KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — In a reversal of a longstanding policy, American diplomats held face-to-face talks with Taliban representatives in Qatar a week ago without Afghan government officials present, two senior Taliban officials said on Saturday.
The United States State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Saturday. But the department has not denied that its diplomats had taken part in such talks — a significant shift in American strategy toward the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The Afghan president’s office said on Saturday that it welcomed any support for peace efforts.
The talks took place in Doha, where the Taliban have long maintained an informal “political office” for the purpose of restarting the long-dormant peace process.
They involved several members of the Taliban political commission and Alice Wells, the State Department’s senior South Asia diplomat, as well as other unidentified American diplomats, according to the two Taliban officials.
The Taliban officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic sensitivities around the talks, which were initially reported by The Wall Street Journal.
The New York Times reported on July 15 that such talks were expected, after the Trump administration told its top diplomats they could begin direct negotiations with the Taliban. The insurgents had always demanded negotiations with the Americans as a precondition to any peace talks as long as the American military was still in Afghanistan.
But United States officials have taken pains to insist that such talks would not mean the abandonment of what has been a longstanding policy that any peace process would be “Afghan owned and Afghan led.”
The meeting involved Ms. Wells and other senior American diplomats, one of the Taliban officials said, and emphasized that direct talks with United States officials, in person and without the presence of Afghan officials or ministers, were a demand of the insurgents’ leadership.
The other official said that the meeting had concerned the peace process, and that the Taliban were expecting good results from it, including further similar meetings. Neither Taliban representative would discuss in further detail the substance of the talks.
Similar efforts to start peace talks between the Americans and the Taliban in Doha in 2015 faltered after the Afghan government denounced the process. There has been no such reaction so far this time.
“The government of Afghanistan welcomes every effort which supports the peace process under the auspices of the government,” said Durrani Waziri, a deputy spokeswoman for President Ashraf Ghani. “We appreciate help and support from any side that can facilitate the peace process.”
Ms. Waziri declined to comment, however, on whether the government was aware that the Americans had met with the Taliban in Doha.
Atta Ul Rahman Salim, deputy head of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, said, “We as the peace council welcome every effort by the people, organizations and countries that can facilitate peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.”
Hopes for peace talks were bolstered recently when the government and the Taliban declared overlapping cease-fires at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The cease-fires were widely respected by both sides and received enthusiastically.
In addition, peace marchers have drawn widespread support throughout much of the country, building grass-roots pressure on the government to hold peace talks.
President Ghani has offered to hold another cease-fire for the Eid al-Adha holiday, in late August, and American military and diplomatic officials have approved of that suggestion.
On a visit to Kabul last Monday, the American military officer in charge of Central Command, Gen. Joseph L. Votel, was asked about the new American stance on peace talks.
“As President Ghani has indicated, he’s ready to pursue something without conditions — that speaks for itself,” he said.
“Everything can be on the table here as we move forward with this Afghan-led process.”
Fahim Abed contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey Gameplay: map size and an inside look on what to expect
With a setting as big as Ancient Greece, Ubisoft has a huge responsibility in making Assassin’s Creed Odyssey gameplay meet its status with such a vast era and location. Let’s take a look at how this is done!
In Assassin’s Creed Odyssey we are taken to the height of Greek culture as we get to experience a vast open world in Ancient Greece. With a map size over half the size of its predecessor, Assassin’s Creed Origin’s, There will surely be no shortage of fun and mystery to be a part of.
The map will contain seven different regions :
With a map as diverse as this, the gameplay in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey has a lot to live up to in terms of diversity. And thankfully diversity and the ability to be a Demi-God seem to be the names of the game. Even as you trail along the open seas, upgrades to your character and your ship are all meant to fit a play-style that YOU choose.
Check out the Latest in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey Gameplay:
The new Assassin’s Creed Odyssey gameplay looks like its going to be addicting!
Gold’s Gym Raises $2,300 For Local Jewish Federation
Gold’s Gym Ormond Beach hosted a charity event with a lot of heart over the weekend of August 4. Members participated in specialty classes designed specifically for this event and made donations while having fun.
And the results were better than anybody could have hoped for. On the following Friday, Gold’s Gym informed their Facebook followers they had raised more than $2,300 for the Jewish Federation. This is money used to buy backpacks and school supplies for Volusia County children.
“This is a cause that is very close to our hearts. It brought us a lot of joy to play a part in this donation,” said the official announcement.
Community and gym members alike were invited, over the course of the weekend, to participate in a series of fun spin and fitness classes. The end goal: to encourage attendees to donate generously.
Handing over a check for $2,308 to representatives from the Jewish Federation on Thursday, smiles, and gratitude filled the room. Gold’s Gym had made the impact they’d set out to make. More importantly, though they’d made a difference.
The Jewish Federation of Volusia and Flagler Counties
The Jewish Federation of Volusia and Flagler Counties is an organization which works hand-in-hand with local Jewish communities. Part of their mission statement is strengthening the Jewish identity on a local level, and meeting their unique needs.
For more information on how you can help support the Federation and the work they do, call 396-672-0294 or visit them, online.
And to those of you interested in fitness in the Ormond Beach area, why not stop in at your local Gold’s Gym and break a sweat, today?
And, to Daytona community members, read our recent article on Gold’s Gym’s exciting new move to the Shoppes at One Daytona.
Gold’s Gym Brings Exceptional Fitness To The Daytona Beach Community
Fitness enthusiasts in Daytona Beach have a lot to look forward to this December, as Gold’s Gym makes its way to the Shoppes at One Daytona. With an exciting rollout, a massive new store, and an innovative pre-sale event planned, Gold’s is set to make an explosive entrance into the world’s most famous beach.
And it’s in good hands, too!
