Michael Cohen met with a Russian oligarch in Trump Tower 11 days before Trump’s inauguration

Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s longtime lawyer, met with the Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg 11 days before Trump’s inauguration, and reportedly discussed ways to improve US-Russia relations under Trump.

From Business Insider:

Eleven days before he attended President Donald Trump’s inauguration, a prominent Russian oligarch met with Trump’s longtime personal lawyer and fixer to discuss improving US-Russia relations under Trump, The New York Times reported Friday.

The Russian energy tycoon Viktor Vekselberg met with Michael Cohen at Cohen’s office on the 26th floor of Trump Tower, the American businessman Andrew Intrater told The Times.

Intrater, a relative of Vekselberg who donated $250,000 to Trump’s inaugural committee, is the head of the US investment firm Columbus Nova. The company paid Cohen approximately $500,000 in consulting fees between January and August 2017 and is a subsidiary of Renova Group, a Russian conglomerate founded by Vekselberg. […]

Intrater told The Times that Vekselberg and Cohen met three times. The second time was during Trump’s inauguration, which was attended by at least six Putin-allied Russians, including Vekselberg.

Shortly after the inauguration, Columbus Nova signed a $1 million consulting contract with Cohen, a deal that’s now under the scrutiny of federal investigators, the Times report said. […]

Mueller interviewed Vekselberg earlier this year after the businessman landed at a New York area airport. The special counsel’s focus on Russian oligarchs comes as investigators are looking into whether wealthy Russians illegally funneled money, either directly or indirectly, into Trump’s campaign or inauguration. Prosecutors are also said to be interested in whether wealthy Russians used American donors or US companies with political action committees to infuse money into the election.

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Trump’s relentless attacks on law enforcement are doing lasting harm

“Democrats have pinned their hopes on the Mueller investigation, in hopes that a compelling and complete account of grotesque malfeasance will cause the bottom to drop out from under the president. In the meantime, however, he continues to chip away at the foundations of American democracy.”

From The Atlantic:

If Donald Trump was elected with any mandate, it was to shake up the orthodoxy — to challenge the establishment and its established ways of operating. To drain the swamp. What he actually delivers, however, may be transformation that even many of his supporters come to regret.

Nowhere has the mandate for change been more forcefully exercised than in the field of criminal and counterintelligence investigations of the president and his closest associates. His last tweet of the day on May 20 sounded more like a proclamation:

The tweet provoked complaints that the president was breaching norms essential to the functioning of our democracy: As The New York Times wrote, it “ratcheted up his willingness to impose direct political control over the work of law enforcement officials.” And yet it seems that much of America shrugged, apparently either supportive or tolerant of the president’s efforts to stick it to the man. One person’s hallowed tradition is another’s hidebound ritual. Why should they care? […]

Since Nixon, every president, from Carter to Trump, has adopted policies limiting interactions between the White House and the Justice Department to protect the independence of prosecutorial decisions. The president may set law-enforcement priorities and policies — but regardless of who is president, a bank robbery is still a bank robbery, and the American people have a reasonable expectation that crimes will be investigated and prosecuted in keeping with the president’s constitutional obligation to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” The Federalist Papers’ famous warning about the dangers of factionalism, which also recognized that “enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm,” expressed the principle that “no man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause; because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity.” And the same is true, of course, of prosecutors: We do not trust anyone to investigate herself.

Whether these limitations survive beyond Trump’s tenure may depend less on him and more on what follows after him. He will do as much as he can for as long as he can to advance his own interests. If his term ends in disgrace, and the American people look back on this period as a mortifying moment of temporary insanity, the net result may be a backlash that produces even stronger protections for the rule of law. This is what happened after Nixon. If not, however, we should expect to see the sincerest form of flattery from future occupants of the highest office in the land.

For now, the core of the problem is that a substantial number of Americans believe, to one degree or another, that Trump is being railroaded. They so deeply mistrust the establishment, including establishment institutions like the FBI and establishment figures like Robert Mueller, and they so strongly support Trump’s iconoclasm, that they will side with him on almost anything. It may be only a slight exaggeration to say, as the president has, that they would be with him even if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue.

Whatever the origins of this mistrust — years of denigrating government by the Republican Party, the constant striving of the news media for Pulitzer-worthy tales of government malfeasance, the decline in life expectancy and standards of living for some Americans — it has propelled Trump to the presidency and it is ultimately what protects him now. Democrats have pinned their hopes on the Mueller investigation, in hopes that a compelling and complete account of grotesque malfeasance will cause the bottom to drop out from under the president. In the meantime, however, he continues to chip away at the foundations of American democracy.

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Critics see no end to foreign favors to Trump businesses

Ethics watchdogs and political adversaries are talking about skullduggery, hiding in plain site.

