May 15, 2019

A cache of internal National Rifle Association documents posted online last week listed some pretty eyebrow-raising expenses. CEO Wayne LaPierre — who earns more than $1.4 million a year — charged $275,000 at a Zegna men's clothing store in Beverley Hills, for example, and another $267,000 in personal expenses on trips to Budapest, the Bahamas, Florida, and an Italian lake resort. All these bills were channeled through the NRA's estranged longtime ad firm, Ackerman McQueen.

Recently ousted NRA President Oliver North reaped more than $1 million a year hosting a web-only show on Ackerman McQueen's NRATV, a channel with "minuscule web traffic" that is nonetheless the "signature product" in its $40 million annual haul from the NRA, The New York Times reports. Other NRA board members, executives, and friends also got fat consulting fees or other payments.

But the NRA has "deeper financial problems," the Times reports. A review of tax records revealed that the NRA "has increasingly relied on cash infusions and other transactions involving its affiliated foundation — at least $206 million worth since 2010." New York Attorney General Letitia James is investigating the NRA and also its charitable arm; both are tax exempt, but only the NRA is allowed to use its donations for political activities. The documents raised red flags for tax experts.

The large money transfers from the foundation to the NRA are "substantial related-party transactions," Marcus Owen, a former head of the IRS's tax-exempt organizations branch, tells the Times, and "in normal times, they would attract regulatory attention from the IRS and a state attorney general." David Nelson, a former Ernst & Young partner who specialized in tax-exempt groups, says is appears "the NRA itself is in very poor financial health and they're being subsidized in large part by their foundation."

The NRA says reports of its financial problems are vastly overstated and it has followed appropriate accounting rules. Read more about the money woes and NRA civil war at The New York Times. Peter Weber

2:09 p.m.

The quid pro quo didn't just happen. It happens "all the time."

During a Thursday press conference, Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney said Ukraine's disproven involvement with the 2016 DNC email hack played a role in why the U.S. withheld security aid for Ukraine. And when ABC News' Jon Karl explained that Mulvaney had just admitted to a quid pro quo, he simply responded with "we do that all the time with foreign policy."

Trump's camp has claimed there was "no quid pro quo" in his call with Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelensky, and that security aid for Ukraine wasn't held up because Zelensky didn't move to probe former Vice President Joe Biden. But the administration has still neglected to answer just why that aid was withheld — until Mulvaney's admission Thursday.

"The look-back to what happened in 2016 certainly was part of the thing that [Trump] was worried about" when deciding whether to release aid to Ukraine earlier this year, Mulvaney said, referring to Trump's belief that Ukraine had something to do with the DNC hack. He later said it had nothing to with Biden, and then told the gathered reporters to "get over it" when it came to the admitted quid pro quo. Kathryn Krawczyk

1:11 p.m.

The Trump administration's ethically dubious G7 decision is official.

Next year's Group of Seven summit will be held at President Trump's Doral resort in Miami, Florida, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney announced Thursday. The event will bring hundreds of diplomats, world leaders, and their staffers to the financially strained resort, raising its profile even though Mulvaney is claiming Trump won't profit from the event.

Apparently quoting people who chose the site for the G7, Mulvaney said Doral was "by far and away the best physical facility for this meeting." "It's almost like they built this facility to host this type of event," he added. Mulvaney brushed off questions regarding Trump's obvious benefit from the event, saying Doral will host it "at cost" so Trump does not make money from it.

The decision comes even after talks of a Doral venue raised heaps of questions about potential ethics violations. It's an especially risky decision considering the House's impeachment investigation is currently probing how Trump financially benefits from his presidency, and ironic seeing as Trump continues to accuse former Vice President Joe Biden of using his position to enrich his family. Kathryn Krawczyk

11:23 a.m.

U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland will criticize President Trump before Congress Thursday, saying he disagreed with his decision to involve his personal attorney in Ukraine policy and delay aid to the country.

Sondland, a key figure in the Ukraine scandal, is testifying as part of the House of Representatives' impeachment inquiry, which was sparked by a whistleblower complaint alleging Trump abused his power by urging Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden.

In his opening statement, Sondland says that "security aid to Ukraine was in our vital national interest and should not have been delayed for any reason." Still, he tells Congress he does "not recall any discussions" with the White House about withholding aid in return for assistance in the 2020 presidential election.

Sondland also says he was "disappointed" when Trump in May 2019 directed him to talk Rudy Giuliani on Ukraine matters as officials were trying to set up a meeting between the president and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

"Our view was that the men and women of the State Department, not the president's personal lawyer, should take responsibility for all aspects of U.S. foreign policy towards Ukraine," he says.

