While headlines focus on Mueller, Trump’s ire is directed at Sessions and Rosenstein

The Washington Post reports: Advisers who have spoken recently with Trump about the Russia investigation said the president was sharply critical of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, as well as Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who oversees the Mueller operation — but did not broach the idea of firing Mueller.

“I think he realizes that would be a step too far,” said one adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share a private conversation.

Rather, Trump appeared to be contemplating changes in the Justice Department’s leadership. In recent discussions, two advisers said, Trump has called the attorney general “weak,” and complained that Rosenstein has shown insufficient accountability on the special counsel’s work. A senior official said Trump mocked Rosenstein’s recent testimony on Capitol Hill, saying he looked weak and unable to answer questions. Trump has ranted about Rosenstein as “a Democrat,” one of these advisers said, and characterized him as a threat to his presidency.

In fact, Rosenstein is a Republican. In 2005, President George W. Bush nominated him to be U.S. attorney in Maryland.

On Monday morning, after this story was published, a White House spokesman reached out to The Washington Post to say that Sessions and Rosenstein are safe in their jobs.

“The president is not considering changes to the Department of Justice leadership,” said Raj Shah, principal deputy White House press secretary. [Continue reading…]

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Why it’s far worse for Trump to fire Rosenstein than to fire Mueller

Asha Rangappa writes: Although under the Special Counsel regulations Mueller does not have to report to Rosenstein day to day, he does need to check in with the DAG three months before the end of the fiscal year with a status report on the progress of the investigation, and Rosenstein has the power to “determine whether the investigation should continue.” Separately, Rosenstein has the power to require Mueller to “provide an explanation for any investigative or prosecutorial step,” and can prevent Mueller from pursuing any action if, in his view, he believes that it is “inappropriate or unwarranted” under departmental practices. If he does so, he must report this decision to both the Senate and House Judiciary Committees. The fact that, six months into Mueller’s appointment, no such report has been made and Mueller continues to take significant investigative and prosecutorial steps (including, most recently, obtaining tens of thousands of transition team emails from the General Services Administration) suggests that Rosenstein is on board with the breadth, scope, and direction in which Mueller is taking the investigation.

Removing Rosenstein and replacing him with a DAG who is at the very least more sympathetic to Trump could have drastic repercussions on the investigation. The new DAG could burden the Special Counsel with a requirement to provide an explanation for every move he makes, and then decide that they aren’t necessary or appropriate. In fact, since Mueller is required to provide the DAG with at least three days’ notice in advance of any “significant event” in the investigation, she would have plenty of time to intervene and challenge Mueller’s actions (and a less scrupulous DAG could even leak Mueller’s plans to the White House or others). A new DAG would even have the ultimate—er, trump card: she could decide at some point that the investigation should not even continue at all.

Of course, any attempt to override a decision by Mueller would need to be reported and justified to Congress. However, given the increased clamor of some GOP members and right-leaning media outlets against the Mueller investigation, a DAG’s rationale for pushing back on Mueller’s investigation would find a receptive audience in some circles, including on the Hill. The situation is delicate, and a DAG has a powerful platform to shift the balance of power against the investigation. Imagine the next DAG simply expressing doubts about Mueller in testifying before the Congress, instead of the level of confidence Rosenstein expressed last week before the House Judiciary Committee. Those are important moments in the life of this investigation, and a DAG not fully committed to the rule of law but to insulating the president and the White House from political and legal accountability could wreak havoc. [Continue reading…]

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Senate Russia investigation now looking into Jill Stein

BuzzFeed reports: The top congressional committee investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election has set its sights on the Green Party and its nominee, Jill Stein.

Dennis Trainor Jr., who worked for the Stein campaign from January to August of 2015, says Stein contacted him on Friday saying the Senate Intelligence Committee had requested that the campaign comply with a document search.

Trainor, who served as the campaign’s communications director and acting manager during that time, told BuzzFeed News that he was informed of the committee’s request because during his time on the campaign, his personal cell phone was “a primary point of contact” for those looking to reach Stein or the campaign. That included producers from RT News, the Russian state-funded media company that booked Stein for several appearances, Trainor said. [Continue reading…]

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FBI warned Trump in 2016 Russians would try to infiltrate his campaign

NBC News reports: In the weeks after he became the Republican nominee on July 19, 2016, Donald Trump was warned that foreign adversaries, including Russia, would probably try to spy on and infiltrate his campaign, according to multiple government officials familiar with the matter.