Gold’s Gym and the Ward Family
Ormond Beach Gold’s Gym franchise owners, the Ward family, will be taking over the lease at the Daytona location. Co-owner, Tyler Ward, spoke about the family’s experience owning the store since 2001, what prompted the expansion, and his hopes for the future.
“We’ve been looking to expand for quite some time, now,” Ward said. “Branch out, and, with a few folks we had worked with before, we started a discussion about leasing out this space.”
What To Expect
The location in question clocks in at an impressive 29,300 sq ft, surpassing the available work area at the Ward family’s current location. It’s also the largest available space at the Shoppes at One Daytona. Management is predicting staff members at the new location will number around 50 workers, with a full complement of gym equipment. It’s a strong introduction into the community from one of the leading fitness brands in the country, and translates into increased job opportunities within the city itself.
“One thing that will be unique to the new location is going to be more of a studio style or boutique style of classes. We’ll have five different class spaces with five different offerings going on at any time of the day. We’re bringing a host of classes under one roof and allowing our guests to pick. So, where once you may have had to go from one location to another, do this but not that because of time, now you can take any combination of classes you want.”
The gym will feature a team training center, as well as facilities for yoga, cycling, and exercise. Guests can also look forward to hydrotherapy massage facilities, and there’s even an onsite Kids Club for busy parents.
Classes will be half-hour slots, so guests can combine classes without becoming exhausted. “We want people to be able to fit their workouts in before work, during lunch, and after work.”
Another bit of innovation behind the launch is an interactive pre-sale area, going up in Shoppes at One Daytona in mid-September. “We will have a small pre-sale space opening right there in the shopping center while the new gym is still under construction. And that pre-sale area, what it’s going to offer is a sneak peak view into the look and feel of the facility.”
The area will feature massive picture frames, showing off 3D renderings of each the gym area, long before it’s finished being built. Future guests can walk in, look around, and get an almost exact idea of what they will be experiencing when the gym has its grand opening, later this year.
And to top it all off: “We’ll have actual gym equipment set up in the pre-sale room as well, for people to get a full-on tactile experience of what we’ll be offering.”
A Note On Service
Ormond members understand the Ward family’s involvement with their location. This is something Tyler and Ward co-owners, his father, grandfather, and aunt are all proud of. “We’ve grown with Ormond beach, as a family as well as a company. The reciprocation of the members – their love of the facility is the foundation of what Gold’s Gym is, here in Ormond.”
“We were at about 10,000 sq ft and 1200 members back in 2001 and we’ve grown this into over a 5,000 member base and 27,000 sq ft of space. It’s been amazing over the years to see how many members have joined with us and continue to stick with us because, when they come in every day, they get a ‘Hello’. We work in that way to brighten their day, give them a good start to their day.”
Ward spoke about his hopes to bring that same personable model over to operations at the Shoppes at One Daytona. “Our tagline within this facility has always been ‘Friendliness, cleanliness, and professionalism’. And in the time that we’ve been operational, we’ve created programs to duplicate that work ethic and carry that with us, over and over again, wherever we go.”
“We put the value to the customer long before anything else,” Ward said. “Within both facilities, you’re part of our Gold’s Gym family – you’re not a number to us. When you join us, you’re joining a family.”
Gold’s Gym, Daytona
Memberships are priced per month, for individuals and families, but Ward says to look out for special offers in the following months. “Pre-sale rates, grand opening offers – guests can look forward to that. Keep your eyes open.”
Portland Protest Points to a Deeper Divide Over the City’s Identity
PORTLAND, Ore. — When Callista Fink told her father 10 years ago that she was moving to Oregon’s largest city, his response was immediate: “You’re moving to a place with a lot of white supremacists,” Ms. Fink remembered her father saying.
In the years since, Ms. Fink, who grew up in Illinois and works in hospital administration, has not fully convinced her father that he was wrong, despite the prevailing image of Portland as a beacon of tolerance. She has wondered, in her travels around the state, whether a different, more troubling Oregon was never far away, lurking beneath the surface.
That conundrum came to the fore on Saturday. Far-right groups arrived for a rally on the Willamette River waterfront, with lots of blustery talk of violence. Leftists, many of them masked and apparently equally committed to fight, met them in counterprotest. And the police, in a city where demonstrations routinely turn violent or destructive, held the line against both sides, later dispersing the crowds with flash-bang grenades and pepper spray.
Portlandia, as many people call their city, in shrugging resignation or embrace of the caricature from the television comedy by that name, might seem to many Americans the least likely of places to be on the boil as a political caldron. But the deep disparity between where the city began and where it ended up — from an openly racist territorial capital in the 19th century to one of the nation’s most politically progressive cities — has never fully been resolved, or healed.
“It’s still trying to find its identity — that’s why it brings in the extremes,” said Mark Landers, 39, who works for an art supply and framing store.
Mr. Landers said that because Portland did not get as big a wave of immigrants as many other cities did, it remained frozen in place in terms of diversity. “Stuck” was his word for it. Portland is one of the whitest big cities in America, almost 78 percent, and has a smaller percentage of foreign-born residents, according to the census.
The piercing shops and tattoo parlors, the running jokes about everybody being in a band (or preoccupied with “artisan knots”), can sometimes obscure the lesser-known aspects of the city’s identity.
“There’s a massive state of denial,” said Randy Blazak, a sociologist and chair of the Oregon Coalition Against Hate Crimes.
Both the left and the right can see the Portland they want to see, and refuse to see the parts they don’t like.
For some, the old image of the nation’s white Northwest — sometimes called Cascadia, a piney, mythical homeland free of immigrants and minorities — lives on as a place worth defending, even though it is now largely a mirage, Mr. Blazak said. And many Oregonians refuse to study or acknowledge the legacy of their history, from the state’s founding to the rise of its Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s to the gentrification and displacement of communities of color today, he said.
