Facebook, Google and Twitter will tell Congress that Russia’s election meddling was wider than they first reported – Recode

Facebook, Google and Twitter plan to tell congressional investigators this week that the scope of Russia’s campaign to spread disinformation on their sites — and to potentially disrupt the 2016 U.S. presidential race — is much broader than the companies initially reported.

At Facebook, roughly 126 million users in the United States may have seen posts, stories or other content created by Russian government-backed trolls around Election Day, according to a source familiar with the company’s forthcoming testimony to Congress. Previously, Facebook had only shared information on ads purchased by Kremlin-tied accounts, revealing that they reached more than 10 million U.S. users.

Google, which previously had not commented on its internal investigation, will break its silence: In a forthcoming blog post, the search giant confirmed that it discovered about $4,700 worth of search-and-display ads with dubious Russian ties. It also reported 18 YouTube channels associated with the Kremlin’s disinformation efforts, as well as a number of Gmail addresses that “were used to open accounts on other platforms.”

And Twitter will tell Congress that it found more than 2,700 accounts tied to a known Russian-sponsored organization called the Internet Research Agency, according to sources familiar with its testimony. Twitter initially informed lawmakers about just 200 known accounts. The company will also release a new study that shows the extent to which Russian-based automated accounts, or bots, of all sorts tweet on its platform.

In sharing these findings with congressional investigators, the three tech giants plan to emphasize that Russian-fostered disinformation — while troubling — amounted to only a small portion of the ads and other content published regularly on their platforms. Facebook, for example, hopes to highlight that its U.S. users are served more than 200 stories in their News Feeds each day, according to a source familiar with its thinking.

Still, the companies’ explanations may not satisfy an ever-expanding chorus of critics on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers are increasingly demanding that Facebook, Google and Twitter step up their efforts to counter the Kremlin’s attempts to sow political and social discord — or else face more regulation by the U.S. government.

For the tech industry, the first test comes on Tuesday: A crime- and terrorism-focused committee led by Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham will grill Colin Stretch, the general counsel of Facebook; Richard Salgado, the director of law enforcement and information security at Google; and Sean Edgett, the acting general counsel of Twitter.

On Wednesday, Facebook’s Stretch and Twitter’s Edgett will return to the Capitol and submit to two back-to-back sessions before the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. There, they’ll be joined by Kent Walker, the general counsel of Google.

Upon entering the hearings, these tech giants each pledged to improve their handling of political advertising — seemingly in a bid to stave off congressional scrutiny. Facebook and Twitter, for example, in October promised more manual review of those ads, along with greater disclosure as to who is paying for them in the first place.

And Google newly revealed on Monday that it would do the same. The company announced that it sought to create a new database for election ads purchased on AdWords and YouTube, along with stronger disclosure rules as well as a new ad transparency report due in 2018. Google also said it would also put in place new procedures to verify that advertisers running political ads are based in the U.S.

But lawmakers’ concerns aren’t limited to ads. Members of Congress also are likely to press some tech executives on their handling of organic posts — the stories, status updates or other content published and shared on social-media sites without cost. In many ways, this content is harder to identify, and at times it is impossible to regulate in a way that doesn’t trigger free-speech concerns.

Headshots of three senior executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter are shown. Facebook’s Colin Stretch, Google’s Rich Salgado and Twitter’s Sean Edgett are shown.
Colin Stretch (Facebook), Rich Salgado (Google), Sean Edgett (Twitter)

At Facebook, for example, Russian trolls created 80,000 pieces of organic content between January 2015 and August 2017, the company plans to tell lawmakers at the hearing. About 29 million Americans saw those posts directly in their News Feed over that two-year period. And those users also liked, shared and followed these posts and pages, exposing them to their friends — meaning 126 million U.S. users in total might have seen at least some Russian-generated content, according to a source familiar with the findings.

On Instragram, meanwhile, Facebook deleted roughly 170 accounts tied to Russian trolls that posted about 120,000 pieces of content, the company plans to reveal in its testimony.

Taken together, those organic posts had a much greater reach than the 3,000 ads purchased by Russian agents on Facebook around Election Day. In October, the company provided key congressional committees with copies of the ads, which sought to sow social and political unrest around contentious topics, including immigration and Black Lives Matter.

Muck like its peers, though, Facebook plans to stress to U.S. lawmakers that the activity represents only a fraction of what happens on its site daily. Russian-generated disinformation during the election amounted to four-thousandths (0.004) of one percent of content in the News Feed, according to a source familiar with the company’s findings.

Google, meanwhile, plans to tell Congress that it “found only limited activity on our services,” wrote general counsel Walker and Salgado, a company security executive, in a blog post published before the hearing.

Initially, sources had flagged $4,700 in ad spending by Russia’s so-called Internet Research Agency, and Google finally confirmed the number Monday. In doing so, it said search and display ads were not targeted based on users’ geography or political preferences.

Its audit of YouTube, meanwhile, turned up 18 channels tied to Russian trolls, which had uploaded 1,108 videos. Google did not provide a total number of views for these videos, but did say that only 3 percent of them had more than 3,000 views.

Yet one of Google’s biggest challenges — much like Facebook and Twitter — is its handling of organic content, including videos uploaded by RT, a Russian government-funded news network. Called a propaganda arm of the Kremlin, RT videos have millions of views on YouTube. In Google’s investigation, however, the tech giant said it “found no evidence of manipulation of our platform or policy violations.” As a result, Google said that RT and other state-sponsored media outlets are still “subject to our standard rules.”

Twitter, for its part, recently banned RT from advertising on its platform, though the publication is still allowed to tweet there. Facebook has announced no change.

For its part, Twitter plans to unveil two new key findings during its testimony to Congress, sources told Recode on Monday. Chief among them: The company’s acting general counsel, Edgett, will note that the company had discovered — and suspended — roughly 2,752 accounts tied to known Kremlin trolls.

Initially, Twitter pegged this number at about 200 accounts. And while the company at the time described it as an early estimate, it still faced sharp criticism from lawmakers like Sen. Mark Warner, who charged that the company hadn’t done an exhaustive investigation.

Twitter also sought to study election-related tweets sent between Sept. 1 and Nov. 15, 2016. Among a pool of 189 million tweets, the company identified about 1.4 million sent by automated Russian-affiliated accounts.

In Twitter’s estimation, that’s less than three-quarters of a percent of all the tweets sent using its service over a roughly two-month window — and Edgett will stress they “underperformed” in generating impressions on the site when compared to an average, normal tweet. In contrast, Twitter also noted that tweets from accounts including Wikileaks tended to benefit from significantly more engagement by Russian bots.


Let’s block ads! (Why?)

Facebook says 126 million people in the US may have seen posts produced by Russian-government backed agents – Recode

Facebook, Google and Twitter plan to tell congressional investigators this week that the scope of Russia’s campaign to spread disinformation on their sites — and to potentially disrupt the 2016 U.S. presidential race — is much broader than the companies initially reported.

At Facebook, roughly 126 million users in the United States may have seen posts, stories or other content created by Russian government-backed trolls around Election Day, according to a source familiar with the company’s forthcoming testimony to Congress. Previously, Facebook had only shared information on ads purchased by Kremlin-tied accounts, revealing that they reached more than 10 million U.S. users.

Google, which previously had not commented on its internal investigation, will break its silence: In a forthcoming blog post, the search giant confirmed that it discovered about $4,700 worth of search-and-display ads with dubious Russian ties. It also reported 18 YouTube channels associated with the Kremlin’s disinformation efforts, as well as a number of Gmail addresses that “were used to open accounts on other platforms.”

