Huawei executive skirted sanctions on Iran, court told

This story is being published by POLITICO as part of a content partnership with the South China Morning Post. It originally appeared on scmp.com on Dec. 7, 2018.

Sabrina Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies, fraudulently represented the company in order to get around U.S. and EU sanctions on Iran, a packed courtroom in Vancouver, Canada, heard on Friday.

Meng, a daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, was in British Columbia Supreme Court for a bail hearing on fraud charges. The hearing ended without a decision and will continue on Monday.

The U.S. is also seeking to extradite Meng in relation to Huawei’s alleged use of an unofficial subsidiary, Skycom, to skirt the sanctions, a lawyer representing the Canadian government said.

Meng was arrested at Vancouver International Airport on December 1 as she changed planes and has been detained ever since.

Meng entered courtroom 20 for her bail hearing dressed in a green tracksuit, smiling and laughing as she conferred with her Vancouver lawyer, David J. Martin.

About 100 journalists filled the high-security room, which was constructed to try terrorists involved in the 1985 bombing of an Air India flight from Toronto to Delhi, and is surrounded by bulletproof glass. Some of Huawei’s team, apparently made up of executives and lawyers, had reserved 20 seats in the public gallery, said lawyer Sarah Leamon as she tried to move journalists out of the way.

Scott Bradley, a senior vice-president of Huawei who was seated in the public gallery, declined to comment on the case. A man wearing an enamel Chinese flag pin, who was seated prominently among the Huawei team, also declined to comment.

The Canadian government’s lawyer, John Gibb-Carsley, told the court that the U.S. sought Meng on “fraud offenses” involving U.S. and EU sanctions against Iran.

Between 2009 and 2014, Huawei used an unofficial subsidiary, Skycom, to conduct business in Iran, Gibb-Carsley said, telling the court: “This was the crux of the fraud.”

In 2013, Meng “personally represented to banks that Skycom and Huawei were separate” the lawyer said, after the banks became aware that Skycom was doing business in Iran.

An arrest warrant was issued for Meng by a New York judge on August 27, 2018, seeking her to stand trial for fraud. Gibb-Carsley described the U.S. becoming aware last month that Meng would soon be transiting through Canada, on her way from Hong Kong to Mexico.

On November 30, a Canadian judge agreed to a U.S. request that Meng be arrested, and on December 1 she was detained at Vancouver’s airport as she changed planes, said Gibb-Carsley.

There had been doubt over whether Meng’s alleged breach of U.S. and EU sanctions amounted to a Canadian offense, something required for extradition.

But Gibb-Carsley said the alleged efforts to deceive financial institutions about the nature of Huawei’s relationship with Skycom amounted to the Canadian offense of fraud.

“Meng deceived financial institutions and in so doing put their pecuniary and financial interests at risk,” he said.

Gibb-Carsley said Meng engaged in an “extensive pattern of dishonesty,” as he opposed bail, citing her supposed flight risk. Meng had access to “a vast amount of resources” and had “no meaningful connection” to Canada, he said.

He also said that she faces multiple charges, each of which carries a maximum penalty of up to 30 years in prison. “There is an incentive to flee,” he said.

Ren, Huawei’s founder and Meng’s father, is worth $3.2 billion, said Gibb-Carsley, citing the U.S. request for extradition. As he argued against releasing Meng, he seemingly acknowledged that her husband, who went unnamed but was later identified by the surname Liu, was living in Canada.

He dismissed the idea that the “surety [against Meng fleeing] is her husband … but he’s not a jailer in the community” and said that while Meng owns “two very expensive family homes” in Vancouver, “that is not a meaningful connection to this jurisdiction.”

The lawyer drew laughter from the gallery when he compared the defense’s request for bail of C$1 million (U.S. $752,400), compared to her father’s billions, saying “we are not in the same universe.”

Meng had demonstrated that she was avoiding travel to the United States, even though she had a 16-year-old son going to school in Boston, said Gibb-Carsely.

Between 2014 and early 2017, Meng travelled frequently to the U.S., he said. But U.S. authorities say that in April 2017 she became aware of the investigation, when U.S.-based Huawei executives were served as part of a grand jury probe. She had not visited America since then, he said.

Following a 15-minute break, defense lawyer Martin told the judge that Meng should be granted bail because “you can rely on her personal dignity,” adding: “You can trust her.”

Were Meng to breach a court order it would “humiliate and embarrass her father, whom she loves,” said Martin. “She would embarrass China itself,” he added.

Martin clarified that Meng’s potential surety, in addition to cash bail, could include her two homes in Vancouver, worth about C$14 million (U.S. $10.5 million) combined.

He also portrayed the U.S. extradition request as incomplete, saying: “We don’t have a charge — the U.S. has not identified an indictment in this material.”

He said there were “glaring deficiencies” in the timelines offered by the U.S. about Meng’s alleged deceptions, and that Meng had been “very open” that Huawei had once owned Skycom, and that she had once sat on the board of directors, but that it had been sold in 2009.

Martin said that the bank that was allegedly deceived by Meng about Huawei’s Iran dealings was “Hong Kong Bank,” which he called “the largest bank in the world.” He subsequently identified it as HSBC, which is the world’s seventh biggest bank by total assets and sixth by market capitalization.

The idea that a 2013 PowerPoint presentation to HSBC by Meng — which the U.S. claimed represented fraud — could have induced the bank to provide improper financial services “is preposterous,” Martin said, telling the court that the evidence presented by the U.S. that Huawei had secret control over Skycom did not include the crucial element of timing.

Martin derided evidence that Huawei maintained control over Skycom, supposedly revealed in corporate stationery shared by the companies and in Huawei email addresses once used by Skycom executives.

“Lots of people have logos of Apple on their documents,” he said. “That doesn’t mean they are Apple.”

He said Meng had told bank executives that Huawei had done everything possible to maintain compliance in its dealings with Iran, and that nothing provided to Iranian customers differed from products typically shared with other customers around the world.

Martin, identifying HSBC as the bank in question, also said, “if there is an alleged conspiracy [involving Meng and a financial institution] then I ask rhetorically, why has that company not been charged?”

He also rejected the notion that Meng had been deliberately avoiding the U.S. to dodge arrest. He said instead that her travel plans were largely dictated by the U.S.-China trade war.

”An entity would have to be tone deaf to not understand that the U.S. had become a hostile place for Huawei to do business,” he told the court. Huawei’s business had thus wound down in the U.S. and there was little reason for her to travel there, he said.

