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National Enquirer’s parent firm asked U.S. if it should register as foreign agent for Saudis

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By Josh Lederman

The company that publishes the National Enquirer was concerned enough that it may have acted as an agent of Saudi Arabia that it asked the Department of Justice last year whether it needed to register as a foreign lobbyist, a person with knowledge of Saudi Arabia’s lobbying efforts in the United States confirms to NBC News.

Communications between the Justice Department and American Media Inc. offer the fullest picture to date of interactions between the tabloid publisher and the Saudis ahead of AMI’s release last year of a fawning magazine about Saudi Arabia’s young leader. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who has accused AMI of blackmailing him with intimate photos, has questioned whether Saudi Arabia may have been involved, a claim the kingdom denies.

A July 2018 letter from Justice Department lawyers to AMI and posted to a government website shows that the Justice Department’s National Security Division ultimately told the publisher that, based on AMI’s own statements, it did not need to register. Under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, people or entities that work to advance a foreign country’s political interests in the U.S. must disclose their specific activities and register as foreign lobbyists.

“Taking into account the facts stated in your submission, and limiting our evaluation only to the facts stated in your submission, we find that there is no agency relationship between [U.S. corporation] and any foreign principal,” the Justice Department wrote, referring to AMI.

Although the names of the parties are redacted in the publicly released version of the letter, the timing, facts and circumstances all line up precisely with AMI’s unusual publication of the magazine about Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his March 2018 visit to the U.S. The person familiar with Saudi Arabia’s lobbying efforts confirmed to NBC News that AMI and the Saudi government are the entities referred to in the letter, which was first disclosed Monday by The Wall Street Journal.

American Media Inc. (AMI) headquarter building in New York on Feb. 7, 2019.Jeenah Moon / Reuters

AMI produced the glossy magazine last year just ahead of a whirlwind tour of the U.S. by Crown Prince Mohammed, who at the time was not a household name in the U.S. The magazine was sold on newsstands for $13.99, including in many rural states, and had no advertisements, raising questions about why AMI thought it would be a money-maker for the company.

At the time, AMI said that Saudi Arabia had played no role in the production of the magazine, even when it was revealed that the Saudi Embassy in Washington had been given an advance copy of the magazine weeks before it hit newsstands.

But in its letters to the Justice Department in May and June 2018, AMI acknowledged that it had asked a Saudi adviser to submit content for the magazine, given the adviser an early draft to review and then made changes to the final version that were suggested by the Saudi adviser.

According to the Justice Department letter, government lawyers determined that AMI didn’t need to register as a Saudi agent based on the company’s claims that it received no foreign funding for the magazine and that it had been under no obligation to make the changes suggested by the Saudi adviser. The identity of the adviser mentioned is unclear.

AMI’s potential ties to Saudi Arabia are under scrutiny after Bezos, in his Medium post accusing AMI of trying to blackmail him, raised the possibility that Saudi Arabia had been involved either in giving AMI the “intimate text messages” or in inducing AMI to target and humiliate him. Bezos specifically raised the example of AMI’s pro-Saudi magazine to point out that there have long been questions about whether its reporting is influenced by “external forces.”

Bezos wrote that a top AMI official had recently told him and his lawyers that AMI’s CEO, David Pecker, was “apoplectic” that Bezos had launched a private investigation into how AMI got his text messages.

“For reasons still to be better understood, the Saudi angle seems to hit a particularly sensitive nerve,” Bezos wrote.

Pecker, through his lawyer, has said that Saudi Arabia was not the source of the text messages obtained by The National Enquirer, though AMI has declined to identify the source.

“The clear threat from Bezos’ point of view is that we’re going to link you to Saudi Arabia, we’re going to say that you hacked all of these texts, we’re going to slander the publication as much as we can,” Pecker’s lawyer, Elkan Abramowitz, said Sunday on ABC”s “This Week.”

Saudi Arabia, too, has pushed back on the suggestion from Bezos that it was involved in leaking his emails.

“As far as I know, flat no,” Saudi State Minister Adel al-Jubeir told reporters Friday at the Saudi Embassy in Washington. Offering his own assessment of the situation, he added, “It’s a soap opera.”

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Grilled by children, Feinstein tries to teach lesson in politics

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By Dennis Romero

U.S. Sen Dianne Feinstein, D-California, isn’t backing the Green New Deal, and she wasn’t shy about letting a group who does support it know it — even if they are children.

A group of schoolchildren visited the senator at her San Francisco office Friday and urged her to get on board with the renewable energy legislation. But the conversation quickly turned into somewhat of a confrontation, and Feinstein has been criticized online for the tone she took. Edited video of the 85-year-old lecturing more than a dozen kids went viral Friday.

One girl implored the senator to back the Green New Deal and argued that the government can afford it. “We have tons of money going to military,” the girl told the lawmaker.

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” Feinstein said. “I know what I’m doing. You come in here and you say it has to be my way or the highway. I don’t respond to that.”

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Bigger is not better. Small dollars online are gold for Democrats taking on Trump.

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By Alex Seitz-Wald

WASHINGTON — The most coveted donor for 2020 Democratic presidential candidates may not be a Wall Street financier or Hollywood producer, but a grade school teacher in the Midwest who chips in $25 a month to her favorite candidate.

Small dollars are a bigger deal than ever because they can help organize and engage a large and committed group of supporters who invest more than just money in a campaign.

“Small-dollar donors are going to be a pivotal part of this election, both strategically and practically,” said Erin Hill, executive director of ActBlue, Democrats’ central clearinghouse for online donations. “Small-dollar donors don’t just give — they also vote, volunteer and tell their friends why they care about a candidate.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., proved that his supporters, or at least 225,000 of them, are still committed when he raised a whopping $6 million on Wednesday, the day after launching his presidential campaign.

Rufus Gifford, who served as national finance director for President Barack Obama’s re-election effort in 2012, called the haul “truly remarkable,” noting on Twitter that he was skeptical Sanders could match his 2016 effort: “I was wrong.”

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., announced raising $1.5 million on her first day in the race, while Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said she brought in $1 million in her first 48 hours. The other candidates have not released numbers, but FEC data shows Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., raised about $300,000 online through ActBlue on New Year’s Eve, when she announced her exploratory committee.

Sanders, of course, had a head start thanks to his previous presidential run, which helped him grow a donor pool the size of every other perspective candidate combined, according to a recent New York Times analysis.

But the good news for the rest of the current field of White House hopefuls is that there is now more opportunity than ever for left-leaning candidates to tap into grassroots fundraising — if they know how to.

“As donors get younger and younger, and people get more and more used to the internet, and campaigns get savvier and savvier, there is very real money available,” said Teddy Goff, who was a top digital strategist on presidential runs by Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Goff recalled that as recently as 2012 people would call into the Obama campaign to make sure it was safe for them to donate online.

Now, thanks to Amazon and everything else that Americans do online, digital financial transactions have become second nature. And thanks to President Donald Trump, Democratic voters are eager to open their digital wallets.

In last year’s midterm elections, ActBlue processed more than $1.6 billion in online donations, up from $782 million in 2016 and $335 million in 2014 — a five-fold surge in four years. (Republicans just last month established their answer to ActBlue after years of false starts.)

And as donating online has become frictionless for Democrats, the party has grown increasingly hostile to traditional modes of funding campaigns and to big money in politics.

For the first time, the Democratic National Committee will allow candidates to qualify to take part in the party’s debates if they can secure donations from 65,000 people in at least 20 different states. In the past, only candidates who registered a certain amount of support in the polls were allowed to participate.

“Because campaigns are won on the strength of their grassroots, we also updated the threshold, giving all types of candidates the opportunity to reach the debate stage and giving small-dollar donors a bigger voice in the primary than ever before,” DNC chairman Tom Perez said in a statement announcing the change.

That’s already altering some campaigns’ strategies, with lesser-known candidates like Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, pursuing that path to the debate stage.

Tara McGowan, the founder and CEO of the Democratic digital firm Acronym, said smart campaigns make donors “feel a sense of ownership” in the campaign and give them other meaningful ways to engage, like by volunteering or posting on social media.

“You run the risk of thinking of digital outreach as an ATM for the campaign,” she said. “You’re missing a real opportunity to help amplify your message if you’re not engaging people who are already raising their hand.”

Meanwhile, big donors simply aren’t as valuable as they once were, excluding groups that can take unlimited contributions like super PACs — and almost every major 2020 candidate has sworn off them already.

For Democrats, big checks also can come with a political cost, especially if they’re written by people who work in certain industries that have been targeted by the left, such as finance, fossil fuels and pharmaceuticals.

While large donors may expect something in return for their largesse, from a photo-op with the candidate to an ambassadorship to France, someone who gives $5 is not counting on much more than a feeling of connection to the candidate and solidarity with other small donors.

For instance, Warren has recalled how during her first run for the Senate in 2012, a young man approached her on a subway platform late one night to tell her he was working extra hours to donate to her campaign every month.

“I felt as if he’d hit me with a spear right between the ribs,” Warren wrote in her book, “A Fighting Chance.” “Good Lord — this kid was working until nearly 11 o’clock on a Saturday night and he was sending me money? I smiled weakly and said something along the lines of: ‘Uh, I’m doing OK in the campaign. Maybe you should keep your money. I’ll be fine. Really.'”

But she says he looked back and replied: “No, I’m part of this campaign. This is my fight, too.”

The first big fundraising test for every candidate will come at the end of March, when they have to file their first quarterly reports to the FEC. Early fundraising numbers are heavily scrutinized by party insiders and the media as a sign of a candidate’s strength, and historically they have been a better predictor of success than early polls.

As Democrats fight their primary race and chase small-dollar contributors, they’re not alone.

Trump’s forces have spent more than $4 million on Facebook ads since November alone to expand their list of supporters, and 75 percent of the money his campaign raised in the most recent quarter came from donors who give $200 or less.

“Realistically,” ActBlue’s Hill said, “our nominee is going to need to be primarily funded by grassroots donors in order to beat Trump, who already has widespread small-dollar donor support.”



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Cohen said to be providing new information to federal prosecutors in NY

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 / Updated 

By Tom Winter, Ken Dilanian, Jonathan Dienst and Monica Alba

President Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen, facing jail in just over two months, has been speaking with and providing information to federal prosecutors in New York, according to three people familiar with the matter.

According to those sources and public statements, Cohen was questioned about a donor to the president’s inaugural committee, Imaad Zuberi, who is a political fundraiser with a history of donating to both Republican and Democratic candidates.

In addition, the sources said Cohen has discussed matters relevant to the Southern District of New York’s investigation into certain members of the Trump Organization and the Trump Inaugural Committee, investigations that have previously been reported publicly.

The New York Times first reported the discussions, which sources confirm occurred in January, on Friday evening. A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York declined to comment.

Lanny Davis, an attorney and spokesperson for Cohen, said in a statement to NBC News: “We cannot comment on any matters that are still under investigation by the Special Counsel or the prosecutors in the Southern District of New York.”

However, Davis added, “I can say that Mr. Cohen is interested in cooperating with and assisting the SDNY team in any way they believe is helpful.”

An inaugural committee spokesperson declined to comment.

The White House referred questions to the Trump Organization, which did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Michael Cohen leaves Capitol Hill in Washington, on Feb. 21, 2019.Susan Walsh / AP

Zuberi has previously been mentioned in reports surrounding the investigation into the Trump Inaugural Committee. His spokesperson has previously told the Washington Post that Zuberi’s funds did not come from a foreign donor and that the money he gave was his own.

Friday’s revelations have to do with a proposed consulting agreement between Cohen and Zuberi, an agreement Zuberi’s spokesperson said was never completed.

Steve Rabinowitz, a spokesman for Zuberi, said his client “received what I would call a speculative contract from Cohen to consult on a new, small private New York real estate fund they had spoken briefly of, but that never came to be.”

Rabinowitz said his client issued a check to Cohen as part of initiating the agreement and said Zuberi recently searched his records and found a $100,000 handwritten check to Cohen that was issued in February 2017.

“The check was never cashed and by March [of 2017], Cohen and Zuberi would not speak again,” he said.

“Imaad [Zuberi] did not pursue Cohen; it was the other way around,” Rabinowitz said. “And their would-be relationship fell apart when Zuberi didn’t sign the contract, not when Cohen didn’t cash the check. And how could he? They didn’t have a deal.”

Cohen, who pleaded guilty on charges related to tax evasion and campaign finance fraud, faces a three-year sentence and is expected to report to prison May 6.

Cohen pleaded guilty in August 2018 to the charges brought by federal prosecutors in New York — six counts related to his personal finances and two related to campaign finance violations involving hush money payments to two women who said they had affairs with Trump.

Federal law allows prosecutors to seek a reduction in a jail sentence post-conviction and even post-sentencing for cooperation in an ongoing investigation.

A public court filing from prosecutors indicating that Cohen is cooperating or indicating that they seek a reduction in his sentence has not been made, and there’s no indication that there’s a formal agreement.

Cohen is expected to testify before several committees of Congress next week.



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