Federal judge deals setback to BuzzFeed in Russia dossier lawsuit

A BuzzFeed sign

BuzzFeed spokesman Matt Mittenthal said the company is advancing several legal arguments about why it was justified in its decision to publish the Russia dossier. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images


BuzzFeed’s legal defense of its decision to publish the so-called Trump dossier suffered a setback Tuesday night as a federal judge issued a ruling that could make it easier for a Russian internet entrepreneur to prevail in a libel suit against the online news outlet.

Miami-based U.S. District Court Judge Ursula Ungaro ruled that Russian businessman Aleksej Gubarev is not a public figure for purposes of the defamation suit he filed last year.

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The decision means that Gubarev might be able to prevail in the suit by showing mere negligence by BuzzFeed and won’t have to meet the more demanding “actual malice” standard typically applied in U.S. courts in controversies involving prominent individuals or those actively engaged in a public debate.

BuzzFeed spokesman Matt Mittenthal expressed disappointment in the decision, but stressed that the media company is advancing several other legal arguments about why it was justified in its decision to publish the dossier former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele compiled about alleged ties between President Donald Trump and Russia.

“While we disagree with this narrow opinion, it pertains only to one defense of our decision to publish the Steele Dossier, and has no bearing on the primary rationale: that the Dossier was the subject of official action by our government, briefed to two consecutive presidents, and under active and ongoing investigation by the FBI,” Mittenthal said.

An attorney for Gubarev did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

BuzzFeed argued that Gubarev’s public relations efforts over a period of years to build business for his web-hosting and internet security firms rendered him a public figure for the purposes of the public controversy over Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In addition, the online publisher noted that Gubarev was quoted in a November 2016 Bloomberg News story about possible digital connections between computers at Trump Tower and Russia’s Alfa Bank.

Just after the U.S. election, Gubarev also rehired a public relations firm to address a news report about his firm’s servers being used in an alleged Russian cyberscam to siphon web advertising traffic from major publishers.

However, Ungaro said that activity was not enough to render Gubarev a public figure under U.S. law.

“Plaintiffs’ public involvement in cybersecurity and cybercrime issues, therefore, is not germane unless it is tied to Russian interference with the election. And, with the exception of Gubarev’s comments published in Bloomberg, they are not,” she wrote. “Because Plaintiffs were only tangential participants in the controversy, they are not limited public figures.”

Gubarev filed suit in a Florida court in February 2017, alleging that his reputation and those of his companies were damaged by false allegations in the dossier claiming they conducted hacking activities on behalf of a Russian spy agency against Democratic Party targets during the 2016 campaign.

BuzzFeed never asserted the dossier was true, but said the public deserved to be aware of the reports circulating at the highest levels of the U.S. government and believed to be part of a potential effort by Russia to gain leverage over Trump.

After Gubarev objected to the mentions of him and his firms, BuzzFeed blacked out those references, but the dossier had already been widely distributed without those edits.

A jury trial in the case could begin as soon as next month, but motions by both sides to dispose of the case on the current record are still pending with Ungaro, an appointee of President George H.W. Bush.

Last week, the FBI released a two-page document the FBI used to brief Trump and President Barack Obama on the dossier during the presidential transition. The memo, disclosed in response to a Freedom of Information Act suit brought a by a POLITICO reporter, describes the dossier as having been prepared for “private clients.”

It emerged last year that the research was paid for by a law firm on behalf of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee.


Giuliani says Trump signing letter of intent for Moscow tower is meaningless

President TrumpDonald John TrumpREAD: Transcript of James Comey’s interview with House Republicans Klobuchar on 2020: ‘I do think you want voices from the Midwest’ Israel boycott fight roils Democrats in year-end spending debate MORE‘s attorney, Rudy Giuliani, dismissed the significance of a new report that Trump signed a letter of intent in 2015 that preceded negotiations for a Trump property in Moscow. 

“That was the end of it,” Giuliani told The New York Daily News. “It means nothing but an expression of interest that means very little unless it goes to a contract, and it never did.”


The letter, which was dated Oct. 28, 2015 and signed by Trump, pertains to negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. The project has come under scrutiny since the president’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, admitted last month that he lied to Congress about discussions revolving around the project. 

The document, which is non-binding, is also signed by the owner of the Russian firm that would have developed the property. 

The news revealed on Tuesday directly contradicted statements Giuliani made on Sunday, when he told CNN that “there was a letter of intent to go forward, but no one signed it.”

Giuliani later insisted to the Daily News that he did not misspeak, saying, “I don’t think I said nobody signed it.”

“How could you send it but nobody signed it?” Giuliani asked. 

Trump’s team has denied any wrongdoing in the potential Moscow development. Cohen in November pleaded guilty to making false statements to Congress about plans to build a Trump property in Moscow. Last week, he was sentenced to three years in federal prison for a series of crimes he committed while working for Trump.

Giuliani indicated Sunday that Cohen may have pursued discussions up to November 2016.


U.S. official says Washington reviewing North Korea travel ban

A view of Pyongyang, North Korea.

Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

SEOUL, South Korea — The Trump administration’s special envoy for North Korea said Wednesday that Washington is reviewing easing its travel restrictions to North Korea to facilitate humanitarian shipments as part of efforts to resolve an impasse in nuclear diplomacy.

Stephen Biegun made the comments upon arrival in South Korea for talks on the nuclear negotiations, which have seen little headway since a summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June, when they issued a vague vow for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula without describing how or when it would occur.

