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If there was “no collusion” why did the Trump transition team work so hard to set up a back channel with Russia?

On Wednesday evening, The Washington Post reported that special counsel Robert Mueller is zeroing in on Blackwater founder and all-around bad guy Erik Prince. Mueller is apparently particularly interested in a meeting that Prince had with a Kremlin-connected Russian official in the Seychelles during the Trump transition, in which they reportedly discussed setting up a back channel between Trump and Moscow. That Mueller has uncovered evidence of an attempt to set up this back channel also apparently contradicts testimony Prince gave before Congress regarding what he was doing in the Seychelles.

If true, this would be at least the third known attempt to set up a back channel between Trump and Russia. In December of 2016, Jared Kushner, Michael Flynn, and then–Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak secretly met in Trump Tower, and Kushner later testified before Congress that Kislyak had suggested they set up a back channel. Two weeks later, Kushner and Flynn secretly met with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates, and discussed setting up a back channel between Russia and the United States. Zayed’s office then reportedly set up the meeting between Erik Prince and the Russian official in the Seychelles.

What’s not entirely clear is what the back channel would have been for. Zayed and Kushner reportedly discussed efforts to drive a wedge between Russia and Iran, so Russian foreign policy is a leading contender. But these discussions were happening only a few days before Trump was inaugurated. If the topic of conversation really only centered on foreign policy, that surely could have waited a week and a half. The most innocent explanation here isn’t really that innocent: that the Trump transition was so suspicious of the outgoing Obama administration that it wanted to keep its conversations with Russia secret. But given all of the other smoke surrounding Russia and the Trump campaign, there are many less innocent explanations as well.

December 10, 2018

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Theresa May admits she doesn’t have the votes for her Brexit deal.

On Monday, British Prime Minister Theresa May delayed the planned vote on the deal her government has negotiated for exiting the European Union, acknowledging that there wasn’t enough support in Parliament to push it through. The major stumbling block remains Northern Ireland, which wants its borders with Ireland (a member of the European Union) to remain open. The so-called “backstop” in Northern Ireland to ensure the open border is deeply unpopular with Brexit supporters. As Reuters notes, “May’s opponents say the backstop could leave Britain subject indefinitely to EU rules, long after it gives up say in drafting them.”

Addressing Parliament, May conceded that, “On one issue, the Northern Ireland backstop, there remains widespread and deep concern.”

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn responded to the news by saying that “the government has decided Theresa May’s Brexit deal is so disastrous that it has taken the desperate step of delaying its own vote at the eleventh hour.”

Corbyn is not alone in seeing the news as a sign of a government in shambles. Analyzing the situation, Reuters concludes that “the move thrusts the United Kingdom’s divorce from the European Union into chaos, with possible options including a disorderly Brexit with no deal, another referendum on EU membership, or a last minute renegotiation of May’s deal.”

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Is the Supreme Court avoiding abortion cases?

That’s what three of the conservative justices suggested after the court announced on Monday that they wouldn’t hear Gee v. Planned Parenthood and Anderson v. Planned Parenthood. The two cases involve challenges to state efforts to cut off the organization from state Medicaid funds.

The court declines to hear thousands of cases each year without explanation. In a dissent, however, justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch put forward their own interpretation of the court’s inaction here. Because only four votes are needed to hear a case, their dissent signals that Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh voted against taking up the decision, alongside the court’s four liberals.

Both cases address whether Medicaid recipients have the legal standing to challenge a state’s decision to bar Planned Parenthood from receiving state Medicaid funds. There’s a divide among the lower counts on the question, Thomas noted, which is one of the most common circumstances in which the justices intervene. “So what explains the Court’s refusal to do its job here?” he wrote. “I suspect it has something to do with the fact that some respondents in these cases are named ‘Planned Parenthood.’”

Thomas is being somewhat coy; he, Alito, and Gorsuch are better positioned than anyone else to know why Roberts and Kavanaugh voted against hearing the cases. Their suggestion sends an interesting signal in the legal fight over abortion rights after Justice Kennedy’s retirement. Supporters and opponents alike assumed that Kavanaugh would provide conservatives with their long-awaited fifth vote to sharply curtail the practice or even overturn Roe v. Wade. Monday’s decision suggests that the damage inflicted on the court’s public image by Kavanaugh’s confirmation battle may have changed that calculus, and that a substantive move against abortion rights may be further away than many previously thought.

