July 1, 2020

A contractor paid by the American-led coalition to build roads in Afghanistan was also a middleman who passed out money from a Russian spy agency to Taliban-linked militants after they killed U.S. troops, U.S. and Afghan officials told The New York Times.

Rahmatullah Azizi's name has appeared in U.S. intelligence reports about the alleged Russian bounty program, the Times reports, and he went to Russia multiple times to collect "hundreds of thousands of dollars." Afghan officials told the Times payments of up to $100,000 per killed soldier were offered to the Taliban-linked militants for U.S. and coalition targets.

Azizi, said to be in his 40s, is a former small-time drug smuggler. Several of his friends and neighbors told the Times that in recent years, Azizi started to flaunt his wealth, purchasing a four-story villa and traveling with bodyguards, but they had no idea how he made his money. An Afghan official confirmed he was the target of a raid six months ago; several of his associates and relatives were arrested, but he slipped out of Afghanistan and is likely in Russia. At his house in Kabul, authorities found half a million dollars in cash.

For years, U.S. and Afghan officials have maintained that Russia was secretly trying to undermine the U.S. in Afghanistan by helping the Taliban. In 2019, the U.S. concluded that Russia was sending bounty money to the Taliban at the same time the United States was negotiating with the militants over withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, the Times reports, and some of the attacks believed to be linked to the plot were carried out when the Trump administration was asking Russia to participate in the peace talks.

Russia and the Taliban have denied the existence of the covert bounty scheme, and President Trump and the White House have claimed that multiple reports that he was briefed on the matter are false. Catherine Garcia

June 28, 2020

Intelligence gleaned from U.S. military interrogations of captured militants has led U.S. officials to believe Russian bounties offered to Taliban-linked fighters in Afghanistan resulted in the deaths of several American service members, multiple people familiar with the matter told The Washington Post.

The exact number is unclear, the Post says. The New York Times first reported the existence of the bounties on Friday, adding Sunday that U.S. spies and commandos first warned their superiors about the suspected Russian plot as early as January.

The CIA reviewed the intelligence and confirmed the bounties, the Post reports, but the Trump administration has not yet decided how to respond. One official told the Post that Zalmay Khalilzad, the special envoy for Afghanistan, thinks Russia should be directly confronted, but some officials in charge of Russia on the National Security Council are wary of taking any immediate action. Catherine Garcia

June 28, 2020

After finding a large amount of American cash during a raid on a Taliban outpost, U.S. intelligence officers and Special Operations forces in Afghanistan told their superiors as early as January that they suspected Russia was paying bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill U.S. and coalition troops, officials briefed on the matter told The New York Times.

The money got "everybody's attention," one official told the Times, and was a key piece of evidence in uncovering the Russian plot. After interrogating captured militants and criminals, the U.S. intelligence community became confident that Russia offered and paid bounties in 2019, the Times reports. Top U.S. intelligence officials in Afghanistan knew about the information, which was included in reports, and the assessment went up the chain of command until it arrived at the White House, officials said.

The Times first reported about the plot on Friday, saying the Trump administration has been discussing it since at least March, when the assessment was included in the President's Daily Brief. In response, Trump was presented with several options, including issuing a complaint to Moscow or imposing sanctions, but the White House has yet to authorize anything, the Times says.

Military and intelligence officials are reviewing casualties to see if any U.S. or coalition troops killed in combat were victims of the plot. Trump tweeted on Sunday morning that "nobody briefed me or told me ... about the so-called attacks on our troops in Afghanistan by Russians, as reported through an 'anonymous source' by the Fake News @nytimes." Catherine Garcia

June 25, 2020

Not long after Attorney General William Barr was sworn into office in February 2019, he began debating with federal prosecutors in New York who brought the case against Michael Cohen, President Trump's former lawyer and fixer, questioning why they decided to charge him with campaign finance violations, people familiar with the matter told The New York Times.

In 2018, Cohen pleaded guilty to tax evasion and campaign finance violations, after admitting he paid hush money to a porn star who said she had an affair with Trump. Cohen said he did this at the direction of Trump, who was referred to as "Individual-1" in court papers.

After several weeks of discussions with prosecutors, Barr asked Justice Department officials in Washington, D.C., to draft a memo with legal arguments that could have raised questions about the legitimacy of Cohen's conviction, several people told the Times. There is little Barr could have done to change the outcome of the case, a Justice Department official told the Times, as Cohen was convicted and sentenced before Barr became attorney general.

After this incident, Barr told aides and other U.S. attorneys that the Southern District — which has been investigating several Trump allies — needs to be reined in, the Times reports. Last week, Geoffrey Berman, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, was ousted, with Barr initially saying he was stepping down. Berman said he had no intention of resigning, and only agreed to leave after Barr sent him a letter saying he had been fired by Trump. Barr told NPR on Thursday that Berman was "living on borrowed time from the beginning," and it is "conspiracy theorists" who are suggesting "that there's some ulterior motive involved." Catherine Garcia

June 24, 2020

An email has been sent to U.S. marshals notifying them that they should prepare to help protect national monuments, The Washington Post reported Wednesday night.

