Congress likely to tie Trump’s hands on Russia sanctions

Politico reports: A White House effort to secure changes to a Russia sanctions bill constraining President Donald Trump appears likely to fall short, in a major rebuff by the GOP-led Congress to the leader of its own party.

Senior Republican lawmakers and aides gave their clearest comments yet Thursday that the bill would ultimately move forward without changes sought by the White House, potentially undermining Trump’s ability to warm relations with Moscow.

The Senate already passed the bill on a 98-2 vote. And while it’s stalled in the House amid partisan finger-pointing, most Republicans are joining Democrats to support adding new sanctions while curbing Trump’s power to roll back the penalties against Russia.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has pushed back against the bill for not providing the administration with “flexibility” to deal with Vladimir Putin’s government, but his words don’t appear to be resonating. GOP lawmakers are loath to be seen as watering down efforts to punish Putin for meddling in the 2016 election, even if many brush off the growing controversy over the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.

Tillerson is “a good friend, and I really love my relationship with him, but that’s not likely to occur,” Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker said Thursday when asked about the White House’s request for changes to the sanctions bill.

Language empowering Congress to block Trump from any attempt to ease or end sanctions “is going to stay in this bill,” Corker told reporters. “And we’ve had very constructive meetings with the House — there’s no attempt whatsoever to move away from” that provision, the Tennessee Republican added. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

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…]

Facebooktwittermail

The U.S. is not ready to clean up an arctic oil spill, warns Coast Guard

ClimateWire reports: The United States is not ready to clean up an oil spill in the Arctic, the head of the Coast Guard said yesterday.

The warning comes as Congress prepares to open up more drilling in a region quickly being transformed by climate change.

Adm. Paul Zukunft said that the challenges of cleaning up the BP PLC Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico—where the conditions were much more favorable—show the extreme difficulty of Arctic oil spill recovery.

“We saw during Deepwater Horizon, whenever the seas are over 4 feet, our ability to mechanically remove oil was virtually impossible,” he said at a Washington symposium yesterday hosted by the U.S. Arctic Research Commission. “Four-foot seas up there [in the Arctic] would probably be a pretty darned good day, so certainly environmental conditions weigh heavily in addition to just the remoteness.” [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

ACLU urges senators to oppose bill targeting Israel boycotts

JTA reports: The American Civil Liberties Union called on U.S. senators to oppose a measure targeting boycotts of Israel and its settlements.

The Israel Anti-Boycott Act, introduced in March by Sens. Ben Cardin, D-Md., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, would expand 1970s-era laws that make illegal compliance with boycotts of Israel sponsored by governments — laws inspired at the time by the Arab League boycott of Israel — to include boycotts backed by international organizations. Those adhering to boycotts would be the subject of fines.

While the measure is aimed at the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, it also targets efforts by the United Nations and the European Union to distinguish products manufactured in Israel from those manufactured in West Bank settlements.

In a letter Monday, the ACLU urged senators not to co-sponsor the measure and to oppose its passage.

“We take no position for or against the effort to boycott Israel or any foreign country, for that matter,” wrote Faiz Shakir, ACLU’s national political director. “However, we do assert that the government cannot, consistent with the First Amendment, punish U.S. persons based solely on their expressed political beliefs.”

Shakir added that “the bill would punish businesses and individuals based solely on their point of view. Such a penalty is in direct violation of the First Amendment.” [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

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

Facebooktwittermail

Trump administration plans to certify Iranian compliance with nuclear agreement

The Washington Post reports: The Trump administration, delaying an anticipated confrontation with Iran until the completion of a long-awaited policy review, plans to recertify Tehran’s compliance with the Obama-era nuclear deal, according to U.S. and foreign officials.

The recertification, due Monday to Congress, follows a heated internal debate between those who want to crack down on Iran now — including some White House officials and lawmakers — and Cabinet officials who are “managing other constituencies” such as European allies, and Russia and China, which signed and support the agreement, one senior U.S. official said.

As a candidate and president, Trump has said he would reexamine and possibly kill what he called the “disastrous” nuclear deal that was negotiated under President Barack Obama and went into effect in January last year. The historic agreement shut down most of Iran’s nuclear program, in some cases for decades, in exchange for an easing of international sanctions.

