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New revelations on the Taliban bounty stir old questions about Trump and Russia

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Conflicting messages from the President and his press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, only deepened the intrigue about what is really going on.

Bernstein’s story, and Trump’s unfathomable relationship with Russia — a nation with which he had past business relationships and which he denies interfered in the 2016 US election — both boil down to the same foreboding question about Trump’s presidency: Does he act in America’s interests or his own?

Such uncertainty is underpinned by Trump’s foreign policy — whether it involves feuding with NATO or calling on the G7 to readmit Russia — which often seems to reward Moscow’s interests. It’s also offering an opening to Democrats, who warn that the commander in chief is either incompetent or unfit for office, only four months from a general election in which Trump is trailing Democrat Joe Biden in recent polling.

Less broadly, Monday’s confusing events left major questions unanswered. Specifically, whether the President had been briefed on such explosive intelligence about Russia and US troops in Afghanistan. If the President was not told about such a fundamental threat to US security and American troops overseas, why was the information not brought to his attention? Was it contained in his written intelligence briefs, which multiple reports say he disdains to read, or did he ignore it? And why has Trump not been more outspoken in vowing to keep American troops safe since the reports first started emerging three days ago?

More uncertainty surrounds what steps, if any, the US took to warn Russia off and to protect American troops — even if it was unsure of the provenance of the information that Russia’s GRU agency offered money to Islamic militants to find US targets.

The same Russia playbook

From pandering to Putin to abusing allies and ignoring his own advisers, Trump's phone calls alarm US officials

There’s one constant in each new twist of the drama over Russia that has overshadowed every day of Trump’s term in the Oval Office.

Each time there’s a damaging story on the issue, he makes exactly the same move — dumping on the US intelligence that lies behind it. It was a similar story when the President used a Helsinki summit with Putin to throw US intelligence agencies under the bus over their assessments that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election to help him win.

In a late-night tweet on Sunday, Trump insisted that “intel just reported to me they did not find this info credible, and therefore didn’t report it to me.”

McEnany, however, contradicted Trump’s certainty.

“There is no consensus within the intelligence community on these allegations and in effect, there are dissenting opinions from some in the intelligence community with regards to the veracity of what’s being reported, and the veracity of the underlying allegations continue to be evaluated,” she said.

McEnany’s phrasing about a lack of consensus about the intelligence reports appeared to grant the information far more credence than Trump’s declaration it was not credible but was another Russia “hoax.”

Several intelligence sources publicly and privately disputed that there needed to be consensus in the covert world before bringing such information to the attention of the President.

David Priess, a former CIA officer who wrote a book about the President’s Daily Brief, rejected McEnany’s reasoning.

“This is exactly the kind of thing that the President’s Daily Brief was created for, to make sure that the President had the most up-to-date analysis and assessment of what is almost always uncertain intelligence. You don’t put things in the President’s Daily Brief only when they are completely corroborated and verified,” Priess told CNN.

Two former senior intelligence officials told CNN’s Jamie Gangel that it was “inconceivable” in any previous White House that the president would not have been informed of such grave intelligence and that the commander in chief would be briefed with caveats included.

The idea that the intelligence was not sufficiently corroborated to take to Trump was further undermined by the fact that Washington appears to have discussed it with its foreign partners. Over the weekend, a European military intelligence official told CNN that the scheme by Russia’s military intelligence agency had caused coalition casualties.

McEnany’s careful wording in her briefing also left wide open the possibility that the warning was indeed included in written, classified material handed to Trump and that he missed or ignored it.

“He was not personally briefed on the matter. That is all I can share with you today, ” McEnany said.

But a US official with direct knowledge of the latest information said the intelligence was indeed contained in Trump’s daily briefings sometime in the spring.

The assessment, the source told CNN’s Barbara Starr, was backed up by “several pieces of information” that supported the view that there was an effort by the GRU to to pay bounties to kill US soldiers, including from the interrogation of Taliban detainees and electronic eavesdropping. The source said there was some other information that did not corroborate this view but that nonetheless, “This was a big deal. When it’s about US troops you go after it 100%, with everything you got.”

Multiple reports, and former national security adviser John Bolton in his new book, have said that Trump rarely reads or cares about written material.

