November 15, 2018

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

6:02 a.m.

An Australian appellate court Wednesday upheld the 2018 conviction of Cardinal George Pell on charges of sexually molesting two 13-year-old boys in 1996 and 1997. The 2-to-1 verdict in Victoria's Court of Appeals sends Pell back to prison, where he is serving a six-year sentence. Pell's lawyer said the 78-year-old prelate will likely appeal the decision to Australia's High Court, though there's no guarantee the nation's final arbiter would agree to hear his appeal. Pell, the former Vatican finance minister and archbishop of Melbourne, is the senior-most Catholic prelate convicted of sexual abuse. He maintains that he is innocent.

Chief Justice Anne Ferguson said she and Justice Chris Maxwell "decided that it was open to the jury to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that Cardinal Pell was guilty," adding that dissenting Justice Mark Weinberg "could not exclude as a reasonable possibility that some of what the complainant said was concocted."

Advocates for sexual abuse victims cheered the verdict, the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference said it respectfully accepted the verdict, and the Vatican, which is conducting its own investigation of Pell, confirmed "its closeness to the victims of sexual abuse and its commitment to pursue, through the competent ecclesiastical authorities, those members of the clergy who commit such abuse." Peter Weber

5:01 a.m.

As soon as Wednesday, the Trump administration is expected to publish sweeping new rules for detaining minors who cross the U.S.-Mexico border, seeking to sidestep or terminate the Flores Settlement Agreement that has determined how the U.S. treats migrant children since 1997, ABC News and The New York Times report. The new rules, a version of which were proposed in September 2018 but never enacted, could allow the government to detain migrant children for longer than 20 days, revise the minimum standards of care children are afforded, and end some of all of the other protections set out in the Flores agreement. Once published, the rules will likely be challenged in court.

Administration officials told the Times that the new rules will maintain the underlying purpose of the Flores settlement and that all children will be "treated with dignity, respect, and special concern for their particular vulnerability as minors," as required under Flores. Migrant advocates disagree. "The proposed regulations do not implement the settlement," Peter Schey, who filed the original 1985 lawsuit with colleague Carlos Holguin, tells the Times. "They abrogate key terms of the settlement."

In the version of the rules proposed last year, the administration argued it can "terminate" Flores protections if it establishes its own replacement regulations. Trump and other Republicans say the Flores settlement encourages migrant parents to flee Central America with their children so they won't be locked up indefinitely. The Obama administration tried and failed to get out from under the Flores restrictions.

Schey and Holguin have returned to court again and again to enforce the settlement, and they've enlisted lawyers and law students to visit detention facilities, like the one in Clint, Texas. "It's like we are playing whack-a-mole," Holguin told the Times. "If someone had told me in 1985 that our work to protect children would continue into 2019," he added, "there is no way I would have believed it." Read more about this history of the Flores settlement at The New York Times. Peter Weber

2:50 a.m.

President Trump surprised, amused, and left lots of people aghast when he abruptly announced Tuesday evening that, because Denmark isn't willing to discuss selling Greenland, he is no longer visiting the country, its leaders, and its queen in the beginning of September. Maggie Haberman at The New York Times, for one, isn't buying Trump's stated reason for scrapping the visit — which, to be fair, is pretty unbelievable.

Haberman doesn't offer her own explanation. But in the wake of Trump's announcement, Twitter discovered a local Danish news report from last week: Coincidentally, former President Barack Obama is visiting Denmark again at the end of September. And some unkind wags drew their own conclusions.

It's clearly a coincidence that Trump called off his visit to Denmark a week after Obama's trip was announced — geopolitics isn't quite that petty. And yet...

Obama will speak and take questions from business leaders and students at Aalborg University in northern Denmark, The Local reports. Rich Henningsen, the moderator of the event, told local media that "President Obama is one of the people I look up to most in the in the world," while Aalborg's mayor, Thomas Kastrup-Larsen, gushed awkwardly: "I do not doubt for a moment that this will be a new climax for Aalborg and the whole of northern Jutland."

Meanwhile, a month before Trump's visit, thousands of people had "already signed up for a demonstration against him," the Copenhagen Post reported last week. "So it looks like the Danes prefer Obama over Trump after all. ..." Apropos of nothing. Peter Weber

2:10 a.m.

Once they saw Monte, they knew they had met their leading man.

Animal trainers scouting for dogs to appear in Disney's live-action Lady and the Tramp came to the HALO Animal Rescue in Phoenix, hoping to find a few animals that would be a good fit. Monte, a two-year-old terrier mix, immediately stood out, as he's not only handsome, but he also knows how to sit, is good on a leash, and loves attention.