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Nick Ayers, expected to be named White House Chief of Staff, turns down the job.

The White House is scrambling to find a replacement for outgoing Chief of Staff John Kelly, after the presumptive replacement rejected the job. As The New York Times reports, “Nick Ayers, the main focus of President Trump’s search to replace John F. Kelly as chief of staff in recent weeks, said on Sunday that he was leaving the administration at the end of the year.” Ayers had been in negotiations with the White House to take the position, but talks broke down over several issues, including how long Ayers was expected to stay on the job. Ayers wanted the job to be temporary while the president preferred a chief of staff willing to commit to at least two years.

Kelly’s tenure as chief of staff had been a tumultuous one, marked by repeated failures to impose the promised order that the former general was hired to bring to the White House. Any successor would face an even more difficulties, given the president’s mounting political troubles.

“The decision leaves Mr. Trump to contend with fresh uncertainty as he enters the 2020 campaign amid growing danger from the Russia investigation and from Democrats who have vowed tougher oversight, and could even pursue impeachment, after they take over the House next month,” The New York Times notes. “As the president hastily restarted the search process, speculation focused on a group that was led by Representative Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican who is the hard-edge chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, but also included the Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin; Mr. Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney; and the United States trade representative, Robert Lighthizer.”

By the end of Sunday night, even this shortlist seemed like a grasping at straws since some of the those on it were reportedly not interested in the job. As Politico reporter Nancy Cook tweeted:

December 07, 2018

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Neo-Nazi declared guilty of murdering Charlottesville protestor.

The Associated Press is reporting that James Alex Fields Jr., age 21, has been convicted by a Virginia jury of first-degree murder for ramming his car into a group of protestors during the Unite the Right rally on August 12, 2017, killing one protester, Heather Heyer, and injuring 40 others.

As The New York Times notes, “Friday’s verdict provides some closure in a case that cast a national spotlight on Charlottesville, the scene chosen by racists and anti-Semites to rally for their cause, near a Confederate monument that some city leaders were trying to remove. The August 2017 Unite the Right rally was marked by violent clashes between counterprotesters and white nationalists, some of whom were convicted earlier this year.”

On the day of the murder, Fields’s mother had texted to him “be careful.” He responded “We’re not the one[s] who need to be careful.” That text was accompanied by a photo of Adolph Hitler.

Additional evidence showed that Fields’s act was an outgrowth of his neo-Nazi ideology. “Prosecutors also showed the jury a cartoon that Mr. Fields had shared months earlier on Instagram of a car ramming into a crowd, with the words, ‘You have the right to protest but I’m late for work.’” The New York Times observes. “Other evidence included recordings of conversations that Mr. Fields had with his mother after his arrest, in which he described the counterprotesters at the rally as a ‘violent gang of terrorists,’ and derided Ms. Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, as an ‘anti-white liberal’ who should be viewed as an enemy.”

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Federal prosecutors recommend “substantial” jail time for Michael Cohen despite his cooperation with the Russia investigation.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan told a federal court on Friday that President Donald Trump’s former legal counsel should receive a “substantial term of imprisonment” after he pleaded guilty to charges related to tax evasion, fraud, and campaign-finance violations in August. But in a separate filing, special counsel Robert Mueller praised Cohen’s cooperation with his own office’s investigation and recommended leniency.

Cohen previously told the court that he cooperated with the investigations out of a sense of “personal resolve.” But federal prosecutors disputed that characterization, noting that Cohen only reached out to the special counsel’s office in August when he realized he was about to be indicted by the Manhattan office. “As such, any suggestion by Cohen that his meetings with law enforcement reflect a selfless and unprompted about-face are overstated,” the Manhattan office told the court. They recommended that he serve roughly three-and-a-half years in prison.

Two of the offenses to which Cohen pleaded guilty involved hush-money payments aimed at suppressing accounts of Trump’s extramarital affairs with two women. Those payments, prosecutors said, violated federal campaign-finance laws by exceeding donation limits. The Manhattan office directly linked those payments to the president in Friday’s filing, telling the court that Cohen “acted in coordination with and at the direction of Individual-1,” the prosecutors’ pseudonym for Trump. (Cohen himself made a similar assertion during his plea hearing in August.)

