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March 27, 2019

Former FBI Director James Comey says he hopes Attorney General William Barr's four-page letter summarizing Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report establishes "to all people, no matter where they are on the spectrum, that the FBI is not corrupt, not a nest of vipers, of spies, but an honest group of people trying to find out what is true."

In an interview with NBC News anchor Lester Holt airing Wednesday night, Comey said despite President Trump spreading lies about the FBI in an attempt to discredit its efforts to get to the bottom of Russian interference in the 2016 election, "the institutions will be fine, because the American people know them and also know this president, know what he's like. I think the people of the United States are going to see what I know about the FBI: These are people who are not in anyone's tribe, they're trying to find the facts."


In his letter, Barr said Mueller found no actionable proof the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, but was unable to reach a conclusion on whether Trump obstructed justice. Trump fired Comey in early May 2017, while Comey was leading the investigation into Russian interference, and Mueller was appointed later that month. Trump originally said he fired Comey at the recommendation of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, but during a later interview with Holt, he declared it was his decision.

"I thought that's potentially obstruction of justice, and I hope somebody is going to look at that," Comey said, adding that Trump appeared to be saying "I got rid of this guy to shut down an investigation that threatened me." Watch the entire interview below. Catherine Garcia

9:57 a.m.

It's apparently very unclear where President Trump stands with Rust Belt voters.

As the The New York Times put it in an article published Monday, "there's no boom in Youngstown [Ohio], but blue-collar workers are sticking with Trump." Yet a Politico story from the same day reveals that Trump is "scrambl[ing] to reverse his Rust Belt slide."

Both stories come ahead of Trump's Monday visit to Pennsylvania for a rally, and just after he made campaign stops in Michigan and Wisconsin. Trump is apparently "moving aggressively to shore up his support" in those three states, which he won in 2016 "but where his own polling shows him in trouble heading into 2020," Politico writes. Former Vice President Joe Biden has reportedly started to pull ahead in those states, according to people briefed on the Trump campaign's 17-state polling project.

"People close to the president insist they're not panicked," Politico writes. And if they take the The New York Times' word for it, they'd be right. Despite the fact that Rust Belters never saw the economic resurgence Trump promised, he "appears to have lost little of his blue-collar support here," the Times reports. The former Democratic chair of an Ohio county says his party "has lost its voice to speak to people that shower after work and not before work." Those voters "don't care" about Trump's taxes, former chair David Betras continued, and they're bound turn the Midwestern purple states red once again.

Of course, the 2020 election is still a year and a half away, and Democrats haven't even chosen a nominee yet. Let the speculation continue. Kathryn Krawczyk

9:11 a.m.

President Trump started off his workweek with another tweetstorm raging against The New York Times, strangely personifying the news outlet in the process.

Trump tweeted in response to a report from the Times that Deutsche Bank anti-money laundering specialists flagged some potentially suspicious transactions involving accounts controlled by President Trump and Jared Kushner but that these concerns were ignored. The report also includes the detail that Deutsche Bank lent to Trump while "most Wall Street banks had stopped doing business with him after his repeated defaults."

The president's twitter thread was focused on this latter detail, as he contended that he "didn’t need money" and that "when you don’t need or want money, you don't need or want banks." From there, Trump labeled the media "corrupt and deranged" and he predicted the Times will "pass away when I leave office in 6 years" — not go out of business, but "pass away."

The writer of this Times story, David Enrich, was quick to respond to Trump's denials, saying his claim is "not true" and reiterating his reporting that Deutsche Bank was for 20 years the only bank willing to lend to Trump. He added that he "spent a long time looking into this."

Trump added in a follow-up tweet, "Two Tweets missing from last batch, probably a Twitter error. No time for a redo! Only the Dems get redos!" He evidently did have time to go back and delete this tweet, but the two tweets that he claims are missing may forever remain a mystery. Brendan Morrow

7:58 a.m.

Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, spoke with Fox News anchor Chris Wallace at a town hall event in New Hampshire on Sunday, and he didn't shy away from criticizing the network and its pundits. He singled out prime-time pundits Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham for remarks about immigrants. "There is a reason why anyone has to swallow hard and think twice about participating in this media ecosystem," Buittigieg said. "Even though some of those hosts are not there in good faith, I think a lot of people tune into this network who do it in good faith."

Trump had criticized Fox News, Wallace, and Buttigieg before the town hall, and Wallace asked Buttigieg how he plans to handle Trump's tweets and insults. "The tweets are ... I don't care," he said, to applause. Trump's twitter feed is very effective at grabbing the media's attention, he added. "It is the nature of grotesque things that you can't look away."

Responding to a question about restrictive new abortion laws, Buttigieg said he believes "the right of a woman to make her own decisions about her own reproductive health and her own body is a national right, I believe it is an American freedom." He said abortions in the third trimester should remain legal, too. "If it's that late in your pregnancy, then it's almost — by definition — you've been expecting to carry it to term," he said. "We're talking about women who have perhaps chosen a name, women who have purchased a crib, and families that then get the most devastating medical news of their lifetime," which "forces them to make an impossible, unthinkable choice. ... That decision is not going to be made any better medically or morally because the government is dictating how that decision should be made."

The crowd sent Buttigieg off with rousing applause. "Wow, a standing ovation," Wallace said, apparently surprised. Peter Weber

7:49 a.m.

Thought Game of Thrones was going to go out without leaving one last modern beverage in a scene? Think again.

