Trump-Russian Collusion

Trump Again Tweets Against His Self-Interest

Sooooo…… is Trump finally admitting that Russia meddled?  Because he rarely admits that.

Maybe this says it best:

It is an interesting shift by Trump, as well as Fox News.

What’s This Tweet About?

Trump’s not busy enough. He’s got free time to watch TV and get defensive. His tweets this morning railed against the “fake news” media and how there was no proof that his campaign (or, in his phrasing, he himself) colluded with Russia to affect the outcome of the election. (He also incorrectly claimed that the investigation had only been going for seven months: It began last July.)

But one tweet is confusing many people, including myself.

Who is he referring to? We know that the “FBI director” is James B. Comey, whom he fired in early May. But who is “the man who told me to fire the FBI director”?

We know two things about that second person from Trump’s tweet. That person told him to fire the FBI director, and that person is investigating him.

At first pass, that would seem to indicate that he’s referring to Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who appointed former FBI director Robert Mueller to serve as special counsel, leading the independent investigation into the Russia affair.

Rosenstein also wrote a letter last month outlining concerns about Comey that Attorney General Jeff Sessions then passed on to Trump with the recommendation that Comey be fired.

While that seems like it fits with Trump’s description, then — it actually doesn’t. First of all, Rosenstein’s letter never called for Comey’s firing. (It’s also worth noting that Trump told NBC’s Lester Holt that he planned to fire Comey anyway.)  Obviously, Trump is trying to rewrite the record here, albeit badly.

Second of all, the description of Rosenstein as investigating Trump is a bit off. The special counsel is investigating Trump, and Rosenstein can fire Mueller if he wishes, but he’s not in charge of that investigation. Rosenstein also has jurisdiction over the FBI’s investigation into the Russia matter.

So maybe Trump’s actually referring to Mueller? Mueller’s certainly investigating him — but there’s no indication that Mueller told Trump to fire Comey.

The safest answer: Trump is referring to Rosenstein — and trying to impugn the deputy attorney general by ensnaring him in the firing of Comey at the outset. Which raises another question …

2. Is Rosenstein’s role in the matter tainted? WaPo’s Matt Zapotosky raised this point on Twitter.

This issue of his letter to Trump about Comey was not a point of concern when Rosenstein first appointed Mueller. Of course, at that point the investigation wasn’t into Trump’s alleged attempt to lean on Comey to curtail the investigation into Michael Flynn. ABC News reported that Rosenstein had privately acknowledged to friends that he might need to recuse himself for that reason.

Which could be true. If Rosenstein letter was part of a “plot” to provide justification for Comey’s firing, that’s problematic for Rosenstein… even if he was not part of the plot.  He may have a conflict being Mueller’s higher-up.

What would happen if Rosenstein were to recuse himself from oversight of the special counsel?

The duty would fall to the associate attorney general who was recently appointed, Rachel Brand. A 44 year old conservative, Brand was barely alive when Nixon tried to fire his special counsel.  It is expected that Brand, unlike Rosenstein might be the one to do Trump’s bidding, if he ever decides to fire Mueller.

So, with Trump repeatedly tweeting about this being a “witch hunt”, does that “mystery tweet” today suggest that Trump knows the path to getting rid of the special counsel?

Yes, this IS a reality show.

UPDATE from… uh…. Fox News:

Fox News reports:

A source confirmed to Fox News that Trump’s tweet was referring to Rosenstein. However, a seperate source close to Trump’s legal team said the president was NOT confirming he was under investigation. He was simply referring to the content of a recent Washington Post story.

Trump Does Not Deny He Is Under Investigation

Amid a terrible day involving attempted assassination of Congressmen, one piece of news managed to break through: Trump is under investigation by special counsel Mueller for obstruction of justice.  The obstruction of justice investigation into the president began days after Comey was fired on May 9 with the team actively pursuing potential witnesses inside and outside the government. The White House is referring all questions about the Russia investigation to Trump’s personal lawyer, Marc Kasowitz.

Already, there is pushback, as the RNC leaked its talking points.

These are horrible talking points. The argument that the investigation is a distraction that is preventing them from carrying out their agenda should be tossed in the trash since an overwhelming majority disapprove of this president, his party, and their agenda. And when the White House’s best defense is complaining about Hillary Clinton while ranting about leaks, they will better off not saying anything. The talking points are bad and likely only to make things worse for Trump.

I will save for some other time another common observation: why the hell is the RNC and Republicans in general hitching their wagon to this sinking ship?

Last night and this morning it looks like there is a concerted effort to smear Mueller.  Hannity got the ball rolling by arguing that Mueller had conflicts and that this was a witch hunt.

This sentiment was echoed this morning by Trump himself…

and Newt Gingrich…

… even thought Newt had a different opinion of Mueller less than a month ago:

And again there is more invocation of this term “deep state”, a nonsense scare phrase which is just a lament USA is a democracy with checks and balances. It’s both deeply silly and profoundly anti-America. Never forget that when Trump sycophants attack “the deep state,” they mean “a government of laws.”

One problem for Trump is that his push back fails to assess the extent of trouble he is in.  It’s not JUST obstruction of justice. As the WaPo article notices, it looks like Mueller is following the money:

Mueller is overseeing a host of investigations involving people who are or were in Trump’s orbit, people familiar with the probe said. The investigation is examining possible contacts with Russian operatives as well as any suspicious financial activity related to those individuals.

So it could get much worse.

Whining about the “deep state” and a “witch hunt” will not win converts and only shore up the most hardcore of his base.  Trump’s approval rating is at 36% and sinking, with a disapproval rating of %60 and climbing.

Trump and his defenders are going with the “they are just making things up to get me” tactic. It won’t work with obstruction of justice, because so much of the evidence against him is known to be true.  Let me explain.

It’s important to remember that, in obstruction investigations, the sum total or pattern of facts is often critical. When you’re doing an obstruction investigation, all the facts are important. Mueller won’t look at this as a discrete series of interactions, and instead is likely to ask, “Is there some pattern of behavior that constitutes obstruction?” If you’re looking for a pattern of behavior that constitutes obstruction, you want to know the entire pattern.

To be sure, some of these facts are in dispute. Trump has denied demanding Comey’s loyalty, and his advisers have said (ludicrously) that Trump merely asked Comey to drop the Flynn probe.

But there is a set of shared facts that are not in dispute, which we can now consult, and those already constitute a pattern of conduct that is deeply problematic, whether or not it ends up amounting to obstruction.

Here are those facts: Trump did fire Comey. Trump and the White House did contradict themselves about the rationale for that firing. They both did originally say that Trump fired Comey at the recommendation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Rod J. Rosenstein, who created a memo detailing that recommendation rooted in Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email probe. After that story fell apart, Trump did subsequently tell NBC News that he was going to fire Comey regardless of any recommendation and that he did so over the Russia probe. Thus, Trump and the White House themselves did create the strong impression that Sessions and Rosenstein may have been involved in creating a cover story for the Comey firing, and this (among other things) did leave Rosenstein no choice but to appoint a special counsel.

That’s a lot that we know about. And who knows who else Trump talked to about firing Comey.

UPDATE:   A late afternoon mini-rant from Trump on Twitter. He’s sticking to the talking points.

Talking point:

Trump:

Wife Melania and their son Barron have now moved into the White House now that the school year is over. it was hoped their presence would calm him down. It didn’t.

The Sessions Sessions

Ok, I’ll liveblog SOME of Sessions hearing before the Senate Intel Committee, but again, I expect he’ll talk about what he wants to talk about and then filibuster (or rely on executive privilege) when trapped in a corner.

2:56 pm

Sessions has no recollection of meeting, talking to Russian ambassador or other Russian official at the Mayflower hotel.


(Kislyak must be the gray-haired guy on the right)

Never discussed anything with any foreign agent about any campaign ever.

Sessions says he was victim of Franken’s “rambling question” after six hours of testimony.  Getting a little faux outraged in his opening statement here. (What Sessions is leaving out is that AFTER his hearing answer to Franken, he also left it out of written answers, which staff vet carefully.)

Sessions says it’s “absurd” to say his recusal should have kept him from participating in the Comey firing. He’s claiming he can narrow his stated recusal *from* campaign matters to *only* the Trump campaign.

Sessions appears to stand by his earlier assertion — that he recommended firing Comey due to his handling of Hillary email investigation.

Sessions pretty much confirms Comey’s conversation with Sessions about problems with the White House (Trump) talking directly to Comey about Russia. Except…

And now he’s talking about drugs and crime and gangs.  Talking a lot about it.  His favorite subject.

Aaaaaand that’s the gist of his statement.  I don’t doubt most of it. In fact, I don’t think Sessions was ever involved in any collusion (even though his inability to remember meetings with Russians is… uh…. troubling).

I’ll update if he says anything different under questioning, but I suspect this is all we will get out of him.

Sessions will not talk about conversations with President — NOT based on executive privilege but based on long-standing Department of Justice “policy”.

I think this is a good summary so far:

Wait…. that’s different from “longstanding DOJ policy”. I mean, it’s bullshit too, but it’s also different.

Oh my God. That’s disconcerting. As is this:

Tom Cotton is really reprehensible.

Kamala Harris is up. She wants to ask questions and he wants to stall and take long answers. She wants documents.

And the Chair admonishes her.

Yup.

Sessions To Testify Before Senate Intelligence Committee

2:30 today.

The thing to remember is that Sessions WANTED this testimony. So this is likely to his benefit. Or Trump’s.

Sessions was once on the periphery of the Trump-Russia scandal. I mean, sure, he failed to disclose at his confirmation hearings that he met with the Russians twice during the campaign. But he fixed that as soon as the Washington Post reported it.

But now there are reports of a third meeting with the Russians. He will be asked about that.

He will be asked to confirm or deny Comey’s testimony — like, did Trump clear the room to talk to Comey alone (as Comey testified).  If he directly contradicts Comey’s testimony, that will be the big story coming out of the hearing today.

He will be asked about Comey’s firing and why he was involved in it. He shouldn’t have been if he had recused himself.

The open question is whether or not Sessions will assert executive privilege relating to the Comey stuff.  And even THAT is problematic for several reasons. First of all, it is the President’s privilege to assert; Sessions cannot assert it for himself or on the President’s behalf. Has he gotten guidance from the President (or the President’s lawyers) on this?  Last week, Deputy AG Robinson tried to assert executive privilege even though the President never gave it with respect to their testimony.

And even if the President asserted executive privilege with respect to his private conversations with Comey, he waived much of that privilege with his tweets, so it is questionable to what extent the privilege exists at all.  Of course, that fight won’t be resolved in the hearing today, so Sessions can assert the privilege all he wants, they will fight about it, but in the end, he can refuse to testify. I don’t think they will try to hold him in contempt of Congress.

So that’s what will happen today. I don’t expect bombshells.

Can Trump Fire Mueller?

This is complicated and I don’t have much time. So hold on.

Trump does not have the legal authority to fire special prosecutor Mueller directly, but that doesn’t mean Trump can’t TRY.  For Trump to fire Mueller, he TECHNICALLY must order the Attorney General to fire Mueller.  If Trump tried to fire Mueller directly, Mueller could (and probably would) choose not to “recognize” Trump’s independent authority to fire him.

But wait, there’s another problem. If Trump asked Attorney General Sessions to fire Mueller — well, Sessions technically can’t either, because he recused himself from all matters relating to Russia… and that would presumably mean that he is recused from hiring or firing the special counsel looking into Trump-Russia collusion. Then again, Sessions was the one who fired Comey, and he probably should not have for the same reason.  So if Sessions tried to fire Mueller on Trump’s order, Mueller could choose not to “recognize” Mueller’s independent authority to fire him.

The correct person to fire Mueller (on order from Trump) is deputy AG Rob Rosenstein, the one who appointed Mueller to special prosecutor.

Whoever does it, it is very much like the Saturday Night massacre in Watergate.  There, Nixon told his attorney general Elliott Richardson to fire independent special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Richardson refused so Nixon fired him.  Nixon then told Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to fire Cox. Ruckelshaus also refused and Nixon fired him too. Nixon then ordered the Solicitor General of the United States, Robert Bork, as acting head of the Justice Department, to fire Cox. Both Richardson and Ruckelshaus had given personal assurances to Congressional oversight committees that they would not interfere, but Bork had not. On November 14, 1973, federal district judge Gerhard Gesell ruled firing Cox was illegal absent a finding of extraordinary impropriety as specified in the regulation establishing the special prosecutor’s office.

It was a constitutional crisis.

The situations between now and then are strikingly comparable. The question is if Rosenstein will carry out Trump’s bidding, or if Sessions would, or if Trump would simply try to do it directly…. if he tried at all.

When questioned last week by Senator Kamala Harris of the Senate Intelligence Committee (who seemed to be looking well down the road), Rosenstein refused to say whether he would exercise his authority to fire Mueller if it ever came down to that.  At least, he refused to say in open session.

With all that said, I don’t think Trump will try to fire Mueller, despite what Newt Gingrich and others are saying.  Not only are the minefields legally (see above), but the political fallout just might be too much — even for Republicans.  After Nixon tried to fire Cox, public support crashed for Nixon (what little remained) and impeachment rose rapidly in the polls.

At that point, Republicans in Congress would join Democrats to appoint an independent counsel (just like they did in Watergate, where they appointed Jaworski).  Heck, it could be Mueller again.

So huge risk, low reward. I don’t think Trump would try this, but God knows what advice he is getting, and whether he will follow it.

UPDATE:  Rosenstein just happens to be testifying before the Appropriations Committee today.

He also says AG Sessions “theoretically” has power to fire Mueller.

Aw, Susan Collins goes to the direct question:

The Comey Memos — Part Two

So some idiot at Redstate is making the argument that the Comey Memos were leaked in contravention of the law:

The documents leaked by Comey were official government records. Period. They were created by a government employee (Comey) while acting in his official capacity (FBI director) on a government-issued laptop while sitting in a government car driven by another government employee and probably in the company of a government security detail.

See how he pulled a Spicer there (“Period.”)?  As if saying “period” makes his argument stronger.

Still, he has a point. The Comey memo is an official government record.

You know what else is an official government record? A social security check. A letter from the IRS. Lots of things.

The moron continues:

The documents are not “unclassified.” The documents, by the very fact that they recorded a conversation with the president, would have carried a ‘confidential’ classification.

Ummmmm…. No, it wouldn’t.  Or as we say in the fact-checking business, CITATION NEEDED.

Here’s the deal — private conversations with the President are not automatically classified.  They’re just not.  Classification is based on the content, not on the parties.  If that were the case, then forget the memos.  Even TESTIFYING about any private conversation with the President would be a no-no.

Once you recognize that a private conversation with the President is not classified, you can see that a memo summarizing a private conversation with the President is also not classified.

Another thing about classification — who does this idiot think makes classification calls in the first place? Comey is the head of the FBI. He can classify or declassify anything he damn well wants, including his own work product.

But the moron continues:

There is zero way it would not have been classified ‘for official use only’ as the conversation was inarguably covered by executive privilege. The memos were the property of the US government and are clearly covered under the Federal Records Act.

Well, there is a difference between documents that are classified, documents that are subject to executive privilege, and documents covered by the Federal Records Act. The Comey memos were not classified; they were not subject to executive privilege (and if they were, Trump waived that privilege); and the Federal Records Act only deals with maintaining and preserving those documents (I’m sure the FBI has copies, so, no problem there).

He then goes on to discuss 18 U.S. Code § 641, which says:

Whoever embezzles, steals, purloins, or knowingly converts to his use or the use of another, or without authority, sells, conveys or disposes of any record, voucher, money, or thing of value of the United States or of any department or agency thereof, or any property made or being made under contract for the United States or any department or agency thereof… Shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both; but if the value of such property in the aggregate, combining amounts from all the counts for which the defendant is convicted in a single case, does not exceed the sum of $1,000, he shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both.

The word “value” means face, par, or market value, or cost price, either wholesale or retail, whichever is greater.

A rather dumb argument. I suppose Comey did steal the paper that he printed or made photocopies on.  But the he didn’t “convert” or “convey” the actual RECORD itself, which presumably is still on his laptop.

And then he finally links to an FBI website which says that that the FBI has policy and procedures regarding discretionary release of information in accordance with the Privacy Act.  Guess who has discretion?

HUGE Redstate fail. Embarrassing.

Did Comey Break The Law By Revealing His Memo Contents To The Press?

No, and in fact, if Trump goes after Comey for dong that, Trump could get in deeper trouble. Here’s why:

As the news broke, I was on the phone with Stephen Kohn, partner at a law firm focused on whistleblower protection. We’d been talking about where the boundaries lay for Comey in what he could and couldn’t do with the information about his conversations with the president. Kohn’s response to the story about Kasowitz, though, was visceral.

“Here is my position on that: Frivolous grandstanding,” he said. “First of all, I don’t believe the inspector general would have jurisdiction over Comey any more, because he’s no longer a federal employee.” The inspector general’s job is to investigate wrongdoing by employees of the Justice Department, of which Comey is no longer, thanks to Trump.

“But, second,” he continued, “initiating an investigation because you don’t like somebody’s testimony could be considered obstruction. And in the whistleblower context, it’s both evidence of retaliation and, under some laws, could be an adverse retaliatory act itself.”

In other words, Comey, here, is an employee who is blowing the whistle, to use the idiom, on his former boss. That boss wants to punish him for doing so. That’s problematic — especially if there’s no evidence that Comey actually violated any law that would trigger punishment.

Not To Be Forgotten

One of the most telling and damaging points Comey made was that even after being informed there was absolutely no doubt Russia had mounted a huge effort to interfere with and undermine the credibility of the US election process, Donald Trump never even asked what was being done to prevent further interference by Russia. He was completely incurious about how to stop this from happening again.

Happy Comey Day

Well, we already know in essence what Comey will testify about, since we have his written statement (which has been dissected to death). I don’t expect a lot of “news” but maybe so more fleshing out.

It will be in sharp contrast to yesterday, where two intelligence chiefs repeatedly refused to say whether Trump asked them to intervene in the Russia probe during their public Senate intelligence committee testimony. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers declined to discuss the specifics of private conversations they had with Trump and whether they had been asked to push back against an FBI probe into collusion between the campaign and the Russian government. Both hinted that they would share more information with senators privately.

The RNC has put out some rather odd talking points…

… which are rather contradictory (Comey vindicates Trump…. but he is a liar!)

Anyway…. as the day progresses, I will TRY to update with news and opinion, but again, I think we’ve hit 90-95% of the pay dirt here.  One thing to be sure: Comey is smart and already has answers for the Republican critics who will try to trip him up.

