Lyme disease patients fight for their lives while academics fight each other. Thats just wrong.

7 0 25 Jan 2020

For patients, there is often nothing more soul-crushing than being inexplicably sick with doctor after doctor having no answers, or getting the wrong diagnosis and being led down the wrong path with the wrong drugs. But for patients with Lyme disease, either or both is common, because its every aspect has been so bitterly contested by scientists that the conversation has been sourly referred to as “The Lyme Wars” in medical journals.

And yet this should not be a solely academic debate: The Centers for Disease Control estimated in 2013 that roughly 329,000 new cases of Lyme occurred every year when around 30,000 were reported. In 2017, 42,743 new cases were reported to the CDC, leading scientists to calculate that the true yearly incidence of new Lyme infections is now over 400,000 (and approximately 427,000 in 2017). Either makes the number of people infected with Lyme each year larger than the number of people diagnosed with breast cancer, HIV and hepatitis C combined. And that’s just in the United States.

But this is not just an American story: Lyme disease is well-established in Canada and on the British Isles, it’s endemic in many parts of Europe, it’s been reported in China and it’s even been seen in Japan and South Korea. We’re in the midst of a pandemic.

Every facet of this infection has been mired in scientific controversy at the research level, often leaving clinicians and their patients at a loss.

Though it can sometimes be associated with a “bulls-eye” rash, known as erythema migrans, most Lyme patients never get any rash at all: The original published studies on Lyme documented a history of a rash in only 25 percent of cases. And even in people who manifest the rash — despite its reputation for being easily identifiable — misdiagnoses abound because doctors are looking for the stereotypical bulls-eye appearance when the reality is that about 80 to 90 percent are solid pink rashes with a round to oval shape and never blanch in the center. A study from Johns Hopkins demonstrated that 23 percent of Lyme rashes are not properly diagnosed.

The blood tests used to diagnose Lyme, meanwhile, are four decades old, and unacceptably inaccurate: A review of eight studies that evaluated the effectiveness of these tests revealed that they miss more cases than they diagnose. The result is that many people go undiagnosed and misdiagnosed, leading to a life that can be devastatingly altered or worse.

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Lyme can be extremely serious, able to wreak havoc throughout the body — affecting the nerves and brain, the joints, the heart, tthe eyes and everywhere in between, resulting in anything from arthritis and mental illness, heart failure and dementia. It’s linked to a staggering list of symptoms and syndromes, and can be likened to its close cousin, syphilis. Lyme can even be deadly.

Treating Lyme can be as daunting as diagnosing it. Treatment failure rates after a three to four week course of antibiotics can be high, even in the early, more effectively treatable stage of the disease. Though many studies report an approximately 20 percent treatment failure rate in early Lyme, a Johns Hopkins University study showed that 39 percent of Lyme patients in the early stages of Lyme had persistent symptoms or functional impacts six months after treatment.

Another study from the Western Connecticut Health Network demonstrated that 61 percent of early-stage Lyme patients continued to have their symptoms six months after they were treated. And in a study of late-stage Lyme patients who went at least six months before treatment, upwards of 30 percent didn’t respond at all to a few weeks of antibiotics and, in those who did improve, 100 percent continued to have symptoms — there were no cures.

There is additionally decisive evidence that Lyme bacteria can survive in mammals despite antibiotic treatment. For example, in monkey studies — our most accurate animal model —the recommended antibiotics often do not cure the animals, with Lyme bacteria demonstrated in their tissues after treatment.

So what does this mean for patients who are living with chronic illness after having failed the Infectious Diseases Society of America recommended short course of antibiotic treatment for Lyme? The number of patients living with chronic Lyme is staggering, with estimates as high as 2 million people in the U.S. alone. And these patients are often very sick, with profound quality of life impairments which studies show can be more severe than for many other chronic diseases.

Live Lyme bacteria and its identifying DNA have been isolated from these patients after many months to even years of antibiotics. That includes from a patient who died from chronic Lyme when her medical insurance refused to cover treatment, despite the National Institutes of Health having grown live Lyme bacteria from her spinal fluid after antibiotics failed. Yet some medical societies, such as IDSA, refer to Lyme patients who continue to have symptoms after a short course of antibiotics as having something they call “post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome” and even reiterate that the antibiotics they recommend readily “cure” Lyme. They posit, instead, that PTLDS is an illness of unknown origin but with the same symptoms as Lyme, which just happens to come on after Lyme is “cured” with a short course of these antibiotics.

Clinicians may have taken notice of the gaps of logic associated with the PTLDS theory: A CDC study published in 2015 found that the majority of patients were prescribed antibiotics to treat Lyme for longer than the IDSA recommendations. This notion of a PTLDS is even more untenable given that studies show that the antibiotics recommended by IDSA to cure Lyme disease don’t even eradicate the organism in the test tube.

Clearly, we need more and better research into this polarizing — and frequently disabling —modern plague. The question is why this research isn’t being done, given the scale of the problem and the length of time we’ve been aware of the disease. It’s scandalous that, for such a common and serious chronic infection, over the past 20 years there have been only three NIH-funded randomized controlled trials evaluating antibiotic re-treatment of Lyme patients who remain ill after a short course of antibiotics. Two of them demonstrated benefits to re-treatment and the one which did not was fraught with invalidating biostatistical design errors.

But the invalidation of the latter hasn’t stopped scores of researchers from claiming that there’s conclusive proof that antibiotics don’t help chronic Lyme. Some have even taken the leap to insist that there’s no evidence for persistent infection in chronic Lyme, despite the flagrant evidence that there is.

Innovation will always be a deviation from the known — which makes people uncomfortable and is frequently regarded with bias. One type, called confirmation bias, refers to the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs.

For example, in the chronic Lyme antibiotic re-treatment studies, not all improvements lasted: Some patients relapsed once antibiotics were stopped. Pro-chronic Lyme researchers have stated that, since patients responded to antibiotics but not placebo, it means that they’re still infected with Lyme bacteria and that better and more durable treatments should be evaluated in repeat studies. Anti-chronic Lyme researchers have stated that, since the treatment doesn’t work permanently, there’s no evidence of persistent infection with Lyme bacteria and no further research should be performed.

And there’s been no middle ground due to bias blind spot, which refers to the ability to point out bias in the judgment of others, but being unable to recognize bias in one’s own judgment. Because bias blind spot is ubiquitous and more severe in smarter people — and physicians tend to be smarter than average — we’ve got the makings of a real problem.

Add in the reinforcing powers of group dynamics, and bias reigns supreme in academic medicine. And that, in a nutshell, is why so little progress has been made in figuring out how to help patients who are very clearly suffering from something medical science has already identified and should have started to better understand decades ago.

