Opinion writer

* Tom Winter has an absolute bombshell coming out of the National Enquirer story:

Donald Trump was the third person in the room in August 2015 when his lawyer Michael Cohen and National Enquirer publisher David Pecker discussed ways Pecker could help counter negative stories about Trump's relationships with women, NBC News has confirmed.

As part of a nonprosecution agreement disclosed Wednesday by federal prosecutors, American Media Inc., the Enquirer's parent company, admitted that "Pecker offered to help deal with negative stories about that presidential candidate's relationships with women by, among other things, assisting the campaign in identifying such stories so they could be purchased and their publication avoided."

The “statement of admitted facts” says that AMI admitted making a $150,000 payment “in concert with the campaign,” and says that Pecker, Cohen and “at least one other member of the campaign” were in the meeting. According to a person familiar with the matter, the “other member” was Trump.

This isn’t all that surprising — of course Trump would want to be involved in the scheme to keep his mistresses quiet. But it was also a scheme to violate election laws — a conspiracy, to be precise.

* Spencer Hsu and Tom Jackman report that a strange corner of the Russia scandal is nearing its end:

A Russian gun rights activist pleaded guilty Thursday to conspiring with a senior Russian official to infiltrate the conservative movement in the United States as an agent for the Kremlin from 2015 until her arrest in July.

Maria Butina, 30, became the first Russian national convicted of seeking to influence U.S. policy in the run-up and through the 2016 election as a foreign agent, agreeing to cooperate in a plea deal with U.S. investigators in exchange for less prison time.

Butina admitted to working with an American political operative and under the direction of a former Russian senator and deputy governor of Russia’s central bank to forge bonds with officials at the National Rifle Association, conservative leaders, and 2016 U.S. presidential candidates, including Donald Trump, whose rise to the Oval Office she presciently predicted to her Russian contact.

What could possibly have given the Russians the idea that it would be easy for them to infiltrate the right and the Trump campaign? It’s such a mystery.

* Lachlan Markay reports that Sen. James Inhofe convinced President Trump to request a huge increase in the defense budget, then bought a large amount of stock in a defense contractor.

* Karoun Demirjian reports that the Senate passed bills calling for the U.S. to get out of Yemen and condemning the Saudi crown prince as responsible for the death of Jamal Khashoggi.

* John Nichols explains the appalling move by Paul Ryan to make sure Congress can’t do anything to end America’s assistance to Saudi atrocities in Yemen. And five House Democrats shamefully went along with it.

* Asha Rangappa explains why Robert Mueller indicting President Trump, even if the president never sees the inside of a courtroom, could be the best way to ensure that his final report is made public.

* Helaine Olen examines how Ivanka and Jared could reap a windfall from the “opportunity zone” legislation they promoted. I am shocked that this kind of self-dealing could happen in the Trump administration.

* Ian Millhiser makes an extensive, detailed case that while packing the Supreme Court should only be done in extraordinary circumstances, those circumstances could arise very soon.

* Michael Grunwald reports that even though Trump would like to kill the electric car, it’s too late for that.

* Mehdi Hasan takes on the “Elizabeth Warren is finished!” ridiculousness.

* And finally, here is your headline of the day: “Sex robot conference cancelled over backlash to proposed speech by Steve Bannon.