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There are some vague signs, inklings really, that today’s guilty plea by former Skadden Arps lawyer Alex van der Zwaan, the London-based Dutch son-in-law of Ukrainian-Russian billionaire German Khan, could be more significant than first appears. Emphasis on “could.”

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HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Urged on by President Donald Trump, Republicans vowed Tuesday to fight Pennsylvania’s new court-imposed map of congressional districts, as dozens of candidates assessed their chances under newly formed districts and the odds that a federal court could block them.

Republican members of Congress and Pennsylvania Republican lawmakers planned to sue in federal court as early as Wednesday in a bid to block a map expected to improve Democrats’ chances at erasing the GOP’s U.S. House majority.

The new map substantially overhauls a GOP-drawn congressional map that has helped produce a predominantly Republican delegation and was widely viewed as among the nation’s most gerrymandered.

With control of the U.S. House on the line in November, Trump urged Republicans to challenge the new map of Pennsylvania’s 18 congressional districts all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary.

“Your Original was correct! Don’t let the Dems take elections away from you so that they can raise taxes & waste money!” Trump tweeted.

The Democratic-majority state Supreme Court met its deadline Monday to issue the new boundaries after it threw out a 6-year-old GOP-drawn map as unconstitutionally gerrymandered. The Republican-controlled Legislature and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf did not produce a consensus replacement map in the three weeks allotted by the court.

Democrats cheered the new map, while Republicans blasted it and it left dozens of candidates reconsidering their future.

Chief among them is Republican Rep. Ryan Costello, whose suburban Philadelphia district was narrowly won by Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016. Costello is in more dire straits now that the court added the heavily Democratic city of Reading to his district and ironed out geographic contortions that were designed to capture more Republican voters.

On Tuesday, Costello could not yet say if he will run in his district if the court-ordered congressional map survives a federal court challenge.

But Costello lashed out at the state Supreme Court, saying the justices’ map was politically motivated, their map-making process was politically corrupt and that state lawmakers should consider impeaching them.

“I’m all riled up,” Costello said.

Pennsylvania’s state House Republican majority leader, Dave Reed, now lives in the same district as U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, a fellow Republican, rather than the district of the man he had hoped to succeed, retiring Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster. Reed said he did not know what he would do.

Joe Peters, a former top state drug prosecutor and Scranton police officer, had been running to succeed a fellow Republican, U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, who is campaigning for U.S. Senate.

Peters now finds his rural northeastern Pennsylvania home in the same district as Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Marino. That prompted Peters to start thinking about moving into one of two nearby districts without a Republican incumbent while trying to gauge whether a federal lawsuit could undo the new districts.

“It’s a combination of a game of chicken and a game of chess,” Peters said.

The map removes the heart of one district from Philadelphia, where a crowd of candidates had assembled to replace the retiring Democratic Rep. Bob Brady, and moves it to suburban Montgomery County. That leaves many of those candidates in the same districts as Democratic Reps. Dwight Evans and Brendan Boyle.

The new map also renders the March 13 special election in southwestern Pennsylvania virtually meaningless: the court’s map puts each candidate’s home in a district with a Pittsburgh-area incumbent. Neither candidate — Democrat Conor Lamb and Republican Rick Saccone — responded to messages about their plans beyond the special election.

The state court ruled last month that Republicans who redrew district boundaries in 2011 unconstitutionally put partisan interests above neutral line-drawing criteria.

Independent analysts said the court-ordered map should improve Democratic prospects while still favoring Republicans as a whole. An analysis conducted through PlanScore.org concluded the court’s redrawn map eliminates “much of the partisan skew” favoring Republicans on the old Republican-drawn map, although not all of it.

The new map is to be in effect for the May 15 primary. The first day for candidates to start circulating petitions is next Tuesday, but petitions weren’t available yet and neither was complete information about which municipalities and precincts were in each new district.

Republicans will argue in federal court that legislatures and governors, not courts, have the constitutional responsibility to draw congressional maps. But constitutional law professors say they appear to face an uphill battle since federal courts are normally reluctant to undo a state court decision.

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WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump said Tuesday that he has signed a memo directing the Justice Department to propose regulations to “ban all devices” like the rapid-fire bump stocks involved in last year’s Las Vegas massacre.

Seeking to show action days after a deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Trump spoke during a White House ceremony recognizing bravery by the nation’s public safety officers.

“We must move past clichés and tired debates and focus on evidence based solutions and security measures that actually work,” Trump said.

The announcement came days after the shooting deaths of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The device Trump referred to was used in the October shooting deaths of 58 people in Las Vegas, and attached to a half-dozen of the long guns found in the shooter’s hotel room. A legislative effort to ban the device fizzled out last year.

