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►  Steve Bannon: Chris Christie didn’t get a Cabinet position because he didn’t show up for ‘Billy Bush weekend’

Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, said Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey missed out on a Cabinet nomination because of his failure to support the president after the October 7 release of the “Access Hollywood” tape, in which Trump was recorded boasting about grabbing women in a private conversation with the show’s host, Billy Bush.

“Christie, because of Billy Bush weekend, was not looked at for a Cabinet position,“ Bannon said in an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes,“ a preview of which was released Friday.

“He wasn’t there for you on Billy Bush weekend, so therefore he doesn’t get a Cabinet position?“ said Charlie Rose, the “60 Minutes” host.

“I told him: ‘The plane leaves at 11 o’clock in the morning. If you’re on the plane, you’re on the team,‘“ Bannon said. “Didn’t make the plane.“

While Democrats and Republicans alike predicted the tape would deal a fatal blow to Trump’s campaign, Bannon insists he predicted Trump’s supporters would forgive the remarks, which he characterized as “locker room talk,“ and told the president he had a “100% probability of winning.“

For Bannon, who managed the last few months of Trump’s campaign, the response of Trump supporters to the tape was a test of loyalty.

“Billy Bush Saturday showed me who really had Donald Trump’s back to play to his better angels,“ Bannon told Rose. “All you had to do, and what he did, was go out and continue to talk to the American people … People didn’t care. They knew Donald Trump was just doing locker room talk with a guy. And they dismissed it. It had no lasting impact on the campaign.“

►  The case for Trump-Russia collusion: We’re getting very, very close

We now know the motives. In backing Donald Trump, Russia’s oligarchical class sought not only to disrupt U.S. politics but also to reverse sanctions, both those applied in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and those connected to the Magnitsky Act, which targeted officials involved in human rights violations. In seeking Russian support, Trump sought not only to become president but also to make money: Even as he launched his presidential campaign, he hoped to receive a major influx of money from a proposed Trump Tower in Moscow.

Along with the motives, we know the methods. As The New York Times has just graphically demonstrated, professional Russian Internet trolls, probably operating out of St. Petersburg, set up hundreds of fake Facebook and Twitter accounts during the election campaign. The trolls then posted thousands of fake stories, memes and slogans, supported anti-Clinton hashtags and narratives, and linked back to DCLeaks, the website that posted emails that Russian hackers stole from the Clinton campaign. The emails “revealed” by that hack were utterly banal. But the fake operatives said they contained “hidden truths,“ hinted that they were part of a secret “Soros” operation, after liberal financier George Soros, and persuaded people to click. This is a method Russian operatives had used before. Previous elections, in Poland and Ukraine, demonstrated that stolen material - any stolen material - can be used to foment conspiracy theories that never die.

We know what happened next: The fake stories, memes and slogans moved from the network of Russian-sponsored “American” accounts into the networks of real Americans. Some, such as “pizzagate,“ the theory that Hillary Clinton was part of a pedophile ring being run out of Washington pizza parlor, got a lot of attention. Others, such as the theory that Barack Obama founded the Islamic State, or the theory that the Google search engine was working on Clinton’s behalf, got less attention but were notable for another reason: They were not only promoted on the fake Russian network, which bought advertising in order to push them further, but also were promoted on open Russian news networks, including the Sputnik English-language news services. Afterwards, they were repeated, also openly, by candidate Trump.

Now here is a piece of the story that we don’t know: How did the Russians behind the fake “American” accounts know which real Americans would be most excited to read conspiracy theories on Facebook? How did they know how to target their ads? Perhaps they just got lucky. Perhaps they just happened upon broad networks of people who were willing to click on their conspiracy theories and pass them on. Or perhaps they had some help. Certainly the Trump campaign had this kind of information - recently, one of Trump’s online campaign managers bragged to the BBC about their ability to “target” on Facebook and elsewhere.