From AP News:

First came news that a Chinese government-owned company had signed on to help build an Indonesian project that will include a Donald Trump-branded hotel and golf course. Then, days later, the president tweeted that his administration would ease sanctions against a Chinese smartphone maker accused of espionage. “Too many jobs in China lost,” he wrote.

Ethics watchdogs and political adversaries called last week’s events a blatant case of Trump appearing to trade foreign favors to his business for changes in government policy, exactly the kind of situation they predicted would happen when the real estate mogul turned politician refused to divest from his sprawling business interests.

And they say that such dealmaking will likely become business as usual, unchecked by a Republican-led Congress, court cases that could take years and a public that hasn’t gotten too excited about the obscure constitutional prohibition on the president accepting emoluments, or benefits, from foreign governments without congressional approval.

“It’s an issue that seems highly technical and complex, and is difficult to link to everyday lives,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat who is heading up an emoluments lawsuit brought by about 200 or so members of Congress.

“But when you bring it home to the reason for the emoluments clause, namely to prevent conflicts of interest, so the president will act only for the benefit of the United States, not for his own self-interest, then people should understand that his taking that benefit compromises his priorities,” Blumenthal said.

Such concerns have dogged Trump since he took office. His Washington hotel, just blocks from the White House, has become a magnet for foreign governments seeking to influence his administration, including groups tied to Kuwait, Bahrain, Turkey, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.

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Trump’s assault on American governance just crossed a threshold

Trump is thumbing his nose at the rule that “Presidents don’t get involved in individual criminal investigations, as well as targeting a probe that involved him, his family, and his colleagues.”

From The New Yorker:

Since Donald Trump entered the White House, American democracy has sometimes been described as dangerously fragile, but that isn’t necessarily true. Having survived for two hundred and forty-two years, American democracy is more like a stoutly built ocean liner, with a maniac at the helm who seems intent on capsizing it. Every so often, he takes a violent tug at the tiller, causing the vessel to list alarmingly. So far, some members of the ship’s crew — judges, public servants, and the odd elected official — have managed to rush in, jag the tiller back, and keep the ship afloat. But, as the captain’s behavior grows more erratic, the danger facing the ship and its passengers increases.

In the past forty-eight hours, Trump has demanded that the Justice Department open an investigation into its own investigation of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. The Justice Department has already — partially, at least — acceded to his wishes. It feels as though an important threshold has been crossed. […]

That is not to criticize Rosenstein or Christopher Wray, the director of the F.B.I., who were left in an unenviable position by the President’s weekend barrage of tweets, in which he called the Russia investigation a “Witch Hunt” and a “scam,” and then said he would officially demand on Monday “that the Department of Justice look into whether or not the FBI/DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political Purposes – and if any such demands or requests were made by people within the Obama Administration!”

Trump has been railing against the Mueller investigation for months now, of course. But this demand, which followed the revelation that the F.B.I., in the summer of 2016, used a former Cambridge University professor named Stefan Halpern to approach three people connected to the Trump campaign who were suspected of having communicated with Russians, represented a significant escalation. Not only was Trump violating the rule that Presidents don’t get involved in individual criminal investigations, he was targeting a probe that involved him, several of his family members, and many of his closest colleagues.

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Trump says his summit with North Korea leader Kim Jong Un might not work out for June

This is probably more John Bolton’s doing than South Korea’s “joint military drills with the U.S. on the Korean Peninsula.”

From CNBC:

President Donald Trump said Tuesday that there’s a “substantial” chance that his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “may not work out” for June.

Trump made the remark while he met with Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s president, for pivotal discussions ahead of the American president’s planned meeting with the North Korean dictator. [..]

Last week, North Korea said it would reconsider whether to hold the meeting after abruptly canceling talks with South Korea amid joint military drills with the U.S. on the Korean Peninsula.

The communist dictatorship also took issue with Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, who suggested using a denuclearization model similar to one used with North African country Libya. The nation’s dictator at the time, Muammar Gaddafi, agreed to give up nuclear weapons in exchange for relaxed U.S. sanctions. Eventually, however, the U.S. supported a violent overthrow of Gaddafi.

North Korea called any attempt to impose a Libya-style arrangement on the country “awfully sinister.”

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Garry Kasparov: Donald Trump has more Russian connections than Aeroflot

The chess champion slams Putin over his manipulation of American democracy.

From HuffPost:

Legendary chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov delivered a one-two punch Monday against Russian President Vladimir Putin — and Donald Trump — as he warned of the very serious threat to American democracy that the Kremlin “dictator” continues to pose to America.

“Trump has more Russian connections than Aeroflot,” Kasparov said, referring to the Russian airline in a speech Monday at the Common Good Forum in New York. “I believe in coincidences, but I also believe in the KGB.”

The Russian dissident and human rights activist also accused Trump on MSNBC Monday of “trying to divert” the investigation of Russian interference into the U.S. presidential election to “minor details.” Trump’s “attempts to move away from the core of this investigation into some foolish stories just demonstrates that he is quite desperate, and that he wants to control this process by tweeting and by shouting,” Kasparov added.

