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Former White House Communications Director Sean Spicer denied involvement in any sort of poll watching activities while he was a top RNC official — activities that would have been prohibited by a decades-old federal consent decree.

His denial came in a deposition last week that was released Thursday as part of the legal case surrounding the hotly contested consent decree.

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Sean Hannity may be perceived as Fox News’ most unabashed cheerleader for President Donald Trump, but Jeanine Pirro is giving him a run for his money.

“There is a cleansing needed in our FBI and our Department of Justice,” the former judge said in a remarkable opening monologue on last Saturday’s installment of her weekly Fox show “Justice With Judge Jeanine.” “It needs to be cleansed of individuals who should not just be fired but who need to be taken out in handcuffs.”

Pirro then ran through a list of intelligence officials who should be imprisoned for what she framed as a politically-motivated offensive to “destroy Trump”: former FBI Director James Comey, Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe, former Deputy Assistant FBI Director Peter Strzok, former Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr, and Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

This might just seem like particularly outlandish rhetoric from a pundit known for arguing that the sight of Muslims carrying boxes into their own homes should prompt calls to law enforcement, and urging police officers to turn their backs on “anti-Trump, leftist, socialist, cop-hating” New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio.

But Pirro’s words carry more currency with Trump than your average Fox host’s. The pair have been friends for some two decades, and the President continues to solicit Pirro’s legal advice. Last month, as the New York Times reported, Pirro sat down in the Oval Office with Trump and senior administration officials to try to goad him into appointing a special counsel to investigate a uranium deal involving Russia, approved while Hillary Clinton was secretary of state.

“She’s one of those people who calls him ‘Donald,’” former Trump campaign adviser Michael Caputo told TPM. “There are very few. She counsels him upon request. I mean, the President calls her.”

The two are bonded by their roots in the insular, tough-talking New York GOP political world; years of interfamilial professional and personal ties; stridently pro-police attitudes; interactions with the legal system that never quite landed them in trouble; and an innate understanding of how to keep the cameras on them—at any cost. For both the pundit and the President, politics is just good business.

“The President considers Jeanine a friend,” White House deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters told TPM in response to a request for comment.

Before TPM reached out to Fox News for comment for this story, a network spokesperson called unprompted to ask about the nature of the upcoming story on Pirro and offer assistance. The network did not respond to a detailed list of questions provided by TPM on Thursday.

The ties between the pair date back to the early 1990s, when Pirro was a rising star in the Westchester County GOP and Trump was a real estate mogul trying to maintain his flashy image despite a string of bankruptcies.

Trump retained Pirro’s then-husband Albert, a politically-connected land use attorney, to assist him with several projects in Westchester. Al Pirro also served as a “lawyer-lobbyist for Trump” as he sought to stop New York from legalizing casino gambling to preserve his Atlantic City cash cows, Trump Taj Mahal and Trump Plaza, according to a veteran political operative and acquaintance of Jeanine Pirro’s who requested anonymity to discuss her friendship with Trump candidly.

“So Al had this business relationship with Trump over numerous years,” the operative said. “Simultaneously, they all hung out together in Palm Beach” where the Pirros had a house and Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate is located.

The families grew close. A 1999 New York Magazine profile quotes Trump calling Al Pirro “incredibly intelligent and effective” and Jeanine “sexy as hell.” One anecdote from the profile describes Trump’s daughters, Ivanka and Tiffany, wandering the lawn at a 500-person Mexican-themed cookout at the Pirros’ Hudson, New York home, where an attendee said Jeanine was wearing “high heels, dancing the Macarena.”

At the time, she was in the midst of a soaring career trajectory. After starting as a Westchester County assistant district attorney in 1975, she was elected in 1990 as the county’s first female judge, and to three successive terms, beginning in 1993 and ending in 2005, as the county’s first female DA.

Frank Nicolai, a retired judge in the county whose time on the bench coincided with Pirro’s, remembered her to TPM as a “very hardworking judge, certainly knowledgeable about criminal law.”

“She was known at that time as somebody who was really interested in victim’s rights,” said Peter Leavitt, a retired Westchester county judge, noting that Pirro emphasized prosecuting cases involving domestic violence against women and children.

But Leavitt criticized the frequent TV hits Pirro would do to promote those cases, saying that “everything with Jeanine at that time was self-aggrandizement.”