Language incorporated by popular referendum in the 1857 State Constitution prohibited blacks from living here, owning property or entering legal contracts, and made Oregon the only non-slavery state admitted into the union with a so-called exclusion clause. The provision was never strictly enforced, historians said. But some racist language remained in the Constitution through as late as 2002. Oregon’s population is still only 2.2 percent black.
“When I talk to people and say Oregon was formed as this whites-only state, there’s this look of ‘How that could possibly be?’” Mr. Blazak said. “People are just shocked that this is our history.”
That history still endures. Skinhead groups rose to prominence here in the 1980s, and last year, a man spouting what witnesses said were racist and anti-Muslim language stabbed two people to death on a transit train.
Oregon for many years deliberately sought to cordon itself off from the rest of the country, and by some measures succeeded. In the early 1970s, Gov. Tom McCall famously urged Americans to come and visit — with a caveat: “But I also ask them, for heaven’s sake, don’t move here to live.” (Some have speculated that Mr. McCall was using reverse psychology: Tell people not to come and they’ll immediately think they’re missing out on something great.)
Insularity, and the idea that some kind of different society — whether racist, utopian, progressive or something else — could be conceived and built at the Northwest fringe of the continent, still runs deep in the culture.
Though Portland is the economic engine of the state, with a majority of the jobs and about 59 percent of the state’s population of 4.1 million living in the metro area, its progressive politics can sometimes come off as hostile to business. That is in stark contrast with Seattle, which to the Northwest is both a rival city to Portland and its polar opposite. Seattle has cultivated for generations the idea that it would one day become a great global city and an economic titan. Portland just doesn’t dream that way.
“Seattle will do anything to promote business,” said Todd Brundage, 51, an investment adviser who said his plan for Saturday’s rally was to stay as far away as possible. “Here, they’re like, ‘Whatever, we couldn’t care less. Stay or go.’”
Divisions over the region’s identity have prompted repeated clashes and protests, especially since the election of President Trump. The rally on Saturday was organized in part by Patriot Prayer, which espouses anti-immigrant rhetoric and obtained a legal permit from the city for the event. A group called Rose City Antifa started in Portland more than a decade ago, and its members, often masked, have shown themselves to be as interested in breaking windows, vandalizing businesses and challenging the police as fighting the right wing.
The rally and counterprotests, which wound along the Willamette River east of downtown, had plenty of rage, shouted insults and a few thrown punches on both sides. But the Portland police were also out in force and moved to break up the counterprotesters first, after rocks and bottles, the police said, were thrown at officers.
The authorities also confiscated a variety of would-be weapons throughout the day, and four people were arrested on various charges that included disorderly conduct, unlawful use of a weapon and attempting to assault a police officer, according to the Portland Police Bureau.
As the two groups faced off, the Patriot Prayer group chanted “U-S-A!,” “Trump!” and “Build the wall!” The counterprotesters mostly denounced Nazis.
Skirmishes broke out and some people, including a local reporter, were seen bleeding and nursing injuries. At least three people received medical treatment, the police said.
But as for the widespread violence that many had feared and was talked up on social media, “the rhetoric didn’t seem to manifest,” said Chris May, 31, a student who had come to watch. Much of the protest seemed to be about spectacle and showboating.
There is a pattern, and it long predates the recent protests and the election of Mr. Trump: To groups on the fringe, attention is oxygen, and Portland is a great place to get it.
Sarah Mervosh contributed reporting from New York.
Venezuelan President Targeted by Explosions in Drone Attack
CARACAS, Venezuela — A drone attack caused pandemonium at a military ceremony where President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela was speaking on Saturday, making the first lady flinch and sending National Guard troops scurrying in what administration officials called an assassination attempt.
The president, who was unharmed, later told the nation, “To all of our friends in the world, I am fine, I am alive.” He blamed right-wing elements and said, “The Bolivarian revolution keeps its path.”
Mr. Maduro has presided over a spectacular economic collapse in Venezuela, where inflation is expected to reach one million percent this year despite the country’s large oil reserves. Economists blame decades of mismanagement under Mr. Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez.
The drone attack was the latest in a string of attempts in recent years to end the tenure of Mr. Maduro, who was declared the victor of an election in May that carries his term until 2025. No previous assaults have been as bold, though, and this appeared to have been the first assassination attempt on a head of state using drones.
It was an attack that seemed scripted for Hollywood: Low-flying drones exploding midair. The president and first lady ducking for cover. Thousands of soldiers in a military parade suddenly fleeing in a stampede that was broadcast to the country, live.
Jorge Rodríguez, the communications minister, said the attackers had used “several flying devices, drones, that had explosives that detonated” near where the president was standing.
The attack came shortly after 5:30 p.m. during an event the government said was meant to celebrate the 81st anniversary of the country’s National Guard.
During the president’s speech, which was broadcast live on state television, the camera began to shake. Mr. Maduro then looked into the air as his wife, Cilia Flores, flinched and reached for another official to brace herself.
The video feed was interrupted, but Mr. Maduro could be heard continuing to talk as voices in the background yelled for people to flee.
The video feed then showed figures dressed in black breaking through a barrier from the sidelines of a wide street where hundreds of uniformed guardsmen were arrayed in formation. The figures in black ran toward the guardsmen, who abruptly fled in panic.
The transmission then cut off.
Mr. Maduro, addressing the nation just before 9 p.m., blamed right-wing elements in Venezuela and Colombia for the attack, and said that President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia was also responsible.
“All the investigations point to Bogotá,” he said, accompanied by his ministers and military high command. “They have tried to kill me today.” Mr. Maduro also suggested involvement by unidentified Americans.
Figures aligned with the opposition condemned the attack.
“This is not the way out of the Venezuelan crisis,” said Nicmer Evans, a political scientist who has campaigned with the opposition. “No one wants the exit to be the death of someone to resolve this country’s situation.”
It was not the first time that the government, which has presided over years of food shortages and rules with an authoritarian fist, has suffered a spectacular attack in its capital.