Either way, we’ll definitely learn (we hope) the answers to these questions

  1. How will Mr. Comey explain his silence on his interactions with Mr. Trump? (My guess: He thought he could “teach” Trump the proper parameters)
  2. Will Comey be a ‘showboat’? (My guess: No.)
  3. Will Republicans offer the president a lifeline?  (My guess: Some will. Some will even bring up Hillary’s emails)
  4. Will Democrats overplay their hand? (My guess: No)
  5. Will Trump tweet? (My guess: No, but if he does, it is because he feels the heat)
  6. Did the president violate guidelines that prevent interference in F.B.I. investigations? (My guess: Comey will punt on this)

AND WE’RE OFF….

10:00 am

The line to Shaw’s Tavern, a popular DC bar which is showing the hearing and offering free drinks for everytime Trump tweets, goes a full city block

Comey talking about how Trump said FBI was in disarray under Comey:

I note Comey’s voice is wavering. He’s pissed. Says Trump defamed him and FBI

And we’re at questions. Burr asking…

The country is riveted…

…. good to know?

Warner up. Going through each Trump meeting.

Risch(R), a former prosecutor, now asking questions….

Feinstein (D) up. Asking about why Comey believes he was fired (Answer: Russia investigation)

And Donnie Jr. weighs in…

Not when it is the President.

Rubio(R) up. Asks why Comey didn’t tell President “That’s wrong.” Comey says he was stunned and didn’t have the presence of mind.

Wyden (D) is up….

Let me just jump in here and say that I was wrong about one thing (at least).  I thought Comey would leave his personal impressions (“I felt…” “I got the impression….”) out of it.  I was clearly wrong. He’s giving his impressions.

Collins (R) is up….

I have not seen much from this vaunted “rapid response team” of Trump. I THINK the Republican response, if Rubio is any indication, is that Comey didn’t do anything, and he should have. But I think Comey’s answer is perfectly reasonable.

Nice tweet here….

Henirich (D) up….

Blunt (R) up…


Blunt seems to be rehashing the written statement.

Angus King (I) is up….

Lankford (R) is up….
He asks Comey how a president would end an investigation. Comey says, by simply telling it to end, but says he’s not a legal scholar. That might be used by GOP, i.e., Trump did what he is empowered to do.

And now we’re back to Lynch-Clinton.

Manchin (D) is up…

Cotton (R) is up…


I don’t think that is the answer Cotton wanted.


That’s not an excuse, Paul.

Harris (D) is up….
She’s asking a lot about Sessions recusal

Meanwhile… at White House briefing

Cornyn(R) is up and bringing up the Clinton investigation, saying Lynch had a conflict of interest. Zzzzzzz

McCain (R) is up….
Carrying water for GOP, I think. This is bizarre.


I think McCain had a stroke. He appeared to be under the impression that the election was still ongoing, called Comey President, and then couldn’t understand why Clinton was not prosecuted for helping the Russians elect Trump.

Hearing adjourned.  No tweets from President.

Takeaways:

(1) Trump is a liar.  Some more examples:

A. Trump was asked on Fox News last month whether he ever asked Comey for his loyalty. Trump responded, “No, I didn’t.” We now have reason to believe this was a lie.

B. Trump was asked at a White House press conference last month, “Did you at any time urge former FBI Director James Comey in any way, shape, or form to close or to back down the investigation into Michael Flynn?” Trump replied, “No. No. Next question.” We now have reason to believe this was a lie, too.

C. Trump was asked by NBC News’ Lester Holt about the private dinner he had with Comey, and the president said the FBI director “asked for the dinner.” We now have reason to believe this was also a lie.

(2)  No clear defense strategy from GOP (but don’t expect impeachment)

(3) Comey and all of us want those tapes (if they exist)

(4)  Senator McCain has gone ’round the bend.

Of course. And now it goes to closed door session, which will leak about an hour later.

Breaking: Full Text of Comey Prepared Remarks Tomorrow

Chairman Burr, Ranking Member Warner, Members of the Committee. Thank you for inviting me to appear before you today. I was asked to testify today to describe for you my interactions with President-Elect and President Trump on subjects that I understand are of interest to you. I have not included every detail from my conversations with the President, but, to the best of my recollection, I have tried to include information that may be relevant to the Committee.

January 6 Briefing

I first met then-President-Elect Trump on Friday, January 6 in a conference room at Trump Tower in New York. I was there with other Intelligence Community (IC) leaders to brief him and his new national security team on the findings of an IC assessment concerning Russian efforts to interfere in the election. At the conclusion of that briefing, I remained alone with the President- Elect to brief him on some personally sensitive aspects of the information assembled during the assessment.

The IC leadership thought it important, for a variety of reasons, to alert the incoming President to the existence of this material, even though it was salacious and unverified. Among those reasons were: (1) we knew the media was about to publicly report the material and we believed the IC should not keep knowledge of the material and its imminent release from the President-Elect; and (2) to the extent there was some effort to compromise an incoming President, we could blunt any such effort with a defensive briefing.

The Director of National Intelligence asked that I personally do this portion of the briefing because I was staying in my position and because the material implicated the FBI’s counter-intelligence responsibilities. We also agreed I would do it alone to minimize potential embarrassment to the President-Elect. Although we agreed it made sense for me to do the briefing, the FBI’s leadership and I were concerned that the briefing might create a situation where a new President came into office uncertain about whether the FBI was conducting a counter-intelligence investigation of his personal conduct.

It is important to understand that FBI counter-intelligence investigations are different than the more-commonly known criminal investigative work. The Bureau’s goal in a counter-intelligence investigation is to understand the technical and human methods that hostile foreign powers are using to influence the United States or to steal our secrets. The FBI uses that understanding to disrupt those efforts. Sometimes disruption takes the form of alerting a person who is targeted for recruitment or influence by the foreign power. Sometimes it involves hardening a computer system that is being attacked. Sometimes it involves “turning” the recruited person into a double-agent, or publicly calling out the behavior with sanctions or expulsions of embassy-based intelligence officers. On occasion, criminal prosecution is used to disrupt intelligence activities.

Because the nature of the hostile foreign nation is well known, counter- intelligence investigations tend to be centered on individuals the FBI suspects to be witting or unwitting agents of that foreign power. When the FBI develops reason to believe an American has been targeted for recruitment by a foreign power or is covertly acting as an agent of the foreign power, the FBI will “open an investigation” on that American and use legal authorities to try to learn more about the nature of any relationship with the foreign power so it can be disrupted.

In that context, prior to the January 6 meeting, I discussed with the FBI’s leadership team whether I should be prepared to assure President-Elect Trump that we were not investigating him personally. That was true; we did not have an open counter-intelligence case on him. We agreed I should do so if circumstances warranted. During our one-on-one meeting at Trump Tower, based on President- Elect Trump’s reaction to the briefing and without him directly asking the question, I offered that assurance.

I felt compelled to document my first conversation with the President-Elect in a memo. To ensure accuracy, I began to type it on a laptop in an FBI vehicle outside Trump Tower the moment I walked out of the meeting. Creating written records immediately after one-on-one conversations with Mr. Trump was my practice from that point forward. This had not been my practice in the past. I spoke alone with President Obama twice in person (and never on the phone) – once in 2015 to discuss law enforcement policy issues and a second time, briefly, for him to say goodbye in late 2016. In neither of those circumstances did I memorialize the discussions. I can recall nine one-on-one conversations with President Trump in four months – three in person and six on the phone.

January 27 Dinner

The President and I had dinner on Friday, January 27 at 6:30 pm in the Green Room at the White House. He had called me at lunchtime that day and invited me to dinner that night, saying he was going to invite my whole family, but decided to have just me this time, with the whole family coming the next time. It was unclear from the conversation who else would be at the dinner, although I assumed there would be others.

It turned out to be just the two of us, seated at a small oval table in the center of the Green Room. Two Navy stewards waited on us, only entering the room to serve food and drinks.

The President began by asking me whether I wanted to stay on as FBI Director, which I found strange because he had already told me twice in earlier conversations that he hoped I would stay, and I had assured him that I intended to. He said that lots of people wanted my job and, given the abuse I had taken during the previous year, he would understand if I wanted to walk away.

My instincts told me that the one-on-one setting, and the pretense that this was our first discussion about my position, meant the dinner was, at least in part, an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship. That concerned me greatly, given the FBI’s traditionally independent status in the executive branch.

I replied that I loved my work and intended to stay and serve out my ten- year term as Director. And then, because the set-up made me uneasy, I added that I was not “reliable” in the way politicians use that word, but he could always count on me to tell him the truth. I added that I was not on anybody’s side politically and could not be counted on in the traditional political sense, a stance I said was in his best interest as the President.

A few moments later, the President said, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence. The conversation then moved on, but he returned to the subject near the end of our dinner.

At one point, I explained why it was so important that the FBI and the Department of Justice be independent of the White House. I said it was a paradox: Throughout history, some Presidents have decided that because “problems” come from Justice, they should try to hold the Department close. But blurring those boundaries ultimately makes the problems worse by undermining public trust in the institutions and their work.

Near the end of our dinner, the President returned to the subject of my job, saying he was very glad I wanted to stay, adding that he had heard great things about me from Jim Mattis, Jeff Sessions, and many others. He then said, “I need loyalty.” I replied, “You will always get honesty from me.” He paused and then said, “That’s what I want, honest loyalty.” I paused, and then said, “You will get that from me.” As I wrote in the memo I created immediately after the dinner, it is possible we understood the phrase “honest loyalty” differently, but I decided it wouldn’t be productive to push it further. The term – honest loyalty – had helped end a very awkward conversation and my explanations had made clear what he should expect.

During the dinner, the President returned to the salacious material I had briefed him about on January 6, and, as he had done previously, expressed his disgust for the allegations and strongly denied them. He said he was considering ordering me to investigate the alleged incident to prove it didn’t happen. I replied that he should give that careful thought because it might create a narrative that we were investigating him personally, which we weren’t, and because it was very difficult to prove a negative. He said he would think about it and asked me to think about it.

As was my practice for conversations with President Trump, I wrote a detailed memo about the dinner immediately afterwards and shared it with the senior leadership team of the FBI.

February 14 Oval Office Meeting

On February 14, I went to the Oval Office for a scheduled counter- terrorism briefing of the President. He sat behind the desk and a group of us sat in a semi-circle of about six chairs facing him on the other side of the desk. The Vice President, Deputy Director of the CIA, Director of the National Counter- Terrorism Center, Secretary of Homeland Security, the Attorney General, and I were in the semi-circle of chairs. I was directly facing the President, sitting between the Deputy CIA Director and the Director of NCTC. There were quite a few others in the room, sitting behind us on couches and chairs.

The President signaled the end of the briefing by thanking the group and telling them all that he wanted to speak to me alone. I stayed in my chair. As the participants started to leave the Oval Office, the Attorney General lingered by my chair, but the President thanked him and said he wanted to speak only with me. The last person to leave was Jared Kushner, who also stood by my chair and exchanged pleasantries with me. The President then excused him, saying he wanted to speak with me.

When the door by the grandfather clock closed, and we were alone, the President began by saying, “I want to talk about Mike Flynn.” Flynn had resigned the previous day. The President began by saying Flynn hadn’t done anything wrong in speaking with the Russians, but he had to let him go because he had misled the Vice President. He added that he had other concerns about Flynn, which he did not then specify.

The President then made a long series of comments about the problem with leaks of classified information – a concern I shared and still share. After he had spoken for a few minutes about leaks, Reince Priebus leaned in through the door by the grandfather clock and I could see a group of people waiting behind him. The President waved at him to close the door, saying he would be done shortly. The door closed.

The President then returned to the topic of Mike Flynn, saying, “He is a good guy and has been through a lot.” He repeated that Flynn hadn’t done anything wrong on his calls with the Russians, but had misled the Vice President. He then said, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” I replied only that “he is a good guy.” (In fact, I had a positive experience dealing with Mike Flynn when he was a colleague as Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency at the beginning of my term at FBI.) I did not say I would “let this go.”

The President returned briefly to the problem of leaks. I then got up and left out the door by the grandfather clock, making my way through the large group of people waiting there, including Mr. Priebus and the Vice President.

I immediately prepared an unclassified memo of the conversation about Flynn and discussed the matter with FBI senior leadership. I had understood the President to be requesting that we drop any investigation of Flynn in connection with false statements about his conversations with the Russian ambassador in December. I did not understand the President to be talking about the broader investigation into Russia or possible links to his campaign. I could be wrong, but I took him to be focusing on what had just happened with Flynn’s departure and the controversy around his account of his phone calls. Regardless, it was very concerning, given the FBI’s role as an independent investigative agency.

The FBI leadership team agreed with me that it was important not to infect the investigative team with the President’s request, which we did not intend to abide. We also concluded that, given that it was a one-on-one conversation, there was nothing available to corroborate my account. We concluded it made little sense to report it to Attorney General Sessions, who we expected would likely recuse himself from involvement in Russia-related investigations. (He did so two weeks later.) The Deputy Attorney General’s role was then filled in an acting capacity by a United States Attorney, who would also not be long in the role.

After discussing the matter, we decided to keep it very closely held, resolving to figure out what to do with it down the road as our investigation progressed. The investigation moved ahead at full speed, with none of the investigative team members – or the Department of Justice lawyers supporting them – aware of the President’s request.

Shortly afterwards, I spoke with Attorney General Sessions in person to pass along the President’s concerns about leaks. I took the opportunity to implore the Attorney General to prevent any future direct communication between the President and me. I told the AG that what had just happened – him being asked to leave while the FBI Director, who reports to the AG, remained behind – was inappropriate and should never happen. He did not reply. For the reasons discussed above, I did not mention that the President broached the FBI’s potential investigation of General Flynn.

March 30 Phone Call

On the morning of March 30, the President called me at the FBI. He described the Russia investigation as “a cloud” that was impairing his ability to act on behalf of the country. He said he had nothing to do with Russia, had not been involved with hookers in Russia, and had always assumed he was being recorded when in Russia. He asked what we could do to “lift the cloud.” I responded that we were investigating the matter as quickly as we could, and that there would be great benefit, if we didn’t find anything, to our having done the work well. He agreed, but then re-emphasized the problems this was causing him.

Then the President asked why there had been a congressional hearing about Russia the previous week – at which I had, as the Department of Justice directed, confirmed the investigation into possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign. I explained the demands from the leadership of both parties in Congress for more information, and that Senator Grassley had even held up the confirmation of the Deputy Attorney General until we briefed him in detail on the investigation. I explained that we had briefed the leadership of Congress on exactly which individuals we were investigating and that we had told those Congressional leaders that we were not personally investigating President Trump. I reminded him I had previously told him that. He repeatedly told me, “We need to get that fact out.” (I did not tell the President that the FBI and the Department of Justice had been reluctant to make public statements that we did not have an open case on President Trump for a number of reasons, most importantly because it would create a duty to correct, should that change.)

The President went on to say that if there were some “satellite” associates of his who did something wrong, it would be good to find that out, but that he hadn’t done anything wrong and hoped I would find a way to get it out that we weren’t investigating him.

In an abrupt shift, he turned the conversation to FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, saying he hadn’t brought up “the McCabe thing” because I had said McCabe was honorable, although McAuliffe was close to the Clintons and had given him (I think he meant Deputy Director McCabe’s wife) campaign money. Although I didn’t understand why the President was bringing this up, I repeated that Mr. McCabe was an honorable person.

He finished by stressing “the cloud” that was interfering with his ability to make deals for the country and said he hoped I could find a way to get out that he wasn’t being investigated. I told him I would see what we could do, and that we would do our investigative work well and as quickly as we could.

Immediately after that conversation, I called Acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente (AG Sessions had by then recused himself on all Russia- related matters), to report the substance of the call from the President, and said I would await his guidance. I did not hear back from him before the President called me again two weeks later.

April 11 Phone Call

On the morning of April 11, the President called me and asked what I had done about his request that I “get out” that he is not personally under investigation. I replied that I had passed his request to the Acting Deputy Attorney General, but I had not heard back. He replied that “the cloud” was getting in the way of his ability to do his job. He said that perhaps he would have his people reach out to the Acting Deputy Attorney General. I said that was the way his request should be handled. I said the White House Counsel should contact the leadership of DOJ to make the request, which was the traditional channel.

He said he would do that and added, “Because I have been very loyal to you, very loyal; we had that thing you know.” I did not reply or ask him what he meant by “that thing.” I said only that the way to handle it was to have the White House Counsel call the Acting Deputy Attorney General. He said that was what he would do and the call ended.

That was the last time I spoke with President Trump.

Previewing Comey’s Big Testimony On Thursday

Former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony Thursday to the Senate Intelligence Committee promises to be one of the most highly anticipated congressional appearances in years. Indeed, for a comparable high-stakes hearing, you have to go back to 2015, when Hillary Clinton testified before the House Benghazi Committee. Or 1991, when Anita Hill testified in Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation hearing. Or 1987, when Oliver North testified on the Iran-Contra scandal. So Thursday is THAT big. And there will be four storylines to watch:

  1. Why does Comey think President Trump fired him? Did it have anything to do with the Russia investigation and a possible obstruction of justice?
  2. Does Comey confirm that Trump asked him to let go of the probe into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn?
  3. Does Comey confirm that Trump asked him to pledge his loyalty to the president?
  4. And do Trump and his administration try to stop Comey’s testimony by invoking executive privilege? On Friday, the New York Times, citing two senior administration officials, reported that Trump doesn’t plan to prevent Comey’s testimony.

I believe the fourth one is not going to happen.  Trump may want it to happen, but he doesn’t understand that it would backfire.

[UPDATE — Yup:

]

The other question Comey is sure to get asked is “Why did you testify before (under oath) that you did not feel any pressure to drop the Russia investigation?”  It is quite possible that Comey’s views on whether or not there was pressure have changed when you had one salient factor: HE GOT FIRED.  Sometimes you don’t realize the warning lights on the car are for real until the engine falls out.

Keep in mind: Comey knows how to tell a story, as the Washington Post’s Paul Kane recounted several years ago about the former FBI director’s congressional testimony into his intervention when Bush Attorney General John Ashcroft was hospitalized. “… Comey wanted to tell this amazing story about a constitutional crisis in the hospital room of then-Attorney General John Ashcroft in 2004. So [former Chuck Schumer staffer Preet] Bharara arranged for Comey to testify before a Senate subcommittee. The usually loquacious Schumer stopped asking Comey questions and just let him give a long statement telling the tale of something that seemed like a movie plot. You could hear a pin drop in the Dirksen hearing room, and in fact we did, when one reporter — stunned at what he was hearing — literally just dropped his pen onto the press table.”

