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Wednesday
May162018

Russian social media giant offered pro-Trump effort during campaign 

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- A Russian tech executive began pitching the Trump campaign in early 2016 about using social media to help gain “massive exposure” for his presidential bid, according to Senate interview transcripts released Wednesday.

In an email to Donald Trump, Jr., that was copied to his father’s personal assistant, Rhona Graff, music publicist Rob Goldstone - who acted as an intermediary - shared the proposal to build candidate Trump a page on Russia’s popular Facebook equivalent VK. The plan was the brainchild of the Russian social media giant’s head of marketing, Konstantin Sidorkov, the Senate documents show, revealing exchanges between the executive and Goldstone with the former detailing to the later exactly what to pitch.

Goldstone described the plan in his email, saying the company “had an idea to create a campaign page on VK for Mr. Trump and market it to the almost 3 million influential Russian American voters living in the USA.”

“I can get massive exposure for Mr. Trump on the site for sure - and it will be covered in Russian media also - - where I noticed your campaign is covered positively almost daily - [with] extremely gracious comments from President Putin etc.,” he wrote.

Graff then forwarded the message to the campaign’s social media director, Dan Scavino, who replied, “This is great!”

The pitches, which began in January 2016, represent the first known instance of Russian nationals urging Trump to accept their help in promoting his White House bid through a more robust social media campaign – though in this case it is limited to Russian-based platforms.

Scavino told ABC News in an e-mailed statement, “I do not know Rob Goldstone – the ‘pitch’ came to me via an email on January 19, 2016 - that I was cc’d on, and the email chain regarding VK was below that. I kindly acknowledged the email on the same day, and did not pursue further. There are no other responses.”

Efforts by Russian-based companies to spread pro-Trump and anti-Hillary Clinton messages on American-based social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have become a focus of congressional and Special Counsel investigators. Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russians and three Russian companies in February for an alleged complex online scheme to sow discord in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and help elect Donald Trump, activity covertly set up and organized by a Putin-connected oligarch.

By June 2016, a day before the infamous Trump Tower meeting - which Goldstone also set up - the publicist sent a fresh email pushing the idea of a social media campaign. This time he included a mock-up web page featuring Donald Trump’s picture, his campaign slogan, pictures from the trail, and a previous Trump tweet sure to be popular with the candidate, “The media is really on a witch-hunt against me.”

Sidorkov, through Goldstone, touted the site as the most popular in Russia, a statistic confirmed by Amazon’s Alexa analysis site, and extended this invitation, “Also we can set up the official meeting with our CEO and fly to USA anytime,” he wrote. It is unclear if the meeting ever occurred.

In late June, Goldstone tried again, emailing Scavino that he had mentioned the idea to then-Trump campaign head Paul Manafort, adding, “At the time, Paul had said he would welcome it and so I had the VK folks mock up a basic sample page - which I am re-sending for your approval now. It would merely require Mr. Trump to drop in a short message to Russian American voters - or a generic message depending on your choice - and the page can be up and running very quickly.”

Scavino told ABC News that he never pursued the project.

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Wednesday
May162018

Tillerson warns of 'crisis of ethics and integrity' in US

Alex Wong/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had a stark warning Wednesday about a "crisis of ethics and integrity" and the dangers of "alternative realities" and leaders who "seek to conceal the truth."

In his first major speech since he was fired by President Donald Trump in March, Tillerson gave the commencement address at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va., and although he never mentioned Trump specifically, the pointed remarks appeared to be shots at his former boss.

"If our leaders seek to conceal the truth or we as people become accepting of alternative realities that are no longer grounded in facts, then we as American citizens are on a pathway to relinquishing our freedom," he told the graduates.

At the center of "a growing crisis of ethics and integrity," he said, was that kind of assault on the truth, the "central tenet of a free society."

"When we as people, a free people, go wobbly on the truth – even on what may seem the most trivial of matters – we go wobbly on America," Tillerson added. "If we do not as Americans confront the crisis of ethics and integrity in our society and among our leaders in both public and private sector – and regrettably at times even the nonprofit sector – then American democracy as we know it is entering its twilight years."

In the face of that, it is every American's responsibility to each other "to preserve and protect our freedom by recognizing what truth is and is not, what a fact is and is not, and begin by holding ourselves accountable to truthfulness and demand our pursuit of America's future be fact-based," he said.

The former ExxonMobil CEO had a rocky relationship with the president, with many of their policy disagreements out in the open and Trump cutting him down on a handful of occasions with open rebukes. It was reported that he called the president a "moron," something he never denied, saying he would not deal with "petty nonsense."