But until we stop regarding sick patients — and their doctors — with suspicion based on outdated understandings on how “every” bacterium functions in the body and responds to antibiotics, bias and not science will determine how we respond to this ongoing plague.

Trump impeachment trial live coverage: The presidents defense begins

6 0 25 Jan 2020

Cipollone: Democrats trying to ‘interfere’ in the election

Cipollone opened Trump’s defense Saturday arguing that House managers are asking senators to “remove” Trump from the general election ballot.

“As House managers, their goal should be to give you all of the facts, because they’re asking you to do something very, very consequential and I would submit to you, to use a word Schiff used a lot, very, very dangerous,” Cipollone said, adding, “They’re asking you to remove President Trump from the ballot in an election that’s occurring in approximately nine months, they’re asking you to tear up all of the ballots across the country on your own initiative — take that decision away from the American people and I don’t think they spent one minute of their 24 hours talking about the consequences of that for this country.”

“They didn’t tell you what that would mean for our country, today, this year, and forever into our future,” he continued, saying that the managers are asking senators to “tear up all the ballots” with Trump’s name on them.

Cipollone said Saturday’s presentation will take between two and three hours and that Trump’s defense does not plan to use all of their allotted 24 hours.

“You will find the president did absolutely nothing wrong,” Cipollone said, echoing the Trump’s frequent defense.

What to expect from Trump’s defense

Here’s what to expect from Trump’s defense team:

What you’ll hear Saturday

A “coming attractions” preview of the president’s defense case. As we’ve reported, sources close to the president want to make sure they get at least some of their messaging out there, but they’re also cognizant of the weekend’s lower ratings. It’s why you’ll see a fair amount of repetition Monday. White House counsel Pat Cipollone and Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow will likely handle much of the presentation, though you could see others. But a source on the team says the bulk of the arguments will occur Monday. That’s when we expect Dershowitz, Starr, and others to make their presentations.

Will they go to Tuesday?

It’s possible, but at this point we are not betting big on it. A senior administration official and Republican leadership source tell NBC News that arguments are likely to last roughly 10 hours (a few Saturday and the rest Monday). Caveat: things could still change, as the defense team is reserving the right to go longer if they feel it’s needed.

How will Parnas recording affect arguments?

A source on the president’s legal team said he doesn’t believe this new reporting of Trump apparently talking to Lev Parnas in an audio recording would have “any impact” on their team’s case. Note: NBC News has not heard the entire audio recording and is working to obtain it; it’s also unclear whether the audio published by ABC News has been edited.

POTUS call ‘perfect’?

Asked if the defense would include Trump’s assertions that his call with the president of Ukraine was “perfect,” the source on the legal team said part of the defense would be that the president “didn’t do anything wrong, and that is clear from the transcript of the call.” The source clarified that the defense won’t be “limited just to the transcript of the call,” but it will be a “key” piece of evidence because that’s the “primary” thing Democrats have “based their case on.”

Joe Biden 

Asked how much the Trump team is planning to talk about Joe Biden and specifically why it was relevant for the president to bring up Biden to the Ukrainians, a source on the president’s legal team said they wouldn’t get into details of their strategy but added that it “became quite apparent” in the House managers’ presentation that they’ve “made it very relevant to the case” and “spent a lot of time bringing the Bidens into this case,” and the Trump legal will address that.

Trump hints his defense team will begin by attacking Democrats

Moments ahead of the start of his impeachment trial defense, Trump tweeted: “Our case against lyin’, cheatin’, liddle’ Adam “Shifty” Schiff, Cryin’ Chuck Schumer, Nervous Nancy Pelosi, their leader, dumb as a rock AOC, & the entire Radical Left, Do Nothing Democrat Party, starts today at 10:00 A.M. on @FoxNews, @OANN or Fake News @CNN or Fake News MSDNC!”

It’s a clear sign that the president’s defense will rely heavily on criticizing prominent Democrats.

The tweet comes after House managers spent three days pressing their case that Trump should be found guilty and removed from office over his efforts to push Ukraine to probe the Bidens and Democrats as he withheld nearly $400 million in military aid and an official White House visit for Ukraine’s president, as well as his obstruction of Congress’ investigation into the matter.

Democrats tweeted ahead of Saturday’s proceedings, too.

“As we head into today’s arguments, I implore the White House counsel to present a substantive argument as to why the President shouldn’t be impeached,” Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., tweeted. “Don’t continue to insult the country by saying he did nothing wrong.”

“Conducting this impeachment trial is one of our biggest responsibilities as senators,” Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., posted. “Let’s focus on the facts. Let’s focus on the law. Let’s ensure this is a fair trial—and that we deliver fair and impartial justice.”

Who is Dmytro Firtash? The man linked to $1 million loan to Giuliani ally has a shadowy past

In September, one month before Lev Parnas was indicted on campaign finance charges, his wife received wire transfers from a bank account in Russia.

The sum was $1 million, and the source was a lawyer for Dmytro Firtash, according to a court filing by U.S. prosecutors.

Firtash, a Ukrainian oligarch who made a fortune in the natural gas trade, is perhaps the most enigmatic figure in the scandal that has played a key role in President Donald Trump’s impeachment.

A billionaire with alleged ties to the Russian mob, Firtash is facing bribery-related charges in the U.S. and fighting extradition from Vienna. He once attempted to buy and redevelop the famous Drake Hotel in New York with the now-incarcerated Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman. And he’s seen by Ukrainian anti-corruption activists and Western governments as a corrupt instrument of Russia.

Read the full story.

House Dems to deliver 28,000 pages of their trial record to Senate

The managers plan to deliver their trial record for the official senate record this morning around 9:30.

It’s more than 28,000 pages. 

GOP senators incensed by Schiff ‘head on a pike’ remark at impeachment trial

Senate Republicans said lead impeachment manager Rep. Adam Schiff insulted them during the trial on Friday night by repeating an anonymously sourced report that the White House had threatened to punish Republicans who voted against President Donald Trump.

Schiff, who delivered closing arguments for the prosecution, was holding Republican senators rapt as he called for removing Trump from office for abusing his power and obstructing Congress. Doing anything else, he argued, would be to let the president bully Senate Republicans into ignoring his pressure on Ukraine for political help.

“CBS News reported last night that a Trump confidant said that key senators were warned, ‘Vote against the president and your head will be on a pike.’ I don’t know if that’s true,” Schiff said.

After that remark, the generally respectful mood in the Senate immediately changed. Republicans across their side of the chamber groaned, gasped and said, “That’s not true.” One of those key moderate Republicans, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, looked directly at Schiff, shook her head and said, “Not true.”

Read what else Republican senators said.

Trump’s team plans to kick off arguments with discussion of Biden, Burisma and Steele dossier

President Donald Trump’s defense team on Saturday morning will begin the first of up to three days — 24 hours maximum — to make their case against the articles of impeachment.