I predict a bombshell.

The “Unmasking” Diversion

Over at Fox News, they use the word “unmasking” a lot. To me, it looks like they haven’t realized it is a common practice in the intelligence community. They just use the word a lot so that their low-information viewers will think it is bad.

“Unmasking”, of course, is the process whereby a redacted name of an American citizen is unredacted for someone who is reading an intelligence report.  A request is made to unmask the name so that the reader can better understand and perhaps act on the information (or fully advise another)

Unmasking is not leaking.  When the name of a U.S. person is unmasked, that information is provided only to the intelligence official who requested that unmasking. There’s no equivalence between so-called unmasking and leaking.  Of course, the recipient of unmasked information could then illegally disclose it through a leak. But that’s leaking.

Unmasking is not a crime. The process for unmasking vary from agency to agency and case by case depending on how the information was collected. But the exact procedures are not publicly known and may be classified.

Even if it turns out that procedures weren’t followed, people would most likely be subject to administrative discipline. It’s still not a crime.

But Trump and obedient Republicans have to switch focus to something other than possible Russia collusion, so “unmasking” is their go-to.  In the recent subpoenas sent out by the House Intelligence Committee, half of them were related to investigations of “improper unmasking.”

Never mind that these allegations have already been thoroughly debunked. In April, numerous media outlets, citing both Republican and Democratic congressional sources, reported that intelligence reports pertaining to the communications of Trump’s advisers with foreign agents were “normal and appropriate” and contained “no evidence of wrongdoing.”

Even Trump is pimping the unmasking. His tweet today:

It’s really not.  As I said, even improper unmasking is an administrative slap on the wrist.

But Trump has a bigger problem.  Pushing the “unmasking and surveillance” line only leads to more information about why requests were made. And when that information comes to the surface, well, that’s a path that’s been harmful to Trump’s cause thus far.

I don’t think he sees that many moves ahead.

Jared And The Russian Backchannel – It Happened, Didn’t Happen, But He Didn’t Do It, But So What If He Did?

On Friday, The Washington Post reported that Jared Kushner sought to create a secret line of communication between Donald Trump’s transition team and the Kremlin during a meeting with Russian diplomats in December.

On Saturday, national security adviser H.R. McMaster said at a news conference that he “would not be concerned” about such an arrangement and added that “we have back-channel communications with a number of countries.”

On Sunday, Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly told ABC News that “any channel of communications, back or otherwise, is a good thing.”

On Monday, Fox News published an online article with no byline and a single unnamed source that claimed that Kushner, a senior White House adviser, did not try to set up a back channel after all. (Make no mistake: It is not normal to publish a supposed scoop without a byline. The only clue Fox News offered about the reporting was a note at the bottom of the story that said Catherine Herridge “contributed.”)

On Tuesday morning, “Fox & Friends” co-host Brian Kilmeade posed a question to counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway: “Do you back up the Fox News report?” Conway refused. “I’m not going to get into any of that,” she said. Conway echoed McMaster and Kelly, saying “they’re not concerned” and that “back channels like this are the regular course of business.”

A short time later, Trump tweeted a link to the Fox News report that Conway had just declined to support, seemingly endorsing an alternative defense of Kushner that his own administration spent three days not making.

What the heck is going on here?

Option 1: He did it, but that’s okay.

Option 2: He didn’t do it.

Never mind that both things cannot be true. The bottom line is Kushner did nothing bad. Believe me.

UPDATE:   Sean Spicer is giving the first press briefing since Trump’s overseas trip.  He’s basically saying that the White House cannot confirm if there was a backchannel and takes no position on it (even though Trump tweeted about it and referred to the Fox News article and even though, as Spicer says, “there is nothing wrong with establishing a backchannel”).  Makes no sense

Congressional Investigation Committees Go for Trump’s Personal Lawyer, Michael Cohen

President Donald Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, has received requests for information from the Senate and House intelligence committees as part of their probes into Russian interference in the U.S. election. The request ;letters were the same ones sent to former Trump aides Carter Page, Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, Mike Flynn and others. Those letters sought information about Russian contacts, and asked the recipients to turn over any communications with the Trump campaign about Russia.

Cohen is a long-time lawyer for both Trump and his business organization. He has served as executive vice president of the Trump Organization and special counsel to Trump.

In the dossier on Trump prepared by former British spy Christopher Steele, Cohen was alleged to have attended a secret meeting in Prague to discuss Russia’s hacking of Democratic targets. In February, Cohen told NBC News he was in Los Angeles when the Prague meeting was supposed to have occurred, taking his son to a meeting with the baseball coach at the University of Southern California.

But still, he isn’t cooperating. “I declined the invitation to participate, as the request was poorly phrased, overly broad and not capable of being answered,” Cohen told CNN Tuesday, adding that he considered it a “total fishing expedition.”

“They have yet to produce one single piece of credible evidence that would corroborate the Russia narrative,” Cohen said. He called the investigation a “rush to judgment.”

In case we’ve forgotten, Cohen was part of one of the more cringeworthy parts of the campaign (jump to 1:50):

The Smoking Gun?

Another bombshell from the New York Times.  If this is true, Trump not only revealed classified information to Russians, but he also admitted to firing Comey because of the investigation:

WASHINGTON — President Trump told Russian officials in the Oval Office this month that firing the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, had relieved “great pressure” on him, according to a document summarizing the meeting.

“I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Mr. Trump said, according to the document, which was read to The New York Times by an American official. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

Mr. Trump added, “I’m not under investigation.”

The conversation, during a May 10 meeting — the day after he fired Mr. Comey — reinforces the notion that Mr. Trump dismissed him primarily because of the bureau’s investigation into possible collusion between his campaign and Russian operatives. Mr. Trump said as much in one televised interview, but the White House has offered changing justifications for the firing.

The White House document that contained Mr. Trump’s comments was based on notes taken from inside the Oval Office and has been circulated as the official account of the meeting. One official read quotations to The Times, and a second official confirmed the broad outlines of the discussion.

Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, did not dispute the account.

In a statement, he said that Mr. Comey had put unnecessary pressure on the president’s ability to conduct diplomacy with Russia on matters such as Syria, Ukraine and the Islamic State.

“By grandstanding and politicizing the investigation into Russia’s actions, James Comey created unnecessary pressure on our ability to engage and negotiate with Russia,” Mr. Spicer said. “The investigation would have always continued, and obviously, the termination of Comey would not have ended it. Once again, the real story is that our national security has been undermined by the leaking of private and highly classified conversations.”

The day after firing Mr. Comey, Mr. Trump hosted Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, in the Oval Office, along with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey I. Kislyak. The meeting ignited controversy this week when it was revealed that Mr. Trump had disclosed intelligence from an Israeli counterterrorism operation.

A third government official briefed on the meeting defended the president, saying Mr. Trump was using a negotiating tactic when he told Mr. Lavrov about the “pressure” he was under. The idea, the official suggested, was to create a sense of obligation with Russian officials and to coax concessions out of Mr. Lavrov — on Syria, Ukraine and other issues — by saying that Russian meddling in last year’s election had created enormous political problems for Mr. Trump.

The president has been adamant that the meddling did not alter the outcome of the race, but it has become a political cudgel for his opponents.

Many Democrats and some Republicans have raised alarms that the president may have tried to obstruct justice by firing Mr. Comey. The Justice Department’s newly appointed special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, was given the authority to investigate not only potential collusion, but also related allegations, which would include obstruction of justice.

The F.B.I.’s investigation has bedeviled the Trump administration, and the president personally. Mr. Comey publicly confirmed the existence of the investigation in March, telling Congress that his agents were investigating Russian efforts to influence the outcome of the presidential election and whether anyone in the Trump campaign had been involved. Mr. Trump has denied any collusion and called the case a waste of money and time.

At first, the White House said Mr. Trump fired Mr. Comey based on the recommendation of the Justice Department, and because of Mr. Comey’s handling of the F.B.I. investigation into Hillary Clinton last year. Officials said it had nothing to do with the Russia investigation.

But the president undercut that argument a day later, telling NBC News, “When I decided to just do it, I said to myself — I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.”

I hope people won’t focus on Trump calling Comey a “nut job”.  The takeaway quote is Trump thinking that by getting rid of Comey, he was taking the pressure off.  That is a problem for Trump, legally.  It goes to obstruction.

This story dropped just as Trump was wheels up on his trip abroad.  Washington Post dropped one as well, at the same time: a story saying that a close adviser to Trump in the White House is the a “person of interest” in the FBI investigation. Jared Kushner or Stephen Miller, I’d guess

Trump Is Delusional About How He Got Here

Boy, does WaPo get this right or what? This comes from The Plum Line about how Trump has no idea what just hit him:

Trump unleashed two tweets Thursday morning responding to the news of the appointment, which was made by Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein after days of deafening criticism. Trump claimed: “With all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration, there was never a special councel [sic, or perhaps more appropriately, sick] appointed!” He then added: “This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!”

Separately, The Post reports that Trump is raging at his staff for failing to mitigate his “stumbles.” Why? Because “Trump largely thinks that his recent mishaps are not substantive but simply errors of branding and public relations, according to people close to him and the White House.”

But, despite Trump’s suggestion that he is being victimized by a witch hunt, and that a more adept PR strategy could minimize the damage, this is a situation entirely of Trump’s own making. And each of Trump’s actions leading up to this moment are rooted deep in Trump’s autocratic and authoritarian impulses; his total contempt for basic institutional processes; and his tendency, when his sense of grievance strikes, to slip into a delusional belief that he can overwhelm the institutional independence of his persecutors the way he might steamroll someone in a business deal.

***

Trump has created a problem for himself in yet another way, too: He denied asking Comey for a loyalty pledge by vaguely threatening to release alleged tapes of their conversation. Now, if Comey publicly attests to that pledge, the White House will be forced to produce these tapes or admit they don’t exist, and it’s very likely that neither of those outcomes would turn out well for Trump.

The point is not just that Trump’s actions are entirely to blame for the appointment of the special counsel. It’s also that there are no indications that Trump even understands this. And on top of that, these actions themselves — which simply did not have to happen — will now likely be probed by the special counsel, too.

Here’s A Good Place For Mueller To Start

Reuters is reporting that former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and other Trump campaign advisers “were in contact with Russian officials and others with Kremlin ties in at least 18 calls and emails during the last seven months of the 2016 presidential race.”

That news stands in contrast to what Trump transition team chair-turned-Vice President Mike Pence said in January, when he repeatedly denied during TV interviews that there was any communication between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.

In late February, CNN reported that the FBI “rejected a recent White House request to publicly knock down media reports about communications between Donald Trump’s associates and Russians known to US intelligence during the 2016 presidential campaign.” According to CNN, FBI Director James Comey denied White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus’ request because “the alleged communications between Trump associates and Russians known to US intelligence are the subject of an ongoing investigation.” Comey publicly confirmed that investigation in March.

Comey was fired by Trump last week amid an investigation into the Trump campaign’s communications with Russia. Trump later admitted he fired Comey in part because of frustrations about the ongoing investigation. That apparent obstruction of justice has led to calls for Trump’s impeachment and the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the matter.

Six of the communications involved calls between Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak and Trump advisers, including Flynn. Flynn lost his job as Trump’s national security adviser after officials leaked news that Flynn lied to administration officials about his pre-inauguration communications with Kislyak — including discussions of sanctions placed on Russia by the Obama administration in response to Russia’s meddling in the election on behalf of Trump.

Flynn wasn’t the only one who lied about his communications with Kislyak — so did Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who promised to recuse himself from any Russia-Trump campaign-related investigations after Justice Department officials leaked news that Sessions didn’t tell the truth during his confirmation hearing. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a senior White House adviser, didn’t disclose his December meeting with Kislyak on his security clearance form.

According to Reuters, during the transition period, Flynn and Kislyak discussed “establishing a back channel for communication between Trump and [Putin] that could bypass the U.S. national security bureaucracy, which both sides considered hostile to improved relations.”

The White House didn’t comment, but Reuters said the Russian embassy in D.C. issued a statement saying, “We do not comment on our daily contacts with the local interlocutors.”

From the time of the campaign through early March, Trump officials issued at least 20 separate denials of communications with Russia. On January 16, Trump told reporters, “I have nothing to do with Russia. To the best of my knowledge, no person that I deal with does.” A month later, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said despite Flynn’s transition-period contacts with Kislyak, he wasn’t aware of any Trump associates being in contact with Russian officials during the campaign. On February 20, Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that Trump-Russia “is a non-story because to the best of our knowledge, no contacts took place, so it’s hard to make a comment on something that never happened.”

Meanwhile, Time Magazine reports this:

As they dig into the viralizing of such stories, congressional investigations are probing not just Russia’s role but whether Moscow had help from the Trump campaign. Sources familiar with the investigations say they are probing two Trump-linked organizations: Cambridge Analytica, a data-analytics company hired by the campaign that is partly owned by deep-pocketed Trump backer Robert Mercer; and Breitbart News, the right-wing website formerly run by Trump’s top political adviser Stephen Bannon.

The congressional investigators are looking at ties between those companies and right-wing web personalities based in Eastern Europe who the U.S. believes are Russian fronts, a source familiar with the investigations tells TIME. “Nobody can prove it yet,” the source says. In March, McClatchy newspapers reported that FBI counterintelligence investigators were probing whether far-right sites like Breitbart News and Infowars had coordinated with Russian botnets to blitz social media with anti-Clinton stories, mixing fact and fiction when Trump was doing poorly in the campaign.

Does not look like this is going away.

Day 118. Hot Mess

1/ Rod Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Bob Mueller to oversee the investigation of Russian interference in election. Mueller will take command of the prosecutors and FBI agents who are working on the far reaching Russia investigation. Trump said that he expects the probe will find no collusion between his 2016 White House campaign and foreign countries, calling the Russia inquiry a “taxpayer-funded charade.” (NBC News / New York Times / Washington Post / Politico)

  • Former Trump aides Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort have emerged as key figures in the FBI’s investigation into Russian campaign interference. Multiple grand jury subpoenas and records requests have been issued in connection with the two men. (NBC News)
  • Federal investigators have subpoenaed records for Manafort’s $3.5 million mortgage that he took out on his Hamptons home just after leaving the campaign. (NBC News)

2/ The House majority leader told colleagues last year: “I think Putin pays” Trump. Paul Ryan told them not to leak the remarks and swore them to secrecy. (Washington Post)

3/ Jason Chaffetz asked the FBI to turn all documents it has on Trump and Comey’s conversations. The FBI has until May 24 to produce the records before the Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee subpoenas them. Chaffetz said that if the memo exists and accurately reflects the conversation, “that seems like an extraordinary use of influence to try to shut down an investigation being done by the FBI.” (NBC News / CNN)

  • Comey’s memos were a product of a culture of note-taking. It is standard for people who work in law enforcement to keep detailed phone and meeting logs. (New York Times)

4/ Senate and House Republicans and Democrats want Comey to testify about his interactions with Trump, including whether Trump tried to obstruct the criminal probe into Michael Flynn. The collective political fallout from the past week “will make it difficult” for Republicans to resist a change in approach, Representative Charlie Dent said. “I think we need to hear from him as soon as possible in public to respond to the issues that have been raised in recent days,” Mitch McConnell said. (Politico / Washington Post / (Wall Street Journal)

  • The Senate Intelligence Committee requested that James Comey testify publicly in the wake of his firing by Trump. Sentors Richard Burr and Mark Warner sent a letter asking Comey to testify before their panel in both open and closed sessions. The senators had previously asked Comey to testify in a closed session, but he declined. (Politico)
  • The House Oversight Committee invited Comey to testify next Wednesday. Jason Chaffetz has officially scheduled the hearing and is in the process of trying to connect with Comey. The hearing will be the day the FBI is due to send documents to the oversight panel. (Politico)

5/ Democratic congressman Al Green called for “the impeachment of the President of the United States of America for obstruction of justice.” Green said it was the House of Representative’s “duty” to take up impeachment. More Republicans and Democrats are starting to talk of the possibility that Trump could face impeachment after reports that he pressed James Comey to end an investigation of Michael Flynn. Representative Justin Amash said if the reports about Trump’s pressure on Comey are true, it would merit impeachment. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi both raised concerns about Trump’s action, but avoided the topic of impeachment in their statements responding to the news of Comey’s memo. “At best, President Trump has committed a grave abuse of executive power,” Pelosi said. “At worst, he has obstructed justice.” Democrats can’t impeach Trump without significant Republican support. (CNN / The Hill / BuzzFeed News)

6/ Republicans blocked the Democrats attempt to force a vote on creating a bipartisan congressional commission to investigate Russian interference, how the intelligence community handled the matter, and the Trump’s involvement. “You’re watching an obstruction of justice investigation developing in real time,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “If there were ever any question about the need for an independent special prosecutor, this report is the nail on the argument.” (New York Times / Washington Post / Reuters)

  • Calls grow for an independent investigation. The deputy Republican whip Adam Kinzinger switched his position for an independent commission or special prosecutor to investigate possible ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia, saying the recent news reports had marked a turning point for him. (NBC News / Washington Post)

7/ Paul Ryan tried to contain the political fallout from the Comey memo by urging members to avoid “rushing to judgment.” He called himself “a person who wants to get the facts” and said that “there are some people out there who want to harm the president.” (CNN / Washington Post / Politico)

8/ McCain compares Comey memo about his meeting with Trump to Watergate. “The only thing I can say is I think we’ve seen this movie before. I think it’s reaching the point where it’s of Watergate size and scale,” McCain said. His advice to Trump is “the same thing that you advised Richard Nixon, which he didn’t do… get it all out… it’s not going to be over until every aspect of it is thoroughly examined and the American people make a judgment. And the longer you delay, the longer it’s going to last.” (ABC News / The Daily Beast)

9/ Putin offers to provide Congress with the transcript to prove Trump didn’t pass Russia secrets, turning up the pressure on the White House to provide its own transcript of the meeting. Putin said Russia could hand over a transcript of Trump’s meeting with Lavrov, if the Trump administration deemed it appropriate. (Reuters / New York Times / CNN / Washington Post)

  • Adam Schiff: “Last thing” Trump needs “is Putin vouching for him.” Schiff called Putin’s offer “yet another twist in the road” and said, “all of this gets more baffling every day.” (CNN)
  • Senator Susan Collins says Trump needs to “right the ship” and get his “house in order” because “we cannot have this constant chaos” every single day from him. (CNN)

10/ Trump provided Russia with secrets so sensitive that news organizations are being asked not to report it. Trump told the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador that the Islamic State had used stolen airport security equipment to test a bomb that could be hidden in electronic devices. US intelligence officials have asked media organizations not to report on the type of equipment, where it was stolen, and the name of the city where the intelligence was gathered. The intelligence has led to the new rules banning electronic devices in the cabins of certain flights. (NBC News)

11/ Trump: No politician “has been treated worse or more unfairly,” warning graduating Coast Guard cadets that life is unfair. (Politico)

12/ Sally Yates disputed Sean Spicer’s characterization of her warnings that Flynn could be open to blackmail by Russia as a “heads up.” Yates said she expected the White House to act urgently on the information that Flynn had been compromised by his contact with Russian officials prior to Trump’s inauguration. (CNN / NBC News)

13/ Members of the Turkish president’s security team breached police lines and attacked protesters outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence in the US. About two dozen demonstrators showed up outside of embassy hours after Erdogan met with Trump and a brawl erupted when Erdogan’s security detail attacked protesters carrying the flag of the Kurdish PYD party. (CNN / The Guardian / New York Times)

14/ The Iran nuclear deal will remain as Trump imposes new penalties over its ballistic missile program. The new sanctions is the latest attempt by the administration to signal its displeasure with Iran while not jettisoning the 2015 nuclear deal. (Politico / New York Times)

15/ Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke accepted a job at the Department of Homeland Security. Clarke has made a name himself for supporting Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration and for patrolling of Muslim neighborhoods. (Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel / Los Angeles Times)

16/ Trump has turned to Corey Lewandowski, Jason Miller, and David Bossie as scandals pile up. The former campaign aides have slid back into his group of advisers as a steady stream of damaging leaks and critical blind quotes that have flowed out of the West Wing. (Politico)

17/ Trump’s education budget calls for deep cuts to public school programs in pursuit of school choice. Funding for college work-study programs would be cut in half, public-service loan forgiveness would end, and hundreds of millions of dollars that public schools could use for mental health and other services would vanish under the plan, which cuts $10.6 billion from federal education initiatives. (Washington Post)

poll/ Trump’s approval rating hits a new low: 42% – and that’s before claims that he disclosed sensitive information to Russian officials and tried to shut down an FBI investigation into Michael Flynn. (Politico)

How We Got Here

I have been out of town and/or recuperating from being out of town, so the events of earlier this week caught me off guard.  Nothing to say, and yet so much to say, and yet so much has already been said.  Clearly though, this appears to be the beginning of the end for Trump. We are in impeachment territory, and the only open questions now are how long before his base erodes to the point where Republican Congressmen HAVE to step up to the plate?

