June 29, 2018

What began as a prank call to the White House on comedian John Melendez's Stuttering John Podcast quickly developed into a distressing lesson on just how easy it is to fool the Trump administration. By the end of the podcast, the jokesters — who had been impersonating a made-up British assistant named "Sean Moore" and New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez (D) — actually received a phone call back from the president while he was on Air Force One. While it seems almost too good to be true, Politico's Annie Karni confirms that the White House "has been scrambling this morning to figure out how this happened."

Melendez is best known for his work on The Howard Stern Show and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and he has met with President Trump as a result a number of times over the years. After failing to get through to Trump on Wednesday while recording his podcast, Melendez called the White House switchboard back claiming instead to be Menendez's British assistant. The operator told "the senator's assistant" that Trump was busy giving a speech, so Melendez gave him his cell phone number for a return call. While the Southern California area code raised suspicions, Melendez explained it away by claiming he was on vacation — and was subsequently cleared by a number of White House aides, including senior adviser Jared Kushner.

"This is how easy it is to infiltrate the administration," Melendez boasts before playing the audio. "Probably any administration. And if you think the KGB — I mean, this could be Russia doing it."

Listen to the whole saga — including Trump's conversation with a man he believes is Menendez, the New Jersey senator — below. Jeva Lange

6:53 p.m.

Let's not forget that the record-breaking 12 candidates set to appear on the debate stage Tuesday night are somehow not even all of the people who are running for president. There is also, apparently, some guy named Wayne Messam, who is the mayor of Miramar, Florida.

You might be excused for not knowing Messam's name; he hasn't appeared on the debate stage quite yet. And, well, he is perhaps not doing the best job self-promoting, either; according to his Federal Election Commission filing on Tuesday, his campaign spent exactly $0 in the third quarter.

Even more surprising, though, is his fundraising haul. Between July and September, Messam reported raising just five dollars.

Take that number with a grain of salt. Adds The New York Times, "It is possible that the numbers Mr. Messam submitted are incorrect. That wouldn't be unprecedented; he submitted a corrected first-quarter report earlier this year after an accounting error led him to report raising nearly twice as much as he actually had." Jeva Lange

6:53 p.m.

If the video depicting a fake President Trump massacring members of the media — which was condemned by the White House — wasn't too much to handle already, ProPublica and WNYC released more disturbing audio from the conference where the footage was originally shown.

While speaking at the pro-Trump conference in Miami, Florida, at the Trump National Doral Miami, Mark Burns, a pastor, told the crowd multiple times that "we've come to declare war." As he continued, he reportedly asked if anybody was "read to go to war for Donald J. Trump, this nation?" as the audience reportedly cheered him on.

Additionally, radio host Wayne Allyn Root reportedly boasted about a time in his childhood when, as one of the few white students at a predominantly black high school, he knocked one classmate unconscious and shattered another kid's teeth. "My buddies and I were high-fiving and laughing," Root reportedly said during his speech. "Man, it was funny."

Root reportedly went on to say that "you've got to be a natural-born killer" to win in politics. Listen to the audio clips at ProPublica. Tim O'Donnell

6:43 p.m.

As part of a federal investigation into Rudy Giuliani, a grand jury has issued a subpoena for documents from former Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), a longtime friend who has also interacted with two Giuliani associates who were arrested last week, people with knowledge of the matter told The Wall Street Journal.

Federal prosecutors in Manhattan are reportedly looking into Giuliani's business dealings in Ukraine and his role in the removal of Marie Yovanovitch as ambassador to Ukraine. They are asking Sessions to turn over documents related to both matters, as well as interactions with Giuliani and his associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who were arrested last week for conspiracy and campaign finance violations.

Giuliani, President Trump's personal lawyer, is the primary focus of the subpoena, people familiar with the investigation said, and there is nothing pointing to Sessions being the target of the probe; Giuliani has denied any wrongdoing. A spokesperson for Sessions said he is cooperating and will start turning over documents. The Journal reported on Monday that federal prosecutors have looked at Giuliani's bank records and have been questioning witnesses since at least August. Catherine Garcia

6:32 p.m.

Vice President Mike Pence announced Tuesday that he will not comply with a House impeachment inquiry subpoena for documents related to his possible involvement in President Trump's attempts to pressure Ukraine into investigating his potential 2020 rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.

Pence's decision was described by White House reporters as "not shocking." Matthew E. Morgan, the counsel to the vice president and author of the letter announcing Pence's intentions, additionally slammed the House over its request for "a wide-ranging scope of documents, some of which are clearly not vice-presidential records."

Morgan addressed the letter to the chairs of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, the Committee on Foreign Affairs, and the Intelligence Committee; the investigators had requested Pence produce the documents by Tuesday.

"Please know that if the committees wish to return to the regular order of legitimate legislative oversight requests, and the committees have appropriate requests for information solely in the custody of the Office of the Vice President, we are prepared to work with you in a manner consistent with well-established bipartisan constitutional protections and a respect for the separation of powers," wrote Morgan, additionally noting "never before in history has the speaker of the House attempted to launch an 'impeachment inquiry' against a president without a majority of the House of Representatives voting to authorize a constitutionally acceptable process."

Read the full letter below. Jeva Lange

5:31 p.m.

The Southern District of New York has yet another blow for President Trump.

On Tuesday, the Manhattan branch of the U.S. attorney's office charged the Turkish state-run bank known as Halkbank with six counts of fraud, money laundering, and sanctions offenses. The move comes after Turkey spent years trying to get the U.S. to drop the case in question, and after Trump himself tried to get the Justice Department to help Turkey out with that goal.

Halkbank's case began in 2012 when it allegedly began trying to "undermine" U.S. sanctions on Iran by "illegally giving Iran access to billions of dollars' worth of funds," a SDNY press release reads. Bloomberg reported last week that Trump in 2017 pressed then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to get the DOJ to drop a case against Reza Zarrab, an Iranian-Turkish gold trader who had been previously charged in what the SDNY calls the Halkbank "scheme." Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-N.C.) tried to tell Turkey's minister of defense that Trump still opposed the Halkbank case in August, though it turned out he was on a call with two Russian pranksters and not the minister, Politico reported.

In other negative news for Graham, or at least his ego, he confirmed in a tweet that he was listening in on a Monday phone call between Trump and Erdogan in which Trump "received a commitment" to stay out of Kurdish-held Syria. Erdogan didn't know Graham was on the phone, and reportedly complained about him during it, people brief on the call told The Washington Post's Josh Dawsey. Kathryn Krawczyk

5:15 p.m.

A Brexit deal, in which Northern Ireland would "de jure be in the U.K.'s customs territory but de facto in the European Union's," is in the works The Guardian reports,

A draft text of the agreement — which allegedly includes a customs border in the Irish sea — could reportedly be published as early as Wednesday if Downing Street signs off on the concessions, sources told The Guardian. Even if that does happen, Prime Minister Boris Johnson will still have to usher the agreement through British Parliament, which was a difficult task for his predecessor, Theresa May. But there has not yet been any public criticism from Brexit hardliners.

In fact, Steve Baker, the leader of the pro-Brexit European Research Group, said he emerged from a Downing Street meeting "optimistic that it is possible to reach a tolerable deal that I am able to vote for." Johnson's ally and the leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, said he believes Johnson has the numbers he needs in Parliament, though Northern Ireland's conservative Democratic Unionist Party could still be a tough get. Meanwhile, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, though more cautious, told reporters that "initial indications are that we are making progress, that the negotiations are moving in the right direction."

Still, there's some nervousness among EU nations that negotiations are being rushed ahead of the Oct. 31 deadline, The Guardian reports. It's time to wait and see. Read more at The Guardian. Tim O'Donnell

5:00 p.m.

There are few things less glamorous than running for president. You live on the road and barely have time to eat, sleep, or drink water. Candidates regularly suffer from dehydration and gout. Then there is the fact that, when you want to prepare for a debate, someone on staff has to remember to book a badly-lit hotel conference room in advance.

Well, unless you're a billionaire former hedge fund executive. Tom Steyer, who will appear in his first debate on Tuesday night, apparently rented out entire theaters in San Francisco to prep for the big event, The New York Times reports.

Some of Steyer's Democratic opponents have grumbled about the San Franciscan allegedly "buying his way up" to the stage — those being the words of former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke, although New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders have made similar claims, observes The Sacramento Bee.

Still, any preparation at all marks a big step for Steyer, who estimates he hasn't debated since high school. Back when he first tested the waters of running for office locally in California in 2017, "Steyer rejected any kind of formal speech training because he favored pursuing what he viewed as an authentic persona," the Los Angeles Times reports. Jeva Lange

See More Speed Reads