U.S. adds second charge against Russian national linked to NRA

Mariia Butina is pictured. | AP Photo

The latest complaint against Mariia Butina says she was working under the direction of a high-level official in the Russian government and Russian central bank | AP Photo

A federal grand jury indicted Mariia Butina on Tuesday on charges of conspiracy and acting as a foreign agent, adding a new charge against the Russian national, who was arrested over the weekend in Washington and accused of playing a part in a secret Russian attempt to influence U.S. politics.

Jessie Liu, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, signed off on the two-count indictment against Butina, 29, who is accused of working as an unregistered Kremlin agent from at least 2015 through the present day.

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Butina was already charged Monday with conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government, an offense with a statutory maximum of five years in prison. On Tuesday, U.S. officials persuaded the grand jury to add the second offense of acting as the foreign agent, which has its own 10-year-maximum prison sentence.

Like the charging documents released Monday, the latest complaint against Butina says she was working under the direction of a high-level official in the Russian government and Russian central bank “to arrange introductions to U.S. persons having influence in American politics, including an organization promoting gun rights … for the purpose of advancing the interests of the Russian Federation.”

While the indictment doesn’t name the Russian official or the gun rights group, it appears to refer to Alexander Torshin, an associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin and a longtime supporter of the National Rifle Association who also reportedly has ties to both Russian security services and organized crime figures.

Robert Driscoll, an attorney for Butina, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the new indictment. On Monday, he issued a statement disputing the initial charge and said his client, a recent college graduate, was not “seeking to influence or undermine any specific policy or law of the United States — only at most to promote a better relationship between the two nations.”

Butina is scheduled to appear at a Wednesday afternoon hearing before Magistrate Judge Deborah Robinson at the federal courthouse in Washington.

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Trump Supreme Court nominee faces widest partisan divide in recent history

Brett Kavanaugh is pictured. | Getty Images

According to a Pew Research Center poll, Brett Kavanaugh has the highest unfavorability ranking in data going back to 2005, when President George W. Bush picked John Roberts for chief justice. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

More Americans oppose the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court than that of any other nominee in recent history, according to a poll from the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.

The survey, taken a week after President Donald Trump nominated Kavanaugh, found Americans deeply divided along partisan lines. While 41 percent of adults surveyed supported Kavanaugh’s confirmation, 36 percent opposed it, the highest unfavorability ranking in data going back to 2005, when President George W. Bush picked John Roberts for chief justice.

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Opposition to Kavanaugh is even greater than that against Harriet Miers, the Bush nominee who, amid withering criticism from her own party, withdrew from the running less than a month after being nominated. And the partisan gap over Kavanaugh’s nomination is about twice as wide as it was for Roberts, the Pew survey found. Republicans and Republican-leaning adults were 57 percentage points more likely than Democrats to say the Senate should confirm Kavanaugh.

Democrats’ worry about the court’s direction is higher today than it was in November 2005, when Bush nominated Samuel Alito to replace Sandra Day O’Connor. At the time, 38 percent of Democrats worried that Alito would shift the court too far right, compared with 53 percent of Democrats reacting to Kavanaugh today. The poll, conducted July 11-15 by telephone with 1,007 people nationwide, has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.

The data underscore the tough fight that Kavanaugh, who has served on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia since 2006, faces in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said he wants the nominee confirmed by the beginning of the court’s next term, Oct. 1. Kavanaugh’s fate could hinge on the votes of four Democrats in conservative states, three of whom are up for reelection this year.

Kavanaugh’s paper trail — from his judicial decisions, as well as two years in the White House counsel’s office under Bush, more than three as Bush’s staff secretary and as a prosecutor for Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr — could amount to hundreds of pages, and both sides are preparing for high-dollar grass-roots and messaging campaigns.

The conservative Judicial Crisis Network has spent $3.8 million on ads targeting Democratic senators in conservative states. Demand Justice, a liberal coalition, has pledged to spend $5 million to block the nominee.

