July 12, 2019

The size and provenance of his wealth and the intricacies of his alleged sex trafficking operation are not the only mysteries surrounding Jeffrey Epstein. There are questions about why he did not have to register as a sex offender in New Mexico, where he owns a large ranch with a 26,700-square-foot mansion, and why prosecutors and police in New York — where his Manhattan townhouse is worth at least $100 million according to luxury real estate agent Dolly Lenz — but not judges appeared to treat him leniently.

And then there's Epstein's private island in the U.S. Virgin Islands. With Epstein in jail in New York, "it's quiet now on the island of Little St. James," Bloomberg News reports. "Epstein dubbed it Little St. Jeff's. Locals have other names for it: Pedophile Island and Orgy Island." On St. Thomas, where Epstein's businesses are headquartered in an unmarked office in a nondescript strip mall, "he has been a subject of lurid speculation for as long as anyone can remember," Bloomberg says. "Tourists still take boats out to get a glimpse of the island," topped with a blue-and-white building that resembles a temple.

A former employee told Bloomberg that Epstein ferried groups of young women out to his island after they flew into St. Thomas, and the crew of groundskeepers had strict orders that Epstein could never catch sight of them. "The only unusual aspect of the main residence the former worker said he was aware of were the security boxes in two offices," Bloomberg reports. "The level of secrecy around a steel safe in Epstein's office, in particular, suggested it contained much more than just money, he said. Outside of an occasional visit by a housekeeper, no one was allowed in those rooms." Presumably, the FBI could ask a judge for access, too. Peter Weber

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

8:10 a.m.

Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday, probably, but signs aren't pointing to a warm reception for President Trump's delegation to Ankara. Erdogan has already rejected the demand for an immediate ceasefire in Syria that Pence and Pompeo are bringing from Trump, and he hinted Wednesday he may not even meet with the U.S. delegation. And then there's Trump's letter.

Trump agreed to pull U.S. forces out of northeastern Syria in an Oct. 6 phone call with Erdogan, effectively giving Turkey's president the green light to invade Syria and push out or kill America's Kurdish allies. In a contentious White House meeting with congressional leaders Wednesday, shortly after the House overwhelmingly rebuked Trump's decision, Trump had House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) pass around copies of what he described as a "nasty" letter he had sent Erdogan on Oct. 9, starting with him urging Erdogan, "Let's work out a good deal" that doesn't involve "slaughtering thousands" of Kurds, and ending on the odd note: "Don't be a tough guy. Don't be a fool! I will call you later."

Erdogan launched his invasion of Syria Oct. 9, the same day Trump sent his missive. Did he get the letter? Yes, a Turkish presidential source tells BBC Turkish. "President Erdogan received the letter, thoroughly rejected it, and put it in the bin," the government official said, or in another translation: "The letter was rejected by Erdogan and thrown into the trash." Apparently, writes BBC Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen, "Trump's mixture of threats and locker-room banter infuriated" Erdogan. Peter Weber

7:48 a.m.

South Park just couldn't wait to ridicule LeBron James over his controversial China comments.

The Comedy Central series, which has been mocking the Chinese government throughout its most recent season and is famous for its episodes' quick turnaround, on Wednesday called out the NBA superstar for criticizing Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey's tweet supporting the pro-democracy Hong Kong protesters. When the NBA initially distanced itself from Morey's tweet, the league was roundly criticized in the United States from those who said it was kowtowing to the Chinese government.

James weighed in Monday, and subsequently came under fire, by saying Morey was "misinformed." He also said, "Yes, we all do have freedom of speech, but at times there are ramifications for the negative that can happen when you're not thinking about others and you're only thinking about yourself."

The creators of South Park were quick to mock James for this, doing so by inserting his quote into the mouth of the notoriously vile Eric Cartman, notes The Hollywood Reporter. In the new episode "Let Them Eat Goo," Cartman, furious about students protesting for healthy options at lunch, uses James' quote word for word, saying, "Yes, we all do have freedom of speech, but at times there are ramifications for the negative that can happen when you're not thinking about others and you’re only thinking about yourself!" Cartman also sings and dances about "Taco Tuesday," which James tried and failed to trademark.

South Park already aired an episode earlier this season highly critical of China and of American companies who tailor content to appeal to Chinese censors, an episode that subsequently got the entire show banned on the Chinese internet. But creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone only doubled down, in the very next episode having Randy Marsh declare, "f— the Chinese government." Brendan Morrow

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