HARI SREENIVASAN: In the day’s other news, the Senate approved a $1.1 trillion spending bill, to keep the government running through September. It had already passed the House. The Senate vote sends the bill to President Trump. There’s more defense spending, as he wanted, but no funding for the promised border wall.
There’s word the Trump administration is talking with Iraq about having U.S. troops stay longer. Some 7,000 are deployed there now. Reports today say Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi wants some or all of them to remain, even after Islamic State forces are defeated.
Russia, Turkey and Iran agreed today to establish four non-conflict zones in Syria. Representatives of the three nations signed an agreement at peace talks in Kazakhstan. Some Syrian opposition delegates protested and walked out. Russia, Turkey and Iran worked out a Syrian cease-fire deal in December, but it collapsed after a few weeks.
President Trump signed an executive order today to let churches be more politically active. The White House said it eases enforcement of a ban on tax-exempt religious groups participating in politics. And, it mandates unspecified “regulatory relief” for groups citing religious objections against covering contraception for employees.
In a White House Rose Garden ceremony, the president said he’s re-affirming a commitment to freedom of religion.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: For too long, the federal government has used the power of the state as a weapon against people of faith. Bullying and even punishing Americans for following their religious beliefs. It’s been happening. That is why I am signing today an executive order to defend the freedom of religion and speech in America.
HARI SREENIVASAN: The American Civil Liberties Union said later that the order does not actually change much of anything. So, the group will not bother to challenge it in court.
The president is back in New York this evening, for the first time since his inauguration. Hundreds of protesters turned out as he met with the prime minister of Australia, before speaking at the USS Intrepid, a decommissioned aircraft carrier. The White House also announced he’ll travel to Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Vatican this month, his first overseas trip as president, concludes at a NATO summit in Belgium.
Former President Obama has weighed in on the French presidential election. He endorsed centrist Emmanuel Macron over far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, in a video message posted today on Macron’s Twitter account.
FORMER PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I’ve admired the campaign that Emmanuel Macron has run. He has stood up for liberal values, he put forward a vision for the important role that France plays in Europe and around the world, and he is committed to a better future for the French people. He appeals to people’s hopes and not their fears.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Polls suggest Macron is well ahead in Sunday’s run-off vote.
The governor of Puerto Rico is vowing no new taxes, and no new austerity measures, as the territory seeks debt relief. Puerto Rico filed Wednesday to restructure part of the $73 billion it owes.
Today, Governor Ricardo Rossello said he’ll negotiate with creditors. But he insisted, quote, “I am not going down a road that would force the people of Puerto Rico to make more sacrifices.”
And, on Wall Street, energy stocks sank, and canceled out gains elsewhere. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost six points to close at 20,951. The NASDAQ rose two points, and the S&P 500 added just one point.