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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.

Michael Cohen exits federal court on Nov. 29 in New York.Drew Angerer / Getty Images

“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.



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Politics

Trump’s shutdown proposal would drastically toughen asylum, DACA, TPS rules

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By Suzanne Gamboa

AUSTIN, Texas — Central American children who crossed the border illegally could not ask for asylum. Application fees for protection for deportation would increase. More than $5.7 billion for available for the border wall.

President Donald Trump has described his proposal for ending the government shutdown as a trade of a three-year extension of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA program, for the $5.7 billion he’s been demanding for the border wall he wants to build.

But details in the bill that the Senate will vote on Thursday have immigration advocates and Democrats calling the offer partisan, malevolent and “feigned” attempt at compromise.

“It’s a sham,” Ur Jaddou, director of America’s Voice DHS Watch program, told NBC News Wednesday. “It’s shocking to see they would call this a serious compromise. They didn’t even try.”

The proposal got the White House’s endorsement Wednesday morning. Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said the proposal is was not intended to end the shutdown.

“The president’s proposal is one-sided, harshly partisan and was made in bad faith,” Schumer said on the Senate floor Tuesday.

Drastic changes to asylum, DACA and TPS

In a statement, the administration touted the millions the bill provides for immigration enforcement and border security, including medical support and housing, anti-drug canines, 2,750 more border agents and money for new immigration judges.

But it did not address other parts of the legislation that are drawing loud criticism, including provisions that could drastically change the U.S. asylum system.

Children from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador who arrive at the border and request asylum would be sent back home without exception.

U.S. law and international treaties require border officials to grant interviews with asylum officers when people who arrive at the border request asylum or claim a credible fear of being returned to their home country. If they pass the interview, they are allowed to remain while their claim goes through the asylum process.

According to Department of Homeland Security data, 38,189 children ages 17 and under from those countries arrived at the border or were apprehended in fiscal year 2018, up from 31,754 in fiscal year 2017.

But just as troublesome to advocates and Democrats are the wholesale changes the administration wants to make to DACA and TPS, under the guise of extending those programs that shield immigrants from deportation and allow them to work.

An analysis by the Cato Institute found that the proposed legislation would require immigrants who have DACA and are in good standing to reapply rather than simply renew their status. The DACA program allows young immigrant adults and teens who were brought to the U.S. as children to study and work without fear of deportation; currently recipients renew their status every two years.

Under the plan, when they reapply, they would have to meet a higher burden to prove their eligibility.

The proposal would exclude from eligibility for DACA anyone not in the program now and require those who are not students to have an income that is at least 125 percent of poverty level.



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Democratic mayor Pete Buttigieg running for president; would be first openly gay nominee

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By Associated Press

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Democrat Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is forming an exploratory committee for a 2020 presidential bid, according to a video and email announcement.

“The reality is there’s no going back, and there’s no such thing as ‘again’ in the real world. We can’t look for greatness in the past,” Buttigieg says in a video that includes before-and-after footage of South Bend, a Rust Belt city once described as “dying.”

“Right now our country needs a fresh start,” he says.

If he were to win the Democratic nomination, Buttigieg would be the first openly gay presidential nominee from a major political party.

Buttigieg has touted his work to improve his city of 100,000 residents as he’s prepared for an improbable jump from local politics to a presidential campaign. He’s also said Democrats could benefit from a new generation of leaders as they try to unseat President Donald Trump in 2020.

He’s expected to travel to Iowa next week to meet with voters in the nation’s first caucus state, followed by stops in New Hampshire.

Buttigieg is a Rhodes scholar who was first elected mayor of his hometown in 2011 at age 29 — making him the youngest mayor of a U.S. city with at least 100,000 residents. A lieutenant in the Navy Reserve, he served a tour in Afghanistan in 2014.

Buttigieg raised his national profile with an unsuccessful 2017 run for Democratic National Committee chairman, saying the party needed a new start. He withdrew from the race before a vote when it became clear he didn’t have the support to win.

Buttigieg has spent time in Iowa and other battleground states in recent years as he tried to build financial support and name recognition. He cracks that those who do know his name still aren’t sure how to pronounce it. Most of the time he goes by “Mayor Pete.”

