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The Midwest needs more than levees to survive its "biblical" floods

April 20, 2019 - 10:20am

PERU, Nebraska — Brett Adams’ corn and soybean fields were still underwater three weeks after the record flooding in the Midwest in March, set off by a bomb cyclone and torrential rain. River waters tore through the area’s aging levee system that was supposed to protect Adams' land and the town of Peru. He doesn’t know if he’ll be able to replant next year, or even the year after.

Along the Midwest’s big rivers, hundreds of miles of levees protect people and property. But when water surged into the Missouri River in March, the levees crumbled — exposing an aging, insufficient flood protection system. The flow, capacity and management of the river has changed a lot since Adams was a kid, he says, but the 50-year-old levees haven’t. And they're not up to the challenge.

Last month’s floods were the most intense the Army Corps of Engineers has ever seen in the Midwest. "It's immense," Bret Budd, Army Corps of Engineers Chief of the Omaha District Systems Restoration Team, told VICE News. "It's a biblical flood for us. It is going to tax the resources of everybody around. We have over 500 miles of levee to provide to reduce the risk of flooding. Of those 500 miles, we had over 50 breaches."

The Corps has been scrambling to patch the broken levees before the rivers rise again — but gaping holes are still unfilled. For now, they’re only able to put temporary fixes in place anyway, so the Corps looking into redesigning their flood control systems to adapt with the changing landscape.

In 1936 Congress assigned the task of flood protection on to the Army Corps of Engineers. It built levees, dikes and dams along thousands of miles of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. The levees stopped flooding but made the rivers straighter, deeper, and more powerful — which contributed to a 20% increase in the risk of a 100-year flood.

So building higher barriers as climate change brings heavier rainfall could make future flooding worse.

This segment originally aired April 11, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.

The evolution (or not) of school shootings in America

April 20, 2019 - 10:19am

When the Columbine shooting happened in 1999, the survivors had no concept of what a school shooting was. Neither did most of America.

“We thought there was some sort of unknown or undisclosed senior prank going on,” said Zach Cartaya, now 37, who survived the shooting and has since started an organization that helps survivors of mass shootings. “Something to do with fireworks in the parking lot.”

Twenty years later, school shootings have become a staple of news cycles, and active shooter drills have been put into place in schools across the country. School shootings have become a thing all students know about, and to some extent, expect to happen.

"It's sort of just an unspoken fear that we all had growing up," said Marisol Garrido, who survived the Parkland school shooting.

But even as shootings at schools have become more common, little has changed in terms of either policy or the public’s ability to reckon with them productively.

"I thought it would end after us," said Garrido, now a junior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. "I thought that it was enough to make any sort of change but it's a year later. I don't really see anything done. I guess school shootings will end when America wants to. They just don't want to yet."

This segment originally aired April 19, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.

Mayor Pete is dealing with homophobic attacks. He knew they were coming.

April 19, 2019 - 2:34pm

Pete Buttigieg, a 2020 candidate for president and the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is, unsurprisingly, facing homophobic protests on the campaign trail.

A man interrupted a recent Buttigieg rally in Iowa, for example, and shouted at the candidate: “Remember Sodom and Gomorrah.” The protester was quickly drowned out by Buttigieg’s supporters, and the mayor also indirectly addressed the comment to the crowd.

“The good news is the condition of my soul is in the hands of God, but the Iowa caucuses are up to you,” Buttigieg, a moderate Democrat, said.

At another Buttigieg event, costumed fringe religious demonstrators showed up dressed as Mayor Pete, Jesus, and Satan. Pete was whipping Jesus, who’s carrying the cross, while the devil shouts at them. The person dressed as the devil can be heard shouting: “Beat him Peter, beat him. I hate this guy,” as well as, “More blood, Peter. Every vote is a lash on the back of Christ.”

The protests are not shocking. LGBTQ candidates expect them and usually have strategies in place to deal with the events, as well as more subtle attacks on their identities, according to political strategists who work to get them elected.

“The purpose of anti-LGBTQ attacks on our candidates is to mobilize homophobic and transphobic voters and to distract the LGBTQ candidates from the messages that resonate with their constituents,” said Elliot Imse, communications director at the LGBTQ Victory Fund, a political action committee that helps elect queer candidates.

Imse said that the group advises candidates to not fixate on homophobic or transphobic attacks but on the issues that appeal to voters. But candidates can use hostile protests to their advantage to rally loyal supporters and donors.

“When an LGBTQ candidate comes under attack, we usually try to ensure that the mainstream media picks up on that attack, because that is an opportunity to mobilize,” Imse said.

The Victory Fund has worked with numerous candidates targeted by anti-gay and anti-trans attacks. Opponents of Malcolm Kenyatta, a Pennsylvania state representative whom Victory fundraised for and endorsed, distributed fliers during his campaign that showed him with an ex-boyfriend.

“Say no!!!!” the fliers said, in red capital letters.

Kenyatta refocused the attacks on his platform.

"There are big issues to address: poverty, schools, and housing," Kenyatta said last May. "People have no patience for the bigoted political games, and our resounding victory on Tuesday makes that clear."

Similarly, Danica Roem, a Virginia state representative and the first transgender woman elected to any U.S. state legislature, faced off against an opponent who distributed fliers that willfully misgendered her. “Danica Roem In His Own Words,” the flier said.

But sometimes attacks can be much more subtle and rely on dog whistles to attack gay and trans candidates, Imse said. Candidates may be smeared as “unelectable,” for example, or as being “too weak.” (This latter form of attack has already materialized against Buttigieg, with one prominent GOP political strategist, Patrick Ruffini, implying that Vladimir Putin would not be threatened by Buttigieg.)

“The veiled attacks are powerful,” Imse said. “Those attacks work.”

Tucker Carlson recently targeted Buttigieg in a monologue that some have characterized as a dog whistle-homophobia. Carlson said the news media had abandoned Beto O’Rourke for a “younger, hotter” candidate, Buttigieg, whom they want to eat "like a hearty stew ... yum!”

That said, American voters seem more willing than ever to support LGBTQ candidates. Sixty-eight percent of American voters said in a recent poll that they would be “OK” with a gay man as president, a stark shift from just 43 percent who said the same in 2006. It’s a sign that real progress has been made — with a wave of historic wins for LGBTQ candidates in just the last few years — even as they continue to face transphobic and homophobic opposition.

Cover image: 2020 Democratic presidential candidate South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during a town hall meeting, Tuesday, April 16, 2019, in Fort Dodge, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Cops arrest Florida man who allegedly threatened to kill Omar and Tlaib

April 19, 2019 - 1:47pm

Federal authorities arrested a Florida man Friday for allegedly threatening to kill at least three Democratic lawmakers, according to reports. John Kless, 49, called the offices of Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Rep. Eric Swalwell, and Sen. Cory Booker.

"You're going to be the motherfuckers that pay," Kless allegedly told Booker in a voicemail. "Don't worry, you government officials will be in the graves where you belong."

In some of the voice messages, Kless defended President Trump, and in all three messages, he insulted and threatened Rep. Ilhan Omar and attempted to link her to terrorist groups.

In his message to Tlaib, Kless allegedly referred to both Tlaib and Omar using racist, Islamophobic, and gendered slurs. The messages also insulted the Muslim prophet Mohamed and included homophobic innuendo about the two women. Kless also said he’d like to throw Omar off the Empire State Building.

Omar and Tlaib are the only two Muslim women ever elected to Congress. Kless also allegedly defended Trump in his expletive-laden message to the congresswoman.

“You won’t fucking tell Americans what to say and you definitely don’t tell our president, Donald Trump, what to say,” he said.

In his call to Swalwell, Kless allegedly focused on Swalwell’s position on gun control. Swalwell has made gun control his principal issue in his 2020 campaign for the U.S. presidency.

"The day you come after our guns, motherfucker, is the day you'll be dead," Kless said, according to a federal indictment.

He added: "You're gonna die. Don't wanna do that shit, boy. You'll be [on] your death bed, motherfucker, along with the rest of you Democrats. So if you want death, keep that shit up, motherfucker."

Rep. Omar is frequently targeted with death threats and other Islamophobic attacks. The congresswoman is the most vocal critic of Israel in Congress, which has resulted in repeated controversy and accusations of anti-Semitism from Republicans and some Democrats. Most recently, President Trump tweeted a video that interspersed a single sentence Omar said about 9/11 — “some people did something” — with footage of the terrorist attacks. Omar said the video caused a spike in direct threats on her life.

Trump, meanwhile, says he has no regrets about the video or the threats against Omar.

“She’s been very disrespectful to this country,” Trump said of Omar earlier this week. “She’s been very disrespectful, frankly, to Israel. She is somebody that doesn’t really understand, I think, life, real life.”

Kless allegedly directly referenced Omar’s use of the words “some people did something” — the same words Trump has publicly targeted — in his message to Tlaib.

“You know what? She's lucky she's just getting death threats,” Kless allegedly said. “So are you.”

Cover: Reps. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., right, and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., attend a rally with Democrats in the Capitol to introduce the "Equality Act," which will amend existing civil rights legislation to bar discrimination based on gender identification and sexual orientation on Wednesday, March 13, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

An armed militia is rounding up migrants and forcing them into border patrol custody

April 19, 2019 - 1:14pm

Armed vigilantes patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border have detained hundreds of migrants, some with young children, over the last week in the New Mexico desert.

A series of Facebook Live videos that surfaced this week show the men, from a militia group called the United Constitutional Patriots, rounding up groups of migrants — including many families with young children — at gunpoint and making them kneel on the ground. The militia then detains the migrants until Customs and Border Protection agents show up.

In the videos, the militia members shine their flashlights onto the group while making cruel comments. In one case, a woman who's with the group can be seen filming and saying: “Lots of coughing. How bad does it have to get until we build the wall. This is an invasion.”

Militia groups have patrolled the U.S.-Mexico border for decades. But as President Donald Trump ramps up his rhetoric against new migrants — he's called them “an invasion” and declared “our country is full” — the United Constitutional Patriots appears to have taken matters into their own hands.