But he was also criticized for mismanaging the State Department, instituting a hiring freeze that was seen as destructive and unnecessary, leaving top positions vacant or filled by officials in acting roles, and concentrating power within a small inner circle that alienated many employees.

He was also known for is distrust of the media, initially barring journalists from traveling with him and giving few interviews.

Tillerson joked that the role was not his favorite, saying that he had his dream job in 1992 at Exxon as a division manager over Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Colorado: "All I ever wanted to do, it was the best job I ever had. It's all been downhill since," he said to laughs.

He also laid out three "beatitudes" from an old Boy Scout leader that could be taken as self-descriptions.

"Blessed is the man who can see you make a fool of yourself and doesn't think you've done a permanent job," he said to laughs and applause. "Blessed is the man who does not try to blame all of his failures on someone else. And blessed is the man that can say that the boy he was would be proud of the man he is."

Many of his lines, however, were not new. A proud Eagle Scout and former president of the Boy Scouts of America, he spoke at length about the importance of integrity to building trust and cooperation and solving problems, as he had several times as secretary, including in his farewell address in the department's lobby.

"We do not have to look far to find examples of the cost to individuals and to society when integrity is sacrificed for immediate gain or personal achievement. Such damage strikes at the very heart of a free society, it undermines the public trust in institutions and the overwhelming number of individuals, organizations who do live and compete by the rules every day," he said.

His message to graduates was to join organizations or work at companies that value integrity, and "Look for employers who set high standards for personal conduct and who reward ethical leadership."

The former top U.S. diplomat also dipped into foreign policy, taking some shots at President Trump's trade policy and criticism of U.S. allies.

"We must recognize the value of friends and allies, allies born of shared values and shared sacrifices... We must never take these long-held allies for granted. We must motivate and strengthen them, not just in our areas of complete agreement, but particularly in bridging our differences both in trading relations and in national security matters," he said

While Trump pursued protectionist trade policies and welcomed trade wars as "good, and easy to win," the global businessman in Tillerson fought against them, urging the president to reconsider steel and aluminum tariffs in one of the last battles that he lost while secretary.

"Here at home, [global economic] changes have led to anxiety and fear about the growth in foreign markets and about the global movement of jobs," he said Wednesday. "We must acknowledge, however, that every nation has a right to aspire to a better quality of life and that free trade and economic growth are the means by which opportunity is created for all people."

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Wednesday
May162018

White House says 'couple of bad actors' responsible for latest leaks

Mark Wilson/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- White House press secretary Sarah Sanders had harsh words for members of her own staff Wednesday following leaks about an aide's callous private remarks about ailing Sen. John McCain that drew a barrage of bipartisan criticism.

"I can tell you there are a couple of bad actors," Sanders said in an interview on 'Fox and Friends.' "I think it is disgusting and some of the most shameful behavior that you could ever engage in."

Sanders' comments followed President Donald Trump's own personal condemnation of West Wing leakers on Monday, who he described in a tweet as "traitors and cowards."
The White House has been under fire from Democrats and Republicans who have called for a public apology to Sen. McCain after White House aide Kelly Sadler said McCain’s opposition to Gina Haspel’s nomination to be CIA Director didn't matter because he’s “dying anyway."

Sanders then convened a Friday meeting where she was described as "on the verge of tears" as she scolded staff for the leak of the comment, according to multiple senior White House officials.

The White House has since sought to shift attention away from Sadler's comments and to the leak itself, with Sanders again pressed during her Fox and Friends interview why the White House won't apologize to the McCain family.

“I'm not going to get into the back and forth on this, I think it's been addressed. We are dealing with this matter internally,” Sanders said.

While Sanders didn't offer any specific examples, she said in the past she has caught staffers for leaking and described them as "cowards" who abused their opportunity to work in the White House.

"I have personally fired people over leaking before," Sanders said. "And we certainly would be very willing to do so again."

In an interview with Fox News Monday night, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway was asked if she thought there would be any personnel changes in the White House as a result of recent leaks, to which she replied, "I do actually, yes I do."

But when asked Wednesday by reporters if there were any departures expected soon, Sanders didn't answer one way or the other.

"We’ll keep you posted if we have any personnel announcements," Sanders said.

