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By Ken Dilanian
WASHINGTON — Three new court documents are scheduled to emerge Friday that could shed new light on what Donald Trump’s former top aides have been telling — or not telling — federal investigators.
A federal judge in New York has ordered that prosecutors for the Southern District of New York and the Special Counsel’s Office have until 5 p.m. Friday to deliver sentencing memos designed to detail former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s cooperation in their ongoing investigations.
And special counsel Robert Mueller is also due to file a document spelling out what his team previously referred to as the “crimes and lies” that led them to cancel a cooperation agreement with former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
Legal experts say it’s likely that both documents will contain sections that are blacked out, as was the case with the sentencing memo Mueller filed Tuesday in the case of former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
The theory that Mueller would use these documents to inform the public about the progress of his ongoing investigation into Russian election interference and related matters did not pan out in the case of the Flynn memo. Key sections of that memo were redacted, including crucial questions about what Trump knew and when about Flynn’s lies to the FBI — and a whole page describing a separate criminal investigation.
Mueller’s decision to withhold that information shows, some experts say, that the former FBI director does not feel that his investigation is at risk of being derailed by Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, who had expressed open hostility towards it before his appointment.
“He disclosed so little in the Flynn memo that it led me to conclude two things,” said former federal prosecutor Glenn Kirschner, an NBC News legal analyst. “One, he doesn’t have a sense of urgency, and two, he probably has a lot more investigating to do. If he was ready to show his cards, he wouldn’t have redacted all this stuff.”
Former federal prosecutor Peter Zeidenberg says there may be something else at play:
“As usual, Mueller may be thinking two steps ahead of the rest of us.”
“If it’s public it won’t be sensitive and if it’s sensitive it won’t be public.”
Zeidenberg noted that Trump has not tweeted or uttered a word about Flynn since the sentencing memo on Flynn was filed, in contrast to Trump’s immediate attack on Cohen after Cohen pleaded guilty last week to lying about a Trump Tower project in Moscow.
“Trump’s been quite quiet since that filing,” Zeidenberg said. “He hasn’t attacked Flynn. If those blanks had been filled in, Trump’s head would have exploded — he’d be going crazy.”
“If Mueller waits and does his big reveal all at once, everything’s done. It’s too late” for Trump to engineer his firing, Zeidenberg said.
“If he were to have revealed everything on those redactions now, it could jeopardize ongoing matters, and it wouldn’t have been smart politically for his continued survival. I think it probably makes a lot of sense. Trump doesn’t want to attack Flynn because he doesn’t know whether Flynn is coming at him.”
As for the Southern District’s sentencing memo for Cohen, he is also cooperating in separate ongoing investigations that district prosecutors would likely want to keep secret, so that document may also be redacted.
Chuck Rosenberg, a former federal prosecutor and NBC News legal analyst who once worked with Mueller, said Mueller — a by-the-book former Marine combat leader — likely never considered making public anything to do with ongoing criminal matters.
The rule of thumb, he said, is “If it’s public it won’t be sensitive and if it’s sensitive it won’t be public.”
Rosenberg believes Friday’s filings will be “mildly interesting,” in that they may further describe in general terms how helpful prosecutors believe Cohen to have been, and also what sort of lies they allege Manafort told that blew up his plea deal.
But if Manafort’s lies were about Trump and Russian election interference, Rosenberg said, “We won’t see them.”
Tom Winter contributed.
Trump administration asks states for citizenship info despite Supreme Court ruling
The U.S. Census Bureau is asking states for drivers’ license records that typically include citizenship data and has made a new request for information on recipients of government assistance after the U.S. Supreme Court blocked plans to include a citizenship question in its 2020 population count.
The two approaches, documented by The Associated Press, alarm civil rights activists. They caution that inaccuracies in state motor vehicle records make them a poor choice for tracking citizenship, if that is the bureau’s goal, and they see the requests as an extension of earlier efforts that could chill Latino participation in the 2020 Census.
After the U.S. Supreme Court nixed the plan by President Donald Trump’s administration to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, the president signed an executive order in July requiring the U.S. Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau, to compile citizenship information through state and federal administrative records. Specifically, it ordered the department to increase efforts “to obtain State administrative records concerning citizenship.”
The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators told The AP that most, if not all, states recently received requests for information including citizenship status, race, birthdates and addresses. The association has advised members to consult their privacy officers when deciding how to respond.
“Each state is making their own determination how to respond,” association spokeswoman Claire Jeffrey said in an email.
In Illinois, Secretary of State Jesse White denied the request.
“We, as a general rule, are not comfortable with giving out our data, certainly not in such a huge amount. That was the overriding concern,” said spokesman Dave Drucker.
Other states are weighing what to do. The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles has received the request but hasn’t responded, spokeswoman Beth Frady said.
The request has alarmed Latino advocacy groups. Motor vehicle agency records are notoriously inaccurate and “bad at determining when someone is not a citizen,” said Andrea Senteno, a lawyer for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is challenging Trump’s executive order.