The session begins at 10 a.m., and Trump’s lawyer Jay Sekulow told reporters said it will only go for three hours, saying it will be a “a trailer, kind of a coming attractions” ahead of the trial resuming on Monday.

We do not expect Ken Starr or Alan Dershowitz to speak during Saturday’s session, but Sekulow said Friday that the defense plans to discuss Biden, Burisma and the origins of the Steele dossier during their arguments. 

OPINION: Not surprisingly, Trump’s impeachment defense team has a woman problem

There’s been a lot of talk about President Donald Trump’s choice of Alan Dershowitz and Ken Starr as lawyers participating in his Senate impeachment trial defense. Most of this has rightly focused on the arguments both men presented at President Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1999, which stand in almost laughable contradiction to the arguments they now seek to present.

But when these two hired guns are examined alongside their latest famous client, another more troubling thread emerges, one that has been all too common for those in Trump’s orbit. These guys really don’t like women.

While the president still stands accused of sexual misconduct, including rape, by more than 20 women, both of these lawyers are deeply embroiled in their own sexual misconduct and assault scandals.

Read more here.

Democrats hope they persuaded these Republicans to back impeachment witnesses

The House managers have finished up their opening arguments in their case against President Donald Trump — but it’s still unclear whether they’ll be able to present any new evidence.

“Every day more and more of the public is watching,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Thursday. “I am more hopeful than ever that four conscientious brave Republicans will come forward and tell (Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell you can’t shut this down without witnesses, you can’t shut this down without documents.”

With the GOP holding a 53-47 majority in the Senate, Democrats would need at least four Republicans to cross party lines in order to be able to call witnesses or subpoena documents in the third presidential impeachment trial in American history.

Here’s a look at some of the Senate Republicans who could cross party lines and where they stand.

New Year celebrations muted in China as coronavirus spreads to 4 continents

7 0 25 Jan 2020

Celebrations marking the start of the Lunar New Year were muted in China following the outbreak of the deadly coronavirus, which has now spread to four continents.

Chinese officials confirmed 41 people had died from the disease as a host of events were canceled across the country Saturday, as the Year of the Rat began.

“It was like Chinese New Year but with a lot less people,” Dr. Diana Adama, a U.S. citizen who lives in the city of Wuhan. “As of tonight they are going to cut off all the cars.”

The unprecedented lockdown was expanded by Chinese authorities, who extended a transportation ban to 16 cities in the Hubei province — the epicenter of the outbreak, where 39 of the 41 people have died. The other two were in the provinces of Hebei and Heilongjiang.

As a result millions of people have been prevented from leaving the cities at a time when many travel to visit relatives in other parts of the country.

In the city of Wuhan, which has a population of 11 million people, authorities banned most vehicles including private cars. Only authorized vehicles to carry supplies and for other needs will be permitted starting Sunday morning.

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Public transportation was shut down earlier this week, as well as flights and trains out of the city.

As a result, many stayed home as numerous temples, major tourist sites and movie theaters were closed as authorities sought to limit the spread of the virus.

The city’s U.S. consulate also announced on its Weibo social media channel that it had “temporarily suspended operations.”

The Chinese National Health Commission said the number of people affected by the virus that causes respiratory infection in humans if untreated, to more than 1,200 people.

Meanwhile in Hong Kong, where five cases of coronavirus have been confirmed and 107 patients are under observation, Chief Executive Carrie Lam declared an emergency response.

The disease has now spread to four continents, as Australia announced its first case of the coronavirus Saturday. A Chinese man in his 50’s who returned from China last week. Cases have also been reported in Malaysia, Vietnam, Japan, Taiwan, and other countries across Asia.

France said that three people had fallen ill with the virus — the disease’s first appearance in Europe. And the United States reported its second case. A Chicago woman in her 60s who was hospitalized in isolation after returning from China.

The Chinese military dispatched 450 medical staff late Friday — some with experience in past outbreaks including SARS and Ebola — who arrived in Wuhan to help treat the patients hospitalized with viral pneumonia, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

However, on Thursday, the chair of the World Health Organization emergency committee said it was “too early” to declare the coronavirus a global public health emergency.

The rapid increase in reported deaths and illnesses does not necessarily mean the crisis is getting worse, but rather it could instead reflect better monitoring and reporting of the disease, according to the Associated Press.

As many hospitals in the region reach capacity, Wuhan officials said they are rapidly constructing a new 1,000-bed hospital to deal with the crisis, to be completed Feb. 3. It will be modeled on a SARS hospital that was built in Beijing in just six days during the 2003 SARS outbreak.

The Chinese government, which is hoping to avoid a repeat of the deadly 2003 SARS outbreak, has warned officials not to cover up the spread of the virus. The South China Morning Post reported Tuesday that Beijing said anyone who withheld information would be “the sinner of a millennium to the party and the people” and would be “nailed on the pillar of shame for eternity.”

Associated Press contributed.

Who is Dmytro Firtash? The man linked to $1 million loan to Giuliani ally has a shadowy past

7 0 25 Jan 2020

In September, one month before Lev Parnas was indicted on campaign finance charges, his wife received wire transfers from a bank account in Russia.

The sum was $1 million, and the source was a lawyer for Dmytro Firtash, according to a court filing by U.S. prosecutors.

Firtash, a Ukrainian oligarch who made a fortune in the natural gas trade, is perhaps the most enigmatic figure in the scandal that has played a key role in President Donald Trump’s impeachment.

A billionaire with alleged ties to the Russian mob, Firtash is facing bribery-related charges in the U.S. and fighting extradition from Vienna. He once attempted to buy and redevelop the famous Drake Hotel in New York with the now-incarcerated Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman. And he’s seen by Ukrainian anti-corruption activists and Western governments as a corrupt instrument of Russia.

Exactly why the money was sent to the wife of Parnas — the former Trump donor and Rudy Giuliani associate who has since turned on the president — is unclear. But Firtash provided key documents that Giuliani used to further his discredited claim that former Vice President Joe Biden engaged in wrongdoing in Ukraine.

Questions over Firtash’s alleged role in the effort to smear Biden deepened last week when Parnas said the oligarch’s involvement stemmed from an explicit quid pro quo. In exchange for Firtash’s help in their effort to damage Biden, Parnas told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, he assured the oligarch they would make his U.S. legal troubles disappear.

“For us to be able to receive information from Firtash, we had to promise Firtash something,” Parnas said. “So for Firtash, it was basically telling him that we knew his case was worthless here and that he’s being prosecuted for no reason. And that basically, it could get taken care of.”

In other words, according to Parnas: Guiliani, the former New York City mayor who made his name putting mob figures in prison as a U.S. attorney, was so eager to help Trump and hurt Biden that he turned to a man Ukrainian activists call their country’s most dangerous oligarch — and offered the equivalent of a get-out-of-jail-free card.