In an interview last month with ABC-7 KVIA, one member of the United Constitutional Patriots said that CBP asked for their help at the border. CBP didn’t outright deny that.

“U.S. Customs and Border Protection does not endorse private groups or organizations taking enforcement matters into their own hands,” a CBP spokesperson wrote in an email to VICE News. “Interference by civilians in law enforcement matters could have public safety and legal consequences for all parties involved.”

To experts who have studied the militia movement, the United Constitutional Patriots' actions suggest a return to a dark period in American border history.

In the 1970s, the Ku Klux Klan formed vigilante groups in Texas and California with the goal of detaining undocumented immigrants and assisting CBP, according to Kathleen Belew, an assistant history professor at the University of Chicago and author of “Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America.”

In the 1980s, a militia group called the Civilian Military Assistant, equipped with semiautomatic weapons, ventured into Mexico, where they set booby traps and fired on groups of immigrants making their way to the United States, Belew found.

Vigilante groups have continued to patrol the border in recent decades, although in a less organized and paramilitary manner, compared to previous years. But the new development has troubled civil rights groups.

"We’ve never seen anything like this," said Peter Simonson, executive director of New Mexico’s ACLU. "This would always be our worst nightmare: that the vigilante groups would start falsely arresting people."

The national arm of the organization has now called on New Mexico’s governor and attorney general to investigate the militia’s border actions. “They have no authority under New Mexico or federal law to detain or arrest migrants in the United States,” the ACLU wrote in a letter.

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas released a statement Friday urging the militia members to stop detaining migrants. "My office has been informed that this week, an armed group has detained nearly 300 people near Sunland Park, New Mexico," Balderas wrote. "These individuals should not attempt to exercise authority reserved for law enforcement."

“They are treating these folks as if they were cattle. Herding them up. Making them kneel in the sand. Even though there are children, infants, even,” Simonson added. “No compassion for the fact that they are holding innocent families at gunpoint.”

“Not a bunch of hillbillies”

For a report on the United Constitutional Patriots published last November, the Southern Poverty Law Center interviewed the militia’s “general,” Jim Peyton, who estimated the group had about 100 members. Peyton also said that every member had served in the military.

“We’re not a bunch of hillbillies running around with muskets,” Peyton told the SPLC. “People know what the rules are, what the rules of engagement are, what the rules of the border patrol are. And that’s how we’re operating.”

The SPLC’s report also zeroed in on how the United Constitutional Patriots felt emboldened by and promoted anti-immigration conspiracy theories — many of which Fox News hosts and Republican lawmakers, like Florida congressman Matt Gaetz, also shared.

For example, militia members advanced the baseless theory that Islamic State terrorists were embedded with the thousands of migrants traveling caravan-style toward the border. They also believe that billionaire George Soros bankrolled the caravan. The MAGA-Bomber, who last Novemberwaged a weeklong mail-bomb campaign targeting Trump’s biggest critics, also shared similar conspiracy theories.

The militia also produces a radio program that peddles anti-immigrant conspiracy theories, according to a report by the Daily Beast. The Beast also found evidence that the militia was pro-QAnon, a bizarre group of conspiracy theorists who believe that Trump and special counsel Robert Mueller were in cahoots to bring down a global child sex-trafficking ring run by Democrats.

Cover image: Members of the United Constitutional Patriots share cigarettes while patrolling the US-Mexico border in Sunland Park, New Mexico on March 20, 2019. (PAUL RATJE/AFP/Getty Images)

Mueller: Assange worked with the Russians because he thought Hillary was a “sociopath”

April 19, 2019 - 1:11pm

A year before Donald Trump won the White House, Julian Assange told his WikiLeaks colleagues in a group chat on Twitter that then-candidate Hillary Clinton seemed like a “bright, well connected, sadistic sociopath.” It’d be better if Republicans seized office, he concluded.

Months later, in March 2016, WikiLeaks, founded by Assange, published a searchable archive of Clinton’s emails, sourced by a public records request that mined Clinton’s private email server from June 2010 to August 2014.

A few months after that, in June 2016, WikiLeaks would get a Twitter direct message from @DCLeaks, an account Russians used to disseminate information, according special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, released Thursday. The account had already started posting stolen emails.

"You announced your organization was preparing to publish more of Hillary's emails. We are ready to support you,” @DCLeaks wrote to WikiLeaks, according to the Mueller report. “We have some sensitive information too, in particular, her financial documents. Let's do it together. What do you think about publishing our info at the same moment? Thank you."

What would come next — Russia hacking the Democratic National Committee, and WikiLeaks dumping private emails from the Clinton campaign — would dominate the rest of the election’s news cycle.

In part, it would also lead to the two-year Mueller investigation into whether the Trump administration colluded in Russia’s efforts to sway the election.

While WikiLeaks’ role in distributing stolen emails was well known, the particulars of Assange’s conversations with Russian intelligence officers weren’t clear until Attorney General William Barr released the Mueller report on Thursday.

Here’s what we learned about WikiLeaks and Assange Thursday:

Talking with Russia

In the summer of 2016, WikiLeaks was in touch with a Russia front for GRU, the persona Guccifer 2.0, and had urged its Twitter account to send any stolen emails to WikiLeaks for greater impact, rather than just posting them to the GRU-operated Twitter accounts.

At the time, Assange had internet access from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he'd been staying in asylum for years. (He was dragged out of that embassy and arrested last week on charges of breaking into U.S. government computers and conspiring with former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to and distribute classified documents.)

On July 6, WikiLeaks reached out to Guccifer 2.0 via Twitter DM: "if you have anything hillary related we want it in the next two days preferable,” WikiLeaks said, mentioning that the Democratic National Convention was happening soon and Clinton would “solidify Bernie supporters behind her after.”

"ok ... i see,” WikiLeaks responded, according to Mueller.

Russia’s GRU, in an effort to influence the presidential election, then began to transfer documents they stole from the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta, then-chairman of the Clinton campaign.

In mid-July, WikiLeaks received an email with the subject line “big archive.” A few days later — three days before the Democratic National Convention — the organization released 20,000 emails and documents hacked and stolen from the DNC.

While it’s not clear whether WikiLeaks participated in that now-infamous DNC hack, Mueller’s investigation revealed that WikiLeaks sought to spread conspiracies about where they got the information, obscure whether they knew it came from Russia, and release documents at times that seemingly benefited Trump by consuming the news cycle.

Assange spread conspiracies about Seth Rich

In July 2016, shortly before WikiLeaks released the hacked emails, a 27-year-old DNC staffer, Seth Rich, was shot and killed near his home in D.C. Police said he was likely the victim of a robbery gone wrong, but Assange started falsely implying his death was connected to the stolen emails.

The WikiLeaks Twitter account posted on August 9 that it had “decided to issue a US$20k reward for information leading to conviction for the murder of DNC staffer Seth Rich." And Assange said in an interview with Fox News justifying the reward that he was “interested in anything that might be a threat to alleged WikiLeaks sources.”

"We're not saying that Seth Rich's death necessarily is connected to our publication”

"We're not saying that Seth Rich's death necessarily is connected to our publication,” Assange said. “That's something that has to be established. But if there's any question about a source of WikiLeaks being threatened, then people can be assured that this organization will go after anyone who may have been involved in some kind of attempt to coerce or possibly, in this case, kill a potential source."

U.S. intelligence officials publicly stated that Russia was behind the DNC hack, which Assange vehemently denied. Rich’s family insisted he wasn’t WikiLeaks’ source, and Mueller wrote “the statements about Rich implied falsely that he had been the source of the stolen DNC emails.”

"As reports attributing the DNC and DCCC hacks to the Russian government emerged, WikiLeaks and Assange made several public statements apparently designed to obscure the source of the materials that WikiLeaks was releasing," Mueller wrote in his report.

As WikiLeaks itself noted, however, the report also obscures quite a lot about what Mueller knew about Assange or his organization. The organization saw what was published as a vindication of its actions, though.

“WikiLeaks has always been confident that this investigation would vindicate our groundbreaking publishing of the 2016 materials, which it has,” the organization said in a tweet Thursday. “We disapprove of the large redactions which permit conspiracy theories to abound. Full transparency please.

Cover: Julian Assange arrives at Westminster Magistrates' Court in London, after the WikiLeaks founder was arrested by officers from the Metropolitan Police and taken into custody following the Ecuadorian government's withdrawal of asylum. (Photo by Victoria Jones/PA Images via Getty Images)

Mueller uncovered all these times Trump asked people to lie for him

April 19, 2019 - 1:02pm

While the special counsel’s report stops short of concluding that President Trump committed crimes, it does lays out a disturbing pattern of Trump wielding his power against staff and frequently asking them to lie on his behalf.

As the investigation into Trump campaign ties to Russia in the 2016 election unfolded, and the press reported on Trump's efforts at obstruction, the president not only lied himself but also leaned on underlings and high-level government officials to clear his name by making false public statements, the Mueller report details.

Here are some of the most egregious instances that Mueller documented:

Trump pushed intelligence chiefs to say publicly that he had no connection to Russia

In March of 2017, shortly after the Mueller investigation kicked off, the president pulled Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and CIA Director Mike Pompeo aside after a meeting in the Oval Office. He urged them to help turn down the heat on the Russia investigation.

Trump wanted to know: Was there anything they could do to help Trump with the investigations? He asked them to make public statements that Trump had no ties to Russia.

And Trump didn’t let things go after that Oval Office meeting. He followed up with another phone call to Coats. As Director of National Intelligence, Coats had nothing to do with the Russia investigation, and he told Trump it wasn’t his place to make a public statement about it.

So Trump, undeterred, called up NSA Director Admiral Michael Rogers. The news stories about Russian contacts, Trump said, were false. Was there anything the NSA could do to refute them? Deputy Director of the NSA Richard Ledgett, who was also on the call, told Mueller it was the strangest experience he’d had in his 40 years of working for the government.

After the call, Rogers and Ledgett wrote up a memo about it, signed it, and stored it away in a safe.

