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By Ken Dilanian and Tom Winter

If President Donald Trump appears to be rattled by special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation now — and his extraordinary tweets on the subject suggest that he is — just wait.

Over the next few weeks, a series of court filings are due that may shed substantial light on what Mueller has learned from people who once sat in Trump’s inner circle.

That could happen as soon as Tuesday, when Mueller is scheduled to file a detailed memo in support of the sentencing of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. That memo would include information about any “bad acts” Flynn committed for which he was not charged, and details about his cooperation with the special counsel.

It’s possible that filing will be sealed, which means the public won’t see it until later. But on Friday, another filing is expected that legal experts say probably will not be sealed — a detailed explanation of why Mueller’s office is withdrawing a plea agreement with former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, including the “crimes and lies” Mueller alleges Manafort committed while he purported to be cooperating with the special counsel.

And then, on Dec. 12, former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen is expected to be sentenced in federal court in New York, in a hearing during which his other “bad acts,” and his cooperation with Mueller, are likely to be further detailed.

“If these submissions are not filed under seal, I would expect to learn much more about the special counsel’s investigation into the election of 2016 campaign than we know to date,” said former federal prosecutor Daniel Goldman, an NBC News analyst.

Trump continued to appear to be distracted — and infuriated — by the Mueller investigation. In a series of tweets Monday, the president called for prison time for Cohen and appeared to praise his former associate Roger Stone, in a move that many legal experts said shattered presidential norms and raised the specter of witness tampering.

Stone “will not be forced by a rogue and out of control prosecutor to make up lies and stories about ‘President Trump,'” Trump tweeted. “Nice to know that some people still have ‘guts!'”

Trump added in another tweet: “Bob Mueller (who is a much different man than people think) and his out of control band of Angry Democrats, don’t want the truth, they only want lies. The truth is very bad for their mission!”

Attorney George Conway, the husband of Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, replied to Trump on Twitter with a link to the federal statute on witness tampering, which prohibits any effort to “influence, intimidate, or impede,” a witness in a criminal proceeding.

Trump may have reason to be concerned, given that in a late-night court filing in Manhattan Friday, Cohen’s lawyers revealed that their client, a former Trump fixer, has been cooperating with four separate law enforcement groups: Mueller, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York, the New York attorney general’s office, and the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance.

Cohen’s attorney Guy Petrillo said in the filing that his client should get more credit for coming forward despite withering denunciations of the Mueller investigation by the president.

“In the context of this raw, full-bore attack by the most powerful person in the United States, Michael, formerly a confidante and adviser to Mr. Trump, resolved to cooperate, and voluntarily took the first steps toward doing so even before he was charged in this District,” Petrillo wrote.

He added that Cohen “could have fought the government and continued to hold to the party line, positioning himself perhaps for a pardon or clemency, but, instead — for himself, his family, and his country — he took personal responsibility for his own wrongdoing and contributed, and is prepared to continue to contribute, to an investigation that he views as thoroughly legitimate and vital.”

Cohen and his attorneys also cited the payments he made to women who allegedly had affairs with Trump, strongly implying in their filing that President Trump is the person referred to as “Client-1″— which had widely been assumed.

Petrillo wrote, “We respectfully request that the Court consider that as personal counsel to Client-1, Michael felt obligated to assist Client-1, on Client-1’s instruction, to attempt to prevent Woman-1 and Woman-2 from disseminating narratives that would adversely affect the Campaign and cause personal embarrassment to Client-1 and his family.”

The filing included 37 letters from friends and family of Cohen to Judge William Pauley, imploring the court for a reduced sentence or a sentence with no jail time.

One of the letters was from Cohen’s father, Maurice Cohen, an 83-year-old surgeon and Holocaust survivor.

He wrote, “So please where Michael is, let me be with him, and where he goes let me go. He is the oxygen in the air that I breathe.”