Anyway, for future reference, this is how the crisis has unfolded.

July 5 2016

Comey recommends that the DOJ not bring charges against Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton over her use of a private email server when she was Secretary of State, but says she and her staff were “extremely careless”.

October 28

The FBI announces it is opening a new probe into Mrs Clinton’s emails, following an unrelated criminal investigation into Anthony Weiner, a former congressman and estranged husband of a Clinton aide.

November 6

Days before the election, Comey reaffirms his previous decision that no charges be brought against Mrs Clinton. Trump complains that Clinton is protected by a “rigged system”.

December 11

Trump attacks a Central Intelligence Agency report that Russia hacked Democratic party servers to help secure his election.

February 14 2017

Flynn “resigns” (is fired) as national security adviser after admitting he misled vice-president Michael Pence over his Russian contacts. The FBI had been investigating the conversations between Flynn and the Russian ambassador.

February 17

Trump slams leaked reports that his campaign team was in contact with Russia during the campaign.

March 20

Comey tells the House intelligence committee that the FBI is investigating Russian connections with Trump associates.

May 3

Comey testifies before a Senate committee and says he feels “mildly nauseous” at the thought that he could have influenced the outcome of the presidential election.

May 9

Comey is fired. A letter from the president says he was dismissed on the advice of the justice department over his handling of the Clinton case.

May 11

Trump says he would have fired Comey “regardless” of the justice department’s advice, and adds that he was unsatisfied with Comey because of the Russia investigation.

May 13

Trump appears to threaten Comey with the release of tapes of their private conversations.

May 15

The Washington Post reports that Mr Trump shared classified information to Russia’s foreign minister and ambassador in a White House meeting.

May 16

Trump tweets that he has “absolute right” as president to give Russians information for counterterrorism purposes. The New York Times reports that Trump asked Comey in February to halt the investigation into Mr Flynn. “I hope you can let this go,” the president told Comey, according to a memo the FBI head wrote at the time.

Day 116. Jeopardized.

1/ Trump revealed highly classified information to Russian diplomats during their Oval Office meeting last week, which has jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State. Trump’s decision to disclose information risks cooperation from an ally that has access to the inner workings of the Islamic State. A US official said Trump “revealed more information to the Russian ambassador than we have shared with our own allies.” Trump’s disclosures are not illegal as he has the power to declassify almost anything. But sharing the information without the express permission of the ally who provided it represents a major breach of espionage etiquette, and could jeopardize a crucial intelligence-sharing relationship. (Washington Post / New York Times)

2/ Trump is considering a “huge reboot” that could take out everyone from Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon, to counsel Don McGahn and Sean Spicer. Trump is irritated with several Cabinet members and “frustrated, and angry at everyone.” (Axios)

3/ Senate Republicans are looking at steep cuts to Medicaid that could drop millions of people from coverage and reduce programs for the poor. Under pressure to balance the budget, Republicans are considering slashing more than $400 billion in spending on food stamps, welfare, and even veterans’ benefits through a process to evade Democratic filibusters in the Senate. If the Medicaid cutbacks get passed by both chambers, it could significantly scale back the federal-state insurance program that covers 73 million low-income or disabled Americans and shift significant costs onto hospitals and states. (Politico / Wall Street Journal)

4/ James Clapper said that US institutions are under assault from Trump and warned that federal checks and balances are eroding. Former Director of National Intelligence called on the other branches of the federal government to step up in their roles as a check on the executive. (CNN / Associated Press)

  • Republicans and Democrats agree that if Trump has tapes, he’ll need to turn them over to Congress. Lawmakers from both parties said any White House recordings must be preserved for congressional review and that “it’s probably inevitable” that they would be subpoenaed. (Washington Post)

5/ North Korea successfully test-fired a new type of ballistic missile, signaling an advance in their development of an intercontinental ballistic missile program. North Korea said the new “medium long-range” missile is capable of carrying a large nuclear warhead, warning that the United States’ military bases in the Pacific were within its range. (New York Times / Wall Street Journal / Reuters / Associated Press)

  • Putin warns against “intimidating” North Korea after its latest missile launch. Putin called for a peaceful solution to the ongoing tensions on the Korean peninsula and said that Russia is “categorically against the expansion of the club of nuclear states.” (CNN)

6/ The 9th Circuit Court will hear the travel ban appeal, again. A three-judge panel will hear a challenge to a Hawaii judge’s decision to halt travel ban 2.0. Lawyers at the Justice Department must convince at least two of the judges to ignore Trump’s record of campaign calls to ban Muslims from entering the US. (CNN)

7/ Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein will brief the full Senate on Thursday about the firing of James Comey. The briefing is classified and will take place in the regular secure room in the Capitol Visitors Center. (CNN / Washington Post)

8/ The Supreme Court rejected an appeal to reinstate North Carolina’s voter identification law, which a lower court said targeted African-Americans “with almost surgical precision.” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. issued a statement noting that there was a dispute about who represented the state in the case and that nothing should be read into the court’s decision to decline to hear it. (Associated Press / Politico / New York Times)

9/ The Dakota Access pipeline has its first leak. The $3.8bn oil pipeline is not yet fully operational, but managed to spill 84 gallons of crude oil. (The Guardian)

10/ White Nationalist Richard Spencer led a torch-bearing group protesting the sale of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Virginia. The group chanted “You will not replace us.” Spencer added: “What brings us together is that we are white, we are a people, we will not be replaced.” (NPR / Washington Post)

11/ Trump thinks that exercising too much uses up the body’s “finite” energy. Trump mostly gave up athletics after college because he “believed the human body was like a battery, with a finite amount of energy, which exercise only depleted.” (Washington Post)

12/ Comey said he’d be willing to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee, but wants it to be in public. Comey originally declined an invitation from the committee to be interviewed in a closed-door hearing. (New York Times)

13/ Syria is using a crematorium to hide executions, the State Department said. The US believes Syria’s “building of a crematorium is an effort to cover up the extent of mass murders taking place in Saydnaya prison.” A State Department official said the regime could be killing as many as 50 detainees a day. (CNN / BuzzFeed News / Washington Post)

14/ Senate Republicans are breaking away from Trump as they try to forge a more traditional Republican agenda and protect their political fortunes. Republican senators are drafting a health care bill with little White House input and pushing back on Trump’s impending budget request. Many high-ranking Republicans have said they will not support any move by Trump to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement. (New York Times)

poll/ 29% approve of Trump’s firing of James Comey. Trump’s job-approval rating stands at 39%. (NBC News)

Day 117. Wow.

1/ Trump asked James Comey to shut down the Michael Flynn investigation in a February memo he wrote shortly after meeting with Trump. “I hope you can let this go,” Trump told Comey. The request is the clearest evidence that he tried to directly influence the Justice Department and FBI investigations. Comey kept detailed notes of his meetings with Trump, documenting what he perceived as improper efforts to influence a continuing investigation. An FBI agent’s notes are widely held up in court as credible evidence of conversations. (New York Times)

2/ Trump defended his decision to share ISIS intelligence with Russia, tweeting that he had an “absolute right” to do so in the interest of fighting terrorism. Trump’s tweets undercut his administration’s effort to contain the report, where Rex Tillerson, H.R. McMaster, and the deputy national security adviser for strategy all called the report that Trump revealed highly classified information to Russia false. The information was considered so sensitive that US officials had not shared it widely within the government or among allies. (New York Times / Washington Post / Wall Street Journal)

UPDATE:

Three administration officials conceded that Trump simply did not possess the interest or knowledge of intelligence gathering to leak specific sources and methods that would do harm to United States allies. (New York Times)

  • Trump revealed highly classified information to Russian diplomats during their Oval Office meeting last week, which has jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State. (WTF Just Happened Today)
  • “This is really the nightmare scenario for the intelligence community,” a former CIA officer said, and as a result Trump could have hampered the US response to ISIS. (Politico)
  • Initial thoughts on the Washington Post’s game-changing story: It matters who we have running the most powerful institution in the world. (Lawfare)

3/ McMaster backs Trump’s sharing of sensitive intelligence with Russians: “It is wholly appropriate for the president to share whatever information he thinks is necessary.” He added that Trump “wasn’t even aware where this information came from. He wasn’t briefed on the source or method of the information either.” McMaster refused to confirm whether the information the president shared with the Russians was highly classified. (ABC News / Washington Post / Politico)

4/ Israel was the source of ISIS-related intelligence that Trump shared with Russia last week. Two Israeli officials said that the intelligence shared by Trump “syncs up” with intelligence that shared with its US counterparts. The revelation is Israel’s “worst fears confirmed” as it raises the possibility that the information could be passed to Iran, Russia’s close ally and Israel’s main threat in the Middle East. (New York Times / BuzzFeed News / NBC News / Wall Street Journal)

5/ CIA Director Mike Pompeo will brief the members of the House intelligence committee today on what Trump discussed with Russian officials last week, following claims that Trump apparently revealed classified information. (CNN)

6/ Republican and Democratic lawmakers to Trump: hand over the transcript of the meeting with the Russians. Members of Congress have spent several days demanding that Trump turn over tapes of White House meetings after he suggested that he records his conversations. Those calls intensified after Trump acknowledged on Twitter that he had shared sensitive information during his meeting with the Russians. White House aides have neither confirmed nor denied the possibility that Trump records his conversations at the White House. (Washington Post)

  • Lawmakers express shock and concern about Trump disclosure of classified information. “They are in a downward spiral right now and have got to figure out a way to come to grips with all that’s happening,” the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee said of the Trump administration. “The chaos that is being created by the lack of discipline is creating an environment that I think makes — it creates a worrisome environment.” (Washington Post)

7/ Mitch McConnell called for “less drama” from Trump. “I think it would be helpful if the president spent more time on things we’re trying to accomplish and less time on other things,” McConnell said. (Bloomberg)

8/ Trump will disclose some of his personal finances this year, which will likely indicate his personal income, assets, and liabilities. They won’t contain details like his tax rate or any charitable donations. (Associated Press)

9/ Paul Manafort took out a $3.5 million mortgage and never paid taxes on it. The former Trump campaign manager took out the mortgage through a shell company just after leaving the campaign and never paid the $36,000 in taxes that would be due on the loan. (NBC News)

10/ Trump to meet with Turkey’s president amid differences over the Trump administration’s plan to directly arm Kurdish rebels in Syria for the fight against ISIS. Turkey considers the group a terrorist organization, because it maintains ties with a Kurdish revolutionary group inside Turkey. (ABC News)

11/ Gingrich urged Trump to shut down White House press room in order to send a message to the country “that the media is a corrupt institution and [Trump] is tired of being harassed by people whose only interest is making him look bad.” (Politico)

poll/ 48% of voters support impeaching Trump compared to 41% that are opposed to the idea. 43% of voters think Trump is actually going to end up serving his full term, while 45% think he won’t. 12% aren’t sure one way or the other. (Public Policy Polling)

Trump Fires Comey

It’s been an amazing 16 hours.

The comparisons to Watergate’s “Saturday Night Massacre” can’t be helped.

Let’s be clear about this: Trump has fired the head of the investigation into his campaign’s contacts with the Russians.

The reason? Because of the way Comey handled the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server.  Almost nobody is buying that rationale, or the timing.

Many Democrats, myself included, agree with the rationale.  And if this had happened during the Obama-Trump transition, then it would make sense.  But happening now?  Nope.

Especially when Trump PROFUSELY PRAISED Comey during the campaign for his handling of Hillary Clinton’s email server.

Comey was delivering a speech in Los Angeles when he learned he had been fired.  He thought it was a prank at first.

The D,C, backlash was immediate.

White House sources say off-the-record that the White House was taken aback by the surprise outrage.  I find that almost as bizarre as the underlying story itself.  How could they NOT KNOW this would be a bombshell?

But that’s only one of the mysteries surrounding this.  Also on the list…

  • What did Trump mean in his second paragraph above that Comey had told him three times that he was not the subject of an investigation?  (The inclusion of that statement in the letter is obviously self-serving, and one wonders what those conversations — if they took place at all — were actually about and what was actually said).Trump’s letter firing Comey claims Comey told him three times that he (Trump) isn’t under investigation. But, pressed by Politico, the White House can’t back this up:

    In his letter dismissing Comey, Trump said the FBI director had given him three private assurances that he wasn’t under investigation. The White House declined to say when those conversations happened — or why Comey would volunteer such information.

    Now that’s a real shocker, isn’t it?

  • Why was Jeff Sessions involved in this decision?  He recused himself from the Russia investigation altogether. And then he weighs in on Comey’s firing?
  • Who will replace Comey?  Will it be a pro-Trump person willing to slow down or end the Russia investigation?
  • The calls for a special independent prosecutor are deafening.  Will this happen?

Over at the conservative RedState website, Jay Caruso speaks for most everyone:

Here are five reasons why it was an awful decision:

1. The timing – Of course this is bad. The FBI is currently investigating Russia’s role in the 2016 election, and whether or not Trump campaign staff were colluding with Russian agents. The mere appearance of impropriety makes the decision come off as political.

2. The GOP can’t play ball – If Trump believes he is going to get the FBI Director of his choice, he’s got another thing coming. Republican Senators are not going to allow anybody to take over. Trump will have to appoint a person that could very well be more dogmatic when he/she takes over the investigations.

3. It gives Democrats secure use of the ‘C’ word – That word is corruption or corrupt. Many people think the GOP lost control of Congress in 2006 because of the Iraq War. The reality is Republicans lost because of the “culture of corruption” surrounding the GOP with scandals such as those involving Jack Abramoff, Tom DeLay (who was later exonerated) and Mark Foley all contributing to a depressed GOP turnout. The same thing could happen again in 2018.

4. It’s a sign of weakness – Trumpers can blather about Trump “draining the swamp” all they want, but somebody in a position of strength doesn’t pull a move like this. Someone in a position of strength lets the chips fall where they may and deals with whatever consequences result. Trump’s termination of Comey makes him look afraid of what Comey was going to do.

5. The media onslaught is going to be unlike anything we’ve seen in a long time – Donald Trump will attempt to defend this action via Twitter. Bank on it. He’ll scream “Fake news!” at every opportunity because the media is not going to let up, nor should they. The fact this took place hours before the media reported the Justice Department issued subpoenas to private business associates of Michael Flynn stinks to high heaven.

From the left, Kevin Drum on what the Comey firing shows us about Donald Trump and his White House on Mother Jones.

The Comey firing had nothing to do with the Hillary Clinton email investigation. It was all because Trump was outraged over Comey’s public acknowledgement that the FBI was investigating his Russia ties. He wanted the investigation to disappear, and he began obsessing about firing Comey—presumably in hopes that this was all it would take to kill the case. And apparently Trump was shocked when Democrats didn’t line up behind him. They hate Comey too, don’t they?

Trump’s astronomical ignorance has finally caught up with him. He seems to have had no idea that firing Comey wouldn’t stop the investigation—nor that a new FBI director wouldn’t dare quash it. In fact, all the firing does is make the investigation untouchable. And Trump’s astronomical narcissism has caught up with him too. He has so little insight into other humans that he simply couldn’t conceive of anyone hating Comey but still defending his right to serve out his term. In Trump’s world, you reward your friends and punish your enemies and that’s that.

This is hardly unexpected from Trump, whose ignorance and narcissism are legendary. But does he really have nobody on his staff to warn him about this stuff? Reince Priebus surely knew how this would play out. Ditto for Mike Pence.

And one final thing: once again, we learn that many of Trump’s advisors are perfectly willing to portray him as an idiot.

The Politico story is based on conversations with insiders who were happy to confirm that the Comey firing was all about Russia. This directly contradicts the White House narrative that it was about the fact that everyone had lost confidence in Comey because of the way he mistreated poor Hillary Clinton. Who are these people who work for Trump (?) but are happy to undermine him to the press on a regular basis?

It’s true.  The Politico story is all about Trump’s frustration with the Russia probe:

President Donald Trump weighed firing his FBI director for more than a week. When he finally pulled the trigger Tuesday afternoon, he didn’t call James Comey. He sent his longtime private security guard to deliver the termination letter in a manila folder to FBI headquarters.

He had grown enraged by the Russia investigation, two advisers said, frustrated by his inability to control the mushrooming narrative around Russia. He repeatedly asked aides why the Russia investigation wouldn’t disappear and demanded they speak out for him. He would sometimes scream at television clips about the probe, one adviser said.

