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Allegra Kirkland

Allegra Kirkland is a New York-based reporter for Talking Points Memo. She previously worked on The Nation’s web team and as the associate managing editor for AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @allegrakirkland.

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“At least one” U.S. government informant met with Trump campaign officials in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, the New York Times reported Wednesday.

That person met “several times” with campaign national security advisers Carter Page and George Papadopoulos, according to the report, which offered no additional information on the informant’s identity or connection with U.S. authorities.

The meetings had not previously been reported authoritatively by a major outlet. They were apparently part of the FBI’s frenzied, secretive effort to determine whether the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russian government while taking pains not to influence the election results.

Conservative media figures from Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberly Strassel to radio host Rush Limbaugh have spent the last few days raising alarms about what they claim was an FBI informant dispatched to “spy” on the Trump campaign. Their concerns stem from House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes’ (R-CA) weeks-long effort to pursue information about an intelligence source who aided the federal Russia investigation.

Nunes ultimately subpoenaed the Justice Department for documents about that individual. Though the DOJ did not turn them over, citing concerns about the person’s safety, Nunes and Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) appeared to back down after sitting for a classified briefing with top intel officials last week.

It’s not confirmed that Nunes’ efforts are related to the informant mentioned in the Times article.

Page did not immediately respond to a text from TPM seeking comment.

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Congressional testimony released Wednesday complicates the evolving public understanding of how Donald Trump Jr. and the Trump White House worked together to explain away a June 2016 Trump Tower meeting pitched as an opportunity for the campaign to obtain Russian “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.

In an interview last year with the Senate Judiciary Committee, Trump Jr. downplayed his father’s role in the entire matter. Most notably, the President’s eldest son minimized how involved Trump was in crafting a July 2017 statement aboard Air Force 1 that served as the family’s initial public comment on the Trump Tower meeting.

Trump Jr.’s account contrasted sharply with contemporaneous reports from the Washington Post and New York Times that cast the President as directly involved in the wording of that July 8 statement.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller has reportedly honed in on both the meeting and the varied explanations the Trump team has offered about it as he investigates possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, as well as possible obstruction of that probe by the President.

Two questions about the Trump Tower meeting were included on a leaked list of questions that Mueller wants to ask Trump if he ultimately agrees to sit for an interview.

According to Trump Jr.’s testimony, he never spoke to his father about the meeting he held with then-campaign manager Paul Manafort, his brother-in-law Jared Kushner, and a handful of Russian businesspeople including Kremlin-linked attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya. Trump Jr. said that he neither offered his father advance warning that he’d been invited to learn about Russian government “dirt” on Clinton, or informed him after the fact that the conversation had instead mostly focused on reinstating a program allowing Americans to adopt Russian children.

“I wouldn’t have wasted his time with it,” Trump Jr. testified.

Later in his testimony, Trump Jr. repeatedly deemphasized his father’s role in shaping how this information was conveyed to the press. That matter came to a head in early July 2017 as Trump and his top officials were flying back to the U.S. from the G20 summit in Germany.

Contacted by reporters from the New York Times, Trump Jr. and the White House were asked to explain how the June 2016 sit-down came about.

Trump Jr. told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he “never spoke to” his father about the initial statement that went out, which made no mention of the damaging information about Clinton and said the meeting focused primarily on the adoption issue.

“Numerous” people were involved in the statement, including counsel, and the President “may have commented through [then-communications staffer] Hope Hicks,” Trump Jr. continued.

Asked if any of those comments made through Hicks were incorporated in the statement, Trump Jr. admitted “some may have been,” but reiterated that “this was an effort through lots of people, mostly counsel.”

Pressed on whether he asked Trump to provide assistance, Trump Jr. said, “No. [Hicks] asked if I wanted to actually speak to him, and I chose not to because I didn’t want to bring him into some thing that he had nothing to do with.”

But according to blockbuster July 2017 articles in the Times and Post, Trump put himself at the center of the response. The Post reported that Trump “personally dictated” his son’s statement, while the Times reported Trump “signed off” on it. Both newspapers noted it was unclear what Trump knew about the meeting when he helped put the statement together.