Trump tried to get Mueller fired as special counsel. Then, when the incident was reported in the press, he tried to get his staff to lie about it.

Trump pushed White House Counsel Don McGahn in June 2017 to get Mueller fired over “conflicts of interest.” A number of close advisers to the president all thought the “conflicts” were bogus — and McGahn threatened to resign rather than carry out the president’s bidding.

Then, when the New York Times reported in 2018 that McGahn had threatened to resign rather than push for Mueller’s ouster, Trump tried to get McGahn to make the Times run a correction on the story.

"I never said to fire Mueller. I never said 'fire.’ This story doesn't look good. You need to correct this. You're the White House counsel,” Trump said.

But McGahn told him he thought the Times’ reporting was just about on point. McGahn had interpreted what Trump said as a request to fire Mueller. Trump insisted that he “do a correction” nonetheless. McGahn refused.

Trump wanted to make it look like it was Rosenstein’s idea to fire Comey

Trump fired FBI Director James Comey over a purported lack of loyalty and his unwillingness to do anything to influence Mueller’s investigation. But in the days after the firing, Trump wanted to make it look like it was Jeff Sessions’ and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s idea to fire Comey.

The White House was going to go so far as to put out an official statement alleging, falsely, that Comey was fired based on Rosenstein’s recommendation. Rosenstein told the White House that he wouldn’t participate in putting out a “false news story,” but that didn’t stop then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer from saying, in an unplanned press conference on May 9, 2017, that Comey’s firing was all Rosenstein’s idea.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders pushed that narrative further, alleging that Comey’s firing was recommended not just by Rosenstein but also by a bipartisan group of officials and lawmakers — and even a bunch of FBI employees — who had all lost faith in Comey’s abilities. That was, Sanders later told Mueller’s team, a “slip of the tongue.” That rank-and-file FBI agents had lost confidence in Comey was a comment she made "in the heat of the moment,” but later admitted was completely unfounded.

On Friday morning, Sanders said on ABC’s “Good Morning America” that the “slip of the tongue” was her use of the word “countless,” and then she doubled down: “There were a number of FBI, both former and current, that agreed with the president’s decision.” She also said that Comey was a “disgraced leaker.”

“I'm sorry that I wasn't a robot like the Democrat Party that went out for two and a half years and stated time and time again that there was definitely Russian collusion between the president and his campaign,” she added.

Don Jr. wanted to come clean about the Trump Tower meeting. Trump wouldn’t let him.

After the infamous June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between members of the Trump campaign and Russians, Donald Trump Jr., who had solicited “dirt” that a Russian lawyer was offering on Hillary Clinton, penned a letter to the New York Times.

In drafting the letter, Don Jr. wrote that the meeting was with "an individual who I was told might have information helpful to the campaign." But his father edited that line out. The letter after Trump’s edits indicated that the meeting was only about adoption issues. The president, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and Trump’s lawyer Jay Sekulow then repeatedly lied about Trump’s involvement in editing the letter.

Trump may not have “directed” Michael Cohen to lie to Congress, but he didn’t tell him not to, either.

Michael Cohen, Trump’s former attorney and fixer, had been the point person on Trump Organization negotiations over the building of a Trump Tower in Moscow. The president was aware the negotiations were ongoing throughout much of the 2016 presidential campaign, but Trump’s official line on the matter was that they ended in January of 2016.

They didn’t. Cohen was in touch with Russians about the Trump Tower Moscow project until June of 2016.

As Cohen was preparing his testimony for Congress about the Trump Organization’s interactions with Moscow, the president’s lawyers repeatedly told him to “stay on message.”

For Cohen, that amounted to an implied directive to lie to Congress. “Mr. Trump did not directly tell me to lie to Congress. That’s not how he operates,” Cohen told Congress in February. “In his way, he was telling me to lie.”

In January, BuzzFeed News reported that Trump had instructed Cohen to lie to Congress. In a rare public statement in the midst of the investigation, Mueller’s team refuted the report.

Now that Mueller’s report is public, we know why: The evidence that Trump directly instructed Cohen to lie wasn’t quite enough for Mueller.

Mueller cited evidence that the president likely knew that Cohen’s statements to Congress were false, but that Cohen largely made the statements on his own. They didn’t find enough evidence that Trump “directed or aided” Cohen’s false testimony.

The report does, however, indicate that Cohen shared his prepared false statement to Congress with Trump’s lawyers. They signed off on them. And immediately before and after Cohen’s testimony, phone records that Mueller reviewed show he’d had repeated calls with Trump’s personal lawyers.

Trump may not have directed Cohen to lie. But Trump certainly didn’t encourage him not to.


Cover: President Donald Trump speaks at a Wounded Warrior Project Soldier Ride event in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, April 18, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Florida Republicans are making it harder for former felons to claim their new voting rights

April 19, 2019 - 10:58am

TALLAHASSEE, Florida — Former felons and their advocates cheered when Florida passed a landmark ballot initiative last fall restoring certain felons' voting rights. But now they're having to fight against Republican lawmakers proposing more conditions that may make it impossible for former felons to claim their new right.

In November, Florida passed Amendment 4, the largest expansion of voting rights in decades. The landmark ballot initiative restored the right to vote to approximately 1.5 million former felons who hadn't committed crimes like murder or sexual violence. But in the months since the election, some Republican lawmakers have worked to add clarifications to the amendment’s implementation. One crucial proposal is to require former felons to pay off all of the restitution, court fines, and fees associated with their sentence before they can actually qualify.

According to the Fines and Fees Justice Center, Florida has instituted about 115 different fines and fees. Between 2013 and 2018 alone, the state issued $1 billion in fines and fees for felonies. Many felons leave prison and struggle to find work, so it's unlikely they coud pay off debts and the interest that quickly accrues.

In the eyes of former felons like Coral Nichols, lawmakers aren’t trying to clarify Amendment 4. They’re using a loophole to undermine it.

Coral Nichols had been sentenced to pay $190,000 at a rate of $100 per month. “Sentencing someone to pay an amount of money that you know they will never pay back in a lifetime? It’s incomprehensible to me that we would set someone up in that manner,” Nichols told VICE News. The proposed legislation would make it impossible for her to settle the full debt before she dies. Her only option would be to ask for clemency.

In a purple state like Florida, 1.5 million new voters could drastically change the electorate and threaten the edge Republicans currently hold.

Republican Rep. Jamie Grant, who drafted the controversial House bill, says that this isn’t about politics but about laying out plainly what it means for someone to have completed their sentence — a requirement that has to be fulfilled before the right to vote is reinstated.

“What we are doing is upholding Amendment 4 exactly as it was offered to the voters,” Grant told VICE News. "Whether I like all of it or dislike some of it or I dislike all of it, my job is not to inject my beliefs here; my job is to uphold the integrity of our elections and exactly what was put before the voters.”

Grant’s bill in the House passed, but after meetings with activists like Coral, he did add an amendment that removed the expectation that they’d have to pay off interest. Legislators will have to get their bills passed in the House and the Senate the end of legislative session on May 3 if they want to get a bill before Gov. DeSantis this year.

This segment originally aired April 10, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.

Democrats have a Mueller dilemma: hearings or impeachment?

April 19, 2019 - 10:45am

WASHINGTON — Impeach, or not to impeach? That question got more complicated for Democrats after the report from special counsel Robert Mueller laid out a damning case for obstruction of justice, even if Attorney General William Barr decided not to charge President Trump.

But if the Mueller report divided Democrats more deeply into impeachment and non-impeachment camps, the report is also unifying Democrats in their hopes that Mueller’s testimony before Congress — expected in May — will unite the public with an unvarnished and dispassionate telling of the facts.

“When people hear Mueller go through the details of what Russia was trying to do to interfere in that election it will every American’s blood boil,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who serves on the House Oversight Committee.

Many Democratic pundits accused House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) of putting his foot in his mouth on for Thursday telling CNN “going forward on impeachment is not worthwhile at this point.”

Hoyer doesn’t seem to have made a misstatement though. Earlier this year his boss, of sorts, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), already dismissed impeachment as “just not worth it.”

Not to impeach

That sentiment is echoed among other Democrats who say that even though the evidence is strong, there is no chance of a two-thirds majority in the Senate, which would be required to convict.

“I think it would be foolhardy for the Democrats who have just taken power after eight years to embark on that course,” said Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s non-voting representative to Congress, told VICE News. “Congress has a lot more to do, particularly the Democrats who are in control and if all they can show for it is an impeachment process that didn’t take, we will be held accountable.”

Democrats in suburban districts who just thrust their party back into power last fall say their constituents just aren't interested in impeaching the president.

“I think what voters are least interested in, quite frankly, is all of the investigations and all that stuff. What they’re most interested in is what’s happening to their Social Security, their Medicare, their veteran [benefits],” Rep. Jeff Van Drew (D-N.J.) told VICE News. “Almost nobody, other than real partisans on the Republican and Democrat side, talk to me about the investigations.”

Let's impeach

But that view is not universally-held among House Democrats, and the left wing of the party — particularly the freshmen — are doubling down on their calls for impeachment.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) found two new co-sponsors for her impeachment resolution in Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), in addition to Rep. Al Green (D-Texas).

“Mueller’s report is clear in pointing to Congress’ responsibility in investigating obstruction of justice by the President,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted Thursday. “It is our job as outlined in Article 1, Sec 2, Clause 5 of the US Constitution. As such, I’ll be signing onto @RashidaTlaib’s impeachment resolution.”

Senior Democrats desperate to tamp down that discord in their party’s ranks, are again looking to Mueller as their last hope. That’s partly why House Democrats are calling on Mueller to appear before Congress by May 23rd in hopes he’ll be a unifying force in American politics.

“Right now people have Bob Barr’s version of ‘the facts,’” Khanna said. “The only one who can refute that and reset the narrative to the truth is Bob Mueller. When he speaks the country will listen.”

But Mueller doesn’t just unify the disparate ranks of today’s Democratic Party; he’s also brought most sitting Republicans together, if for opposite reasons.