Trump, in a highly unusual intervention by a president into a pending criminal case, tweeted Monday that Cohen “lied for this outcome and should, in my opinion, serve a full and complete sentence.”

Mueller’s investigation is still progressing, despite the elevation to acting attorney general of Matthew Whitaker, who has been openly critical of the probe.

MSNBC anchor Nicolle Wallace reported last week that Whitaker had not assumed day-to-day supervision of the Mueller probe, leaving that task to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec did not dispute that but said that nothing had changed since the DOJ released a statement saying that Whitaker is in charge of all Justice Department matters.

If Mueller is allowed to proceed unimpeded, the public may learn a lot more about what he has uncovered in the coming weeks. Some legal experts believe he will use the court filings to inform the public about the progress of his investigation into whether the Trump campaign conspired with the 2016 Russian election interference operation.

“My best sense is there will be a lot of details” in the Manafort filing,” former federal prosecutor Peter Zeidenberg told NBC News. “He’s sort of depositing a few different important chapters in a few different courts where they would be in the reach of either Whitaker or anyone in Congress” to suppress it.

Former federal prosecutor Harry Littman, an NBC News contributor, said the Manafort filing promises to “give chapter and verse to really explain his real detail how he was lying.”

Whether that reveals a lot or a little about the Mueller investigation, he said, depends on what Manafort is alleged to have lied about. For his part, Manafort denies lying.

The submission by Cohen’s lawyers made it apparent that Cohen has no plans to waffle, as Manafort allegedly did — he is all-in on cooperating with the government. He apparently believes it’s his only chance to get a break on sentencing for his crimes, and get on with his life.



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Trump disputes report about call with Whitaker over probe into hush money payments

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By Jane C. Timm

President Donald Trump on Tuesday denied a report that he called acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker and asked him if it would be possible to put an ally in charge of an investigation into alleged hush money payments.

“No, not at all, I don’t know who gave you that,” Trump told reporters at the White House when asked about the report by The New York Times.

The Times, citing several officials with direct knowledge of the call, reported that Trump asked Whitaker whether the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Geoffrey Berman, described by The Times as an ally of the president, could be put atop the investigation by federal prosecutors in Manhattan into payments during the 2016 campaign to women who alleged affairs with Trump, which the president has denied.

Multiple people familiar with the case said it was inaccurate and unfair to characterize Berman, who was appointed by Trump, as an ally, in part because his office is investigating Trump’s inaugural committee and prosecuting one ofTrump’s earliest congressional supporters — Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y. — on insider trading-related charges.

The Times reported that Whitaker knew he could not put Berman in charge of the probe because he was recused from the investigation.

Whitaker, who was replaced as the nation’s top law enforcement official by William Barr last week, has told Congress that Trump never pressured him over various investigations.

The Times reported that Trump soured on Whitaker, as he has with other aides, and complained about his inability to help dispel the president’s legal problems. But Trump praised Whitaker in his brief White House remarks on Tuesday, saying they have a “very good” relationship.

“I have a lot of respect for Mr. Whitaker. He’s doing a very good job,” Trump said.

Trump’s denial of the Times’ article comes amid reports that the law enforcement community sought to preserve evidence in the Russia probe shortly after FBI Director James Comey was fired.

The FBI developed a backup plan to protect evidence in its Russia investigation in the chaotic days after Comey’s ouster in the event that other senior officials were dismissed as well, according to a person with knowledge of the discussions.

After Comey was fired, the FBI began investigating whether Trump had obstructed justice and whether he might be, wittingly or not, in league with the Russians. The goal of the backup plan was to ensure that the information collected under the investigations, which included probes of Trump associates and possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign, would survive the firings or reassignments of top law enforcement officials. Those officials included special counsel Robert Mueller, who was appointed eight days after Trump fired Comey in May 2017.

