Woman accused of being Russian agent expected to change plea
By MICHAEL BALSAMO
Thursday, December 13
WASHINGTON (AP) — A woman accused of being a secret agent for the Russian government was expected to plead guilty Thursday, days after prosecutors signaled they had reached a deal.
Maria Butina, 30, was to appear before a federal judge, who must sign off on any plea arrangement.
The gun rights activist, who was arrested in July, is accused of gathering intelligence on American officials and political organizations. Prosecutors say Butina’s work was directed by a former Russian lawmaker. They say she worked to develop relationships with American politicians through her contacts with the National Rifle Association.
Prosecutors have charged that her work was directed by a former Russian lawmaker who was penalized by the Treasury Department for his alleged ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Butina was charged with conspiracy and acting as an unregistered foreign agent for Russia. Her lawyer has argued that Butina was a student interested in American politics and better U.S.-Russian relations.
Butina’s court appearance comes days after her lawyers and prosecutors filed court papers asking to change her plea. They said they had “resolved” the case.
The charges against Butina were brought by federal prosecutors in Washington, and her case was unrelated to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
As protectors abandon Trump, investigation draws closer
By JONATHAN LEMIRE and ERIC TUCKER
Thursday, December 13
NEW YORK (AP) — President Donald Trump has now been abandoned by two of his most powerful protectors, his longtime lawyer and the company that owns the National Enquirer tabloid, bringing a perilous investigation into his campaign one step closer to the Oval Office.
Both Michael Cohen and American Media Inc. now say they made hush money payments to a porn star and a Playboy Playmate for the purposes of helping his 2016 White House bid, a campaign finance violation. The women alleged affairs with Trump, and federal prosecutors say the payments were made at Trump’s direction.
The admissions by Cohen and AMI conflict with Trump’s own evolving explanations. Since the spring, Trump has gone from denying knowledge of any payments to saying they would have been private transactions that weren’t illegal.
On Twitter Thursday, Trump contended he “never directed” his former personal lawyer to break the law. He tweeted that Cohen “was a lawyer and he is supposed to know the law.”
Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign finance charges “in order to embarrass the president and get a much reduced prison sentence,” Trump tweeted. He said the charges were “unrelated to me.”
Though prosecutors have implicated Trump in a crime, they haven’t directly accused him of one, and it’s not clear that they could bring charges against a sitting president even if they want to because of Justice Department protocol.
Nonetheless, Trump’s changing explanations have clouded the public understanding of what occurred and are running head-on into facts agreed to by prosecutors, AMI and Cohen, who pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations and other crimes and was sentenced on Wednesday.
“You now have a second defendant or group of defendants saying that these payments were made for the primary purpose of influencing the election, and that it was done in coordination with Trump and his campaign,” said Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine.
Trump’s first explanation of the payment that would eventually help lead Cohen to a three-year prison sentence came at 35,000 feet over West Virginia.
Returning to Washington on Air Force One, Trump on April 6 for the first time answered questions about the reports of $130,000 in hush money paid to porn star Stormy Daniels, issuing a blanket denial to reporters while saying they would “have to ask Michael Cohen.”
Three days later, the FBI raided Cohen’s office, seizing records on topics including the payment to Daniels. Furious, Trump called the raid a “disgrace” and said the FBI “broke into” his lawyer’s office. He also tweeted that “Attorney-client privilege is dead!”
The raid was overseen by the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan and arose from a referral from special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian election interference. At the time, Cohen said he took out a personal line of credit on his home to pay Daniels days before the 2016 election without Trump’s knowledge.
Later that month in a free-wheeling “Fox & Friends” interview, Trump acknowledged that Cohen represented him in the “crazy Stormy Daniels deal.”
In May, Trump and his attorneys began saying Cohen received a monthly retainer from which he made payments for nondisclosure agreements like the one with Daniels. In a series of tweets, Trump said those agreements are “very common among celebrities and people of wealth” and “this was a private agreement.”
People familiar with the investigation say Cohen secretly recorded Trump discussing a potential payment for former Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal two months before the election. On the tape, Cohen is heard saying that he needed to start a company “for the transfer of all of that info regarding our friend David,” a possible reference to David Pecker, Trump’s friend and president of AMI.
When Cohen began to discuss financing, Trump interrupted him and asked, “What financing?”
“We’ll have to pay,” Cohen responded.
Prosecutors announced Wednesday that AMI acknowledged making one of those payments “in concert” with the Trump campaign to protect him from a story that could have hurt his candidacy. The company avoided prosecution under a deal with prosecutors.