Mueller, the uniter

“How could justice possibly be advanced with Congress continuing this investigation when Mueller’s team acknowledges there is a reasonable doubt as to the obstruction charges?” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who is a top Trump ally, texted VICE News while on a flight Thursday. “Bottom line is the special prosecutor finished the investigation and reached a conclusion not to indict, they finished unimpeded [by] the administration. What crime was the alleged obstruction trying to cover up, collusion/conspiracy?”

Meadows is a card-carrying FOX News conservative, but there are still a few anti-FOX conservatives out there, like former Rep. David Jolly (R-Fla.), a #NeverTrump conservative who seems to have a permanent stool at MSNBC to speak his mind.

While he agrees impeachment would be politically risky, he hopes Democratic leaders will use all the tools they have to investigate Trump.

“Politically it’s very dangerous for Democrats, right? We know that history shows that. There’s little political benefit at the ballot for Democrats,” Jolly told VICE News in a Thursday. “But I would make the case, if that is their calculus then they’re as bad as Republicans were the last two years, because they’re ignoring corruption right in front of them for the sake of their own reelection.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings, chairman of the House Oversight Committee has been non-committal on impeachment, but told MSNBC Friday Democrats simply have to do something. “And I often say that people are going to look back at this time 200 years from now and ask the question ‘what did you do to reverse this?’” he said.

Cover: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) (L) is joined by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and other House Democrats for a news conference on the Privileged Resolution to Terminate President Donald Trump's emergency declaration February 25, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

How Trump officials' encrypted messaging made Mueller's job harder

April 19, 2019 - 10:40am

While Mueller’s report did not conclude that President Trump conspired with Russia during the 2016 campaign — and nor did it reach a definitive conclusion that Trump obstructed justice — it pointed to a particular obstruction impeding Mueller’s own investigation: encrypted messaging.

In a summary section of the report detailing why the special counsel’s office did not find collusion, Mueller says that some of the people his office interviewed or investigated used messaging apps that feature encryption, or which delete messages after a certain period of time has passed.

This, Mueller said, prevented investigators from corroborating witness statements and questioning witnesses about inconsistencies.

“Given these identified gaps,” the report states, “the Office cannot rule out the possibility that the unavailable information would shed additional light on (or cast in a new light) the events described in the report.”

Read more: The Mueller report makes a damning case that Trump obstructed justice .

Deeper in Mueller’s report there are windows into what sort of information slipped from his grasp. Perhaps most tantalizing to investigators was the potential for more detail concerning the Trump campaign’s apparent effort to weaken the Republican Party platform on the question of U.S. aid to Ukraine.

The report details an Aug. 2, 2016 meeting between Paul Manafort, Trump’s then-campaign manager, and Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian citizen suspected by the FBI of having ties to Russian intelligence. Kilimnik had earlier aided Manafort’s lobbying work for Ukraine’s Russia-aligned government. According to Mueller, the August meeting concerned a peace plan in Ukraine that would favor Russian interests in the east of the country, where separatists have been waging a war since 2014. Mueller goes on to state that while he did not find that Manafort passed information about a peace plan to Trump or his campaign, investigators were also not able to access some of Manafort’s communications with Kilimnik that followed the Aug. 2 meeting because messages were exchanged using encrypted apps.

Mueller is clear that Manafort seemed interested in hiding the nature of his talks with Kilimnik: a federal judge, the report notes, later found Manafort lied to the special counsel’s office about the discussions.

The law enforcement official whose firing spurred the special counsel’s investigation in the first place is likely incensed over this revelation. James Comey, who led the FBI for four years until Trump abruptly removed him in May 2017, had made the threat of encrypted messages a central issue of his tenure.

“We cannot break strong encryption. I think people watch TV and think the bureau can do a lot of things,” Comey complained to Congress in 2015. “Even if I get a court order under the fourth amendment to intercept that communication as it travels over the wires, I will get gobbledy gook.”

Read more: The Mueller report's biggest revelations about Trump.

At the time, Comey was contending with the threat of ISIS attacks in the US, and his bureau was struggling to contain a flow of Americans leaving the U.S. to join ISIS in Syria. The FBI had watched as communication between ISIS recruiters and curious Americans moved out of its reach. The group’s use of encryption made it different, Comey said, from the “Al Qaeda of old,” which carefully vetted and groomed recruits for spectacular attacks that took years to plan.

Instead, ISIS recruiting was ad hoc, and its early stages strangely public. “ISIL will find the live ones on Twitter and we can see them say, ‘Here is my encrypted mobile messaging app. Contact me there,’” Comey testified, using an alternative acronym for the group. He went on to say that Congress needed to work with telecom companies to allow law enforcement some way to peer in.

Comey’s testimony to the Senate Select Intelligence Committee came a year after ISIS established its “caliphate” in parts of Syria and Iraq, and as worry was growing about attacks inside the US. In May that year, two gunmen attempted to storm an exhibit near Dallas featuring cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. ISIS claimed the attackers as their own, and the FBI examined social media connections between the shooters and the terror group.

Trump campaigned in 2016 on eradicating ISIS, and after expanding U.S. military operations in Syria and dramatically upping bombing activity, is now claiming victory.

The tools ISIS once used are still out there, of course, and terrorism experts worry sleeper cells in Iraq and Syria are waiting to reconstitute. But the Mueller report shows Comey’s encryption crusade had more immediate ramifications — preventing a full accounting of the biggest question surrounding an American president in decades.

“The tools you’ve given us are not working the way you expect them to work in the highest stakes matters. I need help figuring out what to do about that,” Comey told Congress four years ago.

Mueller, who oversaw the start of the post-9/11 era as FBI director, might have new reason to agree.

Cover: Paul Manafort arrives for a hearing at US District Court on June 15, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

The Mueller report makes a damning case that Trump obstructed justice

April 18, 2019 - 6:38pm

President Trump proclaimed victory even before Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s final report was released Thursday, tweeting a photoshopped image of his silhouette beside Game of Thrones style text that menacingly read: “No Collusion. No Obstruction. For the haters and the radical left democrats — ‘Game Over.’”

But Mueller’s report doesn’t clear the president, by any stretch. While it wipes away any criminal entanglements over collusion with Russia, it rolls out page after page of damning episodes in which Trump appeared to obstruct justice — or attempted to.

Mueller lists, at great length, Trump’s efforts to derail the investigation. At one point, he writes that Trump’s attempts to influence the probe failed “largely because the persons who surrounded the president declined to carry out orders or accede to his request.”

“In layperson’s terms, he tried to obstruct justice,” Mary McCord, the former high-ranking DOJ official who helped oversee the department’s investigation of foreign interference in the 2016 election before Mueller was appointed, told VICE News. “I don’t know how you could walk away from this thinking that this isn’t a person who tried to obstruct justice.”

Here are a few examples:

  • Trump fired James Comey days after the FBI director told Congress that the bureau was investigating Russia’s interference activities. The next day, Trump met with Russian officials in the Oval Office, saying he had “faced great pressure because of Russia,” which had been "taken off” by Comey's firing.
  • Trump went after Mueller with similar force, telling top White House lawyer, Don McGahn, to rein in the special counsel or fire him.
  • But McGahn threatened to quit rather than fire Mueller. When that story leaked, Trump told McGahn to lie about it. Again McGahn declined.
  • Trump urged then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reverse his position and “unrecuse” himself. When he wouldn't do that, Trump “urged Sessions to resign” so that he could replace him with another Attorney General.
  • Trump told his former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to tell Sessions to publicly announce that the investigation was “very unfair” to Trump. The president also wanted Sessions to say that he “planned to meet with the Special Counsel and ‘let [him] move forward with investigating election meddling for future elections.”
  • Trump repeatedly instructed his aides to lie, in one instance calling McGahn at home with instructions to call the “Acting Attorney General [Rod Rosenstein] and say that the special counsel had conflicts of interest and must be removed.”

“It is immediately evident that President Trump has repeatedly acted in a way that violates the trust of the American people, making him unfit to be president,” Rep. Andre Carson, a Democrat from Indiana on the House Intelligence Committee, told VICE News.

Now, as members of Congress frantically dig through Mueller’s lengthy report, two questions rise above all the others: Why didn’t Mueller charge Trump with obstruction himself, and what happens now?

The case for obstruction and why Mueller didn’t make a decision.

In page after page of detail, Mueller lays out a convincing case that Trump obstructed justice, legal experts and former prosecutors said.

“The evidence is incredibly compelling — the number and type of incidents is overwhelming,” said Jens David Ohlin, vice dean of Cornell Law School, an expert in international criminal law. “The fact that Trump tried to have Mueller removed as Special Counsel is obstruction of justice, no matter how you cut it.”

The evidence “is very strong, with strong legal analysis to support it, including shooting down the proffered defenses,” said Patrick Cotter, a former prosecutor who once worked with Mueller’s top deputy, Andrew Weissmann.

So, why isn’t it a crime?

“The evidence is incredibly compelling — the number and type of incidents is overwhelming.”

The key reason, according to Mueller, is that Trump is the president. And the president can’t be charged with a crime, according to Department of Justice policy.

Mueller’s report kicks off the obstruction section by noting that a sitting president can’t be indicted due to a DOJ policy dating back to the 1970s, which essentially argues that it would get in the way of his running the country.

“Mueller found significant and notable evidence of obstruction of justice but did not state a conclusion due to the DOJ policy does not permit the indictment of a sitting president,” said Harry Sandick, a former prosecutor with the Southern District of New York.

The standing of that DOJ policy remains up for debate in legal circles, however. Scholars and former prosecutors have argued that if this DOJ policy were ever tested in the Supreme Court, it might not hold up.

Former Independent Counsel Ken Starr, who investigated Bill Clinton in the 1990s, has told VICE News that he thinks “the president can be indicted, but that’s not the Justice Department’s view.”

Mueller, however, uses that DOJ position as his starting point. And he then reasons that, essentially, it wouldn’t be fair to formally accuse the president of a crime, without giving him the opportunity to clear himself in court through a trial.