Martin provided details of Meng’s private life, citing an affidavit in which she said she and her second husband, surnamed Liu, had a 10-year-old daughter.

She also has three sons from a previous marriage, he said. One, who is 14 lives in Hong Kong; another, 16, is studying at Andover, near Boston in Massachusetts; and Meng has a 20-year-old son who works as computer engineer.

Reading from Meng’s affidavit, Martin quoted her as saying, “For some period of time I was a permanent resident of Canada.” This had expired in 2009, said Martin, but Meng retained extensive links to Canada and Vancouver, something that should weigh in her favor in seeking bail.

Two of her children had undergone part of their schooling in Vancouver, the affidavit said, and Meng still spent two or three weeks in the city every year.

Meng’s affidavit said she had two passports, one from China and the other from Hong Kong, which was used to enter Canada on Saturday and has been seized. “I will surrender both my passports,” said Meng in her sworn statement, in supporting her pursuit of bail.

The defense lawyer also said that Meng was unsuited to incarceration, citing a “carcinoma problem” as well as a blood pressure condition.

Martin emphasized the size of Huawei, saying it had gross revenue in 2017 of $19.2 billion, and gross profit of $7 billion. “Business in Iran is marginal to this enterprise,” he said.

The firm held a special place in the Chinese business world, and Meng would not imperil that by fleeing if granted bail, Martin said.

”Her father would not recognize her,” he said. Her colleagues would hold her in contempt. she would be a pariah.”

Martin tendered as a character reference a letter from the headmaster of a private school in Massachusetts that was attended by one of her sons. Meng was “a person of the highest professional and moral standards,” the letter said.

The evidence concerning Meng’s arrest, and the reasons for it, had previously been subject to a publication ban issued at her request. However, that was lifted as the first order of business at the hearing on Friday morning.

Martin did not oppose the lifting of the measure by Justice William Ehrcke, saying “the horse has left the barn.” The lifting had been sought by a lawyer for various media organizations.

Despite the court's lifting of the publication ban, the U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment or provide any details about the order for Meng's extradition.

Meng’s arrest, which only became public knowledge on Wednesday, triggered an outcry from China, which demanded an explanation. Beijing has lodged protests with both Ottawa and Washington.

The situation has reverberated among investors and U.S. multinational companies concerned about potential repercussion their executives in China might face in response to Meng’s arrest.

Asked by the South China Morning Post on Friday whether China would retaliate against foreign business executives in China, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said that China “has always protected the legitimate rights and interests of foreign nationals in China and they should obey Chinese laws [when they are in China].”

On Friday, the Trump administration's top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, said that American firms should not alter their business operations. “I wouldn't stop business or disrupt business just on the basis of Huawei,” Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council, told CNBC.

Instead, Kudlow suggested that American companies that have dealings with China should play a role in advocating on the U.S. government's behalf as it confronts Beijing on trade and technology issues.

“If I were they, I would try to help us with all the Chinese officials regarding these trade talks and trade openings, and tariff reduction, non-tariff barriers of course the technology issues,” he said. “So they should join us.”

On Thursday, U.S. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, a national security hawk on China, tweeted: “If Huawei has been helping violate US sanctions by transferring US technology to Iran they should be barred from operating in the US or from purchasing US technology.”

Such a ban would hurt Huawei, due to the highly interconnected supply chain between Chinese telecoms and their U.S. component makers in the U.S. Huawei buys from various U.S. companies, including Qualcomm, as it develops its 5G technology.

Just this spring, another Chinese telecom equipment giant, ZTE, tripped over supply chain issues, when the U.S. Commerce Department said it had failed to make good on vows to punish employees involved in unsanctioned sales to Iran and North Korea. The department imposed a seven-year ban on sales by U.S. companies to ZTE, a move that led ZTE to shutter its main operations within weeks.

After Chinese President Xi Jinping asked U.S. President Donald Trump to intervene, the ban was rescinded and ZTE instead agreed to pay a fine of up to $1.4 billion, replace its board and install a U.S. compliance officer. But the ban was a wake-up call for China to realise that even its largest telecoms firms could barely survive without U.S. suppliers.

The tech-heavy Nasdaq composite index has lost more than 6 percent since Monday’s close, partly as a result of concern that Meng’s arrest will derail talks between Washington and Beijing aimed at resolving a bilateral trade war that started in July.

The case continues.

Owen Churchill and Jodi Xu Klein contributed to this report.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Wild theories and empty seats at CPAC-style conference for the MAGA set

At the first-ever Conservative Political Action Conference in 1974, California Gov. Ronald Reagan addressed a ragtag group of conservative insurgents by quoting John Stuart Mill and nobly declaring, “We are indeed, and we are today, the last best hope of man on earth.”

At the first-ever American Priority Conference on Friday morning, Anthony Scaramucci — who served a brief stint as the Trump White House’s communications director — addressed a married couple from Virginia, telling them that the author of the fantastical Internet conspiracy theory QAnon has “been dead accurate about so many things,” adding: “When you find out who he is, you’re not going to believe it.”

American Priority, which brings together an impressive roster of right-wing social media agitators and Trump world notables at a Washington, D.C., hotel, was envisioned as a Trumpist answer to CPAC. In reality, the three-day conference, which convened on Thursday, has been rife with conspiracy theorists, logistical snafus and empty seats.

It may also be the future of Republican politics.

“The right’s turning into a coalition and less of an ideological movement,” said conference co-founder Ali Alexander, a Republican operative and Twitter influence. Rather than organize around belief in the tenets of conservatism — like free markets and traditional family values — American Priority seeks to united anyone who supports American nationalism and opposes establishment elites. In practice, this means supporters of President Donald Trump.

To that end, the conference, which runs through Saturday, brings together top current and former Trump lieutenants with the sort of controversial social media figures from whom mainstream conservatives are often eager to distance themselves.

On Monday, intellectual dark web philosopher Stefan Molyneux, who often sounds off on race and IQ, tweeted a sort of white identity origin myth, writing, “My ancestors were driven out of Africa and struggled to survive winter and hunger. ... Now the Africans say we are ‘privileged’ & thieves.”

This weekend, Molyneux shares a spot on the conference agenda with Scaramucci as well as former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, former deputy campaign manager David Bossie and Katrina Pierson, a senior adviser to Trump’s reelection campaign.

The invitation of figures such as Molyneux was not an organizational oversight so much as it was part of the conference’s intended goal of defying pressure to expel fringe elements from pro-Trump politics. “It’s a reflection of the real movement,” Alexander said. “Damn the media optics.”

The event was held at the Marriott Wardman Park in Woodley Park, which has hosted several past CPAC conferences. In recent years, that conference has morphed from a modest gathering of misfits into a slick extravaganza with 10,000-plus attendees and is a must-attend event for aspiring Republican presidential candidates now held at a resort in National Harbor, Md.

The ascendance of Trump — who bolstered his political credibility with several CPAC appearances in the years before his presidential run — has forced CPAC to make compromises to accommodate a Republican leader who cares little for the tenets of movement conservatism. This year, the event hosted the far-right French nationalist Marion Le Pen, a Trump-style populist and niece of National Front leader Marine. The invitation horrified movement conservatives like Jonah Goldberg, an editor at National Review, who engaged in a Twitter spat with CPAC organizer Matt Schlapp over the invitation.

Despite such accommodations, CPAC, which is put on by the American Conservative Union, has balked at some of Trump’s most controversial supporters. Last year, it canceled a planned appearance by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos after an old recording surfaced in which he spoke favorably of pederasty. This year, CPAC yanked Jim Hoft, publisher of the conspiracy-minded pro-Trump news site The Gateway Pundit, from a panel after he attacked a Parkland shooting survivor.

“You have conservatives who are acting like leftists,” said Laura Loomer, an American Priority speaker and social media provocateur, of CPAC’s organizers. “They care more about optics.”

Such banishments, Loomer, said, highlighted a need for “a less elitist form of CPAC.”

American Priority was created in part to fill that role and to foster American nationalism. In addition to its high-profile speakers, the conference featured talks on marijuana, broadband access, Internet censorship and homelessness.

But some topics remained out of bounds. Dustin Nemos, an amateur conspiracy theorist, said conference organizers pulled his speaking slot after discovering he was a devotee of QAnon.

Despite being pushed off the official agenda, QAnon remained a fixation of many conference attendees. Even Trump’s former White House communications director praised the preposterous theory, which holds that special counsel Robert Mueller and Trump, working together in secret, have drawn up 50,000 sealed indictments of powerful pedophiles in order to thwart a deep state coup by Soros, the Clintons and former President Barack Obama.

At “coffee with Mooch” on Friday morning, the former White House communications director, seemingly unaware of the presence of a nearby reporter, spoke glowingly of the theory as a couple from Stafford, Va., showed him their “Q” paraphernalia. (Q is the otherwise anonymous author of the QAnon theory.)

Approached immediately afterward by POLITICO, Scaramucci said his comments were not referring to Q and instead referred to an earlier conversation he had had with the couple about who would succeed John Kelly as Trump’s chief of staff. Then Scaramucci said that his comments should be taken off the record and a conference organizer said the event was closed to the press.

Moments later in the room next door, Kathy Miroy, 58, and her husband, Steve, 66, said they had not spoken earlier to Scaramucci about Kelly or about anything else. “He’s talking about Q,” Kathy Miroy confirmed.

As leaders in the amorphous, social media-driven MAGA phenomenon continue to experiment with the traditional tools of movement-building, they sometimes wield them ineptly, and the conference agenda was often overshadowed by logistical failures.

Other MAGA gatherings, like last January’s DeploraBall inaugural celebration, attracted large crowds and intense media coverage.

Despite the convergence of several figures with large, devoted social media followings — including Molyneux, Loomer, right-wing agitator Mike Cernovich and dirty trickster Roger Stone — attendance at this weekend’s conference was sparse.

On Thursday, speakers mostly addressed two- to three-dozen attendees amid a sea of hundreds of empty chairs in a ballroom.

When Stone spoke on Thursday afternoon — condemning Mueller and defending his “iconic” 2016 tweet predicting imminent catastrophe for John Podesta — actual conference attendees were nearly outnumbered by members of the media hungry for any morsel of Mueller news, most of whom dispersed after Stone left, having offered none.

Just days after Loomer attracted worldwide attention by handcuffing herself to Twitter’s headquarters in protest of her banishment from the platform — a setback she has compared to the Holocaust — she spoke to a nearly empty room. After a reporter for The Daily Beast tweeted a photo highlighting the low attendance, Loomer commiserated in the hallway with a conference attendee about “retarded” left-wing reporters and also complained about “self-loathing Jew” George Soros.

Conference participants mostly blamed their problems on the poor planning of conference organizers. “If you’re going to ask people to expend resources to attend the conference, you should ensure the conference will be well-attended,” said Molyneux, who decided to ditch his planned Thursday speaking appearance after seeing how few people were present.

Organizers did little to market the event in advance. Participants also questioned the decision to open the conference on a Thursday. Many events started hours late or did not happen at all.

Conference organizer Alex Philips, whose background is in the Internet service provider business, acknowledged the event’s shortcomings and declined to disclose the number of people who had purchased tickets, which started at $165. He said he plans to hold the conference again in Washington and in cities across the country for many years to come.

Despite the mishaps, participants expressed hope that American Priority would hit its stride in future years.

And they were looking forward to Saturday, when former Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos is scheduled to show up for an interview, fresh off his release from prison on Friday after serving 12 days for lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Nick Ayers is Trump's next chief of staff — unless his enemies can stop him

For the past month, Nick Ayers has been a White House chief of staff in waiting.

President Donald Trump informally offered Ayers a job as his top aide during a private huddle at an election night party in the White House residence last month. Several White House staff and advisers were within earshot and overheard the conversation, which included First Lady Melania Trump, and its details were described to POLITICO by two people briefed on them.

It seemed like a done deal, except for one complication: The position wasn’t open yet. John Kelly was still hanging on to the job, however tenuously. White House officials now believe that will finally change, saying they expect Kelly to exit any day now.

That would seem to clear the way for Ayers. But the lag time allowed a month-long lobbying campaign both for and against the 36-year-old Ayers, currently Vice President Mike Pence’s top aide. Ayers' detractors — who consider him nakedly ambitious and untrustworthy — have lobbied Trump against following through on the offer. Some top White House aides have even threatened to resign if he does not.

"People are threatened by Nick's age and his reputation as this young political savant," said one former White House official. “He has the endorsements of Jared [Kushner], Ivanka [Trump], and Pence, but not a lot of fans beyond that. That's not to say the majority of the West Wing will empty out, but there are a few staffers who will leave because of him.”

As a result, it is unclear whether Trump’s offer still stands, although White House officials say that no clear alternative has emerged.

Ayers’ boosters say he would be a perfect antidote to the political challenges of the next two years, including House Democratic investigations and a coming 2020 election campaign.