“Almost never, according to CNN’s sources, would Trump read the briefing materials prepared for him by the CIA and NSC staff in advance of his calls with heads of state,” Bernstein reported.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wondered aloud in an interview with CNN why Trump was not briefed on the grave threats to US troops.

“If he was not briefed, why would he not be briefed?” Pelosi told CNN’s Jake Tapper.

“Were they afraid to approach him on the subject of Russia?” Pelosi said. “Were they concerned if they did tell him that he would tell Putin? So there’s a lot that remains out there.”

Trump ‘should be briefed’

As the pandemic rages, Trump indulges his obsessions

Suspicion over the motives of the White House is being exacerbated by the way it has handled the allegations. For one thing, Trump has not made a public on-camera statement vowing to do anything it takes to defend American troops — a step a US President would normally be expected to take as a matter of course.

The White House did brief a small group of Republican House members on the matter Monday in an encounter that looked more like an effort to bolster its political defense against the allegations on the issue rather than to pull key national security decision makers on Capitol Hill into the loop.

“It’s actually unfortunate the whole thing was leaked because it will actually serve to dry up that information,” Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois told reporters. “In terms of whether the President should’ve been briefed, from everything I’ve seen, I think it’s accurate to say it shouldn’t have risen to his level at that point because there was conflicting intelligence.”

Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming, who raised pointed questions about the latest Russia controversy, was also in the briefing and issued a statement along with Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, that appeared to give the intelligence far more credibility than the White House lends it.

“After today’s briefing with senior White House officials, we remain concerned about Russian activity in Afghanistan, including reports that they have targeted US forces,” the two lawmakers said.

Amid a rising political showdown, a number of senior House Democrats, including Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff of California, are expected to get a briefing on Tuesday.

“It is frequently the case that the President will be briefed — should be briefed — on matters where there is no absolute certainty about the intelligence on a given topic,” Schiff said on CNN’s “The Situation Room.”

At the end of another day of Russia intrigue — as corrosive to US interests as ever — the same questions remained unanswered.

Why can’t Trump ever talk straight to the American people about Russia?

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Mississippi gov awaits coronavirus test results after ‘numerous members’ of state House contract virus

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Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves announced on Monday that he is awaiting the results of a coronavirus test after “numerous” members of the state’s House of Representatives tested positive for COVID-19 over the holiday weekend.

Reeves, a Republican, announced on Twitter that he was taking the precautionary measure after being in contact with one of the House members who tested positive – although the governor said he had only “briefly” met with the state lawmaker.

“I’m waiting on the results of a COVID-19 test,” Reeves tweeted. “It appears numerous members of the Mississippi House are confirmed to have contracted the virus last week—only one of whom I was briefly in contact with.”

Reeves did not name the House member that he was in contact with, nor did he address which members of the state legislature had confirmed cases, but House Speaker Philip Gunn said Sunday that he had tested positive for the coronavirus on the same day that state health officials reported more than 200 new infections and five deaths linked to the pandemic.

Gunn, a Republican from the Jackson suburb of Clinton, said in a video posted to Facebook that he got tested because he had been in close proximity to another member of the House who tested positive.

CORONAVIRUS IN THE US: STATE-BY-STATE BREAKDOWN

Gunn said he called everyone that he had been in close proximity to recently to let them know of his diagnosis and he planned to self-quarantine. He also called on the state’s residents to do the same if they find out they’re infected: “We need to make sure that we do everything we can to get this past us as quickly as possible.”

Gunn is the state’s highest-ranking political figure to publicly disclose a positive test for the coronavirus. He did not identify the other House member.

The legislature is out of session now but had been meeting several days a week during the past month. While some legislators or others at the Capitol wore masks, many others did not while sitting in close proximity in the House and Senate floor and in committee rooms.

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The Mississippi Department of Health posted its latest coronavirus statistics Sunday. The state recorded 226 new cases through Saturday, bringing the total number of confirmed and probable infections to 30,900 across the state. Five more people also died from COVID-19. The deaths came in Harrison, Hinds, Lawrence, Lowndes and Walthall counties.