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Biegun said his discussions with South Korean officials will be about how to work together to engage with North Korea “in a manner that will help us move forward and move beyond the 70 years of hostility.”

Toward that end, Biegun said he was directed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to review America’s policy on humanitarian assistance provided to North Korea.

“I understand that many humanitarian aid organizations, operating in the DPRK, are concerned that strict enforcement of international sanctions has occasionally impeded the delivery of legitimate humanitarian assistance to the Korean people,” Biegun said, referring to North Korea by its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

He said he’ll sit down with American aid groups early in the new year to discuss how the U.S. government can “better ensure the delivery of appropriate assistance, particularly, through the course of the coming winter.”

“We will also review American citizen travel to DPRK for purposes of facilitating the delivery of aid and ensuring that monitoring in line with international standards can occur,” Biegun said. “I want to be clear — the United States and the United Nations will continue to closely review requests for exemptions and licenses for the delivery of assistance to the DPRK.”

North Korea didn’t immediately respond to Biegun’s comments. Talks between Washington and Pyongyang have been stalled for months, with the two sides at an impasse over next steps following Trump’s meeting with Kim in Singapore and several trips to Pyongyang by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The United States wants North Korea to provide a detailed account of nuclear and missile facilities that would be inspected and dismantled under a potential deal, while the North is insisting that sanctions be lifted first. In the meantime, several reports from private analysts have accused North Korea of continuing nuclear and missile development, citing details from commercial satellite imagery.

Biegun said the United States came to have “greater confidence about the safety and security of Americans traveling to the DPRK” after North Korea in November released an American held for an alleged illegal entrance to the country. “The government of the DPRK handled the review of the American citizen’s expulsion expeditiously and with great discretion and sensitivity through diplomatic channels,” he said.

The United States banned its citizens from traveling to North Korea following the death of American college student Otto Warmbier, who died days after he was released in a coma from North Korea last year following 17 months in captivity.

Warmbier’s death came amid heightened animosity on the Korean Peninsula, with Trump and Kim exchanging crude insults and war threats over North Korea’s series of nuclear and missile tests.

Tensions have gradually eased since early this year, when Kim abruptly reached out to the United States and South Korea with an offer to negotiate away his advancing nuclear arsenal.

Since its entrance to the talks, North Korea has unilaterally dismantled its nuclear testing site and parts of its rocket engine test facility and taken some conciliatory gestures, including the repatriation of three other American detainees ahead of the June summit.


The Hill’s Morning Report — Trump blinks first in shutdown showdown

Welcome to The Hill’s Morning Report and happy Wednesday! Our newsletter gets you up to speed on the most important developments in politics and policy, plus trends to watch, co-created by Jonathan Easley and Alexis Simendinger. (CLICK HERE to subscribe!) On Twitter, find us at @joneasley and @asimendinger

President TrumpDonald John TrumpREAD: Transcript of James Comey’s interview with House Republicans Klobuchar on 2020: ‘I do think you want voices from the Midwest’ Israel boycott fight roils Democrats in year-end spending debate MORE blinked first in the shutdown standoff with Congress.

The president initially said he’d be happy to shut the government down unless lawmakers send him a government funding package that includes $5 billion for a border wall. About a quarter of the government will shut down on Friday at midnight unless Congress passes a spending bill that Trump signs into law.

On Tuesday, the White House backed away from the brink, with press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders saying the administration wants to avoid a shutdown and that there are “other ways to get to that $5 billion.”

The White House is asking federal agencies to see if there is already money that can be put toward the border wall, although it’s unclear how this would work. Still, the plan might give Trump enough cover to backtrack and sign a spending bill that doesn’t give him the full $5 billion.

“There’s certainly a number of different funding sources that we’ve identified that we can use, that we can couple with the money that would be given through congressional appropriations, that would help us get to that $5 billion that the president needs in order to protect our borders.” — Sanders

The Hill: Trump retreats on shutdown.

The softer tone coming out of the White House coincided with early-stage spending negotiations on Capitol Hill, although hurdles remain.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellIsrael boycott fight roils Democrats in year-end spending debate Schumer blasts GOP request for immigration ‘slush fund’ Trump: ‘Too early to say’ if shutdown will be averted MORE (R-Ky.) has proposed $1.6 billion for “fencing” and an additional $1 billion for general  border security that could not be used for a wall.

House Democratic Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D’Alesandro PelosiIsrael boycott fight roils Democrats in year-end spending debate McConnell predicts no shutdown: Trump ‘flexible’ on border deal Ocasio-Cortez had highest percentage of small donors in midterms: report MORE (Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerMake Trump own the shutdown over his ill-advised border wall More than a tantrum McConnell’s marijuana conundrum: Cory Gardner MORE (D-N.Y.) said they won’t budge from their offer of $1.3 billion for border fencing.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbySenate leaders eye large spending package after White House softens stance on wall The Memo: GOP frets as Trump shutdown looms Trump, Dems dig in over shutdown MORE (R-Ala.) is drafting a continuing resolution that would keep the full government open through February, kicking the fight to early next year when Democrats will control the House.

The good news is that the two sides are at least negotiating as the deadline looms, but nothing is certain until Trump signs off. Late Tuesday, the president told reporters “it’s too early to say” whether the shutdown can be avoided.