Under an arrangement Obama worked out with Congress, the administration must certify Iranian compliance with the terms of the accord every 90 days. If the administration denies certification, it can then decide to reinstitute sanctions that were suspended under the deal.

The Trump administration issued its first certification in April, when it also said it was awaiting completion of its review of the agreement, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. The senior official, one of several who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal administration deliberations, said the review should be completed before the next certification deadline in October.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations and other signatories have said repeatedly that Iran is complying with the agreement, under which the country dismantled most of its centrifuges and nuclear stockpile, shut down a plutonium production program and agreed to extensive international monitoring of all stages of the nuclear process. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Quid pro quo: Democrats ask DOJ about Katsyv settlement involving Trump-linked lawyer

Bloomberg reports: Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee asked the Justice Department to explain a decision to settle a money-laundering case in May that involved the Russian lawyer who held a controversial meeting last year with Donald Trump Jr.

Democrats are interested because one of the lawyers involved in the case was Natalia Veselnitskaya, who met with President Donald Trump’s son in an encounter arranged with the promise of damaging Russian government information on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Veselnitskaya worked with a Cyprus-based company, Prevezon Holdings Ltd., that is controlled by a Russian businessman and was accused of a tax theft and money laundering scheme.

The U.S. agreed on May 12 to take $5.9 million to settle the lawsuit tied to a $230 million Russian tax fraud, avoiding a trial that was set to begin the following week.

The 17 House Democrats asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a Wednesday letter whether the involvement of Veselnitskaya, who they called a “Kremlin-connected attorney,” may have helped prompt the settlement, given her meeting with Donald Trump Jr. The president’s son said Veselnitskaya didn’t share anything related to Clinton and that the discussion centered mostly around adoption policy.

“We write with some concern that the two events may be connected — and that the department may have settled the case at a loss for the United States in order to obscure the underlying facts,” they wrote in the letter. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Trump-Russia investigators probe Jared Kushner-run digital operation

McClatchy reports: Investigators at the House and Senate Intelligence committees and the Justice Department are examining whether the Trump campaign’s digital operation – overseen by Jared Kushner – helped guide Russia’s sophisticated voter targeting and fake news attacks on Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Congressional and Justice Department investigators are focusing on whether Trump’s campaign pointed Russian cyber operatives to certain voting jurisdictions in key states – areas where Trump’s digital team and Republican operatives were spotting unexpected weakness in voter support for Hillary Clinton, according to several people familiar with the parallel inquiries.

Also under scrutiny is the question of whether Trump associates or campaign aides had any role in assisting the Russians in publicly releasing thousands of emails, hacked from the accounts of top Democrats, at turning points in the presidential race, mainly through the London-based transparency web site WikiLeaks. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Frustration among Trump’s lawyers raises prospect that Kasowitz may resign

The New York Times reports: Mr. Kasowitz and his colleagues have been deeply frustrated by the president. And they have complained that Mr. Kushner has been whispering in the president’s ear about the Russia investigations and stories while keeping the lawyers out of the loop, according to another person familiar with the legal team. But one person familiar with Mr. Kasowitz’s thinking said his concerns did not relate to Mr. Kushner.

The president’s lawyers view Mr. Kushner as an obstacle and a freelancer more concerned about protecting himself than his father-in-law, the person said. While no ultimatum has been delivered, the lawyers have told colleagues that they cannot keep operating that way, raising the prospect that Mr. Kasowitz may resign.

Also, the president has fumed to close allies that he is mulling a staff change, and some members of his family have zeroed in on the chief of staff, Reince Priebus. But most Trump advisers privately concede that major changes are unlikely anytime soon.

The developments provoked sharp criticism by Democrats and even some Republicans. “Nothing’s proven yet, but we’re now beyond obstruction of justice in terms of what’s being investigated,” Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia and Mrs. Clinton’s running mate last year, said on Tuesday. “This is moving into perjury, false statements and even potentially treason.”

Republicans in Congress made little effort to defend the White House, and some expressed concern. “I voted for @POTUS last Nov. & want him & USA to succeed, but that meeting, given that email chain just released, is a big no-no,” Representative Lee Zeldin, Republican of New York, wrote on Twitter, using the acronym for president of the United States. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Will Congress hold Russia accountable for the behavior Trump excuses?

David Frum writes: From the start of the Trump-Russia story, there have been many secrets, but no mysteries.

Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election to help Donald Trump. Donald Trump publicly welcomed that help, and integrated the fruits of Russian intervention into his closing campaign argument. (“I love WikiLeaks!”) Since being elected he has attempted to tilt American policy toward Russia, above all by his persistent and repeated attempts to lift the sanctions imposed by President Obama to punish Russia for its invasion of Crimea in 2014 and for its election-meddling in 2016.

Uncertainties remain: Did the Trump campaign actively coordinate its messaging with Russia? Were any U.S. laws violated along the way? What exactly are Trump’s motives? What are Russia’s? And Sunday’s latest revelations added one more: Was Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a shady Russian lawyer who offered dirt on Hillary Clinton in any way connected to the WikiLeaks drop a few days later?

But the basic story line is clear. It was clear in real time—and it’s clearer than ever after the Hamburg summit. Whatever exactly happened at the meeting between Trump and Putin, the president’s Sunday morning Twitter storm confirms: Trump has accepted Putin’s denials as the final word on the matter.

Why would not Trump accept it? He has insisted that the accounts of Russian interference in the US election are a “made-up story,” a hoax by sore-loser Democrats. Putin told Trump nothing that Trump did not already believe—or anyway, that Trump wanted everyone else to believe. If there was any question before Hamburg, that question was settled at Hamburg: There will be no consequences for Russia. They attacked American electoral processes and succeeded. The president Russia helped to install will not punish Russia for helping to install him. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

What makes America exceptional?

David Frum writes: America’s uniqueness, even pre-Trump, was expressed as much through negative indicators than positive. It is more violent than other comparable societies, both one-on-one and in the gun massacres to which the country has become so habituated. It has worse health outcomes than comparably wealthy countries, and some of them most important of them are deteriorating further even as they improve almost everywhere else. America’s average levels of academic achievement lag those of other advanced countries. Fewer Americans vote—and in no other democracy does organized money count for so much in political life. A century ago, H.L. Mencken observed the American “national genius for corruption,” and (again pre-Trump) Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index ranks the U.S. in 18th place, behind Hong Kong, Belgium, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Germany—never mind first-place finishers Denmark and New Zealand.

As I said: pre-Trump. Now the United States has elected a president who seems much more aligned with—and comfortable in the company of—the rulers of Turkey, Hungary, Uzbekistan, and the Philippines than his counterparts in other highly developed countries.

That result forces a reshaping of the question of American exceptionalism.

“Why was the United States vulnerable to such a person when other democracies have done so much better?” Part of the answer is a technical one: The Electoral College, designed to protect the country from demagogues, instead elected one. But then we have to ask: How did Trump even get so far that the Electoral College entered into the matter one way or another?

Thinking about that question forces an encounter with American exceptionalism in its most somber form. If, as I believe, Donald Trump arose because of the disregard of the American political and economic elite for the troubles of so many of their fellow-citizens, it has to be asked again: How could the leaders of a democratic country imagine they could get away with such disregard? [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Trump’s personal arm-twister, Michael D. Cohen, sidelined under glare of Russia inquiry

The New York Times reports: Just over a decade ago, Donald J. Trump was locked in conflict with a group of apartment owners who had taken control of the condominium board at his new glass tower across from the United Nations. Faced with accusations of financial impropriety and an affront to his authority, Mr. Trump turned to Michael D. Cohen, a former personal injury lawyer who helped run a taxi fleet.

Mr. Cohen did not seem to have extensive expertise in the arcana of New York City condo rules. But he had something Mr. Trump seemed to value more: devotion to the Trump brand. He had already purchased a number of Trump properties and had persuaded his parents, in-laws and a business partner to buy apartments in Mr. Trump’s flashy new development, Trump World Tower.

Plus, he had read Mr. Trump’s book “The Art of the Deal.” Twice.

With Mr. Cohen’s help, Mr. Trump regained control of the board, orchestrating a coup that culminated in a standoff between his security detail and private guards hired by the disgruntled owners, according to people who were there. Details of the dispute’s resolution are secret because of a confidentiality agreement, but Mr. Cohen said that his task was “masterfully accomplished.”

He went on to serve as a key confidant for Mr. Trump, with an office near the boss at Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue. Officially, his title was special counsel, but he appears to have served more as a kind of personal arm-twister. If anyone crossed Mr. Trump or stood in his way, Mr. Cohen, who was known to sometimes carry a licensed pistol in an ankle holster, would cajole, bully or threaten a lawsuit, according to a half-dozen people who dealt with him over the years.

“If somebody does something Mr. Trump doesn’t like, I do everything in my power to resolve it to Mr. Trump’s benefit,” Mr. Cohen once said during an interview with ABC News. “If you do something wrong, I’m going to come at you, grab you by the neck, and I’m not going to let you go until I’m finished.” [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

House Russia probe eyes longtime Trump bodyguard-turned-White House aide Keith Schiller

ABC News reports: Congressional investigators now want to interview Keith Schiller, President Donald Trump’s longtime bodyguard-turned-White House aide, as part of their investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign, sources familiar with the investigation told ABC News.

Schiller, the former head of security for the Trump Organization who now serves as the White House director of Oval Office operations, is one of several Trump associates on the House Intelligence Committee’s witness list in its ongoing investigation into Russian election interference.

The committee’s focus on Schiller and other Trump campaign officials and associates marks a new phase in the investigation — which is examining how Russia attempted to influence the election, the Obama administration’s response and allegations of collusion between Trump associates and Russian officials. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

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…]

Facebooktwittermail

Trump allies push White House to consider regime change in Tehran

Politico reports: As the White House formulates its official policy on Iran, senior officials and key Trump allies are calling for the new administration to take steps to topple Tehran’s militant clerical government.

Supporters of dislodging Iran’s iron-fisted clerical leadership say it’s the only way to halt Tehran’s dangerous behavior, from its pursuit of nuclear weapons to its sponsorship of terrorism. Critics say that political meddling in Iran, where memories of a 1953 CIA-backed coup remain vivid, risks a popular backlash that would only empower hardliners.

That’s why President Barack Obama assured Iranians, in a 2013 speech at the United Nations, that “we are not seeking regime change.”

But influential Iran hawks want to change that under Trump.

“The policy of the United States should be regime change in Iran,” said Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who speaks regularly with White House officials about foreign policy. “I don’t see how anyone can say America can be safe as long as you have in power a theocratic despotism,” he added. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Trump’s denial that he has recordings of Comey conversations, doesn’t satisfy lawmakers

The Washington Post reports: For the lawmakers on Capitol Hill who were demanding that Trump provide information by Friday about the tapes’ existence, his tweet does not settle the matter.

“We have to have an official statement; tweets aren’t official,” said Rep. K. Michael Conaway (R-Tex.), who is running the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Until they get that official response, Conaway said, he would not comment on whether a subpoena may still be issued.

He added that it was “good for to clarify” his position and that “you always take the president at his word — until it’s proven otherwise.”

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the top Democrat on the intelligence panel, also said the president’s tweet was not sufficient.

“We’d all like to believe that our president can be trusted when he says something; regrettably, though, he has repeatedly proved otherwise,” Schiff said. “If this is meant to constitute his answer to the House investigation, then it needs to be fully truthful. … If the president is being less than candid about this, I think we have very serious problems with the White House.”

Schiff said that even if he accepts the president’s assertion that the tapes do not exist, he has questions about “why he would have said the opposite to begin with.”

“Was this an effort to intimidate James B. Comey? Was this an effort to silence James B. Comey?” Schiff asked. “Those questions still need to be answered.”

Schiff said he will continue to ask witnesses who come before the committee if they are aware of the existence of tapes and said he will consult with Conaway before deciding whether a subpoena is still in order. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Intel chiefs tell investigators Trump suggested they refute collusion with Russians

CNN reports: Two of the nation’s top intelligence officials told Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team and Senate investigators, in separate meetings last week, that President Donald Trump suggested they say publicly there was no collusion between his campaign and the Russians, according to multiple sources.

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Agency Director Adm. Mike Rogers described their interactions with the President about the Russia investigation as odd and uncomfortable, but said they did not believe the President gave them orders to interfere, according to multiple sources familiar with their accounts.

Sources say both men went further than they did in June 7 public hearings, when they provided little detail about the interactions.

The sources gave CNN the first glimpse of what the intelligence chiefs said to Mueller’s investigators when they did separate interviews last week. Both men told Mueller’s team they were surprised the President would suggest that they publicly declare he was not involved in collusion, sources said. Mueller’s team, which is in the early stages of its investigation, will ultimately decide whether the interactions are relevant to the inquiry. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail