Even before Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie was sworn in July 30, he discovered what his predecessor, David Shulkin, had known: The real power at the VA resides at Mar-a-Lago, President Trump's private club in Florida, wielded by a triumvirate of Mar-a-Lago members led by Ike Perlmutter, the almost comically reclusive CEO of Marvel Entertainment, Isaac Arnsdorf reports at ProPublica.
When Trump asked Perlmutter, a friend and confidante, to help put together his government in December 2016, he agreed to be an outside adviser, selected veterans as his focus, and roped in two other friends, Palm Beach doctor Bruce Moskovitz and lawyer Marc Sherman, Arnsdorf says. The "Mar-a-Lago Crowd," as they're known among VA insiders, have secretly exerted sweeping influence on the VA ever since — even though none of the three has ever served in the U.S. military or government and appear to have no special knowledge of veterans issues.
Perlmutter, Moskowitz, and Sherman have pushed the VA to start new programs, some of which could benefit them personally, and essentially forced out or vetoed jobs for top officials — including Shulkin — who don't accede to their wishes, Arnsdorf says, basing his report on "hundreds of documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and interviews with former administration officials." Shulkin, Wilkie, and other officials have flown down to consult with the triumvirate at Mar-a-Lago, at taxpayer expense. "Everyone has to go down and kiss the ring," a former administration official tells ProPublica.
The three men said through a crisis-communications consultant that they have "offered our help and advice on a voluntary basis" but "did not make or implement any type of policy, possess any authority over agency decisions, or direct government officials to take any actions." According to emails, VA officials treated the Mar-a-Lago Group's constant "advice" as orders. Read more about the bizarre arrangement Arnsdorf calls "without parallel in modern presidential history" at ProPublica. Peter Weber
A California congressional candidate says his campaign was the victim of ongoing cyberattacks that are now under investigation by the FBI, Rolling Stone reported Wednesday.
Hans Keirstead, who was running to unseat Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), fell just short of moving to the general election, losing out by just 125 votes back in June. His campaign manager, Kyle Quinn-Quesada, said some outside entity carried out persistent attempts to hack the campaign website, gain access to Keirstead's email accounts, and take over the campaign's Twitter account.
"It is clear from speaking with campaign professionals around the country that the sustained attacks the Keirstead for Congress campaign faced were not unique but have become the new normal for political campaigns in 2018," Quinn-Quesada told Rolling Stone. Last month, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said Russia unsuccessfully targeted her campaign with cyberattacks, and Sen. Bill Nelson (D) of Florida said Russia had "penetrated" some of the state's voting systems. The FBI hasn't told the Keirstead campaign whether it has identified who was perpetrating the attacks.
Rolling Stone notes that 15-term incumbent Rohrabacher is one of the most pro-Russia members of Congress, voting against Russian sanctions and supporting President Trump's effort to improve relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. While the Keirstead campaign has no evidence that Russia was behind the attacks, and Quinn-Quesada says he does not believe the cyberattacks affected the election results, the investigation fits in with intelligence officials' warnings of pervasive cyber threats to the midterm elections. Read more at Rolling Stone. Summer Meza
Just one day after another round of primary elections, two polls found Democrats enjoying a solid lead over Republicans on the generic ballot.
Per a CNN/SSRS poll released Wednesday, if congressional elections were held today, 52 percent of registered voters would pick the Democratic candidate compared to just 41 percent who would choose the Republican. A second poll, from Quinnipiac, found similar results albeit with a slightly slimmer margin, with 51 percent of respondents opting for the Democrat and 42 percent for the Republican.
Democrats are banking on their generic ballot lead to translate to victory come fall, and they're additionally hoping to benefit from high voter turnout. Back in June, a nationwide poll using a generic ballot found Democrats with an 8-point lead. While the specific margins have varied month-to-month and poll-to-poll, the surveys have consistently found Democrats in the lead. In the CNN poll, the percentage of respondents who say they'd vote Republican hasn't cracked 45 percent since before President Trump took office.
The CNN/SSRS poll was conducted Aug. 9-12, interviewing 1,002 people by phone. The margin of error is 3.9 percentage points. The Quinnipiac poll was conducted Aug. 9-13, surveying 1,175 voters by phone with a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points. See more poll results at Quinnipiac University and CNN. Summer Meza
Tuesday's round of primaries revealed who would face off in this November's midterm elections — and made a blue wave seem even more imminent.
When it comes to turnout, Democrats outperformed Republican in all four states that voted Tuesday, NBC News points out. While that doesn't guarantee the party will dominate this fall, it does reflect strong Democratic enthusiasm that's translated into high turnout throughout the 2018 primary season.
The Democratic difference was most obvious in Minnesota, a reliably blue state that saw 261,000 more Democratic voters than Republicans on Tuesday. Yet even with a competitive GOP Senate nomination up for grabs, Wisconsin, which went for President Trump in 2016, saw 80,000 more Democrats than Republicans show up. Incumbent Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin is still likely to win in the general election, per Cook Political Report, but the skewed turnout has implications for the state capitol: Incumbent GOP Gov. Scott Walker is only slightly favored to prevail this fall, meaning some extra Democratic voters could easily turn his seat blue.
Republicans can still likely count on more voters to turn up this fall for general elections, NBC News says. But there's no denying that things are looking up for Democrats. Just take it from conservative radio host and former Republican Rep. Joe Walsh (Ill.). Kathryn Krawczyk
Wake up Republicans. There's a blue wave coming. https://t.co/KeNl0BvCPp
— Joe Walsh (@WalshFreedom) August 15, 2018
CNN's Chris Cuomo is bewildered by Rudy Giuliani's baffling claim that he never changed his Trump-Comey-Flynn story
Rudy Giuliani is flipping the script again. President Trump's attorney appeared on CNN's Cuomo Prime Time and pushed a new narrative about Trump and former FBI Director James Comey.
Cuomo asked why Giuliani was suddenly saying that Trump never had any conversation about the investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn with Comey. Comey has said that Trump asked him to "let this go," hoping Flynn's investigation could be dropped, but Trump denies it. The president fired Comey three months after the alleged conversation, which Giuliani now insists never happened. The attorney has previously told media outlets that Trump was simply suggesting Flynn get a "break," not pressuring Comey to do anything untoward.
"I've said it from the very beginning," he told Cuomo, who pointed out that he had only previously disputed the subject matter. Why argue hypothetically about a meeting that never happened? "Because I can get him out of it legally, and I can get him out factually," said Giuliani. He then pivoted to an argument that Comey may have committed a felony by not reporting the apparently non-existent meeting, claiming that Trump never spoke to Comey about Flynn, but that if he had, only Comey would be in legal trouble.
"For this to be true, Jim Comey has to be a crazy liar," said Cuomo doubtfully. Giuliani concurred. Watch the moment below, via CNN. Summer Meza
— Cuomo Prime Time (@CuomoPrimeTime) August 15, 2018
Much of the entertainment elite slammed with allegations — Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Charlie Rose — can't find work, and some have even faced legal consequences. Yet for the likes of James Franco, Casey Affleck, and some other men ensnared in #MeToo allegations, not much has changed, The Hollywood Reporter says.
Franco faced five accusations of sexually exploitative behavior in a Jan. 11 Los Angeles Times story. Six months later, it was leaked that he was in talks to direct a Focus Features film about ESPN. And he's still onboard to star in a second season of HBO's The Deuce because "the fact of the matter is that James is in the show," HBO president Casey Bloys told The Hollywood Reporter. "It's business as usual. There is no effort to hide the fact that [Franco] is in the show," Bloys continued.
That's not sufficient for activist website Care2. It successfully petitioned director Matthew Newton, accused of domestic violence, off of the upcoming film Eve, and is hoping to do the same with Franco. "Crisis PR," like what HBO has said to justify Franco's continued employment, is growing even more common, Care2 senior director Rebecca Gerber tells The Hollywood Reporter. "In Hollywood, they make business calls about whether people can make a comeback."
Franco has already skipped out on media appearances for The Deuce, something Gerber says is typical of actors hoping to outlast sexual harassment allegations. They'll disappear for a while, "hoping that it all dies down," she tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Fox News holds Katrina Pierson's feet to the fire over her confusing explanation of Trump's alleged N-word tape
Trump campaign official Katrina Pierson insists that her former colleague Omarosa Manigault Newman is twisting the story around when it comes to claims that President Trump is on tape saying the N-word.
Pierson appeared on Fox News for a second night in a row to explain why she appeared to lie when she said Monday that she never acknowledged the existence of such a tape. On Tuesday, Manigault Newman gave CBS News a recording of Pierson talking with former Trump aide Lynne Patton, saying she was working on figuring out "a way to spin it" and saying, "He said it, he's embarrassed."
While the recording purportedly proves that Trump campaign officials were worried about the alleged tape becoming public, Pierson told Fox News' Ed Henry that Manigault Newman was conflating two different recordings to make her look bad. The heated interview only served to make the saga even more baffling, with Pierson insisting that when she said Manigault Newman's story was "absolutely not true," she was only responding to an ultra-specific claim involving a conversation with former Trump communications aide Jason Miller, not the discussion with Patton.
Even though the story is certainly still far from clear, Pierson muddied up the narrative enough to force Henry to move on — but not before grilling her on why she "changed her story" after the recording came out. Watch the full interview below, via Fox News. Summer Meza
Twitter has suspended the account of far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones for a week, saying Tuesday that he violated the company's rules against inciting violence by tweeting a link to a video urging supporters to get their "battle rifles" ready against the media and others. Jones will be able to browse Twitter but not tweet or retweet during the suspension.
The account of his media website and show Infowars was not affected. The move came about a week after Apple, Facebook, YouTube, and Spotify announced they were banning Jones due to hate speech. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said at the time that Jones had not violated his company's rules, which prohibit threats of violence and hate speech but not deception and misinformation. Jones has circulated many conspiracy theories, and called the Sandy Hook school shooting a hoax. Harold Maass