Mshuham2

Matt Shuham

Matt Shuham is a news writer for TPM. He was previously associate editor of The National Memo and managing editor of the Harvard Political Review. He is available by email at mshuham@talkingpointsmemo.com and on Twitter @mattshuham.

Articles by Matt

Blackwater founder Erik Prince has spoken to investigators on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team, the Daily Beast reported Wednesday, citing two unnamed sources familiar with the matter.

A spokesperson for Prince, Marc Cohen, did not confirm or deny the meeting to the publication.

“Erik gave a full and frank public account of events as they concern him to the intelligence committee and he has nothing else to add on this topic,” Cohen said. Prince testified before the House Intelligence Committee in November of last year.

The Daily Beast said it wasn’t clear what Mueller’s team discussed with Prince.

But several outlets have reported in the past on Mueller’s interest in a meeting days before President Donald Trump’s inauguration in the Seychelles between Prince; Kirill Dmitriev, the head of the Russian sovereign investment fund; and, reportedly, George Nader, an adviser to the United Arab Emirates with deep ties in Trump’s circles.

The New York Times reported in March that Mueller’s team had questioned Nader, and Nader has since testified before a grand jury for Mueller’s probe, the Washington Post reported.

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White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders is scheduled to give a press briefing at 3:30 p.m. ET Wednesday. Watch live below:

The pharmaceutical company Novartis acknowledged Wednesday that it paid Trump fixer Michael Cohen more than $1 million starting last year and that the company has cooperated with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators.

“In February 2017, shortly after the election of President Trump, Novartis entered into a one year agreement with Essential Consultants,” Novartis said in a statement Wednesday, it’s second statement regarding its agreement with Cohen. “With the recent change in administration, Novartis believed that Michael Cohen could advise the company as to how the Trump administration might approach certain US healthcare policy matters, including the Affordable Care Act.”

USA Today, reporting on the initial statement Novartis made Tuesday, said Novartis “paid Trump attorney Michael Cohen nearly $400,000 from late 2017 to early 2018.”

“The agreement was for a term of one year, and paid Essential Consultants 100,000 USD per month,” Novartis said in its second statement.

Novartis said that it had determined after first meeting Cohen in March of last year that Cohen and his shell company, Essential Consultants, “would be unable to provide the services that Novartis had anticipated related to US healthcare policy matters and the decision was taken not to engage further.”

But, the statement continued, “[a]s the contract unfortunately could only be terminated for cause, payments continued to be made until the contract expired by its own terms in February 2018.”

“In terms of the Special Counsel’s office, Novartis was contacted in November 2017 regarding the company’s agreement with Essential Consultants,” the statement added later. “Novartis cooperated fully with the Special Counsel’s office and provided all the information requested.

Novartis is one of several companies, along with AT&T, Korea Aerospace Industries and the investment firm Columbus Nova, to reveal that they paid Cohen large sums following the election. The payments line up with some claims in an unsourced document released Tuesday by Michael Avenatti, the attorney for adult film star Stormy Daniels. That document cited “four payments in late 2017 and early 2018 totaling $399,920” from Novartis to Essential Consultants.

Columbus Nova is the American affiliate of Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg’s Renova Group. Vekselberg was reportedly questioned by Mueller’s team at a New York area airport earlier this year over the payments to Cohen. His cousin, the American head of Columbus Nova, was also reportedly questioned, CNN reported Tuesday.

Vekselberg attended Trump’s inauguration and was on a list of Russian oligarchs facing additional sanctions by the Trump administration last month.

CNBC posted the text of Novartis’ second statement Wednesday:

In February 2017, shortly after the election of President Trump, Novartis entered into a one year agreement with Essential Consultants. With the recent change in administration, Novartis believed that Michael Cohen could advise the company as to how the Trump administration might approach certain US healthcare policy matters, including the Affordable Care Act. The agreement was for a term of one year, and paid Essential Consultants 100,000 USD per month. In March 2017, Novartis had its first meeting with Michael Cohen under this agreement. Following this initial meeting, Novartis determined that Michael Cohen and Essential Consultants would be unable to provide the services that Novartis had anticipated related to US healthcare policy matters and the decision was taken not to engage further. As the contract unfortunately could only be terminated for cause, payments continued to be made until the contract expired by its own terms in February 2018.

The engagement of Essential Consultants predated Vas Narasimhan becoming Novartis CEO and he was in no way involved with this agreement. Contrary to recent media reports, this agreement was also in no way related to the group dinner Dr. Narasimhan had at the World Economic Forum in Davos with President Trump and 15 Europe based industry leaders. Suggestions to the contrary clearly misrepresent the facts and can only be intended to further personal or political agendas as to which Novartis should not be a part.