The warning came in the form of a high-level counterintelligence briefing by senior FBI officials, the officials said. A similar briefing was given to Hillary Clinton, they added. They said the briefings, which are commonly provided to presidential nominees, were designed to educate the candidates and their top aides about potential threats from foreign spies.

The candidates were urged to alert the FBI about any suspicious overtures to their campaigns, the officials said. [Continue reading…]

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Putin thanks Trump for CIA intel that ‘foiled’ a planned ‘terrorist attack’ in Russia

The Washington Post reports: Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday phoned President Trump to thank him for a tip from the CIA that thwarted a terrorist attack being planned in St. Petersburg.

The unusual call — countries share intelligence all the time, but presidents rarely publicly thank one another for it — was confirmed by White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Putin told Trump that the information provided by the CIA allowed Russian law enforcement agencies to track down and detain a group of suspects who were planning to bomb the centrally located Kazan Cathedral and other crowded parts of Russia’s second-largest city.

“Based on the information the United States provided, Russian authorities were able to capture the terrorists just prior to an attack that could have killed large numbers of people,” the White House said in its readout of the call. “Both leaders agreed that this serves as an example of the positive things that can occur when our countries work together.” [Continue reading…]

I don’t have time to answer this question right now, but I can’t help wondering whether the conspiracy theorists who so often raise the specter of “false flag” operations are doing so right now.

We already know how easily the piggy in the Oval office can be led by the ring in his nose.

We also know Putin wants to presents Russia as an equal to the U.S. rather than an inferior partner.

But the picture being painted here is one in which the CIA supposedly has better intelligence on plots unfolding inside Russia than do Putin’s own security services.

Perhaps that’s the case, or perhaps bait was carefully laid for the CIA in order to conjure a useful bit of PR highlighting the cordiality of U.S.-Russian relations during a time when Russia isn’t too busy meddling in U.S. elections.

Update: I guess there are other observers with vastly more knowledge of Russian politics than I have, who are also casting a deeply skeptical eye on this report:

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Trump predicts exoneration in Russia investigation as allies fear a ‘meltdown’

CNN reports: President Donald Trump is privately striking a less agitated tone on the Russia investigation, sources say, even insisting he’ll soon be cleared in writing. But his new approach has some allies worried he’s not taking the threat of the probe seriously enough.

Trump has spent much of his first year in office so enraged by the federal investigation into Russian meddling in last year’s election that lawmakers who work with him tried to avoid the issue entirely and his friends worried that Trump might rashly fire the special counsel. But in recent weeks, Trump has privately seemed less frustrated about the investigation, according to multiple sources who have spoken with the President.

There’s no indication from special counsel Robert Mueller or his team that the probe is in its final stages. A tipping point in the showdown could come as soon as this week when Trump’s private lawyers and Mueller meet, sources familiar with the matter told CNN. Trump’s team is hoping to get a clearer sense of Mueller’s next steps in the investigation, an assessment that could either pacify Trump or inflame him. [Continue reading…]

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Trump and allies are trying to destroy Mueller

Julian Zelizer writes: Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has come under fierce political attack. President Donald Trump and his allies are systematically attempting to destroy the legitimacy of the investigation in the eyes of the public. And without a strong congressional investigative counterpart, Mueller finds himself increasingly isolated and alone.

While the White House issued a recent statement that it has no intention of firing Mueller, that is almost beside the point. In what should now be considered the classic Trumpian playbook, the President has moved aggressively to raise doubts about the credibility of his opponent. Ironically, he and his allies are attempting to crush an investigation into whether his campaign colluded with the Russians by insinuating that the Hillary Clinton campaign may, in fact, be at fault for such behavior.

The President’s attacks should not be taken lightly. As Brian Stelter has argued on CNN, Trump and the conservative media have perfected echo chamber politics, whereby the multiple charges about the investigation — that FBI agents were out to systematically bring down this presidency, that the agency is damaged by rampant conflict of interest problems, that Mueller is illegally obtaining information about the transition — have moved to the forefront of the national conversation regardless of the veracity or relevance of any of these claims.

Peter Carr, a Mueller spokesman, made a statement soon after the allegation emerged: “When we have obtained emails in the course of our ongoing criminal investigation, we have secured either the account owner’s consent or appropriate criminal process.”

The stories bleed into the rest of the media as well. On Sunday morning, a Washington Post headline read, “Mueller unlawfully obtained emails, Trump transition team claims,” which was likely music to the President’s ears. An allegation by the Trump for America legal team had quickly made its way into the headlines.

Indeed, it is telling of how effective Trump can be that Mueller’s decision to fire an FBI agent for his email conversations about the campaign was somehow turned into a black mark against him, rather than a sign of how cautiously the process has been handled. [Continue reading…]

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Key officials push back against Trump campaign’s claim that a federal office illegally turned over emails to special counsel

BuzzFeed reports: A lawyer for the Trump transition team on Saturday accused a federal agency of illegally and unconstitutionally turning over thousands of emails to the Special Counsel’s Office.

Specifically, the General Services Administration (GSA) turned over emails written during the transition — the period between Election Day 2016 and Inauguration Day 2017 — and the Trump campaign is claiming in a letter that the decision to do so violated the law.

Officials with both the Special Counsel’s Office and GSA, however, pushed back against the Trump campaign lawyer’s claims in the hours after the letter was issued. [Continue reading…]

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Doug Jones doesn’t believe that sexual harassment is a ‘real issue.’ If it concerned enough voters, he argues, Trump wouldn’t be president

BuzzFeed reports: In the wake of Democratic Sen. Al Franken announcing his resignation after being accused of sexual misconduct, several Senate Democrats have called on Trump to step down because of the allegations against him leveled by more than a dozen women.

On Sunday, Jones broke with some of his fellow Democrats, saying he didn’t believe the president should resign and that “we need to move on and not get distracted by those issues.”

Speaking to CNN’s Jake Tapper, the Alabama senator-elect said, “Those allegations were made before the election, and so people had an opportunity to judge before that election.” [Continue reading…]

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Trump allies say Mueller unlawfully obtained thousands of emails

Reuters reports: An organization established for U.S. President Donald Trump’s transition to the White House a year ago said on Saturday that the special counsel investigating allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 election had obtained tens of thousands of emails unlawfully.

Kory Langhofer, counsel to the transition team known as Trump for America, Inc., wrote a letter to congressional committees to say Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team had improperly received the emails from the General Services Administration, a government agency.

Career staff members at the agency “unlawfully produced TFA’s private materials, including privileged communications, to the Special Counsel’s Office,” according to the letter, a copy of which was seen by Reuters. It said the materials included “tens of thousands of emails.”

Trump’s transition team used facilities of the GSA, which helps manage the U.S. government bureaucracy, in the period between the Republican’s November presidential election victory and his inauguration in January.

The Trump team’s accusation adds to the growing friction between the president’s supporters and Mueller’s office as it investigates whether Russia interfered in the election and if Trump or anyone on his team colluded with Moscow.

Asked for comment, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said: “We continue to cooperate fully with the special counsel and expect this process to wrap up soon.”

The GSA and officials at the special counsel’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Democrats say there is a wide-ranging effort by the president’s allies on Capitol Hill and in some media outlets to discredit Mueller’s investigation. [Continue reading…]

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The Pentagon’s secret search for UFOs

Politico reports: The Pentagon, at the direction of Congress, a decade ago quietly set up a multi-million dollar program to investigate what are popularly known as unidentified flying objects—UFOs.

The “unidentified aerial phenomena” claimed to have been seen by pilots and other military personnel appeared vastly more advanced than those in American or foreign arsenals. In some cases they maneuvered so unusually and so fast that they seemed to defy the laws of physics, according to multiple sources directly involved in or briefed on the effort and a review of unclassified Defense Department and congressional documents.

The Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program, whose existence was not classified but operated with the knowledge of an extremely limited number of officials, was the brainchild of then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada), who first secured the appropriation to begin the program in 2009 with the support of the late Senators Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Republican Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), two World War II veterans who were similarly concerned about the potential national security implications, the sources involved in the effort said. The origins of the program, the existence of which the Pentagon confirmed on Friday, are being revealed publicly for the first time by POLITICO and the New York Times in nearly simultaneous reports on Saturday.

One possible theory behind the unexplained incidents, according to a former congressional staffer who described the motivations behind the program, was that a foreign power—perhaps the Chinese or the Russians—had developed next-generation technologies that could threaten the United States.

“Was this China or Russia trying to do something or has some propulsion system we are not familiar with?” said a former staffer who spoke with POLITICO on condition of anonymity.

The revelation of the program could give a credibility boost to UFO theorists, who have long pointed to public accounts by military pilots and others describing phenomena that defy obvious explanation, and could fuel demands for increased transparency about the scope and findings of the Pentagon effort, which focused some of its inquiries into sci-fi sounding concepts like “wormholes” and “warp drives.” The program also drafted a series of what the office referred to as “queried unverified event under evaluation,” QUEU reports, in which pilots and other personnel who had reported encounters were interviewed about their experiences. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s nominee for U.S. District Court Judge can’t answer basic questions of law

CNN reports: A Trump judicial nominee struggled to answer basic legal questions posed to him by a Republican senator on Wednesday, including his lack of experience on trial work, the amount of depositions he’d worked on and more.

During his testimony, Matthew Spencer Petersen, who currently serves as a commissioner on the Federal Election Commission, was asked a string of questions by GOP Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana about his experience on trials, including how many depositions Petersen had worked on–the answer was less than five — and the last time he had read the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure — he said he couldn’t remember.

Petersen is up for a seat on the US District Court for the District of Columbia. [Continue reading…]

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The Russia facts are hiding in plain sight

David Ignatius writes: President Trump’s recent denunciations of the Russia investigation recall the famous legal advice: “If the facts are against you, argue the law. If the law is against you, argue the facts. If the law and the facts are against you, pound the table and yell like hell.”

Trump shouted out his defense earlier this month: “What has been shown is no collusion, no collusion!” he told reporters over the whir of his helicopter on the White House lawn. Since then, Trump’s supporters have been waging a bitter counterattack against special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, alleging bias and demanding: “Investigate the investigators.”

But what do the facts show? There is a growing, mostly undisputed body of evidence describing contacts between Trump associates and Russia-linked operatives. Trump partisans have claimed that Mueller’s investigation is biased because some members of his staff supported Trump’s rival, Hillary Clinton. But Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein disagreed Wednesday, arguing that Mueller “is running his office appropriately.”

As Republicans seek to discredit the investigation, it’s useful to remember just what we’ve learned so far about how the Trump campaign sought harmful information about Clinton from sources that, according to U.S. intelligence, were linked to Moscow. This isn’t a fuzzy narrative where the truth is obscured; in the Trump team’s obsessive pursuit of damaging Clinton emails and other negative information, the facts are hiding in plain sight. [Continue reading…]

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House intelligence panel is rushing to complete Russia probe

The New York Times reports: The House Intelligence Committee is racing to complete its investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, scheduling a host of witness interviews here and in New York for next week as Congress heads for its break, and, Democrats said, leaving other leads unfollowed.

Some of the most important witnesses are to be interviewed in New York by committee staff early next week, possibly leaving Democrats to choose between attending those depositions or voting on the massive tax bill coming before the House.

And in an indication that Republicans hope to wrap up their probe, the House committee has yet to schedule a single interview after the holidays, according to two committee officials familiar with the schedule. That has left Democrats fearful that the majority is trying to finish the investigative portion of its work by the end of next week, before the committee can connect the dots on one of the most serious efforts by a hostile foreign actor to hijack American democracy.

“I feel no need to apologize for concluding an investigation,” said Representative Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, one of the Republicans leading the investigation. [Continue reading…]

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FBI agent removed from Russia probe held views about Trump similar to those expressed by Tillerson

The Wall Street Journal reports: Two FBI employees who used to work for Special Counsel Robert Mueller have already been criticized by Republicans for texts they shared insulting President Donald Trump.

A review of their correspondence shows Mr. Trump wasn’t their only target: They held dim views of other prominent figures, from Chelsea Clinton to Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder to their new boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The 300-plus texts, contained in 90 pages of Justice Department documents handed over to Congress late Tuesday, reveal a more complete portrait of Peter Strzok, a senior counterintelligence agent, and lawyer Lisa Page, dealing with the stresses of their jobs, handling politically sensitive investigations, and their extramarital relationship.

Mr. Strzok was the lead investigator into Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s handling of classified information on her email server, and he later was spearheading the work of agents assigned to Mr. Mueller’s team. When Mr. Mueller learned of his text messages this summer, Mr. Strzok was reassigned to the bureau’s human-resources division. Ms. Page worked temporarily for Mr. Mueller but has been reassigned.

Neither Mr. Strzok or Ms. Page could be reached for comment, and a spokesman for Mr. Mueller has declined to comment on the matter.

Mr. Trump’s allies say that their critiques of Mr. Trump—they called the then-candidate “an idiot,” “douche” and “TERRIFYING”—call into question whether Mr. Mueller’s probe into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election can be free of bias.

At a congressional hearing Wednesday, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein defended the integrity of the Mr. Mueller’s investigation, saying it was free of any bias or taint.

Officials described the messages as having been flagged by the Justice Department’s inspector general as relevant to its investigation into how the Federal Bureau of Investigation handled its probe of Mrs. Clinton’s server.

Although many of their texts targeted Mr. Trump, others also drew their ire. Over the course of 16 months of correspondence, starting in August 2015 and ending on Dec. 1, 2016, that was culled from their work phones, Mr. Strzok said he loathed Congress and called presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) an “idiot.” He suggested the death penalty was appropriate for Edward Snowden, a National Security Agency contractor who pilfered reams of sensitive information. He said Ms. Clinton, daughter of Bill and Mrs. Clinton, was “self-entitled.” And he described House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) as “a jerky.”

He said, “I’m worried about what happens if HRC is elected,” apparently referring to Mrs. Clinton. He didn’t elaborate on his concerns. [Continue reading…]

What would be truly nightmarish would be to live in a country where government officials on all ranks felt duty bound to publicly and privately express unqualified admiration for political leaders.

Would Trump and his supporters prefer we live in a fascist state? Perhaps.

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Mueller sought emails of Trump campaign data firm, Cambridge Analytica

The Wall Street Journal reports: Special Counsel Robert Mueller has requested that Cambridge Analytica, a data firm that worked for President Donald Trump’s campaign, turn over documents as part of its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, according to people familiar with the matter.

Mr. Mueller asked the firm in the fall to turn over the emails of any Cambridge Analytica employees who worked on the Trump campaign, in a sign that the special counsel is probing the Trump campaign’s data operation.

The special counsel’s request, which the firm complied with, wasn’t previously known. The emails had earlier been turned over to the House Intelligence Committee, the people said, adding that both requests were voluntary.

On Thursday, Cambridge Analytica Chief Executive Alexander Nix interviewed via videoconference with the House Intelligence Committee, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Mr. Mueller’s request for employee emails was made before media outlets reported in October that Mr. Nix had contacted WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange during the 2016 campaign, according to a person familiar with the matter. The Sweden-based WikiLeaks last year published a trove of Hillary Clinton -related emails that U.S. intelligence agencies later determined had been stolen by Russian intelligence and given to the website. [Continue reading…]

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Lindsey Graham: There’s a 30 percent chance Trump attacks North Korea

The Atlantic reports: It’s become a grim ritual in Washington foreign-policy circles to assess the chances that the United States and North Korea stumble into war. But on Wednesday Lindsey Graham did something different: He estimated the odds that the Trump administration deliberately strikes North Korea first, to stop it from acquiring the capability to target the U.S. mainland with a long-range, nuclear-tipped missile. And the senator’s numbers were remarkably high.

“I would say there’s a three in 10 chance we use the military option,” Graham predicted in an interview. If the North Koreans conduct an additional test of a nuclear bomb—their seventh—“I would say 70 percent.”

Graham said that the issue of North Korea came up during a round of golf he played with the president on Sunday. “It comes up all the time,” he said.

“War with North Korea is an all-out war against the regime,” he said. “There is no surgical strike option. Their [nuclear-weapons] program is too redundant, it’s too hardened, and you gotta assume the worst, not the best. So if you ever use the military option, it’s not to just neutralize their nuclear facilities—you gotta be willing to take the regime completely down.” [Continue reading…]

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Trump allies say Tillerson has ‘not learned his lesson’ and cannot continue in job for long

The Washington Post reports: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seemed focused this week on rebooting his image as a beleaguered Cabinet member on the outs with his boss and his own employees — holding a rare town hall with employees, promising foreign trips into 2018 and saying he is “learning” to enjoy his job.

But then he went off script by offering another invitation for diplomatic talks with nuclear-armed North Korea, putting him at odds once again with President Trump and senior White House officials, who are increasingly exasperated with the secretary of state and say he cannot remain in his job for the long term.

The episode highlights the deep distrust between the White House and Tillerson and suggests how difficult it will be for the relationship to continue. While Trump and Tillerson have clashed on several policy issues — including negotiating with North Korea, the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and planning to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem — much of the distance between them seems personal and probably irreversible, White House officials said.

Tillerson, one White House official said, “had not learned his lesson from the last time,” when Trump publicly rebuked his top diplomat on Twitter over the wisdom of talking to North Korea. [Continue reading…]

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