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March 20, 2017

Most members of President Trump's Cabinet do not have senior leadership teams or top deputies in place amid historically slow nominating and hiring of White House appointees, "but they do have an influential coterie of senior aides installed by the White House who are charged — above all — with monitoring the secretaries' loyalty," The Washington Post reported Sunday, citing "eight officials in and outside the administration." The Post called the arrangement "unusual," and some of those political liaisons, called White House senior advisers, have apparently overstayed their welcome.

At the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, Don Benton — a former Washington state senator who ran Trump's campaign in the state — offered his unsolicited opinion on policy matters so frequently that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has reportedly disinvited him from meetings, in a situation one official described to The Post as out of an episode of Veep. Pentagon officials privately call Brett Byers, charged with keeping an eye on Defense Secretary James Mattis, "the commissar," The Post reports, helpfully explaining that the nickname is "a reference to Soviet-era Communist Party officials who were assigned to military units to ensure their commanders remained loyal."

Most of these political overseers, placed near the Cabinet secretary's office in every department, have little expertise in the subject matter handled at their assigned agencies — Frank Wuco at Homeland Security, for example, plays a fictional jihadist on YouTube to illustrate his blogged contention that Islam is the root of the terrorist threat — and some observers expect their influence to wane once the departments get staffed up. Also, some Cabinet secretaries have been more welcoming of their White House liaisons.

Trump allies argue that the arrangement is necessary for a new president from a different party — though none of Trump's three predecessors employed a similar system. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who still advises Trump, describes the political monitors as part of Trump's pledge to root out corruption in Washington — in this case, the "swamp" would be career bureaucrats and not, say, lobbyists. "If you drain the swamp, you better have someone who watches over the alligators," he said. "These people are actively trying to undermine the new government." You can read more, including what some experts see as the likely outcome of this system, at The Washington Post. Peter Weber

10:00 a.m.

Presidential historian Jon Meacham says former President Richard Nixon's Watergate scandal looks a bit like what's happening today.

Meacham, who has written biographies on Thomas Jefferson and eulogized former President George H. W. Bush earlier this month, brought some historical context to MSNBC's Morning Joe Tuesday morning. He described how Nixon's downfall coincided with an ongoing investigation and falling markets — much like what President Trump is seeing right now.

In the two-year fallout after 1972's Watergate break-in, Nixon started out claiming he was "not a crook" — something that "would've fit on Twitter," Meacham noted. From there, the economy began "souring," Meacham said, suggesting the markets could be a "barometer of what's going to happen to President Trump."

Then, Meacham brought the conversation into the present day by discussing Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election in favor of Trump. "If in fact Donald Trump knew about" these efforts, that raises the "live question" of whether these actions fit "the definition of treason in the Constitution," Meacham explained. It all makes for an "existential Constitutional crisis" in which a president could be an "agent of a foreign power," Meacham added.

Watch all of Meacham's conversation with MSNBC's Joe Scarborough below. Kathryn Krawczyk

9:29 a.m.

Actor Alfonso Ribeiro found it unusual to see his signature dance move show up in two video games, so he's taking the developers to court.

Ribeiro is suing the creators of Fortnite and the NBA 2K games for using the famous "Carlton dance" he popularized on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air without his permission, reports CNN. Players of both games can purchase downloadable content to have their character perform the dance that was Ribeiro's signature on the 1990s sitcom.

Ribeiro says that Epic Games and Take-Two Interactive Software Inc. have "unfairly profited" from his likeness and that the dance is "inextricably linked" with him. He's seeking to have it removed from the games and to receive a "fair and reasonable share of profits," per Variety. He is also hoping to get the dance copyrighted. Although the move isn't named the "Carlton dance" in the games, it's listed in Fortnite as "Fresh" and in the NBA games as "So Fresh."

The Fresh Prince star isn't alone, as CBS News reports the creators of Fortnite are also being sued by Russell Horning, an Instagram star known as "Backpack Kid," and rapper 2 Milly, both of whom say dance moves they created were added to the game without their permission. Brendan Morrow

8:26 a.m.

Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn heads to court on Tuesday with best wishes from President Trump.

Ahead of Flynn's sentencing for lying to the FBI, Trump wrote on Twitter, "Good luck today in court to General Michael Flynn." Trump added that it will be "interesting to see what he has to say" about Russian collusion and "our great and, obviously, highly successful political campaign." He also contended that Flynn has had "tremendous pressure" put on him.

