11 U.S. troops injured in Iranian attack where Trump claimed none 'were harmed'

Eleven U.S. service members were injured during an Iranian missile strike last week against an Iraqi air base housing American troops, military officials confirmed late Thursday, despite the Trump administration’s previous assertion that no Americans were harmed in the assault by Tehran.

While no troops were killed in the strike on Iraq’s Al-Asad air base, “several were treated for concussion symptoms from the blast and are still being assessed,” U.S. Central Command spokesman Capt. Bill Urban said in a statement.

The statement breaks with with President Donald Trump’s claim that no U.S. troops were hurt after Iran launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles targeting the Al-Asad installation and another air base near Irbil in northern Iraq. Both bases were “hosting U.S. military and coalition personnel,” according to the Pentagon.

White House spokespeople did not immediately return a request for comment.

“I am pleased to inform you, the American people should be extremely grateful and happy. No Americans were harmed in last night's attack by the Iranian regime,” Trump said in a televised address to the nation, delivered from the White House in the immediate aftermath of the attack. “We suffered no casualties. All of our soldiers are safe, and only minimal damage was sustained at our military bases.”

But Urban said Thursday that following the attack, “out of an abundance of caution,” eight troops were transported from the Al-Asad air base to a medical center in Germany, and another three were transported to Kuwait “for follow-on screening.” He did not specify a timeline for their diagnosis and treatment beyond noting that the service members were transported to Germany and Kuwait "in the days following the attack."

“As a standard procedure, all personnel in the vicinity of a blast are screened for traumatic brain injury, and if deemed appropriate are transported to a higher level of care,” Urban explained.

“When deemed fit for duty, the service members are expected to return to Iraq following screening,” he added. “The health and welfare of our personnel is a top priority and we will not discuss any individual's medical status.”

Here's what's next in the Senate impeachment trial

with help from Melanie Zanona, Sarah Ferris and Daniel Lippman

AND SO IT BEGINS: President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial has officially begun, marking the third presidential impeachment trial in American history. The seven Democratic House managers on Thursday presented to the Senate the two articles of impeachment against the president — abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

Chief Justice John Roberts arrived to the chamber around 2 p.m., accompanied by four senators and wearing a plain black robe (no gold stripes). Senators then took their oath to “do impartial justice” and signed the oath book. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), who had a family medical issue, was the only senator missing. He will be sworn in Tuesday when the Senate returns. More on Thursday’s ceremony from Marianne: https://politi.co/2FTZxuC

What’s next: Now that the ceremonial proceedings are over, the Senate will begin the impeachment trial in earnest Tuesday at 1 p.m., starting with a vote on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s organizing resolution, which will set up the trial procedures. Some senators have already seen the text of the resolution, but it has yet to be publicly revealed.

Senate Democrats have made it no secret they want the chamber to decide on witnesses at the outset of the trial. But the GOP plans to circle back to that decision later once the Senate hears arguments from House managers and the president’s defense.

GOP reluctance, however, won’t stop Democrats from forcing votes on the four witnesses they want, which include acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and former Trump national security adviser John Bolton. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Thursday he expects “that we will have votes on these witnesses on Tuesday but can't be sure until we see the resolution that McConnell has put together.” Once the trial parameters are set, arguments will begin.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) issued a statement Thursday emphasizing that “prior to hearing the statement of the case and the Senators asking questions, [she] will not support any attempts by either side to subpoena documents or witnesses.” Collins noted it is likely she will “support a motion to call witnesses” after hearing the case and having questions answered, as she did during the Clinton impeachment trial.

There will still be impeachment news over the long weekend. The House has until 5 p.m. Saturday to file its trial brief and the president’s defense team’s brief is due Monday at noon. The House has until noon Tuesday to file its rebuttal. Follow our investibros @kyledcheney and@andrewdesiderio, who will be covering the ins and outs.

Related reads: “For the senators who will judge Trump, an incomplete story to consider” from the NY Times’ Peter Baker: https://nyti.ms/38bFZ0M; “Senate GOP hopes for a drama-free impeachment trial while bracing for Trump and his legal team” from the Washington Post’s Paul Kane: https://wapo.st/365o2Qa; and “Do chatty senators really face jail time during impeachment?” from Roll Call’s Katherine Tully-McManus: https://bit.ly/38cvtGP

HAPPY FRIDAY! Welcome to Huddle, the play-by-play guide to all things Capitol Hill, on this January 17, where I am filling in for your wonderful Huddle host Melanie Zanona and wondering what the impeachment polka of 2020 will sound like.

Quick programming note: Huddle will take a break for the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday, but we’ll be back January 21.

THURSDAY’S MOST CLICKED: The Associated Press’ report on how Trump’s defenders will play to many audiences in the Senate trial was the big winner.

GAO-WOAH: The Government Accountability Office released a damning report Thursday that concluded the Trump administration violated the law by freezing U.S. military aid to Ukraine. “Faithful execution of the law does not permit the president to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law,” GAO concluded. Trump’s decision to withhold $400 million in military aid from Ukraine was at the heart of the House impeachment inquiry and will be a focus of the Senate trial.

The GAO report, combined with an explosive interview from Lev Parnas, a former associate of Rudy Giuliani’s, shook the Capitol Thursday, just hours before the impeachment trial began. Parnas suggested in an interview this week that Trump “knew exactly what was going on in Ukraine.” While Democrats are hopeful the latest revelations will increase pressure on Senate Republicans, so far they appear unmoved, report Kyle, Andrew and Burgess.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), when asked about the GAO report, said he didn’t think it “changes anything,” while Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) attributed the conclusion to a legal misinterpretation. “I think they misunderstand the law. I think presidents withhold money all the time, move money around,” Paul said. Others questioned Parnas’ credibility. Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said Thursday they had not yet reviewed the GAO report and didn’t comment on bringing in Parnas as a witness. More here: https://politi.co/2FYcLXk

Related read: “Lev Parnas: Trump tried to fire Yovanovitch multiple times” by POLITICO’s Matthew Choi and Darren Samuelsohn: https://politi.co/30sULO4

CHENEY CHOOSES -- Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) has opted not to seek a high-profile Senate seat and will instead stay put in the House, where she has quickly risen through the GOP leadership ranks over the past few years. Cheney, who serves as chairwoman of the House GOP Conference, informed her Republican colleagues of her decision during a closed-door policy meeting yesterday and received a standing ovation, according to sources in the room.

Cheney is seen as someone on the path to the speakership one day. But she is already tamping down any speculation that she would leapfrog House Minority Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) for the top job, telling lawmakers she wants him to be speaker. “There isn't a group of people anywhere in this country I would rather fight to victory with than all of you,” Cheney said during the meeting. “I will be staying right here with all of you in this incredible House that I love. Let's go get our majority back and make Kevin McCarthy the next speaker of the House." More from James Arkin and Mel: https://politi.co/2R1Yz61.

LATE BLOOMER — In some ways, Michael Bloomberg is a tough sell to Democrats: He’s a former Republican with a record many liberals have detested, plus, he’s not even on the ballot in early-voting states. Still, Bloomberg’s first big trip to Capitol Hill to schmooze with Democrats seems to have worked. “I came away thinking, you know, this guy could win,” said Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.), who attended back-to-back meetings with Bloomberg. Reps. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) and Harley Rouda (D-Calif.) endorsed Bloomberg in the last 24 hours.

Bloomberg’s message: Forget about Iowa, he’s focusing big on more delegate-heavy states. As for the general election, he’s got hundreds of staff in must-win states like Michigan – unlike his competition. Several Democrats who met with Bloomberg say his centrist views — and a personal fortune to spend in battleground states — could actually beat Trump. Sarah and Laura Barrón-López have more: https://politi.co/2TuJ7kj

USMCA PASSES THE SENATE: The Senate overwhelmingly passed the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement Thursday, in an 89-10 vote, squeezing in a big win for President Donald Trump right before his impeachment trial. The passage of USMCA came one day after Trump signed the so-called phase one trade agreement with China. Sen. Rob Portman, a former U.S. Trade representative, said the latest trade developments were “like the World Series and Super Bowl all in one week.” But not everyone was on board with the new trade agreement.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who called USMCA “badly flawed,” was the only Republican to vote against the agreement. Nine Democrats voted no, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who voted against the agreement because “it does not address climate change, the greatest threat facing the planet.” More from POLITICO’s Sabrina Rodriguez here: https://politi.co/36XKcoK

Related read: “Angry Trump says focus should be on a trade deal, not a ‘hoax’” from NY Times’ Annie Karni and Maggie Haberman: https://nyti.ms/38dCsPJ

PRESSLEY OPENS UP ABOUT HAVING ALOPECIA: Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) opened up to The Root about living with alopecia, an autoimmune disease that causes baldness. Pressley grew aware of her hair loss last fall, when she had her hair retwisted, Jessica Moulite reports. The hair loss forced Pressley to try to hide her baldness, including by wearing a wig. She lost her last piece of hair the night before the House impeachment vote and on the anniversary of her mother’s death.

“I was missing her. I was mourning my hair. I was mourning the state of our democracy,” she recalled to the Root. Finally, from a desire “to be freed from the secret and the shame that that secret carries with it,” as she described, Pressley went public and revealed her bald head in a video. “I’m making progress every day,” she said. “It’s about self-agency, it’s about power, it’s about acceptance.” More here: https://bit.ly/2TxcToQ

PRESS CRACKDOWN: Reporters in the Senate faced a crackdown from Capitol Police Thursday, as the Senate impeachment trial began. The lack of written guidance only created more confusion. A Capitol Police officer told The Hill’s Jordain Carney to stop talking to a senator outside the Senate Republican lunch and some senators had note cards entitled with the title “Phrases to use when seeking assistance.” More here from Roll Call’s Katherine Tully-McManus: https://bit.ly/2TyJFG6

Tensions also ran high between lawmakers and reporters. Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) snapped at CNN reporter Manu Raju, when he asked if the Senate should consider new evidence as part of the trial — a question almost all Senate Republicans were asked Thursday. McSally replied that Raju was “a liberal hack.” CNN responded saying it was “extremely unbecoming for a U.S. Senator to sink to this level and treat a member of the press this way for simply doing his job.”

McSally did, however, earn an attaboy from the @TrumpWarRoom, a campaign Twitter account, which tweeted the footage and praised her, while linking to her online fundraising portal. More from the Washington Post’s Mike DeBonis and Lateshia Beachum: https://wapo.st/2Ty2p8K


W: The United States-Mexico- Canada Agreement, which finally passed the Senate

L: Capitol Police and the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms, which faced bipartisan blowback after instituting stricter press restrictions for the Senate impeachment trial.

Elena Brennan is joining Arnold & Porter. She most recently was a legislative assistant for Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and is a House Energy & Commerce alum.

The House is OUT.

The Senate is OUT.

Not a ton.

THURSDAY’S WINNER: Jon Deuser was the first person to correctly guess that Jeannette Rankin was the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress and later went on to cast the only “no” vote when Congress declared war against Japan, following the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

TODAY’S QUESTION: From Jon: Which current House impeachment manager won office by defeating another previous House impeachment manager, and who was the previous manager? First person to correctly guess gets a mention in the next edition of Huddle. Send your best guess my way at mlevine@politico.com.

GET HUDDLE emailed to your phone each morning.

Top Iran leader: Trump is a ‘clown’ who will betray Iranians

TEHRAN, Iran — Iran’s supreme leader said President Donald Trump is a “clown” who only pretends to support the Iranian people but will “push a poisonous dagger” into their backs, as he struck a defiant tone in his first Friday sermon in Tehran in eight years.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the mass funerals for Iran’s top general, who was killed in a U.S. airstrike earlier this month, show that the Iranian people support the Islamic Republic despite its recent trials. He said the “cowardly” killing of Soleimani had taken out the most effective commander in the battle against the Islamic State group.

In response, Iran launched a barrage of ballistic missiles targeting U.S. troops in Iraq, without causing serious injuries. Khamenei said the strike had dealt a “blow to America’s image” as a superpower. In part of the sermon delivered in Arabic, he said the “real punishment” would be in forcing the U.S. to withdraw from the Middle East.

As Iran’s Revolutionary Guard braced for an American counterattack that never came, it mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian jetliner shortly after it took off from Tehran’s international airport, killing all 176 passengers on board, mostly Iranians.

Authorities concealed their role in the tragedy for three days, initially blaming the crash on a technical problem. Their admission of responsibility triggered days of street protests, which security forces dispersed with live ammunition and tear gas.

Khamenei called the shootdown of the plane a “bitter accident” that saddened Iran as much as it made its enemies happy. He said Iran’s enemies had seized on the crash to question the Islamic Republic, the Revolutionary Guard and the armed forces.

He also lashed out at Western countries, saying they are too weak to “bring Iranians to their knees.” He said Britain, France and Germany, which this week triggered a dispute mechanism to try and bring Iran back into compliance with the unraveling 2015 nuclear agreement, were “contemptible” governments and “servants” of the United States.

He said Iran was willing to negotiate, but not with the United States.

Khamenei has held the country’s top office since 1989 and has the final say on all major decisions. The 80-year-old leader openly wept at the funeral of Soleimani and vowed “harsh retaliation” against the United States.

Thousands of people attended the Friday prayers, occasionally interrupting his speech by chanting “God is greatest!” and “Death to America!”