Bennett Gershman, a Pace University law professor who has tracked Pirro’s career for years, called her “probably the most political prosecutor I’ve ever encountered.”

“She wanted to create a star moment for herself as a stepping stone for higher office,” said Gershman, who once filed a misconduct complaint against Pirro for discussing the H.I.V. status of an indicted sex offender during a press conference.

Her attempted star moment came in 2005-06 when she dropped out of the New York Senate race against Hillary Clinton (after receiving donations from the likes of Trump) and became the GOP nominee for state attorney general, losing by nearly 20 points to Andrew Cuomo. Her bids for statewide office were dogged by her husband’s legal troubles (Al Pirro was convicted in 2000 of hiding over $1 million in personal income on falsified returns, some of which his wife also signed) and her own. In 2006, Pirro came under federal investigation for asking former NYC police commissioner Bernie Kerik how best to secretly record her husband, whom she believed was cheating on her. No charges were ultimately filed, and the Pirros split up the following year.

Like Trump, Pirro ultimately found a home on TV, where their brash, say-anything personalities were assets. Trump spun “The Apprentice” into a hit franchise, while Pirro won a daytime Emmy for a reality court show, “Judge Jeanine Pirro,” before landing at Fox News in 2011. Trump was a frequent guest on the network.

When Trump announced his 2016 presidential run, Pirro became an early, ardent supporter. She advised #NeverTrump Republicans to “get in line” with the GOP frontrunner’s unorthodox campaign. According to Caputo, she would stop by Trump Tower for occasional meetings with Trump, “talking strategy and bucking him up.” The Access Hollywood recording in which Trump boasted of sexually assaulting women was “disgusting, devastating and embarrassing,” she told viewers, but she “still, without a doubt” would vote for him.

This unyielding loyalty paid off. Trump in March urged the public to watch an episode of “Judge Jeanine” in which Pirro said House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) should step down for embarrassing the President by failing to pass Obamacare repeal. He filmed an episode of her show in the Oval Office in May, and the New York Times reported he rarely misses an episode of the 9 p.m. ET Saturday program.

Trump supporters are Pirro viewers, and vice versa. The longtime political operative friendly with the Fox host told TPM this symbiotic relationship sometimes means promoting narratives that might not be fully grounded in reality, but appeal to the converted.

“I think she realized that the Trump message works for her viewership and she’s feeding her viewership and it’s good for her ’cause it keeps her numbers up,” the source said. “And she’s a personal supporter of Trump ’cause she’s known him for so long.”

“That’s something the President never forgets,” Caputo said of Pirro’s allegiance. “She may have been stern with him about something she disagreed with, but she never left his column of support. Those are the people the President relies on most because they’ve never given up on him.”

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Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein refused to answer questions Wednesday about  whether President Trump had contacted him to urge an action in a pending investigation.

Rosenstein would only say that he had not “received any improper orders” from Trump.

I’m not going to be talking about particular communications I may have, which are appropriate communications with the White House,”  Rosenstein told Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee.

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Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein pushed back at one of President Trump’s favorite talking points by telling lawmakers Wednesday that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation was “not a witch hunt.”

He declined to say whether Trump was wrong in making that claim.

The comment came in a House Judiciary Committee hearing on DOJ oversight, where on multiple occasions Rosenstein defended Mueller and his probe, which Rosenstein has oversight of due to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recusal. Republicans have amped up their efforts to cast doubt on Mueller and the DOJ writ large, as the investigation has secured charges against four Trump associates.

Earlier in the hearing, Rosenstein said that at the current time he saw no good cause for firing Mueller — a reference to DOJ regulations limiting when special counsels can be fired — as he was questioned about the scenario by Ranking Member Jerrold Nadler (D-NY)

“If you were ordered today to fire Mr. Mueller, what would do?” Nadler asked.

“As I’ve explained previously, I would follow regulations. If there were good cause, I would act. If there were no good cause, I would not,” Rosenstein said.

“And you see no good cause so far?” Nadler continued.

“Correct,” Rosenstein said.

Republicans at the hearing zeroed in on anti-Donald Trump texts that Peter Strzok — a top FBI agent who worked on the Russia probe as well as the Hillary Clinton email investigation — sent another DOJ official during the campaign. The texts were revealed as part of a Justice Department inspector general investigation into the DOJ’s handling of matters related to the presidential race, and Strzok was booted from Mueller’s team upon the texts’ discovery

Rosenstein told Nadler that Mueller acted appropriately in removing Strzok from his team.