In June 2017, Óscar Pérez, a rogue police officer, commandeered a helicopter and used it in a brazen midday assault to drop grenades on the Supreme Court building and to fire on the Interior Ministry.
Mr. Pérez took to Instagram to call for others to join his cause and wage attacks against military bases, but he was killed by the government during an assault in January.
In another attack last year, a group of soldiers struck a military barracks west of Caracas. Like Mr. Pérez, they released videos calling for others to join their cause, but no rebellion materialized.
And in 2016, Mr. Maduro himself was attacked by a mob who chased him down the street banging pots and pans and screaming that they had no food.
Despite widespread discontent, Mr. Maduro continues to hold power. His most popular rivals were banned from running in elections this spring, and opposition parties boycotted and said the vote was rigged.
On Saturday, VivoPlay, a Venezuelan broadcaster, said its reporting team had gone missing after members of the National Guard seized its equipment as they tried to report on the events.
Analysts said Saturday that while the attack might be used to drum up support for the president, it was a deep embarrassment for Mr. Maduro.
“It will boost his rhetoric and give some substance to his conspiracy theories,” said David Smilde, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights group. “But the optics of this weaken him. The images of him being interrupted in mid-speech and the armed forces running away make him look vulnerable.”
Mr. Smilde dismissed theories on Saturday that the government had organized a failed attack to build support for Mr. Maduro. He said the attack appeared “amateurish.”
Early Saturday evening, American officials hadn’t commented on the attack. But leaders friendly to Mr. Maduro offered their support and cast suspicion on foreign powers.
“We energetically repudiate this new aggression and cowardly attack,” said Evo Morales, Bolivia’s president and a fellow leftist. “After failed attempts to topple him democratically, economically, politically and militarily, now the empire and its servants try to take his life.”
That wasn’t the reaction of some residents who stood nearby as officials fled.
“Running like rats,” said a woman who filmed a video of the soldiers and officials fleeing on Saturday. “All of those fancy cars of the plugged-in elites trying to get away at the same time.”
Ana Vanessa Herrero reported from Caracas, Venezuela, and Nicholas Casey from Popayán, Colombia.
Beyond the N.R.A.: Maria Butina’s Peculiar Bid for Russian Influence
WASHINGTON — Twelve days after a young Russian gun-rights activist gained access to some of America’s most prominent conservatives, at an elegant dinner near the Capitol, a Republican operative was eager to keep the momentum going.
In a February 2017 email, the operative, Paul Erickson, proposed another “U.S./Russia friendship” dinner. He noted that the activist, Maria Butina, who now is accused of being a covert Russian agent, was making an “ever-expanding circle of influential friends.”
Ms. Butina, he wrote in the email, had just met Susan Eisenhower, the granddaughter of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, during a visit to Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. The Russian woman had also gotten to know the ex-wife of a supermarket heir, who had endowed an institute dedicated to furthering American-Russian relations, and the “silky smooth” former Russian diplomat who ran it.
Then there was the recipient of the email, George O’Neill Jr., a Rockefeller relative and conservative writer. He was helping pay Ms. Butina’s bills, said a person familiar with their relationship, and hoped to make her the centerpiece of his own project to improve America’s ties to Russia.
In bringing charges against Ms. Butina, 29, last month, federal prosecutors described her activities as part of a campaign, supported by Russian intelligence, to use gun rights as a Trojan horse to make her way into conservative groups and advance Moscow’s interests in the United States.
While the charging documents focus on her alleged efforts to infiltrate the National Rifle Association, interviews with more than two dozen people in Russia and the United States show that her attempts at connecting with prominent American conservatives extended beyond making inroads with the gun-rights group. The interviews, along with previously unreported emails obtained by The New York Times, also reveal new details about her ties to the two older American men she relied on to make her way in the United States: Mr. Erickson, with whom she struck up a romance, and Mr. O’Neill.
Prosecutors allege that the relationships were nothing more than vehicles for her work on behalf of Russia, citing messages in which she told a Russian official all her activities would be “only incognito! Right now everything has to be quiet and careful.”
Yet for an alleged Russian agent funded by an oligarch, Ms. Butina hardly lived a life of fake identities, secret communications and hidden allegiances.
The flame-haired graduate student at American University in Washington openly advocated in speeches for Russia-friendly policies and closer ties between her homeland and the United States. She posted photos on Instagram of herself toting guns and checked in on Facebook from locations like Russia House, a caviar-slinging lounge in Washington. She consulted with the Outdoor Channel television network for a show about hunting in Russia. Her cellphone case was adorned with a picture of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, riding a horse shirtless.
Ms. Butina’s defenders say she was an idealistic, if naïve, activist, and contend that Russians’ interactions with the N.R.A. were attempts at rapprochement that only appear sinister when viewed through an outdated Cold War lens.
“I’m just amazed that in today’s world, if you shake hands with a Russian, you must be an agent of the Kremlin,” said David Keene, a former N.R.A. president, who met with Ms. Butina at conferences in Moscow and the United States.
While saying he found “nothing unusual” about her, Mr. Keene suggested that there could have been more to Ms. Butina and her visits to the United States than was apparent. “She did say that they pressured her occasionally to get information when she went home, which I’m sure was true,” he said in a brief interview, but did not elaborate.
Ms. Butina denies allegations that she was a covert agent and used sex as spycraft, according to her lawyer, Robert Driscoll. He noted that she willingly testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee in April, and did not flee the United States when the F.B.I. raided her apartment later that month.
“The government seems to be charging her with establishing relationships,” he added. “She’s pro-gun, fine. She’s not making the N.R.A. more pro-gun. She’s pro-U.S.-Russia relations — no surprise, she’s Russian.”
Three government officials told The Times that Ms. Butina’s arrest stemmed from a counterintelligence investigation predating the 2016 election that has focused on a Russian government official, Aleksandr P. Torshin, who worked closely with Ms. Butina for years. Mr. Torshin, a former senator close to Christian conservatives in Russia, has been attending N.R.A. conventions in the United States since 2011.
