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February 21, 2017

On Sunday, The New York Times reported that President Trump's personal legal counsel, Michael Cohen, met last month with a colorful Russian-American former Trump business associate, Felix Sater, and a pro-Moscow Ukrainian lawmaker, then delivered a sealed envelope from them to Michael Flynn, Trump's then-national security adviser, with a "peace plan" for Ukraine. The peace deal, proposed by Ukrainian lawmaker Andrii Artemenko, would lead to formalizing Russia's occupation of Crimea as a lease and lifting U.S. sanctions against Russia.

Cohen and Sater confirmed the meeting and the envelope delivery. Then on Monday, Cohen backpedaled, telling The Washington Post and NBC News that "the brief meeting took place," but "emphatically" denying "discussing this topic or delivering any documents to the White House and/or General Flynn." He agreed to meet with Sater for coffee, he added, because he's "known Felix for years," and didn't know Sater's friend "would be a guy who wants to run for president of Ukraine." The Times stood by its story, telling The Washington Post that Cohen said "in no uncertain terms that he delivered the Ukraine proposal to Michael Flynn's office at the White House."

The back-channel diplomacy effort is not illegal, though it is unusual and maybe inconvenient amid federal investigations into Trump's business and political ties to Moscow. The reappearance of Sater is interesting, in any case, not least because he has a colorful history that includes arrests for stabbing a man in the face with a broken glass in a bar fight and for a Mafia-linked stock-fixing scheme, and avoiding jail by working for the CIA and FBI.

Sater's long business history with Trump includes working on several Trump-licensed projects, including the Trump SoHo building and — a decade ago and again in 2015 — a proposal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. Sater's name has popped up a couple of times in the campaign, but despite evidence of their close ties, Trump has sworn in depositions that he wouldn't even recognize Sater's face, as shown in this December 2015 report from ABC News.

The peace proposal did not meet with a positive response in either Kiev or Moscow; Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the plan "absurd," and Ukrainian Ambassador Valeriy Chaly said that Artemenko "is not entitled to present any alternative peace plans on behalf of Ukraine to any foreign government." Peter Weber

9:47 p.m. ET
Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. Navy is planning on relieving Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin from duty as commander of the Seventh Fleet, following four crashes, two deadly, in Asia since January, U.S. officials told The Wall Street Journal Tuesday.

Aucoin is a three-star commander, and will be removed on Wednesday, the officials said; the Navy declined to comment to the Journal. The Seventh Fleet is based in Yokosuka, Japan, and the most recent collision took place early Monday, when the USS John S. McCain and a tanker crashed in the waters east of Singapore and the Straits of Malacca; 10 sailors were reported missing, and the bodies of some of the sailors were recovered on Tuesday. Catherine Garcia

9:02 p.m. ET
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Jared Kushner, President Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, will travel to Israel on Wednesday, his third trip to the country since being tasked by the president to bring peace to the Middle East.

Kushner is scheduled to meet on Thursday separately with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. A person close to the White House told the Los Angeles Times Kushner is considering this a "temperature taking" trip, and not expecting anything major to come out of it. The White House said the discussions will focus on combating extremism, humanitarian issues in the Gaza Strip, and "the path to substantive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks."

Kushner is already in the region, and along with special envoy Jason Greenblatt and Dina Powell, deputy national security adviser for strategy, has been holding meetings with leaders from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Qatar. Catherine Garcia

7:57 p.m. ET
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Anyone looking to become an instant millionaire should grab a few dollars and head to the closest retailer selling Powerball tickets — the estimated jackpot for Wednesday night's drawing has reached $700 million.

This is the second-largest Powerball jackpot in U.S. history. Tickets are $2 each, and the odds of winning are 1 in 292.2 million. If anyone wins the whole shebang, they can choose an annuity option, receiving the jackpot in 30 payments over 29 years, or take the cash, which significantly reduces the amount of money (in this case, it would be $443.3 million). The winner will also have to pay federal taxes (25 percent), and possibly state taxes (Californians and Texans are among the exempt). Good luck! Catherine Garcia

7:17 p.m. ET
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Just hours before Marcellus Williams, 48, was scheduled to be put to death on Tuesday, Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens (R) issued a stay of execution, in light of attorneys saying DNA evidence proves Williams did not stab to death Felicia Gayle, a 42-year-old former reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in her home nearly 20 years ago.