Rosenstein batted down GOP lawmakers’ suggestions that other Mueller team attorneys’ donations to Democratic candidates amounted to an appearance of bias in the investigation.

“I’m not aware of impropriety,” Rosenstein told Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX). “We do have regulations. The special counsel is subject to all the Department’s rules and subject to oversight by the Department, including the inspector general.  I’m not aware of any violation of those rules by the special counsel employees.”

Rosenstein repeatedly denied that attorneys on Mueller’s team having political opinions meant that they were biased in their investigation.

We recognize we have employees with political opinions. It’s our responsibility to make sure those opinions do not influence their actions,” Rosenstein told Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH). “I believe that Director Mueller understands that and that he is running that office appropriately, recognizing that people have political views, but ensuring those views are not in any way a factor in how they conduct themselves in office.”

Rosenstein was effusive in his praise for Mueller, telling lawmakers that it would be hard to find someone else “better qualified for this job.”

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Senate Judiciary Republicans were not eager to join a Trump attorney’s calls Tuesday that a second special counsel be appointed to investigate potential conflicts at the Justice Department.

Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley has called for a special counsel to probe the so-called “Uranium One” deal, but beyond that, the support for a second special counsel among senators charged with DOJ oversight was lukewarm at best.

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A firm that Michael Flynn once advised is denying Democrats’ claims that Flynn texted its top partner on Inauguration Day about gutting Russian sanctions connected to a Middle East nuclear power deal they’d been working on. A senior scientist at the firm released phone records that he said showed Flynn neither sent nor received any texts from the partner.

The phone records were included in a letter the scientist, Tom Cochran, sent to top House Oversight Democrat Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) on Friday that he provided to TPM Monday evening.

Cummings last week made public a whistleblower’s claim that he had seen Alex Copson, a top official at the company ACU Strategic Partners, on Inauguration Day, and that Copson touted a text he received from Flynn that day at 12:11 p.m. (The whistleblower did not see the content of the text but remembered the time stamp, according to Dems.) Copson informed the whistleblower that Flynn had told him that nuclear power project was “good to go” and that the sanctions would be “ripped up,” the whistleblower told the Democrats.

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A federal judge said Monday that Paul Manafort’s participation in the drafting of an op-ed was exactly the sort of media engagement she had banned in a gag order issued in his case, but indicated she was giving him a pass this time.

“Mr. Manafort, that order applies to you, not just your attorney,” U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson said, while deciding to vacate her request that his attorneys prove he didn’t violate the gag order.

Earlier this month, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team indicated they were withdrawing from a bail deal with Manafort due to their discovery of an op-ed, intended to run in a Ukrainian outlet, that Manafort had helped edit which defended his work in the country. Manafort has been charged with money laundering, tax evasion and failure to disclose foreign lobbying, as part of Mueller’s Russia probe. He’s pleaded not guilty to all counts.

Manafort’s attorney, Kevin Downing, continued to defend the op-ed Monday, even after the judge said that she considered Manafort’s ghostwriting of the op-ed an attempt to “circumvent” her gag order. 

It’s difficult for Manafort “to sit and watch his reputation” be “besmirched in the press,” Downing said, adding that he would like to get more advice from her on how to manage the negative media attention.

Jackson said it was not her job to give Manafort advice, but that he could come to her with individual queries about whether certain actions would violate the gag order. She noted that his attorneys had had the opportunity to object to her gag order when she first proposed it, but that they had not. “There’s a lot of negative press going on about the prosecutors,” she said, adding that Manafort’s team would accuse them of violating the gag order if they tried to counteract with a move akin to Manafort’s ghostwriting.

Manafort Inching Towards A Bail Package

With the op-ed dealt with, the judge turned to the other issues she had with the bail package his attorneys were assembling in consultation with Mueller’s team.

She raised concerns that some of the properties that Manafort is seeking to put up as bail did not have appraisals connected to them in the court filings. For at least one of them, his attorneys had submitted Zillow listings to show the property’s worth instead.

“Zillow is actually considered to be pretty accurate,” Downing said in defense of the move. The comment drew murmured laughter in the courtroom.