“The problem with Kelly is you just can’t have the least the least political person in Washington holding the most political job in Washington. You need a bona fide Machiavellian killer. That is what the president needs by his side over the next two years,” said a second former White House official in describing Ayers.

One White House official said he did not believe the Ayers opposition would sway the president, noting that Trump has a strong desire to install a more politically-minded aide as his chief of staff ahead of the 2020 reelection campaign.

Alex Conant, who worked alongside Ayers during Tim Pawlenty’s failed 2012 presidential bid, praised Ayers on Friday as a results-oriented operative. (Ayers, who ran Pawlenty’s campaign, was later criticized for his management.)

“If President Trump hires him, I expect it is because Nick is someone who runs a tight ship and will manage a team to get the results the boss wants,” said Conant, now a partner at the firm Firehouse Strategies. “He’ll be able to avoid some of the mistakes Kelly and [former chief of staff Reince] Priebus made. He also knows a ton of politicians, given the breadth of his experience over the last 15 years — not to mention, he is very popular with the donor class. Even though he is young, he brings a lot of to any institution.”

In recent days, the internal conversation inside the White House has shifted to the best way to grant Kelly a graceful exit. This comes just five months after Trump and Kelly assured staffers that Kelly would remain in place through the 2020 campaign – a claim that few aides and advisers believed at the time.

White House officials are hoping that Kelly will be able to resign instead of being fired by tweet. First Lady Melania Trump has been urging the president not to fire a four-star general but instead allow him to leave on his own terms. Her spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment.

Until then, both White House aides and close allies call Ayers the frontrunner to take his place, even as they stress that no Trump decision is final until the president himself announces it, and that an informal job offer isn’t ironclad. In the meantime, Trump — who likes to beta-test his personnel decisons —has been asking confidants their opinions about Ayers since July.

Ayers did not respond to a request for comment.

Longtime Trump observers and allies also stress that any incoming chief of staff is unlikely to fundamentally change a gut-driven president who bridles at efforts to control him.

“A chief of staff for Donald Trump is a factotum and will have virtually no influence,” said Tony Schwartz, who wrote the 1987 book “The Art of the Deal” with Trump. “Trump’s chief of staff is Trump and always will be.”

Asked if he’s aware of any past adviser throughout Trump’s business career who was able to wrangle him, Schwartz said simply, “No and not even close.”

Part of Ayers’ ascension inside the West Wing comes from his own savviness, political instincts, and his close relationship with the Trump family, but part comes from the fact that there are few other viable candidates, especially as Trump continues to pursue a major personnel shake-up before the holidays.

“I think he gets it by default,” said a third former White House official about Ayers. “There’s nobody that’s really a good fit.”

The former official said Ayers has a number of potential deficiencies, including little knowledge of policy – though that may not matter amid a divided government.

Inside the White House, Ayers has built his relationship with the president by frequently attending Trump’s weekly private lunches with the vice president, in which Ayers, Kelly, and Pence typically are the president’s only guests. He also forged his relationship with the Trump children during the hectic 2016 campaign, during which he acted as an outside adviser and consultant before becoming the vice president’s chief-of-staff in July 2017.

A few other names have popped up as potential candidates for chief-of-staff including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin who also enjoys a close relationship with the Trump kids. Mnuchin, however, has told friends that he is content running the Treasury Department.

The outstanding question is whether any chief-of-staff can effectively work inside the Trump administration, in which the president prefers to always run the show.

Kelly did the best he could, said Leon Panetta, the former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, but “a fundamental problem is that he is dealing with a president who resists any kind of discipline and that means as chief of staff you’re constantly in a reactive mode and having to do constant repair work.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Mueller: Manafort lied about contacts with Trump administration

Special counsel Robert Mueller said Friday that Paul Manafort breached the terms of his guilty plea by repeatedly lying to prosecutors about his contacts with the Trump administration, bringing the longtime GOP operative’s problems directly into the Trump White House.

Mueller’s charges against Manafort had until now largely focused on events before the longtime lobbyist linked up with Trump’s presidential campaign as its chairman.

But while the crimes he’s charged with still stick to that period, Friday’s filing indicated Manafort has been questioned at length since his plea agreement about his communications with the current administration. The revelation raises questions about who exactly Manafort communicated with in Trump's government.

Mueller’s prosecutors in the 10-page filing claimed Manafort lied about his contacts — directly or indirectly — with Trump administration officials after pleading guilty to several charges in September and agreeing to cooperate with the Russia probe. Citing Manafort’s electronic communications, Mueller’s team said Manafort was indeed in touch with Trump aides, including a May 26, 2018, text exchange authorizing “a person to speak with an administration official on Manafort’s behalf.”

Separately, the special counsel accused Manafort of communicating with another Trump senior administration official through February 2018 despite telling Mueller’s office he had no such contacts.

“Manafort told multiple discernible lies — these were not instances of mere memory lapses,” the Mueller prosecutors wrote in the filing.

Despite the clear references in Mueller’s filing to the Trump administration, the White House immediately claimed vindication after the document was released.

Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the filing "says absolutely nothing about the President. It says even less about collusion and is devoted almost entirely to lobbying-related issues. Once again the media is trying to create a story where there isn’t one.”

Mueller’s court filing reveals for the first time that Manafort met with the special counsel’s prosecutors and the FBI 12 times since he agreed on Sept. 14 to cooperate with federal prosecutors in exchange for a guilty plea. Mueller also said Manafort testified twice to the grand jury — on Oct. 26 and again on Nov. 2.

The special counsel is also accusing Manafort of lying about his interactions with Konstantin Kilimnik, a longtime aide alleged to have ties to Russian intelligence who has been charged in the special counsel’s wide-ranging investigation.

The filing said Manafort provided false information about several aspects of his relationship with Kilimnik, a Russian-Ukrainian citizen who served as Manafort’s key representative on the ground in Ukraine during a series of political campaigns there where Manafort served as a highly-paid consultant.

Kilimnik was alluded to repeatedly in various court submissions by Mueller after Manafort was hit with his first federal indictment in October 2017 on charges including failing to register as a foreign agent and money laundering. In June of this year, prosecutors formally indicted Kilimnik as part of the case, charging him with obstruction of justice for allegedly working with Manafort to persuade two potential witnesses to provide testimony more favorable to Manafort’s defense.

But Kilimnik has never been taken into custody and is believed to be in Russia.

