FOLLOW THE WEEK ON FACEBOOK
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

2:18 p.m. ET
Joel Saget/Getty Images

Early projections put centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen in position to advance to the second round of voting in France's runoff presidential election. Per numbers from The Guardian, Macron has a slight lead with about 23.7 percent of the vote and Le Pen follows with about 22 percent.

The other two (of 11 total) candidates thought to have a shot at advancing, center-right François Fillon and far-left populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, are each projected to take around 19.5 percent. The second vote is May 7. Bonnie Kristian

1:04 p.m. ET

A government shutdown is not what the Trump administration wants, Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Mick Mulvaney told Chris Wallace in a conversation on Fox News Sunday. A shutdown will occur on Friday, April 28, if Congress cannot pass a spending package by that date.

"President Trump has talked about a number of items that he would like to see in this government funding bill," Wallace asked, alluding to the White House's Thursday demand that any spending package include money for President Trump's southern border wall. "Which are so important that he's willing to see the government shut down if he doesn't get them?"

"I don't think anybody is trying to get to a shutdown," Mulvaney replied. "Shutdown is not a desired end. It's not a tool. It's not something that we want to have." Still he added, the White House wants "our priorities funded and one of the biggest priorities during the campaign was border security, keeping Americans safe and part of that was a border wall."

Also on Sunday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions in an ABC interview and President Trump on Twitter reaffirmed Trump's campaign pledge that Mexico (or perhaps Mexicans, since the plausibility of the Mexican government cutting a check is miniscule) will pay for the wall eventually:

Watch Mulvaney's full interview below. Bonnie Kristian

12:16 p.m. ET

“We're going to get paid for it one way or the other," Attorney General Jeff Sessions said of President Trump's proposed border wall while speaking with ABC's George Stephanopoulos on Sunday. After raising the issue, Stephanopoulos asked if Sessions has any evidence Mexico will fund construction, as Trump repeatedly promised on the campaign trail.

Sessions conceded he does not expect the government of Mexico to "appropriate money," but maintained the United States has other options to get money from Mexicans. We could "deal with our trade situation to create the revenue," he suggested, or, "I know there's $4 billion a year in excess payments," Sessions continued, "tax credits that they shouldn't get. Now, these are mostly Mexicans. And those kind of things add up — $4 billion a year for 10 years is $40 billion."

Sessions appears to be referencing a 2011 audit report Trump also cited while campaigning. As Politifact explains, the report said that in 2011, $4.2 billion in child tax credits was paid to people filing income taxes using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) instead of a Social Security number. Some of these filers are illegal immigrants, but many are legal foreign workers, and the audit did not say how many are Mexican.

"The vast majority of that $4.2 billion, the filer may be undocumented, but you have to have a child to receive it," said Bob Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "And the children are overwhelmingly U.S. citizens." Watch an excerpt of Sessions' remarks below. Bonnie Kristian

11:22 a.m. ET

"The last thing we can afford is to send a message to the world that the United States government, by the way, is only partially functioning," Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said Sunday in an interview with Face the Nation on CBS, citing tension with North Korea, the French election, and turmoil in Syria as situations that could be dangerously complicated by a U.S. government shutdown.

"I mean, that would just have catastrophic impact in my view or certainly very destabilizing I should say impact on global affairs," Rubio added. "And so we should keep that in mind going into this week." In 2013, Rubio indicated he was willing to "go all the way," which in context meant voting against a spending bill if it did not defund ObamaCare, even if that meant allowing the government to shut down.

A shutdown is expected if Congress does not pass a federal budget or spending extension by Friday, April 28. The White House has demanded any funding package include money for President Trump's proposed wall along the southern border, as well as a spending bump for the Defense Department. Congressional Democrats, suffice it to say, are not enthused.

Watch Rubio's comments in context below. Bonnie Kristian

10:14 a.m. ET
KNS/Getty Images

North Korea detained a Korean-American man named Tony Kim at the airport in Pyongyang on Friday, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported Sunday. Kim is a professor who was in North Korea teaching a course at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST).

Kim is the third American citizen currently held by the isolated nation. The other two detainees were both arrested last year and sentenced to hard labor for subversive acts. Pyongyang has yet to comment on why Kim is in custody.

"The cause of his arrest is not known but some officials at PUST told me his arrest was not related to his work at PUST. He had been involved with some other activities outside PUST such as helping an orphanage," said PUST Chancellor Chan-Mo Park. "I sincerely hope and pray that he will be released soon." Bonnie Kristian

9:58 a.m. ET
Saul Loeb/Getty Images

President Trump continues to have record-low approval ratings with the general public, but he is maintaining his core base of supporters, finds a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Sunday in advance of the 100-day mark of Trump's presidency on April 29. Just 42 percent of Americans approve of the job Trump is doing so far, compared to an average of 69 percent approval for past presidents around the same time in their administrations.

A majority of respondents said Trump does not understand their problems, is not trustworthy, has yet to score a major accomplishment as president, and is not guided by a clear set of principles. However, more Americans say Democrats are out of step with the public than feel the same about the GOP, and 96 percent of Trump voters said they would back him again today. Bonnie Kristian

8:34 a.m. ET
U.S. Navy/Getty Images

North Korea on Sunday said it is prepared to bomb the USS Carl Vinson, a U.S. aircraft carrier leading a Navy carrier strike group toward North Korea in a show of force.

"Our revolutionary forces are combat-ready to sink a U.S. nuclear powered aircraft carrier with a single strike," said an editorial in a newspaper run by the Kim Jong Un regime's Workers' Party. The article called the ship a "gross animal" and the potential strike "an actual example to show our military's force."

The carrier strike group was first said to be on its way toward North Korea in early April, only to be sighted thousands of miles away, near Singapore. The Trump administration blamed the confusion on miscommunication, and the Vinson is now in transit to the Sea of Japan off the coast of North Korea. Bonnie Kristian

See More Speed Reads