Lobbying firm cuts ties with Turkey under pressure

The lobbying firm Mercury Public Affairs has cut ties with the Turkish government following a pressure campaign by Armenian-American activists incensed by Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan in ongoing hostilities with Armenia.

The firm’s decision to scrap its $1 million contract with Turkey is a victory for Armenia in a conflict that’s playing out in Washington as well as the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh along Armenia’s border with Azerbaijan.

In the weeks since the long-running tensions between the countries flared on Sept. 27, Armenian-American activists have worked to deprive Azerbaijan and Turkey of what Aram Hamparian, the executive director of Armenian National Committee of America, described as some of their most potent weapons: their Washington lobbyists.

“A lot of people have bought a lot of summer homes and fishing boats and put their grandkids through college by lying about Armenia and covering up for Azerbaijan,” he said.

The Armenian National Committee and another group, the Armenian Assembly of America, tried to put pressure on Mercury by holding protests outside its offices in Washington and Los Angeles and urging Mercury’s clients to cut ties with the firm if it kept representing Turkey.

The campaign had an effect. Kathryn Barger, the chairwoman of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, and Hilda Solis, a supervisor and former Labor secretary in the Obama administration, wrote to Mercury on Wednesday to urge the firm “to immediately sever any business ties with the Republic of Turkey.” (Mercury is a contractor to Los Angeles County, which is home to a large Armenian population.)

California state Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and 16 other state lawmakers told Mercury on Thursday they wouldn’t engage with the firm as long as it represented Turkey. And the Los Angeles Community College District informed Mercury that it would “begin to exercise the 30-day termination clause” in its contract if Turkey remained a client.

Mercury declined to comment. The Turkish embassy didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The Armenian pressure campaign comes as Washington has started to turn its focus toward the fighting.

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) introduced a resolution earlier this month condemning Azerbaijan and Turkey’s role in the conflict, which has drawn 67 co-sponsors. And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met separately on Friday with the Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan and Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov in an effort to end hostilities.

Turkey and Azerbaijan aren’t bereft of lobbying power now without Mercury, which Turkey hired in January on a contract scheduled to run through the end of the year, according to a copy filed with the Justice Department. The firm was charged with helping to organize events that would let Turkey “connect with public policy stakeholders” and with advising the Turkish government on media relations.

Turkey also retains the lobbying firms Capitol Counsel and Greenberg Traurig while Azerbaijan’s government retains BGR Group, according to disclosure filings. The countries’ lobbyists include former Reps. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.), Charles Boustany (R-La.), Randy Forbes (R-Va.) and Albert Wynn (D-Ma.).

The Armenian government, meanwhile, hired former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole last month for help in Washington.

Another former lawmaker, former Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) of the Livingston Group, stopped representing Azerbaijan’s government last week, according to a disclosure filing, although it’s unclear whether Livingston was actually lobbying for the country.

Asmar Yusifzada, a spokesman for Azerbaijan’s embassy in Washington, wrote in an email to POLITICO that the country hadn’t had contact with Livingston in more than a decade.

Livingston didn’t respond to a request for comment. Capitol Counsel and Greenberg Traurig declined to comment.

Hamparian said he planned to ramp up pressure on BGR Group now that Mercury has capitulated. But BGR might be a tougher target: The firm said in a statement that it “intends to continue its representation of Azerbaijan.”

Source: Politico, Lobbying firm cuts ties with Turkey under pressure

How Trump could repeat 2016

By almost every measure, the likely outcome is that Joe Biden will win the White House. Yet less than two weeks before Election Day, the unfolding reality of 2020 is that it’s harder than ever to be sure. POLITICO’s Charlie Mahtesian and Scott Bland lay out why they’re not ruling out another surprise Trump victory on Nov. 3.

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Source: Politico, How Trump could repeat 2016

Man accused of death threat against Flynn judge is denied release before trial

A New York man accused of threatening the judge overseeing the prosecution of former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn will not be released from jail before trial, a federal judge ruled on Thursday.

Frank Caporusso, 52, pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to one count of threatening to assault or murder a federal judge in order to interfere with his official duties, and one count of making an interstate threat in connection with a voicemail left earlier this year, and U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael Harvey ruled on Thursday against Caporusso’s petition for pretrial release.

