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Russian Spy’s Guilty Plea Illustrates Danger Facing US

Former top U.S. intelligence officials are warning the guilty plea by a former Russian graduate student and self-proclaimed gun-rights advocate should serve as a wake-up call about the Kremlin’s brazen desire and ability to interfere with the American political system.

Maria Butina, a 30-year-old native of Siberia, entered the plea Thursday in Washington, admitting she worked with a top Russian official, and two other Americans, to infiltrate U.S. conservative groups and the Republican Party for Russia’s benefit.

Her efforts, according to court documents, which included attending events hosted by the National Rifle Association gun-rights group and hosting so-called “friendship dinners,” were directed by Alexander Torshin, a deputy governor of Russia’s central bank with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

At one gathering in 2015, she even managed to ask President Donald Trump, a candidate at the time, about U.S.-Russian relations, prompting him to say he thought he would “get along very nicely” with President Putin.

“It certainly is yet more validation of the Intelligence Community Assessment,” former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told VOA via email, referring to the unclassified January 2017 report by the country’s top three intelligence agencies that concluded that Putin and the Russian government aspired to sway the election in Trump’s favor

Significance of plea

Clapper, who has been publicly critical of Trump since leaving office, said the Butina plea is most significant because it shows “the lengths to which the Russians went to meddle in the 2016 election.”

“It illustrates, as well, the astute understanding the Russians have of our political ecosystem; the fact that they singled out the NRA speaks to the death grip the NRA has on many of our politicians,” he added.

Other former intelligence officials said the details in Butina’s guilty plea put a spotlight on the Kremlin’s obsession with undermining the U.S. from within.

“The big picture takeaway is that Russia comes at the U.S. target with every option it can muster — full-fledged spies operating under some kind of cover, a corps of “Illegals” like the 10 expelled from the U.S. in 2010, and someone like Butina who is best seen as espionage ‘lite,’” said John McLaughlin, a former acting director of the CIA.

“In combination, these three techniques increase dramatically the possibility that Moscow will gain something — or someone — of intelligence value,” he warned.

​Plea agreement downplayed

A Kremlin spokesman Friday called the charges against Butina “absolutely groundless and invalid.”

And Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov downplayed the significance of the plea agreement.

“As far as I understand the whole idea of this plea agreement — this practice is typical for the U.S. — is to bargain for a chance to go free as soon as possible and to get back home,” he told reporters.

Plea deal unusual

Former U.S. officials admit a plea deal in a case like this is unusual and note that if she makes good on her promise to cooperate truthfully with prosecutors, it could help unravel and expose others who were part of Butina’s network, leading perhaps to more indictments and embarrassment for some organizations.

“It basically pulls the curtain back on the Kremlin’s broader objectives, to gain influence with the Republican Party and the right in America,” said Max Bergman, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and director of the Moscow Project, and who served in the State Department under President Barack Obama.

One of those coming under scrutiny is Paul Erickson, a U.S. political activist with extensive ties to the Republican Party who was romantically linked with Butina.

Erickson matches the description of “Person 1” in the statement offense provided by prosecutors. “Person 1” helped advise Butina on which politicians to target, according to the document.

Erickson’s lawyer, William Hurd, said in an email to the Reuters news agency, “Paul Erickson is a good American. He has done nothing to harm our country and never would.”

White House officials had no comment Friday on the Butina guilty plea.

Trump himself, while not having commented on Butina specifically, has repeatedly denied allegations he or his presidential campaign coordinated with Russia, calling the special counsel investigation by Robert Mueller a “witch hunt” and stating “NO COLLISION” on Twitter.

Russian efforts to meddle

U.S. intelligence agencies, including the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, also have not commented on the significance or impact of the Butina guilty plea, though many officials have warned Russia’s efforts to meddle in U.S. domestic politics have not stopped.

“We continue to see a pervasive message campaign by Russia to try to weaken and divide the United States,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told reporters from the White House briefing room in the run-up to the U.S. midterm elections this past November.

And in October, U.S. prosecutors unsealed charges against Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova, described as the chief accountant for Russia’s multimillion-dollar information warfare operation to influence both the 2016 and 2018 elections.

While many of Khusyaynova’s social media efforts focused on conservative U.S. voters, some also targeted liberal voters and aimed to stir up anger, and even hatred, for Trump.

Officials and experts said as a result, it would be a mistake to assume there are no others like Butina out there who, rather than targeting Republicans and conservative groups, are looking to infiltrate liberal parties and organizations.

