Michael Flynn’s deceptions present bigger problem than violation of the Logan Act

David Ignatius writes: Michael Flynn’s real problem isn’t the Logan Act, an obscure and probably unenforceable 1799 statute that bars private meddling in foreign policy disputes. It’s whether President Trump’s national security adviser sought to hide from his colleagues and the nation a pre-inauguration discussion with the Russian government about sanctions that the Obama administration was imposing.

“It’s far less significant if he violated the Logan Act and far more significant if he willfully misled this country,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, in a telephone interview late Friday. “Why would he conceal the nature of the call unless he was conscious of wrongdoing?”

Schiff said the FBI and congressional intelligence committees should investigate whether Flynn discussed with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in late December the imminent imposition of sanctions, and whether he encrypted any of those communications in what might have been an effort to avoid monitoring. Schiff said that if some conversations were recorded by U.S. intelligence agencies, “we should be able to rapidly tell if Gen. Flynn was being truthful” when he told Vice President Pence and other colleagues that sanctions weren’t discussed. [Continue reading…]

Flynn’s ongoing obfuscation around the content of his conversations would appear to be a delaying tactic driven by the fact that he doesn’t know how much more detail in his exchanges might soon be leaked.

It’s also, no doubt, a product of the reliable expectation that in a political climate flooded with too many controversies for the media to closely track, the Flynn story is likely to get overshadowed by yet another drama.

The 24/7 Trump soap opera is effective in both sickening and exhausting an audience that will soon transition from interminable distraction to mass catatonia.

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FBI counter-terrorism taskforce investigating political activists; Army veterans return to defend protesters at Standing Rock

The Guardian reports: The FBI is investigating political activists campaigning against the Dakota Access pipeline, diverting agents charged with preventing terrorist attacks to instead focus their attention on indigenous activists and environmentalists.

The Guardian has established that multiple officers within the FBI’s joint terrorism taskforce have attempted to contact at least three people tied to the Standing Rock “water protector” movement in North Dakota.

The purpose of the officers’ inquiries into Standing Rock, and scope of the task force’s work, remains unknown. Agency officials declined to comment. But the fact that the officers have even tried to communicate with activists is alarming to free-speech experts who argue that anti-terrorism agents have no business scrutinizing protesters.

“The idea that the government would attempt to construe this indigenous-led non-violent movement into some kind of domestic terrorism investigation is unfathomable to me,” said Lauren Regan, a civil rights attorney who has provided legal support to demonstrators who were contacted by representatives of the FBI. “It’s outrageous, it’s unwarranted … and it’s unconstitutional.” [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports: US veterans are returning to Standing Rock and pledging to shield indigenous activists from attacks by a militarized police force, another sign that the fight against the Dakota Access pipeline is far from over.

Army veterans from across the country have arrived in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, or are currently en route after the news that Donald Trump’s administration has allowed the oil corporation to finish drilling across the Missouri river.

The growing group of military veterans could make it harder for police and government officials to try to remove hundreds of activists who remain camped near the construction site and, some hope, could limit use of excessive force by law enforcement during demonstrations. [Continue reading…]

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‘A sense of dread’ for civil servants shaken by Trump transition

The New York Times reports: Across the vast federal bureaucracy, Donald J. Trump’s arrival in the White House has spread anxiety, frustration, fear and resistance among many of the two million nonpolitical civil servants who say they work for the public, not a particular president.

At the Environmental Protection Agency, a group of scientists strategized this past week about how to slow-walk President Trump’s environmental orders without being fired.

At the Treasury Department, civil servants are quietly gathering information about whistle-blower protections as they polish their résumés.

At the United States Digital Service — the youthful cadre of employees who left jobs at Google, Facebook or Microsoft to join the Obama administration — workers are debating how to stop Mr. Trump should he want to use the databases they made more efficient to target specific immigrant groups. [Continue reading…]

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CIA freezes out top aide as Flynn seen waging ‘a jihad against the intelligence community’

Politico reports: A top deputy to National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was rejected for a critical security clearance, effectively ending his tenure on the National Security Council and escalating tensions between Flynn and the intelligence community.