In August, Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations and other charges, saying he and Trump arranged the payment of hush money to Daniels and McDougal to influence the election. That next day, Trump argued that making the payments wasn’t a crime and that the matter was a civil dispute, then took a swipe at his former employee.
“If anyone is looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest that you don’t retain the services of Michael Cohen!” he tweeted.
Earlier this week, Trump compared his situation to one involving President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. The Federal Election Commission, which typically handles smaller campaign finance violations, where the actions aren’t willful, with civil penalties that are typically fines, docked the Obama campaign $375,000 for regulatory civil violations. The fines stemmed from the campaign’s failure to report a batch of contributions, totaling nearly $1.9 million, on time in the final days of the campaign.
But legal analysts said the accusations against Trump could amount to a felony because they revolve around an alleged conspiracy to conceal payments from campaign contribution reports – and from voters. It’s unclear what federal prosecutors in New York will decide to do if they conclude that there is evidence that Trump himself committed a crime.
The Justice Department, in opinions issued by its Office of Legal Counsel, has said a sitting president cannot be indicted because a criminal case would interfere with the duties of the commander in chief. Prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, and with Mueller’s office, would presumably be bound by that legal guidance unless the Justice Department were to nullify the opinions.
Politically, Trump’s shifting claims could harm his credibility with voters, but legally they may not make much of a difference.
“It’s not clear to me that he’s made any false statements in legal documents that could open him to liability for perjury,” Hasen said.
For the payments themselves to be a crime rather than a civil infraction, prosecutors would need to show that Trump knew that what he was doing was wrong when he directed Cohen to pay the women and that he did so with the goal of benefiting his campaign.
Trump has not yet laid out a detailed defense, though he could conceivably argue that the payments were made not for the purposes of advancing his campaign but rather to prevent sex stories from emerging that would be personally humiliating to him and harm his marriage.
That argument was advanced by former Sen. John Edwards, a North Carolina Democrat, in a similar campaign finance case that went to trial. But that may be tougher for Trump than it was for Edwards given the proximity of the president’s payment to the election — timing that, on its face, suggests a link between the money and his political ambitions.
Still, the cases aren’t always easy, as proven by the 2012 trial of Edwards. Jurors acquitted Edwards on one charge of accepting illegal campaign contributions, but couldn’t reach a verdict on the five remaining counts including conspiracy and making false statements. Prosecutors elected not to retry Edwards, the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2004 and a candidate for president in 2004 and 2008.
Tucker reported from Washington.
Follow Lemire on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JonLemire and Tucker at http://twitter.com/etuckerAP
Trump argues he ‘never directed’ longtime fixer to break law
By CATHERINE LUCEY
Thursday, December 13
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump is contending he “never directed” longtime lawyer Michael Cohen to break the law. Trump’s tweet Thursday comes a day after Cohen was sentenced to prison for crimes including arranging hush money payments to conceal Trump’s alleged affairs.
Cohen and federal prosecutors have said the payments were made at Trump’s direction to influence the 2016 election.
Trump tweeted Cohen “was a lawyer and he is supposed to know the law. It is called ‘advice of counsel,’ and a lawyer has great liability if a mistake is made.”
Trump asserted “this was not campaign finance.”
Trump has gone from denying knowledge of the payments to saying they would have been private transactions that weren’t illegal. Prosecutors have implicated Trump in a crime, but haven’t directly accused him of one.
A trade of Tanners: Nats send Roark to Reds for Rainey
By JANIE McCAULEY
AP Baseball Writer
Wednesday, December 12
LAS VEGAS (AP) — Tanner Roark figured he would be pitching in Washington’s star-studded rotation next year alongside Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and newcomer Patrick Corbin.
Instead, he found himself part of the majors’ first Tanner-for-Tanner trade, headed to the rebuilding Reds. Cincinnati acquired him for fellow right-hander Tanner Rainey on Wednesday during the winter meetings.
“I felt like we would have a pretty good staff over there in D.C. but they thought otherwise and I don’t know what their plans are,” Roark said in a conference call. “I’m just grateful to be a National. It was good times over there.”
As of now, Roark could lead a young Reds rotation — though president of baseball operations Dick Williams made it clear his last-place club is hardly done dealing. Righty starter Matt Harvey came to Cincinnati from the Mets last May.
There have been only a handful of big league players over the years with the first name of Tanner, and this was the first time two of them were traded for each other.
The 32-year-old Roark led the National League in losses last season, going 9-15 with a 4.34 ERA. He is 64-54 in six years, all with Washington.