“The Russians don’t have a partisan agenda,” said the Moscow Project’s Bergman, pointing to a 2015 gala to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Russian-owned television outlet RT, during which Russia’s Putin sat at a table with former Trump adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn and U.S. Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein.

“Their agenda is for discord,” Bergman said.

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Trial Likely on Census Citizenship Question

California’s lawsuit against a Trump administration plan to add a citizenship question to the U.S. census appears headed for trial.

U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg on Friday rejected the administration’s request to throw out the lawsuit. He says the state had presented enough evidence to support its authority to challenge the plan.

Seeborg says there’s a dispute over whether the question would affect the final population count. The judge says other claims in the lawsuit also need to be resolved.

A trial is scheduled to start in January.

The Trump administration has said the U.S. Department of Justice requested a citizenship question to help enforce laws on voting rights. California says it could drive down participation.

An after-hours phone message left with the Justice Department wasn’t immediately returned.

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«Укрзалізниця» у 2019 році планує підвищити тарифи на пасажирські перевезення

«Укрзалізниця» у наступному році планує двічі підвищити тарифи на пасажирські перевезення в Україні. Це випливає із проекту фінансового плану «Укрзалізниці» на 2019 рік, попередньо схваленого наглядовою радою компанії.

Зокрема, згідно з документом, передбачається індексація тарифів на перевезення пасажирів у межах країни з 1 квітня на 12% і з 1 жовтня на 12%.

Також підвищення цін очікується з квітня в міжнародному сполученні в середньому на 13-21% залежно від категорії поїзда і типу вагона.

Читайте також: «Укрзалізниця»: «Щоб пасажирські перевезення стали беззбитковими, тариф треба підняти удвічі»

Цього року «Укрзалізниця» двічі підвищувала тарифи на пасажирські перевезення. Загалом тарифи подорожчали приблизно на чверть.

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Pompeo: US to Hold Saudi Journalist’s Killers Accountable

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Friday that he had noted the historic rebuke of longtime ally Saudi Arabia by U.S. lawmakers.

The U.S. Senate on Thursday passed a resolution to end American support for the kingdom’s military intervention in Yemen’s civil war and another measure condemning the killing of a dissident Saudi journalist. 

 

“We saw the vote yesterday. We always have great respect for what the legislative branch does,” Pompeo told reporters in Washington. “We’re in constant contact with members on Capitol Hill so that we understand fully their concerns and do our level best to articulate why our policies are what they are.” 

 

“President Trump is determined to make sure that we protect America, all the while holding accountable those who committed the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” Pompeo added during a joint press briefing with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and their Canadian counterparts at the State Department. 

After hours of passionate debate Thursday, the Republican-led Senate voted 56-41 to approve the first resolution. Moments later, it adopted the second resolution by a voice vote. In both cases, the chamber acted in defiance of the Trump administration, which has strenuously argued against a rupture of cooperation between Washington and Riyadh.  

“Yemen is now experiencing the worst humanitarian disaster in the world,” Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders said. “The United States has been Saudi Arabia’s partner in this horrific war. We have been providing the bombs that Saudi Arabia is using, refueling the planes that drop those bombs and assisting with intelligence.” 

 

7 GOP votes

Seven Republicans joined a unified Democratic caucus in backing the initial Yemen-related resolution, which asserts Congress’ constitutional duty to declare war and approve prolonged U.S. military engagements. The U.S. legislature has not authorized America’s support role in Saudi Arabia’s campaign to combat Iranian-backed Yemeni rebels, a conflict that has led to widespread civilian deaths. 

 

But some argued that, in this instance, the case for asserting war powers authority is weak. 

 

“The United States is not involved in combat [in Yemen]. It is not dropping ordnance. It is no longer even providing air-to-air refueling [for Saudi warplanes],” Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said. “If the Senate wants to pick a constitutional fight with the executive branch over war powers, I would advise my colleagues to pick a better case.” 

WATCH: US Senate Votes to End Support for Saudi War Effort in Yemen 

“If we set the precedent that even an operation such as the refueling of aircraft of allied countries needs congressional authority, we would severely limit the executive branch’s ability to respond to international crises and safeguard our global national security interests,” Alaska Republican Dan Sullivan said. 

 

That argument did not sway resolution co-author Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, who countered that direct U.S. support for Saudi military actions constitutes unambiguous involvement in the war in Yemen. 

