👋 Away Message: Hi there! Matt is currently out on parental leave. He'll return August 30th-ish. More details can be found here. In the meantime, Joe (the voice of the newscast/podcast) will be publishing an abridged version of WTF Just Happened Today? every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. You can expect 5-7 news items covering a slightly wider range of political news in about two sentences each. We'll return to our regularly scheduled WTFJHT programming when Matt returns in late August.
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1/ An alleged Russian spy appears to have reached a plea deal with federal prosecutors involving accusations that she was working as an agent for the Kremlin in the U.S. Maria Butina is accused of working with a Russian banking official to develop relationships with American politicians through the National Rifle Association in an effort to advance Russian interests. Butina previously pleaded not guilty to conspiracy and acting as an agent of a foreign government, but attorneys and prosecutors filed a request for a “change of plea” hearing since “the parties have resolved this matter.” Butina’s case was brought by federal prosecutors in D.C. – not by Robert Mueller. (CNN / Washington Post / Wall Street Journal / New York Times)
Relevant: The NRA spent $30 million to support Trump in the 2016 election, and the two groups used the same consultants to execute complementary TV advertising strategies during the campaign. The FBI is also investigating whether a Russian banker – Alexander Torshin – illegally funneled money to the NRA in order to help Trump win the presidency.
📌 The Re-up: Day 543. The Justice Department charged a Russian national and accused her of acting as a Russian agent “for the purpose of advancing the interests of the Russian federation.” Maria Butina tried to infiltrate the NRA and “create a back-channel line of communication” back to the Kremlin. Charging documents say Butina was directed by a “high-level official in the Russian government,” who has been previously identified as Alexander Torshin, a senior official at the Russian central bank, who is also a longtime associate of the NRA. The charges were filed under seal the day after 12 Russian intelligence officers were indicted by the Justice Department for hacking Democratic computers. They were unsealed following Trump’s press conference with Putin where he said he saw no reason the Russian leader would try to influence the presidential election. (Bloomberg / The Guardian / New York Times)
📌 Day 564. Maria Butina, the alleged Russian spy, socialized with a former Trump campaign aide weeks before the 2016 election. At the time, J.D. Gordon planned to join Trump’s transition team, but ultimately never did. From March 2016 until August 2016, Gordon was the point person for an advisory group on foreign policy and national security for the Trump campaign. Paul Erickson, a GOP operative with whom Butina was in a romantic relationship, told her that Gordon was “playing a crucial role in the Trump transition effort and would be an excellent addition to any of the U.S./Russia friendship dinners” that might be held. (Washington Post / New York Times)
📌 Day 545. The Justice Department added a second charge against Russian national Maria Butina of acting as an unregistered foreign agent of the Kremlin since at least 2015. Butina was charged on Monday with conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government. Butina was arrested on Sunday because she appeared to have plans to flee the U.S. (Politico / Washington Post)
2/ Jerome Corsi sued Mueller, the Justice Department, the National Security Agency, the FBI and the CIA for $350 million, claiming his Fourth Amendment rights were violated, and that Mueller leaked his grand jury testimony and blackmailed him to lie as part of a “legal coup d’etat” against Trump. The conspiracy theorist and Roger Stone associate is asking for $100 million in actual damages and $250 million in punitive damages as compensation for injury to his reputation. The suit also accuses the CIA, FBI, and NSA of placing Corsi under illegal surveillance “at the direction of Mueller and his partisan Democrat, leftist, and ethically and legally conflicted prosecutorial staff.” Corsi is suspected of being the go-between for Stone and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. (Politico / NBC News)
- 📌 Day 667. Jerome Corsi emailed Roger Stone two months before WikiLeaks released emails stolen from the Clinton campaign, saying “Word is (Julian Assange) plans 2 more dumps…Impact planned to be very damaging.” On July 25, 2016, Stone emailed Corsi, directing him to “Get to (Assange) [a]t Ecuadorian Embassy in London and get the pending (WikiLeaks) emails.” Corsi passed the directive along to conservative author Ted Malloch. Eight days later, Corsi emailed Stone saying that WikiLeaks had information that would be damaging to Clinton’s campaign and planned to release it in October. (NBC News)
3/ At least 16 Trump associates interacted with Russian nationals during the campaign and transition period, according to public records and interviews. After taking office, Trump and senior officials repeatedly lied about the campaign’s contact with Russians, with Trump at one point claiming: “No. Nobody that I know of. I have nothing to do with Russia. To the best of my knowledge, no person that I deal with does.” Hope Hicks, then Trump’s spokeswoman, also lied, saying: “It never happened. There was no communication between the campaign and any foreign entity during the campaign.” The contacts and communications occurred amidst “sustained efforts by the Russian government to interfere with the U.S. presidential election,” according to Mueller’s latest filing. The list of associates communicating with Russians includes Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, Michael Flynn, Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, George Papadopoulos, Carter Page, Jeff Sessions, JD Gordon, Roger Stone, Michael Caputo, Erik Prince, Avi Berkowitz, Michael Cohen, Ivanka Trump, and Felix Sater. (CNN / Washington Post)
4/ Trump tweeted there is no “smocking gun” tying his campaign to Russia, misspelling “smoking gun” twice in the same tweet. Trump suggested that the payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal were not illegal campaign contributions, as federal prosecutors claim, but instead a “simple private transaction” that are only being scrutinized because investigators have not been able to find evidence of collusion between his 2016 campaign and Russia. “No Smocking Gun…No Collusion.” (Washington Post)
- The incoming chair of the House judiciary committee: Trump is “at the center of a massive fraud” against the American people. Jerrold Nadler said Trump committed impeachable offenses if it is proven that he ordered the illegal payments to Daniels and McDougal to keep quiet about alleged sexual encounters. (The Guardian)
Trump told James Mattis to submit a $750 billion defense budget proposal for the 2020 fiscal year. Trump previously called for a reduction in defense spending, but now he appears to have reversed course. Mattis and other top military leaders have been fighting to preserve the current $733 billion proposal, and Trump has called for a top line of $716 billion and even $700 billion as recently as October. (Politico)
Trump’s preferred choice to replace John Kelly turned down the chief of staff role. Nick Ayers currently serves as Pence’s chief of staff, and said that he is instead leaving the administration entirely at the end of the year to spend more time with his family in Georgia. Trump didn’t appear to have an obvious second choice lined up, but some believe he is eyeing North Carolina Republican Mark Meadows, who serves as the chairman of the far-right House Freedom Caucus. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is also under consideration. (New York Times / The Guardian / Axios / CNBC)
Federal prosecutors in Manhattan have shifted their focus from Michael Cohen’s crimes to the role of Trump Organization executives in those crimes. Cohen pleaded guilty in August to campaign finance violations and other crimes and has assisted prosecutors in their investigation. Cohen told prosecutors that the Trump Organization’s CFO was involved in discussions about hush money payments made to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougall, on which prosecutors are now focusing. Now, prosecutors have renewed their requests for documents and other materials related to those payments. (New York Times)
Jamal Khashoggi’s last words: “I can’t breathe.” The translated transcript notes the sounds of Khashoggi’s body being dismembered by a saw. (CNN)
Jared Kushner offered Prince Mohammed bin Salman advice about how to weather the storm after Khashoggi was killed, urging the prince to resolve his conflicts around the region and avoid further embarrassments. (New York Times)
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