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Trump distances himself from business controversies as scrutiny grows

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President Donald Trump on Monday attempted to distance himself from fresh controversies involving his businesses, the latest in a longstanding debate about whether he is using the presidency to enhance his personal wealth.

Trump referred to both Vice President Mike Pence’s recent stay at the president’s Irish golf resort and a report that Air Force crewmembers stayed at the president’s Scottish golf club.

“I know nothing about an Air Force plane landing at an airport (which I do not own and have nothing to do with) near Turnberry Resort (which I do own) in Scotland, and filling up with fuel, with the crew staying overnight at Turnberry (they have good taste!),” he tweeted. “NOTHING TO DO WITH ME.”

Trump’s all-caps concluding remark quickly began trending on Twitter.

Minutes later, he sent a second tweet claiming: “I had nothing to do with the decision of our great @VP Mike Pence to stay overnight at one of the Trump owned resorts in Doonbeg, Ireland. Mike’s family has lived in Doonbeg for many years, and he thought that during his very busy European visit, he would stop and see his family!”

Both incidents have brought renewed attention in Congress to Trump’s relationship with his business. House Democrats are probing both the Pence stay and the Air Force sleepover, the latter of which they claimed the White House was stonewalling. The House Judiciary Committee is separately investigating whether the president has run afoul of the Emoluments Clause.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement last week that Trump’s properties “are a cesspool of corruption,” and “a black hole for taxpayers’ money.”

The first incident to catch attention was Pence’s stay at Trump Doonbeg, which required him to fly across Ireland for official meetings in Dublin. Pence’s chief of staff Marc Short on Tuesday said that Pence chose the area based on family ties, and Trump made a “suggestion” that Pence stay at the resort.

By Wednesday, Pence’s team said in a statement that Trump did not “direct” the vice president to stay at the golf club and the decision was “solely” made by Pence’s office. Later that day, Trump said he had “no involvement” with Pence’s decision to stay at Trump Doonbeg, telling reporters “people like my product, what can I tell you.”

“I don’t suggest anything,” Trump said. “I don’t suggest it, nor did I with the attorney general, I never spoke to the attorney general about using my hotel,” referring to reports that Attorney General William Barr booked a $30,000 holiday party at Trump International Hotel in Washington in December.

“I have a lot of hotels all over the place, and people use them because they’re the best,” Trump added. “And I know the attorney general is using it, as I read in the paper. To this day I haven’t spoken to him about it, but he’s using the hotel. And people like my product, what can I tell you, can’t help it.”

On Friday, Politico reported on a previously undisclosed Air Force stay at Trump Turnberry after crewmembers refueled at a small, nearby airport. As more stays were later reveled, the Air Force ordered a world-wide review of its overnight accommodations process. On Sunday, the Air Force said it did not appear any regulations were broken when a military flight crew flying from Alaska to Kuwait stopped in Scotland and stayed Trump Turnberry.

The president has come under scrutiny for the use of taxpayer dollars at his properties. As president, Trump has spent roughly 300 days at Trump properties, according to an NBC News count. Ahead of his inauguration, Trump chose to turn control of his company over to his two adult sons and a senior Trump Organization executive rather than divest from his large portfolio.

Last month, the president suggested that next year’s G-7 summit should be hosted at his Miami golf resort, insisting he would not profit off such a venture.

“We’ve reached a point where the corruption of the Trump presidency pervades all facets of the government,” Jordan Libowitz, communications director for the left-leaning watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told NBC News. “People can no longer ignore it. It seems now clear that he is using the presidency for his own personal profits. There is a reason we are now seeing movement on a Congressional impeachment inquiry.”



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Nunes calls Trump impeachment inquiry 'Watergate fantasies’ for Democrats

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On the second day of public impeachment hearings, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, blasted the inquiry as “an excuse for the Democrats to fulfill their Watergate fantasies.”

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U.S., South Korea postpone joint military exercise criticized by North Korea

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BANGKOK — The United States and South Korea on Sunday said they were postponing a joint military air exercise that North Korea has criticized as provocative.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper and his South Korean counterpart made the announcement in Bangkok, where they were attending an Asia defense ministers’ conference.

Esper told reporters he did not consider the postponement a concession to North Korea.

“We have made this decision as an act of goodwill to contribute to an environment conducive to diplomacy and the advancement of peace,” Esper said.

As recently as Friday, when Esper was in Seoul to consult with South Korean officials, there was no word on postponing the military air exercise, which had been called Vigilant Ace.

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Seoul and Washington had scaled back the exercise recently and changed the name, but North Korea strongly objected, calling it evidence of a lack of interest in improving relations.

The North has demanded accommodations before it will agree to resume nuclear negotiations.

As talks stall, Pyongyang has tested the limits of engagement with a string of missile launches, and experts warn that the lack of a concrete arms control agreement has allowed the country to continue producing nuclear weapons.

The missile tests have practical value for the North Korean military’s efforts to modernize its arsenal. But they also underscore its increasingly belligerent position in the face of what it sees as an inflexible and hostile United States.

South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo said the exercise had been put off pending further consultations between Seoul and Washington. No new date has been set.