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Wednesday
May162018

'We’ll see': Trump responds to North Korea's threats to cancel summit

Pete Marovich-Pool/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- The White House said Wednesday that it "fully expected" threats by North Korea to potentially cancel Kim Jong Un's meeting with President Donald Trump. In a series of statements this week, the country's state media agency said Kim was considering pulling out of the summit due to joint air force drills taking place in South Korea.

“This is something that we fully expected,” press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters at the White House today. “The president is very used to being ready for tough negotiations and if they want to meet, we’ll be ready, and if they don’t, that’s okay, too."

Hours later, President Trump reacted to the statements for the first time when pressed by reporters in an Oval Office meeting alongside Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev.

“We haven't been notified at all," Trump said. "We'll have to see. We haven't seen anything, we haven't heard anything. We will see what happens.”

North Korea's announcement, issued Tuesday evening by state news organization KCNA, appeared to catch the State Department off guard, with spokesperson Heather Nauert telling reporters the U.S. had not heard from North Korea directly before the announcement.

Earlier Wednesday, Sanders clarified the administration's plan if the summit were to be canceled.

"We’re going to continue with the campaign of maximum pressure if that’s the case," Sanders said. "But like I said if they want to meet, the president will certainly be ready and we’ll be prepared. If not, that’s okay.”

Sanders also appeared to distance the Trump administration from comments its national security adviser, John Bolton, made this past Sunday regarding the denuclearization model being pursued on the Korean peninsula.

Bolton has repeatedly said that the administration plans to pursue "the Libya model," which calls for a strict monitoring and inspection plan to ensure North Korea has denuclearized.

North Korea's first vice minister for foreign affairs, Kim Kye Gwan, directly criticized the model in a lengthy statement Wednesday night, accusing U.S. officials of "provoking" the country with "unbridled remarks."

"High-ranking officials of the White House and the Department of State including Bolton, White House national security adviser, are letting loose the assertions of so-called Libya mode of nuclear abandonment," the statement read.

"The U.S. is miscalculating the magnanimity and broad-minded initiatives of the DPRK as signs of weakness and trying to embellish and advertise as if these are the product of its sanctions and pressure," the statement added. "It is ridiculous comedy to see the Trump administration, claiming to take a different road from the previous administration, still clings to the outdated policy on the DPRK."

Sanders told reporters gathered in the North Lawn driveway at the White House Wednesday that the Libya model is not a part of any administration policy she’s aware of.

“I haven’t seen that as part of any discussions, I’m not aware that that’s a model that we’re using,” Sanders said. “Again, this is the President Trump model. He’s gonna run this the way he sees fit. We’re 100 percent confident -- as we’ve said many times before, as you all know, you’re aware -- he’s the best negotiator, and we’re very confident in that.”

The episode has drawn parallels to the breakdown in the Bush Administration's nuclear negotiations with North Korea in 2008. At the time, Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, balked at requests for a strict inspections program similar to what President George W. Bush had utilized to eliminate Libya's nuclear program in 2003 and 2004.

"There’s not a cookie-cutter model on how this works," Sanders said in response to Bolton's championing of that model.



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Wednesday
May162018

What happens inside a meeting with Robert Mueller

Alex Wong/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team have interviewed dozens of witnesses since his appointment nearly one year ago, but the process is largely the same.

In most cases, witnesses arrive at a nondescript office building in Washington, D.C., a discreet government annex maintained by the Department of Justice. Some have walked right through the front door, in full view of the swarm of reporters scanning the foot traffic, while others have opted to slip through the underground parking garage, where cameras cannot capture their arrivals.

They are typically ushered into a small conference room, greeted by a team of prosecutors and presented with a list of about 100 names.

The first question is simple: ‘Whom do you know?’

A book of photos is used to refresh memories, and as hours of questioning gets underway, Mueller himself has been known to slide into the room to listen, and then just as quietly, slide out.

Little is known about the size, scope and direction of Mueller’s highly secretive probe Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 election beyond the clues offered by the few guilty pleas and handful of indictments, but according to one witness, a years-worth of interviews has yielded no small amount of information.

“I'll tell you, they know a lot,” former Trump adviser Michael Caputo told ABC News following his own interview with Mueller’s team. “They have everything.”

A similar story is emerging from these individual encounters. Several sources who have met with the special counsel were asked about specific individuals: when they first met, how often they spoke, what they spoke about, as well as anything they might heard about them. Should a witness not recognize a name, investigators might move on or offer hints, sources said, to jog their memories.

One source who's been interviewed by the Special Counsel told ABC News they'd describe the prosecutor and investigators the person met with as “polite and professional." The source added that investigators they met with made it clear they "just wanted to know the facts."

