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September 14, 2018

Following President Trump's baseless assertion Thursday that the death toll from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico was inflated by Democrats in order to make him look bad, White House aides are trying their best to ignore the outrage.

A new report from Politico on Friday notes that most White House officials have declined to provide on-the-record comments about the tweet. Aides are additionally hoping that news coverage of Hurricane Florence will overshadow what the president said, Politico reports.

The report notes that White House aides increasingly feel that it's pointless to try to prevent Trump from making bombastic Twitter statements, so the new strategy is to simply ignore them and hope the media moves on to the next story. The Washington Post also reports that Trump's advisers were "baffled" by the tweet.

Since Trump's statement, White House spokesman Hogan Gidley offered a slight defense, saying that while "every death from Hurricane Maria is a horror," the "liberal media" has attempted to exploit the tragedy with "a constant stream of misinformation and false accusations," per CNN reporter Kaitlan Collins.

But Gidley did not specifically affirm Trump's claim that the independent study, which concluded that nearly 3,000 people died in Puerto Rico as a result of Hurricane Maria, is wrong. Sam Stein, a reporter for The Daily Beast, said Thursday that he asked the White House three times to clarify whether they were disputing the findings of the study, but they would not provide a response. Brendan Morrow

11:54a.m.

After being arrested for alleged domestic violence, attorney Michael Avenatti is claiming the same person who recently tried to smear Special Counsel Robert Mueller is responsible.

"First Mueller and now me," Avenatti tweeted Thursday. "When we are fully exonerated I am coming for you Jacob Wohl aka Surefire." Wohl is the far-right conspiracy theorist who claimed earlier this month a woman was about to come forward to accuse Mueller of sexual misconduct. This claim quickly fell apart when the supposed accuser never showed up to a press conference, during which Wohl offered multiple spellings of her name. Afterward, it was revealed that a photo supposedly of Wohl with the accuser was actually of his girlfriend — although the woman later denied they ever dated.

Now, Avenatti is alleging the same thing is happening to him, although he offered no evidence to back up his claim. He was arrested Wednesday by the Los Angeles Police Department for alleged domestic violence, but he called the allegations "bogus." Avenatti's client, adult film actress Stormy Daniels, said in a statement Thursday that the allegations are "serious and obviously very troubling" and that she will "be seeking new representation" if they are true, although she says "we should all reserve judgement until the investigation ... is complete."

Surefire Intelligence, Wohl's organization, tweeted "Surefire Intelligence strikes again" in response to the news of Avenatti's arrest, although Wohl denies involvement. Wohl responded to Avenatti's Thursday tweet by writing, "This guy is a SICKO!" He also says he reported Avenatti's "threat" to law enforcement. Brendan Morrow

11:28a.m.

The U.S. is officially levying sanctions against Saudis allegedly tied to the murder of U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The 17 Saudis slated for sanctions were "involved in" the operation that "targeted and brutally killed a journalist who resided and worked in the United States," the Treasury Department said in a Thursday statement. The move comes just hours after Saudi Arabia announced charges against 11 people allegedly connected to the murder, The Washington Post reports.

Thursday's announcement marks the biggest step the U.S. has taken against Saudi Arabia in the wake of Khashoggi's killing. Khashoggi was murdered Oct. 2 after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. The Justice Department announced a month ago it would revoke visas from those it had connected to the murder. The new sanctions will "freeze any U.S. assets and prohibit any Americans from dealings with" the targeted Saudis, the Post reports.

A senior aide to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was among those sanctioned Thursday, per the Post. Still, both the U.S. and the Saudi government both avoided implicating bin Salman, who has a close relationship with President Trump's senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

Turkish officials have long maintained that the Saudi government was responsible for the murder, but the U.S. has repeatedly avoided directly accusing Saudi officials, including bin Salman. Saudi Arabia previously suggested Khashoggi's murder was a rogue, premeditated operation, but claimed Thursday it was ordered on the spot. Kathryn Krawczyk

10:43a.m.

President Trump reportedly hated that former Attorney General Jeff Sessions didn't have an Ivy League education. But it didn't stop Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker from rising to replace Sessions after his ouster last week. And it's far from the most unusual thing on Whitaker's resume, The Washington Post reports.

While securing his undergraduate and eventual law degree from the University of Iowa, Whitaker was "something of a local legend" on the Rose Bowl-bound football team, the Post details. The Iowa native moved to Minnesota and became a general counsel for a grocery store chain after graduating, then returned home in 2001 and launched a failed bid for state treasurer. Next up, Whitaker bought a majority stake in trailer manufacturer, purchased an entire day care center, and co-founded a concrete company.

Whitaker worked at a small law firm the whole time he was back in Iowa, and was "plucked from relative obscurity" to become a U.S. attorney in 2004 under former President George W. Bush, writes the Post. In that job, Whitaker was accused of targeting an openly gay Democratic state senator with extortion charges. Whitaker has denied the allegation, per the Post. He stepped down as U.S. attorney in 2009, and after a few more business ventures, ended up at the DOJ.