In Ms. Butina, Mr. Torshin found someone adept at engaging with powerful conservatives. She snapped pictures with prominent Republicans, including Scott Walker and other former presidential candidates. She had Thanksgiving dinner last year at the country home of Representative Mark Sanford, Republican of South Carolina. She befriended Grover Norquist, the anti-tax crusader, winning an invitation to his weekly gathering of influential conservatives in Washington.
In an April 2016 email, she discussed connecting a Russian nuclear scientist with Representative Dana Rohrabacher, Republican of California, who was visiting Russia at the time. Weeks before the presidential election, she went with J. D. Gordon, a Trump campaign aide, to see the rock band Styx.
She even managed to get a photo with Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, whom she met at a 2016 dinner hosted by the N.R.A. in Louisville, Ky. Separately, she helped Mr. Torshin send a message to the Trump campaign proposing that Donald J. Trump meet President Putin (the campaign turned them down).
“It was very clear that she was a networker and a bit of a name-dropper,” said Ms. Eisenhower, who played down her own encounter with Ms. Butina. “She’s the kind of person — and you see them in Washington and all over the place — people who have to get their picture taken with anybody of any moderate importance.”
But it was Mr. Erickson and Mr. O’Neill — referred to in the indictment of Ms. Butina as U.S. Persons 1 and 2 — whom she relied on most.
In the past four years, roughly $89,000 moved between the American bank accounts of Mr. Erickson, the political operative, who could not be reached for comment, and Ms. Butina’s Russian bank account, according to records from the United States Treasury that are being examined by Senate investigators. All told, Treasury officials flagged as suspicious nearly $300,000 in transactions in and out of her Russian bank account.
Mr. O’Neill, the Rockefeller heir, who is not accused of wrongdoing and who declined to comment for this article, met Ms. Butina at a convention for big-game hunters in Las Vegas. He has used his wealth to advocate a United States withdrawal from conflicts around the world and for better relations with Russia, as he explained to Ms. Butina in a letter in April 2016.
“I have no other agenda,” he wrote.
Ms. Butina’s agenda, though, is now in question. Months later, in October 2016, she sent Mr. Torshin a direct message on Twitter, telling him that her work with Mr. O’Neill was “currently ‘underground’ both here and there.”
But, she assured Mr. Torshin, “We made our bet. I am following our game.”
An ‘Inferior Girl’
It was a he-said, she-said scandal that divided a college campus. Ms. Butina claimed harassment by a male professor. He countered that she had offered sex for a passing grade.
It happened in 2009 in the Siberian region of Altai where she grew up. The remote region was not an obvious launchpad for a young woman whose ambitions went beyond running her family’s small furniture business.
There, she learned to hunt with her father. In a speech years later, she referred vaguely to a childhood incident that made her feel threatened, and implied that having had a gun could have made a difference.
In Russian blog posts, Ms. Butina expressed a resolve to overcome being seen as “an inferior girl” in a male-dominated rural culture, and make a name for herself in politics.
Her encounter with the college professor came after he claimed she had cheated on a test and offered to overlook the infraction if she had sex with him, according to her own writings and local news accounts. She said no and reported the professor to the administration, which fired him, only to rehire him after he sued for reinstatement. For his part, he asserted that Ms. Butina had offered sexual favors.
She cited the episode on social media over the years, as evidence that women must empower themselves. Mostly, she expressed anger that many of her classmates took the professor’s side.
She had not been out of college long when she announced her intention to campaign for local office with Mr. Putin’s ruling United Russia party, prompting some commenters on her blog to accuse her of selling out her ideals. “Of course, I have no illusions about the existing regime in the country and the ruling party,” she responded, “but if I really want to change something for the better, then I have to try to do it in the only available version today — from within.”
Guns started out low on her platform, after taxes and jobs. But soon they would be all she talked about.
Enter the Senator
By the end of 2011, Ms. Butina had formed an advocacy group, Right to Bear Arms, and was giving speeches and organizing demonstrations. At an event in Moscow, activists brought pots, pans and kitchen knives to show what little they had to defend themselves without guns.
Mr. Torshin, 64, showed up with a horse whip. He and Ms. Butina struck up a friendship.
In Russia, Mr. Torshin is powerful — the Treasury Department added him to a list of sanctioned officials in April — but not a member of Mr. Putin’s inner circle. A Communist Party functionary in the late Soviet period, he later served as deputy speaker of the upper house of Russia’s parliament, and was appointed deputy governor of the Russian central bank in 2015. He has also been accused by the Spanish authorities of laundering money for the Russian mafia, charges he denies.
In the senate, Mr. Torshin occasionally championed causes seen as eccentric, such as mandatory chemical castration for convicted pedophiles and legalizing handguns, a non-starter in a country that tightly restricts gun ownership. “The Kremlin looked at this as his personal exotica,” said Aleksei V. Makarkin, a political analyst in Moscow.
Ms. Butina became an unpaid assistant to Mr. Torshin, according to her résumé. Mr. Torshin would often bring a bouquet of white lilies to their morning meetings, and he liked to tell people that Ms. Butina shared a birthday with Mikhail T. Kalashnikov, inventor of the AK-47 rifle.
Mr. Torshin’s introduction to the N.R.A. came through an unlikely go-between, a Nashville lawyer named G. Kline Preston IV, a Russophile who dabbled in Russian commerce and law. Mr. Preston said he met Mr. Torshin through a Russian embassy official, whom he befriended after inviting the official to a Fabergé egg exhibition in Nashville in 2007.
Mr. Torshin eventually asked Mr. Preston to connect him with leaders of the N.R.A., although Mr. Preston was not a member. After cold-calling the group’s headquarters, the lawyer finally arranged a meeting at a hotel restaurant between Mr. Torshin and Mr. Keene, then the N.R.A. president, during the group’s national convention in Pittsburgh in April 2011.