White House officials say the president will be meeting with students, teachers and state and local officials to discuss ways of providing more school safety and address gun violence. Pressure has been mounting for action after the Parkland shooting.

Trump has also indicated he is open to a limited strengthening of federal background checks on gun purchases.

Over the weekend, the White House said he had spoken Friday to Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, about a bipartisan bill designed to strengthen the FBI database of prohibited gun buyers.

Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders qualified the support, stressing that talks continue and “revisions are being considered,” but said “the president is supportive of efforts to improve the federal background check system.”

The main action Trump has taken on guns has been to sign a resolution blocking an Obama-era rule designed to keep guns out of the hands of certain mentally disabled people. The president has voiced strong support for gun rights and the National Rifle Association.

The bipartisan background check legislation would be aimed at ensuring that federal agencies and states accurately report relevant criminal information to the FBI. It was introduced after the Air Force failed to report the criminal history of the gunman who slaughtered more than two dozen people at a Texas church.

The White House statement comes as shooting survivors and other young people press for more gun control in a rising chorus of grief and activism. Their “March for Our Lives” is planned March 24 in Washington.

Ella Fesler, 16-year-old high school student in Alexandria, Virginia, was among the students at the “lie-in” in front of the White House. She said it was time for change, adding: “Every day when I say ‘bye’ to my parents, I do acknowledge the fact that I could never see my parents again.”

But previous gun tragedies have not led Congress to act. After the Las Vegas massacre in the fall, Republicans and Democrats in Congress talked about taking a rare step to tighten the nation’s gun laws. Four months later, the only gun legislation that has moved through Congress eases restrictions for gun owners.

Kristin Brown, co-president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said the measure Trump discussed with Cornyn would help to enforce existing rules but would not close loopholes permitting loose private sales on the internet and at gun shows. She’s pressing for a ban on assault-type weapons and for laws enabling family members, guardians or police to ask judges to strip gun rights temporarily from people who show warning signs of violence.

“We need a comprehensive system,” Brown said. “One of these isn’t enough.”

Trump, who visited first responders and some victims Friday, had focused his comments on mental health, rather than guns. The White House says the president will host a “listening session” with students and teachers on Wednesday and will discuss school safety with state and local officials on Thursday. They have offered no further details on who will attend those sessions.

Trump spent most of the weekend at his private Palm Beach estate, Mar-a-Lago. White House aides advised against golfing too soon after the shooting. But on Presidents Day, the avid golfer headed to his nearby golf club. The White House did not answer questions about whether he was playing golf.

President Barack Obama took heavy criticism in 2014 when he went golfing during a vacation just minutes after denouncing the militants who had beheaded an American journalist. He later regretted playing golf so soon after the killing.

Trump watched cable television news during the weekend and groused to club members and advisers about the investigation of Russian election meddling.

In a marathon series of furious weekend tweets from Mar-a-Lago, Trump vented about Russia, raging at the FBI for what he perceived to be a fixation on the Russia investigation at the cost of failing to deter the Florida school attack.

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White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Tuesday dodged questions about specific legislation President Donald Trump would support in order to prevent future mass shootings, like the one that left 17 people dead last week in Parkland, Florida.

“The President in 2000 did support an assault weapons ban. What’s his position now? Is he open to reinstating the ban?” NPR’s Mara Liasson asked Sanders during her daily press briefing.

“I don’t have any specific announcements, but we haven’t closed the door on any front,” Sanders replied. “Again, that’s what the next several days and weeks will be, to have conversations and to see what this process looks like, and to see what areas we can help make changes to and in what places that we can do better.”

She said that President Donald Trump “specifically” supports making background checks “more efficient and looking at better ways to improve that process.”

“We’re going to continue to look at a number of other factors as well,” Sanders said.

“Does the President believe there should be an age limit for those who buy an AR-15?” CNN’s Pamela Brown asked later, referring to the kind of rifle the alleged Florida gunman used. “As you know, the shooter in Florida was a teenager when he first bought an AR-15.”

“I know there are currently laws in place in certain states that restrict that. In terms of whether or not we make that federal policy, that hasn’t yet been determined,” Sanders replied. “But I think that’s certainly something that’s on the table for us to discuss and that we expect to come up over the next couple of weeks.”

Trump on Tuesday afternoon announced that he had instructed the Justice Department to move to ban bump stocks, which a gunman allegedly used during the Oct. 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas, and other devices that allow semi-automatic rifles to fire like automatic rifles.