“They said that we should have no concerns and just wanted clarification," the source told ABC News. The source added that the investigator then made a joke about the use of colorful language in emails the source sent and was being asked about, which made the Mueller prosecutor in the room laugh.

Three former Trump campaign aides – George Papadopoulos, Lt. General Michael Flynn and Rick Gates – have agreed to cooperate after pleading guilty to lesser charges. As part of their cooperation agreements, both Flynn and Gates have met with the special counsel’s investigators at that same Washington office building several times over the last several months to answer questions about their time on the campaign and about other individuals associated with its activities.

Other interviews have taken place offsite. Simona Mangiante, whose husband George Papadopoulos, became the first former Trump aide to agree to cooperate with the Mueller team, said she was summoned to an interview at the FBI’s offices in Chicago, where she was living, and was struck by in her interview the focus of investigators’ questions.

“You are questioned about a single segment of some [topic where there is a] bigger picture that you don't necessarily understand in the moment you answer these questions,” Mangiante said.

Still others, usually those involving witnesses who live overseas, have been conducted in the bowels of U.S. airports after federal agents have surprised them in passport control lines and escorted them to customs offices.

Ted Malloch, controversial author and Trump supporter who lives in London, was stopped in Boston’s Logan Airport and said agents were “extremely professional” and even “humorous.”

“They talked to me for about 50 minutes, and it was actually quite friendly,” Malloch said.

Stephen Roh, a German lawyer with ties to the suspected Russian agent -- a professor who is described in court papers as having introduced Papadopoulos to Russian officials, recounted a far less pleasant interaction in a paper published by the energy firm where he works. Roh wrote that he “was fished from the passport control queue by the FBI and his family was retained with armed police force. There followed hours of interrogation and search by the FBI, a team of Special Counsel Robert Mueller investigating Russia-Gate.”

In an email with ABC News, Roh said that while the encounter was “intimidating” to his children, he now considers the entire affair “irrelevant.”

Robert Anderson, a 20-year veteran of the FBI who is now in private practice, said the airport has proven to be a convenient place for federal agents to interview witnesses in a controlled, safe environment.

“It’s a choke point,” Anderson said. “You know someone has to come through there. Once they are in the country they are lost.”

A year into the probe, the special counsel has shown no signs of slowing down. Multiple individuals who have been contacted by the special counsel for an interview told ABC News they are still waiting on an interview date, and other sources said that some witnesses have been told that they will need to return for follow-up interviews.

As Trump’s allies have begun calling for a swift end to the probe, one of his associates told ABC News he believes there is still much work to be done.

“These guys have been doing a lot of digging but I think they're still following leads on things that they're not really quite close enough to yet,” Caputo said. “They have probably more people to talk to.”



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Wednesday
May162018

Gina Haspel wins approval from Senate Intel Committee

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Trump’s pick to be the next CIA director, Gina Haspel, won approval from the Senate Intelligence Committee Wednesday morning, receiving a "favorable recommendation" in a 10-5 vote.

The committee voted behind closed doors Wednesday morning.

The positive review sets her up for a final vote before the full Senate in the coming days. She is all but assured to win Senate confirmation and become the first woman to lead the Central Intelligence Agency.

Haspel currently has the support of the majority of Republicans and endorsements from five Democrats.

The committee's chairman gave her a positive public endorsement after the vote.

“Gina Haspel is the most qualified person the President could choose to lead the CIA and the most prepared nominee in the 70 year history of the Agency,” Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., said in a statement. “She has acted morally, ethically, and legally, over a distinguished 30-year career and is the right person to lead the Agency into an uncertain and challenging future. I’m pleased to see the Committee favorably report her nomination to the full Senate, and I look forward to her swift confirmation.”

Two of the committee's seven Democrats are supporting Haspel, including Virginia's Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the panel.

The favorable recommendation comes after Haspel told Congress, in a letter sent to Warner on Monday, that she now feels the spy agency should not have employed the harsh interrogations program used on al Qaeda detainees that included waterboarding.

In the letter, Haspel also acknowledged that it was "a mistake" for the CIA not to have briefed Congress about the program at its inception.

"With the benefit of hindsight and my experience as a senior agency leader, the enhanced interrogation program is not one the CIA should have undertaken," she wrote in the letter to Warner.

"While I won't condemn those that made these hard calls, and I have noted the valuable intelligence collected, the program ultimately did damage to our officers and our standing in the world," Haspel continued.