“I see this as a good-faith effort by the United States and the Republic of Korea to enable peace … to facilitate a political agreement, a deal if you will, that leads to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Esper said.

He said Seoul and Washington encourage North Korea “to demonstrate the same goodwill” as it considers decisions on its own military training, exercises and testing.

He also urged the North to return to the negotiating table “without precondition or hesitation.”

Esper said that even without the planned exercise of South Korean and American air forces, both militaries “will remain at a high state of readiness” for potential combat.

The U.S. has about 28,000 troops in South Korea.

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Trump’s honesty was on trial in the Roger Stone case. The verdict was harsh.

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WASHINGTON — In his final statement to the jury in the trial of political operative Roger Stone, federal prosecutor Michael Marando sought to boil the case down to a simple and stark premise.

“I know we live in a world nowadays with Twitter, tweets, social media, where you can find any political view you want,” he said. “However, in our institutions of self-governance — courts of law or committee hearings, where people under oath have to testify — truth still matters.”

Marando didn’t mention President Donald Trump in that portion of his closing — he didn’t have to. He and his colleagues had already made Trump a central character in the trial that ended with a conviction of the president’s longtime associate on seven felonies — a trial that presented new information about the Trump campaign’s zeal to capitalize on Russia’s election interference in 2016.

Prosecutors argued that Stone, charged with obstructing a Congressional investigation, lied to Congress because the truth was “terrible” for Trump. They presented evidence painting a picture of a candidate who was actively involved in his campaign’s effort to benefit from hacked emails obtained by WikiLeaks that were the fruits of a Russian intelligence operation. And they presented phone records and testimony suggesting that Trump didn’t tell the truth in written answers to special counsel Robert Mueller, when Trump said he didn’t remember ever discussing WikiLeaks with Stone.

“Trump was in the conspiratorial loop,” said Glenn Kirschner, a former federal prosecutor and NBC News legal analyst who watched the trial. “He was in the hard collusion loop by virtue of him having phone calls in real time with Roger Stone while these email dumps were in progress.”

But Joyce Vance, another former prosecutor and NBC news legal analyst, said she’s not convinced the government had the evidence “to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that there was conspiracy between the campaign and the Russians. Does it strongly suggest it? Yes. But as long as the central figures destroy evidence, or are unavailable as witnesses, as long as the president ducks testimony, then it’s difficult to have evidence to establish beyond a reasonable doubt.”

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Phone records introduced as evidence in the trial show Stone called Trump on the very day in June 2016 that the world learned that the Democratic National Committee had been hacked by the Russians. The records show that Trump spoke to Stone at key moments during the summer of 2016 as Stone was single-mindedly seeking access to the stolen emails from Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder. Steve Bannon, who led the Trump campaign, testified that Stone was considered the “access point” to WikiLeaks.

Trump mentioned WikiLeaks 145 times in the last month of the campaign alone, according to an NBC News analysis.

“This WikiLeaks is like a treasure trove,” Trump said a few days before the election at an appearance in Michigan.

Asked to respond to the new evidence, Jay Sekulow, Trump’s personal attorney, said the president’s written statements to Mueller stand.

“I spoke by telephone with Roger Stone from time to time during the campaign. I have no recollection of the specifics of any conversations I had with Mr. Stone between June 1, 2016 and November 8, 2016,” Trump wrote in his statements to Mueller. “I do not recall discussing WikiLeaks with him, nor do I recall being aware of Mr. Stone having discussed WikiLeaks with individuals associated with my campaign, although I was aware that WikiLeaks was the subject of media reporting and campaign-related discussion at the time.”

Democrats have long called that statement a lie. If prosecutors believe Trump was telling the truth, it wasn’t evident from their comments at the trial. They called former Trump deputy campaign chairman Richard Gates, who testified he overheard Stone calling Trump about WikiLeaks, which was leaking embarrassing Democratic emails. After the call, Gates said Trump told him that more disclosures were coming.

“Roger Stone knew that if this came out it would look really bad for his longtime associate, Donald Trump,” prosecutor Jonathan Kravis said. “So he lied to the committee.”

Prosecutors didn’t expressly accuse Trump of acting improperly by ordering Stone to pursue the emails hacked by the Russians. They noted that the government didn’t know what was said in the Trump-Stone phone calls — the FBI wasn’t wiretapping either man.

But “those are the only reasonable inferences you can draw from the evidence,” Kirschner said. “Everybody who watched the trial couldn’t help but draw those reasonable inferences.”

Details about the Trump campaign’s efforts to pursue hacked Democratic emails appear to have been covered in Volume I of the Mueller report, but the section is almost entirely blacked out, because the Stone case was still pending when the report was released.

In that sense, the Stone trial served as a sort of final chapter of the Mueller report. It unfolded as much of the country and the news media was focused on the Ukraine impeachment drama, which at its heart is about whether Trump abused his office to pressure a foreign government to help his 2020 election campaign.

If the Stone trial revealed anything, it showed that Donald Trump and the people around him had no problem making use of hacked emails that were the fruits of foreign election interference.

Or, as prosecutor Kravis put it, “trying to fish for information from WikiLeaks, knowing it had been hacked by a foreign government.”



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