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No ‘underlying facts’ to pursue Trump impeachment, top House Democrat says

Linda Sanchez is pictured. | AP Photo

“In order to prosecute a case for impeachment, you have to have the underlying facts,” said Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.). | AP Photo

Democrats won’t act to impeach President Donald Trump as long as the investigation into Russian interference is ongoing, the vice chairwoman of the House Democratic Caucus said today.

“In order to prosecute a case for impeachment, you have to have the underlying facts,” Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.) said at the POLITICO Pro Summit. “We don’t know all the facts yet. And until the time that we do, we can’t make a decision on whether or not impeachment is warranted.”

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Sánchez said using the term “meddling” to describe Russia’s attempts to influence U.S. elections downplays the seriousness of the allegations.

“Meddling is a very milquetoast term. Meddling, that sounds like your neighbor who goes and tells gossip,” Sánchez said. “The fact that a foreign government tries to undermine our democracy is something that everybody, regardless of political affiliation, should be clamoring for acknowledgment of.”

But the California Democrat said it’s important to “give space” and protect the independence of the investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, to ensure there is no reason for the president to intervene.

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Theresa May survives again (but with a broken party)

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit plan makes it through to the summer break | Matt Cardy — WPA Pool/Getty Images

British prime minister squeaks through in the House of Commons but Tory Euroskeptics head into the summer emboldened.

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LONDON — Theresa May breathed a sigh of relief Tuesday as she cleared (probably) her final Brexit hurdle before parliament’s summer break.

After just over a week of sustained pressure from all sides of her party over a new Brexit plan, the U.K. prime minister averted defeat on key legislation that would have rewritten her negotiating priorities and ­could have been the killer blow to her fragile leadership.

It took serious arm-twisting. An amendment to the Trade Bill — put forward by pro-EU rebel Tory MP Stephen Hammond, and which could have legally bound the U.K. to seeking a customs union with the EU — was only defeated by 307 votes to 301.

Chaotic parliamentary maneuvering over the last two days has exposed the prime minister’s precarious position as she tries to agree a Brexit plan that both wings of her party and her negotiating partners in Brussels can live with. Having lost her majority via a self-inflicted general election just over a year ago, May walks a tightrope between red lines on all sides and the constant threat that her own backbench MPs could topple her.

Government whips warned Remain-leaning MPs thinking about voting for the amendment they would be risking a general election if they did, one MP said.

The Remain-leaning rebels retreat to lick their wounds, while leading Brexit-supporter Jacob Rees-Mogg and his European Research Group of Tory backbenchers will be emboldened again.

That threat was not enough to prevent 12 Conservative rebels from voting for the customs union arrangement they believe is vital to protect the U.K.’s traders. But in the end, five Labour Brexiteers saved the day for the government, delivering the crucial votes that tilted the balance.

A vote for a customs union strategy Tuesday would have enraged May’s other band of potential rebels, the hardline Brexiteers, some of whom have already called for a vote of no confidence in May’s leadership over her new, softer “Chequers strategy” for Brexit that resulted in the resignation of key Brexiteer ministers David Davis and Boris Johnson.

But as it is, the Remain-leaning rebels retreat to lick their wounds, while leading Brexit-supporter Jacob Rees-Mogg and his European Research Group of Tory backbenchers will be emboldened again — hopeful, rightly or wrongly, that they have killed off key aspects of the Chequers approach.

Whereas on Monday, their amendments to Brexit legislation, aimed at delivering a harder line, were embraced by the government and narrowly passed, on Tuesday the government resisted a proposal from the opposing faction of Tory Remainers and lost.

Of the two bands of MPs who could block May’s Brexit, the hardliners now look far stronger than the Europhiles — and that could have implications for the kind of Brexit May ultimately delivers.

School’s out for summer

While she looks safe for the summer, May goes into the six-week parliamentary recess with her party utterly divided — and her government’s strategy surviving only thanks to the tiny number of Labour Euroskeptic votes who defied their own party leadership to back the government.

Bad blood between the two factions within the Tory party was on display for a second day running in the House of Commons. Former justice minister Phillip Lee, who voted with the pro-EU rebels, said he hadn’t been intending to do so until Monday’s government capitulation to the Brexiteers “changed the dynamic.”

“I started the week intending to support our prime minister in her deal and the white paper, yesterday changed that,” he said.

Leading pro-EU MP Nicky Morgan characterized the customs union amendment as an opportunity for May to get the Chequers plan back on track. The government didn’t see it that way, with May’s official spokesman insisting earlier in the day that a customs union was not an option because it would preclude free-trade agreements with non-EU countries, seen by many Brexit supporters as the key upside of leaving the EU.

When Hammond formally put forward the amendment minutes before the vote (after rejecting a merely symbolic government concession) he said he did so with “a heavy heart.” MPs were told that, had the amendment passed, the government would trigger a “back me or sack me” motion of confidence in the government before the summer break, risking a general election should May lose, according to one MP.

Tory whips continued to try to convince the pro-EU rebels right up until the final minutes before the vote. In the end, it was the Labour votes of Brexiteers Kate Hoey, John Mann, Graham Stringer, Frank Field and the suspended Kelvin Hopkins that saved the government’s skin.

Rocky road ahead

In truth, the government’s Brexit white paper, with its “common rulebook” with the EU on goods standards, is still likely to severely restrict the government’s room to maneuver on trade. But the customs union vote had acquired symbolic importance, and a victory for the pro-Europeans would have been the final straw for many Brexiteers, potentially triggering enough requests to topple the prime minister. It only takes 48 of the party’s MPs to ask for a vote of confidence for the leader to be challenged.

“More people are putting in letters,” said one leading Brexiteer MP ahead of the vote, indicating that had the government lost, all bets would have been off. It is unknown how many letters have been sent and only one man, Conservative party 1922 Committee chairman Graham Brady, knows for certain.

Ironically, a short-lived attempt by the government to bring forward parliament’s recess by four days, from Tuesday next week to this Thursday — taking the heat off May by limiting time for a challenge before the summer — was met with such derision by Tory MPs that it may have encouraged some to send their letters of no confidence, the MP said bitterly. “The optics would be terrible,” they said. In the end, the government dropped the proposal.

For now, with a defeat on her customs plan averted, May looks like she will fight on going into the summer when, away from Westminster, MPs are less likely to co-ordinate a plot to oust her. The government will also likely reflect on the fact that, when push comes to shove in the House of Commons, proposals for a more distant relationship with the EU tend to pass more easily than proposals for a closer one — something that could be significant when MPs vote on the final deal May delivers this autumn.

Before then, the prime minister, having survived another round of the parliamentary Brexit gauntlet, still needs to take her new deal to the EU’s negotiators, who are offering talks over the summer.

As so often with May, she won’t have long to enjoy the sunshine, before the next big Brexit drama.


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Infrastructure investment would be No. 1 goal of Democrat-controlled House, Sánchez says

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“We can’t compete in a global economy if we don’t have the infrastructure to move goods and people efficiently throughout the region,” said Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.). | AP Photo

If Democrats take back the House in November, infrastructure investment will top their to-do list, the vice chairwoman of the House Democratic Caucus said Tuesday.

“The No. 1 thing that is on the top of the list in terms of priorities is a robust infrastructure bill,” Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.) said at the POLITICO Pro Summit. “It’s something that the president promised and has failed to deliver on. And it’s something that we think will benefit every state and every region in the country.”

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“We can’t compete in a global economy if we don’t have the infrastructure to move goods and people efficiently throughout the region,” she added.

The topic is also on the radar of GOP leaders, House Republican Conference Vice Chairman Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) said during the same panel.

“The infrastructure bill is something we can work on,” Collins said. “Infrastructure would be one that many of our folks have already thought about.”

Pension reform and health care are also priorities for Democrats, Sánchez said.

“You have to prioritize and not bite off more than you can chew,” the California Democrat said in response to a question about whether the minority party would try to pass legislation on issues such as gun control. “You have to look for the areas where you can find Republican support as well.”

Sánchez announced today that she is running to chair the House Democratic Caucus, becoming the first lawmaker to enter the race since Chairman Joe Crowley’s (D-N.Y.) unexpected primary loss last month.

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