Tensions between Iran and the United States have steadily escalated since President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, which had imposed restrictions on its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions.

The U.S. has since imposed crippling sanctions on Iran, including its vital oil and gas industry, pushing the country into an economic crisis that has ignited several waves of sporadic, leaderless protests. Trump has openly encouraged the protesters — even tweeting in Farsi — hoping that the protests and the sanctions will bring about fundamental change in a longtime adversary.

After Soleimani was killed, Iran announced it would no longer be bound by the limitations in the nuclear agreement. European countries who have been trying to salvage the deal responded earlier this week by invoking a dispute mechanism that could result in even more sanctions.

Khamenei was always skeptical of the nuclear agreement, arguing that the United States could not be trusted. But he allowed President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, to conclude the agreement with President Barack Obama. Since Trump’s withdrawal, he has repeatedly said there can be no negotiations with the United States.

Khamenei last delivered a Friday sermon in February 2012, when he called Israel a “cancerous tumor” and vowed to support anyone confronting it. He also warned against any U.S. strikes on Iran over its nuclear program, saying the U.S. would be damaged “10 times over.”

Biden picks up endorsement from key black lawmaker

Alabama Rep. Terri Sewell endorsed Joe Biden for president Friday, giving the former vice president his 11th endorsement from a black member of Congress heading into the Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend.

The timing is no coincidence: Sewell said Biden’s life work has exemplified King’s legacy, and that’s why she’s choosing to announce her support for him now.

“There’s no bigger threat to the civil rights and voting rights that are so important to my district than Donald Trump,” said Sewell, who represents a majority-minority district that includes parts of Birmingham, Montgomery and Tuscaloosa and all of Selma. “Coupled with [Biden’s] vast experience is also his ability to cross the aisle to unite folks, and I think that that makes him the best candidate, in my opinion, to take on and beat Donald Trump in November.”

In a phone interview with POLITICO, Sewell said Biden is the preferred candidate of the base of the Democratic Party: black women. Her mother, Nancy Gardner Sewell — the first black woman elected to the Selma City Council — also supports him and is running to be a Biden delegate.

The veteran Alabama congresswoman, who attended a phone bank event with Jill Biden in Birmingham earlier this month, will return to the campaign trail this weekend to join the ex-vice president at events in South Carolina on Sunday and Monday.

“I look forward to telling Southern voters that are really important to Super Tuesday why it is I believe that Joe is the best candidate to move the nation forward and to really beat Donald Trump and protect the legacy that is Martin Luther King, fighting for justice and equality for all,” she added.

Alabama votes on Super Tuesday, March 3.

Biden now has the support of the only two Democrats in the state’s congressional delegation. Sen. Doug Jones endorsed the former vice president in April. Mayor Randall Woodfin of Birmingham, the state’s most populous city, backed Biden last month.

Sewell, a vice chair of the centrist New Democrat Coalition in the House, is the latest moderate Democrat to rally behind Biden, who has won endorsements this month from Reps. Abby Finkenauer of Iowa, Conor Lamb and Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania, Elaine Luria of Virginia, Colin Allred of Texas, Sean Patrick Maloney of New York and Tom Malinowski of New Jersey.

Sewell framed Biden as the antidote to Trump, whom she described as “the biggest threat to the Democratic values that we hold dear.” Biden, she continued, is an authentic, known, presidential figure who can not only restore the dignity of the office but provide a boost to Democrats up and down the ballot.

“Joe at the top of the ticket is a huge boost for us maintaining our Democratic majority in the House and trying to gain a majority in the Senate,” Sewell said.

Biden has a significant lead over his rivals in endorsements from the influential Congressional Black Caucus, reflecting his support from African American voters. Sewell said she and Biden have talked a lot about the importance of having diversity on the Democratic ticket. The current front-runners for the nomination are all white, and the only black candidate remaining is former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, whose late bid has struggled to gain any traction.

“At the end of the day, I do trust Joe to choose someone who’s a complement to him and also will further solidify our support and further reaffirm his ability to lead but also his ability to unite,” she said. “Ultimately, the decision is his. But I do trust that he will make a decision that is complementary and diverse.”

POLITICO Playbook: 2 Senate impeachment trial moments to watch

BREAKING -- AP/TEHRAN: “Top Iran leader: Trump is a ‘clown’ who will betray Iranians”: “Iran’s supreme leader said President Donald Trump is a ‘clown’ who only pretends to support the Iranian people but will ‘push a poisonous dagger’ into their backs, as he struck a defiant tone in his first Friday sermon in Tehran in eight years.”

NOW THAT THE SENATE TRIAL has started, there are two upcoming moments to keep an eye on:

-- FIRST IS TUESDAY, when the chamber will take up the resolution that will govern the rules of the trial. There are a couple of lingering questions: how long each side will be afforded to present their case, and how long the senators will get for cross-examination. Last time around, it was 24 hours for the managers, and 16 hours for senators to question them.

-- SECOND: WITNESSES. Senate Minority Leader CHUCK SCHUMER is going to try to force a vote to allow witnesses Tuesday, but Republicans have a pact that they will not vote for witnesses until after both sides present their cases and the senators get a chance to ask questions. At that point, the Senate will vote on whether they want witnesses and additional documents. Should that pass -- 51 votes are needed -- there will be a debate on witnesses.

AT THAT POINT, no one knows how it goes. It could be a free-for-all, with senators proposing individual witnesses and the Senate forced to vote on each one, or there could be a leadership-brokered deal for a group of witnesses. Or any effort to get witnesses might fail.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R-Maine) released this statement Thursday night: “While I need to hear the case argued and the questions answered, I tend to believe having additional information would be helpful. It is likely that I would support a motion to call witnesses at that point in the trial just as I did in 1999. … I have not made a decision on any particular witnesses. When we reach the appropriate point in the trial, I would like to hear from both sides about which witnesses, if any, they would like to call.”

SEN. CHRIS MURPHY (D-Conn.) is using his Twitter feed to take people behind the scenes of the impeachment trial. He says he’ll do it every day.

BTW: We’re not going to say this every day, but now more than ever, Playbook represents the hivemind of the POLITICO reporting operation, and especially the Capitol Hill team. It’s reflective of the institution’s reporting, and we hope it helps make you smarter and understand what’s going on in the Capitol. The Hill team is: John Bresnahan, Heather Caygle, Burgess Everett, Kyle Cheney, Sarah Ferris, Melanie Zanona, Andrew Desiderio and Marianne LeVine.

NYT’S ANNIE KARNI and MAGGIE HABERMAN: “The president capped his day with a meeting with several campaign aides, where he grilled them on how voters were receiving impeachment.

“In his conversations with advisers on Thursday, Mr. Trump repeated once again that he could not believe he was facing such a predicament as impeachment. He said he wanted people to be prepared for a motion to dismiss and has hoped for one, even though Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, has said the Senate will have to take up the matter.” NYT

WAPO’S PAUL KANE: “Senate GOP hopes for a drama-free impeachment trial while bracing for Trump and his legal team”: “So far, more than four months after the Ukraine scandal broke, Trump and his advisers have given sparse explanations for their side of the story. The White House press office quit holding a daily briefing many months ago, leaving public comments to those moments when Trump engages in impromptu gaggles with the media.

“His lawyers sent angry letters to House Democrats during their impeachment proceedings that denounced what Trump considered ‘profound procedural deficiencies’ but did not spell out the facts of the case. The president declined to send his legal team to the House Judiciary Committee’s hearings, instead leaving his GOP allies to make arguments on his behalf.

“McConnell, knowing that he currently has the votes to acquit Trump, does not want the Senate trial to come off looking anything like the partisan brawl in the House or a typical Trumpian event. With a handful of GOP incumbents facing difficult reelections in November, McConnell wants a quick, clean, dignified trial to protect their political fortunes as well as his own. That’s why some Democrats believe [Trump’s] defense team could provide the most dramatic moment of the trial.”

NOT TO BELABOR THIS but the press restrictions in the Capitol are absolutely crazy at the moment. For example, many reporters hang out by the subways in the basement of the building and walk to the Senate floor with senators. Police stop you from walking up with a senator -- but you can walk by yourself. Reporters are roped in on the second floor, where we usually roam free. The Capitol has always been a place where journalists are able to ask questions of lawmakers with almost unfettered access. It makes the Hill the best beat in town, and everyone benefits from it.

NEW … AMERICAN ACTION NETWORK, the powerful GOP 501(c)(4), has a new series of ads going up on TV in 11 Democratic Trump districts -- a campaign worth $2.5 million. Districts include: Reps. Max Rose (N.Y.), Andy Kim (N.J.), Abby Finkenauer (Iowa), Jared Golden (Maine), Susie Lee (Nev.), Anthony Brindisi (N.Y.), Kendra Horn (Okla.), Matt Cartwright (Pa.), Ben McAdams (Utah), Elaine Luria (Va.) and Abigail Spanberger (Va.). Rose is getting $325,000 on TV, Brindisi has $300,000, $275,000 in Lee’s, $250,000 in Spanberger, $225,000 in Luria’s and $200,000 in Horn’s. This is a four-week campaign. The main spot The Horn district spot

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP will appear at a fundraiser tonight at Mar-a-Lago that’s expected to raise $10 million for Trump Victory. Trump Victory disperses to 23 entities, including the RNC, Trump for President and state parties. (h/t Alex Isenstadt)

Good Friday morning. QUESTION: The Nats should get two championships for beating the Astros now, right?

OH BOY … PROBLEMS ON FIRST STREET SE … NRCC CHAIRMAN TOM EMMER (R-Minn.) said at the Ripon Society that the House GOP was outraised by the DCCC by $40 MILLION in 2019. “Last year, Democrats, the DCCC -- they outraised us. They raised $125 million. We raised $85 million. … Our members need to get their act together and raise more money. The individual campaigns need to raise more money.” The video

SPOTTED: Lev Parnas watching his Rachel Maddow interview at LaGuardia on Thursday. Pic Another pic

-- MORE PARNAS ON MADDOW: “Lev Parnas: Trump tried to fire Yovanovitch multiple times,” by Matthew Choi and Daniel Lippman: “Lev Parnas, an indicted associate of President Donald Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, is alleging that Trump tried multiple times to fire the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, and is offering more details into the back-and-forth campaign to push Ukraine into launching an investigation to damage the president’s political rival. ...

“Parnas told Maddow that Trump had tried to fire Ambassador Maria Yovanovitch multiple times, including during a dinner they had together at the Trump hotel near the White House. Trump has repeatedly denied knowing Parnas, though social media posts show them together at social events.

“Parnas contended that Trump ordered Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the national security adviser at the time, John Bolton, to fire Yovanovitch but that they did not go through with it. A smear campaign was concocted, he theorized, to create more sympathy for a Yovanovitch purge.” POLITICOMore from Natasha Bertrand and Darren Samuelsohn on what Parnas’ revelations mean for Trump

SCENE SETTER … WAPO: “‘It was like a breeding ground’: Trump hotel’s mix of GOP insiders and hangers-on helped give rise to impeachment episodes,” by David Fahrenthold, Josh Dawsey and Jonathan O’Connell: “They are key locations in the drama that led to President Trump’s impeachment: the steakhouse table where Trump’s private lawyer set out a nameplate, ‘Rudolph W. Giuliani, Private Office.’ The upstairs hideaway, where Giuliani’s team planned its outreach to Ukraine.

“And the expensive bar, where Giuliani’s team met an odd figure: Robert F. Hyde, a big-talking ex-Marine who claimed to have the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine under surveillance.

“All three places are within 300 yards of each other, in the lobby of the Trump International Hotel. For three years, Trump’s hotel near the White House has been a loose, anybody-welcome hangout for Republicans. Candidates raise money in the ballrooms. Congressmen and lobbyists dine in the steakhouse. Hangers-on wait at the bar, taking selfies in ‘#americaslivingroom.’”

NYT’S JONATHAN MARTIN and SYDNEY EMBER: “Sanders-Warren: An Alliance, if Not a Close Friendship, Suddenly Fractures”

-- ALEX THOMPSON and HOLLY OTTERBEIN: “Warren and Bernie try to move on as conflict shakes 2020 primary”: “Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren don’t want to talk about it. ‘I have no further comment on this,’ Warren told reporters Thursday. Sanders didn’t want any part of it either, staying quiet as reporters pelted him with questions, while his campaign circulated a set of new talking points, obtained by POLITICO, that read: ‘Please refrain from commenting on the CNN story on the meeting between Bernie and Sen. Elizabeth Warren.’ ‘Goal: Take the high road,’ it added.

“Warren and Sanders' presidential campaigns are publicly taking steps to move on from the feuding of the past week, after trading accusations of calling the other a ‘liar’ in a tense hot-mic conversation following Tuesday’s debate. But it’s proving more difficult than either would like, thanks to months of quietly escalating tensions that suddenly boiled over this week. Even as Sanders and Warren mostly laid off each other earlier this year, many in Warren’s orbit privately seethed over escalating, thinly veiled criticism from Sanders top aides and surrogates, while some Sanders supporters have viewed Warren with disdain since she declined to join their cause in 2016.” POLITICO

CNN: “Exclusive: Evelyn Yang reveals she was sexually assaulted by her OB-GYN while pregnant,” by Dana Bash, Bridget Nolan, Nelli Black and Patricia DiCarlo: “It was the beginning of 2012. Yang, pregnant with her first child, had found an obstetrician-gynecologist who had a good reputation and worked at the world-renowned medical facilities at Columbia University. His name was Dr. Robert Hadden.