Here is another piece we don’t know: How did Trump happen to use the same conspiracy theories that were proliferating on Russian media, both real and fake? Again, this could be coincidence. Or, again, there could have been coordination. Messages tested by Russian trolls might have been passed on to the Trump campaign - or vice versa.

I still believe, as I’ve been writing for months, that Trump’s sympathy for Russian President Vladimir Putin, a cynicial and vicious dictator, should, by itself, have eliminated him from U.S. politics. Nothing else that we will ever learn about him makes him more unqualified to be president of the United States.

But for those who want something more, do be aware that circumstantial evidence of Russian collusion with his campaign is already available. And direct evidence is getting very, very close.

►  Donald Trump Jr. is in special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s cross hairs

The discovery of Donald Trump Jr.‘s controversial meeting with Russians in June 2016 has turned up the existence of interesting phone calls the president’s son had with a Russian go-between after getting an invitation to meet on opposition research they supposedly had on Hillary Clinton. The Post reports:

“The emails that originated the meeting came to Trump Jr. from a publicist named Rob Goldstone. One of Goldstone’s clients was a performer named Emin Agalarov, who is also the vice president of a development company in Moscow that partnered with the Trump Organization in 2013 for the Miss Universe pageant in that city. . . .

“We know that Trump Jr. has proven to be consistently uninterested in offering a full explanation of the events surrounding that meeting until it has become unavoidable for him to do so. We know that perhaps the only record of the phone calls with Agalarov that might exist are records of the calls’ duration, which Trump Jr. has now included in his statement before those records are subpoenaed. We know that Trump Jr. only agreed to the meeting after those calls occurred.

“The evidence at hand strongly suggests that Agalarov and Trump Jr. spoke. If they did, that call almost certainly involved Agalarov explaining to Trump Jr. why the meeting was worth his time. Agalarov, to some extent, sold the president’s son on taking the meeting.“

Donald Trump Jr. and his attorney - echoed by some credulous reporting - insist he did not “collude” with Russians. “Colluding” is not a crime or even a legal term. If you consider consulting with a Russian go-between, agreeing to take a meeting offered with the promise to get dirt on Clinton, and a series of misleading and incomplete statements explaining the meeting to be evidence of “collusion” and a guilty mindset, you are not alone.

The June meeting has become the point at which two strands of the special prosecutor Robert S. Mueller’s investigation came together.

First, we have whether Trump’s team was cooperating - “colluding,“ if you will - with Russians in order to obtain help in defeating Clinton. With the reports this week that Facebook sold $100,000 worth of advertising to a “Russian bot farm” that spread anti-Clinton propaganda, one wonders if they were able to pull all that off and time the WikiLeaks disclosure with no help whatsoever from anyone on the Trump team. That’s possible, but it would be remarkable. (The Post reports, “Even though the ad spending from Russia is tiny relative to overall campaign costs, the report from Facebook that a Russian firm was able to target political messages is likely to fuel pointed questions from investigators about whether the Russians received guidance from people in the United States - a question some Democrats have been asking for months.“)

The second strand of Mueller’s investigation concerns the possible obstruction of justice. Trump asking former FBI director James Comey to lay off Michael T. Flynn; subsequently firing Comey; cooking up a false story to explain Comey’s firing; leaving out meetings with Russians from testimony (in the case of Attorney General Jeff Sessions) and submissions for a security clearance (in the case of Jared Kushner); sending out people like Mike Pence to vouch for the phony reason for Comey’s firing; trying to affect Comey’s testimony by lying about the existence of tapes; cooking up a fake story about President Barack Obama wiretapping Trump Tower (to throw investigators off the trail); and creating a misleading narrative to explain the June 2016 meeting all go into the “obstruction” box. And once again, we see Mueller hot on the trail. CNN reports:

“Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team has approached the White House about interviewing staffers who were aboard Air Force One when the initial misleading statement about Donald Trump Jr.‘s meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower was crafted, three sources familiar with the conversations said.