And Twitter will tell Congress that it found more than 2,700 accounts tied to a known Russian-sponsored organization called the Internet Research Agency, according to sources familiar with its testimony. Twitter initially informed lawmakers about just 200 known accounts. The company will also release a new study that shows the extent to which Russian-based automated accounts, or bots, of all sorts tweet on its platform.

In sharing these findings with congressional investigators, the three tech giants plan to emphasize that Russian-fostered disinformation — while troubling — amounted to only a small portion of the ads and other content published regularly on their platforms. Facebook, for example, hopes to highlight that its U.S. users are served more than 200 stories in their News Feeds each day, according to a source familiar with its thinking.

Still, the companies’ explanations may not satisfy an ever-expanding chorus of critics on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers are increasingly demanding that Facebook, Google and Twitter step up their efforts to counter the Kremlin’s attempts to sow political and social discord — or else face more regulation by the U.S. government.

For the tech industry, the first test comes on Tuesday: A crime- and terrorism-focused committee led by Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham will grill Colin Stretch, the general counsel of Facebook; Richard Salgado, the director of law enforcement and information security at Google; and Sean Edgett, the acting general counsel of Twitter.

On Wednesday, Facebook’s Stretch and Twitter’s Edgett will return to the Capitol and submit to two back-to-back sessions before the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. There, they’ll be joined by Kent Walker, the general counsel of Google.

Upon entering the hearings, these tech giants each pledged to improve their handling of political advertising — seemingly in a bid to stave off congressional scrutiny. Facebook and Twitter, for example, in October promised more manual review of those ads, along with greater disclosure as to who is paying for them in the first place.

And Google newly revealed on Monday that it would do the same. The company announced that it sought to create a new database for election ads purchased on AdWords and YouTube, along with stronger disclosure rules as well as a new ad transparency report due in 2018. Google also said it would also put in place new procedures to verify that advertisers running political ads are based in the U.S.

But lawmakers’ concerns aren’t limited to ads. Members of Congress also are likely to press some tech executives on their handling of organic posts — the stories, status updates or other content published and shared on social-media sites without cost. In many ways, this content is harder to identify, and at times it is impossible to regulate in a way that doesn’t trigger free-speech concerns.

Headshots of three senior executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter are shown. Facebook’s Colin Stretch, Google’s Rich Salgado and Twitter’s Sean Edgett are shown.
Colin Stretch (Facebook), Rich Salgado (Google), Sean Edgett (Twitter)

At Facebook, for example, Russian trolls created 80,000 pieces of organic content between January 2015 and August 2017, the company plans to tell lawmakers at the hearing. About 29 million Americans saw those posts directly in their News Feed over that two-year period. And those users also liked, shared and followed these posts and pages, exposing them to their friends — meaning 126 million U.S. users in total might have seen at least some Russian-generated content, according to a source familiar with the findings.

On Instragram, meanwhile, Facebook deleted roughly 170 accounts tied to Russian trolls that posted about 120,000 pieces of content, the company plans to reveal in its testimony.

Taken together, those organic posts had a much greater reach than the 3,000 ads purchased by Russian agents on Facebook around Election Day. In October, the company provided key congressional committees with copies of the ads, which sought to sow social and political unrest around contentious topics, including immigration and Black Lives Matter.

Muck like its peers, though, Facebook plans to stress to U.S. lawmakers that the activity represents only a fraction of what happens on its site daily. Russian-generated disinformation during the election amounted to four-thousandths (0.004) of one percent of content in the News Feed, according to a source familiar with the company’s findings.

Google, meanwhile, plans to tell Congress that it “found only limited activity on our services,” wrote general counsel Walker and Salgado, a company security executive, in a blog post published before the hearing.

Initially, sources had flagged $4,700 in ad spending by Russia’s so-called Internet Research Agency, and Google finally confirmed the number Monday. In doing so, it said search and display ads were not targeted based on users’ geography or political preferences.

Its audit of YouTube, meanwhile, turned up 18 channels tied to Russian trolls, which had uploaded 1,108 videos. In total, they had been viewed roughly 309,000 times between June 2015 and November 2017; about 3 percent of of those videos had more than 3,000 views. The channels have been suspended.

Yet one of Google’s biggest challenges — much like Facebook and Twitter — is its handling of organic content, including videos uploaded by RT, a Russian government-funded news network. Called a propaganda arm of the Kremlin, RT videos have millions of views on YouTube. In Google’s investigation, however, the tech giant said it “found no evidence of manipulation of our platform or policy violations.” As a result, Google said that RT and other state-sponsored media outlets are still “subject to our standard rules.”

Twitter, for its part, recently banned RT from advertising on its platform, though the publication is still allowed to tweet there. Facebook has announced no change.

For its part, Twitter plans to unveil two new key findings during its testimony to Congress, sources told Recode on Monday. Chief among them: The company’s acting general counsel, Edgett, will note that the company had discovered — and suspended — roughly 2,752 accounts tied to known Kremlin trolls.

Initially, Twitter pegged this number at about 200 accounts. And while the company at the time described it as an early estimate, it still faced sharp criticism from lawmakers like Sen. Mark Warner, who charged that the company hadn’t done an exhaustive investigation.

Twitter also sought to study election-related tweets sent between Sept. 1 and Nov. 15, 2016. Among a pool of 189 million tweets, the company identified about 1.4 million sent by automated Russian-affiliated accounts.

In Twitter’s estimation, that’s less than three-quarters of a percent of all of the election-sampled tweets sent using its service over a roughly two-month window — and Edgett will stress they “underperformed” in generating impressions on the site when compared to an average, normal tweet. In contrast, Twitter also noted that tweets from accounts including Wikileaks tended to benefit from significantly more engagement by Russian bots.


Let’s block ads! (Why?)

Ex-Trump campaign adviser pleads guilty to making false statement – CNN

In court records unsealed on Monday, the FBI said George Papadopoulos “falsely described his interactions with a certain foreign contact who discussed ‘dirt’ related to emails” concerning Hillary Clinton.
In addition, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former Trump campaign official Rick Gates surrendered Monday to Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller.
The charges against top officials from Trump’s campaign signals a dramatic new phase of Mueller’s wide-ranging investigation into possible collusion between the Russian government and members of Trump’s team as well as potential obstruction of justice and financial crimes.
Cillizza: What the Manafort indictment proves about Trump (and what it doesn't)Cillizza: What the Manafort indictment proves about Trump (and what it doesn't)
Papadopoulos’ guilty plea brings the Mueller probe into actions that occurred during the 2016 campaign. The charges against Manafort and Gates are unrelated to the Trump campaign, though it’s possible Mueller could add additional charges.
Gates, 45, is a longtime business associate of Manafort, 68, having worked together since the mid-2000s, and served as his deputy on the campaign. The two were indicted under seal on Friday, a source with direct knowledge of the matter said.
President Donald Trump distanced himself from Manafort Monday morning, asking why his general election opponent, Hillary Clinton, wasn’t being investigated.
“Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign. But why aren’t Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus?????” He soon added: “Also, there is NO COLLUSION!”
He tweeted before Papadopoulos’ guilty plea was unsealed.
Papadopoulos lied to FBI agents “about the timing, extent and nature of his relationships and interactions with certain foreign nationals whom he understood to have close connections with senior Russian government officials,” according to the complaint. Mueller signed a 14-page statement regarding Papadopoulos’ offense, which lays out of the facts of the case.
Mueller’s statement also says that Papadopoulos met with a Russian woman in March 2016 — introduced to him as a relative of Russian President Vladimir Putin, though she was not — and he sought to use her connections to arrange a meeting between the campaign and Russian government officials.
The statement says that Papadopoulos falsely claimed he met with an overseas professor before joining the Trump campaign about “the Russians possessing ‘dirt’ on then-candidate Hillary Clinton in the form of ‘thousands of emails.'”
LIVEHappening now
The professor only took interest in Papadopoulos because of his status on the campaign, according to the statement.
A former Trump campaign official said Papadopoulos interacted with the campaign “a significant amount” during the 2016 election cycle.
“He was a foreign policy adviser,” said the official, who described Papadopoulos as an adviser who was in contact with the campaign staff via email and not a familiar face around Trump Tower. The official said Papadopoulos exchanged emails “constantly” on foreign policy matters with the Trump team during the campaign.
Still, this official placed Papadopoulos in the same category as Carter Page, who felt more like a “hanger-on” to the campaign staff.