“Initially, she says, she didn't see any red flags, but as the months progressed, Hadden started asking her inappropriate, unsolicited questions about sexual activity with her husband, which were unrelated to her health or the health of her unborn child. Looking back, she now believes he was prepping her for sexual abuse. …Yang says Hadden violated that trust in an unthinkable way when she was seven months pregnant.

“‘I was in the exam room, and I was dressed and ready to go. Then, at the last minute, he kind of made up an excuse. He said something about, “I think you might need a C-section,” and he proceeded to grab me over to him and undress me and examine me internally, ungloved,’ she recalled. ‘I knew it was wrong. I knew I was being assaulted,’ she added. …

“In legal filings, Hadden’s attorney denied Yang’s allegations. The attorney declined CNN’s request for an interview.”


THE PRESIDENT’S FRIDAY -- TRUMP will meet with the LSU football team at 11 a.m. At 2:30 p.m., he’ll head to Andrews to fly to Florida. He is slated to arrive in Palm Beach at 5:05 p.m., and at Mar-a-Lago at 5:25 p.m. At 6:30 p.m. he has a roundtable, and he’ll speak at a fundraiser at 7 p.m.

TODAY’S WSJ OP-ED PAGE contains a history lesson on impeachment from VP Mike Pence and a warning to South Korea to pay more for its own defense from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper.

HMMM … WAPO: “Federal prosecutors explore years-old media disclosure, raising fears Trump is using Justice Dept. for political gain,” by Matt Zapotosky: “Federal prosecutors in the District have taken steps in recent months to explore a years-old disclosure of classified information to the media, raising some fears that the Justice Department is resurrecting dated instances of possible wrongdoing to support President Trump’s crackdown on leaks and possibly target a source of his ire: former FBI director James B. Comey, people familiar with the matter said Thursday.

“The prosecutors have begun asking questions about news reporting in 2017 about a classified document — thought to be a Russian intelligence product — that described how then-Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch had purportedly assured someone in Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign that the investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of state would not push too deep, the people said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation.”

CHANGING STORY AT THE PENTAGON -- “American Troops Were Injured in Jan. 8 Iran Missile Attack,” by WSJ’s Gordon Lubold:”Nearly a dozen American troops were injured in the Iranian missile attack on two bases in Iraq last week, Defense Department officials said, after initially stating that there were no casualties in the strikes.

“Eleven individuals are being screened for traumatic brain injuries following the attacks on two bases in Iraq that house American troops. Iran fired a dozen rockets total at Erbil in northern Iraq and the sprawling Al Asad air base in the west in retaliation for the American assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani days before. Pentagon officials at the time said there were no casualties.

“But late Thursday, U.S. Central Command acknowledged that there were injuries and the 11 service members suffered concussions during the attack.” WSJ

-- POTUS, JAN. 8: “No Americans were harmed in last night’s attack by the Iranian regime.”

WHOA -- “Georgia election systems could have been hacked before 2016 vote,” by Kim Zetter: “A Georgia election server contains evidence that it was possibly hacked before the 2016 presidential election and the 2018 vote that gave Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp a narrow victory over Democratic opponent Stacey Abrams, according to an election security expert.

“The incident, which occurred in late 2014, long before either of those elections, not only calls into question the integrity of Georgia’s voting machines during critical elections, but raises new questions about whether attackers were able to manipulate election data and voter information through the compromised server.

“It's unclear who may have carried out the alleged attack or if voter information was altered, but Logan Lamb, the election security expert who uncovered the activity, believes that if hackers did breach the server, they could have gained ‘almost total control of the server, including abilities to modify files, delete data, and install malware.’” POLITICO

TRAVEL NEWS … UNITED is getting in the D.C.-to-New York shuttle game. The airline is launching hourly service between DCA and Newark with its CRJ-550 -- which has 10 first-class seats.

MEDIAWATCH -- The Economist is launching a new 2020 U.S. elections newsletter and podcast called “Checks and Balance.” It’s also beginning a complementary marketing campaign aimed at growing its North American audience.

-- POLITICO deputy managing editor Angela Greiling Keane will be president of the National Press Club Journalism Institute. Announcement

-- Jake Lahut will be a politics reporter at Business Insider. He currently is a politics reporter at The Keene Sentinel.

Send tips to Eli Okun and Garrett Ross at politicoplaybook@politico.com.

FIRST IN PLAYBOOK -- The Recording Industry Association of America’s annual charity concert will feature Boyz II Men at the 9:30 Club on Jan. 29. Proceeds go to Musicians on Call, and Spotify is co-sponsoring.

SPOTTED at the soft opening of Ashok Bajaj’s new restaurant Annabelle on Thursday night: Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), Donald Graham, Maureen Dowd, Cathy Merrill, Mark Ein, Yebbie Watkins and Lyndon Boozer.

SPOTTED at a party for Fred Hochberg’s new book, “Trade Is Not a Four-Letter Word: How Six Everyday Products Make the Case for Trade” ($18.38 on Amazon), at Tom Nides’ home Thursday night: Susan Rice and Ian Cameron, Patrick Steel and Lee Satterfield, Robert Raben and Anthony Coley, Hilary Rosen, Linda Douglass and John Phillips, Terry McAuliffe, Andrea Mitchell, Adrienne Arsht, Lael Brainard, Steve Clemons, Jane Harman, Tammy Haddad …

… Australian Ambassador Joe Hockey, UAE Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba, David Chalian, Jonathan and Betsy Fischer Martin, Steve Elmendorf, Alphonso David, Robert Holleyman, Neera Tanden, Jeff Zeleny, Margaret Carlson, Norm Ornstein, Ruth Marcus, Robby Mook, Kevin Cirilli, James Hohmann, Stephen Johnson, Eric Schultz, Melissa Moss and Jonathan Silver, Lynn Sweet, Tom Healy, Chris and Jennifer Maguire Isham, Fred Hiatt and Robin Sproul.

TRANSITION -- Elena Brennan is joining Arnold & Porter. She most recently has been a legislative assistant for Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and is a House Energy & Commerce alum.

HARVARD KENNEDY SCHOOL’S Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy announced its spring fellows: Don Baer, Gwyneth Williams, Ann Cooper and April Glaser, with fall fellows Tara Westover and Kathy Pham continuing on at the center.

BIRTHDAY OF THE DAY: Rachel Bovard, senior policy director at the Conservative Partnership Institute. A fun fact about her: “To survive a career in politics, I also have a side career as a sommelier. I do a lot of wine tastings for clients in and around D.C., and teach fun and very relaxed wine classes at DCanter Wine Boutique in Barracks Row. Come by and see me -- my classes are (mercifully) politics-free, and my jokes are mostly funny! (Especially after you’ve had a glass or two or five.)” Playbook Q&A

BIRTHDAYS: Former first lady Michelle Obama is 56 … Rebecca Buck, CNN political reporter, is 3-0 (hubby tip Brendan) … NBC’s Alex Moe … John Wagner, WaPo national political breaking news reporter … former FCC Chairman Newton Minow is 94 … Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is 66 … POLITICO’s Joanne Kenen and Steve Shepard … Tommy Joyce … Steve Rabinowitz, president and co-founder of Bluelight Strategies … Mike Spahn, managing director at Precision Strategies, is 41 (h/ts Teresa Vilmain) … Al Shofe … Gabe Gutierrez … Alyssa Franke of Elizabeth Warren’s campaign … Nikki Schwab, senior U.S. political reporter at the Daily Mail … Jim Free … David Avella, chairman of GOPAC … Bill Galston, Brookings senior fellow and No Labels co-founder, is 74 (h/t Margaret Kimbrell) … Bradley Hansell, a principal at Boston Consulting Group and NSC alum, is 4-0 (h/t Jeremy Sturchio) … Haris Alic …

… Robert Lewis Jr., CEO of the Van Aucker Group, is 41 (h/t wife Aisha) … Chris Jones, founder of PoliTemps and CapitolWorks … Jeremy Pelofsky of Finsbury … Julie Alderman of Planned Parenthood … Keisha Parker, director of operations at Rokk Solutions (h/t Ryan Hughes) … Amit Jani, national Asian American Pacific Islander director for Joe Biden’s campaign … Stephen Gilmore … Cynthia Kroet … Alba Pregja … Kousha Navidar … photographer Steven Purcell is 57 … Elizabeth Hays Bradley ... Becca Sobel ... Julie Barko Germany ... John Seabrook is 61 ... Mary Clare Rigali, analyst at Albright Stonebridge ... Edelman’s Katherine Wiet and Kurt Hauptman ... Karlygash Faillace ... Doug Wilder is 89 ... Alyssa Roberts ... Barbara Riley ... Vadim Lavrusik ... Taylor Barden … Robbie Hughes is 38 ... John M. Gillespie ... Noelani Bonifacio ... Tegan Millspaw Gelfand ... Mark Pieschel

The #MAGA Lawyer Behind Michael Flynn’s Scorched-Earth Legal Strategy

The three-day conference in November 2018 was called “Operation Classified” and promised attendees they would “come away with a comprehensive understanding of the Deep State.” Featured speakers, gathered at a Hilton hotel in a Dallas suburb, included militia leaders, anti-vaxxers, a UFO activist, as well as a former federal prosecutor named Sidney Powell, who delivered a somber, noteless recitation in a folksy Southern accent.

Powell was there as a leading proponent, on cable news and in op-eds, of a conspiratorial narrative advanced by the far right: that special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation was part of a plot by the intelligence community to force President Donald Trump from office. Her talk was titled “Creeps on a Mission to Destroy the President,” a phrase she had coined on “Hannity” and then turned into a pro-Trump, T-shirt-selling website to denounce Mueller and his team of investigators. “This goes so deep and so wide, it is unbelievable,” Powell said with a heavy sigh during her 40-minute speech.

In the audience was Joseph Flynn, brother of Michael Flynn—the retired three-star lieutenant general who had served briefly as Trump’s first national security adviser before agreeing to cooperate with the Mueller probe and pleading guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations with Russia’s ambassador to the United States. The conference, in fact, was part of a fundraiser for Flynn’s legal defense fund, of which Joseph is a trustee, along with his sister Barbara Redgate. For more than a year, Michael Flynn had been defended by Covington & Burling, the powerful white-shoe law firm, but his siblings believed their brother’s guilty plea was “a decision made in haste,” as Joseph put it to me. They wanted to fight, not surrender. Michael Flynn did too, according to Joseph: “He never felt he was guilty. He never felt he committed any crimes. We only pled guilty because he had shitty legal counsel on this.” (Covington & Burling declined to comment.)

At the Dallas conference, Joseph Flynn introduced himself to Powell, who already knew his sister. The two spoke at length over coffee, finding that they saw Michael Flynn’s case the same way, they both told POLITICO Magazine. Powell believed that Flynn, like Trump, was a victim of a purported deep state plot, and that he had pleaded guilty only because he was coerced by overzealous prosecutors. “She was very much in tune with General Mike’s case,” Redgate told me. “Sidney,” Joseph says, “is a fighter”—which he says he emphasized to his brother.

Sidney Powell on the Mueller investigation

Seven months later—after Powell had publicly exhorted Michael Flynn to withdraw his guilty plea and consider finding another lawyer—Flynn fired his team at Covington & Burling and hired Powell as his lead attorney. It was a striking turnabout: Flynn went from seeming to take the high road, by cooperating with the Mueller investigation, to seeking legal counsel from a Fox News pundit who thought Mueller was the perpetrator and Flynn the victim.

While Trump praised the new hire on Twitter, calling Powell a “GREAT LAWYER,” legal observers scratched their heads. Powell, who is in her 60s (she would not confirm her exact age), had shared content from social media accounts associated with QAnon, the wide-ranging conspiracy movement holding in part that Trump is doing battle with demonic, pedophile-loving Democrats and members of the deep state. The timing was also odd. Flynn’s sentencing had been delayed at that point because of procedural issues, but it was expected soon. And Mueller had recommended that Flynn receive no prison time because of the “substantial assistance” he provided in the special counsel investigation. (Flynn, under Powell’s advisement, is not speaking to the media.)

It was clear soon enough that Powell was taking a different tack. In August, she moved to have Flynn’s case dismissed for what she called “pernicious” prosecutorial misconduct, and requested that Emmet Sullivan, the presiding District Court judge, hold prosecutors in contempt for allegedly hiding FBI documents and communications that she said proved Flynn was pressured to plead guilty. In a court brief filed in October, she asserted that Flynn had been “deliberately targeted for destruction” by the intelligence community. The government countered that it had already relinquished any relevant material and that Powell was advancing “conspiracy theories” to fish for evidence that did not exist.

When I met Powell in Manhattan early last month, I asked if she was concerned the new aggressive legal strategy might backfire; Flynn had already reaffirmed his guilty plea a year ago in a testy hearing before Sullivan, who is respected as a fair-minded, no-nonsense jurist. But Powell was feeling bullish. “There’s not going to be a sentencing,” she said to me over breakfast at the W Hotel in Times Square. She wore a beige turtleneck sweater and a diamond necklace that sparkled, like the glint in her eye when she made her prediction.