Andrew McCabe, who became acting director after Comey was fired, asked investigators to develop a plan to ensure evidence would be protected, said the person, who was not authorized to talk about those discussions publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity to The Associated Press. A plan was then created, according to the person, who would not provide specifics. A second person familiar with the talks, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, also said the FBI discussed preserving evidence so that it would outlast any firing or effort to stymie the investigation.

A spokeswoman for the FBI declined to comment Tuesday.

Tom Winter and Associated Press contributed.



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Hill Democrats say Education Dept. tried to interfere in probe, remove investigator

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By Heidi Przybyla

WASHINGTON — House and Senate Democrats say they have obtained evidence that a senior official at the Department of Education tried to oust the department’s independent watchdog after she pushed back on an attempt to interfere in an active investigation of Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Lawmakers from four House and Senate committees who oversee the department sent a letter to DeVos on Tuesday, suggesting that the effort to replace the department’s acting inspector general, Sandra Bruce, had been related to her duties in overseeing the probe of DeVos’ decision to reinstate ACICS, an accreditor that had been stripped of its certification by the Obama administration.

“We have now received correspondence between the Department and the (Office of Inspector General) that reveals troubling efforts by the Department to influence the ACICS investigation,” House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott, D-Va., wrote to DeVos.

Scott was joined by Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee; Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who serves on the House Appropriations Committee; Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., the ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security and Government Affairs committee; and Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the Senate committee handling education.

Earlier this month, after the effort to demote Bruce became public, the department backtracked on its decision to replace Bruce with a handpicked official to serve as the agency’s acting watchdog, after criticism that the designation posed a serious conflict of interest.

Inspectors general provide independent oversight at federal departments and agencies, with the intent that they are free from the influence of political appointees in order to act on behalf of taxpayers.

In this case, Scott cites a letter dated Jan. 3 obtained from Education Department deputy secretary Mitchell Zais to Bruce. In the letter Zais wrote that he found it “disturbing” Bruce was proceeding with the probe of ACICS and “asked (her) to reconsider any plan” to review the department’s decision to restore its accreditation.

Bruce, Scott said, then “communicated her plans to continue” the investigation and “underscored the importance of maintaining independence from the department.” A few weeks later, Zais notified Bruce that she would be removed from the position.

Education Department spokeswoman Liz Hill sent a copy of the Jan. 3 letter containing the quotes Scott referenced.

It also shows that Zais called on Bruce to explore why the Obama administration didn’t consider 36,000 pages of evidence and other materials prior to denying ACICS’s accreditation.

“These claims are simply untrue and don’t match the actual sequence of events. The Department of Education, under Secretary DeVos’s leadership, would never seek to undermine the independence of the Inspector General. For anyone to insinuate otherwise is doing so with no basis in fact and purely for political gain,” said Hill.

Further, Hill said that discussions about a new inspector general had begun long before Zais sent the Jan. 3 letter to Bruce.

The exchange between Zais and Bruce as described in Scott’s letter underscores a concern expressed across a number of federal agencies — that the Trump administration is attempting to blur what are supposed to be clear lines between Cabinet officials and the independent investigative arms that exist to police their policies, conduct and use of taxpayer dollars.

In October, the White House sought to replace the agency watchdog at the Interior Department who was conducting two investigations into then-Secretary Ryan Zinke.

ACICS accredited two large for-profit colleges, ITT Tech and Corinthian College, before they were both shut down amid lawsuits, investigations and Obama administration sanctions over deceptive recruiting, poor quality programs and other infractions.

The Obama administration also withdrew ACICS’s recognition, citing a “profound lack of compliance” with the “most basic” responsibilities of an accreditor.

DeVos has come under scrutiny for hiring a number of individuals who, in the past, have worked or lobbied on behalf of for-profit colleges and who are now rolling back Obama-era rules that were meant to rein in an industry with a history of misleading students and poor educational outcomes.