 

“We’re involved in this conflict as co-belligerents [with Saudi Arabia],” Lee said. 

 

Largely symbolic

While the Senate resolution sends a strong signal of displeasure to Saudi Arabia, it is likely to stand as a largely symbolic gesture for now. Swift House action became less likely after the chamber advanced a rule blocking a vote on any war powers resolution relating to Yemen for the remainder of the current Congress. 

 

“You look at the humanitarian crisis in Yemen today, and it wasn’t started by the Saudi air campaign,” Illinois Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger said. “It was started by the Houthi rebels and denial of access for food overthrowing the legitimate government.” 

Congressional ire toward Saudi Arabia had been simmering for years as Yemen’s civil war dragged on with ever-higher civilian death tolls. Anger spiked sharply after dissident Saudi journalist Khashoggi was killed at the kingdom’s consulate in Turkey two months ago. 

 

The second resolution approved by the Senate blames Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for Khashoggi’s death, expresses support for Yemeni peace talks and states: “There is no statutory authorization for United States involvement in hostilities in the Yemen civil war.” 

Trump notes Riyadh denials

 

President Donald Trump has said that responsibility for Khashoggi’s death remains an open question, and noted Riyadh’s repeated denials that the kingdom’s crown prince played a role. 

 

Trump’s critics in the Senate slammed the White House’s posture. 

 

“This administration is putting the Saudi government on a pedestal that stands above American values,” New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez said. “They continue to extend a blank check to certain players within the Saudi government, no matter how brazen their actions.” 

Wayne Lee contributed to this report.

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McCain Replacement Senator Jon Kyl Resigning at Year’s End

Senator Jon Kyl announced his resignation Friday from the seat he was appointed to less than four months ago following the death of John McCain, giving Republican Arizona Govenor Doug Ducey a second opportunity to fill the slot.

Kyl, 76, had said he was only serving through the end of the year. His resignation is effective Dec. 31 and forces a pivotal decision by the state’s Republican governor.

That’s because voters in 2020 will get to decide who fills McCain’s seat for the final two years of its six-year term. Democrats picked up Arizona’s other Senate seat in November and are already targeting the state in 2020 as part of their possible path to re-taking control of the Senate, increasing the pressure on Ducey to select someone who can hold the seat for the GOP.

Ducey said he will pick a replacement “in the near future.” His office has been typically tight-lipped about who might fill the seat, leading to wild speculation in Arizona and Washington.

One of the most often-mentioned names is Ducey’s chief of staff, Kirk Adams, a onetime state lawmaker who resigned from the governor’s office on Nov. 26 and whose last day working for Ducey is Friday.

Eileen Klein, whom Ducey appointed as Arizona’s state treasurer last year, is another possibility. The most prominent name is Representative Martha McSally, who is fresh off narrowly losing this year’s senate race to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema.

Democrats are already lining up to challenge whoever is selected. Those testing the waters include U.S. Representative Ruben Gallego, former astronaut and gun control advocate Mark Kelly and former Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods, a onetime McCain chief of staff who became a Democrat this year and a top Sinema booster.

Ducey’s selection of the well-respected Kyl following McCain’s Aug. 25 death allowed him to dodge a possible controversial pick during his own re-election campaign. But Kyl, who had previously served in the Senate for Arizona, made it clear he only agreed to the appointment out of a sense of duty and had no plans to stay in the job for long.

Kyl’s brief resignation letter said he decided to resign at the end of 2018 so that Ducey’s new appointee “can begin the new term with all other senators in January 2019 and can serve a full two (potentially four) years.”

Kyl noted that when he accepted Ducey’s appointment that he agreed to serve through December and then re-evaluate whether to serve longer.

“Senator Kyl didn’t need to return to the Senate,” Ducey said in a statement. “His legacy as one of Arizona’s most influential and important political figures was already without question. But he did return, and I remain deeply grateful for his willingness to step up and serve again when Arizona needed him. I wish him and his family all the best.”

McCain died at age 81 at his ranch near Sedona, Arizona, just over a year after he announced he had glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer that came with a dire diagnosis.

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Trump’s Search for New Chief of Staff Has Reality TV Feel

Serious contenders are hiding from view. Celebrity hangers-on are applying via Twitter. Fresh names circulate practically on the hour. And the man in charge is stoking much of the confusion.

President Donald Trump’s hunt for a new chief of staff has taken on the feel of a reality TV show.

