The Treasury Department inspector general's office has opened up an investigation into whether confidential banking documents for Essential Consultants LLC, Michael Cohen's shell company, were leaked, spokesman Rich Delmar said Wednesday. On Tuesday, Michael Avenatti, a lawyer for porn star Stormy Daniels, released a seven-page dossier listing payments to Essential Consultants from several companies, including the U.S. subsidiary of Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg's Renova Group, AT&T, Novartis, and Korea Aerospace Group.
The New York Times confirmed the gist of Avenatti's research, and the companies acknowledged they that had paid Cohen, President Trump's personal lawyer, purportedly for consulting advice on health care, real estate, and "insights" into the Trump White House. Delmar said Inspector General Eric Thorson's investigation, which will look for violations of the Bank Secrecy Act, was sparked by the New York Times report. On Wednesday, Cohen's legal team contested some of Avenatti's findings and said it appears Avenatti has access to Cohen's bank records, and Cohen "has no reason to believe that Avenatti is in lawful possession of those records."
Experts say Avenatti's language suggests he had access to confidential Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) that banks file when they see an unusual or suspicious transaction. "This has the appearance of a leak," former Treasury deputy general counsel Daniel Stipano told The Washington Post. He said hundreds or thousands of law enforcement and government officials have access to a database of SARs.
On MSNBC Wednesday night, Avenatti wouldn't tell Rachel Maddow where he got his information, but he argued that the Treasury Department should just release the three SARs filed on Essential Consultants. "Normally SARs are confidential, and the reason why they're confidential is because you don't want to tip off the target of the SAR," he said, but when The Wall Street Journal spilled the beans in March, "Michael Cohen became aware that at least one SAR had been filed." Watch below. Peter Weber
The National Drought Mitigation Center, housed at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, released a stark map Thursday that shows that fully one-third of the country is battling drought. Not only that, but in parts of Missouri and Kansas, areas suffering "exceptional drought" are expanding:
US #Drought Monitor 8 16 18: Drought is coverage up slightly this week to just over 36% of the area of the Lower 48 states, with exceptional drought (brown, D4) expanding in Missouri and Kansas. pic.twitter.com/ng2vhFgrPU
— Drought Center (@DroughtCenter) August 16, 2018
"Exceptional drought" is the most severe classification of drought conditions that exists, describing "widespread crop/pasture losses" and "shortages of water in reservours, streams, and wells, creating water emergencies," per the U.S. Drought Monitor.
While the country boomerangs between extreme weather conditions, President Trump has systematically sought to dismantle his predecessor's signature achievements — and that includes legislation related to climate change. Politico reported Thursday that in an effort to unwind the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which imposed emissions limits on power plants, the Trump administration is prepared to tweak the federal calculations of money saved by the rule. "They are cooking the books on technical analysis to try to justify preconceived conclusions that these regulations are bad," one climate expert told Politico.
Meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee is shirking its climate change duties too, Ryan Cooper argues here at The Week. Read his indictment of DNC Chairman Tom Perez's acceptance of fossil fuel money here. Kimberly Alters
President Trump's supporters are under attack. Or at least, that's the impression Stephen Bannon's forthcoming film is trying to make.
The Breitbart- and White House-ousted conservative has returned to his documentary roots to create Trump @ War, and he shared the dramatic trailer for the film with Axios on Thursday. The full-length feature will premiere Sept. 9 — the two-year anniversary of Hillary Clinton labeling Trump supporters "deplorables."
In an intense two minutes, Trump supporters are violently knocked to the ground. CNN's Don Lemon goes on an anti-Trump tirade. A clip of Trump walking with U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May plays while someone praises Trump's foreign policy, cutting off right before the moment Trump awkwardly grabs May's hand.
Bannon has grand visions for the film as a potential boon for Republicans this midterm cycle. When the movie is over, he told Axios, every "deplorable" will be "literally standing on your chair with your pitchfork saying: 'I've got to get people out to vote.'"
Bannon consistently wrote, directed, and produced films pushing a far-right agenda before his brief White House stint, including projects like Fire From the Heartland: The Awakening of the Conservative Woman and Still Point in a Turning World: Ronald Reagan and His Ranch. Like its predecessors, Trump @ War also stars somewhat notable conservatives, including fellow ex-White House staffer Sebastian Gorka.
"How jacked do we think Trump will be when he sees this?" Bannon asked Axios when describing the film — seemingly well over the fact that Trump called him "Sloppy Steve" after his White House departure. Watch the whole trailer at Axios, and perhaps feel as "jacked up" as Bannon hopes Trump will be. Kathryn Krawczyk
The legendary soul and pop singer was reportedly "ill for a long time" with pancreatic cancer, and her friends and family had been warned that "death is imminent" just days ago. While receiving palliative care, Franklin was surrounded by family who said she was "alert, laughing, teasing, able to recognize people." Her nephew told People that "family is there with her. She's home."
"In one of the darkest moments of our lives, we are not able to find the appropriate words to express the pain in our heart," Franklin's representative said in a statement following her death. "We have lost the matriarch and rock of our family."
Franklin's singing career goes back to 1960, when she began recording hits like "Respect" and "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman." Her last performance was at a benefit for the Elton John AIDS Foundation in November 2017. Summer Meza
President Trump's loyal followers are ready and willing to back him if he gets impeached, Politico reported Thursday. In fact, many even claim it would guarantee Trump re-election in 2020.