The new Mueller filing paints Manafort’s admissions about Kilimnik as grudging and often wavering. Prosecutors say that after admitting in court to conspiring with Kilimnik to procure false testimony, Manafort reversed course during debriefings and said he didn’t, then reversed himself again and admitted he did.

Much of the part of the submission about Kilimnik was blacked-out from the publicly-released version, but it appears Manafort sought to minimize the number and import of his contacts with Kilimnik, then retreated when confronted with contrary evidence. Prosecutors also accused Manafort of having “lied repeatedly” about his account of Kilimnik’s meeting with a particular individual or individuals, who are not identified in the public filing.

In another passage, there's a curious reference to Manafort providing information to investigators prior to pleading guilty about a separate Justice Department investigation “in another district," though it redacted any details about the case. The filing said Manafort tried to change his story about the subject after pleading guilty, but reverted after his lawyers showed him notes from the earlier session.

As part of Manafort’s sentencing, Mueller’s team said it’s prepared to prove its allegations “through documentary evidence and witness testimony at a hearing.”

Manafort’s lawyers last week pushed back against Mueller’s claims about a breach in their plea agreement breach, telling the federal judge in Washington, D.C., presiding over the case that their client “believes he has provided truthful information.”

Lawyers for the lobbyist and international political consultant declined comment on Friday in the wake of the latest Mueller memo explaining the inconsistencies. They have their own deadline Wednesday to submit an official response to the court about the special counsel’s newest filing.

Mueller’s Manafort memo comes at the end of an explosive week for his nearly 19-month old Russia probe as the special counsel signals interest in wrapping up at least some of his most high-profile efforts.

Earlier Friday, Mueller and federal prosecutors in New York released a separate filing that revealed former Trump personal lawyer Michael Cohen conferred with Trump about arranging a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the early stages of the 2016 campaign. They also recommended Cohen serve a sentence of just shy of four years in the wake of his guilty pleas for lying to Congress, tax fraud and campaign finance violations.

On Tuesday, Mueller issued a report praising Michael Flynn, the former Trump national security adviser, for his cooperation in the Russia investigation and recommended he get little or no jail time.

For his part, Trump has continued to rail against the Mueller effort. On Friday alone, the president lashed out seven times on Twitter with missives criticizing the Russia investigation, calling out the special counsel’s office for “big time” conflicts of interest and directly attacking Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein as “totally conflicted.”

Mueller’s filing on Manafort comes as the 69-year-old lobbyist was already facing the possibility of a decade or more in prison before his case hit a snag with the allegations of lying after his plea deal. Legal experts say Manafort is now likely looking at an even more severe prison sentence.

“Paul Manafort should go to the commissary and purchase about 15 toothbrushes because he will need them for the time he’s going to spend in prison for the rest of his life,” said Gene Rossi, a former assistant U.S. attorney from Northern Virginia.

But the former Trump campaign aide’s situation also looks ripe to draw the president’s interest and the possibility of a politically explosive pardon. In an interview with the New York Post last month, Trump left open that prospect. “I wouldn’t take it off the table,” the president said.

Manafort has been jailed since June for alleged witness tampering. But his ultimate fate will be determined at a pair of important hearings coming up early next year.

On February 8, U.S. District Court Judge T.S Ellis III in Northern Virginia is scheduled to sentence Manafort for his conviction on eight felony counts of bank and tax fraud. U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson in Washington, D.C., has also scheduled a March 5 hearing to sentence Manafort.

Mueller had initially been preparing for a second jury trial against Manafort on seven felony counts, including money laundering, failing to register as a foreign agent and making false statements to federal investigators. But Manafort struck a last-minute plea deal admitting to those allegations in return for the special counsel whittling down his case to just two counts: conspiracy against the U.S. and conspiracy to obstruct justice.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Man who drove into Charlottesville counterprotesters is convicted of first-degree murder

A man who drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters at a white nationalist rally in Virginia was convicted Friday of first-degree murder for killing a woman in an attack that inflamed long-simmering racial and political tensions across the country.

A state jury rejected arguments that James Alex Fields Jr. acted in self-defense during a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017. Jurors also convicted Fields of eight other charges, including aggravated malicious wounding and hit and run.

Fields, 21, drove to Virginia from his home in Maumee, Ohio, to support the white nationalists. As a large group of counterprotesters marched through Charlottesville singing and laughing, he stopped his car, backed up, then sped into the crowd, according to testimony from witnesses and video surveillance shown to jurors.

Prosecutors told the jury that Fields was angry after witnessing violent clashes between the two sides earlier in the day. The violence prompted police to shut down the rally before it even officially began.

Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal and civil rights activist, was killed, and nearly three dozen others were injured. The trial featured emotional testimony from survivors who described devastating injuries and long, complicated recoveries.

The far-right rally had been organized in part to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Hundreds of Ku Klux Klan members, neo-Nazis and other white nationalists — emboldened by the election of President Donald Trump — streamed into the college town for one of the largest gatherings of white supremacists in a decade. Some dressed in battle gear.

Afterward, Trump inflamed tensions even further when he said “both sides” were to blame, a comment some saw as a refusal to condemn racism.

According to one of his former teachers, Fields was known in high school for being fascinated with Nazism and idolizing Adolf Hitler. Jurors were shown a text message he sent to his mother days before the rally that included an image of the notorious German dictator. When his mother pleaded with him to be careful, he replied: “we’re not the one (sic) who need to be careful.”

During one of two recorded phone calls Fields made to his mother from jail in the months after he was arrested, he told her he had been mobbed “by a violent group of terrorists” at the rally. In another, Fields referred to the mother of the woman who was killed as a “communist” and “one of those anti-white supremacists.”

Prosecutors also showed jurors a meme Fields posted on Instagram three months before the rally in which bodies are shown being thrown into the air after a car hits a crowd of people identified as protesters. He posted the meme publicly to his Instagram page and sent a similar image as a private message to a friend in May 2017.

But Fields’ lawyers told the jury that he drove into the crowd on the day of the rally because he feared for his life and was “scared to death” by earlier violence he had witnessed. A video of Fields being interrogated after the crash showed him sobbing and hyperventilating after he was told a woman had died and others were seriously injured.

The jury will reconvene Monday to determine a sentence. Under the law, jurors can recommend from 20 years to life in prison.

Fields is eligible for the death penalty if convicted of separate federal hate crime charges. No trial has been scheduled yet.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Comey: Trump's attacks on Justice Department 'deeply troubling'

Former FBI director James Comey on Friday called President Donald Trump's attacks against the Justice Department "deeply troubling" and said Americans on both sides of the aisle should continue to call out the president's insults.