Earlier, explaining DeVos’ decision to restore ACICS’s accreditation, Hill noted that the Obama administration had failed to review 36,000 pages of documents related to ACICS’s application to continue as a recognized accreditor. That lack of review, Hill said, led a federal court to send the decision back to DeVos, who restored the accreditation.

Late last month, DeVos told a gathering of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities that the department needed to pull back its oversight of college accreditation, arguing that it had become “too costly” and that the federal government “has overstepped in areas in trying to do things that really are best left to accreditors,” according to Politico.

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Ben Carson’s ‘signature’ HUD initiative has gone nowhere

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By Laura Strickler, Suzy Khimm and Cory Dawson

Last June, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson traveled to his hometown of Detroit to unveil his “signature” initiative: one-stop shops for social services known as EnVision Centers in 17 communities nationwide. The centers were described in lofty terms as “centralized hubs” offering low-income residents “support services that can help them achieve self-sufficiency.”

But eight months later, not one has opened and the program remains mired in confusion and bureaucratic tangles, according to interviews with HUD officials and staffers for nonprofits and housing authorities that have been designated as EnVision Centers.

Some critics say the program appears to be little more than a rebranding of work that was already underway.

“No one actually knows what they are supposed to do,” said Chad Williams, executive director of the Southern Nevada Regional Housing Authority, which includes Las Vegas where the affordable housing crisis is severe. “I was approached to run one, and I said: ‘What does it do? Where’s the funding?'”

Williams says he declined to participate after finding out there was no money attached. “EnVision Centers are a failed policy perception,” Williams said. “I guess they give the image that HUD is doing something.”

The concept of government-sponsored one-stop shops offering a range of social services is not new. Both the Clinton and Bush administrations had them.

HUD officials suggested that the Trump administration version is struggling to get off the ground because of bureaucratic red tape. Public housing directors and nonprofit organization staffers interviewed by NBC News pointed to HUD having provided no funding or staffing for the initiative.

As part of the June rollout, HUD said the EnVision Centers would “leverage public-private partnerships” with organizations such as federal agencies, local governments and nonprofit groups. The Envision Centers would be on or near public housing complexes and would offer services focused on employment, education, health and leadership.

But the program ran into trouble even before the June news conference.

Carson touted the Envision Centers during an event at the Boys & Girls Club in Detroit in December 2017. “We want them to know when they’re feeling down and out — or even when they’re not feeling down and out — that there is a place that they go to,” Carson told The Detroit Times.

But the event backfired when the club’s leadership decided the program was not a good fit.

“It sounded great on paper,” said Shaun Wilson, CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Southeastern Michigan. “But after the due diligence and understanding what resources were needed to make it successful, we decided not to pursue it.”

Some housing advocates have criticized Carson and his staff for focusing on a legacy project when the nation is facing an affordable housing crisis.

“We need bold leadership to call for and advance ambitious solutions to the shortage of homes affordable to the lowest income people,” said Diane Yentel, executive director of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “Instead, Secretary Carson pursues EnVision Centers to increase ‘self-sufficiency,’ a continuation of his misguided and harmful approach of blaming poor people for their poverty.”

HUD spokesperson Raffi Williams told NBC News that none of the centers is officially open because housing officials are still hosting local “roundtables to solicit input from community leaders, local residents and potential service providers about the unique needs of their community.” Williams said the input will be used to inform what services are provided.

Carson has personally promoted the work of the EnVision Centers in speeches, Cabinet meetings, congressional testimony and at least 20 media interviews.

But a source close to Carson said even the secretary himself is not pleased with the program’s progress and hopes new staff might turn it around.

“Secretary Carson is not happy about the lack of progress being made on EnVision Centers,” the source said. “The secretary is confident that recent staffing changes will ensure greater progress on this initiative.”

“We’re still in the infancy of this.”

Staffers at seven proposed centers around the country told NBC News the work appears to be largely a continuation of previous nonprofit and housing authority services, only with a new designation.