“The special counsel’s discussions with the White House are the latest indication that Mueller’s investigators are interested in the response to the Trump Tower meeting. Mueller wants to know how the statement aboard Air Force One was put together, whether information was intentionally left out and who was involved, two of the sources said.“

Oddly, Donald Trump Jr. in his Thursday interview under oath with staff of the Senate Judiciary Committee reportedly could not remember the details of how that statement was put together. That’s hard to take at face value given the importance of the issue, the reported intervention of the president and how recent were the events in question (May of this year). Saying “I don’t remember” when one does remember would be false testimony under oath.

In sum, the June 2016 meeting has become the focal point, at least for now, of investigation into possible cooperation between the Russians and the Trump campaign and into obstruction of that investigation, which if Donald Trump Jr. testified falsely, continues to the present. And let’s not forget that both of those lines of inquiry require investigation of Trump’s finances. (As a former U.S. attorney explained, “These financial relationships are relevant to the Russia investigation because they may speak to Trump or his associates’ motive or opportunity to collude, or else provide evidence of collusion.“) The American people need not worry that Mueller will leave any stone unturned.

►  Mueller looks to interview six former or current Trump aides in Russia probe

Special counsel Robert Mueller has alerted the White House that his team will likely seek to interview six top current and former advisers to Donald Trump who were witnesses to several episodes relevant to the investigation of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, according to people familiar with the request.

Mueller’s interest in the aides, including trusted adviser Hope Hicks, ex-press secretary Sean Spicer and former chief of staff Reince Priebus, reflects how the probe that has dogged Trump’s presidency is starting to penetrate a closer circle of aides around the president.

Each of the six advisers was privy to important internal discussions that have drawn the interest of Mueller’s investigators, including his decision in May to fire FBI Director James Comey and the White House’s initial inaction following warnings that then-national security adviser Michael Flynn had withheld information from the public about his private discussions in December with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, according to people familiar with the probe.

The advisers are also connected to a series of internal documents that Mueller’s investigators have asked the White House to produce, according to people familiar with the special counsel’s inquiry.

Roughly four weeks ago, the special counsel’s team provided the White House with the names of the first group of current and former Trump advisers and aides that investigators expect to question.

In addition to Priebus, Spicer and Hicks, Mueller has notified the White House he will likely seek to question White House counsel Don McGahn, and one of his deputies, James Burnham. Mueller’s office has also told the White House that investigators may want to interview Josh Raffel, a White House spokesman who works closely with Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner.

White House officials are expecting that Mueller will seek additional interviews, possibly with family members, including Kushner, who is a West Wing senior adviser, according to the people familiar with Mueller’s inquiry.

Spicer declined to comment, while Priebus did not respond to a request for comment.

Ty Cobb, a White House lawyer focused on the probe, declined to comment on behalf of current White House aides McGahn, Burnham, Hicks and Raffel. Cobb also declined to discuss the details of Mueller’s requests.

“Out of respect for the special counsel and his process and so we don’t interfere with that in any way, the White House doesn’t comment on specific requests for documents and potential witnesses,“ Cobb said.

A spokesman for Mueller declined to comment.

No interviews have been scheduled, people familiar with the requests said. Mueller’s team is waiting to first review the documents, which the White House has been working to turn over for the last three weeks.

But people familiar with the probe said the documents Mueller has requested strongly suggest the topics that he and his investigators would broach with the aides.

McGahn and Burnham were briefed by Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates on January 26, days after Trump’s inauguration, about the department and FBI’s concerns that Flynn could be compromised by the Russians. She warned that the FBI knew he wasn’t telling the whole truth - to Mike Pence and the public - about his December conversations about U.S. sanctions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

Courts have held that the president does not enjoy attorney-client privilege with lawyers in the White House Counsel’s Office and their testimony about their Oval Office dealings can be sought in investigations.

Spicer had been drawn into the White House’s handling of the Flynn matter before the inauguration. After The Washington Post reported that Flynn had talked with Kislyak about sanctions, Spicer told reporters that Flynn had “reached out to” Kislyak on Christmas Day to extend holiday greetings - effectively rejecting claims that they had talked about U.S. sanctions against Moscow. A few days later, President Barack Obama had announced he was expelling Russian diplomats in response to the Kremlin’s meddling in the U.S. election.

