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Yang is ‘living the American dream’

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By Anna Schecter and Xuan Thai

HIGHLAND BEACH, Fla. — The lawyer for the former owner of a Florida massage parlor says her client, who watched the Super Bowl with President Donald Trump, is just a hardworking Chinese immigrant “living the American dream” and despite media reports to the contrary has never tried to sell access to Trump.

Li “Cindy” Yang owns a number of massage parlors in South Florida, and once owned the Orchids of Asia Day Spa, where New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft allegedly solicited prostitution. After Kraft’s bust a selfie of Yang with the president at the Trump International resort’s Super Bowl party went viral, followed by questions in the media about whether Yang had exploited her access to him.

First reported by the Miami Herald, a photo on the Facebook page of Li Yang showed her posing with President Donald Trump at a Super Bowl watch party at the president’s West Palm Beach country club.via Facebook

Michelle Merson, one of the lawyers on a team representing Yang, told NBC News that the accusations have shocked her client, who has not been charged with anything.

“She is being accused of human trafficking, providing favors to Chinese politicians and businesses by selling access to the president,” said Merson. “She’s being accused of some very, very serious things that she is totally in the dark for… [and] she denies everything.”

Though she sold the Orchids of Asia spa long ago, Yang continues to run other day spas, and she contributes money to political and charitable causes, said Merson. Since 2017 Yang has contributed $40,000 to Republican and pro-Trump PACS, according to a review of records, and locals say she was also known for buying tables at charity events around Palm Beach, sometimes paying in cash.

“As far as we know Ms. Yang was just excited about being involved in politics and charities and all kinds of things in this country,” said Merson, acknowledging the firm has just started digging into her case, and had to hire a translator to help with the language barrier.

“I think she was just fascinated with Donald Trump the way a lot of people are.”

Yang came to the U.S. in 2003, and her English can be hard to understand, according to people who know her from Palm Beach society, and who say racism and the language barrier might be playing a part in the media coverage of Yang.

“She seemed like a nice person, socially out and about,” said Karyn Turk, a Palm Beach resident and conservative radio host who is married to one of the lawyers representing Yang.

Carol Brophy, who also appears in Yang’s famous selfie with Donald Trump, said she does not know Yang, and said Yang “photo bombed” her “moment” with the president.

One of Yang’s other lawyers, Evan Turk, said “the evidence indicates that our client has been falsely accused in a manner that she may never recover from.”

“Her name, her reputation and her honor have been destroyed,” Turk added.

The White House said in a statement that the president does not know Yang.

Yang wants to clear her name, said Merson, and is worried about being linked to alleged sex trafficking. Kraft was arrested for soliciting prostitution as a byproduct of a larger law enforcement investigation of alleged human trafficking at area massage parlors. According to local police, women were brought from China on temporary work visas believing they would have legitimate jobs.

“She is scared, she is traumatized … she is in hiding,” Merson said.

After the Miami Herald published her picture with Trump, Mother Jones reported on her company, GY Investments, and the company’s website, which appeared to advertise opportunities to get close to President Trump for a price.

An archived and translated version of her now defunct website offers opportunities for “taking photos with President Trump” and an “opportunity to interact with the president, the Secretary of Commerce and other political figures.”

Merson said Yang is misunderstood and will be ready to tell her story soon. She said Yang has not been contacted by any state or federal investigators and is not a member of Trump’s Palm Beach club, Mar-a-Lago. Some in Palm Beach, however, say that in the past Yang seemed to have the kind of access to the club that members have. The initiation fee at Mar-a-Lago is $200,000, and annual dues are $14,000.

Berndt Lembcke, managing director of Mar-a-Lago, said the club never comments about members or membership.

Kraft has denied engaging in any illegal activity and has pleaded not guilty.

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Bank CEO Stephen Calk charged with soliciting Manafort for Trump admin job

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By Tom Winter, Joe Valiquette and Adiel Kaplan

Bank CEO Stephen Calk tried to exchange $16 million in loans to Paul Manafort for a top position within the Trump administration, according to an indictment against the banking executive unsealed Thursday.

Calk, the president of the Federal Savings Bank, approved millions in “high-risk loans in an effort to secure a personal benefit, namely to an appointment as Secretary of the Army, or another similar high-level position in the incoming presidential administration,” said Deputy U.S. attorney Audrey Strauss of the Southern District of New York.

Stephen CalkThe Federal Savings Bank

Federal investigators were probing last year whether Manafort, the former Trump campaign chair, promised Calk a job in the White House in return for $16 million in home loans, NBC News first reported in February 2018.

Calk, who surrendered to the FBI Thursday morning, allegedly approved multiple high-risk loans for Manafort, who urgently needed them to avoid foreclosure. While the loans were pending approval, Calk allegedly provided Manafort with a ranked list of positions he desired. At its head were the two top positions at the U.S. Treasury, followed by Secretary of Commerce and Secretary of Defense. The list also included 19 high-level ambassadorships, among them ambassador to the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy.

