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August 28, 2018

On Monday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it will start passing out $4.7 billion in direct aid to farmers on Sept. 4 to help them stay afloat while President Trump wages his trade war with China and other countries. The bulk of the direct aid, $3.6 billion, will go to soybean growers. Separately, the administration will spend $1.2 billion to buy certain "commodities unfairly targeted by unjustified retaliation," the USDA said, and spend another $200 million helping farmers develop alternative foreign markets. In July, the Trump administration said the subsidy program will provide up to $12 billion in aid to farmers.

Agriculture producers have been pretty clear that they want to trade their products, not take government handouts. They are also worried that when the trade war is over, the foreign markets they have spent years cultivating — China large among them — will have found other countries to purchase from. Peter Weber

1:47p.m.

Facebook may soon have to embark on another apology spree.

In a massive investigation published Wednesday, The New York Times painted a picture of "cascading crises" that have overtaken Facebook over the last two years. Crises which, per the Times' interviews with more than 50 people, Facebook ignored or used political ploys to keep quiet.

Facebook's plague of Russian interference has been well documented, and Facebook has largely maintained it learned of widespread attacks after the 2016 election. But the Times reports Facebook was alerted to Russian hacking in the spring of 2016 — a year and a half before admitting its Russian interference findings and launching its much-derided cleanup effort.

Conservatives have long claimed Facebook was biased against their content. The Times did find that Facebook had tight ties with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). But it also alleges Facebook hired the GOP-run consulting group Definers Public Affairs, which crafted articles to "blast Google and Apple for unsavory business practices," and downplay "the impact of the Russians' use of Facebook," and attacking liberal political donor George Soros.

Neither Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg nor COO Sheryl Sandberg commented on the Times' article. Facebook released a Thursday statement denying five of the article's claims, including that was "slow to investigate" Russian interference, and said it never asked Definers to "spread misinformation" and "ended its contract" with the firm Wednesday night. Read more at The New York Times. Kathryn Krawczyk

1:14p.m.

Plans for some Rohingya refugees to begin returning to Myanmar from Bangladesh will not proceed because officials say none are willing to go back, The Associated Press reported Thursday.

More than 700,000 Rohingya refugees, members of a minority ethnic group that is largely Muslim, fled to Bangladesh to escape violence and persecution in Myanmar in the past year. Bangladesh's plan was for about 2,000 of them to begin returning Thursday, per BBC News. But the United Nations, which has classified the violence in Myanmar as "textbook genocide," brokered an agreement that means that nobody can be forced into going, and many say they are terrified at the prospect. "We are scared to return to Myanmar because if we go they will kill us," one refugee told CNN. Human rights organizations agree that it is not yet safe for the refugees to return, per AP.

Some refugees staged protests in refugee camps ahead of the planned start of the repatriation process, and the head of Bangladesh's refugee commission had said that they "have not found any volunteers" who would return but would "continue looking," CNN reports. Officials told the refugees that buses were ready to take them to Myanmar, but they chanted back, "We won't go!"

Now, the refugee commission says that the refugees are "not willing to go back now" but they will keep trying to "motivate them so it happens." Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday condemned Myanmar's actions, saying that "the violence and persecution by military and vigilantes that resulted in driving 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh is without excuse." Brendan Morrow

11:54a.m.

After being arrested for alleged domestic violence, attorney Michael Avenatti is claiming the same person who recently tried to smear Special Counsel Robert Mueller is responsible.

"First Mueller and now me," Avenatti tweeted Thursday. "When we are fully exonerated I am coming for you Jacob Wohl aka Surefire." Wohl is the far-right conspiracy theorist who claimed earlier this month a woman was about to come forward to accuse Mueller of sexual misconduct. This claim quickly fell apart when the supposed accuser never showed up to a press conference, during which Wohl offered multiple spellings of her name. Afterward, it was revealed that a photo supposedly of Wohl with the accuser was actually of his girlfriend — although the woman later denied they ever dated.

Now, Avenatti is alleging the same thing is happening to him, although he offered no evidence to back up his claim. He was arrested Wednesday by the Los Angeles Police Department for alleged domestic violence, but he called the allegations "bogus." Avenatti's client, adult film actress Stormy Daniels, said in a statement Thursday that the allegations are "serious and obviously very troubling" and that she will "be seeking new representation" if they are true, although she says "we should all reserve judgement until the investigation ... is complete."

Surefire Intelligence, Wohl's organization, tweeted "Surefire Intelligence strikes again" in response to the news of Avenatti's arrest, although Wohl denies involvement. Wohl responded to Avenatti's Thursday tweet by writing, "This guy is a SICKO!" He also says he reported Avenatti's "threat" to law enforcement. Brendan Morrow

11:28a.m.