“I don’t know how, but I can read the way these particular government lawyers say things to know that they are lying and hiding things,” she explained, referring to the prosecutors in the Flynn case. “And I knew as soon as I started hearing and seeing what was going on with General Flynn that he had been set up.” (The lead prosecutor in the Flynn case did not respond to requests for comment for this article.)

Reality struck several days after our breakfast, when Sullivan unequivocally rejected Powell’s requests for additional government documents and for the case to be dismissed. He also spurned her argument that Flynn had been framed, writing in an icy 92-page opinion that the retired general’s false statements to the FBI were “undisputed.” Sullivan set January 28 as Flynn’s new sentencing date. Shortly afterward, government prosecutors recommended that Flynn receive up to six months in prison—a reversal of the earlier recommendation that he not be incarcerated. “Maybe Hiring Sidney Powell Was a Huge, Monstrous Mistake for Michael Flynn,” one headline suggested.

This week, Flynn officially sought to withdraw his guilty plea “because of the government’s bad faith, vindictiveness, and breach of the plea agreement,” as Powell wrote in a court brief. Sullivan pushed back the sentencing by another month to consider the unusual request. But, says Barbara McQuade, a University of Michigan law professor and former U.S. attorney specializing in national security matters, “The scorched-earth strategy that Powell is using is rarely effective with judges.”

That Powell was seemingly blind to this likely outcome speaks to her full embrace of the Trumpian ethos of grievance and “alternative facts.” Which wasn’t always her M.O.: A federal prosecutor herself for a decade, Powell turned on her own ilk and spent years making a forceful case against prosecutorial overreach—a legitimate issue. It was when her cause came to align with Trump’s and Flynn’s plight as targets of Mueller’s probe that she worked her way into a deep state-hating, MAGA-loving network that landed her a high-profile client.

But the MAGA echo chamber, it seems, doesn’t always benefit its residents once they’re outside that bubble. While a strategy of denial and attacking the enemy might have worked for Trump during the Mueller investigation (and might yet work for him in his impeachment trial), Michael Flynn is not the president. If her client ends up in prison, it might be because of the Trumpian strategy Sidney Powell embraced.

“Crackpot conspiracy theories get easy traction on the internet,” says John Schindler, a former NSA analyst who has been critical of Flynn, but also of Hillary Clinton and the FBI. “They’re less likely to do well in federal court.”

Sidney Powell’s story, up to a point, is the very model of a high-achieving lawyer.

She knew from an early age what she wanted to do with her life. “My mother said I used to come home from kindergarten and watch ‘Perry Mason,’” recalls Powell, who grew up in a tight-knit working-class family in Raleigh, North Carolina. She was 19 when, in 1974, she was accepted into law school at the University of North Carolina, after rushing through her B.A. at UNC. “I was on student loans,” Powell explains. “My family couldn’t afford to help. … I knew what I wanted to do. I didn’t see any reason in stringing it out.”

Powell’s close friends describe her as smart, fearless and intensely driven. At the outset of her career, in the late 1970s and early 1980s she worked as a federal prosecutor in the Western District of Texas, along the border, which back then “was on the front lines of the drug wars,” says Carl Pierce, her colleague at the time, who headed up a special drug trafficking unit. It was a harrowing period, he says: “They were trying to kill our witnesses, assassinate our prosecutors.” A judge in one of Pierce’s cases was killed six weeks after Powell arrived on the job. According to Pierce, there were times when the government attorneys had to wear bulletproof vests and be escorted by federal marshals. “I was trying these [drug] cases, and Sidney was keeping them convicted on appeal,” Pierce says. “She’s a superb appellate lawyer.”

After roughly 10 years with the Justice Department, Powell struck out on her own as a federal appellate lawyer. She would go on to represent an array of private-sector clients, appealing judgments and sanctions related to health care, medical malpractice and environmental issues, among other areas. As she would later boast in a 2015 talk, “People usually call me when the ox is kind of deep in the ditch,” and needs a way out.

A turning point for Powell came in the 2000s when she spent nearly a decade representing executives caught up in the Enron scandal, in which the chief executives of the Texas-based energy company were convicted for financial fraud. Some of the government’s Enron-related cases, including two of Powell’s, were eventually overturned by higher courts for various legal reasons. Whether government prosecutors involved in Enron-related cases were just being aggressive or had abused their power is a matter of debate. Powell, for her part, came away from the experience believing the prosecutors had bent the law to unfairly prosecute her clients and were never held to account for their actions. She became convinced that “prosecutorial misconduct,” in the form of suppression of evidence favorable to the defense, was a widespread problem in the judicial system.

In 2014, she laid out her case in a self-published book, Licensed to Lie, which, as Powell puts it on her website, “reveals the strong-arm, illegal, and unethical tactics used by headline-grabbing federal prosecutors in their narcissistic pursuit of power to the highest halls of our government.” Powell says she wrote the book “because I couldn’t get the system to work.” (When professional legal associations wouldn’t act on her ethics grievances against the prosecutors, Powell says, she considered quitting law altogether.) In his foreword to the book, Alex Kozinski, an influential federal judge who retired abruptly in 2017, after multiple accusations of sexual harassment, heaped praise on Powell but stopped short of endorsing her sweeping claims. Still, he wrote, Licensed to Lie “should serve as the beginning of a serious conversation about whether our criminal justice system continues to live up to its vaunted reputation.”

That didn’t exactly happen. In fact, for several years after it was published, Powell and the book were largely ignored, which infuriated her. Powell believes the media, even on the right, made “a significant effort to kill this book with silence,” as she put it in a 2015 talk. The conspiracy evidently extended to Amazon and Barnes & Noble, which, she claimed, made her book difficult to buy. “I actually thought we had freedom of press until I wrote the book,” she said in her talk at “Operation Classified.” (While reporting this article, I bought a copy at my local Barnes & Noble in Brooklyn.)

Powell says she does not care for politics, and there may have been some truth to this at one point: As the 2016 presidential campaign was ramping up, she took off for a six-month, around-the-world cruise and then a three-week trip to Antarctica, which she made a video about and posted to YouTube. But after the 2016 election, she eagerly hopped aboard the Trump train and started plugging her book on Twitter, fruitlessly tagging conservative luminaries like Lou Dobbs, Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson and raving that it “reads like Grisham but it’s true!” Again, she was met with silence.

In the summer of 2017, Powell’s luck changed. The team of legal investigators Mueller assembled for the Russia probe included several Justice Department alumni who happened to have been the same prosecutors she had villainized in Licensed to Lie. Robert Mueller, she tweeted, was “hiring out of my book!” Powell issued red alerts via Twitter and op-eds: “It’s all about WHO they want to get & they’ll do ANYTHING to win,” she tweeted in June, tagging Newt Gingrich, Hannity and the White House press secretary. This time, her somewhat niche interest aligned with Trump’s own circumstances, and conservative power brokers heeded her call. Over the summer, Gingrich began promoting Powell’s book all over the media. Licensed to Lie, the former GOP House speaker and Trump ally said on Twitter, was “about to become a very important book.”

Powell rode her sudden wave of celebrity to political relevance and began appearing on the shows that had previously ignored her, embracing Trumpian talking points about not only the Mueller report but other issues, too. On Dobbs’ show, to take one example, Powell suggested that “the continued invasion of this country” by immigrants might be the cause of “diseases spreading across the country that are causing polio-like paralysis of our children.”

“Sidney the Media Figure,” as Powell describes herself on one of her websites, is a somewhat amped-up version of her real-life persona. One of Powell’s neighbors in Dallas, Patricia Falvey, an author of historical fiction who does not identify as Republican, told me Powell’s friends aren’t all in “lockstep” with her politically; Falvey and Powell mostly talk about family, travel and charity work. (Powell has a grown son from a marriage that ended in divorce decades ago, and she has long done volunteer work for women’s shelters, among other causes.)

Sidney Powell on immigration

But anyone watching Powell’s media hits or following her rat-a-tat Twitter feed—all operated on her own, she tells me—could see she was now an enthusiastic resident of MAGA-world.

Perhaps it was inevitable that Powell and Flynn would come together in common cause. Flynn has always been something of a maverick, but he too had a transformation. A respected, if hard-charging, patriot, he grew disgruntled during his time as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency in the Obama administration. By the 2016 presidential election, Flynn was spreading outrageous conspiracy theories—including the accusation that Hillary Clinton was involved with a child sex trafficking ring—and found himself chanting, “Lock her up!” at the Republican National Convention.

Over the course of his legal battle, Flynn has attracted a group of supporters with similarly controversial views. By all accounts, Flynn’s legal ordeal has taken an enormous financial toll on him and his family; as of July 2019, he owed more than $4.6 million dollars in unpaid attorney fees, according to court records. Flynn’s legal defense fund, set up in the summer of 2017, does not officially disclose the identities of its donors or how much it has raised. Joseph Flynn told me the fund does not accept donations from non-U.S. citizens or the Trump organization, but other than that, “We will accept help from anyone who wants to help us.”

That includes John B. Wells, who organized the 2018 Dallas fundraiser, which, according to Wells, raised “a healthy five-figure donation” for the legal fund. Wells, 62, is a voice-over actor turned itinerant radio host with an internet-streaming show; Flynn called in one time during the 2016 campaign. Wells appeared on Alex Jones’ show, “Infowars,” in 2013 and talked about how “it’s been pretty much established that the CIA and al Qaeda are almost one.” In his opening remarks at “Operation Classified,” he spoke of the “criminal cabal we refer to as government,” and he praised QAnon, the conspiracy movement that seems to believe a global gang of Satan-worshipping pedophiles in the media, Hollywood and the political establishment is secretly running the world. “Q is a real thing,” Wells said to cheers in the audience. (Wells did not respond to a request for comment.)

Michael Flynn himself was set to appear at a QAnon-related fundraiser on his behalf this past summer, but he pulled out after news of the event became public. (It was around this time that the FBI listed the amorphous fringe group as a potential domestic terrorism threat—QAnon supporters have been linked to acts of violence.) Redgate and Joseph Flynn have also amplified QAnon, though both siblings deny having “any relationship to QAnon,” as Joseph put it to me. When I asked him about his and Redgate’s retweets, he responded: “There’s a lot of people that do investigative research on Twitter.”

Similarly, Powell, who told me she is being paid out of the Flynn legal fund but reduced her rates “dramatically” for him, has retweeted QAnon accounts too and, according to reporting by Media Matters, appeared on a QAnon-affiliated YouTube show, where she thanked the host for his “huge and extremely helpful” support. I asked Powell about this, and she responded in an e-mail: “I don’t know anything about Q Anon, or Q. I couldn’t tell you what that was. I speak [at] SCADS of places and would go to the gates of Hell and talk to the devil himself if it would help stop the abuses of law and prosecutorial power and corruption I have seen in our government.”

While “FlynnLand,” as Joseph calls it, has embraced Powell (“We love Sidney!” Redgate gushes), it was never clear that Sullivan, Michael Flynn’s judge, would follow along.

Powell, it seems clear, expected Sullivan to be on her side. In a 2018 article for the Daily Caller—more than a year before she would be hired by Flynn—she asserted that Sullivan was “ready, willing and able to hold Mr. Mueller accountable to the law and who has the wherewithal to dismiss the case against General Flynn—for egregious government misconduct—if Mueller doesn’t move to dismiss it himself.” Sullivan actually is known for bringing the hammer down on overreaching prosecutors, as in the trial of former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens. “Emmet G. Sullivan is one judge who knows a cover-up when he sees one,” she wrote in a 2014 Observer column. “I love this man!” Powell has exclaimed in some of her public talks.

“Let me put me put it this way,” she said at our breakfast in New York. “If I were in the government’s shoes, I would move to dismiss this case before Judge Sullivan does anything else.”

Her conviction was bolstered by the release, in early December, of the long-awaited report by the inspector general for the Justice Department, which found that the FBI’s initial investigation into possible ties between Russia and Trump campaign officials (the precursor to the Mueller probe) was marred by sloppy and improper methods. Powell felt that the IG findings lent weight to a key component of her argument: that FBI agents manipulated the notes from their interview with Flynn to make him look guilty.

But in mid-December, Sullivan rejected the idea that the original FBI counterintelligence investigation of former Trump officials—Flynn included—was a deep state plot against Trump, and that Flynn had been tricked into his perjury by unscrupulous FBI agents. At the close of his ruling, Sullivan wrote: “the Court summarily disposes of Mr. Flynn’s arguments that the FBI conducted an ambush interview for the purpose of trapping him into making false statements and that the government pressured him to enter a guilty plea. The record proves otherwise.”

Powell stayed mum for nearly a month. She was careful not to respond to Sullivan’s rejection or reveal her next move—until she filed her own brief earlier this week, announcing that Flynn wanted to rescind his guilty plea. She sounded a defiant tone: “It is beyond ironic and completely outrageous that the prosecutors have persecuted Mr. Flynn, virtually bankrupted him, and put his entire family through unimaginable stress for three years.” Powell argued that government prosecutors had violated the terms of his plea agreement and asked for Sullivan to delay his sentencing to consider her argument and allow time for the government to respond.

“Withdrawing the guilty plea seems like an odd strategy at this stage,” McQuade, the law professor, says. “Her portrayal of Flynn as a victim of government overreach suggests that her strategy is to seek sympathy from a segment of the public and a pardon from President Trump.” (“It’s bullshit. Total bullshit,” Powell says about the prospect of fishing for a presidential pardon.)