Documents unsealed by the court did not identify the target of Caporusso’s alleged threat, but reports named U.S. District Court Judge Emmett Sullivan as the recipient of the voicemail.

In an arraignment hearing on Tuesday afternoon, Assistant U.S. Attorney Rachel Fletcher appeared to confirm as much, disclosing under pressure from Harvey that the “Flynn matter” was in front of the judge who received the threat.

At around 8:30 p.m. on May 14, prosecutors say, Caporusso called the judge’s chamber and left a roughly 30-second, expletive-laden voicemail.

“You will not be safe,” the voicemail said. “A hot piece of lead will cut through your skull. You bastard. You will be killed, and I don’t give a f–k who you are. Back out of this bulls–t before it’s too late, or we’ll start cutting down your staff.”

According to court filings, the anonymous voicemail ended by saying: “This is not a threat. This is a promise.”

Though the voicemail came from an unknown sender and without caller ID, prosecutors obtained phone records from AT&T that show a number registered to Caporusso since 2003 placed a call to the judge’s chambers at the same time and lasting roughly the same length as the voicemail.

A day earlier, Sullivan announced that he had appointed a former federal judge in New York to argue against the government’s unusual bid to dismiss the case against Flynn, an ally of President Donald Trump. Flynn pleaded guilty in December 2017 to lying to FBI agents about whether he discussed U.S. sanctions on Russia with its ambassador prior to Trump’s inauguration.

Sullivan also said he was seeking a recommendation on whether to charge Flynn with perjury for recanting on his admission of guilt.

A defense attorney for Caporusso, David Benowitz, argued earlier this week that his client should be released ahead of his trial, noting that the government had not uncovered any further plot or plan to threaten the judge or his staff in the government’s five-month investigation.

He asserted that by waiting more than three months to arrest Caporusso after homing in on him as a suspect less than a week after the threatening voicemail, the government had undermined its contention that Caporusso would be a flight risk.

Benowitz rejected the prosecutor’s claim that the more than 100-day span between his client’s interview and arrest was because of a delay while investigators sought to verify Caporusso’s claims of his phone number having been “spoofed.”

“I can’t imagine in this type of case, where the government is alleging there is a danger, that it takes them that long to get cell site data,” he said. “That just doesn’t pass the smell test.”

In his ruling on Thursday, the judge said he did not factor in the government’s delay in filing charges against Caporusso, arguing he did not want to speculate about the reason for the lapsed time and appear as if he were giving prosecutors incentive to rush through investigations.

Harvey agreed that Caporusso had demonstrated he was not at serious risk of flight, but that the severity of the crimes Caporusso is accused of — as well as the lack of capability to monitor his phone and internet usage while on release — outweighed those considerations.

“It took only 40 seconds and a phone line to commit the crime the defendant has been charged with,” Harvey said in Thursday’s hearing. “I know of no condition or combination of conditions that can reasonably assure he won’t have the opportunity to make another threat if he were released.”

The judge cited evidence provided by the government that Caporusso had sought to reach the judge’s chambers multiple times, even after the voicemail function for the judge in question had been turned off, and noted that the threatening voicemail also targeted the judge’s staff.

Caporusso faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted on both counts.

The caller, he said, “does not sound unhinged, out of his mind or intoxicated,” and “confirms his own seriousness” at the end of the voicemail, and took steps to mask his identity — ruling out what friends of Caporusso surmised in letters to the judge must have been a momentary lapse in judgment.

Also factoring in his decision, Harvey said, was that the threat demonstrated a “profound disrespect in the judiciary that undermines my confidence that the caller would comply with court-ordered conditions of release set by a judge,” including not making any other threats.

Moreover, Harvey pointed to half a dozen long guns that Caporusso owns, saying that they spoke to the means to carry out the specific threat that was made.

At the top of the hearing, Harvey said that although neither party was seeking his recusal from the case, as is common in cases involving colleagues on the bench, he had assessed whether to recuse himself and concluded that he would be able to adjudicate the initial proceedings of Caporusso’s case fairly.

Caporusso is set appear before the judge assigned to oversee the rest of his case, U.S. District Court Judge Trevor McFadden, next Thursday.

