Mandel Ngan/Getty

Trump’s porn-star scandal is growing.

Michael Cohen, a longtime lawyer for President Donald Trump, admitted Tuesday to The New York Times that he was behind the $130,000 payout to former porn star Stormy Daniels during the final weeks of the 2016 campaign. The source of the money had been a lingering mystery ever since The Wall Street Journal reported a month ago that Cohen had “arranged” the payout in exchange for Daniels’s silence about her purported affair with Trump.

In a statement to the Times, Cohen strongly denied that the money came from the Trump Organization or the Trump campaign, while strongly hinting that he paid Daniels out of his own pocket: “Neither the Trump Organization nor the Trump campaign was a party to the transaction with Ms. Clifford, and neither reimbursed me for the payment, either directly or indirectly,” Cohen said. “The payment to Ms. Clifford was lawful, and was not a campaign contribution or a campaign expenditure by anyone.” Cohen declined to tell the Times “whether Mr. Trump had been aware that Mr. Cohen made the payment, why he made the payment or whether he had made similar payments to other people over the years.”

Responding to a complaint that alleged Trump used campaign funds to pay Daniels, Cohen was adamant in his denial. “The complaint alleges that I somehow violated campaign finance laws by facilitating an excess, in-kind contribution,” Mr. Cohen said in his statement. “The allegations in the complaint are factually unsupported and without legal merit, and my counsel has submitted a response to the F.E.C.” This, as others have pointed out, is not quite an admission that the money came from Cohen personally. There’s quite a bit of wiggle room in the word “facilitate”—meaning that the money could have come from Trump or another wealthy financial backer.

In his statement to the Times, Cohen is trying to make it clear that he—and Trump, by extension—did not violate campaign finance laws. But his highly ambiguous statement to the Times raises more questions than it answers. Namely, even if the money didn’t come from the Trump campaign directly, Cohen’s actions seem to have been undertaken for the purpose of skirting campaign finance law. In 2011, John Edwards was indicted for soliciting money for the purpose of hiding the identity of his mistress from voters. The situation with Daniels seems similar. Even if campaign money wasn’t directly used, Cohen and Trump could still be in trouble.

November 20, 2018

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty

Trump hedges epically on whether the crown prince ordered Khashoggi’s death.

On Tuesday, the president of the United States issued a statement, rife with exclamation marks, explaining why he was standing with Saudi Arabia despite the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, an American permanent resident. In the key passage of the statement, Trump expressed uncertainty on the key question: the culpability of Saudi leaders in the assassination.

King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman vigorously deny any knowledge of the planning or execution of the murder of Mr. Khashoggi. Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!

In fact, the CIA has leaked their conclusion that they are certain with a high degree of confidence that bin Salman ordered Khashoggi’s murder.

Aside from the comment indicating uncertainty, Trump also repeated smears against the late journalist (“Representatives of Saudi Arabia say that Jamal Khashoggi was an ‘enemy of the state’ and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood”), while appending provisos. (“My decision is in no way based on that—this is an unacceptable and horrible crime.”) Trump also repeated the falsehood that Saudi Arabia has “agreed to spend and invest $450 billion in the United States,” creating “hundreds of thousands of jobs.”

As former CIA director John Brennan noted, Trump’s remarks mean that any accountability in the Khashoggi case will have to come from Congress.

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty

Walmart and other corporations are pulling support of senator after “public hanging” remark.

Republican Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi is losing the support of major corporations in a backlash to comments she made earlier this month. On November 2, while standing next to a supporter, Hyde-Smith said, “if he invited me to a public hanging I’d be on the front row.” The remarks were widely seen as an allusion to lynching.

Walmart contributed $2,000 to Hyde-Smith’s campaign. After receiving public criticism for the donation, including a tweet from the actress Debra Messing, the retail juggernaut said it was asking for the donation back:

Two other corporations, Union Pacific and Boston Scientific, have also withdrawn their donations to Hyde-Smith.

On Monday, Boston Science tweeted:

Hyde-Smith is widely expected to win the run-off election later this month, but Democrats reportedly believe that her remarks might energize their base and make the election much closer than expected.

Adam Berry/Getty

Interpol’s crisis will only get worse if they pick Russian president.

Interpol, the international organization that helps police in more than 190 nations coordinate transnational problems, might soon be headed by Alexander Prokopchuk, a senior Russian official who has been active in targeting opponents of Vladimir Putin. Prokopchuk is a leading candidate for the position of Interpol president, which is voted on by member nations.

The selection of Prokopchuk comes at a strange juncture in Interpol’s history. The previous president of Interpol, Meng Hongwei, has been missing for two months. Meng is a Chinese national and disappeared after returning to his home country. It is widely believed that he is either detained by the Chinese government or was executed. Weng’s disappearance is as sharp an illustration as one could hope of the dangers of handing over rein of Interpol to a citizen of an autocratic regime.

Writing in Bloomberg Opinion, Eli Lake connected Prokopchuk to the Russian government’s habit of abusing international policing to target political opponents. “It’s not just that Russia itself has abused Interpol’s system of issuing notices for arrest warrants to the national police of member states, known as red notices,” Lake notes but also that Prokopchuk has been the most prominent Russian figure who has abused this system.