No leading name has emerged in the days since Trump’s preferred candidate to replace John Kelly bowed out. But the void has quickly filled with drama. British journalist Piers Morgan suggested he would be a good fit in an op-ed for “The Daily Mail,” while former major league slugger Jose Canseco tweeted his interest to Trump. Speculation has swirled around an array of Trump associates, prompting some to distance themselves from the job.

When former House Speaker Newt Gingrich visited the White House this week, he insisted it was merely to see the Christmas decorations.

Trump met Thursday with former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to discuss the job, according to a person familiar with the meeting who was not authorized to discuss it publicly.

The chaotic process is hardly a novelty for the Trump administration, which has struggled with high staff turnover and attracting top talent, but it underscored the tumult of Trump’s Washington. 

Post a risky proposition

In past administrations, chief of staff was a sought-after job, typically awarded after a careful process. Now, many view the job as a risky proposition, given Trump’s propensity for disorder and his resistance to being managed.

For his part, Trump insisted Thursday that the process is moving along.

“We’re interviewing people now for chief of staff,” he said, adding that the short list is now “Five people. Really good ones. Terrific people. Mostly well-known, but terrific people.”

Trump himself likes to feed the drama, dropping hints about the number of candidates in the running and bantering with journalists about who wants the job. The erratic search recalled the transition period before Trump took office, when prospective aides and television personalities paraded before a pack of journalists in the lobby of Trump Tower.

‘Sad to watch’

Author Chris Whipple, an expert on chiefs of staff, called the search process “sad to watch.”

In his first two years, Trump devalued the position by failing to empower anyone to perform the job, and now he’s turned the search for a replacement into a reality show,” said Whipple, author of “The Gatekeepers,” a book on the subject. “The only thing more broken and dysfunctional than the White House itself seems to be the search for the new White House chief of staff.”

The president’s hunt for a new chief reverted to square one over the weekend when Nick Ayers, Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, took himself out of the running and decided that he would instead leave the White House. The announcement surprised even senior staffers who believed that Ayers’ ascension was a done deal.

Trump then turned to a list of other candidates that was said to include Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney and Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. Other possible options mentioned were U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, though both signaled they were happy in their current roles.

By Wednesday, Meadows was out of the running, with the White House saying Trump thinks he is needed in Congress.

Getting a look?

Throughout the week, a number of other names were floated, including former Trump deputy campaign manager David Bossie, acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, White House communications director Bill Shine and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. It was not clear how many of those options were being taken seriously.

The breadth of speculation provided on-camera time for many to discuss the speculation. Bossie called it “humbling” to be considered while acknowledging that he did not know if it was a serious list of names. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum said on CNN that he would decline the job if offered, though it was never clear he was a serious contender.

Kushner being considered

Sanders responded Thursday to speculation that Trump’s aide and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, could be up for the job, saying that she was “not aware that he’s under consideration.” But she appeared to leave some wiggle room, adding, “He will be great in any role that the president chooses to put him in.” 

According to a person familiar with the matter, people have been reaching out to the president to suggest the idea, but Kushner believes that he can serve the president best in his current role. The person spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the internal discussions.

A time frame for a decision remained uncertain, with some speculation about the possibility of two people taking over the responsibilities of the chief of staff. And Trump made clear in an interview with Fox News on Thursday that he was still soliciting advice.

“Well, I want somebody that’s strong, but I want somebody that thinks like I do. It’s my vision — it is my vision, after all,” Trump said. “At the same time, I’m open to ideas.”

 

      

 

 

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«Укрзалізниця» запускає новий поїзд «Запоріжжя – Дніпро – Ужгород»

«Укрзалізниця» з 16 грудня запускає новий поїзд, сполученням Запоріжжя – Дніпро – Ужгород, повідомив в.о. голови компанії Євген Кравцов.

«У неділю запускаємо новий поїзд. Він забезпечить сполучення Дніпра, Запоріжжя, а також Білої Церкви із Закарпаттям. «Нічний Експрес» № 3/4 «Запоріжжя – Дніпро – Ужгород» у перший рейс відправиться 16 грудня», – написав Кравцов у Facebook 14 грудня.

За його словами, новий маршрут стане «потужним імпульсом для розвитку туристичної України». Поїзд, зокрема, буде зупинятись у Львові, Воловці і на станції Мукачево.

«Вагони у цьому сполученні пройшли капітально-відновлювальний ремонт, а графік складений з урахуванням побажань пасажирів», – додав Кравцов.