One other legislator has reported testing positive for the virus as well. Democratic Rep. Bo Brown of Jackson told the Clarion Ledger on Thursday that he had received a positive test result for COVID-19. Brown, 70, told the Ledger he took a test about a week earlier because he was feeling a little unsteady and weak.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Supreme Court Justices Rule States Can Bind Presidential Electors’ Votes

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Monday that states can require presidential electors to back their states’ popular vote winner in the Electoral College.

The ruling, just under four months before the 2020 election, leaves in place laws in 32 states and the District of Columbia that bind electors to vote for the popular-vote winner, and electors almost always do so anyway.

So-called faithless electors have not been critical to the outcome of a presidential election, but that could change in a race decided by just a few electoral votes. It takes 270 electoral votes to win the presidency.

Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the court that a state may instruct “electors that they have no ground for reversing the vote of millions of its citizens. That direction accords with the Constitution — as well as with the trust of a Nation that here, We the People rule.”

The justices had scheduled arguments for the spring so they could resolve the issue before the election, rather than amid a potential political crisis after the country votes.

When the court heard arguments by telephone in May because of the coronavirus outbreak, justices invoked fears of bribery and chaos if electors could cast their ballots regardless of the popular vote outcome in their states.

The issue arose in lawsuits filed by three Hillary Clinton electors in Washington state and one in Colorado who refused to vote for her despite her popular vote win in both states. In so doing, they hoped to persuade enough electors in states won by Donald Trump to choose someone else and deny Trump the presidency.

The federal appeals court in Denver ruled that electors can vote as they please, rejecting arguments that they must choose the popular-vote winner. In Washington, the state Supreme Court upheld a $1,000 fine against the three electors and rejected their claims.

In all, there were 10 faithless electors in 2016, including a fourth in Washington, a Democratic elector in Hawaii and two Republican electors in Texas. In addition, Democratic electors who said they would not vote for Clinton were replaced in Maine and Minnesota.

The closest Electoral College margin in recent years was in 2000, when Republican George W. Bush received 271 votes to 266 for Democrat Al Gore. One elector from Washington, D.C., left her ballot blank.

The Supreme Court played a decisive role in that election, ending a recount in Florida, where Bush held a 537-vote margin out of 6 million ballots cast.

The justices scheduled separate arguments in the Washington and Colorado cases after Justice Sonia Sotomayor belatedly removed herself from the Colorado case because she knows one of the plaintiffs.

In asking the Supreme Court to rule that states can require electors to vote for the state winner, Colorado had urged the justices not to wait until “the heat of a close presidential election.”

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As the Virus Surged, Florida Partied. Tracking the Revelers Has Been Tough.

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“We failed to act,” she said.

The socializing that followed Florida’s rapid economic reopening has left the state reeling from the virus. The Department of Health reported more than 11,400 infections on Saturday, a record. Florida cases made up 20 percent of all U.S. cases on Thursday. Patients with Covid-19 have begun to fill up Florida hospital wards, forcing some hospitals to scrap elective surgeries, as they did early on in the pandemic. More than 3,600 people have died, including an 11-year-old boy.

Desperate local officials have adopted local mask requirements and closed the beaches over the long holiday weekend. Some communities were deploying teams to go door-to-door in the hardest hit neighborhoods, distributing masks, hand sanitizers and fliers with information on coronavirus symptoms and testing.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, insisted there would be no new shutdown, but a piecemeal rollback is still underway: The state banned drinking at bars. Miami-Dade County ordered entertainment venues to close again and imposed a curfew

“If everyone is enjoying life but doing it responsibly, we’re going to be fine,” Mr. DeSantis said on Thursday in Tampa after a visit from Vice President Mike Pence.

The Florida Department of Health has about 1,600 students, epidemiologists and other staff doing contact tracing, and it has hired a contractor to bring on 600 more people, for a total of 2,200. That is about a third of the roughly 6,400 tracers that will be needed to meet the target of 30 tracers per 100,000 people recommended by the National Association of County and City Health Officials.

With so much community spread, trying to trace the contacts of every positive case becomes unrealistic, several public health officials said.

“We may have to change the priorities on tracing as the numbers continue to increase, because at some point it is like drinking out of a fire hose,” said Dr. Raul Pino, the health department officer in Orlando.

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