Roark made $6,475,000 last year and is eligible for arbitration. He can become a free agent after next season.
“There haven’t been a lot of commitments to players making this kind of money. So this is a significant shift for us,” Williams said. “We’ve been laying in the weeds for a couple of years and focused on rebuilding, and now it’s time to add to the team. We’re in that mode now. And we fully expect to make more deals. This is the first of more to come.”
Washington boosted its rotation last week by signing All-Star Corbin to a $140 million, six-year contract. He will join the company of Scherzer and Strasburg on a team that 82-80 and finished second in the NL East behind Atlanta.
After flip-flopping between the bullpen and rotation early in his career, Roark has been a back-of-the-rotation arm for the Nationals recently, with moderate success.
The truest assessment of the team’s faith in the righty, though, might very well have come during the NL Division Series elimination against the Chicago Cubs in 2017, when he wasn’t used at all.
He made clear later that it bothered him not to get a chance to start in that series.
“Life’s too short to hold grudges,” Roark said shortly after the trade. “But that’s what they wanted to do. If they can live with it, then they live with it, you know? They treated me great. But there were times to where I would be very frustrated and I’d get (mad). But that made me stronger mentally and how to handle certain things like that. So it helped me.”
This might signal another move involving a starter is coming for Washington, which possesses a tremendously strong front three with three-time Cy Young Award winner Scherzer and All-Stars Strasburg and Corbin — but some real question marks after that in Erick Fedde and Joe Ross.
Rainey, who turns 26 on Christmas Day, made his big league debut last season. He didn’t have a decision and posted a 24.43 ERA in eight relief outings for the Reds.
Rainey spent most of the season at Triple-A Louisville, going 7-2 with a 2.65 ERA and three saves in 44 appearances.
AP Sports Writer Howard Fendrich in Washington contributed to this report.
More AP MLB: https://apnews.com/MLB and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Flacco loses job as Ravens starting QB; Jackson takes over
By DAVID GINSBURG
AP Sports Writer
Thursday, December 13
OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) — As he worked diligently for more than a month to return from a potentially dangerous hip injury, Joe Flacco watched the Baltimore Ravens flourish without him.
Now that he’s healthy, Flacco must adjust to a role he’s never experienced during his 11-year NFL career: backup quarterback.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh on Wednesday selected rookie Lamar Jackson as his starter, opting to play the hot hand rather than a former Super Bowl MVP who’s been starting since his inaugural season in 2008.
After Flacco hurt his right hip in a loss to Pittsburgh on Nov 4, the fleet-footed Jackson took over as the starter following a bye week. Under his guidance, the Ravens ramped up their running game and went 3-1, the only loss in overtime last Sunday on the road against the powerful Kansas City Chiefs.
With Baltimore desperate to end a three-year playoff drought, Harbaugh decided the Ravens would be best served with Jackson running the offense.
“Every decision is based on making us the strongest possible team we can be,” Harbaugh said. “Whether it’s quarterback or defensive line, that’s the bottom line. That’s what it boils down to. That’s how we feel about this decision, and we’re rolling.”
Jackson will start Sunday when the Ravens (7-6) host Tampa Bay (5-8).
The 33-year-old Flacco has 163 career starts compared to Jackson’s four and has guided the Ravens into the playoffs on six occasions. He was Super Bowl MVP in 2012, when he led Baltimore past San Francisco to cap a postseason in which he threw 11 touchdown passes and no interceptions.
But in a league that doesn’t give a hoot about the past, Flacco realized his future in Baltimore would be in jeopardy as soon as the Ravens selected Jackson out of Louisville with the 32nd overall pick in April.
“They drafted Lamar in the first round. At some point, something was going to happen between the two of us,” Flacco said. “Who knows what that was going to be? This is just what it is at this point.”
Flacco retained the starting job until he banged up his hip against the Steelers. He finished the game and wanted to play in the next one, but the doctors wouldn’t allow it.
“The risks of going back out there and playing were just a lot,” Flacco said. “If I just let it play the course and get to where we are today, the risks are nothing.”
He was talking about his health, not losing his grip on the starting job.
“I’ve obviously had five weeks to think about and prepare myself for this situation and the possibility of it,” Flacco said. “And yeah, I’m disappointed I can’t be in that locker room in the same capacity that I’ve always been. But this is my situation right now, and I’m going to do my best to handle it the right way.”
Cleared to practice at full capacity for the first time since his injury, Flacco returned to work Wednesday with the second-team offense. His role now is the same as every backup he’s had for years, from Troy Smith in 2008 to Jackson in the early stages of this season.