It’s unclear how Flynn’s case will end, and what it will mean for Powell. Her defiance, in spite of Sullivan’s scolding, reminded me of an exchange I had with her toward the end of our early December meeting in New York. I had asked her about the widespread accusation that she was a conspiracy theorist. “I think it’s hilarious,” she said, smiling.

“Maybe you will get the last laugh,” I politely offered.

“I think I will,” she said firmly. “Let me put it this way: I will not quit until I do. The only question is, are we going to do this the easy way or the hard way?”

It wasn’t until we both stood up to leave that I realized how tall Powell was (six feet) and that she was wearing tight-fitting leopard print pants and matching boots with two-inch heels and gleaming spikes. She saw my eyes grow wide at the sight of the boots. “I call these my attitude adjusters,” Powell said with a big smile. “And I don’t mean my attitude.”

Democrats stop betting on a Biden implosion

DES MOINES — It took more than a year, but the Democratic presidential primary is finally coming to terms with the fact that Joe Biden isn’t going to collapse before the first votes are cast.

If anything, the landscape is tilting more in his favor.

Biden’s fundraising has improved. His polling is steadier, and his opponents barely touched him in the presidential debate on Tuesday — the final debate ahead of the Iowa caucuses.

Two of his top rivals, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have started feuding, raising the prospect of a splintered progressive vote. Pete Buttigieg, a well-funded, well-organized, moderate alternative to Biden, has still not demonstrated that he can appeal to people of color. And three of the five top-polling candidates in Iowa — Sanders, Warren and Sen. Amy Klobuchar — are about to be pulled away from the campaign at the most inopportune time, stuck in Washington for President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial.

Until recently, Democrats had operated on a seemingly universal consensus that Biden — an aging moderate with a record of losing presidential races — would wither in a competitive field. Many of his rivals stitched that thinking into their own plans.

Yet, less than three weeks before the Iowa caucuses, the opposite is turning out to be true. Even critics of Biden’s campaign here have been surprised at his resilience.

“I thought he would be in trouble by now,” said Tom Courtney, a former Iowa state senator and now co-chairman of the Des Moines County Democrats in Iowa.

Courtney, who is neutral in the contest, described Biden’s field operation as “terrible,” with a far lighter footprint in the state than some of his competitors.

Still, Courtney said, “I can read the polls, too. … There’s every chance that he’ll win Iowa.”

Democratic Party officials and operatives working with several of Biden’s opponents now say they no longer believe Biden's support is as fragile as they once believed it was. Instead, they now see a durable floor of support for him at least in the first caucus state.

His opponents are preparing for defections to Biden on caucus night from supporters of more moderate candidates who have dropped out already, or who fail to meet the 15 percent threshold necessary to win delegates. Rival campaigns are urgently working to persuade caucus-goers and potential endorsers in Iowa to shift their support elsewhere.

Earlier this week, Buttigieg was phoning supporters of Sen. Cory Booker in Iowa shortly after his withdrawal from the contest, nurturing potentially critical lines of communication with caucus-goers suddenly without a candidate, according to a source familiar with his outreach.

Courtney, like other Democrats, is aware that there is also a real chance there is no clear winner — with little air between Biden and three other frontrunners. And some Democratic operatives believe that if Biden finishes third or fourth in Iowa and New Hampshire, his support may begin to crumble in later states, including South Carolina, where he now holds an enormous lead.

But no one is betting on an implosion, anymore.

A Monmouth University poll of likely Iowa caucus-goers this week put Biden in first in Iowa at 24 percent. His frontrunner status nationally hasn’t changed, and the burgeoning hostilities between supporters of Warren and Sanders have unnerved many progressive Democrats who fear the distraction could help Biden.

“When progressives fight each other, the establishment wins,” Charles Chamberlain, chairman of the political action committee Democracy for America, said in a prepared statement on Thursday, after audio surfaced confirming a post-debate confrontation between Warren and Sanders over Warren’s accusation that Sanders told her privately in 2018 that a woman could not win the election. “We saw it in 2004 when progressives took each other out and John Kerry slipped through to win Iowa and then went on to lose in November to a very unpopular Republican incumbent. We’re determined to not let that happen again.”

Launching what they called a “Progressives Unite 2020” campaign, DFA and 17 other groups pledged to “focus our fight for the nomination against candidates supported by the corporate wing, instead of fighting each other.”

For Biden, the anxiety on the left represents a turnaround from just last fall, when moderate Democrats were loudly voicing concerns about their candidates and two potential alternatives, Deval Patrick and Michael Bloomberg, announced late runs.

It was only after that unrest, a strategist working with another presidential candidate said, that Biden seemed to “get it together.”

“I can’t tell if he was scared straight or if it was just the longer ramp-up of a more seasoned candidate,” the strategist said. “But it sure seems like ever since that mortal threat of Bloomberg and Patrick, he’s cruising — he’s finding his stride.”

Biden gained endorsements from the ranks of the Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, Julián Castro and Booker campaigns. And he stepped up his fundraising — collecting about $23 million in the final quarter of 2019. Though that was not the biggest haul among the field, in a campaign defined by momentum, it marked Biden’s best fundraising quarter of the year.

Then, early this month, Trump’s intervention in Iran turned the focus of the primary for the first time to foreign affairs, which accentuated long-held policy differences between Biden and Sanders and appeared to elevate each of them with moderate Democrats and progressives, respectively.

While calling the race “still wide open,” former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said that for Biden, “I just think the stars are aligning his way.”

“Now what he needs to do, I believe, is end up either second or third in both Iowa and New Hampshire,” said Richardson, who ran for president in 2008. “And then, I think if that happens, he will have a clear path, because I know he’s strong in South Carolina, and Nevada, I think, will be the state that starts tilting in his direction.”

Trump gets huge boost from anti-abortion group

Before Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, agreed to chair the Donald J. Trump for President Pro-life Coalition in 2016, she requested a list of commitments in writing from the Republican nominee.

To ensure that Trump, who described himself as “very pro-choice” not two decades earlier, wouldn’t betray anti-abortion conservatives as president, Dannenfelser asked that he promise to strip Planned Parenthood of federal funding, codify into law the Hyde Amendment limiting the use of federal money for abortions, enact legislation to ban abortion after 20 weeks and strictly nominate anti-abortion justices to the Supreme Court.

Despite the fulfillment of just one of those promises — two conservative Trump nominees now sit on the high court — Dannenfelser’s group is preparing to reward the president handsomely: This week, SBA List and its affiliated super PAC, Women Speak Out, will launch a $52 million effort to support Trump's reelection and protect Republicans’ slim majority in the Senate.

It’s the largest election-year spend so far for the GOP women’s group, which dropped $18 million on voter contact and advertising in 2016 and $32 million in the 2018 midterm cycle. And it comes after Planned Parenthood, a leading foe of the Trump administration, committed on Thursday to spending $45 million on its 2020 effort to boost candidates who support abortion rights.

The organization, which has closely aligned itself with the Trump administration (Dannenfelser’s husband is a public liaison official inside the White House), says it has visited nearly half a million homes across several battleground states already this cycle, and plans to connect with 4 million voters in total before the November election.

“After the Billy Bush tapes came out, it was a trying time,” said an official involved with the group, referring to a recording released shortly before the 2016 election in which Trump is heard bragging about sexually assaulting women. “But we continued to support him and what we have now is the most pro-life president in American history.”

Describing 2020 as “the ultimate high-stakes battle,” this person said SBA List would launch full canvassing operations in nine critical states — Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Michigan, Wisconsin, Texas, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Iowa — in addition to running digital ads and ramping up its advocacy for federal and state policy changes related to abortion access.

Grassroots volunteers and paid staffers have been instructed to target traditional Republican voters, as well as Hispanic Americans and moderate Democrats “who consider themselves pro-choice but see extreme positions like support for late-term abortion, infanticide and abortion activists posing as federal judges as a bridge too far,” according to a memo describing the group’s electoral effort and obtained by POLITICO.

“As we have in the last three election cycles, we anticipate that SBA List-Women Speak Out PAC efforts will impact tens of thousands of votes in key races, providing the margin of victory,” the memo states.

SBA List has long been a prominent player in social conservative efforts to restrict public funding for abortion providers and limit abortion procedures to cases in which the life or health of the mother is endangered. Early in Trump’s presidency, the group was heavily involved in a push to block family-planning clinics that receive taxpayer funding from referring women for abortions or commingling their finances with abortion providers. Officials with the Health and Human Services Department began implementing the new rule last July, following the reversal of a nationwide preliminary injunction against it.

Trump has also revived the so-called Mexico City Policy, a Reagan-era restriction on the flow of U.S. aid to foreign abortion providers, and expanded it to include nongovernmental organizations that provide abortion-related services or lobby for abortion rights. And both of Trump’s Supreme Court nominees, Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch, were handpicked from a list developed and widely supported by conservative and anti-abortion groups.

Kavanaugh and Gorsuch will be put to the test this summer, when the Supreme Court is expected to deliver its opinion on a challenge to a Louisiana law that requires doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at hospitals within 30 miles of their clinics. Critics of the law contend that it would leave the state with only one doctor authorized to perform abortions, while proponents have argued that it protects the health and safety of women seeking abortions.

The Louisiana law is one of several momentous cases the high court is slated to rule on by the 2020 election. Anti-abortion groups, including SBA List, have used recent controversies over abortion laws in Alabama, New York and Georgia to galvanize their supporters and try to pick off independent voters who might oppose looser restrictions on late-term abortions.

A June 2019 survey by Monmouth University’s Polling Institute found that one-third of U.S. voters would consider the candidate’s views on abortion as a top factor in their vote for president this fall, while another 30 percent said it would play a somewhat important role in whom they choose to support.

Impeachment trial schedule: Upcoming proceedings

After much delay, the Senate impeachment trial for President Donald Trump is off and running.

This week has seen a flurry of developments that could affect the course of the trial, including Rudy Giuliani associate Lev Parnas’ revelation on Wednesday that the president “knew exactly what was going on” and a new government watchdog report released Thursday that concluded the White House budget office violated the law when it froze U.S. military aid to Ukraine.

Democrats will seek additional evidence to be submitted during the trial, but Senate Majority Mitch McConnell has maintained that any decision on hearing from new witnesses will be delayed until after opening arguments.

Here’s what is expected to happen in the days ahead:

Impeachment trial schedule


The House has a 5 p.m. deadline to file its trial brief.


The president’s trial brief is due.


The House’s rebuttal to the president’s is due.

12:30 pm.: The Senate reconvenes.

1 p.m.: The Senate will sit as a court of impeachment for Trump’s trial.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has said he’s likely to force votes on impeachment witnesses on this day, but as of Thursday night has yet to see the text of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's organization resolution.

Where to livestream the trial on Tuesday

You can watch livestreams for major impeachment events on Politico.com. Keep up with the latest developments from our journalists on Twitter.

Where senators stand on impeachment
Keep track of which Senators are for and against removing Trump from office, and where they stand on the House impeachment efforts.

Lev Parnas: Trump tried to fire Yovanovitch multiple times

Lev Parnas, an indicted associate of President Donald Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, is alleging that Trump tried multiple times to fire the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, and is offering more details into the back-and-forth campaign to push Ukraine into launching an investigation to damage the president’s political rival.

In an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, the second part of which aired on Thursday night, Parnas elaborated on remarks that paint a far more involved role for the president in Giuliani’s dealings with Ukraine. Parnas alleged that Trump was fully in the know about efforts to push the Ukrainian government into opening a public investigation into Democratic rival Joe Biden’s family and the fallout that it caused.

Parnas told Maddow that Trump had tried to fire Ambassador Maria Yovanovitch multiple times, including during a dinner they had together at the Trump hotel near the White House. Trump has repeatedly denied knowing Parnas, though social media posts show them together at social events.

Parnas contended that Trump ordered Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the national security adviser at the time, John Bolton, to fire Yovanovitch but that they did not go through with it. A smear campaign was concocted, he theorized, to create more sympathy for a Yovanovitch purge.

“I mean, that was becoming comical because I couldn’t understand: You’re the president” and no one was firing her, Parnas said. “So that’s where I think the smear campaign started coming about. I think it was like a boost to them to help him if the media started, like, egging him on that there was really something there, he’d just tweet and fire her.”

Parnas said Yovanovitch’s ouster from her post last spring was entirely motivated by her resistance to Trump’s efforts to pressure the Ukrainians into an investigation. Yovanovitch testified in the House impeachment inquiry that she was subject to a smear campaign to get her thrown out of her post.

Parnas also alleged that former Energy Secretary Rick Perry was a direct intermediary in pressuring the Ukrainian government to launch an investigation into the Bidens, at one point even getting the country’s new president, Volodymyr Zelenksy, to agree to launching an anti-corruption probe. Parnas said Trump’s team was unsatisfied, however, that it was not explicitly centered on Biden.

“Every time somebody would meet Zelensky, they would, like, agree and then they would walk it back,” Parnas said. “So they announced something about corruption, that he’s going to get corruption, but Giuliani blew his lid on that, saying that’s not what we discussed. That wasn’t supposed to be a corruption announcement. It has to be about Joe Biden.”

Perry has denied involvement in the Ukraine pressure campaign. The Wall Street Journal reported in October that Perry had reached out to Giuliani at Trump’s behest to smooth a path for a Zelensky-Trump meeting. He denied even knowing about efforts to launch an investigation into the Bidens. Perry resigned in October.