Manafort, Gates charged with conspiracy against the US

The indictment against Manafort and Gates contains 12 counts: conspiracy against the United States, conspiracy to launder money, unregistered agent of a foreign principal, false and misleading US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) statements, false statements, and seven counts of failure to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts.
Trump will not call for firing of Mueller, officials sayTrump will not call for firing of Mueller, officials say
Manafort arrived at the FBI’s Washington field office Monday morning. The two are being processed separately, according to a law enforcement official. They will later be transported to federal district court in Washington later Monday morning.
The two are scheduled to make their initial court appearances before US District Magistrate Judge Deborah Robinson at 1:30 p.m. ET Monday.
CNN has reached out to lawyers for Manafort and Gates.
Manafort and Gates were the first officials in Trump’s orbit charged in connection with the special counsel investigation, which is exploring whether Trump’s actions surrounding the firing of former FBI Director James Comey amount to obstruction of justice. Mueller has taken a broad approach to his mandate that includes a focus on the financial dealings of Trump’s team.
Trump has been briefed on the charges against Manafort and Gates, a source close to the President told CNN. The source said Trump will likely say later Monday that he feels badly for Manafort and his family. The source added that Monday’s developments with regard to Manafort and Gates had been predicted and are completely unrelated to Trump.
A source close to the White House — before Papadopoulos’ guilty plea was unsealed — said “today has zero to do with the White House,” noting that the charges pertain to Manafort and Gates’ business dealings.
“These guys were bad guys when they started, they were bad guys when they left,” said another source close to the White House. Asked how Trump will receive the news, the second source said, “I think he takes it on its face” because “it has nothing to do with him.”
'Today has zero to do with the White House,' says source close to the White House'Today has zero to do with the White House,' says source close to the White House
This source added that Trump is still not planning to try to fire Mueller.
Clinton, Trump’s general election opponent during last year’s presidential contest, has no comment on the charges, a spokesman told CNN.
Manafort, whose work for former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has attracted scrutiny from federal investigators, has previously denied financial wrongdoing regarding his Ukraine-related payments, his bank accounts in offshore tax shelters and his various real-estate transactions over the years. Gates, who has also denied wrongdoing, was Manafort’s longtime business associate in his lobbying firm before being tapped as his deputy on the Trump campaign.

Manafort’s Ukraine work scrutinized

Before the indictment, the FBI in July executed a so-called no-knock search warrant with guns drawn at Manafort’s home in Alexandria, Virginia, seizing financial and tax documents, including some that had already been provided to congressional investigators.
Federal investigators’ interest in Manafort and Gates goes back well before the special counsel was appointed. For about a decade, Manafort worked for Yanukovych and his Russia-friendly Party of Regions. Manafort’s work spurred a separate federal investigation in 2014, which examined whether he and other Washington-based lobbying firms failed to register as foreign agents for the Yanukovych regime.
Gates joined Manafort’s lobbying firm in the mid-2000s and handled projects in Eastern Europe, which later included work for Yanukovych.
Yanukovych was ousted amid street protests in 2014, and his pro-Russian Party of Regions was accused of corruption and laundering millions of dollars out of Ukraine. The FBI sought to learn whether those who worked for Yanukovych — Manafort’s firm, as well as Washington lobbying firms Mercury LLC and the Podesta Group — played a role. The Podesta Group is headed by Tony Podesta, the brother of John Podesta, a former chief of staff of the Clinton White House, a senior adviser to President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman.
At the time, the case hinged on the failure by the US firms to register under the FARA, a law the Justice Department rarely uses to bring charges. Earlier this year, all three firms filed retroactively with the Justice Department.
Gates once became involved in a failed business venture with Manafort and Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, a close ally of Putin, according to legal filings. The plan was for Deripaska to invest $100 million in a private equity company that Manafort and Gates would manage.
Who is Rick Gates?Who is Rick Gates?
The project fell apart, and Deripaska sued Manafort and Gates in the Cayman Islands for mishandling his money. Deripaska, a Russian citizen, has offered to cooperate with Capitol Hill investigations in exchange for immunity.
A secret order authorized by the court that handles the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) began after Manafort became the subject of an FBI investigation that began in 2014, sources previously told CNN. But the surveillance was discontinued last year due to lack of evidence.
Later in 2016, however, the FBI restarted the surveillance as part of its investigation into Russian meddling. Investigators’ interest in Manafort was reignited due to intercepted communications between Manafort and suspected Russian operatives, and among the Russians themselves, CNN has reported.
The investigation into Manafort intensified after Mueller was named as special counsel in May. Mueller has hired a team of prosecutors who have examined Manafort’s financial and tax history stretching back 11 years to January 2006, while he was working in Ukraine.

Running the Trump campaign

Manafort entered the Trump campaign orbit in early 2016, when he reached out to Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner and offered to work for free, according to The New York Times.
Manafort joined the Trump campaign in March 2016 to help with delegate counting ahead of the Republican National Convention, as some Republicans hoped to use arcane delegate procedures to wrest the nomination from Trump at the convention in Cleveland.
He soon was promoted to campaign chairman, and he became the top official on the campaign after then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was fired in June 2016.
Dread hangs over Washington as Manafort, Gates turn themselves inDread hangs over Washington as Manafort, Gates turn themselves in
His tenure didn’t last long.
The Times reported in August 2016 that Ukrainian investigators found Manafort’s name in an off-the-books, handwritten ledger detailing secret payments — including $12.7 million to Manafort from Yanukovych’s Party of Regions.
Manafort denied he had received any such payment and claims the ledger was forged. But just days later, he resigned from the campaign as the accusations swirling around him became a major distraction for Trump.
In addition to Manafort’s Ukraine business dealings, his real estate dealings, overseas business ventures and bank accounts in offshore havens like Cyprus have also come under scrutiny.

Gates rose and fell with Manafort

When Manafort joined the Trump campaign, he brought Gates on board shortly thereafter.
As Manafort rose in the ranks, so did Gates, who took on a more prominent role after Lewandowski was fired. But his stock rose and fell with his business partner — after Manafort resigned in August 2016 amid questions about his Ukraine dealings, Gates’ role was diminished, and he later left the campaign.
Questions about Gates’ work in Ukraine continued to dog him even after Trump was inaugurated.
Gates was a founding member of America First Policies, a pro-Trump advocacy group, but stepped down after about two months.
Gates was forced to leave amid another round of blistering headlines about Manafort, his longtime business partner and political ally, CNN reported at the time.
Gates has denied any allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, telling the Times in June that they were “totally ridiculous and without merit.”
Gates, according to a source, accompanied Trump ally Tom Barrack to the White House several times this year.