Source: Politico, Man accused of death threat against Flynn judge is denied release before trial

Florida's top election official weighs in on felons, masks and security

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee, in an interview with POLITICO on Tuesday, said that fewer than 100 felons are expected to be identified for possible removal from the state’s voter rolls between now and Election Day.

Lee also talked about the runup to the crucial election, saying that the state has taken significant steps to beef up its cybersecurity efforts and should not have any widespread problems due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Lee, a former judge tapped by Gov. Ron DeSantis as the state’s chief election official, has been at the center of a flurry of election-related litigation and mishaps during the nearly two years she has been on the job, including revelations about Russian hacking in 2016 and most recently the crashing of the state’s online voter registration portal ahead of the deadline.

The DeSantis administration will be under heightened scrutiny since the battleground state is crucial to President Donald Trump’s reelection strategy. Slightly more than 3 million voters — out of more than 14 million on the rolls — have already cast ballots.

Last week, the state Division of Elections announced that it would begin looking to remove felons from the voting rolls if they had outstanding court debts. Many felons had their voting rights restored after voters approved Amendment 4 in 2018, but the Republican-controlled Legislature passed a law that restricted eligibility if a felon owed court-imposed fees, fines or restitution. The law drew a fierce legal challenge from critics who called it a “modern-day poll tax,” but the measure was upheld by a federal appeals court last month.

The state had not been screening felons before the appeals court ruling so it startled opponents of the law and election supervisors when Lee’s office announced the move.

Lee defended taking steps now, even though under state law any voter flagged could not be removed prior to Election Day due to notice requirements.

“There was no longer a legal basis to defer from fulfilling that state responsibility,” Lee said.

Critics said the move would create confusion, while Mark Herron, an election law attorney who represents Florida Democrats, was fearful the list would be used to challenge election results.

Lee stressed that her office was moving methodically and was making sure it had up-to-date information — including whether or not someone had recently paid off their court debts. She said the state has started sending files down to local supervisors — who have the ultimate say on whether to remove a voter — but that at the current pace fewer than 100 voters would be identified between now and Election Day.

“We are working very hard to ensure that we conduct a thorough review of these voter records before they are forwarded,” Lee said.

Weighing in on an ongoing controversy in South Florida, Lee said that Florida election officials cannot deny someone access to in-person voting if they fail to wear a mask. Early voting got started in more than 50 counties on Monday and more than 300,000 people voted during the first day.

“We will not be turning voters away,” Lee said. “However, we are working very hard to ensure that in-person voting is kept safe, that precinct locations are sanitized and social distancing is observed. Voters are all being encouraged to wear masks out of courtesy for fellow voters and election workers.”

Some Broward County officials want voters kept out of the polls if they fail to wear a mask as required by local ordinances. State Sen. Gary Farmer, the incoming Senate Democratic leader, on Monday tweeted out “Again, all law enforcement agencies in Broward, PLEASE ENFORCE THE LAW….no mask, no vote is the only enforcement!”

Florida’s pivotal role in this year’s elections also comes four years after Russian hackers successfully accessed the voter registration systems of two counties, a fact that was not known publicly until last year. Recently, a group of computer scientists also raised questions about whether or not one of the main voting systems used in Florida is vulnerable.

Lee, however, maintained the state has taken multiple steps since 2016 to harden defenses of state and local systems, including beefing up spending on cybersecurity efforts and creating a stand-alone cybersecurity unit inside the Department of State. The state also conducted a risk assessment for all 67 counties, although it has kept the results of that analysis secret.

“We have worked hand in hand with all 67 supervisors of election over the last year and a half to mitigate or address any vulnerabilities we identified,” Lee said.

Source: Politico, Florida’s top election official weighs in on felons, masks and security

Murphy begins self-quarantine after senior staffer tests positive for Covid

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy abruptly left a press event in Camden County on Wednesday minutes after learning that one of his senior staffers had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Though Murphy has tested negative for the virus, he and first lady Tammy Murphy will quarantine until the end of the weekend, Communications Director Mahen Gunaratna said in a statement.

Murphy, who was informed of the staffer’s positive test during an event at Camden County College in Blackwood, said he came into “close proximity” of the person on Saturday. The governor said he tested negative for the virus on Monday — before he was aware of the exposure — and has had no symptoms.