Somehow, I don’t think this makes the story go away.

And finally, the NYT editorial board concludes with this:

This is a tense and uncertain time in the nation’s history. The president of the United States, who is no more above the law than any other citizen, has now decisively crippled the F.B.I.’s ability to carry out an investigation of him and his associates. There is no guarantee that Mr. Comey’s replacement, who will be chosen by Mr. Trump, will continue that investigation; in fact, there are already hints to the contrary.

The obvious historical parallel to Mr. Trump’s action was the so-called Saturday Night Massacre in October 1973, when President Richard Nixon ordered the firing of the special prosecutor investigating Watergate, prompting the principled resignations of the attorney general and his deputy. But now, there is no special prosecutor in place to determine whether the public trust has been violated, and whether the presidency was effectively stolen by a hostile foreign power. For that reason, the country has reached an even more perilous moment.

And this picture from this morning — Trump meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (on the left) and Russian Ambassador Kisylak.

…. and THEN, as if the Nixonian optics aren’t bad enough, he meets with Kissenger!

As one friend quipped, “interesting times we’re living in”

UPDATE: Well, this explains a lot….

This is more than bad optics or bad judgment.

UPDATE #2 —  Then again

UPDATE #3…. From McClatchy Newspapers:

And WH spokesman Sarah Sanders at press conference now: “The president over the last several months lost confidence in Dir. Comey. The DOJ lost confidence in Dir. Comey.”

Flashback —

I call BS on that.

Sarah saying that candidate Trump is not president Trump so he can do complete 180s.

She’s very tightlipped on the issue of Comey telling Trump that he was not a subject of investigation.

Sarah just said two different things in the span of 30 seconds: (1) She’s not surprised that Democrats opposed the firing because that’s what Democrats do; (2) She’s surprised that Democrats opposed the firing because they called for him to be fired.

FINAL UPDATE?

I have a funny feeling that many Republicans are merely giving lip service to the “outrage”

Yikes! Yates!

Sally Yates is a career civil servant in the Justice Department. She was hired under the first Bush administration, promoted during the Clinton administration, promoted again during the second Bush administration, and yet again under the Obama administration. Two years ago she was named deputy attorney general, the second ranking position in the department, and then became acting attorney general when Loretta Lynch left. President Trump asked her to stay on until Jeff Sessions was confirmed, and she agreed. A few days later, after declining to defend Trump’s immigration order in court, she was fired.

Today she’s scheduled to testify about what she told the White House regarding National Security Advisor Mike Flynn’s connections to Russia.

And the President seems concerned.

Also, he doesn’t know how to spell “council”.

It is odd that Trump is inserting himself into this hearing.  It shows he is concerned.

There are two things big about this hearing this afternoon in which Sally Yates will give public testimony.

The first is… this is the Senate.  The responsible house of Congress.  Hopefully, we will see less show-boating and more seriousness.

The second is… Flynn.  The stories are pouring out today. According to NBC, former President Obama informed Trump personally not to hire Flynn.

That piece of news late this morning made Trump’s earlier tweet today come off badly:

The Trump team has confirmed this but responds that they thought Obama said it in “jest” (Obama being the prankster that he is — not!)

Trump, is seems, has a blind spot for Flynn. According to Axios, the White House staff wants to throw Flynn under a bus but Trump will not have any of it.

Which brings us back to Sally Yates. Her testimony could raise new questions about how President Trump responded to concerns that Flynn had lied. And one hopes she can shed light on the links between Trump’s campaign and Russia (although I suspect not).

To be updated….

UPDATE 1:30 pm – Hmmmmmm….

They really seem worried.

UPDATE 2:35 pm – Yates hearing starts. Her and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper

Senator Graham steers the conversation with Yates back to unmasking topic.

In answer to Trump’s tweet, both Yates and Clapper, under oath, said they do not know who or how the info was leaked.

OH MY GOD….. This:

Yates reminds us that her last day at the DOJ was the day she told the White House they can come review damning evidence about Flynn’s compromised position. Boom you are fired

We’re coming up on one hour and I am embarrassed at the Republicans like Graham and Grassley who seen non-plussed by the fact that the national Security Adviser was a security risk because the Russians knew he was lying.  They only care about leaks/unmasking.

And they’re lying about it.

Cornyn joins other GOP senators to ask about unmasking. There doesn’t seem to be any criminal wrongdoing, just a general “concern”. Seems to me that the top national security adviser being compromised by Russia and the White House doing nothing about it, is the bigger fish here.

Fascinating exchange: Cornyn goes after Yates for her failure to support Trump’s Muslim ban. She humiliates him by saying that the ban was unlawful, so she couldn’t.  In follow-up, she acknowledges that three courts have agreed with her.

All this is timely because at this exact moment, the 4th Circuit is hearing arguments on Muslim ban.

Ted Cruz is up now.

And she beats him with the same stick.

Aaaaaand they are back to the Muslim/travel ban with Sen. Kennedy (R-La) mansplaining to Yates.

As Republicans senators question why Yates refused to defend Trump’s executive order, Senator Leahy reminds them that many of those same Republicans, at her confirmation hearing, wanted to know is she could act independent of the President, and she said yes (to their pleasure)

Day 104: Nauseous.

1/ James Comey said he’s “mildly nauseous” at the suggestions he swayed the election. The FBI director defended his “painful” decision on the Clinton email probe during testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee today. “This was terrible,” Comey said. “But honestly, it wouldn’t change the decision,” because failing to inform Congress would have required an “act of concealment” which would have been “catastrophic.” Comey added that Russia is actively involved in trying to influence US politics, emboldened after the outcome of last year’s election, because “this works.” (New York Times / Politico / Associated Press / CNN / CBS News)

  • Comey says classified Clinton emails were forwarded to Anthony Weiner. (Washington Post)

2/ A pair of Republican holdouts now back the health care bill. The latest proposal provides $8 billion over five years to help about 160,000 people with pre-existing medical conditions afford coverage by putting “downward pressure” on premium costs. The total individual market claims over those five years will probably be about $500 billion, mostly from people with pre-existing conditions. Republicans are still two or three votes away from being able to guarantee passage, but are pushing for a vote sometime this week. (Bloomberg / Associated Press / New York Times / Axios / Washington Post)

3/ Trump’s national security adviser described his foreign policy approach as “disruptive.” H.R. McMaster said Trump’s unpredictable and unconventional ways could stabilize the Middle East, because Trump “does not have time to debate over doctrine.” Instead, he seeks to challenge failed policies of the past with a businessman’s results-oriented approach. (Reuters)

4/ Trump weighs how to approach a Middle East conflict while hosting Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas at the White House today. The conflict has eluded resolution for seven decades. Trump called it the “ultimate deal” and has tasked Jared Kushner with negotiating the peace agreement. (Bloomberg / NBC News)

5/ Trump was “directly involved” in the post-inauguration hunt for the rogue National Park Service tweeter. A Freedom of Information Act request revealed that Trump was “concerned” about who used the National Park Service Twitter account to retweet a side-by-side comparisons of the crowds at the Trump and Obama inauguration ceremonies. The tweet was deleted. (CBS News)

6/ Trump is expected to sign a long-awaited and highly controversial executive order on religious liberties on Thursday – the National Day of Prayer. A draft of the order, which leaked in February, would establish broad exemptions and legal protections for people and groups to claim religious objections. Civil liberties groups claim it would allow for discrimination against LGBT Americans. (Politico / Fox News / CNN)

7/ The NSA collected more than 151 million records of Americans’ phone calls last year, despite Congress limiting its ability to collect bulk phone records. Under the old system, the NSA collected “billions of records per day.” (NBC News / New York Times)

via What The Fuck Just Happened Today? http://ift.tt/2jTSF6j

Good News In The Offing

(1)  Georgia On My Mind

In Georgia 6th district, the special election to replace Tom Price in the House, Jon Ossoff received 48.1 percent of the vote, just short of the 50 percent threshold needed to win the seat, and he will face Karen Handel, the top Republican vote-getter, in a June runoff.

This is a terrific showing from a young 30 year old Democratic for a seat once held by Newt Gingrich. Combined with Democrats’ better-than-expected performance in a special House election in Kansas last week, the Georgia result will be an immediate boon to Democratic groups, lifting their fund-raising and bolstering candidate recruitment efforts, while sobering Republicans who are assessing whether to run in Mr. Trump’s first midterm election.

Ossoff still has to win the runoff,  against Handel. Handel, who took 19.8 percent, is a former Georgia secretary of state and chair of the Fulton County Commission who has unsuccessfully run for governor and Senate. But in recent years, Handel is probably best known—and notorious—for her time at Susan G. Komen for the Cure, which ended after her failed, politically motivated effort to get the organization to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood to perform cancer screenings.

But win or lose in the runoff, the Ossoff win last night shows that Democrats can compete even in non-swing districts.

And don’t believe the White House spin that this was not a rebuke of the President. It clearly was. The more closely aligned a candidate was with President Trump, the worse that candidate did.

(2)  The No-Bill Zone

Many anonymously-sourced news stories are out there that say the following:

A well-placed source said Tuesday afternoon that representatives for Fox and O’Reilly have begun talking about an exit. But this prompted a denial from sources in O’Reilly’s camp.

Even one person close to O’Reilly, however, said he will probably not be back on “The O’Reilly Factor.”

The original well-placed source said an announcement about O’Reilly’s fate was likely by the end of the week.

The fact that none of these sources were willing to go on the record speaks to the delicate maneuvering underway.

The network’s parent company, 21st Century Fox (FOX), will hold a board meeting on Thursday, a spokeswoman told CNNMoney. One of the sources said O’Reilly will be a primary topic.

The Murdochs, the men who control 21st Century Fox, are pointedly not commenting on any of this.

But conversations inside Fox have already turned to possible O’Reilly successors.

The Murdochs have had loyalty to O’Reilly, but they have greater loyalty to money. And with advertisers fleeing O’Reilly by the dozens (he had virtually none in his last aired show, and had to end 10 minutes early), it is hard to see how O’Reilly survives this.

Good riddance.  He was an out-and-out liar.  And pervert.  Next stop, Sean Hannity.

UPDATE: From NY Mag

The Murdochs have decided Bill O’Reilly’s 21-year run at Fox News will come to an end. According to sources briefed on the discussions, network executives are preparing to announce O’Reilly’s departure before he returns from an Italian vacation on April 24. Now the big questions are how the exit will look and who will replace him.

Wednesday morning, according to sources, executives are holding emergency meetings to discuss how they can sever the relationship with the country’s highest-rated cable-news host without causing collateral damage to the network. The board of Fox News’ parent company, 21st Century Fox, is scheduled to meet on Thursday to discuss the matter.

Sources briefed on the discussions say O’Reilly’s exit negotiations are moving quickly. Right now, a key issue on the table is whether he would be allowed to say good-bye to his audience, perhaps the most loyal in all of cable (O’Reilly’s ratings have ticked up during the sexual-harassment allegations). Fox executives are leaning against allowing him to have a sign-off, sources say. The other main issue on the table is money. O’Reilly recently signed a new multiyear contract worth more than $20 million per year. When Roger Ailes left Fox News last summer, the Murdochs paid out $40 million, the remainder of his contract.

According to sources, Fox News wants the transition to be seamless. Executives are currently debating possible replacement hosts. Names that have been discussed include Eric Bolling, Dana Perino, and Tucker Carlson, who would move from his successful 9 p.m. slot and create a need for a new host at that time. One source said Sean Hannity is happy at 10 p.m. and would not want to move.

Recommended Reading

I guess it is not a surprise, but Ryan Lizza at The New Yorker reports that Trump advisers turned the White House upside-down looking for information to justify Trump’s crazy “Obama spied on me” tweet. Key graf:

The intelligence source told me that he knows, “from talking to people in the intelligence community,” that “the White House said, ‘We are going to mobilize to find something to justify the President’s tweet that he was being surveilled.’ They put out an all-points bulletin”—a call to sift through intelligence reports—“and said, ‘We need to find something that justifies the President’s crazy tweet about surveillance at Trump Tower.’ And I’m telling you there is no way you get that from those transcripts, which are about as plain vanilla as can be.” (The White House did not respond to a request for comment.)

This isn’t mere buffoonery.  This could have created serious intel problems:

Some American intelligence officials are now concerned that Trump and Nunes’s wild claims about intercepts and Rice have made Section 702 look like a rogue program that can be easily abused for political purposes. The intelligence source said, “In defense of the President, Devin Nunes and some other partisans have created a huge political problem by casting doubt, in the service of Donald Trump, on these intercepts.” Senator Rand Paul, of Kentucky, a leading critic of Section 702, has been using the episode to rally libertarians. He recently tweeted, “Smoking gun found! Obama pal and noted dissembler Susan Rice said to have been spying on Trump campaign.” Democratic critics of Section 702 have also been emboldened. “Section 702 of FISA allows warrantless searches on Americans. That’s unconstitutional & must be changed,” Representative Ted Lieu, the Democrat from California, tweeted last month, during the controversy.

“They manufactured a scandal to distract from a serious investigation,” Eric Swalwell, a Democratic member of the House Intelligence Committee, who would not comment on the N.S.A. documents, said. “And the collateral damage is the public confidence in our intelligence community when we need to count on them now more than ever. Considering the threats we are facing right now from North Korea and isis, it’s a pretty dangerous time to undermine the I.C.’s credibility to make a five-yard sack in the Russia investigation.”

Even though there is now some bipartisan agreement that Nunes’s description of the intercepts was wildly inaccurate, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee are still preparing to focus on Obama’s national-security team, rather than on Vladimir Putin’s. Last week, Democrats and Republicans finalized their witness lists, and the names tell a tale of two separate investigations. The intelligence source said, “The Democratic list involves all of the characters that you would think it would: Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Carter Page,” speaking of the three Trump campaign officials who have been most closely tied to the Russia investigation. “The Republican list is almost entirely people from the Obama Administration.”

The fake scandal created by Trump and Nunes is not over yet. The first name on the Republican list is Susan Rice.

They are playing the game “best defense is a strong offense”. It has worked before. I don’t think it will work this time.

Carter Page: Subject Of A FISA Warrent

It has been a weird week in news, as the nation focuses on United Airlines and its treatment of passengers.  It’s a nice break from the Trump-Russia scandal, I suppose, but the steady drumbeat of that scandal continues, as each week offers up more revelations.

WaPo reports that Carter Page, whose credentials Trump once bragged on like a proud grandpa when he wanted to show that his campaign foreign policy shop had cred, was the subject of a FISA warrant because he was suspected of acting as an agent of a foreign government: Russia. The warrant was subsequently renewed.

That. Is. A. Big. Deal.

When Republicans ask for evidence of a wrongdoing, you can specifically say: Carter Page, who Trump mentioned by name as an adviser to the campaign, was the subject of a FISA warrant.

Now, it is true that there is nothing there, i.e. that the warrant was based on bad evidence, or that the FBI found nothing. But when you combine this piece of news with these other things….

  • Flynn lying about his contacts with the Russians and resigning in disgrace;
  • Campaign chairman Paul Manafort being cut loose because of his shady Kremlin ties;
  • Sessions perjuring himself in his senate hearings about meetings with Russia;
  • Kushner omitting meetings with Russians on his security clearance disclosure form;
  • Nunes running interference for the White House on “unmasking” that we now know was legitimate; and
  • Pretty much everyone in Trump’s orbit being involved with Russia on some level

… it’s a little hard to be so dismissive of the problem.

Maybe it all begins and ends with Flynn and Page and Manafort.  Who knows?  But this scandal is not nothing. And there could be lots more to come.

And this is a little scary:

Nunes Recuses Himself From Trump-Russia Investigation And Lies About Why

So the bombshell this morning? House Intel Committee Chairman Devin Nunes dismisses himself from the Trump-Russia investigation. Obviously, it relates to his difficulty being impartial and running defense for the executive branch.

In a petty statement, Nunes said:

Nope. it has nothing to do with leftwing activist groups filing accusations.  The accusation exist and the House Ethics Committee seems to have acted on its own volition:

  Pursuant to Committee Rule 7(g), the Chairwoman and Ranking Member of the Committee on Ethics (Committee) determined to release the following statement:

The Committee is aware of public allegations that Representative Devin Nunes may have made unauthorized disclosures of classified information, in violation of House Rules, law, regulations, or other standards of conduct.  The Committee, pursuant to Committee Rule 18(a), is investigating and gathering more information regarding these allegations.

The Committee has determined to investigate these allegations in order to fulfill its institutional obligation, under House Rule X, clause 11(g)(4), to investigate certain allegations of unauthorized disclosures of classified information, and to determine if there has been any violation of the Code of Official Conduct under House Rule XXIII, clause 13.  The Committee notes that the mere fact that it is investigating these allegations, and publicly disclosing its review, does not itself indicate that any violation has occurred, or reflect any judgment on behalf of the Committee.

In order to comply with Committee Rule 7 regarding confidentiality, out of fairness to all respondents, and to assure the integrity of its work, the Committee will refrain from making further public statements on this matter pending completion of its initial review.

Chris Cillizza has other thoughts:

Asked late last month about the prospect of stepping away from the Russia investigation, Nunes responded: “Why would I?”

Someone — or something — changed Nunes’s mind between then and now. And I guarantee you it was not the ethics complaints filed by “leftwing activist groups” that explain why Nunes reversed course Thursday morning.

My very strong suspicion is that Nunes came under heavy pressure — from Congressional leadership and even from the White House — to get out of the way because the controversy surrounding his White House visit was causing a major distraction.

Speaker Paul Ryan said as much during his weekly press conference on Thursday.

“Chairman Nunes wants to make sure this is not a distraction to a very important investigation,” Ryan said.

***

Nunes’s decision to recuse himself will, Republicans hope, be some short term pain in exchange for a long-term gain. Yes, it will create even more smoke for a controversy that seen a lot of that already. But, Republicans believe it will also, eventually, clear the decks so that if and when the investigation by the Intelligence Committee yields no significant wrongdoing by the Trump campaign it will be regarded as a credible finding by the political world.
That’s a lot of “maybe’s.” But for Republicans desperate to find a way out of the Russia imbroglio, it’s the best path forward they have available to them.

About this Trump-Russia scandal… for a supposed “nothing burger” there have certainly been a lot of casualties so far:

  1. Manafort (position resigned)
  2. Flynn (position resigned)
  3. Sessions (recused as attorney general on investigation)
  4. Nunes (recused as House Intel Committee Chairman on investigation)

This thing is toxic.