Even so, Sondland says he felt he had no choice but to work with Giuliani if he hoped to set up a meeting between Trump and Zelensky, but he insists he "did not understand, until much later, that Mr. Giuliani's agenda might have also included an effort to prompt the Ukrainians to investigate Vice President Biden or his son." He also says, though, that when he spoke to Giuliani, the president's lawyer "emphasized that the president wanted a public statement from President Zelensky committing Ukraine to look into anticorruption issues," with Giuliani mentioning the 2016 presidential election and the Ukrainian gas company where Biden's son served on the board, although Sondland says he wasn't personally aware until recently of Biden's connection to the company.

Brendan Morrow

11:19 a.m.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) always knew he'd have to make the most of his time in Congress.

Cummings, the leader of the House Oversight Committee, died Thursday at 68 due to "complications concerning longstanding health challenges." He'd represented Baltimore in Congress for the past 23 years, and from his first day on the job, used it to call for finding "common ground" between opposing parties in the chamber.

After he earned his seat in a special election to replace retiring Rep. Kweisi Mfume, Cummings made a short floor speech recalling his time in the Maryland House of Delegates. "Our world would be a much better world, a much better place, if we would only concentrate on the things we have in common," Cummings recalled "often" saying in his previous position. He then relayed how his time in Congress would be centered on "a mission and a vision to empower people," and read a poem by Dr. Benjamin E. Mays to explain how he'd spend the short "minute" of his life.

Watch the whole speech, along with Cummings' first C-SPAN interview, below. Kathryn Krawczyk

10:39 a.m.

An Illuminati-loving self-help author is now in charge of honoring the smartest high school seniors in the country.

Last week, President Trump named Colorado lawyer George Mentz to the Commission on Presidential Scholars, which chooses academically excelling high school seniors to honor with a national award. Mentz's expertise for the role apparently comes from running a company that allegedly gives skills certificates to unqualified applicants, and also authoring several books that tell readers how the Illuminati can help them get the most out of life, reports The Denver Post.

Mentz, a longtime Trump supporter and donor, is the author of The Illuminati Secret Laws of Money, The Illuminati Handbook, 50 Laws of Power of the Illuminati, and 100 Secrets and Habits of the Illuminati for Life Success. Several of those books are co-authored with someone named "Magus Incognito," and generally share how mindfulness can lead to prosperity. Mentz cautioned The Denver Post about getting "too excited" about his word choice, essentially saying the term "Illuminati" is used as a marketing tactic.

Mentz is also the current owner of the Global Academy of Finance and Management and former CEO of the American Academy of Financial Management, both of which "award certifications, allowing applicants to add an alphabet soup of titles after their names," The Denver Post writes. Multiple Wall Street Journal articles found that AAFM gave out the certifications to recipients who hadn't taken qualifying courses, and listed people on its board of advisers who said they'd never advised the company. Read more at The Denver Post. Kathryn Krawczyk

9:20 a.m.

President Trump's condolences for Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) are surprisingly normal.

Cummings, the leader of the House Oversight Committee pursuing impeachment into Trump, died Thursday at 68 due to "complications concerning longstanding health challenges." His fellow congressmembers were quick to pour out praise for Cummings in the hours after the news broke, and, unexpectedly, so was Trump.

In a Thursday tweet, Trump extended his "warmest condolences" to Cummings' friends and family. "I got to see firsthand the strength, passion, and wisdom of this highly respected political leader," Trump continued — a very tame message considering Trump's July feud with Cummings.

Trump spent the summer insulting Cummings and his home district in Maryland, calling Baltimore "a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess" and even mocking Cummings when his home was robbed. But at least in writing, and at least for now, Trump seems to have changed his tune. Kathryn Krawczyk

9:02 a.m.

Members of Congress are in mourning following the sudden death of their revered colleague Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), who was remembered Thursday as a "friend to all."

Cummings died early Thursday morning due to "complications concerning longstanding health challenges," and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) described reading the news as a "gut punch."

"He was an amazing man," Schumer told MSNBC. "He was not just a great congressman. He was a great man. He had a combination of being strong when he had to be … but also being kind, and decent, and caring, and honorable."

House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said that "today we have lost a giant," remembering Cummings as a "public servant to his core," while Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) called his death "a loss for Baltimore, Congress, and the country" and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said, "We've lost a leader like no other."

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who was close with Cummings, tweeted, "There was no stronger advocate and no better friend than Elijah Cummings ... I will miss him dearly." Cummings was "a friend to all," observed Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who noted that his "passion for serving his beloved city was easy to see in everything that he did, and his determination to fight for equality and civil rights will never be forgotten."

President Trump in a tweet offered his condolences and remembered Cummings' "strength, passion and wisdom."

The congressman's widow, Maryland Democratic Party Chair Maya Cummings, said in a statement, "He worked until his last breath because he believed our democracy was the highest and best expression of our collective humanity and that our nation's diversity was our promise, not our problem. It's been an honor to walk by his side on this incredible journey. I loved him deeply and will miss him dearly." Brendan Morrow

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