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Trump Jr. admits he took meeting with Kremlin-linked lawyer for damaging Clinton info

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WASHINGTON — A meeting between President Donald Trump’s eldest son and a Russian lawyer during the presidential campaign occurred at the behest of a Moscow-based singer with family ties to Trump’s businesses, according to a participant in the talks. Donald Trump Jr. acknowledged Monday he made time for the meeting hoping to get information about Democrat Hillary Clinton.

The circumstances surrounding the meeting, and a report by The New York Times late Monday that Trump Jr. was told ahead of time that the source of the information was the Russian government, fueled new questions about the Trump campaign’s possible ties to Moscow, which are being scrutinized by federal and congressional investigators.

The Times reported that Trump Jr., who was a key campaign adviser to his father, was told the Russian government was behind the information on Clinton in an email from music publicist Rob Goldstone. The Times cited three unnamed people with knowledge of the email.

The report is the first public word that Trump Jr. took the meeting with the understanding that he would be presented with damaging information about his father’s political opponent and that the material could have emanated from the Kremlin.

Goldstone spoke to The Associated Press earlier Monday to confirm he had set up the meeting on behalf of his client, Emin Agalarov, but he did not disclose the contents of the email described by The Times. Goldstone did not immediately respond to attempts to contact him Monday night.

In a statement, Trump Jr.’s New York-based attorney Alan Futerfas called the Times report “much ado about nothing,” though he acknowledged his client had received an email from Goldstone to set up a meeting with the purpose of passing along damaging information on Clinton. His statement did not dispute the Times report on the email.

Futerfas said Trump Jr. was not told the specifics of the information and nothing came of the meeting. “The bottom line is that Don, Jr. did nothing wrong,” Futerfas said in the statement, noting that the younger Trump hasn’t been contacted by any congressional committees or Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office.

The White House referred questions to the president’s son. Mark Corallo, a spokesman for President Donald Trump’s outside legal team, would not comment on the Times story, reiterating only that Trump “was not aware of and did not attend the meeting.”

Earlier Monday, Trump Jr. tried to brush off the significance of the meeting, tweeting sarcastically, “Obviously I’m the first person on a campaign to ever take a meeting to hear info about an opponent … went nowhere but had to listen.”

Trump Jr. also said on Twitter he was willing to work with the Senate intelligence committee, one of the panels probing possible campaign collusion, “to pass on what I know.”

Lawmakers on the committee from both parties said they indeed wanted to talk with the president’s son. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said the panel “needs to interview him and others who attended the meeting.” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., agreed, saying, “Based on his own admissions, this is an attempt at collusion.”

The sequence of events that led to the June 2016 meeting highlighted the tangled web of relationships that investigators now are sorting through.

The president’s son said the meeting was arranged by an acquaintance he knew through the 2013 Miss Universe pageant Trump held in Moscow.

Trump Jr. initially didn’t name the acquaintance, but in an interview with the AP, Goldstone confirmed he set up the meeting on behalf of Agalarov. Goldstone said the Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, stated that she had information about purported illegal campaign contributions to the Democratic National Committee that she thought Trump Jr. might find helpful.

Goldstone said Trump Jr. agreed to squeeze the meeting into a tight schedule.

Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Monday the Kremlin doesn’t know Veselnitskaya and “cannot keep track” of every Russian lawyer who holds meetings in Russia or abroad. Although she has not been publicly linked with the Russian government itself, Veselnitskaya represented the son of a vice president of state-owned Russian Railways in a New York money-laundering case settled in May before a trial.

A staff member at Veselnitskaya’s firm told the AP on Monday that she was unavailable for comment.

During his visit to Moscow, Trump spent time with Agalarov, appearing in a music video with him and several contestants in the pageant, which Trump owned at the time. Agalarov’s father, Aras, is a Russian developer who sought to partner with Trump on a hotel project in Moscow and tried to set up a meeting between Trump and Putin during the Miss Universe contest.