Attorneys general "typically boast judgeships, partnerships at prestigious firms, and senior roles in the Justice Department," the Post writes. So it's no wonder Whitaker had what one federal court expert called an "an extraordinarily weak and unusual background for a U.S. attorney." Yet somehow, the Trump loyalist and critic of the Russia probe beat the odds and took charge of them all. Read more at The Washington Post. Kathryn Krawczyk

9:56a.m.

As election officials in Florida prepare to wrap up their machine recount, a federal judge has now given voters who had their ballots thrown out due to mismatched signatures time to resolve the issue.

This decision affects 4,000 or more mail-in and provisional ballots, which were rejected because the voter's signature didn't exactly match the signature on record, reports The Washington Post. The deadline for Florida's machine recount comes on Thursday, but those whose ballots were rejected due to mismatching signatures now have until Saturday at 5 p.m. to have their ballot "cured" so their vote can still count.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who is behind Republican Gov. Rick Scott in the closely-watched Senate race by around 12,000 votes, wanted the matching signature requirement waived entirely, but the judge did not allow for that. However, he said that because the deadline to resolve issues with mismatched signatures was 5 p.m. on Nov. 5, but the deadline to submit a mail-in ballot was 7 p.m. on Nov. 6, many voters weren't given time to respond if their ballots were rejected.

Scott, who leads Nelson by about 0.15 percentage points, is appealing Thursday's ruling, reports the Orlando Sentinel. Meanwhile, in the governor's race, former Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) currently leads Democrat Andrew Gillum by about 34,000 votes, or 0.40 percentage points. Brendan Morrow

8:33a.m.

President Trump is renewing his attacks on the ongoing Russia investigation.

Trump on Twitter Thursday claimed that Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigators are "screaming and shouting at people" and "horribly threatening them to come up with the answers they want." He did not offer any evidence for this claim. He also called the investigation a "total mess" and a "disgrace to our Nation" run by people who "don't care how many lives they ruin." Trump attacked Mueller specifically, saying he "worked for Obama for 8 years."

Mueller only served as the director of the FBI for four years while Barack Obama was president. He was appointed by former President George W. Bush, and served under him for nearly eight years.

These tweets from Trump come after he appointed Matt Whitaker, who has openly criticized the investigation, as acting attorney general, and many in Congress are growing concerned that the Mueller investigation could be in jeopardy. They also follow a report that new indictments from Mueller are coming very soon. Brendan Morrow

8:10a.m.

Defense Secretary James Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen traveled to Donna, Texas, on Wednesday to visit some of the 5,900 active duty troops President Trump sent to the U.S.-Mexico border to counter a "caravan" of Central American migrants. "Let's have at it, young soldiers: What's on your mind?" Mattis asked one small group of Army soldiers. "Sir, I have a question," one soldier said. "The wire obstacles that we've implanted along the border ... Are we going to be taking those out when we leave?"

The question drew "a few smirks from those around him," reports BuzzFeed's Vera Bergengruen. "The most visible role U.S. troops have served since they began arriving on Oct. 29 has been stringing up concertina wire, a razor wire that is notoriously hard to remove." And laying out anywhere from 22 miles to 170 miles of razor wire appears to be their primary mission. "We'll see what the secretary says, okay?" Mattis answered, pointing to Nielsen, widely tipped to be fired soon. "Right now, the mission is put them in."

The troops — like the 2,100 National Guard troops Trump sent to the border in April — won't be allowed to arrest or detain anybody and can't enforce immigration or criminal law.

Mattis described the "absolutely legal" deployment as a "moral and ethical mission" to counter illegal immigration. He said his mother — who, Bergengruen notes, Mattis previously said emigrated from Canada as an infant — "told me how hard it was to get into America. So believe me, we want legal immigration." And the deployment wasn't unprecedented, he said, citing President Woodrow Wilson sending the Army to the border in 1916 to fight "Pancho Villa's troops."

"What are the short- and the long-term plans of this operation, sir?" another young soldier asked Mattis. "Short term right now, you get the obstacles in so the border patrolmen can do what they gotta do," Mattis said. "Longer term, it's somewhat to be determined." Peter Weber

8:00a.m.

Saudi Arabia has indicted 11 people in connection with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, and five of them may receive the death penalty.

The Saudi public prosecutor, Saud al-Mojeb, announced the charges during a news conference Thursday, which came over a month after the journalist, who was critical of the kingdom, went missing at the Saudi consulate in Turkey, per The Washington Post. Al-Mojeb says a 15-person team was sent to the consulate to abduct Khashoggi, but when he resisted, they decided to kill him, The New York Times reports. The Saudi public prosecutor says they did so by injecting Khashoggi with an overdose of a sedative and then dismembering his body, per CNN.

After Khashoggi went missing in early October, the kingdom's narrative of events changed dramatically. At first, it said Khashoggi actually left the consulate safely, only to later say he was killed accidentally during a fistfight. Then Saudi officials suggested the killing was premeditated. Now, the public prosecutor claims the decision to kill Khashoggi was made on the spot, The New York Times reports.

Saudi Arabia also maintains that the operation was carried out without the knowledge of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, even though officials say this is unlikely, the Times reports. "It is obvious that this murder was previously planned and that the order had come from high-level authorities in Saudi Arabia," Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says. Brendan Morrow

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