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Hints, but no proof of crime, in Mueller’s hunt for a Trump-Russia conspiracy

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Hints, but no proof of crime, in Mueller's hunt for a Trump-Russia conspiracy

NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – As recently as February, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team dropped hints that the inquiry into Russia’s role in the 2016 U.S. election might unearth evidence of active cooperation between Moscow and President Donald Trump’s campaign.

FILE PHOTO: Special Counsel Robert Mueller departs after briefing members of the U.S. Senate on his investigation into potential collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., June 21, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

That turned out not to be the case, according to Attorney General William Barr, who has said he hopes to release Mueller’s nearly 400 page report this week. Barr told U.S. lawmakers on March 24 that the special counsel investigation “did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

To be sure, the investigation documented numerous contacts between Trump campaign figures and Russia, a willingness on the part of the campaign to accept help from Moscow, and no indication that the campaign told the Kremlin to keep out of an American presidential race.

No criminal conspiracy was documented, according to Barr. But court statements by members of Mueller’s team and evidence disclosed in various prosecutions by the special counsel had suggested on several occasions during the 22-month investigation that they were investigating a possible conspiracy.

Frank Montoya, a former senior FBI official with extensive experience in counterintelligence investigations, said the words “did not establish” are commonly used in national security cases as language merely ruling out a chargeable offense.

“It doesn’t mean a subject is innocent. It means investigators didn’t find enough evidence to charge a crime,” Montoya said.

A recent indication that the special counsel was investigating a Trump-Russia conspiracy came on Feb. 4 during a closed-door court hearing in Washington. Prosecutor Andrew Weissmann said Mueller was still investigating interactions between former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his Russian business partner Konstantin Kilimnik as critical to the inquiry.

“This goes to the larger view of what we think is going on, and what we think the motive here is,” Weissmann said, according to a transcript released days later. “This goes, I think, very much to the heart of what the Special Counsel’s Office is investigating.”

Mueller’s team said Manafort shared political polling data from the campaign with Kilimnik, who the special counsel has said had ties to Russian intelligence. The two also discussed proposals for a Ukrainian client to solve the Crimea conflict in a Kremlin-friendly way, Mueller said.

Three weeks after Weissmann made his comments, Mueller’s office backtracked. It said in a court filing it needed to correct its assertions about Manafort’s interactions with Kilimnik. Partially redacted court filings indicated the correction may relate to the polling data.

When Mueller’s report is released – with parts blacked out by Barr to protect certain sensitive information – it is unclear how harsh a light it will shine on the contacts between Trump campaign figures and Russians. Those making contacts included the president’s son Donald Trump Jr., son-in-law Jared Kushner, former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen and campaign figures Manafort, Jeff Sessions, Michael Flynn and George Papadopoulos.

Mueller and U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded Russia employed hacking and propaganda to sow division in the United States, harm Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and boost Trump’s candidacy. Moscow has denied election interference.

A key event in the question of conspiracy was a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower in New York in which Manafort, Kushner and Trump Jr. met with Kremlin-connected lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, who had offered damaging information about Clinton. After being promised “dirt” on Clinton, Trump Jr. wrote in an email, “I love it.”

Alan Futerfas, a lawyer for Trump Jr., declined to comment.

Mueller charged 34 people and three Russian entities. He convicted or secured guilty pleas from Trump aides including Manafort, Flynn, Cohen and Papadopoulos, and charged Russian intelligence officers and a Russian “troll farm.”

Another avenue related to potential conspiracy was Mueller’s pursuit of longtime Trump political adviser Roger Stone, who had suggested he had a relationship with the WikiLeaks website and advance knowledge of its release of Democratic emails the special counsel said were stolen by Russians to hurt Clinton.

But when Mueller indicted Stone in January, the seven criminal counts did not refer to conspiring with Russians and there was no allegation of close ties to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who separately was charged with conspiracy to commit computer intrusion related to a 2010 hack of U.S. government computers.

Mueller questioned more than a half dozen Stone associates to establish if he had acted as a go-between for the campaign with WikiLeaks. Two Stone associates who spoke to Reuters said Stone had struggled to make contact with Assange rather than having an inside track.

Randy Credico, a New York comedian associated with Stone who appeared before Mueller’s grand jury, is a case in point. Text messages between Stone and Credico seen by Reuters show Stone sought to use the comedian as an intermediary with Assange and urged Credico to feed WikiLeaks anti-Clinton research. Credico told Reuters he never made good on the request.

Stone, who has been ordered by a judge not to talk about the case, is declining comment on the investigation.

Mueller’s investigation was aided by witnesses including Flynn, the former national security adviser who pleaded guilty in December 2017 to lying about his communications with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak in 2016, and Samuel Patten, a political consultant and former Kilimnik business partner sentenced to probation on Friday after prosecutors credited him for assisting Mueller and other probes.

It is unclear to what extent Mueller’s inability to secure cooperation from others impeded him.

FILE PHOTO: A view of the U.S. District Courthouse as jury deliberations are set to begin in former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s trial on bank and tax fraud charges stemming from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russia’s role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, in Alexandria, Virginia, U.S., August 16, 2018. REUTERS/Chris Wattie/File Photo

A spokesman for Mueller declined to comment.

A judge found that Manafort, after agreeing to cooperate, repeatedly lied to prosecutors about interactions with Kilimnik and other matters, breaching a plea deal. Kilimnik, charged along with Manafort with conspiring to tamper with witnesses, was believed to be in Russia, out of reach.

There also are witnesses like Papadopoulos, the first former Trump aide charged by Mueller who initially cooperated but became increasingly critical of the special counsel, especially after completing a two-week prison term in December.

Reporting by Nathan Layne and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Will Dunham and Daniel Wallis

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Cindy McCain responds to reports that her family will endorse Joe Biden in 2020 race

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Cindy McCain responds to reports that her family will endorse Joe Biden in 2020 race

Cindy McCain, the widow of late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., responded to the reports that her family will endorse former Vice President Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election.

McCain tweeted Wednesday: “Joe Biden is a wonderful man and dear friend of the McCain Family. However, I have no intention of getting involved in presidential politics.”

Her daughter, “The View” host Meghan McCain retweeted the remarks.

JOE BIDEN OFFICIALLY LAUNCHES 2020 PRESIDENTIAL BID

Biden officially announced his candidacy for president Thursday in a video message, capping off weeks of reports that he will join the crowded Democratic field. Biden unsuccessfully ran for president in 1988 and 2008.

McCain’s comment comes after a report in the Washington Examiner that said the McCain family would support Biden. The report cited sources close to the family.

“The source said they expected Meghan McCain to speak out in favor of Biden should he get the nomination, but a Cindy McCain endorsement could come sooner,” according to the Washington Examiner.

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During the 2016 presidential election, Sen. John McCain withdrew his support for then-candidate Donald Trump following the “Access Hollywood” tape. Trump recently criticized McCain by saying he was not “a fan” of the late senator. McCain died in August 2018 after a battle with cancer. Trump has made a habit of attacking McCain, even after his death.

Fox News’ Liam Quinn contributed to this report.

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Ocasio-Cortez-aligned group attacks Biden, says he’s ‘out-of-touch’ with Democratic Party

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Joe Biden announces 2020 presidential bid: 3 things to know about the former vice president

A progressive political group that boosted New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez‘s bid for Congress last year vowed to oppose former Vice President Joe Biden in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, blasting him as part of the “old guard” and accusing him of standing in opposition to the “center of energy” in the Democratic Party.

JOE BIDEN OFFICIALLY LAUNCHES 2020 PRESIDENTIAL BID

“While we’re going to support the Democratic nominee, we can’t let a so-called ‘centrist’ like Joe Biden divide the Democratic Party and turn it into the party of ‘No, we can’t,’” the group Justice Democrats said Thursday.