Focus of multiple investigations

Mueller hasn’t been the only one to focus on Manafort. He’s also been a central figure in multiple congressional investigations into Russian election meddling and possible coordination with the Trump campaign.
Manafort’s role was further scrutinized after CNN and The New York Times reported in February that he and other senior Trump aides were in regular contact with suspected Russian operatives during the campaign. Manafort has denied those allegations.
Manafort has been interviewed behind closed doors by the Senate intelligence committee, and he has provided documents to the congressional panels investigating potential Russian collusion.
READ: Federal grand jury indictment against Manafort, GatesREAD: Federal grand jury indictment against Manafort, Gates
Manafort’s web of connections to Russia has continued to expand as the investigations have moved forward.
In July, new reports revealed that Manafort was part of a June 2016 meeting organized by Donald Trump Jr. with a Russian lawyer who had connections to the Kremlin.
In September, The Washington Post reported that Manafort had offered to provide private briefings on the campaign to Deripaska.
Manafort has denied that he ever “knowingly” communicated with Russian intelligence operatives during the election or participated in any Russian efforts to “undermine the interests of the United States.”
This story is breaking and will be updated.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that John Podesta was a chief of staff in the Clinton administration and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman.

CNN’s Liz Stark, Sara Murray, Jim Acosta, Jeremy Diamond, Dan Merica and Joe Johns contributed to this report.

Let’s block ads! (Why?)

Manafort, former business partner indicted on money laundering, tax charges in connection with special counsel probe – Washington Post

Breaking News: Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to making a false statement to federal investigators.

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his longtime business partner Rick Gates have been charged in a 12-count indictment with conspiracy to launder money, making false statements and other charges stemming from probes into possible Russian influence in U.S. political affairs.

The indictment, unsealed Monday, marked the first criminal allegations to come from Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia to influence the 2016 election. The two men are expected to make their first court appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah A. Robinson at 1:30 p.m.

The charges did not reference the Trump campaign. Instead, they focused on Manafort’s and Gates’s work advising a Russia-friendly political party in Ukraine.

[Read the Manafort and Gates indictment]

The special counsel alleged that for nearly a decade, the two men laundered money through scores of U.S. and foreign corporations, partnerships and bank accounts, and gave false statements to the Justice Department and others when asked about their work on behalf of a foreign entity.

All told, more than $75 million flowed through offshore accounts, the special counsel alleged. Manafort, the special counsel said, laundered more than $18 million, using his wealth acquired overseas to “enjoy a lavish lifestyle” in the United States, purchasing multi-million dollar properties and paying for home renovation.

Gates did not respond to a request for comment, nor did Jason Maloni, a spokesman for Manafort. Manafort was spotted walking into the FBI’s Washington Field Office Monday morning.

In back-to-back tweets, Trump tried to distance his campaign from the charges.

“Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign. But why aren’t Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus?????” he wrote.

“….Also, there is NO COLLUSION!” he said in a follow-up tweet.

Washington — especially those in political and media circles — had been anxiously anticipating the charges since CNN reported Friday night that a grand jury had approved the first charges in Mueller’s investigation.

Spokespeople for Mueller and the Justice Department declined to comment over the weekend. A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment Monday, and a spokesman for the special counsel’s office did not return messages seeking comment.

According to the indictment, Manafort and Gates arranged to hire two Washington-based lobbying firms to work on behalf of their Ukrainian clients, arranging meetings with U.S. officials and boosting their public image in the United States.

Prosecutors say, however, that Manafort and Gates arranged for a Brussels-based nonprofit to nominally hire the companies to hide the fact that their work was for Ukrainian government officials and would otherwise require registration under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

In fact, prosecutors allege, Manafort was communicating directly with then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych about the effort, promising in 2012 to provide him weekly updates about the effort.

To further obscure Ukrainian involvement in the lobbying effort, prosecutors say payments to the Washington firms were routed through obscure offshore companies. Prosecutors say that when the Department of Justice approached Manafort and Gates in 2016 and 2017 about whether they should have registered as foreign agents for the work, they responded with false and misleading letters, indicating they had not directed the lobbying effort and asserting they did not hold records reflecting their work, even though later searches showed they did, according to the indictment.

Manafort and Gates also were accused of willfully and intentionally trying to hide monies kept in foreign bank accounts — Manafort from 2011 to 2014 and Gates from 2012 to 2014 . And Manafort was accused of filing fraudulent tax returns — stating on tax forms he filed from 2008 to 2014 that he controlled no foreign bank accounts.

The men made tens of millions of dollars for themselves, the special counsel alleged. From 2008 to 2014, according to the indictment, Manafort arranged to wire $12 million from offshore accounts to pay for personal expenses – including $5 million to a home renovation contractor in the Hamptons, more than $1.3 million to a home entertainment and lighting vendor based in Florida, $934,000 to an antique rug dealer in Alexandria, and $849,000 to a men’s clothier in New York.

While the men were set to first appear before a magistrate judge — as is normal — the case was assigned to U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, 63, a 2011 Barack Obama appointee.

Jackson worked as federal prosecutor in the District after graduating from Harvard Law School and specialized in complex criminal and civil trials and appeals at Trout Cacheris. While at the firm, she represented former Democratic congressman William J. Jefferson at his corruption trial, made famous by the $90,000 in bribe money stuffed into his freezer and a legal battle over the raid of his Washington office.

Jackson contributed $1,000 to Bill Clinton’s 1992 Democratic campaign.

Mueller was appointed in May to oversee the probe of possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia, taking over work that the FBI had begun in July 2016. Their interest in Manafort, though, dates back to at least 2014 — long before Mueller was appointed or Manafort was connected to the Trump campaign.

While Mueller’s probe has focused on Manafort and former national security adviser Michael Flynn, investigators have shown interest in a broad array of other topics.

Those include meetings the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, had with the Russian ambassador and a banker from Moscow in December, and a June 2016 meeting at Trump tower involving the president’s son, Donald Jr., and a Russian lawyer. Mueller’s team has requested extensive records from the White House, covering areas including the president’s private discussions about firing James B. Comey as FBI director and his response to news that Flynn was under investigation, according to two people briefed on the requests.

Mueller is also investigating whether Trump obstructed justice leading up to Comey’s firing. His team has been actively presenting records and bringing witnesses before the grand jury in D.C. for the last three months.

[Special Counsel Mueller using grand jury in federal court in Washington as part of Russia investigation]

Manafort joined the Trump campaign in March 2016, and Trump tapped him to serve as campaign chairman in May of that year. He left in August 2016, but Gates, his business partner and protege, continued to play an important role with the campaign even after Manafort’s departure. After the election Gates directed the inauguration plans, including fundraising, under Tom Barrack, Trump’s close friend and adviser.

FBI agents working for Mueller raided Manafort’s home in Alexandria in late July, armed with a search warrant that allowed them to enter at dawn without warning the occupants. Such an invasive search is only allowed after prosecutors have persuaded a federal judge that they have evidence of a crime and they have reasonable concern that key evidence could be destroyed or withheld.

Prosecutors also warned Manafort they planned to indict him, according to two people familiar with the exchange. People close to Manafort and Gates, though, said the indictment came as a surprise to both.

Though both men knew Mueller had been closely scrutinizing their behavior, they had expected some kind of alert when an indictment was imminent. Even over the weekend, they were telling people close to them that they had received no such notification and did not believe they were the subject of the seal charges.

The tactic might suggest Mueller hoped to use the element of surprise against the two men to potentially stun them into a desire to cooperate against other members of Trump’s team.

Flynn’s lawyer, Robert Kelner, said late Friday, “we are not commenting tonight.” A person familiar with Flynn’s defense said he, too, had received no notice of pending indictment.

Wayne Holland, a McEnearney Associates real estate agent who helped Manafort buy the condo in Alexandria, Va., that was raided by the FBI this summer, testified Oct. 20 before the grand jury in Mueller’s probe after he and his firm were unsuccessful in an effort to quash subpoenas, Holland said Friday.