He and Tammy Murphy were tested again later Wednesday and the results were negative, Gunaratna said.

“I will now, unfortunately, have to take myself off the field,” Murphy, who was wearing a mask, told the crowd at the event in Blackwood before leaving.

Gunaratna did not identify the senior staffer who tested positive. The person is currently quarantining at home, he said, and the administration has started the contact tracing process to notify everyone who may have interacted with the person.

The governor’s office later identified the staffer as Mike Delamater, deputy chief of staff for intergovernmental affairs.

Late Wednesday afternoon, the governor’s office announced that Daniel Bryan, senior adviser for strategic communications for Murphy, has also tested positive for Covid-19.

Bryan “took the test out of an abundance of caution” and remains asymptomatic, according to the governor’s office.

The front office said in a statement that the contact tracing process has begun and they will be notifying those who have been in contact with Bryan.

In April, Matt Platkin, Murphy’s then chief counsel, quarantined at home after he tested positive for coronavirus.

Murphy and the first lady will be canceling all in-person events in the coming days and will each take another Covid test before resuming any in-person activity.

“From the beginning, the Governor’s Office has taken every precaution to limit the spread of COVID-19. Today’s exceedingly cautious steps are part of that ongoing commitment,” Gunaratna said in his statement.

Murphy’s quarantine comes as New Jersey hits an inflection point in its response to the pandemic. After months of manageable caseloads and limited spread, the Garden State is at risk of losing its grip on the virus.

In the weeks since Murphy directed restaurants, gyms and theaters to open their doors with capacity restrictions, the average number of cases reported daily has climbed from the low-300s to more than 1,000, including 1,062 on Wednesday. The number of patients currently hospitalized for confirmed or suspected cases of Covid-19 has been climbing sharply for weeks as well, reaching 884 on Wednesday.

Since the first case was reported in early March, New Jersey has recorded 223,223 positive cases and more than 16,200 confirmed or probable Covid-related deaths.

The recent surge has been largely driven by outbreaks within college universities and Orthodox communities, particularly in Ocean County and neighboring Monmouth County, where Murphy resides. Health officials and Murphy have pinned the spikes on house parties and family gatherings, as opposed to indoor dining or school re-openings.

Participation in the state’s contact tracing program has languished. Less than half of the state’s new Covid-19 patients are providing health officials with the information necessary to stamp out budding outbreaks.

Murphy’s decision to enter a holding pattern for the next several days, pending future test results, follows his administration’s intense criticism of President Donald Trump for holding a fundraiser at his private golf club in Bedminster, N.J. even after close personal aide Hope Hicks had tested positive for the virus.

Trump was diagnosed with Covid-19 just hours after the Bedminster event.

Murphy alluded to his criticism of the president on Wednesday and said that’s why he must take immediate action to quarantine.

“I can’t ask President Trump not to come to Bedminster and do a fundraiser and have me sit here,“ he said.

Source: Politico, Murphy begins self-quarantine after senior staffer tests positive for Covid

Giuliani denies inappropriate behavior in upcoming 'Borat' movie

Rudy Giuliani on Wednesday denied touching himself inappropriately in the upcoming “Borat” movie, insisting that a reported clip from the film was taken out of context.

“The Borat video is a complete fabrication,” Giuliani wrote on Twitter. “I was tucking in my shirt after taking off the recording equipment. At no time before, during, or after the interview was I ever inappropriate. If Sacha Baron Cohen implies otherwise he is a stone-cold liar.”

The tweets come after a Guardian report that the upcoming movie includes a scene in which Giuliani, President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer and a former mayor of New York, appears to touch his genitals while alone with an actor playing Borat’s daughter. The Guardian reported that the scene was part of a set-up for the movie, which loops unknowing people into gags involving the caricatured titular character.

The actor playing Borat’s daughter pretended to be a conservative journalist interviewing Giuliani, the Guardian reported. After the two finished their interview, they went to a bedroom where she helped remove his microphone. In the clip, Giuliani then allegedly lay down and reached into his pants until Baron Cohen, who plays Borat, intervened in character. NBC News and The Daily Beast reported similar descriptions of the scene.