She had not expressed those feelings publicly, during her contentious confirmation hearing last week. Haspel told the committee that she would not resurrect the agency's controversial rendition, detainee, and interrogation program if she became CIA director, but went no further.

"I don't believe that torture works," she told the committee, but stopped short of saying whether the interrogation program was "immoral" or should have been carried out.

After the vote on Wednesday, many Democrats expressed concern about Haspel's nomination.

"Gina Haspel and the CIA have committed one of the most blatant abuses of power in recent history, aided and abetted by a total failure of Congressional oversight," Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oreg., said in a statement Wednesday. "I have very grave concerns about Ms. Haspel and believe her background makes her unsuitable to be CIA director."

Currently serving as the agency's deputy director, Haspel is well-regarded within the agency. She joined the CIA in 1985 and has held a series of high-ranking positions at the intelligence agency throughout her lengthy career, including senior leadership positions within the agency's National Clandestine Service, which oversees the agency's spy operations overseas and its most covert operations programs.

At the request of Congress, the CIA has declassified documents shedding light on Haspel's career in covert operations, particularly in her reported role at the agency's "black site" in Thailand.

The committee's report on the CIA's rendition program said senior al Qaeda operatives Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri were detained at that location.

The report said that while at the black site in Thailand in 2002, Zubaydah was subjected to the controversial practice of waterboarding 83 times and to other "stress" techniques such as being slammed against walls, deprived of sleep and placed in a coffin-sized box for up to 226 hours.

Two Republicans, Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and John McCain of Arizona, are opposed to Haspel's nomination. McCain is not expected to be in Washington for Haspel's confirmation vote.

In March, McCain noted that Haspel's CIA career "has intersected with the program of so-called 'enhanced interrogation techniques' on a number of occasions."

"The torture of detainees in U.S. custody during the last decade was one of the darkest chapters in American history," McCain said in a statement. "Ms. Haspel needs to explain the nature and extent of her involvement in the CIA's interrogation program during the confirmation process."

Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, McCain's Arizona colleague, has said he's undecided.

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Wednesday
May162018

EPA chief Scott Pruitt to face more questions from Congress

Al Drago-Pool/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- The embattled head of the Environmental Protection Agency will face more questions Wednesday from lawmakers about his conduct and spending since taking over at the agency.

This time, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt will testify before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the agency's budget.

Pruitt is under multiple investigations into the cost of his security detail, travel, pay raises for aides, alleged retaliation against whistleblowers, and his time renting a condo in a Capitol Hill townhouse connected to lobbyists.

In opening statements, Democrats slammed Pruitt for the parade of scandals around his time at EPA, including his frequent use of first-class flights that the agency says were recommended for security reasons.

The full committee's Ranking Member, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, called Pruitt’s explanation for flying in first class a security precaution a "silly reason.”

“Nobody even knows who you are," Leahy added.

Democrats lamented the constant barrage of scandals at the agency, launching strongly-worded attacks on Pruitt’s conduct.

"Your tenure at the EPA is a betrayal of the American people,” Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., ranking member of the Senate Appropriations’ environmental subcommittee, told Pruitt.

In response to the criticism of his spending and other decisions at the agency, Pruitt repeated some of the defense he gave in testimony before House committees last month.

Pruitt deflected some of his spending decisions as a result of problems with the process at EPA, adding that he has instituted a new rule requiring additional approval for expenditures more than $5,000.

"There have been some decisions over the last 16 or so months that, as I look back on those decisions, I wouldn't make the same decisions again," Pruitt said.

On Tuesday, six Democrats on a separate Senate committee with oversight of EPA called for Pruitt to testify before their committee, saying that a new letter from the inspector general directly contradicts Pruitt's testimony to two House subcommittees last month.

In that letter to Environment and Public Works Committee Ranking Member Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., on Monday the EPA's internal watchdog said Pruitt requested a 24/7 security detail before his first day at the agency.



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Wednesday
May162018

Senate releases insider accounts of Trump Tower meeting between campaign aides and Russian emissaries

Epics/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- President Donald Trump may have weighed in directly as his lawyers crafted an initial response to news reports that his top campaign aides met in Trump Tower with Russian emissaries during the 2016 campaign, his son Donald Jr. said during his interview with the Senate Judiciary Committee.

That first public response, according to documents released today, said the focus of the meeting was “adoptions” and failed to mention it came after the Russians had promised to deliver “dirt” on his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton – an omission that has become a topic of interest to Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

“He may have commented through Hope Hicks,” Trump Jr. told the Senate of one of the president’s closest and longest-serving aides. “I believe some [of Trump’s comments] may have been [incorporated into the formal response], but this was an effort through lots of people , mostly counsel.”