Holland declined to discuss his testimony, first reported by Politico, but confirmed that an opinion unsealed Friday denied his and his firm’s motion to quash a subpoena by claiming real estate broker records are confidential under Virginia and District laws.

Devlin Barrett, Carol D. Leonnig, Sari Horwitz, Spencer S. Hsu, Ellen Nakashima, Greg Miller and Adam Entous contributed to this report.

Read more:

Paul Manafort: A FAQ about Trump’s indicted former campaign chairman

With money laundering charges against Paul Manafort, Trump’s ‘fake news’ claim is harder to defend

As Russia case unfolds, Trump and Republicans go to battle with Clinton and Democrats

Who’s who in the government’s investigation into Russia ties

Let’s block ads! (Why?)

Manafort and former business partner asked to surrender in connection with special counsel probe – Washington Post

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his former business partner Rick Gates will turn themselves in on charges stemming from Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia to influence the 2016 election, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The precise charges the men face were not immediately clear. Gates did not respond to a request for comment, nor did Jason Maloni, a spokesman for Manafort. Manafort was spotted walking into the FBI’s Washington Field Office Monday morning.

Washington — especially those in political and media circles — had been anxiously anticipating the charges since CNN reported Friday night that a grand jury had approved the first charges in Mueller’s investigation. That report was soon matched by others, including Reuters and the Wall Street Journal, though affiliates of many involved said they were in the dark as to what was about to come. About a dozen reporters staked out the entrance to the federal courthouse in downtown D.C. Monday morning, waiting for any glimpse of prosecutors or possible defendants.

Spokespeople for Mueller and the Justice Department declined to comment over the weekend. They did not immediately return messages Monday.

Mueller was appointed in May to oversee the probe of possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia, taking over work that the FBI had begun in July 2016. Prosecutors have been probing Manafort’s work as a political consultant in Ukraine, where he advised a Russia-friendly political party for years before his work with Trump. They have also been examining Manafort’s personal finances.

While the probe has focused acutely on Manafort and former national security adviser Michael Flynn, investigators have shown interest in a broad array of other topics.

Those include meetings the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, had with the Russian ambassador and a banker from Moscow in December, and a June 2016 meeting at Trump tower involving the president’s son, Donald Jr., and a Russian lawyer. Mueller’s team has requested extensive records from the White House, covering areas including the president’s private discussions about firing James B. Comey as FBI director and his response to news that Flynn was under investigation, according to two people briefed on the requests.

Mueller is also investigating whether Trump obstructed justice leading up to Comey’s firing. His team has been actively presenting records and bringing witnesses before the grand jury in D.C. for the last three months.

[Special Counsel Mueller using grand jury in federal court in Washington as part of Russia investigation]

Any grand jury indictment would be shared with deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, who is acting as the attorney general because Jeff Sessions, having served as a surrogate for the Trump campaign, recused himself from the matter.

Late Friday afternoon, the federal court’s chief judge, Beryl A. Howell, presided as host for a ceremonial portrait unveiling of a fellow judge and explained to the crowd of hundreds of guests that Rosenstein could not be present because of an important meeting he was called to at the Justice Department.

FBI agents working for Mueller raided Manafort’s home in Alexandria in late July, armed with a search warrant that allowed them to enter at dawn without warning the occupants. Such an invasive search is only allowed after prosecutors have persuaded a federal judge that they have evidence of a crime and they have reasonable concern that key evidence could be destroyed or withheld.

Prosecutors also warned Manafort they planned to indict him, according to two people familiar with the exchange. Manafort associates had said Friday evening, though, they had no indication that Manafort has been or would be indicted.

Flynn’s lawyer, Robert Kelner, said late Friday, “we are not commenting tonight.” A person familiar with Flynn’s defense said he, too, had received no notice of pending indictment.

Wayne Holland, a McEnearney Associates real estate agent who helped Manafort buy the condo in Alexandria, Va., that was raided by the FBI this summer, testified Oct. 20 before the grand jury in Mueller’s probe after he and his firm were unsuccessful in an effort to quash subpoenas, Holland said Friday.

Holland declined to discuss his testimony, first reported by Politico, but confirmed that an opinion unsealed Friday by Howell denied his and his firm’s motion to quash a subpoena by claiming real estate broker records are confidential under Virginia and District laws.

Devlin Barrett, Carol Leonnig, Sari Horwitz, Spencer S. Hsu, Ellen Nakashima, Greg Miller and Adam Entous contributed to this report.

Let’s block ads! (Why?)

As Russia case unfolds, Trump and Republicans go to battle with Clinton and Democrats – Washington Post

Tensions between Republicans and Democrats over the investigation of Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election intensified Sunday, with President Trump demanding to know why his campaign is under federal scrutiny while his former opponent Hillary Clinton is not.

The president’s latest outburst over the inquiry led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III surfaced on Twitter as his administration braced for the possibility that the first batch of charges in the case could be publicly announced as soon as Monday. CNN reported that a federal grand jury had approved an indictment, although details of the possible charges and the name of a defendant remained unclear.

Trump issued four tweets over 24 minutes, attacking the Mueller probe as unfair and citing various Clinton controversies that he said warranted investigation.

“Instead they look at phony Trump/Russia, ‘collusion,’ which doesn’t exist,” the president said. “The Dems are using this terrible (and bad for our country) Witch Hunt for evil politics, but the R’s are now fighting back like never before. There is so much GUILT by Democrats/Clinton, and now the facts are pouring out. DO SOMETHING!”

Later in the morning, Trump added: “All of this ‘Russia’ talk right when the Republicans are making their big push for historic Tax Cuts & Reform. Is this coincidental? NOT!”

On Sunday talk shows, Republicans rallied around Trump and questioned how CNN could have received information about secret grand jury proceedings.

“There are very, very strict laws on grand jury secrecy, so depending on who leaked this to CNN, that’s a criminal violation, potentially,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), a longtime friend of Trump’s, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “For us to have confidence in this process, we’ve got to make sure that the grand jury process remains confidential, remains secret, so that the special counsel can work effectively to be able to get to the bottom of all that he’s looking into.”

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) cast doubt on the objectivity of Mueller’s team, noting that the prosecutor’s staff includes “a lot of individuals, attorneys who played in politics, who’ve given money on the Democratic side.” Of the eight attorneys on the team who have been publicly identified, four made donations to Democrats, including President Barack Obama and Clinton.

“This president won the election solely on the idea that he connected with the American people. No other influence involved,” McCarthy said on Fox’s “Sunday Morning Futures.” “But the idea of what I’ve watched, of what the Democrats have been doing, it sure raises a lot of questions.”

Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, came to Mueller’s defense and said that he doesn’t agree with Republicans who are calling for Mueller to resign or stop his investigation.

“I would encourage my Republican friends — give the guy a chance to do his job,” Gowdy said on Fox News Sunday. “The result will be known by the facts, by what he uncovers. . . . I would say give the guy a chance to do his job.”

Democratic lawmakers mostly stayed out of the Sunday fray after a week in which Clinton’s 2016 campaign came under fresh scrutiny. The campaign funded political opposition research into Trump that helped create a highly publicized “dossier” on the Republican candidate and fueled some allegations now under scrutiny by Mueller.

The 35-page dossier is composed of 17 memos containing raw intelligence, some of it highly salacious and not independently confirmed. It relies on Kremlin-linked sources and alleges that the Russian government had been trying to support Trump’s candidacy while gathering compromising information that could be used as blackmail. The dossier was published in full by BuzzFeed in January.