“Some folks might wonder what Mr. Giuliani was thinking. The better question is whether he was thinking,” said Chuck Rosenberg, a former federal prosecutor and senior FBI official and now an analyst with NBC News and MSNBC. “This is so foolhardy and so reckless, that it is difficult to fathom what he was doing or how he thought it could succeed.”

Firtash lived up to his end of the alleged bargain: His lawyers provided a now-discredited affidavit from a Ukrainian prosecutor accusing Biden of wrongdoing. But Giuliani’s team did not deliver.

According to Parnas and a senior U.S. official, Firtash’s lawyers, Giuliani associates Joe DiGenova and Victoria Toensing, were unable to convince Attorney General William Barr to intervene in the Firtash case.

The alleged scheme, one former U.S. official told NBC News, was stunning in its audacity.

“Think of it this way,” said the official, who has deep knowledge of Ukraine’s politics and Firtash’s history. “You have the president’s personal lawyer trying to get the president’s official lawyer, the attorney general, to get the Justice Department to drop charges against an oligarch supported by Russia. That’s what was happening.”

Asked for comment about the alleged deal with Firtash, Giuliani offered a two-word reply.

“Absolutely untrue,” he said in a text message, without elaborating. Giuliani has previously denied directing Parnas to work with Firtash.

Representatives for Firtash declined to comment and instead referred NBC News to an interview he gave to The New York Times in November. In the interview, Firtash said he hired DiGenova and Toensing to help with his legal problems, but he didn’t fund the effort to dig up dirt on Biden and had no information about him.

“Without my will and desire, I was sucked into this internal U.S. fight,” Firtash told The Times.

A spokesman for Toensing and diGenova, who are married, pushed back against the allegation that they were working in partnership with Parnas.

“The claim by Mr. Parnas is absolutely false,” the spokesman, Mark Corallo, said. “Ms. Toensing and Mr. diGenova made a strictly legal and factual presentation before the Justice Department, arguing that a person who has never been to the United States cannot be indicted under the [Foreign Corrupt Practices Act].”

Giuliani has relied on a questionable cast of figures in his efforts to tarnish Biden and damage the Democratic case for impeachment. But Firtash stands out for his fabulous wealth, his alleged links to Russian organized crime figures and his reputation for diverting natural gas profits to pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine.

“Firtash is at the dead center of the greatest corruption operation in Ukraine’s history,” said a former senior U.S. diplomat who served in the region. “He managed the flow of natural gas from Russia to Ukraine and beyond and it kept Ukraine dependent on Russia’s gas supplies.”

Anders Aslund, a former Swedish diplomat who has studied Ukraine’s economy for years, said Firtash is more of a purveyor of bribes than a proper businessman.

“He has essentially been used by the Russians to buy political power in Ukraine,” said Aslund, now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank. “He’s the person who has spent the most money on behalf of the Kremlin on Ukraine’s politicians.”

Almost a fireman

The son of middle-class parents, Dmytro Vasylovych Firtash, 54, served in the Soviet army from 1984 to 1986, according to U.S. government documents.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, he considered becoming a fireman, Firtash told the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine in 2008 — but opted to start a dry milk and cannery company.

According to diplomatic cables made public by WikiLeaks, Firtash told American diplomats that he came to know powerful Russian businessmen through his commodities business, which led him to launch a company that would become a huge player in the Central Asian natural gas market.

Firtash and a partner formed EuroTransGas company in 2002 and began making deals with central Asian countries. Some of those deals took business away from a powerful oligarch, Igor Makarov.

Makarov — now under American sanctions — had dangerous connections.

In January 2002, according to the State Department cables, Firtash was summoned to a meeting. He told embassy officials in Kyiv he feared for his life.

“He went to that dinner not knowing if he would be beaten up or even killed for having taken Makarov’s business from him,” one State Department cable says.

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Makarov brought along his head of security, a man named Semion Mogilevich, who was one of the world’s most feared Russian mobsters, according to U.S. law enforcement officials.

Semion MogilevichFBI

Firtash emerged from the meeting unscathed and “credited his ability to keep his life and his gas business to his good reputation among Central Asian leaders,” the State Department cable says.

Later, meeting with the American ambassador in Ukraine, Firtash was asked about his connections to Mogilevich, who once had a spot on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.

Organized crime: A fact of life

In essence, Firtash answered: It’s complicated.

“Firtash acknowledged that he needed, and received, permission from Mogilevich when he established various businesses, but he denied any close relationship to him,” the cable says.

If you wanted to do business in Ukraine in the early 2000s — Firtash told the Americans, according to State Department cables — you had to get along with Russian organized crime figures.

“It was impossible to approach a government official for any reason without also meeting with an organized crime member at the same time,” one cable says Firtash told the Americans.

With the mob’s help, it turned out, it was possible to grow very, very rich.

Firtash made a series of lucrative gas deals from 2004 to 2008 through a company called RosUkrEnergo, according to State Department cables and Firtash’s own website.

According to the cables, Firtash teamed up with crime figure Mogilevich and a man named Ivan Fursin for a combined 50 percent stake in RosUkrEnergo. The other half was owned by Gazprom, the Kremlin-backed Russian gas company.

Firtash, according to anti-corruption activists and former U.S. officials, was Putin’s man in the Ukrainian gas industry, an extraordinarily lucrative position.

But after Ukraine’s Orange Revolution deposed its pro-Russian leaders in 2014, the new government struck a deal on natural gas, depriving Firtash of a major revenue stream.

“Basically, he lost his big money-making machine” and “he could no longer dominate the gas trade,” said Aslund, of the Atlantic Council.

Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash waits for the start of his trial at the main court in Vienna, Austria, April 30, 2015.Ronald Zak / AP file

Under reform-minded management, Ukraine’s state-owned energy company, Naftogaz, gradually dismantled much of the corrupt arrangements that had enriched Firtash.

At the same time, the oligarch faced serious legal trouble from U.S. authorities.

Indicted in Chicago

In 2013, as the Obama administration was pushing an anti-corruption agenda in Ukraine, federal prosecutors in Chicago indicted Firtash, charging him with a scheme to bribe Indian officials to obtain a lucrative mining deal to sell titanium to Boeing for the 787 Dreamliner.

Prosecutors say Firtash paid off local officials in a titanium-rich section of southern India in order to secure mining licenses and sustain an enterprise expected to generate more than $500 million annually.

He was arrested in Vienna in March 2014, released on $174 million bail and has been contesting his extradition to the U.S. ever since.

A July 2016 filing in the case said the Justice Department had identified Firtash as an “upper-echelon [associate] of Russian organized crime.”

His prosecution “will disrupt this organized crime group and prevent it from taking further criminal acts within the United States,” it added.