As more damaging details about the true purpose of the meeting trickled out, Trump Jr. on July 9 issued a new statement admitting that he had actually sought damaging information on Clinton from these Russian actors.

Then, on July 11, aware that the Times was about to publish the full email chain setting up the meeting, Trump Jr. tweeted it out himself. He claimed he did so in an effort “to be totally transparent.”

Asked to account for the evolving statements, Trump Jr. told Senate investigators that “they’re all very consistent with each other.”

“It did not talk about what got them into the door, and I didn’t expand on it because I didn’t think it was relevant to discuss what the meeting was not actually about,” Trump Jr. said of the initial Air Force 1 statement. “As more questions were asked and more information was requested, we released more information and went into greater detail.”

This post has been updated.

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Donald Trump Jr. told Congress that he did not speak to his father about the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting where the Trump campaign hoped to get damaging information from Russians on Hillary Clinton.

In Trump Jr’s Sept. 2017 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, released Wednesday, he was asked about the meeting between top campaign officials and a Russian attorney with ties to the Kremlin who supposedly had “dirt” on Clinton.

“Did you inform your father about the meeting or the underlying offer prior to the meeting?” a congressional investigator for the committee’s GOP majority asked.

“No, I did not,” Trump Jr. replied.

Later in the interview, Trump Jr. was asked whether he went up and talked to his father about the meeting after it ended.

“No, I wouldn’t have wasted his time with it,” Trump Jr. replied.

Democrats on the committee have raised the possibility that father and son could have discussed the proposed meeting while Trump Jr. was in the midst of arranging it with Russian pop star Emin Agalarov and his British publicist, Rob Goldstone.

In a news release, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) pointed out that on the evening of June 6, hours after Trump Jr. first spoke to Agalarov “about this Hillary info,” Trump Jr. made an an eleven-minute call to a blocked number.

Trump Jr. testified that he could not recall who he spoke with, or whether his father used a blocked number.

As Feinstein’s office noted, former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski testified before the House Intelligence Committee that Trump Sr.’s home number is blocked.

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On Monday morning, Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens sat in a St. Louis courtroom watching potential jurors answer questions about allegations that he attempted to blackmail his one-time lover.

By late afternoon, the case had collapsed.

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner abruptly dropped the felony invasion of privacy charge she had brought against the governor in February, saying she would seek to hand the case over to a special prosecutor, who could choose to file new charges.

Greitens took to the courthouse steps to declare his “great victory.”

Calling himself a “changed man,” the governor reiterated that he was “innocent” of charges that he tied his former hairdresser up in his basement and took a photo of her semi-nude body to keep her silent about their 2015 affair, which ended shortly before his run for office.

In reality, the twice-indicted governor’s legal and political troubles are far from over. But he dodged this particular bullet thanks to a combination of prosecutorial errors, a difficult-to-prove charge, and one final, decisive ruling from Circuit Judge Rex Burlison, who oversaw the case.

The final blow came Monday, when Burlison agreed to let Greitens’ team call Gardner as a witness in the case she had spent months prosecuting. The defense argued that Gardner was aware that one of her investigators had committed perjury and mishandled key aspects of their investigation.

In a biting statement, Gardner’s office said that the judge’s ruling put her in an “impossible position” in which she would be subject to cross-examination by her own subordinates. Gardner was left with “no other legal option than to dismiss and refile this matter,” the statement continued.

Still, the collapse of the case may not revive Greitens’ political standing. The legislature is moving full steam ahead with a special session to debate Greitens’ possible impeachment, which begins Friday evening. A House committee investigating allegations against the governor is expected to release a report laying out its recommendations next month.

As House leaders pointed out, the abrupt cancellation of Greitens’ pending criminal trial leaves him with plenty of time to sit down and testify about “his side of the facts.”

As for the criminal case, the concerns at issue date back to the first deposition of the woman at the heart of the case on Jan. 29, soon after Gardner’s probe began.