According to The Washington Post and several other media accounts, the elder Agalarov paid Trump $14 million to $20 million to stage the pageant in Moscow. But Aras Agalarov was unable to persuade Putin to meet with Trump. Putin canceled the session, sending a Trump a friendly letter and a lacquered box in appreciation, the Post has reported.

On Monday, Goldstone said the Trumps and the Agalarovs stayed in contact after the pageant, and Emin Agalarov asked him to reach out to the Trumps to broker the June meeting with Veselnitskaya.

Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and now White House senior adviser, and then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort attended the meeting. Goldstone said he and a translator also participated.

During the meeting, Goldstone said, Veselnitskaya made comments about campaign funding “that were not specific,” and then turned the subject to a discontinued Russian adoption program and the Magnitsky Act , a bill passed in 2012 that allows the U.S. to impose sanctions on Russians for human rights violations.

Goldstone said that at one point during the meeting, Trump Jr. or Kushner said, “Can we get to the point?” And later, after Veselnitskaya had finished her presentation, Trump Jr. said, “Is that it?”

“The whole thing was really vague,” Goldstone said. He said he and Trump Jr. were the last to leave the room, and “I turned to him and said: ‘I’m really embarrassed. I don’t know what that was.”

Unlike Kushner, Trump Jr. does not serve in the administration and is not required to disclose his foreign contacts.

Over the weekend, Trump Jr. initially omitted any mention of Clinton from his account of the meeting, describing it as a “short introductory meeting” focused on the disbanded program that had allowed American adoptions of Russian children. Moscow ended the adoptions in response to the Magnitsky Act sanctions.

A day later, Trump Jr. acknowledged he was told beforehand that Veselnitskaya might have information “helpful” to the Trump campaign, and was told by her during the meeting that she had something about Clinton.

“No details or supporting information was provided or even offered,” he said. “It quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information.” He said there was no follow-up after the meeting and his father was unaware it happened.

Foreign nationals are prohibited from providing “anything of value” to campaigns, and that same law also bars solicitation of such assistance. The law typically applies to monetary campaign contributions, but courts might consider information such as opposition research to be something of value.

Bradley A. Smith, a former Bill Clinton-appointed Republican Federal Election Commission member, said that based on what’s known about the meeting, Trump Jr.’s actions are unlikely to be considered illegal solicitation. “It’s not illegal to meet with someone to find out what they have to offer,” Smith said.

But Larry Noble, a former general counsel at the Federal Election Commission, said the situation “raises all sorts of red flags.”

“You do not want your campaign to be involved with foreign nationals, period,” said Noble, now senior director at the Campaign Legal Center.

The New York Times first reported the lawyer’s meeting with Trump Jr. and the meeting’s prospect of negative information about Clinton. Trump Jr.’s acknowledgment that he hoped to get information from her on Clinton only came in response to questions from the Times.

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Push to legalize marijuana upends governor’s race in New Mexico

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jeff Apodaca on Thursday called for the expansion of New Mexico’s medical marijuana program and for legalization of recreational use, saying the poverty-stricken state is missing out on millions of dollars in tax revenues and jobs that could be spurred by the industry.

Apodaca released his plan solidifying his position as a supporter of legalization as the race for governor heats up.

Apodaca pointed to New Mexico’s history as the first state to allow for research and experimentation with marijuana as a therapeutic drug. It was his father, then-Gov. Jerry Apodaca, who signed that legislation in 1978.

The research program stalled and it wasn’t until 2008 that New Mexico rolled out its medical cannabis program.

“Why are we shooting for being the last to legalize cannabis for adult use?” Apodaca said.

The push for legalization comes as New Mexico’s medical marijuana program has grown exponentially in just the last two years. Producers licensed under the program reported record sales of more than $86 million in 2017 and the number of patients enrolled now tops 50,000.

“We know the medical benefits of it. And we also know the opportunities of legalization for adult use,” Apodaca said, suggesting expansion of the long-standing medical marijuana program along with legalization could result in an estimated $200 million of additional tax revenues for the state.

The state’s largest producer, Ultra Health, announced that it has acquired farmland in southern New Mexico and has plans for what the industry says could be the largest cultivation facility in North America.