The $174 million bail — said to be the largest in Austrian history — was paid by the Russian billionaire Vasily Anisimov, who is also under U.S. sanctions.

In Vienna, Firtash lives in a posh villa boasting a lap pool, wine cellar and home theater. A black steel gate, at least 7-feet tall, blocks his driveway. Whenever he leaves the property, a Mercedes SUV pulls out first to block the one-way street leading to his home. Then Firtash’s jet black Mercedes Maybach rolls out of the premises. His burly security guards hop in the SUV and it takes off closely trailing Firtash’s vehicle.

At no point during the choreographed exit is Firtash visible.

The Vienna home of Dmytro Firtash, a Ukrainian oligarch whose lawyer sent $1 million to the wife of Rudy Giuliani associate Lev Parnas.Tom Winter / NBC News

To fight the Chicago case during the Obama administration, Firtash hired a well-known Chicago trial lawyer, Dan Webb, and a well-connected Democrat in Washington, Lanny Davis.

But in June, Firtash told The New York Times, he was approached by Parnas and his associate, Lev Fruman, who had been working with Giuliani in an effort to dig up dirt on Biden in Ukraine. Technically, Parnas and Fruman were part of Trump’s legal team, their lawyers have said in federal court.

In the interview with the Times, Firtash said Parnas and Fruman told him they could help with his Justice Department problems, as long as he hired Toensing and diGenova. Parnas confirmed that account to Maddow. Firtash hired the husband-wife legal team, and he told the Times he paid his new lawyers $1.2 million.

In late August, according to a senior U.S. official with direct knowledge, Toensing and diGenova went to the Justice Department and pleaded Firtash’s case with the attorney general. But Barr declined to intervene, the official said.

Two senior law enforcement officials say that federal prosecutors in New York and Chicago have shared notes on Firtash and Parnas since Parnas’ indictment.

Firtash’s extradition case remains mired in the Austrian legal system. The country’s justice minister approved the extradition request last summer, but Firtash’s lawyers immediately filed a court motion, putting any action on hold.

An affidavit emerges

In September, right-wing media began to report on an affidavit from a fired Ukrainian prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, that Giuliani and other Trump allies have used as a basis to accuse Biden of corruption. Shokin is the prosecutor whom Biden, when he was vice president, urged be removed, in keeping with U.S. policy at the time that viewed Shokin as a bad actor.

The affidavit was featured in a Trump campaign ad attacking Biden and the House impeachment inquiry.

The language was unusual. Shokin did not have direct evidence for his allegations. He said he “assumed” that Biden was supporting the Ukrainian gas company Burisma because his son was on the board.

The affidavit was sworn, it says on the first page, “at the request of lawyers acting for Dmitry Firtash (‘DF’), for use in legal proceedings in Austria.”

In October, Parnas and Fruman were arrested on charges of funneling money from foreign entities to U.S. candidates in a scheme to buy political influence. They have pleaded not guilty.

Since then, NBC News has reported that Parnas and Fruman were advocating on Firtash’s behalf as they pitched a natural gas deal to an official of Ukraine’s gas company, according to an American executive briefed on the meeting. The scheme called for sacking the management of the company, which would have eliminated an arch-foe for Firtash and opened the door to him reasserting his dominance of the industry.

At a meeting in Houston last March, Parnas and Fruman mentioned Firtash as they made a proposal to an official of Ukraine’s natural gas company, according to Dale Perry, an American gas executive who does business in Ukraine and was briefed on the meeting. Perry told NBC News the pair was urging that the gas company pay Firtash a debt of more than $200 million that Firtash claims he is owed by the company.

Parnas visited Firtash a number of times, according to court filings by prosecutors, who say Parnas got $200,000 in payments from diGenova and Toensing for translation services.

Prosecutors also revealed for the first time the $1 million wire fund transfer from a Russian bank account to Parnas’ wife, saying the money came from one of Firtash’s attorneys, Ralph Oswald Isenegger.

Isenegger has said the money belonged to him and was given to the Parnases as a loan for the purchase of a new home. Isenegger agreed to the five-year loan without Parnas having to post any collateral, according to an email Isenegger sent to Parnas’ wife a month before his arrest.

Parnas’ attorney, Joseph Bondy, told the court the money was used for security, legal bills and other expenses. NBC News has reviewed a partially redacted copy of Svetlana Parnas’ bank account which showed a balance of only $95,000 after the $1 million deposit— with nearly $160,000 in private jet bills and $400,000 in outgoing wire fund transfers or bank withdrawals. No details were available on the remaining $440,000.

Parnas’ attorney did not respond to a request about the specifics of the remaining $440,000 or why the payment wasn’t made to Parnas directly if it was for plane expenses.

On Dec. 16, Isenegger wrote to Svetlana asking for the immediate return of the money despite it being a five-year loan, noting that her husband’s arrest was “on the front page of all media,” according to a copy of the email filed to the court.

The former U.S. official familiar with Firtash’s dealings said he understood why the oligarch would have pursued a deal with Parnas and Giuliani.

“Firtash is an opportunist, and he saw an opportunity,” the former official said.

The arrangement offered Firtash the chance to get rid of his U.S. legal problems and remove the leadership of the state energy company Naftogaz that had undermined his money-making schemes—without having to make any major sacrifices of his own, the former official said.

“It was a good deal,” the former official added. “But it didn’t work out.”

Macron pleads with Trump not to cut off U.S. support for French forces in Africa

5 0 25 Jan 2020

WASHINGTON — France is appealing to President Donald Trump not to cut off U.S. military support to French forces fighting Islamist militants in Africa, warning that it could undermine efforts to counter a growing terrorist threat in the Sahel region.

Trump administration officials, however, are skeptical of the French counterterrorism mission’s value and have refused so far to promise continued logistical and intelligence support that French forces rely on in their fight against al Qaeda and ISIS-linked groups, according to one current and one former U.S. official.

“We’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a French force that has not been able to turn the tide,” said a senior administration official, who was not authorized to speak on the record.

“It’s not even a case of whack a mole. For all that we’re spending, we’re not getting much out of it,” the official told NBC News.

The U.S. provides French forces with plane refueling and intelligence from drones at a relatively modest cost out of the Pentagon’s vast budget. The administration has been reviewing its options, including possibly requiring France to reimburse the U.S. for the drone flights and refueling services, the official said.”The United States and France have an enduring partnership that spans many efforts globally,” a Pentagon spokesperson said in a statement. “We maintain an open dialogue about future requirements and resourcing in Africa and other regions.”

The White House and the State Department declined to comment.

From bases in Niger, the U.S. military’s drone flights have delivered crucial intelligence and surveillance over a vast expanse in the Sahel, helping 4,500 French troops hunt down al Qaeda and ISIS-affiliated fighters. And U.S. air-to-air refueling tankers have helped keep French aircraft in the air.