“Trump did acts that could be successfully prosecuted as obstruction of justice, if he were anyone else,” said Cotter.

In his letter summarizing Mueller’s report to Congress, Attorney General Bill Barr seemingly disagrees, however, saying he believes Trump didn’t commit a crime, regardless of his executive powers. Barr argues that the fact Trump didn’t enter into a criminal conspiracy with Russia suggests he didn’t have the necessary “intent” to obstruct justice.

“Trump did acts that could be successfully prosecuted as obstruction of justice, if he were anyone else.”

Legal experts who spoke to VICE News regarded that view as bizarre, and unlikely to hold up in court.

“This is a weak argument,” said Sandick. “Many people commit obstruction of justice not to prevent an underlying crime but in order to avoid embarrassment or non-legal consequences.”

While Mueller doesn’t conclude that all the obstructive activity adds up to a crime, he also doesn’t close the book on the matter. He explicitly leaves room for Congress to reach a different conclusion, and potentially boot Trump out of office.

He also pointedly notes that the same DOJ opinion explicitly states that a president can still be indicted after he steps down from office.

Quoting that legal opinion, the Mueller report flags both possibilities on the first page of the obstruction section: "Recognizing an immunity from prosecution for a sitting President would not preclude such prosecution once the President's term is over or he is otherwise removed from office by resignation or impeachment.”

Here’s where congress comes in.

The report explicitly nods to the role of Congress in holding presidents accountable.

“The conclusion that Congress may apply the obstruction laws to the President 's corrupt exercise of the powers of office accords with our constitutional system of checks and balances and the principle that no person is above the law,” Mueller writes.

And Democrats in Congress indeed appeared outraged.

“Special Counsel Mueller’s report paints a disturbing picture of a president who has been weaving a web of deceit, lies and improper behavior and acting as if the law doesn’t apply to him,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer in a statement.

“It’s now more important than ever for Congress to dig deeper into their deeply ingrained, and deeply unethical behavior.”

Rep Jerry Nadler, the House Judiciary Committee Chairman, went further: “Even in its incomplete form, the Mueller report outlines disturbing evidence that President Trump engaged in obstruction of justice and other misconduct.”

But it’s far from clear that enough Republicans in the Senate will desert Trump to allow an impeachment proceeding to succeed. Nor is it clear if Democrats are even prepared to go that route.

If Congress does nothing, the Mueller report still carries immense and unpredictable political ramifications for Trump: After he steps down and loses his presidential shield, he could, potentially, still be indicted for obstruction of justice.

That looming threat could throw a volatile new element into the 2020 presidential election, with the prospect of criminal liability for Trump if he loses his bid for reelection.

“Given the DOJ policy of not charging the sitting president, the team approached the job differently,” said Rebecca Roiphe, a former prosecutor and expert on prosecutorial ethics at New York Law School. “They decided instead to develop the facts with an eye to getting most if not all of the information to the public and to Congress, so the president could be held accountable in the way in which the Constitution provides — through either impeachment or the electoral process,” Roiphe said.

Cover: President Donald Trump stands near a portrait of George Washington at a Wounded Warrior Project Soldier Ride event in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, April 18, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The Mueller report is much worse for Trump than Barr’s summary of it

April 18, 2019 - 5:09pm

Of the few direct quotes that made it into Attorney General William Barr’s March 24 summary of the Mueller report, one stood out in its conclusiveness: “[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

Barr made that declaration three weeks before anyone outside of the investigation — or Barr’s office — had seen the Mueller report. But as the full report finally showed on Thursday, the gulf between what Mueller said, and how Barr interpreted it, compounded by Barr’s defense of President Trump at a press conference, is triggering rage among Democrats.

Rep. Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat and recent entry into the mix for 2020, went so far as to call for Barr to resign.

Take Barr’s direct citation of Mueller. The first page of the report’s introduction makes clear that Barr cut crucial context around that much-discussed quotation — including the first half of the sentence.

Here’s the full context from Mueller’s report: “The investigation also identified numerous links between the Russian government and the Trump Campaign. Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

READ: The Mueller report's biggest revelations about Trump

The omission speaks to broader discrepancies between the two men’s statements on the investigation. Whereas Barr’s 4-page summary provided political cover for a president eager to put collusion charges to bed, Mueller’s 448-page report out Thursday details the Trump campaign’s repeated contacts with Russian actors and suggests that the attorney general understated evidence of obstruction of justice. It paints a far darker picture of the president and his confidants than Barr initially let on.

Can a sitting president be indicted?

Much of the tension revolves around why Mueller decided against coming to a judgment for or against obstruction charges. Barr’s letter suggested that the special counsel did so because of contradictory evidence, leaving the decision to him and Assistant Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. It seemed to avoid brushing against a Watergate-era position by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) that a sitting president cannot be indicted.

In a news conference Thursday morning, when a reporter asked whether the policy had come into play, Barr recounted a meeting where Mueller responded no.

“We specifically asked him about the OLC opinion and whether or not he was taking the position that he would have found a crime but for the existence of the OLC opinion,” Barr said. “And he made it very clear several times that that was not his position.”

READ: The Mueller reports shows how badly Trump wanted to collude with Russia

But Mueller’s report seems to contradict this point. As the special counsel introduces findings on potential obstruction of justice, he details how the Justice Department policy constrained his decision-making. A current or future prosecution of a president, Mueller added, would raise major legal and political questions.

“If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state,” Mueller continues. “The evidence we obtained about the President 's actions and intent presents difficult issues that prevent us from conclusively determining that no criminal conduct occurred. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

The campaign was ready to play ball

Trump and his allies cheered Barr’s letter for its clarity in refuting collusion-related charges. As the attorney general wrote last month, “the Special Counsel did not find that the Trump campaign, or anyone associated with it, conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in these efforts, despite multiple offers from Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign.”

What it didn’t include was any reference to Mueller’s findings that Trump and his inner circle were willing to work with foreign actors, be it WikiLeaks or Russian agents. Longtime confidant Roger Stone communicated repeatedly with the former organization, and Trump’s campaign apparently went so far as to plan its messaging strategy around document dumps by the media organization.

Aides including Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen, and Michael Flynn likewise maintained contact with Russian officials for Trump’s political or financial gain. And Donald Trump Jr. helped organize the infamous Trump Tower meeting in June 2016 to discuss damaging information about Hillary Clinton. Taken together, Mueller’s findings suggest Trump’s family and aides were much more receptive to foreign aid than Barr suggested.

“In sum, the investigation established multiple links between Trump Campaign officials and individuals tied to the Russian government,” Mueller writes. “Those links included Russian offers of assistance to the Campaign. In some instances, the Campaign was receptive to the offer, while in other instances the Campaign officials shied away.”

Potential obstruction in plain view

Barr used a portion of his 22-minute news conference Thursday to criticize “relentless speculation in the news media about the president’s personal culpability.”

“Nonetheless, the White House fully cooperated with the special counsel’s investigation, providing unfettered access to campaign and White House documents, directing senior aides to testify freely, and asserting no privilege claims,” Barr said. “And at the same time, the president took no act that in fact deprived the special counsel of the documents and witnesses necessary to complete his investigation.”

He made no mention of the fact that Trump declined to sit for an interview with Mueller, or the fact that the president has castigated the special counsel as part of a “witch hunt” for the better part of two years.

“[M]any of the President's acts directed at witnesses, including discouragement of cooperation with the government and suggestions of possible future pardons, took place in public view,” Mueller writes. “That circumstance is unusual, but no principle of law excludes public acts from the reach of the obstruction laws. If the likely effect of public acts is to influence witnesses or alter their testimony, the harm to the justice system's integrity is the same.”

Cover image: U.S. Attorney General William Barr speaks during a press conference on the release of the redacted version of the Mueller Report at the Department of Justice April 18, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The weirdest 2020 story involves several teens and an 88-year-old former senator

April 18, 2019 - 3:57pm

MONTEREY, California — What happens when you mix the online snark and idealism of podcast-listening teens and the DGAF attitude of an 88-year-old lefty?

You get the Mike Gravel For President campaign.

A group of massively online college and high school students recently talked Gravel into for president running again. They heard about him a little while ago on "Chapo Trap House," the podcast of record for the Bernie set.

Gravel got famous in 1971 when, as senator from Alaska, he read the Pentagon Papers into the Senate record, effectively declassifying them. Then, he dropped off the radar until 2008, when he ran a quixotic bid for president. He didn't get very far, but he got far enough to create a few viral moments on the debate stage. Gravel was the anti-war conscience in the primary.

And that's the same role that students want Gravel to play in the 2020 Democratic primary. Most of them are supporters of Bernie Sanders, but they think getting Gravel on the debate stage again could give Sanders an ally and help push the entire party to the left.

But this time, Gravel doesn't really want to leave his California home. He's given the kids control of his online identity, and they've used it to raise thousands of dollars — and attack just about every other Democratic candidate.

VICE News met up with Gravel as he hosted the teens in real life for the first time.

This segment originally aired April 17, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.

Mueller apparently decided Don Jr. was too clueless to be prosecuted

April 18, 2019 - 3:56pm

We’re not saying that Don Jr. is too clueless to prosecute, but Robert Mueller might be saying it. At least, that’s what some Twitter users got from the special counsel’s report on Russian interference in the U.S. election.

In the collusion section of Mueller’s 448-page report, the special counsel said they'd contemplated prosecuting Donald Trump Jr. over the June 9, 2016, meeting at Trump Tower with a Russian attorney who promised dirt on Hillary Clinton. But the special counsel ultimately decided it would be difficult to prove that Don Jr. acted “with general knowledge of the illegality” of his conduct, which included possible violations of campaign finance and contribution laws. Mueller’s report stated that there would be a “high burden to establish a culpable mental state” in Trump Jr.

In other words: It seems he simply did not know he might be committing crimes.

Rob Goldstone, an English publicist connected to Trump business associates in Russia, emailed Trump Jr. in June to facilitate a meeting with a Russian lawyer who would provide “some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.”

“This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” Goldstone wrote.