Giuliani called the New York City police on Cohen once he realized it was all a gag, Page Six reported at the time. Giuliani acknowledged calling police in his Wednesday tweets.

The movie is set to be released on Friday.

Source: Politico, Giuliani denies inappropriate behavior in upcoming ‘Borat’ movie

Poll: Majority says Senate should confirm Amy Coney Barrett

Despite the contentious circumstances of her quick nomination, polls show that confirmation of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court is generally popular with voters.

But it isn’t necessarily resulting in a benefit for President Donald Trump, whose campaign saw the vacancy on the court as a chance to reset next month’s presidential race.

A new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll shows that a slight majority of voters, 51 percent, think the Senate should vote to confirm her nomination, far greater than the 28 percent who say the Senate should vote not to confirm her. A little more than 2 in 10 voters, 21 percent, don’t have an opinion about Barrett’s nomination.

The new survey represents an increase in support for Barrett’s confirmation compared with a survey immediately after her initial nomination last month, when 37 percent of voters said the Senate should vote to confirm her.

But at the same time, Trump’s approval rating remains dangerously low for a president about to face the voters. Just 43 percent approve of the job he is doing as president, down slightly from 45 percent last week. A majority of voters, 55 percent, disapprove of Trump’s job performance.

And despite support for Barrett’s confirmation, voters say they actually trust Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, to handle the high court over Trump, 46 percent to 39 percent.

“A slim majority of voters now back Senate confirmation of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court — a level of support that has increased by double digits since President Trump nominated her last month,” said Kyle Dropp, co-founder and president of Morning Consult. “Voters are also aware of the impact her confirmation could have on the court, as 54 percent believe her confirmation will make the Supreme Court at least somewhat more conservative.”

Taken together, the polls point to a Supreme Court nomination proceeding largely without the controversy of Trump’s two prior nominees: Neil Gorsuch, for whom Senate Republicans abolished the filibuster for high court picks, and Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused of sexual assault while he was in high school in suburban Maryland.

But other surveys — the POLITICO/Morning Consult poll does not include a presidential horserace question — don’t show a presidential contest that has been significantly reordered by a confirmation battle. Biden leads Trump by 10 points in national polling averages from The New York Times and FiveThirtyEight, and 9 points in the RealClearPolitics average.

Other public surveys show voters are more divided on Barrett’s nomination — a likely artifact of question-wording differences. A New York Times/Siena College poll out on Tuesday found voters split almost evenly, but it asked them whether they supported (44 percent) or opposed (42 percent) Barrett’s nomination — not how the Senate should vote.

A Gallup poll also released on Tuesday worded its question similarly to the POLITICO/Morning Consult poll, but it found that slightly more Americans said the Senate should vote in favor of Barrett’s nomination (51 percent) than said it should not vote in favor (46 percent). But that survey was conducted over a more-than-two-week time period, from right after her nomination and concluding on the final day of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings last week.

Two results consistent throughout the surveys: More voters think the Senate can proceed before the Nov. 3 election than think should wait until after, and voters generally oppose adding seats to the Supreme Court, as some Democrats have suggested doing. In the POLITICO/Morning Consult poll, 45 percent say the Senate should vote as soon as possible, while 34 percent say they should vote on Barrett’s confirmation only if Trump wins reelection. Similarly, in the New York Times/Siena poll, a 47 percent plurality say the Senate should vote before the election.

In the POLITICO/Morning Consult poll, just 24 percent of voters say Congress should pass a law increasing the number of justices. In the New York Times/Siena poll, only 31 percent said Democrats — the survey’s wording introduced explicit partisanship to the question — should expand the size of the court.

The POLITICO/Morning Consult poll was conducted Oct. 16-18, surveying 1,994 registered voters online. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 2 percentage points.

Morning Consult is a global data intelligence company, delivering insights on what people think in real time by surveying tens of thousands across the globe every single day.

More details on the poll and its methodology can be found in these two documents: Toplines | Crosstabs

Source: Politico, Poll: Majority says Senate should confirm Amy Coney Barrett

Hunter Biden story is Russian disinfo, dozens of former intel officials say

More than 50 former senior intelligence officials have signed on to a letter outlining their belief that the recent disclosure of emails allegedly belonging to Joe Biden’s son “has all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation.”