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But the French have faced mounting challenges in the Sahel, including the collision last year of two French helicopters in northern Mali that claimed the lives of 13 troops. Terrorism has dramatically increased in the region in recent years, with the number of attacks roughly doubling annually since 2016, according to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. While French troops were greeted by cheering crowds when they arrived in Mali in 2013, protesters recently have burned the French flag and demanded the troops leave.

French President Emmanuel Macron has called for a stronger international element to the counterterrorism fight and is pushing hard to persuade the Trump White House to continue to provide drones and refueling.

Macron sent his national security adviser to Washington last week to make the case, a French official said. A delegation led by his Africa adviser, Franck Paris, met their American counterparts on Thursday, Jan. 23, and French Defense Minister Florence Parly is due to hold talks at the Pentagon on Monday, Jan. 27, the official said.

“If the Americans were to decide to leave Africa it would be really bad news for us. I hope to be able to convince President Trump that the fight against terrorism also plays out in this region,” Macron said earlier this month.

The French president made the comment after a summit in southwestern France of leaders of a coalition of five Sahel countries — Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania. The heads of state endorsed a continued French military presence, despite recent anti-French street protests, and also called on Washington to keep up its military support.

The five leaders expressed “gratitude for the crucial support provided by the United States and expressed the wish for its continuity.”

A strategic shift

The French plea for continued assistance with its Sahel mission comes as the Trump administration is weighing a wider drawdown of U.S. forces in Africa, as part of a strategic shift away from a global war on terrorism to countering “great power” threats posed by Russia and China.

Although some U.S. officials are impatient with the French operation, the administration is debating more broadly whether Africa should be treated as a high national security priority or whether military and intelligence resources should be deployed elsewhere in the world, said Judd Devermont, who served as the national intelligence officer for Africa until 2018.

“What I think is happening right now is less of a question about the efficacy of the French mission, but more of a bigger question — does the U.S. have national security interests in the Sahel, in the counterterrorism fight?” said Devermont, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

French Minister of Army Forces Florence Parly meets French officers of the Barkhane counterterrorism operation in Africa’s Sahel region, at the Barkhane base near Niamey in Niger on July 31, 2017.Boureima Hama / AFP – Getty Images file

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have pushed back over the Pentagon’s proposals to scale back the U.S. military’s presence in the Sahel and elsewhere in Africa, warning the move would open a vacuum that could be exploited by terrorist groups as well as Russia and China.

A drawdown “could result in further instability on the continent and serve to strengthen terrorist groups that could target the homeland,” said a joint letter this month from Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware.

The two senators specifically cited the Sahel as a crucial strategic area to combat terrorism. “Our European partners, such as France, rely on our intelligence and logistic support for operations within West Africa,” the senators wrote.

Seth Jones, a former adviser to the U.S. military and an expert on counterterrorism threats, said the French operation has produced mixed results but was still an important tool to stem the spread of extremist violence.

“The French are basically all we have,” Jones said. “The U.S. can complain how well the French are doing. But the French are all that stands between anarchy and some modicum of stability.”

Courtney Kube contributed.

Pompeo berated, cursed at NPR reporter over Ukraine questions, she says

4 0 25 Jan 2020

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo berated and cursed at an NPR reporter following a contentious exchange over Ukraine, the reporter said Friday.

Correspondent Mary Louise Kelly said she was interviewing Pompeo when he cut it short after she repeatedly pressed him on why he hasn’t defended former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. Yovanovitch was removed as the ambassador by President Donald Trump last year and has been a central figure in his impeachment.

Pompeo told Kelly that he was there to talk about Iran and that he has defended “every State Department official.” When she asked him when he has defended Yovanovitch specifically, he said, “I’ve said all I’m going to say” and ended the interview.

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She said Pompeo then glared at her and left the room with his aides.

An aide soon returned to the interview room and took her to Pompeo’s private living room where he screamed and cursed at her, she said.

“He was not happy to have been questioned about Ukraine. He asked, ‘Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?’ He used the F word in that sentence, and many others,” she said.

“He asked if I could find Ukraine on a map I said, ‘Yes,’ he called out for his aides to bring him a map of the world with no writing, no countries marked. I pointed to Ukraine he put the map away, he said, people will hear about this, and then he turned and said he had things to do, and I thanked him again for his time and left.”

The State Department has not returned a request for comment. Yovanovitch, through a spokesman, declined to comment.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee, which is chaired by Democrat Eliot Engel of New York and has oversight over State Department activities, criticized Pompeo in a tweet shortly after the interview on Friday.

“America’s diplomats still can’t understand why the secretary won’t support them,” the committee said.

Abigail Williams and Josh Lederman contributed.

Wireless router shopping guide: How to (and why) buy the best Wi-Fi router 2020

5 0 25 Jan 2020

What is a Wi-Fi router?

Once upon a time, computers needed to be wired up to one another in order to communicate. That’s inconvenient, though, and in 1999 Wi-Fi launched as a way for computers to wirelessly connect to each other — or, more commonly, to the internet.

Through your internet service provider (typically referred to as your ISP), a cable or DSL line finds its way into your home and connects to a modem — a small device that decodes the incoming internet signal into something your computer (and other devices) can read.

That signal then goes to a router — which connects to your modem through a wire — that ensures any email (or pictures of cats) you clicked on displays on the right device in your home, whether it’s your smartphone, laptop or otherwise. You can even find modem/router combo units that unite both of these functions into one device.

ARRIS SURFboard Modem, left, and TP-Link AC1750 Smart WiFi Router.

Should I buy my own Wi-Fi router?

When you sign up for internet service — with companies like Verizon’s Fios, Comcast’s Xfinity or otherwise — your ISP will often offer you a modem and a Wi-Fi router for a small monthly rental fee, usually anywhere from $8 to $12 a month. (Comcast is NBC News’s parent company.)

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That’s just one of your options, though: You don’t have to rent your router from your ISP. There are plenty of routers you can buy on your own, and they’re available at most major retailers. What’s more: Buying your own router is almost always a better financial decision compared to renting. It’ll usually pay for itself after about a year of service.

How to choose the best router?

Wi-Fi has been around for a while now and it’s come a long way. The router you bought 10 years ago is almost certainly slower than one you’d buy now, and it may not be able to reach every corner of your home as efficiently as newer models.

A Wi-Fi router’s speed is measured in Megabits per second, or Mbps — it denotes how fast the router can move incoming data — like an internet signal — from one computer (like your modem) to another (like your smartphone or TV). For the past few years, the fastest Wi-Fi routers on the market used a standard called “802.11ac,” or “Wireless AC.”

  • The fastest AC routers might boast up to 5,300 Mbps of blazing-fast speed.
  • However, that’s the total combined speed available to any and all devices feeding off of that router — an individual device will only reach about 2,167 Mbps.
  • Most routers won’t ever reach their theoretical maximum speeds anyway, given real-world conditions.