In a statement, Greitens said a "sentence of death is the ultimate, permanent punishment. To carry out the death penalty, the people of Missouri must have confidence in the judgment of guilt." Greitens is going to appoint a five-person Board of Inquiry, which will review the case and offer a recommendation to him, CNN reports. Williams' attorneys said they did not have the DNA evidence during his 2001 trial, and a forensic DNA expert and biologist hired by the legal team found that hair sample found at the crime scene do not match Williams and none of his DNA is on the murder weapon.

The Missouri Attorney General's Office said there is still plenty of non-DNA evidence proving Williams' guilt; Williams sold Gayle's husbands laptop and some of the victim's personal items were found inside the trunk of Williams' car. From the beginning, Williams has maintained his innocence, and said he was convicted based on testimony from convicted felons. Catherine Garcia

5:58 p.m. ET
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President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have "not spoken to each other in weeks," The New York Times reported Tuesday. The Republican president and the top Senate Republican have apparently entered a "political cold war," the Times said, made all the more fraught by the fact that the GOP faces a tough legislative battle in the fall, as well as the presence of Elaine Chao — McConnell's wife — in Trump's Cabinet as transportation secretary.

The resentment and mutual hostility is so grave, apparently, that McConnell has reportedly taken to privately confessing that he's not sure the Trump administration can be saved:

Mr. McConnell has fumed over Mr. Trump's regular threats against fellow Republicans and criticism of Senate rules, and questioned Mr. Trump's understanding of the presidency in a public speech. Mr. McConnell has made sharper comments in private, describing Mr. Trump as entirely unwilling to learn the basics of governing.

In offhand remarks, Mr. McConnell has expressed a sense of bewilderment about where Mr. Trump's presidency may be headed, and has mused about whether Mr. Trump will be in a position to lead the Republican Party into next year's elections and beyond, according to people who have spoken to him directly. [The New York Times]

Earlier this month, Trump repeatedly attacked McConnell on Twitter, spurring the majority leader's Senate colleagues to rally around him. Trump has also attacked Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake (R), calling him "toxic" and endorsing his primary challenger, Kelli Ward; Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), whose refusal to vote for her party's health-care proposal prompted Trump to say she "really let the Republicans, and our country, down"; and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham (R), whose critical comments about Trump's controversial response to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, prompted the president to label him "publicity-seeking."

Trump needs McConnell as an ally to rally those same Republicans around his agenda, but "angry phone calls and private badmouthing have devolved into open conflict," the Times wrote. Read more at The New York Times. Kimberly Alters

5:31 p.m. ET

A Trump-branded Scion hotel is coming to the Mississippi Delta, and details of the project are already raising some eyebrows:

At the Trump family's suggestion, the Cleveland, Mississippi, hotel is "changing course mid-construction" in order to install "a resort-caliber pool, place decorative balconies on the main building, and construct a hill for another building — a faux Southern mansion," Bloomberg reports. "The property's 17 acres will have a spa, bars, and a meeting hall styled as a cotton gin."

The romanticization of a "replica Southern plantation" sounded some alarm bells. "The Onion might as well just go out of business now," one Twitter user wrote, while another responded: "Tone. Deaf."

Attn: has reported on antebellum nostalgia, especially as it pertains to the wedding industry, and explains that "the word 'plantation' has been normalized despite its racist history" and that "a Southern plantation is a large estate that was historically used to grow crops with African slave labor before the Civil War." Liz Susong, the editor-in-chief of Catalyst Wedding Co., told Attn:, "I think a lot of the history of properties has been really white-washed."

President Trump, while no longer the head of the Trump Organization, defended monuments to the Confederacy last week. "Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments," he tweeted. "You can't change history, but you can learn from it." Jeva Lange

1:40 p.m. ET

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley had a "personal conversation" with President Trump about how he handled the aftermath of Charlottesville, Politico reports.

Both Republicans and Democrats skewered the president for blaming "both sides" for the violence that erupted out of a neo-Confederate, white nationalist rally. Haley told CNN on Tuesday that afterward, she "had a personal conversation with the president about Charlottesville, and I will leave it at that." She added to Good Morning America that the conversation "was taken very well."

Haley was serving as governor of South Carolina in 2015 when a gunman killed nine people at a historically black church in Charleston. Five days later, she called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the Capitol in a speech that acknowledged that "people were driving by and [feeling] hurt and pain. No one should feel pain.”

Trump, however, has defended Confederate monuments, claiming: "This week it's Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder is it George Washington next week, and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really have to ask yourself, where does it stop?"

Haley says Trump has "clarified" his stance "so that no one can question that he's opposed to bigotry and hate in this country." Jeva Lange

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