Later, Mr. Keene sent Mr. Torshin a handwritten note pledging support for his efforts and inviting him to the N.R.A.’s next annual meeting. Mr. Torshin attended the next four.
A Special Project
In November 2013, Mr. Keene came to Moscow to speak to Ms. Butina’s fledgling gun-rights group. Joining him was Mr. Erickson, who served with Mr. Keene on the board of the American Conservative Union.
Mr. Erickson, 56, had worked on losing campaigns for right-wing candidates including Pat Buchanan. He had also left a trail of fraud lawsuits accusing him of peddling worthless investments in oil fields and medical equipment. Concern about his track record prompted the A.C.U. to ask him to leave the board in 2014, said Matt Schlapp, the group’s chairman.
Ms. Butina contacted Mr. Erickson around March 2015, seeking advice on using her gun-rights advocacy to gain access to the Republican Party ahead of the 2016 election, prosecutors say.
In an email to Mr. Erickson, Ms. Butina noted that the N.R.A.’s deep pockets made it especially influential in American elections. Mr. Erickson replied with an offer to help arrange meetings with “potential American contacts” and advised her to get financial backing for travel to the United States.
She sent a proposal for $125,000 to cover travel to the United States to a Russian oligarch, Konstantin Y. Nikolayev, a transport magnate whose wife runs a Russian gun company that Ms. Butina visited with an N.R.A. delegation in 2015, according to a person familiar with the proposal. Mr. Nikolayev did not take up that deal, but funded some of Ms. Butina’s travel in support of her gun-rights efforts, the person said. In a statement, Mr. Nikolayev said he had not provided any financial support since 2014.
A month later, Ms. Butina was in South Dakota, speaking to college students in Mr. Erickson’s hometown, Vermillion. She justified the need for gun rights in her country with two arguments often advanced by Russian officials: that Western sanctions had weakened Russia’s economy, causing more crime, and that the Ukrainian war posed a threat.
She would go on to join the N.R.A., attend at least three of its conventions and get to know board members and three former presidents.
During their time together, Mr. Erickson and Ms. Butina began an intimate relationship, and he once referred to her as “Miss Moscow” in an email. The F.B.I. said she viewed the relationship as “simply a necessary aspect of her activities,” citing documents in which she “expressed disdain” at having to live with Mr. Erickson. The investigators also alleged that she offered to have sex with someone else “in exchange for a position with a special interest organization,” though they did not say when or where the incident occurred.
Mr. Driscoll, her lawyer, said at a court hearing last month, “We have no idea what the government is talking about.”
With Mr. Erickson opening doors, Ms. Butina met with conservatives around Washington. Some of the sessions were organized by Mr. O’Neill, who once compared America’s national security establishment to the “wickedness” of the Soviet Union.
In emails with Mr. O’Neill in early 2016, according to federal prosecutors, Ms. Butina mentioned “building this communication channel” for what she termed “our Russian-American project.”
Other messages obtained by The Times suggest a familiarity between the two. “Are you coming to Florida at the end of the week?” he wrote on April 11, 2016. “We just acquired another big tractor, which you will have fun driving.”
In an email with a reporter last year, Mr. O’Neill said “any clear-thinking person” should understand the benefits of better relations with Russia. “One does not have to be a ‘useful idiot’ or a ‘Putin stooge’ to hold this view, nor does one have to approve of all of Russia’s or Putin’s actions, which can sometimes be problematic.”
In Mr. Trump, he and Ms. Butina found a candidate who shared their views. In July 2015, Ms. Butina asked Mr. Trump about economic sanctions against Russia during his appearance at FreedomFest, a libertarian conference in Las Vegas. Mr. Trump responded that, as president, he “would get along very nicely with Putin.”
When Mr. Trump emerged as the Republican front-runner, Ms. Butina and Mr. Torshin tapped their American contacts, hoping to arrange a meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin.
In May 2016 Rick Clay, a conservative Christian activist from West Virginia, emailed a Trump campaign aide, seeking to set up a Trump-Putin meeting. As a first step, Mr. Clay suggested that Mr. Torshin, who was seeking the meeting on Mr. Putin’s behalf, meet Mr. Trump at the N.R.A. convention in Louisville.
In an interview, Mr. Clay said the proposal was relayed to him by a longtime friend, Johnny Yenason, of the Military Warriors Support Foundation, who had attended a Russian National Prayer Breakfast that year where Mr. Torshin spoke. Mr. Yenason could not be reached for comment.
“It had everything to do with Christian values and putting two peoples together who had the same ideas,” Mr. Clay said. “At least, we thought that they did at the time.”
The meeting between Mr. Torshin and Mr. Trump never occurred. But that did not dampen Ms. Butina’s enthusiasm for his candidacy.
As the November 2016 election results came in, Ms. Butina excitedly posted a message about Mr. Trump’s victory on a Russian social media site: “A supporter of the rights to arms and the restoration of relations with Russia. Congratulate everyone!”
Privately, according to court filings, she messaged Mr. Torshin, saying it was 3 a.m. and she was going to bed.
“I’m ready for further orders,” she said.
A caption in an earlier version of this article misidentified a man pictured with Maria Butina and Donald Trump Jr. at a 2016 N.R.A. dinner. It is Pete Brownell, not Aleksandr Torshin.
Matthew Rosenberg reported from Washington; Mike McIntire, Michael LaForgia and Elizabeth Dias from New York; and Andrew E. Kramer from Moscow. Reporting was contributed by Jahd Khalil in South Dakota, and Catie Edmondson and Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks in Washington.
The Biggest Stories in American Politics This Week
President Trump called for the end of the special counsel’s investigation, even as top officials warned of Russian interference.
President Trump urged Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday to end the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, raising more questions about whether Mr. Trump has tried to obstruct the investigation.