In terms of the Special Counsel’s office, Novartis was contacted in November 2017 regarding the company’s agreement with Essential Consultants. Novartis cooperated fully with the Special Counsel’s office and provided all the information requested. Novartis considers this matter closed as to itself and is not aware of any outstanding questions regarding the agreement.

 This post has been updated. 

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Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team has questioned one of the wealthiest men in Russia about post-election payments worth hundreds of thousands of dollars made to President Donald Trump’s fixer, Michael Cohen, CNN reported Tuesday, citing one unnamed source familiar with the matter.

The Russian oligarch in question, Viktor Vekselberg, was reportedly questioned at a New York area airport this year, and he was in attendance at Trump’s inauguration. He was also on a list of Russians who faced additional sanctions from the Trump administration last month.

The payments, according to CNN, were made by Vekselberg’s company’s U.S. affiliate. Mueller’s team is also probing payments the head of that affiliate made to Trump’s inaugural and campaign funds, according to CNN.

Cohen’s home, office and hotel were raided recently as part of a months-long criminal probe.

Michael Avenatti, the attorney for the adult film actress Stormy Daniels, who is suing Cohen separately from the criminal probe, posted a document Tuesday that appeared similar to CNN’s reporting.

In it, Avenatti alleged that an account controlled by Cohen had received $500,000 in payments from Vekselberg (via Vekselberg himself, Vekselberg’s American cousin, Andrew Intrater, and the firm Columbus Nova LLC) in eight payments between January and “at least August” 2017. Avenatti identified Columbus Nova as the U.S. affiliate of Vekselberg-controlled company Renova Group firm and Intrater as Columbus Nova’s CEO. 

The Daily Beast subsequently reported that it had confirmed Avenatti’s allegation — at least, the portion of Avenatti’s document dealing with the Vekselberg-related payments — with an unnamed source familiar with the matter.

And AT&T confirmed another part of Avenatti’s document: that Essential Consulting, the company used by Cohen to make a hush money payment to Daniels, “was one of several firms we engaged in early 2017 to provide insights into understanding the new administration.”

CNN said that it had “reviewed documents that appear to show these payments,” but that it had not independently authenticated them.

Later in the report, CNN cited unnamed sources who said Mueller’s investigators questioned Vekselberg about $300,000 in political donations made by Intrater. And Intrater himself was questioned, according to two unnamed sources cited by CNN.

Richard Owens, Columbus Nova’s attorney, said in a statement shared sent to TPM that the company is “solely owned and controlled by Americans.”
“After the inauguration, the firm hired Michael Cohen as a business consultant regarding potential sources of capital and potential investments in real estate and other ventures,” the statement continued.
“Reports today that Viktor Vekselberg used Columbus Nova as a conduit for payments to Michael Cohen are false. The claim that Viktor Vekselberg was involved or provided any funding for Columbus Nova’s engagement of Michael Coehn [sic] is patently untrue. Neither Viktor Vekselberg nor anyone else other than Columbus Nova’s owners, were involved in the decision to hire Cohen or provided funding for his engagement.”

Read CNN’s full report here.

This post has been updated.

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In a statement Tuesday following President Donald Trump’s announcement that he would withdraw from the Iran deal and re-instate sanctions on Iran, former President Barack Obama called the decision a “serious mistake.”

“Without the JCPOA,” Obama wrote, “the United States could eventually be left with a losing choice between a nuclear-armed Iran or another war in the Middle East.”

Read the statement below, posted online by Bloomberg’s Sahil Kapur:

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Alice Ollstein contributed reporting.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) said Tuesday that President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal “just doesn’t make sense to me.”

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Flake said Trump’s withdrawal would be “just another signal to the world that we’re not a reliable partner.”

Read Flake’s full comments to reporters below:

Iran has already realized the benefits, which were front-loaded, in terms of sanctions relief and the release of these funds that were held in dispute, billions of dollars. And now, by our unilateral exit, it would give them license to renege on the nuclear aspects of the deal. So the West has upheld its end of the bargain, which was mostly front-loaded, and now Iran could get out of their agreement, and that just doesn’t make sense to me.

And also, I think, one of the most important things is, it’s just another signal to the world that we’re not a reliable partner. We begin negotiations, like on the [Trans-Pacific Partnership] and then we exit them. Or here, we actually execute an agreement, a new President comes in, and we’re out.

We’ve had a rules-based order that we have helped establish for 70 years post-World War II. And to see us just vacillate and move in and out, whether it’s tariffs that are imposed, and then certain countries exempted, it’s not so rules-based anymore, it’s ad-hoc, and we’re just not seen as a reliable partner.

We’re going to need to work with our allies, closely partner with them to address security challenges like North Korea, and the knock-on effects of us exiting here are not good.

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First lady Melania Trump on Monday unveiled a list of priorities for her time in the White House: “well-being, social media use, and opioid abuse.”

