March 13, 2018

On Monday, British Prime Minister Theresa May said it's "highly likely that Russia was responsible" for a March 4 nerve gas attack on a 66-year-old former Russian double agent, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia, outside a shopping center in Salisbury. Skripal and his daughter, 33, are hospitalized in critical condition, and a British police officer who found them unconscious on a bench is in serious condition.

The pair "were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia," May said. "Either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country, or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others." U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the nerve agent, Novichok, "came from Russia" and will "certainly trigger a response." He did not speculate if the Russian government ordered the attack, but said the Kremlin is increasingly "aggressive" and seems to be behind a "certain unleashing of activity that we don't fully understand."

Earlier Monday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders had repeatedly declined to blame Russia for the nerve gas attack.

May gave Russian President Vladimir Putin until midnight Tuesday to explain how a nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union ended up poisoning British citizens in broad daylight. The Russian Foreign Ministry said May is putting on "a circus show in the British Parliament" and posted a mocking tweet.

Novichok agents, which asphyxiate people by constricting airways and slowing the heart, are believed to be up to 10 times deadlier than better known nerve agents like Sarin and VX. Peter Weber

10:47 a.m. ET

Lawyers for Stormy Daniels and Michael Cohen appeared on CNN on Tuesday night to battle it out over the ongoing legal dispute regarding a nondisclosure agreement Daniels, a former adult film actress, signed in 2016.

Arthur Schwartz, representing President Trump's personal attorney Cohen, mostly traded barbs with Daniels' lawyer Michael Avenatti over the nitty-gritty of the contract that barred the actress from discussing an alleged affair with Trump. But Schwartz clashed with host Anderson Cooper when the conversation turned to whether or not Cohen had violated the NDA by publicly discussing it and confirming that he had paid Daniels $130,000 for her silence. (Trump has steadfastly denied he was ever involved with Daniels.)

Schwartz shut down the suggestion, and said that Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, had already violated the agreement before Cohen publicly discussed the payment last month. Cooper pointed out that the story was leaked to The Wall Street Journal, and Schwartz continued to insist that Daniels was the first to break the contract.

"How had she violated the contract?" asked Cooper.

"Because she leaked it," said Schwartz. "She's the one that was out there leaking the information."

When Cooper asked how he knew that Daniels had leaked the story, Schwartz simply claimed that the details would "come out in court," and that Daniels was seeking more money. Cooper pushed him on his claim, seeking to clarify that Schwartz didn't actually have any evidence that Daniels herself had leaked the story to the Journal.

"I'm assuming she did," responded Schwartz.

At that point, Daniels attorney Avenatti chimed in: "Well, you know what they say about people that assume." Watch the entire showdown below, via CNN. Summer Meza

10:04 a.m. ET
STR/AFP/Getty Images

Forty-four African nations have signed an agreement to establish the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), a deal that could eventually unite all 55 countries in the African Union in the biggest free trade accords since the World Trade Organization was formed in 1995, CNBC reports. The deal would link some 1.2 billion people and a gross domestic product of $2.5 trillion.

"The promise of free trade and free movement is prosperity for all Africans, because we are prioritizing the production of value-added goods and services that are Made in Africa," said Rwandan President Paul Kagame, as reported by Bloomberg Politics. "The advantages we gain by creating one African market will also benefit our trading partners around the world."

Africa has low intra-continental trade compared to other regions in the world, at about 16 percent. For example, in Latin America intra-continental trade makes up 19 percent of the continent's total, and that number is 51 percent in Asia. "Increasing intra-African trade, however, does not mean doing less business with the rest of the world," emphasized Kagame.

There were some notable absences from the agreement, including Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, whose cabinet has approved the deal but who wants to "allow more time for input from Nigerian stakeholders." Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo blasted Buhari's hesitation, saying: "I am surprised that any African leader at this time would be doubting or debating the benefits of what is going to be signed here and fail to show up." Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza also did not attend the summit, Bloomberg Politics reports.

The agreement only requires ratification by 22 countries to go into effect. Jeva Lange

9:55 a.m. ET

On Monday, Britain's Channel 4 broadcast undercover video of Cambridge Analytica executives bragging about using shady techniques to influence dozens of elections around the world, inflame conflicts, and sow chaos. On Tuesday, the network aired a second round of clips showing Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix and other senior executives talking about using those techniques to help President Trump win. Nix said he'd met Trump "many times" and Cambridge Analytica essentially formed the backbone of Trump's campaign.

"We did all the research, all the data, all the analytics, all the targeting, we ran all the digital campaign, the television campaign, and our data informed all the strategy," Nix said. Trump "won by 40,000 votes in three states," managing director Mark Turnbull noted after the company's chief data scientist, Dr. Alex Tayler, said their data had steered Trump's movements and message in key swing states. "That's how he won the election," Tayler said. Turnbull later took credit for creating the "defeat Crooked Hillary" line of attack used in super PAC-funded ads viewed more than 30 million times.