“Just a few moments ago, I signed a memorandum directing the attorney general to propose regulations to ban all devices that turn legal weapons into machine guns,” he said.

Trump said he expected the regulations to be finalized “very soon.”

The NRA endorsed such a move following the Las Vegas massacre, saying in a statement last year that it “believes that devices designed to allow semi-automatic rifles to function like fully-automatic rifles should be subject to additional regulations.”

Survivors of last week’s shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, said on Sunday that lawmakers who take money from the National Rifle Association deserve a “badge of shame” for using students “as collateral.”

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On a sunny afternoon last Wednesday, Nikolas Cruz entered the campus of his former high school in Parkland, Florida and unleashed a fusillade of bullets, slaughtering three adults and fourteen teenagers.

In the days since, students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have made their heartbreak public. They’ve gone on camera to call for renewed efforts to reduce gun violence, and they’ve harshly criticized the National Rifle Association, President Donald Trump and Congress for blocking gun control legislation. They’ve also organized the March for Our Lives, a mass rally in Washington, D.C. slated to take place next month.

The grieving teenagers have received widespread praise for their impassioned response to the loss of their peers. But they’ve also become a target of conspiracy theorists on the far right.

Fringe sites like InfoWars and Gateway Pundit have suggested that the student organizers are fronts for left-wing anti-gun interests, working in collaboration with the mainstream media to undermine Trump. Some of their claims have been endorsed and boosted by higher profile figures like Donald Trump Jr., Bill O’Reilly, and a former Republican congressman.

Survivors of past mass shootings have been smeared as crisis actors or media-trained plants. But this is likely the first time allies of the White House are helping with the smearing — and that the targets are publicly pushing back.

Most of the attacks have focused on senior David Hogg, a student journalist who recorded interviews with his classmates while the shooting was still underway and they were hiding huddled in a closet. As Hogg later told the press, his father is a retired FBI agent who taught him about weapons — helping him recognize in the moment that the sounds of gunfire he’d heard were real.

This link to the FBI was catnip for those who have pointed to the investigation into Russian election meddling to claim that the bureau is a hotbed of anti-Trump sentiment. After the FBI acknowledged Friday that it had failed to investigate a detailed tip about Cruz’s pledge to become a school shooter, supporters of the administration — and Trump himself — said the bureau of 35,000 employees was too distracted by the Russia probe to do its job properly.

In a Monday post that spread like wildfire on social media, far-right site Gateway Pundit alleged that Hogg was “coached on anti-Trump lies” and a “pawn for anti-Trump rhetoric and anti-gun legislation.” A photo above the post shows the word “exposed” and an FBI badge superimposed over the 17-year-old’s face.

The site True Pundit attacked Hogg for “running his mouth” about Trump and blamed him for not informing his father of the threat Cruz posed.

On Twitter, Trump Jr. liked that story, which was headlined “Outspoken Trump-Hating School Shooting Survivor is Son Of FBI Agent; MSM Helps Prop Up Incompetent Bureau.”

Trump’s eldest son also lent his approval to a since-deleted error-filled post shared by conservative One America News Network suggesting that the student was “running cover for his dad.”

Three posts liked by Trump Jr. on Tuesday

An aide to Florida State Rep. Shawn Harrison, a Republican, on Tuesday emailed a Florida reporter claiming that Hogg and another student who had recently been interviewed on CNN were plants.

“Both kids in the picture are not students here but actors that travel to various crisis (sic) when they happen,” wrote the aide, Benjamin Kelly.

Harrison soon after called the tweet “inappropriate.”

Other conspiracy-based articles have suggested that Hogg was being fed lines, pointing to the ear piece he was wearing during a remote TV interview; that Hogg’s appearance last August in a local CBS News segment in Los Angeles as an eyewitness to an altercation on a beach “raised questions” about his re-emergence in the news now; and that his mother, Rebecca Boldrick, is an “anti-Trump activist” because she shared posts critical of the president on social media.

The attacks have come in broader strokes, too. Critics of the student activists speculated that they could not, in the days since the Parkland shooting, have independently organized plans for the national rally against gun violence on March 24.

“O really? ‘Students’ are planning a nationwide rally?,”Jack Kingston, a former Republican congressman from Georgia, tweeted Sunday. “Not left wing gun control activists using 17yr kids in the wake of a horrible tragedy? #Soros #Resistance #Antifa #DNC”

Kingston went further in a Tuesday appearance on CNN, insisting that the teenagers “probably do not have the logistical ability to plan a nationwide rally” and that George Soros or others promoting a “pre-existing anti-gun agenda” were leading the way.

