portrait has been released!" Mrs. Pence tweeted.

Mrs. Trump has been actively spreading holiday cheer in recent weeks, particularly with children.

On Wednesday she visited a holiday toy drive sponsored by the military.

"On a personal note, as my first year as first lady comes to an end, I have had the privilege to witness the spirit and resilience of so many people in our country," she said at the drive for the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots program. "After this year's devastating hurricane season, I hope everyone watching at home will consider giving back through programs like Toys for Tots."

She continued, "It is my hope that during this holiday season people will remember it is not about gifts. It is about family service and gratitude. We must continue to look out for and help each other."

At the toy drive, she invited children from military families to help her sort toys.

She also sat with kids and made construction-paper cards to go with the gifts that will be distributed throughout the nation's capital.

Last week Mrs. Trump visited with patients and staff at Children's National hospital Washington, D.C., continuing a tradition begun by first lady Bess Truman.

At the hospital, she met privately with some patients, and was escorted by Santa Claus to the facility's atrium where she answered questions from children.

When asked what she wants for Christmas, she said, "I asked Santa for Christmas, peace on the world, health love and kindness."

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President Trump to visit FBI National Academy following comments that bureau is in 'tatters'

Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- President Trump will visit the FBI National Academy on Friday amid heightened tensions with the bureau whose reputation he recently described as "in tatters," and its standing as the "worst in history."

According to the White House, Trump will deliver remarks to graduates of the 10-week national academy program. The academy, according to the FBI's website, is a "professional course of study" open to U.S. and international law enforcement managers of all stripes.

In May, President Trump was expected to visit the FBI headquarters, but the trip was notably scrapped following mounting backlash over his controversial firing of then-FBI Director Jim Comey.

Since then, the president has publicly derided the FBI's reputation amid its investigation into his campaign's alleged ties to Russia and Moscow's interference in the 2016 election.

He has vented on Twitter about whether the FBI's investigation is politically motivated, and whether his former opponent, Hillary Clinton, escaped conviction in the investigation of her use of a private email server because of agency's political bias.

Just last week Trump said the FBI's reputation was "in Tatters - worst in History!"

Asked a week ago about the president's tweets in front of the House Judiciary Committee, FBI Director Christopher Wray said the reputation of the bureau was "quite good."

"The FBI that I see is tens of thousands of brave men and women working as hard as they can to keep people they will never know safe from harm," Wray said.

But Wray was also grilled about reports of political bias influencing the investigations into Clinton and Russian election interference.

Specifically, lawmakers pressed Wray over anti-Trump texts sent by a senior agent on special counsel Robert Mueller’s team, who was removed over the summer. The texts, recently revealed, repeatedly called President Donald Trump "an idiot," and said the Republican Party "needs to pull their head out of their" rear-ends.

The revelations led members of Trump's legal team this week to call for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to appoint a second special counsel charged with investigating allegations of political bias and conflicts of interest in the Department of Justice.

Trump's war of words with the FBI dates back well before his election win, when he publicly scolded Comey's announcement that Clinton would not face criminal charges in her use of a private email server as secretary of state.

But the feud reached its pinnacle following Trump's sudden firing of Comey in May, and subsequent comments from his administration denouncing Comey's leadership of the bureau.

Several weeks later in his testimony to Congress, Comey emotionally rebuked those comments as "lies, plain and simple."

"The administration then chose to defame me and, more importantly, the FBI by saying that the organization was in disarray, that it was poorly led, that the workforce had lost confidence in its leader," Comey said.

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Trump cuts red tape (literally), vows to roll back onerous highway regulations

Win McNamee/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- If there's one thing President Donald Trump loves, it's a visual aid. (And, reportedly, Diet Coke.)

At a press event in the White House's Roosevelt Room, he flashed a chart outlining a maze of highway permitting regulations.

"Chris is not tall enough for this chart," the commander-in-chief quipped, as aides, including Assistant to the President Chris Liddell struggled to display the complex, color-coded poster. "Neither is anybody else."

According to Trump, an onerous regulatory environment requires would-be builders "go through nine different agencies, make 16 different decisions, under 29 different laws" to get permits for a highway.

"This chart -- I really love this chart," he added. "It really explains what a disaster it is."

His administration, Trump says, is "cutting years of wasted time and money out of the permitting process for vital infrastructure projects."

Since Trump took office, the Department of Transportation says, it has begun rolling back 82 regulations, with an additional 31 deregulatory actions planned next year. (DOT also initiated 76 regulatory actions, fulfilling Trump's two-for-one regulation elimination goal.)

"The never-ending growth of red tape in America has come to a sudden, screeching and beautiful halt," Trump said today.

