Peter Overby

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Updated at 2:19 p.m. ET

The Foreign Emoluments Clause of the Constitution will be rendered meaningless if Democrats in Congress aren't allowed to sue President Trump for violating it, a lawyer for nearly 200 Democratic senators and representatives told a federal judge today.

"There's simply nothing Congress can do to stop the president's actions, no matter who's in control of the body," said Brianne Gorod, chief counsel of the Constitution Accountability Center, representing the Democratic lawmakers.

As tech companies and government agencies prepare to defend against possible Russian interference in the midterm elections, the Federal Election Commission has a different response: too soon.

The four commissioners on Thursday deadlocked, again, on proposals to consider new rules, for example, for foreign-influenced U.S. corporations and for politically active entities that don't disclose their donors.

Federal prosecutors have gone where the Federal Election Commission can't find its way, charging two Arizona brothers with using bogus political action committees to scam gullible small-dollar donors.

A criminal complaint alleges that William and Robert Tierney raised more than $23 million between 2014 and 2017. It says William Tierney's share was more than $3 million; Robert Tierney's was more than $600,000; the candidates they claimed to be supporting got about $109,000.

Updated at 5:40 p.m. ET

In his annual disclosure of personal finances, President Trump acknowledged that he paid lawyer Michael Cohen between $100,000 and $250,000 last year.

Both Cohen and Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani have said some of that money was to reimburse Cohen for a $130,000 hush money settlement with adult film actress Stormy Daniels, who says she had an affair with Trump.

Michael Cohen — variously described as President Trump's lawyer, fixer or, in his words, "pit bull" — has emerged as a would-be Washington influence peddler.

AT&T, Korean Aerospace Industries, a branch of the Swiss drugmaker Novartis and an American company linked to a Russian oligarch all acknowledged they had hired Cohen after Trump's surprise victory in 2016. It appears that between January 2017 and January 2018 about $1.25 million flowed from the four companies into Cohen's Essential Consultants LLC.

As with most Trump-related controversies, it leaves questions.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Did President Trump break campaign finance laws when his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, paid $130,000 to an adult film actress as part of a nondisclosure agreement? Or was Trump hoping the payment would smooth out his personal life?

That's still the fundamental question regarding Stormy Daniels' alleged encounter with Trump. But after a few volleys of contradictory accounts on TV and Twitter, the details are becoming clearer.

Newly filed reports show Democratic House candidates outpacing Republicans in raising money for the midterm elections. Here's what's going on:

1. Democratic donors are excited by the possibility of gaining a House majority.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Updated at 5:20 p.m. ET

A federal judge has ruled that a lawsuit alleging President Trump is violating the anti-corruption sections of the Constitution, known as the emoluments clauses, can proceed.

Federal District Judge Peter Messitte, in Greenbelt, Md., ruled that Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh and District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine have legal standing to sue Trump. They allege that Trump wrongly profits when foreign officials do business at the hotel he owns near the White House.

The way some of President Trump's Cabinet officials tell it, their recent negative headlines haven't been about difficulties complying with federal ethics laws, but rather about "the optics."

Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, in a House committee's hot seat last month after taking his wife on a government-funded trip to Europe, said, "I do recognize the optics of this are not good. I accept the responsibility for that."

Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., questioning Shulkin, snapped back: "It's not the optics that are not good. It's the facts that are not good."

The British data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica has gone from mysterious genius to potential defendant as details emerge about its role in Donald Trump's 2016 election campaign. With conservative strategist Steve Bannon playing a founding role, backed by money from billionaire Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, the firm was able to develop data from 50 million Facebook users into a psychologically-based strategy to target voters.

The Federal Election Commission, better known for deadlocks than decisions, has unanimously agreed to take a first step against anonymous political advertising on the internet.

The proposed rule deals with disclaimers — the "authorized by" taglines that are mandatory in print, television and radio ads that explicitly support or attack candidates.

At least for one more day, the hills of southwestern Pennsylvania are alive with the sound of campaign cash.

Voters in the state's 18th Congressional District on Tuesday elect a new member of Congress. It's a surprisingly close race in this reliably Republican district between Democratic former prosecutor Conor Lamb and Republican state legislator Rick Saccone. GOP and conservative groups are shoveling in dollars to overcome Saccone's lackluster fundraising — this despite his claim that he "was Trump before Trump was Trump."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Let's look now at a scandal in the Trump administration that has not made a lot of headlines. It involves several Cabinet officials and the ways they've spent taxpayer money. NPR's Peter Overby has our story.

Updated at 2 p.m. ET

A federal ethics agency has ruled that one of President Trump's closest White House aides twice broke the law separating government from politics.

Kellyanne Conway, who was Trump's campaign manager in 2016, advocated for Republican Roy Moore in Alabama's recent Senate election during live television interviews broadcast from the White House lawn.

The Office of Special Counsel found Conway violated the Hatch Act, which bars federal employees from using their office for partisan politics.

There's nothing like adversity to get political donors reaching for their credit cards, which made 2017 – Donald Trump's first year as president – the best year yet for the Democratic nonprofit ActBlue.

A conduit more than a solicitor of cash, ActBlue has been around since 2004. It's played a role in some of the Democrats' big fundraising successes, some fueled by a candidate's personality or message, and now increasingly stoked by anger or fear.

The Trump Organization sent the U.S. Treasury an undisclosed sum last week, in the first of what it says are annual payments to compensate for hotel profits from foreign officials.

"This voluntary contribution fulfills our pledge to donate profits from foreign government patronage at our hotels and similar businesses during President Trump's term in office," George Sorial, the company's chief compliance counsel, said in a written statement on Monday.

A Treasury spokeswoman confirmed the payment was received.

Updated Feb. 15 at 5:30 p.m. ET

President Trump's inaugural committee raised twice as much as any of its predecessors, but its final filing with the IRS shows it spent most of the money on events that were significantly scaled back from past years.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

After the Watergate scandals in the 1970s, Congress passed a series of laws to reduce the influence of big donors in politics and to increase transparency. Forty years later, those laws have been weakened by additional legislation and a series of court decisions.

Where the Watergate reforms established a single regulated system used by all candidates to finance their political campaigns, there are now three separate systems.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Updated at 1 p.m. ET

Barely a month ago, a federal judge in New York dismissed an anti-corruption lawsuit against President Trump.

But on Thursday, another federal judge, in a different courtroom, gave the same basic argument a much friendlier response.

Judge Peter Messitte, of federal district court in Greenbelt, Md., seemed sympathetic to the assertion that Trump profits from the nexus of his hotels and the presidency.

As President Trump marks the first anniversary of his inauguration, his lawyers are preparing for next week's preliminary arguments in a suit that alleges he is violating the Constitution's anti-corruption provisions, known as the foreign and domestic Emoluments Clauses.

President Trump marks his first year in the White House on Jan. 20. Since he took the oath, he's been dogged by questions about his hundreds of businesses and the conflicts of interest they pose.

In attempts to confront Trump and force him to address these conflicts, congressional Democrats, state attorneys general and watchdog groups have sued the president. So far, their cases have not advanced very far in court. A federal judge has dismissed one suit.

A federal district judge has dismissed a lawsuit alleging that President Trump is violating two anti-corruption provisions of the Constitution.

Judge George Daniels, in Manhattan, said the plaintiffs lack the necessary legal standing to sue. And he said the heart of the plaintiffs' case — the Constitution's Foreign Emoluments Clause — was something they couldn't even sue over.

The Foreign Emoluments Clause bars federal officials from taking gifts or rewards from foreign governments, unless Congress consents.

Wealthy Americans may get a new conduit for political money in the tax overhaul bill now being reconciled on Capitol Hill.

A small provision in the House version of the bill would let big donors secretly give unlimited amounts to independent political groups — and write off the contributions as charitable gifts.

The Federal Election Commission is moving to improve disclosure of the money behind Internet and digital ads, as the shadow of Russian-funded social media ads in last year's presidential race hangs over the agency.

"We can't, obviously, take over the role of the Justice Department or of Congress," Democratic Commissioner Ellen Weintraub told other commissioners Thursday, "but I do think that we could do this little piece."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Pages