Jackson indicated that she would like to see appraisals or other formal confirmations of the properties’ values before approving them for bail, along with other financial details related to the proposed package.

She was also wary of Manafort’s request that he be able to travel between Florida, New York and the Washington area if he were to be released from home confinement. Jackson suggested that if his package was approved, he would still have to give pre-trial services a fair amount of warning before traveling between the three places.

Gates Waives A Conflict Issue

Another question Jackson dealt with was the potential conflict Rick Gates — the Manafort business partner who’s also been charged in the case — could face because one of his attorneys, Walter Mack, is also representing a Gates associate accused of a film fraud scheme in a separate case in New York.

Gates went through the process of waiving the conflict by answering a number of questions in front of the judge confirming he understood the potential conflict for him.

His attorneys, it appears, still have some ways to go to in hammering out details with Mueller’s team as they come up with a bond package for Gates. In the meantime, Jackson seemed annoyed with the frequent requests Gates has made to leave house arrest for various family events, beyond the general exceptions laid out in the home confinement order. She pointed specifically to his decision to sign on as a coach to one of his children’s sports teams.

Gates, she said, it appeared to her, was trying to turn his home confinement into a “home confinement unless I want to be elsewhere.”

Scheduling Update

The parties in the case agreed to put on the books a status conference on Jan. 16, when they could continue to discuss any discovery issues and begin to come up with a schedule leading into the trial.

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The extent of Paul Manafort’s alleged involvement in ghostwriting an op-ed favorable to him has become much clearer from a new court filing submitted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team Friday afternoon and emails about the op-ed provided to TPM by the man who claims to be its author: a former Ukrainian government publicist, Oleg Voloshyn.

Prosecutors are now accusing Manafort of not being forthright in his explanation to the court of an op-ed they alleged he was involved in ghost-writing, in violation of the judge’s gag order in the case.

“Manafort cannot bring himself to state that he had a role in drafting the op-ed, although that fact is established by irrefutable evidence,” prosecutors argued, referring to a court filed by Manafort’s attorney Thursday that contended he did not violate the court’s gag order. “And he does not disclose that the ostensible author of the op-ed has falsely represented to the government—and now the public—that Manafort did not write the op-ed.”

Manafort was indicted along with his protege Rick Gates in October on 12 counts including money laundering and tax fraud. They have both pleaded not guilty.

As recently as Dec. 4, according to the emails obtained by TPM, Manafort was working through a proxy with Voloshyn on an opinion piece submitted to an English-language newspaper in Ukraine—though in the emails, he is said to have “legal questions that are worrying him.”

Mueller claimed that Manafort had “parse[d” the language of the court’s gag order in order to defend his participation in the op-ed, while arguing that if Manafort thought the order was ambiguous, he could have asked for the court’s permission before participating in the drafting of the op-ed.

To establish Manafort’s involvement in the op-ed —which sought to defend his lobbying work in Ukraine — Mueller included the edits prosecutors claimed Manafort made to the draft sent to him by Konstantin Kilimnik, a longtime business partner in Eastern Europe. Mueller also provided talking points said to be drafted by Gates in 2016 that “are mirrored in the op-ed piece [Manafort] substantially drafted.”

“Even taken in the light most favorable to Manafort, this conduct shows little respect for this Court and a penchant for skirting (if not breaking) rules.” Mueller said. 

Voloshyn exchanged emails several times with TPM on Thursday, primarily to complain about TPM’s characterization of his contributions to the op-ed. In particular, he objected to TPM’s observation that passages from the op-ed bore similarities to Manafort’s public defenses of himself, especially cooperation with NATO and a deal to begin denuclearizing Ukraine.

“I’ve read your piece about this story,” he wrote. “And was unpleasantly surprised to see very strange allegations that if I stipulate in my op-ed certain ideas and facts that were in this or that way earlier claimed by Manafort it allegedly looks suspicious.” Enumerating Manafort’s accomplishments, Voloshyn said they were “just factual,” which explained the similarities between his op-ed and Manafort’s public statements. “[T]here is no wonder that Paul when asked of his work in Ukraine and me writing about the same topic stress on same things.”