William Tisaby, the investigator who conducted that interview alongside Gardner, later appeared to lie to the defense about key aspects of how it transpired. Tisaby said that he took no notes during the interview — a claim contradicted by a video of the conversation that was belatedly provided to defense lawyers.

Judge Burlison ultimately sanctioned prosecutors for failing to promptly turn over to the defense relevant evidence, like the video and 11 pages of notes Tisaby took while interviewing the woman’s friend.

These missteps helped Greitens’ team frame the investigation as tainted from the start, and Gardner’s office acknowledged that they made a mistake in relying on Tisaby.

Even without those unforced errors, prosecutors had a difficult path towards securing a guilty verdict. Under the relevant Missouri felony statute, they needed to prove that Greitens transmitted the nude photo in a way that would make it accessible via computer. But, crucially, they did not have access to the photo itself.

Searches of the governor’s smartphone and Apple cloud data found no evidence of the image, and no witness, including Greitens’ ex-lover, has ever seen it. The judge barred testimony from three expert witnesses for the prosecution, including two electrical engineers who could speak to the technical issues regarding the photo’s potential transmission, and a law professor slated to testify about revenge pornography.

That left prosecutors with only the woman’s testimony and corroborating accounts from her ex-husband and friend. According to the woman, she saw a camera flash through her blindfold, heard the distinctive click of an iPhone camera shutter, and then heard Greitens threaten that the photo would appear “everywhere” if she told anyone what had transpired.

Greitens’ team moved several times to dismiss the case due to the lack of hard evidence. On Monday, they also called on Gardner to drop an unrelated felony computer tampering charge she brought against Greitens for allegedly misusing a charity donor list to fundraise for his gubernatorial campaign.

“I think anything that this circuit attorney’s office has touched or its investigators should be dropped because it’s tainted. It’s biased,” attorney Scott Rosenblum told reporters outside the courthouse.

Gardner’s office said they would seek a special prosecutor to assume control of the invasion of privacy charge. The special prosecutor, who would most likely be based in another Missouri county, would have 27 days from Monday to re-file the charges before the statute of limitations expires, according to the Kansas City Star.

Gardner’s spokeswoman, Susan Ryan, noted that the charge could also be re-filed as a misdemeanor, which would not require providing that the photo was made available via computer.

Ryan did not immediately return TPM’s request for comment on whether the computer tampering case, which legal experts have argued is much stronger, will also be assigned to a special prosecutor.

 

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Michael Avenatti has spent the past few months making Michael Cohen’s life hell.

The omnipresent attorney for adult film star Stormy Daniels has been a constant in the churning news cycle, using an arsenal of tweets and cable news hits to keep pundits focused on the $130,000 that Cohen paid Daniels to keep her silent about her alleged affair with President Trump.

But lately, Avenatti has ranged farther afield. Last week, he set off another media frenzy by releasing a document detailing the hundreds of thousands of dollars Cohen received from major corporations and others in 2017 after pitching them on his access to the new president. It said Cohen’s company, Essential Consultants, took in $1.2 million from Novartis, $600,000 from AT&T, and $500,000 from the U.S. subsidiary of a company owned by a Russian oligarch. Much of the information in the document, which appeared to be based on information in Cohen’s bank records, was soon confirmed by major news outlets.

Then on Sunday, Avenatti tweeted out a series of screenshots from Dec. 12, 2016 showing Cohen and a group of unidentified men in the lobby of Trump Tower. According to Avenatti, one of the men is Ahmed Al-Rumaihi, the head of a division of Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund who has been accused in a lawsuit of trying to bribe Trump administration officials.

The disclosures appear to be part of Avenatti’s ongoing effort to discredit Cohen’s character and business record in the court of public opinion.

“I think it’s part of a very successful public relations campaign to garner sympathy for his client and spread on-the-record materials relating to Mr. Cohen that he’s come in to possession of,” Paul Rosenzweig, a former legal adviser to Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr, told TPM.

