Rohrabacher staffer removed from House Foreign Affairs Committee job amid Russia questions

The Wall Street Journal reports: A Capitol Hill staffer has been removed from his job on the House Foreign Affairs Committee amid questions about his contacts with pro-Russian operatives and lobbyists.

Paul Behrends, who serves as a top aide to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R., Calif.), left his job as a staff director on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the committee revealed this week. A person familiar with the matter said Mr. Behrends was fired over concerns about his Russia contacts.

Mr. Behrends, who hasn’t been accused of any wrongdoing, declined to comment.

Mr. Behrends is a former Marine who has worked in politics on and off for decades. He worked for Mr. Rohrabacher as a Capitol Hill staffer in the 1990s before embarking on a career as a lobbyist. During his time in the private sector, he was the chief lobbyist for Blackwater, the military contractor that is now part of Constellis Holdings. [Continue reading…]

The Daily Beast reports: Members of the team of Russians who secured a June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner also attempted to stage a show trial of anti-Putin campaigner Bill Browder on Capitol Hill.

The trial, which would have come in the form of a congressional hearing, was scheduled for mid-June 2016 by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), a long-standing Russia ally who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe. During the hearing, Rohrabacher had planned to confront Browder with a feature-length pro-Kremlin propaganda movie that viciously attacks him—as well as at least two witnesses linked to the Russian authorities, including lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya.

Ultimately, the hearing was canceled when senior Republicans intervened and agreed to allow a hearing on Russia at the full committee level with a Moscow-sympathetic witness, according to multiple congressional aides.

An email reviewed by The Daily Beast shows that before that June 14 hearing, Rohrabacher’s staff received pro-Kremlin briefings against Browder, once Russia’s biggest foreign investor, and his tax attorney Sergei Magnitsky from a lawyer who was working with Veselnitskaya. [Continue reading…]

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Did Trump campaign collude with Russia to defeat Republican opponents in GOP primary?

Ryan Goodman writes: Russia’s election interference began well before the general election. It started during the GOP primaries and clearly in support of Donald Trump over his GOP opponents. Thanks to investigative reporting by the New York Times, we now know, at the very least, the Trump campaign was open to support from the Russian government by early June 2016 when senior campaign members met with Russians purporting to have information from the Kremlin that would harm Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid, discussed timing for implementing Russian support, and failed to report any of this to U.S. authorities. Many have raised the question whether the Trump campaign’s knowledge of Russian government support and these kinds of exchanges began before June 2016. Yet to truly understand the scope of Russian interference in the U.S. election, we must ask a more specific question: did the Trump campaign know about, accept, or work with the Russian government when the Kremlin interfered in the GOP primary?

The publicly available information on this matter should prompt Congress, Robert Mueller, news media, and others to pursue that question with utmost concern. Let’s take a closer look.

I. Russia’s election interference during the Republican primary

Before we explore whether the Trump team was working with Russia during the primaries, it’s worth briefly reviewing the Russian government’s overall involvement in in the 2016 GOP primaries. Russian election interference reportedly took effect during the primaries in an effort to undercut GOP candidates whose positions were hostile to Moscow’s interests and, more specifically, in an effort to boost Donald Trump. The Russian operation included (at least) two prongs: a propaganda effort to spread fake news and cyber operations to steal confidential information.

When exactly did the Russian influence campaign begin? In an interview with Just Security, former FBI special agent Clint Watts explained that the Russian approach to its influence campaign involved an earlier starting point than many assume. [Continue reading…]

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Congressman Rohrabacher wants to know whether there was an ancient civilization on Mars

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GOP operative sought Clinton emails from Russian hackers, implied a connection to Flynn

The Wall Street Journal reports: Before the 2016 presidential election, a longtime Republican opposition researcher mounted an independent campaign to obtain emails he believed were stolen from Hillary Clinton’s private server, likely by Russian hackers.

In conversations with members of his circle and with others he tried to recruit to help him, the GOP operative, Peter W. Smith, implied he was working with retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, at the time a senior adviser to then-candidate Donald Trump.

“He said, ‘I’m talking to Michael Flynn about this—if you find anything, can you let me know?’” said Eric York, a computer-security expert from Atlanta who searched hacker forums on Mr. Smith’s behalf for people who might have access to the emails.

Emails written by Mr. Smith and one of his associates show that his small group considered Mr. Flynn and his consulting company, Flynn Intel Group, to be allies in their quest.

What role, if any, Mr. Flynn may have played in Mr. Smith’s project is unclear. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Smith said he knew Mr. Flynn, but he never stated that Mr. Flynn was involved.

Mr. Flynn didn’t respond to requests for comment.

A Trump campaign official said that Mr. Smith didn’t work for the campaign, and that if Mr. Flynn coordinated with him in any way, it would have been in his capacity as a private individual. The White House declined to comment.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller is investigating Russian attempts to sway the U.S. election and whether there was collusion between Russians and the Trump campaign. President Trump has denied any collusion and called the investigation a “witch hunt.” The Russian government has denied it interfered in the election.

Mr. Smith died at age 81 on May 14, which was about 10 days after the Journal interviewed him. His account of the email search is believed to be his only public comment on it. [Continue reading…]

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Senate GOP seethes at Trump impulsiveness

Politico reports: Top GOP officials and senators say White House chaos and impulsiveness are crippling efforts to expand the Republican Senate majority in 2018, unraveling long-laid plans and needlessly jeopardizing incumbents.

There’s a widespread sense of exasperation with the president, interviews with nearly two dozen senior Republicans reveal, and deep frustration with an administration they believe doesn’t fully grasp what it will take to preserve the narrow majority or add to it.

The most recent flash point involves Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, who was attacked by a White House-sanctioned outside group after announcing his opposition to the now stalled Obamacare repeal bill. Heller, the most endangered GOP incumbent up for reelection in 2018, was initially targeted with a surprise $1 million digital, TV and radio assault — an act of political retaliation that stunned senators and other top GOP officials.

The TV and radio commercials, produced by America First Policies — which is staffed by a number of Trump’s top campaign aides — accused Heller of refusing to keep his “promise” to dismantle Obamacare.

The offensive reflected Trump’s mounting frustration with Capitol Hill Republicans who refuse to advance his stymied legislative agenda and was designed to send a loud message that it’s time to get on board. Yet it infuriated Majority Leader Mitch McConnell himself, who privately fumed that it would make it harder to get Heller’s support for the legislation. Some McConnell allies reached out to the organization directly to express their displeasure and to plead with it to cease the attacks, reasoning that it could badly hurt Heller’s already challenging reelection bid. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s bullshit on Russia frustrates even his allies

The New York Times reports: In the span of 72 hours, President Trump described the email hacking that roiled the 2016 campaign as a Democratic “hoax” and as clear aggression by Russia that his predecessor, President Barack Obama, failed to address.

Other times, Mr. Trump has said the hacking might have been done by China.

Or, as he claimed during the first general election debate, the hacking could have been the work of a lone wolf weighing 400 pounds, sitting on his bed at home.

Then there was the time Mr. Trump blamed “some guy in his home in New Jersey.”

Or, as Mr. Trump has also suggested, there might not even have been hacking at all…

On Saturday, Mr. Trump tried again to focus attention on Mr. Obama.

“Since the Obama Administration was told way before the 2016 Election that the Russians were meddling, why no action?” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter. “Focus on them, not T!”

He followed that up with: “Obama Administration official said they ‘choked’ when it came to acting on Russian meddling of election. They didn’t want to hurt Hillary?”

Government officials, members of Congress from both parties and even some Trump supporters had hoped that, with the campaign behind him, Mr. Trump would finally speak declaratively about the email hacking and recognize the threat Russian cyberattacks present, without asterisks, wisecracks, caveats or obfuscation.