"Unnecessary, duplicative or overly burdensome regulations are being eliminated and the permitting process is being streamlined to expedite much-needed infrastructure projects for the benefit of communities across the country," Transportation Sec. Elaine Chao, who joined the president at the White House event, echoed in a statement this afternoon.

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Four senior managers at Interior Dept. fired for harassment

Stockbyte/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke revealed today he has fired four senior managers at the Interior Department for inappropriate conduct, including sexual harassment.

"I've already removed four senior leaders that were guilty of inappropriate behavior and I will remove four hundred more if necessary. Intimidation, harassment and discrimination is a cancer to any organization. However deep it goes, we will remove it from Interior," Zinke said in a video posted on the agency's website today.

Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift said in an email the department could not provide any specific information on the people who were fired but said they generally "abused their authority to intimidate or harass fellow employees. This includes but is not limited to sexual harassment."

She also said the park superintendent at Yellowstone National Park has taken disciplinary action against a number of employees for instances of harassment. A report from the agency's inspector general published in March found a negative work environment for women in the park that included inappropriate comments and actions toward women employees.

The department released the results of a workplace survey Thursday where 35 percent of employees said they were harassed in the last year, with 8 percent saying they were sexually harassed. More than 200 employees who responded to that survey also reported experiencing sexual assault. About 28,300 employees responded to the survey which is 44 percent of the agency's workforce, according to the release.

The inspector general's office said they cannot comment on whether there are any active investigations into sexual harassment or assault.

At least one Interior employee accused of harassment has been named in an inspector general report published in February. Tim Lynn was the director of the agency's law enforcement office and was investigated for his behavior after an employee who worked for him said he was "touchy-feely" and and would sometimes touch her arms or hair and at least once talked about watching porn when they were alone in the office. Lynn denied the allegations but the IG's office found five other women who said he had acted unprofessionally toward them, including touching, hugging, personal text messages and flirtatious comments. The Washington Post reported that Lynn retired in May.

Interior Deputy Sec. David Bernhardt has ordered office heads to submit an action plan within the next 45 days with specific plans to address the results.

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FCC creates emergency alerts for threats to law enforcement

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to establish an alert system that would warn the public if a police officer in their community is threatened, missing, seriously injured or killed in the line of duty.

The so-called "Blue Alerts" are designed to protect the public from potential threats and help apprehend dangerous suspects. The notifications could go to your television or wireless devices, much like existing weather warnings or missing children alerts.

The alerts will be managed by local and state law enforcement and will provide information to the recipients about steps they can take to protect themselves or help police locate any suspects.

Chairman Ajit Pai and Commissioners Mignon Clyburn, Michael O’Rielly and Brendan Carr approved the proposal. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said she approved in part and dissented in part.

Today's vote was the culmination of a law signed in May 2015 by then-President Barack Obama that created the Blue Alerts. The FCC was tasked to establish how exactly these alerts would be transmitted.

Present at the meeting were the family members of two former New York City police officers who in 2014 were killed in the line of duty. The 2015 law is named after the officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu.

The FCC oversees the nation's airwaves and emergency alert systems.

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DOJ rejects charges over release of FBI agent's text messages

Zach Gibson/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- The Justice Department is rejecting accusations that it inappropriately offered several reporters access to private communications between two FBI officials who later worked on Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team.

"Senior career ethics advisors determined that there were no legal or ethical concerns that prohibited the release of the information to the public either by members of Congress or by the department," the Justice Department said in a statement today.

During a House hearing on Wednesday, Democrats raised concerns over the public disclosure of the messages, which were sent last year between FBI attorney Lisa Page and FBI agent Peter Strzok and document them repeatedly mocking then-presidential candidate Donald Trump in harsh terms.

In what one Democrat suggested was an "extraordinary" move on the eve of the House Judiciary Committee hearing, the Justice Department "invited a group of reporters to its offices to view the private text messages," as Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-New York, put it.

At the hearing the next day, Republicans then used the newly-released messages to push allegations of political bias within the FBI and the sprawling probe by Mueller, who is looking at whether Trump associates tried to help Russia influence last year's presidential election and whether White House officials may have sought to obstruct the investigation.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein dismissed suggestions that Mueller or his probe were tainted, insisting there is nobody "better qualified for this job" and noting "political affiliation" is not the same as political "bias."

"I've discussed this with Director Mueller, and ... we recognize we have employees with political opinions. It's our responsibility to make sure those opinions do not influence their actions," Rosenstein told the House panel. "He is running that office appropriately, recognizing that people have political views but ensuring that those views are not in any way a factor in how they conduct themselves in office."

Over the summer, the Justice Department's inspector general, looking into an array of FBI actions tied to last year’s election, discovered the FBI officials' text messages and notified senior department officials. Mueller immediately removed Strzok, and by then Page had already left the team.