The property spans nearly one-third of a square mile (81 hectares) in Otero County. It will include 20 acres (8 hectares) of indoor cultivation, 80 acres (32 hectares) of outdoor cannabis fields and another 100 acres (40 hectares) of outdoor hemp fields.

Ultra Health president and CEO Duke Rodriguez said the company is preparing for a future in which New Mexico stands to benefit from expanded medical use and possibly recreational use.

Apodaca’s plan calls for lifting the current limits on the number of plants producers can grow and reducing costly licensing fees.

Other Democratic candidates have been more cautious.

U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham said she would work with state lawmakers to ensure there are adequate health, safety and enforcement measures in place. She called for a “thorough analysis” of recreational pot programs in other states as part of that effort.

Lujan Grisham was in charge of the state Health Department when the medical marijuana program began. Aside from the legalization debate, she said supporting producers to create the latest medicines and methods to help patients would help create jobs and expand the industry.

State Sen. Joseph Cervantes, another Democratic candidate, has sponsored unsuccessful legislation to decriminalize possession of small quantities of pot but has said the state is lacking infrastructure and isn’t ready yet to legalize.

Cervantes recently lauded efforts at the local level by the state’s largest city — Albuquerque — to decriminalize possession of small amounts. He said he would do the same as governor and that it would mark a first step.

Republican congressman and gubernatorial candidate Steve Pearce expressed reservations about legalization at a forum earlier this month. He said it might create a stumbling block for people trying to climb out of poverty and addiction to other drugs.

“I just don’t see how it fits that we’re going to deal with addiction and yet we’re going to tell people, ‘This one is OK.’ I’ve watched it for a lifetime. I just am very nervous with recreational marijuana,” he said.

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‘For fun’ killing reveals vulnerability for homeless Native Americans in New Mexico

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The morning a homeless man was shot and killed in Albuquerque, police say surveillance videos showed him running down a street before sunrise, and then gunfire flash in the dark.

Native Americans make up only 4 percent of the population, but account for 44 percent of people living on the streets, raising the likelihood they will be victimized when there is an attack on the homeless.

Ronnie Ross, a 50-year-old from the Navajo Nation town of Shiprock, had been shot a dozen times, including once in the forehead and temple, and four times in the back, according to a criminal complaint. Police say the two teenage suspects charged with murder this week apparently shot him “for fun” as they came and went from a hotel party nearby.

The homicide marked the latest in a series of brazen killings and assaults of homeless Native Americans in the city. In Albuquerque, Native Americans make up only 4 percent of the population, but account for 44 percent of people living on the streets, raising the likelihood they will be victimized when there is an attack on the homeless.

A 2014 survey showed 75 percent of homeless Native Americans in Albuquerque had been physically assaulted.

“Just being harassed is part of everyday life, but it’s not as much harassment as it is overgrown bullying,” said Gordon Yawakia, who works at the Albuquerque Indian Center and was once homeless himself. “What do you do when people are against you and then the authorities are against you and you’ve got nobody, you know?”

In 2014, Allison Gorman and Kee Thompson, both Navajo, were beaten to death as they slept in a vacant lot. While authorities did not say the men were targeted because they were Native American, activists disagreed and the deaths spurred the creation of a city task force to address Native American homelessness that now-former Mayor Richard Berry said could set the stage for changes for the population across the Southwest.

Now, Ross’ death is underscoring how difficult it may be to protect and find solutions for the city’s Native American homeless population.

“When I hear a story like this it adds fuel to the fire,” said Dawn Begay, who is the city’s tribal liaison, and works with the homeless through a local nonprofit. “Where we’re headed is a good direction but it has to happen faster.”

Ross’ killing in March came three months after the body of Audra Willis was found decapitated in an area not far from the Sandia Mountains that line the city’s east side. The 39-year-old had come from To’hajiilee, a tiny Navajo community west of Albuquerque, and records show she had multiple addresses during her time in the city, including at the Albuquerque Indian Center.

Willis’ especially grisly death sent shockwaves through Albuquerque, just as the beatings of Thompson and Gorman had three years earlier.