A spokesman for Perry didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment late Thursday.

Parnas also described what he called a “cult”-like atmosphere among Trump’s followers. He said he believed many of the misinformation campaigns against Trump’s adversaries, including that Biden had been corrupt in Ukraine and that Yovanovitch had trash-talked the president. (Parnas said in segments of the interview aired Wednesday that he did not believe Biden had done wrong, and he apologized to Yovanovitch for believing that she had behaved unprofessionally).

He placed a lot of the cult mentality on Attorney General William Barr, who he said acted as Trump’s enforcer.

Trump “became that powerful when he got William Barr,” Parnas said. “People are scared. Am I scared? Yes. And because I think I’m more scared of our own Justice Department than of these criminals right now. Because, you know, the scariest part is getting locked in some room and being treated as an animal when you did nothing wrong. … And that's the tool that they’re using.”

Parnas was indicted on charges of campaign finance violations, though he has pleaded not guilty. Parnas initially resisted helping investigations into the president, but began cooperating after Trump denied knowing him.

The Justice Department has denied Parnas’ allegations that Barr was working to advance Trump’s agenda in Ukraine.

A department spokesperson declined to comment late Thursday.

Parnas’ comments come as the Senate on Thursday began its trial into Trump’s impeachment. The president was impeached on two counts related to the Ukraine scandal and the ensuing House inquiry: abusing power and obstructing Congress.

Georgia election systems could have been hacked before 2016 vote

A Georgia election server contains evidence that it was possibly hacked before the 2016 presidential election and the 2018 vote that gave Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp a narrow victory over Democratic opponent Stacey Abrams, according to an election security expert.

The incident, which occurred in late 2014, long before either of those elections, not only calls into question the integrity of Georgia’s voting machines during critical elections, but raises new questions about whether attackers were able to manipulate election data and voter information through the compromised server.

It's unclear who may have carried out the alleged attack or if voter information was altered, but Logan Lamb, the election security expert who uncovered the activity, believes that if hackers did breach the server, they could have gained “almost total control of the server, including abilities to modify files, delete data, and install malware.”

Georgia has already been at the center of questions about voter security, due to the fact that the state has used insecure paperless voting machines since 2002.

Additionally, Georgia counties were among those that Russian hackers targeted in 2016 when they breached some state web sites and probed others for vulnerabilities that would have given them access to voter registration databases and other election data and systems.

The Georgia server in question has been at the heart of a 2018 lawsuit brought by election integrity activists seeking to bar Georgia from using its paperless voting machines.

Lamb, who is an expert witness for the plaintiffs, uncovered the anomalies in an investigation for the plaintiffs. The allegation about the server, first reported by The Associated Press, were contained in an affidavit from Lamb filed Thursday in Atlanta federal court as part of the lawsuit.

Lamb declined to speak with POLITICO due to a court order, but one of the groups behind the case said his findings paint a disturbing picture about the state of elections in Georgia.

“It creates a very dark cloud over all of the previous elections because as we know there was no way to audit them, there was no ... attempt at accountability by the secretary of state, and the entire programming of elections was outsourced," said Marilyn Marks, executive director of the Coalition for Good Governance, one of the groups behind the lawsuit.

"[W]hat Logan’s findings show us … is that vulnerabilities were not just hypothetical as the state had been claiming. Now we know that it was a very real risk, but what we don’t know is just how bad did it get. And the public deserves to know," she said.

Georgia used the server to distribute critical election and voter registration files to counties throughout the state. The state has insisted, however, that it never distributed files to program voting machines through the server. Instead, it delivered these files to counties physically. But if the server was compromised, it could have been a vehicle to distribute malware to any county election worker who connected to it.

Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, did not respond immediately to a request for comment. Kemp served as secretary of state at the time of the 2016 election, before being elected governor in 2018.

The Center for Election Systems at Kennesaw State University, which was responsible for programming all of the voting machines in Georgia before every election, owned and operated the server in question. That server was already known to have security issues.

As POLITICO first reported, months before the 2016 election, Lamb discovered that the KSU server was improperly secured so that anyone could access sensitive election data stored on it, and it also had an unpatched vulnerability in so-called Drupal software the server used, which would have allowed attackers to take control of the server and alter or delete data on it, or to post malware that could have infected the computers of election officials accessing the server.

Logan made the discovery by chance when he visited the Center for Election Services website to learn more about their role in programming voting machines for Georgia.

After the POLITICO story published in June 2017, the plaintiffs filed their lawsuit and sought to obtain the server for evidence supporting their contention that Georgia’s election systems are not secure and could have been tampered with in the 2016 election.

But officials at Kennesaw wiped the server clean shortly after the plaintiffs filed their suit. The FBI had a mirror image of the server, which had been made in March 2017, but state officials fought to prevent the plaintiffs from obtaining it to examine. They lost that fight last year.

Only recently was Lamb able to examine the server for evidence of tampering. In his affidavit, Lamb said the server appears to have been compromised in December 2014, using an unpatched vulnerability called “Shellshock” that had been publicly revealed and widely reported three months earlier.

The Shellshock vulnerability is different from the Drupal one Lamb discovered when he visited the Center’s website in 2016. Both the Shellshock and Drupal vulnerabilities had been publicly exposed around the same time, but despite both receiving extensive media coverage and even a Department of Homeland Security alert in the case of Shellshock, officials at the Center for Election Systems failed to apply a patch to close either of them when the patches were released.

Although a log on the server shows some of the alleged intruder’s activity on it, there are signs the intruder may have deleted important information from the log, preventing Lamb from viewing everything that occurred.

A different log on the server that recorded access to the server’s content-management system — the software the Center used to publish files and content on the Center’s website for election officials to access — also thwarted Lamb’s investigation because he only had access to records going back to Nov. 10, 2016, a few days after the 2016 election. This prevented him from seeing who might have accessed the content-management system prior to that date or altered its contents.

Lamb suggests in his court document that the logs were deleted intentionally and this was done for suspicious reasons.

“I can think of no legitimate reason why records from that critical period of time should have been deleted,” he wrote.

But it's not uncommon for log files to only record data for a certain time period before they overwrite those records. Information about Drupal's access log published on a forum for Drupal developers and users indicates its access log saves data only for 16 weeks before deleting and overwriting it.

The other log Lamb was able to examine for the server itself does go back further, and this log shows that on Dec. 2, 2014, a new user named “Shellshock” was created on the server — the same name as the widely known vulnerability that was apparently used to get into the server.

About 15 minutes later, the log shows, the Shellshock vulnerability was patched on the server.

It’s common for hackers to immediately patch the vulnerability they used to access a system, in order to keep other potential attackers out and maintain their control of the system. Although it could have been a system administrator who patched the server and created the Shellshock user account, a security expert told POLITICO it’s unlikely.

“If I were a [system administrator], why would I create it and call it the same name as the [vulnerability]?” said Kevin Skoglund, an independent security expert. He said the suspicious name of the user account suggests the attackers may have been using automated software to scan for internet-connected servers containing the flaw. Once their malicious software found a vulnerable system, it may have been programmed to then automatically create a Shellshock user account on the system.

Lamb wrote in the court document that evidence in the log made it appear that the Shellshock user also tried to hide their activity once on the server. The log records a history of any commands initiated on the server, but it contained only a couple commands, suggesting the intruder may have deleted others.

There could be reasonable explanations for the suspicious activity Lamb spotted on the server.

“There may still be other explanations. It is possible, for example, that a CES employee” was the person behind the unusually named Shellshock account, he wrote in his court document.

But if a CES worker did apply the Shellshock patch in December, following the extensive media covered the Shellshock vulnerability had received three months earlier in September, it’s odd that they didn’t also patch the Drupal vulnerability that was publicly disclosed in October that year. The latter vulnerability was still on the server in August 2016 when Lamb visited it.

He believes the evidence points to an intruder.

“The long unpatched software, unusual username, potentially modified command history, and near immediate patching of the Shellshock bug are all strong pieces of evidence that an outside attacker gained access to the KSU server by exploiting the Shellshock bug,” he wrote. Further investigation would need to be done to confirm this, he noted.

Warren and Bernie try to move on as conflict shakes 2020 primary

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren don’t want to talk about it.

“I have no further comment on this,” Warren told reporters Thursday. Sanders didn’t want any part of it either, staying quiet as reporters pelted him with questions, while his campaign circulated a set of new talking points, obtained by POLITICO, that read: “Please refrain from commenting on the CNN story on the meeting between Bernie and Sen. Elizabeth Warren.”

“Goal: Take the high road,” it added.

Warren and Sanders' presidential campaigns are publicly taking steps to move on from the feuding of the past week, after trading accusations of calling the other a “liar” in a tense hot-mic conversation following Tuesday’s debate. But it’s proving more difficult than either would like, thanks to months of quietly escalating tensions that suddenly boiled over this week. Even as Sanders and Warren mostly laid off each other earlier this year, many in Warren's orbit privately seethed over escalating, thinly veiled criticism from Sanders' top aides and surrogates, while some Sanders supporters have viewed Warren with disdain since she declined to join their cause in 2016.

Conflict between the progressive campaigns threatens to distract from their primary strategies at a critical time, less than three weeks before the Iowa caucuses. Sanders wants to spend the final weeks taking on former Vice President Joe Biden on policy, while Warren is intent on pitching herself as a unity candidate with appeal to both wings of the Democratic Party.

Warren to Sanders: 'I think you just called me a liar on national television'

And if one of them is to win the nomination, they will likely need significant backing from the other’s supporters eventually, which is why the back-and-forth has freaked out left-wing organizations and activists who see the conflict as a boon to Biden — and insist it’s all in the rearview mirror.

“Both camps are over this and focused on drilling into Iowa voters’ heads that Joe Biden is the least inspirational and least electable nominee we can put forward,” said Stephanie Taylor, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a group aligned with the Warren campaign.

But some allies of both campaigns have continued talking about the conflict. “She betrayed him as a friend and showed him that there are no friends in politics,” Ja’Mal Green, a Sanders surrogate and Chicago community organizer, tweeted Thursday in reference to Warren’s decision to not endorse him in 2016. Sanders campaign co-chair Nina Turner hit Warren for her past as a registered Republican and chided her for not shaking Sanders' hand after the this week's debate.

Adam Jentleson, a former Harry Reid aide close to the Warren campaign, wrote on Twitter Wednesday night that Sanders used “doublespeak” to try to deflect Warren’s allegation and retweeted references to “Bernie Bros.”

It shows why fully exorcising the conflict will be more difficult than simply having the candidates proclaim that it’s over. Warren and many on her campaign responded intensely after POLITICO reported that the Sanders campaign had quietly deployed talking points to its canvassers in multiple early states that included language attacking her electability.

The talking points weren’t particularly vicious, but the leaked script struck a raw nerve with Warren and her campaign because they felt they had held up their end of a nonaggression pact with Sanders — even after some Sanders staffers and surrogates had spent most of the race hitting Warren. The Warren campaign got so frustrated about critical tweets and comments from Sanders’ staffers that it privately expressed its displeasure to Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir last summer.

But top Sanders aides kept throwing elbows throughout the fall. "There are people who didn't have the same guts and the same courage as Sen. Bernie Sanders to run in 2016. There are some people who sat on the sidelines when it was hard,” Turner, Sanders’ campaign co-chair, said late last year, one of many jabs — some veiled, some not — that Warren allies stewed over, frustrated that Warren world wasn’t hitting back. “There was only one person who stood up to the establishment and his name is Bernard Sanders," Turner continued.

Many in Sanders' orbit, meanwhile, believe Warren’s campaign retaliated by planting a CNN story earlier this week — attributed to anonymous sources, two of whom were described as having talked to Warren afterward — that said Sanders told Warren he didn’t believe a woman could win in 2020. Sanders has denied the charge.

After his on-the-record denial, Warren then issued her own statement backing up the report. “I thought a woman could win; he disagreed,” her statement read.

For some Sanders supporters, grievances they have held against Warren since 2016 — when she stayed neutral in the primary and then pockets of them shouted, “We trusted you! We trusted you!” as Warren gave a speech supporting Hillary Clinton at the Democratic National Convention — then fully spilled out in force.

Some pro-Sanders Twitter accounts have since taken to calling Warren a “snake” and filling her social media with snake emojis, an online tactic that first gained prominence during a fight between Taylor Swift and Kim Kardashian in 2016. It’s unclear whether or how many are bots trying to stoke conflict or Republicans; at least some are professed fans of other Democratic candidates or even people on the right.

And, of course, Thursday’s remarks were not the first time the campaigns had tried to head off potential conflict: Both campaigns signaled to reporters and supporters ahead of Tuesday’s debate that they wanted to cool down the tension and pivot back to their original strategies.

“Bernie is my friend, and I am not here to try to fight with Bernie,” Warren said onstage at the debate.

“I don't want to waste a whole lot of time on this, because this is what Donald Trump and maybe some of the media want,” Sanders said.

But the two candidates’ accounts of their meeting in December 2018 — when Warren alleges Sanders said a woman couldn’t win in 2020 — are irreconcilable. That fact was highlighted by their post-debate conversation.

"I think you called me a liar on national TV," Warren told Sanders after the debate, according to the audio published by CNN. At first saying they should talk later, Sanders shot back: "You called me a liar. You told me —,” he said before pivoting. “All right, let's not do it now."

Meanwhile, Biden’s allies are happy to keep talking about it. Ex-Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Biden endorser who introduced the former vice president at a recent fundraiser, slammed Sanders in a Thursday interview with POLITICO, saying he was trying to “Hillarize” Warren.

Here’s what the Parnas revelations mean for Trump

Lev Parnas, the indicted Rudy Giuliani associate at the center of the Ukraine controversy, has disrupted the days leading up to President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial.

With a slate of newly released documents from House investigators and round of TV interviews, Parnas and his attorney have offered remarkable — if true — details about just how far Trump and his allies were willing to go to dig up dirt on the president’s potential 2020 rival, Joe Biden.

Text exchanges show potential surveillance of the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch. Digital chats reveal Ukraine’s former prosecutor general, Yuriy Lutsenko, dangling dirt on Biden in exchange for Yovanovitch’s firing. And Parnas has alleged he was acting at the behest of the president.

Each allegation already has the potential to fuel new investigations — on Thursday morning alone, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi mused about a special prosecutor and the Ukrainian government opened its own probe — and change the landscape of Trump’s Senate trial.

And Parnas might not be done.

“You understand what’s going on,” said his attorney, Joseph Bondy, earlier this week. “Stay tuned.”

Here’s what the latest revelations mean and what to watch for from Parnas in the coming days.

Parnas is likely angling for a lighter punishment

Parnas and his attorney are doing what they think will be most beneficial for them, even if they are arguing it’s also what’s best for the country.

When Parnas handed his personal documents over to Congress, it was likely an attempt to show federal prosecutors and the judge assigned to his case, U.S. District Court Judge J. Paul Oetken, that Parnas wanted to help investigators however he can. And it may have been a move the legal team adopted after a cooperation agreement with federal prosecutors did not work out.

Oetken — an appointee of President Barack Obama and known as a light sentencer in the legal world — was seen as a fortunate draw for Parnas. The current strategy may be an attempt to appeal to that reputation.

“We have decided to speak to the audience that will listen to us,” Bondy said. “It’s in Lev’s best interest to be as truthful as he can be.”

Addressing the possibility of a cooperation agreement, Bondy noted, “with regard to the Southern District of New York … we’ve achieved many objectives I would have in trying to get a cooperation agreement with the federal government.”

“But,” he added, “we are also doing what’s in the best interest of America.”

Parnas pleaded not guilty last October to the federal indictment accusing him and Igor Fruman of funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars in foreign money into U.S. elections, including a pro-Trump super PAC. Federal prosecutors told Oetken in December they were considering filing additional charges against the two men, one of several issues that have delayed the judge from setting a trial date in the case.

More Trump allies targeted Yovanovitch

The documents released this week fill in more blanks about why Yovanovitch was specifically targeted.

Previously, sworn testimony from career diplomats and foreign service officers had shown that the Yovanovitch smear campaign was waged by Parnas, Fruman, Giuliani and the former Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko. The circle was actually wider than that, though, according to the new Parnas materials. A lawyer with close ties to the White House, Victoria Toensing, was also eager to see Yovanovitch removed.

"Is the Wicket Witch gone?" Toensing wrote on March 23, 2019. Parnas replied with some images and said “the [Daily] wire and Breitbart are doing story's,” referencing the conservative media’s drumbeat of negative coverage about the ambassador.

Still, Toensing pressed: "And still no movement?"

Toensing and her husband, Joe diGenova, represent Ukrainian oligarch Dmitry Firtash, who is fighting extradition to the U.S. and reportedly leveraged his network of sources in Ukraine to help pursue the political probes sought by Giuliani and Trump. Parnas told MSNBC on Wednesday that he tried to get the extradition order quashed in exchange for Firtash’s help undermining special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation and digging up dirt on Biden.

Harry Sargeant III, an American businessman and influential GOP Trump donor, also appeared invested in Yovanovitch’s departure.

“She’s gone,” Parnas texted Sargeant on March 23. “AWESOME!!!” he replied.

Parnas thought he was Trump’s direct proxy

Parnas’ documents and interviews have also undermined Trump allies’ claims that Giuliani and his associates were freelancing with their scheme to oust Yovanovitch and gather dirt on the Bidens.

“He lied,” Parnas told MSNBC on Wednesday when asked about Trump’s claims that he didn’t know Parnas or his associate, Fruman.

"He was aware of all my movements,” Parnas said. “I wouldn't do anything without the consent of Rudy Giuliani or the president.”

When meeting with Ukrainian officials, Parnas said, he would call Giuliani and put him on speakerphone in front of the Ukrainains to prove that he was legitimate and acting on behalf of the president and his personal lawyer.

The documents also include an email from Trump’s other lawyer, Jay Sekulow, revealing that Sekulow spoke to Trump about his former lawyer John Dowd representing Parnas and Fruman. “The president consents to allowing your representation of Mr. Parnas and Mr. Furman [sic],” Sekulow wrote on October 2, 2019.

Parnas handed over photos of himself with members of Trump’s family and his administration — including Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, and then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions — further highlighting his ties and access to the president and members of his inner circle.

Giuliani represented himself as acting on Trump’s behalf, too. Included in the trove of new documents is a letter Giuliani wrote to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on May 10, 2019, asking for a meeting in his “capacity as personal counsel to President Trump and with his knowledge and consent.”

At the time, Giuliani signaled in the media that the visit was related to his pursuit of investigations that might be beneficial to Trump.

“I’m asking them to do an investigation that they’re doing already and that other people are telling them to stop,” Giuliani said at the time. “And I’m going to give them reasons why they shouldn’t stop it because that information will be very, very helpful to my client, and may turn out to be helpful to my government.”

Giuliani has not responded to requests for comment about the Parnas charges. In a text to a Washington Post reporter, the former New York mayor replied, “Believe him at your peril.”

There could be new investigations

The fresh details from Parnas has Capitol Hill and the legal world buzzing about whether it has created new avenues for prosecutors.

Already, the Ukrainian government has said it will look into the surveillance allegations, which came out in text exchanges between Parnas and a Trump donor, Robert F. Hyde. It’s unclear if the U.S. government will do the same. Bondy said the FBI has “never” questioned Parnas about the stalking issue.

The FBI declined to comment, citing its “standard practice of neither confirming nor denying the existence of an investigation.”

On Capitol Hill on Thursday, Pelosi suggested that in the past, the mounting evidence that was emerging would normally lead to a special prosecutor. But she conceded that such a route was unlikely with the administration’s current leadership.

The veracity of some of Parnas’ most explosive claims in recent interviews — including that Attorney General Bill Barr was “on the team” pursuing Biden dirt — has also been called into question. The documents released so far don’t corroborate the Barr accusation, for example, and Hyde’s surveillance claims are being described by Parnas and others as an odd, unserious boast. Additionally, Hyde has a history of erratic behavior and outlandish statements, POLITICO reported on Wednesday.

Still, FBI officials did visit both the home and business of Hyde on Thursday, CNN reported. It’s unclear whether that action was spurred by the newly released documents or if it was a bid to ensure that the GOP operative didn’t destroy potential evidence as they continue to investigate the case.

Overall, though, legal experts noted that some of the latest Parnas claims and document dumps represent hearsay evidence — appearing largely based on what he was hearing second-hand from figures like Rudy, instead of directly from Trump or Barr.

The evidence could influence the Senate trial

Democrats on Thursday used the Parnas discoveries to stump for their argument that Trump’s Senate impeachment trial should include witnesses and fresh evidence.

Senators have still not set down the final rules governing the trial, leaving an opening for Democrats to keep pounding the drum for their preferred trial. But Republicans showed no indication that their stance had changed — most want a contained, quick trial with no unexpected testimony or revelations.

Bondy indicated that he was squarely on the side of opening up the trial, and acknowledged that they were trying to influence the upper chamber’s proceedings with the media blitz and congressional cooperation.

“We are trying to raise awareness for the need for there to be a fair tribunal, with additional evidence and witnesses called,” Bondy said in an interview just after Parnas transmitted the first batch of documents to the House Intelligence Committee. “We are raising the stakes.”

Parnas may have more evidence

The Parnas-Bondy publicity campaign continued throughout Thursday, with no indication that it will abate in the coming days.

Only minutes after Trump repeatedly and vigorously denied knowing Parnas Thursday afternoon, Bondy was swift to issue a snarky tweet with a video of Trump and Parnas interacting at Mar-a-Lago, the president’s South Florida resort.

It was indicative of Bondy’s social media campaign he has waged in recent days, tweeting out short photo slideshows of Parnas grinning next to Trump and his family, issuing calls to “Call the witnesses. Hear the sworn testimony,” and rounding it off with call-to-action hashtags: #LetLevSpeak #LevSpeaks #LevRemembers #TheyAllKnew.

But in an interview, Bondy was coy about exactly what else they might have to offer.

“Yes — but no,” Bondy said on Thursday when asked whether Parnas has additional material to back up his claims.

Florida lawmaker backs Bloomberg

NEW YORK — Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) is endorsing Mike Bloomberg’s unconventional bid for president, telling POLITICO on Thursday that she believes his organization and resources best position him to beat Donald Trump in the fall.

Murphy — Bloomberg’s second congressional endorsement, and the first from outside New York — also cited the billionaire self-funder’s commitment to advancing gun control measures across the country.

“The work that Mayor Bloomberg has done through Everytown has been critical in allowing us to notch some of the legislative wins,” Murphy said on Thursday, referring to the Everytown for Gun Safety nonprofit that Bloomberg founded. “And I think Mayor Bloomberg, whether it is as an executive or as mayor or as a philanthropist, is focused on achieving results. And I believe this country needs that approach.”

Bloomberg’s campaign is staffing up big in Florida and sees the state — with its large population of New York expats and Jewish Americans — as a top target as part of its unprecedented strategy to compete in states that start voting on Super Tuesday.

Murphy co-chairs the Blue Dog Coalition, which prioritizes fiscal restraint and national defense. She will serve as a national co-chairwoman for the Bloomberg campaign, which this week launched its “Women for Mike” effort with a big New York reception near Times Square.

“In order to win Florida you need message and machine, and I think that Mayor Bloomberg has both,” she said. “He is already making commitments to building that machine there, and I think that is critical.”

Murphy is Bloomberg’s second congressional endorsement this week, after Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.), whose backing was notable in part because the former New York mayor had previously donated to Rose’s opponent, then-Rep. Dan Donovan, during the GOP primary for that seat.

In a statement, Bloomberg lauded Murphy as someone who understands that dysfunction in Washington is holding the country back — as well as her own push for more gun control measures following a 2016 mass shooting in Florida that killed 49 people and wounded dozens more.

“We share a vision for breaking the gridlock in Congress, ensuring the safety of all Americans and giving them a larger voice in our future,” Bloomberg said. “After the Pulse nightclub shooting, she ran for office to bring change to Washington, including common sense gun laws — and as president, I will work closely with her to get it done.”

Bernie 'will play dirty': Ex-Vermont governor slams Sanders

A former Vermont governor and ex-chair of the Democratic Governors Association is taking aim at Bernie Sanders and his campaign, accusing the senator of trying to “Hillarize” Elizabeth Warren.

In an interview with POLITICO, Peter Shumlin — who has endorsed Joe Biden for president in 2020 and served as Vermont’s governor from 2011 to 2017, while Sanders represented the state in the Senate — warned that Sanders, an independent and a self-described democratic socialist, ultimately did not feel loyalty to Democrats.

“What I’ve seen in Bernie’s politics is he and his team feel they’re holier than the rest. In the end, they will play dirty because they think that they pass a purity test that Republicans and most Democrats don’t pass,” said Shumlin. “What you’re seeing now is, in the end, even if he considers you a friend, like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie will come first. That’s the pattern we’ve seen over the years in Vermont, and that’s what we are seeing now nationally.”

Sanders’ campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

The salvo from Shumlin is the latest reaction to an ongoing spat between Sanders and Warren, two longtime friends who had taken part in a nonaggression pact before entering the 2020 presidential primary. But tensions have been building slowly between the two, coming to a head at Tuesday’s debate, when a hot mic caught Warren asking Sanders after the debate if he was calling her a liar on TV, after he denied saying in an earlier private conversation that a woman could not be elected president.

Shumlin, who also served two terms as DGA chair, slammed Sanders’ recent campaign tactics, reported by POLITICO, that cast Warren as elite. Sanders’ campaign briefly distributed talking points for supporters to use door-to-door, saying that Warren supporters “are highly-educated, more affluent people who are going to show up and vote Democratic no matter what” and that “she's bringing no new bases into the Democratic Party.”

And the day after Warren clashed with Sanders following a Democratic debate in Des Moines, #Warrenisasnake was among the hashtags trending on Twitter.

Shumlin accused Sanders of trying to “Hillarize” Warren, saying the senator had cast Hillary Clinton, too, as an elitist, contributing to divisions in the Democratic electorate.

“We should be weakening Donald Trump, not each other,” Shumlin said. “I’m concerned that we’re seeing a replay of the kind of dynamics that didn’t allow Hillary to win.”

Shumlin said his critique of Sanders is not sour grapes, noting that Sanders endorsed him and campaigned for him in Vermont. Shumlin also had attempted to enact a single-payer health care system in the state, an effort that ultimately failed.

Still, Shumlin teed off on Sanders’ relationship with Vermont Democrats.