The special counsel’s office, on the other hand, offered a more laudatory account of Cohen’s cooperation with the Russia investigation. Cohen pleaded guilty last month to lying to Congress about his role in negotiating Russian real-estate deals for the Trump Organization during the 2016 campaign. Mueller told the court on Friday that Cohen had taken “significant steps to mitigate his criminal conduct” and provided “credible and consistent information” to investigators over the course of seven meetings.

Mueller offered few clues about what the president’s former lawyer offered in the Russia investigation. Friday’s filing asserted that Cohen gave “useful information concerning certain discrete Russia-related matters core to its investigation that he obtained by virtue of his regular contact with Company executives during the campaign.” The special counsel’s office also said that Cohen “provided relevant and useful information concerning his contacts with persons connected to the White House during the 2017–2018 time period.”

Those vague descriptions may prompt a wave of unease among members of Trump’s inner circle, many of whom have already given their version of events to federal investigators and congressional committees. Among those under the most intense scrutiny is Donald Trump Jr., a high-ranking Trump organization executive. California Representative Jackie Speier, a Democratic member of the House Intelligence Committee, told reporters on Friday that she believed the president’s son may have lied to Congress twice about Russia-related matters. She did not specify what she believes he lied about.

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Secretary of Veterans Affairs once promulgated a neo-Confederate interpretation of Civil War.

CNN is reporting they’ve uncovered the transcripts of a 1995 speech in which Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie advocated a “Lost Cause” view of the Civil War in which the Confederates were tragic heroes. “Today marks the 187th anniversary of the birth of Jefferson Davis; planter, soldier, statesman, President of the Confederate States of America, martyr to ‘The Lost Cause,’ and finally the gray-clad phoenix,” Wilkie said at an event organized by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. “An exceptional man in an exceptional age.”

Wilkie linked the politics of Jefferson Davis with contemporary conservatism, saying, “America is searching for a better way. Walker Percy urged us to look South to recover community, stability, and sense of place in God’s order which we have regrettably lost. That is a tall proposition but it is certainly one Jefferson Davis would understand and certainly one for which he would fight.”

The event took place at the statue of Jefferson Davis, who Wilkie describes as having “contempt for the radical abolitionists of the Republican Party” because “they would violate any law and abridge any freedom to impose their idea of the just society on others.” Wilkie seemed to share those views since he characterized the radical abolitionists in Congress as being as “mendacious as the Jacobins of Revolutionary France.”

During his confirmation hearings Wilkie distanced himself from neo-Confederates, saying their events had become “part of the politics that divide us.” He added that he no longer attended them and his critics were focused on events that happened 25 years ago. Wilkie spoke to a division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans as recently as 2009.

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Trump says his former secretary of state was “dumb as a rock” and “lazy as hell.”

On Friday afternoon, President Donald Trump tweeted:

The president seems to be responding to an interview former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gave on Thursday. In that interview, Tillerson described the president as someone who is “pretty undisciplined, doesn’t like to read, doesn’t read briefing reports, doesn’t like to get into the details of a lot of things, but rather just kind of says, ‘This is what I believe.’”

In essence, Tillerson was saying Trump is stupid and lazy, so Trump was echoing back these words. This is classic Trump. When accused of being a Russian puppet by his rival Hillary Clinton, Trump responded, “No puppet, no puppet. You’re the puppet.”

Previously, Trump has used the phrase “dumb as a rock” to describe several people including Don Lemon, Glenn Beck, Mika Brzezinski, and Rick Wilson. Trump uses the insult “lazy” less often. He’s applied it to Florida Senator Marco Rubio.

When Trump fired Tillerson in March 2018, he praised the outgoing Secretary of State for his “intellect” and said he “got along well with Rex.”

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A $34,000 debt links Republican candidate to possible election fraud in disputed North Carolina race.

The New York Times is reporting that the campaign of Mark Harris, who ran for Congress as a Republican in a still unsettled race in North Carolina’s 9th district, has an outstanding debt to a consulting firm accused of illegally collecting, and possibly tampering with or misdirecting, absentee ballots. According to the newspaper, the Harris campaign “listed an obligation of $34,310 for ‘reimbursement payment for Bladen absentee, early voting poll workers; reimbursement door to door,” owed to the Red Dome Group. “Red Dome Group, in turn, contracted with L. McCrae Dowless Jr., a Bladen County political operative who has been accused of collecting absentee ballots from voters in a potentially illegal effort to tip the election toward the Republican nominee.”