The move came as Flynn’s already tense relationships with others in the Trump administration and the intelligence community were growing more fraught after reports that Flynn had breached diplomatic protocols in his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States.

On Friday, one of Flynn’s closest deputies on the National Security Council, senior director for Africa Robin Townley, was informed that the Central Intelligence Agency had rejected his request for an elite security clearance required for service on the NSC, according to two people with direct knowledge of the situation.

That forced Townley, a former Marine intelligence officer who had long maintained a top secret-level security clearance, out of his NSC post, explained the sources, who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive personnel matters.

One of the sources said that the rejection was approved by Trump’s CIA director Mike Pompeo and that it infuriated Flynn and his allies. [Continue reading…]

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Flynn holds call with Pence amid calls for national security adviser’s resignation

The Washington Post reports: National security adviser Michael Flynn spoke privately with Vice President Pence on Friday in an apparent attempt to contain the fallout from the disclosure that Flynn had discussed U.S. sanctions on Russia with that country’s ambassador and then allowed Pence and other White House officials to publicly deny that he had done so, an administration official said.

The conversations took place as senior Democrats in Congress called for existing investigations of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election to expand in scope to scrutinize Flynn’s contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak weeks before the Trump administration took office.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said that if the allegations are proved, Flynn should step down. [Continue reading…]

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Jeff Sessions’s fear of Muslim immigrants

Adam Serwer writes: One of the first things Attorney General-designate Jeff Sessions promised the Senate Judiciary Committee was independence.

Donald Trump ran on a vision of “law and order” that included violence against protesters at his rallies, the promised incarceration of his political opponent, and a pledge to ban adherents of an entire religious faith from the country. At his confirmation hearing, Sessions sought to reassure his colleagues that, despite the then-president-elect’s bluster, the Alabama senator would preserve the rule of law and the traditional independence of the Justice Department from the man who nominated him, if need be.

“You simply have to help the president do things that he might desire in a lawful way and have to be able to say no, both for the country, for the legal system and for the president, to avoid situations that are not acceptable,” Sessions told the committee on January 10. “I understand that duty.”

On January 30, the acting attorney general, Sally Yates, concluded that she faced such a situation, telling Department of Justice attorneys not to defend a controversial executive order banning travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries. Trump dismissed her from her post.

That order, however, appears consistent with Sessions’s long record of public statements on Muslim immigration and his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sessions was among the first to defend Trump’s proposals to ban Muslims from the country, and has long portrayed Muslim immigrants to the United States as posing a particular threat. He has, moreover, issued a series of releases and public statements implying that the overall level of Muslim immigration to the United States, and not just the views of particular immigrants, should be a matter of public concern. [Continue reading…]

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Trump vexed by challenges, scale of government

Politico reports: Being president is harder than Donald Trump thought, according to aides and allies who say that he’s growing increasingly frustrated with the challenges of running the massive federal bureaucracy.

In interviews, nearly two dozen people who’ve spent time with Trump in the three weeks since his inauguration said that his mood has careened between surprise and anger as he’s faced the predictable realities of governing, from congressional delays over his cabinet nominations and legal fights holding up his aggressive initiatives to staff in-fighting and leaks.

The administration’s rocky opening days have been a setback for a president who, as a billionaire businessman, sold himself to voters as being uniquely qualified to fix what ailed the nation. Yet it has become apparent, say those close to the president, most of whom requested anonymity to describe the inner workings of the White House, that the transition from overseeing a family business to running the country has been tough on him. [Continue reading…]

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Art of the deal: Flynn lied about talking to Russians about sanctions before Trump took office

The Washington Post reports: 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.” [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: Federal officials who have read the transcript of the call were surprised by Mr. Flynn’s comments, since he would have known that American eavesdroppers closely monitor such calls. They were even more surprised that Mr. Trump’s team publicly denied that the topics of conversation included sanctions.

The call is the latest example of how Mr. Trump’s advisers have come under scrutiny from American counterintelligence officials. The F.B.I. is also investigating Mr. Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort; Carter Page, a businessman and former foreign policy adviser to the campaign; and Roger Stone, a longtime Republican operative. [Continue reading…]

It would seem that the primary skill Trump requires in those around him is that, like him, they be well-practiced liars.

