June 26, 2020

American intelligence officials have informed President Trump that they believe Russia's military intelligence agency has secretly been offering bounties to Taliban or Taliban-linked militants for the killing of American troops in Afghanistan, according to an explosive Friday report in The New York Times. Trump was first briefed on the findings in late March, although he has not yet acted on the "menu of potential options" that were presented to him, and which included potentially issuing a domestic complaint to Russia or imposing sanctions.

The Times reports that Islamist militants (or groups associated with them) are believed to have actually collected such bounty money from Russia, although it's not clear which American deaths, or how many, are suspected.

Russia's military intelligence agency, the GRU, is thought to be behind the alleged bounties. The GRU has previously been tied to the poisoning of an ex-spy in Britain, as well as to "finding" Hillary Clinton's "missing" emails after Trump famously asked Russia to do so while on the campaign trail in July 2016.

"Any involvement with the Taliban that resulted in the deaths of American troops would … be a huge escalation of Russia's so-called hybrid war against the United States, a strategy of destabilizing adversaries through a combination of such tactics as cyberattacks, the spread of fake news, and covert and deniable military operations," writes The New York Times. It would also be "the first time the Russian spy unit was known to have orchestrated attacks on Western troops."

Additionally, while officials were described as being "confident" about their findings, it's less clear what Russia's intentions are. "Some officials have theorized that the Russians may be seeking revenge on NATO forces for a 2018 battle in Syria in which the American military killed several hundred pro-Syrian forces, including numerous Russian mercenaries, as they advanced on an American outpost," the Times writes. Read more about the U.S. intelligence findings here. Jeva Lange

4:27 p.m.

President Biden focused his first full day in office on the COVID-19 pandemic, signing another wave of executive orders Thursday aimed at both the virus and its economic toll.

One of Biden's 10 new orders is focused on increasing coronavirus vaccine distribution, after his team reportedly found former President Donald Trump's plan lacking. The order centralizes the federal government in distribution by creating vaccination centers in schools and government buildings, and also brings in thousands of federal workers to staff those sites. Biden said 100 of those centers should be open next month.

Another order signed Thursday expands on Biden's Wednesday order mandating mask wearing on federal properties, also moving to require them on interstate travel including "planes, trains, and buses." People coming to the U.S. via plane will have to wear masks and test negative for COVID-19 before boarding as a way to stop the spread of new coronavirus variants emerging worldwide, Biden also announced. Other orders are aimed at increasing the number of COVID-19 testing sites throughout the U.S. and reopening schools and businesses.

Biden closed out the event by recommitting to his promise of distributing 100 million coronavirus vaccines in his first 100 days in office — something he denied was too low of a goal, at least for now. Kathryn Krawczyk

4:07 p.m.

It seems just one Game of Thrones prequel still won't be enough for HBO.

The network already has a prequel of the hit series in the works for 2022 called House of the Dragon, but Entertainment Weekly reports HBO wants to order "several" more.

Among them may be a series based on George R.R. Martin's Tales of Dunk and Egg, as Variety and The Hollywood Reporter report an adaptation of these novellas, which follow Ser Duncan the Tall and Aegon V Targaryen nine decades before A Song of Ice and Fire, is in early development.

That would be the second Thrones prequel after House of the Dragon, an upcoming series about the Targaryens. But that may not be all, as Entertainment Weekly writes "the idea is for HBO to go big on Thrones for HBO and HBO Max, not entirely unlike how Disney has done with Star Wars and Disney+." At a recent investor presentation, Disney laid out an avalanche of new Star Wars shows coming to its streaming service, including spinoffs of The Mandalorian.

A Thrones prequel about Robert's Rebellion, a war frequently referred to in Thrones, is one concept being explored, EW says, adding that all of the ideas currently being considered would be prequels rather than sequels or direct spinoffs. At one point, there were five Thrones scripts at "various stages of development" at HBO, as Martin revealed in 2017, though it wasn't clear whether more than one of them would actually end up on the air. House of the Dragon ended up moving forward, but another Thrones spinoff was scrapped in 2019 after already filming a pilot episode.

But it sounds like HBO is still interested in the idea of multiple Thrones series, as it evidently looks to go all in on the franchise and bet viewers disappointed by the original show's finale will return. Brendan Morrow

3:21 p.m.

It's the end of a very caffeinated era.

When former President Donald Trump occupied the Oval Office, he quite literally had a button on his desk that ordered a Diet Coke to the room whenever it was pressed. But as a glimpse at President Biden's desk just hours after his inauguration shows, the soda-summoning button is gone.

While it may have sounded just too weird to be true, Trump's Diet Coke obsession and his button to match were absolutely real. No word on if Biden will install some kind of ice cream-ordering alternative. Kathryn Krawczyk

2:13 p.m.

Facebook's oversight board has taken on a major case, as it's set to review the company's decision to boot the president of the United States from its platform.

Facebook announced Thursday it has referred its decision to indefinitely suspend former President Donald Trump's account to the Facebook independent Oversight Board, which has accepted the case.

"We believe our decision was necessary and right," Nick Clegg, Facebook's vice president of global affairs and communications, said. "Given its significance, we think it is important for the board to review it and reach an independent judgment on whether it should be upheld. While we await the board's decision, Mr. Trump's access will remain suspended indefinitely."

Facebook suspended Trump's account in the wake of the deadly riot at the Capitol building by his supporters, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg saying the "risks of allowing the president to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great" as he attempted to "undermine the peaceful and lawful transfer of power." Facebook said the suspension would continue "indefinitely" and "at least" until he was out of office.

The oversight board pledged to offer a "thorough and independent assessment" of the case and provide "policy recommendations from the board on suspensions when the user is a political leader." Facebook noted that whatever decision the board reaches will be binding and can't be overruled by the company's executives. A decision will come within 90 days.

Twitter also took action against Trump over the Capitol riot by permanently banning his account. But NBC News' Dylan Byers notes that referring the case to the oversight board allows Facebook to "outsource" this final decision. Brendan Morrow

2:05 p.m.

The evenly split Senate is having a hard time agreeing who's in charge.

Georgia's two new Democratic senators were sworn in Wednesday, giving Republicans and Democrats 50 senators each, with Vice President Kamala Harris as a Democratic tiebreaker. The two parties are now working out a power-sharing agreement, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) commitment to the filibuster is standing in the way.

McConnell on Thursday formally acknowledged Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) as the chamber's new majority leader. But as he has been for days, McConnell again implored Democrats to preserve the filibuster that lets a senator extend debate and block a timely vote on a bill if there aren't 60 votes to stop it. Democrats "have no plans to gut the filibuster further, but argue it would be a mistake to take one of their tools off the table just as they're about to govern," Politico reports; More progressive senators do want to remove the option completely.

If his filibuster demands aren't met, McConnell has threatened to block the Senate power-sharing agreement that would put Democrats in charge of the body's committees. But Democrats already seem confident in their newfound power, with Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) telling Politico that "Chuck Schumer is the majority leader and he should be treated like majority leader." Giving in to McConnell "would be exactly the wrong way to begin,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) echoed.

Other Democrats shared their resistance to McConnell's demands in tweets. Kathryn Krawczyk

1:01 p.m.

In the latest news story that's improbably not a 30 Rock episode description, Jenna Maroney actress Jane Krakowski has denied secretly dating the MyPillow guy for nine months.

A report from the Daily Mail on Thursday claimed controversial MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, who has recently made headlines for his false election fraud claims in support of former President Donald Trump, had a "secret nine month romance" with Krakowski until the "passionate" relationship ended last summer.

Lindell, the report claimed, supposedly "wooed the actress for close to a year, showering her with gifts and flowers." An anonymous source told the outlet, "She said she had known him for about eight years and that they had been friends but then they started a relationship about a year ago." The source also claimed, "They would fight and Jane would throw all of the gifts that he had given her away. Then they would make up and there would be more gifts again." The alleged romance reportedly baffled Krakowski's friends just as much as it did social media on Thursday when the article was published.

Both Krakowski and Lindell are denying the report — and claiming they never even met at all. "I've never met the man," Krakowski told the Daily Mail, while Lindell went a step further, saying, "I have never even heard of Jane Krakowski???"

Still, should NBC ever decide to reboot 30 Rock, we've got some good news for Tina Fey: the Daily Mail has already provided the first script. Brendan Morrow

12:43 p.m.

Congress' new Democratic majority is ready to press forward with impeachment charges against former President Donald Trump.

Last week, a bipartisan House majority voted to impeach Trump for inciting insurrection at the Capitol earlier this month. Trump has since left office with the inauguration of President Biden, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday she doesn't believe that's any reason to drop Trump's charges.

Pelosi said she wasn't convinced by arguments that an impeachment trial could further stoke partisan division. "I don't think it's very unifying to say, 'Oh, let's just forget it and move on.' That's not how you unify," she explained. Pelosi then said it's Congress' "responsibility" to "protect and defend the Constitution," because you can't just "say to a president, 'Do whatever you want in the last months of your administration.'"

Pelosi wouldn't give a specific timeframe for when the House impeachment managers would bring the articles to the Senate. Initially there was a delay because the Senate went on a recess, but it returned Tuesday and has since sworn in three new Democratic senators. Kathryn Krawczyk

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