“The Census Bureau usually plans for these types of big changes in their operations many, many years in advance, but they don’t have enough time right now to actually plan and provide clear information to the public about how they are going to use these administrative records,” Senteno said. “That is because they’re flying by the seat of their pants right now.”
The bureau is also trying to gather other state records on individual recipients of public programs. A new request published last month in the Federal Register said the records would be used for the 2020 Census and other research, and they are needed to “improve efficiency and accuracy in our data collections, and to improve measures of the population and economy.”
While the request doesn’t explicitly ask for citizenship information, some demographers who work with the bureau on state-level data say the timing makes them suspect the request is responsive to the president’s executive order.
“The timing of it, and noticing in the executive order, it’s well-stated that this is going to be a push directing the Census Bureau to work on gathering these state inputs, it would lead me to believe that the two are probably connected,” said Susan Strate, senior manager of Population Estimates Program at the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute.
States already share records on food assistance and other programs to help the bureau track traditionally undercounted populations and pinpoint vacant houses. The states’ administrative records could cover a host of topics, including citizenship, said John Thompson, a former Census Bureau director in the Obama administration.
“Here’s the confusing thing about it,” Thompson said. “They’ve already been reaching out to states. They’ve got a number of ongoing programs where they reach out to states for various data.”
States typically don’t do a good job of tracking citizenship information, said Kenneth Prewitt, a former Census Bureau director in the Clinton administration.
“People move, divorce, buy homes, pay state taxes, and these behaviors are not tied to any citizenship records,” Prewitt said.
In a statement, the Census Bureau said it started requesting state administrative records in 2016 to help with the 2020 Census and ongoing surveys. The records include birthdates, addresses, race, Hispanic origin and citizenship status. The bureau didn’t answer why it was requesting drivers’ license information or why it had made the new request last month for state administrative records when it already receives records from states.
The bureau said the records it receives are stripped of identifiable information and used for statistical purposes only.
“Responses to all Census Bureau surveys and administrative records obtained by the Census Bureau are safe, secure and protected by law,” its statement said.
When it comes to the citizenship question, there has been a tension between Trump appointees pushing the president’s agenda and career Census Bureau workers who said adding citizenship to the 2020 questionnaire would have reduced participation and made for a less accurate count.
The department is now casting a wide net for administrative records, and bureau officials have said they will decide by the end of March on a methodology for tracking citizenship.
The 2020 Census will determine how many congressional seats each state gets and the allocation of hundreds of billions of dollars of federal funding, as well as the drawing of state legislative districts. The apportionment of U.S. congressional seats is based on states’ overall populations, but Trump’s executive order has raised the possibility that just the citizen population could be used for electoral maps.
Several civil rights organizations challenged Trump’s executive order in federal court in Maryland last month, claiming the order is “motivated by a racially discriminatory scheme to reduce Latino political representation” and gives an advantage to white voters at the expense of Latino voters.
What you need to know
The Democratic presidential primary debate on Tuesday will feature Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ return to the campaign trail after a health scare and one fresh face.
The field of candidates expected to take the stage in Westerville, Ohio, is the largest to date, with a dozen qualifying under the rules set by the Democratic National Committee. The matchup includes billionaire activist Tom Steyer, who will be making his first appearance on a debate stage. It also features the return of Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who did not qualify for the September debate. After threatening to boycott Tuesday’s debate, she reversed course Monday, saying she would attend after all.
Sanders, meanwhile, will take the stage two weeks to the day after he suffered a heart attackwhile campaigning in Nevada.
Here’s everything you need to know about the fourth debate.
When and where is the Democratic debate?
The debate is being held at Otterbein University in Westerville, a suburb of Columbus. It’s scheduled to begin at 8 p.m. ET Tuesday and is being co-hosted by CNN and The New York Times.
It will be moderated by CNN anchors Anderson Cooper and Erin Burnett and Times national editor Marc Lacey.
Who made the stage?
The 12 candidates who qualified by having both 130,000 individual donors and reaching at least 2 percent in four qualifying polls, in addition to Gabbard, Sanders and Steyer, are former Vice President Joe Biden; New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker; Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana; former Housing Secretary Julián Castro; California Sen. Kamala Harris; Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar; former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke; Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren; and entrepreneur Andrew Yang.
Who’s standing where?
As with the previous debates, stage position has been determined by polling averages, so front-runners Biden and Warren will be center stage. The overall order from right to left is Gabbard, Steyer, Booker, Harris, Sanders, Biden, Warren, Buttigieg, Yang, O’Rourke, Klobuchar and Castro.
There was some question over whether Gabbard would say aloha — or aloha.
She tweeted out a statement last week saying she was considering boycotting the debate because the DNC and “the corporate media” were “rigging the election” by using polling as qualifying criteria.
Gabbard did not qualify for the September debate because of polling, and so far has not hit the polling benchmarks for the next debate in November. In her tweet, she said the “so-called debates” are “not debates at all, but rather commercialized reality television meant to entertain rather than to inform or enlighten.”