In other words, there’s a lot of complicated technobabble behind the numbers on the box, but there’s not much reason to overburden yourself with it: It’s mostly a benchmark that allows you to determine a router’s overall capabilities. Think of it like the available horsepower a car has — it’s less about utilizing that power each time you drive and more to categorize the general strength of the car’s engine.

You’ll see other features on a router’s product page, too. For example, “dual-band” routers are the norm now, which use two different frequencies — 2.4GHz and 5GHz — to get a better signal to your devices.

  • 2.4GHz is better at penetrating walls but has some limitations.
  • It’s slower than 5GHz and can get congested with other non-Wi-Fi devices (like a cordless phone system).

Having both allows you to get the best connection, no matter where you are in the house. Some modern routers even sport the label “tri-band,” which allows more devices to communicate with the router at one time, eliminating congestion when the whole family’s using the web at the same time — whether Tik Tokking, streaming Netflix shows, blasting a Spotify playlist or checking for the latest sports reruns.

Wi-Fi routers at every price point to consider in 2020

1. TP-Link AC1750 Wireless Dual Band Smart WiFi Router (budget-friendly)

TP-Link offers some of the best bang for your buck with their Archer A7. It’s dual-band, comes with some handy features like parental controls, and even works with Alexa, if you have an Echo in your house.

2. Asus AC1900 Dual Band Gigabit WiFi Router (mid-range)

While some people prefer to set their router up once and forget it, others (like myself) prefer to tweak settings and make use of advanced features to get the best experience possible. Asus’ feature set and excellent settings interface (not to mention its higher speeds) make it a great choice if you have more to spend.

3. TP-Link AC4000 Smart WiFi Router (high-end)

TP-Link’s Archer A20 kicks it up a notch with tri-band antennas, so you can connect more devices without the congestion. It also comes with Trend Micro antivirus on the router for extra security.

All that said, renting from your ISP does come with one major benefit: free tech support when something goes wrong. That’s certainly worth considering but still — as is the case with most tech — you will be getting a limited warranty of some sort by purchasing your own, and it’ll likely be a superior model with more features to what your ISP is renting out.

With a better router, you can make the most of your Wi-Fi in your house rather than relying on a baseline configuration meant to work for everyone’s house.

Looking for more tech and gadget recommendations?

Navy investigating who took secret videos of sailors in a bathroom and posted to porn site

5 0 25 Jan 2020

WASHINGTON — The Navy is investigating who secretly recorded dozens of videos of service members in a bathroom and then shared the videos with a pornographic website, according to two U.S. military officials.

An agent from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service discovered the videos on the website Pornhub earlier this month. Several of the videos showed sailors and Marines in uniform with visible name patches. The clips also appear to include civilians, the officials said.

The officials believe the videos were taken through a peephole in a bathroom, and the individuals were not aware they were being taped. The footage shows people changing their clothes, but the officials were not aware of any sexual acts.

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Some of the individuals in the videos were assigned to the USS Emory S. Land, a vessel that supplies submarines and is assigned to a port in Guam, the officials said, but they could not give a time frame for when the videos were recorded.

The videos have been taken down from Pornhub, the officials said. NCIS agents have begun notifying people identified in the footage but the effort remains ongoing. Representatives from the command in Guam and a legal advocate are assisting with notifications, officials said.

Blake White, vice president of Pornhub, said the site had received a request from NCIS “to remove the material in question and we did. We are currently working alongside them to assist with their investigation. Here at Pornhub, we immediately remove any content that violates our terms of use as soon as we are made aware of it.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Navy’s Pacific Fleet said, “NCIS is investigating a report of non-consensual online distribution of explicit videos and images of service members. The investigation is in the early stages.”

“Potential victims are being notified in a coordinated effort by NCIS, command leadership, and Victim’s Legal Counsel. The website hosting the videos and images at issue has complied with an NCIS request to remove the videos and images from its site and is cooperating with the ongoing NCIS investigation.

“The U.S. Navy is a professional organization and these videos are not indicative of the Navy’s core values of honor, courage, and commitment.”

A spokesperson for the NCIS did not respond to requests for comment.

Impeachment managers have trigger man and motive. GOP has the votes.

5 0 25 Jan 2020

WASHINGTON — Democrats believe they have more than a smoking gun in President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial. They have a trigger man, they have a motive and they have a record of the key moment.

What they would like more of — but do not believe would be necessary in a jury trial — is access to documents they know exist and witnesses close to Trump whom they believe would further support the case for removing him from office.

“This is airtight,” said a person familiar with the prosecution, who noted that all of the witness testimony obtained during the House investigation corroborated a long campaign by top Trump lieutenants to effect the president’s Ukraine plan. “What [we] don’t have is someone saying, ‘I helped orchestrate that monthslong effort.'”

So as House managers wrapped up their three-day presentation in Trump’s Senate impeachment trial Friday and prepared to watch his defense counsel mount a counteroffensive, they tried to leave no reasonable doubt that the president worked to corrupt Ukraine’s new president by using $391 million in funds already appropriated by Congress to force him to open investigations that would help Trump’s re-election campaign.

But Democrats were still hoping against hope they could get more witnesses — and that either Republican senators would be persuaded that refusing to oust Trump would damage the country, or voters would be persuaded that Republicans should be punished for failing to remove him.

That, of course, was framed in terms of country over party.

“We must not become numb to foreign interference in our elections,” Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the lead House prosecutor said. “Our elections are sacred.”

He argued that Trump represents an ongoing threat to the republic because he has boasted about welcoming foreign engagement in U.S. elections so long as it benefits him and has failed to take seriously Russia’s continuing efforts to tamper with American politics. And Schiff said that if Congress does not respond to Trump’s actions — and the threat he poses — he will leave the U.S. without real allies abroad and with a domestic population cynical about the “free and fair elections” that have been a hallmark of the republic.

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“Let’s say they start to blatantly interfere in our election again to help Donald Trump,” Schiff said of Russia or other foreign nations. “Can you have the least bit of confidence that Donald Trump will stand up to them and protect our national interest over his own personal interest? You know you can’t, which makes him dangerous to this country.”

The weaknesses of the case can be found in the political strength of a president whose fellow Republicans are expected to vote nearly or fully in lockstep to keep him in office, regardless of what they think of his actions — a handful will say they were imperfect, and others will say they see nothing wrong with what he did — and in his ability to use executive fiat to prevent prosecutors from obtaining evidence from his closest circle of advisers and documents housed at various federal agencies.

And as Kim Wehle, a former assistant U.S. attorney and author of the book “How to Read the Constitution and Why” noted, Democrats didn’t use all of the tools at their disposal to get information.