Other centers declined comment, telling NBC they were told to forward all media inquiries to HUD headquarters in Washington.

One center at a former Detroit high school has an impressive renovation that boasts a gym, a pizzeria and an apprenticeship program for electricians. But the building’s development predates the EnVision Center designation, according to Chris Lambert of the nonprofit organization Life Remodeled.

Lambert said the designation brings a “credibility boost” to fundraising, but his group’s website doesn’t even mention it.

Lambert acknowledged that he’s still cautiously optimistic about the HUD partnership. “This is what HUD says they’re going to do, and we’re going to hold them accountable,” he said.

At the Inkster Housing Commission west of Detroit, the center is less ambitious. It’s not much more than a small community space used to host two meetings a week, according to executive director Paul Bollinger.

“We’re still in the infancy of this. It’s not a new building, not a new environment. It’s a new name,” he said.

Bollinger says six computer stations are expected to be set up for homework-help and job searching in the next three to four months. But he said there are no plans to add staff from federal agencies. Still, HUD “has been incredibly supportive giving us contact information for federal partners,” Bollinger said.

A center in Spokane, Washington, set to open in March appears to align closely with the original HUD vision. The new center aims to connect those in need with housing, transportation, child care, employment and training services. But the project was underway before HUD offered the label.

“This concept came along and aligned with what we were working on,” said Mark Mattke, CEO of the Spokane Workforce Council in Washington state.

A senior HUD official blamed the program’s slow progress in part on government bureaucracy.

“Launching a new and innovative federal initiative takes time — there are procedural hurdles that government agencies face,” the official said. “Bureaucracy slows the process down. We are building an initiative that will help transform low-income communities by improving residents’ abilities to achieve their American dream — you can’t do that with the snap of the fingers.”

Though there isn’t much to show for its efforts yet, HUD has devoted agency resources to the development of the Envision Centers.

A phone app, announced more than a year ago, was created to showcase the centers. But while the app provides links to government agencies, it does not indicate where the centers are located.

HUD has also funded the travel of a politically appointed staffer who was scheduled to attend roundtable sessions in 13 locations across the country this summer, according to a source familiar with the Envision Center initiative who works with low-income communities and did not want to be identified.

Carson’s 2017 calendar obtained by NBC News from the watchdog group American Oversight as part of a FOIA lawsuit shows Carson had at least six meetings to discuss EnVision Centers with senior staff in 2017.

In describing the centers in June, Carson told a Detroit television station: “There’s a verse in the Bible that says, without a vision people perish. There have been a lot of people who have really lost a vision of the promise of America.”

But some of the organizations designated as partners for the EnVision Centers offer services that seem outside the core mission of helping low-income Americans achieve self-sufficiency.

One such group is the Colorado-based Space Foundation, which marketed its services to the centers, including a “virtual audience with an astronaut,” at the cost of $7,000 for a single two-hour session.

The group says it would like to help HUD’s partners secure outside funding for its programming, adding that it has not settled on any rate with HUD for its services or performed any work so far. “We see the EnVision Centers as a path to future opportunities,” said Rich Cooper, a spokesman for the Space Foundation.

Another national partner is dFree, an organization that describes itself as “a transformational, lifestyle movement” that helps people “achieve financial freedom through faith-based guidance.” The nonprofit held a webinar in November for HUD staff where it described the group’s church-based roots, according to dFree founder and CEO DeForest B. Soaries Jr.

But Soaries insisted that the group has broadened its mission to include secular “values-based” programming that maintains a “separation of church and state.”

Despite the lack of money attached to the centers, staff in multiple locations said they were grateful simply for the increased visibility that comes from a HUD designation.

“We’re already doing what the EnVision Center is describing,” said Neli Rowland, of Chicago’s Safe Haven, adding that she is excited by the affiliation.

“Every administration has brought up the concept of breaking down the silos,” she said. “We haven’t seen any administration has been able to achieve that.”

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