And note the timing of these revelations about Flynn based on information the FBI has possessed for weeks — the story comes out right after Jeff Sessions has been confirmed as Attorney General and the Justice Department can therefore be expected to let Flynn off the hook.

Trump’s philosophy in life and the guidance he offers in one way or another to those around him is this: stand by me and I’ll show you how you can get away with anything.

In the case of Flynn what we are now witnessing might be described as a cover-up disguised as a revelation. The FBI wants to be seen as doing its job while at the same time it waves onlookers to pass on by.

“Several officials emphasized that while sanctions were discussed, they did not see evidence that Flynn had an intent to convey an explicit promise to take action after the inauguration,” the Washington Post reported.

That’s what I would call an intentionally misleading statement and I’ll ascribe the intention to the officials rather than the reporters who allow themselves to be shepherded in this way.

If Flynn had made an explicit promise there would be no need to analyze his intentions — the recorded contents of the conversations would convey all we need to know. Moreover, unless he suffers from some kind of speech impediment, there’s no reason to imagine that he could have the intention to make an explicit promise short of actually making such a promise.

Instead, what is key here is whether Flynn’s statements, based on their content and timing, would be interpreted by the Russian ambassador as an implicit promise. In other words, was Flynn telegraphing a nod and a wink from Trump to Putin that Russia had no reason to be concerned about Obama’s last-minute sanctions.

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During the presidential campaign, Trump proposed as a kind of working theory that he would be able to get away with murder.

In office, I surmise, he now wants to demonstrate through a series of incremental steps that he and his administration can get away with anything. Along the way, officials may be required to engage in ritual admonishments (like Kellyanne Conway getting “counseled” for ethics violations) whose purpose is not to serve as correctives but instead to highlight the Trumpsters’ collective sense of impunity.

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Trump’s attacks on judges are an ‘attack on the rule of law’ in the U.S., says former top U.S. Marshals Service official

CNN reports: Threats against more than one judge involved in legal challenges to President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration have prompted federal and local law enforcement agencies to temporarily increase security protection for some of them, according to law enforcement officials.

CNN did not learn how specific the threats were, but law enforcement agencies treated them seriously and out of an abundance of caution, the US Marshals Service and local police increased patrols and protective officers to provide security for some of the judges, the officials said.

A spokesperson from the US Marshals Service declined to comment directly on the threats but said that while “we do not discuss our specific security measures, we continuously review the security measures in place for all federal judges and take appropriate steps to provide additional protection when it is warranted.”

The threats come as Trump continues his verbal criticisms of judges — something that has drawn concern from former law enforcement officials and others who fear that public officials should not target a specific judge, and instead base their criticism more broadly on a court’s ruling.

Security experts say that while Trump’s comments were clearly not meant to put the judges’ safety at risk, in general, public officials should avoid comments against a specific judge so as not to spur an unhappy litigant.

“Federal judges are constantly under some kind of threat around the country, and the US Marshals investigate hundreds of threats every year on the federal judiciary,” said Arthur D. Roderick, who is a retired assistant director for investigations for the US Marshals.

“Anybody that has looked at what the US Marshals do has got to realize that an attack on any judge is an attack on the rule of law of the United States,” he said, noting that the President’s sister is a federal judge and the President should be familiar with threats against judges. [Continue reading…]

While testifying in Congress a few days ago, the new Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly expressed a conceit commonplace among military and intelligence officials who promote the myth that liberty in a democracy is a luxury provided by the strongmen who guard the borders.

NPR reported:

Kelly seemed to suggest judges might be too isolated to rule properly on the issue [of the Muslim ban]. He said he “had nothing but respect for judges,” but “in their world it’s a very academic, very almost in a vacuum discussion.”

And Kelly added, “Of course, in their court rooms, they’re protected by people like me.”

It is Kelly himself who seems to have a grossly naive view of the judicial system.

We live in a time when threats against judges and acts of violence in courthouses and courtrooms are occurring throughout the country with greater frequency than ever before. By their very nature, courthouse operations entail a heightened degree of risk. Every working day courthouses are visited by a large number of citizens, many of whom may be disgruntled and angry to the point of becoming lawbreakers. Individuals and groups have committed acts of violence in courthouses, often attempts to murder judicial officials, escape from custody, and disrupt or delay proceedings. Moreover, courthouses, which represent the ideals of democracy in American society, have become symbolic targets for antigovernment extremists and terrorists (domestic and international).

One only has to spend a little time immersed in social media to see how prevalent courthouse violence has become. Within a matter of minutes we can view videos of a considerable number of violent incidents that have taken place in courtrooms and courthouses across the country. Most of what we see in these videos involves, to one extent or another, unruly prisoners, disgruntled litigants, and upset family members. In addition to shootings, bombings, and arson attacks, there have been knifings, assaults, failed bombing attempts, suicides, bomb plots, murder-for-hire conspiracies, and much more.

That’s a recent assessment from the National Center for State Courts — not a piece of alarmist tabloid reporting.

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Gorsuch unwilling to show he has enough backbone to publicly criticize Trump

The Hill reports: Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) on Thursday warned that the country is heading toward a “constitutional crisis,” moments after President Trump attacked him for sharing Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch’s concerns with the president’s attacks on judges.

“I said to Judge Gorsuch and I believe that ordinarily a Supreme Court nominee would not be expected to comment on issues or political matters or cases that come before court, but we’re in a very unusual situation,” Blumenthal said on CNN’s “New Day.”

“We’re careening, literally, toward a constitutional crisis. And he’s been nominated by a president who has repeatedly and relentlessly attacked the American judiciary on three separate occasions, their credibility and trust is in question.”

Blumenthal said the president has also established a litmus test for his nominee to be “pro-life, to be pro-Second Amendment, to be conservative.”

Blumenthal told reporters Wednesday that Gorsuch called Trump’s tweets attacking federal judges “disheartening” and “demoralizing.”

A spokesman for Gorsuch later confirmed to CNN that the judge used the terms when describing Trump’s tweets during his meeting with Blumenthal.

Despite the confirmation by Gorsuch’s spokesman, Trump tweeted Thursday morning that those weren’t the judge’s true feelings.

“Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who never fought in Vietnam when he said for years he had (major lie), now misrepresents what Judge Gorsuch told him?” the president tweeted.

Blumenthal on Thursday urged Gorsuch to make his concerns public.

“Behind closed doors, Judge Gorsuch expressed disappointment with President Trump’s attacks on the judiciary, but a Supreme Court Justice must prove that he has the courage and independence to stand up to a President in public,” Blumenthal said.

“I asked Judge Gorsuch to make that statement publicly, and he declined.” [Continue reading…]

When Trump announced his nomination of Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, he made a public display of his ability to push the judge around.

 

Gorsuch is now showing both a lack of courage and lack of integrity. He is the only person who can confirm, without the possibility of contradiction, his own words and by so doing also that Trump is now, completely without justification, maligning Blumenthal.

Instead, Gorsuch is presenting himself as so desirous of a seat on the Supreme Court and so fearful of the man who offered him the job, that he dare not cross swords with Trump. And yet if he plucked up enough courage to merely confirm what he already said, what’s Trump going to do? Withdraw the nomination? I doubt it. More likely, he’ll brush it off and declare (while gritting his teeth) that it just goes to show how wonderfully independently minded is his pick.

The truth is, when Gorsuch described Trump’s attacks on judges as “disheartening” and “demoralizing,” these were not fighting words, but on the contrary, a rather mealy-mouthed challenge to a president who has very little respect for the U.S. Constitution.

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Shutting down speech by Elizabeth Warren, GOP amplifies her message

The New York Times reports: Republicans seized her microphone. And gave her a megaphone.

Silenced on the Senate floor for condemning a peer, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, emerged on Wednesday in a coveted role: the avatar of liberal resistance in the age of Trump.

Late on Tuesday, Senate Republicans voted to halt the remarks of Ms. Warren, already a lodestar of the left, after she criticized a colleague, Senator Jeff Sessions, the nominee for attorney general, by reading a letter from Coretta Scott King.

Instantly, the decision — led by Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, who invoked a rarely enforced rule prohibiting senators from impugning the motives and conduct of a peer — amplified Ms. Warren’s message and further inflamed the angry Senate debate over Mr. Sessions’ nomination. He is expected to be confirmed later on Wednesday.

In the meantime, some of her peers from the Democratic caucus, including Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, have read Mrs. King’s letter without facing any objection, prompting some activists to raise charges of sexism. [Continue reading…]

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Senators seek Hill veto power over Trump on Russia

CNN reports: A growing number of senators from both parties plan to ratchet up their push to stiffen sanctions on Russia and demand Congress have the final say if President Donald Trump decides to weaken penalties on the country unilaterally.

The move by six senators is the latest warning from Capitol Hill to the new administration over US-Russian relations.

On Wednesday, a group led by Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, and Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, plan to introduce legislation that would impose strict new congressional oversight and veto power over the Trump administration if it decided to lift sanctions on Russia.

The Russia Review Act would require the White House to submit a report detailing why it was seeking to lift sanctions, setting into motion a 120-day review period where Congress could vote to disapprove of easing the penalties on the country, according to a summary of the measure provided to CNN.

Sen. Marco Rubio, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is cosponsoring the Graham-Cardin measure, along with Democratic Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Republican John McCain of Arizona.

Rubio said support is broad within the Senate to push back against the White House if it eased sanctions before Russia pulls out of Ukraine, potentially enough to overcome any Trump veto. [Continue reading…]

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Yemen withdraws permission for U.S. antiterror ground missions

The New York Times reports: Angry at the civilian casualties incurred last month in the first commando raid authorized by President Trump, Yemen has withdrawn permission for the United States to run Special Operations ground missions against suspected terrorist groups in the country, according to American officials.

Grisly photographs of children apparently killed in the crossfire of a 50-minute firefight during the raid caused outrage in Yemen. A member of the Navy’s SEAL Team 6, Chief Petty Officer William Owens, was also killed in the operation.

While the White House continues to insist that the attack was a “success” — a characterization it repeated on Tuesday — the suspension of commando operations is a setback for Mr. Trump, who has made it clear he plans to take a far more aggressive approach against Islamic militants.

It also calls into question whether the Pentagon will receive permission from the president for far more autonomy in selecting and executing its counterterrorism missions in Yemen, which it sought, unsuccessfully, from President Barack Obama in the last months of his term. [Continue reading…]

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White House weighs terrorist designation for Muslim Brotherhood

The New York Times reports: President Trump’s advisers are debating an order intended to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organization, targeting the oldest and perhaps most influential Islamist group in the Middle East.

A political and social organization with millions of followers, the Brotherhood officially renounced violence decades ago and won elections in Egypt after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Affiliated groups have joined the political systems in places like Tunisia and Turkey, and President Barack Obama long resisted pressure to declare it a terrorist organization.

But the Brotherhood calls for a society governed by Islamic law, and some of its former members and offshoots — most notably Hamas, the Palestinian group whose stated goal is the destruction of Israel — have been tied to attacks. Some advisers to Mr. Trump have viewed the Brotherhood for years as a radical faction secretly infiltrating the United States to promote Shariah law. They see the order as an opportunity to finally take action against it.

Officially designating the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization would roil American relations in the Middle East. The leaders of some American allies — like Egypt, where the military forced the Brotherhood from power in 2013, and the United Arab Emirates — have pressed Mr. Trump to do so to quash internal enemies, but the group remains a pillar of society in parts of the region.

The proposal to declare it a terrorist organization has been paired with a plan to similarly designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, according to current and former officials briefed on the deliberations. Leaders of the corps and its Quds Force unit have already been put on a government terrorist list, but Republicans have advocated adding the corps itself to send a message to Iran.

The Iran part of the plan has strong support within the White House, but momentum behind the Muslim Brotherhood proposal seems to have slowed in recent days amid objections from career officials at the State Department and the National Security Council, who argue that there is no legal basis for it and that it could alienate allies in the region. Former officials said that they had been told the order would be signed on Monday, but that it had now been put off at least until next week. [Continue reading…]

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