“We’ll see what happens.” — Trump

The Senate accomplished one bipartisan achievement on Tuesday, passing a criminal justice reform bill that was described by supporters as the largest and most significant such legislation in a generation. The measure passed with 87 votes. Twelve Republicans voted against it.

In the West Wing, it was seen as a significant win for Trump adviser Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerTrump to attend World Economic Forum in Davos for second straight year Pass the FIRST STEP Act to give second chances at the American Dream No reason to assume American relations with Mexico are rocky MORE, a driving force behind the “First Step Act” this year (ABC News).

The bill could come before the House as soon as Thursday, presenting Congress an opportunity to end 2018 on a bipartisan high-note (The Hill).

“I look forward to signing this into law!” Trump tweeted.


INVESTIGATIONS: Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn has requested to delay his sentencing until his cooperation with federal prosecutors is fully complete (The Hill).

Flynn has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with a former Russian ambassador and was scheduled to be sentenced on Tuesday. He has been assisting the special counsel probe, and Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE told the judge that information Flynn had provided was useful. Mueller recommended a light sentence.

It seemed that recommendation might help Flynn avoid jail time, but on Tuesday, Judge Emmet Sullivan admonished the retired three-star Army general and talked up the seriousness of his crime.

“This is a very serious offense. A high-ranking senior official of the government making false statements to the Federal Bureau of Investigation while on the physical premises of the White House.” — Sullivan

Sullivan also noted that Flynn’s cooperation with the special counsel helped him escape charges on illegal foreign lobbying for work he’d done on behalf of the Turkish government while advising the president on foreign policy.

“Arguably, that undermines everything this flag over here stands for. Arguably, you sold your country out.” — Sullivan

The Associated Press: Judge’s rebuke of Flynn upends sentencing, prolongs case.

Also on Tuesday, Flynn’s former associate pleaded not guilty to charges he illegally lobbied on behalf of the Turkish government and will appear back in court in February (ABC News).

Democrats are itching to get a crack at Flynn and other current and former administration officials once they take the majority in January.

The New York Times: How far will these Democrats go in investigating the White House?

More from the investigations front … Trump’s charity has agreed to dissolve amid allegations of a “shocking pattern of illegality” (The Hill) … Court orders company to comply with special counsel subpoena in mystery grand jury appeal (CNN) … Read the transcript from former FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyREAD: Transcript of James Comey’s interview with House Republicans Mazie Hirono: ‘Walls are closing in’ on Trump 10 pieces of evidence against most diabolical Russian spy ever MORE’s latest meeting with House Republicans (The Hill) … Former Trump adviser Roger StoneRoger Jason StoneRoger Stone fundraising off promise not to testify against Trump Stone admits to publishing false statements on InfoWars Giuliani indicates Trump Tower Moscow discussions took place up until November 2016 MORE admits to spreading lies online (NBC News).


POLITICS: Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) tapped outgoing Rep. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyThe Hill’s 12:30 Report — Flynn awaits sentencing | White House signals it wants to avoid shutdown Arizona gov taps McSally for McCain Senate seat Juan Williams: The GOP’s worsening problem with women MORE (R-Ariz.) to fill the seat of the late Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainThe Hill’s 12:30 Report — Flynn awaits sentencing | White House signals it wants to avoid shutdown Arizona gov taps McSally for McCain Senate seat Michelle Obama reflects on ‘refreshing’ tradition of sharing candy with George W. Bush MORE (R-Ariz.).

McSally lost a close and bitterly contested race in November to Sen.-elect Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).

She’ll serve out the remaining two years of McCain’s term, which expires in January 2021, facing a special election for a full, six-year term in 2020 (The Hill).

Meanwhile, Reid Wilson writes about how Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderThe Hill’s Morning Report — What a shutdown would mean for the government GOP lawmakers distance themselves from ObamaCare ruling Overnight Health Care — Presented by The National Taxpayers Union — Incoming Dem chairman vows hearings on ObamaCare lawsuit | Sign-up period ends amid new uncertainty | Johnson & Johnson hits back over asbestos report MORE’s (R) announced retirement this week marks a generational and geographic shift in Tennessee politics (The Hill).

It also makes Alexander the latest high-ranking Republican senator to retire since Trump was elected; a list that also includes Sens. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchThe Hill’s Morning Report — What a shutdown would mean for the government GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander won’t seek reelection Hatch walks back remarks that he didn’t ‘care’ if Trump broke the law MORE (R-Utah), Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeArizona gov taps McSally for McCain Senate seat The Hill’s Morning Report — What a shutdown would mean for the government Corker dodges on Trump primary question MORE (R-Ariz.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.).

> On the Democratic side, there are a couple of brewing intraparty feuds.

Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinIsrael boycott fight roils Democrats in year-end spending debate Dem senator: McConnell does not want a shutdown but must stand up to Trump Overnight Defense: Senate moves toward vote on bill ending support for Saudi war | House GOP blocks Yemen war votes for rest of year | Trump throws uncertainty into Pentagon budget | Key Dem to leave transgender troop ban to courts MORE (D-Md.) and other members are pressing congressional leaders to attach his Israel anti-boycott legislation to the year-end spending package, which could potentially complicate efforts to avoid a government shutdown (The Hill).

That’s a controversial move, particularly among Democrats, some of whom  have accused Israel of human rights abuses around the Palestinian conflict.  

Meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee has been clashing with state parties over ownership of valuable voter data files.

Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezOcasio-Cortez had highest percentage of small donors in midterms: report Ocasio-Cortez eyeing Jeffries as 2020 target: report Hillicon Valley: Report accuses tech giants of hindering Russia probe | NAACP leads protest against Facebook | Trump, Congress head for clash on Huawei | Security panel clears T-Mobile, Sprint deal | Google plans B NYC expansion MORE (D-N.Y.), who has been quick to take sides on all of the hot-button controversies and skirmishes of the day, sided with the state parties over the DNC.

More on campaigns and politics … Marijuana legalization supporters are dipping their toes into the world of campaigns and elections, hoping to build their influence on Capitol Hill (The Hill) … Allies to former Vice President Joe BidenJoseph (Joe) Robinette BidenKlobuchar on 2020: ‘I do think you want voices from the Midwest’ Group launches campaign to ‘Draft Beto’ for 2020 White House bid Kamala Harris top 2020 choice in poll of women of color MORE are scanning the presidential field and have identified Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) as someone they’re worried about (The Hill) … Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharKlobuchar on 2020: ‘I do think you want voices from the Midwest’ Warren unveils bill to lower drug prices by letting government manufacture them Klobuchar moves up in Iowa poll of 2020 Dems MORE (D-Minn.) is on the rise in Iowa (Politico).


WHITE HOUSE & ADMINISTRATION: Guns: The Trump administration moved to officially ban bump stocks by next spring, relying on federal rulemaking to impose the change (The Hill). A gun rights group says it will sue the government to protest the new ban on devices that allow semi-automatic weapons to fire ammunition more rapidly (The Hill).

Federal Reserve: Trump’s complaints about the nation’s central bank and his Tuesday instruction that its members should “feel the market” points to a nervousness that the economy in general and the stock market in particular — both of which have been bright spots for Trump — are increasingly the subject of anxiety and political peril (The Memo).

Trump’s tweet fueled lively conversations among economic and political analysts in advance of Fed Chairman Jerome Powell’s news conference this afternoon about interest rates, inflation and the outlook for the U.S. economy:

“I hope the people over at the Fed will read today’s Wall Street Journal Editorial before they make yet another mistake. Also, don’t let the market become any more illiquid than it already is. Stop with the 50 B’s. Feel the market, don’t just go by meaningless numbers. Good luck!” — Trump

Reuters: After plunge, U.S. stocks try to claw out of doldrums.

The New York Times: The market is worried. The economy is strong. How will the Fed react?

Immigration: The Department of Health and Human Services, which cares for children who cross the U.S. border alone, said on Tuesday the administration is reversing a controversial policy that required extensive background checks of all adults living with sponsors of migrant children because it increased the time children were in government custody without turning up more red flags. The number of immigrant children in government-run shelters has ballooned to a record 14,700 as of Dec. 17, according to the department (Reuters).

EPA – lead exposure: The Environmental Protection Agency plans to unveil a Federal Lead Action Plan this morning along with members of the President’s Task Force on Environmental Health Risks and Safety Risks to Children (The Hill).

Global economic summit: Trump plans in late January to attend the World Economic Forum held annually in Davos, Switzerland, for the second time as president (The Hill).

Interior – secretary: Washington is sizing up potential contenders Trump may tap to replace Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeUndoing the damage Pruitt and Zinke did to our environment The Hill’s 12:30 Report — Flynn awaits sentencing | White House signals it wants to avoid shutdown The Hill’s Morning Report — What a shutdown would mean for the government MORE as Interior secretary (The Hill).

The Morning Report is created by journalists Jonathan Easley jeasley@thehill.com & Alexis Simendinger asimendinger@thehill.com. Suggestions? Tips? We want to hear from you! Share The Hill’s reporting and newsletters, and encourage others to SUBSCRIBE!


The pressure is on Pelosi to deliver for Democrats, by Bradley Blakeman, opinion contributor, The Hill. http://bit.ly/2T2nOn1

Trump is preparing to blame the Federal Reserve for a recession, by Evan Kraft, opinion contributor, The Hill. http://bit.ly/2ECFVwz


The Senate convenes at 10 a.m.

The House convenes at noon. Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanThe Hill’s 12:30 Report — Flynn awaits sentencing | White House signals it wants to avoid shutdown Missing: Fiscal sanity in Washington On The Money: Latest on border wall fight | Dems prep for long shutdown | Trump finds himself isolated | Stocks sink ahead of Fed meeting, funding deadline | Trump offers new round of farm aid MORE (R-Wis.) delivers a farewell address at 1 p.m. at the Library of Congress in advance of his retirement from Congress at the end of this session. C-SPAN will broadcast his speech live HERE.

The president has lunch with Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoTrump to attend World Economic Forum in Davos for second straight year Pompeo to lead delegation to ‘Trump of the Tropics’ inauguration The Hill’s Morning Report — No deal in sight as shutdown looms MORE. The president and first lady Melania TrumpMelania TrumpWhite House release Trumps’ 2018 official Christmas portrait Three biggest immigration issues Congress needs to tackle The Hill’s 12:30 Report — Trump rips Dems as shutdown looms | Congress deadlocked | Flynn associates charged will illegal lobbying MORE host two Christmas receptions this evening at the White House.

Vice President Pence will be at the Pentagon this morning to receive a briefing on space operations and cyber defense, and to meet Defense Department employees. He’ll then travel to Capitol Hill to join Republican colleagues on the Senate Steering Committee for lunch.

The Federal Open Market Committee wraps up its final meeting of the year with a statement at 2 p.m., followed by a press conference by Powell at 2:30 p.m. Other U.S.economic indicators to watch today: the current account deficit for the third quarter, at 8:30 a.m., and existing home sales in November, released at 10 a.m.

Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinTrump to attend World Economic Forum in Davos for second straight year Trump names Mulvaney acting chief of staff On The Money: House GOP struggles to get votes for B in wall funds | Fallout from Oval Office clash | Dems say shutdown would affect 800K workers | House passes 7 billion farm bill MORE will speak at 4:45 p.m. at the opening session of the Financial Stability Oversight Council, which meets in the department’s Cash Room.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie testifies before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee about implementation of legislation titled the “Tracking Transformation: VA Mission (Maintaining Systems and Strengthening Integrated Outside Networks) Act.”


> Tech: Facebook is attempting to reassure civil rights leaders after a pair of reports prepared for Congress detailed how a Russian troll farm used its system to attempt to suppress U.S. black voter turnout to swing the 2016 election to Trump (The Hill). Separately, a New York Times investigation concludes the social network gave Microsoft, Amazon, Spotify and other tech firms far greater access to people’s data than Facebook publicly disclosed.

> Cyber spying: Hackers infiltrated the European Union’s diplomatic communications network for years, downloading thousands of cables that reveal concerns about an unpredictable Trump administration and struggles to deal with Russia and China and the risk that Iran would revive its nuclear program. Included in hacked communications obtained by The New York Times are internal AFL-CIO discussions about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, of interest to China.   

> Catholic Church: A Vatican committee warns that the credibility of the church is in peril because of the far-reaching sexual abuse scandal. Organizers of an upcoming Vatican summit in February want church leaders to meet with victims and acknowledge “the horror of what happened” (The Associated Press).

> German bank with U.S. troubles: Deutsche Bank, Germany’s largest financial institution, has stumbled amid growing financial and legal troubles in the U.S. and abroad. Now, U.S. Democratic lawmakers are poised to probe the bank’s financial connections to Trump (The New Yorker). The bank is also under investigation in Europe for money laundering and tax avoidance (The Hill).

> Supreme Court: A panel of judges dismissed ethics complaints against Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughDemocrats will fail if they portray William Barr as controversial pick ‘Justice’ selected as Merriam-Webster’s 2018 word of the year Chief justice of California Supreme Court leaves GOP over Kavanaugh confirmation MORE because the objections were filed under a federal law that does not apply to Supreme Court justices. The complaints dealt with statements Kavanaugh made during his Senate confirmation hearing (The Washington Post).

> Space: Trump signed an order on Tuesday launching the Pentagon’s Space Command (The Associated Press). Meanwhile, SpaceX and Blue Origin scratched nearly simultaneous rocket launches scheduled Tuesday morning because of glitches. SpaceX — with Pence in attendance and the U.S. Air Force as a client for a mission to update Global Positioning System satellites — plans to try again today at 9:07 a.m (Space.com).


And finally … No well-intentioned holiday decorations seem to go unpunished, including in some major metropolises.

In New York City, travelers were irked by a tree and wreath that just didn’t look right mounted atop the Holland Tunnel. Authorities shut down four lanes of traffic for 45 minutes to fix the yuletide problem (The New York Post).

In Belgrade, Serbia, taxpayers are furious that the city spent millions on elaborate publicly-funded decorations. Angry citizens would rather have seen that money go toward repairing potholes or funding new public transportation projects (The Guardian).

And be sure to click on this wind-driven, knock-down encounter in Oregon between two inflatable snowpeople, clearly not in the Christmas spirit (ABC6 Action News).


POLITICO Playbook: White House on the sidelines in spending fight

HEADS UP … THE FEDERAL RESERVE will announce whether it will continue to hike rates today at 2:30 p.m.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP has urged the Fed to lay off another hike, but the FT puts it this way: “Fed officials have signalled they will boost rates by a quarter point at the meeting, and holding fire would look skittish, according to analysts and strategists. It would send a markedly downbeat signal about the economic outlook; it might indicate the Fed is overly influenced by market turbulence; and it would trigger claims that the president is influencing policy.” FT

GOVERNMENT FUNDING UPDATE … We are basically 65 HOURS from a government shutdown, and here are the dynamics after a day of reporting on Capitol Hill:

— TRUMP: A BIT PLAYER … THE WHITE HOUSE HAS CLEARLY DECIDED it wants to be on the sidelines for this fight. Democrats offered them two pathways in the Oval Office last week, and the administration hasn’t responded to either of those. And yesterday, Sarah Huckabee Sanders took the position that they’ll have to see what the Senate can produce, and then TRUMP will decide what to sign.

IT’S A CURIOUS STANCE, but they clearly want some space from this deal and to set up the public position that the president has no choice but to sign whatever Congress produces late Friday. It’s a massive shift from last week, when the president was saying he’d own a shutdown, and he was looking to deal.

SENIOR WHITE HOUSE OFFICIALS have told us the following things: A shutdown is inevitable because the president will hold strong; he wants a seven-bill omnibus with $1.6 billion in border security and he’ll declare that a victory; he wants a short-term spending bill to interrupt the beginnings of the Democratic House; he will not accept a short-term spending bill; he’ll see what the Senate produces. All of these answers have come from the same institution: the Trump White House.

— THE SENATE is talking, but not getting too far. MITCH MCCONNELL and CHUCK SCHUMER discussed a seven-bill deal that would fund government for a year, but it included a $1 billion pot of money that Trump could use for his immigration policies. That money could not be used to build a wall, but Democrats say it could be used for things like detention beds, so they aren’t much interested in approving it.