Cambridge Analytica suspended Nix, 42, on Tuesday, saying his comments "do not represent the values or operations of the firm and his suspension reflects the seriousness with which we view this violation," adding in a statement that the firm itself "has never claimed it won the election for President Trump. This is patently absurd."

Nix founded Cambridge Analytica in 2013 with Stephen Bannon; donors Rebekah Mercer and her father, Robert Mercer; and researcher Christopher Wylie, Wylie tells The Washington Post, and Bannon was the one who approved the project that discovered the niche appeal of future Trump campaign themes like "drain the swamp" and "deep state." "We had to get Bannon to approve everything at this point," in 2014, Wylie said. "Bannon was Alexander Nix's boss." Peter Weber

8:56 a.m. ET
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

A law passed in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, shooting is being used in an attempt to temporarily seize firearms from the attacker's brother, Zachary Cruz, CNN reports. Cruz, 18, was arrested Monday for trespassing on the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School grounds, where his older brother, Nikolas Cruz, killed 17 people last month.

The Broward County Sheriff's Office filed a risk protection order against Zachary Cruz after his arrest, which, if granted, "will prohibit Cruz from possessing and acquiring firearms for a period of time to be determined by the court." The new law is part of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, which has only been in effect for a few weeks and allows for police to temporarily seize guns from a person in custody for an involuntary mental health assessment. For trespassing, Cruz was ordered a psychological evaluation by a Florida judge and had his bond set at $500,000, although the amount for misdemeanor trespassing is usually $25.

Cruz had apparently trespassed at the school at least three times, having "surpassed all locked doors and gates." He has additionally been ordered by the court to wear an ankle monitor and stay at least a mile away from the school. Cruz's attorney has argued that Zachary is being unfairly punished by the court for his brother's attack. Jeva Lange

8:10 a.m. ET

The fourth nor'easter in a month is set to pummel New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston, and Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, with up to 18 inches of snow expected in some areas.

Nicknamed Winter Storm Toby, the forecast includes the potential for coastal flooding as well as "thundersnow" and power outages due to high winds. New York City preemptively announced school closures on Tuesday, affecting some 1.1 million children, and more than 4,000 flights have already been canceled, CBS News and USA Today report.

"Not a bust today folks," tweeted Baltimore meteorologist Tony Pann as the first flakes began to fall. "[T]he storm is just getting started!" Jeva Lange

7:59 a.m. ET
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Only a small circle of people in the White House knew that President Trump ignored all-caps advice from his national security advisers for his phone call Tuesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin — "DO NOT CONGRATULATE" him on his re-election — and one of them leaked it to The Washington Post, leaving Trump and his senior staff "furious and rattled," Axios reports. Each of the possible leakers "is trusted with sensitive national secrets," and "the speed and sensitivity of the leak prompted immediate finger-pointing within the administration."

Whatever the motive for the leak — concern over Trump's handling of Putin, anger that he ignored his aides, power games — one White House official told Jonathan Swan that Trump's congratulatory comment was just "the way Trump is. If he's doing business with you or working with you in some way, he's going to congratulate you." Plus, "the idea he's being soft on Russia is crap," the "furious" official added. Trump simply "doesn't want his personal relationship [with Putin] to be acrimonious," seeing that "leader-to-leader" congeniality as the key to rebuilding the U.S.-Russian relationship. Peter Weber

7:45 a.m. ET
Pete Marovich/Getty Images

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, who is allergic to economy class seats on airplanes, spent some $105,000 on first class flights during his first year in office, the EPA has told the House Oversight Committee, as reported by Politico.

Perhaps the most baffling trip of all was a four-day excursion to Morocco in December, where Pruitt somehow missed his connecting flight to Rabat and was forced to stay overnight in Paris, and then missed two additional flights. Total cost of the trip: $17,631, not including what was spent on his 10-person staff. The EPA said the trip was affected by the weather, although that doesn't explain the $500 splurge on a hotel while in Paris.

Additional pricey flights include a trip from Tulsa to New York ($3,330, plus $669 to stay in Manhattan); a trip to Corpus Christi, Texas ($3,900); a trip to Jackson, Mississippi ($3,200); and a trip to Nebraska ($3,610), The Washington Post reports.

The EPA has defended Pruitt's practices by claiming the "EPA's Protective Service Detail identified specific ongoing threats associated with Administrator Pruitt's travel and shifted his class based on certain security protocols that require him to be near the front of the plane." It was later revealed those threats were primarily people yelling at him in airports. Jeva Lange

See More Speed Reads