It’s unclear how much the Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee paid for the opposition research by Fusion GPS, a Washington firm that conducts investigations for private clients. The Clinton campaign paid $5.6 million in legal fees to a law firm from June 2015 to December 2016, according to campaign finance records, and the DNC paid the firm $3.6 million in “legal and compliance consulting’’ since November 2015. It’s impossible to tell from the filings how much of that work was for other legal matters and how much of it related to Fusion GPS.

Trump tweeted Sunday morning that the dossier, which he called “Clinton made Fake Dossier,” could have cost as much as $12 million, although he did not explain how he reached that number.

Compiled by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele, the dossier mirrors a separate conclusion reached by U.S. intelligence agencies that the Russian government intervened in the U.S. election in an effort to bolster Trump and harm Clinton, such as through hacking the DNC and distributing materials to WikiLeaks to publish at key moments.

Fusion GPS, which hired Steele to gather information, was first employed to investigate Trump during the Republican primaries by the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative publication that receives financial support from billionaire GOP donor Paul Singer, according to two people familiar with Singer. The Beacon said in a statement that its research ended before Fusion GPS hired Steele and that none of the research that it commissioned is included in the dossier.

In April 2016, an attorney representing Clinton’s presidential campaign and the DNC hired Fusion GPS, which then hired Steele. Brian Fallon, a former spokesman for the Clinton campaign, said he learned about Steele and the dossier after the election. People familiar with the matter told The Washington Post that the Clinton campaign and the DNC did not direct Steele’s activities.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said Sunday that “a lot” of the information in the dossier has been corroborated.

“I certainly would have liked to know who paid for it earlier, but nonetheless, that’s just one factor to be considered,” Schiff said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. “It doesn’t answer the ultimate question, which is: How much of the work is accurate? How much of it is true? And my colleagues don’t seem particularly interested in that question, but that is really the most important question for the American people.”

Schiff said he has not been told anything about any impending indictments in Mueller’s investigation, noting that such notification would not have been appropriate.

Trump also tweeted Sunday about Clinton’s involvement in what he called the “Uranium to Russia deal,” demanding that the matter receive greater scrutiny.

The 2010 deal approved by the Obama administration while Clinton was secretary of state allowed a Russian nuclear energy agency to acquire a controlling stake in a Canadian-based company that had mining licenses for about 20 percent of U.S. uranium extraction capacity. The company cannot export the uranium.

Earlier this month, House and Senate Republican leaders announced they would investigate the uranium deal, and the House Oversight Committee launched a probe into how the FBI investigated Clinton during the campaign. In the latter investigation, Republicans say they want to know why then-FBI Director James B. Comey publicly announced that the bureau was investigating Clinton but waited months before making a similar announcement about its inquiries into the Trump campaign.

Ed O’Keefe, Glenn Kessler and Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.

Let’s block ads! (Why?)

Trump’s Approval Rating Drops to Lowest Level Yet in New NBC News/WSJ Poll – NBCNews.com

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s job approval rating has declined to the lowest point of his presidency, and nearly half of voters want their vote in the 2018 midterms to be a message for more Democrats in Congress to check Trump and congressional Republicans, according to

Trump Job Approval, Oct. 2017NBC News

“This is his worst showing of his young presidency so far,” said Democratic pollster Fred Yang of Hart Research Associates, who conducted this survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff and his team at Public Opinion Strategies.

The drop for Trump has come from independents (who shifted from 41 percent approval in September to 34 percent now), whites (who went from 51 percent to 47 percent) and whites without a college degree (from 58 percent to 51 percent).

“Are we starting to see the fraying of the Trump base … after this week of [Republican] infighting?” Yang asked.

Trump’s job approval rating of 38 percent is the lowest in modern times for a president at this stage of his presidency. The NBC/WSJ poll had George W. Bush at 88 percent, Barack Obama at 51 percent and Bill Clinton at 47 percent in the fall of their first year as president.

In this new survey, Trump also has seen a decline in his personal rating, with 36 percent viewing him positively and 54 percent negatively.

Back in September — when the political headlines were focused more on the president’s handling of the hurricanes that hit Texas and Florida, as well as Trump’s spending deal with congressional Democrats — his score was 39 percent positive, 49 percent negative.

But this current poll, conducted October 23-26, comes on the heels of a tumultuous two weeks in American politics, which included:

  • Trump charging that his predecessors didn’t make calls to the families of fallen U.S. soldiers;
  • Trump upsetting the family and friends of Sgt. La David T. Johnson, who was killed in Niger, by allegedly telling them that Johnson “must’ve known what he signed up for”;
  • Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., criticizing their party’s own president.

Additionally, the NBC/WSJ poll measures some of Trump’s recent actions over the past couple of months. The most popular: By a 48 percent to 27 percent margin, Americans approve of Trump’s handling of the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

And by a 42 percent-to-37 percent margin, they give a thumbs-up to the president’s handling of the economy.

Trump approval rating, Oct. 2017NBC News

But Trump is underwater on almost every other issue. Just 35 percent approve of his handling of his role as commander in chief; 34 percent approve of his handling of North Korea; 33 percent approve of his handling of the mass shooting in Las Vegas; and 30 percent approve of Trump’s handling of NFL players protesting during the National Anthem.

At the bottom: 29 percent agree with his handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico; 27 percent approve of his handling of health care; and 24 percent approve of his handling of the Iran nuclear deal.

Midterm numbers are “a flashing yellow light for Republicans”

Looking ahead to the 2018 midterm elections, which take place a year from now, 48 percent of registered voters in the poll say they prefer a Democratic-controlled Congress, while 41 percent want a Republican-controlled Congress.

That 7-point advantage for Democrats is up one point from September’s NBC/WSJ poll, but it’s smaller than the double digit margins they enjoyed in the 2006 and 2008 cycles, when they picked up a sizable number of congressional seats.

Congressional control preferenceNBC News

Still, a near-majority of voters, 46 percent, say their vote in November 2018 will be to send a message for more Democrats to serve as a check and balance to Trump and congressional Republicans.

That’s compared with 28 percent who say their vote will be a message for more Republicans to help Trump and congressional Republicans pass their agenda. Another 22 percent said their vote would be a different message than either of those two choices.

And the Republican advantage in GOP-held congressional districts has decreased from +14 in September (52 percent preferring a GOP-controlled Congress versus 38 percent preferring a Democratic-controlled Congress) to +6 in October (47 percent GOP, 41 percent Dem).

“This is a flashing yellow light for Republicans,” said McInturff, the GOP pollster.

The NBC/WSJ poll was conducted Oct. 23-26 of 900 adults, including nearly half of whom were reached by cell phone, and it has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.3 percentage points. The margin of error for the 753 registered voters interviewed in the poll is plus-minus 3.6 percentage points.

Let’s block ads! (Why?)

Puerto Rico Cancels Whitefish Energy Contract to Rebuild Power Lines – New York Times

Facing withering criticism from members of Congress and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the governor of Puerto Rico moved on Sunday to cancel a $300 million contract awarded to a small Montana company to rebuild part of the island’s battered power grid.

While government officials in Washington and San Juan have argued over how a company from Whitefish, Mont., with connections to the secretary of the interior but only two full-time employees secured an emergency contract that requires the work of thousands of people, the majority of Puerto Rico is still without electricity, nearly six weeks after Hurricane Maria knocked down thousands of poles and lines.

Some stores, medical centers, restaurants and a fortunate few private residences are running on generators, but most of the island’s 3.4 million people are plunged into darkness after sunset.

The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, known as Prepa, is generating just 30 percent of its normal output, the government said. The power grid is in such bad shape that the power authority is not able to say exactly how many of its customers are without power. The authority has estimated that repairs will cost at least $1 billion.

Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló announced on Sunday that he had decided to ask the power authority’s board — which he appoints — to cancel the contract with Whitefish Energy Holdings, two days after FEMA issued a strongly worded statement criticizing the deal. FEMA said it had “significant concerns” and warned that it might refuse to cover the costs of the contract if it was found to be improper.

Mr. Rosselló said he had asked for a federal investigation of the contract award process, and for the power authority to appoint a trustee to review contract bidding. He stressed that no wrongdoing had been discovered, but he said that the contract had become a “distraction” and that attention had to be refocused on restoring service.

“I am making this determination because it is in the best interest of the people of Puerto Rico,” Mr. Rosselló said at a news conference.

The contract had been attracting intense scrutiny in Washington. The House Committee on Natural Resources, which oversees Puerto Rican affairs, sent a letter on Thursday to the power authority demanding all records connected to the contract. That same day, the inspector general’s office at the Department of Homeland Security said it was investigating. Mr. Rosselló also ordered an audit of the contract, and the board that Congress created to oversee Puerto Rico’s financial affairs asked a federal court to appoint a new manager to supervise the utility.

The chief executive of the power authority, Ricardo Ramos, defended the contract, which he awarded. But he said on Sunday that he understood the governor’s decision to cancel it because negative publicity and politics on the mainland had made the situation untenable.

Mr. Ramos said Whitefish had recently requested security protection because people had started throwing rocks and bottles at the company’s crews on the island, in the belief that the contract had been awarded corruptly.

“If you are in your house without power, and there’s a sense that the energy authority gave away $300 million to a company that had or did not have experience, the reaction is not positive, and we’re seeing that,” Mr. Ramos said.

Democrats on the mainland and opposition politicians in Puerto Rico questioned the deal and were alarmed to see that the company’s chief executive, Andy Techmanski, came from the same small town in Montana as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. In an interview shortly after securing the contract, Mr. Techmanski told a local news station that he had been in touch with Mr. Zinke, whose son worked for Whitefish last summer, for “more resources.”

Both the Department of the Interior and Mr. Techmanski denied any impropriety in connection with the contract.

When the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, raised questions about the contract, the company fired back on Twitter, suggesting that it could withdraw its crews from her city. The company later apologized.

In a statement on Friday, FEMA said it had not confirmed whether prices listed in the contract between Whitefish and the power authority were reasonable. Mr. Ramos said the prices were in line with what other companies had requested.

In an interview on Thursday, Mr. Ramos said he had not heard of Whitefish before September. “We checked them out on the internet,” he said. “There was a list of projects that they had done in the past, including with the Department of Energy. They showed a lot of experience in using helicopters to build transmission lines. On paper, they did have the experience necessary.”

Mr. Ramos had earlier said that Whitefish got the deal because it did not ask for a large payment up front. Other companies, wary of Prepa’s bankruptcy, had demanded hefty sums, he said. The power authority had also been in talks with another company, PowerSecure.

Mr. Ramos said on Sunday that the contract was being canceled because attention had shifted from managing a humanitarian crisis to “managing reputations.” “That’s risky,” he said. “I want to clarify that the cancellation of this contract does not mean there was anything outside the law, or out of the ordinary.”

He said the power authority had already paid Whitefish almost $10 million and would have to reimburse the company for the cost of moving helicopters, trucks and other equipment to Puerto Rico, and now for returning them to the United States. He said that work that was already in progress would be completed.

Mr. Ramos said he would send a letter to the electric company board asking for a resolution formally ending the contract, and that the board would meet Monday or Tuesday to address the matter. The cancellation would take effect 30 days after a resolution is adopted.

Whitefish said in a statement on Sunday that it was “very disappointed” at the cancellation. “The decision will only delay what the people of Puerto Rico want and deserve — to have the power restored quickly in the same manner their fellow citizens on the mainland experience after a natural disaster,” the statement said. “We will certainly finish any work that Prepa wants us to complete, and stand by our commitments, knowing that we made an important contribution to the restoration of the power grid since our arrival on the island on Oct. 2.”

The company said it had already finished work on two major transmission lines, significantly speeding up the restoration of power to the city of Manatí and to parts of San Juan.

In interviews this month, Mr. Techmanski said he had flown to Puerto Rico before the contract was signed with Prepa on a “leap of faith,” and that his company’s ability to mobilize quickly was vital to winning the contract.

Asked this month how such a small company could manage such a big job, Mr. Ramos of Prepa said, “Every company is small at some point in time.”

Criticism was also targeted at the Army Corps of Engineers, which was given responsibility by the Trump administration for restoring power in Puerto Rico and had no involvement in the Whitefish deal. Governor Rosselló said he was led to believe that the Corps would restore power throughout the island within 40 days, but that it has just seven engineering crews on the island.

“Everyone has their role here, and the Corps of Engineers, honestly, has not played its role,” Mr. Rosselló said. “The Corps contracted two companies, and those companies are in the process of subcontracting. This does not have the sense of urgency that it should have.”

Mr. Rosselló said the governors of New York and Florida had now agreed to send utility crews to Puerto Rico. Such mutual aid arrangements are common after emergencies, and are usually invoked immediately. But the power authority has said it did not seek that kind of aid after the hurricane because having the Army Corps of Engineers do the restoration work would have spared it from paying anything.

José E. Sánchez, the head of the Corps’s energy restoration task force, defended its work in a statement. “We understand the frustration by the governor of Puerto Rico, and realize the importance of restoring power as quickly as possible,” Mr. Sánchez said. “We continue to expedite the delivery of crews, material and equipment to the island in support of this urgent effort. We will not be satisfied until the people of Puerto Rico have safe and reliable power.”

Christina Caron and Waldemar Serrano Burgos contributed reporting.

Let’s block ads! (Why?)

2 Navy SEALs Under Suspicion in Strangling of Green Beret in Mali – New York Times

Advertisement

WASHINGTON — Navy criminal authorities are investigating whether two members of the elite SEAL Team 6 strangled an Army Green Beret in June while on a secret assignment in Mali, military officials say.

Staff Sgt. Logan J. Melgar, a 34-year-old veteran of two tours in Afghanistan, was found dead on June 4 in the embassy housing he shared in the Malian capital, Bamako, with a few other Special Operations forces assigned to the West African nation to help with training and counterterrorism missions.

His killing is the latest violent death under mysterious circumstances for American troops on little-known missions in that region of Africa. Four American soldiers were killed in an ambush this month in neighboring Niger while conducting what was initially described as a reconnaissance patrol but was later changed to supporting a much more dangerous counterterrorism mission against Islamic militants in the area.

The Navy SEALs’ potential involvement also raised the prospect of a highly unusual killing of an American soldier by fellow troops, and threatened to stain SEAL Team 6, the famed counterterrorism unit that carried out the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

Sergeant Melgar’s superiors in Stuttgart, Germany, almost immediately suspected foul play, and dispatched an investigating officer to the scene within 24 hours, military officials said. Agents from the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command arrived soon after and spent months on the case before handing it off last month to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.

No one has been charged in Sergeant Melgar’s death, which a military medical examiner ruled to be “a homicide by asphyxiation,” or strangulation, said three military officials briefed on the autopsy results. The two Navy SEALs, who have not been identified, were flown out of Mali shortly after the episode and were placed on administrative leave.

The biggest unanswered question is why Sergeant Melgar was killed. “N.C.I.S. does not discuss the details of ongoing investigations,” Ed Buice, the agency’s spokesman, said in an email, confirming that his service had taken over the case on Sept. 25.

Neither the Army nor the military’s Africa Command issued a statement about Sergeant Melgar’s death, not even after investigators changed their description of the two SEALs from “witnesses” to “persons of interest,” meaning the authorities were trying to determine what the commandos knew about the death and if they were involved.