After a coffee cup was spotted in an earlier episode of the eighth season, fans once again found an out-of-place drink in the show's series finale. During one of the episode's most crucial scenes, a plastic water bottle can be seen near Samwell Tarly's foot — although at least this one is slightly more hidden than the coffee cup was.

Minutes later, what looks to be another plastic water bottle can also be seen nearby Davos Seaworth, apparently giving us not one but two beverage bloopers in a single scene.

After the now infamous coffee cup gaffe, HBO released a joking statement saying it was a mistake because "Daenerys had ordered an herbal tea." The network was quick to correct the error, though, and by Tuesday morning, the cup had been scrubbed from the scene. An art director for the show told Variety the situation was "so blown out of proportion" because such a mistake "has not happened with Thrones so far."

Little did we know it wouldn't even be the last time this season. Then again, this scene did occur immediately following a time jump, so perhaps the frantically-paced final season merely skipped over the introduction of plastic water bottles into Westeros. And given the fierce debate the divisive final episode has already sparked, a drink of water may be much needed for everyone involved. Brendan Morrow

6:33 a.m.

Volodymyr Zelensky, a comic actor with no political experience who played an accidental Ukrainian president on TV, was sworn in as president on Monday. During his inauguration ceremony, Zelensky announced he is "dissolving the Verkhovna Rada," or parliament, setting up snap elections. Parliamentary elections had been scheduled for October, but Zelensky campaigned on cleaning out parliament of lawmakers he accused of corruption and self-enrichment. "People must come to power who will serve the public," he said on Monday.

Zelensky, 41, crushed outgoing President Petro Poroshenko in last month's presidential runoff election, earning 73 percent of the vote. In his inaugural address, Zelensky said his top priority is ending the five-year-old conflict with Russian-back separatists in Eastern Ukraine. "I'm ready to do everything so that our heroes don't die there," he said. "I'm ready to lose my popularly and, if necessary, I'm ready to lose my post so that we have peace." Zelensky gave his address in Ukrainian, but he switched to Russian to express his conviction "that for this dialogue to start, we must see the return of all Ukrainian prisoners."

Zelensky has released few details of his governing agenda, but he laid out a broad vision for Ukraine in his address. "We must become Icelanders in football, Israelis in defending our land, Japanese in technology," he said, and "Swiss in our ability to live happily with each other, despite any differences." Although he was trained as a lawyer before becoming a TV star, Zelensky gave a nod to his fame as a comedian. "Throughout all of my life, I tried to do everything to make Ukrainians laugh," he said. "In the next five years I will do everything so that Ukrainians don't cry." Peter Weber

5:29 a.m.

The Trump administration is going to start unveiling its long-promised Israeli-Palestinian peace plan at a June 25-26 economic "workshop" in Bahrain, the White House announced Sunday. The conference, involving finance ministers and business executives, is being described as Phase 1 of the peace initiative, with the second part, dealing with difficult political solutions that have thwarted earlier peace attempts, being rolled out later this year.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin will lead the U.S. delegation with Jared Kushner, President Trump's son-in-law. Kushner and Trump's Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt have worked on the plan for two years.

The goal of June's conference is to secure tens of billions of dollars from wealthy Gulf Arab states and donors in Europe and Asia. The reported target of $68 billion would go toward infrastructure, industry, and government reform in the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon. "Just as they have done in their sometimes highly leveraged real estate businesses," The New York Times says, Trump and Kushner "hope to use other people's money to achieve their goals. The vast bulk of the funds they hope to generate as part of the plan would come from other nations, not the United States."

Middle East experts cast doubt on the efficacy of putting the economic carrots in front of the political thorns. Israel, whose government has only taken a harder line against Palestinians since the last election, is expected to send its finance minister. The Palestinian Authority, which has ruled out the Trump administration acting as peace brokers due to its pro-Israel leanings and actions, is not expected to send anybody. On Sunday, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called the conference "futile," since "any economic plan without political horizons will lead nowhere," and any political plan that doesn't "include a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital" is a nonstarter. Peter Weber

4:01 a.m.

John Oliver used his last Game of Thrones lead-in to discuss death. "Specifically, this story is about the people who investigate deaths when they happen," he explained on Sunday's Last Week Tonight. "And if you're thinking, 'I don't want to see that on TV,' are you completely sure about that? Because death investigators aren't just supporting characters on some of the most popular shows."

"In real life, every year about 2.8 million Americans die," Oliver said, and while doctors identify cause of death on most death certificates, "if someone dies under suspicious or unnatural circumstances, their body may be sent for further examination and possibly a forensic autopsy. That's what happens to about a half a million bodies each year, and those investigations are incredibly important. A death certificate isn't like a degree from USC — it actually means something." Autopsies are important in murder investigations, but they also highlight trends in drug deaths, help identify defective products, and warn of infectious disease outbreaks.

"So tonight, let's learn about our death investigation system, specifically how it works, why it's such a mess, and what we can do about it," Oliver said. First, medical examiners and coroners aren't synonymous — medical examiners must be doctors, coroners are often elected, with shockingly few qualifications. That's "frankly weird enough," he said, but "in some jurisdictions, the coroner is also the county sheriff, and that has led to some serious problems."

The medical examiner system is better, but there are problems there, too, Oliver said. "The resources crunch is so bad that some offices wind up outsourcing work to private contractors, and this is where this story gets absolutely incredible." He focused on one contractor. "Look, I know this issue is tempting to ignore — it combines two things that people hate thinking about the most: Death and municipal funding," he said. But he tried to make it palatable, roping in Beyoncé, Glenn Close's spleen, and Tracy Morgan. (There's NSFW language.) Peter Weber

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