Republican lawmakers and strategists say that if Democrats retake the House in the midterm elections, it would help Trump rally moderates and centrists who aren't won over by increasingly progressive liberals. And if a Democratic majority moved to impeach Trump, some argue, he would become more popular, much in the way that former President Bill Clinton's approval ratings rose after his impeachment proceedings.
Asked if impeachment would hurt Trump politically, a Republican analyst told Politico, "Of course not." Another adviser said the theory was "not crazy," saying that "if you're looking at the politics of it, it's not a terrible thing for 2020." Even though Trump himself has been publicly hoping for a "red wave" and expecting to keep a Republican majority in Congress, GOP operatives are behind the scenes contemplating the possibility of spinning a hypothetical impeachment into a win. His most avid supporters say Trump does best when his back is against the wall, reports Politico, and impeachment would be the ultimate wall to rally his base and garner sympathy. Read more at Politico. Summer Meza
Omarosa Manigault Newman's Unhinged publicity tour has spilled a bit of sunlight on President Trump's compulsory use of nondisclosure agreements on his campaign and in the White House. On Tuesday, the Trump re-election campaign filed for arbitration, arguing Manigault Newman breached the NDA she signed when she joined the campaign in 2016. She says she did not sign an apparently unprecedented and likely unconstitutional NDA at the White House, but other White House officials were more coy, including White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
A former White House and Trump campaign staffer tells The Weekly Standard that even lower-level White House recruits "had to sign them when we went into the building," summarizing the NDA as "straight-up 'No talking bad about Trump or his family.'" It was "snuck in with" other "actual forms you had to sign for the legitimate process of being onboarded," the former staffer said, and unusually, "everything got taken away as soon as we signed it."
On MSNBC, Trump campaign spokesman Marc Lotter said he signed NDAs to work at the White House and on both Trump campaigns, and they obligated him to refrain from saying disparaging things about Trump, his family, Vice President Mike Pence and his family, and any Trump or Pence businesses forever. Katy Tur asked the obvious question: "Say something happened while you were there that horrified you or appalled you or you felt was illegal, etc., and you left and you signed an NDA, you can't talk about it. So again, why should we trust anything you say when you're legally bound to say good things about the person you're coming on to talk about?"
The White House NDA is probably unenforceable, but as you watch current and former Trump campaign and White House officials on television, it's probably worth remembering that they all at least nominally signed away their right to criticize Trump in perpetuity — and Trump takes his NDAs seriously. Peter Weber
Ex-CIA chief John Brennan calls Trump's no-collusion claim 'hogwash,' says security clearance revocation shows panic
President Trump may have revoked former CIA Director John Brennan's security clearance on Wednesday, but he did not take away his ability to write or his audience for presumably informed criticism of Trump's actions. In an op-ed in The New York Times on Thursday, Brennan touches on Russia's contemporaneous denials that it was interfering in the 2016 election — "Russian denials are, in a word, hogwash" — and explains how Trump's public encouragement for Russia to hack and disseminate Hillary Clinton's emails made the CIA and FBI's job of stopping Russian election-tampering much harder:
Such a public clarion call certainly makes one wonder what Mr. Trump privately encouraged his advisers to do — and what they actually did — to win the election. While I had deep insight into Russian activities during the 2016 election, I now am aware — thanks to the reporting of an open and free press — of many more of the highly suspicious dalliances of some American citizens with people affiliated with the Russian intelligence services.
Mr. Trump's claims of no collusion are, in a word, hogwash. The only questions that remain are whether the collusion that took place constituted criminally liable conspiracy, whether obstruction of justice occurred to cover up any collusion or conspiracy, and how many members of "Trump Incorporated" attempted to defraud the government by laundering and concealing the movement of money into their pockets. [John Brennan, The New York Times]
Brennan then tied up the loose ends: "Mr. Trump clearly has become more desperate to protect himself and those close to him, which is why he made the politically motivated decision to revoke my security clearance in an attempt to scare into silence others who might dare to challenge him." Trump himself suggested to The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday that he revoked Brennan's security clearance because of the Trump-Russia investigation. You can read Brennan's entire op-ed at The New York Times. Peter Weber
In Geneva on Tuesday, a U.S. State Department official warned a United Nations disarmament conference that Russia has launched a purported "space apparatus inspector" whose "very abnormal behavior" is "of great concern" to the U.S. government. "We don’t know for certain what it is and there is no way to verify it," said Yleem Poblete, assistant secretary for arms control, verification, and compliance. "But Russian intentions with respect to this satellite are unclear and are obviously a very troubling development," especially given America's "concerns over many years that the Russian Federation is actively pursuing the development and deployment of anti-satellite weapons."
Alexander Deyneko, a senior Russian diplomat, told Reuters that Poblete's comments were "the same unfounded, slanderous accusations based on suspicions, on suppositions, and so on," and suggested the U.S. join Russia and China in developing a treaty to prevent an arms race in space. ("The United States has clearly articulated the many flaws of this draft treaty," Poblete said in her speech, and Russia's "hollow and hypocritical efforts are not the answer" given its routine violations of easier-to-verify arms treaties.)
Space weapons like "lasers or microwave frequencies that could just stop [a satellite] working for a time, either disable it permanently without destroying it or disrupt it via jamming," are a real concern, Royal United Services Institute analyst Alexandra Stickings tells BBC News. And they would be hard to differentiate from other satellites. But the Trump administration may not be in the best position to complain, after President Trump ordered a new military Space Force branch, she added. "The narrative coming from the U.S. is, 'Space was really peaceful, now look at what the Russians and Chinese are doing' — ignoring the fact that the U.S. has developed its own capabilities." Peter Weber