Trump Jr. responded to this idea enthusiastically: “If it’s what you say I love it.”

After news of the meeting broke about a year later, President Trump dictated a statement issued on Junior’s behalf saying the meeting was about Russian adoption. But Don Jr. came clean about it shortly after when further press reports detailed the contents of the pre-meeting emails.

Cover: Donald Trump Jr. takes video of the crowd during a rally in Grand Rapids, Mich., Thursday, March 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

What we learned about Don Jr. and Ivanka in the Mueller report. Eric was there too.

April 18, 2019 - 3:21pm

Not all of President Trump’s children were named in Robert Mueller’s investigation — but most of them were.

Donald Trump Jr. in particular gets numerous mentions in Robert Mueller’s 448-page report on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and there are a few major revelations about Ivanka Trump included in the document.

Here’s what you need to know about how the Trump kids figure into the Mueller report.

Don Jr.

Donald Trump’s eldest son, Don Jr., makes the most appearances. Mueller’s investigation into his activities was largely focused on the June 2016 meeting he took with a Russian attorney who promised him dirt on Hillary Clinton.

Rob Goldstone, an English publicist, emailed Trump Jr. in early June to facilitate a meeting with a lawyer who would provide “some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.”

“This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” Goldstone wrote.

Trump Jr. responded to this idea enthusiastically: “If it’s what you say I love it.”

Mueller contemplated prosecuting Don Jr. over the June 9, 2016, meeting at Trump Tower. But the special counsel ultimately decided it would be difficult to prove that Don Jr. acted with “with general knowledge of the illegality” of his conduct, which included possible violations of campaign finance and contribution laws. Mueller’s report stated that there would be a “high burden to establish a culpable mental state” in Trump Jr.

Read more: The Mueller Report's biggest revelations about Trump.

While we aren’t necessarily interpreting Mueller’s words as an indication that he thought Trump Jr. wasn’t smart enough to warrant a prosecution, others certainly are.

The report also details the president’s outrage over the possible leak of those emails.

Ivanka and husband Jared Kushner went to the White House with then-White House communications director Hope Hicks as she warned the president about the emails’ impending leak. Kushner brought Trump documents he wanted to provide to a congressional committee, but the president refused to look at them, saying he didn’t believe the emails would leak. (Trump Jr. later published the email thread himself just before the New York Times published a report on the exchanges, which led to one of the most infamous scandals that the president and his children have yet faced.)

Ivanka

The apple of President Trump’s eye appears in Mueller’s writings more than a dozen times, and there are some significant new details about Trump’s eldest daughter in the report. Most notably: Ivanka may have known ahead of time about the 2016 Trump Tower meeting between campaign officials and the Russian lawyer.

According to the report, Rick Gates, Trump’s 2016 deputy campaign chairman, told the special counsel’s office that in the days before the Trump Tower meeting, Don Jr. briefed campaign staff at a meeting on a lead on negative information about the Clinton Foundation. Gates said that meeting was attended by “Trump Jr., Eric Trump, Paul Manafort, Hope Hicks, and, joining late, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner.”

Additionally, Ivanka previously said she knew “almost nothing” about Trump’s plans to build a tower in Moscow around the time of the 2016 presidential election. But the report notes that Ivanka visited Moscow in 2014 to tour a site called Crocus City, where the Crocus Group, owned by the Agalarov family, had proposed building a Trump Tower. She also met with Emin Agalarov, the Russian pop star believed to have helped set up the 2016 Trump Tower meeting. The Trump Organization and Crocus Group discussed architecture and design for several months in 2014, according to the report.

Read more: The Mueller Report shows just how badly Trump wanted to collude with Russia.

Ivanka also discussed the Moscow project with her father’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, “on multiple occasions,” as late as the fall of 2015.

Trump’s plans to build a Trump Tower in Moscow became central to the scandal surrounding his former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen. Trump said that his planned Trump Tower Moscow project was “very legal & very cool” — a day after his Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about the deal on Trump’s behalf. Cohen’s admission exists in direct conflict to Trump’s repeated denials that neither he nor his family members had any contact with Russian officials or had business dealings in Russia during the election.

Eric

Eric Trump is mentioned only a handful of times in Mueller’s report, with the most noteworthy moment being Rick Gates saying he was briefed ahead of time about the Trump Tower meeting.

He also once retweeted a Twitter account controlled by the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) during the election, perhaps unwittingly. Don Jr., however, did this far more frequently. Other top Trump campaign officials — including Kellyanne Conway, Brad Parscale, and Michael Flynn — also retweeted IRA-controlled accounts.

Cover: Donald Trump Jr., Eric Trump and Ivanka Trump listen to their father, then-presumptive Republican nominee for president Donald Trump, give a press conference on the 9th tee at his Trump Turnberry Resort on June 24, 2016 in Ayr, Scotland. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Everything the Mueller report says about the infamous, probably nonexistent "pee tape"

April 18, 2019 - 3:20pm

The door might be officially closed on the curious saga once known as the “pee tape,” according to the Mueller report.

For those not familiar with the origins of the pee tape speculation, BuzzFeed News published the now-infamous “Steele dossier” in January 2017, which started years of rumors concerning Donald Trump, pee, and Russian sex workers. That dossier, written by former MI6 Christopher Steele, alleged that Trump hired sex workers to urinate on a bed in a hotel room in Moscow where President Barack Obama had once slept.

At the time, Trump was in Russia for the 2013 Miss Universe pageant, and Russia supposedly had a videotape of the incident. Russian officials even used it to blackmail Trump, according to the dossier.

As it turns out, any “compromising tape” remains unverified, according to a footnote on page 27 and 28 of Mueller’s 448-page report, released Thursday by Attorney General William Barr.

But it appears members of Trump’s circle were at one point very much trying to determine whether any evidence existed that could substantiate the tape's existence. On October 30, 2016 — just days before Trump was elected — Michael Cohen, Trump’s former fixer and personal attorney, received a text from a Giorgi Rtskhiladze, a Russian businessman, that read: “Stopped flow of tapes from Russia but not sure if there’s anything else. Just so you know…”

Urine, nor sex workers, are mentioned in the body of the report. But Mueller’s team wrote that Rtskhiladze’s comment refers to rumors of compromising tapes in the possession of the Russian real estate company Crocus Group, which co-hosted the pageant that year. Rtskhiladze told investigators that he was told the tapes were fake — but he never told Cohen, according to the report.

The text conversation also occurred long before the public was aware of the rumor’s existence, and it’s unclear why Rtskhiladze would’ve told Cohen he stopped “flow of tapes” he didn’t believe to be real.

Nonetheless, this isn’t the first time the pee tape’s existence has been disputed. Former FBI director James Comey — also a subject of the report, concerning allegations surrounding obstruction of justice after Trump sacked him — wrote in his book that Trump was deeply concerned about the allegations in the apparently nonexistent tapes and wanted them investigated.

“He just rolled on, unprompted, explaining why it couldn’t possibly be true, ending by saying he was thinking of asking me to investigate the allegation to prove it was a lie. I said it was up to him,” Comey wrote in his 2018 memoir, “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership.”

Trump also asked whether the intelligence community could publicly refute the allegations in the Steele report, according to the Mueller report.

Here’s the full footnote:

Corney's briefing included the Steele reporting's unverified allegation that the Russians had compromising tapes of the President involving conduct when he was a private citizen during a 2013 trip to Moscow for the Miss Universe Pageant. During the 2016 presidential campaign, a similar claim may have reached candidate Trump. On October 30, 20I6, Michael Cohen received a text from Russian businessman Giorgi Rtskhiladze that said, "Stopped flow of tapes from Russia but not sure if there's anything else. Just so you know ....” Rtskhiladze said "tapes" referred to compromising tapes of Trump rumored to be held by persons associated with the Russian real estate conglomerate Crocus Group, which had helped host the 2013 Miss Universe Pageant in Russia. Cohen said he spoke to Trump about the issue after receiving the texts from Rtskhiladze. Rtskhiladze said he was told the tapes were fake, but he did not communicate that to Cohen.

Cover image: President Donald Trump gestures while speaking at a Wounded Warrior Project Soldier Ride event in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, April 18, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

The Mueller report shows just how badly the Trump wanted to collude with Russia

April 18, 2019 - 2:42pm

At times during his two-year investigation Special Counsel Robert Mueller seemed to be laying out a broad conspiracy case that could ensnare Trump associates in a scheme to collude with Russia during the 2016 presidential election. In fact, we wrote about that very possibility.

In the end, Mueller determined there wasn’t enough proof to make the case for a grand conspiracy, saying the two-year investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign “conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

But what he did find were extensive contacts between Russian nationals and Trump and campaign officials, who repeatedly lied about those links.

READ: The Mueller report's biggest revelations about Trump

Paul Manafort and an alleged Russian spy

Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort stayed in touch with his extensive Russian contacts during the campaign via longtime employee Konstantin Kilimnik, who previously ran Manafort 's office in Kiev and who the FBI assesses to have ties to Russian intelligence.

Manafort passed campaign information to Kilimnik and twice met with him in the U.S. during the campaign.

One of those meetings, in New York in August 2016, was “to deliver in person a peace plan for Ukraine that Manafort acknowledged to the Special Counsel's Office was a ‘backdoor’ way for Russia to control part of eastern Ukraine.”

December 2016 emails from Kilimnik added: “All that is required to start the process is a very minor 'wink' (or slight push) from [Trump]” an assessment Manafort said he agreed with.

“Manafort had caused internal polling data to be shared with Kilimnik”

“They also discussed the status of the Trump Campaign and Manafort’s strategy for winning Democratic votes in Midwestern states,” the report said. “Months before that meeting, Manafort had caused internal polling data to be shared with Kilimnik, and the sharing continued for some period of time after their August meeting.”

Roger Stone, Wikileaks and the DNC hacks

One of the most heavily redacted parts of the report relates to the hacking by Russian intelligence agencies of emails belonging to Clinton aide John Podesta and the Democratic National Committee — and the subsequent dissemination of those emails by WikiLeaks.