Manafort received three separate loans in December 2016 and January 2017 from Federal Savings Bank for homes in New York City, Virginia and the Hamptons. The three loans were questioned by other officials at the bank, two sources with direct knowledge of the matter told NBC News last February.

The loans raised red flags at the bank in part because of Manafort’s history of defaulting on prior loans and that the size made Manafort’s debt the single largest lending relationship at the bank, according to prosecutors. Calk was required to authorize an unusual lending scheme to avoid passing the lending cap to a single borrower.

In exchange, Manafort provided Calk with personal benefits, prosecutors said. The bank CEO was appointed to Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers in August 2016, just days after the bank approved a proposed $9.5 million loan to Manafort.

According to the indictment, Manafort and his son-in-law, Jeffrey Yohai, approached the bank in an effort to refinance loans tied to a construction project in Los Angeles.

During a meeting held on July 27, 2016 — while Manafort was Trump campaign chairman — Calk allegedly broached the idea of him joint the Trump campaign. By the next day, the first loan of $5.7 million was approved. Less than a week later, Manafort offered Calk a position on the economic advisory committee for Donald Trump, according to the indictment.

Calk issued another loan for over $9 million later in the fall of 2016. Then, Calk reached out to Manafort asking him if he was involved in the Trump presidential transition following the election, according to the indictment.

Manafort allegedly responded, “total background but involved directly.”

Shortly after the election, in November or December 2016, Manafort recommended Calk for an administrative position, leading to a formal interview of Calk for Under Secretary of the Army at the transition team headquarters in Trump Tower in 2017. When Manafort made the recommendation, he had more than $6 million in loans pending approval at Calk’s bank.

Calk ultimately was not hired for the position.

Months later, the loans to Manafort were downgraded by the banks regulator, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. Calk allegedly lied to regulators, telling them he never desired a position in the presidential administration.

A November 14, 2016 email Calk sent to Manafort that included his resume and list of desired positions in ranked order was as exhibit in the Manafort trial.

Charlie Gile contributed.



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European elections UK results time: What time is the result of EU election due?

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THE EUROPEAN elections kicked off in the UK this morning, with polling stations open from 7am. What time is the result of the EU election due?

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Trump lashes out at Rex Tillerson for saying Putin out-prepared him

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By Allan Smith

President Donald Trump lashed out at Rex Tillerson on Thursday morning after his former secretary of state reportedly told a House committee that the president was ill-prepared for a 2017 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Rex Tillerson, a man who is ‘dumb as a rock’ and totally ill prepared and ill equipped to be Secretary of State, made up a story (he got fired) that I was out-prepared by Vladimir Putin at a meeting in Hamburg, Germany,” Trump tweeted. “I don’t think Putin would agree. Look how the U.S. is doing!”

The tweet followed a Washington Post report that Tillerson told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that Putin out-prepared Trump for the meeting at the 2017 G-20 summit. Tillerson said Putin’s higher level of preparation put Trump at a disadvantage during the meeting.

The U.S. had anticipated a shorter meeting between the two leaders, but it instead turned into a two-hour plus discussion of geopolitical issues, committee aides told the Post. Tillerson spoke before the committee for seven hours in a closed-door session on Tuesday.

“We spent a lot of time in the conversation talking about how Putin seized every opportunity to push what he wanted,” a committee aide told the Post. “There was a discrepancy in preparation, and it created an unequal footing.”

Tillerson spoke with a bipartisan group of lawmakers and staff at the request of the panel’s chairman, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the newspaper reported. Unlike Trump’s solo meeting with Putin in Helsinki last summer, advisers — including Tillerson — were present alongside him at the meeting with the Russian president in Germany.

Tillerson and Trump had sparred for months before the president fired him in March of last year. The former secretary of state nearly resigned in the summer of 2017 amid mounting policy disputes and clashes with the White House, NBC News reported, citing senior administration officials. As tensions came to a head, Tillerson called Trump a “moron” following a meeting at the Pentagon with Cabinet officials and members of Trump’s national security team, three officials familiar with the incident said.

In December, Tillerson told CBS News that Trump was “undisciplined,” didn’t read much and tried to do things that would violate the law. In response, Trump said Tillerson “didn’t have the mental capacity needed” to be secretary of state.

“He was dumb as a rock and I couldn’t get rid of him fast enough,” Trump tweeted. “He was lazy as hell.”

In hiring Tillerson to run the State Department, Trump pointed to the former Exxon Mobil executive’s “vast experience at dealing successfully with all types of foreign governments” and called him “a world class player and dealmaker.”

“He will be a star,” Trump tweeted after Tillerson was sworn in.



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