Biden announced his candidacy for president Thursday. He enters a crowded field of Democratic contenders aiming to unseat President Trump — nearly 32 years after he announced his first campaign for president. The campaign is Biden’s third bid for the White House, having also unsuccessfully run in 1988 and 2008.

“The old guard of the Democratic Party failed to stop Trump, and they can’t be counted on to lead the fight against his divide-and-conquer politics today,” Justice Democrats said. “The party needs new leadership with a bold vision capable of energizing voters in the Democratic base who stayed home in 2016.”

The group added: “Joe Biden stands in near complete opposition to where the center of energy is in the Democratic Party today.”

BIDEN’S SENATE RECORDS HELD BY HIS ALMA MATER WON’T BE RELEASED UNTIL LATE 2019, POSSIBLY EVEN LATER

“Democrats are increasingly uniting around progressive populist policies like ‘Medicare-for-All,’ a Green New Deal, free college, rejecting corporate money, ending mass incarceration and deportation. We don’t need someone who voted for the Iraq War, for mass incarceration, and for the Bankruptcy Reform Act while voting against gay marriage, reproductive rights, and school desegregation,” Justice Democrats said.

Others, though, took issue with the group’s claim about the energy in the party.

“It’s probably worth noting that while this group, Justice Democrats, calls Biden ‘out-of-touch’ with the ‘center of energy’ in the Democratic Party, only 26 of the 79 candidates it endorsed last year won their primaries, and only 7 of those went on to win the general election,” said Nate Silver, the editor of FiveThirtyEight.

According to its website, Justice Democrats says its mission is “to elect a new type of Democratic majority in Congress, one which will create a thriving economy and democracy that works for the people, not big money interests.”

The attacks could foreshadow the looming clash between the progressive and establishment wings of the party: Biden, along with independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont — who enjoys the support of Democratic Socialists in the party — have consistently topped the polls in the race for the Democratic nomination.

Fox News’ Lillian LeCroy and Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report.

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Cory Booker’s tax returns shows income from lucrative speaking gigs, royalties

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Cory Booker's tax returns shows income from lucrative speaking gigs, royalties

Democratic presidential candidate Cory Booker’s tax returns show most of his wealth stems from lucrative speaking engagements and royalties.

Booker, the 2020 candidate who has yet to make a splash in the crowded Democratic field, released 10 years of tax returns on Wednesday after numerous other candidates released their records in recent weeks.

WHO ARE THE WEALTHIEST 2020 DEMS? WITH TAX RETURNS IN, THE ANSWER MAY SURPRISE YOU

The New Jersey senator reported income of $152,715 in 2018 for his salary, $22,781 in taxes which amounts to an effective tax rate of 15 percent, significantly lower than Sen. Kamala Harris’ 37 percent or Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 26 percent.

Most of Booker’s wealth comes public speaking fees and royalties, including $2 million in speaking fees between 2009 and 2014, nearly $1 million in royalties from 2015 to 2017 after the release of his book, “United.”

But the lower effective tax rate may have something to with Booker’s sizeable charitable donations. In 2018, he donated $24,000 to charity. In total over the 10-year period, the senator donated nearly $460,000 to various organizations and causes.

BETO O’ROURKE CONFRONTED AT TOWN HALL ABOUT STINGY CHARITABLE DONATIONS

This appears to be significantly more in proportion than his opponents like Sanders or former Congressman Beto O’Rourke, who faced questions over his household giving to charity just $1,166 in 2017, or about 0.3 percent of their income that year.

At the same time, more than half of those donations made by Booker came in 2013 amid criticism of his role in the founding of a social media company called Waywire, prompting him to give massive amounts of stock to charities in his city.

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The New York Times revealed that Booker’s wealth at the time – $5 million – consisted mostly of shares in the company.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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