Lake adds that, “The most famous victim of this kind of abuse is the hedge fund manager William Browder. Browder’s lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, died in a Russian prison in 2009 after exposing embezzlement by government officials. Browder then lobbied, tirelessly and successfully, for the Magnitsky Act, which imposes sanctions against government officials who commit grave human-rights abuses. Russia has issued red notices for Browder, an American-born citizen of the U.K.”

With many Western governments trying to ramp up Magnitsky Act style sanctions against Russia, the election of Prokopchuk to head Interpol would give Vladimir Putin’s government a powerful tool to retaliate.

Formed in 1923, Interpol was originally known as The International Criminal Police Organization (or Organisation internationale de police criminelle, the ICPC). In 1940, leadership of the ICPC was given to Reinhard Heydrich, a Nazi official and one of the key architects of the Holocaust. Heydrich moved the headquaters of ICPC to Berlin and made it a tool of the German state. The organization rebranded itself as Interpol after the war.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Ivanka Trump used personal email account for voluminous government correspondence.

The Washington Post is reporting that Ivanka Trump, one of the president’s daughters and a White House advisor, has frequently used a personal account to carry out public business. The fact that Trump and her husband Jared Kushner, also a White House advisor, used personal email accounts has been known for a year but the extent of Trump’s email usage is now becoming apparent. 

“Ivanka Trump sent hundreds of emails last year to White House aides, Cabinet officials and her assistants using a personal account, many of them in violation of federal records rules, according to people familiar with a White House examination of her correspondence,” the newspaper notes. “White House ethics officials learned of Trump’s repeated use of personal email when reviewing emails gathered last fall by five Cabinet agencies to respond to a public records lawsuit. That review revealed that throughout much of 2017, she often discussed or relayed official White House business using a private email account with a domain that she shares with her husband, Jared Kushner.”

The reliance on personal emails is problematic both legally and also politically, given that Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign made much hay of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.  On November 6, 2016, the official account of the Republican Party tweeted:

November 19, 2018

Jeff Spicer/Getty

Piers Morgan just can’t help himself on International Men’s Day.

International Men’s Day has become an occasion to share messages about the importance of self-care for men to fend off physical and psychological ailments. Many on Twitter marked the day by discussing problems that men are particularly prone to, with a special emphasis on suicide:

But there was at least one prominent figure who wanted to use International Men’s Day for entirely different purposes. Piers Morgan is one of 46 people on Twitter followed by American president Donald Trump. Morgan decided to use his twitter account to spew forth tweets that made it clear that for him the day is an occasion to spite feminists.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Donald Trump doesn’t actually seem all that keen on the military.

President Donald Trump’s bizarre decision to deride retired Admiral William McRaven on Sunday is symptomatic of a wider rift between the commander in chief and the military he oversees. 

Last year, McRaven said that the “president’s attack on the media is the greatest threat to our democracy in my lifetime.” Asked about these comments, Trump, in a Fox News interview that aired Sunday, inaccurately dismissed McRaven as a “Hillary Clinton fan” and “Obama backer.” 

The president also disparaged McRaven’s most famous achievement, commanding the raid that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden.  “Wouldn’t it have been nice if we got Osama bin Laden a lot sooner than that, wouldn’t it have been nice?” Trump asked. “You know, living—think of this—living in Pakistan, beautifully in Pakistan, in what I guess they considered a nice mansion, I don’t know, I’ve seen nicer. But living in Pakistan right next to the military academy, everybody in Pakistan knew he was there.”

The Navy SEAL who pulled the trigger responded to Trump’s words with a tweet:

Conversely, the official Twitter account of the Republican Party took the president’s side:

As The Washington Post notes, the tussle with McRaven raises “broader questions about Trump’s relationship with military matters.” The president has been widely criticized for not attending an armistice ceremony in France and a Veterans Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.  He has also failed to visit soldiers fighting in the Middle East. He’s criticized his Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis as “sort of a Democrat.” The Post does note that Trump has earned some appreciation from the military thanks to his increases in the budget. But even that might end soon, since rising deficits are causing the administration to recalibrate the budget. The five percent cut Trump has ordered in the budget will mean $33 billion less for the Pentagon. 

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty

The White House Correspondents’ Dinner forgoes comedy as Trump continues slapfight with CNN.

Breaking with tradition, the The White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) will not hire a comedian to host their next annual dinner, but instead will use the services of historian Ron Chernow. Known for his best-selling biographies of Alexander Hamilton (which inspired a popular musical) and Ulysses S. Grant, Chernow will speak about the importance of the First Amendment. The shift away from comedy is emblematic of the fraught relationship between the WHCA and the Trump White House. Last year, the president didn’t attend the WHCA dinner and comedian Michelle Wolf’s satirical routine was attacked by many of the president’s partisan supporters.

As the WHCA changes the tone of the dinner, the White House seems to be gearing up for another battle against CNN correspondent Jim Acosta. After a court order forcing the White House to return Acosta’s press pass, the White House is giving signs that they will only do so temporarily and are looking for another occasion to revoke it, which would ignite a wider conflict not just with CNN but also the WHCA.