The stars of Lady and the Tramp are all former rescue dogs, and Monte will be voiced by actor Justin Theroux. All of the dogs have found loving families, Disney said. The movie will premiere on Nov. 12 on Disney's new streaming service. Catherine Garcia

1:41 a.m.

President Trump spoke by phone with National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre for at least 30 minutes on Tuesday, and according to at least three accounts of their conversation, Trump assured LaPierre that expanding background checks — supported by 90 percent of Americans in multiple polls conducted after the back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio — is off the table.

In the call, Trump assured LaPierre that "he was not interested in legislation establishing universal background checks and that his focus would be on the mental health of the gunmen, not their guns," The New York Times reports. Trump said as much after the phone call, telling reporters "we have very, very strong background checks right now," and "mental problems" are the "sort of missing areas and areas that don't complete the whole circle." He added: "A lot of the people that put me where I am are strong believers in the Second Amendment, and I am also."

This wasn't Trump's first aborted post-shooting lurch toward gun control, nor his first conversation with LaPierre after the El Paso and Dayton mass murders. Three days after the shootings, daughter and senior adviser Ivanka Trump "had proposed the idea of a televised Rose Garden appearance as a way to nudge her father toward supporting universal background checks," promising a made-for-TV occasion "where Trump could sign a document and call it 'historic' and 'unprecedented' — and receive positive media attention," The Atlantic reports.

Trump "loved it. He was all spun up about it," a former senior White House official told The Atlantic, but when he enthusiastically pitched the idea to LaPierre on an Aug. 7 call, LaPierre shot it down, and, as an NRA official put it, "the Rose Garden fantasy" was dead. The NRA, despite scandal and shrinking support, has kept up the lobbying onslaught unabated, to a receptive White House. Ivanka Trump assured GOP donors in Wyoming on Monday night that the White House is still focused on background checks, The Atlantic notes, but "less than 24 hours later, her father reportedly assured LaPierre of the opposite." Peter Weber

1:27 a.m.

Had Sylvie Beckers not overwatered her family's backyard flower bed, she never would have helped her mother discover a new insect species.

In the summer of 2016, Beckers, then 2, got a little too enthusiastic with the hose, and flooded the flower bed. Her mom, biology professor Laura Sullivan-Beckers, soon could see "these bright green bugs float up to the top of the soil," she told Good Morning America. While working on her doctorate, Sullivan-Beckers studied treehoppers, and she knew these bugs were out of the ordinary. With her daughter by her side, she spent the rest of the summer taking photos and collecting species, eventually sending the specimens to the Department of Agriculture.

After three years of waiting, Sullivan-Beckers finally got the call: this was a new species, and an especially rare find as its "closest relatives are all in South America," research entomologist Stuart H. McKamey said. "We don't know how it got to Murray, Kentucky, and we don't even know where else it is found in the U.S.A. or elsewhere, but I doubt it evolved there because there's nothing similar within 1,000 miles." Without Beckers, the bugs likely would have stayed deep underground, and her mother decided to name the species Hebetica sylviae in her honor. Catherine Garcia

12:33 a.m.

The Epoch Times, a news outlet closely aligned with a spiritual community banned in China, has spent $1.5 million over the last six months to run 11,000 pro-President Trump ads on Facebook, NBC News reports.

Only the Trump campaign has spent more money on ads in support of the president, data shows. Former staffers of the New York City-based Epoch Times told NBC News the ad blitz isn't surprising, due to the leanings of the Falun Gong movement. Ben Hurley, who helped launch The Epoch Times in Australia, said the outlet is "rabidly pro-Trump" because the most devout Falun Gong followers "believe that Trump was sent by heaven to destroy the Communist Party."

The Facebook ads feature people praising Trump and talking about fake news and Deep State and QAnon conspiracies, NBC News reports. Trump's Facebook page has posted Epoch Times content, and his daughter-in-law was recently interviewed by the outlet. Data shows that between Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, Epoch Media Group videos had about three billion views in April alone, making the company 11th among all video creators, NBC News reports.

The Epoch Times was founded in 2000 by a Falun Gong practitioner named John Tang, but not much is known about its ownership, with executives refusing to give NBC News any names. The founder of Falun Gong, Li Hongzhi, called Epoch Media Group "our media," and in 2009 he pushed for The Epoch Times to become mainstream. Li argues that feminism and homosexuality are wicked and that aliens can take over human minds and bodies, and former employees said they were told they couldn't write about gay people or popular music but needed to push conservative opinions and criticism of China. The Epoch Times' publisher, Stephen Gregory, said the company has "no political agenda." Read more about the secretive news outlet and what it was like to work there at NBC News. Catherine Garcia

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