But on Friday evening, prosecutors filed copies of the op-ed, both its final form—as first published by TPM on Wednesday—and, crucially, in a tracked-changes version, showing the parts of the text Manafort is said to have asked to have altered himself. They do indeed reflect the points Manafort has made in defense of his lobbying in Ukraine in the past:

“HERE NEED TO ADD a couple of major reforms that [Viktor Yanukovych] brought to country in order to position Ukraine to apply for membership,” Manafort apparently  wrote. “Reforms that changed a Soviet based legal economic framework to a western one. (increase of NATO exercises/ Nuclear deal/)”

The version submitted by Voloshyn contained a new paragraph praising the Yanukovych, the Putin-friendly strongman Manafort helped bring to power, for his administration’s participation in NATO and the nuclear deal and crediting them to Paul Manafort, helpfully outlined in red in a separate document by prosecutors.

Voloshyn also shared exclusively with TPM emails dated Dec. 1 and Dec. 4 from Kilimnik, who has been described as Manafort’s “man in Kiev.” Kilimnik, who did not return a request for comment, is “assessed to have ties to a Russian intelligence service” according to prosecutors, an allegation he has denied to other news outlets.

Voloshyn strongly denied lending his byline to Manafort. “I didn’t correspond with Manafort directly at all,” he told TPM, a claim first reported by Bloomberg. “Just with Kilimnik. And it was his own initiative to forward it to Paul for review. But I hadn’t heard from him any feedback but for only phrase from Kilimnik [that] ‘Paul asked to pass you his deep gratitude for your honest position and friendly support’. No editions were intriduced [sic] by Paul.”

In the emails provided by Voloshyn, Kilimnik writes in Russian (translation by Alan Yuhas for TPM) on Dec. 1:

Take the draft with my small corrections. I caught some kind of flu, so I don’t particularly think there’s anything to add there – there’s one paragraph detailed in yellow, maybe you’ll remember what happened there. And if you finish writing, toss me plz the final version, just in case.
But in general the article’s [brilliant]. :)) I like it a lot. And the most important truth is that the truth always prevails.”

Kilimnik replied again to Voloshyn on Dec. 4, the day the Mueller probe said Manafort’s participation in the project had violated his bail.

I fixed up a couple commas… Now I’ll toss it to Paul so he can quickly glance from the perspective of legal questions that are worrying him, and immediately swing back around
Huge thanks

The next email, the same day, reads:

Paul looked it over, he’s very grateful. So let’s get it up
The latest filing Friday by prosecutors was a response to Manafort’s defense of the op-ed, which was obtained by TPM this week after they first raised concerns that Manafort was involved in its drafting. Prosecutors had initially sought to file the op-ed draft and its arguments about it under seal, but in the filing Friday said that was seeking to file those documents publicly because the op-ed was eventually published at the Ukrainian outlet it was intended for. According to prosecutors, Manafort’s attorneys “assured the government that the op-ed piece would not run.”
The editor of the Kyiv Post told Bloomberg he never intended to run the article. Kilimnik did not immediately return a request for comment. Manafort’s spokesman declined to comment.
Read the full court filing by prosecutors:

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The FBI sat down with top Trump aide Hope Hicks at least twice earlier this year to warn her that Russian operatives sought to make contact with her during the transition, the New York Times reported Friday.

The attempted contacts point to Russia’s ongoing, persistent efforts to establish channels of communications with people in President Donald Trump’s orbit.

FBI agents met with Hicks at least twice in the White House Situation Room for a “defensive briefing,” offering her names and information about the Russians who had contacted her from Russian government addresses under false pretenses, according to the Times report.

Hicks, who now serves as communications director, has not been accused of doing anything improper and reportedly requested additional meetings to better understand what Russian operatives were attempting to do. She reportedly informed White House counsel Don McGahn about her discussions with the FBI.

The Times reported that Hicks was interviewed on Thursday and Friday by investigators working for Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

The young Trump adviser previously worked at the Trump Organization before joining the campaign as press secretary and ultimately becoming a senior figure in the administration.

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By Monday, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team will have handed over to Paul Manafort’s and Rick Gates’ attorneys 400,000 items of evidence in its case against the two former Trump campaign officials as part of the pre-trial discovery process, according to a court document Mueller filed Friday.

The filing, ahead of a status conference slated for Monday, sheds additional light on aspects of Mueller’s investigation into Manafort and Gates. The two men were charged with tax evasion, money laundering and failure to disclose lobbying for foreign agents as part of Mueller’s larger Russia probe. They both have pleaded not guilty.

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