The U.S. is officially levying sanctions against Saudis allegedly tied to the murder of U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The 17 Saudis slated for sanctions were "involved in" the operation that "targeted and brutally killed a journalist who resided and worked in the United States," the Treasury Department said in a Thursday statement. The move comes just hours after Saudi Arabia announced charges against 11 people allegedly connected to the murder, The Washington Post reports.

Thursday's announcement marks the biggest step the U.S. has taken against Saudi Arabia in the wake of Khashoggi's killing. Khashoggi was murdered Oct. 2 after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. The Justice Department announced a month ago it would revoke visas from those it had connected to the murder. The new sanctions will "freeze any U.S. assets and prohibit any Americans from dealings with" the targeted Saudis, the Post reports.

A senior aide to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was among those sanctioned Thursday, per the Post. Still, both the U.S. and the Saudi government both avoided implicating bin Salman, who has a close relationship with President Trump's senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

Turkish officials have long maintained that the Saudi government was responsible for the murder, but the U.S. has repeatedly avoided directly accusing Saudi officials, including bin Salman. Saudi Arabia previously suggested Khashoggi's murder was a rogue, premeditated operation, but claimed Thursday it was ordered on the spot. Kathryn Krawczyk

10:43a.m.

President Trump reportedly hated that former Attorney General Jeff Sessions didn't have an Ivy League education. But it didn't stop Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker from rising to replace Sessions after his ouster last week. And it's far from the most unusual thing on Whitaker's resume, The Washington Post reports.

While securing his undergraduate and eventual law degree from the University of Iowa, Whitaker was "something of a local legend" on the Rose Bowl-bound football team, the Post details. The Iowa native moved to Minnesota and became a general counsel for a grocery store chain after graduating, then returned home in 2001 and launched a failed bid for state treasurer. Next up, Whitaker bought a majority stake in trailer manufacturer, purchased an entire day care center, and co-founded a concrete company.

Whitaker worked at a small law firm the whole time he was back in Iowa, and was "plucked from relative obscurity" to become a U.S. attorney in 2004 under former President George W. Bush, writes the Post. In that job, Whitaker was accused of targeting an openly gay Democratic state senator with extortion charges. Whitaker has denied the allegation, per the Post. He stepped down as U.S. attorney in 2009, and after a few more business ventures, ended up at the DOJ.

Attorneys general "typically boast judgeships, partnerships at prestigious firms, and senior roles in the Justice Department," the Post writes. So it's no wonder Whitaker had what one federal court expert called an "an extraordinarily weak and unusual background for a U.S. attorney." Yet somehow, the Trump loyalist and critic of the Russia probe beat the odds and took charge of them all. Read more at The Washington Post. Kathryn Krawczyk

9:56a.m.

As election officials in Florida prepare to wrap up their machine recount, a federal judge has now given voters who had their ballots thrown out due to mismatched signatures time to resolve the issue.

This decision affects 4,000 or more mail-in and provisional ballots, which were rejected because the voter's signature didn't exactly match the signature on record, reports The Washington Post. The deadline for Florida's machine recount comes on Thursday, but those whose ballots were rejected due to mismatching signatures now have until Saturday at 5 p.m. to have their ballot "cured" so their vote can still count.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who is behind Republican Gov. Rick Scott in the closely-watched Senate race by around 12,000 votes, wanted the matching signature requirement waived entirely, but the judge did not allow for that. However, he said that because the deadline to resolve issues with mismatched signatures was 5 p.m. on Nov. 5, but the deadline to submit a mail-in ballot was 7 p.m. on Nov. 6, many voters weren't given time to respond if their ballots were rejected.

Scott, who leads Nelson by about 0.15 percentage points, is appealing Thursday's ruling, reports the Orlando Sentinel. Meanwhile, in the governor's race, former Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) currently leads Democrat Andrew Gillum by about 34,000 votes, or 0.40 percentage points. Brendan Morrow

8:33a.m.

President Trump is renewing his attacks on the ongoing Russia investigation.

Trump on Twitter Thursday claimed that Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigators are "screaming and shouting at people" and "horribly threatening them to come up with the answers they want." He did not offer any evidence for this claim. He also called the investigation a "total mess" and a "disgrace to our Nation" run by people who "don't care how many lives they ruin." Trump attacked Mueller specifically, saying he "worked for Obama for 8 years."

Mueller only served as the director of the FBI for four years while Barack Obama was president. He was appointed by former President George W. Bush, and served under him for nearly eight years.

These tweets from Trump come after he appointed Matt Whitaker, who has openly criticized the investigation, as acting attorney general, and many in Congress are growing concerned that the Mueller investigation could be in jeopardy. They also follow a report that new indictments from Mueller are coming very soon. Brendan Morrow

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