After recent news accounts reported that Strzok was axed from the team for sending potentially anti-Trump messages, lawmakers demanded to see the messages for themselves.

On Tuesday night, the Justice Department sent about 375 of the messages, with limited redactions, to at least three congressional committees. Around the same time, reporters from several media outlets were able to review those messages at the Justice Department, under the condition that the information not be attributed to the Justice Department. But the next day, Rosenstein acknowledged to lawmakers that his department allowed reporters to see the messages.

"I'm not aware of any impropriety in what the department has done in making these text messages available," and "not aware" of "any evidence that we disclosed information to a reporter that wasn't appropriate for public release or wasn't disclosed to the Congress," Rosenstein assured the House Judiciary Committee.

According to a statement from Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Flores, "When the initial inquiries came from committees and members of Congress, the Deputy Attorney General consulted with the Inspector General, and the Inspector General determined that he had no objection to the Department's providing the material to the Congressional committees that had requested it."

The "senior career ethics advisors" then conducted their own review and determined no concerns related to the Privacy Act were implicated in releasing the messages, Flores said.

While many have criticized the Justice Department for making private messages available to reporters in the midst of an ongoing inspector general probe, the Justice Department under President Barack Obama took similar steps.

In 2011 and 2012, when Congress was demanding the Justice Department turn over internal emails related to the botched gun-running probe known as “Fast and Furious,” the department repeatedly invited reporters to a department conference room to view private messages.

Inside the Justice Department in Washington, a department official would hand out copies of the documents after they were sent to Capitol Hill and then brief reporters on individual emails sent to and from department employees. The documents were not provided under any condition of anonymity.

The Justice Department began briefing reporters on "Fast and Furious"-related documents only after select portions of documents sent to Congress were repeatedly leaked.

At the time, the Justice Department's inspector general was still engaged in a wide-ranging, internal investigation related to the failed gun-running probe and the department's response to congressional inquiries about it.

In trying to explain his own department's recent decisions, Rosenstein told lawmakers Wednesday: "Our goal ... is to make sure that it's clear to you and the American people, we are not concealing anything that's embarrassing."

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McCain receiving treatment for side effects of cancer therapy, 'looking forward to returning to work'

Alex Wong/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who is undergoing treatment for an aggressive form of brain cancer, is “currently receiving treatment at Walter Reed Medical Center for normal side effects of his ongoing cancer therapy,” his office said.

McCain, 81, who was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme over the summer, "looks forward to returning to work as soon as possible,” his office added.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of McCain’s closest friends in Congress, told ABC News today that he just received an update on McCain’s health and that he’s “resting in the hospital.”

“He’s receiving treatment for the side effects of the therapy. I feel pretty good about the way the treatment is affecting his underlying cancer. But the treatment has a downside. So he’s tryin’ to get rested up,” Graham said. “I’m very confident he’ll come back and continue to participate for a long time to come.”

Graham said he’s been in touch with McCain's wife, Cindy McCain, and is expecting to set up a time to speak with his colleague by phone.

“He’s had a heck of a Senate schedule, and I hope he’ll take some time to regroup, do a little rehabilitation on his leg and come back,” Graham said.

Sen. Jeff Flake, the junior senator from Arizona, told ABC News today that he was also texting with McCain’s wife last night and that he expects his colleague to be back at work soon.

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Haley lays out evidence Iran violating UN Resolutions

Stephanie Keith/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- The Trump administration has presented Iranian missiles and weapons, allegedly sent to Houthi rebels in Yemen that it says shows Iran has violated United Nations Security Council Resolutions related to the Iranian nuclear deal.

The weapons included parts of two short-range ballistic missiles that the Pentagon says were recently fired by the Houthis into Saudi Arabia, an anti-tank guided missile, a self-guided unmanned anti-ship explosive boat and an aerial drone packed with explosives.

Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations showed off the weapons, that she says were recovered by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, at a warehouse at a military base in Washington D.C.

“When you see the evidence, it is absolutely indisputable,” Haley said Thursday, saying the weapons were “essentially Iranian fingerprints.”

Some of the items on display were made as early as 2005, according to the Pentagon. It is unclear when they were provided to the Houthis in Yemen and therefore whether they constitute violations of United Nations Security Council resolutions put in place in 2015.

The rollout of the weapons appears to be another step in the administration’s moves to reverse the nuclear deal with Iran.

“Today, one of the things that we’re doing with all this information is the first step of implementing President Trump’s Iran strategy, which is to expose this behavior, to be clear about it, to show it to the world and be clear eyed so we can go forward together as a community, the US and our partners in the United National in addressing the totality of the Iranian threat," said Laura Seal a Pentagon spokesperson.