AS FRIDAY draws closer and closer, a stopgap spending bill is becoming more and more likely. The Senate is likely to decide on this today. The short-term spending bill under discussion would provide funding through sometime in FEBRUARY. For Democrats, this is better than January, when NANCY PELOSI will be trying to get her majority stood up. BUT … It practically guarantees a funding showdown in the second month of the new Democratic House majority. In February, the optics are better all around. This time, a shutdown would interfere with Christmas.

— THE HOUSE is basically just watching at this point. There is some concern that attendance will stink this week but the GOP whip operation is somewhat confident that they will have people in town through Friday. The real problem will be if TRUMP continues to sit on his hands, some HOUSE REPUBLICANS will decide they aren’t going to walk a plank for a president who can’t say what he supports, senior Republicans tell us. HOUSE REPUBLICANS are meeting at 9 a.m. Thursday. They have their first votes of the week this evening.

HOUSE DEMOCRATS will clearly view anything that doesn’t include wall money a victory. A stopgap funding bill until February isn’t ideal, no question about that. But the ground shifts massively toward Democrats’ favor next year.

— THE WHITE HOUSE has indicated they are asking Cabinet secretaries to find money that can be reprogrammed for building a wall. The dig-in-the-couch-cushions strategy is fun, don’t get us wrong. But it’s not tethered to reality. Sure, some agencies can reprogram money, but only up to a certain amount until Congress needs to approve it.


— SARAH FERRIS, BURGESS EVERETT and ELIANA JOHNSON: “GOP talks Trump off the shutdown ledge”

— WAPO’S ERICA WERNER, DAMIAN PALETTA and SEUNG MIN KIM: “Trump backs off demand for $5 billion for border wall, but budget impasse remains ahead of shutdown deadline”

— NYT’S JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS and KATIE ROGERS: “White House Signals Retreat on Shutdown Threat”

— WSJ’S KRISTINA PETERSON and REBECCA BALLHAUS: “White House Signals Flexibility on Border-Wall Funding as Shutdown Looms”

STEVEN SHEPARD: “Poll: Voters would blame Trump, GOP for shutdown”

BORDER TALES: “EXCLUSIVE: Advocates: Trump admin lying when it says it can’t process any more asylum seekers,” by NBC News’ Julia Ainsley and Jacob Soboroff

Happy Wednesday. SPOTTED: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meeting with Nancy Pelosi in her office in the Capitol Tuesday.

WAPO’S BOB COSTA and MIKE DEBONIS, “‘He was the future of the party’: Ryan’s farewell triggers debate about his legacy”: “Speaker Paul D. Ryan is using his final weeks in Congress to leave a lasting image of a brainy conservative warrior for lower taxes, free markets and a more muscular America abroad — in public appearances, a taxpayer-funded online video series and a farewell address set for Wednesday. But after two decades in the House and three years as speaker, the Wisconsin Republican’s long-term legacy is already a matter of fierce debate inside his own party.

“While Ryan shepherded a broad GOP tax bill last year and negotiated major increases in military spending, his repeated promises to sweepingly address the solvency and growing costs of two mandatory government programs — Social Security and Medicare — never happened, even though Republicans controlled all levers of government for the past two years.

“Ryan often spoke of the imperative of fiscal discipline, especially during the eight years of the Obama administration. But the nation’s red ink has grown since Ryan became speaker, soaring from $438 billion in 2015 to $779 billion this year. And many economists blame the tax cut as a culprit as next year’s deficit is projected to hit nearly $1 trillion.” WaPo

— “Mnuchin Backs Off Trump’s Promise of 10% Middle-Class Tax Cut,” by Bloomberg’s Laura Davison: “He downplayed the prospect of the middle-class tax cut that Trump campaigned on in the days leading up to the midterm elections. ‘I’m not going to comment on whether it is a real thing or not a real thing,’ Mnuchin said in a roundtable interview Tuesday at Bloomberg’s Washington office. ‘I’m saying for the moment we have other things we’re focused on.’” Bloomberg

BURGESS EVERETT and ANTHONY ADRAGNA: “Manchin vs. Manchin: MAGA stalwart or liberal ally?”

ON THE WORLD STAGE — “Hacked European Cables Reveal a World of Anxiety About Trump, Russia and Iran,” by NYT’s David E. Sanger and Steven Erlanger: “Hackers infiltrated the European Union’s diplomatic communications network for years, downloading thousands of cables that reveal concerns about an unpredictable Trump administration and struggles to deal with Russia and China and the risk that Iran would revive its nuclear program.

“In one cable, European diplomats described a meeting between President Trump and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in Helsinki, Finland, as ‘successful (at least for Putin).’ Another cable, written after a July 16 meeting, relayed a detailed report and analysis of a discussion between European officials and President Xi Jinping of China, who was quoted comparing Mr. Trump’s ‘bullying’ of Beijing to a ‘no-rules freestyle boxing match.’” NYT

JOANNE KENEN and ALICE MIRANDA OLLSTEIN: “Obamacare’s secret base: America’s middle class”

BIG NEWS … MARIANNE LEVINE — “Senate approves Trump-backed criminal justice overhaul”: “The Senate overwhelmingly passed Tuesday the biggest overhaul to the criminal justice system in decades, giving a win to President Donald Trump and a bipartisan group of advocates and lawmakers.