But Avenatti’s revelations left some legal observers wondering what exactly they have to do with his efforts to free Daniels from the non-disclosure deal she says was improperly executed, or to intervene in the criminal proceedings against Cohen currently underway in Manhattan.

“It doesn’t seem like it furthers the legal interests of Stormy Daniels and her desire to be released from the NDA and/or obtain damages from Cohen or the President,” Michael Zeldin, a former federal prosecutor who worked alongside Special Counsel Robert Mueller at the Justice Department, told TPM in a phone interview.

Avenatti’s public advocacy is also giving fodder to Cohen’s efforts to stop Daniels from intervening in the matter of search warrants executed against Cohen in New York. At a federal court hearing in late April, Avenatti asked that Daniels be allowed to intervene out of concern that some of the materials seized from Cohen’s office and residences could be pertinent to her defamation case.

Lawyers for Cohen have objected, and Judge Kimba Wood is mulling the issue.

Cohen’s attorney, Stephen Ryan, argued in court filings last week that Avenatti should be barred from intervening for releasing the document on Cohen’s finances. Ryan wrote that Avenatti “has no lawful basis to possess” the records, and that several of the transactions in Avenatti’s document actually involved different Michael Cohens living in Israel and Canada.

Avenatti responded in a Monday filing that it was his First Amendment right to publish information about Cohen that is “of the utmost public concern,” and that Daniels should be allowed to have counsel fight for her “important and legitimate interests in protecting her records.”

Wood could be “looking at Avenatti’s tendency to be on television and now to release information,” Zeldin said. “She might say, I just can’t have you in my case. Or she might say, you can be in it and I’ll subject you to a strict gag order: no TV, no Twitter.”

Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who is overseeing the federal investigation into Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, barred all parties involved in her case from making “statements to the media or in public settings” last year in order to avoid influencing a jury with pretrial publicity.

In an interview with MSNBC Monday, Avenatti said he released the information about Cohen because “people should have the truth, the whole truth.”

“The fact of the matter is if information comes into our possession we believe is credible and that we believe people should be asking questions about, we’re going to release it publicly,” Avenatti told MSNBC. “And ultimately, people can decide whether it’s credible or not or whether there should be follow-up investigation or not.”

Reached by phone hours earlier, Avenatti had a blunter message for those questioning his strategy: “If they don’t like it, tough shit. They should get used to it, ‘cause we’re not changing.”

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St. Louis prosecutors abruptly dismissed charges against Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens on Monday afternoon.

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner said in a statement that the move came after Judge Rex Burlison agreed to a request by lawyers for Greitens to call Gardner herself as a witness. For weeks, defense lawyers have accused Gardner of improperly allowing a private investigator working for her team to commit perjury.

Gardner said the judge’s decision put her in an “impossible position” in which she would be “subject to cross-examination” by members of her own office.

Greitens had been charged with allegedly blackmailing a woman with whom he was having an affair by taking a semi-naked picture of her and threatening to release it.

In a string of tweets, the governor celebrated his “victory” in the case. He apologized to his family and the people of Missouri, saying that the “humbling” experience had taught him “wisdom.”

He faces another charge, also brought by Gardner’s office, of felony computer tampering. He is accused of illegally obtaining a donor list from a veterans charity he founded and using it to fundraise for his 2016 gubernatorial campaign.

It’s unclear what will happen with the computer tampering case, but Greitens’ legal team said that it should also be turned over to a special prosecutor because of Gardner’s “clear conflict” of interest.

A Missouri House special committee is investigating all of the allegations against Greitens, and is expected to make a report laying out their recommendations, which could include the governor’s impeachment.

The full statement from Gardner’s office is below:

Since January, Governor Greitens and his defense team have taken a scorched-earth legal and media strategy and relentlessly attacked the intentions, character and integrity of every person involved in investigating the Governor’s behavior including Missouri House Committee members, the Attorney General, the Circuit Attorney and her team, his victim, her family and those who have called for his resignation.

