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February 11, 2019

A heavily redacted transcript of a closed-door hearing in a Washington federal courtroom released late Thursday contained "one of the most tantalizing" hints that Special Counsel Robert Mueller "is still pursuing the central question of whether there was some kind of deal between Russia and the Trump campaign" during the 2016 presidential election, The New York Times reported Sunday night. The hearing was about the Mueller team's assertion that Paul Manafort, President Trump's former campaign manager, had lied to prosecutors, voiding his cooperation deal.

The theory that Trump campaign officials were in talks to effectively cede Eastern Ukraine to Russia and maybe ease Russian sanctions while Russia was helping the Trump campaign "was offered almost as an aside by the prosecutor, Andrew Weissmann," the Times says. U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson asked Weissmann why Manafort's alleged lies about discussing a "peace" plan for Ukraine with longtime Russian colleague Konstantin Kilimnik — beginning Aug 2, 2016, when Manafort was still running Trump's campaign, and continuing into 2018 — mattered. The Times continues:

"This goes to the larger view of what we think is going on, and what we think is the motive here," Mr. Weissmann said. "This goes, I think, very much to the heart of what the special counsel's office is investigating." ... Jackson seemed to agree with prosecutors that whether Mr. Manafort lied about his contacts with Mr. Kilimnik was important, saying at one point, "I am, actually, particularly concerned about this particular alleged false statement." [The New York Times]

Mueller's office has mostly skirted the collusion question, racking up guilty pleas or convictions for Manafort and others in Trump's orbit for lying to investigators and financial crimes while laying out a case that Moscow interceded on Trump's behalf in 2016. But there have been hints of conspiracy, and Weissmann told Berman that whether any American even unwittingly engaged with election-meddling Russians relates to "the core" of Mueller's investigation. Read more at The New York Times. Peter Weber

1:31 p.m.

Cedric Benson, a former standout running back at the University of Texas and 8-year NFL veteran, died in a motorcycle crash on Saturday night in Austin. He was 36.

Benson played in the NFL from 2005 to 2012, mainly for the Chicago Bears and Cincinnati Bengals, though he also played briefly for the Green Bay Packers in his final season. He rushed for over 1,000 yards for three consecutive years for Cincinnati.

While he was a solid contributor at the professional level, Benson was a true star in college. He was a prolific rusher for the Longhorns and remains the school's second all-time leading rusher after Ricky Williams. He rushed for over 1,000 yards all four years and picked up 2,013 total yards his senior year. That season he was an All-American and won the Doak Walker Award, which is given out annually to the top collegiate running back in the nation. The Longhorns earned a Rose Bowl victory over the University of Michigan before Benson was drafted by Chicago with the fourth overall pick. Tim O'Donnell

1:09 p.m.

A potential recession was the talk of the town on Sunday. Unsurprisingly, viewpoints differed.

Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas), a Democratic presidential candidate, for instance, told NBC's Chuck Todd on Sunday's edition of Meet the Press that he's afraid President Trump's tariffs on China are "driving the global economy and our economy into a recession" and that they're "hammering the hell out of farmers across the country." O'Rourke's Democratic competitor South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg concurred, calling Trump's tariffs a "fool's errand."

On the other hand, White House trade adviser Peter Navarro and Director of the National Economic Council Larry Kudlow were far less concerned. Both Navarro and Kudlow said they don't foresee a recession on the horizon, with Kudlow saying Americans should "not be afraid of optimism." A few minutes later, though, Kudlow acknowledged that he was wrong when he dismissed fears of a recession in 2007 and, well, you know the rest.

Navarro, who made the Sunday network rounds, said "with certainty" that he expects the U.S. to maintain a strong economy going forward. He shook off criticism from the Wall Street Journal editorial board with a little word play.

Another Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), took the exact opposite viewpoint, however, arguing that the economy might look rosy from the top-down, but that that picture is not reflected in the "everyday, kitchen table issues that families face." Tim O'Donnell

12:27 p.m.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is ready to implement criminal justice reform.

The 2020 Democratic candidate unveiled a major policy proposal on Sunday, which details how he'd revamp the criminal justice system, with his sights set on the country's prisons, police departments, courts, and drug policies. It's a sweeping plan that would reportedly require the passage of legislation and cooperation with local and state governments. Politico also reports that it will likely draw criticism from police unions as one of Sanders' recommendations is to establish a list of "disreputable" law enforcement officials who cannot be called to testify in court.

One of the major arguments Sanders makes, especially in regards to mass incarceration, is that hundreds of thousands incarcerated people are in jail not because they have been convicted of a crime, but because they cannot afford bail. Even if they are acquitted, then, "the severe damage to their lives cannot be undone," per the proposal. "We are criminalizing poverty," the plan reads.