“Tuesday’s vote caps more than a year of negotiations to create more rehabilitation programs and ease mandatory minimum sentences for some drug-related crimes. The bill, which passed 87-12, has brought together many unlikely allies, including a group backed by the conservative Koch Brothers, the American Civil Liberties Union, the White House and senators from both sides of the aisle.” POLITICO

— TICK TOCK — “The bill that wouldn’t die: The unlikely story behind the criminal justice overhaul,” by CNN’s Jeremy Diamond and Alex Rogers


— DARREN SAMUELSOHN and JOSH GERSTEIN: “Mueller appears victorious in mystery subpoena dispute”: “A federal appeals court on Tuesday ordered a mystery corporation owned by a foreign country to comply with a subpoena that appears to be from special counsel Robert Mueller.

“The three-page opinion released by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit is the latest twist in an opaque dispute that POLITICO and other media outlets have tied to Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. The ruling offers the intriguing detail that the entity fighting the Mueller subpoena is a foreign government-owned company, not a specific individual, as many experts had speculated.” POLITICO

— CNN’S KATE SULLIVAN: “Trump signed letter of intent for Trump Tower Moscow project despite Giuliani insisting he didn’t”: “A newly obtained document shows President Donald Trump signed a letter of intent to move forward with negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Russia, despite his attorney Rudy Giuliani claiming on Sunday the document was never signed. CNN’s Chris Cuomo obtained a copy of the signed letter of intent that set the stage for negotiations for Trump condominiums, a hotel and commercial property in the heart of Moscow.

“The letter is dated October 28, 2015, and bears the President’s signature. When asked on Sunday about the letter, Giuliani incorrectly told CNN’s Dana Bash that it had not been signed. ‘It was a real estate project. There was a letter of intent to go forward, but no one signed it,’ Giuliani told Bash. The non-binding document is also signed by Andrey Rozov, owner of I.C. Expert Investment Co., the Russian firm that would have been responsible for developing the property.” CNNThe document

TV THIS MORNING — Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who will become chairman of House Intel in January, will appear on “CBS This Morning.”


— POLITICO ADDS MUSCLE TO HILL TEAM: Paul Volpe and Mike Zapler sent a note this morning to the newsroom: “It can sometimes feel like being the general manager of the Yankees (or the Red Sox these days, sorry Bres) when we get to add more talent to an already loaded team. So, we’re thrilled to announce two new additions to our Hill lineup — Andrew Desiderio and Melanie Zanona — and a new position for a veteran Politico, Nolan McCaskill.

“Andrew is currently The Daily Beast’s congressional reporter, covering everything from national security and immigration to politics and elections. … Melanie joins us from The Hill, where she is a congressional reporter focused on House leadership. She has written extensively about big legislative battles, internal party dynamics and the relationship between Congress and President Trump. … She will take the helm of the Huddle newsletter where we expect her to break news and provide smart analysis on the new Congress.

“Nolan, who has had an impressive run as a congressional reporter and the author of Huddle, is turning his attention to the 2020 campaign as a national political reporter.” The full memo

TRUMP’S WEDNESDAY — The president will have lunch with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at 12:30 p.m. He and first lady Melania Trump will attend Christmas receptions at 5:15 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.

WOMEN RULE — ANNA co-moderated a live podcast with “With Friends Like These” host ANA MARIE COX with actress and activist PIPER PERABO in the latest “Women Rule” podcast. Listen and subscribe to the full podcast

“Nevada makes U.S. history with first-ever female-majority state Legislature,” by Reno Gazette Journal’s James DeHaven

NEW INVESTORS IN THE WING … Per a tipster: “The Wing, a network of working and community spaces designed for women, [have] raised 75M in their Series C funding, led by Sequoia Capital and participation from Upfront Ventures and Airbnb. Actress and producer Kerry Washington, former White House senior advisor Valerie Jarrett, and Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund co-founders Hilary Rosen and Roberta Kaplan also joined the round as investors.”

GEORGE SOROS is the FT’s Person of the Year: “The Financial Times’s choice of Person of the Year is usually a reflection of their achievements. In the case of Mr. Soros this year, his selection is also about the values he represents. He is the standard bearer of liberal democracy and open society. These are the ideas which triumphed in the cold war. Today, they are under siege from all sides, from Vladimir Putin’s Russia to Donald Trump’s America.” FT

KAVANAUGH UPDATE — “Judiciary dismisses ‘serious’ misconduct complaints against Brett M. Kavanaugh,” by WaPo’s Ann E. Marimow and Robert Barnes: “The judicial council reviewing dozens of misconduct claims against Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh has dismissed the complaints that coincided with his contentious nomination battle. ‘The allegations contained in the complaints are serious,’ said the order from a Colorado-based appeals court, but must be dropped because ethics rules for the judiciary do not extend as high as the Supreme Court.

“The 83 claims filed by lawyers, doctors, professors and other concerned citizens accuse Kavanaugh of making false statements during his Senate confirmation hearings, displaying a lack of judicial temperament, making inappropriate partisan statements and treating members of the Senate Judiciary Committee with disrespect, according to the 10-page order from the Judicial Council of the 10th Circuit.” WaPo

VALLEY TALK – “As Facebook Raised a Privacy Wall, It Carved an Opening for Tech Giants,” by NYT’s Gabriel J.X. Dance, Michael LaForgia and Nick Confessore: “For years, Facebook gave some of the world’s largest technology companies more intrusive access to users’ personal data than it has disclosed, effectively exempting those business partners from its usual privacy rules, according to internal records and interviews. The special arrangements are detailed in hundreds of pages of Facebook documents obtained by The New York Times. … Facebook also assumed extraordinary power over the personal information of its 2.2 billion users — control it has wielded with little transparency or outside oversight.

