The room where it happened
Follow along as Donald Trump explains via Twitter and Fox News why there was nothing dirty, legally speaking, about the hush-money payoffs to Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels, and it's all Michael Cohen's fault.
Let's start with Cohen. Looking back at his turncoat former fixer, employed for a dozen years by the Trump Organization, the president said, "he did very low-level work ... he did more public relations than he did law ... he was OK on television."
Yet to whom did Trump delegate the ultrasensitive job of keeping women with stories of extramarital flings with him from telling all? Low-level, barely-a-lawyer but OK-on-TV Michael Cohen, that's who! "I never directed him to do anything wrong. Whatever he did, he did on his own. He's a lawyer," Trump said.
And if Cohen messed up, "a lawyer has great liability if a mistake is made." Except that the campaign-finance violations to which Cohen pleaded guilty in federal court weren't real crimes, Trump told Fox — they were just included "to embarrass me." (Click here for video.)
Things fall apart
That's the story that Trump was sticking to on Thursday, after his past comments, such as denying knowledge of the payments, did not age well. How this one holds up is in doubt, given reports that Trump was intimately involved in trying to keep stories about women with whom he was intimately involved from surfacing during his presidential campaign.
NBC News said it had confirmed a Wall Street Journal story from November that Trump was the third person in the room in August 2015, when Cohen and National Enquirer publisher David Pecker huddled about ways that Pecker could help counter negative stories about Trump's relationships with women. That meeting was cited, without naming Trump, by the Manhattan U.S. attorney's office as it revealed a nonprosecution and cooperation agreement Wednesday with American Media Inc., the Enquirer's parent company.
Politico writes that AMI's known admissions may be just scratching the surface because Trump and his aides have worked for years with the tabloid to kill damaging stories, and Pecker also had a decadeslong friendship with Trump. For more, see Newsday's story by Laura Figueroa Hernandez.
To Trump, Cohen responds in an ABC interview with George Stephanopoulos: "Here is the truth.... The people don't believe what he's saying. The man doesn't tell the truth. And it's sad."
Cohen trove yields another fed probe
Federal prosecutors in Manhattan are investigating Trump’s 2017 inaugural committee — whether it misspent some of the record $107 million it raised from donations, and whether top donors sought favors in exchange from the new administration, The Wall Street Journal reported.
The probe arises in part from materials seized in the FBI's April raids on Cohen's home, office and hotel room, including a recording of a conversation between Cohen and Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, a former adviser to Melania Trump who worked on the inaugural events. In the recording, Wolkoff expressed concern about how the inaugural committee was spending money, the report said.
Janison: Sand in Trump's face
The willingness of the Senate, with Republicans casting the deciding votes, to rebuke the Trump administration's Saudi Arabia policy is a sign of political weakness for Trump, writes Newsday's Dan Janison.
Senators of both parties aimed at both U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen and at the Trump team's refusal to confront Saudi leadership over the murder of dissident Jamal Khashoggi.
The resolution on Yemen, passed 56-41, for the first time invoked the War Powers Act, enacted 45 years ago to limit a president's ability to initiate or escalate military actions. Newsday's Tom Brune has more on the Senate's action.
Ways, Means and Trump's tax returns
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she expects the House Ways and Means Committee to “take the first steps” toward obtaining Trump’s tax returns after Democrats take control of the chamber next month, but securing them is “a little more challenging than you might think.”
Rep. Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.), who is expected to become chairman of the panel, expects Trump and the Treasury Department will resist and that the dispute will end up in court, The Washington Post reported.
Bouncing off the wall
Trump is threatening a partial government shutdown if Democrats in Congress don't agree to $5 billion for a wall on the Mexican border. He also insisted in a tweet Thursday that Mexico will pay for the wall, just like he promised.
Trump tweeted that under the trade deal recently negotiated with Mexico and Canada to revise NAFTA, "just by the money we save, MEXICO IS PAYING FOR THE WALL!" He didn't explain how that would work, probably because it wouldn't. A shift in the trade balance doesn't send Mexican cash flowing into the U.S. Treasury, as a Washington Post analysis explains.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer tweeted back at Trump: "Mr. President: If you say Mexico is going to pay for the wall (which I don’t believe), then I guess we don’t have to! Let’s fund the government."
A world of hurt from Mueller?
The investigations aren't going to end with Russia or "hush her." The Daily Beast reports special counsel Robert Mueller's team will begin in early 2019 to unveil Middle Eastern countries’ attempts to influence American politics.
Witnesses affiliated with the Trump campaign have been questioned about their conversations with individuals from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Israel, people familiar with the probe told the website. Topics in those meetings ranged from the use of social-media manipulation to help install Trump in the White House to efforts to overthrow the regime in Iran, the report said.
What else is happening:
- Mueller recommended little or no jail time for former national security adviser Mike Flynn, due to be sentenced Tuesday, so Trump tweeted a theory: "They were embarrassed by the way he was treated." Flynn's lawyers are contending he was tricked into lying to the FBI — the crime to which he pleaded guilty.
- Trump said he's narrowed his chief of staff search down to five candidates — "mostly well known, but terrific people."
- The president will spend up to 16 days at Mar-a-Lago over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, The Palm Beach Post reported. An FAA alert warned pilots to avoid the airspace over the Florida resort from Dec. 21 to Jan. 6.
- New York Attorney General-elect Letitia James told NBC News she plans to launch sweeping investigations into Trump, his family and "anyone" in his circle after she takes office next month.
- The Justice Department has asked the Supreme Court to allow Trump's ban on transgender people in the military to go into effect while the case plays out in the lower courts.
- Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders met Wednesday night to discuss their political intentions, The New York Times reported. Both high-profile progressives are seriously considering seeking the Democratic nomination in 2020.