That hope has dissipated. The latest presidential tweets were proof to dismayed members of Mr. Trump’s party that he still refuses to acknowledge a basic fact agreed upon by 17 American intelligence agencies that he now oversees: Russia orchestrated the attacks, and did it to help get him elected. [Continue reading…]

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White House tries to get GOP to water down Russia sanctions bill

The New York Times reports: The White House is quietly lobbying House Republicans to weaken a bill overwhelmingly passed by the Senate last week that would slap tough new sanctions on Russia for its meddling in the 2016 election and allow Congress to block any future move by President Trump to lift any penalties against Moscow.

The effort is designed to head off an awkward and politically damaging veto fight between the Trump administration and the Republican-controlled Congress on Russia at a time when Mr. Trump is laboring under the shadow of multiple investigations about his campaign’s potential collusion with Moscow.

House Republicans, normally hawkish on Russia, face a choice between demonstrating a hard line against Moscow in the face of its misconduct and sparing their own president a potentially embarrassing confrontation. [Continue reading…]

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Donald Trump’s Deep State

As the term Deep State is typically used these days, it conjures up intelligence agencies and other elements of institutional power that are supposedly intent on undermining the operation of the Trump presidency.

But like other forms of Trump propaganda, Deep State is a notion that is employed to conceal the very thing it describes.

It’s a way of directing attention towards a Deep State we cannot see, so that we don’t notice the one right before our eyes.

The Washington Post reports: The Senate bill to scale back the health-care law known as Obamacare is being written in secret by a single senator, Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and a clutch of his senior aides.

Officials at numerous agencies of the Trump administration have stonewalled friendly Republicans in Congress — not to mention Democrats — by declining to share internal documents on sensitive matters or refusing to answer questions.

President Trump, meanwhile, is still forbidding the release of his tax returns, his aides have stopped releasing logs of visitors to the White House and his media aides have started banning cameras at otherwise routine news briefings, as happened Monday.

Trump even refuses to acknowledge to the public that he plays golf during his frequent weekend visits to his private golf courses.

More and more in the Trump era, business in Washington is happening behind closed doors. The federal government’s leaders are hiding from public scrutiny — and their penchant for secrecy represents a stark departure from the campaign promises of Trump and his fellow Republicans to usher in newfound transparency. [Continue reading…]

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GOP data firm accidentally leaks personal details of nearly 200 million American voters

Gizmodo reports: Political data gathered on more than 198 million US citizens was exposed this month after a marketing firm contracted by the Republican National Committee stored internal documents on a publicly accessible Amazon server.

The data leak contains a wealth of personal information on roughly 61 percent of the US population. Along with home addresses, birthdates, and phone numbers, the records include advanced sentiment analyses used by political groups to predict where individual voters fall on hot-button issues such as gun ownership, stem cell research, and the right to abortion, as well as suspected religious affiliation and ethnicity. The data was amassed from a variety of sources—from the banned subreddit r/fatpeoplehate to American Crossroads, the super PAC co-founded by former White House strategist Karl Rove.

Deep Root Analytics, a conservative data firm that identifies audiences for political ads, confirmed ownership of the data to Gizmodo on Friday. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s dilemma: Answer for his previous offenses or commit new ones

Mark Joseph Stern writes: hat you don’t know can hurt you very badly, and there is a great deal that Republicans do not know about Donald Trump. From shady business dealings to questionable tax schemes to potential Russian collusion, the president is dogged by scandals whose depth and significance remain unclear. With few exceptions, Republicans are eager to protect Trump from serious inquiries, running interference where they can while pushing through their legislative agenda as quickly and secretively as possible. The GOP isn’t quite sure what it’s helping Trump to cover up—but as long as he promises to sign its bills, the party will condone his outrageous misdeeds.

This strategy now appears poised to backfire spectacularly. On Wednesday, both the New York Times and the Washington Post reported that special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating Trump’s inner circle for financial crimes. This aggressive shift toward Trump associates’ personal dealings is disastrous news for the president, his allies, and his enablers. At long last, federal investigators will probe Trump’s sprawling network for wrongdoing, picking up where reporters left off, only this time with subpoena power. And Trump can only stop them by firing Mueller—a blatant obstruction of justice that would likely be more damaging than any crime the president may have committed in the past. [Continue reading…]

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I helped draft Clinton’s impeachment articles. The charges against Trump are more serious

Former Republican Congressman, Bob Inglis, writes: House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) asserted last week that if the president were a Democrat, the House wouldn’t be pursing impeachment. He must know that’s not true.

If FBI Director James B. Comey had angered a President Hillary Clinton by restarting the investigation into her private email server and she had fired him, Republicans would be howling. Rightly so.

Instead, Donald Trump won the election. Comey was pursuing an investigation into Russian meddling. It angered President Trump, and he fired Comey. But rather than howling, Republicans are whimpering. The chair of the Republican National Committee has even called for a halt to all investigations of collusion with Russia. That’s a problem.

I was on the House Judiciary Committee that began the consideration of impeaching of President Bill Clinton. Armed with information from independent counsel Kenneth Starr, we were convinced the president had lied under oath. We drafted articles of impeachment, and a majority of the House concurred with our assessment. The Senate subsequently determined that there wasn’t sufficient cause to remove him from office. In retrospect, a public censure or reprimand may have been more advisable.

Regardless, Clinton was impeached for charges less serious than the ones before us now. In the current case, Comey was exploring the possibility of American involvement in the Russian plot, a treasonous offense. While it’s not time to start drafting articles of impeachment, it is time to pursue this investigation into Russian meddling in our presidential election with vigor, without friends to reward and without enemies to punish.

Confronting Trump will take more courage than it took when Republicans told President Richard Nixon that it was time for him to leave office. Not that Trump is more imposing than Nixon; Nixon was a serious president with significant accomplishments. The difference, now, is the presence of sycophantic media. [Continue reading…]

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Forget Comey. The real story is Russia’s war on America

Molly K. McKew writes: Russian state media — eagerly throwing peanuts into the three-ring circus in the days before by endlessly looping Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin’s mockery of America’s “hysteria” on all things Russia, and on the day after by running headlines of American “collusion” with ISIS — was dead silent on both of this week’s Senate hearings, during both of which intelligence leaders offered bleak and candid assessments of the cascading Russian threat against America.

And this is perhaps the banner flying over the investigations circus: Missing from the investigation of the supposed Russia scandal is any real discussion of Russia.

The starkest aspect of Comey’s prepared statement was the president’s lack of curiosity about the long-running, deep-reaching, well-executed and terrifyingly effective Russian attack on American democracy. This was raised more than once in the hearing — that after Trump was briefed in January on the intelligence community’s report, which emphasized ongoing activity directed by the Kremlin against the United States, he has not subsequently evinced any interest in what can be done to protect us from another Russian assault. The president is interested in his own innocence, or the potential guilt of others around him — but not at all in the culpability of a foreign adversary, or what it meant. This is utterly astonishing.

Since the January intelligence report, the public’s understanding of the threat has not expanded. OK, Russia meddled in the election — but so what? Increasingly, responsibility for this is borne by the White House, which in seeking to minimize the political damage of “Trump/Russia” is failing to craft a response to the greatest threat the United States and its allies have ever faced.

Even if the president and his team were correct, and the Comey testimony definitively cleared the president of potential obstruction of justice or collusion charges — even if that were true, that does not also exonerate Russia. Nonetheless, this is a line the president seems to want drawn. [Continue reading…]

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Supreme Court has opportunity to make sure people’s votes have equal value

The Washington Post reports: With newly elected Scott Walker in the governor’s office and a firm grip on the legislature, Wisconsin Republicans in 2011 had a unique opportunity to redraw the state’s electoral maps and fortify their party’s future.

Aides were dispatched to a private law firm to keep their work out of public view. They employed the most precise technology available to dissect new U.S. Census data and convert it into reliably Republican districts even if the party’s fortunes soured. Democrats were kept in the dark, and even GOP incumbents had to sign confidentiality agreements before their revamped districts were revealed to them. Only a handful of people saw the entire map until it was unveiled and quickly approved.

In the following year’s elections, when Republicans got just 48.6 percent of the statewide vote, they still captured a 60-39 seat advantage in the General Assembly.

Now, the Supreme Court is being asked to uphold a lower court’s finding that the Wisconsin redistricting effort was more than just extraordinary — it was unconstitutional.

Such a conclusion would mark a watershed moment for the way American elections are conducted.

The Supreme Court has regularly — and increasingly — tossed out state electoral maps because they have been gerrymandered to reduce the influence of racial minorities by depressing the impact of their votes.

But the justices have never found a plan unconstitutional because of partisan gerrymandering — when a majority party draws the state’s electoral districts to give such an advantage to its candidates that it dilutes the votes of those supporting the other party.

A divided panel of three judges in Wisconsin, though, decided just that in November. It became the first federal court in three decades to find that a redistricting plan violated the Constitution’s First Amendment and equal rights protections because of partisan gerrymandering.

The Supreme Court could announce as soon as Monday that it is either affirming or reversing the lower court’s decision, or, more likely, accepting the case for full briefing and arguments in the term that begins in the fall.

The case comes at a time when the dusty subject of reapportionment has taken on new significance, with many blaming the drawing of safely partisan seats for a polarized and gridlocked Congress. Barack Obama has said one of his post-presidency projects will be to combat partisan gerrymanders after the 2020 Census.

In Wisconsin, it already has become a hot topic.

“If there’s one word that defines the last year or year and a half in this country, it’s ‘rigged,’ ” said Dale Schulz, a Republican and former Wisconsin legislator who has joined with a Democratic counterpart to urge an end to the way the state handles redistricting. “People have come to realize their votes aren’t as important as they once were. And that’s really what this whole case is about: It’s about making sure people’s votes have equal value.” [Continue reading…]

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Trump has no grasp on the extent of his ignorance

Fred Kaplan writes: After James Comey’s sworn Senate testimony Thursday, even stalwart Republicans are finding it harder to deny that Donald Trump has no business being president. But it’s not stopping them from defending him anyway or from bringing the nation closer to disaster.

House Speaker Paul Ryan tried to excuse the most incriminating portions of Comey’s statement—the highly detailed claims that Trump pressured him to swear loyalty, to drop the probe of Michael Flynn, and to tell the public that Trump himself was not under criminal investigation—by saying that the president is “just new to this.” In other words, Ryan was saying, Trump isn’t a crook; he’s just ignorant.

Leaving aside the civic bromide that ignorance is no excuse when it comes to breaking the law, Ryan is off the mark, at least in this case. Trump kicked several officials out of his office before twisting the FBI director’s arm. As Comey asked at his hearing, why would he do that if he didn’t know he was about to engage in improper behavior?

New Jersey Gov. (and former Trump transition-team chairman) Chris Christie came closer to honesty, dismissing the president’s exchanges with Comey as “normal New York conversation.” This might indeed be the perception of a man who once prosecuted white-collar criminals, including Jared Kushner’s father, in the New York metropolitan area. In other words, Christie was saying, Trump is just strutting like a slippery operator—not quite the exoneration that he may have intended.

So these are the GOP’s rationales for Trump’s behavior: He was only talking like a felon, he didn’t necessarily commit a crime; and if he did, it’s only because he didn’t know what he was doing. It’s hard to believe that even the likes of Ryan and Christie aren’t a little disturbed by this state of affairs—not only because of what might be uncovered next, but because of what they are facing and abetting right now. By the powers vested in his office, Trump has immense powers (among other things, he has the nuclear codes), and his defenders are tolerating his presence in this office, even while knowing the risks.

Yes, “He’s just new to this,” but that’s the problem, or part of the problem. In fact, all presidents are “new to this.” As most of them have confessed after their terms, no experience quite prepares one for the lonely pressures of the Oval Office. But Trump takes a novice’s limits to new levels. Not only did he enter the job with no knowledge of its nature (despite bragging that he alone could fix everything), he installed an equally clueless entourage. [Continue reading…]

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Republicans won’t impeach Trump, no matter what his crimes

Jonathan Chait writes: Many conservatives opposed Trump during the primaries because they suspected, with good reason, that his conservatism was shallow or insincere. They worried that, once elected, Trump would abandon their priorities and pursue the most expedient course.

But Trump has not done that at all. The policies or talking points Trump has abandoned are the centrist ones: He would protect Medicaid from cuts, give everybody terrific coverage, hammer the big banks, spend a trillion dollars on infrastructure, and cut deals with both parties. This week, Trump formally abandoned the last possible area of ideological compromise in infrastructure, “clarifying” that his plan relies on private industry, states, or cities ponying up the money. Trump’s budget actually cuts federal investments in infrastructure. He has positioned himself to the right of even House Republicans on domestic spending, and continues to push for their grossly unpopular plan to cut a trillion dollars from Obamacare. “The Never Trump conservative argument that Trump is not a conservative — one that I, too, made repeatedly during the Republican primaries — is not only no longer relevant, it is no longer true,” points out the popular conservative talk-show host Dennis Prager.

Trump is faithfully supporting the conservative agenda, so most conservatives faithfully support him. Their concerns are pragmatic ones about his effectiveness on behalf of their common agenda, rather than moral objections to the legitimacy and propriety of his actions. Trump may have committed impeachable offenses, but the impeachment clock has not even begun to move. [Continue reading…]

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How the GOP leaders were persuaded to cast climate change as fake science

The New York Times reports: The Republican Party’s fast journey from debating how to combat human-caused climate change to arguing that it does not exist is a story of big political money, Democratic hubris in the Obama years and a partisan chasm that grew over nine years like a crack in the Antarctic shelf, favoring extreme positions and uncompromising rhetoric over cooperation and conciliation.

“Most Republicans still do not regard climate change as a hoax,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican strategist who worked for Senator Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign. “But the entire climate change debate has now been caught up in the broader polarization of American politics.”

“In some ways,” he added, “it’s become yet another of the long list of litmus test issues that determine whether or not you’re a good Republican.”

Since Mr. McCain ran for president on climate credentials that were stronger than his opponent Barack Obama’s, the scientific evidence linking greenhouse gases from fossil fuels to the dangerous warming of the planet has grown stronger. Scientists have for the first time drawn concrete links between the planet’s warming atmosphere and changes that affect Americans’ daily lives and pocketbooks, from tidal flooding in Miami to prolonged water shortages in the Southwest to decreasing snow cover at ski resorts.

That scientific consensus was enough to pull virtually all of the major nations along. Conservative-leaning governments in Britain, France, Germany and Japan all signed on to successive climate change agreements.

Yet when Mr. Trump pulled the United States from the Paris accord, the Senate majority leader, the speaker of the House and every member of the elected Republican leadership were united in their praise.

Those divisions did not happen by themselves. Republican lawmakers were moved along by a campaign carefully crafted by fossil fuel industry players, most notably Charles D. and David H. Koch, the Kansas-based billionaires who run a chain of refineries (which can process 600,000 barrels of crude oil per day) as well as a subsidiary that owns or operates 4,000 miles of pipelines that move crude oil. [Continue reading…]

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Nunes-led House Intelligence Committee asked for ‘unmaskings’ of Americans

The Washington Post reports: The Republican-controlled House Intelligence Committee asked U.S. spy agencies late last year to reveal the names of U.S. individuals or organizations contained in classified intelligence on Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, engaging in the same practice that President Trump has accused the Obama administration of abusing, current and former officials said.

The chairman of the committee, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), has since cast the practice of “unmasking” of U.S. individuals and organizations mentioned in classified reports as an abuse of surveillance powers by the outgoing Obama administration.

Trump has argued that investigators should focus their attention on former officials leaking names from intelligence reports, rather than whether the Kremlin coordinated its activities with the Trump campaign, an allegation he has denied. “The big story is the ‘unmasking and surveillance’ of people that took place during the Obama administration,” Trump tweeted Thursday. [Continue reading…]

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