So, Sanders proposes ending cash bail, reminiscent of a bill he proposed in 2018. He would end the use of secure bonds in federal criminal proceedings, provide grants to states to reduce their pretrial detention populations, and withhold funding from states that continue the use of cash bail systems.

Among some of the other major points in the plan are the institution of "safe injection sites" where people can use illegal drugs under medical supervision and the abolishment of for-profit prisons. Read the proposal here. Tim O'Donnell

11:55 a.m.

Remember HBO's Game of Thrones? It feels like it's been forever since the show that once dominated popular culture was on the air, although it's only been a few months since the series finale aired to mixed reviews from critics and fans alike. While it's no longer the talk of the internet, the fact that the show has faded a bit from the spotlight has given A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin, whose work inspired the television show, a chance to breathe and reflect.

In a rare, lengthy interview, Martin told The Observer that the television show's controversial ending won't "change anything at all" about the conclusion of his supposedly forthcoming final two novels in the series, The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring. Martin did not address fan criticism of the show's final season in the interview, or even whether he watched the finale, but he did say that the series wrapping up was "freeing."

Martin also acknowledged that the show provided challenges for his writing. "I don't think it was very good for me because the very thing that should have speeded me up actually slowed me down," Martin said, noting that he felt pressure to work at a faster pace because of the show, which eventually led to stagnation. Now, he's back to his old style — which means he's writing three or four pages on a good day. The 70-year-old Martin said he needs "more hours in the day, more days in the week, and more months in the year," but, while discussing A Dream of Spring, he used the word "when" not "if" in reference to its completion. Read more at The Observer. Tim O'Donnell

10:51 a.m.

There's been a lot of talk of the United Kingdom's Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government orchestrating the country's departure from the European Union on Oct. 31 without a deal if the two sides can't come to terms on a new agreement by then. But what would a no-deal Brexit actually look like?

A leaked dossier compiled by the United Kingdom's Cabinet Office might have the answer and it's not a particularly pretty picture.

The government documents predicted that the country will face a three-month meltdown at its ports, a hard Irish border, and shortages of fuel, food and medicine if it leaves the European Union without a deal on Oct. 31. Without a withdrawal agreement, the document says, the U.K. will "be vulnerable to severe extended delays" for medical supplies and food, with rising prices also a possibility. A hard Irish border would also be difficult to avoid, per the documents.

There appears to be a debate over whether the documents represent the worst-case scenario for a no-deal Brexit or if they are the British government's actual, realistic assessment of the possible situation.

A senior source said the document is "not Project Fear," but "the most realistic assessment of what the public face with no deal." But that notion has been disputed. Chancellor Michael Gove said it is, in fact, a worst-case scenario report, while the government of British territory Gibraltar took it a step further, arguing that the papers were "out of date" and the issues in it have "already been dealt with." Tim O'Donnell

10:26 a.m.

Former Vice President Joe Biden is not changing his message.

The Democratic presidential candidate reiterated on Saturday during a fundraiser in Massachusetts that, if elected to the Oval Office, he plans on cooperating with Republicans. "There's an awful lot of good Republicans out there," Biden said. "I get in trouble for saying that with Democrats, but the truth of the matter is, every time we got in trouble with our administration, remember who got sent up to Capitol Hill to fix it? Me. Because they know I respect the other team."

Biden said many GOP members are decent people, who are intimidated by the Trump administration. Biden has received criticism for expressing similar views of compromise in the past, especially from the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party. His most recent comments have already led to some similar reactions. But not everyone is fundamentally opposed to this line of thinking, even Biden's primary opponents.

Read more at The Hill. Tim O'Donnell

7:50 a.m.

A local affiliate of the Islamic State claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing on Saturday night at a crowded wedding party in Kabul, Afghanistan. The blast killed at least 63 people, including women and children, and another 182 were injured.

The Taliban, which is negotiating an end to an 18-year conflict with the United States, condemned the violence and denied any involvement. "The attack on the wedding hall is a brutal act," Sohail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban said. "The Islamic Emirate condemns it in the strongest terms. We share the sorrow of the people."

Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani, on the other hand, was not ready to rid them of responsibility. In a tweet expressing condolences to the victims, Ghani wrote that the "Taliban cannot absolve themselves of blame, for the provide platform for terrorists."

The attack occurred in a neighborhood in the western part of the city that is home to many of the country's Shiite Hazara community. ISIS, whose members follow Sunni doctrine, have frequently claimed responsibility for attacks targeting Shiites. The militant group's statement said a Pakistani ISIS fighter seeking martyrdom targeted the gathering.

The incident has stoked fear. Mohammed Naeem, a part owner of the venue where the attack occurred, said "very few people may dare to go to wedding halls from now on." Read more at The Associated Press and The Washington Post. Tim O'Donnell

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