The report does, however, say that the Trump campaign “showed interest in WikiLeaks's releases of documents and welcomed their potential to damage candidate Clinton.”

The report says someone from the Trump campaign made contact with WikiLeaks but it redacts their name due to an ongoing investigation but an earlier indictment said that Trump campaign officials had directed campaign adviser Roger Stone to contact WikiLeaks.

In June 2016, the contact forecast to senior Trump campaign officials that WikiLeaks would release information damaging to Clinton and the campaign planned to make the most of the new information:

“According to [campaign adviser Rick] Gates, by the late summer of 2016, the Trump Campaign was planning a press strategy, a communications campaign and messaging based on the possible release of Clinton emails by WikiLeaks,” the report states.

“More releases of damaging information would be coming”

Trump was fully aware of what was happening and during a car ride to La Guardia Airport he told Gates that “more releases of damaging information would be coming.”

Separately, the report says Trump asked Michael Flynn to try and find the missing Clinton emails, and while he did contact several individuals to do so, the emails were never recovered.

Michael Flynn and the Russian ambassador

Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had two phone conversations during the transition period, according to the report.

First, on December 29, 2016, after the Obama administration had imposed sanctions on Russia for having interfered in the election, Flynn rang Kislyak to ask Russia not to escalate the situation — after then-deputy National Security adviser KT McFarland passed on a message from Trump.

The following day, Putin announced Russia would not take retaliatory measures in response to the sanctions and hours later, Trump tweeted: “Great move on delay (by V. Putin).”

“On December 31, 2016, Kislyak called Flynn and told him the request had been received at the highest levels and Russia had chosen not to retaliate as a result of Flynn's request,” the report says.

The lack of a reaction from Russia to the sanctions piqued the interest of the FBI, who it turns out were already investigating Flynn’s links to the Russian government, according to the report.

McFarland claims that some months later Trump made a request — through his former chief of staff Reince Priebus — that she draft a memo that said Trump had not instructed her to direct Flynn to discuss sanctions with Kislyak. When McFarland told Priebus she didn’t feel comfortable doing so, he said: “Forget he even mentioned it.”

Michael Cohen and the Moscow Tower Project

The report details the extensive efforts made by Michael Cohen to make contact with Russian government officials in 2015 and 2016 to move the Trump Tower Moscow project forward.

The efforts to seek out a meeting with a high-level Russian official continued until January 2016, when Cohen sent an email to Vladimir Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov, seeking a meeting with Putin’s chief of staff.

“I respectfully request someone, preferably you; contact me so that I might discuss the specifics as well as arranging meetings with the appropriate individuals,” Cohen said in his email.

“Trump indicated a willingness to travel if it would assist the project significantly”

Cohen spoke with Trump about traveling to Russia twice: once in late 2015, then again in spring 2016: "According to Cohen, Trump indicated a willingness to travel if it would assist the project significantly,” the report said.

Cohen had taken over efforts to connect to the Russian government after Felix Sater, a Soviet-born American businessman, failed to make the connections.

In November 2015, Sater emailed Cohen promising a hook up with Putin, adding: “Buddy our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putin’s team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.”

In a follow-up email, Sater said: “I think I can get Putin to say that at the Trump Moscow press conference. If he says it we own this election. Americas most difficult adversary agreeing that Donald is a good guy to negotiate. We can own this election.”

Trump continued to ask Cohen about the progress of the project up to at least May 2016, and Cohen also recalled “briefing Donald Trump Jr. in the spring” — a conversation that Cohen said was not “idle chit chat” because Trump Tower Moscow was potentially a $1 billion deal.

Cohen later pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about the Trump Tower project. Mueller’s report says Cohen’s initial statement was edited by members of Trump’s legal team to remove any mention of contact with the Russian government.

Cohen recalled speaking with Trump after the press conference about Trump's denial of any business dealings in Russia, which Cohen regarded as untrue. Trump told Cohen that Trump Tower Moscow was not a deal yet and said, "Why mention it if it is not a deal?”

Don Jr, the pop star, and the Trump Tower meeting

The infamous meeting at Trump Tower on June 9, 2016 was attended by not only Jared Kushner, Donald Trump Jr., and Paul Manafort, but also Ivanka Trump, Hope Hicks and Eric Trump, according to testimony from former deputy campaign manager Rick Gates.

The meeting was arranged for the purpose of allowing Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya to convey “negative information on Hillary Clinton.”

Gates told the special counsel that Trump Jr. announced details of the meeting at a campaign meeting in the days before it took place. “Gates believed that Trump Jr. said the information was coming from a group in Kyrgyzstan and that he was introduced to the group by a friend,” the report said.

The introduction had been made by Rob Goldstone, the publicist for Emin Agalarov, a Moscow-based real estate developer and pop star.

Michael Cohen told the investigators that he had heard Don Jr. speaking with his father about the meeting on June 6 or 7 but both Manafort and Kushner said they didn’t recall anyone telling Trump about the meeting.

The meeting lasted 20 minutes according to the report, and after it became clear that Veselnitskaya was more interested in talking about the Magnitsky Act than sharing any dirt about Clinton, Kushner asked: “What are we doing here?”

Kushner then sent a message to Manafort stating the meeting was a “waste of time” and emailed assistants at Kushner Companies with requests that they call him to give him an excuse to leave — which they did.

When news of the meeting broke, the Trump Organization contacted those involved and suggested prepared statements they could make. The special counsel report says Trump sought to prevent the public from finding out about the meeting “on at least three separate occasions,” directing then-director of communications Hope Hicks and others “not to publicly disclose information” about the meeting.

George Papadopoulos and the professor

In late April 2016, Papadopoulos was told by London-based professor Joseph Mifsud that the Russian government had obtained “dirt” on Clinton in the form of thousands of emails.

One week later, on May 6, 2016, Papadopoulos suggested to a representative of a foreign government — which Buzzfeed reported on Thursday was Australia — that the Trump campaign had received indications from Russia that it could assist the campaign through the anonymous release of information that would be damaging to candidate Clinton.

Papadopoulos said he shared the information about Russian “dirt” with people outside of the campaign but no one could recall Papadopoulos sharing the information with people inside the campaign.

“Throughout the relevant period of time and for several months thereafter, Papadopoulos worked with Mifsud and two Russian nationals to arrange a meeting between the Campaign and the Russian government. That meeting never came to pass,” the report says.

Cover illustration: Ana Simoes/VICE News

How Russian trolls screwed with America, according to the Mueller report

April 18, 2019 - 2:32pm

Internet trolls hired by the Russian government used social media to persuade gullible Americans to do things like walk around New York City dressed as Santa Claus with a Trump mask on.

That’s just one particularly colorful example from special counsel Robert Mueller’s 448-page report, released Thursday, which assessed allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

Part of the special counsel’s task was to determine whether Russia’s “Internet Research Agency” (or IRA) was exploiting political divisions in the United States at the behest of the Trump campaign. The IRA — described as a “troll farm” by U.S. intelligence — is a company headquartered in St. Petersburg that conducts online influence campaigns to advance Russian business and political interests. It’s funded by Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch and restaurateur with close ties to President Vladimir Putin. He’s even called “Putin’s chef.”

In his report released Thursday, Mueller wrote that his team was unable to “identify evidence that any U.S. persons knowingly or intentionally coordinated” with the Internet Research Agency’s operations.

Still, the examples offer a pretty stark assessment of how successful the Internet Research Agency had been in passing themselves off as political or social activists online and using those fake identities to sow discord and influence voter behavior. In Feb. 2018, Mueller’s team announced indictments of 13 Russia nationals — all belonging to the IRA — for meddling in the U.S. election.

By the end of the 2016 U.S. election, the agency was reaching “millions” of U.S. residents through Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, according to the report. IRA-controlled Twitter accounts had “tens of thousands” of followers, and numerous U.S. political figures were retweeting IRA-manufactured content and memes.

Organizing rallies

Mueller’s team identified “dozens” of U.S. rallies organized by the IRA. The earliest was in November 2015, when the IRA organized a pro-confederate rally in Houston, Texas, called “Stand for Freedom.”

“Some rallies appear to have drawn a few (if any) participants while others drew hundreds,” the report states, adding that the reach and success of those rallies was “closely monitored.”

From June 2016 until the election, almost all of the IRA-organized events were focused on promoting the Trump campaign or opposing the Clinton campaign, and most were held in New York, Florida, or Pennsylvania.

Following one of these pro-Trump rallies in Miami, Florida in 2017, Trump tweeted “THANK YOU for your support. My team just shared photos from your TRUMP SIGN WAVING DAY yesterday. I love you — and there is no question — TOGETHER WE WILL MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.”

One Russian-organized, pro-Trump rally in Pittsburgh in October 2016 was titled “Miners for Trump: Bring Back Our Jobs.” A flier promoting the rally asked, “How many PA workers lost their jobs due to Obama’s destructive policies?” and encouraged attendees to “HELP MR. TRUMP FIX IT.”

IRA to IRL

Mueller found several other examples where Russian meddling turned into real world political activity or activism.

For example, in February 2017, a person using the alias “Black Fist,” organized self-defense classes for black New Yorkers to protect themselves from police, according to the report.

The IRA also convinced Americans to perform pro-Trump political acts. For example, in December 2016, the IRA recruited someone via Craigslist to walk around New York City dressed as Santa Claus wearing a Trump mask.

Earlier that year in May 2016, IRA members (posing as American activists) recruited Americans to take pictures of themselves holding signs that read, “Happy 55th Birthday Dear Boss.” One of those pictures was in front of the White House, according to the report.

Mueller’s team said the stunt was, in fact, a birthday present for their boss, Prigozhin, who was among 33 Russians sanctioned by the U.S. State Department last September.

Tricking Trump

The IRA wasn’t only effective in scamming voters. Mueller’s team found evidence that trolls had also successfully tricked the Trump campaign at points — and even Trump himself.

Mueller’s team identified two types of interactions between the IRA and the Trump campaign. The first was that Trump campaign members or surrogates promoted — via sharing on social media or retweeting — pro-Trump or anti-Clinton content that had been manufactured by the IRA.