The letter, signed on Monday, centers around a batch of documents released by the New York Post last week that purport to tie the Democratic nominee to his son Hunter’s business dealings. Under the banner headline “Biden Secret E-mails,” the Post reported it was given a copy of Hunter Biden’s laptop hard drive by President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who said he got it from a Mac shop owner in Delaware who also alerted the FBI.

While the letter’s signatories presented no new evidence, they said their national security experience had made them “deeply suspicious that the Russian government played a significant role in this case” and cited several elements of the story that suggested the Kremlin’s hand at work.

“If we are right,” they added, “this is Russia trying to influence how Americans vote in this election, and we believe strongly that Americans need to be aware of this.”

Former CIA Deputy Chief of Staff Nick Shapiro, who served as chief of staff to former CIA Director John Brennan, provided POLITICO with the letter on Monday. He noted that “the IC leaders who have signed this letter worked for the past four Presidents, including Trump. The real power here however is the number of former, working-level IC officers who want the American people to know that once again the Russians are interfering.”

The former Trump administration officials who signed the letter include Russ Travers, who served as National Counterterrorism Center acting director; Glenn Gerstell, the former NSA general counsel; Rick Ledgett, the former deputy NSA director; Marc Polymeropoulos, a retired CIA senior operations officer; and Cynthia Strand, who served as the CIA’s deputy assistant director for global issues. Former CIA directors or acting directors Leon Panetta, Gen. Michael Hayden, John McLaughlin and Michael Morell also signed the letter, along with more than three dozen other intelligence veterans. Several of the former officials on the list have endorsed Biden.

Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe said on Monday that the information on Biden’s laptop “is not part of some Russian disinformation campaign,” though the FBI is reportedly conducting an ongoing investigation into whether Russia was involved.

The New York Times raised questions on Sunday about the rigor of the Post’s reporting process, revealing that several of its reporters had refused to put their name on the Biden stories because they were concerned about the authenticity of the materials. The Post stood by its reporting, saying it was vetted before publication.

But the release of the material, which POLITICO has not independently verified, has drawn comparisons to 2016, when Russian hackers dumped troves of emails from Democrats onto the internet — producing few damaging revelations but fueling accusations of corruption by Trump. While there has been no immediate indication of Russian involvement in the release of emails the Post obtained, its general thrust mirrors a narrative that U.S. intelligence agencies have described as part of an active Russian disinformation effort aimed at denigrating Biden’s candidacy.

“We want to emphasize that we do not know if the emails, provided to the New York Post by President Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, are genuine or not and that we do not have evidence of Russian involvement,” the letter reads. But, it continues, “there are a number of factors that make us suspicious of Russian involvement.”

“Such an operation would be consistent with Russian objectives, as outlined publicly and recently by the Intelligence Community, to create political chaos in the United States and to deepen political divisions here but also to undermine the candidacy of former Vice President Biden and thereby help the candidacy of President Trump,” the letter reads.

National Counterintelligence and Security Center Director Bill Evanina said in August that Russia has been trying to denigrate Biden’s campaign, specifically through a Ukrainian lawmaker named Andriy Derkach who has met with Giuliani at least twice to discuss corruption accusations against Biden. Derkach was sanctioned by the Treasury Department last month for allegedly acting as a Russian agent and interfering in the 2020 election.

Giuliani brushed off concerns about Derkach in an interview with The Daily Beast this week, saying “the chance that Derkach is a Russian spy is no better than 50/50.” And he told The Wall Street Journal of the purported Biden email trove: “Could it be hacked? I don’t know. I don’t think so. If it was hacked, it’s for real. If it was hacked. I didn’t hack it. I have every right to use it.”

The former officials said Derkach’s relationship with Giuliani and fixation on the Bidens, along with Russia’s reported hack on Burisma — the Ukrainian energy company that gave Hunter Biden a board seat and is at the center of Trump and his allies’ corruption allegations — “is consistent with” a Russian operation.

“For the Russians at this point, with Trump down in the polls, there is incentive for Moscow to pull out the stops to do anything possible to help Trump win and/or to weaken Biden should he win,” the letter says. “A ‘laptop op’ fits the bill, as the publication of the emails are clearly designed to discredit Biden.”