“Always got to be ready and stay sharp,” Flacco said.
With Jackson running the offense, the Ravens have racked up an NFL-best 914 yards rushing over the past four weeks. More importantly, they’ve won three of four to put themselves in the middle of the playoff picture. Baltimore trails Pittsburgh by a half-game in the AFC North and currently holds the No. 6 wild-card spot.
And that is why Flacco returns to a role on the bench.
“I can’t say I was surprised,” he said.
Jackson was the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner because of his ability to run, a skill he’s carried with him to the NFL. His 336 yards rushing are most by a rookie quarterback in his first four starts during the Super Bowl era. Still, one misstep could put an end to his run of success.
“They always tell me to protect myself, but I’m going to put it all on the line. I want to win,” Jackson said.
Harbaugh and Flacco have been a team since the quarterback entered the league as a first-round pick soon after Harbaugh was named Baltimore’s coach. They’ve won 15 playoff games together and hoisted the Super Bowl trophy on one memorable evening in New Orleans.
So, it was probably a bit uncomfortable for both when Harbaugh called Flacco into his office Tuesday afternoon.
“I don’t know if it was the hardest conversation,” Flacco said, “because in both of our minds we probably knew that the talk was coming at some point.”
And now, for the first time since his college days, Flacco is a backup.
“You have to be a professional about it. It’s out of my hands,” he said. “I just have to go out there and prepare and be ready to go.”
More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL
6-State Trooper Project Targeted Impaired Driving
COLUMBUS – The Ohio State Highway Patrol joined forces with members of the 6-State Trooper Project enforcing and raising awareness impaired driving from 12 a.m. on December 7 through 11:59 p.m. on December 9. The high-visibility campaign included the Indiana State Police, Kentucky State Police, Michigan State Police, Pennsylvania State Police, West Virginia State Police and the Ohio State Highway Patrol.
During the initiative, OSHP arrested 280 drivers for OVI and educated motorists about the dangers of driving impaired.
The 6-State Trooper Project is a multi-state law enforcement partnership aimed at providing combined and coordinated law enforcement and security services in the areas of highway safety, criminal patrol, and information sharing.
For a complete breakdown of the 6-State activity, please visit https://www.publicsafety.ohio.gov/links/6StateTrooperResults_OVI.pdf
Dem lawmakers introduce bill to support Ohio workers, families facing mass layoffs
Bill comes amid uncertainty as fate of GM Lordstown hangs in the balance
COLUMBUS—Democratic State Reps. Glenn Holmes (D-Girard), Dan Ramos (D-Lorain) and Adam Miller (D-Columbus) announced legislation to help Ohio workers, their families and local communities affected by large-scale closures and mass layoffs. The proposal comes on the heels of GM’s announced plans to shutter is Lordstown, Ohio assembly plant, which would result in the direct loss of 1,500 jobs.
“I’m happy to support efforts to assist and care for the workers, families and local communities impacted by the GM Lordstown’s closure,” said Holmes, “This bill is critical to empower the state to better assist communities facing sudden unemployment of this magnitude.”
The Democratic-sponsored bill would expedite unemployment benefits, provide additional resources to process claims and offer additional qualifying benefits to communities faced with unemployment from mass layoffs and plant closures. In addition, some workers under the plan would see extended benefits if they face structural unemployment challenges.
“Like the GM plant closure in Lordstown, the industrial City of Lorain faced similar layoffs when Ford decided to close its doors to more than 1,700 employees in 2005,” said Ramos. “The closure devastated my district, which is still recovering today. We cannot allow companies to keep prioritizing corporate profits and stock prices over the wellbeing of their employees and their families. This legislation will ensure more is being done to expedite unemployment claims processing and minimize hardship for those affected by mass layoffs in our state.”
The bill would define a mass layoff as any job loss greater than 200 employees over a seven day period. When employers know that a closure or mass layoff is coming, they will be required to inform the state at least 30 days in advance. This will enable the Department of Job and Family Service’s Office of Unemployment Insurance Operations, as well as other state agencies, to prepare the necessary resources to assist workers, their families, and communities affected by mass layoffs.
“I’ve seen firsthand the devastation a plant closure can have on a community when the West Columbus Delphi plant closed,” added Miller. “It devastated the community and we are still recovering. Too often, workers and their families are left to fend for themselves in rebuilding their lives. We need to give them additional, efficient support from day one. They are faced with immediate financial crisis, and our state response should meet that urgency.”
Once introduced, the bill will be referred to a committee for its initial hearings.