In October the administration said it would not certify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal, a move that gave Congress 60 days to decide whether to reimpose economic sanctions on Iran, effectively killing the nuclear arms agreement.

Haley said that following the decertification the U.S. is “taking a new approach to Iran by focusing on all of the regime’s destabilizing behavior, that means we are not just focused on the nuclear program."

The weapons systems were described as having distinctive manufacturing markings and designs unique to Iranian companies and military organizations. Iran has denied allegations that it has provided weapons to Yemen's Houthi rebels.

“The evidence is undeniable,” said Haley. “The weapons might as well have had "Made in Iran" stickers all over it.”

Haley described the Iranian weapons on display as "concrete evidence" that Iran was in violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231. That 2015 resolution endorsed the Iran nuclear agreement, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and calls on Iran not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles for eight years as well.

The weapons evidence was provided to the United Nations for its latest review of Iran's compliance with the resolution that was presented to the Security Council on Wednesday. Haley touted the report as the “strongest language yet” of Iran’s violations.

According to a copy of that report obtained by ABC News, the U.N. drew no conclusions on the weapons and is “still analyzing the information provided.”

Haley said the U.S., Saudi Arabia, the UAE were declassifying the evidence in an “unprecedented” move to show the world Iran’s “destabilizing behavior.”

Haley declined to provide specifics of what the next steps would be — saying only that the U.S. would rally support at the UN Security Council and in the international community to push back on Iran.

“We’re not done yet,” she said.

The administration has invited members of the UN Security Council and US Congress to see the evidence as well. European allies have been receptive and the US is “already getting support,” she said, as allies now “see that the president was right” about Iran.

As a backdrop, Haley was flanked by four Iranian-made weapons systems, the most prominent was a reconstructed Qiam 1 short-range ballistic missile put together from the parts of two missiles fired by Houthi rebels into Saudi Arabia in July and November, Haley said. The missile reconstruction included rocket engine parts, a booster section and the remnants of an explosive payload.

ABC News was invited on Wednesday to attend a preview hosted by the Defense Department of the Iranian weapons allegedly provided to the Houthis.

The items on display had been provided to the United States by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, a defense official stressed "we have no reason to believe they have been altered."

Qiam 1 Missile

First used in 2014, the missile is Iran's updated version of a 1960's Soviet SCUD missile that has a longer range.

Distinctive logos on pieces of the rocket engine show they were manufactured by an Iranian company. According to the Defense Department the missile on display showed unique characteristics to the Iranian Qiam missile including the lack of stabilizer fins, replaced by a wind-bolt made by an Iranian manufacturer, and nine valves along the booster section.

The Defense Department individually numbered each valve along the booster’s side to make that point.

The displayed explosive payload came from the missile fired in November that landed close to Riyadh's international airport and consisted of metallic fragments indicating the explosive warhead had hit the ground.

Shark 33 Self-Guided Explosive Boat

On display was the guidance computer system of a "Shark 33", a self-guided unmanned explosive boat used by the Houthis in the deadly attack on the Saudi warship Madinah in January that killed two Saudi sailors.

The Shark 33's guidance system was seized by the United Arab Emirates in late 2016.

The "rudimentary" system uses desktop computer, housed in a waterproof container, and a camera to guide to guide the explosive boat towards a ship.

The Defense Department pointed out that the maritime software used by the computer is made by an Iranian-company collision avoidance and that a "fuze plate” on display matched similar plates seized at sea from an Iranian dhow loaded with hundreds of Iranian small arms intended for the Houthis.

Intriguingly the camera system was found to include pictures taken at the facility in Iran where the Shark 33’s computer was built. The photos showed a man at a desk wearing distinctive markings of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, including an IRGC hat, and as well as seven other guidance computers in the background suggesting they were all built in the same facility.

Toophan anti-tank weapon Another displayed weapon was a Toophan anti-tank weapon that is a reverse-engineered copy of the American-made TOW anti-tank weapon. The TOW missile is optically guided by a wire to its target and can travel more than 2.3 miles (3.75 km) to its target.

According to the Defense Department a clear distinction between the two missiles is that the Iranian-made missile has a straight eject nozzle while the American nozzle has a conical shape.

The Toophan missile on display also had a date and time stamp on its structure that was consistent with the Persian calendar.

Qasef Unmanned Explosive Vehicle

The remotely piloted remotely piloted Qasef 1 drone is packed with explosives that the Defense Department said the Houthis have used in Yemen to ram into targets Kamikaze-style.

The unit on display was similar to Iran's Ababil drones and was seized by the Saudi military in Yemen.

The drone's gyroscope matched others found on Iranian-made drones and a serial number found on the unit matched similar number configurations found on other Iranian-made drones.

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