Top Biden advisers who staffed him during his vice presidency, citing their own recollections as well as a review of Biden’s official schedules, have sharply rejected suggestions that Biden ever met with a representative of Burisma in 2015 or has otherwise been involved in Hunter Biden’s business interests.

“Investigations by the press, during impeachment, and even by two Republican-led Senate committees whose work was decried as ‘not legitimate’ and political by a GOP colleague have all reached the same conclusion: that Joe Biden carried out official U.S. policy toward Ukraine and engaged in no wrongdoing,” Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates said last week. “Trump administration officials have attested to these facts under oath.”

Source: Politico, Hunter Biden story is Russian disinfo, dozens of former intel officials say

Senior U.S. officials self-isolate after meeting Lebanese spymaster who’s positive for Covid

Several U.S. officials, including a senior figure at the State Department, are now self-isolating after meeting with a Lebanese spymaster who has tested positive for the coronavirus.

David Hale, the undersecretary of State for political affairs; CIA Director Gina Haspel; and national security adviser Robert O’Brien were among the Americans who met with Lebanon’s Major Gen. Abbas Ibrahim during his recent visit to Washington, people familiar with the situation told POLITICO.

Hale, as well as several other employees from the State Department and other executive branch divisions, are now self-isolating for 14 days, a U.S. official said. It was not immediately clear whether Haspel is among them. O’Brien has already had the virus in the past.

Ibrahim, who leads Lebanon’s directorate of general security, has had to delay his return to Beirut and cancel meetings in France because of his Covid-19 results, his directorate said in a Twitter thread.

He “is in good health,” his office said in the thread.

The State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Neither did the National Security Council, nor the CIA.

Ibrahim had told the Middle East-based news organization The National that he was visiting the U.S. in part to boost intelligence-sharing with Washington and work on releasing more hostages held in Iran and Syria.

Ibrahim is believed to be involved in efforts to free Austin Tice, an American journalist who may be in Syrian custody.

Lebanon has been in economic and political turmoil for months, a situation aggravated by a massive August explosion that devastated Beirut. A vast cache of improperly stored ammonium nitrate has been blamed for the blast, which killed more than 200 people, wounded thousands and left many more homeless.

Daniel Lippman and Natasha Bertrand contributed to this report.

Source: Politico, Senior U.S. officials self-isolate after meeting Lebanese spymaster who’s positive for Covid

Former Democratic power broker James A. Johnson dies at 76

MINNEAPOLIS — James A. Johnson, a former Democratic campaign operative who was CEO of housing lender Fannie Mae in the 1990s and served as chairman of Walter Mondale’s presidential bid, died Sunday at his home in Washington. He was 76.

Johnson’s son, Alfred, confirmed that his father had died, telling The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal that the cause was complications from a neurological condition.

A native of Benson, Minnesota, and the son of a prominent state lawmaker, Johnson had a political, cultural and business resume that prompted Harold M. Ickes, President Bill Clinton’s deputy chief of staff, to dub him “the chairman of the universe.” Johnson chaired the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Brookings Institution think tank and Fannie Mae all at the same time.

Besides running Mondale’s failed run for the White House against Ronald Reagan in 1984, Johnson was a key player in the presidential campaigns of Eugene McCarthy, Edmund Muskie and George McGovern.

He turned his political savvy into business success. David O. Maxwell, former head of Fannie Mae, hired Johnson as vice chairman in 1990, after Johnson had helped the company hold off privatization efforts by the Reagan administration. Johnson was promoted to chairman and CEO the next year.

Johnson immediately set his sights on maintaining Fannie Mae’s lucrative government privileges and ensuring that new regulations were not overly burdensome. Johnson and his lobbyists helped fashion a 1992 law signed by President George H.W. Bush that aimed to reduce the chance of an expensive taxpayer bailout if Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had bad loans on their books.

It also opened up a new era of home ownership for families who were previously unable to get mortgage loans.

After retiring from Fannie Mae at the end of 1998, Johnson served on the boards of several companies, including UnitedHealth Group, KB Home and Target, and was vice chairman of the Washington private-equity firm Perseus. He had chaired the advisory council of the Stanford Center on Longevity since 2011.

Source: Politico, Former Democratic power broker James A. Johnson dies at 76