On February 22, 2018, a Grand Jury indicted Governor Greitens on Felony Invasion of Privacy. The Circuit Attorney has done everything in her power to remain focused on the facts and the truth of this matter. The Circuit Attorney and her team are ready, willing and able to go to trial this week on behalf of the people of the state of Missouri and Mr. Greitens’ victim.

Last week, Governor Greitens made a motion to include the Circuit Attorney as a defense witness.  A defendant who wishes to call a prosecutor as a witness must demonstrate a compelling and legitimate reason to do so. Governor Greitens has produced no compelling reason to include the Circuit Attorney as a witness for any purpose. The defense team knows that the tactic of endorsing the Circuit Attorney as a witness is part of their ongoing effort to distract people from the defendant’s actions that brought about both the felony Invasion of Privacy and Computer Tampering charges against him.

22nd Circuit Judge Rex Burlison made an unpreceded decision by granting a request by Governor Greitens’ defense team to endorse the Circuit Attorney as a witness for the defense.  The court’s order places the Circuit Attorney in the impossible position of being a witness, subject to cross-examination within the offer of proof by her own subordinates.

While the court has other remedies, such as calling the private attorney of K.S. as a witness, it has chosen not to do so. When the court and the defense team put the state in the impossible position of choosing between her professional obligations and the pursuit of justice, the Circuit Attorney will always choose the pursuit of justice. The court’s order leaves the Circuit Attorney no adequate means of proceeding with this trial. Therefore, the court has left the Circuit Attorney with no other legal option than to dismiss and refile this matter.

The Circuit Attorney and her team will research the best step forward for this case in light of the court’s ruling.  The Circuit Attorney will be make a decision to either pursue a special prosecutor or make an appointment of one of her assistants to proceed.

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White House budget director Mick Mulvaney said Saturday that a communication staffer’s comment about Sen. John McCain dying was “awful” but not a fireable offense.

Kelly Sadler’s crack that McCain’s opposition to CIA director nominee Gina Haspel didn’t matter because “he’s dying anyway” was just a “joke” told at a private meeting, Mulvaney said in an appearance on Fox News.

“This was a private meeting inside the White House. It was a joke. It was a badly considered joke that she said fell flat,” Mulvaney told Fox.

Sadler, a special assistant, reportedly mocked McCain’s brain cancer diagnosis at an internal meeting one day after the Arizona senator publicly came out against Haspel for her role in the CIA’s torture program.

McCain’s daughter, Meghan McCain, said she didn’t understand how Sadler did not lose her job over the comment.

The White House is standing behind Sadler and has mostly expressed concern that the public learned about the remark, as Mulvaney did during his Fox appearance.

“I’m really disappointed that someone would undermine the President by leaking that out of a private meeting,” Mulvaney said, adding that the leak “was designed to hurt” Sadler.

The press team has been scrambling to handle the fallout. Press Secretary Sarah Sanders declined to “validate a leak” by responding to a question about it during Friday’s press briefing, but later exploded at communications staff in a meeting, according to a report in Axios.

“I am sure this conversation is going to leak, too,” Sanders said, as a source who was present in the room promptly told Axios. “And that’s just disgusting.”

White House strategic communications director Mercedes Schlapp reportedly said: “You can put this on the record…I stand with Kelly Sadler.”

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In a pair of Friday interviews, Rudy Giuliani went all in on claims that President Trump had no idea his personal attorney spent the early months of 2017 trying to earn clients by pitching his access to the White House.

Asked by the Associated Press if Trump knew Michael Cohen was trying to profit off his ties to Trump, Giuliani said, “The answer is that I am quite certain he didn’t.”

Giuliani also told HuffPost that the President “had no knowledge” that Cohen received hundreds of thousands of dollars from companies including AT&T, Novartis, and an investment bank associated with a Russian oligarch.

“Whatever lobbying was done didn’t reach the president,” Giuliani insisted to HuffPost. “He did drain the swamp.”