Bannon On The Run

Steve Bannon has more free time:

President Donald Trump has removed Steve Bannon, his chief strategist, from the National Security Council, according to a filing in the federal registry. A top White House official told NBC News that Bannon was put on the NSC’s Principals’ Committee only as a check against then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Now that Flynn is gone, Bannon is no longer needed in that role, the official said.

Rrrriiiiiiight.  Flynn left on February 14, so, you know, that reason isn’t very good.

Also it begs a BIG question: why did the White House think that Flynn needed a “check” anyway? If he was a security risk, why was he (Flynn) on the NSC at all?

Yeah, I Admit That I Just Emailed Rachel Maddow

I know you get a lot of email, which means I only have a few seconds to grab your interest.  Here I go…

WHY AREN’T YOU DOING A COMPLETE SHOW ON EZRA COHEN-WATKINS?
Let me bullet-point it for you:
  • Reminder: ECW is the 30-year-old White House aide — the NSC’s senior director of intelligence who started his own ‘review’ of surveillance intercepts of the Trump transition, took his findings to the White House Counsel’s office only to get told to stop. [Source: AP]

  • Although reports say that Michael Ellis and a third person gave the unmasked intel to Nunes, it seems obvious that ECW gathered this information in his ‘review’ [Source: NYT]
  • ECW is a Flynn protege [Source: NYT, above]

  • McMaster wanted ECW out, but Bannon and Kushner intervened [Source: NYT, above]  (Isn’t that intervention unusual? Why those two? Where is the Chief of Staff in all this?)

  • ECW has no face. (No, seriously. You can’t find a picture of him online, which doesn’t mean anything, but is fun/weird)

  • His wife works for a D.C. public relations firm. Her client is… Russia. [Source: a reputable blog, but I think your staff should try to confirm.]

Now the heavy stuff that nobody seems to be talking about (save perhaps Nancy LeTourneau at the Washington Monthly this morning)

  • In order to unmask a document, one needs the approval of the underlying intel agency that masked the document in the first place. Furthermore, once unmasked, you cannot share that unmasked information with another person unless it relates and is necessary to the purposes of your briefing, etc.  And finally, if you are going to share that information outside of your branch of government (say, with a congressional committee) you need to go BACK to then intel agency for further approval.  (I heard this many times last night and I believe Susan Rice said this as well.  Transcripts aren’t available yet, but someone can find this out).

  • This begs the question: regardless of why ECW got the unmasked information (i.e., on whose authority, if anybody), he would have to get permission from the underlying intel agency to share it.  Question: Did ECW follow intel protocol with the unmasked information that he obtained? Did anyone in the White House? (I suspect not)

  • Regardless of whether he got permission to share, ECW really really appears to be a leaker — or a link in within a “leak chain”  — is he not?  He cannot be a whistleblower — for that, he would have to expose wrongdoing. But even conservative news outlets acknowledge that Rice’s unmasking was perfectly legal.  So my questions are: Why hasn’t he been brought in for questioning? Why does he still have (as far as we know) security clearance?
Okay, that’s my quick pitch.

Thanks for your time.  I enjoy your show (obviously), but I won’t fanboy here.

Wow! Fox News And The White House Are Going Full Bore On This Susan Rice Thing!

It is amazing how the goalposts have moved from Trump’s initial tweets on March 10.  Let’s look at them again:

Okay.

So Obama has now become Susan Rice, Obama’s National Security Adviser.

“Wiretap” has become “names unmasked”.

“Trump” and “Trump Tower”, the object(s) of the supposed “wiretap(p)”, is not Trump associates.

But other than those things — Trump was 100% correct when he said “Obama wiretapped me”.

Here’s what we do FOR A FACT: Susan Rice — who was the NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER — sought to unmask intelligence a lot.  When she or anybody else does this, the N.S.A. uses a two-part test to evaluate unmasking requests: “Is there a valid need to know in the course of the execution of their official duties?” and “Is the identification necessary to truly understand the context of the intelligence value that the report is designed to generate?”

The answer to these questions is often yes. “Masking and unmasking happens every single day, dozens of times, or hundreds of times. I don’t even know the numbers,” Jim Himes, a Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told me. “There needs to be a process followed. It’s a fairly rigorous process, involving lots of review by counsels and that sort of thing.”

There is an audit trail for these requests and the responses.  Which means that if Susan Rice was abusing this process, she did a terrible job of covering it up. All Trump’s aides had to do to discover her alleged abuse was to review logs on a White House computer that tracked her requests.

And while Republicans are targeting Rice, recklessly asserting that she spied on Trump’s campaign, their attacks also implicate the N.S.A., which would have had to determine that the intercepts had “intelligence value,” and then to approve any unmasking based on its two criteria: that Rice had “a valid need to know” the identities of masked names and that unmasking was necessary to understand the report.

And they love that it is Rice, because Rice was also involved in the non-scandal called Benghazi.

So it seems the political winds may be shifting on this story, or at least blowing in a slightly more favorable direction for the White House. But unless firm evidence of any actual wrongdoing emerges, these partial revelations, some favorable to the president and some unfavorable, are probably mostly a distraction, or at least a way to while away time, until the real news emerges from the congressional or FBI investigations.

Let’s set aside that his “story” emanates from Mike Cernovich, the man who made up stories that there is an child-sex ring literally underground at a Washington, D.C. pizza restaurant.  Let’s also set aside the fact there is nothing there.  Just don’t believe the Fox hype.

UPDATE:  The Wall Street Journal gets in on the act, with its editorial board issuing a blistering op-ed on Tuesday morning:

All this is highly unusual — and troubling. Unmasking does occur, but it is typically done by intelligence or law-enforcement officials engaged in anti-terror or espionage investigations. Ms. Rice would have had no obvious need to unmask Trump campaign officials other than political curiosity.

I can think of a need. And it is obvious. If the Russians were hacking the DNC and attempting to sabotage the election (which was known at the time by Rice), and Trump campaign officials were meeting and talking with Russian agents (which was known at the time by Rice), then I can understand why she might want that information unmasked.

Rice spoke to MSNBC shortly and said she didn’t use any such intelligence for political purposes.

“The allegation is that somehow Obama administration officials utilized intelligence for political purposes; that’s absolutely false,” she said. She added: “I leaked nothing to nobody, and never have and never would.”

She confirmed that such unmasking was part of her duties as national security adviser, without referring to specific cases.

“That’s necessary for me to do my job,” she said. “It’s necessary for the secretary of state, or the secretary of defense, or the CIA director to do their jobs. We can’t be passive consumers of this information and not — and do our jobs effectively to protect the American people. Imagine if we saw something of grave significance that involved Russia, or China, or anybody else, interfering in our political process and we needed to understand the significance of that. For us not to try to understand it would be dereliction of duty.”

Right.  And It’s circular logic. If Rice didn’t know who was on the calls how could it be a political attack? On the other hand if Trumps people hadn’t been talking to Russian operatives they wouldn’t have been recorded.

UPDATE AGAIN — CNN’s Chris Cuomo gets it:

CNN anchor Chris Cuomo told viewers on Tuesday that the controversy surrounding former national security adviser Susan Rice is “another fake scandal being peddled by right-wing media.”

Cuomo offered the remarks about Rice’s reported request to know the identities of President Trump transition team members mentioned in intelligence briefings during CNN’s “New Day.”

Rice has been accused of unmasking the Trump transition members.

“So President Trump wants you to believe that he is the victim of a ‘crooked scheme,’ ” Cuomo began. “Those are his words. And here are our words: There is no evidence of any wrongdoing.”

“And, in fact, if anything the [national security adviser] asking for identities was a reflection of exactly how much traffic there was involving Trump people and foreign players,” Cuomo continued.

“The White House blasting the press for not reporting on another fake scandal being peddled by right-wing media.”

When Doing Something Legal Is A Scandal

So let’s recap two of Trump’s tweets this morning:

What is her referring to?  Well, it stems from something in Bloomberg:

White House lawyers last month discovered that the former national security adviser Susan Rice requested the identities of U.S. persons in raw intelligence reports on dozens of occasions that connect to the Donald Trump transition and campaign, according to U.S. officials familiar with the matter.

….Rice’s requests to unmask the names of Trump transition officials does not vindicate Trump’s own tweets from March 4 in which he accused Obama of illegally tapping Trump Tower. There remains no evidence to support that claim….The standard for senior officials to learn the names of U.S. persons incidentally collected is that it must have some foreign intelligence value, a standard that can apply to almost anything. This suggests Rice’s unmasking requests were likely within the law.

Emphasis mine.

Yes. Susan Rice, the NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER requested unmasked intelligence.  She probably asked for unmasked security intelligence all the time, being the NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER and all. Did I mention she was NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER at the time, and that Russia had hacked the DNC and tried to sway the 2016 election?

Is this “evidence” that Trump’s team was surveilled, perhaps incidentally?  Yeah, maybe.  But given what we know AS FACT about Flynn, is Trump arguing that he SHOULDN’T have been surveilled?

Some Leaks Are Illegal; Ours Aren’t

At a press conference today, House Intelligence Chair Devin Nunes gave the following statement:

At our open hearing on Monday, I encouraged anyone who has information about relevant topics—including surveillance on President-elect Trump or his transition team—to come forward and speak to the House Intelligence Committee. I also said that, while there was not a physical wiretap of Trump Tower, I was concerned that other surveillance activities were used against President Trump and his associates.

  • I recently confirmed that, on numerous occasions, the Intelligence Community incidentally collected information about U.S. citizens involved in the Trump transition.
  • Details about U.S. persons associated with the incoming administration—details with little or no apparent foreign intelligence value—were widely disseminated in intelligence community reporting.
  • I have confirmed that additional names of Trump transition team members were unmasked.
  • To be clear, none of this surveillance was related to Russia or any investigation of Russian activities or of the Trump team.

The House Intelligence Committee will thoroughly investigate this surveillance and its subsequent dissemination to determine:

  • Who was aware of it
  • Why it was not disclosed to Congress
  • Who requested and authorized the additional unmasking
  • Whether anyone directed the intelligence community to focus on Trump associates; and
  • Whether any laws, regulations, or procedures were violated

I’ve asked the Directors of the FBI, NSA, and CIA to expeditiously comply with my March 15 letter, and to provide a full account of these surveillance activities. I informed Speaker Ryan this morning of this new information, and I will be going to the White House this afternoon to share what I know with the President.

Nunes went on to say this was normal incidental collection, possibly including Trump’s communications. He said it was all obtained legally. He said the communications were collected in November, December, and January. He stated he was unsure whether these were wiretapped phone calls, or something else. He wondered why the identities of Trump people were unmasked (though his later statements suggested it may have been circulated in raw form) and said “it bothers me that that would have any foreign intelligence value whatsoever.”

Nunes said he saw dozens of reports and that the information he saw has nothing to do with Russia or the Russia investigation, or any discussions with Russians.

HOWEVER… before sharing all this to the press, he went over to the White House and shared it with Trump, whose team is the focus of the study.  (In fact, Nunes himself was on the Trump transition team).

“It’s all classified information,” Nunes explained.

He added: “”What I’ve read bothers me, and it should bother the President himself and his team, because some of it seems inappropriate.”

And Nunes so lacks any self-awareness, he seemed completely oblivious to the ways he had violated everything the Republicans were wailing about on Monday – the leak of classified information.

What’s worse… Nunes didn’t share this information with anyone else on his committee.  Just the Speaker Ryan and the President.  So much for checks and balances, huh?  So much for impartiality.

Legal, incidental collection of US officials’ communications is routine. It is odd for an Intel Chair to visit WH to emphasize that it occurred.  Guess he was trying to help out.

So wrong. The FBI and the intelligence community will be skittish sharing information now with the House Intel committee. Nunes clearly knows this. Maybe that was his goal, too.

UPDATE: And now they are campaigning off of it….

UPDATE #2: Nunes on Jake Tapper right now: “From the reports I have seen, it does appear that Trump could have been picked up.”  Also says other people associated with transition team were picked up.

He believes that Trump should have been informed “It’s only fair.”

The FISA warrant, he says, was legal, but was not directed toward Russia.

Take Him At His Word

The right wing Washington Times reports:

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said Monday that President Trump has access to information and intelligence others do not and that “credible news sources” suggested there might be more to look into, after Mr. Trump accused former President Barack Obama over the weekend of tapping phones in Trump Tower during last year’s campaign.

“Well, let’s get to the bottom of it — that is the president’s entire point,” Ms. Conway said on “Fox & Friends.” “You have a number of various and credible news sources showing that there was politically motivated activity all during the campaign and suggesting that there may be more there.”

“The president’s entire point is that the people deserve to know,” she said. “If we don’t know, then let’s find out together.”

If it is true that “President Trump has access to information and intelligence others do not” and this is the basis for his knowledge that Obama tapped Trump Towers, then hell, some Congressional committee needs to look into the Obama wiretapping right now.  And their first witness should be Donald Trump himself.

Let Trump tell the American people what he “knows” to be true, and more importantly, HOW HE KNOWS IT.

I have a feeling, as everyone does, that he is wanting the government to chase conspiracy theories.

But I’ll be happy to be proved wrong.  CALL TRUMP TO THE STAND!!

The Trump-Russia Connection

With a line that runs through newly confirmed Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Rachel Maddow connects the dots between a billionaire Russian oligarch and a Donald Trump deal worth tens of millions of dollars.  It’s long (Rachel tends to baby-step us through things) but thought-provoking.

At the end of the day, I have to ask…. so what?  Any illegalities?  It might explain Trump’s love for Mother Russia.  It doesn’t suggest anything like a scandal though.  Unless I’m missing something?

The Law of Leaks

Today is the day two story of the Flynn resignation and the White House wants us to focus on a different aspect of the story: the rampant leaks from the intelligence community.

But for perspective, let’s start off with Trump’s most interesting morning tweet:

Hmmmm.

During the campaign, Paul Manafort and Carter Page (Trump’s campaign manager and foreign policy adviser, respectively) were let go because of their Russia connections, and Mike Flynn (Trump’s national security adviser) was let go this week (due to “trust issues” says the White House, but trust issue surrounding his lying about speaking with Russia).

Seems like Trump is letting a lot of people go because of what he calls “FAKE NEWS”. And if the leaks are about “fake news”, I wonder why he’s calling them “leaks” at all. Is the intelligence community “leaking” secret information which are lies? Is that his point? There’s a bit of a disconnect there.

But Trump is on a rampage.

Ok.  Well, let’s talk about the price for leaking.

The cornerstone of anti-leak law is a provision of the Espionage Act of 1917, codified at 18 U.S.C. § 793, which criminalizes improperly accessing, handling, or transmitting “information respecting the national defense” with the intent of injuring the United States or aiding a foreign nation. Under Supreme Court precedent, “national defense information” is broadly defined and includes sensitive information relating not only to the military, but also to national security more generally. As Professor Patricia Bellia notes, while “the phrase ‘national defense information’ used throughout §§ 793 and 794 is not coterminous with the phrase ‘classified information,’” nevertheless “a document’s classification status could provide evidence that the document was closely held or that the document, if transmitted, would injure the United States or aid a foreign nation.”

Later amendments added 18 U.S.C. § 798, criminalizing the disclosure of various kinds of classified information including information “concerning the communication intelligence activities of the United States or any foreign government.” Section 798 contains no explicit intent requirement: in order to violate that provision, one need only “knowingly and willfully” communicate the information. Notably, this is the provision of the law which FBI Director Comey famously determined Hillary Clinton did not violate, despite demands for prosecution from President Trump and other political opponents. While the law facially allows prosecution for mere gross negligence, in reality it does seem to require some degree of intent.

The other law that often forms the basis of leak prosecutions is the general theft statute at 18 U.S.C. § 641. This provision makes it a crime to steal, sell, or convey “any record, voucher, money, or thing of value of the United States or of any department or agency thereof.” The federal courts of appeals differ on applying this statute to leaks of government information: while all of the circuits recognize the government’s property interest in records and documents (so if you physically steal actual records, the statute most certainly applies), some refuse to extend that to the underlying information contained in the records.

Other laws criminalize more specific leaks. The Intelligence Identities Protection Act, for instance, makes it a crime to reveal the identity of covert agents. Former CIA officer John Kiriakou was indicted under this act and the Espionage Act for leaking classified information relating to the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. He pled guilty in 2012 and was the first CIA officer to serve a prison sentence for leaking. This is also the substantive offense at the heart of the Plame affair, discussed below.

And beyond those substantive offenses criminalizing leaking itself, there’s the crime of making false statements. Under 18 U.S.C. § 1001, it is a felony offense to “knowingly and willfully . . . make[] a materially false” statement in the course of an investigation by any branch of the federal government. So if you lie about a material fact in the course of a leak investigation (see more below on investigations), you’ve committed another substantive felony, and one that is very frequently prosecuted.

This provision is used far more frequently than the others, in part because of the aggravating nature of lying to law enforcement and in part because the offense is easier to prove. As the saying goes, it’s not the crime, it’s the coverup.

For example, the high-profile leak investigation of the naming of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame might have involved the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, but prosecutors ended up indicting Scooter Libby, Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff, on multiple counts of obstruction of justice, perjury, and making false statements. As The Washington Post reported at the time, the U.S. Attorney on the case “noted that proving illegal disclosure of classified information under various federal statutes is difficult,” in part because many require proving specific knowledge or intent.

Besides criminal violations, the government also employs non-disclosure agreements.  Often these involve pre-publication review: if you are a former intelligence officer, and you’re writing an article or book, you need to run it by the intelligence agency per the NDA.

Aaaaand that’s it, really.

Here’s something else worthy of note: leak investigations are overseen by DOJ’s National Security Division and conducted by the FBI. In a 2006 interview, David Szady, former assistant director for counterintelligence at the FBI, outlined how leak investigations proceed. First, the “victim agency” (the owner of the classified material) refers the matter to the Department of Justice, who decides whether to open an investigation. Importantly, investigations are opened only when the leaked information is accurate—that is, the mere fact of an investigation is an indirect confirmation of the accuracy of the leak. DOJ then sends the file to the FBI, who conducts the actual investigation, typically reviewing documentation and signals intelligence but sometimes through interviews and polygraphs.

There is something troubling about the intelligence agencies working against the President as many Democrats and Republicans have pointed out.  I certainly agree, but this does not strike me as an all-out war between the intelligence community against Trump.

It is certainly not a slow-motion coup d’etat as some say.  And look, If the information about the Trump campaign’s apparent collusion with the Russians were not leaked, it would have been smothered and covered up. Congress refused to act. The Department of Justice has shown zero interest. The president’s occasional remarks about the matter carry all the conviction of O.J. Simpson’s vow to search for the real killers.

What, exactly, were investigators supposed to do with their information if they did not share it with the public? Evidence that close associates of the current president of the United States had contacts with a hostile foreign-intelligence service is not a matter of purely historical interest. It’s not just a law-enforcement matter. The whistle blowers are blowing whistles, at immense professional and legal risk to themselves, because the people in charge of protecting the system against foreign spy penetration are themselves implicated in that penetration.

Besides, if they could bury Trump, they would have done so long before the election.  And even as it related to Flynn — when they knew Flynn was lying to Veep Pence about his Russia contacts, they went to Obama (still President) and THEN TO TRUMP.  That doesn’t sound like an intelligence community out to subvert President Trump.  In fact, Trump seems to have his own feud with the intelligence community, often degrading their “intelligence” by using quotation marks (as I just did).

During the campaign, Trump often bragged that he had better intelligence than the generals, a comment that was dismissed as bizarre.  But perhaps not.  Perhaps Trump has been the beneficiary of Russian intelligence (although its accuracy has yet to be determined).  Perhaps Trump is the Manchurian candidate who doesn’t know he is Manchurian.

Last Night’s Bombshell: Trump Campaign Advisers Talked With Russia Throughout The Campaign

The New York Times broke the story at 9:11 pm EST.

(Obviously, the story is longer than that).

The first two paragraphs are the bombshell; the third one there is an important caveat.

In some ways, it is not news — in a largely ignored story from November, CNN reported that Russia said it was in contact with Trump campaign aides.  But what might be news last night was the level of contacts.

When that is coupled with the knowledge throughout the campaign that Russia was behind the DNC hacks — well, it doesn’t look good.

It also doesn’t look good that the Trump administration has repeatedly denied these contacts.  For example, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said this back in a December appearance on “Face the Nation” with John Dickerson:

DICKERSON: Did anyone involved in the Trump campaign have any contact with Russians trying to meddle with the election?

CONWAY: Absolutely not. And I discussed that with the president-elect just last night. Those conversations never happened. I hear people saying it like it’s a fact on television. That is just not only inaccurate and false, but it’s dangerous and it does undermine our democracy.

For his part, Trump is trying to make this all about leaks, but as I’ve said in another post, that argument (coming from Trump’s White House) is laughable.  As for the Russia connections, Trumps tweets call them “conspiracy theories” (again, an ironic phrase coming from Trump)

The NYT article and these series of tweets — these are historic documents.  Or will be, I think.

It wasn’t just the Times. CNN also weighed in with a similar investigation, reporting that “high-level advisers close to” Trump were in “constant communication during the campaign with Russians known to U.S. intelligence.”

CNN added a new wrinkle — that Trump had been briefed on this after the election.

If that last detail is true, then it means Trump knows that intelligence officials have, indeed, concluded that this happened. Which might explain why some of his tweets today sort of function as confirmation of the stories, by blasting intel agencies for leaking classified information.

If Trump is not embedded in the wrongdoing, all this is certainly making him look stupid, childish and weak.  From The Plum Line:

Indeed, the lashing out is beginning to look less and less fearsome, and more and more impulsively buffoonish and self-defeating. And there’s a broader pattern developing here, one that undermines a key narrative about the Trump presidency, in which Trump is pursuing strategic disruption and breaking all the old rules and norms to further an unconventional presidency that is designed to render the old way of doing business irrelevant. It’s obvious that all of this is now actively undermining his own designs, on multiple fronts.

Consider: The use of the White House bully pulpit by Trump and his top aides to interfere in a dispute between Nordstrom and Ivanka Trump — which seemed intended as a big middle finger to the pointy-headed ethical norms police — resulted in Republicans condemning it. The trip to Mar-a-Lago with the Japanese prime minister — another intended sign that Trump will damn well use the presidency to enrich himself if he pleases, by turning his own resort into an official court of sorts while pocketing the profits from it — ended up getting marred by the surprise North Korea ballistic missile test. This made his administration look incompetent, chaotic, unprepared and unconcerned about basic security protocol.

The administration’s handling of the Michael Flynn fiasco was a mess that was partially created by Trump himself. We now know he had been briefed three weeks ago that the Justice Department concluded Flynn had misled Vice President Pence about contacts with the Russian ambassador. Yet Flynn remained, and new reporting indicates that this was driven in part because of high-level White House skepticism about the Justice Department’s warnings — something that likely emanated from Trump himself. The botched rollout of Trump’s travel ban — the first high-level exercise in translating Trumpism into reality — was a legal and substantive disaster, largely because of a lack of concern over basic legal and process niceties that also reflected Trump’s evolving leadership style.

Meanwhile, today’s events are a reminder that the press is bearing down hard on the Russia story, which may make it harder and harder for Republicans to continue resisting a full accounting.

To be sure, Trump is getting a lot of his Cabinet nominees confirmed. It’s likely that Trump and Republicans will win a lot of victories before long, ones that will be very demoralizing to Democrats. It is also true that the White House has at its disposal a tremendous range of tools to take control of events and news cycles, thus turning things around. So all of this might change soon enough. A doubling-down on Trump’s worst policies, perhaps in the form of a newly implemented and then expanded “Muslim ban,” or in the form of stepped-up deportations, remain real possibilities. A terrorist attack could empower Trump and lead to far worse.

But right now, Trump looks weaker, less effective and even more ridiculous than anyone might have anticipated — and it happened surprisingly quickly, too.

Lot Of Hypocrisy About Leaks

The Pentagon Papers was a leak from Daniel Ellsberg. It helped de-legitimize the Vietnam War.

Deep Throat was Mark Felt, a top FBI official. He gave Woodward and Bernstein the deep background on the Watergate scandal.

Edward Snowden leaked information about US government surveillance programs.

Chelsea Manning leaked documents and video relating to Iraqi air strikes, diplomatic cables, and Gitmo, most of which did not put the US in good light.

Vice President Cheney outed Valerie Plame as a CIA operative in order to exact revenge on her husband, a critic of the Bush Iraq War policy.

To most people, one of more of these people are heroes — one of the “good guys”.  But they were all leakers.

Everybody constructs reasons for leaks they like and leaks they don’t like. But it is hard to come up with a non-hypocritical reason for distinguishing “good leaks” from “bad leaks”.

We’re at a remarkable point in history where the president accuses his own intelligence community of working against him, as exhibited by his tweetstorm this morning:

What sounds hollow about all this is that Trump was totally fine — in fact he PRAISED — Wikileaks when it printed the John Podesta emails.

I know, I know. The Podesta emails weren’t technically leaks.  They were hacks by the Russians.  But doesn’t that make it WORSE?  Think about it.  The President is fine with Russian intelligence stealing secured information and making it public — in fact he encouraged it! — but he’s upset about “illegal” leaks from American intelligence sources?

It really does beg the question — whose side is the President on?  At best, it cements the notion that he is in the pocket of Russia.

Flynn Exit

So… less than a month into the Administration, Trumps’ National Security Adviser, General Michael Flynn, resigns.  WHY he resigned is important — he said (in a letter) that he regrets giving incomplete information to the Vice President.

Ummm…. interesting way to put it.

Another way to put it is… Flynn LIED to the Vice President.  And yet an even better way to put it is…. Flynn lied to the Vice President about whether or not he spoke to the Russians and told them to ignore Obama’s sanctions.

And yet another way to put it is…. Flynn opened himself to blackmail by the Russians for the having a conversation in violation of the Logan Act with Russians about Obama’s sanctions, and the White House knew about it as far back as a month ago…. and did nothing!

The White House would like to leave it at “Flynn lied to the Veep and that’s bad, but now he’s gone, so let’s move on.”

But lying to Pence is NOT the story.  The story is what he lied to Pence ABOUT.

And it is about how acting AG Sally Yates informed WH counsel Don McGahn about Flynn’s vulnerability because he lied to Pence.

Aaaaaaand as I write this, Trump just tweeted another attempt at diversion:

Bzzzzzt.  I’m sorry. The leaks are not the “real story” either (and by the way, if the leaks ARE the problem, you’re still at fault, Donald.  It’s your administration!)

And it looks like congressional Republicans are ready to move on, too….

No, no, no.  This is not over. There are some very important open questions (from WaPo):

1. What, if anything, did Trump authorize Flynn to tell the Russians before his inauguration?

2. Why was Trump planning to stand by Flynn? “One senior White House official said that Trump did not fire Flynn; rather, Flynn made the decision to resign on his own late Monday evening because of what this official said was ‘the cumulative effect’ of damaging news coverage about his conversations with the Russian envoy,” Greg Miller and Philip Rucker report. “This official, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the situation, said Trump does not relish firing people — despite his television persona on ‘The Apprentice’ — and had intended to wait several more days before deciding whether to seek Flynn’s resignation. ‘There obviously were a lot of issues, but the president was hanging in there,’ this official said.”

3. What did White House counsel Donald McGahn do after the then-acting attorney general notified him last month that Flynn was potentially vulnerable to Russian blackmail? “In the waning days of the Obama administration, James R. Clapper Jr., who was the director of national intelligence, and John Brennan, the CIA director at the time, shared (Sally) Yates’s concerns and concurred with her recommendation to inform the Trump White House,” Adam Entous, Ellen Nakashima and Philip Rucker report. “They feared that ‘Flynn had put himself in a compromising position’ and thought that Pence had a right to know that he had been misled. … Yates, then the deputy attorney general, considered Flynn’s comments in the intercepted call to be ‘highly significant’ and ‘potentially illegal,’ according to an official familiar with her thinking. … A senior Trump administration official said before Flynn’s resignation that the White House was aware of the matter, adding that ‘we’ve been working on this for weeks.’”

Yates was accompanied by a senior career national security official when she alerted McGahn. What we don’t know is who McGahn subsequently shared that information with and what he did after the meeting. He didn’t respond to a request for comment last night from my colleagues.

“It’s unimaginable that the White House general counsel would sit on it (and) not tell anybody else in the White House,” said David Gergen, who worked in the Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton administrations. “In every White House I’ve ever been in, this would go to the president like that,” he added during an interview on CNN, snapping his fingers.

If McGahn did indeed tell others, especially the president, how come Flynn kept his job until last night?

4. What is the status of the FBI investigation into possible contacts between Trump associates and Russia? FBI Director James B. Comey initially opposed Yates notifying McGahn, citing concerns that it could complicate the bureau’s ongoing investigation. “A turning point came after Jan. 23, when (Sean) Spicer, in his first official media briefing, again was asked about Flynn’s communications with (Ambassador Sergey) Kislyak,” Adam, Ellen and Phil report. “Spicer said that he had talked to Flynn about the issue ‘again last night.’ There was just ‘one call,’ Spicer said. And it covered four subjects: a plane crash that claimed the lives of a Russian military choir; Christmas greetings; Russian-led talks over the Syrian civil war; and the logistics of setting up a call between Putin and Trump. Spicer said that was the extent of the conversation. Yates again raised the issue with Comey, who now backed away from his opposition to informing the White House.” Yates then spoke to McGahn.

5. Will Flynn face prosecution under the Logan Act? Yates and other intelligence officials suspected that Flynn could be in violation of the obscure 1799 statute, which bars U.S. citizens from interfering in diplomatic disputes with another country. But no one has ever been prosecuted under that law, so it is very, very unlikely.

Another mitigating factor: Jeff Sessions got confirmed as attorney general despite refusing to commit to recuse himself from DOJ inquiries into Trump and other administration officials.

6. What will the Senate Intelligence Committee uncover about contacts Flynn and others affiliated with Trump had with Russia before the election? U.S. intelligence reports during the 2016 campaign showed that Kislyak was in touch with Flynn, several sources have said. Communications between the two continued after Nov. 8. The Russian ambassador has even confirmed having contacts with Flynn before and after the election, though he declined to say what was discussed.

The committee led by Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) is continuing to explore Russian efforts to interfere with the election, including the intelligence community’s assessment that the Kremlin was attempting to tilt the election to Trump. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a member of the committee, told reporters a few hours before Flynn resigned that his contacts with the Russian ambassador are part of the bipartisan inquiry. “This and anything else that involves the Russians,” Rubio said, per Kelsey Snell. “We’re going to go wherever the truth leads us.”

7. Who exactly is in charge at the White House? Yesterday was just the latest illustration of the chaos and dysfunction that plague the infant administration. Officials found themselves in an uncomfortable holding pattern for much of Monday, unsure about whether to defend Flynn and privately grumbling about the president’s indecisiveness.

“After Trump made it through a joint news conference with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau without being asked about Flynn, a group of reporters gathered outside Spicer’s office for more than 80 minutes,” Ashley Parker and Philip Rucker report. “Spicer twice declined to answer questions about Flynn. When chief of staff Reince Priebus walked by, he was asked whether the president still had confidence in Flynn. Priebus gave no answer. Then, a few minutes later, Kellyanne Conway, the counselor to the president, declared on MSNBC that Trump had ‘full confidence’ in Flynn. Yet a few minutes later after that, Spicer issued an official — and conflicting — statement, saying Trump was ‘evaluating the situation.’” A few hours after that, Flynn was gone.

Conservative columnist Michael Gerson, a veteran of George W. Bush’s White House, opens his column today with a damning anecdote: Last month, Paul Ryan met with a delegation from the president-elect on tax reform. Attending were Priebus, Conway, Stephen K. Bannon, Jared Kushner and Stephen Miller. As the meeting began, Ryan pointedly asked, “Who’s in charge?” There was silence.

“It is still the right question,” Michael writes. “Former officials with deep knowledge of the presidency describe Trump’s White House staff as top-heavy, with five or six power centers and little vertical structure. ‘The desire to be a big shot is overrunning any sense of team,’ says one experienced Republican. ‘This will cause terrible dysfunction, distraction, disloyalty and leaks.’”

One yuge area of concern for me — Trump’s tweet above.  He (i.e., Bannon) might use this scandal to exert tighter control over the intelligence community.  Maybe even purge the non-Trumpians.  Then his power would be consolidated.

UPDATE: This isn’t good —

Executive privilege is something the PRESIDENT asserts, not the investigative body. It does not hurt to inquire.

and this:

So the Oversight Committee isn’t looking into it, and the Intelligence Committee isn’t looking into it.  We have no oversight now.

On the other hand:

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told House Democrats Tuesday that the recent revelations about former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn’s conversations with the Russians are only the beginning, and more information will surface in the coming days, according to multiple sources in a closed party meeting.

Schiff (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, also said that any conversations that Flynn had with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak before Donald Trump took office would not be covered by executive privilege, potentially making some information subject to congressional investigations. Republicans have so far balked at probing this matter.

Will this be swept under the rug, or will it be a slow drip?  I think (and hope) that latter.

LATER UPDATE:

EVEN LATER UPDATE — Spicer just gave his daily press conference, and we learned the White House take on this.  I suspect some of these claims will not hold up:

1. Spicer denied that Flynn or any other campaign officials were in touch with Russian government officials during the campaign. yes, during transition, but not during campaign.  He has a problem here in that this is flatly contradicted in multiple press reports.

2. Spicer insists that President Trump instinctively knew that what Gen. Flynn did was not wrong and his White House Counsel confirmed this for him.  I have a feeling White House Counsel’s view might come under more scrutiny.

3. Spicer claims that the President did not instruct Flynn to discuss sanctions with the Russian Ambassador. “No, absolutely not. No, no, no – no” was Spicer’s response.  Interesting though, because if what Flynn did was not wrong (according to Trump), then what would have been the problem if Trump DID tell Flynn to do it?

4. Spicer says that President Trump was not aware of the Flynn/Russia discussions when they happened and only learned of them after the DOJ briefed the White House Counsel.

In other words, Flynn lied to Pence about something insignificant and not illegal, and that’s why Trump could no longer trust him.

Does that make sense to anyone?

But there’s more, starting with Spicer’s timeline:

Flynn said in mid-January that he not discussed sanctions with Kislyak. On January 15, Vice President Mike Pence went on CBS and repeated that. According to Spicer, White House Counsel Don McGahn heard from then-Acting Attorney General Sally Yates on January 26 about evidence that Flynn had discussed sanctions with Kislyak, despite his denials. McGahn then brought the matter to Trump, who asked whether Flynn had broken the law. McGahn reported back that he did not think Flynn had broken the law.

According to Spicer, Trump then gradually lost trust in Flynn, over the period between January 26 and February 13, in what Spicer called “an evolving and eroding process.” He couldn’t say whether Flynn had intended to mislead Pence and others.

“I don’t know that it was intentional,” Spicer said. “He may have just forgotten [that he discussed the sanctions]. At some point that trust eroded to the point that the president did not feel comfortable and asked for an received his resignation.” He added that when Trump “thought it was time for a decision, he immediately made it.”

But the question is why Trump thought that Monday night was the time for a decision. After all, some three weeks passed between Yates’s call to McGahn and the actual firing. Spicer criticized the Justice Department for informing the White House of its suspicions about Flynn sooner, but it’s hard to square that criticism with the lengthy dithering the White House went through. If Trump had known about the calls 10 days earlier, moving his decision up by 10 days, that still would have been two weeks into his presidency.

Spicer wouldn’t say what made Trump change his mind about his national security adviser, who was a close ally during the campaign and spoke at the Republican National Convention, or why it took so long. Spicer said, somewhat cryptically, that the change was based on “this and a series of issues,” without elaborating.

Yet that, too, presents some contradictions with what was publicly known. If what Spicer says is true, Flynn continued lying about his conversations with Kislyak, telling The Washington Post as late as Wednesday that he had not discussed the sanctions with the Russian. If the White House knew that was untrue, why did it allow Flynn to reiterate it? Finally, on Thursday, Flynn admitted to the Post that he might have discussed the sanctions, though he could not recall for sure. On Friday, while flying to Mar-a-Lago, Trump was asked by a reporter about The Washington Post report including Flynn’s admission. The president answered as though he had no idea what was being asked. Spicer defended that by saying that Trump simply had not read the Post article, but Trump’s response is strange if he’d known for weeks that Flynn had misled.

Spicer’s story of Trump gradually losing trust in Flynn is at also at odds with a statement from Trump spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway Monday afternoon that Trump had “full confidence” in Flynn. Spicer and Conway’s accounts can’t both be true, though whether that’s a product of chaos or spin is unclear.

Perhaps the most troubling element of Spicer’s account is that if taken at face value, it makes it appear that Trump was for a time relatively untroubled by the fact that Flynn had misled both the vice president of the United States and, through him, the American people. For three weeks, he allowed Flynn to remain in his post as his top security aide. It was only when it became public that Flynn had misled Pence and the people that Trump moved and decided Flynn had to go. The worrisome implication is that Trump was OK with Flynn’s dissembling until anyone knew about it, which calls into question the White House’s honesty on other accounts. As Sean Spicer might put, it’s a matter of trust.

And hey. If Trump was informed about Flynn’s discussions with the Russian ambassador, and referred the matter to White House counsel, then why was Flynn allowed to sit in classified security meetings in the interim?
Tomorrow, the White House will try to say “asked and answered” to everything.  But will that satisfy the press?  (Hint: it shouldn’t)

It’s Hard To Keep Up With All That’s Going Down

Just yesterday — on ONE day…

Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway broke ethics rules promoting Ivanka Trump clothes, which wouldn’t have happened if Trump hadn’t tweeted about how unfairly Nordstrom’s was treating Ivanka Trump by dropping her line of clothing.

Then we learned that Trump, when talking to Putin last week, had to put Putin on hold in order to ask his advisors what the New START treaty was. Then he got back on the phone and told Putin the New START treaty was a “bad deal”.

Later, Trump lost an appeal of his temporary travel ban. He tweeted “SEE YOU IN COURT” apparently unaware that he just lost in court.

Then the “failing” New York Times reported that China hasn’t been taking our phone calls because of Trump’s faux pax with Taiwan back in November.

Then, the Washington Post informed us, in a heavily-sourced story, that General Flynn, Trump’s closest military advisor, discussed sanctions with Russia while Obama was President, which is illegal. And then he lied about it. Many times.

So, that was yesterday.

The Flynn matter is dominating the news this morning. It’s really looks bad for Flynn:

National security adviser Michael Flynn privately discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with that country’s ambassador to the United States during the month before President Trump took office, contrary to public assertions by Trump officials, current and former U.S. officials said.

Flynn’s communications with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak were interpreted by some senior U.S. officials as an inappropriate and potentially illegal signal to the Kremlin that it could expect a reprieve from sanctions that were being imposed by the Obama administration in late December to punish Russia for its alleged interference in the 2016 election.

Flynn on Wednesday denied that he had discussed sanctions with Kislyak. Asked in an interview whether he had ever done so, he twice said, “No.”

On Thursday, Flynn, through his spokesman, backed away from the denial. The spokesman said Flynn “indicated that while he had no recollection of discussing sanctions, he couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up.”

(Emphasis mine).

Clearly, Flynn got caught with his hand in the cookie jar.  That’s the only reason why he would back away from a denial.  Also, Mike Pence had gone to bat for him…

“They did not discuss anything having to do with the United States’ decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia,” Pence said in an interview with CBS News last month, noting that he had spoken with Flynn about the matter. Pence also made a more sweeping assertion, saying there had been no contact between members of Trump’s team and Russia during the campaign. To suggest otherwise, he said, “is to give credence to some of these bizarre rumors that have swirled around the candidacy.”

…. and he is not about to take the fall.

This isn’t a he said, she said.

Neither of those assertions is consistent with the fuller account of Flynn’s contacts with Kislyak provided by officials who had access to reports from U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies that routinely monitor the communications of Russian diplomats. Nine current and former officials, who were in senior positions at multiple agencies at the time of the calls, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.

All of those officials said ­Flynn’s references to the election-related sanctions were explicit. Two of those officials went further, saying that Flynn urged Russia not to overreact to the penalties being imposed by President Barack Obama, making clear that the two sides would be in position to review the matter after Trump was sworn in as president.

An administration official stressed that Pence made his comments based on his conversation with Flynn. The sanctions in question have so far remained in place.

You have to wonder how stupid Flynn must be.  As a former intelligence officer, he should have know his communications with the Russians would be monitored.  There was no way he could get away with that lie.  As Mother Jones says:

UPDATE:

– END UPDATE –
The question now is…. will Trump stand by him, or throw him under a bus (where he belongs)?

His hand my be forced by public opinion (that is, assuming Trump believes in public opinion, which I doubt).  Here’s the latest from PPP.  I reprint it in its entirety because it shows just how Trump is losing popular opinion on almost every front — foreign policy, the “ban”, the “wall”, transparency, etc.:

PPP’s new national poll finds that Donald Trump’s popularity as President has declined precipitously just over the last two weeks. On our first poll of his Presidency voters were evenly divided on Trump, with 44% approving of him and 44% also disapproving. Now his approval rating is 43%, while his disapproval has gone all the way up to 53%. If voters could choose they’d rather have both Barack Obama (52/44) or Hillary Clinton (49/45) instead of Trump.

Just three weeks into his administration, voters are already evenly divided on the issue of impeaching Trump with 46% in favor and 46% opposed. Support for impeaching Trump has crept up from 35% 2 weeks ago, to 40% last week, to its 46% standing this week. While Clinton voters initially only supported Trump’s impeachment 65/14, after seeing him in office over the last few weeks that’s gone up already to 83/6.

Here are the reasons things are going bad for Trump:

-Voters think he’s over reaching to make a country safe…that they already consider to be safe. 66% of Americans consider the United States to be a safe country, to only 23% who consider it unsafe. Perhaps as an outgrowth of that sentiment only 45% of voters support Trump’s Executive Order on immigration, to 49% who are opposed to it. Among those who do support it you have to wonder how well thought out their position is- by a 51/23 margin Trump voters say that the Bowling Green Massacre shows why Trump’s immigration policy is needed.

By a 48/43 spread, voters do think that the intent of the Executive Order is to be a Muslim ban. And just 22% support a Muslim ban, to 65% who are opposed. The order has also increasingly raised issues about Trump’s competence in voters’ eyes- only 27% think the Executive Order was well executed, to 66% who think it was poorly executed. The spread on that question was 39/55 when we asked last week.

Another aspect of voters already feeling safe is that they don’t want to pay for the wall with Mexico. Just 32% support a 20% tax on items imported to the United States from Mexico, to 55% who are opposed to that concept. And in general only 37% of voters want the wall if US taxpayers have to front the cost for it, to 56% who are against that.

-Voters are concerned by the implications of Trump’s fight with the Judiciary. 53% of voters say they trust Judges more to make the right decisions for the United States, to only 38% who trust Trump more. And only 25% of voters think Trump should be able to overturn decisions by Judges that he disagrees with, to 64% who don’t think he should be able to do that. Trump voters have evidently had enough of the Constitution and those pesky checks and balances though- 51% of them think he should personally be able to overturn decisions he doesn’t agree with, to only 33% who dissent.

-Voters don’t like the people Trump has surrounded himself with. Betsy DeVos may have been confirmed this week, but she made a horrible impression on the public. Only 27% of voters see her positively to 49% with a negative opinion of her. Clinton voters are almost unanimous in their distaste for her (5/83 favorability), while she doesn’t generate nearly an equivalent amount of enthusiasm from Trump voters (53/12 favorability.) Other people close to Trump have come off poorly as well- Steve Bannon has a 22/45 favorability rating, Kellyanne Conway’s is 34/47, and Sean Spicer’s is 32/41.

-Voters continue to have a lot of basic transparency concerns when it comes to Trump. 62% think he needs to fully divest himself from his business interests, to only 27% who don’t think it’s necessary for him to do that. And 58% want him to release his tax returns, to just 31% who don’t think he needs to. In fact by a 53/32 spread, voters would support a law requiring that candidates for President release 5 years of their tax returns in order to appear on the ballot.

-Voters are concerned that in the realm of foreign policy, Trump likes who they don’t like and doesn’t like who they do like. Trump has antagonized Australia, which Americans give a 76/5 favorability rating. Meanwhile he has been warm to Russia, which Americans give a 13/63 favorability rating. He’s threatened to invade Mexico- a course that only 7% of voters support while 83% oppose it- while making nice comments about Vladimir Putin, who Americans give a 10/72 favorability to.-Voters are concerned about Trump taking away Obamacare. 47% of voters now say they support the Affordable Care Act to only 39% who are opposed. It just keeps getting more popular. And only 32% think the best course of action to take on health care is repealing the ACA, while 65% would like Congress to keep it and just fix parts that need fixing.

-Voters are increasingly taking the media’s side in his fights with them. The New York Times has repeatedly been a target of Trump’s attacks, but voters say they think the Times had more credibility than them 52/37. Trump seems to be losing ground in that conflict- he was only down 51/42 a week ago. The Presidency has been so diminished over the last 3 weeks that voters even say Saturday Night Live has more credibility than Trump, 48/43.

On another note it was unclear last week whether Donald Trump really knew who Frederick Douglass was, and it turns out that puts him in pretty good alignment with his party base. Only 47% of Trump voters know that Frederick Douglass is dead, compared to 78% of Clinton voters who know that. Even though they evidently need it, Trump voters aren’t very excited about Black History Month. Only 45% of them have a favorable opinion of it, to 35% with a negative one. By contrast it’s 81/9 for Clinton voters. And in yet another measure of the terrible economic anxiety gripping Trump voters though, 46% of them think there should be a White History Month to 36% opposed to that concept. They may not get far with that though, since only 28% of voters overall are in favor of such a thing to 58% opposed.

Finally we continue to find that unhappiness with Trump- and with Congressional Republicans- could help Democrats to make big gains in 2018. Democrats lead 49/41 on the generic Congressional ballot. That’s partially a product of Trump’s unpopularity but also an outgrowth of Paul Ryan (35/47 approval), Mitch McConnell (23/52 approval), and Congress as a whole (16/68 approval) being unpopular in their own rights.

Emphasis in original.

While this confirms that Trump is generally doing down down down, here’s what jumped out at me:

Among those who do support it you have to wonder how well thought out their position is- by a 51/23 margin Trump voters say that the Bowling Green Massacre shows why Trump’s immigration policy is needed.

And of course, there never WAS a Bowling Green Massacre.

In other words, most of Trump’s support – what little he has — comes from stupid and/or uninformed people.

For now, the Republican establishment (with a few exceptions) is not distancing itself from Trump, as this Tweet suggests.

But how long will that last?  GOP Congressman are returning back to their states, only to find angry voters at town hall meetings (they are cancelling them).  The GOP owns Trump now, and the longer they do, the better things looks for Dems.

(And I haven’t even brought up the Obamacare repeal yet!)

The Bombshell Report That Russia Can Blackmail Trump, Explained

There’s an enormous amount we don’t yet know about CNN’s bombshell report that US intelligence agencies believe Russia has “compromising personal and financial information” on President-elect Donald Trump and that his campaign was in direct contact with with Russian intermediaries before the election.

We don’t know who CNN’s sources are or if those people’s information is accurate. We don’t know which Trump aides were allegedly dealing with the Russians or whether those Russians worked for Vladimir Putin’s government. And we don’t know the answer to the biggest question of them all: just what does Russia have on Trump?

“So while people are being delicate about discussing wholly unproven allegations, the document is at the front of everyone’s minds as they ponder the question: Why is Trump so insistent about vindicating Russia from the hacking charges that everyone else seems to accept?” Benjamin Wittes, Susan Hennessey, and Quina Jurecic wrote in a post for the Lawfare blog.

There is one thing, though, that we can say with absolute certainty. If the allegations are true, they will spark criminal investigations and the types of Congressional probes that could end Trump’s presidency before it fully begins. If the allegations are false, Trump will accurately be able to say that he’d been slandered by a politicized intelligence community looking for ways of undermining his legitimacy.

Trump’s weeks-long war with the CIA means that this kind of moment may have been inevitable: after weeks of quiet sniping, sources inside the agency or familiar with its work have responded by leaking something truly and genuinely explosive.

This is “news” NOT because of the actual allegation in the memos, but because Trump and Obama were briefed on them last week after US intelligence looked into it, suggesting some credibility.  Furthermore, the Guardian is reporting that the FBI applied for a warrant from the foreign intelligence surveillance (FISA) court over the summer in order to monitor four members of the Trump team suspected of irregular contacts with Russian officials. The Fisa court turned down the application asking FBI counter-intelligence investigators to narrow its focus. According to one report, the FBI was finally granted a warrant in October, but that has not been confirmed, and it is not clear whether any warrant led to a full investigation. But again, the news is that at least the FBI thought there was enough credibility in the memos to go to the FISA court in the first place.

A lot of people have joked about whether Russia had something on Trump. Turns out that it might

Here’s what we know. Late on Tuesday afternoon, CNN reported that the heads of America’s top intelligence agencies had showed Trump evidence that the Russians had compromising information on him. The allegations came from unsubstantiated memos compiled by a former British intelligence operative that had been in circulation since last summer but that US spy agencies had only recently deemed “credible.”

According to CNN, Sen. John McCain passed a full set of the memos to FBI Director Jim Comey last month. The New York Times reported that top intelligence officials have also briefed President Obama, the top leaders of the House and Senate, and the chairman and ranking member of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees on the information from the memos even though none of it has been proven true:

The decision of top intelligence officials to give the president, the president-elect and the so-called Gang of Eight — Republican and Democratic leaders of Congress and the intelligence committees — what they know to be unverified, defamatory material was extremely unusual.

After the CNN report, Buzzfeed published the actual dossier, which includes the allegation that Russia’s FSB, the successor to the KGB, believed it had “compromised Trump through his activities in Moscow sufficiently to be able to blackmail him.” More specifically, the dossier alleges that Russia had information that Trump engaged in “perverted sexual acts which have been arranged/monitored by the FSB” and had been recorded having sex with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel.

Zack Beauchamp at Vox notes that there are three other less salacious but potentially more damaging explanations of what Russia may have on Trump, and of why the president-elect would have have been so worried about its release. First, proof that Trump isn’t as rich as he claims. Second, evidence that Trump’s campaign directly coordinated with a Russian government hell-bent on ensuring his election. And third, that Trump’s business dealings with Russia — and the amount he may owe Russian investors in his company — is far, far greater than we think.

Trump took to Twitter Tuesday night to flatly deny the CNN report (and later take a shot at BuzzFeed):

It may be a while until we know if Trump is right or if the CNN report is accurate. In the meantime, the president-elect has a different problem entirely: He’s taken so many jarringly pro-Kremlin positions that something that would seem too ludicrous for Hollywood — Russian spies preparing to potentially blackmail an American president — seems like a semi-plausible explanation.

Astute readers will note that nobody has suggested what the “compromising information” actually is.  That is because only Buzzfeed published the actual dossier.  Other news outlets are not doing so, saying (correctly) that the allegations are unverified (I don’t recall them being so queasy when it came to leaked John Podesta emails, but that’s another commentary).

Since *I* am not a journalist, I am happy to include the dossier with this post, and let the reader read all the salacious “compromising information” that Russia has on Trump, allegedly.  I say again, ALLEGEDLY.  Those who have read it focus on the “golden showers” aspect of it, because kink.  But there are far more serious allegations in there, including one in which Trump and members of his campaign staff colluded with Russia on the hacking and Wikileaks in exchange for a non-interventionist policy on Russia and the Ukraine invasion.  That’s treason.

Anyway, dossier is below the fold.  Back to the issue at hand.

Trump’s embrace of Vladimir Putin — and war on the CIA — starts to make sense if you believe he was worried about being blackmailed by Russia

One of the enduring mysteries of the 2016 election is how Republican voters who have for decades venerated Ronald Reagan for defeating the Soviet Union got so strongly behind a pro-Russian candidate like Trump.

During the campaign, the president-elect praised Putin’s strength as a leader, brushed aside concerns about Putin’s abysmal human rights record, hinted that he might recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea and talked about leaving NATO entirely or opting to ignore America’s legal obligation to defend any NATO member who comes under Russian attack.

Trump’s pro-Russian positioning goes all the way back to the Republican convention, when his campaign softened the party platform’s language on Ukraine to remove all reference about providing weapons to Kiev so it could protect itself from Russia. A short time later, Trump hinted to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that he was fine with Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea.

“The people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were,” Trump said.

One of Trump’s former campaign managers, meanwhile, had been a paid consultant for pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine like its former president, Viktor Yanukovych. The campaign manager, Paul Manafort, later resigned as part of an internal campaign shakeup.

Trump himself has spent months praising Putin. “I will tell you that, in terms of leadership, he’s getting an ‘A’ and our president is not doing so well,” Trump said during an NBC forum in September.

He has also effusively praised Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria: “What’s wrong with Russia bombing the hell out of ISIS and these other crazies so we don’t have to spend a million dollars a bomb?” Never mind that Russian bombs have targeted the relatively moderate opposition more than ISIS, and that the point has been to prop up Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. With Russian help, Assad’s forces just finished reconquering the rebel stronghold of Aleppo.

Trump’s rhetoric about Russia has been even more startling since November 8. He has spent weeks mocking the CIA’s conclusion that Putin tried to interfere in the election to help him win the White House by pointing to the spy agency’s faulty intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq War. When US spies personally briefed Trump on their findings about Russia, he issued a remarkable statement that barely mentioned Russia. Instead, Trump lumped it in with China and other unnamed countries and outside groups as potential perpetrators.

Trump’s complete refusal to admit that Russia interfered in the election has baffled and infuriated many Republican lawmakers, who have called for Congressional investigations into Moscow’s activities during the campaign and condemned Putin as a quasi-dictator. Just this week, five Republican senators said they’d back a Democratic bill that would make it harder for Trump to lift the punishing US sanctions on Russia.

It would make a bit more sense if Russia did in fact have something on Trump that was so big and so embarrassing that he would do Putin’s bidding to ensure it never became public. Given that Trump has survived the release of an audio recording of him bragging about sexual assault, it would presumably have to be something huge.

It’s hard to predict exactly what will come next. Congressional Republicans say they want to probe Russia’s interference in the election, but it’s not clear if this will be enough to make them stop consistently rejecting Democratic calls to create bipartisan investigative panels modeled on the 9/11 commission. Regardless of whether the CNN story holds up, the leak is sure to further fuel Trump’s war with the nation’s intelligence agencies. Given the array of threats facing the US, that may be one of the most dangerous outcomes of all.

UPDATE:  NBC is reporting that Trump never got the briefing and did NOT receive the two-page summary:

A senior U.S. intelligence official with knowledge of the preparation for the meeting with Trump told NBC News that the president-elect was not briefed on the so-called two-page addendum to the dossier originally generated as part of anti-Trump Republican opposition research.

Multiple officials say that the summary was included in the material prepared for the briefers, but the senior official told NBC News that the briefing was oral and no actual documents were handed to the Trump team.

“Intel and law enforcement officials agree that none of the investigations have found any conclusive or direct link between Trump and the Russian government period,” the senior official said.

According to the official, the two-page summary about the unsubstantiated material made available to the briefers was to provide context, should they need it, to draw the distinction for Trump between analyzed intelligence and unvetted “disinformation.”

The briefers also had available to them unvetted “disinformation” about the Clinton Foundation, although that was not shared with Trump.