The two men had been killed on a July 2014 night when authorities say three boys — ages 15, 16 and 18_returned home from a night of drinking and decided to attack them as they slept on a mattress. The men were beaten with a wooden table leg, cinder blocks, and other objects, police said. One young suspect later told authorities that the teens had beaten dozens of homeless people, though apparently none others fatally.

In Ross’ death, the complaint filed against the 15- and 17-year-old suspects does not identify a motive, but says the two teenagers bragged to friends about the shooting.

According to police, friends and acquaintances of the boys — whom The Associated Press is not naming because of their ages — said the suspects had been showing off a gun at the party, and had said to others that they had shot a man. At one point, the younger boy also said to a close friend at the party that he shot a “hobo” in the back.

The boys made one more stop at the scene to find Ross still alive, prompting the older boy to shoot him multiple times, according to the complaint.

“It’s completely disturbing,” said Officer Simon Drobik, an Albuquerque police spokesman, said Tuesday. “They just shot this guy for fun.”

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The Last Castro; Raul retires as Cuban president

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Raul Castro turned over Cuba’s presidency Thursday to a 57-year-old successor he said would hold power until 2031, a plan that would place the state the Castro brothers founded and ruled for 60 years in the hands of a Communist Party official little known to most on the island.

Castro’s 90-minute valedictory speech offered his first clear vision for the nation’s future power structure under new President Miguel Mario Diaz-Canel Bermudez. Castro said he foresees the white-haired electronics engineer serving two five-year terms as leader of the Cuban government, and taking the helm of the Communist Party, the country’s ultimate authority, when Castro leaves the powerful position in 2021.

“From that point on, I will be just another soldier defending this revolution,” Castro said. The 86-year-old general broke frequently from his prepared remarks to joke and banter with officials on the dais in the National Assembly, saying he looked forward to having more time to travel the country.

In his own half-hour speech to the nation, Diaz-Canel pledged to preserve Cuba’s communist system while gradually reforming the economy and making the government more responsive to the people.

“There’s no space here for a transition that ignores or destroys the legacy of so many years of struggle,” Diaz-Canel said. “For us, it’s totally clear that only the Communist Party of Cuba, the guiding force of society and the state, guarantees the unity of the nation of Cuba.”

Diaz-Canel said he would work to implement a long-term plan laid out by the National Assembly and communist party that would continue allowing the limited growth of private enterprises like restaurants and taxis, while leaving the economy’s most important sectors such as energy, mining, telecommunications, medical services and rum- and cigar-production in the hands of the state.

“The people have given this assembly the mandate to provide continuity to the Cuban Revolution during a crucial, historic moment that will be defined by all that we achieve in the advance of the modernization of our social and economic model,” Diaz-Canel said.

Cubans said they expected their new president to deliver improvements to the island’s economy, which remains stagnant and dominated by inefficient, unproductive state-run enterprises that are unable to provide salaries high enough to cover basic needs. The average monthly pay for state workers is roughly $30 a month, forcing many to steal from their workplaces and depend on remittances from relatives abroad.

“I hope that Diaz-Canel brings prosperity,” said Richard Perez, a souvenir salesman in Old Havana. “I want to see changes, above all economic changes allowing people to have their own businesses, without the state in charge of so many things.”

But in Miami, Cuban-Americans said they didn’t expect much from Diaz-Canel.

“It’s a cosmetic change,” said Wilfredo Allen, a 66-year-old lawyer who left Cuba two years after the Castros’ 1959 revolution. “The reality is that Raul Castro is still controlling the Communist Party. We are very far from having a democratic Cuba.”

After formally taking over from his older brother Fidel in 2008, Raul Castro launched a series of reforms that led to a rapid expansion of Cuba’s private sector and burgeoning use of cellphones and the internet. Cuba today has a vibrant real estate market and one of the world’s fastest-growing airports. Tourism numbers have more than doubled since Castro and President Barack Obama re-established diplomatic relations in 2015, making Cuba a destination for nearly 5 million visitors a year, despite a plunge in relations under the Trump administration.