This news intensifies doubts about the legitimacy of the election. On Thursday, Democratic candidate Dan McCready withdrew the concession he had previously made, saying in a statement, “I didn’t serve overseas in the Marines to come home to NC and watch a criminal, bankrolled by my opponent, take away people’s very right to vote. Today I withdraw my concession and call on Mark Harris to end his silence and tell us exactly what he knew, and when.”

In a setback for Harris, Republican leaders in the state have indicated they are open to holding a new election. If there is a new election, it would have the same slate of candidates unless one of them died or moved out of state. As Gerry Cohen, a former special counsel for the North Carolina General Assembly, explained to The New York Times, if Harris didn’t want to be on the ticket he could “move to Rock Hill, S.C. or to a country with no extradition treaty.”

Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative National Review, wrote in an opinion piece Friday that “Republicans won’t like it, but they should probably want to start over, for the sake of the integrity of their own nominating process, if nothing else.” But he also saw the story as evidence that Republican concern about voter fraud—an anxiety which Democrats tend to dismiss as cover for voter supression—is legitimate: “Rules should be rigorous, and it’s insane that the sort of vote harvesting that Dowless engaged in—i.e., a private party collecting the ballots of voters—is perfectly legal in California.”

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Will Trump’s pick for attorney general protect the Justice Department or the president?

Confirming initial reports on Thursday, the president told reporters on Friday that he would nominate William Barr to lead the Justice Department. The announcement came one month to the day after the ouster of Jeff Sessions, who held the post for the first two years of Trump’s administration.

Barr will be a familiar face at the Justice Department: He previously served as attorney general from 1991 to 1993 under President George H. W. Bush. During that tenure, he carved out a reputation as a tough-on-crime conservative with an expansive view of executive power, making him a natural choice for a president who favors stark, unilateral policy decisions.

As attorney general, Barr will wield enormous influence over the machinery of federal law enforcement, its criminal-justice policies, and the nation’s immigration courts. But he may ultimately receive the most attention for his handling of the Russia investigation under special counsel Robert Mueller. Barr’s full views on the inquiry itself are not yet known. However, he will likely receive intense scrutiny from senators for a Washington Post op-ed he wrote last year defending Trump’s decision to fire then-FBI Director James Comey.

Since the Watergate crisis, the Justice Department has traditionally kept a degree of independence from the White House and its political operations. Trump has frequently challenged this norm, asserting in public and in private that he would be willing to take personal command of the department’s investigative functions and use them to pursue his political opponents. Whether Barr will safeguard the Russia investigation and the Justice Department’s nonpartisanship will be a key question in his confirmation hearings. Under the precedent set by Attorney General Elliot Richardson during Watergate, senators have every right to demand his sworn pledge to maintain the department’s independence before elevating him to the post.

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Rex Tillerson found it hard to work for a president who “doesn’t like to read.”

Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gave a rare public interview in Houston Thursday, during which he confirmed many critiques of his former boss. Speaking with CBS News’s Bob Schieffer, Tillerson said, “What was challenging for me coming from the disciplined, highly process-oriented Exxon Mobil corporation to go to work for a man who is pretty undisciplined, doesn’t like to read, doesn’t read briefing reports, doesn’t like to get into the details of a lot of things, but rather just kind of says, ‘This is what I believe.’”

As Secretary of State, part of Tillerson’s job seemed to include pushing back against Trump’s desire to do illegal acts: “So often, the president would say, ‘Here’s what I want to do, and here’s how I want to do it,’ and I would have to say to him, ‘Mr. President, I understand what you want to do, but you can’t do it that way. It violates the law.’”

When Tillerson was fired as Secretary of State in March 2018, he reportedly learned the news from reading Donald Trump’s Twitter feed. Not surprisingly, Tillerson doesn’t seem to be a fan of social media. In the interview, Tillerson credited Trump’s rise in part to his ability to communicate via Twitter.

“I will be honest with you, it troubles me that the American people seem to want to know so little about issues, that they are satisfied with a 128 characters,” Tillerson said.

But he also added that his remarks weren’t directed at Trump but about the larger role of social media. “I don’t want that to come across as a criticism of him,” Tillerson emphasized. “It’s really a concern that I have about us as Americans and us as a society and us as citizens”