“They have the money for the bus, and they’re ready to go,” Kingston said sarcastically of the students, who traveled to the state legislature in Tallahassee on Tuesday to meet with lawmakers. “I mean I just have a hard time believing it.”

Former Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly weighed in to say that Kingston’s claims that the students were “being used by leftist people in the gun control debate” were “most likely true.”

Of course, groups like Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America have offered vocal support for the Parkland survivors and used the tragedy to highlight the need to reduce gun violence, as they do with every mass shooting. Celebrity giants like George and Amal Clooney have donated $500,000 to help pay for the march, praising the students’ inspirational “courage and eloquence.”

But O’Reilly, along with other right-wing figures like The Resurgent’s Erick Erickson, have found a subtler way to undermine the students. They’ve argued that the news media is taking advantage of children still vulnerable from a tragedy who might not fully understand the stances they’re taking.

“The national press believes it is their job to destroy the Trump administration by any means necessary,” O’Reilly wrote on his website. “So if the media has to use kids to do that, they’ll use kids.’

Erickson’s post made a similar point: the survivors of the shooting haven’t “had time to mourn” and were not yet ready to share their stories on national television.

The March For Our Lives organizers did not immediately respond to TPM’s request for comment. But some students, like senior Sofie Whitney, have responded to the attacks.

“I think they’re really insensitive for saying those things,” Whitney told CNN’s Jake Tapper during a Tuesday interview. “The fact that someone is against us when we just lost people we used to see every day — I can’t fathom how someone can have a mindset like that.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) offered support in a tweet, chastising the “disgusting group of idiots with no sense of decency” who are claiming “some of the students on tv after #Parkland are actors.”

And in interviews and on their own social media accounts, Stoneman Douglas’ students have made it clear that they are speaking for themselves.

“Us 17yrs really are planning a nationwide rally! It’s crazy what determination, and a strong work ethic can lead to!” Sarah Chadwick, a 16-year-old at the school tweeted in response to Kingston. “But I mean you have neither of those things so I wouldn’t expect you to understand.”

This post has been updated.

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White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday that special counsel Robert Mueller’s recent indictments of several Americans and Russian individuals and institutions made it “absolutely” clear that Russia meddled in the 2016 election.

“Absolutely,” she told a reporter who asked Tuesday, during a press briefing, whether “the President now acknowledges what the special counsel indictments made clear, which is that Russians not only tried to meddle but interfere and influence the 2016 election?”

Sanders continued: “And the President has acknowledged that multiple times before. He acknowledged it during the transition. He acknowledged it during a press conference in Poland and he acknowledged it for a third time at a press event in Poland.”

“He has stated several times — I think one of the places where you guys seem to get very confused and it seems to happen regularly — the President hasn’t said that Russia didn’t meddle,” she said.

Despite Sanders’ claim, Trump in December 2016 explicitly questioned whether Russia interfered in the election. In an interview with Time magazine, Trump said, “I don’t believe they interfered.”

“It could be Russia. And it could be China. And it could be some guy in his home in New Jersey,” Trump said at the time. “I believe that it could have been Russia and it could have been any one of many other people. Sources or even individuals.”

Sanders on Tuesday said Trump was actually saying that Russian interference “didn’t have an impact and it certainly wasn’t with help from the Trump campaign.”

“It’s very clear that Russia meddled in the election,” she claimed. “It’s also very clear that it didn’t have an impact on the election and it’s also very clear that the Trump campaign didn’t collude with the Russians in any way for this process to take place.”

Pressed several times on why the President hasn’t instituted congressionally -mandated sanctions on Russia, then, Sanders was evasive. At one point, she said Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen had met with relevant stakeholders to discuss “this process and going through and looking every single day at the best ways forward.”

Separately, she said “we have spent a lot of time working on cyber security, working on protecting the fairness on [sic] our elections,” and “This has been a topic of conversation with multiple foreign heads of state.”

“He criticized Obama, he criticized the FBI and didn’t even criticize Vladimir Putin,” one reporter objected.

“He has been tougher on Russia in the first year than Obama was in eight years combined,” Sanders said. “He has imposed sanctions, he’s taken away properties, he’s rebuilt our military. He has done a number of things to put pressure on Russia and to be tough on Russia.”

“Just last week there was an incident that will be reported in the coming days, and another way that the President has been tough on Russia,” she added, without further explanation.

This post has been updated.

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A former lawyer for a major U.S. law firm pleaded guilty Tuesday in federal court in Washington D.C., to lying to federal authorities in a case that is part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s wide-ranging Russia probe.