"The president's attacks on the Justice Department broadly and the FBI are something that, no matter what political party you're in, you should find deeply troubling and continue to speak out about it, not become numb to attacks on the rule of law," Comey told reporters after closed-door testimony with House Republicans, who are investigating what they view as possible FBI malfeasance during the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

The president early Friday morning sent a flurry of tweets criticizing special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe and current Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Comey also drew the ire of Trump, who claimed the former FBI director and the special counsel had a conflict of interest because they had a prior relationship.

Comey's comments also came after the president announced he was tapping William Barr, who served as attorney general during the George H.W. Bush administration, to resume his old post. Comey praised the president's decision to nominate Barr, saying "he cares deeply about the integrity of the Justice Department."

Trump has long criticized Mueller's investigation, labeling it a "witch hunt." He also criticized his former attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for recusing himself from the Russia probe.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


'Damaged goods': Alleged fraud has GOP bracing for loss of N.C. seat

Dan McCready had just returned home from a trip to Disney World with his wife and four kids when he received the news: The North Carolina Board of Elections declined to certify his narrow election loss, and his campaign for the House — which he had conceded weeks earlier — wasn’t over.

Now, with a special election in response to alleged voter fraud looking increasingly likely, the ex-Marine is scrambling to reassemble his campaign. And McCready, who’s currently trailing Republican victor Mark Harris by 905 votes, would have the inside track, political operatives from both parties say.

The race would undoubtedly become a national spectacle, commanding attention not only because of the backdrop of potential election fraud, but because it would be the sole federal campaign occurring at the time. One Republican political consultant compared it to the special House election in Georgia in the summer of 2017, which drew tens of millions of dollars in outside spending and attracted a horde of national political reporters to the state.

“I think you’ll see that repeated here, if it happens,” said Carter Wrenn, citing the battle between Democrat Jon Ossoff and former GOP Rep. Karen Handel (R-Ga.), which broke a record as the most expensive House race ever. Handel won that election, only to lose her seat a year later in the midterms. “Like that one, this would be the only game in town.”

Privately, national and state Republicans acknowledged that Harris, who denied in a statement Friday that he had any knowledge of any illegal activity, would be a toxic candidate. Some Republicans in the state are holding out hope that Harris could be replaced on the ballot, which would require intervention from a Democrat-controlled House of Representatives. But if the state board votes to rerun the election, the only way for Harris to be removed from the ballot would be if he moved out of state, according to Gerry Cohen, who formerly served as special counsel to the North Carolina General Assembly.

“Harris is damaged goods,” said a North Carolina Republican operative, granted anonymity to candidly discuss internal party discussions. “How is he going to be able to raise many money after all of this?”

Harris, for his part, said in a video statement on Friday he would “wholeheartedly support” a new election if the state board finds illegal activity that “could’ve changed the outcome of the election.”

Democrats are quickly ramping up for a sequel. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has deployed a dozen aides and lawyers to the district and the campaign has resumed daily campaign conference calls. They’re also sorting out with lawyers how to raise money under these circumstances, and at the same time calling staffers and volunteers back into action.

“They’ve got to bring the band back together,” said Morgan Jackson, a Democratic strategist in the state who’s informally advising the McCready team.

It won’t be easy. Many of McCready’s campaign staffers had dispersed before the election fraud news broke. Some departed for New York and Washington, while another aide is traveling around South America. One staffer who had just moved home for the holidays hopped back into his U-Haul to return to Charlotte for a possible rematch.

McCready withdrew his concession on Thursday, calling the allegations over absentee ballot collection “shameful criminal activity, bankrolled by my opponent, to take away North Carolinians’ right to vote.” And the state board will meet in the coming days for an evidentiary hearing, which state operatives expect to result in a special election.

“It’s contingent on that hearing, but that’s the expectation,” said Brad Crone, a North Carolina-based consultant who has worked with Democrats and Republicans. “And McCready will start with the competitive advantage.”

A McCready win would add one more House seat to Democrats’ 40-seat gain in November. This Charlotte-based seat mirrors other districts — a mix of urban and rural counties — that Democrats were able to flip throughout the country, driven by a distaste for President Donald Trump among unaffiliated and moderate voters in suburban communities. Trump won the district by 12 points in 2016.

The potential fraud centers on an independent contractor hired by the Harris campaign who’s been accused of collecting and illegally returning hundreds of voters’ absentee ballots.

Initially, the North Carolina Democratic Party took the lead in fighting for an investigation into allegations of election fraud into two rural counties, Bladen and Robeson. The party filed a half-dozen affidavits from voters in the area, who described handing over their ballots, some of them incomplete, to people who said they were assigned to pick up ballots in the area.

Those affidavits also cast Leslie McCrae Dowless, a local political operative in Bladen County, as a central figure in a mail-in ballot harvesting operation, sending people door-to-door to illegally collect ballots from voters.

A Harris campaign consultant, Andy Yates, told The Charlotte Observer earlier this week that they hired Dowless, who was convicted of felony fraud in 1992, to work on “grassroots for the campaign.” Dowless denied any wrongdoing to the Observer.

But an analysis by Catawba College’s J. Michael Bitzer also raised questions about the absentee ballot results in both the 2018 primary and the general election. Bitzer pointed to McCready’s lopsided victory amongst absentee ballots in seven of the eight counties that comprise the 9th District, except in Bladen County. Harris won 61 percent of the mail-in ballots there, even though registered Republicans accounted for 19 percent of the counties accepted absent ballots.

Democrats in the state said they expect the “the fraud investigation and the conduct of the Harris campaign” to be a “big part” of any special election messaging, Jackson said. “Democrats, Republicans, unaffiliated voters have, every day, read in their newspapers and seen on their TVs that there are problems with cheating with Harris, so that inevitably gives McCready a leg up.”

“If, in fact, the board finds [Dowless] committed election fraud, then it’s quite natural that the next question is, ‘what did Harris know and when did he know it?’ Wrenn said. “How Harris answers that will determine a lot about any special election.”

Some Republicans in the state are holding out hope that Harris could be replaced on the ballot. But if the state board votes to rerun the election, the only way for Harris to be removed from the ballot would be if he moved out of state.

Former Rep. Robert Pittenger, who Harris defeated in a May primary by 828 votes, has also suggested that illegal vote tampering occurred during the 2018 primary. But the only body that could call for an entirely new primary and general election is the House of Representatives.