After Obama’s announcement, Spicer said Kislyak had sent a message requesting that Flynn call him.

“Flynn took that call,“ Spicer said. But he stressed that the call “centered on the logistics of setting up a call with the president of Russia and [Trump] after the election.“

As chief of staff, Priebus was involved in many of Trump’s decisions, including the situations involving Flynn and Comey. Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee in June that Priebus was among a group of White House aides whom Trump instructed to leave the Oval Office before he asked the FBI director to drop the inquiry into Flynn.

Hicks, who is now White House communications director, and Raffel were both involved in internal discussions in July over how to respond to questions about a Trump Tower meeting that Donald Trump Jr. organized with a Russian lawyer during the presidential campaign in the summer of 2016. The two communications staffers advocated being transparent about the purpose of the meeting, which Trump Jr. had accepted after he was offered damaging information about Hillary Clinton that he was told was part of a Russian government effort to help his father’s campaign.

Ultimately, the president dictated language for the statement that his son would release to The New York Times, which was preparing a story about the meeting. The response omitted important details about the meeting and presented it as “primarily” devoted to a discussion of the adoption of Russian children.

CNN first reported on Thursday that Mueller has sought interviews with White House staff related to the preparation of that statement but did not name them.

►  Democrats on rise after cutting funding deal with Trump

Congressional Democrats are getting a boost after months of playing political defense. And they have Donald Trump in part to thank for it.

Democratic leaders in the House and Senate cut a deal with Trump to provide hurricane relief, money to keep the government open, and increase the debt limit for the next few months. Although the deal undermines Republicans, it could portend an era of broad bipartisan cooperation.

For the moment, the agreement gives the Democrats plenty of clout. When Congress revisits those must-pass issues in December, Trump and GOP leaders will need Democratic votes. That would open the door to possible Republican concessions on protecting young immigrants from deportation, bolstering President Barack Obama’s health care statute and other issues.

►  U.S., Russia diplomats look to calm tensions in talks

U.S. and Russian envoys are to meet in Finland this coming week in a bid to calm diplomatic tensions that have risen to levels of the Cold War.

The State Department’s third-ranking official, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon, will meet on Monday and Tuesday with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov. Shannon and Ryabkov have held several rounds of talks this year focused on resolving irritants in U.S.-Russian relations, such as the tit-for-tat closures of diplomatic missions and expulsion of diplomats. They’re expected to address broader strategic relations and arms control as well.

On August 31, in response to an order from Moscow to reduce the U.S. diplomatic presence in Russia by several hundred people, the U.S. ordered Russia to close its consulate in San Francisco and two annexes in Washington and New York. Those actions followed the U.S seizure of two Russian compounds in Maryland and New York and the expulsion of dozens of Russian diplomats in retaliation for Moscow’s alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who are expected to meet this month in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, charged Shannon and Ryabkov earlier this year with exploring ways to resolve bilateral disputes that are hindering broader cooperation on strategic and security issues, such as the war in Syria and the conflict in Ukraine.

Among the top complaints from Washington: the harassment of American government personnel in Russia, a Russian ban on adoptions of children by U.S. families, and Moscow’s halting of plans to construct a new U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg. Russia’s complaints include U.S. sanctions imposed after its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and the seizure of its properties.

Two earlier rounds of talks between Shannon and Ryabkov ended inconclusively.

The State Department announced the new talks Saturday and said Shannon will also meet Finnish President Sauli Niinisto and other Finnish officials while in Helsinki.

►  In book, Clinton admits mistakes, casts blame for 2016 loss

In a candid and pointed new book, Hillary Clinton relives her stunning defeat to Donald Trump, admitting to personal mistakes and defending campaign strategy even as her return to the stage refocuses attention on a race Democrats still can’t believe they lost.