Castro’s moves to open the economy even further have largely been frozen or reversed as soon as they began to generate conspicuous displays of wealth by the new entrepreneurial class in a country officially dedicated to equality among its citizens. Foreign investment remains anemic and the island’s infrastructure is falling deeper into disrepair. The election of President Donald Trump dashed dreams of detente with the U.S., and after two decades of getting Venezuelan subsidies totaling more than $6 billion a year, Cuba’s patron has collapsed economically, with no replacement in the wings.

Castro’s inability or unwillingness to fix Cuba’s structural problems with deep and wide-ranging reforms has many wondering how a successor without Castro’s founding-father credentials will manage the country over the next five or 10 years.

“I want the country to advance,” said Susel Calzado, a 61-year-old economics professor. “We already have a plan laid out.”

Most Cubans have known their new president as an uncharismatic figure who until recently maintained a public profile so low it was virtually nonexistent. Castro’s declaration Thursday that he saw Diaz-Canel in power for more than a decade was likely to resolve much of the uncertainty about the power the new president would wield inside the Cuban system.

“The same thing we’re doing with him, he’ll have to do with his successor,” Castro said. “When his 10 years of service as president of the Council of State and Council of Ministers are over, he’ll have three years as first secretary in order to facilitate the transition. This will help us avoid mistakes by his successor, until (Diaz-Canel) retires to take care of the grandchildren he will have then, if he doesn’t have them already, or his great-grandchildren.”

Cuban state media said Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated Diaz-Canel and thanked Castro for the many years of cooperation between the two countries, while Chinese President Xi Jinping also reaffirmed his country’s friendship with Cuba and expressed interest in deeper ties.

At the U.S. State Department, spokeswoman Heather Nauert expressed disappointment at the handover, saying Cuban citizens “had no real power to affect the outcome” of what she called the “undemocratic transition” that brought Diaz-Canal to the presidency.

Vice President Mike Pence tweeted at Castro that the U.S. won’t rest until Cuba “has free & fair elections, political prisoners are released & the people of Cuba are finally free!”

Diaz-Canel said his government would be willing to talk with the United States but rejected all demands for changes in the Cuban system.

With Castro watching from the audience, Diaz-Canel made clear that for the moment he would defer to the man who founded the Cuban communist system along with his brother Fidel. He said he would retain Castro’s cabinet through at least July, when the National Assembly meets again.

“I confirm to this assembly that Raul Castro, as first secretary of the Communist Party, will lead the decisions about the future of the country,” Diaz-Canel said. “Cuba needs him, providing ideas and proposals for the revolutionary cause, orienting and alerting us about any error or deficiency, teaching us, and always ready to confront imperialism.”

Diaz-Canel first gained prominence in central Villa Clara province as the top Communist Party official, a post equivalent to governor. People there describe him as a hard-working, modest-living technocrat dedicated to improving public services. He became higher education minister in 2009 before moving into the vice presidency.

In a video of a Communist Party meeting that inexplicably leaked to the public last year, Diaz-Canel expressed a series of orthodox positions that included somberly pledging to shutter some independent media and labeling some European embassies as outposts of foreign subversion.

But he has also defended academics and bloggers who became targets of hard-liners, leading some to describe him a potential advocate for greater openness in a system intolerant of virtually any criticism or dissent. International observers and Cubans alike will be scrutinizing every move he makes in coming days and weeks.

As in Cuba’s legislative elections, all of the leaders selected Wednesday were picked by a government-appointed commission. Ballots offered only the option of approval or disapproval and candidates generally receive more than 95 percent of the votes in their favor. Diaz-Canel was approved by 604 votes in the 605-member assembly. It was unclear if he had abstained or someone else had declined to endorse him.

The assembly also approved another six vice presidents of the Council of State, Cuba’s highest government body. Only one, 85-year-old Ramiro Valdes, was among the revolutionaries who fought with the Castros in the late 1950s in the eastern Sierra Maestra mountains.

___

Associated Press writer Ben Fox contributed to this report.

 

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