On Thursday, Dallas Woodhouse, the North Carolina Republican Party executive director, echoed Harris’s support for a new election if the alleged fraud in the district “changed the race.” But Woodhouse had initially called for the board to immediately certify the election.

“I think they’re clearly preparing for a [special election] now,” Crone said, citing Woodhouse’s statement.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Michael Cohen should receive a 'substantial' prison sentence, prosecutors say

Prosecutors in New York hammered Michael Cohen on Friday, accusing President Donald Trump’s longtime personal lawyer of exaggerating his cooperation with investigators and recommending he receive "signficant" jail time.

Prosecutors with the U.S. attorney’s office for the region said Cohen overstated his cooperation with prosecutors and is seeking “extraordinary leniency ... based principally on his rose-colored view of the seriousness of his crimes.”

But in a separate filing from special counsel Robert Mueller submitted around the same time, Cohen was described as a "credible" collaborator who provided "useful" information for the ongoing probe into potential ties between the Trump campaign and Russian officials orchestrating a plot to influence the 2016 election.

The two filings — while starkly different in tone — both added new details to Cohen's two guilty pleas. In August, Trump's former fixer pleaded guilty in New York to bank fraud charges and facilitating the hush payments that went to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal. And last week, Cohen struck a plea deal with Mueller, admitting to lying to Congress about efforts to build a Trump Tower Moscow during the election.

Mueller's Friday filing praised Cohen for assisting his probe of Russian attempts to contact the Trump campaign but noted he refused to fully cooperate on related matters. Mueller’s team said Cohen should be charged concurrently with whatever sentence he receives in New York.

Mueller’s prosecutors noted that Cohen met with them seven times and was careful not to overstate his awareness of events related to the Russia probe. But they said his assistance proved used in “four significant respects.”

Cohen, they said, was able to share information about his own contacts with Russians during the campaign and his “discussions with others in the course of making those contacts.”

Cohen also helped with matters connected to the Trump Organization and Russia based on his “regular contact with Company executives during the campaign.”

Cohen also helped proved information on his contacts with “persons connected to the White House during the 2017-2018 time period.” And Cohen described the factors that led him to prepare a false statements to Congress about Trump’s effort during the 2016 election to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.

Cohen initially told lawmakers that discussions about the project ended just before the 2016 primaries began, but later conceded that the dealings extended until at least June 2016, when Trump had nearly secured the GOP nomination. Trump was kept in the loop the entire time, Cohen added.

But his help to Mueller appears to be of little value to prosecutors in New York seeking a jail sentence of multiple years.

The filing in the Southern District of New York paints a chilling picture of Cohen’s acknowledged crimes on the eve of the 2016 presidential election, saying that his efforts to hide Trump’s affairs “struck a blow to one of the core goals of the federal campaign finance laws: transparency.”

“While many Americans who desired a particular outcome to the election knocked on doors, toiled at phone banks, or found any number of other legal ways to make their voices heard, Cohen sought to influence the election from the shadows,” the New York-based prosecutors wrote.

“He did so by orchestrating secret and illegal payments to silence two women who otherwise would have made public their alleged extramarital affairs with [Trump]. In the process, Cohen deceived the voting public by hiding alleged facts that he believed would have had a substantial effect on the election,” they added.

The extent of Cohen's cooperation with Mueller and New York investigators was not known until his legal team submitted a sentencing filing last week that detailed repeated meetings with Mueller’s team to share information. The document also revealed that Cohen was cooperating with New York prosecutors on an investigation of the Trump Foundation, as well as on at least one other criminal matter. Based on this assistance, Cohen's lawyers said, their client should receive no jail time.

The details about Cohen’s cooperation with Mueller came just days before Mueller’s team also described receiving “substantial assistance” from former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty last year to lying to the FBI. According to court documents, Flynn met with prosecutors 19 times to discuss their various investigations.

Later on Friday, Mueller is also expected to reveal details of an aborted plea agreement with former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. The special counsel claimed Manafort repeatedly lied to investigators after striking the plea deal, in which the longtime GOP lobbyist agreed to cooperate with the ongoing Russia probe.

As the latest court documents dropped Friday, former FBI Director James Comey — a key figure in Mueller's probe of whether Trump obstructed justice by pressuring the bureau scale back its investigation — was testifying on Capitol Hill. A transcript of the closed-door session is expected to be released on Saturday.

See the full filing here: https://politi.co/2EidZhj

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


CBC pans move that could help Pelosi in speakership battle

An idea being floated to help Nancy Pelosi round up the final votes to become speaker is causing an uproar in the Congressional Black Caucus.

The California Democrat has personally been supportive of term limits for years but has never spent the political capital it would take to get them enacted. Such a move would certainly trigger the wrath of the CBC, which strongly opposes term limits on the grounds that they undermine minority members who spent years working to get to influential positions.

But Pelosi faces a tricky political calculation over whether it’s in her best interest to break her silence on the matter and fully endorse it as she looks to win the 218 votes needed to reclaim the speakership.

Incoming freshmen, some of whom are threatening to vote against her on the floor, want the change. And some Pelosi critics who were vowing to oppose her are considering supporting her for speaker if she endorses the idea, sources in that group told POLITICO.

“This is all about [Pelosi critic Rep. Ed] Perlmutter and trying to get a few of those other guys to vote for her,” said a senior Democratic staffer familiar with the internal debate. “She’s always sort of danced around it because she hasn’t wanted to open a full-frontal war with the Black Caucus.”

Pelosi’s allies pushed back on that notion and argued that the two issues — Pelosi’s speakership bid and the term limit discussions — are totally separate. To be sure, younger lawmakers have called for term limits on power for years.

Pelosi’s office has also denied that she made any sort of offer on term limits to Perlmutter for his support, though the Colorado Democrat told rebels trying to oust her that she did earlier this week.

Regardless, CBC lawmakers are trying to quash the suggestion all the same.

CBC Chairman Cedric Richmond said in a Friday interview that “it’s possible” Pelosi could lose more speakership votes than she’d gain by endorsing the proposal. And even South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, the incoming Majority Whip, said the topic is too sensitive to have this discussion in the middle of a heated battle over the speakership.

“I’m all willing for us to have that discussion and live by the decision that the caucus makes. But we ought not to make these kinds of decisions in the heat of a campaign” for speaker, Clyburn said.

The idea is expected to surface in a House Democratic Caucus meeting next week, though members will not vote on the matter since incoming freshmen will not be present. The CBC will also debate the matter next week and will likely come out in full opposition to it, Richmond predicted.

