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February 23, 2017
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President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, might have faced a blackmail attempt from a Ukrainian parliamentarian last summer, Politico reports. The purported evidence comes in the form of hacked communications from Manafort's daughter's iPhone, which includes a text from Ukrainian Serhiy Leshchenko demanding to reach Manafort and threatening the release of damaging information:

Attached to the text is a note to Paul Manafort referring to "bulletproof" evidence related to Manafort's financial arrangement with Ukraine's former president, the pro-Russian strongman Viktor Yanukovych, as well as an alleged 2012 meeting between Trump and a close Yanukovych associate named Serhiy Tulub.

"Considering all the facts and evidence that are in my possession, and before possible decision whether to pass this to [the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine] or FBI I would like to get your opinion on this and maybe your way to work things out that will persuade me to do otherwise," reads the note. It is signed "Sergii" — an alternative transliteration of Leshchenko's given name — and it urges Manafort to respond to an email address that reporters have used to reach Leshchenko. [Politico]

Leshchenko denied that the texts were from him, telling Politico: "I've never written any emails or messages to … Manafort or his family." Manafort denied brokering the meeting beween Trump and Tulub but confirmed the texts to his daughter are real and said that he had also received texts to his own phone from the same address. A White House official raised questions about the timeline, pointing out that Trump had not partnered with Manafort before the 2016 presidential campaign, muddling the allegation that he had brokered a 2012 meeting between Trump and Tulub.

The hacked text messages were published by a hacktivist collective apparently as an anti-Trump move, although the group "seems like randos, not the nation states we usually track," a cybersecurity analyst noted.

In August, The New York Times published documents from the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine that indicated $12.7 million in cash payments was set aside for Manafort, with Leshchenko serving as a key source for bringing the documents to light. Manafort denied the documents are real: "I find it coincidental that I got these texts, and then he released these phony journals," Manafort said. Jeva Lange

5:40 a.m. ET
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On Wednesday, Taiwan's Constitutional Court recognized a legal right to same-sex marriage, ruling that the parts of the civil code that prohibits such unions violate the country's constitution. The justices gave lawmakers two years to change the laws to permit same-sex marriage, or they will be come de facto legal. Both main political parties, President Tsai Ing-Wen, and a majority of the public support same-sex marriage, so amending the law shouldn't be too heavy a lift.

Still, "it's still unclear how far parliament will go," says BBC News Taipei correspondent Cindy Sui. There is also significant opposition from religious and traditionalist voters to making Taiwan the first Asian nation to permit same-sex marriage, and the legislature could give gay couples full rights, civil unions, limited marriage rights, or take no action at all. Peter Weber

5:04 a.m. ET

On Tuesday, the White House released President Trump's first budget, titled "A New Foundation for American Greatness." That's "slightly grandiose for a financial document," Stephen Colbert said on Tuesday's Late Show. "That's like calling a grocery list 'A Bold Vision for Yogurt and Dog Food.'" And the foundation? he said. Trump is apparently building it "out of the ground-up bones of poor people."

The budget calls for slashing funding for food stamps (SNAP) and a children's health insurance plan (CHIP), for example. "So he's cutting SNAP and CHIP, to which America's children replied, 'Stop' and 'Help,'" Colbert said. "I know this is an unpopular position these days, but I believe children should go to the doctor and eat. Where do I find the courage?" But the budget isn't just aimed at children and the poor, it's also "filled with brutal, senseless cuts to medical research," including 19 percent from the National Cancer Institute, Colbert said, as the crowed booed. "Listen, Trump said we'd be sick of winning, and he is ready to deliver on the first half of that sentence."

"Speaking of things that keep spreading, the Russia investigation is only getting worse for the president," Colbert said, mentioning Monday's revelations that Trump apparently also asked the NSA chief and director of national intelligence to quash the Russia investigation, and translating former CIA chief John Brennan's very boring testimony to a House committee on Tuesday: "Basically, he's saying he knows that Russia tried to recruit members of the Trump campaign, he's not sure if they did. That's like saying: 'We know the mob tried to cut your brake cables, we just don't know if they succeeded — here are the keys, have a great drive!'"

"While he's been overseas, the president has not been tweeting as much," Colbert noted. "I assume it's because he's too cheap to pay for data roaming." But it also might be because last week, Trump's aides reportedly staged a Twitter "intervention." Colbert was mock-horrified: "You can't take Twitter away from Trump! That's like taking the nudity away from Game of Thrones — it's the reason why we watch the show." Apparently, this particular Twittervention "included White House staff only, but there are plenty of us who have been deeply affected President Trump's tweets," Colbert said, "so I just want to take a second to speak to President Trump personally." You can hear his intervention below. Peter Weber

4:04 a.m. ET

President Trump arrived at the Vatican on Wednesday, and "he's so excited to finally meet Jude Law," Stephen Colbert said on Tuesday night's Late Show. "Now, Rome is the third leg of Trump's tour of some of the world's major holy sites, and if I did not know any better, I would say that Donald Trump is really trying to get in touch with God here." "God" appeared on the Late Show ceiling. "You got that right, Stephen," he said.