The White House and the president’s lawyers sought to minimize any damage by arguing that the call, issued on Twitter, was an angry opinion, not an order. Mr. Trump has also sought an interview with the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, and his office, in an attempt to clear himself of any wrongdoing.
Yet even as Mr. Trump characterizes the investigation as a “Russian hoax,” top administration officials came forward on Thursday to assert that Russian election interference was a serious threat and to vow to prevent it.
The financial fraud trial of Paul Manafort began this week.
Prosecutors began their case this week against Paul Manafort, Mr. Trump’s former campaign chairman, in federal court in Alexandria, Va. They say that Mr. Manafort hid tens of millions of dollars he received for his work in Ukraine and then engaged in bank fraud when he no longer earned that income.
Mr. Manafort’s defense team made clear in their opening arguments that they intended to shift the blame to Rick Gates, Mr. Manafort’s former business partner and likely the government’s star witness.
Federal prosecutors spent the first few days emphasizing Mr. Manafort’s lavish spending and the reversal of his fortune after 2014. Mr. Manafort’s accountant also testified that she had agreed to alter tax and bank documents to help Mr. Manafort out of his financial problems.
In midterm elections: more primary victories and an influence campaign on Facebook.
Facebook announced on Tuesday that it had identified an active political influence campaign, potentially intended to disrupt the midterm elections in November.
The company said it had removed a number of false accounts and pages that were involved in activity around divisive issues.
But as midterm primaries continued this week, Mr. Trump’s stamp is clear in some aspects of the midterm elections: shaping a governor’s race in Florida and potentially providing an opportunity for Democrats in Kansas.
The administration escalated the trade war with China and contemplated more tariffs and other economic measures.
President Trump intensified the trade war with China on Wednesday, ordering his administration to consider more than doubling proposed tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods. (China threatened retaliation on Friday.)
The United States and Mexico are moving closer to agreement on how to rewrite important parts of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Talks this week, however, have excluded the pact’s third member, Canada
Mr. Trump also reiterated his threat to Congress on Monday to shut down the government this year if he did not receive sufficient funding for a wall at the southern border. His administration is also considering bypassing lawmakers and granting a $100 billion tax cut primarily to the wealthy.
The tension between the White House and the press corps increased.
Mr. Trump publicly clashed with the publisher of The New York Times, A. G. Sulzberger, on Sunday over the president’s threats to journalism and what Mr. Sulzberger said was a misrepresentation of a private meeting between them.
While the president has always had a combative relationship with his perceived detractors — especially unfavorable news reports — it escalated this week in rallies in Florida and Pennsylvania, centering many of his attacks on the press corps.
Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and senior adviser, appeared to disagree with that position on Thursday — a notable contrast with the assertions made by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the press secretary, during a briefing.
The Partisan Battle Brett Kavanaugh Now Regrets
Mr. Kavanaugh, for his part, prepared a report concluding that Mr. Foster had committed suicide, investigated whether documents had been unlawfully removed from Mr. Foster’s office, and litigated cases on attorney-client and executive privilege.
When he returned to the independent counsel’s fourth-floor offices at 1001 Pennsylvania Avenue, just across the street from the F.B.I. headquarters, it was to a far different investigation.
News of the Lewinsky affair broke in January 1998, after Mr. Clinton testified in a sexual harassment suit that had been nurtured for years by a network of conservative lawyers. Paula Jones, an Arkansas state worker, said Mr. Clinton had made lewd advances in a hotel room when he was governor. In his deposition for the case, Mr. Clinton was provided a tortured definition of sexual relations — and denied engaging in such actions with Ms. Lewinsky.
Mr. Starr obtained permission from Janet Reno, the attorney general, and a three-judge panel to expand his investigation to include Ms. Lewinsky, and suddenly Mr. Kavanaugh’s former colleagues were under siege. An investigation that had begun by examining a complex real estate deal in Arkansas had become a tawdry exposé of the president’s sex life, complete with a semen-stained dress and a sex toy in the Oval Office.
“The moment they go into a different chapter, it becomes the most unprofessional investigation ever done,” Mr. Emanuel said. “They were not doing their job. They were leaking constantly, and they were trying to battle a presidency.”
Some members of Mr. Starr’s team, like Rod J. Rosenstein, now the deputy attorney general, and Alex M. Azar II, the current secretary of health and human services, were heading for the exits or keeping their distance. Neither returned to the Starr team after the Lewinsky scandal emerged.
But Mr. Kavanaugh was a Starr protégé — he started his legal career with a one-year fellowship in the office of the United States solicitor general when Mr. Starr held that office. And so when his old boss called on him in April 1998, Mr. Kavanaugh did not say no right away. His partners at Kirkland & Ellis thought he was crazy for even thinking about going back. In the end, loyalty prevailed.
Paul Manafort Was Deep in Debt. He Saw an Opportunity in Trump.
WASHINGTON — Paul Manafort’s services did not come cheap. His consulting work helped prop up foreign strongmen, who in turn kept him in $12,000 bespoke suits from Beverly Hills.
But by 2016, Mr. Manafort was broke. His longtime cash cow, the Ukrainian president Viktor F. Yanukovych, was out of office, living in exile. Mr. Manafort had $1 million in clothing debt alone, his business was hemorrhaging money and he was angling for bank loans to stay afloat.
He was in such bad shape that one of his accountants, Cynthia Laporta, who testified on Friday at Mr. Manafort’s fraud trial, said she had agreed in 2015 to fraudulently lower his reported income on a tax return because she had been told he was unable to pay what he owed. She saved him about a half-million dollars in taxes.
The problems did not go away by 2016, so it was a peculiar time to volunteer his services to the Trump campaign. “I am not looking for a paid job,” Mr. Manafort wrote in a memo proposing he help Donald J. Trump secure the Republican nomination for president.