Flynn last year pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators about his conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in 2016. His lawyers have recently put forth the argument that he was not given adequate warning about the consequences of lying during his FBI interview, while prosecutors have responded that lying to the FBI is not something Flynn should need to be warned not to do, per The Associated Press. Special Counsel Robert Mueller on Monday released notes from Flynn's FBI interview showing that he made false statements about his conversations with Kislyak.

Mueller has recommended a light sentence for Flynn due to his cooperation, and according to CNN, he may walk away with no jail time at all. Brendan Morrow

8:19 a.m.

How does President Trump plan on avoiding a partial government shutdown this Friday? Your guess, it seems, is as good as the rest of the GOP's.

Republican lawmakers are "in the dark" with three days left to go before the government would partially shut down if the president and Democratic leaders cannot agree on new funding, per The Washington Post. "If there is a plan ... I'm not aware of it," Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said Monday. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told Republicans that "we're waiting for" the White House.

But Republicans are "concerned" about this apparent "lack of strategy," CNN reports. "If the White House has a plan, they're keeping it to themselves," Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) noted.

The Washington Post reports the White House's legislative affairs team has come up with a plan to avoid a shutdown. It's unclear what this might be, but CNN notes that Trump seems to think he can "exert maximum pressure on Democrats" and compel them to agree to the $5 billion he has demanded for border wall funding; Democrats have said they will not agree to more than $1.6 billion for border security.

Republicans fear they would suffer the political consequences if a shutdown happens, especially after Trump explicitly stated in a meeting last week he'd be "proud" to see it happen and would "take the blame." Brendan Morrow

1:30 a.m.

When visiting the toy factory run by Tiny Tim's Foundation for Kids, you can leave your wallet at home.

The West Jordan, Utah, toy factory makes small wooden cars, but doesn't charge a penny for them. In 2002, retired barber Alton Thacker and his wife, Cheryl Thacker, decided to open the factory after making several trips to small villages in Mexico to donate eyeglasses and medical equipment. Together, they saw "the important role toys played in helping little minds to grow," Alton Thacker told The Washington Post.

The toy cars are distributed free of charges to charities, churches, shelters, and children's hospitals, with some being delivered to kids as far away as Iraq, Russia, Brazil, and Ghana. More than 30 people regularly volunteer to carve and sand the wooden cars, with inmates at the Central Utah Correctional Facility painting them. Because lumber yards and cabinetmakers donate the wood, it only costs around $2 to build each car, and in 2018, the factory's one millionth wooden toy was made. "We have a small army of volunteers who want to get every one of our cars into the hands of a child," Thacker said. Catherine Garcia

12:38 a.m.

It's a movie that's been bringing audiences to tears since 1942, and now, a Missouri man convicted of illegally killing hundreds of deer has to watch it once a month while sitting in his jail cell.

Earlier this month, a judge in Lawrence County, Missouri, sentenced David Berry Jr. to one year in jail for illegally killing hundreds of deer over the course of several years. While serving his time, he must also watch Bambi — the Disney tear-jerker about a deer whose mother is killed by a hunter — once a month. "If Bambi gets the point across to him, I don't have a problem with it," Lawrence County Prosecutor Don Trotter told BuzzFeed News.

The Missouri Department of Conservation said David Berry Jr., David Berry Sr., and other members of their family killed hundreds of deer, took their heads for taxidermy purposes, and left the bodies behind to rot. Anyone who tried to stop them was threatened, Trotter said. The investigation into one of the state's largest poaching cases took several years, with Berry Jr. and Berry Sr. arrested in August. Defense attorneys asked the judge for a light sentence because Berry Jr. has a new baby, but he was unmoved. "You can watch Bambi and think about your own child when you do that," Trotter said. Catherine Garcia

December 17, 2018

Special Counsel Robert Mueller became a target of Russian disinformation teams not long after he was appointed in May 2017 to investigate Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign, researchers from Clemson University said.

The team found that Russians working for the Internet Research Agency troll farm posted false claims about Mueller on several social media platforms, tweeting about him more than 5,000 times; they claimed his investigation was "fake," that he should be fired, and that he had once worked with "radical Islamic groups."

Two reports prepared for the Senate Intelligence Committee released Monday show that Russians launched disinformation campaigns to help get President Trump elected, with their efforts starting earlier and lasting longer than previously thought. After analyzing more than 10 million posts, researchers found that Instagram was used more than any other platform. The report compiled by New Knowledge, Columbia University, and Canfield Research states that Russians posted 116,000 times on Instagram, more than Twitter and Facebook combined, and generated 187 million comments, likes, and other reactions.

"We hope that these reports provide clarity for the American people and policymakers alike, and make clear the sweeping scope of the operation and the long game being played," New Knowledge research director Renee DiResta told The Washington Post. Catherine Garcia

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