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CIA nominee Gina Haspel defends role in enhanced interrogation, vows not to restart program

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Haspel declined to confirm that she oversaw waterboarding of a detainee, saying that her assignments are classified and suggested she could discuss that part of her career with senators in private. Waterboarding simulates the experience of drowning.

Haspel also received push back from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who urged his colleagues to join him in opposing Haspel’s nomination. McCain, who is battling cancer and was not at the hearing, said in a statement he understood “the urgency” behind the decision to use enhanced interrogation after 9/11, but added Haspel’s alleged role in overseeing these methods is “disturbing.”

“Her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying. I believe the Senate should exercise its duty of advice and consent and reject this nomination,” McCain said.

The hearing — held in public and behind closed doors — is critical for Haspel, who would be the first woman to lead the agency if confirmed. Haspel lobbied a number of lawmakers earlier this week who remain skeptical about her ability to lead the agency and who have expressed concern about her lack of transparency. While she floated the idea of withdrawing her nomination last week, she expressed confidence Wednesday that she’s the right person for the job.

“I know CIA like the back of my hand,” she told the committee.

Haspel, who has spent 33 years at the CIA, has served as the agency’s director since February 2017 and as acting director for several weeks. She was grilled Wednesday about the period in her career when she ran a CIA black site in Thailand where U.S. officials have previously told NBC News an al Qaeda detainee, allegedly the mastermind of the USS Cole bombing, was waterboarded three times and confined to a small box. Haspel later drafted a cable ordering that videotapes of CIA interrogations be destroyed. Her precise role remains classified to the public.

In response to a question from Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., Haspel said that the tapes of the interrogations were made around 2002, and an issue surrounding the tapes had lingered for the next three years.

“Over time, there was a great deal of concern about the security risk posed to CIA officers who were depicted on the tapes. Those security issues centered on the threat from al Qaeda should those tapes be irresponsibly leaked,” said Haspel.

Haspel said that she followed orders from her superior to have the tapes destroyed and there were “numerous legal consultations” over the years at the agency. She said it was her understanding that there was no legal requirement to retain the tapes and no legal impediment to disposing of them, and pointed to investigations by Congress, the Department of Justice and the CIA that she said had found no fault with her actions.

Warner noted that in Nov. 2005, then-Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., had introduced legislation to create a commission that would investigate the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation — and that the tapes were were destroyed just days later. Haspel said Wednesday that Levin’s legislation had not played a role in the decision to destroy the tapes.

“What I recall were the security issues surrounding the tapes. I don’t recall pending legislation,” she said.

The committee vote on Haspel’s confirmation will likely be held next week behind closed doors. If her nomination advances out of committee, leadership would like to have a full confirmation vote on the Senate floor before lawmakers leave for a weeklong Memorial Day recess.

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Melania Trump expressed surprise over Vogue selecting Beyoncé for 2018 cover

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First lady Melania Trump appeared to express astonishment over Vogue magazine’s decision to feature Beyoncé on the cover of the September 2018 issue and give her editorial input, according to a secretly recorded phone conversation shared with NBC News.

“Anna [Wintour] gave the September issue of Vogue cover — complete, complete, complete, everything — to Beyoncé,” the first lady says in a July 2018 conversation recorded by her then-friend Stephanie Winston Wolkoff.

“She hired black photographer. And it’s the first black photographer ever doing cover of Vogue.”

The statement was made after Melania Trump and Winston Wolkoff, her former friend and adviser who previously spent a decade at Vogue, discussed the departure of top editors at the venerable fashion magazine.

The September 2018 issue of Vogue magazine made history as the first time a Black photographer was selected to shoot its cover star. Beyoncé said at the time she saw the issue as an opportunity to provide more opportunities to Black artists like the cover photographer, Tyler Mitchell.

Vogue described the cover as “truly a collaborative effort.”

“When Vogue suggested photographer Tyler Mitchell to Beyoncé, the star immediately said yes to the opportunity to work with this young artist,” the magazine said at the time.