Amid his campaign for a second term, Buttigieg came out as gay in a column in the local newspaper. He went on to win re-election with 80 percent of the vote. In 2018 — three years to the day after the column ran — he married his husband, middle school teacher Chasten Glezman.

Buttigieg announced in December that he wouldn’t seek a third term as mayor, stoking speculation he would join a field of roughly two dozen candidates who may seek the Democratic nomination for president — most of them better-known and with experience in higher office, and all of them older.

“I belong to a generation that is stepping forward right now,” he says in the video released Wednesday. “We’re the generation that lived through school shootings, that served in the wars after 9/11, and we’re the generation that stands to be the first to make less than our parents unless we do something different. We can’t just polish off a system so broken. It is a season for boldness and a focus on the future.”

Buttigieg is releasing a book in February about his life and his tenure leading South Bend.

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Shutdown could further endanger whales

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By Associated Press

PORTLAND, Maine — Rescuers who respond to distressed whales and other marine animals say the federal government shutdown is making it more difficult to do their work.

A network of rescue groups in the U.S. works with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to respond to marine mammals such as whales and seals when the animals are in trouble, such as when they are stranded on land or entangled in fishing gear. But the federal shutdown, which entered its 33rd day Wednesday, includes a shuttering of the NOAA operations the rescuers rely upon.

NOAA plays a role in preventing accidental whale deaths by doing things like tracking the animals, operating a hotline for mariners who find distressed whales and providing permits that allow the rescue groups to respond to emergencies. Those functions are disrupted or ground to a halt by the shutdown, and that’s bad news if whales need help, said Tony LaCasse, a spokesman for the New England Aquarium in Boston, which has a rescue operation.

“If it was very prolonged, then it would become problematic to respond to animals that are in the water,” LaCasse said. “And to be able to have a better handle on what is really going on.”

The shutdown is coming at a particularly dangerous time for the endangered North Atlantic right whale, which numbers about 411, said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, a senior biologist with Whale and Dolphin Conservation of Plymouth, Massachusetts. The whales are under tight scrutiny right now because of recent years of high mortality and poor reproduction.

NOAA recently identified an aggregation of 100 of the whales south of Nantucket — nearly a quarter of the world’s population — but the survey work is now interrupted by the shutdown, Asmutis-Silvia said. Surveys of rare whales are important for biologists who study the animals and so rescuers can have an idea of where they are located, she said. No right whale mortalities have been recorded so far in 2019, but there have been at least 20 since April 2017.

“There’s a really significant impact on marine mammal conservation based on this shutdown,” Asmutis-Silvia said. “We have little to no ability to find them because of NOAA’s being furloughed.”

Many in the conservation community are anticipating potential changes to the federal government’s Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan, which is a tool to reduce incidental deaths of whales. But that process, too, is on hold because of the shutdown.

Calls from The Associated Press to NOAA spokespeople were not returned. Some spokespeople for the agency have voicemail set up to say they will return to work when the shutdown is over.

Outside of the federal government, work to protect whales is still going on. The developer of an offshore wind energy project off Massachusetts announced Wednesday it is partnering with environmental groups on a plan to try to protect the right whales.

And not all the news about the whales is gloomy. A Florida research team has located the third right whale calf of the season. None were spotted last season.

Scott Landry, director of marine mammal entanglement response for the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Massachusetts, said that a NOAA whale entanglement hotline is currently being forwarded to him, and that he’s managing to pick up the slack so far. Rescue groups anticipated the shutdown and are working together to make do until it’s over, he said.

In Virginia, one of the state’s first responders for whale rescues is the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach. Mark Swingle, the aquarium’s director of research and conservation, said the center would not have “the usual assets we depend on to support the response” if it needs to assist an endangered whale.

That’s because NOAA staff and the Coast Guard would not be available, Swingle said.

“These circumstances require extremely specialized training and resources and NOAA is the lead organizer of large whale and other disentanglement efforts,” he said. “Live strandings pose their own set of challenges that NOAA helps navigate appropriately.”

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