“Facebook allowed Microsoft’s Bing search engine to see the names of virtually all Facebook users’ friends without consent, the records show, and gave Netflix and Spotify the ability to read Facebook users’ private messages. … Yahoo, The Times and others could still get Facebook users’ personal information in 2017. … The Times — one of nine media companies named in the documents — had access to users’ friend lists for an article-sharing application it also had discontinued in 2011. A spokeswoman for the news organization said it was not obtaining any data.” NYT

MEDIAWATCH — “‘I Think You Could Double the Size of this Company, Honestly’: POLITICO’s Robert Allbritton on Trump, A Record Year, Expansion, and Axios,” by Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo: “Despite some management upheaval, Politico has apparently been able to avoid the financial panic that has seized many of its peers. The company says it made $113 million in 2018, the highest revenue number in its history, and roughly double its 2013 total.” VF

— “Advertisers abandon Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s show over anti-immigration comments,” by CNN’s Oliver Darcy: “More than a dozen companies have announced they will either pull or suspend their advertising from Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show over comments about immigration he made last week.

“Land Rover, IHOP, Ancestry.com, Just For Men, Minted, Smile Direct, Pacific Life, ScotteVest, Nerd Wallet, TD Ameritrade, Bowflex, CareerBuilder, Zenni and the Chase United MileagePlus Explorer card had as of Tuesday afternoon all released statements saying that they would no longer advertise on ‘Tucker Carlson Tonight.’” CNN

— JASON SCHWARTZ: “Ousted NPR news chief, ex-Fox News execs team up on new site”: “One was ousted from NPR amid allegations of sexual harassment. The other left Fox News shortly after writing a column widely panned as racist and anti-gay. Now they’ve been recruited to help launch a new digital news startup with the stated goal of restoring faith in media.

“Another former Fox News executive, Ken LaCorte, has enlisted former NPR news boss Michael Oreskes and former Fox News executive editor John Moody to join him in creating LaCorte News, which he said will be a truly ‘fair and balanced’ alternative in these polarized times. The site is expected to soft launch before the end of January and will feature a curated feed of aggregated news alongside some original content.” POLITICO

TRANSITIONS – Bill Miller will be the next president and chief executive of the American Gaming Association. He most recently was an SVP at the Business Roundtable and is a U.S. Chamber alum. (h/t Politico Influence) … Adam Piper will be the new executive director of the Republican Attorneys General Association. He previously was policy director of RAGA and is a former senior aide to South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson. More from AP’s Meg Kinnard

BIRTHDAY OF THE DAY: Shannon McGahn, SVP of government affairs at the National Association of Realtors. What she’s been reading recently: “An article is about all I can commit to these days, so anything and everything on Lippman’s curated list of reads, which probably should include Realtor.com’s recent piece – ‘King of the Clicks: What Was the Most Popular Home of 2018’? (Hint: it includes a story, of a lovely lady, who was bringing up three very lovely girls…).” Playbook Plus Q&A

BIRTHDAYS: journalist Ronan Farrow is 31 (hat tip: Shana Mansbach) … Kerri Lyon, a managing director at SKDKnickerbocker … Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) is 63 (h/ts Mark Isakowitz and Peter Pasi) … Joey Scarborough, social media editor at NBC News … PBS Newshour’s Daniel Yang … Michael Duncan, founding partner at Cavalry … Patrick Ventrell … Jill Slabey … Recode’s Teddy Schleifer … Ryan Jackson, COS at EPA … Craig Winneker … retired Marine Gen. Jim Jones is 75 … Kelsey Moran … Sam Littman … John Vail … Erin Taylor (h/ts Jon Haber) … Henry Longley … Molly Pattison … Bronwyn Lance Chester … Callie Schweitzer, founder and CEO of CSCH, a creative strategy and consulting firm … Ann McDaniel … Ethan Todras-Whitehill, co-founder and executive director of Swing Left, is 38 (h/t Marc Smrikarov) …

… Tomicah Tillemann (h/t JP Schnapper-Casteras) … Michaela Balderston, SVP at Tusk Ventures … NPR’s Kelsey Snell … Max McClellan of Efran Films and a CBS News alum … Taara Rangarajan, senior director of global partnerships and programs at Global Citizen and an Obama alum (h/t Ben Chang) … Tal Kopan, Washington correspondent at the San Francisco Chronicle … Kate Mize … Rebecca Edgar … Maggie Polachek, MBA candidate at the University of Washington and a CAP alum … Catherine Hormats … Amy Best Weiss, VP of federal gov’t affairs at American Express … Kasey Hampton … Jim Oberman … Ashley Snee Giovannettone … Rep. Adrian Smith (R-Neb.) is 48 (h/t Blake Waggoner) … Matt Wojtkun is 35 … Michael Feinberg … Sarah Scott … Whitney Patton … Russ Caso … Patrick B. Donohue … WashPost’s Josh Freedom Du Lac … Jenny Murphy … CBS’ Sean Gallitz … Jeff Kiernan … Shaun Doherty … Anne Stewart … Bernie Weinraub … Ann Lewis … John Pederson (h/ts Teresa Vilmain)