Із Запоріжжя поїзд виїжджатиме о 14:40, прибуватиме в Ужгород об 11:06. З Ужгорода він виходитиме о 13:20, прибуватиме в Запоріжжя о 10:14.

Нещодавно в «Укрзалізниці» заявили, що від 20 грудня цього року запускають новий поїзд № 90/89 Львів – Перемишль.

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Андрухович, Бондар і Дерманський стали переможцями Книги року ВВС-2018

Українська редакція британської медіакомпанії BBC оголосила переможців премії «Книга року ВВС-2018»:

«Книгою року» став роман Юрія Андруховича «Коханці юстиції»;
переможцем у номінації «Дитяча книга року ВВС-2018» журі обрало книгу Сашка Дерманського «Мері»;
у новій номінації «Книга року ВВС – Есеїстика-2018» перемогла збірка Андрія Бондаря «Церебро».

Юрій Андрухович, Сашко Дерманський і Андрій Бондар отримають винагороду в тисячу фунтів у гривневому еквіваленті кожен.

Видавці книг-переможців – Meridian Czernowitz (Чернівці), А-БА-БА-ГА-ЛА-МА-ГА (Київ) і Видавництво Старого Лева (Львів) – матимуть право використовувати логотипи «Книги року ВВС» у своїх наступних виданнях.

Премії «Читач року-2018» отримали Ольга Крамарь за рецензію на книгу Юрія Андруховича «Коханці юстиції» і Марина Марченко за рецензію на книгу Андрія Куркова «Сірі бджоли». Обидві переможниці отримають у подарунок електронні книги.

Минулого року Українська редакція BBC назвала книгою року збірку оповідань Катерини Калитко «Земля загублених, або маленькі страшні казки».

«BBC Україна» оголосила переможців премії «Книга року» учотирнадцяте. Конкурс проводять у партнерстві з Європейським банком реконструкції і розвитку.

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US Judge: Lawsuit Over Trump Travel Ban Waivers Will Proceed

A lawsuit accusing the Trump administration of denying nearly all visa applicants from countries under President Donald Trump’s travel ban will move forward, a U.S. judge said Thursday.

Judge James Donato heard arguments on the administration’s request that he dismiss the lawsuit. The case was “not going away at this stage,” he said at the close of the hearing.

The plaintiffs say the administration is not honoring a waiver provision in the president’s ban on travelers from five mostly Muslim countries — Iran, Lybia, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the ban in a 5-4 ruling in June.

The waiver provision allows a case-by-case exemption for people who can show entry to the U.S. is in the national interest, is needed to prevent undue hardship, and would not pose a security risk.

The 36 plaintiffs named in the lawsuit include people who have had waiver applications denied or stalled despite chronic medical conditions, prolonged family separations, or significant business interests, according to their attorneys.

They estimate tens of thousands of people have been affected by what they say are blanket denials of visa applications.

At Thursday’s hearing, Sirine Shebaya, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said officials considering the waiver requests are not following guidelines and are routinely denying people the opportunity to show they qualify for a visa.

Justice Department attorney August Flentje said consular officials are working “tirelessly” on visa applications using guidelines from the State Department. He said decisions on visas are beyond judicial review, and he accused plaintiffs’ attorneys of a “kind of micromanagement” of those decisions.

Donato said he did not have to consider any specific waiver decision, but more broadly whether officials were considering applications in “good faith” and not stonewalling.

Roughly two dozen opponents of the travel ban — some wearing stickers that read, “No ban, no wall,” — came to the courthouse for the hearing.

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Report: Federal Prosecutors Probing Trump Inauguration Spending

Federal prosecutors are investigating whether U.S. President Donald Trump’s inaugural committee misspent some of the funds it raised, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday, citing people it said were familiar with the matter.

The investigation opened by the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office is examining whether some of the committee’s donors gave money in exchange for policy concessions, influencing administration positions or access to the incoming administration, the Journal said.

The probe could present another legal threat for Trump and his White House, which already faces a web of lawsuits and probes into subjects such as the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia, hush-money payments to women made by the president’s former lawyer, and spending by Trump’s foundation.

The investigation into the inaugural committee partly stemmed from materials seized in a probe into the dealings of former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, the Journal reported. Cohen was sentenced Wednesday to three years in prison for crimes including orchestrating the hush payments in violation of campaign laws.

A spokesman for the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment. Spokespeople for the White House and Trump’s campaign did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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