On Friday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders was interviewed on Fox News by Mike Huckabee (her father). Sanders said, “[T]radition has been in the past that the White House Correspondents’ Association determines who sits in [the press] room and who sits in those individual seats.” Huckabee noted, “But that’s tradition. It’s not law.” Sanders replied, “True.”

The implication of the exchange is that the White House could try to change the tradition of having the WHCA decide who sits in press conferences. On Sunday, President Donald Trump said about Acosta in a Fox News interview that, “If he misbehaves, we’ll throw him out or we’ll stop the news conference.”

The White House clearly sees a political advantage in stirring up strife with the press.

OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty

Trump won’t be listening to the Khashoggi tape and is adopting a selective skepticism.

During an interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News which aired on Sunday, the president acknowledged that the United States government has a copy of a recording of the last moments of the life of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Asked if he had listened to the tape, Trump responded, “We have the tape. I don’t want to hear the tape. No reason for me to hear the tape.” He added that it was a “suffering tape” and “I know everything that went on in the tape without having to hear it . . . . It was very violent, very vicious and terrible.”

Beyond not wanting to listen to the tape, there’s reason to believe that Trump isn’t willing to follow the evidence of the Khashoggi case where it leads. On Friday, The Washington Post reported that the CIA had concluded that the evidence points with a high degree of confidence to Khashoggi being murdered at the order of the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman.  

In his Fox interview, Trump emphasized that bin Salman repeatedly denied involvement in the killing. “Well, will anybody really know?” Trump, said, when asked whether bin Salman could be lying. “You saw we put on very heavy sanctions, massive sanctions on a large group of people from Saudi Arabia. But, at the same time, we do have an ally, and I want to stick with an ally that in many ways has been very good.”

By asking whether “will anybody really know” Trump offered a characteristic rhetorical move of selective or opportunistic epistemological skepticism. When Trump doesn’t want the truth of a matter known, he starts talking like a philosopher who doubts whether anything can be known. An earlier example of this occurred in October when asked whether there was any proof of his claim there were Middle Easterners on the caravan of asylum seekers in Mexico. “There’s no proof of anything,” Trump replied.

November 16, 2018

TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty

Report: Trump is starting to ask questions about Mike Pence’s loyalty.

Last Wednesday President Donald Trump affirmed his desire to keep Vice President Mike Pence on the ticket for the 2020 election in the most public way possible, by asking “Mike, will you be my running mate?” at a press conference. But, as The New York Times reports, the surface bonhomie of the Trump/Pence relationship hides an undercurrent of distrust.

“In recent weeks, with his electoral prospects two years from now much on his mind, Mr. Trump has focused on the person who has most publicly tethered his fortunes to him,” the newspaper notes. “In one conversation after another he has asked aides and advisers a pointed question: Is Mike Pence loyal?”

The Times adds that “Mr. Trump has repeated the question so many times that he has alarmed some of his advisers. The president has not openly suggested dropping Mr. Pence from the ticket and picking another running mate, but the advisers say those kinds of questions usually indicate that he has grown irritated with someone.”

These reasons behind these questions are unclear. Aside from a brief expression of disapproval in October 2016 when the Access Hollywood tape was released, Pence has been as loyal a soldier as the president could want. Pence has helped secure Trump’s support among evangelical Christians, a key part of the Republican coalition. But since Times has now established his own popularity with those voters, Pence might be superfluous. Trump has shown a propensity for liking to keep his underlings uncertain of their status, so they struggle harder to please him. Mike Pence would be foolish to think his position is secure.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty

The Mueller probe is going beyond Russian interference and looking at Saudi Arabia and other countries.

Writing in The Daily Beast, Erin Banco and Betsy Woodruff are reporting that special counsel Robert Mueller has been interviewing former Dick Cheney aid John Hannah, a sign that the investigation is expanding beyond its original purview and now looking at possible foreign interference in the 2016 election by other nations. Hannah, a stalwart figure in Republican foreign policy circles, has extensive ties to the governments such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel.

According to Banco and Woodruff, “Mueller’s team has been looking into the communications and political dealings of John Hannah, the former Cheney adviser who later worked on Trump’s State Department transition team. This includes interactions with Lebanese-American businessman and fixer George Nader, who brokered meetings between foreign dignitaries and Team Trump, and Joel Zamel, a self-proclaimed social-media guru with deep ties to Israeli intelligence.”

In 2016, Zamel’s company Psy Group attempted to sell its services as a social media influencer to the Trump campaign. According to the Daily Beast, Zamel was “trying to sell the Trump campaign on an online influence strategy and was communicating with several Trump officials, including Rick Gates, who has since pleaded guilty to conspiracy and lying to the FBI.”

A plan was presented to Donald Trump Jr., but there are conflicting accounts as to whether the services of Psy Group were used or not. In early 2017, the trio of Hannah, Zamel and Nader were instrumental in arranging a meeting between a Saudi general and members of Trump’s transition team, including Michael Flynn, who later became Trump’s first National Security advisor. The topic of discussion was overthrowing the Iranian regime.