Soon, however, Ryan Mac of BuzzFeed News noticed something about one of the documents on the White House website devoted to the first lady’s platform: Trump had simply repurposed a 2014 Federal Trade Commission manual, “Net Cetera: Chatting with Kids About Being Online.”

It was now called “Talking With Kids About Being Online” and included Trump’s advice in a forward: “So what is the best way to protect our kids online? Talk with them. Communicate your values clearly so your kids can make thoughtful decisions when they face tricky situations.”

Otherwise, it was a blatant rip-off, a potentially damaging one given Trump’s brush with plagiarism during the presidential campaign. But the White House wasn’t sorry.

“The FTC approached us to include this as a good resource and we were happy to do so,” Stephanie Grisham, a spokeswoman for the first lady, told TPM in an email Monday night. “It is a government resource, which is meant to be distributed.” Grisham pointed to a diplomatically worded blog post from earlier in the day by the FTC’s Nate Wood that acknowledged working with the first lady.

By Tuesday, Grisham appeared somewhat frustrated, releasing yet another statement:

“Despite providing countless outlets with ample background, information, and on-the-record comments from the FTC, some media have chosen to take a day meant to promote kindness and positive efforts on behalf of children, to instead lob baseless accusations towards the First Lady and her new initiatives.” 

[…]

Our office will continue to focus on helping children and I encourage members of the media to attempt to Be Best in their own professions, and focus on some of the children and programs Mrs. Trump highlighted in her remarks yesterday.

Unrepentant, yes, but not unchanged. An updated report from BuzzFeed News noted: 

Be Best’s website changed the language describing it from “a booklet by First Lady Melania Trump and the FTC” to “a FTC booklet, promoted by first lady Melania Trump”.

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The government of Qatar, in an apparent attempt to win political influence with a historically unfriendly Trump administration, has sought a stake in the media company Newsmax, Politico reported Tuesday.

Citing unnamed people with knowledge of the talks, Politico reported that Qatari officials have met multiple times this year with representatives of the company. Newsmax CEO Christopher Ruddy (pictured above), a longtime friend of President Donald Trump, told Politico that its reporting was “all false,” and Qatari officials declined to comment to Politico.

One unnamed source cited by Politico said the talks between Newsmax and Qatar have taken place in both New York and at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s private club in Florida. Tom Barrack, a close friend of Trump’s who reportedly met with Special Counselor Robert Mueller’s team, helped set up the talks between Newsmax and the Qataris, according to Politico’s Ben Schreckinger.

Qatar has sought to solidify its relationship with Trump after the President backed a Saudi- and United Arab Emirates-led blockade of the country last year. The blockade exposed a rift between Trump and then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who called on the Gulf states leading the effort, also including Egypt and Bahrain, to ease the blockade.

The Qataris are considering a $90 million investment in Newsmax, per Politico. Prefacing an interview last year with Ruddy, Miguel Forbes claimed Newsmax “does in excess of $100M in annual revenue.” 

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) former chief of staff struggled on Monday to distinguish between President Donald Trump’s rhetoric and that of West Virginia Republican Senate candidate Don Blankenship.

Despite a more mutually beneficial relationship years ago, Blankenship has cultivated a public feud with McConnell for the GOP primary coming up Tuesday. He’s called McConnell’s wife, Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, and her family “Chinapeople” and dubbed McConnell himself  “Cocaine Mitch” over a stash of cocaine once found in one of Chao’s father’s shipping vessels.

The majority leader thinks Blankenship is unelectable and has quietly urged West Virginia voters, backed by plenty of political dollars, to pick another Republican to pit against Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV).

McConnell’s former chief of staff, Josh Holmes, now runs a public affairs firm. But he’s still known for his ties to McConnell. When he tried to distinguish between Trump’s brand of rhetoric and Don Blankenship’s, though, MSNBC’s Katy Tur wasn’t having it. Watch below:

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Months of scandal and unending public scrutiny have turned Scott Pruitt’s EPA into what one unnamed political appointee called “a dry wall prison.”

Now, the public has even more insight into Pruitt’s notoriously secretive and industry-friendly EPA. A Freedom of Information Act lawsuit from the Sierra Club recently resulted in more than 10,000 pages of documents from Millan and Sydney Hupp, current and former EPA schedulers, respectively, and sisters. The New York Times reported on the documents Monday.

The Times noted that the 10,000 new pages were “among a total of 18,350 pages released via this lawsuit so far.”

The Times pared the documents down to 391 noteworthy pages here. You can download all of the Hupp sisters’ released documents by following these links for Sydney Hupp and Millan Hupp and downloading the files yourself. You can find all released files here.

Given what one expert told Politico was “the most burdensome review process that I’ve seen documented,” the document dump is newsworthy in itself.

Take a look at the emails and if anything strikes you as newsworthy, tell us.

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