These firm denials are much stronger than Giuliani’s response when the story of Cohen’s access peddling first broke earlier this week. On Wednesday, Giuiliani claimed he had “no idea” if Trump directed Cohen to accept the payments, saying only, “I doubt it.”

The President has been distancing himself from his longtime “fixer” and personal lawyer as Cohen’s legal woes come into sharper focus. Trump recently referred to Cohen, who worked closely with him for over 10 years, as “an attorney” who did very little actual legal work for him.

In his interview with HuffPost, Giuliani referred to Cohen as “collateral damage.”

One thing Cohen did do: arrange hush money payments. Giuliani recently said that Trump reimbursed the $130,000 Cohen paid to adult film star Stormy Daniels in October 2016 to keep her quiet about the affair she claims they had.

The payments were made through Essential Consultants LLC, the same shell company Cohen used to receive payments from major corporations for his supposed consulting work.

Federal prosecutors are investigating Cohen’s financial dealings for possible bank fraud and campaign finance violations.

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The list of corporations that Michael Cohen contacted in the wake of Donald Trump’s election to offer his consulting services just keeps growing.

The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that Cohen reached out to Ford Motor Co. in January 2017 to pitch his close access to the new president, and was promptly rebuffed. Ford was later asked by Special Counsel Robert Mueller to turn over all information about Cohen’s outreach, and the company’s head of government affairs has sat for an interview with Mueller’s team, per the Journal.

Mueller has reportedly also requested information from companies who did take Cohen up on his offer, including AT&T and Novartis. Both global firms shelled out hundreds of thousands of dollars to receive advice from a New York City real estate lawyer with no expertise in either telecommunications or the pharmaceutical industry.

Cohen also received $500,000 last year from the U.S. affiliate of a company owned by Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg.

The former personal attorney for President Trump is under federal investigation for a variety of financial crimes. Prosecutors in the Southern District of New York opened a probe into Cohen after receiving a referral from the special counsel.

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Federal investigators aren’t the only ones who want answers about the hundreds of thousands of dollars that corporations shelled out last year to an LLC owned by Trump’s then-personal attorney Michael Cohen.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, sent inquiries to pharmaceutical giant Novartis and to Cohen’s attorney on Friday asking them to turn over documents explaining their arrangement.

Cohen is under investigation by federal prosecutors in New York for possible bank fraud, campaign finance violations and other financial crimes.

In a letter to Novartis CEO Vasant Narasimhan, Wyden expressed “deep concern” that the company was pushing the Food and Drug Administration for approval of an expensive cancer drug at the same time that it entered a $1.2 million contract with Cohen for health care insights that he was unqualified to provide.

“The Senate Finance Committee has a duty to ensure that pharmaceutical companies providing services to federal health programs are conducting business in a legal and transparent manner,” Wyden wrote.

He noted that Cohen’s shell company, Essential Consultants LLC, was not a health care policy consultancy, that Cohen himself was not a lobbyist and that the sum Novartis paid Cohen “far exceeded what it paid any of the registered lobbying firms it engaged during the first 15 months of the Trump administration.”

Wyden asked the company and Cohen to turn over their contract and statement of work, details about how each payment was made, and all communications between the two parties. He also asked to answer a simple but critical question: “Why did Novartis decide to engage Mr. Cohen and/or his firm(s)?”

The payments Cohen received from Novartis, AT&T, and the U.S. affiliate of a company owned by a Russian oligarch came to light earlier this week. They were first revealed in a document released by Michael Avenatti, attorney for adult film star Stormy Daniels, and the three companies subsequently admitted to making the payments.

As Novartis acknowledged in a public statement, the company realized after its first meeting with Cohen in March 2017 that he would be “unable to provide” the kind of consulting advice they sought. Yet they continued to make payments to him until Feb. 2018.

An anonymous Novartis employee familiar with the matter told STAT News that they did so out of fear that ending the arrangement “might have caused anger” to the President, as Wyden noted in his letter to Cohen.

The same employee also described the situation as if they were “hiring [Cohen] as a lobbyist.”

Read the letters below.

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