Clinton is unsparing in her criticism of Trump and also lays out some of the factors she believes contributed to her loss: interference from Russian hackers, accusations leveled at her by former FBI Director James Comey, a divisive primary battle with Bernie Sanders, even her gender. She also addresses common criticisms of her campaign, including the idea that she didn’t have a compelling narrative for seeking the presidency and that she ignored Midwestern turf where Trump picked up enough white working-class voters to win several battleground states.

“Some critics have said that everything hinged on me not campaigning enough in the Midwest,” Clinton writes in the book “What Happened.” ″And I suppose it is possible that a few more trips to Saginaw or a few more ads on the air in Waukesha could have tipped a couple of thousand voters here or there.”

“But let’s set the record straight: we always knew that the industrial Midwest was crucial to our success, just as it had been for Democrats for decades, and contrary to the popular narrative, we didn’t ignore those states,” she wrote.

Clinton already is taking some criticism — complete with mockery from late-night television hosts — for planning book-tour stops in the Great Lakes and Midwestern states that ultimately cost her the election. But she writes that her campaign had more staff and spent more on advertising in both Michigan and Pennsylvania, two states she lost, than President Barack Obama did when he won them in 2012.

She acknowledges that “if there’s one place where we were caught by surprise, it was Wisconsin,” saying that polls showed her ahead until the end. But while she did not visit the state in the fall, she noted that her surrogates blanketed the state.

In Wisconsin, Democratic pollster Paul Maslin called it a “bitter irony” that Clinton is now trying to reach voters — or consumers — in states he believes her campaign mostly ignored. But he said it’s ultimately a side show from a has-been.

“Let her do whatever she’s going to do for whatever reason she’s doing it, but it doesn’t matter. There’s just so much else happening every day with Trump,” Maslin said. He said he hopes Clinton understands that “most Democrats are beyond” blaming her for November. “For her sake, I hope she can sell enough books, but if she thinks she’s affecting the debate in any way, I think she’s more delusional than anyone thought.”

Clinton’s anger is most sharply focused on Comey. She said that all of the theories about why she lost need “to be tested against the evidence that I was winning until October 28, when Jim Comey injected emails back into the election.”

She called her use of a private email server while serving at the State Department “dumb” but accused Comey of tarnishing her image and called him “rash” for publicly re-opening the probe in the campaign’s final days. She also owns up to other mistakes, saying her comment about putting coal miners out of business was the mistake “I regret the most” and that her paid speeches to Wall Street banks were bad “optics.”

Many Democrats have viewed Clinton’s return to the spotlight with trepidation, fearing it could trigger another round of infighting over the future of the party between her more centrist supporters and Sanders’ progressives.

Michigan Democratic Chairman Brandon Dillon, whose state Clinton lost by about 10,000 votes, said Clinton’s book can help Democrats try to “learn the right lessons from 2016.” But he said Democrats and other activists on the left should avoid using Clinton’s re-emergence to rehash 2016.

“There’s a clear difference between all Democrats and any of the Republicans. That’s what we should be focusing on,” Dillon said.

In a recent interview, Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon argued that history will render a favorable verdict on Clinton and her approach to Trump.

“All of these things she tried to warn people about that were a theoretical concern ... now it’s real,” said Fallon. “He’s the president.”

In the book, obtained by The Associated Press ahead of its release date, Clinton is unsparing in her assessment of the president, calling him “a clear and present danger to the country and the world.” She says she considered saying to Trump: “Back up, you creep. Get away from me” when he loomed over her shoulder during a general election debate.

But Clinton, who has a reputation for avoiding blame for her failures, said she takes “responsibility for all” of her campaign’s mistakes.

“You can blame the data, blame the message, blame anything you want—but I was the candidate,” she writes. “It was my campaign. Those were my decisions.”

She also expressed frustration over what she felt was unfair media coverage.

“What makes me such a lightning rod for fury? I’m really asking. I’m at a loss,” she asks her readers, before concluding: “I think it’s partly because I’m a woman.”

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