"Lord, how do you feel about Trump going to all these holy sites around the world?" Colbert asked. "You pray with three major religions in one week?" the ceiling deity replied. "I don't know, it seems a little needy." Colbert asked if "God" could disclose what Trump prayed for at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and "God" demurred: "Sorry, Stephen. Unlike some people, I don't give away top secret information from Israel." Still, it must be flattering getting all this attention, Colbert said, and God said no, not at all: "This whole thing's just a distraction from the Russia scandal. I mean, Trump even asked me if I could get James Comey to stop the FBI investigation." Did he? Watch below. Peter Weber

3:42 a.m. ET
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On Wednesday morning at the Vatican, President Trump held a 30-minute private meeting with Pope Francis in his studio; both men brought translators. Before the meeting, a smiling Trump and pope shook hands for the cameras, and Trump said it was "a great honor" to be there. After their meeting, Pope Francis and Trump exchanged gifts — the pope gave Trump copies of his three main papal writings and a medallion by a Roman artist that he called a symbol of peace; Trump gave Francis a first-edition set of writings from Martin Luther King Jr. and a piece of granite from Washington's Martin Luther King. Jr. Memorial — and the pope left for his weekly audience with the public in St. Peter's Square.

"Those arriving for the regular papal audience were almost clueless to the fact that mere feet away from an encounter between the heads of the world's biggest temporal superpower and its biggest spiritual superpower," reports Inés San Martín at Crux. "Big groups dressed for the occasion with matching T-shirts and baseball caps, streaming into St. Peter's Square even as Trump's motorcade was entering the Vatican through a side door known as the 'Peruggino.' This was the pope's one request, and it was done solely so that it wouldn't disrupt those going into the square: instead of coming in through the famous Via della Conciliazione that leads to St. Peter's Square, the motorcade took a side route ... using an entrance next to the pope's residence, Santa Marta."

Trump and his entourage were also treated to a tour of the Vatican, including the Sistine Chapel. Peter Weber

3:03 a.m. ET

Not all popular music from the 1980s has withstood the scrutiny of time and tastes. But 30 years ago, U2 released Joshua Tree, the album that made them the No. 1 band in the world and a household name, and the were on Tuesday night's Jimmy Kimmel Live to talk about it. They discussed the album cover, and how they used the same photographer for the backdrop on their current tour, and then they literally pushed Jimmy Kimmel out of the way and played "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." Watch and enjoy below. Peter Weber

2:41 a.m. ET

President Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrived at the Vatican on Wednesday morning for their meeting with Pope Francis, and the first lady was wearing a mantilla, or lace head scarf covering her hair.

Fussing over the fashion choices of presidential wives is pretty silly, but it is worth noting — as Trump did with Michelle Obama — that women in Saudi Arabia are legally required to cover their heads, and neither Obama nor Melania and Ivanka Trump did so on their visits to the Muslim kingdom. Women are not required or generally encouraged to cover their head in the Catholic Church.

Ivanka Trump, a convert to Orthodox Judaism, wore a head-scarf at the Vatican, too. Peter Weber

2:24 a.m. ET

"President Trump made a lot of promises throughout his campaign, and in general he kept them very simple, as evidenced by their ability to be expressed in three-sylable chants," Seth Meyers said on Tuesday's Late Night. There was "build that wall" and "lock her up," but the one chant "that really summed up the mission statement of the Trump campaign" was "drain the swamp," Meyers said. So how's the swamp-draining going? Would you believe, not great?

In October, Trump explained that, like Frank Sinatra and "My Way," he hated the "drain the swamp" phrase but grew to love it when the crowd lapped it up. "The problem with the Trump analogy is that Sinatra was singing a song in hopes that people would like it, whereas Trump was making a promise that he would have to follow through on," Meyers said. "And so far, he has not." In fact, he has merely stocked it with different, arguably worse creatures, he said. "It seems a more accurate three-word campaign promise would have been 'Run! Swamp monsters!'"

Trump did create new rules to prohibit lobbyists from working in his administration, but several transition officials jumped through the gaping loopholes, other administration officials have reportedly been given secret waivers, and others are just calling themselves "consultants" instead of lobbyists. "So, as usual with Trump, his insistence on changing the way Washington works was overhyped, mainly just empty promises and all talk," Meyers said. Watch below. Peter Weber

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