“House Democrats didn’t subpoena all the witnesses who have relevant information — some of the closest people to the president, like John Bolton — or move to compel compliance,” she said, referring to the former national security adviser. “Trump had no legal basis for withholding all information completely, but rules mean nothing without enforcement. Their failure to push for information in the House gives political cover for Senate Republicans to vote down more witnesses, and ultimately provide an excuse to acquit on the rationale that Democrats admittedly didn’t do enough to prove their case.”

Because Trump blocked access to witnesses and documents that could clarify what roles he and his senior aides played, they have impeached him for obstructing Congress in addition to abusing the powers of his office.

“President Trump tried to cheat, he got caught and then he worked hard to cover it up,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., one of the House managers.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a former harsh Trump critic turned leading defender, said Friday that the president’s defense team should be concise in its rebuttal and try to “poke holes” in the prosecution’s case. From the president’s defenses so far, there is not a comprehensive alternative theory for his actions or a set of facts that contradict those laid out by prosecutors.

Neither Trump nor his lawyers have said that his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani did not plan to go to Ukraine in May to meet with newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in order to seek investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and a Russia-originated disinformation campaign designed to obscure Moscow’s role in helping Trump in the 2016 election. That shows the motive.

Trump has contended that his call with Zelenskiy on July 25 — the record of Trump as the trigger man — was “perfect.”

There were four topics discussed on the call: U.S. aid for Ukraine, a White House meeting between Zelenskiy and Trump, the Biden investigation, and the “Crowdstrike” probe. As any member of Congress might attest, such meetings between elected leaders invariably involve “asks” in which the officials exchange favors. Before and after the call, aides to both presidents did significant legwork to set them up to discuss the items under discussion and then execute the quid pro quo, as evidence produced in the House investigation showed.

All of that is normal business — unless the trade is corrupt.

U.S. officials said in testimony that they were shocked to find Trump brazenly dangling already appropriated funding and a White House meeting before Zelinsky’s eyes for investigations into one of his leading political opponents, and a conspiracy theory that would muddy the truth that Russia had assisted his first victory. At the time, Trump’s decision to pause the flow of U.S. aid to Ukraine while he was pursuing the probes was kept to a tight circle, but it would become more widely known over the ensuing months.

Members of Congress know that leveraging taxpayer dollars to solicit foreign help in an election is inherently corrupt, and the strength of Democrats’ case is that counterarguments require radical suspensions of disbelief — like accepting that Trump froze the aid but not to put pressure on Kyiv, sought an investigation into his leading political rival but not because of the electoral implications, and didn’t publicly call for other countries to probe that rival and his family — as well as neglect of powerful evidence to the contrary.

“It’s virtually impossible to deny that Trump took actions for his own benefit, and not for the good of the American people,” Wehle said. “Indeed, Republicans aren’t even arguing that he did what’s best for the U.S.”

But each senator sets his or her own standard in an impeachment trial.

“I think he has a style of working and negotiating,” Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said when NBC’s Leigh Ann Caldwell asked whether what Trump had done was wrong. “Is it an impeachable unlawful offense? That has not been clearly demonstrated.”

Get rid of her: A voice appearing to be Trumps heard in recording demanding diplomat Yovanovitchs ouster

5 0 25 Jan 2020

A voice that appears to be that of President Donald Trump ordered aides to “get rid” of U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch after two now-indicted Rudy Giuliani associates told him she had been badmouthing him, according to an audio recording posted in part by ABC News.

The network said the recording appeared to include a discussion between Trump and Giuliani associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman at a small private dinner. Trump has denied knowing the pair and dismissed numerous pictures of them together as just photos taken at public events.

NBC News has heard the clips posted by ABC, but has not independently obtained or verified the recording.

Parnas’s lawyer Joseph Bondy told told NBC News Friday that he located a version of the recording and turned it over the House Intelligence Committee after ABC reported on its existence. A spokesperson for the committee declined to comment.

Bondy told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow in an interview Friday night that the recording was made by Fruman.

“I hope they’ll make it public,” he said of the Intelligence Committee, which led the impeachment inquiry into Trump that centered on his dealings with Ukraine. “I think it’s of critical importance that we hear the evidence. I think that’s the best was we have to ensure our chances of having a fair trial, real trial if you will.”

Trump denied knowing Parnas in an interview with Fox News earlier Friday.

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Asked if he was relying on Parnas to get rid of Yovanovitch, Trump said, “No, no. I have a lot of people – he’s somebody I guess based on pictures I see goes to fundraisers but I’m not a fan of that ambassador,” Trump said. “I want ambassadors that are chosen by me. I have a right to hire and fire ambassadors.”

According to the clip posted by ABC, the voice that sounds like Trump apparently told aides at the April 2018 dinner at Trump International Hotel in Washington: “Get her out tomorrow. I don’t care. Get her out tomorrow. Take her out. OK? Do it.”

Trump made the demand after a voice that sounds like Parnas’ told the president that Yovanovitch was telling people that Trump was going to be impeached.

“The biggest problem there, I think where we need to start is we got to get rid of the ambassador,” says the voice that sounds like Parnas. “She’s basically walking around telling everybody ‘Wait, he’s gonna get impeached, just wait.'”

Yovanovitch was removed from her post, but not until a year later.

A copy of the recording is in the custody of federal prosecutors in New York, according to ABC.

The audiotape lines up with what Parnas himself told Maddow about the Trump dinner in an interview last week.

He said he was having dinner in a private area of the hotel with the president and some of his aides.

“I don’t know how the issue is, the conversation came up, but I do remember me telling the president that the ambassador was badmouthing him and saying he was going to get impeached. Something to that effect,” Parnas told Maddow.

“And at that point he turned around to John DeStefano, who was his aide at the time, and said, ‘Fire her.’ And we all, there was silence in the room,” Parnas said.

He said DeStefano replied it couldn’t happen at the time because Mike Pompeo had not yet been confirmed as secretary of state. “I don’t know how many times at that dinner, once or twice or three times, but he fired her several times at that dinner,” Parnas said, speaking of Trump.

“He even had a breakdown and screamed, ‘fire her!'” to another assistant, Parnas claimed, and the assistant replied, “Mr. President, I can’t do that.”

Yovanovitch, who has been lauded for anti-corruption work, was targeted for removal in a campaign led by Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney.

The release of the audio comes as Democrats were outlining obstruction of Congress charges against the president in his Senate impeachment trial. Both Parnas and Fruman were ordered to turn over Ukraine-related documents to the House impeachment investigators, but refused.

Their lawyer at the time, former Trump lawyer John Dowd, cited various reasons for refusing to hand over documents, including that the pair “assisted Mr. Giuliani with his representation of President Trump.”

Following his arrest, Parnas started cooperating with House investigators and turned over numerous documents text messages and emails.