But Monday, she appeared to have a change of heart:
How can I watch the debate?
When is Round 5?
The fifth debate is scheduled for Nov. 20 in Georgia, and will be hosted by MSNBC and The Washington Post.
To qualify for that stage, candidates have to meet fundraising and polling criteria laid out by the Democratic National Committee, and those benchmarks are higher than the previous debates. They call for candidates to hit at least 3 percent in four qualifying state or national polls, or 5 percent in two qualifying state polls one week before the debate. The fundraising threshold requires candidates to have received contributions from 165,000 unique donors, including 600 unique donors in 20 states.
An unofficial survey by NBC News shows eight candidates appear to have qualified to date — Biden, Booker, Buttigieg, Harris, Sanders, Steyer, Warren and Yang.
Giuliani says he has ‘nothing to do with’ oligarch at edges of Trump-Ukraine affair
President Donald Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani on Monday denied being involved with a Ukrainian oligarch whose ethical issues have dovetailed with the ongoing impeachment inquiry into the president.
Giuliani also told NBC News he was not planning on visiting Dmitry Firtash, who is currently wanted on corruption charges in the U.S., during a trip to Vienna he planned last week. He said he could not speak for his two Soviet-born business associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who were arrested last week on campaign-finance charges in Virginia as they were about to board one-way flights to Vienna. Giuliani has said their similarly timed Austrian trips were not in conjunction.
“I wasn’t planning to go see him,” Giuliani said. “That was the last thing from my mind on why I was going to Vienna. There was a very important reason I was going that I’m not at liberty to disclose right now that will make it quite clear [Parnas and Fruman] were not fleeing. And I don’t know, I can’t speak for them, they have their own businesses. I actually do two things with them. I represent their company, and they help me find people. But I’m pretty sure they were going just for the purpose I knew about.”
Giuliani insisted he has “nothing to do with Firtash,” whose legal team includes Joe diGenova and Victoria Toensing, the pro-Trump husband and wife attorneys who Fox News reported were “working off the books” with Giuliani as part of his Ukrainian venture.
“So, Firtash, I know nothing about,” Giuliani said. “I’m not going to answer any questions about because I’m probably going to get it wrong, and you can ask them.”
Giuliani also said he has “never” brought up Firtash’s extradition battle with Trump.
“I’m not even sure the president is aware of him,” Giuliani said. “I think if you asked the president ‘who is Dmitry Firtash?’ He would say ‘I don’t know.’ As far as I know, we’ve never discussed him.”
One of Ukraine’s wealthiest businessman, Firtash has battled extradition charges to the U.S. for the past two years as the Department of Justice seeks to prosecute him over allegations he bribed Indian officials to land a lucrative mining deal. Federal prosecutors labeled him as an “upper-echelon [associate] of Russian organized crime.” Firtash has denied that label and the charge, fighting them from Vienna, where he has lived for the past five years.
Parnas has been working for Firtash’s legal team as a translator, a spokesman for DiGenova and Toensing told NBC News. The spokesman denied that Parnas’ Vienna trip involved Firtash.
As NBC News reported last week, Parnas and Fruman sought to change the leadership at Ukrainian state-run gas company Naftogaz at the same time they were working with Giuliani to uncover information related to former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter’s Ukrainian business ties, an effort that is now the subject of the House impeachment inquiry. Naftogaz’s existing leadership was hostile toward Firtash’s past energy dealings. Giuliani last week denied any involvement with the efforts aimed at Naftogaz.
House Democrats subpoenaed Parnas and Fruman for documents and testimony as part of the impeachment inquiry, which began soon after it was revealed that Trump asked his Ukrainian counterpart in July for “a favor” that included probing the Bidens and investigating a conspiracy involving the 2016 election
Giuliani has repeatedly highlighted an affidavit former Ukrainian Prosecutor Viktor Shokin filed in behalf of Firtash in which Shokin blamed his ouster on his investigation of Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company affiliated with Hunter Biden. Backed by much of the international community, the former vice president pushed for Shokin’s ouster over his ineffectiveness at cracking down on corruption. The probe of Burisma had been dormant for more than a year by the time Shokin was fired and there has never been evidence that either Biden acted inappropriately.
Giuliani told NBC News he had “nothing to do with the preparing of the affidavit” and said he has more evidence to base his claims about Biden on than that document, including an interview with Shokin.
“This is a smear job. The Firtash thing is a smear job. I have nothing to do with him. The president has nothing to do with him,” Giuliani said. “The fact is, I know his case because it’s very famous. I know the contending positions on both sides of the case, but I have no involvement in it beyond hearing about it and obviously being given an affidavit.”
“And all I did was outline the parts of that affidavit that pertain to me,” he continued. “I have no idea if the rest of the affidavit is relevant, truthful. I do know the parts of the affidavit that I put out I can support with independent evidence, plenty of independent evidence.”
Tom Winter contributed.
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