The guilty plea by Alex van der Zwaan, who worked at the firm Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom LLC until he was terminated in November, came as part of a plea agreement between Mueller’s team. The case is being overseen by U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who is also overseeing Mueller’s cases against former Trump campaign aides Paul Manafort and Rick Gates.

Manafort, a former Trump campaign chairman, and Gates, his deputy who also worked for the campaign, pleaded not guilty last October to charges brought by Mueller related to their work in Ukraine for a pro-Russian political party. Skadden was recruited by Manafort to write a 2012 report justifying the Ukrainian government’s prosecution and conviction of Yulia Tymoshenko, a political rival of Viktor Yanukovych, whom Manafort was advising.

Van der Zwaan pleaded guilty to lying to investigators about his communications with Rick Gates and an unidentified third person known as “person A”.

Van der Zwaan was questioned by investigators on Nov. 3, 2017, about conversations he had with Gates and a “Person A” in the fall of 2016.

At Tuesday’s plea hearing, Andrew Weissmann, a prosecutor on Mueller’s team, broadly described van der Zwaan’s communications with Gates and “Person A,” as well as what he told federal investigators about those communications last year.

“Person A” was described by Weissmann as someone who spoke Russian and who was located in Ukraine. Gates, “Person A” and van der Zwaan worked together on the rollout of the 2012 Tymoshenko report, Weissmann said.

FBI agents and prosecutors interviewed van der Zwaan under oath at the special counsel’s office in November, as part of Mueller’s investigation into Manafort and Gates’ alleged Foreign Agents Registration Act violations.   Van der Zwaan told them that the most recent communication he had with Gates was an “innocuous” conversation in August 2016 and that he hadn’t communicated with “Person A” since 2014, when in fact, according to Weissmann he spoke to them both in September 2016.

A statement of offense that was released to the public after the hearing said that Gates called van der Zwaan in September 2016 to tell him to contact “Person A.” Gates also sent the lawyer documents that included a “preliminary criminal complaint in Ukraine,” using the encryption service Viber, according to the court filing. Van der Zwaan called “Person A” to discuss in Russian the potential for charges to be brought against Skadden and Manafort — a call that the lawyer recorded, according to the court filing. He then called a senior partner who worked on the 2012 report — a call he “partially recorded,” according to the filings — and also called Gates. Van der Zwaan recorded the Gates call and took notes on all of the calls, according to the statement of offense.

During his November 2016 interview, Van der Zwaan was also asked about an email “Person A” sent him in Russian, that, according to Weissmann, was not handed over to his law firm to produce for Mueller’s team. Van der Zwaan told investigators he did not know why that email wasn’t produced and that he didn’t respond to it, according to Weissmman. Van der Zwaan “knew full well” that he had not produced it and that he destroyed that and other emails, Weissmann said.

Van der Zwaan is 33 years old and the son-in-law of Ukrainian-Russian billionaire German Khan. Born in Brussels, he obtained a law degree in Britain and is now a Dutch citizen.

As part of the plea hearing, van der Zwaan indicated that he and Mueller had come to an agreement on recommending that he face zero to six months of jail time, and a fine between $500-$9,500 as part of his plea. Judge Amy Berman Jackson reminded him that there’s no guarantee that that will be his ultimate sentence.

It was also revealed during the hearing the van der Zwaan’s wife was dealing with a difficult pregnancy, with his attorneys asking that they expedite his sentencing hearing. Jackson set the sentencing hearing for the morning of April 3. In the meantime, his travel is restricted to the Washington, D.C.-area and to Manhattan, where his lawyers are located. His passport has been handed over to the FBI, and he will need to get court approval for any other travel within the continental United States.

 

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I want to share with you some notes I’ve been keeping about Tom Barrack, the man who is supposedly one of the President’s closest friends and confidantes as well as a friend of Paul Manafort. He had a big speaking role for Trump at the convention. He organized the inauguration. He’s a big person in Trump World. But the first thing to know about Barrack (pronounced ‘bare-rick’) is that he is the guy Donald Trump pretends to be: he is a fabulously successful and fabulously wealthy investor, developer and manager of real estate properties on a global basis. He operates what is essentially a private equity firm called Colony Northstar (formerly Colony Capital). This is what supposedly makes Barrack such a valuable sounding board for Trump: he doesn’t need Trump or his money. Trump is surrounded by clowns, frauds and phonies. But Barrack is, when it comes to global real estate/investor titans, the real deal.

For these reasons, it’s always seemed to me that Barrack doesn’t need in on any of Trump’s rackets. But he’s also been just in the background of a number of the big developments in the Russia story. This occurred to me again when I first learned about his ties to Rick Gates, which I’ll describe below.

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