Marshals Service Assistant Director Andrew C. Smith wrote that the agency "has been asked to immediately prepare to provide federal law enforcement support to protect national monuments (throughout the country)." The email suggests that the assignment came from Attorney General William Barr, the Post reports.

Smith said that this is a "challenging" ask, due to "the breadth of possible targets for criminal activity." Other internal correspondence viewed by the Post indicates there are worries that monuments will be vandalized on or around the 4th of July. It isn't clear what the marshals will be doing exactly, or how many will be part of the operation. Marshals serve under the Department of Justice, and their typical duties include providing security for courthouses and capturing fugitives.

Earlier Wednesday, the Army activated roughly 400 members of the Washington, D.C., National Guard to "prevent any defacing or destruction" of monuments, defense officials said. The troops will be unarmed.

Over the last several weeks, anti-racism protesters have been targeting Confederate monuments across the country, with some being torn down. On Monday, protesters tried to topple a statue of former President Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Square, across from the White House. The next morning, Trump tweeted that he "authorized the Federal Government to arrest anyone who vandalizes or destroys any monument, statue, or other such Federal property in the U.S. with up to 10 years in prison, per the Veteran's Memorial Preservation Act, or such other laws that may be pertinent....." Catherine Garcia

June 19, 2020

Former National Security Adviser John Bolton writes in his new memoir, The Room Where It Happened, that he would love to print President Trump's "exact words, but the government's prepublication review process has decided otherwise." Having seen some unredacted passages from the manuscript, Vanity Fair's Gabriel Sherman understands why the White House is trying so hard to keep the book from seeing the light of day.

Some of Trump's words, Sherman writes, are "deeply embarrassing and illustrate Trump's naked politicization of American foreign policy." The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that in The Room Where It Happened, set for release on June 23, Bolton says that during a summit last June, Trump asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to purchase more American farm products to help him get re-elected in November.

According to the unredacted passage shown to Vanity Fair, Trump allegedly said to Xi, "Make sure I win. I will probably win anyway, so don't hurt my farms. ... Buy a lot of soybeans and wheat and make sure we win." Bolton also claims that before the summit, Trump spoke to Xi on the phone and said, "I miss you." He purportedly added, "This is totally up to you, but the most popular thing I've ever been involved with is making a deal with China. ... Making a deal with China would be a very popular thing for me."

Sherman writes that in a separate passage, Bolton states that during a meeting about Iran strategy, Trump suddenly started talking about a right-wing conspiracy that black South Africans are killing white South African farmers and seizing their land. Bolton alleges that Trump declared he wanted to grant white South Africans "asylum and citizenship."

The Trump administration has said The Room Where It Happened contains top secret information, and on Wednesday, the Department of Justice sought an emergency order to block its publication, claiming it "will damage the national security of the United States." Catherine Garcia

June 17, 2020

Federal prosecutors are considering whether to criminally charge former National Security Adviser John Bolton with revealing classified information in his forthcoming memoir, people familiar with the matter told the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday.

These discussions are being held at the highest levels of the Justice Department, and involve Attorney General William Barr, the Times reports.

Bolton served as President Trump's national security adviser from April 2018 to September 2019. His book, The Room Where it Happened, is scheduled for release on June 23, but journalists who received advance copies revealed on Wednesday some of the memoir's more eye-opening allegations, including that Trump begged Chinese President Xi Jinping to help him win his re-election and used the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi to take attention away from news that his daughter, Ivanka Trump, used her personal email to conduct government business.

On Tuesday, the Justice Department and the U.S. attorney's office in Washington filed a lawsuit attempting to block publication of the The Room Where it Happened, accusing Bolton of breaching a contract he signed when he became national security adviser. The book, the DOJ said, is "rife with classified information." Bolton's attorney, Charles Cooper, said in a statement his client spent months working with National Security Council officials to ensure any classified information was removed from the book, and the White House is trying to censor Bolton. Catherine Garcia

May 13, 2020

On Wednesday, federal agents seized a cellphone belonging to Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) as part of the Justice Department's investigation into stock trades Burr made in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, a law enforcement official told the Los Angeles Times.

The agents served a search warrant on Burr at his home in the Washington, D.C., area, the official said. Burr is chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and on Feb. 13, during a time when he was receiving daily briefings from health officials on the coronavirus outbreak, he sold a hefty percentage of his stock portfolio in 33 separate transactions. One week later, the stock market took a dive. Members of Congress are prohibited from trading on insider information collected as part of their work. Catherine Garcia

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