In October 2016, for example, Donald Trump Jr., Trump’s eldest son, retweeted an IRA-run account called @TEN_GOP to promote the myth of voter fraud in the U.S. election system. “BREAKING Thousands of names changed on voter rolls in Indiana,” the tweet read. “Police investigating #Voterfraud. #DrainTheSwamp.”

The second type of interaction between IRA members and the Trump campaign identified by Mueller occurred when the members of the IRA, posing as political supporters, reached out to campaign volunteers to inquire about organizing pro-Trump rallies. They would ask for signs or other materials, Mueller found, or ask the campaign to promote their rally or coordinate logistics.

While some campaign volunteers “agreed to provide the requested support” like setting aside some signs, the investigation “has not identified evidence that any Trump Campaign official understood the requests were coming from foreign nationals,” according to the report.

With the 2020 general election in the U.S. looming, intelligence analysts have warned that American voters remain vulnerable to Russian meddling and propaganda.

“What has continued virtually unabated and just intensifies during the election cycles is this malign foreign influence campaign, especially social media,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said at a conference in March. “That continues, and we’re gearing up for it to continue and grow again for 2020.”

Cover image: Some of the Facebook ads linked to a Russian effort to disrupt the American political process and stir up tensions around divisive social issues during the 2016 presidential election in the United States, released by members of the U.S. House Intelligence committee, in late 2017. (AP Photo/Jon Elswick)

The highlights of the Mueller Report

April 18, 2019 - 11:51am

The Mueller report is finally out. On Thursday, the Department of Justice released the full report, stretching over 400 pages, of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s election interference and whether the president may have obstructed justice.

The nearly two-year investigation resulted in 34 indictments, including guilty pleas or charges against several top officials close to Trump. Some 500 witnesses were interviewed, more than 2,800 subpoenas were issued, and nearly 500 search warrants were executed.

Over and over again, President Trump has called the investigation a “witch hunt” and illegal. He said this month, without evidence, that the investigation was even “treason.” Trump has also repeatedly made false statements about the investigation, including accusing Mueller’s team of working for the Democrats.

Despite all of that, Attorney General William Barr, in a controversial four-page letter published on March 22, said Mueller did not find that the Trump campaign conspired with Russian efforts to tilt the 2016 election. In a press conference Thursday, Barr defended Trump further: ”The president was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fueled by illegal leaks."

Democrats, meanwhile, accused Barr of taking part in a “staggering partisan effort by the Trump administration to spin public’s view” of the Mueller report. And on Thursday, Democratic Rep Jerry Nadler, from New York, said he was requesting that Mueller appear before the House Judiciary Committee “as soon as possible.”

Here are some key findings. Please refresh for updates:

Trump tried to obstruct the investigation 10 times

In his letter to Congress, Barr said Mueller declined to make a decision on obstruction, but based on the Special Counsel’s report, it wasn’t for lack of evidence.

In the report, Mueller mentions two specific instances of intense public intrigue. First, he brings up that senior Trump aides attended a meeting in Trump Tower on June 9, 2016, during which a Russian lawyer also in attendance said she had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. Second, Mueller mentions the Trump campaign’s links to Wikileaks.

“The evidence we obtained about the President’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that would need to be resolved if we were making a traditional prosecutorial judgment,” Mueller’s team writes.

“At the same time, if we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him."

"Numerous links" to Russia but no collusion

Mueller was more conclusive when it came to the question of collusion and determined that “while the investigation identified numerous links between individuals with ties to the Russian government and individuals associated with the Trump Campaign, the evidence was not sufficient to support criminal charges.”

“Among other things, the evidence was not sufficient to charge any Campaign official as an unregistered agent of the Russian government or other Russian principal. And our evidence about the June 9, 2016 meeting and WikiLeaks's releases of hacked materials was not sufficient to charge a criminal campaign-finance violation. Further, the evidence was not sufficient to charge that any member of the Trump Campaign conspired with representatives of the Russian government to interfere in the 2016 election.”

Trump told Cohen to "say strong" after raid

Trump may now refer to Cohen as a “rat,” but in the early days of his former personal lawyer’s legal trouble, Trump reached out to Cohen with clear instructions: “stay strong.”

“After the FBI searched Cohen's home and office in April 2018, the president publicly asserted that Cohen would not "flip," contacted him directly to "stay strong," and privately passed messages of support to him."

Cohen also discussed pardons with the President's personal counsel and believed that if he stayed on message he would be taken care of. But after Cohen began cooperating with the government in the summer of 2018, the President publicly criticized him, called him a "rat," and suggested that his family members had committed crimes.

Trump's camp made veiled threats to Michael Flynn

When they caught wind of Flynn's cooperation with investigators, Trump, through his lawyers, tried to intimidate his former national security adviser.

"After Flynn withdrew from a joint defense agreement with the President and began cooperating with the government, the President's personal counsel left a message for Flynn's attorneys reminding them of the President 's warm feelings towards Flynn, which he said 'still remains,' and asking for a 'heads up' if Flynn knew 'information that implicates the President,' the report writes.

When Flynn's counsel reiterated that Flynn could no longer share information pursuant to a joint defense agreement, the President's personal counsel said he would make sure that the President knew that Flynn’s actions reflected "hostility" towards the President.

Trump totally wanted to fire Mueller

Mueller may have survived his tenure until the end of the investigation, but it wasn't for lack of trying from Trump. On that front, Trump tested then-White House Counsel Don McGhan many times — and even questioned why the attorney had to take notes during their meetings.

The President also asked McGahn in the meeting why he had told Special Counsel's Office investigators that the President had told him to have the Special Counsel removed. McGahn responded that he had to and that his conversations with the President were not protected by attorney-client privilege. The President then asked, "What-about these notes? Why do you take notes? Lawyers don 't take notes. I never had a lawyer who took notes." McGahn responded that he keeps notes because he is a "real lawyer" and explained that notes create a record and are not a bad thing. The President said, "I've had a lot of great lawyers, like Roy Cohn. He did not take notes."

Trump wanted the intelligence community to clear him

After former attorney general James Comey told Congress in March, 2017 that the FBI was investigating "the Russian government's efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election," Trump made some interesting requests to the leaders of the intel community.

“In the following days, the President reached out to the Director of National Intelligence and the leaders of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Security Agency (NSA) to ask them what they could do to publicly dispel the suggestion that the President had any connection to the Russian election-interference effort. The President also twice called Comey directly, notwithstanding guidance from McGahn to avoid direct contacts with the Department of Justice. Comey had previously assured the President that the FBI was not investigating him personally, and the President asked Comey to "lift the cloud" of the Russia investigation by saying that publicly.

Evidence was destroyed

Mueller’s investigators were also hampered by “deleted communications.”

“[T]he Office learned that some of the individuals we interviewed or whose conduct we investigated — including some associated with the Trump Campaign — deleted relevant communications or communicated during the relevant period using applications that feature encryption or that do not provide for long-term retention of data or communications records.

In such cases, the Office was not able to corroborate witness statements through comparison to contemporaneous communications or fully question witnesses about statements that appeared inconsistent with other known facts.”

Trump really wanted Clinton's emails

Remember when Trump asked Russia to find those emails? It went like this: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump said before a crowd on July 27, 2016.

Well, he was serious, according to Mueller:

“After candidate Trump stated on July 27, 2016, that he hoped Russia would "find the 30,000 emails that are missing," Trump asked individuals affiliated with his Campaign to find the deleted Clinton emails.

The Trump family and the Russian troll farm

Trump, the report states, was “among the U.S. 'leaders of public opinion' targeted by the IRA.” And his campaign proved profitable for the Russian Trolls.

“In total, Trump Campaign affiliates promoted dozens of tweets, posts, and other political content created by the IRA," Mueller's team wrote.

“Posts from the IRA-controlled Twitter account @TE N_GOP were cited or retweeted by multiple Trump Campaign officials and surrogates, including Donald J. Trump Jr., Eric Trump, Kellyanne Conway, Brad Parscale, and Michael T. Flynn. These posts included allegations of voter fraud, as well as allegations that Secretary Clinton had mishandled classified information.

Even President Trump got caught by IRA's elaborate social media operation.

On September 19, 2017, President Trump's personal account @realDonaldTrump responded to a tweet from the IRA-controlled account @ l0_gop (the backup account of @TEN_ GOP, which had already been deactivated by Twitter). The tweet read: "We love you, Mr. President!"

Trump upon hearing about Mueller’s appointment: “I’m fucked”

April 18, 2019 - 11:49am

We now know how President Trump reacted upon learning that Robert Mueller had been appointed special counsel to investigate Russian interference in the U.S. election. The president said: “I’m fucked.”

That’s according to notes taken by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ chief of staff Jody Hunt, cited in Mueller’s now public (but redacted) report on his office’s investigation.

"Oh, my God,” Trump said on May 17, 2017, according to Hunt’s notes. “This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I'm fucked."

Trump also described the news as the worst thing that had ever happened to him and lambasted Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia investigation, telling his attorney general that he was meant to protect him.

READ: Mueller found 10 instances of potential instruction but cleared Trump anyway

"Everyone tells me if you get one of these independent counsels, it ruins your presidency,” Trump said. “It takes years and years and I won 't be able to do anything. This is the worst thing that ever happened to me."

During Sessions’ tenure as attorney general, Trump repeatedly and publicly attacked him for recusing himself from the Russia investigation. Last November, Trump fired Sessions. Trump replaced Sessions with Matthew Whitaker, a critic of Mueller’s probe, as acting attorney general until he nominated William Barr to the post.

Democrats have criticized Barr for acting as the equivalent as a personal lawyer for Trump. Barr held a press conference Thursday morning to interpret Mueller’s report, and he borrowed an oft-used Trumpism — “no collusion” — to describe its findings.

Cover image: U.S. President Donald Trump looks on during an event recognizing the Wounded Warrior Project Soldier Ride in the East Room of the White House, April 18, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

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