In a statement, Melania Trump’s spokesperson attacked Winston Wolkoff — who authored the book, “Melania and Me: The Rise and Fall of My Friendship with the First Lady — but didn’t directly address the Beyoncé remarks.

“Her narcissism knows no bounds, this woman is a fraud,” said spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham. “These audio tapes are hand-picked about nonsense and presented with no context. Shame on her for this continued attempt at character assassination and shame on NBC for covering this gossip.”

A spokesperson for Beyoncé declined to comment.

Beyonce is featured on the cover of the September issue of Vogue Magazine.Vogue

The first lady’s remarks on the Beyoncé cover were made in one of six recorded telephone conversations, lasting more than six hours, that took place between February and July 2018. Winston Wolkoff began recording her calls with the first lady after she was asked to leave the White House amid scrutiny over spending by the Presidential Inaugural Committee, which she worked on.

Melania Trump has maintained a carefully guarded persona since assuming the role of first lady, revealing little about her personal beliefs and largely staying out of the political fray.

But in the previously-undisclosed recorded phone calls, the first lady at times sounds remarkably similar to President Trump.

She calls the press “stupid,” describes Democrats as “nasty,” and hails her husband as “the most popular Republican president ever.”

Melania Trump also opens up on a series of other topics ranging from “princess” Ivanka to the Steele dossier to her TV news viewing.

The first lady talks to Winston Wolkoff at length about how she pays close attention to media coverage to keep informed and doesn’t only stay “in the bubble of FOX.”

“I watch CNN. I watch MSNBC,” Melania Trump says, before referencing the president. “Hello. And then they said, ‘Oh, he got angry because my TV. Hello. I watch what I want.”

The first lady laughs. Then adds: “Of course I will have CNN and MSNBC and stuff. I watch whatever I want. And people think like, ‘Oh, poor Melania. Oh, he’s telling her what to watch.’ No, he’s not.”

But she also describes feeling under assault by the media and laments, like her husband, that she rarely receives favorable press coverage.

At one point, she references a June 2018 trip to the southern border to visit migrant children in detention who were separated from their parents. Melania Trump notes that former first lady Michelle Obama made no such trip.

“When did the previous first lady went down to the border and visit them?” Melania Trump says. “Never.”

“I asked, ‘Did she ever went?’” she continues. “They said, like, no. No records.”

The jacket worn by the first lady during her trip to the Texas detention facility – which featured the phrase, “I really don’t care. Do u?” – drew wide scrutiny at the time.

Melania Trump’s fashion choices were a frequent topic of conversation between the two women.

The first lady expresses bemusement over the effort by some to ascribe meaning to the clothing she chooses. During one call, she scoffs at a reporter who suggested she might have worn a pink designer dress in honor of gay pride.

“They saying, ‘She was wearing that dress because she didn’t say anything about gay parade on Sunday but she wore Monday to give the nod for the gay people,’” Melania Trump says.

“Are you kidding?” she adds. “It never even crossed my mind.”

Melania Trump also reflects on comparisons to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the former first lady who was known for her style.

“We are such a different type of women,” Melania Trump says. “If you really think about it, right? She was, like, skinny, short, tiny. I’m not that way.”

David Wolkoff, Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, Melania and Donald Trump attend a benefit event at the United Nations on Feb. 6, 2008.Billy Farrell / Patrick McMullan via Getty Image file

The recorded conversations took place during a five-month span when multiple Trump associates were ensnared in the special counsel’s probe into Russian election meddling.

In one of the recorded calls, the first lady offers sympathy for Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign manager who was ultimately sentenced to seven years in prison for a raft of crimes, including witness tampering, tax fraud and conspiracy to defraud the U.S.

“Look how unfair it is for Manafort,” Melania Trump told Winston Wolkoff in June 2018.

The first lady also described watching the drip of news from inside the White House as Robert Mueller’s probe was gaining steam.

“We don’t know who they’re looking in because they are so quiet and then suddenly one day they come out,” Melania Trump says.

She also discusses the dossier prepared by Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence agent whose research on links between Trump and Russia was funded by Democrats.

The dossier, which Buzzfeed published in 2017, included salacious but uncorroborated allegations about the president.

“It’s all fiction,” Melania Trump says on one call. “It’s all bs.”

The recordings suggest that the former first lady rarely interacts with Ivanka Trump. In her book, Winston Wolkoff said that Melania Trump refers to Ivanka as “princess.”

In one of the taped calls, Winston Wolkoff asks, “How’s princess?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know,” Melania Trump responds.

She goes on to refer to a New York Times article stating that Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner are taking on expanded White House roles.

Melania Trump says she doesn’t waste her time meeting with the couple because they always carry things out “their own way.”

“They would not do it what I said,” she says. “I’m just wasting my energy. For what?”

The conversation about Vogue carried on during the July 2018 call. The first lady described her shock over the magazine choosing to feature Stormy Daniels, a porn actress who was paid $130,000 to keep quiet over an alleged sexual encounter with Trump in 2006.

In a recording first heard on former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s podcast, Melania Trump refers to Daniels as “the porn hooker.”

The first lady, a former model, went on to say she would never be selected to appear on the cover of the magazine’s coveted September issue.

“They would never do it,” she says to Winston Wolkoff, a former Vogue special events director who planned the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute Gala and later worked as founding fashion director for Lincoln Center.

Melania Trump also notes that she turned down an opportunity to be profiled in the fashion magazine run by editor Anna Wintour.

“I don’t give a f— about Vogue,” she says.

Winston Wolkoff, who helped plan the 2017 Trump inaugural festivities, left the White House in 2018 amid scrutiny over spending for the event.

Winston Wolkoff said she started recording her conversations with Melania Trump after the first lady failed to offer public support following press reports suggesting she reaped enormous profits from the events.

“The tapes were first and foremost for my protection and safety,” Winston Wolkoff told NBC News. “They became my insurance policy so nobody could refute the truth.”

Winston Wolkoff said she made a personal appeal to Melania Trump to defend her, but the first lady refused, citing a “possible investigation” into the Presidential Inaugural Committee.

Spending for the inauguration later became the subject of investigations by Mueller, as well as federal prosecutors in Manhattan, and was the target of a lawsuit by Washington, D.C.’s attorney general.

“Instead of making a statement on my behalf, she was complicit with the administration’s decision to make me the scapegoat for the unaccounted and overspending of the $107 million,” Winston Wolkoff said. “It was painfully clear at that point that she was no longer my friend, so I pressed record on the conversations I had with Melania.”

Winston Wolkoff added: “I had nothing to do with inaugural donations and I had no access, jurisdiction or authority over any inaugural payments. I did repeatedly raise concerns about the inaugural committee’s financial management.”

Roughly $26 million flowed through a company in which Winston Wolkoff was a partner. The vast majority of that money went to another vendor to pay for live broadcasts of several inaugural events and other expenses.

“I had no discretionary approval rights over the budget,” she said. “I had no authority to sign checks on behalf of the entity.”

Last week, the Justice Department sued Winston Wolkoff for allegedly breaking a confidentiality agreement she signed while working at the White House. Winston Wolkoff has said she has a right to defend herself against “defamatory falsehoods.”

In one of the recordings made after Winston Wolkoff left the White House, Melania Trump told her: “Don’t be so dramatic. You were not fired. This came to that because of politics.”

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Trump’s ‘YMCA’ rally dancing is campaign bright spot

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TUCSON, Ariz. — He adjusts his coat. He gazes out at the crowd. And then he goes for it.

President Donald Trump, a man who is famously particular about his appearance, is fully embracing doing a dad dance to the Village People’s “YMCA” as the finale to his rallies in the campaign’s closing stretch.

He starts with the arms, clenched fists pumping back and forth — sometimes to the beat — as though he’s on an elliptical trainer. He claps. He waves. And then he starts to bop his head and move his knees. On some nights, he sticks mostly to pointing and clapping. But on others, he lurches from side to side and jerks his body as the crowd cheers.