The uncertainty has left soldiers in the tight-knit Green Beret community to speculate wildly about any number of possible motives, from whether it was a personal dispute among housemates gone horribly wrong to whether Sergeant Melgar had stumbled upon some illicit activity the SEALs were involved in, and they silenced him, according to interviews with troops and their families. Other officials briefed on the inquiry said they had heard no suggestion that the Navy commandos had been doing anything illegal.

When contacted separately by telephone on Saturday, Sergeant Melgar’s widow, Michelle, and his brother, Shawn, declined to comment.

Lawmakers have criticized top officers and Pentagon officials for offering a shifting timeline of the events in the Niger attack, and for failing to respond with timely, accurate information about the American military’s role on the continent at a time when President Trump has loosened restrictions on the armed forces to intensify attacks against the Islamic State and Al Qaeda around the world.

Sergeant Melgar, a graduate of Texas Tech University who joined the Army in 2012, was assigned to the 3rd Special Forces Group, based at Fort Bragg, N.C., the same unit whose soldiers were attacked by a much larger and heavily armed group of Islamic State fighters near the border between Niger and Mali on Oct. 4.

According to military officials, Sergeant Melgar was part of a small team in Bamako assigned to help provide intelligence about Islamic militancies in Mali to the United States ambassador there, Paul A. Folmsbee, to protect American personnel against attacks. The sergeant also helped assess which Malian Army troops might be trained and equipped to build a counterterrorism force.

Sergeant Melgar, a native of Lubbock, Tex., was about four months into what military officials said was a six-month tour in Mali, and was living with three other American Special Operations troops in a house provided by the American Embassy.

Staff Sgt. Logan J. MelgarCredit

Two of those housemates were members of the Navy’s SEAL Team 6, which has over the past decade carried out kill-or-capture missions in Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, as well as the one that killed bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in 2011.

According to two senior American military officials, the two SEAL commandos were in Mali at the request of Mr. Folmsbee in a previously undisclosed and highly unusual clandestine mission to support French and Malian counterterrorism forces battling Al Qaeda’s branch in North and West Africa, known as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, as well as smaller cells aligned with Al Qaeda or the Islamic State. The Americans helped provide intelligence for missions, and had participated in at least two such operations in Mali this year before Sergeant Melgar’s death.

Much is unknown about what happened around 5 a.m. on June 4 in the team house. The initial reports to Sergeant Melgar’s superiors in Germany said he had been injured while wrestling or grappling with the two Navy commandos, according to three officials who have been briefed on the investigation.

According to one version of events, one of the SEALs put Sergeant Melgar in a chokehold. When the sergeant passed out, the commandos frantically tried to revive him. Failing that, they rushed him to an emergency clinic, where he was pronounced dead.

Spokesmen for the Africa Command, the Special Operations Command, the Defense Department and the Army and Navy investigative services declined to comment, citing the continuing investigation, or did not respond to emails and phone calls on Sunday.

A spokesman for the State Department’s Africa Bureau and Mr. Folmsbee, Nicholas A. Sadoski, directed all questions to the Pentagon. Mr. Sadoski declined to answer questions about what kind of oversight the ambassador exercised over the American military personnel in Mali, how frequently was he briefed on Special Operations missions there and when he learned about Sergeant Melgar’s death.

Why American Special Operations forces are in Mali at all is a story in a nutshell of the American military’s successes and failures in Africa.

Mali had been one of West Africa’s most stable nations before 2012, and was held up by the Pentagon as a model partner in combating Islamic militants. But when secular Tuareg separatists began an uprising, as they had done in the past, insurgents linked to Al Qaeda took advantage of the deteriorating security situation.

When the militants surged across Mali’s northern desert in 2012, American-trained commanders of the country’s elite army units defected at a critical time, taking troops, trucks, weapons and their newfound skills to the enemy. A confidential internal review completed by the Africa Command after the debacle concluded that there were critical gaps in the American training for Malian troops and senior officers.

With Mali’s army in collapse, the rebels were pushed out by French and Chadian troops early in 2013, and the United Nations established a peacekeeping mission. But the chaos continues today. Various armed insurgents regularly attack Malian forces and the United Nations peacekeepers. To date, 149 peacekeepers have been killed in Mali, making it one of the most dangerous peacekeeping missions in the world.

And terrorists continue to mount deadly attacks, including an assault in June on a resort outside Bamako that killed at least five people.

For the 3rd Special Forces Group, the past year has served as a reminder that Africa remains a dangerous assignment. In addition to Sergeant Melgar and the four soldiers killed in Niger, one soldier committed suicide in Kenya last October and another died in a vehicle accident while on patrol in Niger in February.

Those who knew Sergeant Melgar described him as a soldier’s soldier — he deployed to Afghanistan twice on training missions between July 2014 and February 2016, according to his Army service record — and a devoted father of two sons, 13 and 15, who texted and talked via Skype multiple times a day with his wife while serving overseas.

More than four months later, his death still has many at Fort Bragg and in Lubbock reeling. An online community bulletin board in Lubbock stated: “A Melgar family representative shared that ‘Staff Sgt. Melgar did what most only dream of and excelled at every turn! His life was epic! He is missed dearly every single day.’”

Sergeant Melgar was also honored at the high school he attended in Wolfforth, Tex., Frenship High, during the homecoming football game on Oct. 6.

A final tribute awaits Sergeant Melgar: He is scheduled to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery on Nov. 20.

Adam Goldman contributed reporting. Kitty Bennett contributed research.

Advertisement

Let’s block ads! (Why?)

Seahawks knock off Texans in 41-38 thriller – NBCSports.com

AP

Most of the focus heading into Sunday’s game between the Texans and the Seahawks was on how the Texans players would show their displeasure with team owner Bob McNair’s comments about letting “inmates run the prison” during recent league meetings to discuss the national anthem and player protests.

The majority of Texans players knelt during the national anthem, following through on a vow to have a unified demonstartion of their feelings. They then got up and played as exciting a game as the league has seen all year.

The game was tied at 21 at halftime and there were five lead changes in the second half, culminating in Russell Wilson hitting Jimmy Graham for an 18-yard touchdown with 21 seconds left to play. Wilson’s fourth touchdown pass of the night made the score 41-38 and Deshaun Watson couldn’t engineer any more magic on a day that saw him throw four touchdowns of his own. Richard Sherman picked off a deep ball, Watson’s third interception of the game, with seven seconds left and the Seahawks had a fourth straight win.

Wilson set up Graham’s score with long completions to Tyler Lockett and Paul Richardson on his way to completing 26-of-41 passes for 452 yards.

Watson was 19-of-30 for 402 yards and four touchdowns while also running eight times for 67 yards. The Texans opted to run Lamar Miller on three straight plays after the two minute warning, however, and the Seahawks were able to force a punt. That Texans drive came after cornerback Marcus Williams read an out pattern all the way and picked off Russell Wilson on the Houston 7-yard-line with just under three minutes left in the game.

Watson’s next-to-last pass of the afternoon came on the previous offensive possession and didn’t go far in the air, but it turned into a big play all the same when DeAndre Hopkins turned a screen into a 72-yard touchdown. That score wiped out the lead the Seahawks took on a Jimmy Graham touchdown that came less than a minute before Hopkins went the distance and continued a huge day for the Texans’ top wideout.

Hopkins skipped practice Friday as a result of McNair’s comments, but didn’t look like he missed a beat once the game started as he caught eight passes for 224 yards in the loss. Richardson and Lockett combined for 12 catches for 226 yards to pace an offense that got three rushing yards from players who weren’t Wilson. That would be a major stumbling block in many games, but it was barely a speed bump for the Seahawks thanks to the fireworks that Wilson provided through the air.

Let’s block ads! (Why?)