The outgoing CBC chair called the idea “a solution in search of a problem that doesn’t exist.” Rep. Gregory Meeks, a senior CBC member, suggested the proposal would specifically undercut black lawmakers who spent years waiting their turn to head committees under seniority rules. Black lawmakers are poised to lead five committees and nearly 30 subcommittees in the next Congress.

“To wait until we get the most diverse Congress ever and the most chairmanships ever?” he asked, aghast. “We’ve never had as many African-American chairs of full committees or subcommittees in our history than right now — so at this moment we’re going start talking about term limits?”

Clyburn agreed, musing that the idea would undercut minority lawmakers just when they’re on the cusp of assuming some of the most powerful positions in Congress: “If we are going to have term limits, if we are going to throw out the baby with the bath water, we ought to think about whether or not we’re doing the right thing, whether or not there’s going to be any unintended consequences in this,” he said.

Pelosi doesn’t currently have the votes to be speaker, though she’s certainly making headway. The Californian still needs to peel off several opponents and is searching for a way to do that using her well-oiled persuasion tactics or by leaning on outside groups close to her critics to make the case for her leadership.

Some members of the rebel group are open to the idea of backing Pelosi in exchange for term limits — though it is unclear how many. Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), who said he will vote against Pelosi on the floor, has argued for term limits for committee leaders in the past. Kind’s office didn’t return a request for comment, but other rebel sources confirmed that their own offices were interested in such a deal.

“The deal is definitely not done yet,” said a source close to the group. “This is a good starting point, but she would have to throw her full weight behind it in caucus.”

It’s unclear, however, if Pelosi is willing to do that. Following reports of her talk with Perlmutter, her spokesman Drew Hammill pushed back hard on the idea that she was floating some kind of term limits for support proposal. Then, Pelosi notably declined to endorse the idea fully during a press conference Thursday.

“That’s a matter before the caucus,” Pelosi said when asked about the idea. “I’ve always been sympathetic to the concerns that have been expressed by our members on that subject.”

Pelosi could back the proposal under the assumption that it would anger the CBC but not fully repel their support for her speakership. And that wouldn’t be an unfounded calculation: Meeks, for example, said confidently that “Nancy Pelosi will be the next speaker” when asked if the term limit idea would make black lawmakers pause and re-examine their support for her.

But it might not make sense for Pelosi to do that, especially if it doesn’t win her any support from rebel groups. For many of her critics, including Rep. Kathleen Rice and Tim Ryan, the term limits change won’t be enough.

Opponents of term limits such as Meeks say members should mount a challenge for chairmanships if they don’t like their committee leaders. But that idea doesn’t always match up with the reality of the Democratic Caucus, which has long placed a premium on seniority.

For instance, members privately grumbled for years that then-Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), in his late 80s, was no longer fit to be the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. It was an open secret that Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), now the incoming chairman, was doing much of the ranking member’s job but without the title.

Conyers was a founding member of the CBC and no other members were willing to risk the ire of the powerful group in order to try to oust him from the top of the committee. It wasn’t until Conyers, under siege after being accused by multiple women of sexual harassment last year, stepped down from the committee and retired from Congress that the panel’s top spot opened up.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Trump expected to tap Army chief as next Joint Chiefs chairman

President Donald Trump plans to nominate Army Gen. Mark Milley as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs, two former senior Army officers close to Milley confirmed, the first of several high-level military posts that will have to be filled next year.

Trump teased the decision Friday, saying he would make an announcement regarding the Joint Chiefs on Saturday at the annual Army-Navy football game.

"I have another one for tomorrow that I’m going to be announcing at the Army-Navy game," Trump said. "I can give you a little hint: It will have to do with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and succession."

The announcement is coming months earlier than expected, since current chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford still has nearly 10 months left in his term. Past chairmen have typically been nominated in the spring.

"General Milley is one of the nation's smartest strategic thinkers and he has thought very deeply about the future of warfare, which makes him a brilliant choice for chairman,” said Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation, who knows Milley well.

Milley’s selection was first reported by The New York Times, which said Trump met with Milley and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein two weeks ago. A military official confirmed to POLITICO that the president interviewed the two generals over dinner. “It went well for Milley and less well for Goldfein,” that officer said.

Trump may have liked the general’s aggressive and sometimes abrasive demeanor, said one of the two retired senior officers. “Trump and Mark Milley have a lot in common. They share some traits and I wonder if Trump didn’t see a bit of himself in Milley,” the retired officer said.

Trump also may have been impressed by Milley’s Ivy League résumé.

“Milley went to Princeton and the president admires degrees from institutions like that,” said Dan Green, a Navy reservist who wrote a dissertation on how defense secretaries and presidents choose Joint Chiefs chairmen. Green noted Trump’s own Ivy League affiliation as well as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s Harvard law degree.

Milley is a native of Massachusetts and played hockey at Princeton before entering the Army as an infantry officer. During nearly four decades on active duty, he joined Special Forces before returning to the infantry. He commanded a brigade during intense combat in Iraq in 2004-05, and has deployed repeatedly to Afghanistan. Milley helped establish that country's post-2001 army, and he later oversaw operations throughout the whole country.

The Army has pivoted from fighting insurgencies to preparing for a potential high-tech conflict with Russia or China during Milley’s tenure. In a major Army reorganization carried out over the past year, he established a new four-star command to oversee the Army's modernization of its weapons and doctrine.

But Milley has insisted that the Army retain its expertise in counterinsurgency operations rather than tossing it out, as it did after Vietnam. Among his personal projects during his term as chief of staff was the creation of a new set of combat adviser brigades to retain those skills while the rest of the force transitions to training for large-scale conventional war.

"As the father of a soldier, I thought he was a great chief and is a good pick for chairman," added a retired CIA officer who worked closely with Milley in Afghanistan. "He's a thoughtful guy but he's combat-oriented, and he's extraordinarily loyal, both upward and downward."

Milley has taken a different line from the administration on the ban on transgender troops that Trump proposed last year, saying in April that he had “received precisely zero reports of issues of cohesion, discipline, morale and all those sorts of things” due to the presence of transgender soldiers.

He will be the first chairman to serve a single four-year term rather than a two-year term with the possibility of second, a change made in the latest National Defense Authorization Act. Milley's nomination would have to be confirmed by the Senate.

The chairman’s seat is one of several top military jobs Trump will have to approve in the coming year. Vice Chairman Gen. Paul Selva, Marine Commandant Gen. Robert Neller and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson will all finish their terms in 2019, and Milley will have to be replaced as Army chief of staff.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine