In today's edition, Michael Cohen cops a plea, super PACs spent the most in 2018, Hungary's leader consolidates his hold on the media, and more.
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- Michael Cohen strikes deal with Mueller probe, admits he lied to Congress about Trump Organization efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. "President Donald Trump's former personal lawyer Michael Cohen admitted Thursday to a criminal charge of making false statements to Congress, with prosecutors saying he deliberately minimized the extent of discussions with Trump about a Moscow-based real estate project and obscured the fact that conversations about the proposed development continued well into the 2016 presidential campaign." (POLITICO)
- Reports indicate that the proposed deal included a $50 million penthouse for Russian President Vladimir Putin…"President Donald Trump’s company planned to give a $50 million penthouse at Trump Tower Moscow to Russian President Vladimir Putin as the company negotiated the luxury real estate development during the 2016 campaign, according to four people, one of them the originator of the plan. Two US law enforcement officials told BuzzFeed News that Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer at the time, discussed the idea with a representative of Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary." (BuzzFeed)…Democrats slated to take charge of the House Intelligence Committee in January will look to investigate the report. (BuzzFeed)
- The wealthiest members of President Trump's cabinet took in millions last year as they divested assets in effort to avoid conflicts. "President Donald Trump’s three wealthiest Cabinet members took in tens of millions of dollars last year, including from divesting holdings to avoid conflicts of interest, according to disclosure filings released by the administration. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and her husband took in at least $59.4 million in 2017, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin reported income of more than $41.6 million, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross tallied $47 million that year, according to annual financial disclosures each made to their agencies. A substantial chunk of the trio’s income came from the sale of assets." (POLITICO)
- New guidance from Office of Special Counsel discourages federal employees from talking about impeachment or "the Resistance". "In a move that some ethics advocates say could be an opening to limit dissent, the federal government has issued new guidance for the political activity of federal government workers, warning that weighing in on impeachment or talking about 'the Resistance' may constitute prohibited activity. The Office of Special Counsel is charged with enforcing the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from engaging in political activity in the course of their work…it stipulated that advocating for or against impeachment of a candidate for federal office would be considered political because of its implications for future elections, and that any use of terms like 'resistance' and '#resist' would be construed as political activity. But some government watchdogs said they feared the guidelines could have wide-ranging effects on the nearly 3 million federal employees in the United States, as well as state and local government employees who work with federally funded programs." (Washington Post) Our take? There's a big difference between a public employee working for a candidate or political party — activity the Hatch Act is intended to prohibit — and expressing opinions about vital issues of the day. We hope OSC reconsiders and rescinds this restrictive language.
- Party aligned super PACs outspent congressional committees for the first time in a midterm in 2018. "Super PACs aligned with the two major political parties spent more in the 2018 midterms than the parties’ congressional committees did, the first time that’s happened in a midterm election cycle and a milestone that shows the power amassed by the big-money outside groups, a new report released Thursday found. During other midterm elections, party committees like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee have been the biggest spenders. But in 2018, preliminary totals indicate the three biggest spenders in the election were all super PACs, the Campaign Legal Center’s review found." (POLITICO)
- The Senate looks likely to reject one of President Trump's most controversial judicial nominees. "President Donald Trump’s nomination of Thomas Farr for a federal judgeship is likely doomed after a Republican senator said he’ll vote against the North Carolina lawyer whose past work included defending state election laws that courts said discriminated against black voters." (Bloomberg)
- Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's Chief Operating Officer, reportedly directed research into George Soros' financial interests in wake of criticism. "Sheryl Sandberg asked Facebook’s communications staff to research George Soros’s financial interests in the wake of his high-profile attacks on tech companies, according to three people with knowledge of her request, indicating that Facebook’s second in command was directly involved in the social network’s response to the liberal billionaire. Ms. Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, asked for the information in an email to a senior executive in January that was forwarded to other senior communications and policy staff, the people said." (New York Times)
- In more encouraging news, Facebook will exempt legitimate news organizations from its political ad reporting rules. "Facebook Inc. said it will stop including some publishers’ advertising in its political ad archive following months of criticism from news organizations. Next year the social media giant will no longer require publishers who want to buy ads boosting exposure to their articles on politics to go through its political ad transparency process, the company said in a blog post Thursday." (Bloomberg)
around the world
- Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán consolidates control over media juggernaut. "Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has created a media juggernaut under his political control, putting him at the forefront of a push by illiberal regimes in eastern Europe to extend their influence over the press. Ten companies owned by Orban’s business and political allies announced this week they’d 'donated' their outlets — including news channels, radio stations, a tabloid, newspapers and a political weekly — to a non-profit organization led by a pro-government editor." (Bloomberg)
- Fake news and misinformation are increasing ethnic tensions in Afghanistan. "In Afghanistan, deliberate disinformation circulated by authorities and poor media practices are fuelling hate speech. On November 25, hundreds of Hazara demonstrators took the streets of Daykundi, Bamiyan, Mazar-e Sharif, Herat, Ghor and Kabul to protest against the arrest of the militia commander Alipoor, whose forces have been fighting Taliban militants across central Afghanistan…Alipoor’s case has divided the Afghan public. This strong polarization of opinions mirrors the social, political and ethnic fragmentation which is deepening in Afghanistan against a background of everyday insecurity. Such a setting offers fertile conditions for misinformation to sprout and intensify inter-group hate speech." (Global Voices)
- Did Google shut its security and privacy team out of discussions around its censored Chinese search engine? "The secrecy surrounding the work was unheard of at Google. It was not unusual for planned new products to be closely guarded ahead of launch. But this time was different. The objective, code-named Dragonfly, was to build a search engine for China that would censor broad categories of information about human rights, democracy, and peaceful protest…executives then shut out members of the company’s security and privacy team from key meetings about the search engine, the four people said, and tried to sideline a privacy review of the plan that sought to address potential human rights abuses." (The Intercept)
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