President Donald Trump dances as he leaves a rally at Tucson International Airport in Tucson, Ariz., on Oct. 19, 2020.Mandel Ngan / AFP – Getty Images

Backstage, top staff and campaign aides often join in with the more traditional take, using their bodies to spell out Y-M-C-A to the strains of the cheesy ’70s anthem.

Trump’s rally dance has become a rare moment of levity in an otherwise miserable campaign year marked by a deadly pandemic, an economic recession and racial turmoil. And while Trump has largely been shunned by pop culture, the dance has spawned a viral TikTok video challenge (even though he’s threatened to ban the site in the U.S.) and a parody on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”

“Do you want to shake your groove thing but don’t know the steps? Then order ‘Dancing with The Don’ and let President Trump teach you all the hottest moves!” Colbert’s show advertised in a parody infomercial.

Trump’s campaign staff and family members have also been promoting clips and copycats as the president trails in most national polls and in many battleground states just two weeks out from Election Day.

“Love it!” the president’s daughter and senior adviser, Ivanka Trump, wrote as she retweeted a video posted by a young woman replicating the president’s moves.

When a reporter tweeted a video showing some of Trump’s campaign aides dancing along — but not Ivanka Trump’s husband, Jared Kushner, a top White House adviser — Ivanka tweeted back: “Party Foul!”

Added Trump senior advisor Steve Cortes: “President Beast Mode can boogie…”

The efforts to make the dance “a thing” come as the president has been trying to demonstrate his vigor after returning to the campaign trail following his infection with the coronavirus, which put him in the hospital for three nights.

President Donald Trump dances at the end of a rally at Carson City Airport in Carson City, Nev., on Oct. 18, 2020.Mandel Ngan / AFP – Getty Images

It has drawn a scowl from others, including CNN’s Don Lemon, who criticized Trump for dancing to the song during a pandemic that has killed so many.

“That can’t be taken away no matter how many times he goes to rallies and dances to the Village People,” Lemon said. “He is having fun and dancing on the graves of 215,000 Americans. Dancing.”

“YMCA,” widely considered a gay anthem, is a relatively new addition to Trump’s rally playlist. It was swapped in this year after the Rolling Stones threatened in June to sue if Trump didn’t stop using their song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” as his rally closer.

Trump’s eclectic rally soundtrack — an integral part of the events — has sparked numerous threats of legal action, along with group sing-alongs, crowd dance sessions, confused stares and even boos.

In the early days, the list was heavy on the Rolling Stones and Aerosmith (until they also threatened legal action), along with Trump favorites like Adele (until she objected) and the late tenor Luciano Pavarotti’s “Nessun Dorma” (until his wife objected, too.)

Throughout much of 2016, the Backstreet Boys and ’N Sync were rally staples, as have been ballads from Broadway musicals including “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Cats,” and “Les Misérables.”

“Macho Man,” also by the Village People, is another recent add.

The Village People have said they are OK with Trump’s use of their songs.

President Donald Trump dances following a speech during a campaign rally in Greenville, N.C., on Oct. 15, 2020.Karl DeBlaker / AP

“Since our music is not being used for a specific endorsement, the President’s use is “perfect(ly)” legal,” they wrote on Facebook in February. “Like millions of Village People fans worldwide, the President and his supporters have shown a genuine like for our music. Our music is all-inclusive and certainly everyone is entitled to do the YMCA dance, regardless of their political affiliation.”

“Having said that,” they added, “we certainly don’t endorse his use as we’d prefer our music be kept out of politics.’

Trump’s campaign declined to say who had the idea to use “YMCA” as his closing song — though members of his traveling entourage have jokingly tried to take credit.

Trump campaign adviser Jason Miller agreed to reveal the secret to an AP reporter “only if we first get a clip of you singing YMCA.”

AP’s Jill Colvin declined.

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Watch: Trump dances to ‘YMCA’ at his campaign rallies

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President Trump has garnered social media attention for his muted dance to Village People’s iconic anthem “YMCA” at his campaign rallies. Take a look at some of his grooves from October 2020.

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