Mr. Manafort’s work running the campaign is the backdrop to his federal bank and tax fraud trial in Northern Virginia. Prosecutors are not addressing that work. But as they present evidence that he was growing desperate for money, the question of why Mr. Manafort, now 69, agreed to an unpaid job for Mr. Trump has become increasingly tantalizing.
While his trial is unlikely to reveal the answer, there is evidence that Mr. Manafort saw Mr. Trump’s campaign as a potential loss leader — an upfront freebie that he could use to boost his stature and eventually parlay into more work for foreign clients. After working decades earlier for Bob Dole, George Bush, Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford, Mr. Manafort viewed the Trump campaign as a chance to return to prominence on the biggest stage in American politics, his associates said.
Mr. Manafort’s memo made its way to Mr. Trump through a mutual friend, Thomas J. Barrack Jr., who described Mr. Manafort to the candidate as “the most experienced and lethal of managers” and “a killer.” For the notoriously stingy Mr. Trump, the price was right. And he liked the fact that he and Mr. Manafort lived in the same Trump-owned Manhattan high rise. He once quipped that it was great to have a campaign chairman who paid him money, and not the other way around, campaign officials said.
Running a winning presidential campaign is a surefire path to a White House job. But Mr. Manafort told people he had no interest in working in the Trump administration. “My dad is Trump’s right-hand man right now and will be through November,” Mr. Manafort’s daughter, Andrea Manafort Shand, wrote in a text message that was publicly disclosed after her phone had been hacked. “But he won’t accept any position in the White House.”
But Mr. Manafort recognized that his work with the Trump campaign was worth something. In April 2016, just days after becoming a Trump campaign strategist, he tried to use his positive news media coverage as leverage in a debt dispute with a Russian oligarch, Oleg V. Deripaska.
“I assume you have shown our friends my media coverage, right?” Mr. Manafort wrote in an email to a business partner.
“Absolutely,” the partner, Konstantin V. Kilimnik, responded. “Every article.”
Later, Mr. Manafort suggested providing campaign briefings to Mr. Deripaska. No evidence has emerged that such briefings occurred.
As Mr. Manafort ascended to one of the premier jobs in American politics, prosecutors now say, his career was privately in shambles. In early 2016, his accountant testified, he worked to mortgage some of his seven or eight homes. Prosecutors said he had become accustomed to a lavish lifestyle and was preoccupied with clinging to it.
At the helm of Mr. Trump’s candidacy, Mr. Manafort knew from experience that he was well positioned to bounce back. In the early 1980s, Mr. Manafort used his experience as a midlevel campaign aide for Reagan to build the pre-eminent lobbying and consulting shop of Reagan-era Washington. He helped major corporations broker access to the president’s inner circle — and he was paid handsomely for his services.
A Trump victory would have positioned him for a triumphant and lucrative return to Washington lobbying.
At the F.B.I., agents began to wonder whether Mr. Manafort had something else in the works. In late July 2016, agents learned that Russian operatives had offered help to a Trump campaign aide, George Papadopoulos. A second campaign adviser, Carter Page, traveled that month to Russia and met with a suspected Russian intelligence officer.
The F.B.I. began investigating whether Mr. Manafort, with his deep ties to the pro-Russia political movement in Ukraine, was involved in the Russian operation to interfere in the election. The Justice Department never brought charges accusing him of any involvement, but the investigation helped unravel whatever career plans Mr. Manafort plotted for himself.
The news media attention that he once saw as so valuable ultimately helped knock him from his powerful post. Journalists revealed confidential details about his work in Ukraine, including a ledger showing millions of dollars in secret payments — revelations that forced his departure in August 2016.
Prosecutors, who had scrutinized Mr. Manafort’s foreign lobbying for years, began investigating that area in earnest. By the time Mr. Trump was sworn into office, Mr. Manafort was under scrutiny in at least two investigations. If convicted of the charges against him, he faces years in prison and millions of dollars in fines.
Mr. Manafort’s lawyers say he almost certainly would not have faced charges if not for his brief, unpaid stint with the Trump campaign.
Matt Apuzzo and Eileen Sullivan reported from Washington, and Sharon LaFraniere from Alexandria, Va. Nicholas Confessore and Maggie Haberman contributed reporting from New York, and Glenn Thrush from Washington.
Manufacturers Increase Efforts to Woo Workers to Rural Areas
Companies are also offering perks like on-site day care and health care. Alexandria Industries, for example, offers a free health clinic within a block of its facility. “While it was initially an attempt to deal with escalating health care costs, it is increasing a recruiting and retention tool” for workers and their families, Mr. Schabel said. Employers like 114-year-old Wigwam Mills, based in Sheboygan, Wis., offer cash bonuses to employees who bring in new recruits who stay at least 60 days, said Thomas Wheeler, president and chief executive.
Another stopgap measure is to increase overtime. In Minnesota, Mr. Schabel said, getting employees to work extra hours is usually not difficult during the winter. Summer, however, is another story, when residents take advantage of the nearby lakes and rivers. As a result, Alexandria Industries recently introduced a program in which every employee, including Mr. Schabel, was required to work eight hours of overtime per month.
Many companies, in addition, are encouraging their graying work force to postpone retirement or, in some cases, return to work as consultants or part-time contractors.
To appeal to a younger generation, some companies are promoting greater collaboration among teams as well as renovating their cafeterias and even installing amenities like pool tables.
Some are taking a page from Silicon Valley, investing in Wi-Fi-enabled buses to ferry workers from greater distances. “We have a lot to sell in terms of integrity of our business, but we need to get creative” to bring the workers here, Mr. Wheeler said. His company will begin to deploy buses in the fall to provide transportation for those who commute from Milwaukee or Green Bay, Wis.
Most important, Mr. Wheeler added, “while we need to create an environment that is safe and well run with competitive compensation and benefits, that alone isn’t enough. We also need to offer a path for career growth.”