“Don’t forget, the first office he won was beating the Democratic mayor of Burlington. He never endorsed most Democrats until his Senate career,” Shumlin said. “The only way he could win the Senate seat and avoid a Democrat winning the nomination and splitting the vote in the general election has been to run for the Democratic nomination, win it and immediately turn it down.”

In 2016, Sanders drew criticism for initially not campaigning for the Democratic nominee in the general election race in Vermont. He did later cut an ad for the candidate.

During the 2018 midterms, Sanders stumped for Democratic candidates across nine battleground states.

Microsoft to ax carbon emissions in new climate push

Microsoft Corp. said Thursday it would become "carbon negative" by 2030 as part of an ambitious strategy to erase the tech giant's greenhouse gas emissions.

The Redmond, Wash.-based company said it would increase its internal carbon price and extend it to suppliers to achieve the goal, which would mean it was removing more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than its business was emitting. And it set a long-term goal of negating all the emissions from its direct sources and power consumption since its 1975 founding by 2050.

The announcement comes as politicians, countries and companies have increasingly rallied around a 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that suggested the world must neutralize carbon emissions by mid-century to avoid locking in catastrophic effects of climate change. Earlier this week, BlackRock, the world's largest asset manager, said it would put climate change at the center of its investing strategy.

"While the world will need to reach net zero, those of us who can afford to move faster and go further should do so," Microsoft President Brad Smith wrote in a blog post. He noted the firm won't rely on carbon offsets and would instead transition to 100 percent renewable energy, including at its data centers, by 2025. And it would include in its pledge the indirect, or so-called scope 3 emissions, related to the production and use of its products.

Microsoft, with a valuation that topped $1 trillion last year, is by far the largest company to set a target that would wipe out its carbon dioxide emissions. The firm said it expects to emit 16 million metric tons of carbon this year, greater than the entire country of Slovenia.

Smith said Microsoft will "make carbon reduction an explicit aspect of our procurement processes," invest in new technology and boost climate policy advocacy.

The company will open a $1 billion program to spur development of carbon reduction, capture and removal technologies. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has invested in direct air capture technology, a nascent concept that pulls heat-trapping gases from the air. Climate scientists argue such a kit might be necessary given current emissions trajectories.

Bloomberg makes his case to Dems on Capitol Hill

Michael Bloomberg on Thursday took his pitch to Capitol Hill as he looks to squeeze his way into a crowded Democratic primary.

The New York billionaire met with dozens of Democrats as he sought to convince them of his highly unconventional — yet extraordinarily well-funded — road to the White House. Bloomberg’s message to members: His campaign isn’t wasting time on Iowa but is focused on defeating President Donald Trump with an unprecedented ground game in battleground states.

And for some, at least, it’s working.

“I came away thinking, you know, this guy could win,” said Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.), who attended back-to-back meetings with Bloomberg on Thursday.

When Vargas asked the former mayor how he could actually secure the nomination, Bloomberg pointed out that “no one’s gotten the Democratic Party around them.”

On paper, the New York businessman might have a tough case to make. The former Republican has a contentious track record on policing minorities and voiced doubt on the #MeToo movement. He entered the Democratic race months after the rest of the field, missing the ballot deadline for the four earliest states — a decision Bloomberg argued during Thursday’s meetings that gives him the time to focus on more delegate-heavy states.

But Bloomberg used a slate of closed-door meetings to frame himself as a centrist who can go the distance against Trump and invest heavily in swing states. He's now working to woo lawmakers across the spectrum whose endorsements could be crucial to boosting his credibility as a national candidate outside of the early-voting states.

That includes a group of Democrats who might otherwise be among his fiercest critics: the Hispanic Caucus, whose members have condemned the kinds of “stop and frisk” policies Bloomberg helped promote in New York.

In a breakfast meeting with Hispanic Caucus members, Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) pressed Bloomberg on providing protections for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country. Bloomberg assured her that he would “absolutely” put his “political muscle” behind getting it done.

“He came across as sincere and knowledgeable about immigration and the need to get that done and make it a priority,” Sanchez said.

The visit comes amid a growing Washington buzz about the former New York mayor, whose campaign staff has exploded in numbers in recent weeks, including some former Hill aides drawn to Bloomberg’s message as well as the significant pay bump.

Bloomberg’s campaign — like other centrists seeking the nomination — has stressed electability in purple states. But he also sought to distinguish himself with efforts in must-win states like Michigan by pointing out his massive ground game in both urban centers and smaller cities that were virtually ignored in 2016.

He also nabbed his first congressional endorsement this week from Rep. Max Rose, a freshman Democrat from Staten Island who backed Bloomberg despite Bloomberg’s donations to his GOP opponent, former Rep. Dan Donovan, in 2018.

Some of Bloomberg’s staff have been quietly reaching out to more congressional offices, including Democrats who had previously endorsed Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who pulled out of the presidential race earlier this week.

One Democrat, who declined to be identified, described Bloomberg as “one of the biggest vultures” among the 2020 contenders — but then acknowledged the candidate's strength in the field.

In all, Bloomberg sat down separately with campaign arms of the Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, as well as the pro-business group New Democrats and leaders of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition. He also held individual meetings with members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Top Bloomberg aides also met with a group of Democratic chiefs of staff.

As he looks to make inroads on Capitol Hill, Bloomberg is going up against Hill heavyweights like Joe Biden and Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who have steadily amassed far more endorsements over the past year.

Bloomberg has struggled with outreach to black and brown voters, who have not been quick to rally behind him in the two months he’s been running. Super Tuesday states, a number of which have large Latino and black populations, are key to Bloomberg’s pathway to the nomination.

Still, both Hispanic and black House members said Bloomberg came off as contrite for his history on New York City’s “stop and frisk” policy and again called it a “mistake.”

Bloomberg’s message, according to people in the room, was essentially: “I know I’m not the smartest guy on everything, but I know how to attract good people, talented people and I know how to delegate.”

At one point in the meeting, Bloomberg began speaking Spanish, a language he's been practicing for years, including with a tutor, according to attendees.

Sanchez, who hasn’t endorsed anyone and is uncertain whether she will before the March 3 California primary, credited Bloomberg for engaging Latino voters early.

“He’s the first candidate that’s not thinking about the Latino community as an afterthought or as icing on top of the cake, but as a primary bloc of voters that needs to be engaged early and continuously,” Sanchez said.

A majority of the Democratic Caucus has not publicly backed a candidate, and several say Bloomberg’s centrist views — and his promise to use his personal fortune to spend unprecedented sums in battleground states — have piqued their interest.

Bloomberg has shown interest in Hispanic outreach in South Florida, said freshman Democratic Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.), who in 2018 flipped a GOP-held seat that includes Little Havana. Shalala, who is not endorsing until her state’s March 17 primary, said she coordinates with candidates who want to hold events in her district. She has helped Biden and plans to help Bloomberg, with whom she has a long history.

Many swing-seat Democrats have generally gravitated toward moderate candidates in the presidential primary, for fear that the liberals will imperil their reelection in red-leaning territory.

“I am impressed by him. I’m very impressed by his history. I think he is a very capable candidate,” said freshman Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Calif.), who flipped an Orange County seat in 2018. “His business acumen coupled with his political experience running New York City, which I think is larger than 39 states. It’s a great combination.”

Asked whether he planned to make an endorsement in the Democratic presidential primary, he said: “Stay tuned.”

Unlike most in the 2020 field, Bloomberg has never held public office as a Democrat, let alone worked in Washington, though he holds extensive ties to the nation’s political establishment.

Still, he won praise from many D.C. Democrats after pouring $80 million into the 2018 midterms. He helped finance some of the biggest Democratic upsets, making late investments that boosted Reps. Kendra Horn (D-Okla.) and Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.) to victory in Trump-won districts.

“I think that this fight will go to the floor of the convention and I think anything can happen,” said Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.).

Trump vigorously denies knowing Lev Parnas after explosive claims

Trump on Lev Parnas: 'I don’t know who this man is.'

President Donald Trump on Thursday repeatedly and vigorously denied knowing Lev Parnas, one day after the associate of Rudy Giuliani made the explosive claim that the president was fully aware of his actions in Ukraine.

Parnas went on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow show Wednesday night, claiming the president “knew exactly what was going on.” He said that the president and Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, asked him to urge Ukrainian officials to publicly open an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden, his reelection rival.

“He was aware of all of my movements,” Parnas told Maddow. “I wouldn’t do anything without the consent of Rudy Giuliani or the president.”

Trump said Thursday that he doesn’t know Parnas at all, and dismissed the existence of photos of him and Parnas together, saying he takes pictures with “thousands of people including today that I didn’t meet.”

He accused Parnas, who was indicted in October over an alleged campaign finance scheme, of trying to “make a deal for himself.”

“I don’t know who this man is,” Trump said. “Oftentimes I’ll be taking a picture with somebody and say, I wonder what newspaper that one will appear in. I don’t know him. Perhaps he’s a fine man. Perhaps he’s not. I know nothing about him.”

Trump has made an effort to distance himself from Parnas in the past. In October, after Parnas and his Florida-based partner, Igor Fruman, were indicted, the president denied knowing either of Giuliani’s associates.

Trump on Thursday also said he had no knowledge of a May 2019 letter from Giuliani to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that was part of a trove of documents that was turned over by Parnas and released by lawmakers this week.

In the letter, which was obtained from Parnas’ cell phone, Giuliani asked for a half-hour meeting with Zelensky as he was seeking investigations that could boost Trump's domestic political interests. And Giuliani made clear that he was acting with Trump’s “knowledge and consent” and in his capacity as a “personal” attorney for the president.

The sentiment ran counter to Trump's recent claims that he pushed for the probes on behalf of the U.S. government.

“I didn’t know about his specific letter, but if he wrote a letter, it wouldn’t have been a big deal," Trump said on Thursday. "Rudy was always — it was very important to Rudy that I be a great president, and that’s OK with me. It was very important to a lot of people because our country was going to hell. And now our country is on a path that we haven’t seen in decades and decades.”

Biden says he would consider O'Rourke or Castro as running mates

Former Vice President Joe Biden said Wednesday he would consider former presidential candidates Beto O’Rourke and Julián Castro to be a running mate or a member of his Cabinet if he is elected president.

O’Rourke, a former Texas congressman and high-profile 2018 Senate candidate, was an early frontrunner for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination before fading into the field's lower tiers and dropping out in early November. Castro, the former secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama, ended his yearlong campaign earlier this month after struggling in the polls. Biden said he has spoken with both of them since their exits.

“My plea to both of them is that they stay engaged,” Biden said Wednesday in an interview with The Dallas Morning News. “They are talented, talented people.”

Biden also told The Sacramento Bee on Tuesday that he would consider another former 2020 rival, California Sen. Kamala Harris, for “anything that she would be interested in,” including vice president. Harris and Biden notably sparred on the debate stage early in the primary process, when the senator was critical of Biden's past opposition to federally mandated busing to diversify schools.

The former vice president, among the leaders in the race for the Democratic nomination, has publicly kept an open mind about a potential running mate, telling attendees at a town hall event last December that he would consider picking a Republican to join his ticket, although he said he could not think of one specifically whom he might select.

"Whoever I would pick for vice president, and there's a lot of qualified women, there's a lot of qualified African Americans. There really truly are. There's a plethora of really qualified people. Whomever I would pick were I fortunate enough to be your nominee, I'd pick somebody who was simpatico with me, who knew what ... my priorities were and knew what I wanted to [do]," Biden said in Exeter, N.H., on Dec. 30. "We could disagree on tactic, but strategically we'd have to be in the exact same page."

14 states sue Trump administration over food stamp rule

A coalition that includes attorneys general in 14 states, the District of Columbia and New York City are suing the Agriculture Department over a plan to impose stricter work requirements on millions of food stamp recipients.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday by mostly Democratic-led states, argues that USDA unlawfully limited states' discretion to exempt certain adults from work requirements for an extended period of time based on local employment conditions.

"Under well-settled law, the executive branch does not get to go forth with policies that Congress specifically rejected," District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine said in a call with reporters. He and New York State Attorney General Tish James are leading the lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

After a bitter partisan fight over the 2018 farm bill, congressional leaders agreed not to include sweeping changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that were pushed by a Republican-led House. But last year, the Trump administration began its own effort to rein in the program, arguing that the government should promote self-sufficiency when the U.S. economy is strong.

USDA recently finalized changes to SNAP that will apply to recipients who are able-bodied adults without children or other dependents. The changes take effect in April and are estimated to kick 688,000 adults off the program out of the more than 34 million people participating across the country.

“Denying access to vital SNAP benefits would only push hundreds of thousands of already vulnerable Americans into greater economic uncertainty," James said. "In so doing, states will have to grapple with rising health care and homelessness costs that will result from this shortsighted and ill-conceived policy.”

Under SNAP's current work requirements, such able-bodied adults are not supposed to receive benefits for more than three months during a three-year period unless they have a job or are enrolled in education and training programs for 20 hours a week. But states can waive that time limit when unemployment rates are high.

The USDA's new rule would make it more difficult, in part by lowering the unemployment rate required to qualify for them. USDA estimates that the change will save about $5.5 billion over five years.

There are 36 states or U.S. territories that have waivers for either certain areas or the entire state, according to USDA.

California, Michigan, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia are among the states participating in the lawsuit.