Trump Jr. later told the senators that he never mentioned to his father he was going to hold the meeting and did not think he talked with him about it immediately afterward.

“I wouldn't have wasted his time with it,” he said.

The disclosure was included in the roughly 2,500 pages of interview transcripts and other documents released by the Senate Judiciary Committee this morning providing new inside accounts of the now-infamous Trump Tower meeting between top campaign aides to Donald Trump and Russian emissaries promising damaging political “dirt” on his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.

The newly released Senate interviews provide the most detailed look to date into what happened at the June 9, 2016 meeting in the offices of Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr. Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, decided earlier this year he would permit the release the 2,500 pages of transcripts, a decision welcomed by Democrats.

“Let’s get them out there for everyone to see,” Grassley (R-Iowa) told reporters in January.

Trump Jr. said he welcomed the chance for the public to review his testimony.

“I appreciate the opportunity to have assisted the Judiciary Committee in its inquiry,” he said in a statement to ABC News. “The public can now see that for over five hours I answered every question asked and was candid and forthright with the Committee.”

The planned gathering occurred two weeks after then-candidate Trump locked up the Republican nomination. Trump Jr., son-in-law Jared Kushner and campaign chairman Paul Manafort all gathered with a Kremlin-connected lawyer and her entourage in Trump Tower in Manhattan after being promised damaging political "dirt" on Hillary Clinton.

The June 9 meeting quickly emerged as a key early focus of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russia's election interference. It was initially pitched to Trump Jr. in an email from music publicist and former tabloid reporter Rob Goldstone who reached out at the request of Russian pop star Emin Agalarov, who befriended Trump when his father agreed to sponsor the 2013 Miss Universe pageant. The Agalarov family is prominent in Moscow development circles and holds close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, told the senate in written answers to question that she had no idea if Trump Jr. knew her background.

“Whether Mr. Trump Jr. knew anything about me and my name is unknown to me,” she said.

Veselnitskaya later revealed in an interview on NBC and in emails obtained by ABC News that - contrary to her earlier denials of Russian government ties to Senate Judiciary Committee investigators - she is, in fact, closely linked to top Kremlin official, Yuri Chaika, the prosecutor general.

“I am a lawyer, and I am an informant,” she told NBC. “Since 2013, I have been actively communicating with the office of the Russian prosecutor general.” The revelation raised new questions about the purpose of the June meeting, which Trump Jr. initially explained away as being merely about Russian adoptions.

Numerous questions have swirled around the controversial private meeting since it first came to light, particularly after the eldest Trump son's shifting stories about the purpose of the meeting once it became known to reporters.

The Russian participants have largely maintained identical descriptions of the day’s events. Scott Balber, a New York lawyer who represents the Agalarovs and one of the meeting’s participants, Ike Kaveladze, told ABC News “the meeting itself was a big nothing.”

Of Goldstone’s promise of dirt, Balber said: “I think he has said publicly that he quote ‘goosed the story’ for the purpose of getting the folks in the Trump campaign to agree to the meeting.”

The first reports about the meeting, initially in the New York Times on July 8, 2017, sent off shock waves, as it was the first known private meeting between Russian nationals and Trump officials during the campaign.

When Trump Jr. first found out about the New York Times story, he said the meeting was about adoptions and mentioned nothing about a promise of political dirt on his father's political rival. When the Times presented material to the contrary, the Trump son released a statement saying, "After pleasantries were exchanged, the woman stated that she had information that individuals connected to Russia were funding the Democratic National Committee and supporting Mrs. Clinton. Her statements were vague, ambiguous and made no sense. No details or supporting information was provided or even offered. It quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information.”

Trump Jr. then said the Russian lawyer turned the focus to Russian adoptions.

President Trump and his staff have insisted he was not involved in the meeting, but the Washington Post in late July 2017 reported that the President dictated his son's first misleading statement about the meeting to the New York Times, saying the meeting was about adoptions and not campaign-related issues.

After the incident, Trump's legal team spokesman, Mark Carrollo, according to Michael Wolf in his book "Fire and Fury, "seeing no good outcome — and privately confiding that he believed the meeting on Air Force One represented a likely obstruction of justice — quit." ABC News first reported that Mueller sought an interview with Corallo afterward.

But Trump Jr. revised his account on Twitter soon after the Times broke the story, publishing his full e-mail exchange with Goldstone, including where he responded, "I love it" when offered the damaging information on Clinton. But - Trump Jr. said in the posting accompanying the release that he thought the information was simply "Political Opposition Research."

He then went on Fox News' Sean Hannity show with something of a mea culpa saying, “'In retrospect, I probably would have done things a little differently,” in reference to the meeting.

Kushner met behind closed doors for two hours with Senate investigators in late July 2017, telling reporters afterward of the handful of meetings he took with Russian officials, including at Trump Tower, "All of my actions were proper and occurred in the normal course of events of a very unique campaign,” adding unequivocally, “I did not collude with Russians, nor do I know of anyone in the campaign who did.”

Along with Veselnitskaya and her translator, Anatoli Samochornov, Russian-American lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin, Goldstone, and Russian businessman Kaveladze attended the meeting.

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Wednesday
May162018

Michael Avenatti casts himself as anti-Trump avenger

Mario Tama/Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- Michael Avenatti, the telegenic attorney for adult-film star Stormy Daniels, has demonstrated an uncanny knack for commanding national media attention, first making headlines in early March when he filed a lawsuit against President Trump and his former personal attorney, Michael Cohen.

The lawsuit, which seeks to invalidate a once-secret $130,000 non-disclosure deal Daniels signed just days before the presidential election, attracted immediate, widespread attention.

In the two months since, Avenatti has become a near-daily fixture of cable news programs, advocating for Daniels - whose legal name is Stephanie Clifford - but also making a series of public disclosures about much broader issues in the ongoing investigations of Cohen in New York and by the Office of the Special Counsel, Robert Mueller.

“I think Mr. Avenatti has gotten past the point at which he is only talking about issues that are related to his client,” said Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor in Illinois. “Now he's become kind of a broader spokesperson on issues related to Michael Cohen or Donald Trump. And that's an unusual situation for a lawyer to be in.”

Last week Avenatti disclosed a summary of Cohen’s confidential banking records, He followed that up with a cryptic tweet on Sunday showing photos of Cohen stepping off elevators in the Trump Tower lobby during the presidential transition, escorting a high-ranking functionary of the government of Qatar.

“Unless I’m missing something, Cohen dealing with the Qataris isn't relevant to whether or not he paid hush money to Stormy Daniels,” said Paul Rosenzweig , a senior fellow at the conservative-leaning R Street Institute and a former Whitewater investigator. “It seems more like [Avenatti] is running a private effort to kind of spread on the public record some of what he thinks might be in the Mueller investigation.”

Avenatti’s disclosure of the banking records, which detailed large corporate payments to Cohen for consulting deals that began shortly after Trump entered the White House, did lead to revelations that Mueller had been probing Cohen’s business dealings for several months. It also prompted Cohen’s attorneys to point out some errors in the records. And, they asked a federal judge to require Avenatti to explain how he acquired information that the lawyers argued he had “no lawful basis to possess.”

The inspector general of the Treasury Department is now investigating possible leaks of Suspicious Activity Reports, or SARs, from Cohen’s financial institutions.

“Suspicious activity reports are confidential. They're not allowed to be leaked,” said Michael Volkov, a white-collar defense lawyer who spent seventeen years as a federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C.

Volkov notes that the disclosure of the records came after Avenatti had spent weeks publicly cajoling the Treasury Department to release the reports, employing the Twitter hashtag, “#ReleaseTheSARs.”

“He's a PR show and he's trying to serve as a focal point for people to deliver information to,” Volkov said. “He's marketing, ‘Please bring the information on this stuff.’ And he's good at it. Look, give the guy credit, he's good at it. He doesn't have an army of lawyers behind him.”

Kendall Coffey, a former U.S. Attorney in Miami, puts it more bluntly: "I think he's the go-to guy for anyone that wants to keep their fingerprints off of information about Michael Cohen."

"I don't recall this effective a media campaign with finite factual elements," Coffey said. "Most things connected to President Trump get a multiplier with respect to the media, but we're still talking about a relatively discrete transaction for a hundred-thirty-thousand dollars with a non-disclosure agreement, which is certainly common enough. And yet from those finite factual elements, we've had a downpour that continues for weeks, for months, and the downpour keeps falling."

Avenatti has said he obtained his information legally, but he's declined to reveal the sources. He has defended his release of the records as protected by the First Amendment. And he’s promised that there’s more to come, while boldly predicting that Trump won't complete his term in the White House.

"I’m not going to disclose how we're getting the documents," Avenatti told ABC News recently. "We’ve only scratched the surface, though. We've got a lot of evidence and a lot of information that are coming to light in the coming days weeks and months."

Last month, a federal judge in California put Daniels’ lawsuit against Trump and Cohen on hold. Cohen sought the delay of the civil case to protect his rights during the criminal investigation ongoing in New York.

Cohen has not been charged with any crimes and -- through his attorneys -- he has denied any wrongdoing.

Yet in the absence of courtroom developments, Avenatti has still managed to create opportunities to keep his client's case in the news, while repeatedly questioning the integrity and truthfulness of the President and Cohen, his longtime fixer.

"Avenatti's client's interests are to show in court and to the public that Cohen and Trump cannot be trusted and should not be believed when they call her a liar," said Mimi Rocah, a long-time federal prosecutor in Manhattan, now a Criminal Justice Fellow at Pace Law School. "So, to that extent, I think he is representing her interests, albeit in a very non-traditional way."

Still, Rocah and other legal observers see risks in Avenatti's ever-expanding offensive against Cohen and Trump.

"He has made himself, in essence, a public figure who is asking the public to trust him by being the original source of some of the information that he has put out there," Rocah said. "The danger of this, in my view, is that even Avenatti has only bits and pieces of the whole story at his disposal right now. Prosecutors and investigators who have subpoena power and other powerful legal methods of investigation at their disposal are more likely to get all the facts and make sense of them and get at the truth whatever that is."

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Wednesday
May162018

James Comey not expected to appear at Senate Russia hearing

Drew Angerer/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Former FBI Director James Comey is not expected to attend a closed-door Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Wednesday reviewing the intelligence community’s conclusions about Russia’s 2016 election interference efforts, according to a committee aide.

As part of its Russia investigation, the panel, which is reviewing the January 2017 report, invited four former intelligence community leaders to testify about the analysis compiled during the Obama administration that concluded, among other things, that the Kremlin targeted Hillary Clinton and favored President Donald Trump -- a finding questioned by some Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee.

Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former CIA Director John Brennan and former National Security Agency Director Admiral Mike Rogers are expected to appear on Capitol Hill Wednesday for the hearing, according to the committee.

Comey, who was fired by Trump last year and recently released a book about leadership that described his encounters with the president and likened Trump to a mafia boss seeking loyalty, was also invited to testify but is not expected to appear, according to the committee aide.

A representative for Comey did not respond to a request for comment.

Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, who recently wrapped up their own investigation, released a report last month that found “no evidence” of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, and also accused the intelligence community of not using “proper analytic tradecraft” in its judgement of Russia President Vladimir Putin’s “strategic objectives for disrupting the U.S. election.”

Previously, Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, who led the committee’s Russia probe, told reporters that the Republican majority on the committee disputed the intelligence community’s January 2017 high-confidence determination that Putin “developed a clear preference” for Trump over Clinton, arguing that the claim was not properly supported.

House Democrats -- and several Republicans -- disputed that initial conclusion by the committee’s majority, which was not a part of the final report.

"The Minority has found no evidence that calls into question the quality and reliability of the [Intelligence Community Assessment's] underlying reporting and key judgments, including the assessment about President Putin’s desire to help candidate Trump," Democrats wrote in their own dissenting views. "The Minority likewise has found no reason to doubt the subject matter expertise and analytic rigor of the ICA’s authors, nor the review standards and process leading to the assessment’s production and release."

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., said the panel will release a separate report on its review of the intelligence community assessment.

In March, the committee released election security policy recommendations, while last week it released an interim report on election security.

That report concluded that Russian-linked hackers targeted election systems in at least 18 states. The committee found no evidence that any voters were changed as a result of Russian activities, but determined that hackers were in a position to alter or delete voter registration data in a few states.

Asked how the Senate’s review of the intelligence assessment would differ from the House Intelligence Committee’s determinations, Burr said, “I’m not sure that the House was required to substantiate every conclusion with facts.”

“We may have different opinions, but whatever we propose, whatever we assess -- we’re going to have the facts to show for that. So it may be that we don’t go as far as they did. It may be that we do,” he told reporters.

While Comey will not appear on Capitol Hill before the Senate, House Republicans have expressed renewed interest in questioning the former FBI director about his interactions with Trump and past congressional testimony following his media blitz.

The Justice Department inspector general is expected to release its report into Comey's actions and the FBI's handling of the Clinton email and Trump-Russia investigations in the coming weeks.

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