Trump’s new fury has been directed at his latest claim that the FBI planted a mole in his campaign, and he ordered the Justice Department to investigate. Last year, he claimed that the Obama administration had ordered the FBI to wiretap meetings in Trump Tower. There is no evidence that happened.

Kasparov suspects that serious secrets about Putin and Trump’s relationship have yet to emerge. It’s suspicious, said Kasparov, that while Trump is “not shy of criticizing anybody or anything, from NATO to Meryl Streep, [he] always refrains from saying one negative word about Vladimir Putin.”

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Holder: DOJ, FBI should reject Trump’s requests

Holder, who served as attorney general under former President Barack Obama from 2009-2015 — and has mooted the possibility of a 2020 presidential campaign — has often publicly criticized Trump.

From The Hill:

Former Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday urged Department of Justice (DOJ) and FBI officials to “simply say no” to President Trump’s demand for an expanded investigation into his claims of FBI wrongdoing as it relates to his campaign.

“More DOJ norms being eroded. Trump — a SUBJECT of the investigation — wants access to material related to the inquiry,” Holder tweeted.

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It’s about time Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell located their spines

“This new move by Trump is dangerous in the extreme. Our supine Congress must step up. Now.”

From the Daily Beast:

In Donald Trump’s America, there really are two Americas.

In one, America’s intelligence community caught wind of the fact that Russia was attempting to influence the various inexperienced and sketchy members of the Trump campaign, and sought to investigate this possibly dangerous behavior, using various methods at their disposal, including confidential informants on the inside.

In the other America — and make no mistake, there are tens of millions living in this alternative universe — the Obama administration sought to wiretap and spy on the Trump campaign for completely nefarious reasons. They were out to get him from day one. […]

This brings us to the latest development. On Sunday, President Trump tweeted: “I hereby demand, and will do so officially tomorrow, that the Department of Justice look into whether or not the FBI/DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political Purposes — and if any such demands or requests were made by people within the Obama Administration!” […]

Which brings me to my final point. It seems high time for the institution of Congress to step up. Make no mistake, what Trump said on Sunday was a big deal. Imagine, for a second, that this was a Democratic president ordering a Democratic attorney general to investigate the last Republican administration. Imagine any president making this instruction to any AG. It’s a step beyond where we’ve been, but it is consistent with Trump’s M.O., which is to accuse others of the thing he has been accused of doing.

Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell should make it clear that they view Trump’s tweet as having crossed the line.

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Trump’s Latest FBI Attack Stuns, Saddens Justice Dept. Officials: ‘We’re in Venezuela’

“‘You can’t overstate how critical it is that people who have information trust us to protect them,’ said a federal prosecutor, adding that Trump is working to break that trust.”

From the Daily Beast:

President Donald Trump’s latest round of attacks on the FBI has left morale at the Justice Department at a new low, with officials bemoaning what they view as a full-frontal assault on their institution.

“It’s a deliberate campaign to delegitimize institutions where the people who are inside those institutions are professionals and giving up lots of money for the jobs that they’re doing and it’s extremely demoralizing,” said one current federal prosecutor.

“As my father used to say, history goes forward and backward. And things go backward when the trust in bedrock institutions — which are trustworthy, by the way — is diminished for the benefit of a few. It accelerates, and you wake up one day and we’re in Venezuela.”

Trump has been pushing a conspiracy theory that the FBI sicced a spy on his campaign during the election season. In reality, a longtime FBI informant—per numerous reports—spoke with several Trump campaign officials, including Carter Page and George Papadopoulos, and shared the information with FBI investigators. The Daily Caller reported the name of the person believed to be that informant.

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What China wants — and doesn’t want — from a Trump-Kim summit

“Beijing’s security interests will be served if a potential agreement weakens the U.S. alliance with South Korea, reduces the U.S. military presence in Asia and limits the threat of refugee flows on Chinese borders, according to The Atlantic Council.”

From CNBC:

Next month’s milestone summit between North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump has major implications for China, which has geopolitical and security interests at stake on the Korean Peninsula.

“Lurking in the background as a potential spoiler or helper in this drama is Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who sees both opportunity and peril,” Fred Kempe, president and CEO of foreign policy think tank Atlantic Council, wrote in a recent note.

The world’s second-largest economy has long supported a nuclear-free region but strategists say its greatest priority is preventing North Korean regime collapse — if the rogue state falls under the weight of sanctions, that could send a flood of citizens to China.

For Beijing, “the right sort of peace deal could weaken the U.S. alliance with South Korea, reduce the threat of conflict and refugee flows on Chinese borders, and ultimately lead to the withdrawal of American troops from South Korea,” said Kempe.

Ending the U.S. military presence in South Korea — a major prerequisite for Kim’s administration to relinquish nuclear weapons — is expected to boost China’s goal of minimizing America’s influence in Asia.

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